Bethany Saltman: “I Never Could Have Guessed Just How Right I Was About Happiness When I Was 18.”

Portrait of Bethany Saltman

Bethany Saltman is an author, award-winning editor, and researcher. Her work has appeared in places such as the New Yorker, New York Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, Parents, Town & Country, and many others.

Bethany also serves as a bestselling book partner and in-demand mindfulness mentor, helping writers and entrepreneurs at all stages of the creative process envision and execute their projects, including book proposals, content development, Big Ideas, messaging, and the like.

Her new book is Strange Situation: A Mother’s Journey Into the Science of Attachment.

I couldn’t wait to talk to Bethany about happiness, habits, and relationships.

Gretchen: We’re in very uncertain and difficult circumstances now, because of COVID-19. How might this influence attachment?

Bethany: We’re in a very strange situation right now. And we’re going through it in extreme proximity with our kids and spouses and without the usual release valves and with no personal space. It’s very dysregulating! If my years of studying attachment have taught me anything, it’s the importance of dropping our shame about not being perfect parents or human beings, and being very very gentle with ourselves. When that’s hard to do, then we can let the love we feel for our children inspire us. And when that’s hard to come by, pay them each a nighttime visit and watch them sleep.

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

Meditation. Whether it’s a week in silence, or two minutes on the train, connecting to my breath, my tight shoulders, my big feelings, and my racing thoughts keeps me here on Planet Earth. Being in the moment does not mean transcending our personal mishegas. Presence comes in exactly the opposite way—by meeting the chaos of our minds and bodies gently, and letting it all in. This is how we expand our capacity. We’ve never needed more capacity than we do right now.

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

I never could have guessed just how right I was about happiness when I was 18! I was wild and self-assured without an ounce of ambition. I was a terrible student, reckless and delinquent, but I trusted myself in some deep way. And I was happy. These days, I actually look to my past self for guidance.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?

The biggest surprise from my many years of studying the science of attachment has been that the most important thing we pass down generation to generation is so simple we can barely see it. It’s taken me over ten years of research and self-study to see it. It’s not what we do that affects our kids the most or what was passed down to us. It’s how we feel—our basic orientation—in our relationships. And because our feelings matter so much, we’re empowered to make massive changes in our family lineages simply by paying attention to how we feel in a moment to moment way (see the answer to question 1).

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

I was a heavy smoker for twenty years, and quit after getting hypnotized. It only worked because I was so ready. I have not had a cigarette since, nor a single desire for one. Truly, a miracle. 

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

According to the quiz, which I loved taking, I’m an Upholder, but I also feel like a Questioner and a Rebel. One thing I am definitely not is an Obliger. I don’t follow the rules just because they are rules or do what other people want me to do to make them happy. I wish I had a little more of the Obliger in me. It might make me a little smoother. 

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)

Social media is a killer for me, bringing me back to all the insecurities of adolescence. I feel invisible and get suckered into believing that everyone else’s lives are as they appear. Even though I know better.

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.?

Ten years ago, when my daughter was four, I interviewed the mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat Zinn for a parenting column I was writing. I was having a very hard time as a parent, struggling with anger and resentment, which made me feel incredibly ashamed, which made matters worse. I was hoping in our conversation he would say something that would let me off the hook. But instead he said, “You know, your daughter never asked to be born.” In that moment, I knew he was right, and that it was time for me to grow up and take responsibility for my actions—all of them. I spent the next many years studying attachment and learning to let go of my shame. 

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

The Buddha said that the nature of every human life is to suffer because of the way we cling to things as though we’re separate. It’s a fundamental delusion of the human condition.  So when I’m filled with anxiety or craving or anger or envy I remind myself that this is what he was talking about….this is my suffering. The big picture human context of my own pain really helps take it down a notch.

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

When I was in my twenties, I was in a toxic, addictive relationship and was coming unglued. One day I hit bottom and thought I really might die, but instead I felt called to walk to a Barnes and Noble where I was led (I swear) to a book called Nothing Special: Living Zen by the American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck. I had never ever considered a spiritual solution to my personal problems. This book 100% changed my life. I could even say it saved my life. 

In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?

Oh my gosh, the science of attachment is nothing if not a field of misconception. Dr. Sears misled parents with his  “attachment parenting” philosophy, claiming that in order for babies to be secure, their parents need to follow a list of to-dos like co-sleeping and breastfeeding and baby-wearing. Truly, nothing could be further from the truth. All children need from us is for-the-most-part sensitive parenting, in whatever style suits us. How do we offer sensitive caregiving especially when we haven’t received it? We offer it by being sensitive to ourselves. This is not just some new-agey hope. The connection between our emotional experience and our children’s is backed by sixty years of rigorous science, not to mention every spiritual tradition that recognizes our basic unity and the non-duality of love. It’s just the way it works. 

More info on Bethany Saltman.

Author photo by Hillary Harvey ©



Like what you see? Explore more about this topic.

Interested in happiness, habits, and human nature?

Sign up for our weekly newsletter “5 things making me happy”.

Subscribe to Gretchen’s newsletter.

Every Friday, Gretchen Rubin shares 5 things that are making her happier, asks readers and listeners questions, and includes exclusive updates and behind-the-scenes material.