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

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The Secret to Happiness, in Three Words, According to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

Sandra Day O''ConnorI had the chance to make a quick visit to my hometown of Kansas City yesterday. There was an event at which Justice O’Connor was interviewed, along with two of her clerks — one of whom was me.

As always, I was so happy to see the Justice, and I was reminded of a conversation we had a few years ago, about happiness, so I decided to re-post this account.

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Years ago, when I was a lawyer, I clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor – which was one of those rare, amazing, once-in-a-lifetime work experiences. There are many reasons that I don’t regret law school and my years as a lawyer before becoming a writer, and the chance to work for Justice O’Connor is one of them.

The other day, I was on the phone with the Justice. We were talking about her terrific new site, iCivics, which teaches children about civics, and she’d also visited my website.

“I can tell you what I believe is the secret to a happy life,” she said.

“What’s that, Justice?” I asked. (Sidenote: when you speak directly to a Justice, you address him or her as “Justice” – e.g., “Justice, the cert petitions are here.” This, I always thought, must act as a frequent reminder to them about the value they are supposed to embody!) “What’s your secret?”

Work worth doing,” she answered firmly.

“What about relationships?” I asked. From what I can tell, looking at modern science and ancient philosophy, if you had to pick a single factor as the one most likely to lead to a happy life, having strong relationships would be a strong candidate. Of course, most people form a lot of strong relationships at work.

“No,” she said. “Work worth doing, that’s all you really need.”

“Can I quote you?” I asked.

“Yes, yes,” she said.

Work worth doing. What do you think? Is that the one thing you need for a happy life?

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The more I’ve thought about “work worth doing,” the more I realize the brilliance of this three-word encapsulation. Because, of course, “work” can mean so many different things, to different people; and for us to do work that’s “worth doing” means that we must choose work that reflects our values. If you feel that your work is pointless, well, that’s not good. And most of us have many kinds of work: work-work, and relationships-work, and self-work, for instance.

Agree, disagree?

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I've just finished writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we can make and break our habits. If you'd like to pre-order the book, click here.

Story: The Fact Is, It’s Nice to Be Appreciated.

This week’s video story: It’s nice to be appreciated. Even if you don’t do something for the recognition — the recognition is nice.

How I love stories when virtue is rewarded! Here’s the one that I mention in the video, that I already posted, and here’s one for today:

Note that my friend’s acts of kindness weren’t “random acts of kindness “; they were very specific. But they were very kind.

How about you? Have you ever recognized — or been recognized — in this way?

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How Do You Feel About the Need to Pay — or Something for Free?

money100sDid I mention that I’m writing a book about how we make and break habits? Oh yes, I think I did. It’s called Before and After, and it will be out next spring. Sign up here if you want to know when it goes on sale.

Here’s a habit-related issue that I’ve been pondering lately: the need to pay, or the ability to get something for free. I think that these conditions can affect our habits.

First, paying.

When forming habits, we’re surprisingly affected by how convenient an activity is. We can harness this, with the Strategies of Convenience and Inconvenience, to foster good habits.  One person changes into exercise clothes as soon as he comes home from work, to make it easier to exercise; another person puts the TV remote-control on a high shelf, to make it a bit harder to turn on the TV.

When we have to pay for something, it feels less convenient. For instance, for most people, it would be cheaper to pay for the gym on a per-visit basis instead of forking over a monthly fee (70% of people rarely use their long-term gym memberships), but although monthly system may not make financial sense, it makes psychological sense; paying per visit feels less convenient, and means that each work-out means an additional cost, while paying by the month makes each visit feel free.

Also, for many people, paying for something makes them more likely to do it. If they pay for a work-out with a trainer, they’re more likely to go, rather than spend the money on nothing. For some (though not all) Obligers, having to pay is a form of external accountability. For them, therefore, late fees, penalties, paying for a class, hiring professionals, etc.  can be very important for sticking to a good habit.

On the other hand, it seems that for some people, paying for something like a training session makes them feel as though they’ve actually done it, even if they haven’t. Paying for a gym membership makes it seem like they’re “going to the gym,” even if they never actually go. Have you ever experienced this?

Perhaps this is related to the “pay or pray” phenomenon: it turns out that when people donate to religious institutions, they’re less likely to attend religious services. Paying acts as a substitute for showing up.

Second, freebies.

Getting something for free also affects our habits. This comes up a lot with food. Many people can’t turn down a free sample — it’s free! But no surprise,  research shows that getting a food or drink sample makes shoppers feel hungrier and thirstier, and puts them in reward-seeking state.

An important strategy for habit-formation is the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting, and getting something for free can provide loopholes. For example, we can use it to argue that “this doesn’t count,” as in “These cookies are compliments of the chef, they’re free, they don’t count.” But everything counts.

Another complicating factor: we tend to value things more when we pay for them. But we also love scoring free stuff. And we’re more likely to do something, like go to the doctor, if we don’t have to pay.  These different frames of mind come into play with habits in many different variations.

Have you noticed how the need to pay, or the ability to get something for free, affects your habits?

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“Collectors…Who Aim at Completing a Series, and Those Who Long to Possess Things that Have Betwitched Them.”

Kenneth-Clark“Collectors are basically of two kinds; those who aim at completing a series, and those who long to possess things that have bewitched them. The former, of whom stamp and coin collectors are the obvious examples, enjoy the pleasures of a limited aim, and its comforting certainties. The latter may suffer ups and downs, changes of heart and deceptions, but they have several great advantages. They never know when some new love will inflame them; they learn a great deal more about themselves from their possessions; and in the end they are surrounded by old friends, with long love stories which they must try hard not to tell their friends.”

Kenneth Clark, Another Part of the Wood: A Self-Portrait

Agree, disagree?

Do you place yourself in either of these two camps? In The Happiness Project, I write about my attempt to have a collection — because collections look like so much fun — but I’m not really a collector at heart.

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Before and After: “When I’d Leave My Office, I Wouldn’t Visit the Restroom.”

HabitsRepeatFourI’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 hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.

This week’s story comes from someone who wants to stay anonymous.

I have to say, this is one of the most ingenious strategies I’ve encountered in all my research. It’s a strategy that’s readily available to us all, doesn’t cost anything, easy to implement…

I wanted to establish a regular exercise routine. I have a gym membership and enjoyed working out at the gym close to my home on weekends, but couldn’t manage to get there during the week. Once I got home to change clothes, I never made it to the gym. So I researched gyms close to work and started carrying my gym bag in the car. When I’d leave my office, I wouldn’t visit the restroom. Instead, I would leave with some urgency and need to stop by the gym for relief. That got me in the door. Once I got there, the energy of the place took over, and I would work out before heading for home.

Brilliant! (Obviously, you wouldn’t want to employ this strategy in a way that would stress your body so much as to cause health issues, etc. etc.)

How do you get yourself to exercise? Exercising regularly is definitely one of the most popular of desired habits of the Essential Seven.

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