“Give Me a Second Glass of Wine, and All My Hard-Fought Self-Control Falls by the Wayside.”

Habits interview: Hannah Nordhaus.

I know Hannah Nordaus from college. Back then, neither one of us talked about becoming writers (or at least I didn’t, and I don’t remember Hannah talking about it, though maybe she did…) A few years ago, she wrote The Beekeeper’s Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America.

Now Hannah has a new book, American Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest, that’s just hitting the shelves this week. I can’t wait to read it — part memoir (I love memoirs), part travelogue, part history — all about Hannah’s great-great-grandmother, who is said to haunt a hotel in Santa Fe. If you want to read an excerpt for yourself, you can read here.

I was curious to hear what Hannah would say about habits and happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Hannah: Drinking a warm drink each morning. It is something I look forward to every day. Yes! I get to drink a cup of coffee! With honey! It is a simple pleasure that makes me look forward to waking up each day.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

I suppose I have learned, through years of trial and error, that it isn’t a zero-sum game. There are things you like about yourself and things you don’t; habits you are proud of and ones you aren’t, and if you slip and fall back into old patterns, this does not mean that you have failed. You simply forgive yourself, face forward, and keep trying.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

I stay up too late. I am a night owl by nature, but with small children and limited time to work, I’m unable to keep the hours I did when I was the sole master of my schedule. There’s always something that beckons before bed – one more article to read, one more email to send, one more episode to watch. It is so hard to force myself to go to sleep. But if I don’t, even the warm morning drink can’t save me.

I also crack my knuckles. Which is impossible to stop—perhaps, Gretchen, you can offer some advice? They’re right there, on your hands, begging to be cracked, and it feels so good! I gather that there’s no actual health issue with the cracking, but it drives my husband insane, and so really it’s a habit that gets in the way of his happiness, which then gets in the way of my happiness, because he groans and swats at me and says “stop the popping” whenever I do. But those knuckles are just so tantalizing, there in front of me, every single moment. I’m cracking them right now.

Which habits are most important to you? (for heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

Hands down, it’s getting outside and getting exercise on a regular basis. It is good for my physical health—that goes without saying. And also my mental health; I get cranky if I go more than a couple of days without moving around. But I have also found that taking a break and going for a run or a hike or a bike ride does magical things for both my creativity and productivity.

When I’m hung up on an idea or can’t think what to write next, I can do nothing better than force myself to take a break, get away from my screen, and move and clear my brain. I come back refreshed, and I find that the ideas and breakthroughs just come, unbidden, as soon as I get moving and stop looking for them. My favorite insight in my new book, American Ghost, arrived while I was on a hike. It was on a particularly easy downhill stretch towards the end, where I didn’t have to think about where I was going or what I was doing. The trail wasn’t too rocky underfoot, and I wasn’t huffing and puffing to get to the top. I was just there, running in a pretty laggardly fashion and looking at the mountains, and then whabang: sentence, fully formed.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

When I was in my mid-twenties, I decided I had to give up caffeine. I was, as I mentioned above, a night owl, and I found I was more and more dependent on coffee and more and more jittery, and that I could barely speak in the morning before I had a cup of coffee, and this seemed not a good way to live. So I decided to give it up.

Cold turkey wasn’t my thing, so I first weaned myself down to one cup a day for a few weeks, then switched to decaf. I still needed the ritual—and still do—but for me it’s more the idea of having a warm, sweet drink in my hands to start the day, than the actual pick-me-up of the caffeine.

I also rewarded myself once a week with a frothy full-caff latte. That way it wasn’t like I’d given it up forever. Until one day I realized I didn’t need the caffeine, and that in fact I felt much better if I didn’t drink it.

Now I am trying to cut down on my sugar consumption, with moderate success. Sugar is so much more omnipresent in our lives; it’s awfully hard to avoid. But I am also weaning, slowly, if not always successfully. Now I take a half a teaspoon of honey in that morning coffee instead of two spoonfuls of sugar, and sometimes I skip the honey all together. I’ve given up soda—oh how I loved ginger ale! I try to eat dessert only once or twice a week instead of every day. I look at labels, and think more about what I’m consuming. It is a work in progress.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger? [Readers, if you want to find out your own Tendency, take the Quiz here.]

