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    Jennifer Senior On: Grief, Happiness, Friendship Breakups, and Why We Feel Younger Than Our Actual Age

    Holding onto commitments gives purpose and value to life, even though they may not always bring immediate pleasure. Focusing on something meaningful can make life worth living.

    enApril 12, 2023

    About this Episode

    It’s likely uncontroversial to assert that Jennifer Senior is one of our finest living journalists. She’s currently a staff writer at The Atlantic and before that she spent many years at the New York Times and New York magazine. Jennifer’s written on a vast array of topics, but she has a special knack for writing articles about the human condition that go massively, massively, viral. One such hit was a lengthy and extremely moving piece for The Atlantic that won a Pulitzer Prize. It was about a young man who died on 9/11, and the wildly varying ways in which his loved ones experienced grief. That article, called “What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind,” has now been turned into a book called, On Grief: Love, Loss, Memory.


    In this interview, we spend a lot of time talking about this truly fascinating yarn, but we also talk about her other articles: one about an eminent happiness researcher who died by suicide, another about why friendships often break up, and a truly delightful recent piece about the puzzling gap between how old we are and how old we think we are. Jennifer has also written a book about parenting, called All Joy and No Fun which we also reference a few times throughout.


    In this episode we talk about:

    • Jennifer’s perspective on the Bobby McIlvaine story 
    • Lesser known theories of grieving from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
    • The work involved in finding meaning in loss
    • Why – from an evolutionary standpoint – we hurt so badly when we lose someone we love
    • Commitment and sacrifice
    • The puzzling gap between how old you are and how old you think you are
    • The power and perils of friendship
    • Why Jennifer has chosen to focus so much of her writing on relationships


    Full Shownotes: https://www.tenpercent.com/podcast-episode/jennifer-senior-583

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    🔑 Key Takeaways

    • Jennifer Sr.'s exceptional journalism captures the complexity of the human experience, covering topics such as love, grief, and parenting. Her writing process requires perseverance and hard work.
    • Grief is a highly individual journey and there's no set rulebook on how one should grieve. We must support each other to find our unique path in coping with loss.
    • It's important to understand that some people may hold onto their grief to keep memories of their loved ones alive. Embrace and respect individual grief processes as they are unique to each individual.
    • When supporting someone who is grieving, be mindful of your words and actions. Ask open-ended questions, offer comfort without judgement, and avoid offering unsolicited advice or making assumptions about their feelings. Every person's grief journey is unique and deserves to be respected.
    • Be mindful of what you say and how you act around those who are grieving. Respect how individuals cope with grief and acknowledge their feelings, including the yearning and searching stage.
    • A lost diary can hold sentimental value for loved ones and its recovery can become an obsession, driving emotions of both mystery and anger. Never underestimate the power of the written word.
    • Acknowledging uncertainty in spiritual beliefs and embracing the stages of grief can lead to a more honest and meaningful acceptance of loss. Personal experiences and perspectives may shape one's understanding of life after death and the continued presence of loved ones.
    • Grieving is a process that can be overwhelming, but finding meaning and learning moments in it can help us cope. Books can be a valuable tool to find understanding and acceptance in the face of loss and trauma.
    • Grief is a natural byproduct of forming deep bonds and is necessary for maintaining family integrity and the survival of the species. Don't default on your obligations to loved ones, even during difficult times.
    • Genuine human flourishing and happiness come from meaningful commitments and loving relationships, even during tough times. External conditions may not always determine our level of happiness, but cultivating love, commitment, and sacrifice can help us find purpose and contentment.
    • Holding onto commitments gives purpose and value to life, even though they may not always bring immediate pleasure. Focusing on something meaningful can make life worth living.
    • Happiness cannot be bought with material possessions. Understanding the phenomenon of subjective age can offer insight into how to feel young and less affected by the passaging of time.
    • Age is just a number, but it can affect our perception of ourselves. While some people feel younger than their actual age, others do not. Having children late in life can also contribute to feeling younger as parenting involvement continues into older age.
    • Americans tend to focus on potential and may view themselves as young in their head. However, this mindset can be positive, as it means there are many generative years ahead. Developing new friendships in old age is also valuable.
    • As we age, friendships become crucial for a happy and fulfilling life. However, the loss of a friendship can be devastating and we must learn to cope with it. We should prioritize and nurture our friendships, as they are constantly evolving and changing.
    • Jennifer Senior writes about the nature of human relationships, including unlikely friendships in politics and different forms of love. Her viral article about Mcle veins highlights the power and impermanence of love, resonating with readers worldwide.
    • Jennifer Senior's ability to illuminate and delight readers while exploring difficult topics is a testament to her skill as a writer. Effective interviewing involves asking new and challenging questions, which can lead to insightful conversations.

