With the New Year underway, you may be charging ahead with vigor or smelling the first smoky whiffs of resolution burnout. Either way, you may find yourself wondering, “Enough with all the lists and goals. Can’t I just be happy?”
Chasing happiness is usually a futile endeavor, experts tend to agree, especially when one is trying to find happiness as the result of some future event or external reward. But can one find happiness in other ways, by shifting one’s perspective and better appreciating one’s present-day situation?
In a recent online conversation I had with author Angie Kim, the successful novelist introduced the concept of carefully setting your happiness baseline—the point from which you are judging your satisfaction or happiness today.
Anticipating the September publication of her second novel, Happiness Falls (which became an instant NYT bestseller), she tries to remember herself as if today were several years ago when she was simply wishing she could finish the book. That self, looking at the printed book today, even before it garnered rave reviews and selection as a Good Morning America title, was the self that could feel real joy for simple reasons, none of which have to do with sales or promotion.
An even earlier self, the Angie Kim who only just discovered writing in her early forties (!!!), would be even more astounded to see her first two novels in print. And the Angie Kim who couldn’t envision being published at all? She’d be tickled simply to have finished writing her first short story.
This is such a smart and useful insight. It’s one of many in Happiness Falls, a missing persons story about a Korean-American family that also encompasses topics ranging from the challenges of communicating with a disability to linguistics and philosophy.
And now, my chance—and yours—to play the “pick your baseline” game.
About five years ago, having relocated to Canada after living abroad for several years, I was feeling both isolated as a writer and unsure that the publishing world would continue to make space for me.
Thinking back to that 2018 self, I would have been over the moon to know that in five years, I’d have a new agent, another book published (Annie and the Wolves), and another on the way (The Deepest Lake), with other projects simmering.
I would have been thrilled to know that through coaching and social media, I would have gotten to know dozens of new writer friends, including clients who bring me joy by allowing me to participate in brainstorming, revising, and sometimes selling their projects.
And of course, five years ago I would have been incredibly tickled knowing that someday soon I would get to interview a cool writer named Angie Kim, on some newfangled thing called Zoom, thanks to a newsletter co-founded with a new author friend, Caitlin Wahrer, on some newfangled platform called Substack.
How little I could foresee not only the technology and endless evolution of platforms, but also the enjoyable moments and new relationships ahead.
Your turn. Can you look back to a time when you may have known and perhaps expected far less, so that today’s knowledge, accomplishments or opportunities feel even more gratifying?
Now, maybe you’re still skeptical about trying to be happy. Fair enough. Perhaps, for you, it’s more useful to think about avoiding the practices that make most of us unhappy.
In my opinion, here are the top ways to get gloomy:
- Compare yourself often to other writers (the occasional tiny spark of envy may be useful if it lights a fire, making you want to write more and better, but too much comparison is a recipe for depression)
- Be hypercritical of your work even before others have had a chance to be
- Underestimate the power of revision. Everyone’s first (and second and third) drafts are shitty
- Make all of your goals about outcome rather than process
- Forget to celebrate and take pleasure in all the small steps all along the way
That last one is important, and it’s such an easy mistake to make. We’ve all done it—skipping over the positive comments from a reader, neglecting to pat ourselves on the back for showing up, minimizing the significance of that query or submission emailed.
But taking pleasure and feeling gratitude—just like coming up with book ideas—is something that gets easier with practice. You may not be able to chase future happiness, but you can work on developing a tendency toward present-day joy and appreciation. I do believe that!
In the last year, these small pleasures made me incredibly happy:
- Helping choose the audio narrators for my next book, based on samples provided to me. Fun!
- Having an editorial conversation for the first time about a future manuscript that won’t be published for two more years. More fun!
- Teaching a 49 Writers class about suspense. So rewarding, and so much fun!
Do you notice how often I say “fun?”
A decade or two ago, I might have searched for a longer and more literary word, but I’ve reached the age where a simple one-syllable word will do.
One reason I used to have less fun was because I saw nearly everything I did as a step on the way to something else: Getting an audiobook made. Getting a book edited and into bookstores. Teaching a class to help pay the bills.
Now I see them as stand-alone moments in a pleasure-filled life, one that also includes plenty of hard work and stuck moments—of course!—but the pleasure outweighs the pain.
And much more surprising: the pleasure increases with age and experience.
Wherever you are on your writing journey, I hope you can find the healthiest perspectives and the most advantageous “baselines” for judging and experiencing your present-day writerly situation with maximum appreciation and self-compassion.
And I hope you can find—and remember—the parts that light up your pleasure centers. The parts that are stimulating. Or gratifying. Or just…fun!
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a book coach and the author of six novels, including The Deepest Lake (Soho Crime, May 2024). Her next two books are about serious topics but—go figure—she still had fun writing them.