When the author’s copies of my debut novel arrived at my house, I hugged the UPS guy. I thought about calling my neighbor, a good friend, over to celebrate. I thought about filming an unboxing video. I imagined I’d include my dog in this video. (At the time, Sprocket had some 350 Facebook friends, and exactly eight of them in common with me.)
But really, it was all window dressing for what was actually growing inside of me. The hug and the Facebook post and the Twitter post and even the sentiment that I really should post an unboxing video – all of that was gauzy curtains over the huge black hole in my chest that was labeled NOW WHAT? And subtitled I AM SO BORED or WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?
I know, right? This book took me a decade to write and revise and pitch. It was, arguably, the pinnacle of my publishing history to date. And all I could do was sit on my couch saying things like “Plehhhhhh,” and “Phoooo” and wonder why I wasn’t more elated. More joyful. Was I an ingrate? Incapable of happiness?
The same thing happened to me after I did Ironman, a colossally stupid event during which one swims 2.4 miles, bicycles 112, and runs a marathon. (Yes, I probably will do another, thank you for asking.) After training for six months solid, I didn’t really exercise for a year. I mean, I pootled around on my bicycle and went for jogs and paddled in the pool. But I did not exercise. Mostly I loafed, and this is what happened to me when my book was out in the wild: my brain, and heart, and, it seemed, my entire internal happy factory, languished.
In my current life, I call it the post-deployment blues, riffing off the sentiment I get when I’ve returned from two or three weeks working with the disaster-relief agency I volunteer for. I have to take a day or three to myself to get away from the feeling of having had something to do every hour of every day. The stuff you’ve trained for, worked for, culminates in these deployments, that race, the day your book arrives on your doorstep, and, suddenly, everything looks like sad, wet St. Bernard fur.
Good news! There is an actual name for this: arrival fallacy. Tal Ben-Shahar, who is the founder of the Happiness Studies Academy, defines it as the idea that once you reach your goal, you’ll be happy.
Hope, it turns out, is a critical component of joy.
Ben-Shahar says this idea is ultimately a fallacy because, well, once you’ve achieved your goal, you’re relieved of the hope that comes with this dream of yours. Hope, it turns out, is a critical component of joy. And, we always overestimate how good we’ll feel when we’re thinking about reaching our ultimate aspirations. (Come on. You know you’ve done this: “If I can just publish this book, I’ll have achieved all my publishing dreams. Terry Gross will call. The Today show might ring. I’m going to change the way people feel about – ”)
So, OK. Let’s operate on the idea that publishing never actually feels as good as you think it will. Or finishing a huge race like Ironman or publishing your book ends up making you feel sad that you have nothing else to train for, nothing else to work toward.
What’s the solution? Mine is to look for smaller projects that keep you going. In the case of my big, stupid Ironman, it was going for hikes and trying to get outside as much as I could instead of “training.”
And in the case of my writing life, it was finding smaller things to work on and try to get published. And working on a literary magazine. And taking baby steps toward a new manuscript.
But arrival fallacy can show up in these smaller goals, too: Once you’ve submitted that short story or essay or poem, you anticipate the acceptance letter. What happens if you’re only getting rejections?
In a panel I was on recently, poet and educator Michaelsun Knapp outlined his best tactic for keeping a positive spin on things. Knapp said that he feeds off of the successes of the other writers around him. He says it sustains him, and you know what? He’s right. When someone else is feeling pretty great, there’s no way you can feel terrible.
I wrote about this recently while musing over the way our puppy’s obedience school instructor, Seb, makes humans and dogs alike feel like they want to try their best. Whenever anyone, biped or quadruped, does right, Seb either marches his feet up and down or claps or bends right down and gives the quadruped huge pats and hugs. He says things like, “Oh, Huck. I am so proud of you,” or “Oh, Yi Shun, that is such a good ‘heel.’ You’re doing great.”
Seb takes genuine happiness at other people’s success. He seems to experience the total opposite of schadenfreude, that wonderful German compound noun that means joy in other people’s suffering.
I asked my friend Stefan G. Bucher, a native German, graphic designer, and a writer himself, to make me a German compound noun that could properly express this. (In English, we say tepid, boring things like, “I’m so happy for him.”)
Stefan made this up for me, and now I give it to you: Freundesfreudenfreude. It means “friend’s joy joy,” or “joy at your friends’ joy.”
Say it out loud. If it doesn’t give you immediate joy, let’s find you a project to work on that will.
—Yi Shun Lai is the fiction editor and co-owner of Tahoma Literary Review. Read about her writing coaching and editing services; her novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu; and her daily adventures at thegooddirt.org.