Tag Archives: interview

“We’re Often Under the Mistaken Impression that Cheering People Up Involves Being Sunny.”

Happiness interview: Alain de Botton.

I’m a longtime and ardent fan of Alain de Botton. Sometimes, you find a writer who shares your preoccupations, and this is absolutely the case for me with his imaginative, insightful work. Subjects including happiness, work, love, and the problem of biography — his books tackle all these fascinating subjects, and more. His latest book is A Week at the Airport, about his experience as the “writer-in-residence” at London’s Heathrow Airport. It’s about travel, globalism, the power of place…many things.

Also, I’ve always been fascinated by how structure and presentation of ideas influence the way people perceive them. Many of Alain de Botton’s books — including the one that’s probably my favorite, How Proust Can Change Your Life — use unconventional structure to drive home the analysis. I love playing with structure, and in fact, of the four books that I published before The Happiness Project, like Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, all used unconventional structures.

Because I’m so powerfully interested in what interests him, I was thrilled to get the chance to ask Alain de Botton some questions about happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Alain: I am never happier than when I give myself time to be on my own, with a pad and paper, with the space to think. This sounds easy, but it’s very easy to feel that this is unproductive. I like a quote from Nietzsche: ‘Whoever cannot spend two-thirds of the day alone, doing what he pleases, is a slave.’

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That happiness is made up of moments not vast stretches. It’s hard to be happy for more than half an hour at the time. But that’s OK, we are creatures who relish a challenge and happiness is the reward for achievement.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
I get easily anxious about how little time there is left to live and how much there is still to do.

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?
I love this quote from Seneca: ‘What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.’ It’s pessimistic, but like many dark things, it’s funny and cheers one up. We’re often under the mistaken impression that cheering people up involves being sunny.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
I like to listen to Bach’s Cantatas, beautiful, melancholic, well structured music that articulates the sounds of the soul in pain.

* I loved seeing this display of treehouses from around the world. Beautiful

* If your book group, spirituality book group, or church group is reading The Happiness Project — or considering it — I’ve prepared a one-page discussion guide for book groups, as well as a guide tailored for church groups, spirituality book groups, and the like. If you’d like either discussion guide (or both), email me at grubin at gretchenrubin dot com.

“Flirting, Watching Clips from Broadway Shows and Nature Documentaries, and Reminding Myself to ‘Suck It Up and Deal With It Now.'”

Happiness interview: Natasha Vargas-Cooper.

My love for all things Twilight, books and movies, both fascinates and puzzles me. Obedient to my Personal Commandment to “Be Gretchen,” I wear my passion on my sleeve, and so last year, a movie-critic friend emailed me to say, “Hey, I know you love Twilight stuff. You should check out this review.”

I read the attached review of New Moon, and I recently read the review of the new movie Eclipse, and I was blown away by the writing of Natasha Vargas-Cooper and Mary H.K. Choi. This kind of crazy, high-low, jumping style looks playful, but is very, very hard to do well — pyrotechnical effects combined with real insight and analysis. As G.K. Chesterton observed, “It is easy to be heavy; hard to be light.”

I’m a big fan of this writing, but these reviews are crammed with graphic sexual language, curse words, and possibly offensive remarks. So much so that I’m not even going to link to them here, but if you’re curious, and don’t mind that kind of thing — and a fan of the Twilight “Saga” of course — you can look on The Awl where they appeared. Reader, know thyself!

For a broader audience, Natasha has a book that just hit the shelves yesterday, Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America. If you’re a Mad Men fan — and all my favorite people are — you”ll love it. I confess that I’ve only seen three episodes; I’m dying to catch up and join the frenzy, but first, I want to watch every episode of Vampire Diaries, the show my sister is now writing for. (Hmmm…odd vampire theme emerging in this post.) Then, Mad Men. I don’t have much TV time, but this book made me very impatient to get started.

