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Tad Friend: “Happiness Comes from Immersion—in a Job, an Art Form, a Challenge, a Relationship.”

Tad Friend: “Happiness Comes from Immersion—in a Job, an Art Form, a Challenge, a Relationship.”

Interview: Tad Friend

Tad Friend is a staff writer at the New Yorker, and previously was a contributing editor at Esquire and Outside. He is the author of a memoir, Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor (Amazon, Bookshop), and Lost in Mongolia: Travels in Hollywood and Other Foreign Lands (Amazon, Bookshop), a collection of his articles. His latest memoir, In the Early Times: A Life Reframed (Amazon, Bookshop), hit shelves this month.

I couldn't wait to talk to Tad about happiness, habits, and relationships.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Tad: Drinking way too much coffee. Fight me! But I’ll win because I’m teeming with caffeination.

Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?

Let us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee (Amazon, Bookshop). I read Agee’s account of three Alabama tenant farming families struggling through the Great Depression when I was in college, and the book was a revelation. No one had thought tenant farmers worthy of much attention, but Agee made me care deeply about every aspect of their lives. His work made me realize that nothing is anything until a writer makes it something. And that it’s possible to report so thoroughly and write so passionately and empathetically that nonfiction rises to the level of art.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Happiness comes from immersion—in a job, an art form, a challenge, a relationship. But while you’re immersed it doesn’t even occur to you to assess your emotional state. Only later do you realize, “Oh, I was happy then.” The challenge of life is that it’s lived forward but understood backward.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I’ve long been an Upholder with Questioner tendencies. I wanted to do the thing that people expect of me, but I also wanted to make sure that doing it made sense, and that I’d be rewarded. However, I’ve recently discovered that if someone I love really wants something, that alone is reason enough to do it, no questions asked, no reciprocity demanded. Reciprocity comes unsought, as selflessness turns out to be contagious.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? 

Rampant procrastination. I catch up on “Atlanta” or do the Spelling Bee instead of just tacking the onerous thing and rewarding myself later with a pop-culture treat. Using Pomodoro helps: I set the timer for 25 minutes and go, knowing that I’ll soon have 5 minutes to refill my coffee mug.

Multitasking is another bad habit. Multitasking is actually just rapid focus switching, so I keep losing all the clarity and momentum that attends sustained attention. On the other hand, I have become quite adept at doing a crappy job on three things at once.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Yes, I stopped being unfaithful. My wife discovered my infidelities, and I so hated the monstrous me that I saw reflected in her eyes, and was so grateful to her for being willing to work this very thorny issue through together, that I reversed course, hard, overnight. Without her willingness to give me a second chance—if, and only if, I became an actual, you know, husband and partner—I would have remained lost. Amanda is not only my true love, she’s my hero. I write about all this in In the Early Times.

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?

“Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.” It’s from Theodore Roosevelt’s Autobiography (Amazon, Bookshop), where he attributes it to someone else. I heard the maxim from a squash coach, and it absolutely applies to squash, to keeping your focus and playing within yourself when you feel outmatched. But it also struck me as a great motto for daily life. It’s both a recognition of imperfections and a summons to get the most out of your imperfect vehicle, nonetheless.

If I had to pick a second quotation, it would be from Sigmund Freud: “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us.” It sounds glum, but once you realize, well, ok, life is too much for everyone, it’s actually curiously freeing. You’re going to lose eventually, so why not fight a strong rearguard action? And that fight, for me, is embodied by “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.”

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