Happiness interview: Laura Vanderkam.

My favorite part of BlogHer, the blogging conference, was getting to meet so many people -- and so many people whose work I admire. I loved Laura Vanderkam's book, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, so I was particularly happy to meet her.

In 168 Hours, Laura argues that we have more time than we think. We feel rushed and overwhelmed, that we don't have enough time for the things that are important to us, but she points out ways to reclaim time, so that we spend it mindfully, in the most meaningful ways. (Mindfulness! It keeps popping up in happiness! And I find it so hard to be mindful.)

The link between time and happiness is a subject I've been thinking a lot about lately, so I was interested to hear what Laura had to say.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Laura: I love to run. I feel so funny saying that, since I hated gym class growing up. I played basketball one season in 6th grade and never scored a point. Talk about embarrassing. But now that I can exercise on my own terms, when and how long I want, I find that I am always in a better mood after a run than I was at the start. Between my two young sons (ages 3 and 11 months) and my work, running is really what I call my “strategic thinking time.” I get outside, ponder life, work through issues in my writing, and relax.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Do what makes you happy – not what you think (or what society expects) will make you happy. I have been confronting this issue over the past few years in light of the ongoing cultural conversation about how mothers spend their time. Since I do fairly flexible work and – to be honest – I am not the primary breadwinner in our family, even people who knew me well assumed I’d take several months off when I had my first son. I don’t think I even took a week. Granted, I was nursing while typing, so my work may have looked a little different than reporting to a corporate office. But I realized that I loved what I did, and I could spend my life apologizing for that, or I could realize that I would be a better mother if I was a happy person.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
As I’ve been pondering how I spend my time, I find I play it safe with the kids too much. I hang around the house where I know things won’t go horribly wrong, rather than risking a subway diaper explosion or a meltdown in an art museum. The problem is that when we’re all at home, the kids are more likely to whine or fight, and soon I’m counting minutes until bedtime. I’m trying to learn to plan for those post-work evening hours – loading the kids in the double jog stroller, going to an enclosed playground, meeting up with friends, or going to an outdoor event. But then life gets busy, I’m tired, and next thing you know we’re in the house with somebody whining for Dora. Getting better about managing our hours – and our lives – is a process.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
My motto: Happiness comes from throwing yourself into something difficult, working at the edge of your capacity, and then, finally, achieving it. I say this so I’m not afraid to take on challenges – a book project, say, or a marathon. I want to remind myself that I’ll be happiest if I set a goal and go all-in.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children’s books).
I read magazines. Oh, do I read magazines. I kept time logs for several weeks as I was writing 168 Hours, and I discovered that reading magazines was my default leisure activity. I subscribe to a ridiculous number of them, because they’re usually only $1-2 per issue. People, Nature, the Economist, the New Yorker, Real Simple, Time, Runner’s World, Wired, Cooking Light – you name it, we get it. I buy old magazines from dealers, too; part of my research for 168 Hours involved reading Good Housekeeping magazines from the 1950s. I’m such a junkie that I know when a cover line on a woman’s magazine says “The 50 calorie snack you’ll love!” it will be an article about air-popped popcorn. But for some reason, magazines make me happy. My comfort activity is enjoying a glass of wine and some good chocolate on my apartment balcony while reading a story about someone who successfully lost 100 lbs.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
I wish people wouldn’t say “I don’t have time to do X, Y or Z.” Instead, we should say “I won’t do X, Y or Z because it’s not a priority.” Often, that is a perfectly adequate explanation. I could tell you I’m not going to sew Halloween costumes for my kids because I don’t have time, but that’s not true. If you offered to pay me enough, I’d probably do it! Since that’s not going to happen, I can acknowledge that I just don’t think it’s as good a use of my time as working, playing with my kids, sleeping, or reading magazines (see above). But that’s a little harder to say about other things – “I’m not going to read to you tonight, sweetie, because it’s not a priority.” Blaming a lack of time takes power out of our hands. Owning up to our choices ultimately makes us happier – because we can see that if we don’t like our choices, we have the power to change them.

* I loved this post on The Art of Manliness (a terrific blog, even if, like me, you're not particularly worried about your manliness) about The Pocket Notebooks of 20 Famous Men. Fascinating!

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About the Author

Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project and Better than Before, New York Times bestseller that explains how to form good habits and break bad ones. 

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