For 12 years, at a glossy women’s magazine in New York City, I held the fluffy-sounding title of “happiness editor.” It was an unlikely moniker for me, raised by parents who, like many Jews born at the tail end of the Great Depression, weren’t exactly sunny optimists. Their outlook, one passed on to me and to my younger sister, was more like, Expect the worst and maybe it won’t happen.
Or, as my mother often put it, Kein ayin hara! (pronounced kina hora), a Yiddish expression with multiple spellings that all add up to the same thing: Don’t tempt the evil eye. In case you’ve never heard the phrase in your own home, it typically crops up in situations like these: I’d be sitting at our kitchen table doing homework while my mother prepped dinner, and suddenly I’d muse, “I’m so lucky to have four grandparents!” To which my mother would reply, ominously, “Kina hora!” lest my words somehow tempt God to strike the family elders dead. Over the years, I learned that my every boast (“I think I’m going to do well on the test tomorrow!”) or even my attempts at reassurance (“Don’t worry, Mom—that freckle on your arm doesn’t look like cancer!) would be qualified by the phrase, occasionally accompanied by three tiny mock spits—poo, poo, poo!—for good measure.
Scholars believe kina hora—essentially the Jewish equivalent of knocking on wood—is meant to ward off envy and the destruction it can bring. (Think Esau and Jacob, or Cain and Abel.) For some, perhaps, the sentiment stems from the collective memory of the Holocaust or even further back in time, from Jews getting kicked out of their native lands when they became too prosperous.
Whatever the origin, kina hora was our family motto, though my father, an avowed atheist, never actually said those words. Instead, he lived their spirit, doling out his praise parsimoniously, most of my achievements never earning more than a “That’s fine, sweetheart.” Fine felt tepid; I knew my father was proud of me, but just once, I longed for him to tell me that I’d exceeded his wildest expectations. Instead, both he and my mother went through life waiting for the other shoe to drop, however much we seemed to be thriving in our snug ranch in the suburbs, with no fatal illnesses. (I almost feel like poo-poo-poo-ing as I type this.)
I absorbed this cautiousness the way any child would: There could be no letting down of my guard, no forgetting that every silver lining had a cloud. No wonder, when applying to college, I laboriously filled out applications for not just one, two, or three “safety” schools, but seven.
By the time I was launched and living on my own, having secured a prestigious if low-paying publishing job in New York City and an apartment in a safe neighborhood with two nice roommates, I pretty much felt that expecting the worst was a sound way to live, guaranteed to make me work harder and achieve more (not to mention head straight to the doctor for every suspicious freckle). Like my father, I never actually said kina hora out loud. Rather, it was the secret mantra I repeated inside my head, especially during times when things were going a bit too well. I couldn’t thrive in a job or lose myself in a romantic relationship for too long before readying myself to receive the punishment I knew was coming, the slap down for having the chutzpah to ask for a raise, or for daring to be the first to tell a boyfriend I love you.
My therapist frowned on my kina hora approach to life, calling it magical thinking. “Your thoughts can’t control events,” she patiently explained. Logically, I knew that, yet it still felt necessary to gird myself for disaster so that when I inevitably got fired or dumped by a man I adored, it wouldn’t feel quite so painful. Except it always did.
Which is why it was ironic that as I headed into my 40s, I landed the “happiness editor” gig, heading up what was actually called the “happiness department.” My mission was to assign stories on the newest research in the then-burgeoning field of positive psychology, the study of what makes people feel joyful. In other words, the opposite of kina hora.
On my second day at work, on an Indian summer morning, the sky impossibly blue, I emerged from the elevator onto the fifth floor of the Times Square skyscraper where my new magazine made its home, to find people clustered in the conference room, eyes on the TV. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center and, as I stood there, my attention half on the TV, half on the conversation I was having with my new boss about a project she wanted me to handle, a second plane crashed into the other tower, a disaster that no amount of kina hora-ing could have prevented.
In the weeks that followed, during which I learned that I’d lost a childhood friend in the attack, I sank into a deep depression. If I died tomorrow, would my life have had meaning? I wondered. Would I have done the things I wanted to do? As I reflected on my years of not tempting fate, of not daring to take chances or giving myself permission to do the things that made me happy, the answer felt clear: No.
As it did for so many, 9/11 marked a turning point for me, or, rather, a turning away from focusing on the bad things that might happen if I let myself be too happy (because clearly, bad things happened anyway, whether you tried to ward off the evil eye or not). Instead, I started thinking about what I hadn’t done yet, what was possible for me, what I’d do if fear wasn’t an obstacle. I’d always yearned to write a book (not simply to help others write, as I did every day in my job as an editor). I also yearned to live abroad, to have some adventures, instead of spending every weekday in an office. I’d managed none of those things, always finding excuses to not write, or confining my travel to one-week stints that felt like a cheat, too worried about the career consequences of being away from my desk for two weeks at a time, or, God forbid, three.
I pondered all this as I steeped myself in positive psychology, collecting studies from journals about the power of gratitude and how regularly writing down a few things you were grateful for wouldn’t actually jinx you but could have a profoundly positive effect on happiness, wellbeing, and even physical health. I learned that expressing gratitude, as opposed to staying silent about the good things in life lest they be taken away, also seems to help people reach their goals (like book writing or foreign travel). I wrote about happiness guru Barbara Frederickson, whose “broaden and build” theory holds that cultivating a positive mindset opens up a person’s perspective and stokes creativity, while negative thinking (kina hora!) keeps people stuck in a narrow, fearful place, a place where pursuing something for the pure joy of it feels like hubris.
Not all of this sank in at once, of course. I had many years of kina hora-ing to throw off before I could start taking tiny steps to freedom instead of always toeing the line. But I at least began writing again, eventually hatching an idea for a book that I worked on nights and weekends, without worrying about what might happen or whether it would be published or if my colleagues at the magazine would be annoyed because I was devoting a chunk of my energy and attention to a purely personal project, a project that made me want to come home and sit down at my computer again for the pleasure of it.
By day, I continued to assign and write “happiness” articles on what makes a meaningful life and the importance of following your intuition—of following your heart. And when a publisher decided to give me an advance for my book, I asked my bosses for a two-month sabbatical to work on it—a sabbatical that I decided I’d spend in Rome, not because Rome had anything to do with what I was writing but simply because I loved it there, the light, the colors, the food and wine, the lilting sound of Italian. All of it made me happy.
When I told my parents I was leaving for Italy, my mother’s first response was: “What if you get sick?!” But she got used to the idea eventually, as did my father, who, when he heard about my book deal, told me enthusiastically, “That’s great, kid!” No halfway praise this time. And so, I went to Italy for a few months, I wrote, I ate pasta and drank wine and wrote some more and nothing bad happened; I didn’t lose my job, I got the book done. In fact, when it was finally published, my editor-in-chief threw me a party at a hip Italian restaurant in a room awash with the glow of tiny lights, filled with people who shared the pride and joy that was radiating out of me for everyone to see, no holding back.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Paula Derrow is a writer and editor living in New York City.