When former House & Garden editor Dominique Browning, author of the book Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas & Found Happiness, suddenly lost her job in midlife, she was sent into a tailspin. Who was she without her job, she wondered? But after months of contemplation and the forced sale of her beloved home, a move to the coast and a growing comfort in her pajamas led to unanticipated happiness.
Q: What was the toughest part about finding yourself suddenly unemployed?
A: The first toughest part was losing the company of my colleagues, and the whole family that an office becomes. With that, the structure of my days.
Q: How did losing your job challenge your sense of self and sense of identity?
A: I’ve always worked, and I’ve spent most of my working life in the magazine industry. It was a very large part of who I was and how I functioned in the world. To have that taken away, and not being able to replace it, unwrapped my sense of identity.
Q: Did you hit bottom before things changed for you?
A: Definitely. And I hit that bottom in my pajamas. It’s not even like I knew when that happened. I had some consulting jobs that failed to turn into work, and I had decided to sell my house. The entire life that I had built up to that point unraveled. I think I probably hit bottom at around the time the moving vans arrived to cart everything away. I felt terrible about myself. I felt frightened, abandoned and humiliated. I felt like I was no longer a productive citizen. I moved from the suburbs of New York to a house that I had been renovating in Rhode Island, and slowly began to rebuild.
Q: So when and how did you begin to turn the corner?
A: Oddly, it was remaking a house and garden. The house had been a construction site, and I started to write about putting in a garden. That was the beginning of my starting to chronicle all of this and think about a more productive way to chronicle this experience. My new life is utterly different than my old one. I work by myself and have my own self-imposed schedule. I don’t have colleagues. I’m very busy and I take all assignments.
Q: How is your perspective on life different now?
A: When you have gone through a terrible blow of one thing or another, and when you pull yourself back together again, it gives you a certain strength and a feeling of priorities. In that way, I feel stronger than I’ve ever felt before. I realize, too, how important it is to be more inwardly motivated. Rather than rely on the external things like the schedule of the day or the schedule of the magazine or the schedule of meetings to hold my day together, I have to make that structure happen.
Q: You wrote that this experience enabled you to reconnect with the desire to nourish your soul. What does that mean?
A: Part of what happened while I was so busy all of the time was that I had not been dealing with a lot of issues. When I hit 50, everything hit me, and because I was so busy all of the time, I could just look at an area of my life and say, “Oh, yeah, that’s not going too well. Oh well, back to work.” In fact, I considered it a good thing – like a stiff upper lip. I just needed to keep going. When all of that fell away, I realized that I had some serious thinking to do about my values and what kind of relationships and friendships I wanted. I asked myself about my relationships with my grown-up children who were starting out on their own. A lot of things were going on, but I hadn’t pondered them too deeply. Now I have more time, more focus and I’ve thought more deeply. I know what kinds of people I want in my life, and the kinds of situations I will and won’t tolerate.
Q: And you sound like you’ve rediscovered joy in what are often considered very mundane things.
A: Definitely. They are the mundane things that we either get too busy to do or that we won’t give ourselves permission to enjoy because they don’t seem too important. For me, it was allowing myself to sit down and play the piano or learning to cook. It was the quality of my availability to my friends and my children.
Q: Do you think your new solitude has played a role in your increasing happiness.
A: I think the solitude was necessary for the time to think. I’m not a particularly social person, but I was always surrounded by people in offices and spent my time worrying about other people’s problems. I’ve always felt very responsible for other people’s mortgages and credit card payments and all of the rest of it. When I got home and I was alone on weekends, I spent time recovering from that. When that was removed from the picture, my time alone took on a very different quality.
Q: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about happiness?
A: As I was trying to grope toward something, I came up with this idea of slow love – it had to do with being forced into slow living, like the time clock had slowed way, way down. My life took on a different rhythm, and I was able to reengage with the world in a very different way.