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  • feedwordpress 09:00:09 on 2018/10/18 Permalink
    Tags: , Can You Learn to be Lucky?, , Karla Starr, ,   

    “My Life Today Is the Sum Total of My Past Choices.” 

    Interview: Karla Starr.

    Karla Starr has written for O, The Atlantic, Slate, Popular Science, the Guardian, and the Los Angeles Times, and she received the Best Science/Health award from the Society of Professional Journalists. Her first book recently hit the shelves:  Can You Learn to Be Lucky? Why Some People Seem to Win More Often Than Others.

    Karla says, "The best way we can successfully deal with the unknown is by building our own character strengths: our flexibility, empathy, confidence, self-control, curiosity, self-esteem, humility, persistence, belief in our ability to improve, and the ability to simply show up. The key to maximizing luck is simply to maximize what you bring to the table, plug yourself into many outlets, and be open to whatever comes along."

    I couldn’t wait to talk to Karla about happiness, habits, luck, and productivity.

    Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

    Karla: If I had to pick just one thing, it’s to get enough sleep. It’s the basis of physical and mental health, and I have no problems prioritizing it over everything else. When I go to bed early enough to wake up naturally, I have more energy, my brain works as well as it can, and I feel like a functional human.

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

    Karla: I knew nothing about happiness when I was 18; I just thought it was something for people who had summer houses, Ivy League scholarships, great wardrobes, and perfect test scores. But as it turns out, you can have all of those things and be miserable.

    Two people in the exact same situation can have completely different moods because of what they pay attention to and how they interpret it. Fortunately, we have complete control over those two things. Paying attention to something is what gives it power, which is why practicing gratitude is so important. I had no idea it was that simple.

    Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?

    Karla: How much random, uncontrollable things influence our thoughts, behavior, and habits, which are entirely controllable.

    Small moments can alter our entire life’s trajectory by making us assume that it’s part of a larger pattern. For example, seeing someone try to cut in line at the grocery store can make us assume that they’re a jerk; if we see them later on, we’d probably ignore them or give them a look. But what if they were in a hurry to buy food for a sick friend, and felt awful about cutting in line? We never get a chance to find out if we’re wrong.

    Our brains love patterns, even though this means seeing regularities in the environment that may not actually exist.

    I was surprised to find out how easily this can happen when we get information about ourselves. If a grade school teacher tells us that we’re not cut out for music, we learn that we’re no good. So So we’ll never practice, get more flustered when we do, and assume that improving is harder for us than others—even though getting better takes time for everyone. More often, however, we’ll just quit. We don’t realize how many aspects of our life are self-fulfilling prophecies, and the lengths that people will go to in order to avoid being wrong about themselves and the world, even when it might lead to positive change.

    Our social environments play a huge role. Imagine someone with jaded friends who goes on a few dates that turn out to be bad. They might begin to think of dating as a pointless endeavor, and start acting distant or slightly hostile towards others—the very behavior that drives people away. Over time, they might conclude that they’re fated to be alone, stop giving new people a chance, or never meeting people. Guess what? That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. You never learn that you’re wrong.

    Think of a story you might attribute to luck, like getting an offer for your dream job meeting the love of your life, getting your startup funded, or being accepted into your first choice school. We don’t see the lifetime of good habits that went into these moments, like attending networking events every week and keeping in touch with professional contacts for years, or staying positive after years of bad dates. No one posts on Facebook about living off of ramen and having tons of roommates while developing their app, or that they studied for a standardized test every weekend for two years.

    Actions that lead to larger rewards in the future often feel less rewarding in the present, and change itself can be difficult. It can take longer to see those larger fruits of beneficial habits than people realize. Doubting the value of good habits can make people inconsistent enough to never see change, or give up prematurely. Change takes time. Different habitual ways of responding to what happens to us create wildly different life trajectories over time.

    I was surprised to see how many aspects of life are self-fulling prophecies: when people become convinced that certain outcomes won’t happen, we never really try to make them happen. And guess what? We’re right—even if it started because of a random comment.

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

    Karla: I used to think that exercise was torture, and that being athletic just wasn’t in the cards for me. I used the research to turn it around: bit by bit, I made everything associated with a healthy lifestyle as positive and rewarding as possible. I found an activity that I really enjoyed and a coach I connected with. I started befriending people at the gym, got workout clothes that I loved, and focused on how good it felt to get better. My attitude towards health has done a complete 180. I even won a competition at my gym this past year!

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

    Karla: Absolutely no one who knows me will be surprised that I’m a Questioner! I researched my book for years and am obsessed with learning. I hate the feeling of being forced to do something just for the sake of doing it. But if I have a good reason, I have no problem moving time and space for something that I want to do.

    Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?

    Karla: "One coin won’t make you rich, but the only way to get rich is by collecting coins." [Gretchen: This is one of my favorite teaching stories! Here's an episode of A Little Happier where I talk about it.] My life today is the sum total of my past choices. Each small action may feel inconsequential, but every one counts. Every smart decision you make adds value to your future self. Books are read and written one word at a time, well-being is improved one healthy decision at a time, relationships are strengthened one kind deed at a time, retirement accounts grow one dollar at a time, and marathons are finished one step at a time. Every extra minute of reading, writing, brownie-skipping, gym-hitting, hugging, thanking, saving, and stepping adds up over time. Everything counts.

    Gretchen: In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?

