Tag Archives: children

“Do the Most Important Thing of the Day First Thing in the Morning.”

Happiness and habits interview: Debbie Stier.

I got to know Debbie when she was working in book publishing, because she was one of the first people to go deep into the question of how online tools could help authors connect with readers.

We became friends, and when she started The Perfect Score Project, I followed her progress with delight on her blog. I love a project, I love Debbie’s approach to the world, and I was fascinated by her undertaking — to try to connect better with her teenage children through the SAT, and in the process, figure out the SAT.

Her book, The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT, just came out. It’s wonderful — a great read, even if you don’t care about the SAT, it’s just so much fun — and has been getting a crazy amount of buzz, from The New Yorker to the Today show.

Debbie thought a lot about habits during her work on The Perfect Score Project, so I was interested to hear what she’d learned.

Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Debbie: Making my bed (hehe). Seriously, I read about “making the bed” in The Happiness Project, and I’ve made my bed every day since then.  Honestly,  it really does make me happier.

“Outer order means inner order,” as my agent, Lisa Gallagher, likes to say!

And of course, the big “E.” There is no denying that I feel consistently happier when I exercise. I shoot for 7 days a week and usually end up with 5.  Three of those 5 are “real” exercise, and two are “phone ins.”  The correlation is unmistakeable: the more I exercise, the better I feel. Period.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Do the most important thing of the day first thing in the morning.

I like to exercise in the morning because if I don’t do it then, my day can very easily slip away, and then I don’t do it at all.  And/or, those times when I leave exercising until nighttime are the “phone in” workouts. I don’t push myself at night.

The problem is that I also find morning to be best time for “the brain juice.” So, if I need to get something written or to deep think, I really hate to waste the best brain juice at the gym.

Bottom line: priorities change.  Mornings are reserved for those things I deem to be most important.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Not that I can think of! The closest I can come is, “staying up too late.”  I shoot to be in bed by 11 p.m., but the truth is, I’m rarely in bed before 1 a.m. (eek), and since I’m a “morning person,” this doesn’t leave me with enough sleep.

Which habits are most important to you? (for heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.).

Watching 1-2 episodes of a funny sitcom right before bed with my kids.  We never end the day without watching a funny show together — ever. I find it to be good for the spirit to laugh together, right before bedtime.

At least 6 hours per night of sleep.

I try to eat healthy food. I’d say I’m about 75% successful!

Exercise!  I get in shape fast … and I get out of shape twice as fast.

And everything feels bad when I’m not in shape (i.e. clothes, mood, etc.).

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Oh goodness, I’m always going in and out of habits. If I really want to make something happen, it goes on the #1-priority-when-I wake-up list.

The other trick I’ve used to get myself back into exercise is to buy nice gym clothes. I know, that sounds shallow, but if I have exercise clothes that I’m excited to wear, I’m more likely to do it.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

TOO HARD FOR ME TO ANSWER THIS BECAUSE I FEEL LIKE ALL OF THEM! [For what it’s worth, I think Debbie is a Questioner.]

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties).

My inability to say no.  I’m a knee–jerk “yes” person, which means I over-extend.  I end every day feeling unaccomplished when the truth is that I usually accomplish a lot, but I bit off more than I could chew.

Also, I usually underestimate how long something will take to do.  I’m bad at estimating time.

Have you ever made a flash change, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Not that I can think of.

I’ve made many changes as a result of reading a book or conversations with friends, but I can’t think of any “flash” changes.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I love habits (at least in theory).  I spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to maximize my life, searching for life hacks, etc. I’m obsessed with squeezing every drop out of every experience, so I’m always on the hunt for new systems and habits that’ll streamline.

Also, I love seeing and hearing about other people’s systems and habits.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

Catherine Johnson (blogger: Kitchen Table Math and co-author with Temple Grandin of Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior)!  She is “the queen of the system.”  You should visit her at her house and have her show you her systems – she is extraordinary and GREAT at “habits.”  One of my all-time favorite activities is to have Catherine tell me about her systems.

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Before and After: Use Self-Observation to See What the Triggers Are.

