Ep 225: The Hidden Benefits of Joy and Fun

Episode Summary

Catherine defines the true meaning of fun, explains why we tend to undervalue it, and gives practical tips for how we can bring more fun to ourselves and our families.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Do you remember the last time you had fun? Maybe you were exploring a new place, playing a video game or even just laughing with your friends. What did it feel like? Did it help you relieve stress and add joy to your day?

We often consider fun irrelevant, or view it as a waste of time, but it can be an essential part of survival. Having fun is not only good for our mood, but actually improves our physical health, lowering our cortisol and helping us balance our hormones.

Teaching kids the importance of fun can help them live happier, healthier lives as they head into adulthood.

To understand how we can pass the value of fun onto our kids, we’re talking to Catherine Price, author of The Power of Fun. Catherine is an award-winning science journalist and speaker whose work has been featured in Time Magazine, O Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and more. The New York Times even dubbed her the Marie Kondo of minds!

In our interview, we’re talking about the definition of true fun, why we often undervalue fun in our society, and what practical steps we can take to bring more fun to ourselves and our families.

How Fun Keeps Us Happy And Healthy

Fun is often misunderstood, explains Catherine. We tend to think of any relaxing or non-work activity as “fun” when in reality these activities don’t always meet the requirements. 

Catherine explains that fun consists of three core elements: Playfulness, connectivity and flow. Playfulness doesn’t necessarily refer to childlike behavior, but simply requires us to do something for the sake of doing it without putting too much emphasis on the outcome. Connectivity refers to sharing an experience with another person, and flow means being so invested in whatever we’re doing that we lose track of time.

When we experience playfulness, connectivity and flow all at once, that means we’re experiencing true fun, says Catherine. This is different from what Catherine describes as “fake fun”, which often includes binge-watching TV shows or scrolling through social media apps. These activities are designed to keep us hooked by hijacking our dopamine reward systems, but don’t actually equate to true fun. Catherine dives deeper into the phenomenon of fake fun in the episode.

There is also some middle ground between fun and non-fun, she explains. Relaxing, solitary activities like going on a long walk, taking a bath or doing a puzzle are still essential to our wellbeing and should be prioritized, but they don’t meet the requirements for being true fun. Some activities include connectivity without flow, or playfulness without connectivity. Although these kinds of experiences aren’t true fun, they’re still beneficial and add value to our lives, Catherine explains.

In order to fit more true fun into our lives, however, we have to start realizing its value. Catherine and I discuss how fun is often considered a waste of time and how we can start prioritizing fun again.

Why Fun Is Undervalued

As teens get older, we typically start telling them it’s time to get more serious. We pressure them to look towards results–better SAT scores, college acceptances, athletic achievements–and stop encouraging them to simply have fun and explore. While teens need to work towards becoming independent, they’ve also got to remember to keep fun as a part of their lives, Catherine says.

Catherine explains that we often forget to value fun because it doesn’t necessarily equate to making money. She breaks down a timeline for when fun stopped being valued in society, around the time of the industrial revolution. Before this period, professions were valued for their ability to reach an outcome–a cobbler made shoes, a butcher prepared meat, and a blacksmith forged metal.

But when our modern industrial systems were established, people stopped creating an outcome on their own, and became cogs in a machine to contribute to an outcome along a line of production. Today, this same pattern emerges, and it means that we don’t have a clear endpoint to stop working and start having fun. There’s endless work to do, and if we’re having fun instead of doing it, society tells us to feel guilty, says Catherine.

To combat this, Catherine prompts us to start adding fun to our lives and encouraging our family to do the same. In the episode, we’re discussing practical ways to bring more fun to your home.

Bringing Fun Back To Your Family

We all have natural inclinations about how to have fun, but it can also help to take a practical approach, Catherine says. She suggests that we have our teens complete a “fun audit” in which they evaluate and make note of the things in their life that bring the most fun. Catherine calls these forces “fun-magnets”, and they could be a person, place, or thing. Maybe your teen’s most powerful fun-magnet is the basketball court, or perhaps it’s their lifelong best friend.

