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

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Gray hair, Botox, liposuction, nose-piercing, and happiness–do appearance and attractiveness matter?

Going_grayThe other night, I sat down to read Anne Kreamer’s Going Gray and practically didn’t get up again until I’d finished it.

Going Gray is her account of her decision to stop dying her hair – why she decided to “go gray,” how she did it, and how she felt about it. On the one hand, she wanted to accept herself more fully, and stop spending time and money on her hair; on the other hand, she worried about “letting herself go” and whether she’d look less attractive.

I wanted to read the memoir for several reasons. First, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between happiness and attractiveness. It’s complicated. I’m still thinking.

Second, I’m interested in how people express themselves through their appearance – hair, clothes, tattoos, jewelry, etc. At earlier times of her life, Anne Kreamer dyed her hair in a certain way to signal at work that she was a creative, non-corporate type. I want to “Be Gretchen” – how do I translate that into my appearance?

I suppose both of these issues are sub-parts to a single fascinating question: how our outer appearance affects and reflects our inner character.

Anne Kreamer struggles with the issue of authenticity. If we mess with our appearance, does that make us less authentic? Should we accept ourselves as we are? What is the relationship of inner and outer?

Which raises the question – if we do alter our appearance, where’s the line? Some people embrace Botox, face lifts, pierced lips, liposuction, and nose jobs; some people think these interventions are too extreme. If so, is it acceptable to straighten your hair, shave your beard or your legs, pierce your ears, wear make-up, use contact lenses? I can’t think of a single example of a person or group who argues against ANY alteration of a person’s natural appearance (e.g., Amish men trim their beards and if I remember correctly, don’t wear mustaches).

The book was very thought-provoking, and also made me feel lucky in two ways. First, it reminded me that I love having red hair. It’s unusual, but it’s natural. I get the benefit of looking highly individual, but without any effort (or self-questioning).

Also, I never realized quite how lucky I was not to color my hair. I’ve never even put in highlights, because in high school, a hairdresser warned me that red hair can turn brassy.

I always expected to go gray early, partly because that seems like my personality (why? I don’t know), and also because my mother told me that red-haired people tend to go gray early, but so far, I haven’t. Like so many things in life, I’ve completely taken my hair color for granted – but reading this book made me very appreciative of the time, effort, and money I’ve saved.

I’m still struggling to think through the issues related to appearance and happiness. Yes, I know that our appearance SHOULDN’T affect our happiness – but I think it does. Or does it?

Any thoughts? All comments on this subject welcome.

I’m extremely interested in the subject of organ donation, so I was very interested to read Laura Meckler’s front-page story in the Wall Street Journal today: Kidney Shortage Inspires a Radical Idea: Organ Sales. I kept thinking, “Why don’t they get some economists involved, to try to predict the consequences of paying for organs? This isn’t something that doctors think about very much, but some folks do.” And voila, I read this on the excellent Freakonomics blog.

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I've just finished writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we can make and break our habits. If you'd like to pre-order the book, click here.

Why I stopped drinking alcohol (more or less).

WhitewineThe First Splendid Truth holds that to think about happiness, we must think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

On Friday, I posted about some ways to get rid of “feeling bad.”

It occurred to me that I hadn’t thought to mention a step that I successfully made to eliminate a source of “feeling bad” in my life – quitting drinking.

Alcohol started making me “feel bad” after the Big Girl was born. I was never a big drinker, but in college and afterward I drank about the same as most people. I never loved drinking, but I enjoyed it.

When I was pregnant, I stopped drinking altogether. After the Big Girl was born, and I started having the occasional glass of wine or beer again, I had ZERO tolerance. A half a glass of wine hit me hard.

And not for the better.

Alcohol affects me in several ways. It never really makes me friendly and jolly, as it does many people. First, I become belligerent. I have a tendency to be argumentative anyway, strengthened by going to law school, and alcohol makes me spoil for a fight. And that’s not a fun way to interact with people.

It also makes me less discreet. I say things that I wouldn’t ordinarily say, I’m less tactful, I’m more gossipy.

After these charming effects have worked on me for a while, I then become tremendously sleepy – uncontrollable yawning, pure misery.

These effects were more noticeable in situations when I wasn’t with close friend, but rather was with people I didn’t know well, or didn’t particularly like, or doing something that I didn’t particularly enjoy. Which, of course, were situations where it was all the more important that I be friendly and polite.

What made me focus on the “bad feelings” was the way I often felt the next day. I’d feel anxious and remorseful. “Was I really as obnoxious as I think?” I’d ask the Big Man, trying to get his reassurance that my bellicosity and my indiscretion were all in my mind.

