“Instead of Feeling that Nothing Is Ever Enough, You’re Grateful for the Tiniest Thing.”

Happiness interview: Heather King.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Heather King’s new book, Shirt of Flame: A Year With Saint Therese of Lisieux. I’m fascinated with anything about St. Therese; she’s my spiritual master and I’m always trying to find new material to read, so Heather King’s book was just my kind of thing.

I was also very interested to hear what Heather King had to say specifically on the subject of happiness.

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

Prayer. “Simple,” yet it requires my whole mind, strength, body, heart, soul. For me, prayer is not so much an activity as a way of being; a stance toward life—and death.

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

That happiness, such as it is, consists in self-forgetting. In having an all-consuming goal that you are never, in this life, going to fully attain. For me, that’s getting close to Christ. Writing is my vocation, so it’s being an excellent writer. And to be an excellent writer requires all of myself. It requires living my entire life, physically, emotionally, spiritually, out of love. I’m fairly disciplined, but the discipline comes not because I think the discipline is going to make me happy, but from love. I’m an addict to the core. So if I’m trying to figure out what will make me feel better, what will make me happy, I’m going to be perpetually flitting from thing to thing. Booze makes me happy—for ten minutes. Candy makes me happy—for ten minutes. Sex makes me happy—for ten minutes. So I have to find something way way deeper to sustain me—no matter how I “feel.”

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

Making happiness a goal.  Comparing my “happiness” to the perceived happiness of others. Happiness is a byproduct of abandonment and self-surrender to God. Actually, I’m not sure happiness is what I’m really after. Happiness to me is a mood, and a mood that is largely dependent on outside circumstances: whether I have money in the bank, whether the sun is shining, whether I’m healthy. Any way of life where I’m dependent on what happens outside of me, I’m sunk.

What I’m after is joy, and joy has pain—our pain and the sorrow of the whole world—in the middle of it. Joy, unlike happiness, becomes a state that you may experience only in fleeting stabs, but nonetheless abides. Mother Teresa experienced a fifty-year dark night of the soul, and yet all who met her were struck by her quiet, light-filled joy. So you can be in complete spiritual aridity and darkness, yet still have joy. You can “feel” no happiness at all, but you can still abide in joy.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a happiness quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?

“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This is the Jesus Prayer beloved by Russian pilgrims and that figures prominently in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. At the end of the book, Franny realizes you shine your shoes, you sing, you live, for the Fat Lady. You live for the least of these, the most unpromising, the people who can do nothing for you. That’s happiness. The truth is I’m the recipient, every second of my life, of unmerited mercy and grace. So the Jesus Prayer puts me in a position of truth, gratitude, and humility. And the Fat Lady, of course, is Christ.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children’s books).

For me, feeling blue isn’t always susceptible to being fixed by a happiness boost or in fact to being fixed at all. Why wouldn’t we feel blue? We’re fragile, broken human beings who know we are going to die. That’s not to be melancholic or to live in willed depression, it’s to be in contact with reality.

On the other hand, if my feeling blue is based on self-pity, which it often is, one antidote is to call or arrange to see a fellow human being, which is to say fellow sufferer. There’s nothing like being reminded that we’re all in pain to help me bear my own a little more uncomplainingly…

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? 

My friend Fr. Terry Richey, 40-plus-years sober alcoholic, says, “If you’re really lucky, you’ll eventually give up all hope of being happy in the way you thought you were going to be.” I mean you have to maintain a sense of humor about all of this. And I do think age is a help here. You almost have to spend decades thinking, This is going to make me happy, and going after those things, and either not getting them, which is one kind of blow; or getting them, and finding they don’t make you happy after all, or they make you happy only temporarily, or they bring a whole slew of problems that you’re not emotionally or spiritually equipped to deal with, and that’s another kind of blow.

What happens is that you spiritually mature and you stop having expectations. You stop having expectations and that doesn’t make for bland mediocrity, as you’d feared: it opens the window to a richer, fuller, more joy-filled life than you ever would have thought possible. Again, you’re in contact with reality. You’re better able to accept life the way it is, not the way you wish it would be. Instead of feeling that nothing is ever enough, you’re grateful for the tiniest thing: a leaf, a basket of figs, a handshake.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?

