Angus Fletcher studies literature’s usefulness, treating it as a practical tool for alleviating poverty, hunger, heartbreak and other physical concerns by employing a range of empirical methods, from ancient rhetoric to modern science. His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and he has taught for University of Southern California, Stanford, and Teach for America.
Angus Fletcher is also the author of more than a dozen feature screenplays and television pilots, including a J. R. R. Tolkien biopic for the producers of The Lord of the Rings series, an adaptation of The Longest Journey for the estate of E. M. Forster, and an adaptation of The Variable Man for the estate of Philip K. Dick.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Angus about happiness, habits, and books.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Angus: Swimming. (I used to be a jogger, but it made my knees grumpy.) To be clear, I am not skilled at swimming: if I was any slower, I’d sink, and my kick turn has been described as the “confused walrus.” But as inept as I am, I love the feel of going through water. It makes the rest of the day just…flow.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Happiness is the gift we get back for being generous to others.
You’ve done fascinating scientific research into the psychological benefits of literature. What has surprised you most?
I wasn’t surprised to discover that reading Sappho and Shakespeare and Maya Angelou can spark our neurons with joy, hope, love, and even spiritual (or as psychologists term it, self-transcendent) experience. I’d discovered a little of that firsthand. But I was surprised to find that reading certain novels and poems and plays can make us more generous, more courageous, and even more adventurous. I’d always figured that reading was something I did to escape from the world.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? How did you do it?
I don’t honestly worry too much about unhealthy habits. I figure that if I have a few good routines, they’ll carry me along. And generally, I can be trained like Pavlov’s dog: with treats. I reward myself with a chocolate shake for exercising, and with roasted almonds for everything else.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
A Questioner. I started asking why? as a kid and have been unable to make myself stop.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?
I like structure and hate planning so I’m a disaster at travel. But I’ve recently learned that my key to happy journeys is to schedule every trip to include a visit to a friend. That provides all the structure I need.
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.?
Three years ago, I was pushing my then four-year-old daughter on a swing, and I was abruptly overwhelmed with a feeling of tremendous gratitude, to the point that I began to cry. I thought: This is so bizarre. Why is a trip to the play-park overwhelming me with bliss? Then I remembered that a University of Pennsylvania philosopher by the name of James Pawelski had come up after one of my public talks to hand me a book about the origins of positive emotions. So, I dug up the book and began to read, hoping to find the reason for my spontaneous happiness. The book was an introduction to Positive Psychology. And it transformed my way of thinking.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
“Never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never give up on yourself.” That’s my mum’s redo of Winston Churchill.
Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
Because I spend my days reading, lots of books have had a big impact on me, but the one that most changed my life is A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (Amazon, Bookshop). It’s so beautiful and so brave and so magically original. I read it when I was 17 and it made me think: It’s okay to have a different mind. And it made me decide that I had to find a way to spend my life studying books like it.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
There are no themes in literature. Theme is the ghost in the machine. What exists instead are characters and plots and worlds and voices—and wonder and empathy and suspense and romance.
(And if I’m permitted another: there is no such thing as a tragic flaw. The whole idea comes about because of a mistranslation of Aristotle’s Poetics. Tragedy in literature [and even more so in life] isn’t the result of something inherently wrong with our character; it’s usually just bad luck. That’s what happens to Oedipus: it was hardly his fault that fortune doomed him before he was born. And most of the time, our flaws are like the architectural quirks of an old house or the incongruities of a lover’s face: the things that kind hearts come to love about us most.)