I’ve been afraid of heights since I was a little girl


My friend Tony thinks that the fear of heights is psychosomatic. “It’s
what happens when you’re small,” he says. “You think you’re tall and then you
realize you’re short. It’s normal. It happened to me when I climbed
Mount Everest. The doctor said my heart rate is so high that it’s not
supposed to take to heights.”

Some days it’s easy. I’d just pick out a hillside or a hilltop and start to
climb. The world seems so much more manageable when I’m on top of it.

But some days it’s harder. At four-thirty I take my husband’s phone—he’s
been texting all morning—and climb up the side of our house to get to my
office door. I think, _I hope I can get into the office without falling._ The
first time, Tony almost lost his footing too. He thought, _I can’t see
anywhere up here._ I’d yell back to him that he was fine.

The second, he wasn’t so sure. “But you’re on the side,” he’d say, as I
lean over to pull him up.

Now he’s trying to make me out of the side of the roof to get into the
office. “But don’t lean over the side,” I say. “You can get your head out.”
He’ll try, but then I can tell I’m going to have to lean over even harder so
he won’t lose his balance. As if I can manage that.

For years I’ve known I’m not going to be climbing any mountains anytime
soon. I’ve known I’m not going to be riding any horses. I’ve known I’m not
going to be flying any planes. So what is that I’m not going to do?

I think I’m only three years out of Harvard, and when I graduated I knew
that if I didn’t take some time off, I’d be miserable for the rest of my
life. I had no idea that I’d be bored all the time too.

When it came time to plan my life, I had no idea what I wanted except to
be happy. And what makes people happy is so different from what makes them

I had that experience when I was thirteen. One day I was hanging out with
my friends in the park, and they were arguing about whether or not God was
real and about whether God wanted us to die. They really wanted to die, and
they said God wanted them to.

Later, I read a story in my science book about a couple who built a house
and spent their entire lives trying to ensure their children had a house
they loved. What made them happy was having their children live in the
house they’d grown up in. And then it dawned on me that that’s what I want
from life too. I want to build a house that will stay with me forever, and
that’s what I want to spend my life doing.

What I want from life is to be happy. And happiness isn’t something I’m
going to get from being tall or flying or climbing or horses or
mountaintops. The world won’t make me happy if I become tall and tall and
flying and horses and mountain-climbing.

What I want is a life that’s filled with joy. My mother used to quote the
American poet Robert Browning. “If you want more joy, get more love.”
Well, if you want more love, you’ll have to get a lot more of it.

In most people’s opinion, if your life is filled with suffering from
unhappiness—pain, illness, depression—you’re doing something wrong. That’s
what people said about our ancestors in the days before antibiotics.

It’s no better now. The pain is real, but the pain is worse because there
isn’t enough time to get more of it.

The best thing you can do for me is to help me become happy.

Tony and I have been married for almost ten years now. The first seven or
eight were wonderful. He was a terrific husband and supportive, but he was
sad. He would say, _This isn’t happening to me. I don’t know about you,
but I’m not happy._

Then a few years later he came home from work one day and told me he was
going to go climb Mount Rainier. He hadn’t gone all the way up, but he
could see the summit. And he said, _That’ll cheer me up._

I said, _It already has._

I called a family friend who’s a psychologist. “I know what this is about,”
she said. “You think you’ll be happy. I’ll give you something like anti-
anxiety medication.”

I said, “I don’t want drugs.”

She said, “Maybe you’ll be happier if you’re happier.”

Finally, I started talking about happiness. I realized that happiness was
a constant in my life. That there’d be times without happiness, and there
would be times when I was truly happy. And she agreed.

“And I want you to know,” she said, “I’m going to help you get happy.”
I started taking courses at Stanford to study happiness. I came out of
the classes with a list of research and books I could read over and over.

I started going to a happiness seminar once a week, where I could hear
about how different cultures dealt with happiness. There was the Buddhist
teacher who said that happiness is the key to happiness. The Hindu teacher
said it’s enough joy that you don’t feel bad. The Buddhist teacher said if
you don’t want to be unhappy, you’re too sad. The Hindu teacher said if you
want to be happy, you’re not happy. To be happy is to be in the flow of life,
to be in the love of life. To be happy is to be in harmony with life.

I started journaling about happiness. I’d write about what I was doing
over the next few days to make me happier. Tony has never been happy. He’d
never been happy, as a matter of fact. So I began to write about happiness
for him. I would write in my journal about something I did during the day,
or about an activity I was doing. I’d write about things I was doing to make
me more calm, more joyous, or to make me think of things that made me laugh
or smile or think of things I felt inspired to do. Tony would read these
things over and over.

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