Today’s interview is with Therese Borchard. As happens so often with friends from blogland (practically none of whom I’ve actually met in person), I can’t remember exactly how we got to know each other. Her terrific blog Beyond Blue about managing depression is stationed on beliefnet, a site that I really like – so maybe it was through that channel.
Also, like me, she’s an ardent devotee of St. Therese of Lisieux – in fact, she was named for St. Therese. It’s hugely gratifying, and fairly rare, for me to connect with someone who loves St. Therese's spiritual memoir Story of a Soul as much as I do. So maybe we “met” through that interest.
Therese Borchard has a book coming out soon, Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression and Anxiety, and Making the Most of Bad Genes. She’s also the editor of I Like Being Catholic, I Like Being Married, I Love Being a Mom, and The Imperfect Mom. She's done a lot of thinking about the nature of happiness.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Therese: Exercise is crucial for me. Bad things happen to my brain without it. Even more powerful is exercise outside. I almost always think better when I’m running, biking, hiking, or kayaking in nature. Especially when I get to my favorite stretch of my run—where the campus of the Unites States Naval Academy follows the Severn River—I can help but breathe a prayer of gratitude.
Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Therese: That success doesn’t guarantee happiness. In fact, it can often times get in the way. I think my real “happiness breakthrough” came the morning I cried to my mentor and good friend Mike over the phone as I sat in a room at Johns Hopkins Psych Unit. I bemoaned to him how I went from a success to a failure within a year, and that I didn’t know how to get back my accolades. He told me they didn’t matter. Success didn’t matter. Writing didn’t matter. None of it. And the miracle of that moment was that I could hear his sincerity and believe him. I imagined the worst—my never being able to work again, to function like I used to—and there I was … okay, and loved by my husband, mom, and a few friends. And that was more than enough.
Gretchen: Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Therese: Comparing! I try to remember the wisdom in “compare and despair,” or to not compare my insides with another person’s outsides. But I do it over and over and over again. And I always seem to come up short. Which is why, if I really HAVE to compare, I should take Helen Keller’s advice: “Instead of comparing our lot with that of those who are more fortunate than we are, we should compare it with the lot of the great majority of our fellow men. It then appears that we are among the privileged.”
Gretchen: Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful?
Therese: Three words: God, take it. It’s a reminder of the third step (of most 12-step programs): “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God,” and a summary of the Third Step Prayer, which I say constantly during the day: "God, I offer myself to Thee--to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always!"
Gretchen: If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity?
Therese: I hold on to my blankie: a medal of St. Therese. I squeeze it and I pray with it, and I let it remind me that even though I thought I had control at one point, I don’t. It’s in God’s hands.
Gretchen: 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?
Therese: I’ve found that folks with a good sense of humor tend to be happier. People who can laugh at life’s frustrations and hurdles. Studies have showed how humor can actually heal … both physically and emotionally. I love G. K. Chesterton’s quote: “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”
Gretchen: Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Therese: I work very hard at being happier, or at least staying out of the black hole of depression! I work at changing my thought patterns: at identifying the forms of distorted thinking (like all or nothing thinking, jumping to conclusions, mind-reading, and so forth), and using different cognitive-behavioral techniques to untwist the thoughts: examining a situation more realistically, getting my friends to help me snap out of obsessive thinking, recording all of my blessings so that I can see, on one sheet of paper, all of my gifts. And I have to remind myself many times a day that happiness doesn’t come with high page views (blog traffic) numbers or an appearance on Oprah.
Gretchen: Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
Therese: I used to think all I had to do to be happy was to publish a book. So I published a book and I still wasn’t happy. So I published another. And another. With each publication, the stakes were higher, next time it had to sell at least 10,000 copies for me to be happy. Then it had to be a Publishers Weekly bestseller. Of course this kind of accomplishment never brought happiness. Ironically, it was that day inside the psych ward crying to Mike, when I had fallen apart at the seams, that I experienced true peace.
A friend of mine who wrote a New York Times bestseller made into a movie (and a whole movement) told me the other day that the best years of his life were those when he was homeless and practically penniless. He said that his success was a total nightmare. Friends and relatives (family members he never knew he had!) came to him asking for money. He was immediately hit with all this responsibility that he resented.
I try to remember that when I’m in the midst of a networking craze (as I am lately with Facebook and LinkedIn): that 550 important connections and contacts won’t bring happiness. In fact, chances are greater that they will bring me a headache.
Speaking of friends from the internet, I met – face to face – with terrific print journalist and blogger Nancy Rommelman, who has a great eponymous blog. We were introduced by another internet friend, the indefatigable Jackie Danicki. The world is small, and getting smaller, in a way that makes me very happy.
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