Well I was a total drunk for twenty years so of course I was not remotely happy then. I was completely divorced from my deepest self. I’ve been sober twenty-five years and that has been the journey of my life…

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

I love my little living space. It’s airy and light with green curtains and a fountain outside the window and the Southern California sun streaming through and all kinds of books, cozy rugs, icons, candles, pottery bowls, paintings. But I don’t love it because it would qualify for the cover of Dwell. I love it because it’s grown up around me as a place to worship, to write, to praise God.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?

Joy comes as a stab; an unexpected moment of connection; a nanosecond when we would lay down our lives just because the other person exists. This is the highest level of being human and we’ve all felt it: about our parent, the man or woman we love, our kid. Happiness—as a state of being, a stance toward life—is connection. It’s the embrace of mystery. For me, it’s to stay sober and help another alcoholic to achieve sobriety. People are the problem and people are the solution. I can get very attached to my “introspective way,” but in the end, you have to get out and mingle.

A quote from William Blake says it all: “We can’t bind ourselves to joy—we have to kiss it as it flies.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Sharon

    Now this made me happy. I just ran across Heather King’s blog about two weeks ago and am in the middle of reading two of her books, and they are wonderful. I live near L.A., too, and feel as though she’s my (brilliant) neighbor. Thank you both for this Friday morning gift.

  • Angela

    Great thoughts here. I feel like I keep unveiling truths about “happiness” the older I get. And Heather’s answers confirmed all of my thinking. Thank you =)

  • peninith1

    “If you’re really lucky, you’ll eventually give up all hope of being happy the way you always wanted to be.” Oh my, does that ever speak a major truth.I heard versions of it for years, but kept on hoping against hope that some miracle would bring me the happy marriage with the love of my life that I started wanting when I was about seven. Finally, sometime in my 50s, after one unhappy marriage, and many years of praying, hoping, working on myself, looking, trying and giving up and trying again, I sat on a tree stump one day and said to myself with real conviction, “OK, so you are not ever going to have the life you always wanted, but you can have a good enough life; that’s better than what millions suffer.” Nope, this moment did not trick God into giving me my heart’s desire after all. Sometimes I still desire it, or regret that it didn’t happen, but I DO have a good enough life–and better. I have turned my energies to my home, my family members, my friends and my quilting. I even have love in my life that sustains me, though it is not a marriage or even a live-together situation. Best of all, I no longer define my life as ‘failed’ or myself as having missed out on the best there is in life. I had to let go of my biggest dream to be open to a different kind of reality. I I seemed to have to discover this truth for myself, because I could not hear, see or receive it when all I wanted, to the bottom of my soul, was my special dream. I can’t tell people out there to ‘let go’, because they may not be able to. I can just say that when and if you come to that moment of letting go, that can be a door to great happiness rather than to dreary resignation. Contentment, fulfillment, and real happiness can still come to you, even though you may miss your big dream. Believe it.

  • Kate

    What an interesting, challenging interview. Lots of food for thought in this one. I suspect I’ll be circling back and re-reading this one a few times as I can sense I didn’t plumb every bit of it. Thank you, Gretchen, for how different all your interviewees are.

  • janna

    This interview was a gift. It makes happiness projects look a little like ‘pastimes for the immature…’

    • gretchenrubin

      Do you think so?

    • peninith1

      Not every happiness project is going to be consciously a survivor’s guide. Some people start with ‘minor’ discontents, though they may have bigger ones to tackle. Some people simply need to recognize that a good life, a happy life, requires constant mindfulness and small adjustments. Just because overcoming a life-threatening addiction isn’t part of many of our stories, does not mean that our happiness projects are not a ‘big deal’ emotionally, spiritually, and practically.

    • s_ifat

      Janna I didnt find this interview to be a gift mostly because I couldnt relate, especially to the religious stuff..she says nice things but obviously from a point of what she has been through (like all of us i guess). I find the happiness projects to be a gift.

