Happiness interview: Ruth Davis Konigsberg.
I’ve known writer Ruth Davis Konigsberg for several years, and I couldn’t wait to read her new book, The Truth About Grief: The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss.
One of my happiness-project resolutions is to Read memoirs of catastrophe, so I’ve thought a lot about how different people experience grief.
The book includes many interesting arguments. For instance, the notion that people generally go through the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) isn’t supported by research. This is one of the chief points of the book, so Ruth discusses at great length. but I was particularly struck by the observation that this model doesn’t include “pining” (yearning for loved ones), which is such a strong element of grief.
The Truth About Grief also makes the comforting observation that most people cope with grief more readily than is often portrayed in literature and movies. For instance, The Year of Magical Thinking is Joan Didion’s account of her extended, desperate grief at the death of her husband John. Although the book is beautiful and masterful, Didion’s experience isn’t typical of most people. (Slight non sequitur: look closely at the cover of Didion’s book. It took me a long time to notice the ghostly J O H N spelled out in the letters of the title.)
I asked Ruth to talk about her thoughts on happiness.
What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Exercise, hands down. If I can manage to exercise, I always feel better. I’m not saying this to seem virtuous. I have plenty of unhealthy habits most other people have outgrown. But my day is always better if I exercise. It’s the best anti-depressant there is.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I wish I had exercised! I barely broke a sweat until I got to college and discovered aerobics. I also wish I had known that dwelling on things usually just makes them worse. I used to indulge my dark side, especially as a teenager, reading lots of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, that kind of thing. There is now good evidence that rumination, or “the chronic, passive focus on one’s negative emotions” as defined by Susan Nolen-Hoeksema at Yale, contributes to depression by interfering with problem-solving. Most people think that negative emotions have to be expressed in order to heal, especially emotions surrounding loss. The opposite is actually true. While working on my book, I discovered that bereaved people who are able to damp down their negative emotions, known as “repressive coping,” actually have much better outcomes physically and mentally than people who express their anger and sadness. (So much for catharsis!) Those who are able to conjure happy memories or smile and laugh when talking about the deceased fare even better.
Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
I tend to remember my failures and forget about my successes (see “rumination,” above.) Thankfully, my husband reminds me of them.
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 read enough books to my children as it is! [Ah, but that's not the same as reading them for yourself!] When I’m feeling blue, I try to do something just for myself. It could be something really trivial (go to Target and buy some moisturizer, make some homemade soup for the week) but it can’t be too frivolous or else I’ll feel guilty. Something that’s somewhat indulgent but not just lying on the couch. At night, when I really need to recharge my batteries, I retreat to my bedroom with a book and some dark chocolate.
Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
It seems inevitable to be disappointed by things we expect will bring us great happiness. But the flip side is also true. Even the worst thing we can imagine eventually passes. I don’t buy the “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger” argument, but the good news is that we have an innate resilience to help us handle whatever comes our way.
* If you received The Happiness Project as a gift — or if you bought if for yourself! — and you’d like a free, personalized bookplate, for yourself or for someone else, email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com. (Don’t forget the “1″.) Be sure to include your mailing address, feel free to ask for as many as you like, and yes, I’ll mail them anywhere in the world.