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

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Following my resolutions, I decide to take a “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” course.

RightsideMy happiness resolutions include “Follow my curiosities,” “Push myself,” “Show up,” “Spend money to further my goals,” “Enjoy the fun of failure,” and “Take time for mini-adventures.”

It’s not always easy to see how to transform these resolutions from abstract ideas, typed in my notes, into actions in my real life.

This week, however, I am. I’m taking an intensive, 9:30-5:30, five-day class, on Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

Yesterday, today, and for three more days, I head down to Soho each morning instead of sitting down in front of my computer.

I was partly inspired by Daniel Pink’s account of taking the class in his terrific book, A Whole New Mind. He includes pictures of the self-portrait he drew before receiving any instruction, and the self-portrait he drew at the end of five days. The leap in execution was astonishing.

I have no art training and no skills. Nevertheless, I’ve always had an interest in art that I’ve somehow never found a way to tap. The promise of learning how to draw – and really, how to be able to see better – was enormously attractive.

When I read things that interest me, I always feel a compulsion to…process them. I have an urge to take notes, to clip articles, to manipulate information and ideas. I feel the same way when I see something beautiful or interesting, but I don’t have any tools with which to tackle that kind of material. I’d love to be able to make a sketch or some kind of record.

Now, you might say, “Just have fun with it! Do your best, it doesn’t have to be good!” But the fact is, it’s not much fun to make a very bad sketch. It’s frustrating, and not enjoyable to look back at later.

Happiness research shows the people get a big boost from learning new skills, and also from novel experiences; as the research would predict, the drawing class (so far, at least) has been tremendously fun and valuable.

Unfortunately, when you’re feeling blue, it’s easy to feel too overwhelmed and dispirited to make the effort to try something new. It seems difficult, exhausting – even making the arrangements seem too hard. So it’s hard to take a step that, if you could manage it, would give you a boost.

And this class is hard. During the class, I felt intimidated, defensive, hostile, and frustrated. I’ve been exhausted when I come home, and my back hurts.

Yet it’s also tremendously gratifying to learn something new – that’s the “atmosphere of growth” so important to happiness. It’s fun to have a break from my usual routine, and even to be in a different part of the city at a different time of day. It’s nice to meet some new people.

Plus – my goodness – I drew my hand! I drew a chair that actually looked like a chair! I still can’t quite believe it.

Pollyanna Week continues. It’s such a useful exercise. I’m absolutely astonished by a) how hard it is to remember to refrain from criticism, nagging, complaints, etc., and b) the huge percentage of my conversation which consists of criticism, nagging, complaints, etc. I haven’t been able to wear my orange reminder bracelet, because of the drawing class (it gets in my way), but have been trying to stick to the goals. It’s more challenging than it sounds.

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 Wednesday: Five tips for how to FIGHT RIGHT with your sweetheart.

HeartEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Five tips for how to FIGHT RIGHT with your sweetheart.

Many couples try to “solve” their problems, when in fact, many problems can’t be solved. How much time to spend with the in-laws, how to spend money, how to discipline children, who does various chores…these arguments will happen over and over. They aren’t problems that can be permanently fixed.

So one thing I’ve thought a lot about is how the Big Man and I can fight right. How can we have arguments that are productive and loving, not exhausting, unpleasant, and pointless?

I’m much more likely to tackle a subject. The Big Man tries to avoid an argument at all cost – usually, with the simple tactic of not answering me when I raise some difficult issue – which just makes me madder, of course.

I can’t say that I’ve made a huge amount of progress, but these are the tips I’m trying to follow, in order to fight right:

1. Joke about the conflict. This is hardest for me, but also the most effective. For example, seemingly out of pure cussedness, the Big Man often refuses to give me information – silly things, like what time we’re meeting friends for brunch. It drives me crazy. The last time he did it, I managed to say, “Are you in the C.I.A? Why is everything around here on a need-to-know basis?” He laughed, I laughed, and I felt a lot better. He hasn’t changed his behavior, but I’ve lightened up about it.

