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  • gretchenrubin 11:00:34 on 2019/01/29 Permalink
    Tags: , , , ,   

    We’re Launching the Happier Podcast Book Club! And Announced Our First Choice. 


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    Nothing makes me happier than reading a great book -- unless it's the chance to talk to other people who've loved that book as well.

    Elizabeth and I both love to read, and we know that the listeners of the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast love to read, too. For instance, we noticed that "Read more" or "Read X number of books this year" appeared on a huge number of "18 for 2018" and "19 for 2019" lists.

    So...announcement! We decided to launch the Happier Podcast Book Club.

    Several times a year on the Happier podcast, we'll announce a book, and then some episodes later, we'll discuss it.

    If you choose to read along, you can post your questions and comments here on this blog post, on #happierpodcastbookclub or email us at podcast@gretchenrubin.com.

    If we can, we'll have the author as our guest.

    We're tremendously excited to announce our first pick. This choice was easy. It's a thought-provoking, beautifully written memoir that's so suspenseful, I read it in practically one sitting.

    It's Dani Shapiro's Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love. This book is generating a tremendous amount of buzz and acclaim, and no surprise, it's a New York Times bestseller

    Here's the official description:

    What makes us who we are? What combination of memory, history, biology, experience, and that ineffable thing called the soul defines us?
    In the spring of 2016, through a genealogy website to which she had whimsically submitted her DNA for analysis, Dani Shapiro received the stunning news that her father was not her biological father. She woke up one morning and her entire history--the life she had lived--crumbled beneath her.
    Inheritance is a book about secrets--secrets within families, kept out of shame or self-protectiveness; secrets we keep from one another in the name of love. It is the story of a woman's urgent quest to unlock the story of her own identity, a story that has been scrupulously hidden from her for more than fifty years, years she had spent writing brilliantly, and compulsively, on themes of identity and family history. It is a book about the extraordinary moment we live in--a moment in which science and technology have outpaced not only medical ethics but also the capacities of the human heart to contend with the consequences of what we discover.

    It's particularly nice to have Dani as our first choice, because she was Elizabeth's first writing teacher! How crazy is that? And Dani and I have known each other for a long time, through mutual writerly friends. Plus Elizabeth and I both have read all her books -- in particular, I love Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage.

    So read along, and send us your questions and comments soon. Dani will join us for a discussion on the show for episode 212, which will go live on March 13.

    The book is fairly short.

    Some people ask, "Does it count if I listen to the audio-book?" Absolutely.

    Some people ask, "I want to read it, but how can I get more reading done?" Check out my one-pager "Reading Better Than Before" for some tips.

    Some people ask, "Do I have to read it? I've got so much going on right now, it stresses me out to think about adding something  to my to-do list." The motto of my children's literature reading groups is NO GUILT, and that motto applies to this "group," too. Sometimes, it's just not the right time for a book. Don't beat yourself up. You can enjoy the conversation, and when your life settles down, you can get back to reading. A book waits for you, always.

    We'd love to hear your suggestions for other books to consider. We already have a few that we're dying to discuss.

    How I love to read! It's my tree-house and my cubicle. More reading for all. Head to your favorite bookstore (maybe you have a favorite local indie?), go to the library, go e- or audio-, whatever works for you.

    The prospect of this book club is making Elizabeth and me very happy. Join the conversation!

     
  • Crystal Ellefsen 10:00:38 on 2019/01/22 Permalink
    Tags: , ,   

    My 2019 Book Tour 


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    Outer Order, Inner Calm is about to hit the shelves! And that means I’m about to go on a book tour. I love getting the chance to see readers, listeners, and viewers face to face.

    Please note that most events require a ticket. Details and ticket links for my 2019 book tour are here. (If you have questions about an event, such as when tickets will go on sale, ask the event organizers; they're in charge of those issues.)

    My favorite part of touring is the question-and-answer sessions, because people’s questions give me a lot of ideas and insights into people’s concerns.

    In fact, I wrote The Four Tendencies book in large part because whenever I spoke about Better Than Before, even though I was highlighting the most interesting ideas about habit-formation, most people asked questions about the Four Tendencies framework.

    Similarly, when I was touring for The Happiness Project, Happier at Home, and even Better Than Before, I noticed how energized people became during any discussion of outer order. Any time the subject came up, people laughed, talked among themselves, and were clearly interested. The fact is, for most people, outer order contributes to inner calm, and any time the subject arose, people wanted to hear more. So—I wanted to write a book about it. And now it's time to take it on the road!

    During previous book tours, for reasons that are mysterious to me, I’ve spent a lot of my hotel time watching HGTV shows. I do love a before-and-after, and while I never watch these programs at home, I couldn’t get enough of them on the road.

    But as I said in my “19 for 2019,” I’ve pledged that for this tour, I’m going to keep the TV turned off and read children’s and young-adult literature instead. I’ll get a lot of great reading time that way. If you have any book suggestions, send them my way. (I just discovered Peter Dickinson, wow.)

    Another thing I enjoy about book tours is that people often show me their heavily marked-up copies of my books, or their completed One-Sentence Journals. I love to see how someone has engaged with one of my books. I’m a big underliner and dog-earer, myself, so I get a big kick out of seeing my work get that treatment.

    This tour will be interesting because Outer Order, Inner Calm// is a narrowly focused book—outer order is a big subject, but it’s not as big as habits or happiness. I like tackling broad subjects (The Happiness Project, Better Than Before, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill) and I also like to go more deeply into a specific area (Happier at Home, The Four Tendencies). This book goes deep, but it’s also a very quick read.

    My hope for Outer Order, Inner Calm and book tour is to create a “get psyched” experience. Sometimes I read a book or hear a talk that gets me so fired up, I can’t wait to get started myself.

    So far, the book does seem to be having that effect! For instance, the day after I finished recording my audio-book, my audio director emailed me a photo of all the junk she’d cleared out of her office. And the book’s publicist recently told me that she’d set aside a day to tackle some major clutter piles in her house.

    Even after spending all this time thinking about outer order, it still surprises me how much it matters—how much energy, focus, and cheer we get from creating outer order. It seems like a fairly trivial thing to worry about, but the effect certainly isn’t trivial--for most people.

    As I’ve said many (too many?) times, if you’re inclined to buy the book, a pre-order really helps me. Because of the way the book industry works these days, pre-orders give a big boost to a book, by creating buzz among the media, booksellers, and other readers.