And it wasn’t as though my bad feelings were outweighed by my enjoyment of alcohol. Fact was, I didn’t really enjoy it that much. I can’t tell a good wine from a mediocre wine. I’ve never been able to drink hard liquor. And I’ve always begrudged alcohol the calories it contains, which I’d enjoy more in the form of dessert.

Finally, it hit me – this wasn’t a happy situation. Drinking was fun for other people, but it wasn’t fun for me. I’d rather skip the drink, and skip the remorse, and save the calories.

I’m not saying this solution would work for other people. I enjoy other people’s enjoyment of drinking (unless they talk about fine wine too much). I like the festiveness of martinis and champagne. I like the zestful enthusiasm some people have for drinking–while working on Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, I vicariously enjoyed Churchill’s love for liquor—though, actually, he drank less than most people think.

But it’s one of the most important Secrets of Adulthood (see left column): Just because something is fun for someone else, doesn’t mean it’s fun for me—and vice versa.

I’m happier now that I drink less and behave better. I get home after an evening out, and I’m not eaten up with regret and worry about the way I acted. I feel fine, instead of being so tired that I can hardly take out my contacts. For me, it’s much more fun NOT to drink than to drink.

I could have solved my problem in the opposite way. If I’d started drinking more, my tolerance would have risen, and my behavior would probably have improved. For me, it was easier to skip the drinking than to increase the drinking.

I still have a little wine sometimes, or some champagne at a celebration, or a beer. I drink as much as I like—but I don’t like to drink much, now that I realize that it doesn’t agree with me.

Sometime I regret the fact that I drink so little. Why am I so abstemious and cramped and cheerless? Other people are enjoying themselves so much.

But then I remember—it isn’t fun for me.

The striking fact about my deciding to stop drinking alcohol is that it took me so long to have the idea to do it. Why is it so hard to “Be Gretchen”? Why was it so hard for me to notice that I wasn’t enjoying myself? It can be very difficult to notice what seem to be very obvious facts about your very own self.

Via a site I just discovered, The Optimized Life, I’ve become intrigued with What Should I Read Next? On this site, you enter the name of a book you love, and the site kicks up suggestions of what you should read next. I entered a few favorites to see what I thought of the recommendations, and from what I could judge, they were pretty good. I’m always trying to figure out good reading suggestions, so this is a real find for me.

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If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

This Saturday: a happiness quotation from Anne Patchett.

Lucyandann“I put my hand on Lucy’s back and felt her uneven breaths, the tremor of her shoulder blades. I was stunned by the rawness of her pain. I came to understand that night in the sports bar, safe from the blinding rain, that I could not worry about Lucy anymore. I knew then it was just too enormous for me to manage and that worrying about her would swamp me. If I was swamped by worry, I would be useless to her. It was even possible that I would desert her, and that was the thing that could never happen. I decided that night I would take all the hours of my life that could so easily be spent worrying and instead I would try to help her. I had been raised by Catholic nuns who told us in no uncertain terms that work was the path to God, and that while it was a fine thing to feel loyalty and devotion in your heart, it would be much better for everyone involved if you could find the physical manifestations of your good thoughts and see them put into action…I decided then that my love for Lucy would have to manifest in deeds.” –Ann Patchett

This quotation comes from Patchett’s memoir, Truth and Beauty, about her friendship with Lucy Grealy. Grealy had a serious facial disfigurement, which she wrote about in Autobiography of a Face. The photograph is a picture of the two of them.

New to the Happiness Project? 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.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

It’s Friday: think about YOUR Happiness Project. How can you cut down on “feeling bad”?

UnhappyfaceNot long ago, I had an epiphany – happiness projects for everyone! Join in! No need to catch up, just jump in now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

The First Splendid Truth about happiness is: to think about your happiness, you must think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

Research shows that the absence of “feeling bad” doesn’t mean that you “feel good.” Nevertheless, removing sources of bad feelings will protect your good feelings from being swamped by guilt, anger, remorse, irritation, envy, fear, anxiety, boredom, and all the rest.

Last week’s question for self-examination was – what’s making you “feel bad”? It’s important to understand what’s creating bad feelings. Bad feelings are often important signals that you need to make changes in your life.

Once you’ve identified sources of bad feelings, it’s time to try to eliminate those sources from your life. That’s this week’s challenge.

When I asked myself “What makes me feel bad?” I realized that I was caught in a vicious cycle. Seemingly minor annoyances would make me feel overwhelmed and irritated, so then I’d behave badly, which would make me feel guilty and horrible, so I’d act even worse.

