Why do we get happier the older we get?

August 8, 2023

In this episode, Chris is joined by writer and comedian Monica Heisey where they cover Monica’s journey as a writer, the power of humor, and the challenges of living in modern society. Monica was born in Toronto and moved to London in 2010 to study Early Modern Literature. Monica began her writing career in media, contributing to the Guardian, The New Yorker, The New York Times and Playboy. From 2015 to 2017 she was Editor-at-Large at Broadly, VICE magazine's women's website. Her first book, ‘I Can't Believe It's Not Better', a collection of essays, short stories, awas published in 2015, and Lena Dunham said of it that it’s the “only humor book she ever wants to own.” 2015 was also the year of her first television job, sketch comedy series Baroness von Sketch Show. Since then she has worked on television projects including Netflix’s Schitt's Creek, Workin’ Moms and BBC’s The Cleaner, and Everything I Know About Love. Monica’s writing offers a unique blend of humor and social commentary and her debut novel, Really Good, Actually, was published around the world in January 2023, and is currently in development for television. She is working on a second novel.

- Hello everyone. I am Chris Hyams, CEO of Indeed. My pronouns are he and him. And welcome to the next episode of "Here To Help." For accessibility, I'll offer a quick visual description. I'm a middle-aged man with dark-rimmed glasses, wearing a black T-shirt. Behind me is the North Austin skyline. At Indeed, our mission is to help people get jobs. This is what gets us out of bed in the morning and what keeps us going all day. And what powers that mission is people. Here to Help is a look at how experience, strength, and hope inspires people to want to help others. My guest today is Monica Heisey. Monica was born in Toronto and moved to London in 2010 to pursue an MA in early modern literature. She's an author, screenwriter, essayist, and as she says herself, "an occasional comedian." Monica began her writing career in media, contributing to publications like The Guardian, The New Yorker, the New York Times, and Playboy. From 2015 to 2017, she was editor-at-large at Broadly, VICE Magazine's women's website. Her first book, "I Can't Believe It's Not Better," a collection of essays, short stories and poems, was published in 2015, and was a Globe and Mail, National Post, and CBC Best Book of the Year. Lena Dunham said that it's "The only humor book she ever wants to own." 2015 was also the year of Monica's first television job as a member of the writing room for the sketch comedy series, "Baroness von Sketch Show." She worked on all five seasons and with the rest of the writing room, was awarded four Canadian Screen Awards for comedy writing. Since then, she's worked on television projects in the UK, US and Canada, including Netflix's "Workin' Moms", BBC's "The Cleaner" and "Everything I Know About Love" and the essentially, universally-acclaimed and loved "Schitt's Creek." Her debut novel, "Really Good, Actually," was published around the world in January of 2023 and is currently in development for television. She is working on a second novel. Monica's writing offers a unique blend of humor and social commentary. And today we'll be talking around Monica's journey as a writer, the power of humor, gender, feminism, and the challenges of living in modern society. Monica, thank you so much for joining me today.

- Thank you so much for having me.

- Well, let's start where we always start these conversations. How are you doing today? Right now?

- I'm okay. I have a, there's a summer cold going around London right now that's quite, it's a real bad boy. And I think I'm maybe in the early stages of succumbing to that, but trying to just push past it, hit the Vitamin C and not think about it.

- All right. Well hopefully you'll feel better by the end of this conversation. Let's start with your career. You've found amazing success as a writer and comedian. Can you talk a little bit about the journey to get here and what inspired you to want to pursue writing?

- Yeah, I was one of those kids who kind of was all, I was classic indoor kid, I think is like the first start of a lot of writers' journeys. You have to do something if you're not good at sports. And if you sunburn as easily as I do. So I read a lot and I wrote a lot. And I was kind of always really interested in it, but I don't think that I thought it was something you could actually do professionally until I moved to the UK. And suddenly I was kind of starting over in terms of my social group and my hobbies and figuring out how I wanted to spend my time kind of from scratch. And the cultural scene over here was just so amazing that I felt really inspired to give it a good try.

