“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.

icon emailNewsletterLight

One Last Thing

Interested in happiness, habits, and human nature?

Sign up to get my free weekly newsletter. I share ideas for being happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative.

icon schooled

Find out if you’re an Upholder, Obliger, Questioner, or a Rebel.

The Four Tendencies explain why we act and why we don’t actOur Tendency shapes every aspect of our behavior, so understanding your Tendency lets us make better decisions, meet deadlines, suffer less stress and burnout, and engage more effectively.

Take the quiz

Get My Weekly Newsletter

Sign up to get my free weekly newsletter. It highlights the best material from here, my Facebook Page, and new original work.