During my study of happiness, 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. There’s something peculiarly compelling and instructive about hearing other people’s happiness stories. I’m much more likely to be convinced to try a piece of advice urged by a specific person who tells me that it worked for him, than by any other kind of argument.
One of my favorite blogland pals, the brilliant Jackie Danicki, was in town last week, and she took me to a panel where writer Sue Shapiro was reading.
I was thrilled to go, because when I started the research for my book, THE HAPPINESS PROJECT, Sue Shapiro’s memoir, Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking, and Everything Else I Loved in Life Except Sex, was one of the first books I read. Sue Shapiro was doing a happiness project of her own – very different from mine, as the subtitle tells you, but fascinating. Of course, I think EVERYONE should do a happiness project, and I love to read about them.
At that panel, Sue read from her latest book, Only As Good As Your Word: Writing Lessons from My Favorite Literary Gurus, also terrific, about what she learned from her writing mentors.
It was obvious that Sue had thought a lot about happiness, and had worked hard for it – so here she is for a happiness interview. On her personal website, you can read more about her and her books, and if you live in the New York City area, you can find out when and where you can see her in person.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Sue: It’s taken me a lot of time, work and therapy to figure out how to revolve my life around what I love. I’m very lucky that I now have two careers that constantly give me joy. I write books all day and teach writing two nights a week and adore doing both. It’s actually hard for me to take vacation, which pales in comparison.
I also adore my husband, Manhattan, my writing workshop and book events. Over the summer I find swimming boosts me too.
Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Sue: As I say in Five Men Who Broke My Heart, my theory is: Love doesn’t make you happy, make yourself happy. Then you get love.
Gretchen: Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Sue: Hanging out with unhappy, negative, toxic people is draining. I’m a nice person so it’s hard to say no and escape them sometimes. But as I get older and more successful, I’ve learned to be more selfish and not apologize or feel guilty for it. I’ve learned the happier I am, the more I have to give (whether it’s to charity, my students, my family, friends or colleagues.) After I quit my addictions I wrote an essay about quitting guilt which was so liberating.
Gretchen: Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful?
Sue: My brilliant addiction specialist, the hero of my memoir Lighting Up, who helped me quit cigarettes, dope and alcohol, told me in order to stay clean, happy and successful I should “Lead the least secretive life you can.” Though that’s a rationalization for my career as a memoirists, (writing books my family hates) it has also become my motto. It’s been 6 1/2 years I’ve been smoke-free and sober, the best 6 1/2 years of my life so so far, it works.
Gretchen: If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
Sue: Certain music helps–for me: Macy Gray, Bob Dylan, James Brown, Motown. Swimming or other physical activities. I’ve been doing these walking office hours with my students where we walk for an hour around Washington Square Park and they can pick my brain about their writing projects. It put me in a better mood. I get exercise, get outside, get company, feel younger and feel useful all the same time.
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?
Sue: I’m very big on therapy. So if someone is having trouble with work or substance abuse or relationships issues, I constantly recommend seeing a good therapist and find it stupid when people refuse to try, especially in Manhattan.
I’m also big on mentorship and teach 5 week classes and seminars. So I believe that taking a class or seminar can change someone’s life. Twenty-four people who took my one day HOW TO SELL YOUR FIRST BOOK seminar have sold books in the last 3 years.
I’m always telling young writers not to be idle and sit with frustration. Chase after writers or teachers you admire to give you new direction and inspiration. My new book Only As Good As Your Word chronicles the 7 most important connections that changed my life for the better.
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?
Sue: When I was getting smoke free, clean and sober, my addiction specialist said “Underlying every substance problem I’ve ever seen is a deep depression that feels unbearable.” I let myself feel horrible for 9 months and then it lifted and I’ve had the best 6 1/2 years of my life where all my dreams have come true.
Gretchen: Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Sue: Therapy, my writing workshop, exercise, spending time with the right friends.
Gretchen: Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t — or vice versa?
Sue: I thought publishing a book would make me happy and it did! So much that now I’m addicted to book deals and book events. I used to be a technophobe and never thought I’d love computers and email so much. Now I’m addicted to email too.
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