My current emphasis: how to make good habits and break bad ones (really)

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“Instead of Feeling that Nothing Is Ever Enough, You’re Grateful for the Tiniest Thing.”

Happiness interview: Heather King.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Heather King’s new book, Shirt of Flame: A Year With Saint Therese of Lisieux. I’m fascinated with anything about St. Therese; she’s my spiritual master and I’m always trying to find new material to read, so Heather King’s book was just my kind of thing.

I was also very interested to hear what Heather King had to say specifically on the subject of happiness.

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

Prayer. “Simple,” yet it requires my whole mind, strength, body, heart, soul. For me, prayer is not so much an activity as a way of being; a stance toward life—and death.

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

That happiness, such as it is, consists in self-forgetting. In having an all-consuming goal that you are never, in this life, going to fully attain. For me, that’s getting close to Christ. Writing is my vocation, so it’s being an excellent writer. And to be an excellent writer requires all of myself. It requires living my entire life, physically, emotionally, spiritually, out of love. I’m fairly disciplined, but the discipline comes not because I think the discipline is going to make me happy, but from love. I’m an addict to the core. So if I’m trying to figure out what will make me feel better, what will make me happy, I’m going to be perpetually flitting from thing to thing. Booze makes me happy—for ten minutes. Candy makes me happy—for ten minutes. Sex makes me happy—for ten minutes. So I have to find something way way deeper to sustain me—no matter how I “feel.”

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

Making happiness a goal.  Comparing my “happiness” to the perceived happiness of others. Happiness is a byproduct of abandonment and self-surrender to God. Actually, I’m not sure happiness is what I’m really after. Happiness to me is a mood, and a mood that is largely dependent on outside circumstances: whether I have money in the bank, whether the sun is shining, whether I’m healthy. Any way of life where I’m dependent on what happens outside of me, I’m sunk.

What I’m after is joy, and joy has pain—our pain and the sorrow of the whole world—in the middle of it. Joy, unlike happiness, becomes a state that you may experience only in fleeting stabs, but nonetheless abides. Mother Teresa experienced a fifty-year dark night of the soul, and yet all who met her were struck by her quiet, light-filled joy. So you can be in complete spiritual aridity and darkness, yet still have joy. You can “feel” no happiness at all, but you can still abide in joy.

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

“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This is the Jesus Prayer beloved by Russian pilgrims and that figures prominently in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. At the end of the book, Franny realizes you shine your shoes, you sing, you live, for the Fat Lady. You live for the least of these, the most unpromising, the people who can do nothing for you. That’s happiness. The truth is I’m the recipient, every second of my life, of unmerited mercy and grace. So the Jesus Prayer puts me in a position of truth, gratitude, and humility. And the Fat Lady, of course, is Christ.

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).

For me, feeling blue isn’t always susceptible to being fixed by a happiness boost or in fact to being fixed at all. Why wouldn’t we feel blue? We’re fragile, broken human beings who know we are going to die. That’s not to be melancholic or to live in willed depression, it’s to be in contact with reality.

On the other hand, if my feeling blue is based on self-pity, which it often is, one antidote is to call or arrange to see a fellow human being, which is to say fellow sufferer. There’s nothing like being reminded that we’re all in pain to help me bear my own a little more uncomplainingly…

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? 

My friend Fr. Terry Richey, 40-plus-years sober alcoholic, says, “If you’re really lucky, you’ll eventually give up all hope of being happy in the way you thought you were going to be.” I mean you have to maintain a sense of humor about all of this. And I do think age is a help here. You almost have to spend decades thinking, This is going to make me happy, and going after those things, and either not getting them, which is one kind of blow; or getting them, and finding they don’t make you happy after all, or they make you happy only temporarily, or they bring a whole slew of problems that you’re not emotionally or spiritually equipped to deal with, and that’s another kind of blow.

What happens is that you spiritually mature and you stop having expectations. You stop having expectations and that doesn’t make for bland mediocrity, as you’d feared: it opens the window to a richer, fuller, more joy-filled life than you ever would have thought possible. Again, you’re in contact with reality. You’re better able to accept life the way it is, not the way you wish it would be. Instead of feeling that nothing is ever enough, you’re grateful for the tiniest thing: a leaf, a basket of figs, a handshake.

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?

Well I was a total drunk for twenty years so of course I was not remotely happy then. I was completely divorced from my deepest self. I’ve been sober twenty-five years and that has been the journey of my life…

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

I love my little living space. It’s airy and light with green curtains and a fountain outside the window and the Southern California sun streaming through and all kinds of books, cozy rugs, icons, candles, pottery bowls, paintings. But I don’t love it because it would qualify for the cover of Dwell. I love it because it’s grown up around me as a place to worship, to write, to praise God.

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

Joy comes as a stab; an unexpected moment of connection; a nanosecond when we would lay down our lives just because the other person exists. This is the highest level of being human and we’ve all felt it: about our parent, the man or woman we love, our kid. Happiness—as a state of being, a stance toward life—is connection. It’s the embrace of mystery. For me, it’s to stay sober and help another alcoholic to achieve sobriety. People are the problem and people are the solution. I can get very attached to my “introspective way,” but in the end, you have to get out and mingle.

A quote from William Blake says it all: “We can’t bind ourselves to joy—we have to kiss it as it flies.