    Karla: People think that personality traits and intelligence are static, but our brains are much more plastic and malleable than we realize, at any age. Personality traits also depend on the situation we find ourselves in: everyone becomes more conscientious when they’re about to finish a project they really want to complete, or more extroverted when they see a great friend they really want to catch up with. Our lifestyles and social environments shape what we think we’re capable of, especially the habits among people in your social circle. As the narrative we tell ourselves about our life starts to take shape over time, people settle into a story of who we are, and make a habit of putting ourselves in situations where we’re most comfortable.

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

    Karla: Last year, when I was working on my last chapter on the importance and difficulty of open-mindedness, I had a health scare. One of my friends said she’d pray for me, and I replied that it wasn’t a good use of her time. After talking, I ended up testing the advice that I was giving in that chapter: what if I was wrong, and there was a divine presence in the universe? Why was I stubbornly refusing to even consider it? What was the worst that could happen if I was wrong?

    It felt so odd to challenge such a core belief, especially one I’d been writing about for years. But what if the universe wasn’t just made of chaos and randomness—what if coincidences were meaningful? A few days after my scare, I started to act “as if.”

    If you do everything in your power to make your future brighter, stay flexible about the outcome, and have patience that things will eventually work out, they will. Another word for luck is faith.

    can you learn

     
  • feedwordpress 09:00:37 on 2018/09/20 Permalink
    Tags: , , Lisa Kohn, ,   

    “I Just Have to Choose to Notice the Good and Allow Myself to Enjoy It.” 

    Interview: Lisa Kohn.

    Lisa Kohn had a challenging childhood. Her mother was a member of the Unification Church, founded by Sun Myung Moon, and her father was part of the life of New York City's East Village in the 1970s. She was caught between two wildly different worlds, and this shaped the way she saw the world, herself, and other people.

    She's written a memoir of her experience, and how she found the resiliency to surmount the difficulties in her upbringing, in to the moon and back: a childhood under the influence.

    I couldn't wait to talk to Lisa about happiness, habits, and productivity.

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

    Lisa: As simple as it might sound, when I actively, intentionally practice mindfulness in a way that makes me notice things that are soothing or joy-creating for me, I am happier. By that I mean when I actively look for the yellow birds that I love - each time I see them I am happier. When I pause and notice the breeze on my skin, or the beautiful day, or the flowers around me, I am happier. When I throw myself into the moment - as I exercise or talk with friends or laugh and play, etc. - any and all of this can consistently make me happier. I just have to choose to notice the good and allow myself to enjoy it.

    Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

    Lisa: When I was 18 years old, I didn’t even know that I was unhappy, and I didn’t know that I deserved to be, and could be, happy. Because I was raised in a cult - as a Moonie - and 18 was about the age when I started to pull away from the cult, there wasn’t a lot of happiness in my life (or mind or heart) at that point. It took years for me to realize that I could be happy and to figure out ways to allow myself happiness. (I also didn’t know that, at least for me, self-love and self-compassion are at the root of allowing myself happiness and being happy.)

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

    Lisa: I wouldn’t say that I have habits, as in something I do or don’t do every day, but I do have negative thought patterns, or thought habits, that get in the way of my happiness. I can be be a worrier and filled with irrational fears. I can be a people pleaser and lose myself in panic that others will be upset or disappointed. I can push myself too hard and be too strict and rigid with myself. All of these thought patterns get in the way of my happiness. (And all of them are at least somewhat manageable when I go back to questions #1 and 2 and allow myself happiness and find moments and mindfulness that will ease my negative thought patterns.)

    Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

    Lisa: I have a number of habits that are most important to me. My physical health habits - I exercise in some way nearly every day. I run, practice yoga, lift weights, and move as much as I can. My mental and emotional health habits - I practice yoga roughly three times per week, and I meditate nearly every day. I also make time to sit, notice, practice mindfulness, etc., and I make time for family and friends, because I love to be connected with and to people.

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

    Lisa: I am proud of the fact that I meditate regularly - generally every day. However, the way I was able to build that habit is, perhaps, a bit different from the norm. Because I was raised in unstable environments, I became a very rigid rule follower. (I also believe that is related to my anorexia when I was younger.) In order to build a meditation habit, I had to allow myself to meditate “my way” - not to follow set rules or strict guidelines. I’ve sat quiet at times, sat quiet with a timer at times, sat quiet with a cup of tea at times, and sat quiet with an app making “white noise” in the background, but in all of these, I’ve allowed myself to not be too rigid. If I get rigid, then I worry that my meditation didn’t count, because I somehow did it “wrong.” Allowing myself space and the possibility that there was no right or wrong way to meditate helped me to build my meditation practice/habit.

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

    Lisa: I am clearly an Upholder. I think I was more of an Obliger and also a bit of a Rebel for a while (most likely when I left the Moonies), but I do keep my promises to myself and to (most) others. [Note: from her description of herself in her answers, I wonder if Lisa is actually an Obliger who has figured out ways to meet inner expectations.]

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

    Lisa: I have let travel and others’ expectations and needs get in the way of keeping my habits, but I’ve learned to make my habits my priority, because I am so much happier and better when I do.

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

    Five years ago I was knocked to my knees with insomnia, for longer than I care to admit. I fought it, long and hard, but finally reached a point where I accepted what was and decided that if the rest of my life was going to be just lying on a couch every day, because that was all that I could physically, mentally, and emotionally do, than I was going to be okay with that, and I was going to find a way to be happy, no matter what. The experience changed - and loosened - some of my rigidity and perfectionism/self-non-acceptance.

    Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?

    Lisa: I did thoroughly enjoy The Happiness Project. (I’m not just saying that - I kept thinking, “yes, yes.”) Two books that helped me move on most recently are The Gifts of Imperfection (Brene Brown) and Radical Acceptance (Tara Brach). The saying I repeat to myself the most now, when I’m afraid or anxious or hard on myself, is “I choose love.” It eases my heart and mind. I read this anonymous quote years ago in O, and it stayed with me - “When you die God and the angels will hold you accountable for all the pleasures in life that you denied yourself.” And although it’s not a motto or saying, I’ve found that putting my hand on my heart is very, very soothing.

    Gretchen: Tell me about your new memoir.

    My memoir is entitled to the moon and back: a childhood under the influence. It tells my story of growing up in the Moonies (and also in the sordid East Village scene in the 1970s) and gives a glimpse into how I learned that I deserved happiness...and how I could find or build it.

    to the moon and back by Lisa Kohn

     
  • feedwordpress 12:00:07 on 2018/09/04 Permalink
    Tags: , , , Ingrid Fetell Lee, ,   

    “I Have a Phrase That I Come Back to Again and Again: ‘Remember What You Love.’” 

    Interview: Ingrid Fetell Lee

    Right now, I can't learn enough about color and scent -- I'm looking for anything I can read, see, touch, learn, or listen to on these fascinating subjects. Plus I'm always thinking about happiness and human nature.

    So when I got an advance copy of Ingrid Fetell Lee's new book, I couldn't wait to read it. Just the title was enough to spark my enthusiasm: Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness.

    Ingrid  is a Brooklyn-based designer and writer whose work focuses on the way that design affects our health and happiness.

    She gave a terrific TED talk called "Where joy hides and how to find it" and writes an excellent blog called The Aesthetics of Joy.

    She has more than twelve years of experience in design and branding, most recently as Design Director of IDEO's New York office, having led design work for Target, Condé Nast, Eileen Fisher, American Express, Kate Spade, Diageo, Pepsico, and the U.S. government, among others.

    About herself, she notes, "loves pancakes, polka dots, and rainbow sprinkles, and has an extensive repertoire of happy dances for any occasion."

    I couldn't wait to talk to Ingrid about happiness, habits, and productivity.

    Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

    Ingrid: Happy dances! My husband and I often do a happy dance on Friday evenings to mark the start of the weekend. We also do them when one of us has good news. It sounds silly, but there’s science to suggest it works. Research shows that celebrating good news with someone else can deepen relationships by increasing our confidence that they will be there for us in hard times, not just in good ones. And dancing with other people can bring about a state that scientists call synchrony, which elicits feelings of unity, generosity, and a desire to be helpful. Not to mention that happy dances are silly and fun!

    Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

    Ingrid: That true happiness is really a sum of many smaller moments of joy. When I was younger, I associated happiness with large milestones or goals in life: getting into the right school, finding a good job, getting married, having children. Reaching some of these milestones has brought me happiness, and some I haven't reached yet — but now I understand that you can have all the “right” things happen in life and be unhappy, and you can have big disappointments and still be extremely happy.

    My research on joy has shown me that the small daily joys matter a lot more than we think. A picnic in the park with a friend, a deep belly laugh, or taking time to stop and smell the proverbial roses: these simple moments of delight have powerful effects that linger long after the moment has passed. Small sparks of joy can mitigate the physical effects of stress, open our minds, and connect us to others. They can even make us more resilient, by sparking positive feedback loops that promote long-term wellbeing. Though the moments themselves seem small, they have ripple effects that do end up influencing our happiness on a broader scale.

    The reason this is important is that while the big elements of happiness are often out of our control (we don’t always get the dream job, and we don’t know when we’ll meet “the one”), joy is always accessible to us. Turning our attention to the joys of the moment absorbs us in the present, focusing us on the parts of our lives that are good, not the ones we’d like to change. We notice more moments of joy — in fact, research shows that people in a state of joy are actually more attuned to positive stimuli on the periphery of their visual field — and begin to include others in our joy. When we focus on joy, happiness finds us.

    Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers -- most?

    Ingrid: I've found that people are often surprised to learn just how deeply our physical environment affects our emotions and wellbeing. The field of psychology has historically focused almost exclusively on the internal factors that shape our emotional experience, in the form of thoughts, behavioral patterns, and neural chemistry. Almost no attention has been paid to environmental factors. So, if we are feeling sad or anxious, we’re conditioned to believe this is due to either our genetics or our learned responses. We never look around us and think that there might be something in our surroundings that is making us uneasy.

    Yet when you look at the research, there are many well-documented links between environment and emotional wellbeing. One example that has gained visibility in recent years is Seasonal Affective Disorder, which highlights the link between light and mood. But light therapy has actually been shown to be effective in treating non-seasonal depression too, so effective that in some studies the results are comparable to those achieved by anti-depressants. (We rarely hear about this research, perhaps because it's more lucrative for pharmaceutical companies to fund studies about drugs than about light.) Other research shows that employees with sunnier desks sleep better and are more physically active in and out of the office than those without windows, and that just changing the lightbulbs in a nursing home can reduce both depression and cognitive decline among Alzheimer’s patients.

