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“Money Can’t Cover Up or Compensate for Other Things in Your Life That Aren’t Working.”

Interview: Terry McMillan.

Terry McMillan is the beloved novelist whose bestselling novels (some of which were also turned into big movies) include Waiting to Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back -- and most recently, Getting to Happy. Of course, how could I resist a novel called "Getting to happy?"

Terry has done a huge amount of thinking about the elements of a happy life. Her novels explore this question through fiction, and I thought it would be fascinating to hear her views in non-fiction form.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Terry: Taking long walks without headphones.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That no one else can give it to you.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Being too busy, such that I find myself diluted, and thus, unable to give my undivided attention to things that I want to give my undivided attention to.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself "There is only love.”)
We all fall down. But it’s how you get back up that counts.

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

I watch something stupid on TV or go see a movie about folks whose problems are way deeper than what I’m experiencing. Or, sometimes, I just allow myself to feel blue. Because it doesn’t last.

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?
A lot of people I know to be the happiest are those who know what lifts their skirt and subscribe to it regardless of what others think. Those I find to be the least happy are those who don’t accept much responsibility for what they do, and instead, are waiting for someone to rescue them.

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?
How can you feel the same level of happiness? I don’t think that’s possible. And even if it were, I wouldn’t want to because it would be redundant. I like things that exhilarate me, things I didn’t expect to: a satisfying ending of a good book; an unexpected smile from a baby I don’t know; when I do what I say I’m going to do (exercise and can see the results!), and watching what makes other people scream with delight makes me feel it, too. I was miserable and depressed for almost three years while going through a very public divorce. Ultimately, I got tired hating my ex-husband because I realized bitterness and anger was wearing me out. I let it go, forgave him, and got my center back. Started to recognize myself again. The one I liked.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
I try to pay attention to things that bring me down. Including people. I either avoid them/it and if it’s too hard, distance myself from them, and stop making excuses for the things I do I know aren’t in my best interest. Then repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
Being rich. It’s not a panacea, for lack of a better cliché. Money can’t cover up nor compensate for other things in your life that aren’t working. However, I would not want to be without any. I could also say being a bestselling author hasn’t made me happy, either. I’m proud, and delighted that so many people enjoy my work, but the actual writing is what has brought me the most joy.

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