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Annabelle Gurwitch: “One of the Best Life Hacks for Happiness I Know…I Ask Myself: ‘How Important Is It?'”

Annabelle Gurwitch: “One of the Best Life Hacks for Happiness I Know…I Ask Myself: ‘How Important Is It?'”

Interview: Annabelle Gurwitch

I met Annabelle Gurwitch when we did a book event together in Los Angeles. We had a great time talking during the event, and just as much fun hanging out, chatting backstage, before the event started.

Annabelle Gurwitch is an actress, activist, and the New York Times bestselling author of I See You Made an Effort (Amazon, Bookshop). She’s written for many publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times,  The Oprah Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal amongst other publications.

And in addition to writing, Gurwitch was the longtime co-host of Dinner & a Movie on TBS; a regular commentator on NPR; host of WA$TED for the Discovery Channel, the news anchor of HBO’s award-winning Not Necessarily the News, and a resident humorist for TheNation.com. Her acting credits include Seinfeld, Murphy Brown, Boston Legal, and Dexter. She performs on the Moth Mainstage, Carolines on Broadway, and at arts centers around the country.

Now she has a new book out: You're Leaving When? Adventures in Downward Mobility (Amazon, Bookshop). It's a hilarious and poignant look at the challenges of mid-life.

I couldn't wait to talk to Annabelle about happiness, relationships, and creativity.

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were younger?

Annabelle: I’m thrilled to be talking about increasing happiness. I’ve become very intentional about cultivating moments of joy and increasing my overall happiness in my daily life because it’s not my natural inclination. I’ve worked for several decades in the comedy world and although it’s not a good idea to make sweeping generalizations, I’m going to do it anyway. The majority of comedians and humorists I know, myself included, have trained ourselves to find humor in the toughest situations as a strategy for living. It’s essential to our survival, because it’s not the first impulse that occurs to us.

As a younger person, I found myself running straight toward people, places, and things that were bound to increase what was a comforting kind of punk-rock misery. At a certain point, this not only loses its appeal, but it doesn’t age well, it actually ages you. So, I've worked on some strategies and hacks that I’ve incorporated into my daily routine. I want to add that even talking about them with you is reminding me to do the very things I’m recommending. I consider some of these things shortcuts to sanity.

When did you start noticing a deficit of joy in your life?

After a divorce and sending my child off to college, I realized how much joy I derived from having a bustling household.

The problem was that many close friends were busy with younger children at home. But if I made plans to meet up with friends who could go out to restaurants on a regular basis it might break my budget. Like many folks, my divorce had financial implications that meant this wasn’t a great time to be wining and dining. I could cook for friends and invite them over but a) I don’t enjoy cooking, and b) I also had a lot of deadlines I wasn’t meeting. After a short time of feeling sorry for myself, I thought about what resources I had at my disposal. Those included a house with enough space to host quite a few people and a large local writing community.

So, I came up with a solution. I sent an email to a wide range of writers, some of whom I hadn’t met in person but belonged to various groups I belonged to—people I’d feel comfortable were vetted enough to invite into my home. Here’s how I posited the invite:

You are invited to drop in at my home for open writers nights every Monday. Come in, find a spot in the living room, dining room, or kitchen, and write. That’s it. There’s tea in the kitchen. We’re going to observe quiet writing hours, so between 6-10pm so please turn your device notifications off. If you’d like to chat during that time, feel free to head to the backyard or into the kitchen. No need to RSVP. 

That last part was the most important part of the equation. By not knowing if someone was going to turn up, I prepared myself mentally for a stretch of working hours and if I knew that no one was coming, I might not be motivated to sit down and get to work. Although, according to your Four Tendencies quiz—and I agree with the assessment it gave me—I’m a Rebel, but I also respond well to accountability.

So how did it turn out?

On all the open-house evenings, people showed up, some of whom I’d never met before, and sharing the space together was exactly the kind of engagement I was looking for. It turned out that others were looking for the same thing. Isn’t that often the way it is? And yet, I often think: I’m the only person who feels this way!

And then, the pandemic hit.

I was heading into my third month of hosting open houses, when Los Angeles, where I live, went into lockdown. I turned the open houses at my home, into an online writers room Zoom. Guess what? Ten months later and we are still meeting up online. I wrote about this experiment in creating community engagement to counter feelings of isolation in Los Angeles Magazine. (A more expanded version of this story appears in You're Leaving When?)

Tell us about your shortcuts to sanity?

Ok, here’s one of the best life hacks for happiness I know. If I ever get a tattoo, I think I’ll get this one sentence on my wrist so I can always have it handy.

I ask myself: How important is it?

It’s a provocative question that has no right or wrong answers, just answers that lead to perspective and action and, in doing so, to greater happiness or more suffering.

