“One of the Most Unhappy Periods of My Life Led to My Happiest.”

Happiness interview: Andy Borowitz.

I'm a huge fan of writer and comedian Andy Borowitz, and a huge fan of humor, so I couldn't wait to get my hands on The 50 Funniest American Writers*: An Anthology of Humor from Mark Twain to The Onion, a new collection that Andy edited for the Library of America(!). What a treat.

I've always thought that funny writing doesn't get the respect it deserves. As G. K. Chesterton observed, "It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light." In fact, it's very, very, very hard to be light.

Consider Andy's unforgettable story for The Moth: The time I almost died (a true story). I laughed out loud many times when I listened to it, and I've never forgotten it, either. (Hilarious, thought-provoking, plus be warned, some strong language.)

I knew Andy had done a lot of thinking about happiness, so I was very curious to hear what he had to say on the subject.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Andy: Exercise. I lift weights and run, but running is the more surefire way to lift my mood. My favorite run is the six-mile outer loop around Central Park. Especially on a nice day, the combination of fresh air, sunshine, and the chemical changes my body undergoes never fails.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
When I was 18 I thought that happiness was something that happened to you and that you had no control over. If something good happened to you, you were happy. I now realize that happiness is something you have to put some effort into every day, and that it’s more reliable when it comes from within, rather than from extrinsic rewards.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
When I think globally about whether or not I’ve accomplished enough with my life, or whether I have done as much as other people, that’s a pretty good prescription for being unhappy. A better approach for me is to focus on the day at hand and try to make the most of it.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a particular book that has stayed with you?
In addition to The Happiness Project (not pandering here – I really did find it useful) [awwww, thanks Andy!], I’m a big fan of Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I don’t have a mantra, per se, but “Life is short” comes close. Or “All we have is today.” Once we remember how brief our existence is and how small we are in the grand scheme of things (although I seriously doubt that there is a grand scheme) it’s harder to take anything we’re going through too seriously.

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).
In addition to exercise, watching sports on TV is something I find enjoyable. Watching sports is, no matter how you rationalize it, a waste of time, and there’s something about knowingly wasting time that is extremely luxurious. I also think it’s good to get outside, walk around and maybe grab a cup of coffee. Staying inside and being sedentary won’t do much to improve your mood.

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?
Quite simply, I think people are on their mobile devices too much. There was a time, not so long ago, when people could cross the street without talking on the phone. What on earth are all of these phone conversations about? Are they really so important? Unless you’re the President and you’re planning a nuclear strike there’s no reason to be on the phone as much as people are. Ditto for checking email and texting. In general, I think being on the Internet too much is bad for my happiness and I suspect it’s bad for others’.

When I see people spending time one-on-one with their children, their spouses, or their friends, they seem happier. I try to do that as much as possible. We live in a world where so may people seem to think Internet interactions are a replacement for the real thing. They’re not.

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 know there are very sound studies about happiness “set points,” and I suspect that I have always been blessed with a slightly higher serotonin level than the average person. Having said that, I know that changes in my circumstances have had a tremendous impact on my happiness. I have never been happier than I am now, and the fact that I am now happily married, doing a job I love, and living in a city I enjoy are all new developments. So I think it’s worthwhile to look at one’s circumstances in a deliberate way and see if there are aspects of them that could be improved upon.

Paradoxically, one of the most unhappy periods of my life led to my happiest. Three years ago, I had emergency abdominal surgery that almost killed me. Coming so close to death made me realize just how precious my life was and has helped me enjoy it more. It would be wonderful if we could appreciate our lives fully without the help of catastrophic surgical procedures, but that’s what worked for me. (I wouldn’t recommend it.)

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
I work at being happier every day. I try to remind myself how grateful I am for the wonderful things in my life: I’m madly in love with my wife and children, I’m blessed with good health, I do work that I genuinely enjoy, I have wonderful friends, and I live in a great city. (The list goes on.) And I try to make each day a mini- Happiness Project: how will I spend today in the most enjoyable way possible? I try to make sure that there are some activities to look forward to before the day is over. This is not always possible, but worth trying. I find that working on making each day happy is more sensible for me than trying to come up with a five or ten year plan. Thousands of happy days strung together add up to a happy life.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
Sometimes we think that we’d be happier if we had attained a dream job or an accomplishment that has always been out of reach. I always thought that being on TV every week, doing something akin to what I do on my website or my live comedy act, would be tons of fun. I got the chance to do it a couple of years ago and found I didn’t like it at all. It turns out that we are, alas, sometimes very bad predictors of what will make us happy, but I’m glad I tried it. When you have an ambition or goal that you think will make you happy and it doesn’t, crossing it off the list actually does make you happier.

We live in a very goal-oriented society in America (and especially in New York), but achievement is not the same thing as happiness. When my son was about five, I took him to a skating party. He had trouble staying up on his skates and hated it. I encouraged him not to give up, but then he said about the wisest thing I ever heard: “Dad, I don’t have to be good at everything.” I say that to myself sometimes now.

* Looking for a good book, please consider The Happiness Project (can't resist mentioning: #1 New York Times bestseller).
Order your copy.
Read sample chapters.
Watch the one-minute book video.
Listen to a sample of the audiobook.

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