- Well, it seems to have worked out pretty well. And we'll get into your books and essay writing. But you've also written for many television shows, including the huge favorite, as I mentioned, "Schitt's Creek." And this is one where, I think the timing was really profound for a lot of people. The final episodes aired right at the start of lockdown for COVID. And for those of us who'd been watching the show, it was an incredibly emotional time to see that wrapping up. And then I think millions of other people, because they were stuck at home, just looking for something to grasp onto, discovered the show and it really kind of got this huge second life through Netflix. Can you talk about how you ended up in the writer's room on this amazing show?

- Yeah, I'm like the luckiest person in the world. Because I, that was my first kind of narrative television writing job. I was like 25. They took a real risk on me. I had like a sample script. Well, Dan Levy had read my first book, my essay collection. Someone had given it to him as like a birthday present or something. And then his company got in touch with my agent to ask me if I had a writing sample. Maybe I didn't have an, yeah, maybe I just signed with an agent. And so I was really fresh. Like the freshest you could be. And I was like, "Sure, I have the sample." And then spent the weekend like Googling, "What is a scripted sample?" And kind of trying to write one. And I'm sure it was riddled with errors, like it wasn't formatted perfectly, but I guess he had seen something in the essay collection and my voice in it that he thought might be interesting. And we had a couple interview chats. And I was able to be like, "I swear to God, I'm going to figure out formatting." And then I did seasons three and four on the show.

- Yeah. And when we met before, one of the things that I brought up was that within the LGBTQ+ community that the show is important for a whole host of reasons. But one of the things that was truly groundbreaking about it was that it takes place in a small town and people who don't live in small towns maybe have these ideas about what the openness of a small town might be. And yet there's not a single plot line anywhere in the entire show where anyone in the town reacts in any way other than just sort of matter of fact to the fact that there's this very out, gay character, who then ends up in a relationship. And I've heard Dan talk about the fact that was really deliberate, but I'd love to hear your thought, 'cause it just, it meant so much to so many people to see this portrayed in just a kind of matter of fact way and not played for laughs or drama.

- Yeah. I mean Dan really did know what he wanted from that show from the very beginning. So it was a real pleasure as a staff writer to kind of have someone at the helm of the show who had such a clear vision the entire time. And I think the feeling in the room was that everyone has seen the version of the story where two men get together and it's a big problem in their families or it's a big problem in their community in some way. And while those stories are real and happen all the time in real life, there's also a version of that that many people we know have now lived out, where you just fall in love and your family's happy for you. And even if those stories maybe are in the minority, hopefully that's starting to change. And I think the show wanted to be part of making that change. Just putting on screen a version of the story where it's okay, it goes well. I remember Trump got elected like a couple weeks into writing season four and everyone came into work quite distraught and Dan was like, "We're just going to keep doing what we're doing, where we're writing a show where love wins or whatever. And the only thing that we can really do is like write about the world as we would like it to be and as how we hope to see it." And it was nice that that resonated with so many people during such a incredibly unpleasant time.

- So I'd love to hear about some of your thoughts of being able to be part of these incredible writer rooms that you have been a part of and writing with people who you've admired and then especially through the lens of what's going on right now in the US with the writers strike and what your thoughts on all of that might be.

- Yeah, I mean, it was an unbelievable experience to get to be so junior and green and working with these people like Eugene and Catherine who are like, not just my comedy heroes, but like, comedy's heroes, in general. And to see people who had really, I think, honed their craft and had so much respect for what the job actually is. Like I think sometimes people can think with acting, or particularly with comedy, that it's just kind of fun and silly. And it can be fun and silly, but it's also people are working extremely hard and they're really devoted to it and devoted to honing those skills and they don't kind of come from nowhere. You have to practice. And it's a lot of work and time and it's really, it's been really depressing over. I mean, my entire career, I feel like I started kind of at the same time that streaming started. And I remember they were kind of negotiating new contracts for the new streaming, but they sort of didn't really understand what it was yet. So they negotiated these bad contracts, and now 10 years later, streaming basically is network TV. And we're working off of these bad contracts and it doesn't make any sense. I don't know how they expect to attract the kind of talent that they need to have to attract the viewership that they want to have, if they're not willing to respect what kind of work and effort and how many years of experience go into acquiring that talent in the first place.

- Humor has this incredible power to cut through and in some ways, maybe even shine a light on things that are going on that people are challenged navigating and the pandemic was one of those things. If it wasn't for, I know for me, for a handful of people who I turn to every single day to just help me laugh at the things that were beyond my control. I don't know how I would've gotten through it. Can you talk about, as a writer and as a comedian, the role of humor in just connecting, making human connections?