To give a typical, minor example: each morning, I’d open the coat closet to get out our coats, hats, and mittens for the walk to school. The closet was crowded and messy, and it was hard to find our various items. It made me feel bad to see the chaos.

As a consequence, I was much more likely to snap at the Big Girl and the Little Girl, “Hurry up!” “Why can’t you keep track of your hat?” etc.

Then I’d feel terrible about how I’d acted. Then I’d snap even more.

So I started my happiness project on a very basic, un-elevated level. To try to stop myself from feeling irritable, I became much more diligent about…
 not letting myself get too hungry
 dressing more warmly
 taking pain medication whenever I felt a headache or neck pain start up
 making sure to turn off the light each night as soon as I felt sleepy
 cleaning out clutter and organizing stuff

These steps did, indeed, lower my general level of irritability. And that cut down on the guilt I felt for behaving badly. Mess isn’t a serious problem, but being chronically short-tempered is a very serious problem.

Once you’ve given careful thought to what’s making YOU feel bad, you can begin to apply the Eighth Commandment (see left column) to “Identify the problem.” Why are you feeling angry? Or guilty? Or envious? Or anxious?

Say you’re feeling guilty. Why? Maybe you feel guilty because you think you’re letting your children watch too much TV.

Really force yourself to examine your feelings and thoughts. Are they really watching too much TV? Who says? Do you really care, or do you just think you should care? Think through possible solutions. Should you get rid of your TVs altogether? Can you limit them to videos only? Weekends only? Etc., etc. Either decide that, in fact, you don’t really think it’s a problem—or act. Don’t just suffer these pricks of guilt as the years pass.

Also, remember that surprisingly often, it’s possible to “re-frame.” You can turn a complaint into a pleasure, just by changing your attitude. So, for example, I used to feel annoyed by the fact that I pay all the bills. I felt aggrieved and resentful. Then I asked myself, “Would I want the Big Man to pay the bills if he asked to do it?” and I realized—no, I really want to keep that job for myself. I want to see where our money is going. Once I realized that I wouldn’t choose to give up that job, my aggravation lessened considerably.

Some examples of things I’ve been trying to do, to put an end to my own bad feelings: stop gossiping, call and see members of my family more often, clean up the kitchen after I eat, don’t leave clothes strewn around the bedroom, don’t read the newspaper during my time with my children, don’t fire off an email to the Big Man when I’m annoyed, don’t push past elderly people on the street, make playdates for the Little Girl, start thinking about holiday shopping…and on and on.

Another thing that would make me feel bad is the feeling that I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough: I didn’t have a big enough vision, I wasn’t trying new things, I wasn’t networking, blah, blah. One of my resolutions is to “Push myself,” and I’m doing more of that. In a way, it makes me “feel bad” because it’s uncomfortable, but it also relieves my bad feelings that I wasn’t doing enough.

Some of the most important things I’m trying to do are too private to record here.

The trick here is to figure out WHY you are feeling bad and HOW you can change that feeling. Either work to fix the situation, or accept it.

If you’re feeling bad about yourself, the way to feel better about yourself is—act better! Your self-esteem will rise when you feel more worthy in your own eyes.

Via the great blog Communicatrix (or maybe it was through the Communicatrix newsletter), I found a very cool site called Listography. It lets you make lists of all sorts of things. This is a fabuous tool for a happiness project, or just for fun.

Making lists of resolutions is, I think, a great way to start a happiness project. And making lists of “favorites” or “books to see/movies to watch” or “places I’ve visited” etc. can add greatly to happiness, by highlighting happy subjects for our consideration. And making lists is FUN.

New to the Happiness Project? 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.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

Looking for a way to be happier AND smarter? Try idle chit-chat. It’s as effective as crossword puzzles.

One of the key points about happiness is that having strong social bonds is a critical – probably THE critical – element of a happy life.

Over and over, studies show that relationships with other people make us happy. The more friends we have, the more likely we are to be happy. Even short interactions with other people boost mood—and this is true, surprisingly, even for introverts. It’s really important to work on your connections with other people.

Now it turns out that talking to other people not only makes you happier, it improves your memory and intellectual performance, as shown by a recent study.

So if you ever feel guilty spending ten minutes in idle conversation with a colleague or for talking on the phone with a friend, now you can chalk it up to brain exercise. It will make you happier AND smarter.

I think I found this study through the great site Gimundo, but I’m not sure. I try to keep track of how I find different articles, so I can give credit when credit’s due, but this time I’m not sure I retraced my steps properly.

New to the Happiness Project? 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.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.