I tend to think that everything has equal importance. You know what is guaranteed to drive your friends, family, colleagues, and even yourself nuts? That. But if I can remember to ask this question, it clarifies my next course of action.

For instance, recently, I had a close friendship that hit a snag. At first, I thought I couldn’t get over the hurt I believed my friend had caused. Then, I realized my own responsibility in the situation, but I was still upset and thought it was unsurmountable—this is a friendship-ender. I just couldn’t land on how I wanted to proceed, but then I asked myself, “How important is it?” The incident and the bad feelings that resulted were upsetting, but not as important as our long-standing friendship, which I decided was an essential part of my inner circle. Now, that question didn’t resolve our issues, but it allowed me to focus on repairing the relationship and by asking the same question of other situations I was facing, it eliminated some other challenges I was spending time on that weren’t worth my attention.

Let's talk about the inspiration behind your new podcast Tiny Victories.

I'd love to, because the focus is addressing joy in daily life. Over the past few years as I’ve been dealing with many midlife passages, I’ve been thinking about Michelle Obama’s words, “When they go low, we go high,” and I started saying to myself “When things get overwhelming, I’ll go … tiny.”

I started to cultivate something I call “the tiny victory frame of mind.” I decided I needed to focus on small mercies, minor accomplishments, things that the world might never reward me for, but that might make me feel better about getting up in the morning and put a spring in my step when I felt my spirits flagging. A way of activating a “stop and smell the roses” muscle. So I made it a point to notice… the roses in my garden and bird song. Accepting that pants I’ve been holding onto for the last ten years are never going to fit again seemed like a tiny victory. Then, when the pandemic hit, it became even more important as the walls closed in to find joy. Then, in the fall of 2020, I was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer, out of the blue, I wrote about that in the New York Times to bring attention to the need to keep up with regular doctors' appointments during the pandemic. My treatment has been going well and I’m able to exercise, social distance and work, but this diagnosis and now chronic health condition that I am managing requires extra attention to self-care. Adopting this frame of mind, at least for one moment each day, seems like good medicine.

At the same time,  I decided it would be more fun if I had a friend to share this practice. I managed to enlist my friend, fellow comedian and meditation teacher Laura House in this endeavor and we were having such a good time that we decided to turn it into a podcast. We launched the Tiny Victories Podcast as a cultivating happiness project and we invite listeners to share their stories with us on what we call the Tiny Victory Hotline. That phrase cracks me up every time I say it. One of my favorite recent calls is about how a listener’s lost urban chickens brought a neighborhood together. Take a listen and if you’d like to join us in our practice of celebrating small mercies, call our hotline at (323) 285-1675 and tell us about your tiny victory. And, here's something funny: the hotline is actually a google voice number that is connected to my email account, so when someone calls us, my computer makes a phone ringing sound. I was going to turn the notification sound off, but then I realized it was serving as a reminder to me to make time for acknowledging some small positive aspect of the day, so I've left it on!

You've said the stories in You're Leaving When? are about resilience and adapting to new normals. What do you mean by that?

The essays in this collection include a wide range of my "misadventures" in post-divorce dating, waging resistance to retail therapy, a satirical imagining of buying a besty row of tiny houses with my girlfriends, and more serious topics—economic vulnerability in the gig economy, social inequities, raising nonbinary children, friendship,  and the story of how I hosted a couple experiencing homelessness through a trial bridge housing program. The overall theme of adapting to new circumstances in your life is even more timely than when I started writing this two years ago and I'm so excited to share it with readers. If folks order the book online, I’ll send out personalized bookplates by contacting me at [email protected].

As you know, we met at one of your touring events. I was thrilled to be invited to interview you. I showed up with my dog-eared copy of Outer Order, Inner Calm and a million questions. My favorite part of any event is a Q and A with the audience and I learned so much from the questions that came in that evening.  Before I started writing, I was an actress working in the theater and hosting Dinner and a Movie on TBS, and my "happy place" was being on stage and hearing when a line resonated with the audience, elicited  laughter, or my very favorite thing: when a particularly powerful moment on stage landed and you could feel the audience collectively breathed together. Writing also brings us closer together and I will miss touring and having a chance to meet with readers in person. I do have events planned and I invite you to join me on the virtual book tour. I also love hearing from readers and you can find me on twitter @LAGurwitch and on Facebook here.

I take Katherine Mansfield’s words, “Dear Friend, from my life I write to you in your life” to heart. I adapt them in tribute to her thoughtful salutation with my own sentiment, “From my lockdown, I write to you in your lockdown,” with warmest regards and hopes for an uplifting new year, and a deep commitment to finding humor in even the most absurd moments.

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