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

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“She Told Me What I Needed to Hear and I Was Ready to Listen.”

toryjohnsonHappiness interview: Tory Johnson.

I got to know Tory Johnson when I spoke at her conference for startups, Spark and Hustle. Tory has a crazy amount of energy, and in addition to running this series of conferences, she’s also an on-air contributor to Good Morning America, and a writer.

In this last role, she has just published a fascinating memoir, The Shift: How I Finally Lost Weight and Discovered a Happier Life, about how she changed her eating habits, and lost more than seventy pounds, by making what she calls “The Shift.” The book was especially interesting to me because she writes at length about how the change in her habits and in her weight affected her happiness. For a long time, she’d felt out of control and trapped by her inability to control her weight. Losing weight wouldn’t boost everyone’s happiness, but it had an enormous consequence for Tory’s happiness.

One of my chief interest is the question: What allows people to change? Why is it that sometimes, people can’t seem to change, no matter how much they want to, and other times, they can change? (Hint: this is the subject of my next book!) For Tory, a single conversation with a colleague ignited “the shift” that allowed her to make a change that she’d wanted for a very long time.

Gretchen: In the last year, you’ve experienced what you call “The Shift.” What happened?

Tory: Eighteen months ago, Barbara Fedida, one of my bosses, told me my clothes didn’t do me justice and she wanted to send me to a stylist. Barbara is the highest-ranking woman executive at ABC News and I am an on-air contributor for Good Morning America. She never used the words “fat, diet or obesity” but her message was clear: I needed to lose weight. Let’s face it: on TV looks matter. I took her words to mean “lose weight or lose your job,” even though to this day she insists my role was never in jeopardy.

Barbara changed my life. I think she actually saved my life. She stopped me from continuing on an unhealthy path both mentally and physically and for that I will be forever grateful to her. That’s why I dedicated The Shift, my new book about how I lost 62 pounds in one year, to her. She told me what I needed to hear and I was ready to listen. In a nutshell, what I learned was that what I put in my head is much more powerful than what I put in my mouth. I changed my mind for a better life.  Now, with this book, I’m on a mission to share that message and more with others who have battled their weight for years and are finally ready to do something about it once and for all. If I can do it, anyone can.

What simple activities consistently make you happier?

Walking daily in Central Park, I notice something different every time. It might be a squirrel, a plant variety, details in the surrounding skyline or a cool sneaker color. I walk the same loop every time, but the scene is always refreshingly different and never fails to make me smile.  I return home energized and happy.

And as a girl who’s been fat forever, who was tortured by gym teachers, I never imagined that voluntarily going to the gym would make me happy. That was something I’d avoid at all costs and have for most of my life. Now it’s among my favorites activities of the week – a chance to think about nothing but pushing myself to be my very best.  I always leave happy.  Imagine that.

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

That it’s not a given, nor is it owed to me by the world. Happiness is a deliberate choice, one that only I can make for myself.  If I want to feel the joys of happiness, I must choose to be happy—and I do.

Is there anything you found yourself doing repeatedly that got in the way of your happiness?

Until I embarked on The Shift, I didn’t realize just how much being overweight distracted from my greater happiness. I was by no means unhappy on any given day, but once I began to lose weight and take control of my body, I began to reflect on many of the unhappy choices I felt forced to make because of my weight. Those choices range from my fashion limitations, which led me to wear a navy suit instead of white gown on my wedding day, to more serious issues like avoiding all doctors for more than a decade because I didn’t want to hear the inevitable lecture about my size. Losing weight freed me to focus on the stuff that makes me happy, from petty to serious, rather than settling for blah.  Now my happiness is increased from simple stuff like having an abundance of clothing choices to much more important things like hearing my doctor say everything looks great and I’m healthy.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that speaks to you?

“There is no cavalry. No one is coming. It’s up to me.”  The people I’m surrounded by give me great joy and happiness, but I always remind myself that I can’t rely on them or others to create my happiness. It’s up to me to find joy in them, to find joy in myself and to look for opportunities to turn the mirror on myself rather than blaming others.

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?

In the last 18 months I’ve experienced both: I’ve had valleys where I’m upset that I wasted so much time being fat, then tall peaks when I’m the most content girl on Earth for discovering a greater sense of happiness by focusing on truly striving for my best, which includes pursuing and living a healthy lifestyle.  Keeping those moments of unhappiness top of mind — not in a way that dominates my thoughts, but as simple reminders — prevents me from slipping back into bad habits and downers.

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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.

