My current emphasis: how to make good habits and break bad ones (really)

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A New Experience: I Was in the Napa Valley Earthquake.

napaearthquakeI had a profound experience yesterday. My husband and I, and much of my family, were in Napa Valley for my cousin’s wedding. At 3:20 a.m., I was lying in bed awake, because the time change meant that my body considered it past my usual wake-up time of 6:00.

As I was lying there, I felt the earthquake hit. My husband woke up right away, and we lay there clutching each other. Neither one of us said a word.

By chance, I’d just had a conversation with my sister and brother-in-law about earthquakes — they live in Los Angeles so have experienced them before. My sister had told me that bed was a fairly safe place to be, and my brother-in-law had commented that the modern codes had done a lot to help buildings withstand earthquakes, and that information was reassuringly in the back of my mind as this was happening.

I could hear things falling over, glass breaking, furniture shaking, the bed moving. I sensed the moment when the power went off. (Later, when I asked my husband later how long he thought it had lasted, he said, “About two minutes”; in fact, it had lasted twenty seconds.)

The experience was so overwhelming and unfamiliar that I couldn’t think about anything except what was happening right in that room. I wasn’t even scared.

Later, when I was trying to put my finger on how I was feeling at that moment, I thought of a passage that has long haunted me, from Thomas Pynchon’s mysterious novel, Gravity’s Rainbow.

When something real is about to happen to you, you go toward it with a transparent surface parallel to your own front that hums and bisects both your ears, making eyes very alert. The light bends toward chalky blue. Your skin aches. At last: something real.

This quotation captures what I felt…it was so real, the direct experience of the tremendous powers of the earth. It was breathtaking. It was intensely real.

A few moments after the quaking stopped, I started to worry about my family (they’re all fine) and about the damage to the region, of course, but while it was happening — all I can say is that it felt so real.

I'm just about finished writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we can make and break our habits. If you’d like to hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.

Guess: Which Virtue Gives Other Virtues Their “Principal Lustre”?

AdamSmith“Self-command is not only itself a great virtue, but from it all the other virtues seem to derive their principal lustre.”

–Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Agree, disagree?

I was trying to figure out what Smith means, exactly, and I think it’s this: when we consider the possessions of virtues, without self-command, they shrink. Courage without self-command, consideration without self-command — it’s hard even to imagine justice without self-command.

Before & After: “The Thought of Smoking Made Me Sick.”

HabitsRepeatFourI’m writing my next book, Better Than Before, 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 hear when Better Than Before goes on sale, sign up here.

This week’s story comes from Stephanie Whitfield.

I had been a pack-a-day smoker for 5 years, starting on my 18th birthday. I knew it was unhealthy and I hated it: the smell, the taste, the need for something. I researched advice for quitting, and I attempted twice. The first time with nicotine gum I quickly gave up. The second try I thought I’d taper down until I completely stopped. Another failure. I had accepted it wasn’t “the right time” for me and I’d try again in the future.

A few years ago while I was watching Sandra Bullock deservingly accept her Oscar for her performance in The Blind Side I started feeling ill. The details will be spared, but I had the norovirus.

The next few days were a haze. It was the worst I had ever felt in my life. When I was awake I cried until I could sleep again. Eventually my body was dehydrated, and there were no more tears, or energy or anything. I felt like less than a zombie. Several days in, I forced myself to have a sports drink, and later that day I tried crackers. I was slowly nibbling on a saltine when I looked at my ashtray and realized I hadn’t had a cigarette in three days. Out of habit, I reached for one but then stopped. The thought of smoking made me feel sick. I knew if I did smoke I would somehow feel worse than I already did. It was a light-bulb moment. I had just gone through the most pain and sickness I ever had in my life, and my “crutch” was going to make me feel worse. I threw out cigarettes, lighters, ashtrays. It initially was hard to get used to my day without cigarettes, but it got easier and easier.

Today I can’t believe I ever smoked. Quitting led me to make so many more healthy changes with my diet and lifestyle. Breaking the smoking habit/addiction was the best thing I have ever done, and I’m so proud of myself.

My mother had a similar experience. She’s always had a very strong sweet tooth, and a few years ago, she caught a terrible stomach flu, and when she at last recovered, she found that she’d lost her craving for sweets to a great degree.

Who knew that catching the flu  could offer these benefits?

These examples illustrate the Strategy of the Clean Slate. With this strategy, something happens to wipe the slate clean, and you have the opportunity to re-set your habits.

With both smoking and sweets, it would have been easy to slip back into former habits, but fortunately, both Stephanie and my mother realized that the clean slate offered an opportunity. (Note: moving is often a very effective clean slate.)

