The Happiness Project

A chronicle of my attempts to test-drive every tip, principle and scientific study that promotes happiness

You Know What Detracts From Happiness? Rushing

She’s so much fun.

Happiness interview: Leah Odze Epstein.

I know the delightful Leah because Becky, one of her close friends growing up, was one of my college roommates. From time to time, Leah would come to stay with us–which was always a great treat, because she’s so much fun.

I lost track of her for years, but then we connected again here in New York. One thing that makes me happy is when a person from the past reappears…it makes me feel that the past isn’t lost. (The days are long, but the years are short, etc.)

Leah, with Caren Osten Gerszberg, has the blog Drinking Diaries–a blog about “women and drinking, from celebration to revelation.” Leah and Caren also–just this week–published Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up,  an anthology of essays by women about their experiences with alcohol. The book is very thought-provoking, and covers a wide range of stories about drinking, not drinking, and the role that alcohol plays in life.

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I was very interested to hear what Leah had to say about happiness.

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

Leah: Laughing (at and with myself and others) or listening to my kids laugh. Reading in the bathtub. Hugging & being hugged (even though I’m not naturally a hugger). Hanging out with friends (on my porch, with a glass of rosé and a nice home-cooked meal). Watching old movies with my husband (preferably Alfred Hitchcock or the original Sabrina, while eating Sour Patch kids and popcorn). Spectating and/or participating in races (triathlons, half marathons, the Ironman–for that one, it’s pure spectating!)—you see people at their best, in the midst of an amazing accomplishment. Reading magazines (and I like them all–from Us and People to The Atlantic and Real Simple). Swimming in lakes—heavenly. Eating Ethiopian vegetarian food in Silver Spring, Maryland & washing it down with honey wine (tej).

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

Happiness is in the doing, not in the being done. Ever since I was little and read Sal Fisher at Girl Scout Camp, I wanted to publish my own book. Now that I’m 46 and I’m finally having a book published, I realize that the process, the writing and the reading are truly the things that make me happy, not the recognition and the having done it. It’s taken me forever to understand that, and I don’t know if anyone can really understand it until it happens.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

Setting myself apart from “the masses.” When I had kids, I felt like I joined the human race—finally, there was something I had in common with all sorts of people I might not normally feel connected to.

I always thought joining things meant giving in, and showed a lack of originality–but in truth, there’s nothing I love more than hanging out with people who share my interests. For example, SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers) has the best conferences every year, and it makes me so happy to be surrounded by others who love reading & writing for kids and teens.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)

I grew up the daughter of a recovering alcoholic (See my blog, Drinking Diaries!), and my mother was always repeating AA slogans: One Day at a Time, Easy Does It. Those have stuck with me, despite the fact that I used to find them annoying. Now I find them helpful. And the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

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?

In Iceland, they hang out in hot springs, while it’s freezing all around them. What could be better? In Italy and Spain—all over Europe—they take long leisurely lunches with a glass or two of wine. Americans rush too much.

You know what detracts from happiness? Rushing. Not hanging out. When I was a kid I used to play a game called “Let’s get lost,” where my friend and I would wander around our town until we didn’t know where we were anymore. There’s nothing more fun than spontaneity and rambling, without a plan. Wandering fuels creativity. In my 20s, I used to wander around the city, when I worked the 3-10 shift at a newspaper.

I get bereft when I’m hanging out with someone and they check their watch, or they say: “Okay, I’ve got 45 minutes.” When I feel rushed, I get flustered.  Maybe it’s my Swedish heritage talking. Swedes do a lot of sitting around, drinking coffee—guilt-free.

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?

I’ve mostly been about the same level of happy, but two times in my life stick out as strangely unhappy: The months after I graduated from college, and my junior year abroad in Paris, which, strangely, also contained some of my happiest moments. I’m a homebody, and both times, I felt unstuck, uprooted, aimless, unmoored from my routines. I like to have a routine and a solid home base.

Is there some aspect of your home that makes you particularly happy?

The high ceilings, tall windows that let the light pour in, and the archways (I live in an old Victorian). The wraparound porch when it’s raining. My bathtub. My daughter’s dreamy hyacinth room. The view from the couch in the living room through the archway and out the dining room window when the lilac tree is in bloom. My husband’s vegetable garden—eating fresh kale from the garden (roasted, with lots of salt).

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?

It’s usually not the “during” for me. It’s usually the moments just after.

Anything that puts me in the spotlight and is supposed to make me happy makes me nervous. I preferred the moment after my wedding, when my husband and I were finally alone, heading off to our honeymoon. I like the day after a party, when I can rehash what happened. The beach at five o’clock, after most people have left.

And yes, as the cliché goes, it is the small things: One of the happiest moments in my life occurred as I was sitting in an air-conditioned movie theater with a good friend with a packet of Sweet Tarts in hand, waiting for the movie Say Anything to begin. I could have wept for joy.

Another thing: I always thought happiness meant indulging in what you like and want. But lots of things I think I like and want end up making me miserable (endless amounts of ice cream, for example). And I tend to be drawn to the dark side: sharks, serial killers and the like. I went through a phase where I was obsessed with books about murderers: The Stranger Beside Me. Helter Skelter. In Cold Blood. The Preppy Murderer. I’m fascinated by how the human mind works, but too much knowledge, in this case, was a bad thing. I became paranoid and fearful. When I stopped pursuing that particular interest, and stopped watching scary movies, I felt a lot happier!  Sometimes you have to discipline yourself not to indulge in what you think you want, if that makes sense.

You can follow Leah on Twitter, @leaheps, or on Facebook.

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Gretchen Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project, a book and a blog about her adventures learning to be happier.

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