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

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Revealed! Book Club Choices for September. Happy Reading.

booksinalibraryBecause nothing boosts happiness more than a great book, each month, I suggest:

  • One outstanding book about happiness.
  • One outstanding work of children’s or young-adult literature. I have a crazy passion for kidlit.
  • One eccentric pick. This is a book that I love, but freely admit may not be for everyone.

I’ll post these recommendations here, or to make sure you don’t miss them, sign up for the monthly Book Club newsletter.

Shop at the wonderful Brooklyn indie WORD,, Amazon (I’m an affiliate of all three), or your favorite local bookstore. Or visit the library! Drumroll…

An outstanding book about happiness: Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness.

Buy The Conquest of Happiness from WORD; BN.comAmazon.

An outstanding children’s book: Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time.

Buy A Wrinkle in Time from WORD;; Amazon.

An eccentric pick: Winston Churchill, My Early Life. 

Buy My Early Life from WORD;; Amazon.

I’ve noticed that many times, when someone describes a book to me, I want to read it less. And often, weirdly, the better a book is, the worse it sounds. So I won’t describe these books, but I love all the books I recommend; I’ve read them at least twice if not many times; and they’re widely loved.

If you read last month’s recommendations…what did you think? Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness, Cashore’s Graceling, and Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon.

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I'm just about finished writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we can make and break our habits. If you’d like to hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.

Do You Suffer from the “Easy to Buy, Hard to Use” Phenomenon?

grocerycartI love gathering Secrets of Adulthood. I have hundreds of them by now.

A thoughtful reader, Adrienne Wiebuch, sent me a great one: “Easy to buy, hard to use.”  As she explained:

It made me think of all the potions, lipsticks, kitchen gadgets, candles, therapy gizmos for my son, cookbooks, and more, that I buy in a flicker of inspiration about how they’ll enhance my life in some way.  Yet, because they don’t really fit my life the way I actually live it, they sit unused on the shelf and guilt me about the money I spent or the aspiration I failed to achieve.

I battle this tendency, myself. I’m an under-buyer, so I don’t tend to buy things, but even an under-buyer like me sometimes falls into the trap of making a purchase to reflect some kind of fantasy life, or the life I think I “should” live.

I remember one day, when I was shopping with my mother, she said, “Oh, look at these great linen cocktail napkins! They’re beautiful, and 50% off. You should get them!” I actually considered doing this for a moment–until I thought, “Whaaaaaat? Linen cocktail napkins are something I would never,  never use.”

A friend of mine falls into the “easy to buy, hard to use” with tech gizmos. He buys a lot of devices, but then doesn’t take them out of the box. In the store, they seem alluring, but once they’re home, and he has to figure out how to set them up and work them, they seem like too much trouble.

And exercise equipment! Buying a treadmill isn’t enough to get exercise. The treadmill has to be used.

In my own head, I often talk about my desire for an “upgrade.” I want something to get better; a sense of progress; some aspect of my life to get easier or more beautiful.

The First Splendid Truth about happiness holds: To be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth. That atmosphere of growth, or the feeling of upgrade, rarely comes from a mere purchase.

Plus then I have to find a place to store the darned thing.

How about you? Do you fall into the “easy to buy, hard to use” trap? With what kinds of purchases?

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A Menu of Options for Making Small Talk.

chitchatEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.

This Wednesday: a menu of options for making small talk.

Small talk can be a big problem. I want to be friendly and polite, but I just can’t think of a thing to say.

Here are some strategies I try when my mind is a blank:

1. Comment on a topic common to both of you at the moment: the food, the room, the occasion, the weather (yes, talking about the weather is a cliche, but it works). “How do you know our host?” “What brings you to this event?” But keep it on the positive side! Unless you can be hilariously funny, the first time you come in contact with a person isn’t a good time to complain.