      • Jamie

        I agree. I didn’t care for this interview either. It was depressing. The happiness projects uplift me and make me feel like life is good and something to be appreciated and that I can do well/better. The practicality of Gretchen’s writing makes me feel like there is a challenge ahead that is mostly going to be fun to tackle, but either way will leave me feeling better in a meaningful, not superficial and fleeting, way.

  • Marabeth Duncan

    What a beautiful interview – her points about the inner quality of joy vs. the outer quality of happiness are poignant. I feel that the The Happiness Project is more specifically focused on altering those outer qualities, and I don’t agree that it’s immature to examine those parts of one’s life. I appreciate Gretchen’s analysis of the little things in our day to day existence that affect- for better or worse- our experience in this short life.

    Sometimes I wonder how St. Therese would feel if she knew she was being thought of as someone’s spiritual master. Personally, I imagine she might be disappointed, because I believe that in everything she did, she pointed to Christ.

    “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” ~ Phillipians 3:8

  • Erin @littlesacredspace

    I find this interview so inspiring, but also challenging in terms of balancing the pursuit of eternal joy and the little moments where we long for happiness in the small things. I’d love it, Gretchen, if you’d post a bit on these larger and smaller goals and how they fit together as far as happiness is concerned. Thanks for this interview and the interviewee’s perspective.

  • Evisen

    Very thought provoking. I have struggled with perfectionism for years (I turned 50 this year) and I love and try to live by “Don’t let perfectionism be the enemy of the good”. I was in counseling a few years ago and one question I was asked was if I could get to a point where I could say that something was “good enough” and leave it. Not easy but I am trying every day and I am happier and more accepting of myself, and others now compared to what I used to be.

  • Brigitte

    Thanks for sharing something so unabashedly Christian. I appreciate your openness.

    • gehrs67


  • lynnel

    Thanks so much for doing the Happiness Interviews! As you say, you learn so much from the specific journeys people take (my paraphrase)…I look forward to them each week! I have also enjoyed many of your recommendations for blogs (am now addicted to “The Simple Dollar”) as well, and thoroughly loved your new book. Thanks for the pictures! You writings add so much happiness and joy to my life! 🙂 Big smile!

  • Kristin

    “You stop having expectations and that doesn’t make for bland mediocrity, as you’d feared: it opens the window to a richer, fuller, more joy-filled life than you ever would have thought possible.” I like this statement because it allows us to accept the day rather than us impose a certain way of how the day should go. Something very hard for me to do!! The allowing can create a more fulfilling experience for myself & others than what my mind can envision. Surrender.

  • Maxi

    This dreary interview just goes to prove how individual people are and what makes someone else happy may not make you happy. I have seldom read an interview to which I could relate less or made me feel less uplifted.

    I mean… we’re all broken human beings who are going to die and are all in pain? Happiness can’t be fixed or boosted?

    How about we are all striving for wholeness and to live fully while we have that opportunity. I choose to focus on the potential for happiness and wholeness every day rather than broken-ness..that’s my way to joy. But each to her own.

    • Deane

      I found this interview interesting because Heather is so different from me. I saw this quote on Unclutterer this morning, and thought it sort of resonated with this idea:

      You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. “For
      me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It
      holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful
      patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I
      put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow
      brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say,
      ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every
      moment with it is precious.”

  • jennie

    I am so grateful for this interview. I appreciate they depth of her thoughts and her courage to share about her own personal struggles with addiction. To those who don’t fully understand because of the religious aspect, I encourage you to read again. I don’t think she is writing about religion in the way we view it as an organization, but as her own personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. I am biased as a believer, but I can tell you that in my own life, even in the midst of suffering, in Christ I have found immense joy. I am thankful that this article touched upon the deeper levels of happiness by viewing it in a larger context,of us as whole persons capable of many emotions, feelings, and moods in the same instant.
    Well picked Gretchen! Thank you.

  • N

    Love this.