I’m a questioner, with a big upholder streak. I love being given a discrete task, and I love to do it well. I always return emails and love to rise to a challenge. Give me a deadline; I won’t miss it. However, if I think the challenge or expectations are stupid, I’ll arrange my life so that I am not asked to accept them. There’s a reason I work for myself; I try very hard only to take on projects I find interesting and worthwhile, so I don’t put myself in a position of having to meet expectations that I find objectionable.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

Wine. I’m okay with one glass. But give me a second (and please don’t give me a third), and all my hard-fought self-control falls by the wayside. I overeat. I double down on dessert. I tell stories I promised I’d keep to myself. I watch that extra show or read that extra chapter. And then I wake up at 3 am in a miserable sweat. I have no idea how I managed to be drunk several nights a week in college.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

I think I generally need to reach these life-altering realizations on my own time, at my own pace. I’m fairly skeptical and not easy to persuade, and I have at my command many powerful arguments for keeping my life the way I like it. It’s pretty hard to lightning-bolt me into changing the routines I have become so attached to. And I’m a historian, a journalist and a perennial questioner—I like to conduct my due diligence, and make sure this new potentially life-altering information is really factual and meaningful, and that changing my habits will really make a difference. I am open to change. But it has to be on my own time, after proper research, and on my own terms.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I embrace them. I love the comfort of routine. I love how it shapes my days and gives them structure and meaning. I know the things that make me happy and healthy and strong, and I try to incorporate them into my life whenever I can.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

My great-great-grandmother Julia Staab has left an indelible mark on how I view the world. I never met her—she died in 1896—but in researching her life for American Ghost, I feel that I came to understand her in a way—and also to understand something important about living itself. What I learned about her life has made me deeply appreciative of the daily routines in my own life that keep me content and keep me going.

Julia was severely depressed. She had been shipped from Germany to New Mexico as a mail-order bride and never quite adapted to the rough frontier. She simply didn’t have the resilience to create, out of the less-than-ideal situation into which she was imported, an existence that she could live with.

All of our lives contain sadness, and setbacks, disappointments and injustices—some more than others, of course. But having spent three years examining how Julia lived and died, and trying to understand her state of mind, I realize how much we determine our own happiness. Whether it’s through creating the routines that ground us and keep us going—like those frequent trips I take up into the hills—or learning new things that keep us engaged with the world, we shape ourselves and our reactions to the misfortunes and setbacks that we encounter.

We can’t control what happens to us, but we can strive to shape how we respond to those things. That everyday appreciation of the small routines in our lives, the things we do that work for us and keep us on an even keel, both mentally and physically, matter more than I ever realized.

Do You Know Your “Tell?” And the Comfort Food for Your Brain?

My new book about habits, Better Than Before, comes out one week from tomorrow. It’s hard to believe that publication day is so close.

I don’t feel particularly anxious, but I realized that actually I am pretty anxious — because I recognized my “tell.”

Self-knowledge is one of the greatest challenges for happiness and good habits. Why is it hard to know that I’m feeling anxious — don’t I feel it? Why is it so hard to know myself? It seems like nothing should be easier and more obvious than to know myself– but it’s not.

Because I find it hard to know myself, I’m always on the look-out for indirect ways to gain self-knowledge. For instance, I ask, Whom do I envy? What do I lie about? My envy and lies reveal a lot — including things I’d otherwise try to keep hidden, even from myself.

And I’ve also learned to look for my “tells.” In gambling, a tell is a change in behavior that reveals your inner state. Gamblers look for tells as clues about whether other players are holding good or bad hands.

This is my tell: a while back, I realized that when I’m feeling anxious or worried, I re-read books aimed at a younger and younger audience. The more worried I am, the simpler the book. Under all circumstances, I love children’s and young-adult literature, and read it often, but when I’m reading these books as an anxiety tell, I inevitably re-read instead of reading books I’ve never read before. I want the coziness, the familiarity, the high quality of a book that I know I love.

For instance, when I was writing Better Than Before, I went through a stage of a major editing. Not just little changes here and there — massive re-organization, massive cutting (I went from 140,00 words to 80,000 words without losing any ideas), massive line edits. It was exhilarating, but also very stressful and intellectually demanding.

And during that time, I re-read the entire Harry Potter series.

What book did I pick up yesterday, without quite realizing I was doing it? J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.  Frodo and company were already at The Prancing Pony before I recognized, “Oh, hey, I’m anxious, and so I’m reading this now.”