2. Take a break. Marriage expert John Gottman recommends a twenty-minute recess if an argument gets too heated. This strategy works well, but it’s tough to think to do it when you’re in the midst of a fight. Sometimes it happens by chance, when the phone rings or the dog throws up.

3. Throw money at the problem. Hiring a teenager to mow the lawn, buying prepared food, or getting a babysitter once a week might eliminate a source of friction. Peace in a relationship is a high happiness priority, so this is a place to spend money if it can help.

4. Hug and kiss. One of the things I appreciate most about the Big Man is that he hugs and kisses me all the time: he puts his arm around me when we’re at a party, he gives me a good-bye morning kiss, a hello evening kiss, and a good-night kiss. This goes a long way – especially during an argument, when a quick hug or even a touch can transform the mood. To optimize the flow of mood-boosting chemicals like oxytocin and serotonin, hold your hug for at least six seconds.

5. Make “repair attempts.” During a fight, make gestures to keep things from getting too ugly. Laugh; throw in a comment like, “I know what you’re talking about,” “I see what you mean,” or “I’m trying to do better,”; admit where you’re wrong, and most important – I have to remind myself of this often – let the fight end. Let it go. Have the discussion, then change the subject.

Zoikes, I would have missed seeing this Jane Brody article in the New York Times if a friend hadn’t sent me the link. As I have been known to remark more than once, a fairly painless and simple way of cutting calories out of your diet is NOT TO DRINK them. For a great article on the science behind this advice, check out Personal Health: You Are Also What You Drink. One crazy fact: about 21% of the calories consumed by Americans (more than 2 years old) come from beverages — soft drinks and fruit juices, for the most part.

Why PASSION is so critically important to happiness.

CookingBecause of the Happiness Project, I spend a lot of time wondering, “What elements are necessary for a happy life?”

I’ve become convinced that one of the greatest supports to a person’s happiness is passion – whether for musical theater, video games, constitutional history, camping, stamps, shoe-shopping, teaching English as a second language, or whatever.

Now, it might seem that some passions are “better” than others – they help other people, or they’re of a “higher” nature, or they’re more healthy or wholesome. Maybe. But any passion is a great boon to happiness.

A passion gives you a reason to keep learning and to work toward mastery. It can often give you a reason to travel, and therefore to have the new experiences so key to happiness. It gives you something in common with other people, and so fosters social bonds. It gives you purpose. It often has a satisfying physical aspect—rock-climbing, fly-fishing, knitting. It gives meaningful structure to your time. It makes the world a richer place. When you’re in pain, it can be a refuge, a distraction, a solace.

One of my struggles to “Be Gretchen” is to identify and pursue my passions – my real passions, not the passions I wish that I had – and also to acknowledge when I don’t share a passion.

It’s a little sad to admit that a common passion isn’t a source of joy to me. Like food. I wish I appreciated food more, but I don’t. (This doesn’t mean that I don’t love to EAT — I do. I have an incredible sweet tooth and snack constantly. I just don’t have a refined palate. I want to eat Snackwells, breakfast cereal, and candy all day long. And while that stuff is great, there’s not much sophisticated pleasure to get from it.)

I’ve been thinking about this because I just finished Molly O’Neill’s fabulous memoir, Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food, and Baseball.

She shows how important passion was to her and her brothers – hers, for cooking, theirs, for baseball.

Cooking keeps one in the present. It is a thing that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you don’t pay attention, you can cut off your finger, burn yourself or your meal. You can’t lie about cooking. You either do it well or you don’t. You are fast or you are slow. You are neat or you are sloppy. You have taste or you don’t. It’s only dinner, but cooking makes honest people of liars, realists of dreamers, and well-ordered minds out of chaotic and impulsive ones. Baseball saved my brothers but cooking saved me.

Reading about her enjoyment of food – the enormous efforts she took to educate herself in all aspects of food, cooking, and restaurants– the depth of her discernment – the crazy adventures she had along the way – made me feel wistful.

I love the idea of going down to little markets in Chinatown to shop for fish, or making a reservation at a great New York City restaurant, or learning to make some lovely, special dish – I love the idea of doing it, but really, I don’t want to do it. Really, I’d rather stay home and eat one-minute oatmeal while reading the newspaper. That seems limited and joyless – but that’s Gretchen.

