I like reading about happiness. I’m always curious about what makes our moods tick. So I was excited to see Ariel Gore’s new book BLUEBIRD: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). I loved her work as editor of HIP MAMA and as a novelist and author of the excellent HOW TO BECOME A FAMOUS WRITER BEFORE YOU’RE DEAD.
I was raised by Marxists who were also Freudians–a curious mix. On the one hand, we believed that happiness came from concrete circumstances while on the opposite we felt psychological change was ours to have. BLUEBIRD was a relief to read because it included society and real circumstances rather than being a mega-church view of mind over matter. But I also appreciated that attitude does make a difference–that we live in a dialectical flow. I asked Ariel Gore if she had any further thoughts on this now now that the book was out in the world.
She said: “That’s the most complex thing I tried to deal with in the book. The whole idea that ‘you create your own reality’ can be so offensive when it comes from a place of narcissism and marketing nonsense (i.e. you can BUY your own reality!) But then of course there’s also truth to it–I decided to focus on my own happiness and, interestingly, my happiness seemed to bloom.
Still, I’m not going to beat myself over the fact that I don’t seem to have the Jedi-mind power to cure cancer or get my grown kid to stay in school or get FOX News off the air.
I can kill my own television, though. That’s something that made me happy! That got FOX News out of my air–and it hasn’t made me feel under-informed.
So… intention, action, creativity, mental adventures, resistance, and television-killing.”
This made sense to me, particularly as I’m often asked by students, “how can I find more time to write?” I usually suggest: stop watching television. People usually resist this, but I think happiness partially consists of having a barrier between ourselves and run amok consumer society. Plus for writers, more time equals happiness.
BLUEBIRD is being very well-received. It had a nice write-up in the “New York Times Book Review” and numerous readers are writing Gore to say what clicked for them about the book. The only real surprise is that people persist in equating money and happiness, what Gore characterizes as “this persistent and wacky idea that we need more money in order to be happy. I wrote about money in the book some, but it is clear from all the research, and a lot of us know from experience, that unless we are dealing with real survival anxiety, there just isn’t a huge correlation between money and happiness.
Still, a lot of what I’ve heard from journalists is, ‘C’mon, we’re in the middle of a recession here. Americans can’t afford to be happy right now.’
And I’m like, ‘Wait! Happiness is supposed to be one of the free things. Like love. Like creativity.’
But then of course when I write about creativity, there are a lot of people who say that’s a privilege, too.
I reject that.
Just because happiness has been commodified doesn’t mean that it’s a commodity. Creativity, love, happiness–those aren’t luxury items.’
One thing I really enjoyed about BLUEBIRD is that it had exercises–keeping a journal, focusing on mindfulness (while truly enjoying doing the laundry), and something called “The Fuck You Fund”–enough money to walk away from a destructive or dysfunctional situation. I’ve always kept a stash of cash called The Emergency Fun Fund” so I appreciated this other option (although mine is less for quitting a job than for an unexpected encounter with a Navajo rug auction.)
I asked Gore if she was happier since she wrote the book.
Her response: “You know, I am happier — it’s a funny thing. It’s just been about prioritizing happiness, and about saying, ‘OK, happiness might be really uncool, but it tastes better than cigarettes.’
I don’t do the things I talked about and tested out in the book religiously, but I’ve used the happiness journal on and off. And the mental laundry trick!
Since I wrote the book, my mom was diagnosed with cancer, my daughter took a “leave of absence” from college and, well, there’s been a lot of anxiety and grief available–but it’s in those experiences when the knee-jerk reaction is worry and suffering that I think we can see most clearly our basic contentment. It comes back to a deeper definition of happiness–the ability to rejoice in the midst of suffering or remembering–as Marion Milner points out in A Life of One’s Own–that happiness is different from pleasure in that happiness can hold both the pain of losing and the pleasure of discovering.”
I really enjoyed the book–it is one I’d happily lend to a friend and certainly suggest you buy at your local independent bookstore. In Santa Fe, start with Collected Works bookstore on Galisteo Street. Or go to http://www.arielgore.com for on-line ordering.