Tag Archives: spirituality

“Instead of Feeling That I’m Never Going to Finish…I Can See Large Chunks Getting Done.”

I’m writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we make and break habits– an issue  very relevant to happiness. Each week, I 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.

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This week’s story comes from Nyssa Hattaway.

I am a devout member of my church.  All of my life I have been taught to develop the habits of church attendance, tithing, daily prayer and daily Scripture study.  I have easily been able to practice all of them except the Scripture study.  I am an avid reader, but for some reason I just hadn’t found my groove on this one. 

My cohorts had given lots of advice informally and from the pulpit.  Read a chapter a day.  Just read a verse a day.  Study by topic not chronologically.  Set a time for 10 minutes and read what you can in that time, and so forth.  You can imagine in my 20+ years of adulthood how many unsuccessful starts and stops I have had, and you can probably guess the guilt that accompanies it.

Somewhere along the way, someone gave me booklet with a 40 day reading plan.  Assignments are made daily and by the end of the 40 days, the entire volume of Scripture is complete.  I decided to try it.  Instead of just giving a little, this program requires 5-6 chapters daily, somewhere between 45-60 minutes of reading.  Instead of feeling that I’m never going to finish and that I’m slowing plowing through the book, I can see large chunks of it getting done.  I am already half way through the volume!  I never thought that by committing to MORE I would have more success, but it demands planning, time and commitment, and that is where I was falling short in previous attempts.  I think this strategy could be applied to many habits and wondered if you have encountered it?  I will continue to study the Scriptures in this way even after the 40 days as I finally have a habit that works for me.

This example illustrates one of the most important things I’ve learned about habits — actually, the most important thing I’ve learned. The secret to good habits is to know what works for you.

Using the Strategy of Distinctions allows us to figure out how we’re different from other people, how we might tackle habits in a way that suits our particular idiosyncrasies. It’s a Secret of Adulthood: we’re more like other people, and less like other people, than we suppose.

One distinction is: Do you prefer to aim big or aim small?

Some people have better success changing a habit when they start small. A series of small but real accomplishments gives them the energy and confidence to continue. For instance, a person who wants to write a novel might resolve to write one sentence each day. Or a person who wants to start running might resolve to run for one minute.

This approach is often emphasized as the best way to form a habit. But in fact, as the example above illustrates, some people do better when they’re more ambitious.

Sometimes, counter-intuitively, it’s easier to make a major change than a minor change. When a habit is changing very gradually, we may lose interest, give way under stress, or dismiss the change as insignificant. A big transformation creates excitement and energy and a sense of progress, and that helps to create a habit.

As Steve Jobs reflected, “I have a great respect for incremental improvement, and I’ve done that sort of thing in my life, but I’ve always been attracted to the more revolutionary changes. I don’t know why.

How about you? Do you do better with small changes or big changes?

 

Secret of Adulthood: Sometimes, Material Desires Have a Spiritual Aspect.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:

 

Agree, disagree?

This reminds me of another Secret of Adulthood: Sometimes, you can minister to your spirit through your body.

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Questions for You: What Habits Most Affect Your Spiritual Life and Work Life?

Have I mentioned that I’m writing a book about how we make and break habits? Oh right, I think I have. Before and After will hit the shelves in 2015 (sign up here to be notified when it’s available).

Most of us — well, perhaps not the Rebels — have habits that we’d like to add or drop, and I’d like to ask you readers:

1. What habits would you like to make or break that affect your spiritual life? Maybe you’d like to read holy books for thirty minutes every morning; or meditate; or observe the Sabbath; or give up alcohol; or fast or abstain during Lent, Yom Kippur, or Ramadan; or attend services regularly.

Also, how do other people’s habits affect your spiritual life–for good or for ill? We’re very influenced by other people’s habits; for instance, if one family member begins attending services, others are more likely to go. Has someone’s spiritual habit rubbed off on you?

Do you have any habits that interfere with your spiritual life? Any habits that consistently make it hard to have the spiritual life you want?

2. What habits would you like to make or break that affect your work life? Maybe you’d like to file expense reports every day, or do a better job tracking billable hours, or talk more to your co-workers, or stay on top of your emails, or stop putting off work until the last minute. Or maybe you’d like to do a better job of maintaining certain general habits while you’re at work. For most people, habits such as exercise or eating healthfully are issues for work life as well as for private life. My sister the sage is much stricter about her eating habits at work than she is at home, because work contains so many more crazy temptations (you wouldn’t believe what was in the office kitchen!), and she spends so much time at work, she figures that if her work-eating habits are very good, her home-eating habits can be looser.

How do other people’s habits affect your work life–for good or for ill?  Has someone’s habit at work rubbed off on you? Someone started going to the weekly programming seminar, so you started going, too. Or a co-worker is constantly behind, so you’re persistently behind in your own work, because you have to help him finish. (Speaking of my sister the sage, one of my favorite words of wisdom from her is “Your lack of planning is not my emergency.” But that can be hard to enforce, in practice.)

People’s habits can cause conflict, when they’re incompatible. For instance, Marathoners like to work steadily, well in advance, while Sprinters like to put in a burst of work at the end. Both strategies are effective, but it can be hard when teams include people of different styles. And Upholders, Questioners, Rebels, and Obligers have very different work habits.