Many people think these fun-magnets need to be expensive or outside of daily life. In reality, they can be a part of our day-to-day routine, and can even be incorporated into traditionally “un-fun” environments like work, Catheirne explains. 

Sometimes, your fun magnets might not align with those of your partner or kids, and that can be challenging, Catherine says. In our interview, she explains how she and her husband enjoy very different things, and can’t always compromise when it comes to having fun! This doesn’t mean you have to give up your fun-magnets, however, and Catherine and I discuss how to preserve your own version of fun even when someone disagrees or can’t relate.

Although family might not agree on every activity, there’s likely some common ground between everyone. Finding experiences that are fun for everyone and doing them together can be a great way to add joy to our lives, as well as create connections with our kids.

In the Episode…

There’s plenty of great insights in today’s talk with Catherine! On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about:

  • Why parents should be cautious about video games
  • How we can grow our appreciation for everyday things
  • Why introverts can be just as fun as extroverts
  • How we can put down our phones and be more present

Thanks for listening! If you want to find more from Catherine, you can find more from her on her website, Catherineprice.com. Don’t forget to share and subscribe, and we’ll see you next week!


Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Encourage teens to think critically about social media use:

“Social media apps are engineered to suck us in and make us think that we’re doing something enjoyable, but we often feel empty or gross afterwards.”

-Catherine Price

2. Help teens see the value of fun:

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3. Emphasize the importance of in-person connections:

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4. Help teens be more present in daily life:

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5. Teach teens to prioritize fun-magnets (1 of 2):

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6. Teach teens to prioritize fun-magnets (2 of 2):

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6. Explain the power of being present:

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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Okay. Really excited to talk to you today about this, the little topic of how to feel alive again.

Catherine: Well thank you for having me.

Andy: What got you interested in fun, and inspired you to write a book about it?

Catherine: Well, I like fun. But the reason I wrote a book about it is that a couple of years ago I’d written a different book called How to Break Up with Your Phone, which might be of interest to people in your audience also, considering their parents of teenagers.

Andy: I think so.

Catherine: Which is all about creating a healthier relationship with our devices and was inspired by the birth of my own daughter when I realized that there were a lot of times when she was looking up at me and I was looking down at my phone and I didn’t want to live that way and certainly didn’t want that to be her experience of a human relationship. So I wrote How to Break up With Your Phone, it’s got a whole breakup plan in it. Went through it myself and was feeling pretty good about it because I was spending much less time on my phone.

But then I realized that created a new problem, which is what to do with that new found time. And so that ended up launching me on a journey that led me to write the Power of Fun because I realized that I really wanted to prioritize things and experiences that made me feel the most joyfully alive. And when I had those moments, the best word I could come up with to describe them was fun. And so that got me on this entire adventure of trying to figure out what fun actually is, why it’s necessary slash essential, what it does for us. And then how to have more of it.

Andy: Well yeah, it seems obvious. Yeah, we know what fun is. Fun is fun. But then as you kind of break down in the book, really the more you think about it, a lot of the things that we refer to as fun or stuff that we do for fun is not really that fun. And I love this how you have this whole diagram system in the book really defining, make a distinction between true fun and false fun. Can you walk me through what’s the difference?

Catherine: Yeah, so one thing that I thought was very interesting when I started looking into fun was that there’s not a great definition of it in the dictionary. Because if you look up the dictionary definition, it’ll say something like fun is lighthearted, amusement or pleasure. It implies that it’s really just for kids and that it’s frivolous. But when I reflected back on my own experiences that I would describe as being truly fun and then also when I asked other people to do the same. So I recruited people off of my mailing list to share stories with me of their own experiences of fun. And when I read through their stories, I was filled with joy by reading the details. But I also often was moved almost to tears because there was something very deep about the experiences that they were sharing. They clearly were some of the most joyful and meaningful moments from their lives. Even if on the surface some of the details might have seemed really silly almost, but they really had an impact.

