Happiness interview: Phoebe Potts.
Ever since I read Scott McCloud’s brilliant Making Comics, I’ve been intrigued with the possibilities of the graphic novel. One of my overarching intellectual interests is — how can the structure of information be shaped to help people understand and learn? There’s a lot that a graphic novel can do that a text novel can’t (and vice versa, of course).
So I was very interested to get my hands on Phoebe Potts’s new memoir, Good Eggs. I read it in one day.
Good Eggs is about Phoebe and Jeff’s struggles with infertility, but it’s also about their marriage — they have a wonderful marriage — and Phoebe’s depression, and her family, and her exploration of her religious heritage. It covers a lot of subjects, very succinctly and powerfully — and it’s also very funny.
Happiness is one of the big undercurrents of the book, so I was curious to hear Phoebe address the subject explicitly.
What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Digging holes in the yard. To the casual observer, it looks like I’m gardening, which isn’t incorrect as I do eventually harvest produce as part of this activity. But really I just like digging holes.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
At 18, I thought that if I wasn’t happy, given all my good fortune in life, that there was something wrong with me. I would feel ashamed that I was not more grateful. Now I know that happiness is one feeling from an expansive palette of emotions. And that experiencing all of them as they happen, however painful some of them can be, makes happiness so much sweeter when it comes back around. I mean, now I can recognize the real thing.
Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Contrary to my answer to #2, I do anesthetize myself from difficult feelings by consuming large amounts of sugar. Sometimes I imagine all the M&M’s I’ve eaten, and that the number of dump trucks they could fill would circle the equator twice. The weight gain and general malaise that follows the sugar binges leaves me far from happy.
Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?
I had a book of Carl Sandburg’s poetry when I was a kid with these great pen and ink line drawings. There was a poem called “Happiness,” where he asked masters of the universe for the key to contentment, people who ran huge factories, and they didn’t know. Then one Saturday he sees an immigrant family on the shores of the river in Chicago, playing accordion, dancing and generally goofing off. He doesn’t have to say that he found happiness, at that point it’s obvious. I don’t think those same immigrants were happy all week long in one of the bosses’ factories of course, but it seemed like the combination of food, music, nature and close relations coming together in an afternoon fat with space and time would equal happiness.
If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children’s books).
Making sure to take my Zoloft. Being near, or preferably in, the ocean with my husband. Looking at animals.
Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
When people sing together, they seem to be really happy. I’ve seen this at a Red Sox game, at my local synagogue, in the Gospel tent at JazzFest in New Orleans. I teach kids part-time and I notice that when they are not heard they are unhappy. The quickest way to see relief and pleasure wash over their faces is to ask them something and listen, really listen, to their answers.
Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?
I was exceptionally unhappy and considering suicide when I was 25. It was the first time in my life I had stopped moving long enough for all the feelings I had left unfelt to catch up with me, like a 10 car pile-up on the highway. I became happier by asking for help to learn to be myself. I was advised to use the time-worn regimen of therapy, exercise and anti-depressants. But these three practices alone would not have worked had it not been for the constant, if meshugenah, love of my family and a few choice friends. Once I had effectively chosen life, MY life, I could lift my chin up off my chest, and that’s when I saw my future husband. Being married to Jeff is the cornerstone of my happiness today.
Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
I just came out with my first book, a comic book memoir called Good Eggs. I worked on it happily in obscurity for three years. When the book launch finally came, I thought I would really like the “public” in publication. And while I am deeply grateful for the folks who respond positively to the book, getting attention in public isn’t nearly as satisfying as drawing and writing all day. Getting paid to draw little pictures at home, stopping only to dig holes in the yard or hanging out with Jeff, that’s what makes me happy.
From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.