When Changing Habits, “Be Careful Whom You Choose To Let in on Your Change Plan.”

Happiness and habits interview: Brian Little.

I’d heard about the work of Dr. Brian Little from many pals of mine who are interested in the same kinds of subjects that interest me: human nature, habits, happiness, research, etc.

So I was very pleased to get my hands on his new book, Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being.

In fact, just yesterday, I wrote about some of the research he discusses, in the post: Which of these 8 types describes you, as you relate to your environment?

Just reading the subtitle of Brian Little’s book was enough to show me that he and I have many interests in common, so I was very curious to hear what he had to say about his own habits and happiness.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded on the subject of habits?

Brian Little: In the first chapter of Me, Myself and Us, I talk about how our “personal constructs” shape our lives.  These are the conceptual goggles through which we view ourselves and others and typically take the form of concepts like “bright” “lover of cats” “stupid” “sexy” “utterly disorganized” etc.   Sometimes these personal constructs become so habitual that they decrease our degrees of freedom to live well and wisely.  [Gretchen: In my habits framework, I call this the “Strategy of Identity.”] Similarly with our personal projects which I feature in the closing chapters.  While personal constructs are ways of thinking; personal projects are deeds that we do in our daily lives.  They too can become calcified, predictable and stale and there are ways in which we can begin the progress of redesigning our personal projects so that we are more likely to thrive and flourish.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?  

I have the habit of reflexively trying not to be habitual.  Some might regard this as chimerical.

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

That you need to let others know about your resolve to engage in healthy habits–its hard to do sustain them if you are the only one aware of them.  But be careful whom you choose to let in on your change plan.  In Me, Myself and Us, I discuss various dimensions of personality that would not be conducive to helping you in a nurturing and supportive fashion.  And the characteristics that might work for me might not work for you.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?    

My tendency toward perfectionism.  But it helps with other aspects of my well-being–like a sense of efficacious achievement (which can be quite joyous in its own way).

Which habits are most important to you? (For heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

The habit of alacrity–responding eagerly to the unfolding opportunities in life.  Even if they force me to act out of my comfort zone.  I am a biogenic introvert, but my passion is being a university professor and professing often requires that I act out of character–that I act as a pseudo-extravert–to convey with gusto (one student called it pesto!) the field of personality psychology to my students.  I think the key to successful professing is to have highly combustible students and then light a match.  If I were habitually opposed to lighting matches my deepest core projects would remain unfulfilled.  And this applies to the pursuit of all core projects in our lives.  They sometimes enjoin us to act out of character and much of Me, Myself and Us is concerned with examining how we do this in our lives.  Acting out of character can be exhausting, however, and we need to find restorative niches in which we can return to our more natural psychological state.  I find restrooms in which I can hide after a lecture to be particularly salutary.  Susan Cain spent part of Chapter Nine in her Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, describing how this can sometimes lead to embarrassing interactions.  I expand further in my own book.  

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

I quit smoking by sheer bloody mindedness in early adulthood.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger

Because I value alacrity I would say that I am generally an Upholder.  But I am rather skeptical of “fixed” traits and can often be a Rebel, particularly when I feel that there have been unreasonable constraints placed upon the pursuit of my core projects or of those I love.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)  

The slings and arrows of outrageous overload prevent me from being as vigorously healthy as I might be.  But I guess I need to weigh whether being say, ten pounds lighter, or supple and super strong would be worth trading off for avuncular warmth, laughter and the capacity to chill and enjoy life.  Some people can do it, but I’m not so sure I could.  That said, I recently gave a talk to 500 fitness experts and came away emboldened to become svelte.  The glow lasted for 18 hours.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?  

When I met Susan, my wife, I was struck by a lightning bolt that changed me and my habits forever, but the details shall remain between us.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?    

Depends on the habit.  I don’t embrace resistance unless matters of honour are at stake.  

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

Do cats count?

Which of These 8 Types Describes You, as You Relate to Your Environment?

Every Wednesday is List Day, Tip Day, or Quiz Day.

This Wednesday: Which of these 8 types describes how you relate to your physical environment?

I’ve been reading Brian Little’s interesting book, Me, Myself, and Us: the Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being.

Among other things, he discusses various  frameworks for understanding people’s different traits.

I’d never heard about the “Environmental Response Inventory” before, and found it very compelling. Created by George McKechnie, this set of traits is meant to identify the way that people are oriented toward their everyday physical environments.

They say there are two types of people: those who love dividing the world into two types of people, and those who don’t. I love dividing the world into categories. Abstainers and moderators. Radiators and drains. Leopards and alchemists.  Under-buyers and over-buyers. Eeyores and Tiggers. And, of course, my favorite of all, the Four Tendencies.

Of course, using these kinds of categories is very simplistic, but often they help me to understand some hidden aspect of myself — or other people — better.