    These effects can come from very subtle aspects of the environment, ones we may not be conscious of, such as symmetry and shape. For example, researchers at the University of Chicago have found that showing people pictures of visually disordered, asymmetrical environments increases the likelihood that they will cheat on a test. And fMRI studies have shown that when people are shown pictures of sharp, angular objects, a structure in the brain called the amygdala, associated in part with fear and anxiety, lights up, but stays quiet when people look at curved versions of the same objects.

    I've found that many people have an intuitive understanding of these effects but have been taught to tune them out. Or worse, made to feel that their impulses toward color and light, symmetry and curves are frivolous. What has surprised me most about this work is how validated many people, especially women, feel to know that these sensations are a real, measurable contributor to their wellbeing. I even heard from one woman who told me she cried with relief after watching my TED talk, because she had so often been judged as childish for her vibrant home and whimsical outfits. My hope is that as awareness rises of the role that environment plays in emotional wellbeing, more people will feel permission to seek out joy in their surroundings, and as a society we will recognize that mental health is a function of both what’s in us, and what’s around us.

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

    Ingrid: It’s not a motto, exactly, but I do have a phrase that I come back to again and again: “Remember what you love.” When I get overwhelmed by everything I need to do, or feel anxious about what I’m trying to say or how people might receive it, this phrase helps remind me that everything I do at root stems from the love I feel for this beautiful, diverse world, for the people in it and the extraordinary joy that can be found in even its ordinary corners. I do what I do because I want to share that love with others. When there’s a task I really don’t want to do, “remembering what I love” helps me see the bigger picture. An email or errand that normally might feel like a chore becomes an extension of that love; it enables it and is connected to it .

    This phrase also helps me conquer some of the anxiety I feel about speaking in public. If I focus on the idea that I have to stand on a stage and talk about my work, I get nervous. But if I "remember what I love," that feeling cuts through the anxiety and helps me see getting on the stage as an opportunity to share my excitement and joy with others. I think this phrase is one of the things that kept me working on Joyful for ten years, even during times when I was really unsure if I’d be able to finish it. Every time I felt lost, “remembering what I love” brought me back to the fundamental reasons why I wanted to write the book, and reinvigorated my desire to see it through.

    “Remember what you love” is also really helpful in relationships. In the day-to-day of a marriage, a work partnership, or a friendship, it’s easy to let small disagreements or annoyances take over. When you remember what you love about the other person, it reconnects you to the reasons you chose to be in this relationship, and it becomes easy to let some of the small things go. I hadn’t thought about it until now, but this also applies to one’s relationship to oneself. As someone who can be quite hard on myself, I think it’s not a bad idea to occasionally balance out the critical voices by “remembering what you love” about yourself too.

    Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

    Ingrid: It’s not a habit exactly, but as a city dweller I’ve found that getting out into nature regularly is important to my sanity and wellbeing. When I’m in the city, this means taking a walk to Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, an old pier that was converted a few years ago into a meadow. I sometimes bring a notebook and spend an hour there working on an essay or a talk. But I also enjoy getting out of the city as often as possible, to the beach or for a hike, or to go snowshoeing in the winter!

    Having houseplants brings a little of that nature into the house, and creates a new habit by necessity: watering once or twice a week. I find I really enjoy this task — checking on them all, dusting their leaves and removing spent flowers, and seeing what new growth has appeared. Even if I have a million other things to do, the plants need me, and that brings me back into connection with the natural world.

    Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee

     
  • feedwordpress 11:00:37 on 2018/08/31 Permalink
    Tags: , , , ,   

    What I Read This Month: August 2018. 

    For more than two years now, every Monday morning, I've posted a photo on my Facebook Page of the books I finished during the week, with the tag #GretchenRubinReads

    I get a big kick out of this weekly habit—it’s a way to shine a spotlight on all the terrific books that I’ve completed. It gives me the same satisfaction that I felt in grade school when we kept track of all the books we’d read on an “I’m a BookWorm” sheet.

    As I write about in my book Better Than Before, for most of my life, my habit was to finish any book that I started. Finally, I realized that this approach meant that I spent time reading books that bored me, and I had less time for books that I truly enjoy. These days, I now put down a book if I don’t feel like finishing it, so I have more time to do my favorite kinds of reading.

    This habit means that if you see a book included in the #GretchenRubinReads photo, you know that I liked it well enough to read to the last page.

    If you’d like more ideas for habits to help you get more reading done, you can read my post here.

    As an enthusiastic reader, I’m always trying to get ideas for new great books to try. For instance, I read the delightful British quarterly Slightly Foxed. Readers with the same challenge have asked me to create a list of the books I post, so that they can more easily read the titles and get ideas for books they may want to read.

    So, I'm trying this out. Let me know what you think. You can also follow me on Goodreads where I've recently started tracking books I’ve read—however, I must confess, I’m a bit scattershot about leaving specific comments there. You’ll also see that I have very eclectic tastes!

    If you want to see what I read in July 2018, the full list is here.

    August 2018 Reading

    My Several Worlds - Pearl S. Buck -- I'm on a bit of a Pearl S. Buck kick (see below)

    Sempre Susan - Sigrid Nunez -- I want to read more about Susan Sontag. From reading this memoir, I'm confident that she's a Rebel.

    Lord of Light - Robert Zelazny -- how had I never read this book before? Just my kind of thing.

    Letter from Peking - Pearl S. Buck -- more Buck!

    Spinning Silver - Naomi Novik -- Raced through this book. And if you haven't read Novik's novel His Majesty's Dragon, run don't walk; it's one of my very favorites. Speaking of the Four Tendencies, in His Majesty's Dragon the main character Captain Will Laurence is an Upholder, and the dragon Temeraire is a Questioner.

