Happiness interview: Caren Osten Gerszberg.
I got to know Caren a few years ago through a mutual friend. She’s a writer who covers travel, education, and is also a co-founder of the site Drinking Diaries (“from celebration to revelation”), along with Leah Odze Epstein. They just co-edited a thought-provoking anthology, Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up.
Caren writes often about issues that touch on the subject of happiness, so I was interested to hear what she had to say.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Caren: Reading by the fireplace. Playing Scrabble with my kids. Waking up before dawn to catch an airplane. Watching a movie in bed. Spending Friday night dinner with my family. Hiking with my two dogs and watching them lope through the woods. Rock climbing to a point where I can look at a vista and let it seep in. Taking evening walks with my husband to the Long Island Sound, where we look at the water in the moonlight. Settling in to shavsna, or “corpse pose,” after a good yoga class. Typing the last word of an article I’m writing.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
When I was 18, happiness amounted to a sensation. It was deep, but fleeting, and involved a thrill with friends or a fun happening with my very fun parents. Now, when I’m happy, I feel it down to my core, mostly when I’m with my husband and children. It’s been 30 years since I was 18—I’ve lost my father and one of my childhood friends to cancer, and my mother suffers from mental illness. There is nothing I take for granted. Happiness is a blessing and I appreciate it profoundly whenever I feel it.
Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Yes. I grew up surrounded by anger and stress, which took up a life of their own in my life, and thus in my head. As cliché as it sounds, sweating the small stuff used to interfere with my path to happiness on a frequent basis. In recent years, I’ve learned how to meditate, breathe deeply, and be more accepting of myself and others, which has afforded me greater access to happiness. I’m no expert, but feeling the positive impact inspires me to continue the journey.
If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
It took me many years to accept that it’s okay to feel blue. As a kid, I felt responsible for my mother’s happiness, which weighed heavily on my own. But I’ve learned over the years that it’s okay to have bad days, because that’s how you learn to appreciate the good ones. So when I’m feeling blue, I seek comfort from within, reminding myself that it’s okay to feel blue and that hopefully, tomorrow will be a better day. And usually, it is.
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?
In our society, and particularly in the community in which we live, I often see people getting so immersed and involved in their children’s happiness, that they seem to lose sight of their own. When I became a mother, nearly 19 years ago, I was deeply fearful of losing my identity as an individual. It was not easy to obtain a balance, but I knew that I needed to feel productive and invested in my own self-worth in order to be the kind of mother I wanted to be. Fortunately, but not without bumps in the road, there is balance in my life. I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a writer, and a friend, and feel comfortable and happy in all of my roles.
Is there some aspect of your home that makes you particularly happy?
As much as people think I’m a social person, I also love being at home. I love reading and soaking in the bathtub by candlelight, spending time by the fireplace in our living room, and feel very happy when I’m cooking in our kitchen. There was a time when I felt irritated by the hubbub surrounding the kitchen space every afternoon, with my kids shouting at one another and fighting over this and that. But ever since my father got sick and passed away, I realize the value of that noise. Those sounds—now music to my ears—mean that my family is alive and interacting, and minus the fighting, I wouldn’t want it any other way.