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

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“I Am Constantly, Compulsively Worrying Over the Choices I Made.”

cullenHappiness interview: Lisa Takeuchi Cullen (@lisacullen).

I met Lisa through a writers’ group; oh, how I love to belong to groups. She’s a woman of many writing talents–journalism, fiction, TV-writing (in fact, did a pilot for CBS this season)–and I couldn’t wait to read her new novel.

And it doesn’t disappoint. Pastors’ Wives is utterly absorbing, and a fascinating look at a particular world, and several engaging characters. I couldn’t put it down.

Happiness is a major theme of the book, so I was very curious to hear what Lisa had to say.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Lisa: I talk to my sister every day on the phone. We’re twelve months and two weeks apart in age, and growing up we shared a bedroom, Jordache jeans, and AquaNet hairspray (but never boyfriends…that would be weird). After college we roomed together in New York City, and after we got married, we bought houses eight miles apart in New Jersey. But with kids and schedules and all that, it’s hard to see each other except on weekends. So as a rule we chat by phone every day while we’re each cooking dinner over a glass of wine. We say nothing of great import. It makes me happy.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

I know the secret to happiness. The answer is love. The answer is always love.

You’re welcome!

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

“Coulda, woulda, shoulda” is my bogeyman. I am constantly, compulsively worrying over the choices I made. Why didn’t I read more in college? Why did I wait till my late thirties to get in shape? Why did I tell the network TV executive she was my “soul sister”? Who does that?

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)

Mine is “live without regret.” My greatest fear—and this goes to the previous question—is living a life of regret. Of looking back on my life with longing for the roads not taken. I felt this more profoundly upon the deaths of my mother and father. Now, those were two people who LIVED. My American father quit the priesthood to marry my Japanese mother and start life over at age 36. My mother rejected the arranged marriage sought by her parents for the gangly white man with no job. They had four kids, a dazzling social calendar, and love—so much love that when Mom died of cancer, Dad died promptly thereafter of a broken heart. They lived without regret. I aim to do the same.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children’s books).

I wallow for a little while. Just recently, I learned the TV drama pilot I wrote and produced did not get picked up by CBS for its fall lineup. It was a big blow.

All that effort, all that time, all the hopes and dreams… The pilot had special meaning to me, because the main character, an Irish-American ex-priest, was inspired by my late father. So I let myself wallow. That helped. I wrote about my wallowing. That helped too. And then I hugged my husband and my little girls a lot, and that helped the most.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?

I live in a small town in New Jersey right near the George Washington Bridge.

We’re just across the Hudson from the greatest city in the world, but our town is a sweet, leafy hamlet that right now is exploding with azalea, lilac and irises. I see a lot of people walking. We walk our children to school; we walk to the market; we walk to our parks and library. I think getting out in our communities and the simple act of going outside can add joy to our lives.

The unhappiest person I’ve ever met was recently, in the television business. He was a miserable tyrant and made everyone around him miserable.

I’ve thought a lot since about what would make someone behave this way. I think it’s a need for control.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?

I think by nature I’m a pretty moody person, but it was smacked out of me at an early age. In our house, we weren’t allowed to mope. I’d get taunted as “persecuted Lisa.” Now that I think about it, that’s kind of awful, isn’t it? Anyway, it worked.

As an adult, I thought happiness would peak at the high points in life: my wedding day; the arrival of my children; a great success at work. So I’m surprised to report that I am happier now than I can remember being in all of my grown-up life. It’s because my marriage is at its happiest. I have always had a strong and loving marriage, but only recently have we felt the stresses of child-rearing and careers easing enough to truly enjoy it. Schmaltzy but true.

Is there some aspect of your home that makes you particularly happy?

I love our home. It’s a ninety-year-old colonial with tiny bathrooms, beat-up floors and a hideous fireplace we’ve vowed to rip out for sixteen years. But it’s also sunny and comfy and has lots of nooks and crannies in which my little girls play.

Also, and this is key: my husband’s office is in the basement, and mine is in the attic. It’s key because I am a writer, and he is a professional clarinet player.  When we both close our doors, I almost can’t hear him practice his E-flat.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?

The big career accomplishments—publishing a book, getting a TV pilot made—didn’t make me happy…they just made me more anxious! Shooting my pilot in New York City was one of the most stressful, exhausting, miserable times of my life. And ever since my second book published last month, I’ve done nothing but scramble for more coverage and sales.

On the flip side, I never thought getting older would make me happier, particularly when it comes to my appearance. But it has. Age has magically erased my propensity to care. I don’t care what you think of my hobbit feet. I don’t care that I’m wearing the same jeans I wore yesterday. It’s freedom, man.

Is there anything you’d particularly like to bring to readers’ attention?

I have a new novel out! It’s called Pastors’ Wives. I knew almost nothing about pastors or their wives until I wrote an article about them for Time magazine.

These women weren’t doormats with hairdos. They were fierce. They were opinionated. And they were fabulous. I couldn’t stop wondering: What’s it like when the man you married is already married—to God?

My story is set in a Southern evangelical megachurch called Greenleaf—yes, the kind with Jumbotrons and smoke machines and a power band. It’s told from the points of view of three very different pastors’ wives: Ruthie, a skeptical newcomer who follows her husband there when he hears his “calling”; Candace, the powerful wife of Greenleaf’s senior pastor; and Ginger, the lonely wife of Candace’s son, who hides a torrid past.