    Ranger's Apprentice: The Icebound Land - John Flanagan -- working my way through the whole "Ranger's Apprentice" series. A friend just gave me a Brotherband book as well.

    Anybody Can Do Anything - Betty MacDonald -- yes, this is the Betty MacDonald who wrote the brilliant Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books! Her adult memoirs are terrific, too; she's best known for The Egg and I. This is a fascinating, funny account of what it was like for her, as a woman, to look for work during the Depression.

    The River - Rumer Godden -- how I love Rumer Godden. This was shelved in my library in Adult Fiction, but now that I've read it, I think it's more YA.

    Hourglass - Dani Shapiro -- this was actually a re-read; I read the memoir when it was first published. So thought-provoking. (Yes, I include re-reads in my weekly lists.)

    My Ex-Life - Stephen McCauley -- can't wait to read more by McCauley. I loved this novel.

    How it All Began - Penelope Lively -- a very compelling novel. It was perfect for an airplane ride, and that's one of the highest compliments I can pay a book.

    What are you reading this month?

     
  • feedwordpress 09:00:21 on 2018/08/30 Permalink
    Tags: , , Mallika Chopra, ,   

    “I Realized I Was Being a Hypocrite: Talking About Being Present, While Being Completely Distracted.” 

    Interview: Mallika Chopra.

    I can't remember when or where I first met Mallika Chopra. At a conference, through a friend? I can't remember anything anymore. It was many years ago, I know that.

    Mallika Chopra is a writer, speaker, and entrepreneur who has a new book for children that's hit the shelves: Just Breathe: Meditation, Mindfulness, Movement, and More.

    I was eager to hear what she had to say about happiness, good habits, and human nature.

    Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

    Mallika: I meditate for about 20 minutes a day. My parents taught me to meditate when I was 9 years old and it was the greatest gift that I ever received. [Note: Mallika's father is Deepak Chopra, quite a teacher.] My meditation practice has been irregular over the last 35 years of my life -- I have gone through phases when I do it twice a day and years when I haven’t practiced at all. But, when I am meditating, I feel more calm, am able to focus more, naturally chose habits that make me feel healthier and more energetic, and feel more rested. I am also more creative as I step out of the automatic responses and daily grind of everyday.

    Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

    Mallika: For many years, particularly when I was in college and then when I first had my kids (in my 30s), I thought I was too busy to take time for myself mentally and physically to be happier and healthier. But, when I meditate, I am a better mom, spouse, and friend. And I feel more connected to who I am, what I want, and how I can serve.

    Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

    Mallika: My habits include drinking my tea every morning (which anchors me for my day), going for walks outdoors with my friend (to process life), and having dinner with my family (to connect). Recently, my husband and I began yoga twice a week, and I am eager to incorporate yoga into my daily routines, even if it is just a few sun salutations each day. When I am writing, I try to take walks in my neighborhood to give my mind some open space outside of staring at a computer!

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

    Mallika: I am a lifelong sugar addict. Over the last few years, I have made a conscious effort to notice how my body feels after I overindulge in sugary sweets. My body has more aches and I feel more on edge. Being more aware of the after effects of a sugar binge, instead of just feeling guilty while I am quickly eating what I am not supposed to be eating, has helped me to more naturally resist that chocolate chip cookie.

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

    Mallika: It is easy for me to come up with excuses about why I don’t exercise or meditate - most of the time I justify it by being too busy. But, exercise always makes me feel better, and with my meditation, even if I do it for 5 minutes a day, I feel better. So, now I  really try - I've started to meditate while in the carpool line!

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

    Mallika: One day I was speaking to an audience about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation when I realized that I was having a parallel conversation in my head that went like this: “I have to pick up the dry cleaning, buy dog food, and write that note for my investors.” On stage, I realized I was being a hypocrite - talking about the power of being present, while being completely distracted by thinking about other things. This was a turning point for me to return to my meditation practice and mindfulness habits and seek to understand what balance, happiness, and living with purpose truly means for me.

    Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?

    Mallika: “Don’t take life too seriously” is the motto that my father, Deepak Chopra, taught my brother and me as young kids. It helped us laugh at ourselves, not hold onto criticism, and to generally seek out joy in our lives.

    Gretchen: You've just come out with a fascinating new book about mindfulness and meditation that's targeted for young people.

    Mallika: Yes, I am so excited to share my new book, Just Breathe: Meditation, Mindfulness, Movement and More. It’s an illustrated guide for kids, ages 8-12 years old, with simple techniques to help them find calm, be more focused, and be happier. Teaching me meditation was a precious gift my parents gave me when I was a child, and I have seen how simple mindfulness and motivational practices have positively impacted my daughters and their friends.

    Just Breathe by Mallika Chopra

     
  • gretchenrubin 11:00:32 on 2018/08/28 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , Stephen McCauley,   

    Have You Invoked Any of These Loopholes to Let Yourself Off the Hook? 

    I've very happy: I've discovered a new novelist whose work I love. I just finished Stephen McCauley's new book My Ex-Life, and I plan to work my way through all his novels. It's such a treat to discover a new writer.

    One of the many things that interested me in My Ex-Life was the depiction of the main character Julie's thoughts about smoking marijuana.

    Julie is getting a divorce from Henry, renting out rooms in her house on Airbnb, and the parent of a teenager. She smokes more pot than she should.

