“A Life of Contentment & Joy Doesn’t Mean Avoiding Experiences With Loss & Pain”

Portrait of Sarah McColl

Sarah McColl is a writer who has been published by a wide range of publications, and she also was founding editor-in-chief of Yahoo Foods. Her first book just hit the shelves, a memoir called Joy Enough.

In it, she tackles her experience of simultaneously going through a divorce and losing her mother to cancer—a double blow. I couldn’t wait to talk to Sarah about happiness, habits, and self-knowledge.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Sarah: When I moved to Los Angeles a little less than a year ago, I started attending a boot camp at the nearby recreation center three mornings a week. There’s a core group of the same women every day. We don’t know the details of one another’s lives, and many of us don’t speak the same language, but I love our sense of community. I know that every morning, rain or shine, we’re going to groan together during glute work and then high-five when it’s over.

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Sarah: In my first job after college as an editorial assistant, my boss would walk into my cubicle in her low-heeled Ferragamos, drop off a manuscript, and offer some unsolicited advice. There are many I still rely on, but one that’s come up time and again is: People think relationships will make them happy, but you have to bring happiness to the relationship.

I knew intellectually what she meant, but it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I really got it. To have a sense of wholeness on your own—to have passions and friendships and desires and curiosities and ambitions that are all your own, that belong solely to you, and then to choose to be in relationship with someone, someone who you don’t need for those feelings of aliveness in your life, but who brings them all the same—not to mention support, affection, companionship, all the good stuff of loving—that brings so much life and air and, yes, happiness to the dynamic between two people.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
Sarah: A life of contentment and joy doesn’t mean avoiding experiences with loss and pain. Experiences with death, in fact, can heighten our awareness of and gratitude for living.

In her book The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky reports on a study in which 70 to 80 percent of people who had lost someone they love reported finding “benefit” to the experience. I don’t think we want a happy life so much as a meaningful one, and the meaning comes from the experience of feeling fully alive.

Joseph Campbell said this pretty well: “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

I think death, loss, grief, and pain bring us in touch with the rapture of being alive as much as ecstatic happiness and joy.

Gretchen: Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Sarah: Well, apparently I’m an Upholder! These results are interesting to me, and also a bit surprising. Sometimes my self-imposed deadlines and goals get in the way of doing what others want or expect from me, and I have a fear that I let people down as a result. But if something is important to me—like writing time, or alone time—I don’t have a problem creating those boundaries for myself.

If I took this quiz and thought solely of health and exercise, I might turn out as an Obliger or a Rebel. If I say I will meet you for a 6 a.m. spin class, I’ll be there, but if the promise of an early morning exercise class is just to myself, I will hit snooze. Three times. The idea of a diet that tells me what to eat when makes me want to totally rebel. I definitely have a contrarian streak.

Gretchen: 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.?
Sarah: My mother lived with Stage IV cancer for more than a year. It’s very clarifying when the stakes are life and death for someone you love. I moved home to be with her, to tend her garden and cook dinner, to talk about her fear of death and what I was going to do with my life. Everything became urgent, and if there was something I wanted to do, what was I waiting for? With her encouragement, I applied to graduate school to study writing, and quit my job as an editor-in-chief to attend school time full-time. This decision divided the people in my life into two categories: the people who thought this was brave, exciting, and wonderful and the people who thought I was crazy. But I knew I had to devote myself to what I had most wanted to do since I was a child, which was to write, and that I had to do it now.

Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
Sarah: You got this is one I turn to in times of trouble, large and small. Driving in scary rush hour traffic? You got this. Pitching a big magazine? You got this. Pushing out those last reps? You got this. (Actually, I say, “Light weight, baby. Light weight,” which I stole from a weight lifter friend.)

But someone told me something recently that really struck me with its beauty: Feelings are powerful, and they pass.

My mother used to say, “Feeling is living to me,” and that’s my experience, too. The world of my mind and my heart is the world to me. Everyone’s experience is filtered through consciousness, of course, but what I mean is that I trust my feelings. I’m invested in them. The guy next to me on the bus doesn’t and needn’t care about my inner life—he’s got his own—but I care a lot.

There are obvious downfalls to this, one of which is that’s a lot of emotional labor to be doing all of the time. So learning how to navigate that intense emotional world is really part of my work as an adult. How do I live and experience and love deeply in ways that make me braver, more powerful, more resilient?

Writing is a huge part of this for me. If I can investigate on the page why I feel the way I feel and what it means, whether in a poem or a story or an essay, then I’ve created something artful and made a discovery about what it means to be alive. Boom! Net positive. I think the very practice of being vulnerable to our emotional lives—allowing and experiencing our feelings, and knowing we have the strength to feel things deeply and still survive—that’s the practice. That’s the work I’m up to. (You got this.)

Gretchen: Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
Sarah: Every book I love changes me. Reading is so intimate. We take someone else’s words inside our body. So reading something that fills me with awe and wonder, that opens my eyes to something I’ve never considered, or puts its finger on a thing I have always felt but have never articulated—I live for that! The poem “What the Living Do,” by Marie Howe; Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner; the poem “Meditation at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass; the poem “We Are Both Sure to Die” by Wendy Xu; the recently-released second volume of Sylvia Plath’s letters; Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am I Am I Am; Sheila Heti’s Motherhood; I Love Dick by Chris Kraus; The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. All I ever want to read about is what it all means, what other people are making of life. Or, as Miranda July writes in the also changed-me It Chooses You, “All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life—where do they put their body, hour by hour, and how do they cope inside of it.”

Gretchen: In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?
Sarah: Aside from marketing and sales reasons, I don’t understand a commitment to genre in writing or in reading. “I only read nonfiction,” I heard someone say recently. Or, “I expect more from novels than I do from memoirs.” Wait, what? Why, I wondered? I love when writers blur the lines or ignore them or invent something new: autobiographical fiction, lyric prose, prose poems. I love surprising structures and forms, like an essay in the form of Trivial Pursuit answers. Maybe it’s because I like variety or because I’m greedy, but I want all the beauty, all the insight, all the awe. Who cares what it’s called. So maybe I am a Rebel after all.




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