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

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Try to do one nagging task each day, or even better, avoid having a nagging task.

HerculesOne of the boxes on my Resolutions Chart reads “Nagging task.” I try to cross one nagging task off my list each day. This doesn’t sound like much, but just doing one a day means that over the course of a few weeks, I get quite a bit accomplished.

Just as important, I’ve tried to take steps to reduce the total number of nagging tasks that I have.

For example, because I’m an underbuyer, I tend to buy one bottle of saline solution at a time, even though I use the stuff twice each day. Now I’m pushing myself to buy several bottles at a time. I know I’ll need it before too long, and by buying it all at once, I spare myself a task later.

Also, I found a great solution to the nagging task of buying and wrapping kids’ birthday presents. I took three minutes to place an online order for seven boxed sets of Roald Dahl and Edward Eager paperbacks. Wonderful books, suitable for boys and girls of a wide range of ages, easy to store and carry, easy for the family to re-gift if the child already has the book, no need to wrap—just pop it into a gift-bag (gift-bags are easier to use than paper—easier, more fun, and can be reused).

One common nagging task was to put things away. I recently realized that some objects have a natural home; if something keeps showing up in the same wrong place, maybe THAT should be the place to put it away.

Instead of keeping the Big Man’s overnight bag with the rest of the suitcases, far from our bedroom, I moved it to the top shelf of his closet, where he can get to it more easily. I moved the photo-album-maintenance box from my office to a shelf by the TV, because I only use the box while watching TV.

These sounds like petty considerations in the face of the transcendent goal of happiness, but as Samuel Johnson said, “It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery, and as much happiness as possible.”

Another of my resolutions is to “Read more, read better,” and to get ideas for books to read, I like to check out Maud Newton. I always find a lot of great reading-related material there.

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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.

On Thomas Merton, pride, and why people who think they’re morally superior may become major cheats.

DesertOver the weekend, I read Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own. It’s a group biography; I read it because I’m very interested in Flannery O’Connor, and I also wanted to learn more about the writer Thomas Merton – a man who converted to Catholicism at age 24, and become a Trappist monk two years later.

I’d read his memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain (this book led me to my obsession with St. Therese of Lisieux, actually), and for a long time, I’d wanted to learn more about Merton’s life and read more of his work.

I knew his reputation: wonderful writer, very spiritual, dedicated to the monastic life.

So I was absolutely FLABBERGASTED to learn that while he was a monk, he had an affair. When he was fifty-one, in the hospital for back surgery, he met Margie, a 20-something nurse who was engaged to another man. Their affair wasn’t an isolated moment; they exchanged letters (he told her that by writing CONSCIENCE MATTER on the outside, she could keep the letter private), he called her on the phone from the monastary, they met repeatedly. From what I can tell, this situation involved a fair amount of deception and Merton getting others to lie for him and drive him around. For example, Merton had appointments with a psychologist, and he arranged to use the office to meet Margie when the psychologist was out.

Here was a man who was world-famous, during his life, for his dedication to his vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty, and for his devout religious beliefs. I wasn’t shocked, but I was surprised.

As so often happens, just when I was thinking about this, a relevant article floated across my vision: Jeanna Bryner’s Oddly, Hypocrisy Rooted in High Morals article on about a study that showed that people who consider themselves very moral can become very bad cheats, because they believe that their high virtue exempts them from the rules that apply to ordinary folk.

In fact, those with the greatest sense of moral superiority can become the worst cheaters – if they think of themselves as very virtuous, and at the same time, can justify a dishonest behavior (cheating on a test to become a doctor to help others, say).

This may not have been operating in Merton’s case, of course, but it’s an interesting point. Maybe this also explains one of the dangers of pride. Your pride in your virtue makes you vulnerable to vice.

I’ve been thinking a lot about pride; it’s a very puzzling subject. Many of the greatest religious leaders and philosophers warn against pride, but what exactly does it mean to be prideful? And what is humility?

During the saint-making process for St. Therese, for example, the Devil’s Advocate brought up the fact that during her final illness, she made remarks like, “You know very well you are taking care of a saint, don’t you?” and she told her sisters to keep some petals she’d been holding so they could be given to people after she died.

These statements were held up as a sign of presumption – a potential disqualification. But was it? She WAS a saint. It’s like Churchill, who as a schoolboy, bragged about how important he’d be one day: “In the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the Capital and save the Empire.” And he did!

I want to think much more about it. For now, I’ve decided that rather than worry about acting with pride or humility, I should just try to “Be Gretchen,” which means that I must let go of arrogance and boastfulness, defensiveness and insecurity.

I always enjoy checking in with Ben Casnocha: The Blog. Ben Casnocha is a cheerful, nice guy with a good sense of humor with a wide range of interests (these qualities may sound a bit dull, but to my mind, there’s NO HIGHER praise), and it’s always refreshing to dip into his writing.

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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 the Dalai Lama.

