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  • feedwordpress 16:00:05 on 2022/06/16 Permalink
    Tags: , , Finding Ecohappiness, Interview, questioner, Sandi Schwartz   

    Sandi Schwartz: “Nature Stimulates Creativity.” 


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    Interview: Sandi Schwartz

    Sandi Schwartz is the founder and director of the Ecohappiness Project, and an author and journalist who specializes in parenting, environmental, and wellness topics.

    I couldn't wait to talk to Sandi about happiness, habits, and her new book, Finding Ecohappiness: Fun Nature Activities to Help Your Kids Feel Happier and Calmer (Amazon, Bookshop).

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

    Sandi: I treasure my morning walks, whether they are in my neighborhood, at a local park, or during the summer along the beach. Listening to the birds chirping, breathing in the fresh air, and mindfully viewing the colorful nature around me is my daily meditation. Getting this exercise and meditative time in kickstarts my day so I can clear my head. As a writer, I often come up with ideas for blog posts, articles, and other projects during my walks since nature stimulates creativity.

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

    The most fascinating aspect of happiness to me is that we each have our own baseline, and even when we have an amazing thing happen and we get a boost of happiness, we end up back at that set point. Genetics influence 50 percent of our happiness, while our life circumstances control 10 percent. That leaves us with 40 percent to take our own action to try to feel happier. Knowing this helped me understand my own personality and happiness level to accept what my baseline is and to recognize what I have some control over to change how I feel.

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

    Everyone is always fascinated to learn that we can benefit from nature connection even through a screen or virtual reality. Scientists are closely studying this concept and are finding that simulated nature can have medicinal effects, although not as effective as being immersed in nature. In an analysis of over thirty studies that reviewed the effects of spending time in nature versus urban environments, researchers found that being exposed to nature led to people feeling happier whether they were outdoors or viewing nature on a screen. They also discovered that simulated environments with realistic images of nature, such as interactive VR, led to greater psychological benefits than less immersive choices like photographs.

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

    One of the most important habits that I am trying very hard to keep is writing in my brief evening journal. I write five bullet points: the most important aspect of my day, something social I did to connect with others, and three pieces of gratitude. I find that keeping this daily habit helps me feel more balanced and my emotions in check. My biggest challenge from the pandemic was getting way too comfortable being at home, so my goal these days is to try and be more social. Tracking this in my journal helps keep me on track.

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

    I am a Questioner; no surprise there. I am very self-motivated and tend to do what I want on a daily basis, minus my commitments to my husband, children, and work clients. I definitely wake up every day and think, “What needs to get done today, and why?” I am constantly updating my daily to-do lists and personal goals. I am also thirsty for knowledge and love asking questions and doing research to find the answers. I also resist doing anything that seems to lack purpose. Additionally, I am an INFJ and have a huge need and passion to change the world, which is evident by my focus on environmentalism and exploring how nature can improve well-being. If I am not living my purpose, I begin to struggle emotionally. I crave new challenges and goals.

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

    I am a homebody and most effective in meeting my goals and sticking to my habits when I am at home with my routine. Therefore, anything that knocks me off my game, like travel or stressful situations, interferes with my ability to keep my healthy habits that improve my happiness.

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

    My husband taught me a very helpful phrase that I turn to often when my anxiety is acting up: “This too shall pass.” I find this quote very soothing, as it helps me shift my focus from the stressful situation that is freaking me out to realize that I have faced many similar challenges and was so upset, but time marched on and they are now distant memories. If we can master this type of shift in our thought process, then we can have more control over our strong emotions like anxiety.

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

    Many books have changed my life. I truly believe that books come into my life when I need them. I might just happen to see a book at the library or in a bookstore, or maybe a friend or someone in a Facebook group posts a recommendation. It’s as if the book calls out my name. Some examples include The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz (Amazon, Bookshop), Dare: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks by Barry McDonagh (Amazon, Bookshop); Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen (Amazon, Bookshop); and Gretchen’s book, The Happiness Project, which changed the trajectory of my career path to focus on positive psychology and ultimately the intersection of nature and mental health. [Gretchen: That's so wonderful to hear!]

    I also believe that authors write the books they need the most, and that’s what happened with me and my book, Finding Ecohappiness (Amazon, Bookshop).

     

     

     
  • feedwordpress 20:20:04 on 2022/05/26 Permalink
    Tags: , , , In the Early Times, Interview, Tad Friend   

    Tad Friend: “Happiness Comes from Immersion—in a Job, an Art Form, a Challenge, a Relationship.” 


