Happiness interview: Elizabeth Svoboda.
I was intrigued by the very title of Elizabeth Svoboda’s new book, What Makes a Hero: The Surprising Science of Selflessness. She draws upon breakthroughs in biology and neuroscience, and also upbringing and culture, to understand the nature of selflessness.
The Second Splendid Truth of happiness is:
One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy;
One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.
So the issue of selflessness and happiness is one that has fascinated me for a long time. I was interested to hear what Elizabeth had to say about her own happiness.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Elizabeth: Reading. I’ve been a voracious reader nearly all my life, and there’s something about escaping temporarily into the world of a book that puts what’s happening in my own life into perspective.
I’m not a very good meditator, but drawing is kind of a meditative activity for me–it helps me achieve the kind of sustained focus that quiets my mind, at least for a little while. (Much of the time, my inner monologue is as frenetic as a Lorelai-Rory exchange on Gilmore Girls.)
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I could have saved myself a lot of heartache if I’d realized you don’t have to achieve perfection in order to be happy. In fact, you actually don’t want to achieve perfection, because our mistakes teach us a heck of a lot. Our culture’s focus on over-achievement tempts us to try to to find the shortest route to any life destination, but finding happiness often involves a lot of false starts and detours–and that’s totally OK.
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? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?
I don’t always follow this advice, but I’m happier when I do: Surrender to whatever your situation is at any given moment. Victor Frankl is probably the ultimate authority on this topic. He was imprisoned in Auschwitz and resolved to love others and to make the best of life despite his circumstances. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
On a related note, the opening of M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled is profound in its simplicity: “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.” The idea, I think, is that when we quit buying into the delusion that things are supposed to be easy, life actually goes a lot more smoothly. We stop using up energy railing against how unfair things are and simply deal with events–good and bad–as they come.
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).
I get a big boost from rolling around on the floor with my eleven-month-old son–his joy and zest for life are contagious. Having to wipe the drool off of my face every few minutes doesn’t interfere with my happiness at all!
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?
I think a lot of people get tripped up by comparing themselves to others on social media. It’s easy to look at someone’s Facebook profile–their photos of their well-scrubbed kids and their Mediterranean cruise–and conclude that that person has a perfect life. But our social networking profiles are basically just reflections of how we want other people to see us. We all go through tough stuff, but most of us tend not to post about it.
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?
While I’m usually a pretty happy person, I have a tendency to worry about things that probably won’t happen, but could. If I’m not careful, that kind of anxiety can depress me. This is where thinking about what I can do for other people has been a lifesaver; it’s often just what I need to snap out of the cycle of anxious, self-focused thought. (Science backs this up: People who devote more time to volunteering or helping others are both happier and healthier.)
Is there some aspect of your home that makes you particularly happy?
I love the tiny artist’s studio building in our backyard, which I use as an office. I work mostly from home and have an 11-month-old, so the studio gives me separation between my work life and home life, allowing me the periods of concentration I need to get work done. I have a babysitter, but if I were working in a separate room in the main house, I’d get distracted every time I heard my baby cry.
Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
When I was younger, I often assumed that once I achieved a certain career goal–whether it was getting published in a certain magazine, winning an award, or getting a book contract–I’d finally be happy. But that didn’t turn out to be nearly as true as I’d hoped. Sure, there’s an initial burst of joy, but that joy is pretty fleeting. The kind of happiness that’s more lasting comes from the knowledge that I’m devoting my time to worthwhile projects, and that happiness is independent of whether or not I collect any gold stars.