Photography by Arieh Ress
Happier Now : How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Embrace Everyday Moments (Even the Difficult Ones) and CEO of Happier which aims to "help millions of people thrive in work and life by improving their emotional health with science-backed skills and practices." She has been a featured speaker at numerous conferences, and her TEDx talk strives to take the stress out of the pursuit of happiness.
Just before The New York Public Library closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, I asked her some questions that ended up being very timely:
What are you reading, and what's next?
Two books at the same time, if you can believe it.
I take a daily walk and usually listen to an audiobook
I’m not sure what’s next—when I’m ready for another book I kind of just meander around the house, looking at bookshelves until one strikes me. Or I read about a book I’m interested in and then I order it.
Was there a go-to book your daughter wanted you to read to her over and over again?
You have spent years becoming a happiness expert. What book, movie or other media do you return to again and again that brings you joy?
Oh, I don’t know if I’d call myself a happiness expert. I think the journey I’ve taken has been more to learning how to live life more fully, which perhaps is the same. And I’m very much still a student.
I have a small bookshelf in my home office which I call my sacred bookshelf because its top two shelves are filled with books that have been instrumental on my journey and those that I come back to, over and over again. A mix of psychology and spiritual writing, if I had to put it in a category. As examples of what’s on there: Polishing the Mirror by Ram Dass and Surrender
#5 in your 40 Lessons In Happiness For My Younger Self is "Read the entire recipe before you start cooking." Both literally and metaphorically that's some very solid advice, but skewing literal: do you have a favorite dish to cook or a go-to cookbook to use? What comfort food makes you happiest?
Oh, my, this answer could get really long so I’m going to discipline myself. I love to cook and I cook A LOT—most nights of the week, since my daughter was born almost 16 years ago (but rarely on weekends, I take a break.)
I have a bunch of cookbooks that are my go-to but currently three are in heaviest rotation:
Israel, where they immigrated from Russia when we came to the US as refugees).
(I could literally eat this and nothing else for the rest of of my life and be so happy!) or Sirniki, these small Russian pancakes made with farmers cheese, with ridiculous amounts of sour cream (the ones made by my mom are the best.)
You once Tweeted advice you'd heard that "A piece of writing is never finished, but simply delivered to a deadline" and wrote that "creating a process works better than setting a goal." What is your writing process like and what advice do you have for aspiring writers?
My process is a beautiful mess, but I think that might be true for every author. There’s a period
where I’m forming ideas, collecting ideas, gathering input, reading research. This goes on basically, daily. Then, I try to organize my thoughts in some way—in themes, more than anything. Then comes a moment when I decide nothing I have to say is interesting or unique or valuable and I should just forget the whole thing (this moment returns at regular intervals as I write.)
At some point I begin writing. And I have this momentum worked out:
When I’m writing a book, I block out a certain number of hours in my day to write, say 4-6. I try to do nothing else but write during that time, which sometimes means I write a ton and sometimes, nothing. But the goal is to just focus on writing.
moving around my brain, trying to find the other thoughts they want to connect with. While this happens I might just be sitting or walking or just looking like I’m doing nothing.
And then, there’s this awesome moment: I have it!
An idea, a piece, a section just comes together and I need to get it down, in words. I love when this happens, I type really fast and just try to capture the thoughts in my head.
And then there’s revising, cutting, changing, agonizing, more research, more revising… until at some point, I have a draft of something that feels real and feels good for a bit, until I send it to my editor and then I start the whole process over again.
I told him I wanted to be a writer (I had no idea what that meant). He said: “There’s a saying in Russian ‘To write is like to pee, you should only do it if you can’t hold it anymore.”
I think this is brilliant advice. Writing is really hard and really amazing. It’s cathartic. I learn so much about myself and the world when I write. But it can be brutal at times. So you should only do it if you can’t hold it anymore, if you really feel compelled to do it.
These are uncertain times, to say the least. You recently tweeted "3 practices that can help":
These are, I believe, excellent things to practice these days, and in general. My last interview was with another CEO Series participant, A.J. Jacobs, who would especially agree with #2 as his most recent book, Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey, was a deep exploration into the path of gratitude. What is one thing you are especially grateful for today, and what is your best advice on remaining self aware, grateful and kind in an especially panicky news cycle?
Today, I’m incredibly grateful to be stuck at home with two people I love and like—my husband, Avi (we met in college 20+ years ago and still like each other!) and my daughter, Mia, who is turning 16 in a few weeks and is my best friend. (We actually just wrote an essay together for The Washington Post with advice for parents of teens and teens themselves about surviving through this storm.)
As for advice for remaining sane and grateful and kind amidst this difficult time we’re living in, the most important advice I have is to be kinder to yourself. The way we treat others is rooted in the way we treat ourselves. If we can soften our expectations of ourselves, if we can treat ourselves with humanity and compassion, we will also bring that to every single interaction we have with others. And compassion is how we heal.
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Whose book list would you like to read?
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