The book is heavily and fabulously illustrated, and highlights intriguing aspects of the Mad Men milieu — topics like Polaroid, Stewardesses, California Cool, Puffing While Pregnant, Suburban Rococo, Cheever Country, just to name a few. But before I read a word, I turned every page to look at the pictures. I love that 60’s look.

I wanted to ask Natasha about her views on happiness.

What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Flirting! It’s the first honest answer that popped into my head and I know that it’s true. I am super naturally good at it!

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Mostly that short cuts to happiness will intensify unhappiness later. Avoiding the yucky awful things like break ups, confrontations, quitting jobs so you can simulate being content will eventually make you miserable. So just “suck it up and deal with it now! You’ll thank me,” is what I would say to 18 year old me.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
I tend to brood. Once I’m in a bad mood I try to stay there. The sad music comes on, I self induce nostalgia, and mope. Tremendous effort goes into moping.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
“Breathe and don’t drink.” I’m not even a drunk! But in the recovery world, this is what people tell themselves when they feel overwhelmed. It’s the simplest axiom, but it saved people’s lives. So if something as complex and overpowering as addiction can be kept in check with that saying, it gives me hope that any issue that comes before me is manageable.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
Showtunes! I like to find clips from Broadway shows because growing up listening to musicals you could only imagine would it be like to watch Chita Rivera sing a solo but now on Youtube you can see it! You can see the dream!

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’m young so in my cohort the people who I know are miserable are usually angst ridden because they feel overwhelmed by circumstance; Either an awful job or dysfunctional relationship or lack of direction. So they idle, and all their feelings clot into a these big sad blobs. They just congeal, making any movement forward or backward or even lateral too painful to do. Idling is a destroyer.

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 am at my most full tilt depressed when I work for some who is a bad leader. Not just bad manager, but a person or group of people in a position of power who don’t know how to lead other people. It makes me act out I spend all of my time making sure that every one around me is also angry. When I’ve have been at my unhappiest is when I’m in that position. I go bonkers.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
I spend the last hour of my day watching nature documentaries. I don’t read or TV before I go to bed. This has made me miraculously calmer person. It humbles me and inspires me and always puts ideas into my head so I wake up the next morning feeling good because I went to bed serenely. I think this is how some people feel about prayer? Richard Attenborough is my god!

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
I thought being alone would make me crazy with unhappiness. I never thought I could steer my life on my own. The notion used to fill me with dread and some days it still does. But in general it’s great! My default is now ‘solo’. I never thought I would enjoy hanging out with me so much. Let me tell you, I am a delight.

* On the subject of writers-I-admire, my friend Amy Wilson’s blog, Mother Load — “musings of a former perfectionist and current mother” — is hilarious and thought-provoking. Her book, When Did I Get Like This?: The Screamer, the Worrier, the Dinosaur-Chicken-Nugget-Buyer, and Other Mothers I Swore I’d Never Be, came out recently, too.

* If you’d like a personalized, signed bookplate to put in your copy of The Happiness Project, email me your name, or someone else’s name, and the address to which I should mail the bookplate, and I’ll send it right off. Feel free to ask for as many as you like. My email is grubin [at] gretchenrubin [.com]. Don’t forget to include your mailing address

“Working on My Novel, Remembering that Life Is Long — and Yet Not Overscheduling.”

Happiness interview: Christina Baker Kline.

I got to know novelist Christina Baker Kline through a writing group I joined — which is now connected with the very helpful writing site, She Writes. Christina’s wonderful novel, Bird in Hand, just came out in paperback — joining The Way Life Should Be.

Christina also has a very interesting blog, Writing/Life, “notes on craft and the creative process.”

I wanted to ask her about her views on happiness because her work wrestles with this question. In fact, when I got my copy, I saw that the back cover includes this line: “And as each of them tries to find a way forward, all four will be forced to examine the choice they have made and the lives they have built, and ultimately ask themselves: What is happiness?”