    📝 Podcast Summary

    Jennifer Sr.'s Award-Winning Work and Writing Process

    Jennifer Sr. is an exceptional journalist known for her ability to write articles and books that beautifully capture the human condition. One such successful piece won her a Pulitzer Prize. The article was called 'What Bobby Mcle Van Left Behind' and was about love, grief, and memory. In the interview, they discuss this piece, along with others about an eminent happiness researcher, why friendships break up, and the puzzling gap between how old we are and how old we think we are. Jennifer Sr. also wrote a book about parenting, called 'All Joy and No Fun.' Her writing process is not easy; everything takes her long hours of perspiration and sweat.

    Understanding the Idiosyncrasies of Grief and Resilience of Family

    The book explores the different ways in which grief is experienced by the members of Bobby McElvane's family, highlighting how idiosyncratic and varied it can be. Despite facing a common tragedy, each member of the family had a unique path of grieving, which little to do with one another. The book also brings to light the remarkable resilience of the family and their ability to stay together despite their different styles of coping. Jennifer Senior's work challenges the popular notion of grief being a series of sequential stages and sheds light on the complex nature of human emotions. The thesis of the book revolves around the notion that everyone experiencing grief has to find their own way down the mountain, highlighting how grief is a highly individual journey.

    Holding onto grief - the need to continuously grieve

    Some people may need to hold onto their grief and continuously grieve, which may involve embracing a theory or cause that is not widely accepted, as it provides them with occasions to talk about it and keep the grief alive. This may also be a way of continuously loving and remembering the person they lost. Human motivations can often be opaque and hidden from us, making it difficult to understand why we do certain things. However, it is important to respect and honor individual grief processes, as they are personal and unique to each individual.

    Supporting someone who is grieving

    Grieving is a personal process, and people deal with it differently. Some people want to talk about their loss, while others would rather not. It's important to be mindful of our words and actions when interacting with someone who is grieving. Asking open-ended questions and being present without judgement can be comforting. Saying things like 'I'm sorry for your loss' or 'I'm here for you if you need me' can be more helpful than offering unsolicited advice or making assumptions about how someone should feel. We can learn from the experiences of others, but every person's grief journey is unique and deserves to be respected.

    How to Support Someone in Grief

    When someone is grieving, they do not need to be reminded of their loss or compared to others. It's important to be mindful of what we say and how we act around those who are hurting. Everyone grieves differently and there is no set pattern to follow. One common aspect of grief is the yearning and searching stage, where the bereaved person may feel as though their lost loved one is recoverable. It's important to acknowledge and be sensitive to this feeling. It's also important to respect how individuals cope with grief, whether it's through spirituality, preserving artifacts, or avoiding situations that may cause discomfort.

    The Mysterious Disappearance of Bobby's Diary

    The recovery of Bobby's final diary became a plot device in the story that gets the whole thing rolling. The diary is a kind of stand-in for Bobby and a form of yearning and searching. It seemed very important to Helen, who became attached to the idea of recovering it. She was furious when Bob Sr gave it away without thinking. It became an enduring source of mystery and anger. Everyone wanted it back. The author made it her business to get it back. The diary got stuck in Helen's mind for years, a decade, 15 years. The contents were saved until the end to reveal what was in it.

