“I Often See People Getting So Immersed…in Their Children’s Happiness That They Seem To Lose Sight of Their Own.”

Happiness interview: Caren Osten Gerszberg.

I got to know Caren a few years ago through a mutual friend. She’s a writer who covers travel, education, and is also a co-founder of the site Drinking Diaries (“from celebration to revelation”), along with Leah Odze Epstein. They just co-edited a thought-provoking anthology, Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up.

Caren writes often about issues that touch on the subject of happiness, so I was interested to hear what she had to say.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Caren: Reading by the fireplace. Playing Scrabble with my kids. Waking up before dawn to catch an airplane. Watching a movie in bed. Spending Friday night dinner with my family. Hiking with my two dogs and watching them lope through the woods. Rock climbing to a point where I can look at a vista and let it seep in. Taking evening walks with my husband to the Long Island Sound, where we look at the water in the moonlight. Settling in to shavsna, or “corpse pose,” after a good yoga class. Typing the last word of an article I’m writing.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

When I was 18, happiness amounted to a sensation. It was deep, but fleeting, and involved a thrill with friends or a fun happening with my very fun parents. Now, when I’m happy, I feel it down to my core, mostly when I’m with my husband and children. It’s been 30 years since I was 18—I’ve lost my father and one of my childhood friends to cancer, and my mother suffers from mental illness. There is nothing I take for granted. Happiness is a blessing and I appreciate it profoundly whenever I feel it.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

Yes. I grew up surrounded by anger and stress, which took up a life of their own in my life, and thus in my head. As cliché as it sounds, sweating the small stuff used to interfere with my path to happiness on a frequent basis. In recent years, I’ve learned how to meditate, breathe deeply, and be more accepting of myself and others, which has afforded me greater access to happiness. I’m no expert, but feeling the positive impact inspires me to continue the journey.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?

It took me many years to accept that it’s okay to feel blue. As a kid, I felt responsible for my mother’s happiness, which weighed heavily on my own. But I’ve learned over the years that it’s okay to have bad days, because that’s how you learn to appreciate the good ones. So when I’m feeling blue, I seek comfort from within, reminding myself that it’s okay to feel blue and that hopefully, tomorrow will be a better day. And usually, it is.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?

In our society, and particularly in the community in which we live, I often see people getting so immersed and involved in their children’s happiness, that they seem to lose sight of their own. When I became a mother, nearly 19 years ago, I was deeply fearful of losing my identity as an individual. It was not easy to obtain a balance, but I knew that I needed to feel productive and invested in my own self-worth in order to be the kind of mother I wanted to be. Fortunately, but not without bumps in the road, there is balance in my life. I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a writer, and a friend, and feel comfortable and happy in all of my roles.

Is there some aspect of your home that makes you particularly happy?

As much as people think I’m a social person, I also love being at home. I love reading and soaking in the bathtub by candlelight, spending time by the fireplace in our living room, and feel very happy when I’m cooking in our kitchen. There was a time when I felt irritated by the hubbub surrounding the kitchen space every afternoon, with my kids shouting at one another and fighting over this and that. But ever since my father got sick and passed away, I realize the value of that noise. Those sounds—now music to my ears—mean that my family is alive and interacting, and minus the fighting, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

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  • Peggy

    Good interview – after reading it, I dug a little deeper with Caren and her writing, and even listened to the ABC interview about The College Sendoff. That was a good interview too, so I sent the link to my daughter and son-in-law, who have two sons recently out of the nest. However, my favorite line from Caren today is “It’s okay to have bad days because that’s how you learn to appreciate the good ones.” Very true. I enjoy your blog, Gretchen, I read it every day, and am slo-o-owly reading “Happier at Home,” taking notes. Even though I’m twice your age and retired, you speak to me on many levels.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that it resonates with you – and that you’re enjoying “Happier at Home.” Thank you!

  • WOW… what she said about getting immersed in your children’s happiness you forget about your own! HELLO that is so me! In fact that was what my whole idea for wanting to be part of the happiness Project on TV thing was about! Well in some ways I am glad to hear I am not alone! LOL I think as a special needs mom I am even more immersed in my kids happiness. My boy tries so hard and anything I can do to make his life easier… well all that comes at a price and that price is my own individual happiness. SIGH! Great interview!

  • peninith1

    Echo the sentiments from the person who says she is retired, and at a different stage of life, but still finds a great deal to learn from you and the people you interview. I’m particularly struck by Caren’s observation about people putting emphasis on their children at the expense of themselves. In my own life, I have been amazed at how much it encourages and supports my children, and gives them a sense of deeper security, when I put ‘first things first’ and take care of my finances, my home, and my physical and mental health and well being. It is not ‘selfish’ to attend to these things. It is bedrock. If the person driving you around to soccer practice and piano lessons is frantic, or distracted, angry, or buzzed on something chemical or chain smoking, or greyishly depressed, the child has little chance of benefiting. We won’t even go into people who make their children into surrogates for the lives they can’t or don’t lead. Our kids worry about us, and feel vulnerable and fragile when we are not on solid ground.

    I am almost finished with my first read-through of “Happier at Home.” Besides the many deeper, more philosophical points you make, some of those little guidelines are incredibly useful. I have been de-cluttering the house shelf-by-shelf and came up against what to do with all these framed photos?? Your Shutterfly project, taken 15 minutes at a time, is a huge inspiration. I’m just beginning, but already see some family Christmas presents in the making, not to mention a way to preserve and record many good times. Thank you so much for your attention to daily life, and your willingness to examine the way small details change the big picture so dramatically!

  • Sherry

    I’m so glad I came back to your blog after 6 frantically busy months away and read this post. I’m going to try to remember to be happy — to remember that’s it’s okay to try to be happy.

  • Great interview. Different people have different views about happiness. I think factors like age and their current situation affect it.