    So, as a way to thank people who pre-order, I’ve created a pre-order bonus. It’s a 21-day clutter-clearing challenge, so you can get started creating order right away. Don’t worry—everything I suggest is concrete and very manageable. Remember, we can get a surprising amount done, if we do just a little bit each day.

    Gold star to everyone who has already pre-ordered. Periodically I get pre-order updates, and it’s so encouraging when that number has grown. Thank you.

    Added bonus: do you want a signed, personalized copy of my new book, Outer Order, Inner Calm?

    Pre-order now from famous indie bookstore The Strand, and you can have it shipped anywhere (yes, internationally!) or pick up in store once the book is out on March 5.

    I had such fun writing this book! I hope you find it useful as you find ways to make more room for happiness in your own life.

    Claim your preorder bonus here: outerorderinnercalmbook.com/bonus/.

     
  • gretchenrubin 10:00:05 on 2019/01/18 Permalink
    Tags: , , , ,   

    A Yearly Challenge: How to Deal with Post-Holiday Clutter? Here Are My Seven Tips. 


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    I love the holidays! It's a fun, festive, family- and friend-filled time.

    It's also a messy, overwhelming, clutter-creating time.

    Over the years, I've developed some strategies to help deal with post-holiday clutter, and this year I added a few new ones.

    1. Each Christmas, my family spends a week in Kansas City with my parents. If possible, I try to do a round of clutter-clearing with each family member before we go. That way, we make room for any new gifts we acquire.

    2. Also before we leave town, I try to get the apartment as tidy as possible, because I know it will be a relief to return to a clutter-free home.

    3. I aim to put the holiday decorations away as soon as possible. Usually I aim for New Year's Day. This year, we didn't manage to get them down until January 5—still, it could've been worse. I love seeing holiday decorations go up; I also love seeing them cleared away.

    4. This year, as we were putting up and taking down holiday decorations, I made a big effort to weed out the items we don't love. We have a lot of decorations—it's a big tradition in my family—but there are some things that just never get used. I told myself, "Rather than leave this quirky elf in the box year after year, let me give it away, so someone who loves quirky elves can enjoy it." I tried to be as ruthless as possible before Christmas, so that these decorations would be out in the world seeking new owners before the holidays. But I did give away more things on the other side, too. As I noted in Outer Order, Inner Calm, it often takes a few passes through our possessions to loosen our grip.

    5. This year, I made a big effort to put away gift items as soon as possible. At least with my family, people tend to leave things out, and not put them away in their new places. For instance, my daughters each received a very attractive travel jewelry box. Now, where exactly does such an item belong? Rather than figure the answer to that question and put away the boxes, they each left the box on their bureau. I try to speed up this process by looking for unhoused items and helping us all figure out where things should go. I strongly believe that everything should have a proper place—not just be shoved in a closet somewhere—but it often takes some thought to decide, "Where does this item belong?" What's the proper place for a travel jewelry box? A meat thermometer? A retro pocket games device? It's not always obvious.

    6. I push myself to be honest about what gifts we will actually use—and if we won't use them, figure out to whom to re-gift them, or where to give something away. My family relies heavily on wish-lists, and one of the nice things about that is that we usually don't have many unwanted gifts.

    7. Put gifts to use as soon as possible. One of my Twelve Personal Commandments is "Spend out," and this continues to be a struggle for me. I put that fancy soap in the soap dish right away, and I wear that new sweater as soon as possible. Otherwise, I will "save" them. For instance, I love a pair of rainbow-striped pajamas I received (color!) and a great stylish gray sweatshirt, but I can feel myself wanting to keep them pristine and tidy. No, put them on, wear them! Why is this so hard for me? A mystery.

    What strategies do you use to conquer post-holiday clutter?

    Don't forget to claim your bonus if you pre-ordered Outer Order, Inner Calm.

     
  • feedwordpress 10:00:32 on 2019/01/17 Permalink
    Tags: Aristotle, , , Edith Hall, Greek and Roman philosophy, ,   

    “People Need to Find When Their Brains Work Best and Fit Their Schedules Around That.” 


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    Interview: Edith Hall

    I love Edith Hall's short biography: "Edith Hall is a London University Academic who specialises in putting pleasure into the history, literature, theatre, myth and philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome and their continuing impact in the modern world."

    It manages to convey not only her expertise but also her enthusiasm for her subject, and her passion for teaching others to appreciate the ideas and history that absorb her. (Also, from the spellings we know she's British.)

    Given her biography, it's very fitting that Edith Hall's new book is Aristotle's Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life

    "Read Aristotle" was one of the elements in the extremely long subtitle for my book The Happiness Project, Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. (I love long subtitles, plus, ever since childhood I'd wanted to write a book with an "Or" title.)

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

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

    Edith: Daily switching off all social media and walking my dog in the local woods for an hour. Weekly cooking a full roast dinner with lots of interesting vegetables on Sunday for family and friends. Insisting everybody switches off all social media while we eat together.

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

    Being very judicious about whose opinion I care about. Women are trained culturally to want to be liked by everyone. But that is impossible because sibling rivalry, transferred out to our entire peer group in the world, makes envy such a motor in human life.

    There are some people whose opinion of you really, really matters. Building good long-term relationships is central to happiness, and it is essential to listen attentively to any complaints or criticisms from those whom I respect and want to live my life closely with. But there is a very large problem of envy and malice out there, which has become worse in the age of social media, and I, like many other people who try to do something creative with their lives, have suffered from a good deal of (what seem to me) unjustifiable attacks.

    But Aristotle says that if you are seriously trying to be the best version of yourself, and never damage people knowingly, then people who criticise you are inevitably motivated by envy, so their opinion really doesn’t matter at all. This realisation is incredibly liberating!

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

    I was amazed when I first started reading ancient Greek and Roman philosophy when I was an undergraduate to discover that between about 400 BC and 300 AD there was a whole tradition of non-religious discussion of the right way to live, morality, and the best routes to contentment. The ideas not only of Aristotle but of Socrates and Plato, the Stoics and other philosophers, can be adopted by anybody today, regardless of their religious or cultural or ethnic background. What’s more, they really work!

