Report from my own happiness lab

Report from my own happiness lab

After about a decade of doing research on happiness, I realize that my favorite research comes from university labs that use self-reported data. Most of our happiness lab research is based on self-reported data about who feels happy.

Which means, maybe, that I am my own lab. I can self-report just as well as anyone else. So here is my self-reported research. And, like all good university lab results, there is a little third-party oversight at the end.

1. Do not look for external validation.

The unusual thing about my family is not that my parents abused me and I was removed from the house. I mean, seriously, that happens in families all the time. The thing that makes the family different is that my mom and all my brothers are colorblind. Female-passed colorblindness is very rare.

My mom is visiting and dinner-table talk wanders to my son’s bar mitzvah. We are a family that has an incredible ability to focus on the negative, so we don’t dwell on how my son is a Hebrew-learning savant. Instead my son says, “Mom! Let’s talk about the time when you were reading Torah at your bat mitzvah and you were lost and you said, ‘Oh fuck I’m lost.'”

I say, “That’s the whole story.”

Mom says, “Remember my dress? Was it gray?”

“No, it was purple but you thought it was gray.”

“Well, maybe.”

My mom thinks I’m so untrustworthy that she doesn’t trust me even with color.

 2. It’s way easier to find bad in people than good, so challenge yourself. 

My driver, Carla, is out of town so Jeanenne is driving. But Jeanenne never drives, and I fear for our tires.

I tell Jeanenne it takes special driving talent to not get a flat in Chicago. It’s so serious that Jim Bachor makes activist art out of potholes as he fills them.

I tell myself to trust that Jeanenne is watching. But just in case, I pack extra reading material. 

Once we get to the music school there are three cello lessons in a row. I don’t know how my son does it. This is what happens when you have a mom who is a writer going to ten hours a week of music lessons:  I bring colored pens and draw the alphabet over and over to keep myself from dying of boredom. I get so anxious that I’ll run out of the colors I like that I keep three extra packages on hand at all times.

Jeanenne spends three hours being the highest paid coffee drinker in the world. I guess this makes up for the first two years I lived on the farm when I was in constant nervous breakdown mode from the transition and during that time Jeanenne was the lowest paid mental health worker in the world.

I ask Jeanenne to get me coffee while she’s getting coffee for herself. She says, “But then I’d have to come back early.”

I say, “Wow. I really miss Carla.”

3. Be fine with where you are.

Driving home I discover that Jeanenne can’t see.

My mom and my brothers do not see green traffic lights. They only see white. And they are still legal to drive. So maybe it’s just that Jeanenne can’t see any signs.

She thinks it’s just the GPS, that she can’t read that.

This is the tipping point for me. It’s ridiculous that Jeanenne and Carla won’t wear glasses because it makes them look old.

I also can’t see because I should be in bifocals and not contacts and I have been resisting.

Carla comes back the same day my glasses arrive. I tell her I’m getting old because I need bifocals.

She says, “I know lots of people who wear bifocals.”

I say, “Who?”

She says, “My mom.”

Jeanenne falls on the floor laughing.

Fine. So I am old. I was going to tell you about how I am old but I couldn’t tell you about my neck, because Nora Ephon did that already. And I can’t tell you about vaginal dryness because my husband said no writing about sex. So I have to tell you about bifocals.

4. Foster empathy by trying to see the world through other peoples’ eyes.

In the Wall St. Journal, Bret Stephens reviewed Hillary Clinton’s new book. Bret starts by reviewing the Acknowledgements and complains that Hillary thanks a team of writers for turning her scribbled notes into books. Now that’s a great example of paid friends. The more I think about it, the more I think all the best friends are paid friends. Who is a better friend than the person who makes it so you can write your own memoir without writing it?

Bret also complains that now we can’t rewrite history because the surest way to forget history is to write it down. Because then people think they don’t need to remember because it’s written.

Which is why my family hates that I write this blog. They worry that I am writing their history and then no one will bother remembering any version of events that is not mine.

Other complaints about me from my bothers:  That I pay people to do everything.

My brother sent an article about mothers in NYC paying people $1000 to pack up their kids for camp.

