Tag Archives: happier at home

Agree, Disagree? September is the Other January. Time for a New Start.

HappierAtHomePaperback1-300x462Even though I haven’t been in school for a long time, for me, September  marks the beginning of a new year.  Orange is the new black, breakfast is the new lunch, Monday is the new Thursday, pork is the other white meat, and September is the other January. (And yes, it’s still September, even though most schools start in August nowadays — and of course, this is true only in certain parts of the world.)

January is the official start of the new year, and I always get a burst of renewed zeal at that time, but here in the United States, for me, September also gives the same feeling of an empty calendar and a clean slate. The air seems charged with possibility and renewal.

Back-to-school is a time of self-evaluation and reflection–and also a time when I feel the urge to clean out my office.

Because of the new year feeling of September, when I wanted to do a a happier-at-home project, I decided to start it in September. Continue reading

Revealed: My Next Book Will Be About…

HabitsRepeatFourWhenever I start a new book, I think, “This is the most interesting subject of all time. It’s sad, I’ll never enjoy writing another book as much as I enjoy this one.” Every time, I’m convinced. And then I change my mind when I start the next book.

But I really do believe this may be the most fascinating subject ever. It’s the subject of habits. How do we make and break habits–really?

It was my interest in happiness that led me to the subject of habits, and of course, the study of habits is really the study of happiness. Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative. When I talk to people about their happiness challenges, they often point to hurdles related to a habit they want to make or break.

My habits research started as part of my ongoing happiness research—I often spend a lot of time studying happiness-related sub-topics, such as pain or the sense of smell—but I just kept pushing deeper and deeper into habit formation. Everything I read was so fascinating! The more I learned, the more I wanted to know—but also the more baffled I became.

I had many questions that seemed quite obvious and pressing to me, but strangely, few of the experts seemed to recognize them. For instance:

  •  Sometimes, people acquire habits overnight, and sometimes, they drop longtime habits just as abruptly. Why?
  • Why do practically all dieters gain the weight back?
  • It’s understandable why we have trouble acquiring habits of activities we don’t want to do, but why is it so hard to make ourselves acquire habits that we do want to do?
  • Why do some people dread and resist habits, and others follow them eagerly?
  • Why are people often so unmoved by consequences? Many graduate students take several years to write their dissertations, and stay ABD (“All But Dissertation”) even though they’re much better off finishing faster. One-third to one-half of U.S. patients don’t take medicine prescribed for a chronic illness.
  • Do the same strategies that work for changing simple habits (tooth-flossing) also apply to complex habits (drinking less)?
  • Do the same habit-formation strategies apply equally well to everyone?
  • Why is it that sometimes, even though we’re very anxious—even desperate—to change a habit, we can’t? A friend told me, “I have a lot of chronic health issues, and I do a lot better when I don’t eat wheat or dairy. But I do. Why? These foods make me feel lousy. But I eat them.”
  • Certain situations seem to make it easier to form habits. Why?
  • Why do we indulge in a bad habit even when we’re painfully aware that we’re doing it? I’d heard that sequence in my own head: “I shouldn’t. I told myself I wouldn’t. I want to. I have to. Watch me.”
  • Most importantly, what are the overarching strategies that allow us to change our habits—or help someone else to change a habit—whether that habit is exercising more, taking medication, doing homework, turning off the TV, or anything else?

I searched unsuccessfully for the answers, until one day a thought hit me: “I should write a book about habits! I’ll figure out the answers to these questions.”

And so I am. I’ve written the entire first draft, in fact.

The book’s title is Before and After, because that’s what we all want from our healthy habits—to go from before to after.

In Before and After, I identify the sixteen strategies that we can use to make or break our habits. Some are quite familiar, such as Monitoring, Scheduling, and Convenience. Some took me a lot of effort to identify, such as Thinking, Identity, and Clarity. Some are more complicated than you might assume, such as Rewards and Others. The most fun strategy? Treats. The funniest chapter? The chapter on Safeguards (I include a list of the loopholes we invoke to justify breaking our healthy habits, and they are hilarious.)

The book will hit the shelves in 2015, and if you want to be notified as soon as it’s available for pre-order, sign up here.

Here on the blog, I’ll continue to write generally about happiness, and in particular–as you may have noticed reflected in a few design changes–what I’ve learned about habits. My work on the four Rubin Tendencies came out of my habit research, for example. I was struggling to understand why people seemed so different from each other, when it came to their attitude and aptitude for habit. Why did I find it fairly easy to adopt a new habit, and I love my habits, but other people detest habits? Or they want habits but can’t form them? Or can form them in some situations, but not others? I wanted to solve that riddle—which required me to come up with a framework to capture the variations in human nature.  (It took me months to figure this out.)