So I came up with a definition that I ran by the people on the mailing list to see if I could validate it and they helped me to validate it. So my definition of what I considered to be true fun is the confluence of three factors. And as you just showed in my book, I’ve got a Venn diagram and the three circles are playfulness, connection, and flow. And so playfulness doesn’t mean that you have to act like a kid or play make believe or pretend or something like that. I think a lot of adults instinctively clench up when they hear the word playfulness. It’s really much more about having a lighthearted attitude and doing things just for the sake of doing them, not taking yourself or the outcome too seriously. And connection is the feeling of having a special shared experience, because even though I do think occasionally it’s possible to have fun alone in the majority, vast majority of anecdotes people shared with me, there was another person involved. And that was true even for introverts.

Occasionally dogs, a lot of people said, can I have fun with a dog? I think I’m having… Yes you can. I’ve got a dog, you might hear nails clicking in the background at some point. But anyway, but connection and then flow is the state we get into when we’re so engrossed in what we’re doing, actively engrossed that we can lose track of time. So the most quintessential example is an athlete in the middle of a game, someone playing a piece of music, even if you’re in an intense conversation or you’re engrossed in a work project that might be flow. It’s not the hypnotized state we get into if we’re just kind of binge watching Netflix for six hours straight. Time is flying there, but that’s really because you’re hypnotized, you’re not in true flow. Anyway, playfulness, connection and flow are all great on their own. But when we experience all three at once and we’re in that center of the Venn diagram, that’s what I consider to be true fun.

Andy: The trifecta.

Catherine: Yeah. And that I distinguish between that and what I call fake fun because I realize that there’s a lot of products and activities that are marketed to us as ‘fun’, but that don’t result in playful, connected flow, in reality are more of a waste of time. And the biggest culprit by far is social media or binge watching past the point of enjoyment. But the social media apps in particular are engineered to suck us in and make us think that we’re doing something enjoyable. But as we all know, if we’ve spent a lot of time on those apps, you often feel kind of empty and gross afterwards. And I also like to clarify, I do think there’s a big middle category of activities that are enjoyable even if they’re not going to lead to true fun in the way that I just defined it.

So if you think about things like reading or going for a nice walk alone or taking a bath or maybe watching your favorite TV show up to the point before it makes you feel gross. They’re often solitary activities, but basically stuff that’s rejuvenating or relaxing or nourishing in some way, but it’s not going to result in full on fun. I think that category is very important to recognize these enjoyable activities and those should be prioritized as well. But I’m obviously a big dork, but I like to break down leisure time into those three categories because all of our time, our leisure time is limited and I think the better we are kind of figuring out the energy level that each of our possible uses of our leisure time might produce, the better equipped we’ll be to pick the right thing in the right moment and then not fall into the trap of the fake fun.

Andy: Well speaking of time being limited, I think that’s really something we hear a lot from parents of teenagers is there’s just, wow, there’s so little time and you point out in your book this relationship or this idea that we’ve adopted in our culture that time is money. Why does this seem relevant to the discussion of fun?

Catherine: Well I started thinking about the ways we think about time, because we really undervalue fun. I was very interested in why you would have this experience that clearly represented intense joy and meaning to people. But when we-

Andy: But it’s a waste of time.

Catherine: But it’s a waste of time. Fun is for kids, right?

Andy: Yeah, come on.

Catherine: I should also emphasize that I believe fun is a feeling, it’s not an activity. Which I think is an important clarification because a lot of times people think to have more fun you need to pack your schedule with more activities. And then we feel totally overwhelmed because we’re already exhausted. So it’s really more about, what are the activities or the people or the settings that are going to produce this feeling of fun. But yeah, I got very interested in why do we devalue fun? And that got me into an exploration of how we think about time in general. And I’d read a really interesting book called Do Nothing by Celeste Headley. And she talks a lot about how we’ve come to think about time the way that we do today. And one of the things she points out is that we really believe that anything that doesn’t result in money is a waste of our time.

And she points out that is a shift that has happened in part because of the industrial revolution. Where before you had an economy that was more based on the outcome. So I think the example I use in my book, and she might in hers as well, is if you’re a cobbler and you’re fixing someone’s shoes, well you know when the job’s done because you fixed the shoes. So it’s not about how much time you spent on the shoe, it’s whether or not you fixed it. That’s how most of the economy worked for people before the industrial revolution. But then you have this system where suddenly everyone is just doing one small piece in a larger production line and technically you could keep doing that all day. You could keep making the particular piece of the shoe all day long.