Now I get to ask Christina to answer a version of that question!

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Christina: Being in the habit of working every day on my novel-in-progress makes me happier. For the past month I’ve been busy teaching and editing other people’s manuscripts, and though I find those activities rewarding (and remunerative), on another level I feel anxious and unfulfilled because I haven’t had time for my own creative work. My summer class just ended, and I knew it was important not to take on new editing clients for a while. I’m ready to work on my book!

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were younger?
What I know now is that life is long — you don’t have to do everything at the same time. When I turned 30 I entered a ridiculously productive period — I published five books in five years and had two children. Then I gave birth to my third son, and it all went to hell in a hand-basket (or, more accurately, a diaper pail). It was a number of years — eight, to be exact — before I published another novel. But during that period I learned a lot about life and love and other important things, and my writing — and my life in general — are better for it.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Overscheduling. Taking on too much. (See #1!)

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?
I love this quote, often attributed to Philo of Alexandria: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Remembering this makes me more patient with my kids, more understanding of my students’ dilemmas, and more tolerant when I’m rushing to a meeting and the guy in line ahead of me at the MetroCard ticket machine can’t figure out how it works.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
I am always surprised by the psychology of space — how the spaces we inhabit affect the way we live our lives. My husband and I talked for years about building a patio in our postage-stamp backyard, but we couldn’t agree on a plan. (The yard is tilted; drainage is an issue … I won’t bore you with the details.) Last spring, after an intervention by a wise and patient landscape gardener, we finally broke ground, and now we live out there. It’s like another room, only greener and with a breeze. (We were inspired to plant a few flowers, too, to improve the view.) Sitting on the patio with my husband in the early evening with a glass of wine makes me very happy.

* A few nights ago I saw the excellent movie Whip It, about roller derby, so I was in just the right mood to read this hilarious post by Pamela Ribon, Show me who you really are: how roller derby can save your life. It’s really true: everyone’s happiness project will look different, but they’re all fascinating!

* There’s been a lot of interest in the one-page discussion guide for book groups. Because so many people mentioned that they’re reading The Happiness Project with their church group, or in a spirituality book group, and the like, I wrote another one-page discussion guide that focuses on the spiritual aspect. If you’d like either discussion guide (or both!), email me at grubin at gretchenrubin dot com.

“Oddly, I Am a Naturally Sunny, Optimistic Person Who Has Also Struggled with Depression.”

Happiness interview: Maia Szalavitz.

I recently made a new friend, Maia Szalavitz, and I was thrilled when I got my hands on her new book (with co-author Bruce Perry), Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential–and Endangered. Empathy, and the ties that bind people into relationships, are key elementsof happiness.

The book has many fascinating sections. For example, I was struck by this passage:

Throughout life, we need social contact to regulate our response to distress. Of course, exercise, meditation, and many other stress relief techniques can be done alone — and periods of solitude can help reduce the stress that relationships themselves can cause. But in the absence of any close human connections, nonsocial stress relief tactics can rarely sustain health.

I was eager to hear how Maia thought about happiness and empathy, in her own life.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Maia: Here are a few.
1) Listening to music (OK, I admit, I’m a Deadhead: their music is designed to enhance drug highs but it works pretty well for a natural high in itself for me).
2) Exercise: hate to start, hate some aspects of doing it but consistently feel excellent afterward.
3) Looking at babies, kittens, puppies: cuteness makes me happy. This is an evolutionary mechanism to get us to care for our young — and is therefore very powerful in creating good feelings.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That it does not require (illegal) drugs. At that age, I was extremely uncomfortable in my own skin and felt very insecure socially. Since relationships are ultimately the greatest source of happiness, feeling unable to connect with people obviously made me miserable. Due to what I now know is depression, I thought there was something uniquely bad about me that would make it forever impossible to be loved. Antidepressants are legal and work much better than cocaine and heroin in the long run to reduce these bizarre feelings and allow me to take pleasure in connection. Obviously, most people don’t need medication to be happy — but if you do, it’s definitely better to find that out early rather than self-medicate with dangerous drugs.