- What a laugh is, is a group of people being surprised in the moment, a truth that's expressed in a way that they weren't expecting it, right? It's like a surprise at either the way that that truth was expressed or sometimes it's a surprise. "Oh yeah, I do think that, or I do believe that. Or that is how that experience feels." But it's also a shared experience. So like you're having this revelation about something that's true, but everyone around you is having it at the same time. And that's really, really, it can be really powerful and really beautiful. It can be silly and stupid. But it can be both of those things at exactly the same time, which I think is so interesting and so special about it. And I think, in the pandemic, but also in the time before the pandemic and now as we're sort of post-pandemic, I don't think things are getting that much lighter, really, in the world. And I think being able to come together and laugh about things that are difficult, or laugh about things that aren't exactly how we would like them to be can be the first step in imagining how we would prefer them to be. We have to realize the thing is true first as the group and then maybe we can take some steps into a new version of how things could be.

- I'd love to hear you talk a little bit about how you think that comedy can help as an actual catalyst for change in social issues. You write about loneliness and other things like that. And what do you think the role of comedy is in helping the sort of society come to grips with some of these larger issues?

- I mean, that's an interesting question, 'cause I don't want to overstate it, right? I feel like there are limits to what even fantastic, incredible, devastating social satire or whatever can do in terms of creating real change. But I do think, as I just said, it's like maybe an early step in terms of being able to point out that things aren't how we were told they would be, for like a big cornerstone of millennial humor, I think, is like the difference between what we were told adult life would be like and how adult life is actually turning out for us, which is not as chill as we might've hoped. And I think being able to laugh about that together has like a cathartic effect. It makes us feel less alone. But I think it also helps us look around and be like, "Well, why can't any of us afford to buy a house?" You know? And then that hopefully that leads to some actual thought and maybe a change in your own voting habits or you're getting more involved with local politics and you're trying to understand what exactly is going on in your particular city's flavor of housing crisis that we all have going on in our own cities. So I think it can be a catalyst for change in that it kind of shines a light on areas that are in need of change and then hopefully, after you finish laughing, you kind of get going and do something a bit more active about it. But also like my sisters are both nurses. And I think another thing it can be is like a nice little place of rest. Both of my sisters are like, it's nice to come home and turn on Netflix and watch either a comfort show that they love that they've seen a million times. Or like try something new and like fall in love with some new characters and have a bit of a laugh, have a bit of a break, and rebuild and restore so that they can go back into work and provide the care that they've been providing all day the day before and all the day the next day and the day after. So it can be a bit of a spotlight and I think it can be a little bit of a warm place to land as well.

- You have two published books. The first is a collection of essays. Your second one, which came out earlier this year, is your debut novel, "Really Good, Actually". What was going on in your life at the time that you were writing that that inspired you to write this book?

- So "Really Good, Actually" is about a young woman going through a divorce very quickly after getting married. And I wrote it because a couple years prior to me starting to write the book, I had been in exactly the same situation. And just desperate to read or watch something that kind of spoke to how strange it was to get married and then almost immediately decide that was a mistake. And particularly to be getting divorced at the time when most of my friends were just starting to get engaged, which is incredibly smart timing on my part. And I just couldn't find anything. Everything about divorce was about like, Meryl Streep in a sweater shawl, having to figure out what to do with the custody of the kids and the summer house. And it was, all of these characters were like many years older and many income brackets above what I was dealing with at the time. So like many writers ended up doing, I think, I ended up sort of writing the book that I wanted to read.

- One of the reviews of the book described it as "A tender and bittersweet comedy that lays bare the uncertainties of modern love, friendship, and our search for that thing we like to call happiness." Can you talk about what you learned that you felt you needed to share with other people about this experience?