I identified the abstainer/moderator distinction before I started to focus on habits, but the habits analysis helped me understand the implications of that distinction much better.

I’ve always loved “Before and After” stories, in books, magazines, and TV shows. Whenever I read those words, I’m hooked. The thought of a transformation—any kind of transformation—thrills me. And that’s the promise of habits.

I’m going to add a new feature to this site (I hope): I’d love to feature people’s stories of their own “before and after.” It’s so helpful to hear about other people’s experiences, and how they’ve managed to change their habits for the better. If you have a before-and-after story to share, you can send it to me here. I may not be able to run them all, but I’ll certainly read them all.

Habit allows us to go from before to after, to make life easier and better. Habit is notorious—and rightly so—for its ability to direct our actions, even against our will; but by mindfully shaping our habits, we can harness the power of mindlessness as a sweeping force for serenity, energy, and growth. Habits allow us to look back at the end of each day and see that we’ve undertaken the actions that reflect our values—without even having to think about it.

Before and after! It’s what we all crave.

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  • If you’re thinking, “But Gretchen, I’m dying to read Before and After. I can’t possibly wait until 2015!” well, fear not. In the meantime, you can read my most recent book, Happier at Home.

A Happiness Lesson from Claire Danes

danesThe September 30, 2013 issue of the New Yorker had an interesting piece, John Lahr’s “Varieties of Disturbance” about actor Claire Danes.

Though I’ve never watched My So-Called Life (yes, I know this is unacceptable, and it’s on my to-do list), I do love Homeland, so I was interested to read the profile.

Danes was quoted saying something that really caught my attention”

“One of the lessons of her adulthood, Danes has said, was ‘that there is real honor in being a total goofball.’”

This struck me, because I’ve really worked hard, myself, to embrace my inner goofball. Not to worry about seeming dignified, or sophisticated, or knowledgeable, but to Be Gretchen.

In this respect, one of my patron saints is Julia Child, and of all the posts I’ve ever written, one of my favorites is my encomium to her. She was goofy yet masterly, light-hearted yet authoritative.

Enthusiasm is a form of social courage.

Realizing this was part of my embrace of my love for children’s literature. And therefore it’s especially appropriate for me to quote, in this context, a great master of children’s literature.  In his brilliant essay, On Three Ways of Writing for Children, C. S. Lewis wrote:

When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

Yes, there is real honor in being a total goofball.

Agree, disagree? In what way do you allow yourself to be a total goofball?

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Blatant self-promotion: You’ve probably been asking yourself, “Hey, should I read Happier at Home?” Of course you should! Here are some reasons why you should pick up a copy. For one thing, my sister the sage says it’s my best book.

“Oppositional Conversational Style”: Why Some People Just Have to Be Right

shutterstock_97220924Back by popular demand is the assay I wrote about the “oppositional conversational style.” This post really seems to strike a chord with people.

Which surprised, me at first, because when I identified OCS, I thought I was the only person who had ever noticed it. Turns out that many people have noticed it! From both sides of the OCS-dominated conversation.

A person with oppositional conversational style is a person who, in conversation, disagrees with and corrects whatever you say. He or she may do this in a friendly way, or a belligerent way, but this person frames remarks in opposition to whatever you venture.

I noticed this for the first time in a conversation with a guy a few months ago. We were talking about social media, and before long, I realized that whatever I’d say, he’d disagree with me. If I said, “X is important,” he’d say, “No, actually, Y is important.” For two hours. And I could tell that if I’d said, “Y is important,” he would’ve argued for X.

I saw this style again, in a chat with friend’s wife who, no matter what casual remark I made, would disagree. “That sounds fun,” I observed. “No, not at all,” she answered. “That must have been really difficult,” I said. “No, for someone like me, it’s no problem,” she answered. Etc.

Since those conversations, I’ve noticed this phenomenon several times.

Here are my questions about oppositional conversational style:

  • Is OCS a strategy that particular people use consistently? Or is there something about me, or about that particular conversation, that induced these people to use it?
  • Along those lines, is OCS a way to try to assert dominance, by correction? That’s how it feels, and also…
  • Do people who use OCS recognize this style of engagement in themselves; do they see a pattern in their behavior that’s different from that of most other people?
  • Do they have any idea how tiresome it can be?

In the case of the first example, my interlocutor used OCS in a very warm, engaging way. Perhaps, for him, it’s a tactic to drive the conversation forward and to keep it interesting. This kind of debate did indeed throw up a lot of interesting insights and information. But, I must admit, it was wearing.