I’m writing my next book, Before and After, about how we make and break habits–an issue  very relevant to happiness. Each week, I’ll post a before-and-after story submitted by a reader, about how he or she successfully changed a habit. We can all learn from each other. If you’d like to share your story, contact me here. To be notified when the book is available for pre-order, sign up here.

This week’s story comes from Kelly Pietrangeli.

I used to have a very bad habit of shouting at my kids. (The irony of shouting at my kids to “stop shouting” was not lost on me.) I knew I needed to stop, but counting to 10 and taking deep breaths never worked for me. I needed to find some kind of strategy that would actually work.


I decided the first step was to talk to my kids and tell them I wanted to change this habit. I promised them that if I ever shouted I’d have to apologise. I don’t like to apologise so this was a real biggie for me.


Next I went into self-observation mode for a few days to see what my typical triggers were. I noticed I’m short fused when I’m tired first thing in the morning and at end of the day and that being on time for school or activities made me edgy and more prone to outbursts. Knowing that I have more patience at some times than others made me see that often it wasn’t their behaviour that ’caused’ me to lose my rag, but it was my own problem.


I don’t tolerate winging, complaining or being uncooperative, but I created a mantra: “My child is not BEING a problem, my child is HAVING a problem.” This helped me to reframe the situation and come at it from a better angle.


I then read Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting by Dr. Laura Markham.


Dr. Markham tells us that if we really want to stop yelling, it’s completely possible – no matter how ingrained it is. It’s not rocket science and takes about 3 months once you’ve made the commitment.


This is the best book I’ve ever read for helping me understand myself and my children better.


Becoming a former Shout-a-holic was not an easy process for me and I slipped up a lot in the beginning, but I chose to persevere. I still have my occasional shouty moments, but they happen rarely now instead of daily. (Hourly!)


It really came down to self-awareness and a deep determination to change. I am incredibly proud of the new me!

In Before and After, I call this the Strategy of Foundation. We do a lot better job sticking to our good habits, I believe, when our foundation is strong. That means making sure we get enough sleep, that we’re not too hungry, that we’re not rushed or overwhelmed by dealing with clutter or lost items.

I also write a lot about this kind of issue in Happier at Home: when I’m happier, my family is happier, so I need to take the steps that help me to stay calm, attentive, and tender-hearted.

How about you? Have you worked on your foundation, and found that it helped your habits?

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“The Things That Have Made Me Most Happy Started Out as Challenges I Wasn’t Sure I Could Handle.”

Happiness interview: Christine Koh and Asha Dornfest.

Two friends of mine have just come out with a terrific book, Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More by Doing Less. It’s particularly thrilling for me to hold this book in my hands, because I remember talking to them about it when it was still just the beginning of an idea they were playing with. And here it is, out in the world.

It’s a great guide for anyone who wants to have a happy home life, by keeping things simple, calm, and in tune with family values.

Asha is the force behind the terrific site Parent Hacks — “forehead-smackingly smart tips that help you simplify family life, save money, and have fun.” Christine is the founder and editor of Boston Mamas – “a lifestyle portal for families in Boston and beyond.”

I wanted to ask them both about their thoughts on happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Christine: Running or some kind of physical activity. I mean, sometimes it’s hard to get out there (I don’t do the “dreadmill” so I’ve run in temperatures as low as 8 degrees this winter…eep!) and sometimes I drag a little when I’m out there, but I always feel happy when I’m done. Also, sleeping. Man, do I love sleeping.

Asha: Walking my dog always makes me happy. The combo of fresh air, seasonal change, dog antics and snippets of neighborhood conversation never fails to cheer me up. In the department of “not thrilled while doing it, but extremely happy with results,” processing the mail and paperwork on my desk. I dread it, and the pile of paper makes me anxious while it’s sitting there, but when I’m done I feel this rush of creative energy. Sometimes I find an uncashed check in the pile!

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Asha: That happiness is more a mindset choice than a response to specific events. Yes, I’m happy when good things happen, but I also know that, when I’m in a “life dip” and am naturally feeling down, that I won’t be there forever.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

Christine: I have a tendency to devote too much bandwidth to the (bad or questionable, in my opinion) behavior of other people. The best advice I ever got from my therapist was that you can’t control other people’s behavior, only how you react to the behavior. Repeating that mantra has helped me enormously time and time again; I now can let go of things more quickly.

