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

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In which I am given the “Thinking Blogger” award, and do some thinking of my own, about happiness.

TbawardI was happy to discover that the blogger of Never That Easy tagged me as one of the “five blogs that made her think” when she participated in the “Thinking Bloggers” meme.

I was particularly pleased to have been chosen by Never That Easy, because of her subject. She writes about the challenges and frustrations of having lived with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome for more than a decade: living with her parents in her late 20’s, constant fatigue, not getting answers from doctors, painful and inconclusive medical tests, barred from activities that are easy for others, confronted by some people’s skepticism about whether she’s “really” sick.

The fact that someone who grapples with such serious, constant issues would see value in my blog means a lot to me. Sometimes I worry that readers might think that I’m presenting happiness as something that can easily be achieved if only we’d all organize our closets and eat more vegetables.

I do tend to focus on the little things, it’s true. Partly that reflects my belief that the way to achieve a big change is to make lots of little, manageable changes. I find it’s easier to follow through with something small and concrete, like “I’m not going to nag the Big Man to change light-bulbs” than to follow through with something lofty and vague, like “I’m going to behave more lovingly toward the Big Man.”

“But,” I sometimes imagine a reader thinking, “it’s so easy for Gretchen. She doesn’t have any terrible problems to deal with. She doesn’t have a step-daughter who hates her, or a father who was verbally abusive, or three hundred pounds to lose, or….”

That’s absolutely true. One thing I’ve learned from my happiness project is that I should be very, very, very grateful every day for the fact that (right now, at least) the scale of my challenges is small.

But one day, my phone is going to ring. That’s true for me, that’s true for everyone. It’s the human condition. And I already have a pretty clear idea of one particular phone call that might come. One reason that I focus on the little things is that I believe that the best preparation for meeting large challenges is to meet small challenges, first.

One of my biggest goals for the happiness project is that I’d be better prepared for adversity – that I’d have the patience, the stamina, the self-control, the mental reserves to deal with a bad thing when it happens. Because it will.

The time to start exercising, stop nagging, and make gingerbread houses, I decided, is when everything was going fairly smoothly. I didn’t want to wait for a crisis to re-make my life. And as trivial as these steps may sound, I do hope that working toward happiness now will make it easier to deal with causes of great unhappiness.

Some people seem to think that it’s pointless, or frivolous, to worry about happiness unless you’re very unhappy or depressed (I distinguish these two states). I disagree.

Studies show that people often look back on bad events – like having cancer – and say that much good came out of those experiences, and that people who face what seem like big challenges – like being in a wheelchair – are often quite happy. The writer of Never That Easy strikes me as a pretty happy person.

But that happiness doesn’t come automatically. It takes effort. I hope that making the effort to be happy under ordinary conditions of life (and it does take effort, even under ordinary conditions) will make it easier to be happy when conditions get tougher. Also, the same strategies tend to work to bring happiness, whatever the conditions of life might be.

The fact that the writer of Never That Easy linked to my blog encourages me to think that I’m on the right track.

Now, to continue the meme…five blogs that make me think are:

1. Zen Habits
2. Michael Melcher Reports
3. Hey Marci Blog
4. Genuine Curiosity
5. Exceptional Dental Practice Management (I promise, worth a look, even if you’re not interested in dentistry)

The rules for the meme: 1) if you get tagged, write a post with links to five blogs that make you think, and 2) link to the original post, by The Thinking Blog, that launched the meme so people can easily find it.

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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.

I have some fun getting my “Style Statement” from consultants Carrie and Danielle.

CarrieanddanielleThe first of my Twelve Commandments is to “Be Gretchen,” and one way to do a better job of “Being Gretchen” is to increase my self-knowledge.

This lofty goal also provides a good excuse to do things like read books about the Enneagram.

When I read Cynthia Kling’s article in Domino magazine, Phone Date with (Style) Destiny, about her “Style Statement” appointment with a team of consultants, Carrie and Danielle, I was intrigued.

Carrie and Danielle’s motto is “Communicate who you are in all you do.” Their “style statement” is a two-word phrase that sums up your personal style. It’s descriptive, but also prescriptive, because it not only describes you, it’s meant to help you think about your decisions and actions with more insight into what makes you happy. The first word in the phrase describes your dominant style, and the second word, the individual edge – in an 80/20 balance.

Gosh, that sounded fun. Knowing my “style statement” might boost my self-knowledge, right? I also have resolutions to “Experiment with psychological shortcuts” and “Try something new.” I decided to give it a shot.

I made a phone date with Carrie (on the left in the photo). For about an hour, she posed a series of questions meant to reveal my values, priorities, aesthetics, and approach to life. Then we took a break. When she called me back, she gave me my style statement.

Her analysis: I’m “Constructive Insouciant.” (Cynthia Kling was “Cultivated Wonder,” Carrie is “Refined Treasure,” Danielle is “Sacred Dramatic.”) The first word, “Constructive,” represents my foundation and fundamental nature. The second word, “Insouciant,” represents my creative edge, and, if I understand correctly, also the aspect of my personality that, while important to me, is at risk for being overwhelmed and lost.

So did I feel that “Constructive Insouciant” is a phrase that gives me insight into myself?

“Constructive” absolutely does feel like a great fit. Some of the observations that rang true were: loves order, patterns, cohesiveness…likes making things happen…like being clearly expressive…wants to get things moving in the right direction…often very driven…needs sound foundation of love and family, or can be overcome with worry…likes a look and feel that’s sturdy, complex, detailed, strategic, tailored, social responsible…

There’s more but that’s the idea.

At first, I wasn’t sure about “Insouciant.” I sure don’t think of myself as insouciant. But then I realized – a desire for more play, more creativity, more light-heartedness was a major motivation for my starting The Happiness Project. I have resolutions like, “Force myself to wander” and “Take time to be silly.”