In the second example, the contradictory responses felt like a challenge.

I described oppositional conversational style to my husband and asked if he knew what I was talking about. He did, and he warned me, “Watch out! Don’t start thinking about this, and then start to do it yourself.”

I had to laugh, because he knows me very well. I have a strong tendency towards belligerence—for instance, it’s one reason I basically quit drinking—and I could easily fall into OCS. (I just hope I don’t exhibit OCS already, which is quite possible.)

But I do recognize that to be on the receiving end of the oppositional conversational style—to have someone keep telling you that you’re wrong, over and over—is not pleasant.

It’s wearing at best, and often highly annoying. Even in the case of my first example, when the OCS had a fun, friendly spirit, it took a lot of self-command for me to stay calm and un-defensive. Many points could have been made in a less “Let me set you straight” way.

And in the second example, I felt patronized. Here I was, trying to make pleasant conversation, and she kept contradicting me. It was all I could do not to roll my eyes and retort, “Fine, whatever, actually I don’t care if you had fun or not.”

Now, I’m not arguing that everyone should agree all the time. Nope. I love a debate (and I’m trained as a lawyer, which definitely has made me more comfortable, perhaps too comfortable, with confrontation). But it’s not much fun when every single statement in a casual conversation is met with,“Nope, you’re wrong; I’m right.” Skillful conversationalists can explore disagreements and make points in ways that feel constructive and positive, rather than combative or corrective.

What do you think? Do you recognize it in other people–or in yourself? How I love to try to identify patterns in human behavior. Abstainers and moderators. Over-buyers and under-buyers. Alchemists and leopards. Etc.

If you’d like to get a copy of my Happiness Paradoxes, or the Top Tips sheets, email me your request, and I’ll send it right out.

Who Knew? Lucky Charms Actually Work

horseshoeAssay: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about superstition.

Superstition is the irrational belief that an object or behavior has the power to influence an outcome, when there’s no logical connection between them.

Most of us aren’t superstitious—but most of us are a littlestitious.

Relying on lucky charms is superstitious, but in fact, it actually works. Researchers have found that people who believe they have luck on their side feel greater “self-efficacy”—the belief that we’re capable of doing what we set out to do—and this belief actually boosts mental and physical performance. Many elite athletes, for instance, are deeply superstitious, and in one study, people who were told that a golf ball “has turned out to be a lucky ball” did  better putting than people who weren’t told that.

Any discussion of superstition reminds me of a perhaps-apocryphal story that I love, about physicist Niels Bohr. Bohr noticed that a friend had a horseshoe mailed above the door, and he asked why. When was told that it brought luck, he asked in astonishment, “Do you really believe in this?” His friend replied, “Oh, I don’t believe in it. But I am told it works even if you don’t believe in it.” (You can watch me tell the story in this video.)

To help herself quit drinking, a friend told me, she explicitly invoked the idea of luck. “I told myself, ‘The lucky parts of my life have been when I wasn’t drinking, so I need to stop drinking to get my luck back.’”

How about you? Do you have a lucky object, lucky ritual, or lucky item that you wear? I have a lucky perfume. I love beautiful smells, but I save one of my favorite perfumes to wear only when I feel like I need some extra luck.

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Are you interested in launching a group for people doing happiness projects together? These groups have sprung up all over the world, and one of my favorite things on my book tour was to meet some of the groups. Intrigued? Email me, and I’ll send you the “starter kit.” Read more here.

10 Creative Ways to Survive Small Talk

CL Society 201: Woman profileSmall talk can be a big problem. I want to be friendly and polite, but I just can’t think of a thing to say.

Here are some strategies I try when my mind is a blank:

1. Comment on a topic common to both of you at the moment: the food, the room, the occasion, the weather (yes, talking about the weather is a cliche, but it works). “How do you know our host?” “What brings you to this event?” But keep it on the positive side! Unless you can be hilariously funny, the first time you come in contact with a person isn’t a good time to complain.

2. Comment on a topic of general interest. A friend scans Google News right before he goes anywhere where he needs to make small talk, so he can say, “Did you hear that Jeff Bezos is buying The Washington Post?” or whatever.

3. Ask a question that people can answer as they please. My favorite question is: “What’s keeping you busy these days?” It’s useful because it allows people to choose their focus (work, volunteer, family, hobby) — preferable to the inevitable question (well, inevitable at least in New York City): “What do you do?”

A variant: “What are you working on these days?” This is an especially useful dodge if you ought to know what the person does for a living, but can’t remember.

