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

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“I’m Not a Very Good Meditator, But Drawing Is Kind of a Meditative Activity for Me.”

svobodaHappiness interview: Elizabeth Svoboda.

I was intrigued by the very title of Elizabeth Svoboda’s new book, What Makes a Hero: The Surprising Science of Selflessness. She draws upon breakthroughs in biology and neuroscience, and also upbringing and culture, to understand the nature of selflessness.

The Second  Splendid Truth of happiness is:

One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy;

One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.

So the issue of selflessness and happiness is one that has fascinated me for a long time. I was interested to hear what Elizabeth had to say about her own happiness.

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

Elizabeth: Reading. I’ve been a voracious reader nearly all my life, and there’s something about escaping temporarily into the world of a book that puts what’s happening in my own life into perspective.

I’m not a very good meditator, but drawing is kind of a meditative activity for me–it helps me achieve the kind of sustained focus that quiets my mind, at least for a little while. (Much of the time, my inner monologue is as frenetic as a Lorelai-Rory exchange on Gilmore Girls.)

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

I could have saved myself a lot of heartache if I’d realized you don’t have to achieve perfection in order to be happy. In fact, you actually don’t want to achieve perfection, because our mistakes teach us a heck of a lot. Our culture’s focus on over-achievement tempts us to try to to find the shortest route to any life destination, but finding happiness often involves a lot of false starts and detours–and that’s totally OK.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a happiness quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?

I don’t always follow this advice, but I’m happier when I do: Surrender to whatever your situation is at any given moment. Victor Frankl is probably the ultimate authority on this topic. He was imprisoned in Auschwitz and resolved to love others and to make the best of life despite his circumstances. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

On a related note, the opening of M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled is profound in its simplicity: “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.” The idea, I think, is that when we quit buying into the delusion that things are supposed to be easy, life actually goes a lot more smoothly. We stop using up energy railing against how unfair things are and simply deal with events–good and bad–as they come.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children’s books).

I get a big boost from rolling around on the floor with my eleven-month-old son–his joy and zest for life are contagious. Having to wipe the drool off of my face every few minutes doesn’t interfere with my happiness at all!

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?

I think a lot of people get tripped up by comparing themselves to others on social media. It’s easy to look at someone’s Facebook profile–their photos of their well-scrubbed kids and their Mediterranean cruise–and conclude that that person has a perfect life. But our social networking profiles are basically just reflections of how we want other people to see us. We all go through tough stuff, but most of us tend not to post about it.

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?

While I’m usually a pretty happy person, I have a tendency to worry about things that probably won’t happen, but could. If I’m not careful, that kind of anxiety can depress me. This is where thinking about what I can do for other people has been a lifesaver; it’s often just what I need to snap out of the cycle of anxious, self-focused thought. (Science backs this up: People who devote more time to volunteering or helping others are both happier and healthier.)

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

I love the tiny artist’s studio building in our backyard, which I use as an office. I work mostly from home and have an 11-month-old, so the studio gives me separation between my work life and home life, allowing me the periods of concentration I need to get work done. I have a babysitter, but if I were working in a separate room in the main house, I’d get distracted every time I heard my baby cry.

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

When I was younger, I often assumed that once I achieved a certain career goal–whether it was getting published in a certain magazine, winning an award, or getting a book contract–I’d finally be happy. But that didn’t turn out to be nearly as true as I’d hoped. Sure, there’s an initial burst of joy, but that joy is pretty fleeting. The kind of happiness that’s more lasting comes from the knowledge that I’m devoting my time to worthwhile projects, and that happiness is independent of whether or not I collect any gold stars.

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I'm deep in the writing of my next book, Before and After, about making and breaking habits, and there's nothing more satisfying than reading the success stories of people who have changed a habit. If you have a Before-and-After story of a habit you changed, and you're willing to share it here on the blog, please contact me here. Once a week, I'll post a story. We can all learn from each other.

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

seishonagonEvery 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.

Story: There Will Always Be a Special Place in Our Hearts for You.

This week’s video story: There will always be a special place in our hearts for you.

 

I have to admit, I’m so moved by this story that it’s hard for me to tell it without getting choked up. It’s so gratifying when people know just what to say.

How about you? Do you think that people want to be loved specially? I’m reminded of the lines from W. H. Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939″–I’m not sure that they’re exactly apt here, but they spring to mind:

For the error bred in the bone

Of each woman and each man

Craves what it cannot have,

Not universal love

But to be loved alone.

Can’t see the video? Click here.

Find the archives of videos here.  More than 1.7 MILLION views. Don’t forget to subscribe.

