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

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Are you looking for reading recommendations to help you eat more healthfully?

BookstackcolorOn the last day of the month, I post a list of happiness-themed recommended reading.

I think I’m going to have trouble posting on Friday, so here’s the list, one day early.

One of the most common goals that people express – in fact, it’s THE all-time most popular goal, according to the fabulous goal-recording site, 43 Things — is the goal of losing weight. (The goal to “be happy” is number five! But I imagine that most people want to lose weight because they think it will make them happy.)

And even people who don’t want to lose weight often want to eat more healthfully.

I think these three books are outstanding – fascinating, full of useful information and advice, and well-written.

After I read these books, I started eating more appropriate portions, feeling fuller because I was eating MORE filling food (but less of the unsatisfying food, e.g., pretzels), and eating mindfully. Without “dieting” (which I refuse to do), I cut calories.

Zoikes, I sound like an advertisement.

I don’t always follow this advice (my downfall is “fake food”), but it has made a difference. So, for inspiration, and in this order, I recommend:

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think – Brian Wansink. How various factors lead us to eat without noticing — light in a restaurant, portion size, whether we’re pouring from a big box of cereal or a little box, convenience etc. Tons of fascinating information about human behavior.

Volumetrics: Feel Full on Fewer Calories – Barbara Rolls and Robert Barnett. How to make food choices that mean that you eat a lot and feel full and satisfied, instead of choices for the same calories that leave you feeling hungry and like you haven’t eaten much. E.g., eat a big bunch of grapes instead of a few raisins. Surprisingly obvious and sensible, when you think about it.

The Portion Teller: Smartsize Your Way to Permanent Weight Loss – Lisa Young. How to think about portion size to get control of what you’re eating without realizing it.

These books sound like “diet” books, but they’re really about making healthier choices, on a permanent basis, whether or not you care about watching your calories. But it turns out that when you eat more healthfully, you tend to consume fewer calories.

Folks with a Buddhist outlook will like these books, because they focus on eating mindfully — choosing food mindfully, eating mindfully, eating in a way that allows you not to obsess about food.

I also recommend Michael Pollan’s terrific New York Times Magazine article, Unhappy Meals, where he wrote memorably, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

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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.

A key to happiness: having something to look forward to.

Calendar2A reader sent me an email that made a point that I hadn’t quite grasped before. She mentioned the importance of having something to look forward to. (There’s just no graceful way to avoid ending the sentence with a proposition, sorry.)

I hadn’t quite focused on this aspect of happiness, but now I see how important it is.

My First Splendid Truth is: to tackle happiness, you must think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

Having something to look forward to makes you “feel good” and may also give an “atmosphere of growth” to your life, because the future seems bright.

Also, my Third Splendid Truth is that… happiness is a four-fold path, or a house with four stories, or a four-petalled flower – any ideas for poetic yet appropriate imagery to use?

Well, for now, I’ll just say that the Third Splendid Truth is: there are four stages for enjoying a happy event:
— anticipation (looking forward to it)
— savoring (enjoying it in the moment – remember to turn off your cell phone!)
— expression (sharing your pleasure with others, to heighten your experience)
— reflection (looking back on happy times – so take pictures)

Anticipation is a key stage; by having something to look forward to, no matter what your circumstances, you bring happiness into your life well before the event actually takes place. In fact, sometimes the happiness in anticipation is greater than the happiness actually experienced in the moment – that’s known as “rosy prospection.”

Everyone should be able to pull out a calendar and see at least a few fun things scheduled in the future weeks.

If your life is a parade of obligations, dreaded tasks, horrible encounters, and mandatory appearances, take a minute to figure out something that YOU would find fun, and make time for it. And don’t forget — just because something is fun for someone else doesn’t make it fun for you.

Be honest about your likes and dislikes. Don’t pretend that you like going to museums if you don’t. Your “fun” may not look like other people’s fun.

For example, I’m really looking forward to the Little Girl’s first days in pre-school. Her school has a long process of getting the children accustomed to separation, which means that I will do a lot of hanging around in the hallway while she’s in the classroom. I can’t wait.

This post on the terrific site Unclutter had me laughing out loud. For a moment, I was even tempted to order one for the Big Man, but the impulse passed.

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This Wednesday: Six tips for keeping school-day mornings calm and cheery.

Schoolbus2Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Six tips for keeping school-day mornings calm and cheery.

Unbelievable, but school is starting up again. And that means that the early-morning scramble is starting, too.

I had a major insight about the challenge of keeping our school-day mornings moving along smoothly and peacefully.

Here’s the insight: I was focused on chivvying my children along. Wrong! I needed to worry about ME.

When I work on my own habits, mornings are much easier.

