Want to Wake Up Happy? Maybe Jelly Doughnuts Are the Secret.

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One of my happiness-project resolutions is to read memoirs of catastrophe. I hit on this as my own form of memento mori—better than keeping a skull on my desk. Most of the memoirs I read deal with illness or death, in one form or another, but a different kind of catastrophe is divorce. I recently finished the terrific memoir of divorce by Isabel Gillies, Happens Every Day.


(You might recognize her picture, because when she’s not writing, she’s an actress on Law and Order; also in the movie, Metropolitan.)

Even before I opened it up, I was inclined to love the book, because I’d heard that Isabel Gillies wrote the whole thing at my beloved New York Society Library. Once I started it, I couldn’t put it down—I ended up reading the whole thing in one day. One of the most important themes of the book is happiness (no surprise), and Isabel Gillies has obviously done a lot of thinking about the subject.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Isabel: Listening to a good song and dancing to it. Even better if my kids join me. I got to tell you, right now that Taylor Swift song “Love Story” is really doing it for me.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
At 39, I find that enough sleep can be a big factor in how happy one is, but I’m not sure that was true at 18. My feeling about happiness (shared by many others of course) is that you are born with it. It’s a chemical thing. There are outside factors that can make you happier or sadder but everyone has a base level of happiness that varies from one person to the next. I don’t know that I knew that when I was younger. At 18, a live Grateful Dead show or having a cutie-pie boy smile at me after English class could make me pretty darn happy, but then again, I’m still dancing in the living room to Taylor Swift, so I don’t know how much has changed.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Oh, I sweat the small stuff a lot. I have to make my 7-year-old lunch to take to school, and every morning I wake up in a panic about what it will be. Will he like it? Will it stay hot? What if it’s not enough? Oh good lord it bums me out. I wish I could be more Zen, or wise enough to know that there are some things that you just can’t change or fix, so you should just take a deep breath and move on with your day. I can also be sensitive and get my feelings hurt, and then I focus on that instead of seeing the bigger picture.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?
Well, in my book I cite Adlai Stevenson’s quote about Eleanor Roosevelt, that she’d “rather light a candle than curse the darkness.” And that has become my motto. Also, I read my children The Missing Piece by Shel Silverstein. The book is an endless source of happiness for them. It just makes them laugh and pause and think. Seeing them dig it so much makes me think they’re onto something, so I pay attention to that book a lot and try to remember its lessons.

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).
Getting in bed with a cookbook. Settling into an evening of good TV, a glass of white wine, and take-out. Chatting on the phone with a pal, while making the beds. A walk. Having a snuggle with a kid. A jelly donut and cup of tea. Looking at photo albums. Picturing my husband’s smile.

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?
Gosh, these are harder questions than I thought. I guess I think that if one basically feels happy, then that is a done deal, with the environment or circumstances they find themselves in temporarily adding or subtracting from that. If someone is really unhappy, even winning the lottery will only make them happy for a certain amount of time and then they will probably return to their original state. I think what one may want to achieve is not so much happiness but peace?

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 think I have always felt the same level of happiness. I know that because I naturally wake up happy, and I always have. I think it’s my mother’s favorite thing about me. If there is something negative going on in my life, I might remember it soon after I wake, and then get bummed out, but the first feeling I have when I open my eyes is happiness. I think it’s chemical.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?

I work on figuring out the root of why certain things get me down. It drives me crazy to think that my life can be adversely affected, or I can be pushed around, by something that I could change with a little introspective digging. If I can get to the bottom of why something gets in the way of my happiness I might be able to beat it. Another good trick to getting happy is focusing on something larger than yourself. Like jury duty oddly can make you happy. Participating in the bigger picture, something civic, something outside your own little life can make you swell with happiness. It might be subtle, but it’s definitely there.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
I have been surprised that some very sad and unhappy times didn’t actually ruin my life, which is a lot of what my book’s about. Sometimes you have to make an active decision to be happy. Or, maybe even better, sometimes you have to find even the tiniest detail to show yourself there is happiness still inside you. You have to look for the good, the happy, even if it’s in something as small as a jelly donut.

* I have a few rare friends who are so funny that just the memory of things they said, years ago, is enough to start me laughing. (I’m married to one of these folks, lucky me.) One such friend has just started a blog, RealDelia, about “finding yourself in adulthood.” I’m so excited; Delia lives in London now, so I see her very rarely, but now I can get my fix every day. In today’s post, the phrase that got me going was the “searing professional experiences” line…ok, now I’m going back to read through the archives.

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.



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