Hannah Montana vs. Nabokov: Why We Shouldn't Be Judged By Our Interests

04/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I'm working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone's project will look different, but it's the rare person who can't benefit. Join in -- no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday's post will help you think about your own happiness project.

I'm going through a Tolstoy obsession right now - one which I've resisted for a long time, but now, in true Tolstoyan fashion, am allowing myself to succumb to - and I was struck by a phrase in a description of Nabatov, a hero in Resurrection.

Nabatov is a peasant who got a high-school education because of his exceptional talents. He didn't go to the university, however, because he wanted to "go among the people and enlighten his neglected brethren." He took up various positions, and each time was arrested for trying to organize the peasants, and ultimately he was exiled. Tolstoy extols his virtues:

"As a peasant he was industrious, observant, and clever at his work; he was also naturally self-controlled, polite without any effort, and attentive not only to the wishes but also to the opinions of others. His widowed mother, an illiterate, superstitious old peasant woman, was still living, and Nabatov helped her, and used to visit her when he was free. During the time he spent at home he entered into all the interests of his mother's life, helped her in her work, continued his intercourse with former playfellows, smoking in their company cheap tobacco in 'dog's-foot cigarettes,' took part in their fisticuffs, and explained to them how they were all being deceived by the State and how they ought to disentangle themselves from the deception they were kept in."

The phrase that caught my attention in this description is that Nabatov "entered into all the interests of his mother's life." It occurs to me that when you think of people getting along harmoniously - whether in a family, among friends, or in an office - people make an effort to enter into the interests of eachother's lives.

Presumably Nabatov wasn't much interested in the things that interested his "illiterate, superstitious old peasant" mother. I'm not much interested in Hannah Montana, which interests my older daughter. My husband isn't much interested in why I think all biographers of St. Therese of Lisieux have profoundly misunderstood her.

Not only do people find it difficult to enter into each other's interests, people also have a strong impulse to be judgmental about other people's interests. I think someone's interest in wine is boring. Someone thinks my interest in children's literature is childish.

When you're trying to be happier, one issue that frequently arises is: "If I do this, am I being fake? Doesn't happiness depend on being authentic? If I don't naturally feel optimistic/positive/interested, why should I pretend?" (See, e.g., whether you should unenthusiastically play your part in a tradition.)

That's a very good question. If you spend your time faking an interest in topics that bore you, you're not going to be very happy. On the other hand, entering into other people's interests is an important way to show respect and affection.

Ah, the elusive happy medium. What do you think? Is it laudable to enter into other people's interests, or do you view that as inauthentic? Wait...I think I hear the Hannah Montana theme song. Gotta go.

I'm thrilled! I asked if any possible "super-fans" of the Happiness Project would be willing to volunteer to help me out in a few ways -- and so many people have offered. Thank you all!

If any more kind souls would like to sign up, please just drop me an email at
gretchenrubin1[at]gmail[dot com]. (I added brackets to thwart spammers, but just use the usual email format.) No need to write anything more than "super-fan" in the subject line, and I'll put your name on the list.

First item: before long, I'm going to launch my super-secret, super-fabulous, happiness-related website. I'll send the super-fans the link ahead of time, in case they'd be interested in being beta testers (i.e., using the site in its early, pre-public stages).

If you're not interested in that, there are other issues that will come up in the next few months -- all purely voluntary, of course, so if you sign up as a super-fan but then don't have time or don't want to do anything, that's fine, too.