- Yeah, I think what I realized in writing the book, basically, I set out just to write like a funny story of a woman going through a divorce and I had no real lessons in mind, or like deep truths. I just wanted to kind of do a portrait of a woman going through a tough time and what that specifically looks like at this age, in this period of human history, I guess. And then when I finished it and thought, and had a lot of time to think about it, and particularly now, having gone through like a number of interviews where people are asking me what the message of the book is, I realize there is one, which is nice. But I think the thing that I had a hard time with during my own breakup and that certainly Maggie, the narrator of the novel has a really hard time with in her breakup, is wanting to rush past the part that feels bad. I think that's a really human impulse. We don't want to feel pain, emotional pain, physical pain. Humans are not interested in that particularly. And fair enough, it's not pleasant. But you can't skip it when something difficult happens. If you break your arm, you have to wait for the arm to heal. And if you break your heart, it's exactly the same thing. And trying to rush past the part where you feel sad. And if there, we have so many ways that seem like they'll help us rush past that nowadays, like dating apps are like, it's like, for a recently broken up, heartbroken person to go on a dating app and be like, "Oh, an unlimited number of people that I could have the same sort of stupid, mildly flirtatious conversation with forever." Instead of thinking about how I actually feel. That's so exciting. Or even Instagram or online shopping or whatever. There's so many ways you can run away from the tough stuff and actually the only thing you can do to make it go away is like hang out with it.

- One of the things that does stand out about your writing is it's incredibly relatable. You talk about these things that are deeply personal and some of those vulnerable three o'clock in the morning, dead-of-night thoughts. What was it like for you to put this all out there and then hear from other people how your experience resonated with them?

- Yeah, it's funny, 'cause you do sometimes think like, "Oh that's such a strange habit of mine that no one, I'm going to admit it, but everyone will just think I'm a freak." And then actually, of course, there's hundreds of other freaks out there exactly like you. I think what I'm learning with comedy, but maybe just with writing in general, is that actually the more specific you are, the more universal the thing you're saying ends up being. Because whether or not everyone has done exactly the same, strange, sad thing that you did when you were going through your breakup, that's just an expression of a feeling that is really universal, which is being devastated by the loss of love. Which I think anyone can relate to. So as long as you're saying this is the specific flavor that I had of this very universal snack, everyone has unfortunately had a taste of. It tends, I think it's like, it tends to kind of reach a lot of people. And everyone's got their own little tweaked version of it, but we're all out here going through a lot of the same things. And I think it just takes, it's like if you're at a party, like a dinner party, and one person admits something embarrassing. It opens the floodgates for everyone, and everyone has embarrassed themselves in some way and it just takes one person first to start and be like, "No, no, I did it as well." And then literally everyone at the table will have a story.

- Yeah, it does feel like this incredibly deep irony that the one thing that connects people more than anything else is the fact that we all are pretty sure that we're the only ones that have ever felt this way or done this particular thing. And that is actually the real connective tissue. As is the sort of experience of going through some significant, sort of ground-shifting experience. Like you talk about this divorce as this destabilizing event and the feeling of isolation and failure and we definitely are not, we're not born with the toolkit to navigate those types of situations. So how did you sort of work through figuring out how to walk through this or how did you come to your own, like, I have to experience this and sit with it. What was that journey like?

- I think the novel, is in many ways, like a nightmare version of what it would've been like to go through a divorce without the coping mechanisms that I did already have in place. So Maggie is very cynical about exercise as a form of mental health care. And she's very cynical about therapy. And she doesn't particularly like talking to her friends and family about her feelings. And I'm like the opposite of all of those things. So I think I got through it partially by trying to focus on not getting, taking care of my body in a way that wasn't disordered or too rigid and focused, which I think is a real big temptation I think, for a lot of, particularly women, but maybe everyone when their life feels a little out of control. Having good relationship with a therapist. I'm lucky enough to have had a therapist for some time and she's been pivotal in like, so many of the good choices that I've made since I've known her. And then particularly the book is really a love letter to the friends, the group of friends, that kind of got me through my breakup and the friendship groups that help anyone. I'd read a lot of novels about women, kind of unhinged women going through a bad time and they all seemed so uniquely friendless. And I've just never felt more grateful to have the friends that I have, than during that particular breakup. And ideally you swap out in your friend group, who's the Maggie, who's having the crisis, and who's the group of friends who are kind of having to put a few things aside to take care of their little garbage tornado of a friend. But I really, yeah, I wanted the book to first and foremost, be about the group of people who, your friends are there before you meet the guy. And they're there at your wedding and they're there afterwards. So it's kind of for them.

