Lydia Denworth is a science journalist who’s a contributing editor for Scientific American, and writes the ‘Brain Waves’ blog for Psychology Today. Her work has also appeared in the Atlantic, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Time, and many other publications.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Lydia about happiness, habits, and relationships. Friendship is so important to happiness!
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Lydia: Several mornings a week, I take a three- to four-mile walk with a friend (different friends on different days). Knowing I am meeting someone gets me out and going, especially if it’s 6 a.m. and still dark. Ugh. I get exercise. I get time to catch up with my friend. The productive, creative part comes from our conversations. These walks are a chance to talk things through, whether I’m worried about one of my kids, or thinking about how to frame a pitch to an editor. As a freelancer who works from home, I find it especially helpful to keep up these running conversations with friends who know me, my family and my work.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
When I was young, I thought I’d wake up one day and be an adult who knew just what made her happy. I thought that mythical adult me would make specific decisions about work and family and stick to them because they would have been exactly right.
I realize now that what you want and need—what makes you happy—changes as you go along in life. It’s fluid. And that’s okay.
Halfway through my journalism career, I morphed into being a science writer. It happened somewhat by accident when there turned out to be a lot of hard science to explain in my first book. Science was pretty much the last subject I expected to cover since I always took the bare minimum required in school. But I found that it suited my talents and I enjoy it (nearly) every day. My 18-year-old self would not believe that I could enjoy spending an hour or two with The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Genetics, but I do. I am deliriously happy when I finally understand a thorny important concept. On the one hand, I like that my work lets me literally learn new things every day. On the other, I like feeling that I understand something well enough to explain it to readers so that they can understand it, too.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
For my new book, I’ve been most surprised by how much we think we know about friendship and how we take it for granted. Sure, we know it’s lovely and pleasurable, but we don’t always prioritize it as if our lives depended on it. They do! Friendship grows out of an evolutionary drive to connect and it shapes our biology and the trajectory of our lives. Friendship, by which I mean quality relationships with people who make you feel good and are reliably in your corner (and vice versa), is as important as diet and exercise for health and wellness. I wasn’t expecting that.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
According to your quiz, I’m a Questioner, but I think I really sit on the line between being an Upholder and a Questioner. Is that a thing? I’m pretty good about deadlines and my friends would probably say I’m very disciplined. They don’t know, however, how much time I spend watching television or reading mysteries when I should be working. That’s part procrastination, part rebellion, part self-care. In a similar vein, I have decided that I don’t want to live a life that doesn’t include chocolate chip cookies or a glass of wine in the evening. I question the wisdom that says otherwise.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
What doesn’t? The holiday season was disastrous for my diet and exercise habits. But I did manage to get back on the wagon, so to speak, once January started. Email and social media regularly distract me. But perhaps my biggest problem is not getting enough sleep. When I’m tired, which is often, my discipline goes out the window. My solution is to take a nap and start over when I get up.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
My father was a wise man and he regularly talked to us about what he called Recovery Technique. He would say: “Life is not just what happens to you. It’s what you do next.” I have been amazed by how often this helps me handle everything from negative feedback on something I’ve written to discovering my youngest son was deaf.
Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
A book that helped shape the trajectory of my life was John McPhee’s Coming into the Country. I read it when I was in high school and was completely taken with it. That book helped me decide to become a nonfiction writer.
In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?
I wish more people would pick up popular science books. I say that as someone who was once completely intimidated by and not all that interested in science. Now I see science as the ultimate story, full of intriguing ideas and plot twists. It is also critically important to many of the big issues of the day. And finally, science like the kind I write about in Friendship, has much to teach us about ourselves.