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A Happiness Lesson from Claire Danes.

danesThe September 30, 2013 issue of the New Yorker had an interesting piece, John Lahr’s Varieties of Disturbance, about actor Claire Danes.

Though I’ve never watched My So-Called Life (yes, I know this is unacceptable, and it’s on my to-do list), I do love Homeland, so I was interested to read the profile.

Danes was quoted saying something that really caught my attention.

“One of the lessons of her adulthood, Danes has said, was ‘that there is real honor in being a total goofball.’”

This struck me, because I’ve really worked hard, myself, to embrace my inner goofball. Not to worry about seeming dignified, or sophisticated, or knowledgeable, but to Be Gretchen.

In this respect, one of my patron saints is Julia Child, and of all the posts I’ve ever written, one of my favorites is my encomium to her. She was goofy yet masterly, light-hearted yet authoritative.

Enthusiasm is a form of social courage.

Realizing this was part of my embrace of my love for children’s literature. And therefore it’s especially appropriate for me to quote, in this context, a great master of children’s literature.  In his brilliant essay, On Three Ways of Writing for Children, C. S. Lewis wrote:

When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

Yes, there is real honor in being a total goofball.

Agree, disagree? In what way do you allow yourself to be a total goofball?

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Ever Been Stuck Talking to Someone Who Keeps Telling You How Wrong You Are?

ConflictBack by popular demand is the assay I wrote about the “oppositional conversational style.” This post really seems to strike a chord with people.

Which surprised, me at first, because when I identified OCS, I thought I was the only person who had ever noticed it. Turns out that many people have noticed it! From both sides of the OCS-dominated conversation.

A person with oppositional conversational style is a person who, in conversation, disagrees with and corrects whatever you say. He or she may do this in a friendly way, or a belligerent way, but this person frames remarks in opposition to whatever you venture.

I noticed this for the first time in a conversation with a guy a few months ago. We were talking about social media, and before long, I realized that whatever I’d say, he’d disagree with me. If I said, “X is important,” he’d say, “No, actually, Y is important.” For two hours. And I could tell that if I’d said, “Y is important,” he would’ve argued for X.

I saw this style again, in a chat with friend’s wife who, no matter what casual remark I made, would disagree. “That sounds fun,” I observed. “No, not at all,” she answered. “That must have been really difficult,” I said. “No, for someone like me, it’s no problem,” she answered. Etc.

Since those conversations, I’ve noticed this phenomenon several times.

Here are my questions about oppositional conversational style:

Is OCS a strategy that particular people use consistently? Or is there something about me, or about that particular conversation, that induced these people to use it?

Along those lines, is OCS a way to try to assert dominance, by correction? That’s how it feels, and also…

Do people who use OCS recognize this style of engagement in themselves; do they see a pattern in their behavior that’s different from that of most other people?

Do they have any idea how tiresome it can be?

In the case of the first example, my interlocutor used OCS in a very warm, engaging way. Perhaps, for him, it’s a tactic to drive the conversation forward and to keep it interesting. This kind of debate did indeed throw up a lot of interesting insights and information. But, I must admit, it was wearing.

In the second example, the contradictory responses felt like a challenge.

I described oppositional conversational style to my husband and asked if he knew what I was talking about. He did, and he warned me, “Watch out! Don’t start thinking about this, and then start to do it yourself.”

I had to laugh, because he knows me very well. I have a strong tendency towards belligerence—for instance, it’s one reason I basically quit drinking—and I could easily fall into OCS. (I just hope I don’t exhibit OCS already, which is quite possible.)

But I do recognize that to be on the receiving end of the oppositional conversational style—to have someone keep telling you that you’re wrong, over and over—is not pleasant.

It’s wearing at best, and often highly annoying. Even in the case of my first example, when the OCS had a fun, friendly spirit, it took a lot of self-command for me to stay calm and un-defensive. Many points could have been made in a less “Let me set you straight” way.

And in the second example, I felt patronized. Here I was, trying to make pleasant conversation, and she kept contradicting me. It was all I could do not to roll my eyes and retort, “Fine, whatever, actually I don’t care if you had fun or not.”

Now, I’m not arguing that everyone should agree all the time. Nope. I love a debate (and I’m trained as a lawyer, which definitely has made me more comfortable, perhaps too comfortable, with confrontation). But it’s not much fun when every single statement in a casual conversation is met with,“Nope, you’re wrong; I’m right.” Skillful conversationalists can explore disagreements and make points in ways that feel constructive and positive, rather than combative or corrective.

What do you think? Do you recognize it in other people–or in yourself? How I love to try to identify patterns in human behavior. Abstainers and moderators. Over-buyers and under-buyersAlchemists and leopards. Etc.