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    Interview: Tad Friend

    Tad Friend is a staff writer at the New Yorker, and previously was a contributing editor at Esquire and Outside. He is the author of a memoir, Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor (Amazon, Bookshop), and Lost in Mongolia: Travels in Hollywood and Other Foreign Lands (Amazon, Bookshop), a collection of his articles. His latest memoir, In the Early Times: A Life Reframed (Amazon, Bookshop), hit shelves this month.

    I couldn't wait to talk to Tad about happiness, habits, and relationships.

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

    Tad: Drinking way too much coffee. Fight me! But I’ll win because I’m teeming with caffeination.

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

    Let us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee (Amazon, Bookshop). I read Agee’s account of three Alabama tenant farming families struggling through the Great Depression when I was in college, and the book was a revelation. No one had thought tenant farmers worthy of much attention, but Agee made me care deeply about every aspect of their lives. His work made me realize that nothing is anything until a writer makes it something. And that it’s possible to report so thoroughly and write so passionately and empathetically that nonfiction rises to the level of art.

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

    Happiness comes from immersion—in a job, an art form, a challenge, a relationship. But while you’re immersed it doesn’t even occur to you to assess your emotional state. Only later do you realize, “Oh, I was happy then.” The challenge of life is that it’s lived forward but understood backward.

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

    I’ve long been an Upholder with Questioner tendencies. I wanted to do the thing that people expect of me, but I also wanted to make sure that doing it made sense, and that I’d be rewarded. However, I’ve recently discovered that if someone I love really wants something, that alone is reason enough to do it, no questions asked, no reciprocity demanded. Reciprocity comes unsought, as selflessness turns out to be contagious.

    Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? 

    Rampant procrastination. I catch up on “Atlanta” or do the Spelling Bee instead of just tacking the onerous thing and rewarding myself later with a pop-culture treat. Using Pomodoro helps: I set the timer for 25 minutes and go, knowing that I’ll soon have 5 minutes to refill my coffee mug.

    Multitasking is another bad habit. Multitasking is actually just rapid focus switching, so I keep losing all the clarity and momentum that attends sustained attention. On the other hand, I have become quite adept at doing a crappy job on three things at once.

    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.?

    Yes, I stopped being unfaithful. My wife discovered my infidelities, and I so hated the monstrous me that I saw reflected in her eyes, and was so grateful to her for being willing to work this very thorny issue through together, that I reversed course, hard, overnight. Without her willingness to give me a second chance—if, and only if, I became an actual, you know, husband and partner—I would have remained lost. Amanda is not only my true love, she’s my hero. I write about all this in In the Early Times.

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

    “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.” It’s from Theodore Roosevelt’s Autobiography (Amazon, Bookshop), where he attributes it to someone else. I heard the maxim from a squash coach, and it absolutely applies to squash, to keeping your focus and playing within yourself when you feel outmatched. But it also struck me as a great motto for daily life. It’s both a recognition of imperfections and a summons to get the most out of your imperfect vehicle, nonetheless.

    If I had to pick a second quotation, it would be from Sigmund Freud: “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us.” It sounds glum, but once you realize, well, ok, life is too much for everyone, it’s actually curiously freeing. You’re going to lose eventually, so why not fight a strong rearguard action? And that fight, for me, is embodied by “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.”

     
  • feedwordpress 16:00:16 on 2022/05/12 Permalink
    Tags: , , , Data science, Don't Trust Your Gut, Interview, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz   

    Seth Stephens-Davidowitz: “I Started Giving Myself a Life Report Card.” 


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    Interview: Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

    Seth Stephens-Davidowitz worked as a data scientist at Google and is currently a contributing op-ed writer for the New York Times. His first book, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us about Who We Really Are (Amazon, Bookshop), was a New York Times bestseller and an Economist Book of the Year. I loved his first book, and was very happy when I happened to meet Seth at an event here in New York.

    His new book is Don't Trust Your Gut: Using Data to Get What You Really Want in Life (Amazon, Bookshop). If you'd like to get a sense of his approach, he recently published the article "The One Parenting Decision That Really Matters: Almost none of the choices you make are as fraught as you think they are" in the Atlantic.

    I couldn't wait to read his new book and to ask him about happiness, habits, and the human psyche.

