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  • feedwordpress 10:00:27 on 2019/02/14 Permalink
    Tags: author, , , , , Cozy: The Art of Arranging Yourself in the World, , , Isabel Gillies, ,   

    “Making One’s Bed In My Mind Is the Most Direct Road to a Happier Life.” 


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    Interview: Isabel Gillies

    Now, how do I know Isabel Gillies? The answer is lost in the sands of time. We have several mutual friends, perhaps that's how.

    She has had a very interesting, varied career. She is an actor who appeared, among other places, on the TV show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and in the movie Metropolitan.

    She's also a highly successful writer. Her bestselling memoir Happens Every Day: An All-Too-True Story recounts the story of how her first marriage broke up, while A Year and Six Seconds: A Love Story is about the challenge of getting on with her life after the divorce; her young-adult novel Starry Night is about the passion of first love.

    Now in her latest book, she's tackled a different kind of subject: Cozy: The Art of Arranging Yourself in the World.

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

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

    Isabel: Making one's bed in my mind is the most direct road to a happier life. It's manageable, satisfying and cozy.

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

    As I edge closer to 50, I find that happiness comes from trying the best you can to stay right in the very moment you are in. Don't worry about the past or future, just be in the moment. Noticing the light, or a smell, or the sound of the dog breathing will help you just be right where you are.

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

    I did a lot of research for Cozy, and what tickled me the most was that when I asked people what makes them cozy, everyone smiled.

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

    YES! I quit smoking. I used a nicotine patch. Right before I turned 25 I thought, "It's kind of sexy to see a young woman smoking, it's really not sexy to see an older woman smoking." I marched to the drug store, got the patch and never smoked again. It was about making up my mind, and committing.

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

    Upholder (just took the quiz).

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

    TEENAGERS! No, it's not them per se, it's my inability to stay in the moment, and put everything in its right place. Someone once told me that teenagers are on a roller coaster and as a parent your job is NOT to get on the roller coaster with them—just stand on the side. Sometimes I get on.

    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.?

    Even though I'm healthy (knock on wood), recently my doctor told me I had gained 12 pounds in 2 years. I have always eaten anything I wanted, whenever I wanted—but I guess when I hit menopause that all got turned on its ear. I walked out of his office and decided I would think more about calories in, calories out, and act on it daily—I got an app! I'm having radical acceptance about it. We change—what is there to do but deal with it?

    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?

    "Radical Acceptance."

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

    Stephen King's On Writing. When I decided to become a writer, I read his book and followed his lead. I'm dyslexic and was an actress. I never had any expectation of becoming a writer so I never took a class or workshop. King was my teacher.

    In the area you’re writing about, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?

    I'm writing about being cozy. I think people believe coziness is about fires, hot chocolate and cashmere sweaters. I'm making the case that coziness comes from the truth of who you are. You can be cozy on the subway; I always am. If you know what you like, your beat, your point of view, you can carry that anywhere you find yourself and call upon it to find coziness, even challenging circumstances like a hospital.

     
  • feedwordpress 10:00:32 on 2019/01/17 Permalink
    Tags: Aristotle, author, , 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: author, , , , , , 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 10:00:35 on 2019/01/10 Permalink
    Tags: author, , , , , 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 10:00:16 on 2018/12/13 Permalink
    Tags: author, , , , , , The Practicing Stoic, Ward Farnsworth   

    “Stoics Generally Are a Humble and Good-Natured Crowd.” 


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    Interview: Ward Farnsworth

    I got to know Warn Farnsworth during the year when we were both clerking for the Supreme Court; I was clerking for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and he was clerking for Justice Anthony Kennedy.

    I've strayed far from law, but not Ward. He's dean of the University of Texas Law School and has held many important legal positions over the years. Not only that, he's written many interesting books on law, rhetoric, philosophy, and chess.

    For a long time, I've been meaning to read his book Farnsworth's Classical English Metaphor, and while I haven't read it yet, I recently finished his terrific new book The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User's Manual.

    It's a clear, accessible, enjoyable, and thought-provoking look at Stoic philosophy—which, as Ward makes clear, has much value to us today.

    I couldn't wait to talk to Ward about the relationship between happiness and stoicism.

    Gretchen: To most people, Stoicism doesn’t sound like it has much to do with happiness—more like the opposite, right?