    As part of my work for Better Than Before, my book on how we make or break habits, I became very interested in the Strategy of Loophole-Spottinghow do we spot the loopholes that we invoke to let ourselves off the hook, when we want to indulge in a habit that we know we shouldn't?

    Julie is a master of loopholes. Do any of these justifications sound familiar?

    "She pulled out a joint. Anxiously awaiting for Henry to berate her wasn't doing anyone any good, and since she'd stopped smoking pot, it mattered less if she occasionally got stoned. Her slips were meaningless, parenthetical."

    "Rain was predicted for tomorrow, so why not enjoy the lovely evening in a calm frame of mind? Weather was a useful excuse for so many things in life."

    "She sat in the chair next to him...and pulled out a joint. 'Don't judge me,' she said. 'I stopped smoking a while ago, but I keep a little around to prove to myself I don't need it.'"

    The tricky thing about loopholes is that we often invoke them without even realizing it—we let ourselves off the hook so fast and with such confidence that we don't feel the pain of breaking our word to ourselves.

    By contrast, when we consciously realize that we're invoking a loophole, we're more able to resist.

    Eventually, Julie stops smoking pot.

    There are ten categories of loopholes, and most of us have a few favorites that we deploy most frequently.

    I most often invoke the false-choice loophole and the one-coin loophole. How about you?

    If you'd like to learn more about loophole-spotting, and about habit-formation in general, check out my book Better Than Before, where I describe the twenty-one strategies we can use to make or break our habits. (Can't resist mentioning: it was a New York Times bestseller.) You can learn more about the book here.

     
  • feedwordpress 10:00:36 on 2018/07/19 Permalink
    Tags: , hormones, , Randi Epstein,   

    “It’s Important to Recharge My Inner Battery. To Be On-the-Go, I Need Down Time.” 

    Interview: Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D., M.P.H.

    I've known Randi for a long time; we're both members of a writers' group that has been a joy to me over the years. I remember when she first started talking about the idea for her current book, so I'm thrilled that Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything is now hitting the shelves. Metabolism, behavior, sleep, mood swings, the immune system, fighting, fleeing, puberty, sex...so many aspects of our lives are controlled by hormones. It's a fascinating, important subject.

    She also wrote the terrific book Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank.

    When she's not writing books, Randi Epstein is an adjunct professor at Columbia University and a lecturer at Yale University. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times and the Psychology Today blog, among others.

    I couldn't wait to talk to Randi about happiness, habits, and productivity.

    Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

    Randi: For years, I’ve been running in Central Park. What used to be fast-paced is now slow and contemplative. But either way, it’s time to think. I don’t do the “To-Do lists” but allow myself time to just think big picture things. No headphones, rarely with partners, just silence and nature. And one little trick (that I’m embarrassed to admit): Sometimes I’ll sing a few lines from Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” in my head. I don’t know all the words, so I’m singing the same few lines over and over. It’s very empowering. I really should learn a few more phrases.

    Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

    Randi: It’s important to recharge my inner battery. In order to be on-the-go, I need down time, which can be a long bath or getting absorbed in a novel.

    Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers -- most?

    Randi: I write about hormones, which is a relatively new field with huge advances. Think about this: When my grandmother was born in 1900, the word “hormone” didn’t exist. (We didn’t call hormones “hormones” until 1905.) By the time Grandma was diagnosed with her hormone ailment, doctors could spot her hormone defect and measure hormones down to the billionth of a gram. That’s an amazing leap in our understanding in a relatively short time span. (Grandma had Addison’s disease, same disease that John F. Kennedy had. It’s treatable with cortisone pills.)

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

    Randi: I’m a nibbler. So If I’m stressed (working on a chapter, etc.), I’ll keep crunchy foods around, but those calories and that feeling of being way too full adds up. I’m talking granola, nuts, chocolate, carrots.

    Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

    Randi: Exercising outside. There’s something about being in nature, looking up at the trees. It’s moving meditation, to get away from the onslaught of news and just remember to, well, smell the roses. Or really in my case, it’s not roses but the enormous big trees in Central Park. I also like cooking. I’m not sure if there’s anything productive about it, but I feel like I’ve accomplished something. Food, particularly dinner parties, make people happy. I love cooking for my family and friends. I’m not a gourmet chef by any means, but I enjoy trying new recipes and tweaking old ones. It makes me happy to bring together friends in a homey atmosphere. I love baking fun desserts for the famil .

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

    Randi: My kids think I drink too much. Water, that is. I think it’s important to be hydrated so I make sure I always have a water bottle filled with water in my backpack. I’ve also cut out soda—and now I don’t even like that taste.

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

    Randi: I would not have known but I’m an Obliger. Maybe that’s from raising for children and focusing on them. All mothers do that—we put our children’s needs first. [Gretchen: Randi, you and I can talk more about this later!]

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

    Randi: This isn’t quite “health scare,” but a health glitch: I was diagnosed with “age-related knee degeneration,” a fancy name for saying my knees aren’t what they used to be—probably from years of long-distance running. So my knees are more like rusty hinges—and I want to avoid surgery or further deterioration. That’s forced me “listen” to my body. Exercise is more about quiet time than racing to a finish line.

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

    Randi: Laughter is the best medicine.

    Gretchen: Tell us a bit more about your recent book, Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything.

