Interview: Joanna Coles.
Joanna Coles has had a very interesting career. Before her current position as the first Chief Content Office for Hearst Magazines, she was editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire. Plus, in addition to her significant positions in the magazine world, she's also very involved in the world of TV, in shows like So Cosmo, The Bold Type (a scripted series based on her life), Running in Heels, and Project Runway.
As if that's not enough, she's just published a book: Love Rules: How to Find a Real Relationship in a Digital World. (I love the double meaning of this title.) It's all about how to find meaningful love in a world full of meaningless encounters. She gives fifteen rules or "love hacks" -- I always love a hack or a true rule! She uses the metaphor of the diet, of eating more healthfully, as a way to look at finding the right sweetheart.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Joanna about happiness, habits, and relationships.
Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Joanna: Whenever I take the subway or a cab in New York City, I try not to go on my phone and instead look around. I find it helps me notice things which leads to ideas. And sometimes when you are thinking about nothing in particular and you let your mind wander it's exciting where it will end up. And if I see someone standing alone at a party or looking awkward on their own, I will try and go up and say "Hi" because walking into a room on your own can feel terrifying, and it makes you feel good to make someone else feel welcome.
Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Joanna: That friends and partners should always be treated with respect, even when you least feel like it! And that its always better to have a conversation about whatever is going wrong with them, than to ignore it or pretend you don’t care. Good communication is the key to everything. It’s hard but it’s almost always worth it. At work, at home, at play.
Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers -- most?
Joanna: Harvard began a longitudinal study in 1938, during the Great Depression, that tracked 268 sophomores to study what made people happy. Now 80 years later, what they found is that good relationships were essential. Robert Waldinger, the director of the study, said in a recent press release, "The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health. Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too." This is why finding finding someone to love who loves you back is so vitally important—your health and happiness depend on it.
The other research I found fascinating, and grim, is the negative impact of binge drinking on women, and how closely it is tied to sexual assault in this country. Getting drunk is an accepted part of our culture today, for women and men, but the ramifications of getting black out drunk are so costly for women. It is the one area where women should not want equality—our bodies have more fat which means we process alcohol more quickly then men. The National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA) defines binge drinking for women as four drinks in two hours, where for men it is five. And yet, binge drinking has risen 17% for women between 2005 and 2012 versus 4.9% for men. The other stat that ties in to this, also by the NIAA is that half of all sexual assaults involve alcohol. This is why Rule #8 is, Know Your Limits.
Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to "Be Gretchen.") Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?
Joanna: I end Love Rules with a snippet from a story Ian McEwan wrote for The Guardian following 9-11. It still brings me to tears. In the piece, McEwan writes about about a husband who misses the last panicked call from his wife who is in the Twin Towers that day. She was calling to say goodbye. He wrote, "There was really only one thing for her to say. Those three words that all the terrible art, the worst pop songs and movies, the most seductive lies, can somehow never cheapen. I love you. She said it over and over again before the line went dead."
Love is the food of life. And we all deserve to eat and love well. That is why I wrote Love Rules--I felt there was no guide book out there as to how to find it. It nourishes and feeds us, it is the key to happiness. It makes us feel we are alive and without it, little else matters.
Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
Joanna: I have a scalding hot bath every night. I still have the apartment’s original porcelain bath from 1908, it’s very deep and very long and I sink up to my neck and exhale. I love Epsom salts, oils, bubbles, and I lie there in silence and inhale the steam and think through the day. Heaven.
Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)
Joanna: Of course! Late nights with friends mean I cancel too many early morning yoga lessons, always set up with the best intentions and promise that this time I won’t cancel. But as much as I love yoga, nothing is better for your long-term health -- not even a restorative headstand -- than a good evening with family and friends.