Tag Archives: memoir

“Give Me a Second Glass of Wine, and All My Hard-Fought Self-Control Falls by the Wayside.”

Habits interview: Hannah Nordhaus.

I know Hannah Nordaus from college. Back then, neither one of us talked about becoming writers (or at least I didn’t, and I don’t remember Hannah talking about it, though maybe she did…) A few years ago, she wrote The Beekeeper’s Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America.

Now Hannah has a new book, American Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest, that’s just hitting the shelves this week. I can’t wait to read it — part memoir (I love memoirs), part travelogue, part history — all about Hannah’s great-great-grandmother, who is said to haunt a hotel in Santa Fe. If you want to read an excerpt for yourself, you can read here.

I was curious to hear what Hannah would say about habits and happiness.

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

Hannah: Drinking a warm drink each morning. It is something I look forward to every day. Yes! I get to drink a cup of coffee! With honey! It is a simple pleasure that makes me look forward to waking up each day.

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

I suppose I have learned, through years of trial and error, that it isn’t a zero-sum game. There are things you like about yourself and things you don’t; habits you are proud of and ones you aren’t, and if you slip and fall back into old patterns, this does not mean that you have failed. You simply forgive yourself, face forward, and keep trying.

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

I stay up too late. I am a night owl by nature, but with small children and limited time to work, I’m unable to keep the hours I did when I was the sole master of my schedule. There’s always something that beckons before bed – one more article to read, one more email to send, one more episode to watch. It is so hard to force myself to go to sleep. But if I don’t, even the warm morning drink can’t save me.

I also crack my knuckles. Which is impossible to stop—perhaps, Gretchen, you can offer some advice? They’re right there, on your hands, begging to be cracked, and it feels so good! I gather that there’s no actual health issue with the cracking, but it drives my husband insane, and so really it’s a habit that gets in the way of his happiness, which then gets in the way of my happiness, because he groans and swats at me and says “stop the popping” whenever I do. But those knuckles are just so tantalizing, there in front of me, every single moment. I’m cracking them right now.

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

Hands down, it’s getting outside and getting exercise on a regular basis. It is good for my physical health—that goes without saying. And also my mental health; I get cranky if I go more than a couple of days without moving around. But I have also found that taking a break and going for a run or a hike or a bike ride does magical things for both my creativity and productivity.

When I’m hung up on an idea or can’t think what to write next, I can do nothing better than force myself to take a break, get away from my screen, and move and clear my brain. I come back refreshed, and I find that the ideas and breakthroughs just come, unbidden, as soon as I get moving and stop looking for them. My favorite insight in my new book, American Ghost, arrived while I was on a hike. It was on a particularly easy downhill stretch towards the end, where I didn’t have to think about where I was going or what I was doing. The trail wasn’t too rocky underfoot, and I wasn’t huffing and puffing to get to the top. I was just there, running in a pretty laggardly fashion and looking at the mountains, and then whabang: sentence, fully formed.

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

When I was in my mid-twenties, I decided I had to give up caffeine. I was, as I mentioned above, a night owl, and I found I was more and more dependent on coffee and more and more jittery, and that I could barely speak in the morning before I had a cup of coffee, and this seemed not a good way to live. So I decided to give it up.

Cold turkey wasn’t my thing, so I first weaned myself down to one cup a day for a few weeks, then switched to decaf. I still needed the ritual—and still do—but for me it’s more the idea of having a warm, sweet drink in my hands to start the day, than the actual pick-me-up of the caffeine.

I also rewarded myself once a week with a frothy full-caff latte. That way it wasn’t like I’d given it up forever. Until one day I realized I didn’t need the caffeine, and that in fact I felt much better if I didn’t drink it.

Now I am trying to cut down on my sugar consumption, with moderate success. Sugar is so much more omnipresent in our lives; it’s awfully hard to avoid. But I am also weaning, slowly, if not always successfully. Now I take a half a teaspoon of honey in that morning coffee instead of two spoonfuls of sugar, and sometimes I skip the honey all together. I’ve given up soda—oh how I loved ginger ale! I try to eat dessert only once or twice a week instead of every day. I look at labels, and think more about what I’m consuming. It is a work in progress.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger? [Readers, if you want to find out your own Tendency, take the Quiz here.]

I’m a questioner, with a big upholder streak. I love being given a discrete task, and I love to do it well. I always return emails and love to rise to a challenge. Give me a deadline; I won’t miss it. However, if I think the challenge or expectations are stupid, I’ll arrange my life so that I am not asked to accept them. There’s a reason I work for myself; I try very hard only to take on projects I find interesting and worthwhile, so I don’t put myself in a position of having to meet expectations that I find objectionable.