I wanted to respond, “What a great idea! I wish I were sending kids to camp just so I could hire someone!” But then I thought maybe my brother was making fun of me.

5. Get a second opinion. 

I am in the perennial vegetable garden and my mom decides to weed next to me, behind the rhubarb.

I tell her the purple flowers are edible, so leave the purple, and pull the blue flowers. Those are weeds.

She says okay and then starts pulling purple.

I tell her forget it. Leave all the flowers.

We do not talk about how she can’t see the colors. But we talk.

My mom tells me that of all her kids, I’m the one who surprised her the most.

I ask her why.

She says, “Because you’re happy.”


55 replies
  1. Geoffrey James
    Geoffrey James says:

    I’ve been wearing bifocals since I was 8. I love wearing glasses; I’d much rather have my eyes protected by nice hard glass than have little round pieces of floppy plastic on my corneas.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Oh. Thanks, Connie. Fixed it. I bet he gets that a lot – that misspelling. I bet he’s sick of it. Jim, if you’re reading, I want to console you with the fact that what comes around goes around: people frequently pronounce my name like Pen-a-lope — rhymes with antelope.


  2. M.T.
    M.T. says:

    I loved this post. It felt like a complete little short story. It made me want to write. It made me want to read. It felt like a birthday gift. Thank you.

  3. Lisa Zinna
    Lisa Zinna says:

    Negativity and untrustworthyness…I think we were brought up in the same school of thought. The good news is that it probably led you to go in the opposite direction and look where it’s gotten you :-) Awesomeness.

  4. John
    John says:

    Number 4 is so true. We are all born self-centered and I’m convinced that one of the causes of unhappiness is because we never learn to escape our own inner dialogue as we grow old. We should all strive to escape our own prisons and view the world through others’ eyes.

    • Sadya
      Sadya says:

      I read this twitter this week- Signs that you were criticized as a kid by your parents , you are forever critical of yourself and others

  5. rebecca@midcenturymodernremodel
    rebecca@midcenturymodernremodel says:

    On glasses… I have worn progressive contact lenses (bifocals), BUT, because I am old, I found out I have dry eye, so the contact lenses hurt like heck (they did work). So I wear progressive lens glasses. I like to treat them like clothes and have a hobby of buying different types of glasses and switch up frequently… just like jewelry or clothes. Costco is super cheap for this indulgence. AND, that was cool about being happy. And, knowing it.

  6. Chris S
    Chris S says:

    Penelope, I am glad you are happy. I am too.

    But in rebuttal to your first point: most people have no idea what makes them happy, and self-reported data is notoriously inaccurate. I thought you read Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness?

  7. Savvy Working Gal
    Savvy Working Gal says:

    I’ve been wearing bifocal contacts for a couple of years now. They aren’t perfect – I still wear reading glasses at work, but at least I can read the total on my visa receipt before I sign and don’t have to look for someone to read a price tag to me when shopping.

  8. Amy
    Amy says:

    Did you feel happy when your mom said that she sees you as happy?? Just curious….

    Also, i have succumbed to bifocals in my Raybans!!! Talk about feeling old….


    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yes, actually. I did. A mom’s a mom, and it’s hard to hide unhappiness from any mom. So I like that she thinks that I’m happy.


      • Amy
        Amy says:

        Yes. I sensed that it felt good. Which is why #2 is so hard. Because it kinda conflicts with #5. Kinda.

  9. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness lately, too. Love what you had to say. I’m especially interested right now in what happy people DO, more so than how they think and feel. Can we reverse-engineer happiness? Change our actions to change how we feel?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      A great book about what happy people do is The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky. She lists tons of really small things you can do to increase your happiness levels. Like, give a random compliment to someone once a week.


  10. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    I love that my friend that’s enamored with your writing calls you “Queen P.” It makes me smile every time.

    Also, not even a week ago I was trying to calculate how old you are because you always seem so impossibly young to me. But I figured that my boss is ten years older than me.

    At any rate, it’s odd that people keep aging but they just stay young. I love America! People keep complaining like it’s a country falling from grace and I think those complainers are completely out of touch with reality and that they should live a year in other countries.

