Kristin van Ogtrop is the former editor-in-chief of Real Simple. Under her stewardship, Real Simple became the #1 American women’s lifestyle magazine brand and was nominated for 15 National Magazine Awards.
Her blog, “Adventures in Chaos,” was nominated for a Media Industry Newsletter “Best of the Web” award; in 2014, she was named by Fortune magazine as one of the “55 Most Influential Women on Twitter”; and she’s the author of Just Let Me Lie Down (Amazon, Bookshop).
She now works as a literary agent, where she represents memoir, commercial women’s fiction, humor, lifestyle and big idea books driven by counterintuitive thinking.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Kristin about happiness, habits, and creativity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Kristin: Running. (Or, I should say, jogging. I run a slow 10-minute mile, much to the amusement and derision of my children, but I try to tell them it’s not the speed that matters.) I run outside in all seasons, and the combination of fresh air, forward movement, and having a quiet half hour to myself does wonders for my well-being. I don’t run with headphones—I’ve tried that, and found listening to music or a podcast is too distracting. As I run, I think to myself, Be here now. When I know I’m going to have a tough day, I make myself run first thing in the morning and somehow that clears a path forward for me through the rest of the day, no matter what I encounter along the way: I feel more centered, I have more energy, and I’m better able to handle any obstacles in the road.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
In my kitchen, I have a cabinet with glass doors, right above the bowl where we keep our car keys, so it’s a highly-trafficked spot in the house. A few years ago I opened a fortune cookie to find this fortune: HAPPINESS IS AN ACCOMPLISHMENT. I taped the little slip of paper to the glass and now I see it whenever I grab the keys. And I agree with the sentiment—if you are happy, you have achieved something. In fact, on many days, you have achieved enough. I didn’t know that when I was 18. The other thing I’ve learned about myself, at least so far in my 56 years of life, is that happiness always comes back to me. Sometimes it leaves for a while, but it will always come back.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I used to be a terrible fingernail biter, well into my 20s. At a certain point it just became so ridiculous and unattractive that vanity trumped compulsion, and I stopped. In my experience, vanity can be a very powerful motivator when it comes to shaping habits.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I am an Upholder, full stop. I like clear expectations, I don’t like to break the rules, and my family would definitely describe me as rigid, particularly in the pandemic when we are all working from home together and I really just want everyone to put their own dishes in the dishwasher (see next question)!
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?
Honestly, there are two things in my daily life that directly impact my happiness, and they are so basic. The first is sleep: if I get less than 7 hours, it’s like all the lights are dimmer, all the surfaces are harder, everyone around me is annoying and everything on my to-do list is insurmountable. And the second is clutter or, specifically, the amount of stuff the 4 other members of my family leave lying around for someone (read: me) to pick up—dirty dishes, homework sheets, dog leashes, shoes, shoes, shoes. I’ve spent the pandemic working from home with my husband and three sons, and so the days of clutter-free happiness do indeed feel like an accomplishment.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
“Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” Everybody knows this Henry James quote, but I still feel like it’s something we all need to live by. Particularly now. And so when I am wrestling with a decision vis-a-vis another human being (or, uh, even my dogs), I ask myself, “What is the kind thing to do?”
Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?
I feel like every book I read changes my life in some way. But two that changed the way I think are The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (Amazon, Bookshop) by Anne Fadiman, and Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (Amazon, Bookshop) by Andrew Solomon. Both brilliant examinations of communities that look very little like my own.