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

Wine. I’m okay with one glass. But give me a second (and please don’t give me a third), and all my hard-fought self-control falls by the wayside. I overeat. I double down on dessert. I tell stories I promised I’d keep to myself. I watch that extra show or read that extra chapter. And then I wake up at 3 am in a miserable sweat. I have no idea how I managed to be drunk several nights a week in college.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, 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.?

I think I generally need to reach these life-altering realizations on my own time, at my own pace. I’m fairly skeptical and not easy to persuade, and I have at my command many powerful arguments for keeping my life the way I like it. It’s pretty hard to lightning-bolt me into changing the routines I have become so attached to. And I’m a historian, a journalist and a perennial questioner—I like to conduct my due diligence, and make sure this new potentially life-altering information is really factual and meaningful, and that changing my habits will really make a difference. I am open to change. But it has to be on my own time, after proper research, and on my own terms.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I embrace them. I love the comfort of routine. I love how it shapes my days and gives them structure and meaning. I know the things that make me happy and healthy and strong, and I try to incorporate them into my life whenever I can.

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

My great-great-grandmother Julia Staab has left an indelible mark on how I view the world. I never met her—she died in 1896—but in researching her life for American Ghost, I feel that I came to understand her in a way—and also to understand something important about living itself. What I learned about her life has made me deeply appreciative of the daily routines in my own life that keep me content and keep me going.

Julia was severely depressed. She had been shipped from Germany to New Mexico as a mail-order bride and never quite adapted to the rough frontier. She simply didn’t have the resilience to create, out of the less-than-ideal situation into which she was imported, an existence that she could live with.

All of our lives contain sadness, and setbacks, disappointments and injustices—some more than others, of course. But having spent three years examining how Julia lived and died, and trying to understand her state of mind, I realize how much we determine our own happiness. Whether it’s through creating the routines that ground us and keep us going—like those frequent trips I take up into the hills—or learning new things that keep us engaged with the world, we shape ourselves and our reactions to the misfortunes and setbacks that we encounter.

We can’t control what happens to us, but we can strive to shape how we respond to those things. That everyday appreciation of the small routines in our lives, the things we do that work for us and keep us on an even keel, both mentally and physically, matter more than I ever realized.

What Andre Agassi Can Teach Us About Habits, Happiness–and Ourselves.

For yesterday’s weekly quotation, I quoted from tennis star Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open.

It’s a fascinating book, on many levels (and I say that as someone who has no interest in tennis).

I’m always particularly interested when something sheds light on habits or happiness, and as I read the book, several observations stuck out at me.

First, Andre Agassi is an Obliger.

For my upcoming masterpiece, a book about how we make and break habits, I’ve written extensively about a framework, the “Four Tendencies,” that I’ve developed.

The framework helps to explain why people can make or break habits–or not. People fall into four categories, which describe how people tend to respond to expectations: outer expectations (a deadline, a “request” from a sweetheart) and inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution).

Your response to expectations may sound slightly obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.

In a nutshell:

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%)
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense (my husband is a Questioner)
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves

 

Agassi is a classic Obliger. He’s able to meet others’ expectations (his father’s demand that he excel at tennis, his girlfriend Brooke Shields’s desire to get engaged) but struggles to meet his own expectations for himself.

He also demonstrates “Obliger rebellion,” a striking pattern in which Obligers abruptly refuse to meet an expectation, or when they rebel in symbolic ways (Agassi rebels with his hair and clothes).

If you want insight into the Obliger perspective, this book is an outstanding resource. Agassi shows the tremendous energy and accomplishment that Obligers can bring to bear, and also the anger and resentment that can arise from Obligers’ feeling that they’re working towards others’ expectations.

For you Obligers out there, who have read the book, did it strike a chord with you? Did you identify?

(If you’d like to see me discuss each category in  a video, look here: Upholders, here; Questioners, here;  Rebels, here, and Obligers, here. If you want to hear when my habits book goes on sale, sign up here.)

Agassi insight #2 tomorrow!

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Story: Guess–Who Never Confuses Identical Twins?

This week’s video story: 

 

I’m talking about One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I’ve Learned about Everyone’s Struggle to Be Singular by my friend Abigail Pogrebin. I’ve always been fascinated (and a little envious) about the relationship between identical twins.

If you want to learn more about the book, check out the book trailer (made by the same person who makes my videos, Maria Giacchino.)

Do you ever think about what it would be like to be an identical twin?

Find the archives of videos here.  Almost 1.9 MILLION views. Don’t forget to subscribe.

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Feeling Lonely? Consider Trying These 7 Strategies.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day, or List Day, or Quiz Day.

This Wednesday: 7 tips for battling loneliness.

One major challenge within happiness is loneliness.  The more I’ve learned about happiness, the more I’ve come to believe that loneliness is a terrible, common, and important obstacle to consider.