Writing my book, I thought a lot about the role faith plays in happiness, particularly in marriage. My parents used to tell me that they didn’t care who I married, “so long as he’s Catholic.” I don’t dispute their sentiment: religion speaks to an underlying set of beliefs and values, and if you don’t share those, well then you’re in for a rocky marriage.

But what happens when one spouse believes what the other does not? In my novel, my character Ruthie finds herself in this predicament when her Wall Street husband becomes a megachurch pastor and embraces evangelical Christianity—just as she’s realizing she doesn’t believe in God.

I wrote the book (and my pilot, The Ordained, which also has a religious theme) during a crisis of faith. Both my parents had just died, and I felt forsaken.

What did I believe? What would I raise my children to believe? Writing helped me work through my crisis and, in the end, find my peace.

I’d be so happy if you’d check out my novel Pastors’ Wives, available on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble and Target, and an independent bookstore near you!

Readers, if you’re intrigued, you can join Lisa tonight at 8 p.m. EST on her Facebook author chat. Click RSVP to join and enter to win a free iPad Mini.

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.

Have You Ever Thought, “This Time Is Different?”

lightmatchI have a friend who has started a new course of healthful eating. She told me, “This time is different. I’ve struggled with my weight my whole life, I’ve been on a thousand diets, but this time I’m changing my eating habits for good.”

I think many of us have had a similar experience, when we’ve thought: “This time is different,” “Something just clicked,” “I see the light,” “I have to do this now.” For me, this kind of realization often takes the form of, “At last, this is the approach I’ve been looking for.”

Here are my questions for you:

 Have you had this experience? If so, with what aspect of your life?

 Did it turn out to be true that “this time is different”?

 Did change come gradually or suddenly?

 Did the change stick with you, or did you drift back to your former behavior?

 If you did drift back to your former behavior, how long did the change stick? Did it leave any lasting marks?

(If you want more questions for self-knowledge, read on here.)

I’d tried to do strength-training, on and off, for years. Then a friend casually remarked, “If you want to do weight-training, you should go to my gym, Inform Fitness.” I wrote down the information, made an appointment, and have never stopped going. It didn’t take much–just that one remark–but if she hadn’t happened to make the suggestion, I might never have started. At last, it was the approach I was looking for.

I spend so much time thinking about how people change. An endlessly fascinating subject.

Story: Sometimes I Work the Hardest When I Seem To Work the Least.

For the weekly videos, I now tell a story. I’ve realized that for me, and I think for many people, a story is what holds my attention and makes a point most powerfully.

This week’s story:


This reminds me of something Virginia Woolf wrote in her Diary: “My mind works in idleness. To do nothing is often my most profitable way.” Agree, disagree? Does your “work” sometimes distract you from your “work”?

Can’t see the video? Click here.

If you want to read more along these lines, check out…

7 tips I use to spark my creativity.

Pouring out ideas is better for creativity than doling them out with a teaspoon.

You can also read more about this in Happier at Home, chapter five.

Find the archives of videos here.  More than 1.3 MILLION views. Don’t forget to subscribe!

Are You More Drawn to Simplicity or to Abundance?

geometric reflectionI love dividing the world into categories. Abstainers and moderators. Radiators and drains. Leopards and alchemists. Marathoners and sprinters (formerly known as “tortoises and hares”–I like this terminology better, how about you?)

I’ve come up with a new distinction, but I’m still turning it over in my mind. I’m not sure it works out…I would love to hear your response.

A conversation between two friends, at my children’s literature reading group meeting, inspired me to notice this.

One friend said, “I always want to feel empty,” and a friend responded, “I always want to feel full.” (They were speaking metaphorically.)

I thought this was just about the most interesting pair of remarks that I’d ever heard. I wasn’t able to pursue this conversation at the time, but I plan to.

In the meantime, it got me thinking: is this a distinction?

Does one group–I’ll call them the simplicity lovers–prefer to have less, subtraction, emptiness, bare surfaces, few choices, spare supplies–one tube of toothpaste? Does this go with a love of stillness?

And does another group–I’ll call them abundance lovers–prefer to have more, fullness, overflow, collections, many choices, ample supplies–five tubes of toothpaste? Does this go with a love of buzz?

What do you think of these two categories–agree or disagree? If it strikes a chord with you, what group do you identify with? I put myself in the simplicity lovers category.

“No Biographer Could Possibly Guess This Important Fact About My Life In the Late Summer of 1926.”

Virginia Woolf“Many scenes have come & gone unwritten, since it is today the 4th Sept, a cold grey blowy day, made memorable by the sight of a kingfisher, & by my sense, waking early, of being again visited by ‘the spirit of delight.’ ‘Rarely rarely comest thou, spirit of delight.’ That was I singing this time last year; & sang so poignantly that I have never forgotten it, or my vision of a fin rising on a wide blank sea. No biographer could possibly guess this important fact about my life in the late summer of 1926: yet biographers pretend they know people.”

–Virginia Woolf, Diaries, September 4, 1927

Woolf is quoting from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, “Song”:

Rarely, rarely, comest thou,

Spirit of Delight!

Wherefore hast thou left me now

Many a day and night?

Many a weary night and day

‘Tis since thou art fled away.

Woolf’s observation has haunted me for years, and in fact, I used it as the epigraph to my biography of Churchill, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill. It was a reminder to me, always, of the limits of biography–and how for all of us, some of the most important events are invisible from the outside. What a joy it was to write a biography of Churchill! What a subject, what an age.