    When I talk to people of all ages about Aristotle’s recipe for deciding to live a happy life, they often write to me to say they can’t believe how modern and fresh and in tune with their own instinctive beliefs his method is.

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

    Fronting any problems with my family and close friends very swiftly and not stopping until they are resolved. I can’t work at all when emotionally disturbed or worried about those I love.

    Having a flight booked to go somewhere sunny soon when the dark November days draw in.

    I am an early riser and get twice as much work done, of any kind, between the hours of 5:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. than at any other time of day. This does mean not going out late on weekday evenings, but it pays off tremendously. People need to find when their brains work best and then fit their daily schedules around that.

    I have always kept a cat and write best with one purring beside me. I love the way animals don’t judge you and just provide perfect, uncomplicated companionship.

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

    I struggled with my weight from childhood, as did my mother and sister. There was far too much instantly edible food in the fridge. After my pregnancies, when I ended up far heavier than I had ever been, I ditched all diets and just moved to only two meals a day, one of them light, and if I’m not hungry I don’t even eat those. But I don’t then obsess at all about what’s on the menu. I’ve been the same OK weight for years.

    I like cooking meals from scratch and make big pans of vegetable soup with. I gave up snacking completely, and, just as Aristotle says about habits, what seemed like hard work at first just became an unconscious reflex. Even on autopilot I genuinely don’t like sweet things now, and find I think and write better on a fairly empty stomach.

    The other habit was choosing hopelessly inappropriate men. In my late teens and twenties I dated people because they were handsome and exciting. This was not compatible with looking for a co-parent to raise the children I so badly wanted with! In the end I got lucky (or rather, more discerning) and found someone who is both stimulating and a great dad. But it took some very tough self-analysis to get there!

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

    Very definitely a Questioner. I did the quiz! But I think I am a reformed Rebel. As a young person I often did just do the opposite thing from what authority figures of the rules of systems dictated. I do think that personal autonomy is an important part of happiness: there are terrible figures about the depression that results from having a bad boss.

    But I now don’t just rebel for the sake of it. I think hard about every rule and system, and often they are the way they are for extremely good reasons, like wearing a seat-belt in a car. As an Aristotelian, I am a ‘moral particularist’, which means that every single circumstance and every single situation will be different, and you have to exercise your judgement in every single case. Blanket acceptance of rules is not the most constructive approach.

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

    Travel is extremely disrupting to healthy eating. This is partly why I only eat two times a day and avoid the snacks. You can often buy better food at an airport/train station than what you are given on the plane/train. Bad weather and the mud it causes in winter is also really discouraging, as my main exercise is striding around in our lovely countryside, and I just don’t take well to indoor gyms etc.

    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.?

    Several times! At 13 years old, when a priest was blaming the Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus of Nazareth at Easter, I lost my faith altogether. The priest seemed so unsympathetic to these ordinary men in an army to which they had probably been conscripted, having to do what their superior officers commanded and terrified of punishment themselves. It made me realise that life was incredibly complicated, morally speaking, and that religion wasn’t helping me, personally, to find the answers to the big questions.

    The second was my 30th birthday in 1989 when I looked in the mirror and had to admit to myself that my first marriage wasn’t working since my then husband didn’t want a family. It took me a few months to pluck up the courage to go, but I did the night the Berlin Wall came down later that year. I suspect many other people took important decisions that night. The example of those brave East Germans scaling the concrete was so inspiring!

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

    “Onwards and upwards.” [Gretchen: How great! That's the signature sign-off line for my podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin.] There is also a modern Greek proverb I like, “You help me and I’ll help you and together we’ll climb the mountain.” But it sounds better in Greek, like a line from a song.

     
  • feedwordpress 10:00:23 on 2019/01/15 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , Joy Enough, , Sarah McColl   

    “A Life of Contentment and Joy Doesn’t Mean Avoiding Experiences with Loss and Pain.” 


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    Interview: Sarah McColl

    Sarah McColl is a writer who has been published by a wide range of publications, and she also was founding editor-in-chief of Yahoo Foods.

    Her first book just hit the shelves, a memoir called Joy Enough.

    In it, she tackles her experience of simultaneously going through a divorce and losing her mother to cancer—a double blow.

    I couldn't wait to talk to Sarah about happiness, habits, and self-knowledge.

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

    Sarah: When I moved to Los Angeles a little less than a year ago, I started attending a boot camp at the nearby recreation center three mornings a week. There’s a core group of the same women every day. We don’t know the details of one another’s lives, and many of us don’t speak the same language, but I love our sense of community. I know that every morning, rain or shine, we’re going to groan together during glute work and then high-five when it’s over.

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

    Sarah: In my first job after college as an editorial assistant, my boss would walk into my cubicle in her low-heeled Ferragamos, drop off a manuscript, and offer some unsolicited advice. There are many I still rely on, but one that’s come up time and again is: People think relationships will make them happy, but you have to bring happiness to the relationship.

    I knew intellectually what she meant, but it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I really got it. To have a sense of wholeness on your own—to have passions and friendships and desires and curiosities and ambitions that are all your own, that belong solely to you, and then to choose to be in relationship with someone, someone who you don’t need for those feelings of aliveness in your life, but who brings them all the same—not to mention support, affection, companionship, all the good stuff of loving—that brings so much life and air and, yes, happiness to the dynamic between two people.

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

    Sarah: A life of contentment and joy doesn’t mean avoiding experiences with loss and pain. Experiences with death, in fact, can heighten our awareness of and gratitude for living.

    In her book The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky reports on a study in which 70 to 80 percent of people who had lost someone they love reported finding “benefit” to the experience. I don’t think we want a happy life so much as a meaningful one, and the meaning comes from the experience of feeling fully alive.

    Joseph Campbell said this pretty well: “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

    I think death, loss, grief, and pain bring us in touch with the rapture of being alive as much as ecstatic happiness and joy.

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

    Sarah: Well, apparently I’m an Upholder! These results are interesting to me, and also a bit surprising. Sometimes my self-imposed deadlines and goals get in the way of doing what others want or expect from me, and I have a fear that I let people down as a result. But if something is important to me—like writing time, or alone time—I don’t have a problem creating those boundaries for myself.

    If I took this quiz and thought solely of health and exercise, I might turn out as an Obliger or a Rebel. If I say I will meet you for a 6 a.m. spin class, I’ll be there, but if the promise of an early morning exercise class is just to myself, I will hit snooze. Three times. The idea of a diet that tells me what to eat when makes me want to totally rebel. I definitely have a contrarian streak.

