Interview: Jen Hatmaker.
Jen Hatmaker is a New York Times bestselling author, blogger, and sought-after speaker. She has written many books and hosts the podcast For the Love. (If you want to listen to the two of us in conversation, she interviewed me on For the Love here.)
Jen and her husband, Brandon, are founders of the Legacy Collective, a giving community that granted more than a million dollars in its first year. The couple also pastors Austin New Church and lives on the outskirts of Austin with their five kids in a 1910-era farmhouse that they recently overhauled as stars of the HGTV series Big Family Renovation. (You can see photos here.)
Her newest book is Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire.
I couldn't wait to talk to Jen about happiness, habits, and creativity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Jen: Morning coffee is my soulmate, and for several years, I tried every (and I mean every) alternative under the sun to enjoy my coffee without the dreadful chemical Almond Joy flavored creamer that I loved, mainly because it is like one molecule away from plastic. Homemade creamer, soy, “all natural,” organic, coconut milk, bulletproof coffee, almond extract; I tried everything out there and don’t come at me with something I didn’t list because I tried that too. Then last year, I said: “No, universe. Let me live. I will drink my coffee with that trash creamer because it makes me happy and I love it.” So now morning coffee is my soulmate again and literally gets me out of bed glad to be alive every single day.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I finally learned that happiness is an inside job. As a first-born, type A, natural achiever, I have always placed an outsized priority on performance and, let’s get real, applause. I never met a Gold Star I didn’t like, and my mom said if ever I struggled for motivation, they would just turn the thing into a contest and my need to win would kick into gear. Adulthood taught me that I could indeed claw my way to plenty of Gold Stars, get quite a few rounds of applause, and lose it all, and the losing showed me that happiness was inside all along. Success, approval, and popularity make a flimsy foundation, and they are far more fragile than any of us would like to think. True happiness is mine to steward in the sun and in the storm; it is my work, my cherished possession, and mine to protect.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
In my latest book Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire, I was surprised to discover how not just important but crucial connected relationships are to our well-being. It is the single factor that overrides virtually every other marker of health. It alone has the power to meet all three basic human needs outlined in Self-Determination Theory, it is the strongest predictor of physical health and lifespan, and it is permanently linked to our levels of resiliency, optimism, and productivity. In other words, the lonelier we are, the worse we are doing in every facet of life, and the more connected we are, the better we are doing in every facet of life. Connection and belonging matter almost more than anything else we put our hands to.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
This may lack credibility after my first answer, but about ten years ago, I decided to stop drinking soda after I saw one eat through battery acid in some deterring video. Understand, I was raised on Coke. This is what we drank. Dad would let me sip his Coke when I was just a fat toddler. We had Coke floats five nights a week. We kept PALLETS of them in our garage. I convinced myself that I couldn’t live without them because I was raising five kids and dammit I deserved to feel the burn of a Coke over Sonic ice. Then battery acid, decision, done. I’ve maybe had five in ten years.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I am mostly an Obliger. I am very cognizant of other people’s expectations, demands, and needs when it comes to my work. I place an outsized value on being a Team Player, which means I struggle to say no or exert any boundaries at all. Even as a pretty compliant partner, I still often feel like I am letting my team down. I sincerely want to serve my community, so I think almost exclusively of what they need from me. I generally “fail” at a habit that only benefits me without any outside structures, accountability, or a clear measure of success.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
As a Yes Person, my schedule is typically overloaded and overextended, so literal busy-ness keeps me from some healthy habits. Travel is a big part of my work which is disproportionally exhausting for my personality type, so I need more recovery time upon returning home which also sabotages otherwise healthy habits. However, my happiness feels pretty intact, because I derive most of my joy from my friends and family which I always make time for. Apparently I can be void of virtually all healthy habits but still turn up for Happy Hour.
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.?
Yes! I was interviewing Dr. Hillary McBride for my podcast last year, discussing her incredible research on our relationship with our bodies. Her approach was so revolutionary, it was the top-downloaded episode of 2019. She suggested calling our bodies a “her” or “she” as an integrated, cherished part of who we are, not just an unfortunate container carrying around our brains and feelings. It flattened me in my chair. That interview and her work changed me and became the foundational research I used in a chapter in Fierce called “I Am Strong in My Body” which I have never read one time through without crying.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
Because my urge to meet expectations and succeed is so intense, I began working this rhetoric into my daily life: “Good enough.” This goes against every instinct I have to excel at all times and at all costs, so I use it regularly. I’ve discovered that good enough is almost always good enough. I had no idea! It really is. Good enough has served me in parenting, marriage, relationships, and career. It has stopped me from placing unreasonable expectations on myself and others, and it has soothed the ferocious roar in my head to always be more, do more, and serve more.
Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
Books have changed my life since I was old enough to read. The Secret Garden introduced me to Yorkshire Moors, A Wrinkle in Time challenged the notion of time and space, The Nancy Drew Series convinced me of my future in teen sleuthing. Books have been my best friends for forty years. The most recent book where I read a specific paragraph, quietly put it down, and wrote one of the hardest but most important emails of my life was Untamed by my friend Glennon Doyle.
In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?
Female authors are often pitted against each other as competitors, but in my experience, other women in my field are my greatest collaborators and cheerleaders. My peers are unmatched in their generosity; we share platforms, tips, promotion, editors. I am releasing a book during a pandemic which is weird and horrible, and I cannot count how many of my colleagues have reached out and said: “What can I do for Fierce?” My community has rallied for me in ways that shock and overwhelm me. I love the women in my field.
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