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“When I Was 18, I Thought Happiness Was About Looking a Certain Way.”

“When I Was 18, I Thought Happiness Was About Looking a Certain Way.”

Interview: Lisa Davis.

With a Master’s Degree in Public Health, Lisa Davis interviews experts of all sorts on issues related to health and lifestyle. She's the creator, host, and producer of It’s Your Health radio heard on NPR and several commercial stations, as well as the co-host and producer of Naturally Savvy Radio and the host of Talk Healthy Today.

Her new book is Clean Eating, Dirty Sex. I couldn't wait to talk to Lisa about happiness, health, habits, and productivity.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Lisa: This might sound funny, but it’s actually doing my physical therapy exercises for my knee. Several months ago I was diagnosed with arthritis in both of my knees. I have always had knee issues since my knee caps are tipped to the side a bit and don't track correctly. I was feeling really down about the pain in my knees since I thrive on being active. I had done physical therapy in the past and for the first month or so I would do the exercises. Then suddenly, poof! What exercises?

This time, something shifted in me. I wanted to really feel better. To walk my dogs every day with less pain. To play with my daughter and run around outside like goofs! To maybe even go on a run with my husband. So, this time around I do my knee exercises every other day as prescribed, and I will continue to do them. Forever. I think we all reach a tipping point where we need to commit to something even though it might be uncomfortable, time consuming, or just plain old not enjoyable (hmm…this sounds like my PT exercises) in order for us to be happier. Thanks Shane (my awesome physical therapist).

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

When I was 18, I thought happiness was about looking a certain way. In my book, Clean Eating, Dirty Sex (not about dirty sex, just a play on words—it's a memoir, cookbook, and healthy lifestyle guide), I share some of my experiences growing up skinny, awkward, and a repellent to boys. I based my whole sense of self on what a bunch of 11-years-olds thought of me. (There's a very moving story in the book about a life-altering experience with these 11-year-olds).

I based my happiness on what others thought of me. Since many thought of me as a loser, that’s how I saw myself—for my whole childhood and teen years. It was a horrible way to live. This led to acting out sexually (also in the book) when at 18 I finally went from having the figure of a pre-pubescent boy to Elle MacPherson (aka "The Body"). Talk about blooming overnight! It took me many more years to really learn about what truly made me happy.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?

What intrigued me and my readers the most is the science behind the foods that I highlight in my book Clean Eating Dirty Sex. It has to do with foods rich in antioxidants, flavonoids, nitric oxide, healthy fats, and more. I could get into more detail, however I think you’d prefer to read it in the book. Plus you’d get to read the story of my 11-year-old life-defining moment and so much more!

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

I managed to break an unhealthy habit. Using sex in an unhealthy way to validate myself. It was bad. I wasn’t sleeping around because I felt empowered and enjoyed it, I was sleeping around to prove that I was worthy. That I was pretty. That I wasn’t a loser. It took a lot of therapy to move past this. I still sometimes seek attention through flirting or posting attractive pics of myself. I have come a long way and I am still a work in progress.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?


Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)

I am pretty dedicated to my healthy habits. I started them in my late teens so it’s been many, many, many years (more about this in the memoir portion of my book.)  I do allow myself some indulgences when I travel. I just got back from a vacation and I ate Mexican food everyday. [But] I only ate the chips twice during the eight days I ate Mexican food, so I appear to be pretty dedicated.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

When my mother died of ovarian cancer at 56. I was working in the health field but I wasn’t fully satisfied and I couldn’t move up without going back to school. Having some learning differences (my daughter who also has them calls them learning differences instead of learning disabilities), the idea of going back to school didn’t appeal to me and the idea of graduate school seemed too much. Not to sound like a cliche but I realized life was short and I needed to face my fears about going back to school. I did and I happened to not only get straight A’s (there is a hyper-focus to ADD and I loved the subject matter), it is also where I discovered my love and passion for health media and health communications. I wouldn’t be where I am now in my career if I hadn’t gone back to school.

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)

"Expand your horizons." My mother used to say that to me all of the time when I was growing up. I never really took it to heart until I was an adult. Now I say it to my daughter. I want her to take in as many enriching experiences as possible.

Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?

This is going to sound so ridiculous. I don’t remember the name of the book that changed my life. I was in another unhealthy relationship and I came across a book about just that subject. It had list of red flags and my relationship was like an island covered in red flags. So many red flags that I could barely breathe. I read that book and it got me on the road to recovery. I will always be embarrassed and quite frankly ashamed that I cannot remember the title of the book that changed my life.

In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?

I think people assume that because I work in health education and health media that I don’t have any health challenges and that working out and eating healthy come easy to me. I had to work hard to move from what I call dirty eating to clean eating. Not only was I picked last in gym but the kids fought over who got stuck with me so athletics always carried a negative connotation. I discovered that my lack of athletic skills stopped once I got in the pool and at 17 I began swimming daily. I was finally stating to feel good in my body.

I think another misperception is that everyone in the health field should be ripped. I am far from ripped. I am a size 10 (sometimes a 12) and I have love handles. I eat healthy and move my body daily, however I don’t feel the need to look like an Instagram model.

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