  11. Jean
    Jean says:

    I really love that your mom sees you as happy. That is the nicest thing I could imagine hearing from my mother.

  12. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    And paying friends is brilliant. It’s like working with friends.

    And I read the article about parents paying for packing kids for camp. The people clutching their pearls don’t understand that those parents make like ten time more per hour so paying someone $1000 for that time saving is just chump change.

    I interviewed a babysitter and now it’s more work because I have to find time to get my son used to her lest he freaks out. So I’m just going to pay her to come to my office and do all the scanning I hate to do and hang out with the toddler for that period of time so I can kill two birds with one stone while I get work done. Because I hate scanning so much but it’s gotta get done. And she’s fun. So maybe I’ll get some socialization out of the deal. All in all I say it’s a good investment :)

  13. Ella
    Ella says:

    I find it interesting that your family doesn’t like the idea of you recording events because your perspective will be remembered. I’m reading The End of your Life Book Club right now and the author explicitly states at the beginning that this book is about his relationship with his dying mother – not his siblings or father. He does not even try to present their perspectives because this is his story. I think it is his way to grieve and find meaning in tragedy – I think that your writing is your way to find meaning too.

  14. Ru
    Ru says:

    It’s hard to write about being happy because being happy have no epiphanies to inspire others’ struggles. Happiness is kind of boring to read mostly.

    Interested in seeing what you write next post.

  15. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    I may have sniffled a bit at that last part.

    It is a myth that happiness means boring writing. There is no such thing as writer’s block and you don’t have to suffer for your art. You can mine beauty while living beauty.

  16. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Penelope, just curious… how are you able to have any kind of relationship with your parents after what they did to you? Have you found some way to reconcile the abuse with wanting to have your parents in your life? If so, how have you done it? I mean no disrespect with this question–I am truly curious for my own sake. Thank you.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      I have come to this conclusion in my life, we have a choice to let the poison be our salvation.

      Check out this blurb from an Angelina Jolie interview with BCC radio:

      “We were very conscious, the writer and I, that [the scene in question] was a metaphor for rape,” Jolie said. “The core of [“Maleficent”] is abuse, and how the abused have a choice of abusing others or overcoming and remaining loving, open people.”

      “The question was asked, ‘What could make a woman become so dark? To lose all sense of her maternity, her womanhood, and her softness?'”

      They were talking about how the scene were Maleficient’s wings are cut off are an allegory for rape.

      Angelina’s response really hits home for me. We have a choice to harden our hearts or find a way to get past that. I know it may be rage inducing that I am simplifying it this way but it has actually taken so many years to full heartedly embrace this point.

      This may be cheesy as I’ll get out but truly forgiveness sets you free.

      And lastly, I’ve come to the conclusion that all my insecurities, as much as I’ve tried to hide them, when putting them out in the open they lose their power to strangle me. But I could’ve never been as eloquent as G.R.R. Martin in Game of Thrones (are you a fan? I am SUCH a fan!):

      Tyrion Lannister: Let me tell you something, Bastard. Never forget what you are, the rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor and it can never be used to hurt you.

      Jon Snow: What the hell do you know about being a bastard?

      Tyrion Lannister: All dwarfs are bastards in their father’s eyes.

      • Bethany
        Bethany says:

        Karelys–I found my adored Penelope’s post very ADD; however, I found your thoughts intriguing. Thanks for sharing. And it’s official. I’m starting Game of Thrones tonight after my 7 year olds baseball game. I cannot wait. Thanks for solidifying that one for me.

        • Karelys
          Karelys says:

          Hide yo kids!

          It’s HBO so there’s boobs and dongs everywhere.

          Unless you want to use it as an opportunity for educational purposes.

          • Bethany
            Bethany says:

            How right you are! True to my word–hubby and I watched our first episode last night … That is so not my cup of tea. (And fear not, no children were exposed!) I knew it was going to be somewhat racy but that was just over the top for me. Too bad too, cuz the story is interesting.

      • Paxton
        Paxton says:

        Unfortunately so many children are bastards in their parents’ eyes because they cannot see past their own expectations of their children and see them for the unique individual they are.