    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.?

    Sarah: My mother lived with Stage IV cancer for more than a year. It’s very clarifying when the stakes are life and death for someone you love. I moved home to be with her, to tend her garden and cook dinner, to talk about her fear of death and what I was going to do with my life. Everything became urgent, and if there was something I wanted to do, what was I waiting for? With her encouragement, I applied to graduate school to study writing, and quit my job as an editor-in-chief to attend school time full-time. This decision divided the people in my life into two categories: the people who thought this was brave, exciting, and wonderful and the people who thought I was crazy. But I knew I had to devote myself to what I had most wanted to do since I was a child, which was to write, and that I had to do it now.

    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?

    Sarah: You got this is one I turn to in times of trouble, large and small. Driving in scary rush hour traffic? You got this. Pitching a big magazine? You got this. Pushing out those last reps? You got this. (Actually, I say, “Light weight, baby. Light weight,” which I stole from a weight lifter friend.)

    But someone told me something recently that really struck me with its beauty: Feelings are powerful, and they pass.

    My mother used to say, “Feeling is living to me,” and that’s my experience, too. The world of my mind and my heart is the world to me. Everyone’s experience is filtered through consciousness, of course, but what I mean is that I trust my feelings. I’m invested in them. The guy next to me on the bus doesn’t and needn’t care about my inner life—he’s got his own—but I care a lot.

    There are obvious downfalls to this, one of which is that’s a lot of emotional labor to be doing all of the time. So learning how to navigate that intense emotional world is really part of my work as an adult. How do I live and experience and love deeply in ways that make me braver, more powerful, more resilient?

    Writing is a huge part of this for me. If I can investigate on the page why I feel the way I feel and what it means, whether in a poem or a story or an essay, then I’ve created something artful and made a discovery about what it means to be alive. Boom! Net positive. I think the very practice of being vulnerable to our emotional lives—allowing and experiencing our feelings, and knowing we have the strength to feel things deeply and still survive—that’s the practice. That’s the work I’m up to. (You got this.)

    Gretchen: Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?

    Sarah: Every book I love changes me. Reading is so intimate. We take someone else’s words inside our body. So reading something that fills me with awe and wonder, that opens my eyes to something I’ve never considered, or puts its finger on a thing I have always felt but have never articulated—I live for that! The poem “What the Living Do,” by Marie Howe; Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner; the poem “Meditation at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass; the poem "We Are Both Sure to Die" by Wendy Xu; the recently-released second volume of Sylvia Plath’s letters; Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am I Am I Am; Sheila Heti’s Motherhood; I Love Dick by Chris Kraus; The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. All I ever want to read about is what it all means, what other people are making of life. Or, as Miranda July writes in the also changed-me It Chooses You, “All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life—where do they put their body, hour by hour, and how do they cope inside of it.”

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

    Sarah: Aside from marketing and sales reasons, I don’t understand a commitment to genre in writing or in reading. “I only read nonfiction,” I heard someone say recently. Or, “I expect more from novels than I do from memoirs.” Wait, what? Why, I wondered? I love when writers blur the lines or ignore them or invent something new: autobiographical fiction, lyric prose, prose poems. I love surprising structures and forms, like an essay in the form of Trivial Pursuit answers. Maybe it’s because I like variety or because I’m greedy, but I want all the beauty, all the insight, all the awe. Who cares what it’s called. So maybe I am a Rebel after all.

     
  • feedwordpress 18:20:15 on 2019/01/11 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , December,   

    What I Read This Month: December 2018 


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    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 read.

    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, read this post or download my "Reading Better Than Before" worksheet.

    You can also follow me on Goodreads where I've recently started tracking books I’ve read.

    If you want to see what I read in November 2018, the full list is here. And if you're interested in seeing my year in books, check out this list on Goodreads.

    December 2018 Reading:

    The Pleasure Garden by Leon Garfield -- I heard about this book in Philip Pullman's book of essays, Daemon Voices. Very unusual, engaging, odd.

    Normal People by Sally Rooney -- I astonished my friends by getting my hands on this book before it was published in the United States. My library, New York Society Library, managed to get the U.K. version. Engrossing. Now I want to read her first book, Conversations with Friends.

    Take the Cannoli by Sarah Vowell -- Great, funny essays (I do love essays). Stay tuned for an episode of "A Little Happier" where I talk about Vowell's essay about goth.

    The Ropemaker by Peter Dickinson -- HOW HAD I NEVER HEARD ABOUT PETER DICKINSON? I only learned about him from a Pullman essay (see above) and he's already a new favorite author of mine. Brilliant. And he's written so much! This is going to make 2019 a great reading year, I think. Along with Summer of Proust.

    A Winter's Promise by Christelle Dabos -- First novel in a young-adult series that was a huge hit in France. Terrific, but now I have to wait for the sequels to be translated into English.

    Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr -- A very interesting snapshot of a moment in time, place, and food.

    Queen Victoria's Stalker by Jan Bondeson -- My friend Amanda Foreman gave a lecture in which she mentioned that a boy had hid himself in Buckingham Palace during Queen Victoria's time, and I was so curious about this incidence that I read this book about the boy. A bit random, I know.

    The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban -- This was a choice for one of my children's literature reading groups. A sweet story. I do love Hoban's Frances books more, I must confess.

    Tulku by Peter Dickinson -- More Dickinson. I LOVE this book and keep thinking about it. Even better than The Ropemaker. A very unusual children's book. I'm going to suggest that my children's reading group choose it. Much to discuss. I'm tempted to re-read it already.

    The Hot Young Widows Club by Nora McInerny -- A fascinating consideration of the question: how do you survive grief? It inspired me to listen to her podcast, Terrible, Thanks for Asking.

    Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe -- So many people told me that they enjoyed this book, but it seemed like such a thin premise that I resisted it for a long time. I'm very glad I read it. Wonderful portraits, and genuinely funny in its writing.

    Staying Fat for Sara Byrne by Chris Crutcher -- Did I hear about this young-adult book from Pullman, too? Possibly. A great story about a challenging friendship.

    There's a Word for That by Sloane Tanen -- A gripping, hilarious novel about dysfunctional family dynamics set amid Hollywood and London fabulousness. I love a family story.