Once I first recognized my tell those years ago, I realized that I can use children’s and young-adult literature as “comfort food” for my mind. When I want some comfort, when I want to know that I’m going to enjoy something whole-heartedly, and get a distraction from my thoughts, I now deliberately turn to those books.

In this case, though, part of my brain realized that I needed comfort food before I consciously grasped it, myself.

One reason I’m anxious is that these days, a book’s first week of sales has a very disproportionate importance. If a book sells well that first week, it gets a big, big boost.  So next week really matters.  (Which is why, if you’re inclined to buy the book, it’s a big help to me if you pre-order it now.)

But at this point, with one week to go there’s not much more I can do to affect my book’s fate. I told my husband, “It’s like knowing that I’m gong to take a major exam, but I can’t study.”  He gave me a patient look and said, “Gretch, you’ve already studied.”

Hmm. Well, I don’t know what will happen to Better Than Before, but I do know what happens when the Nine Walkers enter the Doors of Durin. And I love reading about it, again and again.

As any lover of Tolkien would agree:  once the story of the One Ring begins, there’s no stopping: you’re going there and back again. And then I’ll want to watch the movies, too, like as not. So, depending on how much free time I have in the next week, I may be set until my publication date on March 17.

How about you? Do you have a “tell” that shows that you’re anxious?  And do you have a “comfort food” for your mind — some activity or subject that soothes you?

 

Agree, Disagree? Habits Tend To Deaden Experience.

“Hence every thing, that is new, is most affecting, and gives us either more pleasure or pain, than what, strictly speaking, naturally belongs to it. When it often returns upon us, the novelty wears off; the passions subside; the hurry of the spirits is over; and we survey the objects with greater tranquility.”

— David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 2.3.5

This is a striking thing about habits — they tend to deaden. For better and for worse.

If there’s something that’s unpleasant, that makes us uneasy or angry, we tend to have a lesser reaction as the behavior becomes a habit. When I started blogging, I felt very anxious every time I posted, because I didn’t quite know what to do. But as I got in the habit of writing every day, the anxiety wore off.

If there’s something pleasant, we also tend to have a lesser reaction as the behavior becomes a habit. That early-morning coffee was a treat when it was a new thing, but once it became a habit, I hardly noticed it, except to be frantic when I didn’t get my coffee.

I try to offset this effect, with some of my pleasant habits, by trying consciously to revel in why it gives me pleasure.

How about you? Have you noticed that habits weaken your emotional response to an activity?

Portrait of an Obliger: William Shawn, Legendary Editor of The New Yorker

Of all the insights and observations that I make about the nature of habits and human nature in Better Than Before (at least I hope I make them), I’m most proud of my Four Tendencies framework.

It was very, very hard to grasp this pattern in human character, but I have to say, now that I’ve identified it, I constantly see it on display in the world.  Those four categories (Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, Rebel) do capture something–something that strikes me as truly real. (Want to find out your Tendency? 65,000 people have taken this Quiz.)

I’m always trying to understand the Four Tendencies better, and looking for examples, and evidence comes to me when I least expect it.

For instance, I recently read Lillian Ross’s memoir Here But Not Here: My Life with William Shawn and The New Yorker, and it turned out to be a case study of an Obliger — not LillianRoss, but William Shawn.

William Shawn was the legendary editor of The New Yorker. Lillian Ross was a New Yorker writer.

From the outside, William Shawn looked very successful. He was extraordinarily influential and well-regarded; he headed a great institution, where he worked for 53 years; he was married to Cecille, with three children (Wallace Shawn is his son–Vizzini in The Princess Bride); and for forty years, with his wife’s knowledge, Shawn also had a home with Lillian Ross — a dozen blocks south of his apartment with his wife and kids. Of his married life, he often told Ross, “I am there, but I am not there.”

Even if a person disagreed with his particular choices, on paper, William Shawn would appear to be someone who had the life he wanted.  But according to Lillian Ross’s memoir, that’s not how he felt.

Ross writes that Shawn felt trapped in his job as editor — he wanted to write himself — and when she asked him why he’d taken the position, he said, “There was no one else who could have kept the magazine alive…I could not abandon all those people.

She explains: “He felt eternally designated to serve others in their endeavors…he was oddly cursed by his great gift for making it possible for others to communicate their art, for he was never able to give that gift to himself.”

Occasionally he told Lillian Ross, “It’s someone else’s life that I have lived.

