The Happiness Project

“Toast, Tea, and To-Do Lists”

From time to time, I post short interviews with interesting people about their insights on happiness. During my study of happiness, 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’m much more likely to be convinced to try a piece of advice urged by a specific person who tells me that it worked for him or her, than by any other kind of argument.

Given my own topic, of course I couldn’t resist clicking when I saw a blog called The Happiest Mom – “Happy. Mother. You really can use both words in the same sentence.” I was particularly intrigued by her explanation: ” The Happiest Mom isn’t about being the happiest mom in the world—it’s about being the happiest mom YOU can be.”

Meagan Francis is a writer and also the mother of five children—zoikes! She blogs mostly about the intersection of happiness and motherhood, and I was curious to hear what she had to say about happiness in general.

One thing I really admire about her writing is her ability to step back to think about everyday life from a more transcendent perspective – for example, her post about seeing the movie Revolutionary Road and thinking about ” the conventional life .” Ah, the appeal of living in a yurt – even if you don’t want to live in a yurt! I know it well.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Meagan: My morning cup of tea. I’m a habit-oriented person, which can be great or awful depending what the habit is! But once I’ve created a pleasurable routine I just love sticking to it. For the last three years I’ve started every morning with two slices of peanut butter toast and a cup of tea, and when I first wake up and don’t want to roll out of bed, it makes me so happy to know I have that to look forward to. It’s not so much that tea and toast are the highlights of my day (that would be kind of sad, wouldn’t it?), but it’s something I can consistently look forward to that starts my day off with a bit of joy.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I think you really have to know yourself to be happy, and that was what I lacked at 18. I didn’t really understand myself well enough to make sure my needs were taken care of. I’ve written before about how I thought of myself as this kind of lazy, blowing-in-the-wind free spirit who just needed to take it easy and avoid pressure to be happy.

Then in my mid-20s I discovered that, actually, I’m pretty ambitious, energetic, and action-oriented. I am much happier while in motion than I was lounging around. And I need a to-do list and some kind of routine or I’m just miserable and unproductive. I wish I’d figured that out in college!

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)
We have this in common! I love reading the books of my youth–it’s like slipping into a cozy old robe, and also helps me recapture a bit of the magic I felt when I was little and reading a great book was like stepping into an exciting new world. Particular happy favorites for me are the Trixie Belden series (Jeepers–how could you help but be happy while reading about the misadventures of such wholesome, kind kids?), the Anne of Green Gables series (such scope for imagination in them…) and the Little House books, especially the chapters with long descriptions of the foods they ate and their simple prairie Christmases. Ahhh…

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?
I think that a lot of people spend a lot of time focusing on how they would be happier if X (they were out of debt or had a better house or their spouse would start picking up his own socks). But I’ve come to realize that once you reach whatever that milestone is you thought would make you happy–you get out of debt, you move into a nicer home, your spouse magically starts picking up his socks or you kick him out!--you feel a momentary thrill and then, quicker than you might think, you go back to about the same level of happiness you were before (sometimes, there’s even a sense of letdown).

That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to improve your life, or that those improvements can’t help you find happiness more easily. But if we’re putting all hopes for happiness on something unusual or great happening to us, what if it doesn’t happen? Or what if it does, and it’s not as big a thrill as we thought it would be? I think we have to look at it in reverse: make up our minds that we’re going to have a happy life, then try to create a reality to match. Sometimes, things just won’t work out the way we’d hoped, but if we aren’t too reliant on those outside forces to “make” us happy, we’ll be able to ride through the disappointments and stresses more quickly and smoothly.

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?
Pretty much every time I have been chronically unhappy, it was because I was convinced somebody else was “making” me that way. Because once you give up control over your own happiness, you’re just blowing with the wind, influenced by other people’s actions and moods. Plus, you can start to stubbornly cling to your anger and resentment about the way others are “making” you miserable, until you get to the point where you almost want everyone around you to act like jerks, just so you can be right about what jerks they really are.

The surest predictor of happiness, for me, is not to let other people’s actions knock me off course. Of course I sometimes get upset or angry or sad when dealing with other people–that’s just human. But I can’t give them either the credit or the blame for my essential happiness–it’s not fair, and it’s not really accurate. In the end, it’s all up to me, baby.

* A fellow Yale-Law-School-turned-writer-and-blogger wrote me, because we took similar career paths. But wow, is her book and blog world different from mine! It was so much fun to visit a site that I never would have come across during my usual internet travels. La Carmina writes about “wild Japanese fashion, with a focus on Gothic Lolita Rococo Punk.” Which are things, I must admit, I didn’t know existed. As she might say, “crazy wacky cute yummy time!”

* The book The Happiness Project is coming out on December 29 –
Pre-order ! (if you do pre-order, here’s how you get your bonus materials )
Book tour info !
Sample chapters !
Join the challenge: Make 2010 a Happier Year !