“I’m a Person Who Has Always Relished Time Alone…the Years of Parenting Toddlers and Pre-schoolers Was Difficult for Me.”

Interview: Katy Wolk-Stanley.

I spend a great deal of timing mulling over the relationship between happiness and money, which I think is one of the most complicated and emotionally charged topics within the larger subject of happiness. One blog that I enjoy reading is Katy Wolk-Stanley’s The Non-Consumer Advocate — “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” Among other things, she writes about how she has challenged herself to be part of “The Compact” to buy nothing new (and also, to buy very little), with very few exceptions (like underwear).

Katy has thought a lot about happiness, and how to make choices with her money that make her happier. Her approach might not right for everyone, but her insights are thought-provoking and often hilarious.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Katy: I always feel rejuvenated after getting together with a friend. This can be as simple as meeting up for coffee, going for a walk or even combining our errands.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I don’t think I gave any thought to happiness whatsoever when I was 18. This does not mean that I was gloriously happy, as I was riddled with insecurities about whether this or that guy liked me, was I too fat and feeling bad about being a less than stellar student.

Now that I’m 43 years old, I’m so much more comfortable in my skin, and I make conscious decisions that invite happiness into my life. Knowing that being happy isn’t something that only happens to other people has been a revelation. Barring something catastrophic, I am the deciding factor in my own happiness.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
No. Thankfully, I’ve never been a self-destructive type.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Spend out.”) Or a book that has been particularly useful?
The motto that gets me through the hard times is “Every day is a fresh start,” (I actually wrote about this line in The Non-Consumer Advocate blog post just last week.) I think these words to myself most every morning, and I discuss them with my 12 and 15-year-old sons as well.

However awful yesterday was, it’s now in the past and today is now a completely new opportunity.

A book that I’ve returned to time and again has been Amy Dacyczyn’s The Complete Tightwad Gazette. Despite its somewhat dated pre-internet advice, Dacyzyn’s essays, tips and humor never fail to resonate and refresh.

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).
When I notice that life’s stressors are starting to tip the scales, I make sure that I have a few things on my calendar to look forward to. This can be as simple as a lunch date or a quiet foray into my favorite thrift shop. I’ve also found that watching favorite television programs with my surprisingly still snuggly teens to be a wonderful treat. For us, it’s “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” all the way!

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 have noticed that a lot of people dig themselves into the habit of complaining about anything and everything; and I can certainly understand the inclination. It’s hard to find the positive side of life when you feel that your sense of humor or personality is based on clever cynicism.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?
I am a person who has always relished time spent alone. And because of this, the years of parenting toddlers and preschoolers were difficult for me. I felt like I was never able to completely recharge my batteries, and even ended up taking anti-depressants for a month when I found that I was crying all the time. (I stopped taking them because the medication was too expensive, although they did get me to a level where I could handle life without breaking down.)

I’ve worked for 16 years as a labor and delivery nurse in a high risk hospital, which can be quite stressful. I decided a number of years back to focus on the aspects of my job that I love and to not give energy to the frustrating parts. This freed me up to enjoy my wonderful job, without worrying about office politics or other conflict. Of course, the most important thing that keeps me from getting burnt out in my job, is that I’m able to work part-time. This is due to all the frugal choices I make in my life. Totally worth it!

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
It’s hard to say whether I concretely work on being happier, but I have made a conscious decision that I can be happy, even when my life is stressful. In other words, I’m not waiting for that elusive perfect storybook life to start being happy.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
Recently, my 15-year-old son wanted to go to a friend’s high school production of “Damn Yankees,” which was unfortunately located all the way out in the far suburbs. I decided that as long as I was driving him, we might as well see the play together. The evening ended up being really fun, and I was surprised by how much we both enjoyed the time and shared experience together. Plus, a few of the high schoolers were impressively talented!

I’ve been surprised by how satisfying writing The Non-Consumer Advocate is. I have forged connections all over the world, and even made good friends within my own city of Portland, Oregon. Blogging turns out to be more interactive than I ever could have imagined. I love my readers!