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

    Seth: I started giving myself a Life Report Card. At the end of every month, I grade myself on 15 categories for that month, including “relationships with friends, relationships with family, financial performance, fitness, fun, career advancement, giving back, and learning. “When I tell people this, they say it sounds nerdy, high-pressure and insane. And maybe it is. But I find it helps me achieve balance. If, for a few months in a row, I get a very low grade in, say, fun, I make sure to schedule more fun things the next month. Also, discussing the report card with others has allowed me to learn of new areas for growth that I hadn’t realized. My girlfriend suggested I add a category for “emotional openness” and hinted that my grade in that category is very low. Now I am working on turning those Fs into Ds.

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

    Happiness is more of a choice than I realized. My brilliant, life-changing therapist Rick told me I was choosing to be depressed. It was a somewhat shocking thing to say, and a lot of people would recoil at the suggestion. But it immediately registered with me. And my mood has improved by telling myself I can choose how I feel.

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

    In researching Don’t Trust Your Gut, I became obsessed with the Mappiness project founded by George MacKerron and Susana Mourato. They pinged people on iPhones and asked them some simple questions: What are you doing? Who are you with? How happy are you? From this, they created a dataset containing more than 3 million data points.  The major lesson I took from their ground-breaking research is that the things that make people happy are really simple and obvious. As I summed up the research, the answer to happiness is “to be with your love, on an 80 degree and sunny day, overlooking a beautiful body of water, having sex.” The key to happiness, I concluded, is ignoring the noise from the world that over-complicates things.

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

    On my Life Report Card, I noticed the only category I was consistently getting A’s in was fitness. And that’s because I hired an awesome personal trainer, John. From this, I concluded the only way I can really stick to difficult habits is external pressure. I’m working on setting up systems that pressure me to do the (many) things I don’t want to do but should do.

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

    I’m a questioner and a rebel, which gave me a proud smile upon writing. Makes me seem like a badass. [Gretchen: Hmmm...from the way you answered the question above, I'm wondering about that.]

    Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? 

    My job is really isolating, which is not good for happiness. Research shows that both introverts and extroverts get a big mood boost from being around people.

    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.?

    I get hit by lightning bolts like once a week. I have strong emotional responses to things I read; pretty much every time I read a book, I am tempted to make some massive change based on the content. Like yesterday, I read the book The Simple Path to Wealth by JL Collins (Amazon, Bookshop). It included the parable of The Monk and the Minister, which goes as follows:

    Two close boyhood friends grow up and go their separate ways. One becomes a humble monk, the other a rich and powerful minister to the king. Years later they meet. As they catch up, the portly minister (in his fine robes) takes pity on the thin and shabby monk.

    Seeking to help, he says: “You know, if you could learn to cater to the king, you wouldn’t have to live on rice and beans.”

    To which the monk replies: “If you could learn to live on rice and beans, you wouldn’t have to cater to the king.”

    That was a major lightning bolt and tempted me to quit the consulting work I do. But I think making big, dramatic decisions based on something you read or hear isn’t a great life strategy. I try to talk things over with people and be more deliberate.

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

    “This too shall pass” has gotten me through some rough times.

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

    I thought Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman (Amazon, Bookshop) was profound.

    In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?

    My entire book is about correcting misconceptions. Here are some: that successful entrepreneurs tend to be young; that the average rich person works in tech; that joy and smiles are the way to sell products; that work makes people happy; that great businesses are due to luck; that lacrosse is a better path than baseball for getting a college scholarship; that it’s crazy to try to be a celebrity; that parents have a big impact on their kids; that lounging around makes people happy; and that marital happiness can be predicted.

     
  • feedwordpress 16:00:49 on 2022/05/05 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , Daniel Coyle, Interview, interviews, , , teamwork, The Culture Playbook   

    Daniel Coyle: “When You Shift into a New Narrative, You Are Opening Up an Entirely New Set of Possibilities” 


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    Interview: Daniel Coyle

    Daniel Coyle is a contributing editor for Outside Magazine and the author of six books, including the New York Times bestsellers Lance Armstrong's War (Amazon, Bookshop) and The Culture Code (Amazon, Bookshop). In his new book, The Culture Playbook: 60 Highly Effective Actions to Help Your Group Succeed (Amazon, Bookshop), he provides readers with sixty concrete skills to help any team build a strong, cohesive, positive culture.

    I couldn't wait to talk to Daniel about happiness, habits, and success.

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

    Daniel: I find it deeply insane how much my internal state can be boosted by a hard physical workout. The simple, idiotic, Neanderthal act of putting your head down and pushing really hard for a few minutes shifts something deep inside you. It wakes you up in a new way. It’s your body saying, Hey, I’m down here, and the outside world saying, Me too! And those combine to get you out of your own head. It’s not that different from losing yourself in beautiful music.  