Obviously I felt the need to bring more insouciance into my life – and the way I did it was typically “Constructive,” by carefully building a structure to include “play” and writing down appointments in my datebook for things like “browse in a bookstore.”

So I guess my style statement was pretty darned enlightening.

Carrie and Danielle have a book about the “Style Statement” coming out in several months, can’t wait to read that. Getting a phone consultation is expensive, so I think many people will be excited to have the option to read the book.

The Carrie and Danielle website has their Manifesto of Style, which I found very interesting. Now I’m inspired to try to write a Happiness Manifesto.

Re-reading this post, it strikes me as kinda flack-y, but all very sincere.

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One key to happiness is finding more time to read.

BookstackcolorMy one of my chief resolutions has been to spend more time on books – reading, writing, and making books.

One sub-resolution was “Find more time to read books.” I’m puzzled by my reading. I seem to get more reading done than most people, and yet I feel like I’m never reading. It has been hard for me to figure out how to do more reading, because I couldn’t figure out when I was doing any reading.

I feel like I’m always working, or spending time with my children, or sleeping. Sometimes the Big Man and I watch a little TV.

Last night, I had a huge revelation about my reading style: I don’t like to read in bed before going to sleep. I love to read in bed during the day. I love to read all day long. But I don’t particularly like the before-going-to-sleep read, which is the most common time to read.

Why not? I’m sleepy. My mind wanders. I keep thinking of things I should do before I turn out the light, so I keep jumping out of bed. It just doesn’t seem like “real” reading.

Now that I understand my resistance to before-bed reading, maybe I can juggle my schedule to do my reading at another time. I’ve been trying to lengthen that before-bed period, without much success. Now I see I should try to find another angle.

Ironically, because I love to read, it’s often the last thing on my to-do list. I try to make myself check off as many items as I can before I allow myself to flop down with my book. But another of my resolutions is “Make time for fun” and I’m trying to be better about making time. For instance, I LOVE David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, but I’ve been reading it for far too long. I need to make more time for it.

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Today’s New York Times had a great article by Brad Melekian, All Child-Play and No Workouts Make Dad an Unfit Boy. Bottom line: “Parenthood demonstrably reduces physical activity.”

Why? Some reasons: because parents have to negotiate with each other to get exercise time; because they’re exhausted; because they want to spend that time with their kids; because they assume that if they can’t do a proper work-out, there’s no point in getting a little exercise; and because they use their kids as an excuse to skip the gym. But even though it’s tough to exercise when you have kids, it’s worth the effort — for long-term health benefits AND short-term mood boosts.

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This Wednesday: Quiz — do you make other people unhappy?

ImageEvery Wednesday is Tip Day (or Quiz Day).
This Wednesday — Quiz: Do you make other people unhappy?

One of the most crucial keys to happiness is the ability to make other people happy. (In fact, a device to warn you if you’re being boring or irritating is in development.)

Many people, however, don’t realize that they’re not making people happy – quite the reverse. They have their own explanations for the things they say and do, and they don’t acknowledge how they’re affecting other people.

One of my favorite sections in Bob Sutton’s excellent book, The No A****** Rule (I’m omitting the title not from prudery but from fear of spam-blockers), was his quiz, also posted on his blog, Are You a Certified A******?. Some people don’t recognize the clues that should tip them off to people’s reactions.

So, inspired by Bob Sutton, I’ve put together this quiz, “Do you make other people unhappy?” Be brutally honest as you answer:

–Do you often find that when you do something nice for people, they do a lot of grumbling? Do they seem ungrateful or uncooperative? Do they seem reluctant to accept your generosity?

–When you join a group of people, does the mood often shift? Does a group tend to break apart after you join it?

–When you do something generous for others, do you think it only right that your generosity will allow you to make decisions for them or direct their actions?

–Do you find it hard to get your calls and emails returned by just about everyone?

–Are you often puzzled because the people around you seem dramatically to over-react to little mistakes, oversights, jokes, or casual remarks you make?

–Do you often find yourself saying defensively, “It was just a joke!”

–Do you find that people seem resentful and angry when you offer objective, helpful criticism or advice?

–Do you often find out that something you’ve done or said has caused an argument between two other people? (E.g., your son tells you that he and your daughter-in-law have been arguing about the lovely plans you’ve made for Thanksgiving.)

–Do you find that even when you’re trying to be helpful by explaining something or providing interesting information, people don’t want to seem to listen to you?

–Do you feel annoyed because people tend to refuse to acknowledge your greater experience or knowledge in an area, and instead, ignore your suggestions?

–Do people tend to gang up against you – when you’re arguing one side, everyone takes the other side, or when one person criticizes you, everyone else chimes in?

–Do you find it funny to see other people squirm?

–If someone asks for your opinion, do you think it’s right to tell them frankly what you think?

–Do you go out of your way to point out to people their mistakes or areas of incompetence – if possible, in front of others?

–If good fortune befalls others, do you feel that their good fortune makes it somehow less likely that something good can happen to you?

–Do your peers seem to have social lives that are very different from yours? Is everyone talking about going to weddings, to surprise fortieth birthday parties, to baby showers, to Christmas parties, but you’re not often invited to these kinds of occasions?

–Is it fairly common for one person to tell you that he or she will speak to a third person, so that you need not speak to that third person directly? In other words, do people volunteer to act as intermediaries for you, rather than let you do your own talking?

A “yes” may be a red flag that you’re a source of unhappiness for others.

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This Saturday: a happiness quotation from Mencius.

Mencius“The path of duty lies in what is near, and man seeks for it in what is remote.” –Mencius

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