Anything else to add?
You spent a good chunk of your book focusing on how having a decluttered home was key to your Happiness Project. Having spent the past few years aggressively decluttering my home, I can completely identify with this connection. I used to spend way too many hours agonizing over the tidiness of my house, which was mostly due to having too much stuff.

I am now able to have friends, house-guests and surprise visitors over without the hell of frantic cleaning. My house is not perfect, but it’s never more than thirty minutes from presentable.

It turns out that having a decluttered home was key to my Happiness Project as well! And by the way, I would feel zero offense if you ever came to my house and started to organizing my closets. None whatsoever! [I would love to do that, Katy! Any time!]

* I love checking out Design Mom — “the intersection of design and motherhood” — especially the beautiful photos of France.

* Volunteer as a Super-Fan, and from time to time, I’ll ask for your help. Nothing too onerous, I promise. Sign up here or email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com. If you’re already a Super-Fan, thanks! I so appreciate your help.

  • I loved this interview! I really think Katy has hit the target by realizing, “I am the deciding factor in my own happiness.” If we all deeply recognized this key point, our lives and the world would be transformed.

  • As a (very strange) child, I used to pore over Amy Dacyczyn’s book. It was a treasured possession of mine. She was a pre-blogging blogger.

  • The Non-Consumer Advocate

    Thank you so much for this opportunity to share my thoughts on happiness with your readers.

    Katy Wolk-Stanley
    “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

    • gretchenrubin

      Thank YOU Katy!

  • Two of my favorite bloggers, all in one post! Thanks for a wonderful interview!

  • Kristen@TheFrugalGirl

    So delighted to see Katy here! Woohoo, dear blogging-friend-Katy. 🙂

    And Gretchen, I read your book on Katy’s recommendation, and I loved it. so interesting. And I must say, as an almost perpetually perky person, I felt so relieved when you acknowledged that we happy people DO work at it. The happiness I feel is much of the time due to me consciously working at it…looking for the good in my life, trying to see the bright side, and so on.

  • Baxtedea

    I love your blog and read each entry you make. I also look forward to each day’s quotation, finding that most add just that “little extra” to the beginning of my work day. Thank-you for the very fine work that you are doing.

  • How nice to ‘meet’ Katy for the first time here! 🙂 I also get a boost of happiness when i plan things to look forward to on my calendar!

    My husband is an introvert and I am on the border of extrovert and introvert so I can completely relate to what she said about the toddler and preschool years being a bit difficult (we’re right there in that phase currently with a 5 yr old and a 2 yr old)

    I look forward to checking out more of what she has to say!

  • Opal

    Interesting post though I found it quite peculiar that the mother being interviewed found the toddler years difficult because she would rather be alone and that she was surprised by the fact that she enjoyed spending time with her teenage son at his high school play.

    I realize that we each have very different, very personal definitions of happiness. But as people, and especially as parents, I think it would aid us well by realizing that happiness changes over time. For example, I completely relish alone time, as I always have. But when my children came along, I realized that my happiness was now theirs and that theirs was mine. So while I may very well enjoy being alone, am I truly, lastingly happy without my children nearby or without soaking up as much time with them as I can. I’d be pleased as punch if my teenage son wanted to spend time with me, at a play no less!

    These are just my opinions based on the content of the article. I sincerely hope I do not offend anyone, and apologize if I have.

  • Pewari

    Great interview – I really related to the alone time issues with small children in tow – as much as I loved them when they were little, I’m so glad my two are school age now!

  • Very pragmatic, no?

  • Heather

    It is always wonderful to unexpectedly connect with what someone else has to say. In this case, Katy’s explanation for why she found her kids’ young years difficult. I’m in that same space, for the same reasons, and now that I have the language to identify the problem it will be much easier to work through than a blind belief in “it will get better someday!”

    • Katy Wolk-Stanley


      I loved parenting my kids when they were little, but it was so utterly exhausting. There were no blogs around at the time, but I think it would be easier now, as it’s now so much easier to build community.

      Also, I worked 11:00 P.M.-7:30 A.M. as a labor and delivery nurse. Sooo tiring!

      Katy Wolk-Stanley