How of Happiness

The scientific pursuit of happiness

My Other Education

Reading for pleasure is my “other” education.

I spend way too much time reading books and articles for pleasure, when I clearly could be doing something more fruitful and productive. Not long ago, after reading a book about time management (186 Hours), I decided to keep track of how I spent every hour of my week over the course of 5 weeks. When I added up my average leisure reading (including newspapers & books), it amounted to a mean of 2.5 hours per day. That's a lot of hours that I could be doing something else! Who knows how many more scholarly papers I could be publishing per year were I to read less?

Is it worth it? Absolutely. But not only in the hedonic "reading gives me pleasure" sense. Life is short, and, as someone who studies happiness, I like to say that I practice what I preach. Also, many of those hours are spent reading on a stationary bike or reading next to my husband or kids, which I find highly enjoyable. Finally, I obtain a huge number of ideas and examples for my work (both for my research and for the two trade books I've written so far) from the reading I do on non-work-related topics. Without a doubt, reading for pleasure has been my "other" (uncredited) education.

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Recently, I was interviewed for the Chronicle of Higher Education on my reading habits, and I thought I'd share my (somewhat edited) responses in this post.

Happy reading!

What's the first thing you read in the morning?

Email. After that, I scan the front pages of all the sections of the Los Angeles Times, often reading them out loud to my kids (9 and 11) over breakfast.

What newspapers and magazines do you subscribe to or read regularly? What do you read in print vs. online vs. mobile?

I read the LA Times cover to cover every day - usually during lunch/snack or on the stationary bike. Almost daily, my husband also prints out for me any articles in which he thinks I might be interested from the New York Times or Slate (or others). We subscribe to the New Yorker as well (and to the NYT on Sundays), and he marks articles I would like. (I'm lucky to have such a fantastic and personalized clipping service!) Many of these articles are about politics or stuff happening in the world, and many are about social science/health issues. Others are written by friends and colleagues, which I always find hugely enjoyable to read.

I prefer to read on paper rather than on a computer screen. I tell myself it's because paper is easier on my eyes, but I'm not sure if that's the real reason. It just may be the feel of the paper and the ease of holding it (or, say, the ease of reading in an odd position or while I sit next to my son while he watches ESPN). So I often print things out, especially if they are longer than a page. I also read the LAT and NYT on my iPhone when I'm traveling or am bored standing in a long line.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

I hate this question! I can't imagine naming just one book. Some authors (like Shakespeare and Michael Lewis) have inspired me to write better, and some authors (like Jared Diamond) have turned me onto science, and others (like Richard Ferber) have helped me sleep through the night.

If I had to choose one book to which I keep coming back again and again (I'm on the third reading now), it's Gary Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories. It's a huge book and quite dense at times, but I believe it's revolutionary. It has forever changed the way I think about food, chronic diseases, and weight regulation, and it's also terrific on the subject of how science is done and "mis-done." A week doesn't go by when I read an article or op-ed piece (e.g., about the causes of obesity or the best ways to exercise or diet), which I now know, having read Taubes, is terribly wrong.

Has your reading of professional journals changed in the past 10 years? How so?

It hasn't changed. Each month, I scan, skim, or (seldom) actually read the articles in the primary journals in my field (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Psychological Science, Current Directions, Perspectives, Psychological Bulletin, and others). If an article is super-important, I'll save an online copy to a folder and also send it around my lab.

Do you read blogs? If so, what blogs do you like best? Explain why.

I don't regularly read specific blogs but only particular posts once in a while. For example, if I am alerted to an interesting post by a friend or colleague, I'll read that particular post (e.g., on Psychology Today or Huffington Post), but would not follow a blog week by week.

Do you use Twitter? If so, whom do you follow? Explain why.

No, I have no interest in Twitter. I can't see how much I can get out of reading 140 characters.

What are the guilty pleasures in your media diet? (The writers, Web sites, or books you turn to if you find yourself with some free time.)

When I find myself with free time, I read a great deal of nonfiction - much of it about social science, but not all. I love biographies and memoirs. My two all-time favorites are Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys and Robert Caro's Master of the Senate. I also have read (almost) everything written by Jared Diamond, Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell, and Jon Krakauer. Sometimes I go through phases - e.g., books about America's founders (my latest was Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin), religion (e.g., Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion), the supreme court (e.g., Jeffrey Toobin's The Nine) or evolutionary psychology (e.g., Doug Kenrick's upcoming Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life).

I go through phases in fiction as well - e.g., a Jane Austen phase, a P. D. James (British mystery novelist) phase, a John Irving phase, and, I'm a bit embarrassed to admit, a Dan Brown phase. In the past couple years, my favorite works of fiction have been by Jhumpa Lahiri, Curtis Sittenfeld, Jonathan Franzen, Elizabeth Strout, Lionel Shriver, Joseph Geary, and Euripides.

 

Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at the University of California, Riverside and author of The How of Happiness.

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