Although Shawn and Ross had a relationship for forty years, he never got a divorce, and lived his life split between two households. Ross explains, “There was absolutely nothing to argue about. I agreed that he could not leave Cecille. He said that his real self was not in his home [but] Cecille wanted him to be sitting there no matter what.”

Of course, we can’t know the truth about other people’s lives. But here’s how I see it, from the vantage point of the Four Tendencies.

Based on what Lillian Ross reports, I conclude that William Shawn was an Obliger; he met external expectations, but couldn’t meet his expectations for himself.

When there was a strong expectation that he play the role as editor — which is a job that requires meeting external expectations — he did it. He dreamed of doing his own writing, but this was an inner expectation, so went unmet.

His Obligerness also affected his relationship with his wife and Lillian Ross. His wife expected him to stay in the marriage. Lillian Ross did not impose an expectation that he leave the marriage. My speculation — and this is pure speculation, based on reading one memoir, of course — is that if Lillian Ross had said, “You have to choose, me or your wife,” then Shawn would have left his wife. But without Lillian Ross’s outer expectation to give him force, he couldn’t do it. (I think she was an Obliger too, by the way.)

Reading about Shawn’s life made me sad. Here was a person who had what looked like a wonderful life — but it wasn’t the life he wanted. He seemed to feel driven to meet others’ expectations for him, but he felt unable to meet his expectations for himself.

No matter what our Tendency, the key to a happier, healthier, more productive life is to understand the downsides and imitations of our Tendency, and counter-balance them.

Perhaps Shawn could’ve made an agreement with his agent or with an editor about some piece he would write — then he’d have external expectations, a deadline, and the accountability that would have helped him to be productive. Perhaps if he’d said to Lillian Ross, “You need to drive this process, I can’t do it,” she could have done it — for him.

Have you figured out how to counter-balance the downsides of your Tendency? As an Upholder, I need to question: why am I meeting this expectation, does it make sense, is this what I want? Being married to a Questioner has helped me, too — partly because I have a model, partly because sometimes I just ask my husband, “Do I have to do this?” and he helps me think about it.

 

Podcast: Getting More Sleep, Resisting Strong Temptations, and Why It’s OK To Be Boring

I’m very excited to announce the second episode of the new weekly podcast, “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.

One thing that makes this podcast especially fun is that I’m doing it with my sister the sage, Elizabeth Craft.

So what will you hear us discuss, when you listen toHappier with Gretchen Rubin“? We talk about how to build happier habits into everyday life, as we draw from cutting-edge science, ancient wisdom, lessons from pop culture—and our own experiences (and mistakes).

Each week, we give  a “Try This at Home” suggestion, for some easy habit you can try, as part of your ordinary routine, to boost your happiness—something like setting an alarm to signal your bedtime, or using the one-minute rule, to help yourself stay on top of small nagging tasks.

We also suggest questions to help you “Know Yourself Better”—like “Whom do you envy?” and “Are you a Marathoner or a Sprinter in your work style?”—and explore “Happiness Stumbling Blocks,” those small, seemingly insignificant parts of daily life that drag us down—everything from the problem of the Evil Donut-Bringer to the fact that working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.

We “Grill the Guest,” consider “Listener Questions,” and finally, we get even more personal, and each of us either gives ourselves a “Demerit” for a mistake we made that week, that affected our happiness, or awards a “Gold Star” to someone or something that deserves recognition.

We’re sisters, so we don’t let each other get away with much!

Here’s what we discuss in this episode:

Try This at Home: Set an alarm to help yourself get to bed on time.

Know Yourself Better: Are you an “abstainer” or a “moderator” when it comes to resisting a strong temptation? (Spoiler alert, I’m a 100% abstainer.) Not sure? Take this quiz.

Samuel-Johnson-readingThe quotation I mention, from eighteenth-century essayist Samuel Johnson, is when a young friend urged him “to take a little wine,” Dr. Johnson explained, “I can’t drink a little, child; therefore I never touch it.Abstinence is as easy to me, as temperance would be difficult.”

Listener Question: ‘What was your biggest misconception about happiness before you wrote your first book about it?”

Demerit: Elizabeth admits that she should’ve re-scheduled an important school interview, because her husband was recovering from the flu — but she didn’t, because she so badly wanted to cross the interview off the to-do list.

Gold Star: I give a gold star to our mother, for her idea about the email “updates” that my mother, father, Elizabeth and I now send to each other. Our motto: It’s okay to be boring!

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