Secret of Adulthood: Accept Yourself, and Expect More From Yourself.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:

 

Or as W. H. Auden put it, “Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity.”

Or as Flannery O’Connor observed, “Accepting oneself does not preclude an attempt to become better.”

There are many paradoxes of happiness, and this is one of the most important.

In Happier at Home, I write about how I struggled with this question as I faced my fear of driving. Should I accept a fear of driving as a natural limit of my nature, or should I expect myself to conquer that fear? Very reluctantly, I decided to make myself start driving again.

Is there an area where you struggle to decide whether to “accept yourself” or to “expect more from myself”?

The Penalty for a Bad Habit? The Bad Habit.

Assay: One of the things that strikes me most, in my study of habits, is the poetic justice of habits.

As you may (or may not) remember from your high school English class, “poetic justice” is when a punishment fits the crime. In Dante’s vision of the Ninth Circle of Hell, a fiend punishes the sowers of discord and schism by continually splitting apart their bodies. Or a criminal sets an illegal trap, but then gets caught in the trap himself.

There’s a real poetic justice about habits. The reward for a good habit…is the good habit. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, in “New England Reformers,” “The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.”

Even more striking is the poetic justice of bad habits. As a friend said to me, “I feel too anxious to tackle my bad habits, but my bad habits are what make me anxious.” One survey found that some women who worry about their finances use “retail therapy” to feel better—they shop in order to cope with their anxiety. Gamblers who worry about money distract themselves by gambling. When procrastinators fall behind, working on the task makes them so anxious that they have to stop working in order to feel better; as someone wrote on my blog, “I feel anxious because I’m not getting anything done, so I get a massage to feel better. But I don’t get anything done, because I’m busy with things like getting a massage.”

In his memoir about his weight loss, Never Goin’ Back, Al Roker describes the morning he promised his dying father that he’d lose weight. Later that day, he recalls, “I was so upset about my promise to lose weight, in fact, that I had two grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches for lunch.”

Although some people assume that strong feelings of guilt or shame act as safeguards to help people stick to good habits, the opposite is true.

Guilt and shame about a bad habit can make people feel so bad that they seek to make themselves feel better—by indulging in the very habit that made them feel bad in the first place. Which is where the poetic justice kicks in.

By contrast, people who feel less guilt and who show compassion toward themselves in the face of failure are better able to regain self-control — and therefore, they’re able to resist indulging in the bad habits that make them feel bad.

Instead of viewing our stumbles as evidence that we’re weak or undisciplined or lazy, we can see our stumbles as part of the habit-formation process. Telling ourselves things like, “It happens,” “We’ve all done it,” “I’ll act differently next time,” or “What I do most days matters more than what I do once in a while” helps us learn from a misstep, and do better next time.  That kind of self-encouragement is a greater safeguard than self-blame.

Do you ever find yourself feeling worse because of a habit that’s meant to help you feel better? (Along the same lines, here are six mood boosters that often do more harm than good.)

“A Man Gets an Immense Amount of Satisfaction from the Knowledge of Having Done Good Work.”

You increase your self-respect when you feel you’ve done everything you ought to have done, and if there is nothing else to enjoy, there remains that chief of pleasures, the feeling of being pleased with oneself. A man gets an immense amount of satisfaction from the knowledge of having done good work and of having made the best use of his day, and when I am in this state I find that I thoroughly enjoy my rest and even the mildest forms of recreation.

Diary of Eugene Delacroix

Delacroix was an artist, and he was also a brilliant writer, and I highly recommend reading his Diary. It’s fascinating — particularly if you’re interested in subjects like art, creativity, and productivity.

Do You Have Any Favorite Quotes? I Sure Do.

I have a real memory from passages from books that I’ve read. This is one of my favorite things about myself, because as I go about my day, I hear little echoes from my reading. Often, too, I’ll be haunted by a line or a paragraph for years, but not really understand its significance, until suddenly I grasp it.