According to Elizabeth Bernstein’s recent Wall Street Journal piece, Alone or Lonely, the rate of loneliness in the U.S. has doubled over the past thirty years. About 40% of Americans report being lonely; in the 1980s, it was 20%. One reason: more people live alone (27% in 2012; 17% in 1970). But being alone and being lonely aren’t the same.

A while back, after reading John Cacioppo’s fascinating book Loneliness, I posted Some counter-intuitive facts about loneliness, and several people responded by asking, “Okay, but what do I do about it? What steps can I take to feel less lonely?”

I then read another fascinating book, Lonely — a memoir by Emily White, about her own experiences and research into loneliness. White doesn’t attempt to give specific advice about how to combat loneliness, and I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but from her book, I gleaned these strategies:

1. Remember that although the distinction can be difficult to draw, loneliness and solitude are different. White observes, “It’s entirely reasonable to feel lonely yet still feel as though you need some time to yourself.” Loneliness feels draining, distracting, and upsetting; desired solitude feels peaceful, creative, restorative.

2. Nurturing others — raising children, teaching, caring for animals — helps to alleviate loneliness.

3. Keep in mind that to avoid loneliness, many people need both a social circle and an intimate attachment. Having just one of two may still leave you feeling lonely.

4. Work hard to get your sleep. One of the most common indicators of loneliness is broken sleep — taking a long time to fall asleep, waking frequently, and feeling sleepy during the day. Sleep deprivation, under any circumstances, brings down people’s moods, makes them more likely to get sick, and dampens their energy, so it’s important to tackle this issue. (Here are some tips on getting good sleep.)

5. Try to figure out what’s missing from your life. White observes that making lots of plans with friends didn’t alleviate her loneliness. “What I wanted,” she writes, “was the quiet presence of another person.” She longed to have someone else just hanging around the house with her. The more clearly you see what’s lacking, the more clearly you’ll see possible solutions.

6. Take steps to connect with other people (to state the obvious). Show up, make plans, sign up for a class, take a minute to chat.

7. Stay open. Negative emotions like loneliness, envy, and guilt have an important role to play in a happy life; they’re big, flashing signs that something needs to change. The pain of loneliness can prod you to connect with other people. Unfortunately–and this may seem counter-intuitive--loneliness itself can make people feel more negative, critical, and judgmental. If you recognize that your loneliness may be affecting you in that way, you can take steps to counter it.

Most people have suffered from loneliness at some point. Have you found any good strategies for making yourself less lonely? What worked — or didn’t work?

For more along these lines, check out Happier at Home, chapter on “Neighborhood.”

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Can the Simple Act of Making a List Boost Your Happiness?

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day, or Quiz Day.

This Wednesday: Can the simple act of making a list boost your happiness?

When I was in college, I took a class on the culture of Heian Japan,  and the one and only thing I remember about that subject is The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. This strange, brilliant book has haunted me for years.

Sei Shonagon was a court lady in tenth-century Japan, and in her “pillow book,” she wrote down her impressions about things she liked, disliked, observed, and did.

I love lists of all kind, and certainly Sei Shonagon did, as well. Her lists are beautifully evocative. One of my favorites is called Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster:

Sparrows feeding their young

To pass a place where babies are playing.

To sleep in a room where some fine incense has been burnt.

To notice that one’s elegant Chinese mirror has become a little cloudy.

To see a gentleman stop his carriage before one’s gate and instruct his attendants to announce his arrival.

To wash one’s hair, make one’s toilet, and put on scented robes; even if not a soul sees one, these preparations still produce an inner pleasure.

It is night and one is expecting a visitor. Suddenly one is startled by the sound of rain-drops, which the wind blows against the shutters.

Other marvelous lists include Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past, Things That Cannot Be Compared, Rare Things, Pleasing Things, Things That Give a Clean Feeling, Things That One Is in a Hurry to See or to Hear, People Who Look Pleased with Themselves, and, another of my very favorites, from the title alone, People Who Have Changed As Much As If They Had Been Reborn.

Making lists of this sort is a terrific exercise to stimulate the imagination, heighten powers of observation, and stoke appreciation of the everyday details of life. Just reading these lists makes me happier.

How about you? Have you ever made a list of observations, in this way?

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Now for a moment of sheer self-promotion: For reasons of my own, which are too tiresome to relate, I’m make a big push for Happier at Home. If you’ve been thinking about buying it, please buy now! If you’d like a little more info before you decide, you can…

Read a sample chapter on “time”

Listen to a sample chapter

Request signed, personalized bookplates for you or for gifts (U.S and Canada only, sorry)

Request signed, personalized “Tips for Happiness in Your New Home” card for you or for gifts (U.S and Canada only, sorry)

Watch the one-minute trailer–see if you can guess what item has proved controversial

Request the book club discussion guide

Get the behind-the-scenes extra

Final note: I love all my books equally, but my sister the sage says that Happier at Home is my best book.

Stock up now! Okay, end of commercial. Thanks for indulging me.