Andy: Yeah, there’s really an unlimited stream of tasks to be done.

Catherine: And so suddenly the more time you put in, the more money you would get out of it. And so you have this shift in how you’re thinking about time. And you can really see that now, I’ve heard this actually from multiple people just in the past few weeks. This tendency, if you actually are lucky enough to have a hobby or a side passion or something that’s not your job that you enjoy, that people will often say like, “Oh well have you thought of turning that into a business?” I was talking to someone who’s really been enjoying sewing, she made a friend a pillow and her friend is like, “Have you thought about making a shop on Etsy?” She’s like, “But I don’t want to start a pillow shop, I’m doing this for fun.” Why can’t we just have these pursuits, that’s just purely for the enjoyment of it?

Andy: But wouldn’t it be so much worthwhile if you could be making money?

Catherine: Yeah, exactly. But I think you see this very much in the, I don’t know, in the entire way we raise our kids, is it’s very focused on the outcome. Depending on what school culture you’re in. I used to teach at an all boys prep school in Manhattan and I had fourth graders who were talking about what college they would get into. But certainly by the time you’re in high school it’s always like, what’s the next step? You got to get good grades in high school so you can get to college, or you going to go to grad school. It’s like to what end? I believe in accomplishment and my ambition and all that, but at the same time, your life is right now. So what are we doing to teach our kids to actually be present in the moment and to enjoy their limited time on earth?

Andy: There is also in the distinction between true fun and fake fun, you talk a little bit about dopamine and cortisol. And I thought this was interesting because dopamine is kind of present in both true fun and fake fun. And so then a question becomes, what’s the difference? Maybe it’s also cortisol being involved in activities that are not true fun.

Catherine: Well yeah. So as you all have learned since my insulin pump was beeping, I’ve got type one diabetes and I’m very interested in endocrinology and how our environments affect our bodies and our physiology in terms of hormones that are released and stress levels, all sorts of stuff. So in How To Break up With Your Phone, I go into great detail about how many apps, the most time sucking apps are designed to trigger the release of dopamine, which is a brain chemical whose purpose is to record when things are worth doing again. So in other words, it’s a salience indicator and it’s something that motivates you to repeat a behavior and to pursue some kind of goal. That’s great if it’s a goal that leads to the continuation of our species like eating or reproducing. But it is not great if the thing that is being encouraged is something like checking social media or the news for the 35th time in the past two hours.

So our dopamine systems are very non-discriminatory. They’re not going to judge whether or not it’s a good behavior. So dopamine is behind all of our habits, both good and bad and it’s also behind our addictions. But it also does motivate us to do good things. So as you were just saying, yes you’ve got slot machine apps which are social media, email, the news, stuff like that, that’s hijacking our brain chemistry in potentially a bad way. But when you have fun, you’re probably also releasing dopamine and then that’s going to encourage you to seek out that type of behavior again as well. So I think it’s important to just recognize how our brain chemistry can influence what we are motivated to repeat and seek out. And in some cases it’s good, in some cases it’s not so great.

In terms of cortisol, that’s our main stress hormone. And the purpose of cortisol is to help us respond to and survive attacks and threats, physical attacks and threats. So it does stuff like increase your heart rate and your blood pressure and your blood sugar. Great if you’re actually trying to run away from a predator, not great if the source of stress is email or someone’s nasty comment on Twitter or something like that. So I think that cortisol is interesting to think about in the context of our relationship with technology in particular. Because the FOMO that we feel and the anxiety and the fear that is stoked by much of the content that we see on our devices is probably increasing our baseline levels of cortisol. And that is well documented to have majorly bad effects on our risks for long health outcomes, increasing risks for things like heart attack, heart disease, stroke, type two diabetes, obesity, things like that.

And what I came to conclude about fun is that the fact that it is a very relaxed state and what’s more, it’s also very socially connected. Isolation increases cortisol levels. Being socially connected reduces it. So that led me to conclude that even though we think about fun as being totally frivolous, it is actually incredibly good for our physical health.

Andy: You talk about this long-term with Robert Waldinger and looking at the main factors from the longest study on happiness. And satisfaction with relationships at age 50 was the predictor of how healthy people would be at age 80, which I found really interesting.

