When I’m Blue, a Depressing Book Reminds Just How Good I’ve Really Got It

Will-SchwalbeHappiness interview: Will Schwalbe.

I met Will Schwalbe a few years ago at a big conference called SXSW. We share an intense passion for reading and writing, and when I heard he'd written a book, The End of Your Life Book Club, I couldn't wait to read it. It's about the books that he and his mother read together during the last two years of her life.

A book like Will's raises many questions about happiness, so I was eager to interview him about his thoughts on the subject.

Gretchen: What's a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Will: Reading books makes me happier. Having coffee on Sunday morning with my partner and watching CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood makes me happier. Having a nap makes me happier.

What's something you know now about happiness that you didn't know when you were 18 years old?

It's something I learned from Stumbling on Happiness, a wonderful book by Daniel Gilbert, and it's this: Experiences make me happier than things do, and the happiness I gain from experiences (travel, time with friends) lasts much longer than the happiness I gain from things.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

When I email someone and they don't reply promptly, I find myself obsessing that I've somehow offended that person, either with that email or in the recent past. I then become overcome with remorse - even if I can't think of what on earth I might have done to offend. Soon, I'm spending hours obsessing about this and debating whether reaching out again will make things better or worse. Occasionally, I've genuinely offended. But most of the time, it's all in my mind. And this needless and endless worrying definitely gets in the way of my day-to-day happiness.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you've found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to "Be Gretchen.") Or a particular book that has stayed with you?

There are three songs that I turn to constantly - the first is MMMBop by Hanson, which I use to remind myself of the need to live in the moment - it's my favorite song. The second is The Bare Necessities from The Jungle Book, which always makes me happy, and is also a great way to remember to be delighted with what you've got. I can't listen to that song at night because I get so jazzed I can't sleep. And the third is Here Comes the Sun by George Harrison. What could be more comforting than to know that the ice is slowly melting?

As for books, I often turn to Jon Kabat Zinn's Wherever You Go, There You Are, David K. Reynolds' Handbook for Constructive Living, and the poetry of Mary Oliver and Nikki Giovanni.

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 call a friend and just chat. Or I read a really depressing book - the more depressing the better. When I'm blue, a depressing book reminds just how good I've really got it. For example, when, as an adult, I came down with chicken pox, and was covered in pox, and laid up in bed for weeks, I read A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I defy almost anyone to feel any self pity whatsoever when reading this book, which shows characters finding a measure of peace in the most horrendous circumstances imaginable. I believe it's the single greatest novel of our time. It's also a powerful cure for the blues.

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 see a lot of people being Trolls on the Internet or responding to Trolls on the Internet. Both activities seem to detract from happiness.

Is there some aspect of your home that makes you particularly happy?

My favorite books make me happy, especially the ones I've already read. And I know I wrote that experiences make me happier than things do - but our paintings make me really happy, especially the ones by my friend Kedron Barret. And so does our duvet cover, which has big blocks of soothing color. And so does a stripey fabric from another friend, Zak from Zak and Fox. Stripes make me happy and I used this to re-cover a thrift store chair. And I have a wonderful picture of my mother, taken in 2007 on her last trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and she's beaming. And looking at that photograph makes me very, very happy.

Also ...

  • I love the picture book Blueberries for Sal, so I loved writing this piece for the New York Times blog, Motherlode, about exactly why I love it.

  • Would you like a signed, personalized, free bookplate for a copy of Happier at Home or The Happiness Project, to make a gift more personal? (Or for yourself?) Email me to request them: just be sure to include your mailing address and people's names. I'll mail anywhere, and ask for as many as you like. But PLEASE request them soon, if this is for a holiday gift; fact is, I can be pretty slow. Don't know what I'm talking about? Look here.