Happiness interview: Hope Edelman.

I first met Hope Edelman when her book The Possibility of Everything had just been published, through my friend Kamy Wicoff of SheWrites. I already knew Hope by reputation, because of her other books, such as Motherless Daughters. Then, as these things happen, our paths crossed again in a virtual group for writers.

Hope's very thoughtful work often focuses on serious challenges to happiness, and how to face them, so I was very eager to get the chance to interview her.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Hope: Taking a long, hot shower. If I’m feeling down or stressed I find it completely cleanses my attitude and lifts me up. Some ancient cultures believed in the spiritual properties of bathing and thought of it as a form of purification. There may be something to that.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That’s it’s okay not to feel happy all the time. Striving for and expecting a consistently high level of happiness sets you up for disappointment. A regular life is full of emotional peaks and valleys. That’s what makes it interesting. At least for a writer.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Spending too much time online. A writer’s job now involves a hefty amount of platform cultivation and social networking which—despite the “social” tag—are relatively solitary pursuits. I thrive on real, face-to-face interpersonal communication. To me, spending an entire day alone in front of a computer is the purest form of hell.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself "No calculation.”)
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.” The wisdom to know the difference. That’s the ticket, I think.

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).
Aromatherapy. If it’s night time, I put a few drops of lavender on my pillow. During the day I might burn some copal (a resin from Central America) and let the smoke swirl around the room. Buying or picking fresh flowers works, too, and putting a full vase in the kitchen or living room.

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?
If I could remove one phrase from the English language, it would be “It is what it is.” What’s that supposed to mean? Too often, it seems like a fast and easy way to label a complicated situation “a thing I cannot change," thereby giving the speaker permission to abandon efforts to improve it. No.

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’ve always been about the same amount of happy, but not always the same amount of content. Does that make sense? What I mean is I always have an underlying feeling of gratitude for my family, for my health, for being alive. My mother died at 42 with three kids under the age of 18, so I don’t take any of my time here for granted. But insofar that my general outlook has historically been linked to how content I feel with the outer trappings of success such as house, workload, income, career—that part definitely fluctuates. When I’m feeling down for one of those reasons, spending time with my kids usually pulls me out of a funk, and reminds me of what really matters. Day trips that help break the regular routine are good for this, too. A day at Disneyland with my kids actually cheers me up. I hope I don’t take too much grief for saying that.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
I feel like I should say yes—but that wouldn’t be the truth. I do work on being calmer, more balanced, less reactive, more compassionate, more honest with myself, and measurably kind to others every day. When I feel I’ve achieved any of those in a given day, feeling happy is usually the outcome.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
I anticipated that having a baby would catapult me into an immediate state of joy. Instead, new motherhood with a colicky baby was an absolute blur of chaos and exhaustion. After about three months the crying stopped, and I was able to get more than three consecutive hours of sleep. My whole outlook improved. And I suddenly realized, “Wow! This is why people have kids!”

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