4. Ask open questions that can’t be answered with a single word.

5. If you do ask a question that can be answered in a single word, instead of just supplying your own information in response, ask a follow-up question. For example, if you ask, “Where are you from?” an interesting follow-up question might be, “What would your life be like if you still lived there?”

6. Ask getting-to-know-you questions. “What newspapers and magazines do you subscribe to? What internet sites do you visit regularly?” These questions often reveal a hidden passion, which can make for great conversation.

7. React to what a person says in the spirit in which that that comment was offered. If he makes a joke, even if it’s not very funny, try to laugh. If she offers some surprising information (“Did you know that the Harry Potter series have sold more than 450 million copies?”), react with surprise.

8. Be slightly inappropriate. I can’t use this strategy, myself, because I don’t have the necessary gumption, but my husband is a master. Over and over, I hear him ask a question that seems slightly too prying, or too cheeky, and I feel a wifely annoyance, but then I see that the person to whom he’s talking isn’t offended–if anything, that person seems intrigued and flattered by his interest.

9. Follow someone’s conversational lead. If someone obviously drops in a reference to a subject, pick up on that thread. Confession: I have a streak of perversity that inexplicably makes me want to thwart people in their conversational desires–I’m not sure why. For instance, I remember talking to a guy who was obviously dying to talk about the time that he’d lived in Vietnam, and I just would not cooperate. Why not? I should’ve been thrilled to find a good subject for discussion.

10. Along the same lines, counter-intuitively, don’t try to talk about your favorite topic, because you’ll be tempted to talk too much. This is a strategy that I often fail to follow, but I should follow it. I’ll get preoccupied with a topic and want to talk about it all the time, with everyone I meet, and I have a lot to say. My husband is a martyr to the subject of happiness.

How about you? Have you found any good strategies for making polite chit-chat?

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For more tips about polite conversation, check out these tips for knowing if you’re boring someone.

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Also …

  • My friend Margit Detweiler has just launched a terrific new site, TueNight. Check it out.
  • The month is drawing to a close. How is that possible? If you’d like to get my monthly newsletter, sign up here (highlights from the blog and Facebook). If you love great quotes, sign up here for the “Moment of Happiness,” and you’ll get a happiness quote by email every morning. Free of course.

How to Be Your Own Manager, Friend, and #1 Fan

That GirlDo you sometimes feel as if you’re two people? For a long time, I struggled to identify the metaphor to describe the tension between my two selves—between now-Gretchen and future-Gretchen, between the want-self and should-self. Is it Jeckyll and Hyde? The angel and devil on my shoulders? The elephant and the rider? The ego, the id, and the super-ego?

Then in a flash, I saw how to think about the two Gretchens, and how to think of myself in the third person, as a way better to understand myself and direct my actions. There’s me, Gretchen (now-Gretchen, want-Gretchen), and there’s my manager.

I think I was inspired by my sister’s Hollywood workplace lingo.

Who is my “manager?” Well, I’m like a fabulous celebrity. I have a manager. I’m lucky because I have the best manager imaginable. My manager understands my unique situation, interests, quirks, and values, and she’s always thinking about my long-term well-being.

I’m the boss, and I don’t have to take my manager’s advice—but on the other hand, I pay my manager to help me. I’d be an idiot not to pay attention.

These days, when I struggle with something, I ask myself, “What does my manager say?” Often it’s very obvious to my manager what course I should follow, even if I can’t decide (weird right?). It can be a relief to be told what to do; I agree with Andy Warhol, who remarked, “When I think about what sort of person I would most like to have on a retainer, I think it would be a boss. A boss who could tell me what to do, because that makes everything easy when you’re working.”

My manager is the executive who works for me—very appropriate, because my manager is part of my executive function. There’s no need to rebel against my manager because I am the boss of my manager. (Not to mention, I am the manager.) Out of freedom, I can accept her instruction.

My manager reminds me to follow my good habits: “Gretchen, you feel overwhelmed and angry. Get a good night’s sleep and answer that email in the morning.” “Gretchen, you say you have no energy, but you’ll feel better if you go for a walk.”

My manager stays compassionate. She doesn’t say things like, “You’ll never be able to finish,” or “You’re lazy.”  She’s comforting and encouraging, and says things like, “It happens,” “We’ve all done it,” and “Enjoy the fun of failure.”

My manager stands up for me when other people are too demanding. She insists that my idiosyncratic needs must be met; just as Van Halen famously insisted on bowls of M&Ms backstage, with all the brown ones removed, my manager says, “Gretchen really feels the cold, so she can’t be outside too long.” “Gretchen is writing her new book now, so she can’t give a lengthy response to that email.”