One of the things that makes me happiest about this blog, my books, and my “Moment of Happiness” daily quotation newsletter is that they give me the chance to share all my beloved quotations.

For instance, in the conclusion of Happier at Home, I recount how I was suddenly hit by the words,  “Now is now” from the beautiful  final page of Little House in the  Big Woods. Oh, how I love that passage –read the whole thing here. (I think the conclusion to Happier at Home, which is an homage to Laura Ingalls Wilder, is one of the best things I’ve ever written.)

In writing Better Than Before, I was able to make use of one of my favorite passages, which I’ve remembered ever since I read it in college, from Sigmund Freud’s “The Theme of the Three Caskets.” Freud explains that the names of the three goddesses of fate mean “the accidental within the decrees of destiny,” “the inevitable,” and “the fateful tendencies each one of us brings into the world.” The fateful tendencies each one of us brings into the world! I love that. (For you Game of Thrones fans, books or TV show, I was just thinking about this, about Bran’s love of climbing. A fateful tendency.)

Another line that I can’t get out of my head, because of its tremendous significance for habits and for its stark, almost ominous words, is something novelist John Gardner said in an interview: “Every time you break the law you pay, and every time you obey the law you pay.” It suddenly occurs to me that probably this is particularly evident to Upholders and Rebels, which may explain why I, as an Upholder, am haunted by it.

For some reason, I woke up this morning thinking about a passage from one of my favorite books of all time, Story of a Soul, the memoir of my spiritual master, St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

Its context: one day in 1897, when she in her early twenties, and weakened by the tuberculosis that would soon kill her, Thérèse was sitting in her wheelchair in the garden of her convent. Ordered by her Prioress to complete an account of her childhood memories, she was trying unsuccessfully to write:

When I begin to take up my pen, behold a Sister who passes by, a pitchfork on her shoulder. She believes she will distract me with a little idle chatter: hay, ducks, hens, visits of the doctor, everything is discussed…another hay worker throws flowers on my lap, perhaps believing these will inspire me with poetic thoughts. I am not looking for them at the moment and would prefer to see the flowers remain swaying on their stems…I don’t know if I have been able to write ten lines without being disturbed…however, for the love of God and my Sisters (so charitable toward me) I take care to appear happy and especially to be so. For example, here is a hay worker who is just leaving me after having said very compassionately: “Poor little Sister, it must tire you out writing like that all day long.” “Don’t worry,” I answer, “I appear to be writing very much, but really I am writing almost nothing.” “Very good!” she says, “but just the same, I am very happy we are doing the haying since this always distracts you a little.” In fact, it is such a great distraction for me…that I am not telling any lies when I say that I am writing practically nothing.

St. Thérèse emphasizes the importance of accepting gifts in the spirit in which they’re offered, instead of responding to the gift itself. She doesn’t want to be distracted with chit-chat; she wants to write. She doesn’t want a bouquet in her lap; she wants to see wild flowers growing in the fields. But she “takes care to appear happy and especially to be so.”

I don’t know why I’ve been thinking about this today. This isn’t the gift-giving season. But it makes me happy to think about it. Maybe it’s time to reread Story of a Soul, yet again.

How about you? Do you have any quotations that have lodged in your head — or that struck you with particular meaning, when you read them? I like the trend of people including quotations in the signature of their emails; I’m always interested to read what’s chosen.

“We’d Be Better Served Watching the Carb Content of the Diet Rather than How Much We Eat and Exercise.”

Habits interview: Gary Taubes.

I’m so pleased to be posting this interview with Gary Taubes, because it’s no exaggeration to say that his work has had more practical influence on my day-to-day habits than probably any other writer.

In Better Than Before, I describe the multiple strategies we can use to change our habits. One of the most powerful, but also one of the most mysterious and unpredictable strategies, is the Strategy of the Lightning Bolt.

When the lightning bolt hits you, you’re so moved by a new idea or belief that your habits change, overnight. Instantly, effortlessly.