Catherine: Yes, it’s fascinating. And that’s the grant study which was started out of Harvard and yes, one of the longest running, if not the longest running longitudinal studies on health and longevity. And what they concluded is that relationships are absolutely key to our physical health. So there’s another very well regarded meta analysis that’s often quoted that found that the health risks of loneliness and isolation are comparable to those of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, like one five cigarettes a day. So I’m glad you brought that up, because I think that by now a lot of people know that constantly being stressed is not good for your physical health, but it’s much less acknowledged that being lonely and isolated has a physical impact. It’s so bad that actually in the UK they have a minister of loneliness, which is so Harry Potter. I just love it, but it’s a huge problem.

And so I really do like to stress that when we’re having true fun, we are in this real state of social engagement. As I said, the majority of experiences people shared with me involve another person. So it’s the antidote to loneliness and therefore likely has beneficial effects from that angle as well. I think that’s really relevant for teenagers because there’s just a huge problem of loneliness and isolation with teenagers in particular. And if you see what many of them are doing, there’s so much time that’s spent ‘connecting’, but it’s through your phone, through social media. And I’m not totally disparaging that because I know that for many teenagers that is how they communicate and that’s how they have social connection now. But with that said, as we all know from our experience with pandemic Zooming, there’s a real difference between in-person connection and online connection.

And there’s a difference between synchronous and asynchronous connection. And there’s a real difference obviously in connection with people whom you actually know personally versus people you’ve never met online. And so while I think there’s definitely a time and a place for using technology to connect, in many cases, this ‘connection on technology’ is making us feel even more lonely and isolated. And that’s not even getting to some of the truly disturbing rabbit holes and algorithm driven spirals that can happen really quickly on social media. There was a fascinating… I highly recommend, there was this expose in the Wall Street Journal last year at some point where they looked into TikTok’s algorithm in particular to see why it was so good at targeting people and sucking people in. It’s better than Instagram, it’s better than the other ones. This is somewhat of a digression from fun, but to me that’s very connected.

And they did an investigation where they created 60 bot accounts and they just gave them, I believe it was genders and ages and maybe locations. They didn’t actually tell TikTok any of these fake accounts’ interests, but on their end, The Wall Street Journal side, they had, so this account was kind of a little sad or this one was interested in ‘healthy eating’. And then basically TikTok’s algorithm run and they wanted to see how long it would take before the majority of the person’s feed would be dominated by videos and content related to that. It did not take long. And what they found, and they had a great graphic, almost like a galaxy that showed how quickly you could get spun into these very niche arms.

It’s like the healthy eating one quickly ended up with bulimia and anorexia videos, and the person with the slight sadness ended up with self-harm and suicidal, I mean, just crazy stuff. So anyway-

Andy: Interesting.

Catherine: Well, I got many thoughts on whether we should be giving our kids unfettered access to these platforms. But in terms of fun and connection, I would say that often the connection that’s promoted by those type of platforms isn’t real connection and that’s a problem.

Andy: And also makes me think about what we were talking earlier with just the whole idea of time is money and how fun things are a waste of time. And I feel like that really, that kind of pressure really heats up during the teenage years where when you’re younger it’s like, oh yeah, we’re just having fun. We love just… Having fun is important and having play dates and spending time with friends. But somehow as we transition into adolescence, there’s a lot more of this idea that, okay, we’re going to get serious now. And you talk later in the book about just this idea that, I love this what you said when you tried to distill, what I learned from writing my last book, How to Break up With Your Phone, one phrase said it all “Our lives are what we pay attention to.”

And I think there is a transition where with younger kids, we’re paying attention to, hey yeah, are you having fun? Do you have friends? And things like this. Whereas with the teenagers, we start to really focus more on results like, oh well did you get your homework done? How’d you do on the quiz? Are you ready for your presentation or your project? Or how was practice today? And those kind of things that just… It makes me think a lot about, in business we have this phrase, what gets measured gets managed. And because the things that you focus on, like you say, become your life. And it’s kind of just becoming aware of that I think. And noticing how you’re falling into that in your own life and with your family is I think really profound.