    Intellectual Honesty and the Acceptance of Uncertainty in Spirituality and Grief

    Being intellectually honest when it comes to spiritual beliefs is to be an agnostic and to accept that there is a lot we don't know. The stages of grief can include denial and eventually accepting that your loved one is gone. Elizabeth Kubler Ross changed her mind about life after death after hearing thousands of testimonies from people all over the world. Helen and Jen believe that their loved ones are still with them in some way and that they can't see it. As a parent, Jennifer Senior thought a lot about the question of whether you are still a mother if you only have one child and they die, which was raised by a character in Downton Abbey.

    Finding Meaning in Grief and Trauma through Books

    Grieving is a unique process, and it's important to find meaning and learning moments in the midst of it. Trauma teaches us that we are not in control and that impermanence is a ruthless lesson. This is a theme present in the story shared by Jennifer Senior in her book. The diary in the book has content that adds more value to the story, but it's worth reading. Jennifer's mother used books to help her find meaning after a senseless killing of her son. She decided to search for meaning herself. Bobby's girlfriend also lost a mother, which is written in the diary, making the loss more difficult to bear. Loss can be hard to comprehend, and we may question why it hurts so much.

    The Connection between Love and Grief

    Grief and love are interconnected, and grief is the price we pay for loving someone. Bonds and commitments give meaning to our lives and being needed and being able to give is what keeps people in the game. Even when things are hard, we must not default on our obligations to those around us. While emotions like grief, depression, and anxiety may seem useless from an evolutionary perspective, they are the artifacts of something that was evolutionarily necessary. Species cannot survive without love and the ability to form deep bonds, and hence, we cannot grieve them. Therefore, grief serves a purpose in protecting family integrity and keeping the species going.

    The Power of Love and its Role in Finding Happiness and Meaningful Relationships

    Love is the central feature of the human experience and distinguishes us from other animals. It drives humans to do both beautiful and bonkers things. The pursuit of happiness and meaning can often lead to suffering, as exemplified by the suicide of positive psychology pioneer Philip Brickman. His studies showed that external circumstances, such as winning the lottery or becoming quadriplegic, do not necessarily determine happiness. Instead, true happiness and human flourishing are often found through meaningful relationships and commitments, even in the face of adversity. Practicing love, commitment, and sacrifice can help humans find a purposeful and rewarding life worth living.

    The Importance of Commitments as a Solution to an Absurd Existence

    Philip Brickman recognized the importance of commitments as a solution to an otherwise absurd existence, even though commitments may not always give pleasure. Being committed to something gives a person a purpose and something to wake up to in the morning. Even though commitments are dissolvable, as humans, we continually form and reform bonds. For Brickman, commitments were the true road to salvation, and he believed that sacrificing for something assigned more value to it. However, he abandoned many of his commitments when he died, leaving a paradox. Brickman's life teaches us to hold on to our commitments and focus on something meaningful to make our lives worth living.

    The Pain of Major Depression and the Phenomenon of Subjective Age.

    The story discusses the pain and struggle of a person facing major depression, which made him realize that getting more things does not lead to happiness. Despite having a perfect job and everything he wanted in life, he felt dark and was resistant to treatments. This situation raises questions about the nature of major depression. On a lighter note, the story shares insights from an article on how people perceive their age differently internally. The article was triggered by the author's personal experience of feeling older than her actual age and receiving responses from others who also feel the same. This phenomenon is known as 'subjective age'and is experienced by many people.