Do you have any habits that interfere with your work life? Any habits that consistently make it hard to have the work life you want? You stay up late watching TV, so you oversleep and are consistently late for work.You check your emails while you’re spending time with your kids.

I’m very curious to see people’s answers. Feel free to take a very loose view of the definition of a “habit.” I do! Anything that you’re “in the habit of” doing.

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Can Refusing To Give Compliments Be an Act of Love?

Assay: My spiritual master is St. Therese of Lisieux, so when a thoughtful reader emailed me about Heather King’s 2011 memoir, Shirt of Flame: A Year with Saint Therese of Lisieux, I was thrilled—and astounded that I hadn’t heard about it yet. I’m always trying to get my hands on more St. Therese material, plus I can never resist a good “year-of” memoir.

I couldn’t wait to read Shirt of Flame, and I found it fascinating, for many reasons. One passage struck me in particular.

In the study of happiness, I’m always fascinated and moved when I see a person choose to react in a way that boosts happiness or love or forgiveness, when circumstances made that choice difficult.

In her spiritual memoir Story of a Soul (which was one of the book-club choices for this month, by the way), St. Therese gives many examples about this from her own life—for instance, the moment of her “complete conversion,”  where she acted selflessly by showing a greedy joy in her Christmas presents. In her circumstances, that was the loving way to act. Sometimes we can be generous by taking.

Often, to allow himself or herself to respond in a different frame of mind, a person re-frames a situation.

Heather King recounts an interesting example of this. She writes, “I’m mortified to admit that I was still miffed because [my mother had] never told me as a child (or an adult, for that matter) that I was pretty.”

Then she recounts how St. Therese has interpreted the same situation with her own upbringing. St. Therese’s mother died when she was four, and her older sisters, particularly her sister Pauline, helped to raise her.

St. Therese writes, “You gave a lot of attention, dear Mother [meaning Pauline], not to let me near anything that might tarnish my innocence, especially not to let me hear a single word that might be capable of letting vanity slip into my heart.”

As King points out, St. Therese chose to understand a lack of compliments to be a sign of loving care. That’s not the only interpretation, but that’s the one she chose to have.

I see that this is an area where I fall very short. Too often, I respond to a choice by feeling aggrieved or resentful. Sometimes, perversely, I almost enjoy feeling aggrieved or resentful! –and don’t even try to put a different cast on it, or look for other explanations.

I’m reminded by an observation by Flannery O’Connor, from a letter she wrote in 1959. “From 15 to 18 is an age at which one is very sensitive to the sins of others, as I know from recollections of myself. At that age you don’t look for what is hidden. It is a sign of maturity not to be scandalized and to try to find explanations in charity.

“Finding explanations in charity” is another way of putting it — the aim of choosing to interpret actions in a loving way.

I feel like I just came across another great example of this, in some book or movie, but I’m blanking. Stay tuned, maybe I’ll think of it.  Have you seen examples of this kind of choice, yourself?

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On the To-Do List: Watch for Moments of Transcendence.

In books, movies, plays, television, my favorite scenes are often moments of transcendence—when, in the muddle of existence, characters somehow manage to break through everything to engage with each other, and with higher values.

Just off the top of my head, I can think of moments like this from Gilead, The Wire, Friends, Steel Magnolias, the play Bug which has haunted me for years…such moments are the principal subject of Flannery O’Connor.

I also look for them in real life.

For instance, a few weeks ago, I was talking to a bunch of first-year medical students about happiness—mostly, I was pestering them to get enough sleep. At one point, an older doctor jumped into the conversation. “Remember,” he said to them earnestly, “you’re going to be doctors. That work is really going to bring you a lot of happiness.”

This comment lifted the conversation to a new level. Not that I think everyone should be a doctor, but it’s true: being a doctor is a rare privilege. To be able to help heal people, and to relieve pain.

This moment reminded me of other times when I felt a moment of transcendence related to people’s work. For instance, the way I felt the first time I saw Justice O’Connor wearing her judicial robes. Justice O’Connor is very friendly and kind, but she’s a formidable person even at her most casual. Even so, when I saw her wearing those robes, I saw her transformed; I think I actually took a step backward. To be charged to do justice is a very solemn thing, and seeing her in her robes conveyed that point, more powerfully than you might expect.

And I remember when I stopped by the studio of a friend who is a brilliant painter. His studio was everything you’d imagine: skylight, canvases everywhere, plaster models, coffee cans filled with brushes, all of it.

“Wait, I just have to finish one thing,” he told me, and he added a few more strokes of paint to a landscape he was working on.

I looked around at everything, so beautiful. “Jacob, you are lucky,” I said, in a fierce voice.

“I know,” he said. “I know.”

In the rush of our daily routines, it’s so easy to miss moments of transcendence. In art, they are masterfully presented, with language and emphasis that set them apart like jewels. In ordinary life, they rush by. I try to remind myself to look for them every day.

How about you? How do you remind yourself to look for moments of transcendence in the midst of everyday life?

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in—no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.