Interview: Steven Johnson.
Steven Johnson has written many fascinating books, such as How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World. (which is also a PBS series). I absolutely love the title (and argument) of his book Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.
His most recent book just hit the shelves: Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, for which there’s also a podcast. Wonderland is all about how playful aspects of life — like fashion, shopping, music, illusion, games, taverns, parks — have had a big impact on our history.
I was eager to hear what Steven Johnson had to say about habits and happiness.
Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded?
Steven: I think the most interesting finding is really closely connected to what you’ve tried to wrestle with in The Happiness Project — that we are surprisingly creative and innovative when we’re having fun, when we’re in a playful state. There are probably a hundred different stories in Wonderland that showcase how an idea that came into the world originally in the form of a toy or a game or a new fashion ended up laying the groundwork for a “serious” revolution in science or technology or politics. The best example of that is the industrial revolution. When we were kids, we’d read accounts of why industrialization happened, and it would always be about these brilliant engineers and early capitalists building steam engines and designing the factory system. But if you go back and look at the sequence, what really started the whole process was the moment of delight that Londoners experienced (mostly women) encountering the soft, beautiful fabrics of calico and chintz for the first time. That obsession with imported cotton ended up triggering a huge backlash because it threatened the existing wool industry in Britain at the time, but eventually it lead to the inventions of the industrial age. You see that again and again in history: interests and passions that start out just as seemingly idle pursuits end up changing the course of history.
What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?
Working on a book every day. Or even better, working on two books every day. I like to have one active book that I’m focused on writing, and then another one that’s in the background, that I know I am going to write eventually, that I’m researching and thinking about in the gaps between working on the main project. I try to write 500 words a day when I’m actively writing a book, which is really not very many words — it’s like three paragraphs. You can write them in an hour or two if you’re well prepared. So I rarely have that feeling of sitting down at the computer in the morning and thinking, oh my god, I have so much writing to do. But I’m pretty rigorous about hitting that target. And if you write 500 words a day for 4-5 months, you’ll have a book. Or at least enough words for a book.
Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
One of my rituals that is very important to me — that I have preserved from my teenage years — is that I try to make a regular custom of sitting and listening to music for twenty or thirty minutes without any other distractions. Not background music as I work, music that I am listening to without any distraction, no screens, no other people in the room with me. The only distraction, I suppose, is that I usually have a glass or two of wine while I do it. It is very soothing as an experience, even if the music is not, but it’s also a very creative time for me: my mind wanders over different ideas, digests the day’s work. I sometimes get a comparable experience going out for a long walk in Brooklyn, or a hike in California — sometimes with headphones on, sometimes without a soundtrack. Just giving yourself that continuous time to let your mind wander, with some kind of sensory accompaniment — either the scenery or the sonic landscape, or both — is incredibly valuable, I think.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)
My wife and I have a wonderful shared quality in that we both are entirely happy to stay home every single night of the week. We have no compulsion to be social and always have something on the calendar. When we are out in California we often have stretches of 10-15 days with literally zero social events on the calendar — no dinner parties, no drinks, no lunches. And it’s always a terrifically productive time for us. When we are in NY the calendar fills up a lot more easily, but I’ve gotten very good at just saying no to things because I know that if I have a week with a ton of meetings and evening events, I’m not going to be happy. And it has a nice positive effect when we actually do go out: we’re both like, “oh it’s so fun to hang out with friends! we should do this more often!”
Do you embrace habits or resist them?
I was always a very habitual person, with very fixed tastes and attitudes about things — though not a particularly organized person, I should say. I would drink a certain kind of coffee, and only eat certain dishes, and could only write in certain environments. For like fifteen years, the only kind of alcohol I would drink was low-sugar red wines. But one of the strange things that happened to me becoming a middle-aged person (I’m 48) is that I started shaking things up. I’m still very habitual; I just keep changing my habits. We moved to California full-time for three years about six years ago for no other reason than it would be change of pace. I started drinking white wine almost exclusively like two years ago. I suddenly decided I like spicy food about six years ago. It’s a good antidote to getting old, I suppose: don’t let yourself get settled in your ways. Invent new ways!