From time to time, I post short interviews with interesting people about their insights on happiness. During my research, I’ve noticed that I often learn more from one person’s highly idiosyncratic experiences than I do from sources that detail universal principles or cite up-to-date studies.
Today’s interview is with Colleen Wainwright, aka the Communicatrix. Colleen has a terrific blog, as well as a terrific newsletter. I read a lot of newsletters, and hers is one of the ones that I most look forward to reading. How could you not enjoy a newsletter that’s “about expressing the unique fabulosity that is you”? Colleen always has useful advice, good links, excellent reading suggestions — plus I usually laugh out loud a few times as I’m reading.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Colleen: Hands down, hanging out with my pal Arno J. McScruff.
I grew up with cats, which are excellent, in their borderline-indifferent way. There’s a lot about happiness to be learned from living with cats, as well. I’m thinking particularly of the cat’s ability to go from 60 to zero in a nanosecond.
But nothing beats a dog for maximum attitude excellence. Nothing I’ve found yet, anyway.
Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Colleen: That happiness isn’t something you get; it’s something you are.
Gretchen: Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Colleen: Haha! Where do I start?
Gretchen, some days it feels like everything I do gets in the way of my happiness. Stuff like…attachment. Expections, especially those of the unrealistic variety. The ever-popular Beating the Crap Out of Myself. The somewhat less frequent exercises in Verbally Trashing the Enemy.
Then there’s the dead-simple stuff I swear I will never get sometimes, like not eating right, not getting the rest I need, not playing enough.
I suppose if you boil it down, you could call it hubris. Who the hell am I to think I can do all this toxic ridiculousness without it affecting my happiness and, by extension, the health and happiness of the world around me?
Thanks for the reminder!
Gretchen: Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful? Or a happiness quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
Colleen: This, too, shall pass. It sounds like a totally negative thing on the face of it (and the way we use it most, it is). But if you think about it, there’s a second meaning: time is short, baby. Is this how you want to spend it?
My all-time favorite quote is from Beverly Sills, the American opera singer: There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.
It’s not specifically written about happiness, but boy, howdy, does it ever apply!
Gretchen: If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity?
Colleen: I walk. With or without the dog. Something about a little exercise, a little motion, a little canine, really turns me around.
I also have a very strange habit of watching the Clint Eastwood film, Play Misty for Me, when I need comfort. I only watch the first few scenes, before it turns dark and scary (it’s a really good thriller!).
When I’m going through a stressful time, I’ll watch it every night in a row, for weeks on end. Not exactly a heroin habit, but I was concerned enough about it to run it by my shrink. She says it’s cool, provided I don’t get to the point where I can’t sleep without it. (I’ve been in Seattle for two weeks now and haven’t watched it once, so I figure I’m good!)
Gretchen: 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?
Colleen: The Additive: People who genuinely extend themselves to others, even in small ways like a “hello” or a smile, are happier. Dead simple. Crazy-effective.
The Subtractive: Forgetting to be grateful for what you have right now. It’s a killer.
Gretchen: 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?
Colleen: Definitely up and down periods until about six years ago, when I got diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.
I had a severe onset, which meant outrageous fevers, weight and blood and muscle loss, and a long hospital stay and convalescence. I distinctly remember being in the hospital, about halfway through my 11-day stay (which, for the uninitiated, is an eternity these days), when I was at my physical nadir. They’d stabilized me, but my prospects for a normal life and recovery were pretty grim. I’d seen my dad grapple with Crohn’s my whole life, and I knew how bad it could get.
So I’m in the bed, just lying there, without the brightest of prognoses, and this wave of warmth and love flooded through me. I’m not religious at all, but because I have no adequate words for it, I’ve described the feeling as being like sitting in the hand of God. I felt at peace and at one with everything in the world. It lasted forever and was gone in a flash—like time stopping, but also like being in some kind of eternal flow. Even as I experienced it, I knew it wouldn’t last, nor was it supposed to. It was just a lucky, lucky glimpse into what really mattered.
From that moment on, I’ve been cranky and scared and depressed and all the stuff I ever was, but now with the realization that I can choose to feel that way or not. So yeah, I choose it still, but more and more fleetingly.
Part of the reason I started blogging was in the hope that I could share some of what I learned, so that maybe I could spare one or two people from having to go to such extremes to find their peace.
Gretchen: Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Nah. I mean, I try to cultivate a general awareness, period. I think that keeps me in the here and now, and the more I’m really there, the harder it is to soak in unhappiness.
Gretchen: Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
Colleen: Haha! Uh…love? Marriage? Moving, the first three times? That VP/corner office thing?
I’m really lucky in that I got to live my life backwards and experience relative success in my 20s. It became immediately apparent that fortune wasn’t going to cut it; the glow from fame, or recognition, was nice, but transitory.
I guess my reply to what did surprise me is the fairly standard “helping other people.” I’m kind of ashamed at how long it took me to come around to that one, but oh, well. No beating myself up, right?
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