7 Tips on How to Make Friends and Influence People–18th Century Version.

dancing18thEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Seven tips for “pleasing in company,” from 1774.

I love reading lists of happiness tips from days of yore — for example, I loved Sydney Smith’s nineteen tips for cheering yourself up, from two hundred years ago.

Here’s another olde liste, from Lord Chesterfield, a British statesman and man of letters was very preoccupied with worldly success. In his Letters, he bombards his son with advice about how to succeed in society.

Samuel Johnson remarked that these letters “teach the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master” — not exactly a rousing endorsement. Nevertheless, I think Lord Chesterfield has some provocative insights. Here’s an assortment of his advice:

1. “Pleasing in company is the only way of being pleased in it yourself.” Agree, disagree?

2. “The very same thing may become either pleasing or offensive, by the manner of saying or doing it.”

3. “Even where you are sure, seem rather doubtful; represent, but do not pronounce, and if you would convince others, seem open to conviction yourself.” This is very, very hard for me. I’m a real know-it-all.

4. “You will easily discover every man’s prevailing vanity, by observing his favourite topic of conversation; for every man talks most of what he has most a mind to be thought to excel in.”

5. “The sure way to excel in any thing, is only to have a close and undissipated attention while you are about it; and then you need not be half the time that otherwise you must…

6. “Dress is a very foolish thing, and yet it is a very foolish thing for a man not to be well dressed.” As an under-buyer, I have to remind myself of this.

7. “Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well.” I disagree here. As part of my resolution to “Enjoy the fun of failure,” I’ve taken up the motto, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” There’s merit to both approaches. Once again, it happens, the opposite of a great truth is also true.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with his advice?

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Story: It Must Be Really Weird to Be an American Icon.

This week’s video story: It must be really weird to be an American icon.


Working for Justice O’Connor, and for the Supreme Court, was one of the highlights of my work life. There are many reasons that I don’t regret law school and my years as a lawyer before becoming a writer, and the chance to work for Justice O’Connor is one of them.

One question I never asked her while I was clerking was, “Hey, Justice, what’s the secret to a happy life?” But I did ask her later! Guess what she said–the answer is revealed here.

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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Who Knew? Lucky Charms Actually Work.

horseshoeAssay: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about superstition.

Superstition is the irrational belief that an object or behavior has the power to influence an outcome, when there’s no logical connection between them.

Most of us aren’t superstitious—but most of us are a littlestitious.

Relying on lucky charms is superstitious, but in fact, it actually works. Researchers have found that people who believe they have luck on their side feel greater “self-efficacy”—the belief that we’re capable of doing what we set out to do—and this belief actually boosts mental and physical performance. Many elite athletes, for instance, are deeply superstitious, and in one study, people who were told that a golf ball “has turned out to be a lucky ball” did  better putting than people who weren’t told that.

Any discussion of superstition reminds me of a perhaps-apocryphal story that I love, about physicist Niels Bohr. Bohr noticed that a friend had a horseshoe mailed above the door, and he asked why. When told that it brought luck, he asked in astonishment, “Do you really believe in this?” His friend replied, “Oh, I don’t believe in it. But I am told it works even if you don’t believe in it.” (You can watch me tell the story in this video.)

To help herself quit drinking, a friend told me, she explicitly invoked the idea of luck. “I told myself, ‘The lucky parts of my life have been when I wasn’t drinking, so I need to stop drinking to get my luck back.’”

How about you? Do you have a lucky object, lucky ritual, or lucky item that you wear? I have a lucky perfume. I love beautiful smells, but I save one of my favorite perfumes to wear only when I feel like I need some extra luck.

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Secret of Adulthood: Home Is a Physical Space; It’s Also a Frame of Mind.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:



If I had to name one thing that I learned from my happiness project in Happier at Home…this is it.

If I want my home to be a serene, loving, and welcoming place, I’m the one who has to be serene,  loving, and welcoming.

I’ve long been haunted by a line from Samuel Johnson–in fact, I love it so much that it’s the epigraph to The Happiness Project. He said, “He, who would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry the wealth of the Indies with him.” Or as Harlan Coben put it, in terms a little closer to home, “You bring your own weather to the picnic.”

What do you think? Do you find that you are the most important element to your experience of your home?

Slight tangent: the photo shows my Christmas ornament in the shape of a miniature Fisher-Price “Play Family” house–just like the one that my sister and I played with throughout our childhoods, and that my daughters play with when we visit Kansas City. I took the photo for Happier at Home; this ornament is one of my mementos from the project of writing the book. It opens up–it even has a doorbell that rings!

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