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

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The influence of thinking style on happiness—it really does matter.

Lighbulb4In my research about happiness, I frequently come across discussions of how people’s happiness is affected by their ideas and assumptions about themselves and how the world works.

We’re not merely neutral computers absorbing information; we process and shape information in order to make sense of it. Research shows that unhappy people experience and react to circumstances differently from happy people.

For example, maybe you believe that you’re somehow always responsible for everything bad that happens. Maybe you believe that people are dishonest and are trying to cheat you. Maybe you believe that the worst possible consequence is the one most likely to happen. Different sets of assumptions make folks much more prone to anger, sorrow, and guilt—or not.

But, you may be asking, do habits of thinking really make much practical difference in a person’s life? After all, the actual “reality” of a person’s life is the same, no matter what’s going on in his or her head.

Over the weekend, the Big Man and I rented a good movie, The Upside of Anger, with Joan Allen and Kevin Costner. The movie presents an astonishingly persuasive example of the power of habits of mind. There’s a dramatic, surprise twist at the end (I do love a surprise twist) which turns SOLELY on the consequences of the main character’s way of thinking.

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For those who haven’t discovered it, Steve Pavlina has the most popular personal development blog out there. Lots of great material in the archives, or you can check out the “best of” list in the left-hand column.

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 Saturday: a quotation from Plutarch.

Plutarch“Being conscious of having done a wicked action leaves stings of remorse behind it, which, like an ulcer in the flesh, makes the mind smart with perpetual wounds; for reason, which chases away all other pains, creates repentance, shames the soul with confusion, and punishes it with torment.” –Plutarch

In which a flower shop reminds me to “Be nice.”

Several times a week, I walk past the Sunshine Flowers deli at the corner of 62nd and Lexington.

Every time I go by, I smile and get a bit of a boost to keep my happiness resolutions when I see the handwritten admonition on the side of the flower case to “Be nice.”

One of my Twelve Commandments (see left column) is “Be polite and be fair,” and it’s important to “Be nice,” too.

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I enjoy checking out the Ririan Project blog. It covers many of the subjects that interest me, from a more GTD, business angle. Lots of great info — especially tip lists, if you love tip lists, as I do. But what is a “Ririan” project? you may ask. Ririan is the name of the blogger.

I’m so HAPPY for my sister! Her TV pilot got picked up, and she’s marrying a fantastic guy. All in the same month.

WomensmurderclubIt’s SO EXCITING: my sister, a TV writer in LA, was in New York City for a few days because her PILOT was just picked up by ABC. This is huge! With her writing partner, she’s the executive producer of an upcoming show called Women’s Murder Club, based on a series of novels by James Patterson.

Not that many years ago, when my sister and I were home in Kansas City for Christmas, she went to a party with her high-school friends. The next morning, when I got up, she was already awake (a sign that something unusual was afoot) and talking to my parents. She’d been up most of the night, thinking; a friend had said that she was moving to L.A. to start writing for TV, and did my sister want to come, too?

That was Christmas Eve morning. By February 3, my sister had not only decided to move, she had already packed up, left New York City, and was settled in LA and trying to kickstart a writing career.

And now…to get a show on the air!

One reason I find her success exciting is that it reminds me that it’s quite possible to change your life dramatically. Of course, she wasn’t married, didn’t have kids, didn’t own her apartment, didn’t even own much stuff, so that made it easier to change. But still, it was an extraordinary shift, made very quickly. And it worked out.

I think about what she did whenever I’m feeling stuck. I remind myself that I could make a big change, too, and I try to think about what my options are. Usually, I end up deciding that I don’t really want to change – but that, in itself, is a positive outcome.

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That very same sister is getting married to a fantastic guy on May 26. Like she doesn’t have enough to worry about. I’m anxious myself, and all I have to do is walk down the aisle with a bouquet, wrangle two flower girls, and give a toast.

Being involved in the wedding make me reflect a bit on the whole wedding process, and I went back to my bookshelf to re-read my friend Kamy Wicoff’s hilarious and thought-provoking book, I Do But I Don’t. The book is an interesting mix – partly a memoir of her own engagement and wedding, partly journalistic reporting on weddings, partly social criticism. The thing I liked about her book was that it wasn’t an indictment of the kind of wedding with a white dress, engagement ring, bridesmaids, etc. Kamy was very honest both about why she was attracted to model of wedding (which is what she had, and also what I had), and also why she questioned it. Fascinating.

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Looking back on this post, it’s a little flack-y — my sister’s TV show, my friend’s book. Sorry. I may be a flack, but it’s sincere.

This Wednesday: Six dodges for pretending that you’re not gossiping, when you really are.

GossipEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Six dodges for pretending that you’re not gossiping, when you really are.

I’d never considered gossiping one of my particular faults. Sure, from time to time I said something behind someone’s back, but not often. Right? Wrong.

As so often happens with the Happiness Project, it was only when I made a point to quit this bad habit that I realized how ingrained it was.

By “gossip,” I mean “making unkind remarks behind the back of someone I know.” Saying, “Paris Hilton is trashy” doesn’t count as gossip, and saying “Elizabeth Craft is a brilliant TV writer” doesn’t count.

We all know that we shouldn’t gossip, so sometimes we try to disguise the fact that that’s what we’re doing. Here are some common dodges I know I’ve used to justify gossip:

1.“I’m just concerned.”
“I’m worried about her, she seems unhappy, I wonder if she got a bad evaluation.” “Those two never seem to do anything together, I hope their marriage isn’t in trouble.”

2. “I’m thoughtfully analyzing to my friend’s character.”
“Do you think he’s so arrogant because his mother pushed him so hard as a child?” “Do you think she spends so much money on clothes because she feels some kind of lack in her life?”

3. “I’m entitled to my opinion.”
“That party was too lavish for a bunch of six-year-olds.” “The hors d’oeuvres were terrible.” “He’s such a pompous bore.”

4. “I’m passing along information that a lot of people already know.”
“They’re fighting over custody.” “He’s gained at least twenty pounds.”

5. “I’m just relaying a conversation.”
“He said, ‘I’m thinking about quitting,’ and I said, ‘Can you afford to quit?’ and he said….” “She told me that they spent more than $10,000…”

6. “I’m not gossiping, you are.”
“So what did you think of what she was wearing?” “Did the CEO think they bombed the presentation?”

Here’s the test of whether something is gossip or not: if I wouldn’t want the person who’s the subject of the conversation to overhear what I’m saying, I shouldn’t be saying it.

Research shows that gossip is actually an important social force. It strengthens social bonds; it’s a mechanism for the formulation and enforcement of values; it provides punishment for wrongdoers.

I’m sure that’s true. Gossiping really does make you feel closer to the people with whom you’re gossiping. And by talking about other people’s actions, you get a clearer sense of people’s values. There are occasions when gossip is appropriate. But often it’s just rude, two-faced, and mean-spirited.

Since I’ve cut down on gossiping (I can’t claim to have quit), I’ve noticed a change in myself that I didn’t expect: I feel less paranoid that people might be angry at me, or that I’ve done something wrong. I feel kinder and gentler. I feel less judgmental.

I did carve out a marital exception, and I’ll still say gossipy things to the Big Man that I wouldn’t say to anyone else. Is that progress?

This post was hard to write, because I’m ashamed to admit to gossiping. Maybe this confession will help me stick to my resolution.

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I get a kick out of the blog Communicatrix. It’s hard to describe what it’s about, exactly…it has a strong sensibility, it’s very funny, it’s fun to look at the pictures, that’s good enough for me.