The Happiness Project

What Mac and Cheese, The Sopranos, and the Harry Potter Books Have in Common

We’re all familiar with the idea of “comfort food” the food that you turn to when you’re feeling sad or stressed to make yourself feel better. Maybe it’s mac and cheese made the way your mother used to make it, or maybe it’s a cupcake from your favorite bakery.

I realized that I have a “comfort food” activity: reading children’s books. I love children’s literature, so I often read children’s books (now that I’ve embraced my love for kid-lit ), whatever my mood.

But when I’m feeling overwhelmed, worried, or upset, I find myself turning to children’s books for comfort. These are books that I’ve reread innumerable times, and that I love, and that have that special quality of atmosphere that children’s books have.

My favorite comfort-activity authors are Louisa May Alcott, C.S. Lewis, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Madeleine L’Engle, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Edward Eager, Elizabeth Enright, and Noel Streatfeild. Oh, and E.L. Konigsberg, L. Frank Baum, Judy Blume, Robert O’Brien, Betty MacDonald, and Susan Cooper. And of course J.K. Rowling.

Just thinking about these names gives me a delicious feeling of pleasure and reassurance.

For years, I read children’s books as my comfort activity without quite grasping that I was self-medicating through literature. Now, though, instead of unconsciously wandering over to my kid-lit bookshelves in times of stress, I reach for these books, knowing that they’ll make me feel better. Realizing I have a tool at the ready is itself soothing.

My husband cooks for his comfort activity often bread. A friend of mine told me he plays with his dog, another friend watches episodes of The Sopranos , and another friend cleans out the fridge.

To find real comfort in an activity, it can’t be something that makes you feel anxious or guilty, later. That kind of treat doesn’t work in the long run. Don’t go shopping or eat ice cream if the good feeling is going to turn bad.

Do you have a “comfort food” activity?

* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just e-mail me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.