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

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Thinking about Thanksgiving and also JFK.

Jfk2Today is November 23, which means that yesterday was November 22.

Until a few years ago, the date November 22 meant little to me—only that it was time to make sure I’d figured out a birthday present for my father, whose birthday is November 28.

But ever since I began working on my biography of John Kennedy, I’ve always felt a strange emotion on November 22. That was the day he died—November 22, 1963.

My feeling isn’t sorrow, exactly…Kennedy was shot before I was born, and to me that event seems so historically inevitable that I don’t really feel sorrow.

It’s more of a sense of being reminded of the awesome workings of fate—how swiftly everything can change, how the most ordinary day can turn into a life’s turning point.

And this year, with Thanksgiving falling so early, that emotion has carried over until today. I’m grateful for all my good fortune. And I’m mindful of being grateful, too, for all the bad fortune that passed me by: the doctor’s report that came back “negative,” the near miss on a bridge on an icy road, the time the Big Girl dreamily walked out into the traffic on Park Avenue before I could stop her.

“She thought again of how dangerous it was to live even for one day.” –Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

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: Tips for what you don’t have to do–and what you do.

KnotEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Tips for what you DON’T have to do and what you DO have to do.

Don’t confuse what you must do with what you choose to do. For example:

You don’t have to carry around a bottle of water.
You don’t have to finish a magazine before you throw it away.
You don’t have to dress to express your individuality.
You don’t have to drink wine with dinner.
You don’t have to carry a wallet.
You don’t have to watch reality TV.
You don’t have to take a shower every day.
You don’t have to check your email every minute.
You don’t have to get a manicure.
You don’t have to answer your phone.
You don’t have to use hair conditioner.
You don’t have to send out holiday cards.
You don’t have to read or watch crime reports.
You don’t have to keep up with sports news or celebrity gossip.
You don’t have to have house plants.
You don’t have to wear uncomfortable shoes.

You do have to keep some cash around at all times.
You do have to call when you’re going to be late.
You do have to remember the birthdays of your immediate family.
You do have to back up your computer files.
You do have to exercise regularly.
You do have to keep a cache of toilet paper in the house.
You do have to keep your phone charged.
You do have to keep a spare key.

My attempt to activate certain ideas in my mind.

NoteI’ve been thinking about psychological phenomena like “priming” and “accessibility.”

“Priming” refers to the fact that if a person’s unconscious is directed toward a particular concept, his or her behavior will change accordingly. So if you covertly introduce the idea of old age, people will act older, move more slowly; if you introduce the idea of rudeness, people behave more rudely.

“Accessibility” refers to how readily a person activates certain mental information. Some information is more accessible—information that has been encountered recently, for example, or information in a category relevant to other active information.

Whether it’s a logical sequence of thought or not, reading about priming and accessibility made me decide that it might be useful to remind myself frequently of certain concepts and goals.

So I went around the apartment a few weeks ago, putting up sticky notes on neon-colored paper. Each note has a few words that are meant to energize certain ideas and attitudes in my mind.

The note on my laptop says, “Focused and observant.” The note in my office says, “Creative and confident.” The note on the fridge says, “Busy and energetic” (i.e., get out of the kitchen and do something!) The note in our bedroom says, “Quiet mind.” After I put a note in the master bathroom that said, “Tender and light-hearted,” the Big Man crossed it out and wrote, “Light and flaky.” That made me laugh.

So, does it make a difference? I’ve had to discipline myself to read and register these notes; it’s all too easy to let them fade into the background, like the family photographs that I rarely notice.

But even if I don’t process the words every time, I often do manage to think about them for a few moments.

And I do think that these notes help keep these attitudes uppermost in my mind. I find myself remembering to lighten up, to keep focused, to cultivate the quiet mind that I need to do serious reading.

In which I have a MAJOR EPIPHANY about the nature of happiness.

LightbulbThis weekend, while reading Frey and Stutzer’s Happiness and Economics, I read one line that led to an enormous break-through in my thinking: “It has been shown that pleasant affect, unpleasant affect, and life satisfaction are separable constructs.”

When I read that, a huge lightbulb went off in my head.

I’d been fiddling with the idea that, to be happy, I had to think about the “upside” and the “downside”—that is, I needed to think of how to have more fun, more love, more good things in life, and also how to eliminate bad feelings, like guilt and anger.

And I’d also been trying to figure out something I’d been calling “Level III,” the deep, inner sense of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with life.

I’d been intrigued by recent research that shows that happiness and unhappiness aren’t opposite sides of the same emotion. They’re distinct, and rise and fall independently. This insight seemed very important.

But last night, it hit me—how to combine all these ideas in a simpler, richer way.

To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right.

I need to generate more positive emotions, so that I increase the amount of joy, pleasure, satisfaction, approval, gratitude, intimacy, friendship, etc. in my life.

I also need to remove sources of bad feelings, so that I suffer less guilt, remorse, shame, anger, envy, boredom, etc.

And apart from feeling more “good” and feeling less “bad,” I also need to thing about feeing right. That’s the feeling that I’m living the life I’m supposed to lead. So, for example, although I had a great experience as a lawyer, and got a lot of satisfaction from my work clerking for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and being a chief advisor to FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, I was haunted by an odd feeling—one that I can only described as feeling that I was always off on a tangent, that I wasn’t doing what I was “supposed” to be doing.

Here’s another example. Bowing to her husband’s wishes, a friend of mine, an art consultant who grew up in New York, has ended up living in a midsized midwestern city. And she’s tried and tried to like it, but she just doesn’t. She says it just doesn’t “feel right” to her, that she’s living there. And someone else might not “feel right” if her family was living in a little apartment in New York City, instead of in a house with a yard and a garden and a basketball hoop.

I think “feeling right” is one way that considerations like money, family expectations, ambition, and social comparison come into play. “Living right” means finding flow and being spiritual and following your bliss; I think it often also means achieving a certain status and material standard of living. And “feeling right” is also about virtue: doing your duty, living up to the expectations you set for yourself, doing the right thing.

Sometimes “feeling right” might be a source of “feeling bad.” Your long commute might make you “feel bad,” but sending your children to a great public school is important for you to “feel right.”

This formula—“think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right”—sounds so banal, so obvious, so copied-from-the-cover-of-a-glossy-magazine, that I’m almost embarrassed to admit that it has taken me years of hard thinking and research to devise it.

I remember having the same feeling when I had my epiphany that Winston Churchill’s life satisfied the stringent requirements of classical tragedy. It was so hard for me to accomplish this thought, but then once I did, I felt a bit ridiculous, belaboring a point that was so perfectly clear.

But, I console myself, the obvious things are probably true.

This Saturday: a quote from Bertrand Russell.

“Man needs, for his happiness, not only the enjoyment of this or that, but hope and enterprise and change.” –Bertrand Russell