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

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If you want to encourage people to do something — such as eat their vegetables — why is it a bad idea to give them a prize?

FruitsandvegOne of my most important happiness principles is to “Follow my interests.” Sometimes, I develop a passionate interest in some topic for no apparent reason. I used to try to restrain myself from going off on little research projects, so that I would stay more focused on work, but now I let myself go.

One issue that fascinates me is the rise in obesity in the U.S. Why is it happening? How do we change the trend? So I was very interested to see news reports that $1 billion of nutrition education didn’t seem to have any effect at all at how kids ate.

The theory was that if children understood the health benefits of eating properly, they’d make wiser choices. However, although they did learn nutrition facts, this knowledge didn’t change their eating habits.

In the descriptions of the various programs that appeared in The Week magazine’s “Nutrition Classes Don’t Work” (7/20/07, not available online), a few facts grabbed my attention that might help explain the failure of these programs.

But in practice, kids given free fruit and veggies, a federal study found, were even more likely to turn to junk a year later.” –People generally believe that they get what they pay for, and therefore don’t value free stuff very much. (Is this the ultimate Giffen good?) Giving healthy food away may have sent the signal that no one would ever pay to eat it. This is ironic because in fact, you have to pay more to eat healthy than to eat junk.

“Other programs that offered prizes for eating broccoli, apples, and the like affected eating habits only temporarily.”
–Studies show that rewarding a behavior reduces people’s desire to do that behavior freely. Once the reward stops coming, they quit. For example, in one study, subjects were asked to work on an interesting puzzle. Half the subjects were promised money, the other half weren’t. At one point, the experimenter told the subject that there would be a break before the next phase, and left the subject alone. The subject could continue to work on the puzzle, read, or do nothing. Subjects who had been paid spent less time on the puzzle than those who hadn’t been paid. (I read about this in Kohn’s Punished by Rewards, a study of the problems of using reward to motivate people, recommended by a blog reader, thanks.)

What are the lessons to be gleaned from this? If you want to motivate folks to want to choose to do a certain thing enthusiastically (like eat vegetables or read books), don’t reward them for doing it or behave as though people can’t be expected to want to do it on their own.

Several years ago, we had brunch with a family we didn’t know well. After bagels, everyone got a bowl of strawberries, and the Big Girl said to me in a whiny voice, “I don’t want any strawberries!” and I answered, “Great, all the more for me, I’ll eat yours, too!” And I did.

The other mother looked a bit shocked. She told her daughter, “You can’t have a brownie unless you eat your strawberries.”

It was clear she thought I should have coaxed the Big Girl into eating the strawberries instead of eating them myself, and I’ve always felt a bit guilty about my reaction. But hey, looking at this material makes me think that I may have stumbled on just the right strategy for making her think that eating fruit is something that people want to do.

I’m thrilled, because I just found out I’m in the Technorati “Top 5K,” with a rank of 3,499. Zoikes. How exciting! Thanks to everyone who reads this blog. I so much appreciate everyone’s comments, links, blogrolls, RSS subscriptions, email subscriptions, and all the rest.

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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.

This Wednesday: Seven tips for having an original thought or finding a solution.

Lightbulb2Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Seven Tips for Having an Original Thought or Finding a Solution.

We all know the feeling of not being able to come up with an idea, a solution, or a strategy. Sometimes my head feels as empty as the Diet Coke cans that rattle around the corners of my office. So what can be done to get those brain wheels turning?

Here are seven tips for having an original thought. Some are backed up by hard science, some are folk strategies that I keep hearing about.

1. Go for a walk. Nietzsche wrote, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking,” and studies show that the combination of exercise and sunshine increases alertness, focus, and energy. Leave your cell phone behind to allow yourself to think without interruption.

2. Do a headstand. People who practice yoga swear that a headstand stimulates ideas – whether by the increased blood flow to the brain, or the reversed view of the world.

3. Think about a problem, then go to sleep. The dreaming mind keeps working and sometimes presents a solution. In one famous example, Friedrich Kekule dozed off while puzzling over the molecular structure of benzene. He dreamed of a snake whirling with its tail in its mouth, and when he awoke, he realized that benzene’s structure is a closed ring – a discovery for which he won the Nobel Prize.

4. Touch. Several friends have mentioned that touching, or being touched, helps them think—for instance, petting a dog, cuddling children, or getting a massage or manicure/pedicure. It certainly reduces stress, and maybe that’s why ideas begin to flow.

5. Public transportation. For me, looking out the window of a bus or train stimulates ideas. The changing view, the constant speed, the sense of progress, and the temporary suspension from the outside world frees my mind.

6. Shower. Taking a long shower works for lots of people.

7. Talk it out. My friend Michael Melcher, a career coach, pointed out that some people hit on their best ideas by “extroverting their intuition”; by talking to other people, they gain better access to their own ideas. Once he mentioned this notion of thinking-by-talking, I realized that how often, for me, a good idea came out of a conversation.

So what strategies am I overlooking? Do you have a way to spur yourself to think?

I have a real fondness for reading blogs by economists, such as Greg Mankiw’s Blog, because although the discussion often goes over my head, it sometimes exposes aspects of human nature that fascinate me — as in Greg Mankiw’s post today, about Giffen goods — goods for which a lower price means LESS demand.