I was hit by a lightning bolt when I read Gary’s book, Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It, in March 2012, when my eating habits changed dramatically. Just a few days ago, I described the lightning bolt in a short video. (Some of you may be a bit tired of this subject, but I wanted to explain the strategy before I posted Gary’s interview. Next week, different topics.)

It’s interesting — I was hit by this Lightning Bolt, and my habits changed. Another habits strategy is the Strategy of Other People; we often pick up habits from other people. My habit changed, and my father picked up that habit change, through me. He’s a Questioner, and as he weighed the book’s arguments and tested its principles on himself, he became persuaded gradually. Now he’s as much of a convert as I am. We got to similar habits through different routes.

It’s important to be aware of the forces that can affect our habits, for better and for worse, because when we understand what’s happening, we can direct it.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded?

Gary: This one’s easy, but counter-intuitive: that the conventional wisdom on why we get fat or fatter is both foolish and wrong. Ever since the 1950s, nutritionists and obesity researchers have insisted we get fat merely because we take in more calories than we expend and all we have to know about the effect of foods on our weight is how many calories they contain. What I now realize is that this is like having a theory of wealth management or investing that says people get rich because they make more money than they spend, or that the only thing you have to know about an investment strategy is that it makes more money than it loses. If your financial advisor told you this was the secret formula to how they were going to invest your pension plan, you’d fire him or her in a second. And yet this is the way we’re supposed to think about obesity and the way the authorities do. What I suggested in my books is what pre-WW2 European researchers had come to believe: that obesity is a hormonal/regulatory disorder and that foods influence our weight not because of their caloric content (although that’s obviously one way to measure quantity) but because of their effects on the hormones and enzymes that regulate fat accumulation in our fat tissue and whether or not we burn that fat for fuel. If you think about it from this perspective, then the focus becomes on the carbohydrates in our diet, because carbohydrates drive up secretion of the hormone insulin which in turn tells our fat cells to store fat and our lean cells not to burn it. So just by thinking of obesity as a biological problem rather than a mathematical or physics problem, you end up with a conclusion that maybe we’d be better served watching the carbohydrate content of the diet rather than how much we eat and exercise.

 What aspects of eating habits would be most helpful for people to understand?

If it’s true that the way foods influence how fat we are — our adiposity — is by their effects on hormones, and specifically insulin (and leptin, as well, but that’s another, technical story), then any foods that drive up insulin and make us store calories as fat are also likely to make us hungry in the process. These foods will come to taste better than other, foods and these are the foods we’ll quickly come to crave. When we’re hungry or dieting, these are the foods on which we’ll end up binging. This is an idea that came out of school of science in the 1920s-30s known as physiological psychology and the idea is that our most pronounced behaviors are responses to underlying physiological states. The implication is that if you change the underlying physiology, you can change the behavior. So we can change food habits — how we eat, how much we eat, when we eat, when we snack, what we snack, etc. — by understanding that physiology and changing that. It’s not that this won’t require some willpower and restraint in the short term, but once we’ve got our physiology fixed and healthy, our eating habits will be healthier too.

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

Is it fair to say “everything?” Or rather anything that I might have thought I knew about forming healthy habits when I was 18 was as likely to be wrong as right. And even if it was right, it might have only pertained to the forming of healthy habits as an 18-year-old. Each age presents new challenges. Certainly as I get older, forming healthy habits is as much or more about unforming unhealthy habits first. At 18 I would have been more of a blank slate.

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

For creativity and productivity, it’s making sure that my morning hours are reserved for writing — it’s the only time of day when I’m smart enough to write — and getting to my desk having already been thinking deeply about what it is I have to write that day. For health, it’s living by the lessons I learned researching my books (with the caveat, of course, that I turn out to be right and they serve me well). For leisure, let’s just say I have to work on that. I’ve always been a workaholic and have never managed to hit a healthy balance of  leisure time with work time. I was writing articles about burn-out when I was in my 20s. Now that I’m in my late fifties, I could write an encyclopedia on the subject if I wasn’t too burnt out to do it. I have to work on the leisure thing.

