The Happiness Project

Happiness Is Seeing 8,674 Species of Birds

From time to time, I post short interviews with interesting people about their insights on happiness. During my research, 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.

I just finished a fascinating biography: Olivia Gentile’s Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds , the story of Phoebe Snetsinger. In the 1950s, Snetsinger was a brainy, shy housewife with four children, and she was feeling depressed and trapped. A neighbor showed her a bird through binoculars (it happened to be a Blackburnian Warbler), and she saw a “blinding white light”—”Here was something that had been happening all my life, and I’d never paid any attention to it.” She became an ardent birder in a flash.

Time went on, and Snetsinger received a terrible diagnosis: She had cancer and just one year to live. Instead of giving up birding, she pursued birds for her “life list” with ever-increasing zeal. The cancer never caught up with her, and she traveled the world, had astonishing adventures, saw more than 8,000 bird species, and became one of the world’s leading birders, until she was killed at age 68 in Madagascar on a birding trip.

On the one hand, Life List is a beautiful story of intellectual passion, love of nature, self-education, self-reinvention, and high adventure. On the other hand, Snetsinger’s family paid a high price for her devotion to birding, and she seemed, many times, to abandon the proper instinct for self-preservation.

I’m fascinated by happiness projects of all sorts, and Phoebe Snetsinger’s happiness project enthralled me. There’s practically no overlap between the things that made Snetsinger happy and the things that make me happy, and I certainly have no interest in birds, and yet I learned a lot about happiness from reading about her life.

I asked the book’s author, Olivia Gentile , to do a happiness interview, because she’s obviously done a lot of thinking about happiness and the elements of a happy life. (For more info, check out her author Web site , which is much more interesting than the average site and well worth a visit!)

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Olivia: Spending time in nature! This might mean a walk in Central Park, a morning of watching the birdfeeder, a swim in a pond, or a hike up a mountain. I even get a little burst of happiness from flipping through my National Geographic .

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Well, I certainly didn’t know how soothing nature could be—I don’t think I gave the natural world a moment’s attention until I was in my 20s. And I didn’t really start appreciating nature until I began learning about Phoebe.

Also, when I was 18 I thought success (which to me meant getting good grades, winning a tennis match, getting into college, etc.) would bring me happiness. Since then I’ve realized that while those kinds of things might bring me satisfaction, they don’t have a lot to do with my happiness. Happiness is more about how we experience something than about whether we’re successful at it—i.e., I might be made happy by the feeling of the sun on my face during a tennis match, but I probably won’t be made happy by winning the match (at least not for more than a second, and not in a very deep way). Look at what happened with Phoebe: Birding made her ecstatic year after year, until she began focusing more on becoming the No. 1 birder than on the inherent pleasures of being in the field.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Yes! I spend too much time on the Internet and watch too much cable news. And I worry too much about what people think of me.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a particular book that has stayed with you?
I still get shivers whenever I pick up Walden —I’m a real sucker for all those exhortations to be true to yourself and make the most of every day.

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?
Some of my friends have gotten into meditation, and it has helped them get and stay happy. (I keep vowing to meditate regularly, but never seem to be able to do 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?
My happiness has gone up and down a lot. My unhappiest time was during college, because I suffered from a lot of anxiety, and also because I was ashamed of my anxiety. After a few years of this, I finally got some good therapy and did some deep thinking about what kind of life I wanted for myself—this was how I started to realize that happiness is more about the way we experience things than what we accomplish. (By the way, I don’t claim to have mastered this lesson. I still get caught up in overachieving, but at least I know it’s bad for me.)

My happiest period began a couple of years ago, when my husband asked me to marry him. I was happy before he proposed, because I was in love with him, but it was hard for me to trust my happiness—to really relax into it—until I knew we were going to get married. This happiness was interrupted (to put it mildly) last fall, about eight months after we got married, when he became gravely ill with a twisted and perforated colon. He nearly died, and he was sick for three months. Now, he’s as good as new, but we’re both still recovering emotionally. We’re trying to use the experience as a reminder that you have to seize the moment and live each year as if it might be your last, because it might be. Phoebe’s story had taught me that, too, but I learned the lesson more vividly last fall.

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