Asha: Staying up too late (it torpedoes my patience!), and procrastinating about mundane household jobs.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? 

Christine: Doing something with my hands, such as crafting or baking. In January I set intentions to do more hands-on creative projects and spend more one on one time with my 8-year-old Laurel (who often gets the short end of the attention stick these days because of her sometimes demanding toddler sister Violet). I decided to block out Thursdays afternoons while Violet is in day care to be Thursdays with Laurel (I literally put it in my calendar as a recurring event so I wouldn’t schedule work things in that window). Because Laurel loves art projects, we end up crafting a lot. It is the ultimate happiness boost to shut off the computer and craft and chat with Laurel on Thursday afternoons.

Asha: Curling up with my family and watching favorite movies. The Lord of the Rings series (extended edition, plus all the extras) has a particular tonic effect!

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?

Christine: I am, without a doubt, the happiest I’ve ever been right now. In general, I’m a very cheerful person but my childhood was challenging and at times very stressful. And then just as I was leaving home for college, I became involved in an emotionally abusive relationship that unfortunately persisted for several years. I also spent 10 years in an academic career that I ultimately found myself very unhappy in. But now…my husband Jon is a gem – he’s unconditionally supportive and loving and he challenges me to process my history, which is necessary to move forward. And I’ve been calling the shots on my professional work ever since I left academia in 2006. And I have two wonderful, healthy kids. And friends + family + fantastic burritos and pastries in striking distance + so many good things. I feel so blessed.

Asha: My childhood and early adult years were amazingly happy. Looking back, I think it was partially a result my temperament (I’ve been called obnoxiously optimistic) and partially because those years were relatively stress-free. I sometimes think I grew up when I became a mother, because with that experience came both overwhelming joys and challenges. The early years of motherhood were some of the hardest of my life, and YET they have left me with a sense of confidence and humility and gratitude that has directly contributed to where I am now. I can honestly say I’ve never been happier or more thankful. And now I’m craving a burrito.

Is there some aspect of your home that makes you particularly happy?

Christine: My happiest place in my house right now is my bed. I’m not even kidding. And this is a recent development because finally, after dragging my heels for over a decade, I finally replaced our tired old bedding and bought a beautiful quilt + shams that I love. After a childhood of tight finances and then spending so many years as an academic indentured servant, sometimes I resist spending money on certain things, particularly if they don’t seem absolutely essential (as in, who else is going to see my tired old bedding?) and even if they’re not particularly expensive. Jon was the one who finally said, “You deserve to sleep under a bedspread that makes you happy. Don’t just look at the Target sale section; pick something you love first and then we can look at the price tag.” Just another reason I love that man.

Asha: The gas “log” in our living room fireplace. It doesn’t matter that it’s essentially a fake fire, with fake wood and fake “glowing coals.” Sitting there, watching it flicker and feeling its warmth, while listening to music and doing my work or hanging out with Rael and the kids…it’s heavenly.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?

Asha: It’s ironic — the things that have made me the most happy started out as challenges I wasn’t sure I could handle at the time.

Anything else you would like to say?

Christine: My gratitude. To you for your friendship and inspiration. To your readers for being committed towards being happier, reading this interview, and opening their minds to change. I hope your readers will consider Minimalist Parenting – it was such a joy to write this book with Asha and we truly hope it helps people create degrees of freedom in their life.

Asha: I would just add that there are so many “right” ways to parent and find happiness. What I love most about your happiness discoveries is your first commandment: to Be Gretchen. The first step toward minimalist parenting (and happiness) is to know – and be – your true self.

Gretchen: Awww, thanks you two! Congratulations again.


7 Reasons Why Photographs Can Boost Your Happiness.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.

This Wednesday: 7 reasons why photographs can boost your happiness.

Photographs are such a joy, and I don’t know about you, but I’m much more focused on taking photographs now that cameras and phones have evolved to make taking photos so much easier. I used to begrudge the time that I spent on photos, but now  I realize the role they can play in happiness.

