Jason Gots writes, sings, and talks about big ideas, human development, and creativity. He is the host and producer of the Think Again podcast and producer of the Clever Creature podcast, and he’s a lecturer in the writing department of Columbia University’s Graduate School of the Arts.
His first book, Humanity Is Trying: Experiments in Living with Grief, Finding Connection, and Resisting Easy Answers (Amazon, Bookshop) hit shelves last week.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Jason about happiness, habits, and creativity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Jason: The single best habit I picked up, later than most perhaps (because I’ve been a slow bloomer in so many things) is dedicating my time intentionally to different kinds of work, based on the natural rhythms of my mind and heart. Mornings (until as late as 2 pm if I’m really on a roll) are for writing, teaching, or interviews—anything that requires creative energy. Often I’ll write from 9 to 1 and it’s been a more productive and satisfying day than many 9am-6pm workdays I’ve had in the past. Afternoons are better for reading and research.
If I’m creating something from nothing (like writing a song), later in the week…Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday is better for me than Monday or Tuesday. My spirit’s just brighter, more playful and more free toward the end of the week. In a better place for dreaming.
I think we do ourselves a great deal of harm trying to conform to working rhythms that aren’t our own. All of society conspires to guilt or literally force us into these patterns (it’s a hangover from Industrialization). In my 20s for example, I thought artists were supposed to be “night people” rather than “morning people” and tortured myself by trying to do creative work mainly at night, which, for me, is just wrong. Or, in my 30s, pressured by society to work from 9-5, 6, or 7, I wasted time and energy fiddling away in the afternoon hours at something that would have taken me half the time the next morning. Now I’m just as likely to use some of that afternoon time for an energizing phone call or a lunch with a friend—a connection that (besides just being a pleasure in itself) informs and feeds my work.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I know that it’s not all or nothing. I know that it’s incremental—a messy, lifelong work-in-progress. My teens and 20s were tortured with the thought that there was one perfect love, one perfect job, one perfect city that—if only I could find and commit to it—would make my life happy forever. I now understand that happiness is as much about the things we let go of (the attachment to perfection, for example) as it is about the things we find and hold on to.
Also, that we often misunderstand what happiness is. It has so many nuances, forms, and shades. In the grinning advertisement that is America, happiness is a bikini body on a perfect beach, beers with friends… in Turkey, where my wife is from, there’s a concept called “huzun” which might be translated as “the happiness of melancholy,” like the feeling you get in Istanbul looking out across a city where centuries upon centuries of civilizations lie buried beneath the hills, or scattered in fragments among the gleaming modern buildings.
Our concept of happiness needs to be spacious enough for the vastness of life itself. It needs to encompass the fact that we’re mortal, and that the people we love are mortal. The ordinary suffering of life—aging, illness, death, change itself—shouldn’t be seen as irritations that get in the way of the “real work” of happiness. Any happiness we cultivate has to swim in these same waters.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
Yes–a few of them! Most recently, I stopped drinking altogether after 30+ years as what I’d call a functionally problematic drinker. The kind who never passes out at a party or ends up crashing a car, losing a job, or going to jail because of alcohol, but who, once they have that first cocktail, is (as it were) hang-gliding across a chasm. Every drink is an updraft, so you’re understandably unwilling and unable to stop at one or two.
In subtle and insidious ways, even weekend drinking becomes a pattern that saps my creative energy and my ambition (mainly, probably, because of how it interferes with sleep even days afterward). So in 2021 I finally decided that moderation wasn’t for me—that it was time to kick alcohol out of my life entirely.
How did I do it? Well, I’ve stopped before, for as long as a year and a half (always with the intention of coming back to it eventually, more moderately). For me, it starts with an act of will. I did inherit an iron will from my mother. So when I decide that I’m sick of something, or that something needs to change, I change it.
But after that, there’s a lot of mindfulness involved in sustaining the change. For example, when my mind starts spinning romantic tales about how creativity and whisky are inseparable, about the ancient bond between Dionysus and art…and therefore I should allow myself that Manhattan…I have to notice what my mind is doing and talk back to it about what absolute bullshit that is.
“Not-drinking”, like other good habits such as meditation, is also somewhat self-sustaining (through mindfulness) because I can see and feel the many, many ways it makes my life and my work better.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Does it make me a Rebel that I want to refuse categorization? I took the quiz, but the result didn’t make it to my inbox (or spam, or anywhere else I could find it) for some reason. But even if it had, I suspect I would have been uncomfortable with the results, because I’m always more interested in the ambiguities between things than in things as discrete entities or categories.