    What have you read that's been particularly terrific lately? I'm in the mood for essays, so send me any suggestions. Plus of course I am working my way through all of Peter Dickinson.

     
  • feedwordpress 10:00:35 on 2019/01/10 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , naturopathic medicine, Overcoming Overwhelm, Samantha Brody,   

    “I Realized I Was Expecting More from Myself Than the People I Treat and Counsel.” 


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    Interview: Samantha Brody

    Samantha Brody has spent more than twenty years in her practice addressing the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of her patients’ health, to help them effectively address and achieve their health goals. Her new book Overcoming Overwhelm: Dismantle Your Stress from the Inside Out just hit the shelves.

    I couldn't wait to talk to her about happiness, habits, and productivity. For many people, stress is a big happiness stumbling block as they try to make their lives happier.

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

    Samantha: The thing that keeps me consistently making choices that make me feel my best is something I also recommend to each and every person I work with: to get clear about what is most important. Every month or quarter I revisit what my top 5 values are (using this values discovery exercise that I developed), as well as how I want to feel both emotionally and physically. Some of these things are static year over year, and some change as I evolve (and as my family and work life evolve!)

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

    Samantha: I was always very good at goal setting and habit building, even when I was a teenager. The problem was that I was choosing the wrong goals and habits. I thought happiness would come with succeeding in the ways that our culture so often dictates: being thin, popular, accomplished, degreed, and so on. The truth, though, was that even though I managed all of those things, they didn’t actually bring me happiness.

    What I know now is that in order to be truly happy I need to cozy up with the fact that I’m me. (Like your commandment to “Be Gretchen.”) I’m awkward and goofy, and sometimes say inappropriate things. I’m incredibly empathetic but sometimes not as sympathetic as I want to be. I’m a work in progress and there is no end-goal that is going to bring me happiness. It’s being clear about what is most important and how I want to feel so I can make choices every day that allow me to be in alignment with who I am and what I want my life to look like.

    Gretchen: Which habits do you think are most important for people to feel their best?

    Samantha: I wish there were one answer to this. In my book I help people identify specifically which things will have the biggest impact for them individually. What makes every person feel their best varies, but without a doubt, there are some areas that will have universal benefit.

    1. Sleep. 8 hours if possible, 7.5 at a bare minimum (this is for adults, kids need even more!). To feel our best without adequate, good quality sleep is an uphill battle. If people have trouble with sleep, it’s important to address that and get the help they need to fix it (ideally without medications if possible).
    2. Nature. Studies show that getting out into nature helps our mood, energy, focus, and health. This doesn’t necessarily mean camping (I thank my lucky stars for that…) but at least getting your “face in nature” as my old yoga teacher used to say. Breathe fresh air. Touch a tree. Even just sit on the ground for a few minutes.
    3. Strength Training. The more we learn about health, metabolism, aging, and energy, the more we are seeing that strength training for exercise is what helps our bodies the most. Sure, walking is good, and being able to run away from a wild pig is a plus, but the more muscle mass you have the better your hormones will work, the better your metabolism will function and the healthier your bones will be. You’ll be more sturdy, less susceptible to injury, and more likely to feel your best.

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

    Samantha: Questioner, hands down. Knowing this and using the advice from your books and blog around this has helped me so much with the work I do with clients and patients! Thank you!

    Gretchen: In your book Overcoming Overwhelm: Dismantle Your Stress from the Inside Out you talk about why you think stress management is just a Band-aid.

    Samantha: Stress management is important, but it’s not a solution. So often, even when we choose things to manage stress that are good for us—meditation, exercise, anything really—they are ultimately going to cause more stress because we are trying to add yet another thing to our ever-growing to-do lists.

    In order to really get out from under stress, we need to think about dismantling it rather than managing it. And in order to think about dismantling it we need to think about stress differently than we are used to doing. Not as just the big things, but as the accumulation of all of the things that pile up to overwhelm us on all levels, the good and the bad, the obvious and the next-to-invisible.

    Once we do that, we are able to identify countless small changes we can make to decrease our overall load, making room for the inevitable stresses that come up—because if there is one thing that is certain, it’s that there will always be challenges in life.

    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.?

    Samantha: I call these ‘pinnacle moments.’ The places in life where things pivot—for the better or for the worse, sometimes with awareness, but most often with a retrospective understanding.

    I experienced one of these as I was getting ready for the launch of Overcoming Overwhelm. It had been a rough few months. I had a family member who was having health problems. My book launch plan wasn’t following the map I had intended (when things don’t go as anticipated it’s hard emotional work for me). We had just moved home after living in an AirBnB for 3 weeks because we had rats in our home due to a neighborhood infestation I didn’t know about. Just as we were settling back in I started to get some back pain. Except there was nothing wrong with my back. It was shingles.

    My expertise as a naturopathic physician is in the areas of physical and emotional stress and overwhelm. And I walk my own talk in those areas. I’m conscious. I’m attentive. Yet, I still came down with a health condition that is literally triggered by stress.

    I was embarrassed and upset. I started questioning myself. It was almost impossible to sleep, or work. I sat with the crazy pain, and relentless itching. I had to stay in bed in one position because rolling over was excruciating. It hurt to talk. I cancelled a trip that I was really excited about. And as I curled up, trying to make sense of it all, I surrendered to the pain, and cried. Of course my body was stressed. I put three long years of my life into this book. The expenses to fix the rat situation were climbing and climbing. My kid had just started middle school. I did all the right things, and I still got sick.

    In that moment I realized I was expecting more from myself than the people I treat and counsel. I teach that we can only do our best. That sometimes life is hard and often there are things we can’t control. I was doing my best. Did I need to reassess and switch gears? Yes, obviously. But the big lesson was accepting that I, too, am human, and fallible, and vulnerable to getting a little off track.

     
  • feedwordpress 10:00:56 on 2019/01/08 Permalink
    Tags: , , , Julie Morgenstern, , , ,   

    “Humans (Including Children) Thrive on Short Bursts of Focused Attention—Literally 5 to 20 Minutes at a Time—Delivered Consistently.” 