Catherine: Yeah, and that was such an important takeaway for me personally, that I actually had a bracelet in me that says pay attention as a reminder to myself. Because yeah, ultimately our lives are what we pay attention to. And this is true for all of us, not just teenagers, because we only experience what we pay attention to and we’re only going to remember what we pay attention to. And that’s exactly what inspired me to write How to Break up With Your Phone was the realization that here was this newborn baby in my arms and I was looking, in my case, not at social media, but at eBay for things they didn’t need. It was actually for doorknobs, which we had renovated our kitchen. I was looking for interesting architectural details, but it was done. And there was this little creature in my arms whose eyes could only focus as far as my face because that’s how babies are evolved. Bond with their caregivers.

So it really was a wake up call for me. It’s like our time on earth is limited, so what do I want to pay attention to? And I try to ask myself that question numerous times a day. But going to what you were saying in terms of teenagers, I think that’s an important question to ask because time can seem limitless when you’re a teenager and you’re younger. But in reality it’s a decision in every moment, when you decide in the moment how to spend your attention, you’re making a broader decision about how to spend your life. So I don’t know, it just was, spent thanksgiving with some teenagers and they weren’t horribly bad about their phones. But I would say everyone, it’s not just teenagers, it’s adults too. We’re always half present and there’s a real cost to never fully being present.

There’s an expression called continuous partial attention, which was coined by this woman, Linda Stone, which refers to the state that we’re all in these days, which is to try to pay partial attention to everything continuously. So we’re at the Thanksgiving table, but we’re also monitoring social media or text messages or something like that. Or you’re at your kids’ soccer game, but you’re also checking your work email. And in reality then you weren’t actually at your kid’s soccer game, you actually were somewhere else. So our physical presence is less important than our attentional presence. And I think that’s an important thing for both teenagers and adults to pay more attention to that

Andy: Like we were talking about earlier with the Venn diagram of fun. And I think of challenging listeners to go through this exercise in your own life of really just thinking about times when you would say you were truly having fun. But I think yeah, you will notice that it is times when you’re fully present, you’re not thinking about anything else. That little voicing your head isn’t, am I doing this right? Or how am I coming across as I’m doing this? Its quiet and you’re just totally in the moment. And as long as we are attached to these devices or you talk about this research, just even having a phone on the table next to you during a conversation makes you less present during the conversation. I think that I definitely relate to that. And I think most people can.

Catherine: Yeah it’s again, on a subconscious level in many cases is just that we’ve been trained over the past however many years that we’ve had smartphones to associate our smartphones with the receipt of some kind of reward, psychological reward, whether it’s a piece of new information or really anything that’s new or unpredictable is going to trigger the release of dopamine. So if your phone’s even within sight, part of your attention’s on your phone because you’re anticipating that potential reward. It’s very similar to the experiment Pavlov that Russian scientist did with his dogs. The dogs that he trained to drool when they heard a bell by feeding them every time he rang a bell and eventually took the food away, but they’d still drool when they heard the bell. And that’s exactly what happens with our phones, is just the mere presence of them just makes us pay attention because we think that we might be about to receive that metaphorical food.

But it’s a real problem. And I would say you can’t have fun if you’re distracted. That’s extremely important to recognize because anything that distracts you will kick you out of flow. Flow is a state of total engagement. The minute that you are distracted, whether by something external or by your own thoughts or your own inner critic, you’re no longer in flow. And that means by my definition, you cannot have fun. And I’d also point out that I have thousands of stories from people all around the world by this point, of memories that they would describe as having truly been fun. And I cannot think of a single one that involved them being on their phone. It’s all in-person, lived experiences.


About Catherine Price

Catherine Price is the author of The Power of Fun.

Catherine is a science journalist, speaker, teacher, and consultant. Her other books include How to Break Up With Your Phone and Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food.

Her work has appeared in The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Parade, Salon, Slate, and more.

Catherine is also the founder of ScreenLifeBalance.com, a resource hub which helps people create healthier relationships with technology and be more present in everyday life. She occasionally consults for companies that are focused on nutritional education, low-carb diets and/or diabetes.

She currently lives in Philadelphia.

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