    Ward: Yes, that’s the first thing to know about Stoicism—the word is misleading. In ordinary modern English it means something like “suffering without complaint.” But Stoicism as an ancient philosophy was a way to think about every aspect of being human, including happiness. The Stoics were deep analysts of happiness—in my view, the most interesting students of that subject who ever lived—present company excepted, of course. One of Seneca’s most important essays was called “On the Happy Life.”

    Gretchen: So what are some of the things they have to say about being happy?

    Ward: Well, I’ve written a new book—The Practicing Stoic—that presents the teachings of the Stoics in way that is meant to make sense for us now. Lesson number 1 is that we don’t react to events or people or anything else in the world. We react to our thoughts about them. And the thoughts are up to us.

    Gretchen: Hmmm. What’s an example?

    Ward: Let’s say that others are criticizing you—on Twitter, maybe—and you’re feeling down about it. The Stoic would say: you aren’t unhappy about what they said, at least not primarily. Your being upset arises from beliefs you hold—that you care what the critics think, for example, or that their opinions are worth worrying about for some other reason. If you didn’t hold those views, you wouldn’t be unhappy. So then the Stoic would spend some time asking why you care what some idiot on Twitter said, and after a while you would probably feel better.

    Gretchen: Definitely useful. But aren’t some reactions harder to see that way?

    Ward: Yes, I picked an easy example. But the Stoics think everything works roughly like that. If you’re mad about something, it’s because of your judgments, not the thing you’re mad at. If you’re afraid of something, it’s because of your thoughts, not because of the thing itself.

    Gretchen: But sometimes we should be mad or afraid, shouldn’t we?

    Ward: The Stoic would just ask: how does the anger or fear serve you? It probably makes you worse off. If something is dangerous, by all means avoid it; but how does the feeling of fear help? If something makes you angry, by all means consider fixing it or rectifying it; but how does getting angry help?

    Gretchen: But it isn’t that easy to decide to stop being afraid of some things.

    Ward: Yes, of course—sometimes it’s harder than it sounds. But sometimes it’s easier than it sounds. You realize that your fear comes from the way you talk to yourself, so you knock it off. But anyway the Stoics don’t just tell us to take responsibility for our thinking and leave it at that. They offer lots of ways to take apart a fear or a source of anger or whatever else and dissolve its effects—ways to replace thinking that probably doesn’t help with thinking that does.

    Gretchen: All right, but then let’s go back to happiness. How does that figure in?

    Ward: Of course reducing anger and fear is a great help towards happiness for most people. But the Stoics also talk a lot about gaining more happiness as such. Basically they think you can’t gain real happiness through direct effort. If you try to make yourself happy by satisfying your desires, for example, you find that they never really end. The way to find happiness is by focusing on things larger than yourself—on serving others and the greater good, on the love of truth, or (in a word) on virtue. The Stoics think of happiness as a byproduct of that way of life. It’s like sleep. You can’t fall asleep by working hard at it. You fall asleep by focusing on other things. The Stoics think happiness works in roughly that way.

    Gretchen: You talked about “Lesson 1.” What are some other Stoic teachings that are useful in trying to find happiness?

    Ward: Lesson 2 is the difference between things that are up to us and things that aren’t. The Stoics thought that most people waste a great deal of energy and misery worrying about things they can’t control. The Stoic approach is to never get worked up about them, and to focus on the things in life that are up to you. This turns out to be a very versatile and helpful idea.

    Gretchen: Again, how about an example?

    Ward: The simplest example, and a case everyone can understand, is spilled milk. Once something you don’t like has happened and can’t be helped, the Stoics would say it’s a mistake to spend a moment agonizing about it. It’s done. If you can learn something from it, great, but otherwise forget it. It’s the same if you’re stuck in traffic. If you can’t change it, shrug it off. These examples are understood by all of us at least some of the time. But again, the Stoics take that attitude toward everything in life that they can’t control. One can’t control one’s partner, as you’ve emphasized in your own writings; you can’t control other people in general, and what they say or think, or the fact that you’re going to die eventually. So Stoics don’t worry about that stuff.

    Gretchen: Does that mean that Stoics don’t care about politics?

