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

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This Wednesday: Eight writing tips from Flannery O’Connor.

FlanneryoconnorEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Eight writing tips from Flannery O’Connnor.

As part of my current obsession with Flannery O’Connor, I recently finished the volume of her collected letters, The Habit of Being.

Her letters were fascinating, and among other thing, included some interesting advice and observation about writing. O’Connor was a very idiosyncratic persion, and this advice is idiosyncratic, which makes it more interesting than a lot of writing tips that I see collected.

1. “Try arranging [your novel] backwards and see what you see. I thought this stunt up from my art classes, where we always turn the picture upside down, on its two sides, to see what lines need to be added. A lot of excess stuff will drop off this way.”

2. “I can discover a good many possible sources myself for Wise Blood but I am often embarrassed to find that I read the sources after I had written the book.”

3. “I suppose I am not very severe criticizing other people’s manuscripts for several reasons, but first being that I don’t concern myself overly with meaning. This may be odd as I certainly believe a story has to have meaning, but the meaning in a story can’t be paraphrased and if it’s there it’s there, almost more as a physical than an intellectual fact.”

4. “I’m a full-time believer in writing habits…You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away…Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.”

5. “That is interesting about your reading some Shakespeare to limber up your language before you start; though I think that anything that makes you overly conscious of the language is bad for the story usually.”

6. “It might be dangerous for you to have too much time to write. I mean if you took off a year and had nothing else to do but write and weren’t used to doing it all the time then you might get discouraged.”

7. “This may seem a small matter but the omniscient narrator NEVER speaks colloquially. This is something it has taken me a long time to learn myself. Every time you do it you lower the tone.”

8. “I know that the writer does call up the general and maybe the essential through the particular, but this general and essential is still deeply embedded in mystery. It is not answerable to any of our formulas.”

A good sense of humor is a huge help when you’re faced with someone who is annoying you. If you’re struggling with someone who has written a passive-aggressive note directed at you, perhaps fantasizing about posting that note on the Passive Aggressive Notes website would cheer you up. For your happiness’s sake, I wouldn’t recommend actually POSTING a note there, but it sure is fun to read them.

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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.

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 it can be selfless to be selfish, or, how you can be generous by TAKING.

HandsopenI’ve been thinking, lately, about how it can be selfless to be selfish, and selfish to be selfless.

The pleasure of giving—giving help, giving advice, giving a recommendation, satisfying a desire—is one of the most exquisite pleasures imaginable. But to experience this pleasure, someone must accept your gift. Or, perhaps, even ask for it. And so sometimes, you must be the selfish one, asking and accepting.

This is more complicated than it sounds.

A friend of mine told me, “I cook dinner for my family every night. I love to cook, although like anything you HAVE to do, sometimes I don’t feel like doing it. I said to my husband, ‘Tell me what you want. What would you like me to make for dinner?’ He said, ‘Everything you make is good.’”

“Was that the right thing to say?” I asked. “It sounds like the right thing.”

“No! It would be so much more fun for me if I knew I was making his favorite thing. I wish he’d say ‘Gosh, I wish you’d make chicken casserole again. That’s my favorite.’ I’d be so psyched to make it!”

Asking someone to cook your favorite dish seems selfish…but it’s not. Not always.

Along the same lines, one of my Secrets of Adulthood is “It’s okay to ask for help.” Why this is so hard, I have no idea.

Asking for help can make us feel weak, or dependent, or incompetent, or vulnerable, or like we’re imposing on other people. Maybe we don’t want to have to feel grateful or indebted. But in some instances, trying to be strong and self-sufficient isn’t the selfless answer.

Last year, the Big Girl dressed as Hermione for Halloween, and after some internal debate, I asked my mother-in-law to make S.P.E.W. badges for her Hogwarts robes. My mother-in-law is great with these kinds of creative craft projects, and she loves to do them.

Part of me had selfishly wanted the costume to be a project just for me and the Big Girl to share, and I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t do everything to pull together the costume. Then I realized that this is one of those cases where asking for help is being generous – by allowing someone the pleasure of helping, of contributing, of pleasing.