2. Comment on a topic of general interest. A friend scans Google News right before he goes anywhere where he needs to make small talk, so he can say, “Did you hear that Jeff Bezos is buying The Washington Post?” or whatever.

3. Ask a question that people can answer as they please. My favorite question is:  “What’s keeping you busy these days?” It’s useful because it allows people to choose their focus (work, volunteer, family, hobby) — preferable to the inevitable question (well, inevitable at least in New York City): “What do you do?”

A variant: “What are you working on these days?” This is an especially useful dodge if you ought to know what the person does for a living, but can’t remember.

4. Ask open questions that can’t be answered with a single word.

5. If you do ask a question that can be answered in a single word, instead of just supplying your own information in response, ask a follow-up question. For example, if you ask, “Where are you from?” an interesting follow-up question might be, “What would your life be like if you still lived there?”

6. Ask getting-to-know-you questions. “What newspapers and magazines do you subscribe to? What internet sites do you visit regularly?” These questions often reveal a hidden passion, which can make for great conversation.

7. React to what a person says in the spirit in which that that comment was offered. If he makes a joke, even if it’s not very funny, try to laugh. If she offers some surprising information (“Did you know that the Harry Potter series have sold more than 450 million copies?”), react with surprise.

8. Be slightly inappropriate. I can’t use this strategy, myself, because I don’t have the necessary gumption, but my husband is a master. Over and over, I hear him ask a question that seems slightly too prying, or too cheeky, and I feel a wifely annoyance, but then I see that the person to whom he’s talking isn’t offended–if anything, that person seems intrigued and flattered by his interest.

9. Follow someone’s conversational lead. If someone obviously drops in a reference to a subject, pick up on that thread. Confession: I have a streak of perversity that inexplicably makes me want to thwart people in their conversational desires–I’m not sure why. For instance, I remember talking to a guy who was obviously dying to talk about the time that he’d lived in Vietnam, and I just would not cooperate. Why not? I should’ve been thrilled to find a good subject for discussion.

10. Along the same lines, counter-intuitively, don’t try to talk about your favorite topic, because you’ll be tempted to talk too much. This is a strategy that I often fail to follow, but I should follow it. I’ll get preoccupied with a topic and want to talk about it all the time, with everyone I meet, and I have a lot to say. My husband is a martyr to the subject of happiness.

How about you? Have you found any good strategies for making polite chit-chat?

For more tips about polite conversation, check out these tips for knowing if you’re boring someone.

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Story: Excellence Sometimes Requires Mediocrity.

This week’s video story: Sometimes excellence requires mediocrity.


You can read about this incident, when Nixon repeated a remark that Eisenhower had made to him, “A true executive can sign a poor letter without changing it,” in Richard Reeves’s book, President Nixon: Alone in the White House.

How about you? Do you sometimes find that, in order to achieve excellence, you sometimes have to allow yourself to let go of the desire to make everything perfect? This is much, much more difficult than it sounds, in my experience.

Can’t see the video? Click here.

Find the archives of videos here.  More than 1.7 MILLION views. Don’t forget to subscribe!

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Do You Love Being Back in Your Routine? I Do.

doorknobcloseupI was out of town on vacation last week, but today I’m back in the usual swing (mostly) of my routine.

And I love it.

I’ve noticed that some people really enjoying being away from their usual routines; they try to avoid having a lot of habits; they feel freer, more energetic, and more creative when their lives are less predictable.

I’m just the opposite. I embrace habits and routine. For me, discipline brings a sense of freedom, and I love the sense of my day unfolding as I’ve planned.

How about you? Do you cultivate habits or fight them? Are you happy to be back from a trip, or do you dislike settling back into the usual routine?

As always, the secret of happiness is to know yourself. I used to feel bad about the fact that I was such a homebody creature of habit, but now that I follow my personal commandment to Be Gretchen, I embrace this aspect of myself.

If you’d like to read more along these lines, check out Happier at Home, chapter six.

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