She makes claims on my behalf: “Let’s figure out how to get you what you need,” “Let’s throw money at the problem.” On the other hand, she doesn’t accept excuses like, “This doesn’t count” or “Everyone else is doing it.” She tells me uncomfortable truths. I can’t sneak anything past my manager, because she sees everything I do.

As an Upholder, however, I’ve learned to be a bit wary of my manager. I love my manager, but I know how she thinks. She’s very impressed by credentials, legitimacy, and pay-off. She’s sometimes so focused on my long-term advantages that she forgets that I need to have a little fun, right now. My manager is helpful, but in the end, I’m the one who must “Be Gretchen.”

How about you? Do you think it would be helpful to think about your “manager?”

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Of everything I’ve ever written, this one-minute video, The Years Are Short, resonates most with people.

Do You Like Dividing the World Up Into Categories?

08-07-10 I See The Same Old Warning SignsI love taxonomies, categories, ways of dividing people into groups. If you’re the same way, take these quizzes to find out what categories describe you:

1. Are you an under-buyer or an over-buyer? I’m an under-buyer.

2. Are you an abstainer or a moderator? I’m an abstainer, 100%.

3. Are you an alchemist or a leopard? I’m an alchemist.

4. Are you a radiator or a drain? I try to be a radiator.

5. Are you a finisher or an opener? I’m a finisher.

6. Are you a satisficer or a maximizer (yes, these are real words). I’m a satisficer.

7. Are you more drawn to simplicity or to abundance? I’m more drawn to simplicity.

8. Are you a Tigger or an Eeyore? I’m a bit of both, but writing about happiness has definitely brought out my Tigger qualities. (I write a lot about the conflict between these two categories in Happier at Home.)

9. Are you a marathoner or a sprinter? (categories formerly known as “tortoises and hares,” but I changed the terms). I’m a marathoner.

Putting myself into categories is fun, and I think it also gives me insight into my own nature. When I see myself more clearly, I can more easily see ways that I might do things differently, to make myself happier.

Categories can be unhelpful, however, when they become too all-defining, or when they become an excuse. “Oh, I can’t be expected to resist eating the cookies in the cupboard, I’m an abstainer.”

Do you find it helpful to consider these kinds of categories? Or too constraining?

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Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Writing Fiction

vonnegut_kurt0412I’ve recently become a fan of reading collections of letters (a form which is disappearing, now that we don’t write letters much anymore), and I read a recommendation somewhere to read Kurt Vonnegut’s letters.

From there, I was drawn to a collection of his short fiction, paradoxically named: Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction.

In the Introduction, Vonnegut provides his rules for “Creative Writing 101“:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

However, Vonnegut notes, “The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor…She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.”

I’m a Flannery O’Connor freak, so I was very happy to see that Vonnegut loved her work, too. In fact, in a weird synchronicity, it was my admiration for O’Connor’s collection of letters, The Habit of Being, that got me reading letters in the first place.

What do you think of these rules?

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My friend Colleen Wainwright, a/k/a Communicatrix, told me about a plan to launch an app camp for girls on Indiegogo. Great project.

Are you reading Happier at Home or The Happiness Project in a book group? Email me if you’d like the one-page discussion guide. Or if you’re reading it in a spirituality book club, a Bible study group, or the like, email me for the spirituality one-page discussion guide.

The Disappearance of This New York Icon Made Me a Little Sad

metmuseumI was so sad–quite disproportionately sad–when I read that after forty-two years, the Metropolitan Museum has decided to discontinue the use of its medal admissions tags. The price of the tin got too high.

I’ve always loved those metal admission buttons; I loved their changing colors, the nice feeling of bending the tin in my fingers, the feeling of satisfaction I got when I put the button in the special receptacle on the way out of the museum.

And now they’re gone! An icon of New York City–finished.

My mother is visiting from Kansas City, and she visited the museum. So when I saw her wearing the newfangled admissions sticker, I told her, “It’s just not the same.”

The end of the buttons is a good reminder: appreciate the little things while they last, because even things that seem as though they’d never change, will change. Feel grateful for those tiny pleasures that are so easy to take for granted.

I’m reminded of Robert Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay“:

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day,

Nothing gold can stay.

Not even a gold Poupon Metropolitan Museum button.

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If you want to read more along these lines, read the last chapter of Happier at Home–one of the best things I’ve ever written, if I do say so myself.

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Of everything I’ve ever written, this one-minute video, The Years Are Short, resonates most with people.

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