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    I got to know Julie Morgenstern's terrific work from her many bestselling books on order, productivity, time management, and organization. In particular, I'm a big fan of Organizing from the Inside Out: The Foolproof System for Organizing Your Home, Your Office and Your Life. At the end of Outer Order, Inner Calm, I suggest just a few books for further reading, and this book is one of them. It's concrete, practical, and realistic. I also love Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Your Lifereally, I like all her books.
    Now Julie Morgenstern has tackled an order/organization/productivity subject that bedevils many of us, in her new book Time to Parent: Organizing Your Life to Bring Out the Best in Your Child and You.  

    How do we manage the family schedule? How do we use smartphones wisely? How do we give kids a lot our care and attention, but also take care of ourselves? Julie tackles issues like these and puts these issues into perspective.

    I couldn't wait to talk to Julie about happiness, habits, and productivity.
    Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

    Julie: Every morning I do a 5 to 7-minute exercise routine. It’s a combination of sit-ups, push-ups, Pilates moves, and aerobics that I’ve been doing, religiously, since I was 13 years old. I do it no matter where I am—on a trip, at home, overnight at a friend’s house—all it requires is enough floor space for the length of my body, some width to kick and that’s it. This little routine is as natural to me as brushing my teeth or making my bed: my day doesn’t feel complete (or off on the right foot) without having done it. For me, it ensures that I’ve started the day by doing something for myself; strengthening my body and getting centered. I pull on that well of strength all day long, no matter what I’m doing.

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

    Julie: How much having a balanced life leads to happiness. At 18, I was intensely, some may say myopically, focused on work accomplishments. I haven’t necessarily lost that ability to hyper-focus, but for a long time—probably well into my thirties—I felt most invigorated by what I was able to get done. I thought fun was frivolous, a waste of time. My dad, who was quite committed to fun, used to ask me all the time, “Jul, what are you doing for fun?” And I’d say, “Dad, are you kidding me? I’ve got things to do! No time to waste!” Eventually, I  realized that to really be happy and fulfilled, I couldn’t possibly put all my eggs in one basket  (in my case, work; but for other people it might be a relationship or a role as a parent).

    When it comes to happiness, I’ve learned it’s good to diversify your sources. Balancing your time and energy across a bunch of different things that bring you fulfillment—work, friendships, family,  self care-creates a strong foundation, a safety net for joy at any given moment. If one category is under-delivering, you can turn to another reliable source for happiness, and stay resilient as each department of your life goes through natural ups and downs. I know my dad would approve.

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

    Julie: When I set out to write my latest book Time to Parent, the instruction manual on how to organize and manage our time during the child-rearing years, my burning question was this: How much time and attention do kids need to feel loved and secure? While I had 30 years of extensive experience coaching and organizing parents around the world, I wasn’t a parenting expert, so I had to turn to the experts on human development and the science to see what the research had to say.  I got lost in the stacks—for about eight years! I read hundreds of studies, volumes of books and interviewed leading  experts in every field from pediatrics to psychology to sociology and education.

    The research was astonishing—science is exploding with discoveries about the power of time and attention to human development—and it helped me land on two central lessons of the book. The first is that quality connections between a kid and a caregiver are as essential a nutrient for a child’s development as food and sunshine. Quality, connected time contributes to a child’s self esteem, social competence, academic and career success, executive function and resilience. It even inoculates us against the onset of chronic disease as adults. (This last one really blew me away!) The second lesson is that humans thrive on short bursts of focused attention—literally 5 to 20 minutes at a time—delivered consistently. The book helps parents build space for those bursts in the chaos of every day life. It’s easily the most surprising and liberating thing for parents to understand, because with intention, everyone can make sure kids are getting what they need to thrive and be happy.

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

    Julie: I started smoking as a teenager and by the time I finally got around to quitting, I was up to two packs a day. Besides the fact that I smelled like a walking ashtray, my entire day was organized around when I could have a cigarette. At some point in my early twenties, I got scared when I noticed how out of breath I got while walking up a set of stairs. What would become of middle-aged me if 20-something me could barely make it up two flights of stairs? After a few false starts, I finally tried hypnosis. The hypnotherapist asked me two simple questions: When do you smoke? What do you get out of smoking? I loved that second question because it helped me realize that every bad behavior has a positive intention. I used smoking as a shot of courage before I had to do something that made me nervous—write a paper, schmooze at a cocktail party, speak in front of a crowd. Once I understood what smoking did for me without judgement, the hypnotherapist asked me to come up with something else. Getting a hug from my parents before school had always done the trick, so she hypnotized me to feel that hug--by just squeezing my fist every time I needed that shot of courage. It worked! And I never smoked again.

    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.?

    Julie: I was having dinner maybe 12 or 15 years ago with my client and friend, Harriet. We were in a restaurant on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, when an elderly woman, who was a friend of Harriet’s, happened to pass by. Harriet called out to the older woman, Mary, to come in say hello. Mary must have been 93 years old, but she was full of zip and smarts. Harriett, who delighted in people, said, “Mary, you’re 93, what wisdom have you learned in your life?” Mary said “Don’t pay good money for expert advice and not take it.” I instantly internalized that nugget of wisdom and from that day forward have never wasted time paying for good advice and not taking it. I just take it. It saves an enormous energy, second-guessing and worry—all time that can be put to much better use.

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

    Julie: Like everybody else on the planet, I struggle with the lure of distraction; especially when I’m working on a particularly challenging or daunting project. It’s easy to give into shiny objects in close proximity—my email, the Internet, anything else. When I feel myself gravitating away from a given task to my cell phone, I have a simple phrase that pulls me back into the moment: “Is that the highest and best use of my time?” The minute I ask myself that, I’m able to halt the gravitational pull from my iPhone (or my inbox) and be more engaged with the person or project at hand.

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

    Julie: Oh, yes! Two big things. First, people think organizing is about getting rid of things. That’s wrong. Decluttering is about getting rid of things. Organizing is about designing systems that give you access to what you use and love. It’s about designing systems that help you pursue your goals and live your life by making you more efficient in everything you need and want to do—whether it’s cooking a meal, getting dressed, running a business, getting your kids to soccer practice on time.

    The second misperception is that running the logistics for a family should be manageable for one person. Not so! Organizing for one person is hard enough. Setting up multi-user family systems—for people with different personalities, changing abilities and skills, goals—is incredibly hard for anybody, let alone mere mortals. The solution is to make systems that are simple, automated (when possible) and maintainable by a five-year old. And to share the workload of creating and maintaining a family’s systems—that’s one of the best ways for family members to take care of each other.

    timetoparent

     
  • feedwordpress 10:00:56 on 2019/01/08 Permalink
    Tags: , , , Julie Morgenstern, , , ,   

    “Humans (Including Children) Thrive on Short Bursts of Focused Attention—Literally 5 to 20 Minutes at a Time—Delivered Consistently.” 


