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

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In which my friend’s waitressing experience teaches me something about happiness.

CrowdedrestaurantA friend told me a story about the first summer she spent as a waitress.

Several times, she had tables of people who seemed really nice, with whom she had a great rapport, for whom she went the extra mile, and she’d think, “Wow, I’m going to get a great tip!”

And she wouldn’t.

Other times, she had tables of people who seemed indifferent or grouchy, and she’d think, “Wow, they’re going to stiff me.”

And they’d leave a generous tip.

She mentioned this observation to her manager. He said, “You’re only surprised because you’ve just started waitressing. You’ll see, almost always, people tip whatever they usually tip. They don’t tip more or less based on you and what you do.”

To me, this story seemed to contain two lessons.

First, although I feel like the center of the action, often I’m not. People aren’t adjusting everything they do based on me. I need to remember that in many cases, I’m not responsible for the reactions that I think I’m provoking.

Second, habit is important. As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” A generous person makes a habit of generosity, a happy person makes a habit of happiness, a querulous person makes a habit of complaining. So I need to watch the habits I build.

(I love the way the Happiness Project has put me in the practice of finding moral lessons in casual anecdotes.)

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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: If you’re tired of being nagged all the time, here are 8 tips to STOP the NAGGING.

Nag2Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: If you’re tired of being nagged all the time, here are 8 tips to STOP THE NAGGING.

Nagging is unpleasant for both participants. If you find yourself on the naggee side of the equation, how can you put a stop to the nagging? Try these strategies:

One main reason for nagging is that a naggee isn’t responding. Some folks seem to think if they don’t answer, somehow, all will be forgotten. To the contrary. Because the nagger doesn’t feel heard, the nagging continues unabated. So if you’re being nagged:

1. Answer, to show that you’ve registered what was said. “Okay, I need to stop at the store on the way home.”
2. Commit to a deadline. “I don’t have time today or tomorrow to deal with the car insurance, but it’s on my calendar for Friday, and I’ll take care of it then.”

One unpleasant thing about being nagged is hearing the nag, nag, nag voice in your ear.

3. Find a WORDLESS way to be reminded to do a chore. Ask the nagger to put light-bulbs on the counter if the light-bulbs need to be replaced.
4. Ask to be reminded in writing, with notes or emails. This method is also more efficient and helpful.

Instead of just ignoring the nagging, explain why you’re not responding:

5. If you’re being nagged to take an umbrella, eat breakfast, or put on a coat, remind the nagger that you are a grown-up, and you choose not to do so.
6. If, in truth, you simply aren’t going to do something, tell the nagger that you’re not going to do it. A nagger would prefer to KNOW that you won’t do it rather than to be kept in frustrated suspense – especially because often, your stalling makes the task ultimately more difficult to accomplish.

Remove the prompt for the nagging:

7. Sometimes we have an aversion to a particular chore. If you’re always being nagged to do the dishes because you HATE doing dishes, try saying, “For some reason, I hate doing dishes. Is there something else I could do, as a substitute?”
8. Throw money at the problem. Marital happiness is a high life priority. Instead of buying a new kitchen table, spend the money to hire a teenager to mow the lawn.

And naggees – remember, one obvious way to stop being nagged is to DO YOUR SHARE! If you never follow through, if you never do a chore without being repeatedly asked to do it, if you never pitch in, you know why you’re being nagged.

It’s no fun to be nagged, and it’s no fun to be a nag. It’s worth putting some thought into cutting down on this noise in your household.

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If you’re in the mood for a more scholarly approach to happiness, try poking around on Happiness and Public Policy–it has a lot of interesting, provocative material. It hasn’t updated in a little while, but there’s plenty of information there to keep a reader busy.

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Are you looking for a delicious, nutritious, filling, low-calorie treat?

Smoothie_2Summer is the season of the smoothie, and I have one every night.