    Randi: I’m so proud of this book, not just because it has fun stories in the history of medicine and current advances, but because I think there is so much confusion about what’s real and what’s hype. I hope that readers will grab my book and feel more informed about making healthy decisions. That they will be able to distinguish hucksters from heroes. And I’d love to get their feedback about anything that surprised them as they dove into it.

    Aroused by Randi Hutter Epstein

     
  • feedwordpress 10:00:44 on 2018/06/14 Permalink
    Tags: Grace Bonney, ,   

    “Volunteering Is the Most Powerful and Important Part of My Daily Life.” 

    Interview: Grace Bonney.

    I've followed Grace Bonney's career for a long time. She's the founder and editor-in-chief of the influential and ground-breaking site Design*Sponge.

    But that's not all -- she's done so many different things: written for many design magazines, written a design column, hosted a radio show, and written bestselling books In the Company of Women: Inspiration and Advice from over 100 Makers, Artists, and Entrepreneurs and Design*Sponge at Home.

    Now she's published the first issue of the new magazine Good Company.

    I couldn’t wait to talk to Grace about happiness, habits, and productivity.

    Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

    Grace: Volunteering. Hands down, this is the most powerful and important part of my daily life. It positively impacts not just my well-being but the community’s as well. The more time I’m able to spend away from the internet (and actively working to support people in our community), the happier I am.

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

    Grace: That it’s not a final destination. I used to think that if I just worked hard enough and found the magic key, I’d unlock the door to always being happy--and never being stressed out. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve come to understand that moments of joy, and being fully present in them, is a more fulfilling goal.

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

    Grace: Oh yes. I have a tendency to be all or nothing--and it freezes me in place immediately. I’ve missed out on a lot of fun work opportunities and life moments because something didn’t feel 100% perfect. I’ve expected too much from life and myself. No one and no thing is perfect--I’m getting better at understanding that the ups and downs are part of happiness and not a sign that something isn’t worth trying.

    Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

    Grace: As a blogger, it’s been all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking my needs, my voice or my company are the most important priorities in my life. But they’re not. So every habit or activity in my life that has nothing to do with my needs (from taking care of our pets to volunteering to cook for others in our community) has reinforced over and over how important it is to connect to and support others. The more I’m able to de-center myself in my work and my life, the happier I am. It feels good to be a part of a chorus of voices and needs, rather than holding up the stage with my own.

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

    Grace: I have! I’ve finally committed to a physical health program that I’ve consistently attended for over two years. It took me 35 years to find a space where health and strength were prioritized over weight loss, so that has made all the difference. Like a lot of people, I spent a large portion of my life with an eating disorder and seeing physical activity only as a means to one end: weight loss. But when I turned 34 I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes and I needed to change everything: my activity level, the way I eat and how I take care of the inside of my body--not just the outside. I found an amazing local program in the Hudson Valley, called 30 Minutes of Everything, where a strong community of (mainly) women support each other in seeking strength and community--not just a “beach body”.

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

    Grace: I would have guessed that I’m a Questioner, but the quiz actually pointed me to Rebel. I think I’m someone who has a hard time with authority in general, unless it’s someone I deeply respect who has a long history of work/behavior that I trust. In my industry we’re constantly handed new “experts” to trust and follow without question and I have a hard time with that. I guess that’s why I run my own business--fewer bosses and people telling me what to do makes me feel happier and more open, creatively.

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

    Grace: Lack of sleep. 100%. On days when I sleep well, I feel like a completely different human being. The hardest part of being a business owner, for me, is finding a way to put aside the stress, responsibility and needs of the business (or people who work with me) when I go to bed. I find myself waking up at all hours worrying about ways to solve a problem or improve something that’s not where it needs to be.

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

    Grace: Absolutely. When I was 30 years old, I felt my internal chemistry shift and I hit a huge breaking point. It was a difficult year in which I confronted my work life, personal life and everything else in between. I ended up coming out, getting divorced, moving out on my own and shifting my work to be less about design and more about the people behind the work and their stories. It took a few years to regain my footing after that and then when I turned 34 and was diagnosed with Type 1, it was yet another big life-changing reminder to enjoy and be present in my life and work, because good health can be fleeting.

    Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?

    Grace: “Whatever works, until it doesn’t.” I read this in an interview with the actress Michelle Williams years ago and it’s rung truer to me than anything else. Life is a constantly evolving and ongoing process--what works for us and feels good to us during one time may not work or feel good down the road. And society can put a lot of pressure on people to come up with a “one and done” solution--and if that needs to change, we’re often made to feel like that was a failure. But as soon as I let myself understand that life and people are constantly changing and evolving, it allowed me to be happier in the now and more fully embrace things as they are and more freely let go and evolve when things need to.

     
  • feedwordpress 09:00:01 on 2018/05/03 Permalink
    Tags: , Ben Feder, , ,   

    “It’s Not True that We Can’t Change Our Outlook or that We’re Stuck Being Whomever We Think We Are.” 

    Interview: Ben Feder.

    At a time in his life when he was playing leading roles in big business, Ben Feder realized that he was losing touch with everything that had sustained him during his career. He became determined to re-order his priorities and spend time on the people and activities that meant the most to him -- so, with his wife and four kids, Ben Feder set off for Bali on a "sabbatical year" to focus on everything that was most important. This is the kind of adventure that many people fantasize about, but few people actually do.

    He's written a book about his experience, and it's just hitting the shelves: Take Off Your Shoes: One Man's Journey From the Boardroom to Bali and Back.

