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

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7 Tips on How to Make Friends and Influence People–18th Century Version.

dancing18thEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Seven tips for “pleasing in company,” from 1774.

I love reading lists of happiness tips from days of yore — for example, I loved Sydney Smith’s nineteen tips for cheering yourself up, from two hundred years ago.

Here’s another olde liste, from Lord Chesterfield, a British statesman and man of letters was very preoccupied with worldly success. In his Letters, he bombards his son with advice about how to succeed in society.

Samuel Johnson remarked that these letters “teach the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master” — not exactly a rousing endorsement. Nevertheless, I think Lord Chesterfield has some provocative insights. Here’s an assortment of his advice:

1. “Pleasing in company is the only way of being pleased in it yourself.” Agree, disagree?

2. “The very same thing may become either pleasing or offensive, by the manner of saying or doing it.”

3. “Even where you are sure, seem rather doubtful; represent, but do not pronounce, and if you would convince others, seem open to conviction yourself.” This is very, very hard for me. I’m a real know-it-all.

4. “You will easily discover every man’s prevailing vanity, by observing his favourite topic of conversation; for every man talks most of what he has most a mind to be thought to excel in.”

5. “The sure way to excel in any thing, is only to have a close and undissipated attention while you are about it; and then you need not be half the time that otherwise you must…

6. “Dress is a very foolish thing, and yet it is a very foolish thing for a man not to be well dressed.” As an under-buyer, I have to remind myself of this.

7. “Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well.” I disagree here. As part of my resolution to “Enjoy the fun of failure,” I’ve taken up the motto, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” There’s merit to both approaches. Once again, it happens, the opposite of a great truth is also true.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with his advice?

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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.

Story: It Must Be Really Weird to Be an American Icon.

This week’s video story: It must be really weird to be an American icon.


Working for Justice O’Connor, and for the Supreme Court, was one of the highlights of my work life. 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.

One question I never asked her while I was clerking was, “Hey, Justice, what’s the secret to a happy life?” But I did ask her later! Guess what she said–the answer is revealed here.

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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Who Knew? Lucky Charms Actually Work.

horseshoeAssay: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about superstition.

Superstition is the irrational belief that an object or behavior has the power to influence an outcome, when there’s no logical connection between them.

Most of us aren’t superstitious—but most of us are a littlestitious.

Relying on lucky charms is superstitious, but in fact, it actually works. Researchers have found that people who believe they have luck on their side feel greater “self-efficacy”—the belief that we’re capable of doing what we set out to do—and this belief actually boosts mental and physical performance. Many elite athletes, for instance, are deeply superstitious, and in one study, people who were told that a golf ball “has turned out to be a lucky ball” did  better putting than people who weren’t told that.

Any discussion of superstition reminds me of a perhaps-apocryphal story that I love, about physicist Niels Bohr. Bohr noticed that a friend had a horseshoe mailed above the door, and he asked why. When told that it brought luck, he asked in astonishment, “Do you really believe in this?” His friend replied, “Oh, I don’t believe in it. But I am told it works even if you don’t believe in it.” (You can watch me tell the story in this video.)

To help herself quit drinking, a friend told me, she explicitly invoked the idea of luck. “I told myself, ‘The lucky parts of my life have been when I wasn’t drinking, so I need to stop drinking to get my luck back.’”

How about you? Do you have a lucky object, lucky ritual, or lucky item that you wear? I have a lucky perfume. I love beautiful smells, but I save one of my favorite perfumes to wear only when I feel like I need some extra luck.

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Secret of Adulthood: Home Is a Physical Space; It’s Also a Frame of Mind.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:



If I had to name one thing that I learned from my happiness project in Happier at Home…this is it.

If I want my home to be a serene, loving, and welcoming place, I’m the one who has to be serene,  loving, and welcoming.

I’ve long been haunted by a line from Samuel Johnson–in fact, I love it so much that it’s the epigraph to The Happiness Project. He said, “He, who would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry the wealth of the Indies with him.” Or as Harlan Coben put it, in terms a little closer to home, “You bring your own weather to the picnic.”

What do you think? Do you find that you are the most important element to your experience of your home?

Slight tangent: the photo shows my Christmas ornament in the shape of a miniature Fisher-Price “Play Family” house–just like the one that my sister and I played with throughout our childhoods, and that my daughters play with when we visit Kansas City. I took the photo for Happier at Home; this ornament is one of my mementos from the project of writing the book. It opens up–it even has a doorbell that rings!

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“I Used to Spend Too Much Time Trying to Turn My Weaknesses into Strengths.”

danschawbelHappiness interview: Dan Schawbel.

I’ve known Dan in a virtual way for years. Now I’m trying to remember…have we ever actually met in person? I think so, but I’m not even sure. Such are the wonders of the internet.

He’s one of the foremost experts on the subject of personal branding, and the managing partner of Millenial Branding. He’s also the author of Me 2.0: Four Steps to Building Your Future, as well as a new book that just hit the shelves: Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success.

For many people, the idea of promoting themselves doesn’t make them happy, but Dan emphasizes that this exercise is really about helping yourself create the kind of life that you want–one that expresses your values and interests.

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

Dan: Running. I’m constantly dealing with stress from working on various projects simultaneously so I use running as an excuse to get away from everything and unwind. I’ve been able to run five miles each day without stopping this year, which I view as an achievement. I use running to break up my day so I’m not focused on work for eight hours straight. I’m happier because I’m less stressed and because I have more endurance for consistently doing the activity.

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

If you focus on the positive aspects of your life, and your core strengths, you will be happier. I used to spend too much time trying to turn my weaknesses into strengths and dwelling on rejection and failure. I view everything I do as a learning experience so I never see anything as failure, just a chance to improve.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

My biggest weakness is that I spread myself too thin. I take on too many projects out of passion and excitement instead of what makes the most sense for my goals and aspirations. When you take on too many projects, you end up hurting your social life and your happiness.

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?

A happiness quote that has stuck with me is “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.” I find this helpful because it pushes us to not dwell on the past but benefit from it and enjoy the present , while looking forward to tomorrow. It’s a message that helps me put life in perspective.

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).

When I’m in a bad mood, I usually cook myself a steak. The process of cooking takes my mind off of the situation too. I rarely eat red meat but really enjoy it so I save it for times when I’m not as happy.

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?

My life is a roller-coaster so my levels of happiness are constantly in flux. I do activities like cooking, running and going out with my friends in order to stabilize my happiness but it’s still hard. As you know from publishing books, the process is daunting and there are so many variables. Even after the book is out, it’s unpredictable what the response will be so that stress falls on the author.

What do you do if you’re stuck at work?

A lot of workers aren’t happy with their current job situation and don’t know what to do. In a new study I did in partnership with American Express for my book, we found that 44 percent of both managers and employees agree that it’s most reasonable to leave their company if another opportunity comes along. You should always be open to new opportunities and if you’re stuck, look to see if there are internal opportunities first, then external ones afterward. You might be in the wrong job and it’s easier to get a different job within your company than to move to a different company altogether.

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