Dalailama“We find that not only do altruistic actions bring about happiness but they also lessen our experience of suffering. Here I am not suggesting that the individual whose actions are motivated by the wish to bring others happiness necessarily meets with less misfortune than the one who does not. Sickness, old age, mishaps of one sort or another are the same for us all. But the sufferings which undermine our internal peace, anxiety, doubt, disappointment, these things are definitely less. In our concern for others, we worry less about ourselves. When we worry less about ourselves an experience of our own suffering is less intense.” — Dalai Lama

Read this very carefully. It’s easy to miss the point that’s being made. The FACT of the suffering isn’t less; the EXPERIENCE of the suffering is less.

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: time to think about YOUR Happiness Project. To do: Find an area of refuge.

StairsNot 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.

Today is Winston Churchill’s birthday, which got me thinking about my “area of refuge.”

We all suffer from negativity bias, that is, we react to the bad more strongly and persistently than to the comparable good.

Research shows one consequence of negativity bias is that when people’s thoughts wander, they tend to begin to brood. Anxious or angry thoughts capture our attention more effectively than happier thoughts.

Also, indulging in overthinking—dwelling on trifling slights, unpleasant encounters, and sadness—leads to bad feelings. I can enrage myself by obsessing on some petty annoyance.

Once, when I was back visiting Yale Law School, I noticed a sign by an elevator, declaring—to my surprise—that the area was an “area of refuge.” I’m guessing it’s where a person in a wheelchair or with some other difficulty should go in case of fire.

The phrase stuck in my mind. Now, if I feel myself dwelling on bad feelings, I seek a mental “area of refuge,” a subject for my thoughts that calms or cheers me.

I often I think about Winston Churchill, and his great speeches, and the tremendous arc of his life. Having written his biography, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, means that I have an inexhaustible supply of Churchill material to contemplate.

For example. Before the war, Churchill strenuously opposed Neville Chamberlain and his appeasement policy. It was Chamberlain who, after meeting Hitler, decided “here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.” But once Churchill joined his government, he became Chamberlain’s loyal servant, and he continued to treat Chamberlain with courtesy after he’d replaced him as Prime Minister. When Chamberlain died in 1940, Churchill gave a tribute to Chamberlain that honored his life while acknowledging his mistakes.

I practically have this passage memorized.

The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honor.
It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart – the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour. Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with most perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful devastating struggle in which we are now engaged….
Herr Hitler protests with frantic words and gestures that he has only desired peace. What do these ravings and outpouring count before the silence of Neville Chamberlain’s tomb?

Gosh, no matter how many times I’ve read that, it still puts tears in my eyes.

Or sometimes I think about some funny things the Big Man has done. Years ago, he came into our bedroom in his boxers and announced, “I am LORD of the DANCE!” and hopped around, with his arms straight at his sides. I still laugh every time I think about it.

So what could be an area of refuge for YOU? A friend told me that she always thinks about her children. Another friend—not a writer—makes up short stories in her head.

When Arthur Llewelyn Davies, the father of the boys who inspired Peter Pan, was recovering from an operation that removed his cheek bone and part of the roof of his mouth, he wrote a note to J. M. Barrie:

Among the things I think about
Michael going to school
Porthgwarra and S’s blue dress
Burpham garden . . .
Jack bathing
Peter answering chaff
Nicholas in the garden
George always

These phrases mean nothing to an outsider, but for him, they were areas of refuge.

So come up with a few phrases or memories or scenes that fill you with peace, or exaltation, or good humor. The next time you feel yourself spiraling down into anger or despair, find an area of refuge in your mind.

I was intrigued by this post by Seth Godin that argues that a caricature is more effective than a “realistic” depiction. This seems like one of those insights that will end up seeming quite significant in many different arenas.

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.

I’ve finally given up “fake food” for good. I hope.

SnackwellI’ve vowed before to give up fake food. It was one of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2007, in fact.

But I fell off the wagon pretty quick. I did manage to give up the fakest of fake foods, my beloved Nutritious Creations chocolate-chip cookies.

Nevertheless, I was still eating tons of “food” that came in crinkly packages from corner delis. One-serving packages of Apple Jacks or Sugar Pops, Snackwell’s cookies, Nutrigrain bars…I didn’t kid myself that this “food” was healthy, but I ate a lot of it.

Somehow, reading Gary Taubes’s Good Calories, Bad Calories a few weeks ago finally convinced me to stop, cold turkey. And I haven’t had fake food in three weeks.

I know myself well enough to know that I had to give up all fake food, cold turkey. I’m in the same camp as Samuel Johnson, who remarked, “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.”

Now, to be honest, I don’t consider diet soda a “fake food.” And I still eat Tasti-D-Lite, the yummy frozen “yoghurt” treat. And I use tons of artificial sweetener. I still eat candy and other sweets. But no more crinkly packages.

I haven’t noticed any change in my body. I haven’t lost weight, I don’t have more energy, I’m not any more or less hungry.

But I feel much HAPPIER. I hadn’t realized that I got a prick of conscience every time I bought those items that I knew had no nutritional value and that I was substituting for healthy food. Or when I read an article about the importance of eating right. Or when I reflected on what I’d eaten in a particular day.

The 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.

My bad eating habits were giving me a lot of “feeling bad.” Now those bad feelings have been removed. Such a relief.

One subject that fascinates me is the presentation of information. The way that you shape and display information makes a huge difference to the way it is received. So a place I like to visit is Presentation Zen. I’m slowly working my way through the recommended reading list, as well.

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.