Also, I now know how to truly be happy for other people, which is a great type of empathy.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
I put off painful decisions in favor of immediate comfort. This is something that definitely sets you up for all kinds of addictions — but it’s not just found in addicts, it’s part of human nature.

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?
I remind myself that my goal is to be useful, not successful. If I measure myself in terms of monetary success or status, that can make me unhappy or envious; if I measure myself in terms of being helpful to others and providing useful information through my work, I am a lot happier. A lot of 12-step slogans are useful as well, “Don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outside,” “Identify, don’t compare” and “If you want to have self-esteem, do estimable actions,” are all good.

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).
I like reading crime fiction, listening to music and calling friends if I feel low. And the beach, I love the beach and go there if I can.

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?
To some extent, we all sometimes think that things will make us happy, not people. Our society relies on this to fuel its markets — and when we run around chasing material things, it definitely makes us less happy than if we focused more on connecting with family and friends.

When I was working on my book Born for Love, I thought a lot about this because people seem to secretly think that the pleasure we can get from being kind and empathetic is a lesser sort than that we get from doing things like buying stuff for ourselves. We say that “giving is better than receiving” but we don’t really mean it. So people are suspicious of sharing other people’s happiness and of getting pleasure from doing things like taking care of children or volunteering. But it’s those moments of emotional connection that provide some of our greatest joys — the pleasure of being kind is not just an “icky vegetable” that you have to make yourself eat and pretend to like. It’s actually fun!

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?
Oddly, I am a naturally sunny, optimistic person who has also struggled with depression and self-hatred for most of my life. I didn’t realize it was depression when I was a teenager: I thought this is just the way it is for me and so I developed an addiction to cocaine and heroin, which helped at first. Early recovery was hard but I attended support groups for a while, did therapy, got on meds and over time found people who care about me and vice versa. Interestingly, some of these people had always been in my life, but I’d somehow been unable to believe that they weren’t just tolerating me.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
For one, I always need to monitor myself to be sure I’m not falling back into depression. Secondly, I try to do things that are congruent with my beliefs and work towards my goals as best I can so that I can minimize the reasons I might find to torture myself. I exercise at least twice a week and try to do more. I try to socialize as much as possible, too.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
Well, I’ve been repeatedly surprised when reaching goals hasn’t “fixed” me and made everything OK forever after. This sounds dumb, but I think you can’t help but have secret thoughts about things like this that you don’t admit even to yourself and that produce surprise disappointment. The first time it happened was when I was 16 and had an article published in 17, complete with a make-over. My life wasn’t miraculously transformed, I was still a geek, so that was quite disappointing. Publishing books, writing for the New York Times, falling in love — none of these have fixed me yet. I now know very well that this way lies folly and am now OK with still being my strange self whatever happens.

* Speaking of new friends, I have a new friend, Liz — someone I “met” online, and then in Texas, but who is actually a fellow New-Yorker, so we got to meet for a very fun coffee yesterday. I found her through her great blog, Mom-101, “I don’t know what I’m doing either.”

* In a book group? If you’d like a copy of the reading-group discussion guide for The Happiness Project, email me at grubin at gretchenrubin dot com. Just write “reading group guide” in the subject line. I’ll send it right off.

“Cycling, Writing, Walking — and Living in the Right City.”

Happiness interview: Richard Florida.

I became interested in the work of economic development expert Richard Florida when I read his fascinating book, The Rise of the Creative Class. He has a new book, just out, The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity.

Richard writes a lot about the how community, place, work, and the economy interact to affect people’s happiness and career satisfaction. I was curious about how he thinks about happiness in the context of his own life.