        Great comment as always karelys.

  17. Leslie
    Leslie says:

    Redefine all the old stuff as the optometrists have done. They now call bifocals “progressive lenses.”

  18. Lindsey
    Lindsey says:

    Your garden looks beautiful! I love it.

    P.S. My Mom also thinks I’m happy, and I don’t feel happy–I usually feel anxious and unsure. But, every time she says that, it makes me realize that I actually have a lot to be happy about, which makes me feel happier.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      Lindsey, I too noticed how big and awesome the garden got. I keep going through pictures. It’s one of those things I can’t bring myself to do well so when someone does it I am in awe.

      Maybe this is way too long to discuss in comments but do you think that feeling happy and being happy/content are different and not necessarily come tied together?

      There are times when I feel blissful and I don’t necessarily know why. Those times a lot of things are out of my control. It’s like a little island in the middle of all the stress. But overall I am pretty content and feel secure. I don’t feel blissful most of the time. And when I am I ruin it by tackling bigger projects than I can chew. Then I have to stretch myself and grow (not fun, sometimes painful) so I can actually handle it with no problem.

      But once I get there, I go and get myself into another project that’s bigger than I can handle. Again. And the whole process starts again.

      I’ve come to realize that being blissful is kind of like an orgasm. It’s great and all but it’s not always a good sign that the relationship as a whole is solid and doing good. And you can have a great relationship and have problems reaching climax for reasons that are not necessarily directly related to the relationship.

      I hope I don’t get banned from the comments for my analogies.

      • Lindsey
        Lindsey says:

        Karelys, Absolutely. I think pushing yourself out of your comfort zone or working really hard for something is fulfilling, but it doesn’t feel like happiness. I think it’s ideal to feel secure and confident deep down, but scared and unsure often because that means you’re doing something meaningful and important.
        I, probably like a lot of people, tend to focus on the things that I’m not doing well and the things that I gave up. My day to day is difficult and feels terrible most of the time, but it’s actually what I want ot be doing.

  19. Brenhna
    Brenhna says:

    Have you posted somewhere (and I missed it) about how you and your family resolved all the conflict of your childhood. I know I’ve read that your father has visited and now your mom. You seem to be on good terms with your brothers. How did you accomplish all that?

  20. Morgan
    Morgan says:

    I like this post. The ending is a nice punctuation that ties it all together. Great writing Penelope. I did not know that you were a practicing Jew? Also, I really think paying a driver to drive you to Chicago is a great idea. I live in Milwaukee now (from San Francisco) and driving to Chicago is always a huge time trap until you get there.

  21. Shay
    Shay says:

    I just have to point out that female-passed colorblindness is, in fact the NORM. The article you linked to explains why it is the norm, and makes the point that it is very, very rare for a colorblind woman to have a son who is NOT colorblind. If your mom is colorblind, the odds that your brothers would not be is very slim.

  22. yusri
    yusri says:

    If you aren’t happy single, you won’t be happy in a relationship. Why do some people believe that relationships are the key to happiness? I used to think this way but it only made the relationship I had that much worse.

  23. Jack
    Jack says:

    Happiness is a state of mind. Truly.

    You can choose to be happy, just as most people choose to be unhappy.

    #4 is my personal practice. Most of my unhappiness was coming from judging others. As soon as you realize the world doesn’t revolve around you and the person who just upset you probably has no idea they did so, it becomes much easier to let it go, and be happy.

    Life’s too short to be unhappy.

  24. Abused & Happy?
    Abused & Happy? says:

    Yeah. I don’t get how P does all this “normal” stuff w/her abusive parents (are/were they really?) now, esp. the creepy father.

    The happiest day for me was when the most abusive one of my parents finally succeeded in suicide…

    I was 15.

  25. Andy Muhler
    Andy Muhler says:

    I agree completely with the second point that if you set out to look for bad, it will surely come knocking because it is very easy to see the unpleasant character in even our most loving friends if you take time to look but I have learnt from my own experience that happiness could be hard to experience but that’s only when you are not conditioned and set out for it.

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