But let me try to explain and do justice to the question. I’m an Upholder in that I do make internal commitments and stick to them, often (what might seem to others) rigidly, regardless of external circumstances. Most of my strongest commitments are ones I’ve made to myself, because they make sense to me. Often I need a lot of evidence (in the form of mistakes) before I see the wisdom of a certain path. I’m a Rebel in that I’m annoyed by things that feel pro-forma and “viral,” like saying phrases like “At the end of the day…” and I reject them whenever possible because they feel like traps and limitations. I do question everything and love to inquire and examine things deeply, so in that sense I’m (or that aspect of me is) a Questioner.
The only thing I’m definitively NOT is an Obliger.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
The only thing that ever interferes is the pressure of external expectations that I’ve internalized. Like the idea that everyone has to work at a desk from 9 until the evening. Or that something like meditation or reading is “extra” rather than integral to everyday life (even on a work day).
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. When I was a senior in high school, I had a “lightning bolt” conversation with my best friend, John. It had happened that my serious girlfriend at the time was attracted to him and vice versa. They had kissed once, then told me about it, and I was in a hell of jealousy. John stayed over at my house that night and we stayed up all night talking. He told me all about the teachings of Meher Baba (a religious mystic of the 1960s whose ideas are a blend from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islamic Sufism). At the time (I learned that night) John was a devotee of Meher Baba. I had never before encountered mystical spirituality—ideas about universal love and the interconnectedness of all things—and the perspective completely blew my mind.
The next morning, I called my girlfriend (with John still there in the room) and said, “Listen. I want you to be happy. If you and John want to explore a relationship, go for it. I’m not going to hold you.” I meant it. They went on one date after that and it turned out there wasn’t much more to it, and my girlfriend and I got back together, and we never mentioned it again. I never again felt jealous about it. I’d gone through a marvelous internal change by genuinely letting go of my attachment to her. Not of my love for her, but of the idea that love meant I needed to bind her to me forever and defend against attackers. I’m not saying I never again in my life felt jealousy, but it was a sudden experience of an entirely new way of being.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
The phrase “welcome, friend” is a useful mantra when I’m feeling aversion to anything—from cold weather, to diving into a difficult producing or editing session, to a conversation I’d rather not have. I actively try to welcome everything, no matter how difficult, as something to face directly rather than run away from.
As crazy as it sounds, I think this applies even to, say, getting mugged in an alley. The experience is happening. So even if what you need to do is fight or run, you’re better off facing fully the fact that it’s happening rather than having your entire consciousness hijacked by your amygdala and cortisol. We don’t tend to make the best decisions, even in times of danger, when we’re in fight-flight-freeze mode. So am I suggesting you hug your attacker? Absolutely not. But the energy of terror isn’t your best friend in a dangerous situation.
Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?
Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman comics. (Amazon, Bookshop) I first read them in my late teens and early 20s and they entirely changed the way I thought about what was possible in writing. Gaiman brings in fragments of story and character from mythology, literature, and popular culture from Ancient Greece to Shakespeare to television, and dreams them into incredibly specific, modern life. These fragments live again, encounter one another, go off in new and unexpected directions. This fall, I think, they’re finally bringing out a high-quality TV series of Sandman (on Netflix) and I suspect millions more people will suddenly know what I mean.
Each series of the original comic has a new artist, with a different style, and sometimes (say, when a character’s dreaming) a given artist will draw or paint a part of a story in a different style from the rest. Gaiman himself, since writing Sandman, has thrived in multiple genres—TV, novels, nonfiction—and he continues to teach me that the boundaries of stories, genres, and professional fields are more porous than we’re led to believe. It’s an exhilarating freedom for someone like me, who’s never been at home in one single profession.
Also, breaking another set of boundaries, The Sandman taught me that “high culture” and “pop culture” aren’t incompatible—Gaiman creates a philosophically, emotionally, symbolically rich world in a medium most people at the time still dismissed as disposable kids’ stuff.
Sandman has informed all of my work since I first read it. I live in a time and place where we’re totally inundated with loud, blunt marketing that’s all about money and sex. I love rock music, punk music, the Velvet Underground…I’m a child of my times. And at the same time, I’m in heaven listening to an audiobook of Milton’s Paradise Lost (Amazon, Bookshop) while walking the dog. So as a writer and a podcaster I try to let the influences spill into one another without worrying too much about what’s academic, what’s popular, what’s high, what’s low…