Emily Anthes: “I Spend All Day in My Head, with Abstract Ideas and Words…It Feels Really Nice to Do Something with My Hands.”

Emily Anthes: “I Spend All Day in My Head, with Abstract Ideas and Words…It Feels Really Nice to Do Something with My Hands.”

Interview: Emily Anthes.

Emily Anthes is a science journalist and author. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Wired, Nature, Mosaic, Nautilus, Slate, Businessweek, Scientific American, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Aeon, Psychology Today, and elsewhere. She is the author of Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts and Instant Egghead Guide: The Mind.

Her new book is The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health, and Happiness.

I've long been fascinated by the question of how our surroundings influence our happiness and habits—this theme comes up in many of books, such  The Happiness Project, Happier at Home, Better Than Before, and of course, Outer Order, Inner Calm.

So I was very interested in Emily Anthes's work, and couldn't wait to talk to her about happiness, habits, and our surroundings.

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

Emily: I love to cook. I spend all day in my head, with abstract ideas and words that might not see the light of day for months, if not years. So it feels really nice to do something with my hands—and something that has tangible and immediate rewards. I like to cook all sorts of things, but I have a special fondness for bread baking. There’s something about the transformation from sticky ball of dough to airy loaf of bread that feels almost alchemical. I’ve made countless loaves of bread, but still, every time I remove one from the oven, it seems like magic.

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

My new book, The Great Indoors, explores how our indoor environments—our homes, offices, schools, and other spaces—influence our health, behavior, and happiness. When I began the project, I knew that our indoor environments mattered. (That’s what sparked the project, after all.) But I was surprised at just how *much* they mattered. Our buildings shape our lives in all sorts of ways that aren’t immediately obvious. Researchers have found, for instance, that women who give birth in sprawling hospital wards are more likely to have caesarean sections than those who give birth in compact ones, that kids who live in quieter homes are better readers than those who live in noisy ones, and that people who live on the upper floors of an apartment building are less likely to survive heart attacks than those who live closer to the ground. The layout of your office shapes your social networks, the view from your hospital window affects how quickly you recover from surgery, and the temperature in a room influences your cognitive performance. And that’s just a small smattering of examples. The indoor environment affects us in all kinds of ways that we rarely think about. (Though I suspect we’re all thinking about it more these days!)

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

For the last decade or so, I’ve managed to get myself to the gym three times a week. I still don’t love it—and don’t think I ever will—but one thing that helps me stay motivated is listening to gripping audiobooks, especially mysteries and thrillers, when I work out. Wanting to find out what happens next is often enough to nudge me to get some exercise.

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

I am not surprised to see that I’m an Upholder—that’s absolutely what I would have guessed. I’m pretty disciplined and rule-bound, even when it would serve me to be a bit looser and more spontaneous. That’s something I’m working on.

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

Working from home is both a blessing and a curse. In some ways, it’s made it easier for me to have healthy habits—I’m able to go for long walks with the dog, go to the gym in the middle of the day, and embark upon long, leisurely cooking projects. But in other ways, it’s an enormous challenge, especially for work-life balance. It’s hard to maintain that balance when you work where you live (and live where you work)—something that I’m sure a lot of people have discovered in recent months. I feel like there’s always more work I could be doing, which makes it hard to “turn off” my work brain, and to really decompress and disconnect.

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?

“All you have to do is write one true sentence.” That’s what Ernest Hemingway would tell himself when he was struggling to get going on a new writing project. And I’ve found it helpful to remind myself of that when I’m staring at a blank page. Writing an entire book can feel overwhelming, but really, all you have to do is write one true sentence. And then another. And then another.

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

The first one that comes to mind is Phantoms in the Brain, by V.S. Ramachandran, which I read when I was in middle school. Ramachandran is a neuroscientist, and the book chronicles his innovative attempts to help patients with phantom limb pain. It’s the book that made me fall in love with science in general, and neuroscience in particular. It’s a testament to how amazing and strange the brain can be, and it made me realize that science isn’t this static set of facts, but a never-ending process of asking and answering questions.

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

Journalists aren’t especially popular these days, and there’s this assumption that we play fast and loose with the facts, that we don’t care what we write or who it affects. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Every journalist I know cares deeply about truth and accuracy and has literally lost sleep over the possibility of getting something wrong. We’re not perfect, of course, and we do sometimes get things wrong, but we try extremely hard not to, and it’s gutting to make a mistake in print.

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