Here are some tips for keeping the mornings calm:

1. Get enough sleep yourself. I’m good at putting my kids to sleep at a decent hour, but not so good about doing it myself. It’s tempting to stay up late, to enjoy the peace and quiet, but 6:30 a.m. comes fast, and being overtired makes the morning much tougher.

2. Sing. As goofy as it sounds, I try to sing in the morning. It’s hard both to sing and to maintain a grouchy mood, and it sets a happy tone for everyone—particularly in my case, because I’m tone deaf, and my audience finds my singing a source of great hilarity.

3. Say “no” only when it really matters. Wear a bright red shirt with bright orange pants and bright green shoes? Sure. As Samuel Johnson said, “All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle.”

4. Get organized the night before. It’s so hard to take the trouble to wrangle all the stuff together the night before, but it really pays off. Those last-minute dashes for homework sheets or empty paper-towel rolls are hard to bear with equanimity.

5. Have a precise routine. This sounds counter-intuitive, and I’m not sure it would work for everyone, but in our house, we have a NASA-like countdown to get to school. At 6:45 a.m., the Big Girl can go downstairs to breakfast (we let her watch TV during breakfast! Aack, I know that’s bad, but we do). At 7:15, she leaves the table to get dressed. At 7:45, we leave the house to walk to school. Knowing these exact times keeps the Big Girl moving and stops her from repeating, “Just a minute, just a minute.”

6. Caffeine. If you need your caffeine, make sure you can get your caffeine! I usually manage to drink a huge mug of black tea and a Diet Coke before we leave the house.

A friend of mine works full-time and has two young sons. She told me, “For a long time, our mornings were awful — lots of crabbiness and procrastination, me yelling at everyone to hurry up. Then it hit me: I don’t get to spend that much time with my kids during the week, and a big part of that time is during the morning. I made changes so that it became good family time.”

For her, the secret was to get up earlier. She hated to lose thirty minutes of sleep, but that extra half hour made the difference between a relaxed, cheerful morning and a rushed, difficult morning.

It’s worth the effort to try to get mornings running smoothly, because the morning sets the tone for the whole day – for everyone.

Via the great site Pick the Brain, I found a fascinating list on Steve Olson’s blog, 10 things I wish I had never believed. I was most intrigued by: ‘Money is the root of all evil,” “School is the best place for kids to learn,” and “Admitting a mistake is a sign of weakness.”

My Secrets of Adulthood (see left column) is my version of this list — for example, I realized that I wish I had never believed “It’s a sign of weakness or incompetence to ask for help.” I’m going to try to tackle this question in the “things I wish I had never believed” form, too. Very interesting.

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Why losing my ability to send email actually allowed me to thwart the “hedonic treadmill.”

TreadmillOne of the most significant factors in happiness is the hedonic treadmill, or hedonic adaptation.

People are adaptable. We quickly adjust to a new life circumstance—for better or worse—and consider it normal.

Although this helps us when our situation worsens, it means that when circumstances improve, we soon become hardened to new comforts or privileges. Scoring air-conditioning, a bigger house, or a new title gives us only a brief boost in happiness before we start to take it for granted. As Aldous Huxley wrote, “Habit converts luxurious enjoyments into dull and daily necessities.” That’s the hedonic treadmill.

It’s possible to beat the hedonic treadmill. One way is through conscious enjoyment and appreciation. Remind yourself how much you enjoy your perfect cup of coffee or your expensively comfortable bed.

Another is rarity. By keeping a pleasure infrequent, or by going through periods of deprivation, you can awaken yourself to it anew.

I had a great time on vacation in Kansas City, but one pleasure (which I hadn’t before even considered a pleasure) that I missed was the pleasure of sending out email. For some reason, although I could read my email, which was much better than no service at all, I couldn’t send it.

Now I’m back at home. What joy, what satisfaction, what appreciation I feel for my fully operational email! I’m facing many hours of catch-up, but I’m just happy to have this service back at last.

I just discovered Success from the Nest through LifeRemix. A fun source of lots of useful information.

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The happiness of NOT having to run laps — and the happiness of going for a run.

Here I am in Kansas City. My parents moved a few years ago, and now they live in an apartment building that happens to overlook my former school.

I have a great view of the playground where I played Four Square in fourth and fifth grade, my seventh-grade classroom, my ninth-grade chemistry lab, and the playing fields, around which I ran innumerable glum laps during high school.

Ah, the happiness of looking at those fields and knowing that never again will I be required to run around them! I get a little jolt of satisfaction every time I look out the window.

Here’s the irony, though: across the street from my former school is a park. Just this morning I went for a run, twice around the park.

Such is the difference between compulsion and free will, and between being a kid and being an adult.

If you emailed me to ask for a chart or to offer a subtitle suggestion, you haven’t heard back from me because I can’t email OUT here in Kansas City. I’ll respond as soon as I get back to my desk.

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.