my own Happiness Project: a Q&A with Gretchen Rubin

Today over at her Happiness Project blog, Gretchen Rubin has posted an interview she did with me recently about my own ongoing journey to happiness, as a mom and just as a person.

I’m a big fan of Gretchen’s and have written about her great book here before. Throwing off the Mother Load is, in great part, about remembering how much fun mothering can (and should) be, and Gretchen’s book really put me on that path.

Here’s a transcript of our Q&A.  You can read the complete story (and check out Gretchen’s great blog) here.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier? 

Amy: Laughing. I used to do tons of improv and sketch comedy in New York — that’s really where I got my start — and I laughed every day, in rehearsals, in performance, and then staying out too late afterward. Once I became a mother, I started performing a lot less, and going to see less comedy as well, and I have missed it. As part of my own happiness project for 2010, I am trying to find more laughter in my life, and so I took my 5 and 7 year old sons to a comedy show for kids called “Story Pirates” last weekend. I honestly laughed until I cried. We’re going back next weekend. I think I loved it even more than the kids.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old? 
That happiness and success are not necessarily intertwined. I used to be so incredibly focused on my acting career, and I imagined that success would of course bring me great happiness. My first big TV break was nine episodes on a sitcom — I made more in a week than I had been making in a year, and it was the single most unhappy professional experience of my life. OK, success is nice. But it can come at a cost, which is a lack of room in your life for the unexpected, the simple — the happy — to happen.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness? 
I spend too much time screwing around with my iPhone, to be honest, on email and Tweetdeck and so on. It makes me feel connected and productive, but it also prevents me from being present in the moment. I met my husband on a long bus ride 15 years ago; we were sitting across the aisle from each other, we had finished our respective newspapers, and we started chatting because we had nothing better to do. I think about that all the time, and how if we were on that bus today, we would never meet at all, because we’d be tip-tapping on our tiny keyboards, totally preoccupied, missing what was right next to us. I also fret about what message I send my kids when they say something to me at the bus stop and I answer “uh huh” with one eye on the keyboard. So I’m trying not to use my iPhone at all while I’m with them, and once this book launch is behind me, I’ll take another big step back from the social media.
Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) 
When a friend of mine had just had her first baby — and was in the whirlwind of stress and sleep deprivation that comes with it — she told me that her mother told her: “This isn’t forever. This is just right now.” How I wish someone had told me that when I was a new mother! I’ve carried that with me ever since, and it cuts both ways. In a difficult moment, remembering “this is just right now” gives me permission to be there, and take a deep breath, and know that it won’t last forever. In a wonderful moment, “this is just right now” helps me remember to savor my happiness, and have gratitude.
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). 
This is going to seem like an utter contradiction to what I just said about dialing back my iPhone time, but Facebook is my favorite happiness boost. As a mother and a writer, I spend most of my time either with my kids, or alone. I don’t have the daily adult contact of an office or a workplace. But when I log onto Facebook, I always laugh, or learn something, or see a friend’s beautiful baby, or reconnect with someone I haven’t talked to in years. And while it’s only a virtual connection, I get a happiness boost from it all the same.
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? 
Sometimes I see other people who feel stuck in their lives: oh, I wish I had time to write a book. I wish I could live abroad for a year. I wish I could quit my job. And sure, all of us live with circumstances beyond our control. But real failure lies in not even trying, in assuming we can’t actually have the lives we dream about. In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron put it something like this: The only screenplay that definitely won’t get made into a movie — is the one that is never written at all. We are all capable of much more than we give ourselves credit for, and what we can find along the way is that the effort itself — regardless of the outcome — can bring great happiness.
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? 
The unhappiest time of my life was the eighteen months I spent trying unsuccessfully to become pregnant with my first child. I talk about it in the second chapter of my book. I’ll be the first to say that my infertility journey was shorter than many other women’s — and I ended up with three healthy children. But it is a horrible painful struggle no matter how long it lasts, because when you’re in it, when month after month your body is failing you and doctors cannot tell you why, you think that it will be that way forever. You have no perspective of “this is not forever, this is just right now.” You think you will never become a parent at all.
I became happier, of course, when I got pregnant at last, but it wasn’t like a switch got flipped and I was all at once incredibly joyful. When you are declared “infertile,” and then actually do become pregnant, you are told not to have too much hope, to want it too much, to believe it too soon. It’s a slow journey, as your pregnancy lasts, to feeling that you can safely jubilate. I did learn something from that time in my life, though: I cannot always be in control. That lesson has served me well in seven years of parenthood.
Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
I do! I had The Happiness Project in my hands the day it hit the shelves and have brought many of your ideas into my life. [Awwww, thanks Amy!] I organize a drawer a week and get insane pleasure from it. I’m keeping a one-sentence journal. I’m reading more books. (Once I became a frantic mother I stopped reading fiction and started watching bad television. Now that my youngest child is two, I’m not up half the night. I can turn off the TV and enjoy literature again.) As I said before, I’m seeking out more laughter. I’m calling old friends on the phone, rather than relying on Facebook to keep my friendships going. And your “Pollyanna Week” has inspired me to really sea-change how I talk to my children: without anger, without sarcasm, with great patience, and with laughter. I’m not there yet. But I’m working on it.
* On the subject of writing by mothers, Love That Max is a great blog — “about kids with special needs and the parents who adore them.”