What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Cycling. I loved it as a child and I love it even more as an adult. By my late thirties, pursuing an academic career, I was getting out of shape and knew I had to start exercising. So I asked myself what was the physical activity I liked most as a kid. I was a visiting professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and I went over to a great bike shop, Belmont Wheelworks and bought a road bike. I lost 40 pounds in a couple of months, because I was having so much fun. Cycling still gives me the same feeling of pure joy I had as a boy. It’s pure happiness.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I never thought writing could bring so much pleasure. Yes, the old adage about all you have to do is sit down and the keyboard and “open vein” captures some of the initial pain and hesitation. But once you get into in, get into what the psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow, it becomes quite enjoyable – that total focus, the sense of being inside your own ideas, and of course it’s always much, much better when you see the finished product.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Yes, of course, I’m doing it right now. Typing away on my computer. I spend much too much time writing, sending e-mails, composing blog posts, on my twitter feed, reading and searching online. I’d love to be out biking or spending more time with my family.

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? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?

I’ve read a lot of the happiness literature. For me it’s all about where you live – the city, the community and the neighborhood. Finding the best place to live for you is something that resonates with me and stays with me all the time. As I explained in my book Who’s Your City?, the place we choose to live in the single most important decision we make. It has a profound impact on the jobs we have access to, our career path, our social networks, the people we date, family and lifestyle choices and ultimately the wealth we accumulate as well as our overall happiness.

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

Cycling, going for long walks in Toronto’s amazing ravine system with my wife Rana or grabbing an espresso.

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?
There are three happiness killers – doing work you do not love and are not passionate about, surrounding yourself with people who you do not really like (someone who just fills time), and living somewhere that does not let you be you. Just stop it. Life is far too short. Also, materialism. We know that experiences matter so much more to happiness than material goods, stop the madness. That’s why your place, community or neighborhood is so important – it is not just where you live. It is the center-piece or should I say center-place of your experiences.

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 try to never feel sad; I don’t know why. I always try to find something in each and every day to make me happy. I am a very weather-dependent person. I simply cannot stand grey, gloomy, cold days. So I try to get to Miami Beach with my wife Rana as much as we can in the winter. We love Toronto, and our work here, but winters can be brutal. They always have been for me, and it just gets worse and worse as I get older. As much as I am a thinker and writer, I need to be active and outdoors to be happy. That balance is really important to me. So I need to be able to get out on my bike, to go for a walk with my wife, to get into the water, or just to drink a coffee or eat a meal outside. For me it’s key to my sanity. I also think being active all year round, helps keep the pounds off and keeps me healthier.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Yes, each day, every day. Someone once asked me, “What is my perfect day?” Every day I try to have one. It starts with having coffee and reading the papers with my wife Rana. Then I write for a couple of hours (I’m doing that now). Then, we go for a walk, in the ravine in Toronto or along the bay on Miami Beach’s Venetian Causeway. Next is lunch. I’m an Italian American so lunch, in fact all food, is a big deal. After lunch I’ll write some more, tool around the web, read email, write blog posts or send stuff out on my twitter feed. Around 2:00 or 3:00, if it is nice out, I will take a 30 to 35 minute ride on my road bike. After my ride, I will usually work for a few hours. Then, maybe around 8, we will start getting ready for dinner, maybe have a glass of wine. I love to barbeque. For me it’s just amazing, especially on cool crisp nights to stand in front of that fire – something incredibly primal. Dinner always stretches on for a couple of hours. Then maybe watch a movie or some television and get to bed around 11:00 p.m. Perfect day.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
Each and every time, it’s material things. They pale in comparison to the simplest experience like taking a walk.

* May is almost over — which means it’s almost time for me to send out my monthly newsletter. It highlights the best material from this blog and the Facebook Page, it’s free, and about 43,000 people have signed up for it. If you’d like to add your name, click here or email me at grubin [at] gretchenrubin [.com]. (Sorry to write in that odd way; trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “newsletter” in the subject line.