    Mental Age vs Physical Age Discrepancy after 40

    As per studies, once a person is above 40, they shave off on average 20% of their age mentally. This happens because people tend to overestimate what they are capable of and want to feel younger. However, not everyone does this, and some people believe they are older than their actual age. People who had their kids late in their life also tend to feel younger as they are still involved in parenting in their fifties, which was not the case for the older generations. Many people wrote to the author stating their parents at assisted living would describe the feeling of being much younger than their actual age due to the disconnect between how they feel and their age.

    Cultural Differences in Aging Perspectives

    The United States has a different perspective about aging and elderly care compared to collectivist cultures in Asia and Africa, where elders are respected and living in extended families is still common. Americans tend to treat people like stocks, always looking at their potential, which may make them think of themselves as young in their head. There could be a combination of cultural and evolutionary factors that could explain why people don't know where they are in time. However, being young in one's head can be taken as a positive sign that one has many generative years ahead and shouldn't be discounted. Developing new friendships in old age is also very important and valuable.

    The Importance and Challenges of Friendship in Middle Age.

    As we reach middle age, our friends become increasingly important for sustaining us and providing us with meaning and companionship since our families are smaller and our social institutions are weaker. However, friendship breakups in middle age can be a tremendous source of heartbreak. Betrayals in friendships are just as hurtful as romantic breakups and we often don't know how to handle them since we lack a script for it. We should ideally have more friends than spouses in our lifetime and our friendships have shorter cycles than we think. We replace about half of our social circle once every seven years or so.

    Jennifer Senior's Fascination with Human Connections

    Jennifer Senior's interest in human relationships is evident in her writing career, which began as a pre-medical student. She lost her calling but loves writing, reporting, and talking to people. Her articles and books revolve around the nature of human relationships. She is fascinated by unlikely bipartisan friendships in politics and interested in people's personalities. Her viral article about the Mcle veins went so famous because it's about grief and love. Every kind of love, parental, romantic, fraternal, and friendship love, is in this story that interests people because of our impermanence in life. This profound love story garnered much attention and is a great yarn spun at the heart of it about love.

    Pulitzer prize-winning author Jennifer Senior discusses her latest book and the challenges and joys of being interviewed by Dan Harris.

    Jennifer Senior's new book, On Grief Love Loss Memory, won her a Pulitzer prize. She talks about the piece that appeared in the Atlantic under two different titles, depending on what format you read it in, and mentioned the cool little sticker on the cover of her book. Dan Harris appreciated the sheer quality of her work that managed to illuminate and delight at the same time, and thanked her for the stimulating and challenging interview. Jennifer Senior also praised the interview and Harris as a good interviewer who asked her things she's never been asked before. She mentioned having another story in the works, but it won't be out until the summer.

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    Sebene Selassie describes herself as a “writer, teacher, and immigrant-weirdo.” She teaches meditation on the ten percent happier app and is the author of a great book called You Belong. She’s based in Brooklyn. 


    Jeff Warren is also a writer and a meditation teacher. He and Dan co-wrote the book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. He also hosts the Consciousness Explorers podcast. He’s based in Toronto. 


    If you want to be part of the show, please call in with a question or comment. The number is 508-656-0540. Or you can email us with a voice memo at podcast@tenpercent.com with a voice memo. 



    Tickets for the two more Meditation Party retreats this year at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York are available now. The last one was a blast. Come join us for both. One is in May, the other October. 



    Related Episodes:

    How to Stay Calm No Matter What’s Happening | Sebene Selassie and Jeff Warren

    Meditation Party: The “Sh*t Is Fertilizer” Edition | Sebene Selassie & Jeff Warren

    Meditation Party with Sebene Selassie and Jeff Warren: Psychedelics, ADHD, Waking Up From Distraction, and Singing Without Being Self-Conscious

    Meditation Party: Magic, Mystery, Intuition, Tattoos, and Non-Efforting | Sebene Selassie and Jeff Warren

    Science-Based Tools for When You're Stressed, Obsessed, or Overthinking | Dr. Jenny Taitz



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