1. Photos remind us of the people, places, and activities we love. Many people keep photos in their homes, in their office, or in their wallet, and happy families tend to display large numbers of photos at home. In Happier at Home, I write about my “shrine to my family” made of photographs.

2. Photos help us remember the past. One of the best ways to make yourself happy in the present is to recall happy times from the past. Photos are a great memory-prompt, and because we tend to take photos of happy occasions, they weight our memories to the good.

3. Photos can save space while preserving memories. Through a friend, I heard about a fantastic service, Plum Print, “the simple solution for storing and preserving kids’ artwork.” I mailed in a giant, awkward pile of my younger daughter’s artwork and school work from her early days, and Plum Print transformed it into a lovely hardback book. That’s the final product, in the picture.  My daughter’s work looks great, she’s thrilled with her “book,” and I have a slim, tidy record of everything she made for several years. I saved a few of the actual pieces, then threw away the rest. A friend was shocked that I tossed any of it, but I have a record of it, I kept the best pieces, and I’ve found that mementos work best when they’re carefully culled and displayed.  (Disclosure: I got my Plum Print book for free.)

4. A photo of something can sometimes replace the thing itself. After my friend’s beloved father died, she wanted to keep his enormous desk, as a memento–but she really didn’t have space for it. She took a photo of it, and then was able to let go of the desk. Strangely, too, a photograph of something can be more beautiful than the thing itself.  Consider Edward Weston’s photographs of peppers.

5. Photographs allow you to curate things you love. Taking a picture is a way to “claim” something. On Pinterest, I love to add things to my From the Ministry of Happiness board. It’s a way to make a collection without having to buy or cope with anything.

6. Taking photos fosters creativity. My delightful friend Maria Giacchino, who does my videos, takes and posts one photograph each day. The images are beautiful, and the need to find the day’s photo keeps her engaged with the world in a creative way.

7. Taking photographs can act as a diary. I’m always trying to figure out ways to keep hold of memories. My one-sentence journal, for instance. I try to use photographs to record the little moments that are so precious but also so easily forgotten.  One thing I wish I could tell my younger self: take photos of everyday life, not special occasions; later, that’s what will be interesting to you.

What have I forgotten? What are some other ways that photos can boost your happiness?

The 21 Day Relationship Challenge Starts Today!

Today is Day #1 of the 21 Day Relationship Challenge–but don’t worry, if you sign up after this “official” start day, you’ll get the full 21 days worth of daily emails starting from whenever you sign up.

Here on the blog, in addition to my usual daily posts, I’ll add a very short post about the day’s resolution, to give people a place to weigh in with their thoughts and experiences. We can all learn from each other, so please do comment.  If you have a comment some days later, you can scroll back and add your comment at any time.

You can read all posts related to the 21 Day Relationship Challenge by going here (or searching in the Archives, found in the right rail, in the Category of “21 Day Relationship Challenge”).

Now, why is this a “relationship” challenge? Why not an “energy” challenge, say? (Which would also useful, I think!) Because for many people, I’ve noticed, the element of Happier at Home that resonates most is the discussion of relationships.

Ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree that a key to happiness–probably the key to happiness–is strong relationships with other people, so while I didn’t set out to write a “relationship” book, I’m happy to hear that the book is helping people so much in that area.

We all want loving, attentive, and engaged relationships, and warm bonds will do more than anything to make our home a happy place.

Relationships are just one aspect of Happier at Home; it also examines other aspects of “home” such as possessions, time, body, and neighborhood. And it goes deeper into the subject of relationships than we can do in the 21 Day Challenge. But I hope this exercise will be FUN as well as challenging, and helpful.

More love in 2013. That seems like a good way to start the year.

If you want to learn more or sign up for the Challenge, info and sign up is here. You can read a sample Challenge email here. In a nutshell: each day for three weeks I will email you a proposed resolution–nothing too onerous, I promise–for you to think about using in your relationships. They may not all apply to you, but I’ve included a range to cover many different kinds of personal situations.

Onward.  Let me know what you think.