Another difficult aspect of “It’s okay to ask for help” is sometimes, I feel like someone (usually the Big Man) should KNOW how to help, and just do it, without me having to ask or explain. I feel aggrieved by the mere fact that I have to ask.

This is another way that it’s selfless to be selfish. It would be more selfish to suffer in silence, to stand on pride, to forge on alone while fuming at the lack of support, than it would be to ask for help.

There’s a moving scene described in the memoir of St. Therese of Lisieux. As a child, Therese was babied and petted by her family, and she was very sensitive to any cross word.

She delighted in the Christmas ritual of opening the presents left in her shoes (the French version of hanging up your stocking). One year, when she was fourteen, she overheard her father complaining, “Thank goodness that’s the last time we shall have this kind of thing!” Therese froze; this is the kind of comment would usually make her dissolve into tears.

Instead, she experienced what she described as her “complete conversion.” Instead of crying at her father’s unkind words, or telling him, out of pride, that she had outgrown his gifts, she ran down and opened the presents with a greedy joy. Her father laughed.

Therese realized that the saintly response was to take the presents eagerly. This was the selfless act.

Sometimes, the generous act is to TAKE — to accept help, to allow others to gratify your desires. A mystery.

Also, being selfless can be selfish…more on that another day.

Via the terrific blog Marginal Revolution, I visited Visuwords. I loved seeing “happiness” and all its related words bobbling around the screen.

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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.

Why is everyone so energetic and cheery today? Ah, mystery solved.

ClockEverywhere I go today, people seem to be unusually chipper.

My family all woke up in bouncy, energetic moods. When I dropped the Big Girl off at school, I noticed that many more parents than usual were already there when the door opened to let the children inside.

Why this sudden upswell in cheer and energy?

I figured it out. Daylight Savings Time.

We all had that delicious extra hour of “falling back” sleep before starting our week. And it shows. People feel better. And no wonder — an estimated 63% of American adults fail to get eight hours of sleep a night.

I’ve certainly realized that for myself, getting enough sleep is a critical element of happiness.

At first, I thought sleep just mattered for my comfort: not having to drag myself out of bed, not losing steam in the middle of the afternoon.

But now I see that getting enough sleep, or not, has far greater consequences.

First, if I don’t get enough sleep, I try to stay in bed a little longer in the morning. If I get up at 6:45 a.m., we all have a calm, relaxed morning; if I get up at 6:55 a.m., we all have a frantic, chaotic morning. And a bad morning sets a course for a bad day.

If I don’t get enough sleep, I’m more likely to lose my temper, to be snappish. That’s unpleasant for everyone. Plus, I feel guilty for behaving that way, which makes me all the more ill-tempered. So I behave even worse.

Another bad effect of being sleepy is that it makes me feel less like exercising. As studies have demonstrated over and over, getting some exercise is very important to happiness. So I don’t want to do anything that keeps me from going to the gym.

And even though you’d think that sitting in front of a laptop, typing, isn’t a very ennervating way to spend your day, it takes a surprising amount of energy. When I don’t get enough sleep, I find myself putting my head down on my desk like a little kid in grade school.

The problem is that it takes a lot of discipline not to stay up too late. Those last hours of the day are precious to all of us. TV addicts use TiVO to squeeze in one more show. Workaholics want to finish just a few more emails. Parents relish the peace and quiet after the kids are asleep. Readers want to finish just one more chapter.

I’ve finally figured out some ways to get better sleep, and I try to practice as many of them as possible each night. But the most important tip is to TURN OFF THE LIGHT.

Sleep is important to general health, which is very important to happiness, and also, lack of sleep is a serious mood buster. In one study, a bad night’s sleep was one of the two factors that most upset people’s daily moods (along with tight work deadlines).

“Falling back” for Daylight Savings Time is a reminder of how good that extra sleep can feel. But we can do it ourselves! Just get in bed and turn out that light.

