The Happiness Project

A Happiness Lesson From Actors: Find the “Yes.’

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too ! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in—no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

One thing my happiness project has taught me is to follow my instincts when reading. I’m a voracious reader, and I used to spend a lot more time worrying about what I “should” be reading. Instead of just reading the book that appealed most to me at a particular time, I’d ask myself—should I do more research for my book? Should I read something for the first time, instead of rereading, as I love to do? Should I squelch my love for children’s literature ? And while I’m reading, should I spend so much precious time taking notes ?

But now I worry more about my First Commandment, to Be Gretchen . I read what I want to read. This makes me very happy, and funnily enough, even when I’m reading something that seems completely unrelated to my research, it often does end up being useful.

For example, recently I’ve been plowing through a lot of books about acting and directing. Why? I like movies, but I’m not passionate about them, yet I love reading about directing. I’m enthralled by any description of the creative process, in any medium, and right now, I’m particularly attracted to how the people in this arena talk about what they do.

That’s why I found myself reading Michael Shurtleff’s Audition . (I think it was recommended to me by the incomparable Colleen Wainwright after I asked her for a list of good books about acting.)

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the problem of drift , and Shurtleff made a point that has many implications for happiness:

Negatives are always written in a play and it is the actor’s job to provide the positive.

This means that the no is strongly and literally written:
No, I don’t want that
I want to leave
Leave me alone
I won’t do what you want

It is the actor’s job to see through the negative to the other side … to find the yes that is also in the scene:
What do you want?
Why are you still here, if you say you want to leave?
If you want to be left alone, why are you still having this relationship?
What do you want to do?

Actors must learn to remember an important thing: you [the character] always have a choice. If you really want to leave, then why are you still there having this scene with this other person? Answer that question and you [the actor] will be able to do the scene.

This strikes me as a good happiness-project approach. When you feel trapped in a negative, ask yourself the positive question, and maybe that will shed light on how to change it or at least change your mind. The reason for “no” is easy to identify and express; the answer to “yes” can be elusive and upsetting. Why aren’t you trying to leave a job you hate? Why are you staying in a relationship that’s making you crazy? If you don’t want to do this, what do you want to do? In my own case, I can think of plenty of cases in which I saw the “no” very clearly and even enjoyed proclaiming the “no,” but the “yes” proved much more of a struggle to discern.

What do you think? Can you think of an example where you found it easier to find the “no” than the “yes”? Somehow seeing this question raised in the issue of acting a scene and portraying a conflict in a play makes it clearer to understand.

* I can never get enough time-lapse photography of nature—here are clouds moving above the San Francisco Bay Area.

* Interested in launching a group for people doing happiness projects ? More and more of these groups are forming—recent additions include Atlanta; Toronto, Canada; Oklahoma City; Williamsburg; and, yes, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The leader of the Inspiration Club of West Midlands, U.K., has integrated the Happiness Project into their daily activities—photos from their first anniversary here .