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

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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.

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.

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.”

The four stages of happiness: anticipate, savor, express, and reflect.

FourWe’ve all heard Dr. Kublher-Ross’s stages of grief: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance.

I’ve been thinking about the four stages of happiness – really, the stages of appreciating a particular happy moment.

My research has shown me that a key to happiness is squeezing out as much happiness as possible from a happy event. Unhappy people don’t have fewer happy experiences as happy people, they just think about them less.

To get the most bang for the happiness buck, I’ve realized that I should complete four stages of reveling in a moment of happiness:

 anticipate with pleasure,
 savor the moment as I experience it,
 express my happiness to myself or others, and
 reflect on a happy memory.

(I wish that I could get these four stages to spell out LIFT or GRIN or some clever mnemonic – any ideas?)

I’ve already done quite a bit of thinking about reflecting on happy memories. Nowadays, I spend more time on things like photo albums, making videos, and organizing mementos, because I realize what a happiness boost these reminders can provide.

But I hadn’t thought much about anticipation until the last few weeks. If anything, I think I discouraged myself from anticipating a happy moment – either out of some kind of superstitious fear that I’d be “jinxing” it, or by trying to keep myself from feeling disappointed if the anticipated moment didn’t happen.

That’s foolish. First, “jinxing” is superstition. Second, why squelch present happiness from some attempt to manage my future feelings? Such a disappointment wouldn’t be a crushing blow, and I’m depriving myself of the joys of anticipation.

This issue caught my attention last week, because I noticed that I had a week of good things. By chance, every day included something that I was really looking forward to doing. These events were hardly monumental – one was nothing more exciting than watching the new Sopranos episode.

But I noticed what a lift I got, each time I glanced through my calendar (which I do about 45 times a day).

So I’m resolving to do two things to do a better job of reveling in pleasant anticipation.

I’m going to make more of a commitment to plan to do things that give me a happiness boost. I should say to the Big Man, “On Saturday, let’s go to the bookstore to buy books for our trip.” Probably we would do that anyway, but by putting it on the schedule, I can look forward to it — thus increasing my happiness bang for the buck.

Also, I’m going to make an effort to have something to look forward to each day. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, and coffee with a friend makes it a lot easier to work on the fifteenth draft of my HAPPINESS PROJECT sample chapter.

For happiness, take a walk—but try to think happy thoughts.

BluesomethingExperts tell us that exercise gives us a mood boost and also is a key to overall health. One way to maintain a decent baseline of activity is to take 10,000 steps a day. I’ve started wearing a pedometer; I love getting a gold star, so seeing the numbers climb on my pedometer makes me more likely to hit the pavement.

I’ve discovered one downside, however. I need to keep careful control of my thoughts.

While walking allows me a chance to think quietly and freely, and I’ve had some of my best ideas while walking, it’s also true that I sometimes find myself working myself into a rage. I go over annoying things that happen to me, I replay arguments…I’ve found myself fighting with the Big Man about some wrong that he hasn’t even committed!

Research shows that unhappy people are more apt to dwell on negative events. By ruminating on petty slights, replaying negative encounters, or wallowing in sadness, people drive themselves into the blues.

In fact, some researchers suggest that a reason that more women get depression than men is that women are more likely to “overthink,” while men are better at distracting themselves from negative thoughts.

I tell myself to “find an area of refuge” – that is, find something positive to think about. As part of my resolution to “Make books,” and following Samuel Johnson’s admonition to “lay up a treasure of pleasing ideas,” I’ve just decided to start gathering great, elevating passages for a book I’ll make for myself. (Oh, how I love Lulu. For $30, I can make a book of anything.)

Why I have a military flavor so far, I don’t know, but here are a few I’ve gathered –

I love reading the message that Eisenhower drafted to be released in case D-Day failed.

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.

After surrender documents were signed, although all his colleagues proposed grand language for the victory message, Eisenhower rejected all suggestions, and wrote: “The mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 0241, local time, May 7th, 1945.”

My research on Churchill for Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill has given me a huge stack of wonderful quotations from him. No one writes like Churchill. Here’s the tribute he wrote in 1940, at the death of Neville Chamberlain — whose policy of appeasement Churchill had opposed so strenuously. This passage is long, but it’s worth reading carefully.

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?

From more recent times, I’ve included a section of the letter written by Sherron Watkins to Enron’s Chairman Kenneth Lay, to warn him about problems in the company’s accounting.

I didn’t follow the Enron story closely enough to understand exactly what happened. But as a lawyer myself, whenever I read about this kind of corporate wrongdoing, I wonder, “Would I have questioned what was going on? If everyone around me seemed comfortable with a transaction, would I have been able to see problems for myself?”

So when I read the Watkins memo, written by an accountant I felt a huge surge of relief. She had her standard.

“The overriding basic principle of accounting is that if you explain the ‘accounting treatment’ to a man in the street, would you influence his investing decisions? Would he sell or buy the stock based on a thorough understanding of the fact? If so, you best present it correctly and/or change the accounting.”

I just started a few days ago, but I can already tell it will be a lot of fun to work on this book. Plus, when I’m walking my 10,000 steps, if I catch myself brooding, I have a place to take my thoughts.
Thanks to the people who wrote to make sure that I knew Oprah did a show on “How happy are you?” yesterday. There’s interesting material on her website, including a short quiz to measure your life satisfaction.

This Wednesday: One big tip for changing the way you think.

StripesEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: One big tip for changing the way you think.

I’ve become a believer in catchphrases. Each day, I re-read my Twelve Commandments (see left column), and I know that having these ideas fresh in my mind really does influence my behavior.

I also have catchphrases posted in strategic places around my house – “Enthusiastic and creative” is on my desk, “Quiet mind” is in the bedroom, etc.

Studies show that by keeping certain ideas active and accessible through review and repetition, you can shape the way you think.

I’ve been asking other people for the phrases they repeat to themselves for inspiration or reassurance. Some people get their catchphrases from Virginia Woolf or T. S. Eliot or the Bible; some people get them from popular culture; some people make up their own.

Here are some good ones I’ve heard:

There’s no wrong decision here.
Always say hello.
Cut people slack.
What would my mother do?
Actually, this is good for us.
On, Stanley, on.
React to the situation.
Be easy to please.
Lighten up, Francis.
Fake it ‘till you make it.
One day at a time.
Expect a miracle.
At the still point of the turning world.
Will this matter next year?
Be still, and know that I am God.
Remember, everyone’s doing their best all the time.
Get a hold of yourself, Meredith!
Say yes.
People succeed in groups.
Recognize my ghosts.
Down with boredom.
I love Leo, just as he is.
Catch the rushing breeze.
Play the hand I’m dealt.
Do nothing, go nowhere.
If it doesn’t fit one way, then turn it around.
If things aren’t going to plan, it’s time to change the plan.
What would I do if I weren’t scared?