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

Well, let’s see. I used to be a smoker and now I’m not. It was an endless battle, capped by using nicotine gum in my early 40s to finally quit. Then I chewed the nicorette gum for a decade. Recently I quit drinking caffeine. I titrated down over the course of a summer — buying one pound bags of coffee from my local Peets that were first 80 percent caffeinated, 20 percent decaf, then 60/40, then 40/60, then 20/80 and finally all decaf. Then I gave up the decaf. This was last summer. I was off caffeine and coffee entirely by last August. It was as hard as quitting smoking, although in a different way. I never thought of caffeine as anti-depressant until I found out how depressing mornings could be without that first cup of hot coffee waiting for you. Now that I have to write a book, though, and it happens to be almost two years over due, I will probably go back to the coffee or at least caffeine to get it done.  I may even start chewing nicorettes again, with the expectation that I’ll quit both — again — when the book is done. I also gave up fattening carbohydrates about a dozen years ago, first as an experiment and then, when I saw the obvious benefits, as a lifestyle. That’s one healthy habit I’ll keep for the duration.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

Definitely a Questioner. Although doesn’t everyone or at least most people think the same?

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

When you’re a person who doesn’t eat sweets, baked goods or starchy vegetables, as I am, dinner parties are an always an adventure. I try not to be a zealot in any way and will eat anything, but it’s a challenge. Moreover these foods can be a little bit like drugs — the sweets, especially — and so the more we eat them, or at least the more I eat them, the more I want to eat them. So my wife will order a dessert; she’ll take one bite and leave the rest. I’ll take one bite because, well, it’s there, and then have to struggle mightily not to eat the rest, and then everyone else’s left over desert as well. It’s the way I am and the way I’ve been for a long time. When I was young I was like Mikey in the old Life cereal commercial. Remember? Give it to Mikey, he’ll eat anything. Of course, when I was young I could eat anything (and usually did). As I got older I found I couldn’t, or at least not without my waistline expanding. Now I find it easier to avoid sweets entirely than to try to eat them in moderation. But dinner parties and restaurants always challenge that decision. [I describe this as the abstainer/moderator distinction.]

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 ask because reading Why We Get Fat hit me like a lightning bolt.]

When I was turning fifty, I got a life insurance exam which included being weighed. Lo and behold, I appeared to weigh 240 pounds. This was about fifteen pounds heavier than I expected. Now I’m supposed to understand the diet weight control thing, and if I’ve gained fifteen pounds that’s a bad sign. Right? So I started thinking about what could have happened. As I may have mentioned, or should have, I was a caffeine addict. I would have a cup of coffee by my side, at my desk, all day long, and I drank that coffee with cream. One thing I could never understand was why I had to have the coffee at my desk, all day long, even at those periods that I was drinking decaf? Was it the dregs of caffeine in the decaf, or something else — the cream? — that caused the craving? So I did some research, found out that some people  over-secrete insulin response to dairy — even cream — and thought that might explain it. I switched to drinking black coffee, which was easier than I expected. A testament to the addictive power of caffeine. It took me only three days to actually like black coffee. The 15 pounds went a way in six weeks, along with another five for good measure. I’ve been a healthy 220 ever since. (I’m 6’2″ and so this is my healthy weight.)

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I try to embrace the good ones, obviously. But I realize that I’m disorganized and could definitely use some habits to help me be better organized. I suppose I resist those on the basis that I don’t have time to learn them. But if I did learn them, I’d have more time. I’m working on this.

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

Yes. Other than the obvious — my wife, my two boys, my best friend Marion and my partner/boss, Peter Attia — I have an older cousin who lives in Hawaii and was an intelligence officer during the Vietnam War. When I was living in Hawaii between my junior and senior years in college, he gave me a lecture about not working hard enough. He said things came easy to me and so I coasted and was willing to settle for what came easy as good enough. I took his lecture to heart and changed my work habits and my goals. I owe him for that.