- You wrote a piece for The Guardian about normalizing crying and it was after a Japanese hotel had opened crying rooms for women to release their negative feelings and I think in many places, expressing emotion in public is probably not welcome or invited. But you have said before that "every year of my life past age 20 has involved more crying than the year before it, but also more happiness." So how do you think about crying and your thoughts on that, but also about what it means to be happy as the years kind of pile on?

- Yeah, I mean, I live in England. So I know a little something about not being wanted to express your emotions in public. But I've always been a crier. So that keeping it bottled up has not really been an option for me. But I'm finding that as I get older, everyone else around me is becoming a bit of a crier as well. I think the accumulation of experience over time, the amount of things that start to happen, like I think there's a certain snowballing of big life events. My friend and I had dinner recently and she was like, "Remember when we were 22 and like one big thing would be happening in our friendship group to one person? Like one person would have a parent who is sick. Or one person would be going through a breakup? And we would all talk about it for like six months now. And now you go to dinner and everyone's like, 'One person's parent has passed away. And one person's getting a divorce. And one person is pregnant and one person's had a miscarriage.'" And there's just so much life happening all the time that you kind of have to, it's like, I know that like various spiritual practices are all about being able to feel all of these different things at once and I feel like it's not even an option anymore. You just have to, because they're all happening. Everything's just happening all the time. Everything, everywhere, all at once. And so I think being able to roll with that and learning what you can handle and learning what you and your loved ones can make it through together, I think changes your understanding of what it means to be happy in a moment and also what it means to be sad. I guess you start to see how temporary both of those states can be. And you just kind of drift back and forth between the two of them and try not to resist too much. I think? That's what I've been doing anyway. This year has been a lot of drifting between the two. It's been quite intense. But it's also, there's something about it that feels really empowering or something, like I, I'm really pleased that I have access to that, that wide a range of emotion. And that I can survive the hard thing and enjoy the fun thing and kind of boot back and forth between the two of them. It's not that easy all the time. I'm making it sound like I'm surfing or something, but...

- Before we come to a close, I'd love to just hear a little bit about what is in store, what are you working on now? I know you have a second novel that you're working on. What's in your future?

- God, yeah, well, I'm on strike for television and film stuff. So that's been actually amazing. I mean, it's stressful, and I would like the strike to be over. But I also realized during the strike that I think I'd never not been working on TV or film projects like since I started almost 10 years ago. So it's been really important for me to kind of put that stuff down for a bit. And then I've just been working on the second novel, which is as scary as everyone says. Everyone's like, "Oh, second novel, the scariest thing you'll ever have to write!" And I thought they were lying. They were not. It's very intimidating. Spending a lot of time going a bit insane in my house. And then, yeah, hopefully once, once/if things go back to normal with TV, we're going to be adapting "Really Good, Actually" for television, which would be really exciting. And I don't know, hopping into friends' writing rooms and stuff. I miss collaborating. That's the thing that's different between what I've been doing alone with the novel and what I get to do with TV is like. The feeling of working with other people whose brains you just want to study under a microscope. So yeah, so working alone for now. And then hopefully working more with other people soon.

- As we come to a close, I always ask the same final question of folks in this podcast started in the very start of the pandemic. And what we've been asking is sort of looking back over this period of time, the last few years now. With all of the challenges and the suffering and everything that we've all kind of been through, what in all of that has left you with some hope or inspiration for the future?

- Hmm. That is a good question. I and a few of my friends now keep a note on our phones of things that are still good and it's, we try to update it as much as possible. And I think that serves as a sort of similar function. You know what made me really excited, and so on, it's like having people over for dinner, being near water, that's all, that's still good. That's always good. How good it feels to be laughing in a group. And recently, which I think gave a lot of us, particularly in the writing community hope was how excited everyone got about the "Barbie" movie. Seeing everyone just going to the cinema together in search of this shared group experience and the kind of enthusiasm that would lead adult people to put on crazy pink outfits and go to like an 11:00 AM screening, so then they could also go to the nuclear disaster film right afterwards? That made me feel really excited about what people want from the art and cinema that they consume and also what they want from each other in life. And Ryan Gosling smashed it.

- Well, that is a perfect way to wrap things up. Monica Heisey, thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you so much for all of the joy and humor and introspection that you bring to the world. And thanks for sharing your time with us today.

- Thank you for having me.