    Ward: No, that’s not quite it. The Stoics thought participating in public life was important. And some of the greatest Stoics, such as Marcus Aurelius, were important public figures in Rome. The Stoics believed we should each regard ourselves as individually small but as parts of a whole, so doing one’s part is important even if it’s a small part. But if some politician did something that they couldn’t affect, Stoics wouldn’t let it disrupt their equanimity. That’s an important idea in Stoicism in general. Stoics have preferences about things like anyone else does. They just don’t let their peace of mind depend on them.

    Gretchen: Do you think of Stoicism as a kind of psychology or philosophy?

    Ward: It’s both. The old Stoics did their writing at a time when those two disciplines weren’t separated the way they are now. Sometimes they do talk about the same themes you would find in modern books about psychology. For example, they’re very interested in what we now might call adaptation—the ways that we get used to things, and how this affects the way we feel about them. We tend get used to the good things in our lives, and so lose the ability the appreciate them. We also tend to get used to the bad things, which prevents them from always making us miserable. Stoics try to undo the bad kind of adaptation by staying grateful for what they have. And they try to cultivate, or simulate, the good kind of adaptation. When they deal with some sort of adversity, they try to approach it as they would if they had dealt with a lot, not like amateurs.

    Gretchen: So do you think the ancient Stoics were happy?

    Ward: I think their Stoicism made them happier. For them, “happiness” had multiple meanings. It usually meant eudaimonia—the good life, rather than the good mood. But they also cared about simple peace of mind and pleasures they considered natural. Most people who study Stoicism end up with a least a little more of those things. People nowadays think of Stoicism as a kind of grim resolve. But Stoics are more likely to find mild humor in things that everyone else regards as grim. They find the comedy in things that made everyone else mad. Stoics generally are a humble and good-natured crowd.

     
  • feedwordpress 10:00:18 on 2018/12/06 Permalink
    Tags: , author, , How to Live Forever book, , Marc Freedman, mentorship,   

    “Society Grows Great When Older People Plant Trees Under Whose Shade They Shall Never Sit.” 


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    Interview: Marc Freedman

    Marc Freedman is the President and CEO of Encore.org, and is a renowned social entrepreneur, thinker, and writer.  I've been interested in his work for a long time. Among other things, he highlights the significance of harnessing the experience and talent of people past midlife as a way to make the world better.

    This is important, because in 2019, for the first time ever, the United States will have more people older than age 60 than younger than age 18.

    In his terrific new book, How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations, Marc Freedman examines how we can make a more-old-than-young society work for all ages. But not only that–he also emphasizes how we can find fulfillment and happiness in our longer lives by connecting with the next generation.

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

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

    Marc: Walking. I walk about five miles a day, up and down the hills of Berkeley, California. It clears my mind—and it’s good for my dogs, too!

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

    Marc: I learned in my research for this book that those in middle age or older who invest in nurturing the next generation are three times as likely to be happy as those who don’t. I wouldn’t have paid much attention to that at 18, but it’s hugely important to me now.

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

    Marc: Experience Corps, which I helped create more than 20 years ago, taps the time and talents of older adults to help 30,000 children in urban elementary schools learn to read every year. It’s a tutoring program, right? Well, not exactly. The conventional wisdom is that the relationships provide a foundation for the tutoring help. Today I think that formulation has it backward. The reading lessons are the scaffolding around which a rich array of bonds can take hold. And these connections aren’t just a means to an end; they’re an important end in and of themselves. In other words, I’ve realized that Experience Corps is actually a relationship program. You could say it’s helping to clear the market for love!

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

    Marc: I make no claim on healthy habits! I’m 60, travel all the time, and have three sons—ages 8, 10 and 12. I have tried to develop healthy sleeping and eating habits for decades and failed over and over again. I can say, in all seriousness, that my love of music and movies has served me well, leading to many relaxing moments, quality time with others, even creative insights.

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

    Marc: I used to eat any and all doughnuts. Now I only eat high quality doughnuts.

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

    Marc: I’d say I’m a Rebel/Obliger hybrid. I want to get the job done in a way that makes me proud, but I seem determined to do it on my terms and my timetable. So, as you might guess, I have a lot of trouble with deadlines. In college, I set what I think is still an intercollegiate record for incomplete classes. In my first three semesters, I racked up nine incompletes—impressive, considering that I’d only taken 12 courses and four of them were pass-fail. Things haven’t improved much since then, I’m afraid.

