Happiness interview: Cheryl Strayed.
I wanted to do a happiness interview with Cheryl Strayed after I read her fascinating memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. In her twenties, at a time when she felt as though she had nothing more to lose, Cheryl hiked solo along the Pacific Crest Trail for 1100 miles. She was inexperienced and ill-prepared, but determined to set herself on this adventure.
I love all accounts of happiness projects; Cheryl’s undertaking had nothing in common with the kind of things I did for my happiness project, yet I gained a lot from reading about her experiences.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Cheryl: Walking. Doesn’t it make everyone happier? I challenge you to walk for twenty minutes and not feel better by the end of it. It’s the cheapest, healthiest cure on earth.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That we can survive anything, even if we don’t want to. Even in the face of great suffering, there is joy.
Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Saying yes. Yes and I have a long history. Yes is generous and open-hearted. It’s kind and fun. It’s led to so many good things in my life. But everything in balance, as they say, and I’m feeling a strong need for a bit of no. Yes has become a shackle to me. It’s keeping me from spending my days in ways that make me the happiest. I’ve been reflecting on this lately because with the amount of things people have asked me to do in this past year, I’ve realized how difficult it is for me to say no. I mean it kills me. Probably because it goes way deep into my psyche and my ancient desire to be loved. People love you if you say yes to them. It’s an incredibly effective survival technique. So now I have to learn a new way to survive. What will happen when I say no? I’m going to try it and see.
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?
I think happiness greatly depends upon one’s ability to drown out the negative internal voices most of us have nattering on silently inside of us. In my book Tiny Beautiful Things there’s a column called “Your Invisible Inner Terrible Someone” in which I write about this. We have the ability to temper our negative thoughts with calm, reason, and humor. Doing so makes us happier.
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?
I’ve definitely had periods that were exceptionally happy and exceptionally unhappy, though I’d say most of my life has been in the lovely muddled middle.
My mom died suddenly of cancer when she was 45 and I was 22 and the three or four years that followed her death were horrible. I remember waking up one morning and looking out my window in Minneapolis. I was watching a man working a snow blower on the sidewalk and I just wanted to be blown away too. I’d never understood how anyone could commit suicide, but in that moment I did. I understood it fully. It’s sad to even remember that time of my life. I wept a lot. I was what I call situationally depressed. So much of my life came apart after my mom died. There was little to be happy about.
I think I walked my way back to happiness. I set out on the hike I wrote about in my book Wild and my life slowly became happier. I found a way to move forward by actually moving forward. My entire twenties were like walking through a desert without a hat. My thirties and forties have been like walking through a really pretty forest with lots of wildflowers along the way. Don’t get me wrong. I still find plenty to complain about. But I’m very happy in my life now.
Is there some aspect of your home that makes you particularly happy?
I have a fantastic bed. It’s a Tempur-pedic. I bought it nine years ago when I was pregnant with my first child. Until then my husband and I had been sleeping on a hand-me-down futon that was so ancient and hard my butt would fall asleep if I lay in one position too long. I mean, I didn’t even know it was possible for one’s butt to fall asleep, but it is. My husband freaked out when I bought our Tempur-pedic because we couldn’t afford it. I just brushed him aside and put it on our credit card. After one night in that bed he agreed it was money well spent.
Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t or vice versa?
I’ve had a great year. From a professional standpoint there has been so much to be dancing in the streets about. Because of that, friends and strangers are constantly asking me how it feels. They want to know if I’m happy. And I can’t quite answer that. I’m thrilled—deeply, and truly—that my books have found an audience. I’m touched by the response. But on the ground level, by which I mean my actual life, I don’t think this success has made me happier than I was before. If you asked me a year ago what made me happy I’d have told you about the beloved friends and family and felines in my life. I’d have expressed gratitude for my good health and the fact that I get to do work that’s both meaningful and absorbing to me. Those are the same things I’d tell you now. Those are the things that make me deep-inside happy. Nothing else.