Happiness interview: Kyran Pittman.
I met Kyran at a conference last year, and after talking to her, I ran out to buy a copy of her book, Planting Dandelions: Field Notes From a Semi-Domesticated Life (which just came out in paperback). One of the things that interested me most about it is Kyran’s emphasis on finding happiness in the small, ordinary details in life and appreciating the adventure of everyday existence. (For the millionth time in my life, I repeat to myself the quotation from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: “She always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.”)
Kyran has thought a lot about happiness, and finding happiness in “planting dandelions.”
Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Kyran: Like most young adults, I was hugely self-conscious, and barely self-aware. I lived in a constant state of reaction. Feelings were like weather—something originating completely outside of me, mysterious and volatile. It was very easy to get lost in fear, anger, or sadness. When you’re young, you have no perspective. Everything is happening to you for the first time. You’re the primitive human. The sun goes away, and you don’t know why, or if it will ever come back.
Just thinking about it makes me want to run out and hug the first eighteen-year-old I see.
As I’ve matured, I’ve learned to recognize my feelings and their origins. When I’m in a sad or bitchy mood, I hit a mental rewind button until I find the thing that triggered it. Like, Oh! I’m angry because I let housework get in the way of writing today. Or, Huh, I was feeling great until I walked by the tv and heard that news story that made me afraid. The sooner I can address the issue, or at least acknowledge it, the sooner I’m back on track. And if it’s not something that can be resolved quickly, I at least have the reassurance that I’ve come through dark and difficult places before.
That’s perspective. That’s the dividend of experience. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
I’m a recovering control addict. Anytime I try to control someone else, I’m setting myself up (and them) for certain unhappiness. In my memoir, I wrote about micromanaging my husband’s relationship with our children in the early parenting years, and how incredibly corrosive that was. When everything you do or say communicates a complete lack of confidence in another person’s ability to make choices, you set up a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s a very insidious thing, so I have to watch my motives carefully when I offer others my “help” or “advice.” There’s rarely anything more helpful than letting someone know you believe in them.
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?
Tom Petty has this great line he sings on his Wildflowers album: “Most of the things I worry about never happen anyway.” I think the vast majority of unhappiness is based on stuff that isn’t actually happening. Certainly, life brings real and inevitable sorrow. But when I ask myself, am I okay today, I find I usually am. It’s tomorrow I’m unhappy about. Or something that happened yesterday. I don’t know why it’s so hard for us to stay in the present moment, when it’s often such a good place to be.
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?
I grew up in the far northeast, and I joke that I never knew that I was really a cheerful person until I moved to the South. Only it’s no joke. I’m very sensitive to sunlight. If we have three cloudy days in a row in Little Rock, I’m miserable. Newfoundland is so beautiful, but there’s a reason its capital city boasts the most pubs per capita in North America. I’d have self-medicated myself into a coma long ago.
Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t, or vice versa?
It astonishes me that raising a family could bring me so much happiness. I never thought of myself as especially maternal or even very marriageable. I was destined for much bigger things than the white picket fence could possibly contain. I thought I would write a book someday about how I fell in love with my husband—our epic, star-crossed, movie-of-the-week courtship. What I found instead was that the best, most interesting part of my life—the real adventure—was everything that came after happily ever after. The most ordinary moments are the ones that are the most transcendent—when I think, this is heaven, here and now.
* I love this short video, a visualization of a passage of music by Ferdinand Ries in the shape of a roller-coaster.
* Want a copy of my Resolutions Chart, to help get yourself started? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Just write “chart” in the subject line.