Happiness interview: Carlin Flora
I got to know Carlin Flora through Psychology Today, she was a writer and editor here. Now, she has a terrific book coming out in a few days, on a subject of tremendous importance to happiness: friendship. Ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree: a key to happiness, and probably the key to happiness, is strong bonds with other people.
Her book is Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are, and it’s a fascinating look at the influence of friendship in our lives. When people are very busy, friendship seems to be an area that’s often neglected, and reading about the importance of friendship will make you realize how important it is to find ways to keep your friendships strong.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Carlin: Talking to a friend on the phone, or better yet, in person. (Though funny enough, I often dread calling people back, even though I KNOW doing so will make me happy.)
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I think when I was 18 I was very concerned about academic achievement and the haunting question: What should I do? With respect to a career. I do think academic achievement is somewhat important, but I now see that there are many different routes to career happiness.
I’ve learned that having an identity you are proud of is important–if you don’t feel like your career reflects the “real you” it probably won’t make you happy, even if it seems like a promising pursuit to most people.
Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Checking email too frequently, staying up too late, worrying.
Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a particular book that has stayed with you?
The books that tend to really stay with me are novels such as Anna Karenina (I’m cheerful on the surface, but am deep down attuned to the tragic), which shows just how difficult it is to achieve happiness in life. But a much lighter exception is a mantra I found in a book I received when I was an editor at Psychology Today. I originally dismissed it as a silly self-help book–It’s called Choosing Easy World by Julia Rogers Hamrick. But then I started saying the mantra the author recommends: “I choose to live in Easy World, where everything is easy.” Shortly after reading it, I went on a road trip with my husband and some of his friends. Each time we hit a snag in the travel plan, one of us would say it. It was jokey, but it worked, reminding us that our reactions to situations are far more important than those situations themselves. Or as you put it, Gretchen, it’s good to under-react to a problem. These basically come down to the same principle, and it’s one I find very useful.
If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
Well, this question leads back to my pet issue of the importance of friendship. It’s very comforting for me to reminisce with friends, to sort out concerns with them, or just laugh and have a glass of wine with them.
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?
People who seem to understand just how lucky they are in life, and how lucky they are to have the people they have, or the health that they have, seem to be happier. Or, at least, if they’re not happier, they are less likely to sabotage or disrespect what they have.
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?
This is hard for me to answer, because I’m emotional overall, so I can have moments of joy amid sadness and moments of sadness amid joy, all in one day. Worry is probably a more consistent negative emotion for me, though I’ve definitely also experienced periods of depression. The things that are supposed to help–going to therapy, taking antidepressants, writing in a journal–never helped me that much, to be honest. The things that did help me were being in stable loving relationships (with my husband and with friends) and making progress toward goals that I’ve set out for myself (though not making progress toward goals seems to make me unhappier than succeeding makes me happy.) My happiest moment was a cliche moment–I’m sensitive to those, because they tend to not live up to cultural or personal visions, and are thus disappointing. But one such moment met and even exceeded expectations: The birth of my son in May. I loved how heightened the experience of labor was.
Is there some aspect of your home that makes you particularly happy?
A sparkling chandelier in the entrance that we bought at Ikea. It makes the apartment feel much more glamorous than it is.
Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
I’m a defensive pessimist, so I always expect the worst and am then pleasantly surprised and relieved when it doesn’t happen. Except sometimes I catch myself being really hopeful and excited. I always wonder–should I indulge those fantasies, or will doing so make them not happen? So to answer the inverse of your question, I thought writing a book about friendship would make me happy, both because I’ve long cherished friends and feel strongly that people should be more conscious of how friends affect them, and because I’ve long dreamed of writing a book and diving deep into one subject. That time, I was right!
If you're interested in the science of learning--truly a fascinating subject--check out the blog of my friend Annie Murphy Paul. So much terrific information on The Brilliant Blog.