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'Isn't Love the Only Thing We Can Expect To Make Us Happy?"

Posted Nov 10 2011 6:26pm
Deborah needleman

Happiness interview: Deborah Needleman.

I've been preoccupied with the subject of home for a long time now, as I've been working away on my next book, Happier At Home .

So, naturally, I couldn't wait to get my hands on Deborah Needleman's new book, The Perfectly Imperfect Home: How to Decorate and Live Well . Deborah, now editor-in-chief at WSJ. Magazine and creator of the Wall Street Journal's "Off Duty" section, was also one of the founding editors of the famous home style magazine, Domino , so it's no surprise that the book is crammed with ideas about making your home more beautiful.

But the parts that I appreciated even more were about how to make your home more comfortable, more serene, and more cozy. Or, as Gertrude Stein might have said, exciting and peaceful .

The book is full of beautiful hand-drawn illustrations and helpful, realistic ideas (plus lots of quotations, which I always love). Some of my favorites -- the importance of "jollifiers"
-- include "something unexpected" -- like a giant urn, or a painting hung where it doesn't belong
-- my favorite: "a bit of ugly." "This might sound counter-intuitive, but to create a beautiful home, you need a bit of ugly."

I knew Deborah was as interested in happiness and home as much as I was, though through a different lens, so I was very eager to talk to her.

Gretchen: What's a simple activity that makes you happier?
Deborah: Staying in evenings with my family. (But like all good things if you did them all the time, they wouldn’t be as special or nice.) Children are very useful for shaking you out of yourself. It’s hilarious and wonderful watching their brains develop in front of you.

What’s something you know about happiness that you didn’t know at 18?
I know how to look after my own happiness, because I know myself better--what I like, and what I don’t. It is such a fantastic relief to no longer bother about those things in life that don’t make me happy, whether that’s certain people or situations or places. I avoid them without the slightest pangs of guilt, or if I feel I need to be in a situation or around someone that doesn’t make me happy, I am very aware that I am willingly do it for someone else’s happiness.

I also understand my own shortcomings, and while I wish I didn’t have them, it makes me happy to finally know how to deal with them. For instance I have learned over the years that I’m happiest if I don’t go out two nights in a row—that I just start to fall apart when I’m out in the world too much, without recovery time. When I am putting out socially, or on behalf of my job, I need an almost equal amount of time to recompose myself. (It always makes me think of Newton’s law that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.)

I imagine myself like ball of string, and going out into the world unravels the string, and then I need time to wrap the string back around the ball. Otherwise I keep unraveling and end up as just a mess of string, rather than something solid. I wish I didn’t need life recovery time or so much sleep or that I were more competent in certain areas in which I am hopelessly deficient, but it’s such a lovely relief to know and to accept these things and deal with yourself as you are. Phew.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
I get blue if I haven’t been around trees and air and sky for a while. I feel really lucky to have a life in the city and a place in the country that puts me back together humpty-dumpty style. Gardening is the first thing I was ever passionate about. I love it because it is beautiful and a largely futile battle against time, weather, disease and animals. But there’s nothing like a bunch of flowers from your own garden. I am also a failure, but a completely devoted vegetable gardener, and my lettuces and veg rarely taste as good as the ones from the farmers market, but they’re mine dammit.

Pathetically and unfortunately for me, if I’m feeling blue, I let myself believe that I deserve whatever food I want. Then of course after you’ve stuffed your face with shit food you most definitely have not stopped the blues. I have never been able to learn to act on the fact that I know I will regret it later. I am hopeless failure when it comes to those idiotic ricocheting thoughts: I want it, I regret it, I promise not to do it again, I want it, I regret it…etc. That is the most boring soundtrack, played most often in my head.

Do you work on being happier?
On a philosophical level I have always sought happiness above all else. I have not sought money or success or a career or a certain type of life, I have sought only happiness. I did not grow up having ambition or desire to do or be anything, nor did I have any particular skills or talents or passions. I had a hard time projecting myself into the future or imagining or desiring anything for the future. I just simply sought happiness. I sound so Zen, when in fact I was just bored, apathetic and not terribly self-confident, but I did think happiness was the end game: finding it and giving it.

Now I am ambitious, but even still, I’m ambitious to be the best I can, make good things, not to reach any level or tick off any box. When Conde Nast closed the magazine I started, I didn’t spend a minute being sad about losing my connection to that institution or any of the lovely benefits of being an editor there. I was heartbroken as a boss, over the demise of a product and a brand we spent a great deal of energy building, but I also knew I was lucky to have ever had the chance to create it all.

I just remember the next day walking down the street thinking that now I have my freedom, to walk around on a beautiful day, and to have another chapter in my life. It was like a gift. (Granted, I had severance pay defray other worries.)

I think you always have to be ready to have those things taken from you. I like always having a back-up plan ready, an escape plan. Even if it’s just a total fantasy. I need to know my freedom is mine always.

That is not the case for things that are core to my life: my husband and children. I can’t imagine the severing of those connections, even though that is sadly always possible.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t or vice versa?
I don’t know if it’s a game of low expectations I started playing when I was young and had slim prospects, but I don’t ever expect anything to make me happy, and then I am just surprised and happy when it does. But how can you expect anything to make you happy? A child, a husband, a job, a house? Really the second you expect happiness you’ve destroyed something in your relationship to that thing. My husband made me happy so I married him. I didn’t expect marriage would make me happy. Why would anyone think marriage would make them happy? We wanted to have children, but I didn’t have them so they could make me happy or because I expected they would. That would be unfair to them. And how can you expect a job to make you happy? You can hope of course, and if it does, great. Happiness comes if you’re open to it. It’s not hiding behind things. “I’ll be happy when…” “I’ll be happy if…” That is a flaw in one’s logic. Not to go all deep, but isn’t love the only thing we can expect to make us happy?

* I was thrilled to be asked to contribute to Quarterly -- "a subscription service for wonderful things." If you subscribe to Quarterly, every three months (quarterly), you get a present in the mail; you subscribe to a certain person's choices. Check it out !

* Join the happiness conversation on Twitter (@gretchenrubin) or on the Facebook Page .

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