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    I got to know Julie Morgenstern's terrific work from her many bestselling books on order, productivity, time management, and organization. In particular, I'm a big fan of Organizing from the Inside Out: The Foolproof System for Organizing Your Home, Your Office and Your Life. At the end of Outer Order, Inner Calm, I suggest just a few books for further reading, and this book is one of them. It's concrete, practical, and realistic. I also love Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Your Lifereally, I like all her books.
    Now Julie Morgenstern has tackled an order/organization/productivity subject that bedevils many of us, in her new book Time to Parent: Organizing Your Life to Bring Out the Best in Your Child and You.  

    How do we manage the family schedule? How do we use smartphones wisely? How do we give kids a lot our care and attention, but also take care of ourselves? Julie tackles issues like these and puts these issues into perspective.

    I couldn't wait to talk to Julie about happiness, habits, and productivity.
    Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

    Julie: Every morning I do a 5 to 7-minute exercise routine. It’s a combination of sit-ups, push-ups, Pilates moves, and aerobics that I’ve been doing, religiously, since I was 13 years old. I do it no matter where I am—on a trip, at home, overnight at a friend’s house—all it requires is enough floor space for the length of my body, some width to kick and that’s it. This little routine is as natural to me as brushing my teeth or making my bed: my day doesn’t feel complete (or off on the right foot) without having done it. For me, it ensures that I’ve started the day by doing something for myself; strengthening my body and getting centered. I pull on that well of strength all day long, no matter what I’m doing.

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

    Julie: How much having a balanced life leads to happiness. At 18, I was intensely, some may say myopically, focused on work accomplishments. I haven’t necessarily lost that ability to hyper-focus, but for a long time—probably well into my thirties—I felt most invigorated by what I was able to get done. I thought fun was frivolous, a waste of time. My dad, who was quite committed to fun, used to ask me all the time, “Jul, what are you doing for fun?” And I’d say, “Dad, are you kidding me? I’ve got things to do! No time to waste!” Eventually, I  realized that to really be happy and fulfilled, I couldn’t possibly put all my eggs in one basket  (in my case, work; but for other people it might be a relationship or a role as a parent).

    When it comes to happiness, I’ve learned it’s good to diversify your sources. Balancing your time and energy across a bunch of different things that bring you fulfillment—work, friendships, family,  self care-creates a strong foundation, a safety net for joy at any given moment. If one category is under-delivering, you can turn to another reliable source for happiness, and stay resilient as each department of your life goes through natural ups and downs. I know my dad would approve.

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

    Julie: When I set out to write my latest book Time to Parent, the instruction manual on how to organize and manage our time during the child-rearing years, my burning question was this: How much time and attention do kids need to feel loved and secure? While I had 30 years of extensive experience coaching and organizing parents around the world, I wasn’t a parenting expert, so I had to turn to the experts on human development and the science to see what the research had to say.  I got lost in the stacks—for about eight years! I read hundreds of studies, volumes of books and interviewed leading  experts in every field from pediatrics to psychology to sociology and education.

    The research was astonishing—science is exploding with discoveries about the power of time and attention to human development—and it helped me land on two central lessons of the book. The first is that quality connections between a kid and a caregiver are as essential a nutrient for a child’s development as food and sunshine. Quality, connected time contributes to a child’s self esteem, social competence, academic and career success, executive function and resilience. It even inoculates us against the onset of chronic disease as adults. (This last one really blew me away!) The second lesson is that humans thrive on short bursts of focused attention—literally 5 to 20 minutes at a time—delivered consistently. The book helps parents build space for those bursts in the chaos of every day life. It’s easily the most surprising and liberating thing for parents to understand, because with intention, everyone can make sure kids are getting what they need to thrive and be happy.

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

    Julie: I started smoking as a teenager and by the time I finally got around to quitting, I was up to two packs a day. Besides the fact that I smelled like a walking ashtray, my entire day was organized around when I could have a cigarette. At some point in my early twenties, I got scared when I noticed how out of breath I got while walking up a set of stairs. What would become of middle-aged me if 20-something me could barely make it up two flights of stairs? After a few false starts, I finally tried hypnosis. The hypnotherapist asked me two simple questions: When do you smoke? What do you get out of smoking? I loved that second question because it helped me realize that every bad behavior has a positive intention. I used smoking as a shot of courage before I had to do something that made me nervous—write a paper, schmooze at a cocktail party, speak in front of a crowd. Once I understood what smoking did for me without judgement, the hypnotherapist asked me to come up with something else. Getting a hug from my parents before school had always done the trick, so she hypnotized me to feel that hug--by just squeezing my fist every time I needed that shot of courage. It worked! And I never smoked again.

    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.?

    Julie: I was having dinner maybe 12 or 15 years ago with my client and friend, Harriet. We were in a restaurant on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, when an elderly woman, who was a friend of Harriet’s, happened to pass by. Harriet called out to the older woman, Mary, to come in say hello. Mary must have been 93 years old, but she was full of zip and smarts. Harriett, who delighted in people, said, “Mary, you’re 93, what wisdom have you learned in your life?” Mary said “Don’t pay good money for expert advice and not take it.” I instantly internalized that nugget of wisdom and from that day forward have never wasted time paying for good advice and not taking it. I just take it. It saves an enormous energy, second-guessing and worry—all time that can be put to much better use.

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

    Julie: Like everybody else on the planet, I struggle with the lure of distraction; especially when I’m working on a particularly challenging or daunting project. It’s easy to give into shiny objects in close proximity—my email, the Internet, anything else. When I feel myself gravitating away from a given task to my cell phone, I have a simple phrase that pulls me back into the moment: “Is that the highest and best use of my time?” The minute I ask myself that, I’m able to halt the gravitational pull from my iPhone (or my inbox) and be more engaged with the person or project at hand.

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

    Julie: Oh, yes! Two big things. First, people think organizing is about getting rid of things. That’s wrong. Decluttering is about getting rid of things. Organizing is about designing systems that give you access to what you use and love. It’s about designing systems that help you pursue your goals and live your life by making you more efficient in everything you need and want to do—whether it’s cooking a meal, getting dressed, running a business, getting your kids to soccer practice on time.