Here’s my recipe:
One cup of skim milk
One cup of frozen blueberries or strawberries
One banana (I don’t much like bananas, but they give the smoothie a nice texture, and the flavor of the berries dominates)
8 packets of Equal (yes, I know, that’s a lot of Equal, but I’m okay with that)
As much ice as I can put in without making the smoothie too bland
Blend well

This recipe makes an enormous amount of smoothie, and it’s a great treat for people who are watching their calories.

Studies show that while drinking water doesn’t make you feel full (contrary to what many people believe), high water content in food does make you feel full. So, for example, eating some ingredients made into a soup will be more filling than eating those same ingredients made into a casserole. Lots of ice in the smoothie makes it very filling.

Also, if you’re really watching every single calorie, consider that you burn up one calorie for every ounce of an ice-cold drink, because of the energy needed to warm it up.

Despite the photograph, I eat my smoothie from a bowl, not a glass. Eating out of an enormous bowl, with a spoon, makes me feel like I’m having something substantial and meal-like, while drinking a smoothie out of a glass makes it seem like a casual snack. Research shows that your perception that you’ve eaten a lot, or a little, plays a big role in satiety.

For a different treat, freeze the smoothie in little cups. That’s delicious too, but I can never manage to resist eating the smoothie right away.

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Life Two describes itself as the “destination for information on middle age,” but there’s a lot of great information there that’s not specific to middle age. Good round-ups of studies, useful links, interesting articles. This morning, one item particularly caught my interest, because it’s an important issue for happiness: What we can learn from near-death experiences.

[Later] Aack, in my hurry, I completely forgot to note that the Life Two post was riffing off the interesting post at Marginal Revolution on the subject of near-death experiences. Check that out, too.

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Music and happiness: the joy of re-discovering a song I love.

RedhotYesterday, I spent a few hours working in one of my favorite spots, the Pisa Pizza pizza shop. I usually don’t notice the music playing in the background, but I heard a song that I love that I hadn’t heard in a long time.

I don’t enjoy music much; I don’t have an iPod, I don’t buy CDs or songs from iTunes, it never occurs to me to listen to music as I got about my daily routine. I wish I liked music more, but as part of my resolution to “Be Gretchen,” I’ve accepted my tastes. Nevertheless, when I do like a particular piece of music, I love it.

As with this song. I didn’t know its title, or the name of the band, and I couldn’t understand the words very well, but I stopped working to listen.

In keeping with my resolutions to “Follow my curiosities,” “Take time to wander,” and “Be Gretchen,” I decided to try to track down the song.

Ah, the glories of the modern age. I jotted down some lyrics that I could understand, and when I got home, I searched for them in Google. I discovered that the song was “Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The Big Man had put all our (really, his) music on our computer, so I searched for it and – there it was. In a flash, to my intense gratification, the song was playing in my office.

Studies show that listening to music is one of the best ways to bring on a good mood, and 92% of people get a boost when they listen to music of their choice.

“Under the Bridge” rouses strange emotions in me. I wouldn’t say it makes me feel happy, exactly. The song is beautiful, and I listened to it many times. But listening to the song is almost painful, too…I can’t describe how it makes me feel. There is a kind of exquisite pleasure that is happiness, but also not happiness. But there is happiness in experiencing it. And it sure made me happy that I could so easily track down and listen to the song.

It’s playing right now.

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Just as I was getting ready to post this, I decided to see if I could link to the song without violating any copyright laws. I’m not sure about the legal status of this link to YouTube, but here it is: Under the Bridge, live in concert. On the one hand, watching the video undermined my experience of the song, because I was distracted by the band’s questionable fashion decision to forgo their shirts (of course, they’re known for their propensity to forgo much more than their shirts). And a live version has more glitches than the recorded version. On the other hand, I loved hearing a stadium full of people crooning the chorus along with the band.

I don’t ever want to feel like I did that day
Take me to the place I love, take me all the way…

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This Saturday: a happiness quotation from Viktor Frankl.

FranklWe stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honorable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”
–Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning.

If you haven’t read Man’s Search for Meaning, run out and buy it now.

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