    Having written The Happiness Project, about my year-long experiment of happiness with myself as guinea pig, I love reading any book of self-experiment, especially one that's in the form of a "year of ___"

    I couldn’t wait to talk to Ben about happiness, habits, and productivity.

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

    Ben: I have three: meditation, yoga, and painting. Meditation centers my mind. Yoga does the same and adds body movement to the dialogue. Painting allows me to express creativity and appreciate beauty. And it brings me unimagined joy.

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

    Ben: One day, a few years ago, I arrived home from work to discover my oldest son, Sam, then in 8th grade, barricaded in his room doing homework. I noted that lately his conversations with me had morphed to monosyllabic grunts as he sequestered himself ever more deeply. Suddenly, I realized that between his going off to a highly competitive high school and my travel schedule (I was CEO of a company with global operations), I was about to miss out on an important relationship. In a flash, I realized that this is where it happens. This is where men turn into the husbands and fathers they never intended to be. If I didn’t make a radical choice, my son would enter high school and then college and the time to connect more deeply would be lost forever. I couldn’t put off any longer what I had long dreamed about; to take an extended time off with my young family. So, I decided to take myself out of the game temporarily in order to explore, renew, and deepen the relationships with the people that mattered most to me. My wife, Victoria, and I pulled our four kids out of school and decamped to Bali, Indonesia, for a sabbatical. It was during this sabbatical that I began to gain a challenging healthy habit—learning to be still. And I learned to break an unhealthy habit—the mindset that I needed to continually notch up another achievement to find happiness. While it is nice to record another success on life’s imaginary scoreboard, I find it doesn’t on its own lead to growth and well-being.

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

    Ben: It turns out that happiness is a learnable skill. It’s not true that we can’t change our outlook or that we are stuck being whomever we think we are. Scientists have learned that the brain is vastly more plastic than long had been thought. By being mindful of our thoughts and deliberately turning them around to be more positive and optimistic, we can, over time, create new neural pathways so that our overall disposition is happier. In short, happiness is an inside job. Once you realize that happiness is a trainable skill, it becomes obvious that it is also a choice we make to be more happy or less. I definitely wish I knew this when I was 18, but it probably requires a little more self-awareness than most 18-year-olds are wired for.

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

    Ben: International travel is necessary to fulfill my ambitions and career goals, and in many ways I enjoy the cultural and commercial adventure that comes with international business travel. That said, if it’s too frequent, it does tend to get in the way of healthy living. With rare exceptions, none of us can live some ideal life. We are all human. We all have obligations and responsibilities, and some of us are deeply ambitious. So, I try to strike a healthy balance.

    Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?

    Ben: There is a quote I once heard that was attributed to the Dalai Lama, though I have not been able to find it online. Nonetheless, it’s a good one: “If you are unhappy with your life situation...change your mind.”

     
  • feedwordpress 17:52:53 on 2018/03/15 Permalink
    Tags: anna palmer, , , politico   

    “A Good Nap Can Change a Person’s Whole Perspective.” 

    Interview: Anna Palmer.

    Anna Palmer is the senior Washington correspondent for POLITICO and the co-author of POLITICO's Playbook She’s also the co-host of the daily POLITICO morning podcast Playbook Audio Briefing (which she records at 4 a.m. every morning!) as well as host of the Women Rule podcast.

    I couldn’t wait to talk to Anna about happiness, habits, and productivity.

    Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

    Anna: WATER. I challenge myself to drink 90 oz of water a day – I really believe it bleeds into making similar healthy choices and keeps me peppy despite my early mornings and late nights!

    Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

    Anna: FOMO. I used to have a huge fear of missing out and that would mean I was going to all kinds of things on the off chance it would be something special and run myself ragged in doing so. I try to be much more deliberate and be present at the events I choose to attend.

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

    Anna: Sleep. I always want more but it's hard when we are all on the go. I got great advice a few years ago -- and that was to be comfortable taking a nap. A good nap can change a person's whole perspective.

    Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

    Anna: Regular workouts are a must to keep me sane -- it's easy to blame my schedule for my energy levels, but I know that a session with my trainer Keith will always turn things around. He's also refocused my energy from just doing cardio to really spending time with weights, squats and ab work. I love band workouts -- we are focusing on walking lunges and eliminating sugar (except my wine, a lady needs one outlet!).

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

    Anna: I used to love to stay up late. My hours made that impossible and I have found early to bed, early to rise is a much healthier, consistent way of living my life.

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

    Anna: Definitely an Upholder. I like to know what the expectations are from others and myself and then not only meet, but exceed them.

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

    Anna: I travel a lot for work and keep unconventional hours -- waking up between 3:30 AM and 4 AM Monday through Friday to write Playbook and record the Playbook Audio Briefing. At the same time, I am really focused on keeping up my close relationship with my friends and family. That can be challenging when traveling to the West Coast and getting up at 1 a.m. to do my job.

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

    Anna: I made a promise to myself in my early 30s that I would try to travel abroad at least twice a year. I hadn't done much international travel at that time (mostly because I was working and a struggling journalist). It hit me that I needed to work hard, but also play hard -- and I have traveled the world, explored new cultures and come back reinvigorated in my career.

    Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to "Be Gretchen.") Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?

    Anna: There is no substitute for excellence. My mom Joyce -- or JMom as she calls herself -- repeated that a lot to us as kids. And I have even heard her say it as an adult. Without that internal north star, I wouldn't be writing my first book and still dragging myself to the treadmill in the mornings!

     
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