If you’re new to the Happiness Project, you may want to consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.

What I learned about happiness from my love of Harry Potter: lesson #2.

HarrypotterMy love of the Harry Potter books underscores an important general lesson about happiness: one way to be happier is to figure out how to get more bang for the happiness buck.

There are four stages for enjoying a happy event:
 anticipation
 savoring
 expression
 reflection

So, with each happy event, we should think about:
 actively looking forward to it
 relishing it in the moment—which may mean, among other things, not talking on your cell phone or checking your emails
 talking about it with other people, writing about it, etc.
 thinking back on it—a task for which mementos like photos or scrapbooks are very useful

So, instead of just thinking, “Wow, I can’t wait for HP7 to come out” and waiting for the book, I’m doing as much as I can to wring every drop of happiness out of that event.

I re-read all six books, so that I’d remember the twists and turns of the story. What a pleasure.

I bought’s What Will Happen In Harry Potter 7, which was so much fun.

I’ve had many happy conversations with friends and the Big Girl to speculate on what might happen, and we’re already planning to have long talks as soon as we’ve finished, to debate the ending.

A good friend of mine has a son who is the Big Girl’s good friend. We’re not sure if two eight-year-olds will be able to stay up until midnight without crashing, but we’re going to try. We’ve planned a night of watching the first Harry Potter movie at home, then going to the countdown party at the Barnes & Noble at Union Square. Jim Dale will be reading.

I’m going to take pictures to help us remember the night, later. I hope that it will be one of the Big Girl’s fondest memories of her childhood. It is an historic literary event – and she gets to stay up until midnight! (that’s the most thrilling part for her).

Funnily enough, the hardest part of enjoying Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be the third element – savoring. The suspense is so enormous that I fear that I’ll gulp down the book too quickly to savor it. On Saturday (we decided—no peeking at the book until Saturday morning), I’ll have to use tremendous self-control to read slowly enough to drink in the details. Also, I plan to cut off all communication with the outside world, for fear of a spoiler. I’m confident that the New York Post will have a headline like, “Harry Lives!” or “Harry Dies!”

Sometimes, anticipation is greater than the happiness actually experienced in the moment – that’s known as “rosy prospection.” The publication of HP7 is one of the rare occasions when I’m confident that my prospection will not be disappointed.

Gosh, I’ve gotten so sentimental. Today the Very Short List featured a lovely 60-second ad for Lloyds bank, and I found myself sniffing. It makes me think, once again, that only the fact that life unfolds very slowly preserves it from being unbearably poignant.

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What I learned about happiness from my love of Harry Potter: lesson #1.

HarrypotterOne extraordinary source of happiness for me these days is the knowledge that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (or HP7, as I affectionately call it) will be clutched in my hot little hands in less than a week.

And upon reflection, I realize that my love for the Harry Potter books has taught me several important things about the nature of happiness.

First is the truth, and the primacy, and the challenge, of my First Commandment: “Be Gretchen.” (See left column for all twelve commandments.)

One fact about me is I have an enormous love for children’s literature. I love it, I just love it. I still haven’t figured out what I get from children’s literature that I don’t get from adult literature, but there’s something.

But for a long time, I didn’t admit my passionate interest in kidlit. It didn’t fit with my ideas of what I wished I were like. It wasn’t grown-up enough. I wanted to be interested in constitutional law, and serious literature, and the economy, and other adult subjects. And I was interested in those topics, but I somehow felt that I needed to hide my love of Philip Pullman and Louisa May Alcott. I repressed this side of my personality to such a degree that when the third Harry Potter book came out, I didn’t buy it for several days. I’d fooled even myself into thinking that I didn’t care.

When I started The Happiness Project, I realized that I should try to embrace this suppressed passion, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to go about doing that.

Then one day, I had lunch with an acquaintance—someone I hoped could be a friend but who wasn’t a friend yet. She was young, polished, highly educated, a well-established literary agent, and quite intimidating. But somehow it emerged that she, too, was a Harry Potter…well, freak captures the intensity of her enthusiasm. And she loved children’s literature, too. I’d found a kindred spirit.

Then it occurred to me – I knew a third person, as well. Could we start a book group? For adults reading children’s literature? Would anyone else want to do that? I decided to see if I could organize one.

Now comes the Oprah-ish part of the story: not only did it turn out that a lot of people were interested in children’s literature, but they were all highly bookish, accomplished, interesting people—and most of them I’d known, at least a little bit, before. Once I spoke up, I discovered that I already knew and liked many people who shared my interest.

Now this children’s literature book group is one of the joys of my life.

The first time our group met, I set around an email with the details (we were discussing C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe over dinner), and I included a quotation from C. S. Lewis’s brilliant essay, On Three Ways of Writing for Children:

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.

But I realized that this apologia didn’t mean much to anyone else in the group, because they’d never tried to squash their interest in children’s literature. Why had I? Remember, be Gretchen.

Via a site I love, 43 Folders, I found an interesting post about how to handle email by another blogger I love, Colleen at Communicatrix.

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This Saturday: a happiness quotation from Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo2“It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.” –Leonardo da Vinci

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