“If I’m Feeling Mired in My Own Problems, The Best Way to Get a Lift Is To Help Someone.”

Happiness interview: Marci Alboher.

I’m so excited for my friend Marci Alboher. She has a terrific new book coming out on December 18,  The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make  a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life. It’s an excellent guide for people hitting midlife who are wondering what to do next.

In honor of the new book, I’m re-posting her happiness interview from a few years ago. In the time since it ran, Marci has been immersed in the world of “encore careers“–second acts for the greater good. She just wrote a great piece for the New York Times: Switching Careers at Midlife To Make a Difference.

She has so many interesting things to say, especially about the relationship between happiness and work.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Marci: Talking a long walk in the early morning hours.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That people really do have a natural happiness set-point, and that I am one of the lucky ones in that I generally wake up each day able to see the light, even in life’s darker moments.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Eating or drinking things that don’t agree with me — like coffee and red wine.

Is there a happiness quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
I don’t really remember quotes and call upon them when I need them, but the quote I chose for my high school yearbook — from the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young anti-war song, “Wooden Ships,” still works for me:
“If you smile at me, I will understand, because that is something everybody everywhere does in the same language.”

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
I wake up very early, go outside, and take a long walk. This works wherever I happen to be, but it’s especially effective when I’m near the water. When I’m at home in New York, I walk near the Hudson River every morning, and when I’m near a beach, nothing beats a barefoot walk on the sand. Music also has the ability to transform my mood, so listening to something upbeat during my walk can instantly clear my head and take me somewhere else.

If I’m feeling mired in my own problems, the best way to get a lift is to go out and help someone. Doing something for an organization I care about — like The OpEd Project or Girls Write Now — also does the trick.

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?
As you’ve written about so many times, I believe that negative memories tend to have a tendency to linger — so it’s important to do the work of celebrating and memorializing the positive moments. When I see people recognizing achievements and milestones they want to remember, it reminds me to do the same. Taking and sharing photographs seems to be one of the easiest way to do this. I don’t have especially vivid memories of my early childhood years — but I do remember any event where there are photos documenting it or where there is an often-told story around it.

Here’s where technology can help us. My brother lives in Florida and he has a son that I don’t see nearly as often as I’d like to. Each day, my brother takes a photo of my nephew, usually doing something silly like covering his arms in little pieces of cheese. I open the photos on my iphone wherever I am and they instantly lift my mood.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
I do. I read a lot about positive psychology. I track what makes me feel good and what doesn’t and try to do more of the former and less of the latter. I have done a lot of therapy to better understand myself. And of course, I read your blog every day (really). [Ah, thanks, Marci!]

One thing I have increasingly started to notice is that I’m very much affected by the people around me. So I have become fairly vigilant about avoiding spending time with people who are relentlessly negative.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
One thing that repeatedly surprises me is that achieving a professional goal or completing a project gives me a happiness boost, but the emotional uptick tends to be short-lived. On the other hand, the daily details and rhythms of life — like being in a strong relationship, getting regular exercise, being near my dog, keeping the fridge stocked with good ingredients so that I can cook healthy/tasty meals, doing a favor for someone — really provide me with a deep sense of happiness. It’s just like what you say, Gretchen, about how the things you do every day matter more than the things you do once in a while.

  • JellyBean

    This comment got me thinking: “If I’m feeling mired in my own problems, the best way to get a lift is to go out and help someone. ”

    Right now I feel mired in other people’s problems and that can make it difficult to feel comfortable with feeling happy. There is a sense of guilt that my life is not as full of problems as the lives of some of my friends and family. But then her other comment “people really do have a natural happiness set-point” also helps because I feel like sometimes people have problems in their lives because they have enabled those problems in a way. Not all problems are like this, obviously, but some are. I recently bought an EcoJot journal for my new knitting hobby which says “Happiness is a Form of Courage” on the cover. That quote is helping me now. I need to focus on my own happiness and growth, and be supportive to others but not let their issues drag me down.

    • peninith1

      Thank you for passing on the quotation ‘Happiness is a form of Courage.” I believe it is. For those with a ‘set point’ that is a little low on the happiness scale, contentment and freedom from fear, depression and anxiety is something of an achievement. Right now I am worrying about multiple family members all along the age spectrum who have life-threatening conditions, and I realized yesterday that I was letting this bring me way too far down. It’s important for me to remember to take proper care of myself — diet, exercise, rest, and good routines that support me– so that I can be a resource for my family and not become a hang-wringing weeper.

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  • sophie

    The taking a photo of your child doing something each day to send to relatives is such an amazing idea. I’m hoping to have children soon but have been feeling sad that my boyfriend and I’s work means we will be far away from our families. Thankyou for the tip to make them feel more included in my children’s daily lives.

  • molly

    Ironic, I was just reading an article from the Atlantic Monthly — July — by Anne Marie Slaughter. It is about where women currently stand in terms of work family balance. It is quite depressing, but I perked up near the end when she mentioned Gretchen Rubin in relation to a friend who quit her job to work on a happiness project. The happiness project was inspired by the woman’s friend…Gretchen Rubin! I was wondering what G Rubin might think about the article, given her own dedication to her work as well as her family. Encore careers were mentioned and I had never heard that term. after the depressing read, I decided to perk myself up by checking out Rubin’s blog for today,and lo and behold, the interview is with someone who wrote about encore careers! I am going to have to check out this topic and book…feels like a sign!

    • gretchenrubin

      What an odd coincidence! Love it.

  • NorthernFlicker

    I had two encore careers after a successful thirty-year stint in the building industry. My first was senior care, and I loved it, but it was too strenuous for my body, and I did myself some permanent damage. Loved the people enough that I don’t regret the damage too much.

    Second was writing, and I’ve published four nonfiction books that will probably keep me financially secure for the rest of my life. They’ve made far more money than I did when I was “working.”

    • gretchenrubin

      what a great example of encore careers!