Anna Quindlen on the Secrets to Happiness

ByABC News

May 23, 2001 -- It is the time of year when influential people bestow their worldly wisdom to graduating classes across the country.

On Sunday at Yale, Sen. Hillary Clinton told students, "Pay attention to your hair, everyone else will." Then on Monday, at the same university, President Bush had encouragment for C-average students.

But one of the graduation speeches that has caused the biggest sensation was never given.

Two years ago, Villanova University asked author and Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen to deliver the commencement address. She declined, she says, when a group of conservative students threatened to demonstrate against her well-known liberal views. "I don't think you should have to walk through demonstrators to get to your college commencement."

Spread by E-mail

But the world was not deprived of Quindlen's wisdom. She e-mailed the speech to a Villanova graduate who was disappointed not to have heard it. It found its way onto the Internet and within a few months people everywhere were talking about it.

Quindlen expanded the speech into the book called A Short Guide to a Happy Life. The book became a best seller and more than a half a million copies are in print.

Though she has touched hundreds of thousands of readers, Quindlen says her book is a message to herself. She is reminding herself "that life is splendid and there isn't enough to go around."

One of her messages is that people should not confuse their lives and their work. "I think a lot of us are really invested in our work — to the extent that it totally defines us." she says, "No man ever said on his deathbed, 'I wish I spent more time at the office.'"

"I show up. I listen. I try to laugh." This, she says, is part of getting the most out of life. Though it sounds like simple advice, she insists that it's hard work. "It's not easy at all, especially the showing up part." She says, "look at how so many of us communicate with each other, on the telephone, on e-mail, not as much face to face as we used to."

Learning From Loss

Quindlen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has taken a lot of her own advice. She says she leads a very happy life, enjoys her work, living in New York and above all gets joy from her family. "If a doctor told me tomorrow that I had 12 months to live, this is exactly the life that I'd want to be living," she says.

But Quindlen's happiness did not come without pain. She says much of what she knows about life she learned when she had to leave college to take care of her mother who was dying of cancer. She wrote a novel about the experience, called One True Thing, which became a movie starring Meryl Streep and Renee Zellwegger.

Caring for her dying mother changed her priorities. "My mother did not want to stay alive to buy AT&T low and sell high," she says, "My mother wanted to stay alive for just one more walk on the beach or one more afternoon with her kids."

Quindlen kept this in mind when she started having children. Torn between time with the kids and a high-powered career as a columnist with The New York Times, she caused a stir among feminists when she gave up her coveted job.

She followed her heart and found professional success at home, becoming a best-selling author, a sought-after speaker and columnist with Newsweek magazine. But her real joy, she says, comes from the small things like walking in the park, going to her daughter's basketball games or listening to her sons' jokes at the dinner table.

Lesson from a Stranger

Quindlen's book urges people to "think for a moment about the blessings that most of us have in our lives — even when things are tough."

She says it is a lesson she learned from a stranger two decades ago. For a newspaper story, she was interviewing a homeless man in Coney Island who was struggling to make it through the winter. She asked the man why he didn't go to the city's shelters. Pointing out toward the horizon, he responded "Look at the view, young lady, look at the view."

It was a revelation for her — not as a reporter but as a human being. "I had this moment of clarity about the majesty and the grandeur of the world, of life," she says. "He totally got it. He never has to read this book."