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

    Marc: Travel, stress, deadlines, kids, dogs, parties, doughnuts. I’d say everything interferes at one time or another.

    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.?

    Marc: I have had my share of health scares, and after each one, I expand my capacity for gratitude and renew my commitment to take better care of myself. I’m really quite religious about walking every day now. Knee troubles that threatened to make that impossible but have now thankfully vanished.

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

    Marc: I often quote a Greek proverb that reads, “Society grows great when older people plant trees under whose shade they shall never sit.” I see now that How to Live Forever has been all about planting seeds, irrigating them, letting life bloom. It’s ironic that my own great mentor in much of this was a man named (John) Gardner. It is our role as older people to plant those trees under whose shade we shall never sit. Our task is not to try to be young, but to be there for those who actually are.

     
  • feedwordpress 10:00:49 on 2018/11/20 Permalink
    Tags: Alice Robb, author, , , , , Why We Dream   

    “What You Think Is Existential Angst Might Actually Be a Lack of Sleep.” 


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    Interview: Alice Robb

    Alice is a writer who lives here in New York City, in Brooklyn. She's written for many publication, including The New Republic and The Cut.

    She has a book that just hit the shelves: Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey.

    Throughout history, people have been fascinated by dreams—why we dream, what dreams mean, and if you're my husband, how do you stop having the same bad dream over and over? (He dreams that he didn't study for an exam).

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

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

    Alice: When I started freelancing a few years ago, I realized how important it is to find ways to divide the day between work and leisure; no one is going to say, “Good job, go home,” at 6 o’clock. At the end of the day, when I’ve decided I’m done working, I make a list of everything I’ve left unfinished. This helps me switch gears; I don’t have to worry that I’ll forget what I was in the middle of or lose momentum the next day. I save it in a draft email in my inbox, and I wake up with my to-do list already made. Most of my projects are ongoing—I was working on the book for years—and I’m not always at a natural breaking point when I need to stop.

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

    Alice: What you think is existential angst might actually be a lack of sleep.

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

    Alice: Most of us have been taught to ignore our dreams; many people I’ve spoken to say things like, “I never dream.” But even if you don’t often remember your dreams, you’re still having them. And it’s easy to improve your dream recall—just by spending a few minutes during the day thinking about dreams, deciding you want to remember them, or making a habit of writing them down when you wake up. You might even find that you remember your dreams tonight, after reading this interview.

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

    Alice: One of the great things about freelancing is that I can structure my routine around what makes me feel and work best. I used to struggle to fit it in exercise in the morning; by the time I got to work, I felt like I was already halfway through the day. Now, I exercise in the early afternoon, and it helps me break up the day and avoid that afternoon slump; it also feels very luxurious to go to the gym or bike around the park when most people are at the office.

    Another habit that’s important to me is keeping a dream journal. I became diligent about writing down my dreams several years ago, and I was amazed at the level of detail I quickly became able to reconstruct. Apart from the psychological and creative value of this exercise, it’s become a part of my writing routine; writing a couple hundred of words first thing in the morning—words that take no effort—helps me transition into writing that’s more challenging.

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

    Alice: I used to think of procrastination as a terrible habit, but I’ve come to accept it as a part of my process. My productivity is always going to skyrocket in the run-up to a deadline; I’ve pretty much always worked best with time pressure. So, rather than torturing myself and feeling guilty long before I’m actually going to do anything about it—opening the Word document and then just opening Twitter on top of it—I clear my schedule for the time leading up the deadline and plan to take advantage of that period when I’ll be most productive. [Gretchen: In Better Than Before, I explore the difference between "marathoners" and "sprinters," and Alice is clearly a sprinter.]

    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.?

    Alice: I read Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea when I was in college, and I was astonished; it was the first time I’d read a reported book of non-fiction that was as gripping as any novel. That was the book that made me realize I wanted to be a non-fiction book-writer.

    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?

    Alice: “Sometimes there is writing, and sometimes there is typing.” A very kind editor said this to me when I was struggling with a piece. When you’re blocked, you can start to feel like you’re never going to write again; it’s helpful to remember that everyone gets stuck sometimes, and that if you push through and don’t put too much pressure on yourself—just keep typing!—you’ll eventually start writing again.

    why we dream

     
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