For a glorious compendium of surprising information, check out Boing Boing. You probably already do, but then again, with the Internet, no one sees everything. Recently, I particuarly enjoyed the Lord of the Rings origami set.

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.

This Saturday: a happiness quotation from Edith Nesbit.

From E. Nesbit’s classic children’s novel, The Railway Children:

[Mother said,] “I’m so glad you like the railway. Only, please, you mustn’t walk on the line.”

“Not if we face the way the train’s coming?” asked Peter, after a gloomy pause, in which glances of despair were exchanged.

“No–really not,” said Mother.

Then Phyllis said, “Mother, didn’t you ever walk on the railway lines when you were little?”

Mother was an honest and honourable Mother, so she had to say, “Yes.”

“Well, then,” said Phyllis.

“But, darlings, you don’t know how fond I am of you. What should I do if you got hurt?”

“Are you fonder of us than Granny was of you when you were little?” Phyllis asked. Bobbie made signs to her to stop, but Phyllis never did see signs, no matter how plain they might be.

Mother did not answer for a minute. She got up to put more water in the teapot.

“No one,” she said at last, “ever loved anyone more than my mother loved me.”

Then she was quiet again, and Bobbie kicked Phyllis hard under the table, because Bobbie understood a little bit the thoughts that were making Mother so quiet–the thoughts of the time when Mother was a little girl and was all the world to her mother. It seems so easy and natural to run to Mother when one is in trouble. Bobbie understood a little how people do not leave off running to their mothers when they are in trouble even when they are grown up, and she thought she knew a little what it must be to be sad, and have no mother to run to any more.

So she kicked Phyllis, who said:–

“What are you kicking me like that for, Bob?”

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. What’s making you “feel bad”?

UnhappyfaceNot long ago, I had an epiphany – happiness projects for everyone! Join in! So each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

Today’s question for self-examination is – what’s making you “feel bad”?

My 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 of that awful family.

My own happiness project has been very focused on eliminating sources of feeling bad, because I realized that the thing standing most in the way of my happiness was…ME. I wasn’t living up to the standard I expected from myself.

Some things that I’ve worked to stop doing—not that I’ve succeeded, but I’ve made some progress: gossiping, eating fake food (i.e., “food” that comes in crinkly packages from corner delis), nagging, drinking alcohol (I had to face the fact that drinking the tiniest bit of alcohol makes me incredibly belligerent), losing my temper, staying up too late, not flossing, not doing enough to help other people, leaving my clothes strewn around – well, the list goes on and on.

I really feel happier when I’m not plagued with pricks of bad feelings.

So, without worrying yet about what you’re going to do to relieve these feelings, examine your emotions as you go through your days.

When do you feel angry? What prompts feelings of guilt? When do you feel bored? Are you envious of anyone? Do you feel afraid – of cancer, of terrorists, of identity theft, of losing your job? Etc.

These emotions are unpleasant, but they’re VERY valuable. They’re showing you what you need to change or accept. These feelings are so unpleasant, however, that we often pretend that we aren’t experiencing them, or we try to ignore them. In some situations, this attitude is useful. But for this exercise, really concentrate on your negative moments.

Take envy. We often suppress or deny envious feelings, because envy is such a nasty, ignominious emotion. But envy teaches you something very important about yourself: there’s something you want that you don’t have. So what can you do about that situation?

Before you can fix bad feelings, you have to understand what’s sparking them. So spend a week thinking about it.

Next week: some thoughts about how to eliminate these bad feelings.

If you’re starting a happiness project, consider joining the Happiness Project group on Facebook.

If you’re writing your resolutions, you’re welcome to see my chart, to help get you started. Just drop me a note at grubin [at] gretchenrubin [dot com].

Neatorama is a cornucopia of fun, diverting, amusing, provocative posts. This is the kind of site that gets me singing the praises of the Internet, for the sheer crazy amount of information that can be assembled. See if you can spot the picture of the pumpkin pi.

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.