The Happiness Project

Blogging, Taking Risks, and Watching “The Devil Wears Prada”

I started my career as a lawyer—I was clerking for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when I realized that I really wanted to be a writer—and I’m still very interested in lawyerly concerns.

One way I stay abreast of what’s happening in the world of law—and also keep my resolution to stay connected to my past —is by reading Above the Law , a substantive (a very lawyerly word) but also extremely funny online “legal tabloid.” I’d wanted to meet its founder editor David Lat for a long time; like me, he’s a lawyer turned writer, though unlike me, he still practices a little.

Finally, a mutual friend introduced us (ah, the magic of triadic closure ), and we had lunch. David has lots of interesting things to say on a large number of topics, so of course I wanted to plumb his views of happiness. No one escapes!

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
David: Running. I don’t run particularly far or fast, and sometimes I have a hard time getting motivated to do it (e.g., if the weather is bad). But it’s an activity that I generally enjoy while I’m doing it, especially if I’m running with friends, and an activity that I definitely enjoy once I’m done. It makes me feel more in control of my life, and healthier, and better about myself. It makes me feel like my choices can make a difference.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I’ve learned that happiness is independent of worldly accolades. I used to think, “If only I get ‘x’ “—where “x” was something prestigious, like admission to a top college or law school, or an impressive job—”then I will be happy.”

But I’ve learned over the years that getting “x” doesn’t always make you happy. This is partly because there’s always another “x” to be obtained if you subscribe to this worldview—another brass ring to be grasped, another hoop to be jumped through—and partly because you might be much happier doing something that isn’t very prestigious in the eyes of the world but gives you pleasure and gives your life meaning.

For the past three and a half years, I’ve been a professional blogger (primarily at Above the Law , the legal blog I started in 2006). In the eyes of many people—especially older folks, who aren’t as familiar with the world of blogging—being a “blogger” is a step down from jobs I’ve previously held, such as “federal prosecutor” and “attorney at a major law firm.” But I have to say that while I liked my past jobs, I love my current one. It makes me very happy, even if I have to endure the occasional perplexed look from a great aunt at a family reunion.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Comparing myself to other people—and I tend to stack the deck against myself, by comparing myself with other people in areas where I know I will come up short. It’s as if I somehow WANT to be feel bad about myself sometimes.

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 lift my spirits by watching particularly delicious scenes from some of my favorite films. These typically involve great actresses being fabulous, from as far back as Bette Davis in All About Eve to as recent as Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada .

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?
These days I’m exceptionally happy, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that I love what I do. Given how much time we spend at our jobs, and given how much emphasis we place on careers in this country, for better or worse—I feel the U.S. is a nation where “you are what you do,” to a greater extent than in many other countries—it’s important to your happiness to enjoy what you do.

I love the day-to-day work of blogging. I enjoy gathering and disseminating information. I like making people laugh. I take pleasure in editing a post, again and again and again, until it’s just right.

Leaving a secure career as a lawyer was a big risk for me, and I remember feeling fear and anxiety when I did it. But it’s a risk that has paid off. This is perhaps too obvious to merit stating, but sometimes you have to take risks—in some cases, huge risks, unwise risks—in order to make yourself happier.

* I was intrigued to see this brief discussion of studies showing that exercising more makes it easier to fall asleep and also to stay asleep longer—especially for people who have trouble sleeping. My husband and I have both noticed this effect on ourselves, quite dramatically.

* Hey, have I mentioned that I have a book coming out in a few weeks, on Dec. 29? Not recently? Well, it’s true! Here’s the order link for The Happiness Project . (Pre-orders give a big boost to a book, so if you’re so inclined, I really appreciate it.) If you want to give the book as a gift even though it won’t be out before the holidays, here’s an e-card you can send. And if you’d like to see me when I’m on my book tour , check this schedule .