Spike Carlsen is a longtime journalist and writer. He’s written for Men’s Health, The Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian, Make, Mother Earth News, and Fine Homebuilding among other publications, and he’s the the author of the award-winning A Splintered History of Wood (Amazon, Bookshop), and five other books.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Spike about happiness, human nature, and of course, walking.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Spike: Walking and biking make me happier and physically energized 99% of the time. Being outdoors, coupled with the meditative churning of pedals or clomping of feet, primes my creative pump when I’m alone. I’ve “written” entire chapters in my head, then dashed home to get them on paper before they evaporated. If I’m walking or biking with my partner, Kat, or others, that same foot or pedal rhythm often helps steer the conversation in a much-needed direction.
Over 100 million Americans consider walking their main form of exercise. One study shows that “awe walking”—walking with your radar up to take a fresh look at nature, objects and moments—results in people feeling, happier and more socially connected. Those that focused on nature felt more upbeat after their walk than those that pondered politics or problems at home. My recent book, A Walk Around the Block, provides plenty of “awe” fodder for those wishing to appreciate the amazing world around them they often take for granted.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
When I was 18 I was the hippiest hippie you ever did see. I bought into the whole culture—drugs, sex and rock and roll. I had countless friends and “far out” experiences. But I rarely felt happy.
Today I’m fortunate enough to have a handful of good friends with whom I can share my thoughts. On top of that, after decades of using alcohol and drugs to mask my depression, I began taking anti-depressants; once viewed as a sign of weakness, I now see them as a sign of strength. I’ve found anti-depressants, combined with exercise, simply level the playing field for me. Rather than starting the day with two feet embedded in the concrete, I can start it standing on solid ground. Medications don’t make me happier, they allow me to be happier.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
Two things: Most people—whether they’re sewage treatment plant workers, graffiti artists or snowplow drivers (all whom I interviewed for my recent book) —are, first of all, passionate and proud about what they do and, secondly, eager to share their stories. Though my recent book at face value, appears to be about “things,” it’s really about people; their triumphs and failures, their ingenuity and belly flops, their inner worlds which we rarely get to see.
One prime example of this passion is Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home who I met while researching trash and recycling. She went from a life of conspicuous consumption to one where she managed to get her entire family’s yearly trash reduced to a point where it can fit into a quart jar. Am I going to do that? No. Am I going to head in that direction? Yes.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I’m a Questioner with—what I guess might be—Rebel overtones. I like to know all the details before making a decision. As a writer I need to get the facts right, and getting the facts right involves digging, researching, asking the right questions, then taking all that information and writing something that’s informative, engaging, hopefully even inspirational. The process often involves “translating English into English”; finding a way of describing an idea where people go “Nowwwww I get it,” or “I already vaguely knew that—but this guy gave it shape; put the right words to it.”
I’d add to that, just as knowing your Tendency helps you engage more deeply with others, knowing about the world around you helps you engage in actions that can positively impact yourself, your family, your community and your world.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
I have nine granddaughters, all living within an hour’s drive. They’re a constant source of joy…to the point where I sometimes have trouble juggling the giggles with my work schedule. But I’d have it no other way.
And then there are Minnesota winters …
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.?
I fractured my hip in a freak accident a few years ago; while they were doing an MRI of my hip they discovered cancer. Once I waded through all the tubes, surgeries, chemo treatments and grouchiness, I came to realize that health, family, and friends are all that matter. I’d heard this a jillion times growing up—this made me realize it’s true.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
It’s a jump ball between Margaret Mead’s statement, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” and a quote from a woman in the public- relations department of a water treatment plant, who said something to the effect, “Knowledge is power; and when you know more about how the world works, you make better decisions as you walk through it.”
We’re so immersed in national politics these days that we often forget how much we can accomplish on a local level; working from the ground up to make the world a better place.
Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
Writers like Bill Bryson, John McPhee and Tracy Kidder, who can take seemingly blasé subjects like oranges or hiking and craft them into page turners, inspired me to become a writer.
But on a personal level, the most inspiring book just might be The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (Amazon, Bookshop). Here you have a tree that selflessly gives and gives and gives to a boy as he grows from toddler to old age. And then, when the tree has nothing left to give (spoiler alert), it offers itself up as a stump for sitting and pondering. How can you beat an allegory like that for parenting or living in the world?
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
Friend and fellow writer, Michael Perry, once wrote “When I meet a dreamer with callouses I try to shut up and listen.” I love being a writer, and while some ideas appear almost magically, most of it boils down to discipline and work. There’s more to writing than writing. It’s researching, interviewing, rewriting, re-rewriting, throwing out stuff you’ve spent weeks working on. Then, after months of being an inverted hermit you need to transform yourself into a carnival barker trying to get the book out into the world.
It can be weird finding the right balance. That said, I repeat, I love writing.