So food isn’t my passion – what is? Can I find overlooked passions that I can stoke? I’m trying to pay more attention. It can be surprisingly hard to identify your passion. My college roommate, for example, has a Ph.D. in anthropology and never took one class in anthropology in college.

Passion doesn’t just bring happiness to the person who enjoys that passion – it also brings a vicarious pleasure to onlookers.

I’m not interested in food or baseball, but I loved reading about Molly O’Neill’s passion. I have a friend who is an enthusiast for practically everything. She loves her job. She loves to read. She loves baseball. She loves video games. She loves to travel. She loves to learn to do new things. She loves clothes. I don’t share most of these passions, yet I find her such a happy, energizing person to be with.

I’m almost ready to unveil my “Four Pillars of Happiness,” also known as “The four things you must have in your life in order to be happy,” and passion fits right in to that…

Talia at the Centre for Emotional Well-Being was kind enough to interview me for her blog. Lots of great material there.

Pollyanna Week, redux.

BraceletI haven’t been doing a very good job of living up to my resolutions lately, so I decided to take a boot-camp approach to my attitude, to kick myself back into line. It’s time for another Pollyanna Week.

Pollyanna, you’ll recall, played the “Glad Game,” where she tried to find something to be glad about in everything that happened.

In this spirit, for Pollyanna Week, I abstain…that is, I try to abstain…from all complaints, negative comments, criticisms, and nagging.

The first time I observed Pollyanna Week, I discovered that this is a lot easier than it sounds. I put on my orange reminder bracelet this morning to help myself remember to stick to the positive.

I woke up at 6:45 a.m., and by 7:40 a.m., I’d already broken Pollyanna Week.

The Big Girl and I were discussing Harry Potter (one of our favorite topics) during the walk to school.

“I hope Book Seven is incredibly long,” I said. “I hope it’s a thousand pages long.”

“J. K. Rowling said in an interview that it won’t be as long as Order of the Phoenix, and that was more than 800 pages long,” said the Big Girl.

“People complained that Order of the Phoenix was too long!” I answered. “And people had the stupidest reason—that the book was too heavy for their kids to carry around. That’s the dumbest objection imaginable.”

Oops! Too late, I remembered the orange bracelet on my wrist. Why speak so harshly and dismissively? Who needs that? Why not just talk about my love for Harry Potter?

On the other hand, I have decided that there is a proper place for complaining. I saw a friend who is about to move, and we groused about the pain of moving. To have been utterly upbeat would have annoyed her; I commiserated to show my appreciation for the hassles she was dealing with.

The spirit of Pollyanna Week, I decided, can be maintained by keeping a light tone, joking about annoyances, emphasizing the positive, and not dwelling on an irritating topic too long.

Even so, I didn’t do a good job of complaining with a Pollyanna spirit. It turns out that it’s just as hard to gripe mindfully as it is to abstain from griping altogether.

I can tell that I need this exercise. It shouldn’t be this hard to be cheery.

As a writer, I’m always thinking about why certain books succeed and other books don’t — so I was fascinated by an article I read yesterday in the New York Times Magazine. In Is Justin Timberlake a Product of Cumulative Advantage? A new theory of the hit record, Duncan Watts argues that because people gravitate toward music, books, etc. that they know that other people enjoy, the process of finding “hits” isn’t just a matter of identifying a quality product; there’s also an interactive element, “social influence” so that as something becomes slightly more popular, it tends quickly to become far more popular. People generally assume that they’ll like what other people like. Therefore, the likes and dislikes of the somewhat random group of first-responders can have a huge (and unpredictable) impact on what ultimately succeeds or fails. If this is the sort of thing you like, you’ll like this.

A quotation from Kurt Vonnegut.

VonnegutI’m a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut, but I hadn’t read this passage from A Man Without a Country until a thoughtful reader passed it along to me.

It had particular resonance, because yesterday I posted about the four stages of happiness, and here, Vonnegut emphasizes the importance of stage three — “express my happiness to myself or others” — in his own inimitable style. Wise advice, backed up by science.

But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father’s kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”