    The second misperception is that running the logistics for a family should be manageable for one person. Not so! Organizing for one person is hard enough. Setting up multi-user family systems—for people with different personalities, changing abilities and skills, goals—is incredibly hard for anybody, let alone mere mortals. The solution is to make systems that are simple, automated (when possible) and maintainable by a five-year old. And to share the workload of creating and maintaining a family’s systems—that’s one of the best ways for family members to take care of each other.

    timetoparent

     
  • feedwordpress 10:00:45 on 2018/12/20 Permalink
    Tags: Atlas of Happiness, , Denmark, , Helen Russell, ,   

    “I Use Everything in My Resilience Toolkit to Keep My Mental and Physical Health Intact.” 


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    Interview: Helen Russell.

    Helen Russell is the bestselling author of The Year of Living Danishly. Formerly the editor of MarieClaire.co.uk, she now lives in Denmark and works as a Scandinavia correspondent for the Guardian. For a long time, she wrote a column on Denmark for the Telegraph and has written features for the Times, the Observer, Grazia, the Wall Street Journal and the Independent.

    Now she has a new book, The Atlas of Happiness. It's an illustrated, full-color, around-the-world look at the happiness secrets of different countries. The book covers 33 international happiness concepts, and explores places like Australia, Wales,  Bhutan, Ireland, Finland, Turkey, Syria, Japan, and many more.

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

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

    Helen: Being open to new experiences and talking to strangers. Both are outside of my comfort zone but I’ve found that the more I reach out and engage—interacting with the world around me—the more fulfilled I feel in every aspect of my life. And this habit has helped me meet some amazing people and write for a living—a huge privilege.

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

    Helen: That the lows are all part of it and that we also need fallow periods to just be. I grew up in the 1980s and 90s where the pace of life was fast and if you weren’t aiming for the top (of everything) you weren’t aiming high enough. But life is filled with sadness as well as joy and not every day will be unicorns skipping with rainbows. This is something I’ve learned with age and through my research into happiness and the cultural differences in what ‘a good life’ means around the world.

    In Sweden and Brazil, for example, a degree of melancholy in life is considered inevitable—desirable, even—and something to be savoured rather than ignored. No one can be "jazz hands" happy all the time. I’ve also been inspired by my recent research into the Italian concept: Dolce far niente or "the sweetness of doing nothing." Stillness isn’t something that comes naturally to me but as one of my best friends puts it, "We all need some sitting down and staring into space time once in a while."

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

    Helen: I’ve become very interested in work culture around the world and how in many prosperous nations, the daily grind is actively damaging our mental well-being as well as impacting negatively on productivity. When I swapped a big, shiny job in London for life in rural Denmark, I was staggered by Danish working culture—with the average Dane only working 33 hours a week and prioritising family and leisure time. Happiness at work is prized and Denmark also comes top in terms of worker motivation, according to The World Competitiveness Yearbook.

    At first I presumed that this made Danes massive slackers, but then I found out that workers are 12 per cent more productive when they’re in a positive state of mind, according to research from the University of Warwick—and Denmark is the fourth most productive country in the world, according to Expert Market data. It’s staggering that a culture of presenteeism still pervades in much of the world when we know now from the data that this is bad for workers and bad for the bottom line. Now, I try to log off, power down and stop work on time.

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

    Helen: Living by the sea means I can get out on my beloved paddle board a few times a week to broaden my horizons, focusing on nothing but a wide open expanse of blue for an hour. For my new book, I’ve been writing about Hawaii, where water is sacred and there’s an ancient proverb, ola alla wai, or “water is life.” I’m beginning to agree with this.

    Music is important, too—I listen to different playlists depending on the task at hand or how I’m feeling. Numerous studies have shown how music can alter our mood and I am a big fan of a psychological tool called "emotional arousal," whereby you listen to music that makes you feel fired up and charged with energy to help you to tackle whatever lies ahead. So far today, it’s been a "This is Me" from The Greatest Showman on repeat kind of morning...!

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

    Helen: I came to exercise late and only realised relatively recently that it was something I could do to make me feel better. At school, I was always told I wasn't sporty. I got picked last for all team sports and then I did no exercise at all until my mid 20s when I approached it with self-loathing. My body was a human pincushion for years, with various failed fertility treatments, then it miraculously grew three people and my body became theirs for a while. But now it finally feels like it’s mine and so I'm taking care of it -- exercising to feel strong and stay sane and just for me. And I love it.

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

    Helen: I’m a terrible Obliger (thank you for pointing this out!) and as a freelancer I now make sure I litter my life with people who make me do the things I know I ought to (eating well, socializing, self-care or what Danes call "putting your own oxygen mask on first" and the brave new world of "relaxing").

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

    Helen: Travel is tricky, because I tend not to eat well or exercise and it’s tough being away from my family. For the first few hours, I feel wonderfully free and giddy about the fact that I can go to the bathroom without toddlers following me in there—but then I miss them terribly. Yet as soon as I get home, the house is so chaotic, I’ll often long for the solitude of a single occupancy hotel bedroom again.

    There’s still a lot of guilt tied up with being a working parent that no amount of research and logical thinking can totally assuage. My kids are small and still wake up, on average, every other night, requiring something or other. So with three of them, statistically, I’m woken up at least once a night, every night. I know that if I don’t get eight hours of sleep, I have a tendency towards depression—but I haven’t had eight hours of sleep in four years. As a result, I use everything in my resilience toolkit to keep my mental and physical health intact.

    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?

    Helen: There’s a phrase in Icelandic that has become the unofficial motto for Icelanders and wannabe Vikings everywhere: Þetta reddast. This roughly translates as "it will be all right," but has come to represent the unwavering belief that everything will work out in the end. There’s a sense that since Icelanders have made their home in such an inhospitable landscape that they can handle anything and all the Icelanders I know have an easy-going manner with a core of grit—an unusual but powerful combination. Studies show that resilience is key to happiness and the idea of taking the long view that "no matter how big a problem, we’ll find a way" really appeals to me. So now I have the phrase pinned up above my desk to remind myself to be more Viking, wherever possible.

    The Atlas of Happiness by Helen Russell

     
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