This fresh start is a crucial time, because it offers tremendous opportunity for forming new habits — but it can also pose great risk to existing habits that we want to maintain. It’s important to stay alert for signs of a clean slate, because too often, we fail to use the opportunity of a clean slate to form a desirable habit, or we fail to recognize that a clean slate is triggering a habit that we don’t want to form.

The positive effect of the clean slate can wear off, if we just re-write the same marks that were there before.

One popular and sneaky example of the Questionable Assumption Loophole is the belief that a habit has changed so deeply that we can break the habit without any bad effect: ” I don’t like smoking anymore, so it’s okay for me to have one cigarette.”  Very questionable.

It’s great to take advantage of the Strategy of the Clean Slate, and to make the most of the running start it can provide for changing a habit.

How about you? Have you ever experienced a habit change after a clean slate? As I mentioned, moving is one of the most common times when this happens.

 

Are You “Addicted” to Something?

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

This Wednesday: Are you “addicted” to something?

The definition of  “addiction,” and what people can become “addicted” to, are hotly contested issues. In everyday conversation, of course, people throw around the word “addicted” a lot, as in, “I’m addicted to Game of Thrones.”

Addiction, whatever it might be, is a subject that’s related to my current fascination: habits. As I explain in the introduction of Better Than Before, my discussion of habit formation doesn’t cover addictions, compulsions, nervous habits, or habits of mind. Nevertheless, I did a lot of reading and thinking about addiction, because it’s a useful area to consider.

The nature of addiction is highly controversial, but I found it interesting to read, in Kenneth Paul Rosenberg and Laura Curtiss Feder’s Behavioral Addictions, this list of factors put forth by Mark Griffiths. Apart from the question of “what’s a true addiction?” it’s a helpful way to think about whether a certain habit is making it harder to live a life that reflects our values and contributes to our long-term happiness.

According to this definition, a behavioral addiction is marked by:

Salience — this behavior has become the important activity in a person’s life

Mood modification — this behavior changes a person’s mood, by providing a rush of excitement or a sense of calm or numbness

Tolerance — more and more behavior is needed to get the mood boost

Withdrawal symptoms — a person feels lousy or irritable when unable to engage in the behavior

Conflict — the behavior causes conflicts with other people, interferes with other activities, or causes a person to feel a loss of control

Relapse — the behavior returns after being given up

I don’t want to sound like I’m treating addiction lightly. Whatever “addiction” might be exactly, when a person feels powerless to control a behavior that’s destructive, that’s a very, very serious matter. Far beyond the scope of my writing.

But I do think that even for people who aren’t “addicted” to something, these points are interesting to ponder, as they might relate to a bad habit (a habit that’s not good for us, but doesn’t rise to this level of severity).

They help us think about whether we’re engaging in a behavior that’s turned into a negative. That’s when we might want to consider changing a habit.

Sometimes, a behavior that one person consider to be healthy and positive is viewed as another person as extreme and negative. I have a friend, a fellow Upholder, who exercises just about every day of the year. People sometimes say she’s “addicted” to exercise in a way that’s unhealthy, but that’s not how she sees it.

In cases like this, I found this point by Griffiths to be very helpful: “Healthy enthusiasms add to life whereas addictions take away from it.”

My research on habits and happiness have convinced me that it’s very important that we feel in control of ourselves. The feeling that a behavior is out of our control — that we can’t change what we’re doing, even when we know it’s not good for us — well, that’s a bad feeling. Whether it’s an “addiction” or not.

As I was writing Better Than Before, I kept changing the epigraph (I love choosing epigraphs). In the end, I’ve chosen this line from Publilius Syrus: “The greatest of empires, is the empire over one’s self.”

Self-command, self-knowledge…more and more, I’m convinced that good habits and happiness come down to these two. And maybe self-command comes from self-knowledge, so really it’s just self-knowledge.

What about you? Have you ever had a behavior in your life that felt out of your control? If you wrested back control, how did you do it?

 

Secret of Adulthood: Someplace, Keep an Empty Shelf.

Further Secrets of Adulthood: Someplace, keep an empty shelf.SomeplaceKeepAnEmptyShelf_124858

Now, what’s so great about an empty shelf? An empty shelf shows that I have room to expand — I’m not crowded in by my stuff, I have order and space. For most people, outer order contributes to inner calm, a subject that I explore at some length in Happier at Home and also in Better Than Before. (If you want to know when Better Than Before goes on sale, sign up here.)

Some people say, “Gretchen, do you really have an empty shelf?” I really do (though I have to protect it against my husband, who never sees an empty shelf without wanting to stick something on it). If you want to see it, watch here at minute 6:41.

The opposite of a profound truth is also true, however, so someplace, I also keep a junk drawer.

How about you? Do you have an empty shelf, a junk drawer, or both?