Does reading this inventory give you better insight into your own nature? Do you find yourself described by:

Pastoralism

  • Display sensitivity to pure environmental experience, opposition to land development, appreciation of open space, and preservation of natural resources
  • Accept natural forces as shapers of human life
  • Endorse self-sufficiency in the natural environment

 

Urbanism

  • Enjoy high-density living
  • Appreciate the unusual and varied stimulation of urban areas
  • Take an interest in cultural life and enjoy the richness of human diversity

 

Environmental Adaptation

  • Regard the environment primarily as providing comfort, leisure, and satisfaction of human needs, and endorse modification of the environment to achieve those ends
  • Endorse private land use and the use of technology to solve problems
  • Prefer stylized environmental details

Stimulus Seeking

  • Express great interest in travel and exploration of unusual places
  • Enjoy intense and complex physical sensations and display a great breadth of interests

Environmental Trust

  • Responsive, trusting, and open to the environment, and have a sense of competence in navigating the surroundings
  • Relatively unconcerned about their security and are comfortable being alone and unprotected

 

Antiquarianism

  • Enjoy antiques and historical places and have a preference for traditional vs. modern design
  • Have an aesthetic sensitivity to well-crafted environments, landscape, and cultural artifacts of earlier years
  • Have a tendency to collect objects for their emotional significance

 

Need for Privacy

  • Strong need for physical isolation from stimuli and distraction
  • Enjoy solitude and dislike extensive contact with their neighbors

 

Mechanical Orientation

  • Interested in how things work and in mechanics in its various forms
  • Enjoy working with their own hands and have an interest in technological processes and basic principles of science.

 

It’s easy to see from this list how people might have trouble agreeing on where and how to live, or on what values to pursue.  A “pastoralist” and an “environmental adaptation” both might love nature, but have very different ideas about how best to engage with nature.

Can you find yourself in this list? Do you fit in more than one category? Seems to me as if they might overlap. For instance, for my fellow Parks and Recreation fans, I think Ron Swanson would be environmental adaptation/environmental trust/antiquarianism/need for privacy/mechanical orientation.

Secret of Adulthood: Take Yourself Less Seriously–and Take Yourself More Seriously.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:

 

When it comes to human nature, paradoxes abound.

Accept myself, and expect more from myself.

I’m very like other people, and very different from other people. (This was one of my key insights about habit-change, in Better Than Before.)

Use my time efficiently, yet also make time to play, to wander, to read at whim, to fail.

Keep an empty shelf, and keep a junk drawer. (Want to see my empty shelf? Look here.)

Work can be play, and play can be work.

Think about myself so I can forget myself.

Do you find it harder to take yourself seriously, or not to take yourself too seriously?

Why Today Is a Huge Milestone For Me.

Weirdly,  as an author, it’s hard to say when a book is “done.”

I finish the first complete draft — then it’s “done.”

But then I do endless numbers of edits. Then that’s done, and I send it to my editor.

Then it goes through several stages, of which the last is “second pass pages.” That is the last time I can make a change to the book — and if I make a change, it had better be pretty small.

At this point, the book is in almost final form. It looks like the book (it’s a huge morale booster to see the text formatted to look like an actual book).

When I send back those “second pass pages,” my work is completed.

The design of the book is still being tweaked, and the copy for the jacket is still be tweaked, and there are a few corrections to be made (for instance, this second pass had a blank the section where my author bio was supposed to be), but now my work on the substance of the book is done.

It’s unnerving, but also a relief. No more edits! No more tinkering!

It was strange to take a photo of that pile of pages, and know — well, this is it.  (The “AU” means “author,” to show that any edits are from the author.)

I have to say, this book was hard to write. All my books are challenging — happiness is a challenging subject, Churchill, all of them — but this was particularly challenging.

So much information, all so fascinating. How could I fit it all in? At one point, the book was 140,000 words long, and I’d cut it way back to get there. Now it’s about 80,ooo. And believe me, it’s much, much better being shorter. I didn’t lose any ideas, I just expressed myself much more concisely.

A lot of people ask my how I do my research.

I read a ton of science and studies — and I read a lot of novels, biographies, and memoirs, and spend a lot of time talking to the people around me, about their habits.

In fact, I spend most of my time trying to understand what’s happening right in front of me. Samuel Johnson said, “Men and women are my subjects of inquiry,” and that’s how I feel.

With this book, I wanted to make new ideas about habits feel familiar, and I also wanted to make familiar ideas feel new and fresh.

My hope is that Better Than Before will give readers the thrill of recognition and relief, because at last, we have the vocabulary and framework to change our habits successfully.

For better or worse, my work on Better Than Before is done.  Zoikes! It’s hard to believe.

Do you ever feel a kind of shock or listlessness descend, when you finish a big project? I still have a ton of work to do around the publication of the book, so I’m as busy as always; but that main task is behind me. And that feels…odd.

Fill in the Blank: “The Mind Is Rarely So Disturbed But That __ Will Restore It to Tranquility.”

“The mind…is rarely so disturbed, but that the company of a friend will restore it to some degree of tranquility and sedateness.”

–Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Agree, disagree?

Ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree: strong relationships are a key to happiness. We usually get a little lift from engaging with other people.