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

    Being young brings many happiness advantages because A) you don’t know much about the world; and B) you’re not actively trying to be happy. I find that the instant you start aiming for happiness as a goal, it evaporates. I think that’s why people who focus on happiness as an extrinsic goal (hello, wellness industry) project such a narrow, almost businesslike vibe. Now that I’m older, I focus less on happiness, and instead try to spot it out of the corner of my eye whenever it bubbles up. To pause and take it in for a second. Then get back to whatever it was that caused it to happen. Which usually involves some activity that is not centered on me – either absorbing work or doing something for someone else. 

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

    I’ve spent most of my career exploring big mysterious questions right under our noses – why do certain people and groups succeed, and others don’t? What is success, really? The continuing, everlasting surprise has been how much success is generated and governed by our internal narratives. To put it simply: success looks like a talent contest, but it turns out to be a story contest. Certain stories generate awareness and behaviors that generate virtuous spirals, producing creativity, well-being, and connection. Other stories generate the opposite effect. So story remains the strongest drug ever invented. When you shift into a new narrative, you are opening up an entirely new set of possibilities and pathways – which is sometimes a bummer but ultimately hopeful, especially considering the challenges we are facing as a species right now. 

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

    For most of my life, I had a big-time sweet tooth. I would not want to estimate my glucose intake from ages 5-25, but it would be measured in metric tons. Over the past few years, I’ve dialed back a lot, mostly by noticing the chain of sensations – the desire and the taste and the feelings in the body afterwards -- and then thinking about what is really happening during each of these steps. Not that I didn’t eat an entire box of Milk Duds at a movie last night – but hey, at least I realized what was going on! 😉 

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

    I’m an Upholder with my kids, an Obliger with colleagues, a Questioner with my siblings, but down deep I’d describe myself as a Rebel. I am attracted to boundaries and I like to push against them to see what happens. Maybe this is connected to spending my childhood in Alaska and visiting my parents’ homes in near St. Louis, Missouri, every summer. Early on, I was alert to the nearly-cartoonish contrast between the two places – one place wild and invented, with gravel roads and a culture of making up the rules as you went, the other tidy and traditional, where you color inside the lines (or else!). All that added up to create in me the unshakable idea that borders are most fun if they are discovered, stretched, and occasionally broken. 

    Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?

    Like everybody, I would put distraction at the top of the list. At the same time, I want to put a good word in for distraction, because I find that it can help with creativity. I know it’s not supposed to (the research on “switching time” is pretty definitive) but I have to confess: the little time spent watching a funny video while I’m from writing (even as I’m writing this) ends up leaving me a bit refreshed and able to see new pathways that I might have missed. I’d say that the key is in paying attention to the ways that you are distracted – and in being intentional about it, so that you use your distraction in a healthy way (as a lever), and not in an unhealthy way (as a perpetual escape).  

    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.?

    Reading The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (Amazon, Bookshop) at age 15 set me onto this path of being a writer. For me, that experience was like when musicians of a certain age describe the feeling seeing the Beatles perform for the first time on television – a feeling a door opening to reveal an entirely new world — you mean people can get paid to do that? That book – that smart, fun, rollicking voice — lit me up and led to a set of questions that I’ve ended up exploring in various ways for my entire career: where does greatness come from? How do you get it? What is the price?

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

    I like “Get up on the Roof.” You use it when you feel stuck in a situation or in a particularly narrow emotional reaction to a situation, and it works because it nudges you toward the truth: there exists a higher perspective, and all you have to do is take the time and step up onto it, and look around.  I also like the way it speaks to the magic inherent in perspective shifts. Unlike so many other progressions in life, which require sweat and grit and time, changes in perspective actually do happen in a micro-second. Life seems fixed and utterly irreversible and then — presto! — you get on the roof and see it in a new way that makes your old way of seeing seem like a distant memory. This mantra is doubly useful because it applies in both “good” and “bad” situations.  It reinforces the truth: our lives, no matter how dire or how wonderful, are never purely bad or good, but rather exist in multiple ways. 

    In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?

    Most people – me included, for much of my life – walk around thinking that good books are about providing answers, that the role of the author is to be the deliverer of Big Secrets. I’ve come to think this is wrong. Great writers aren’t the ones with the answers; they are the ones with the enduring questions and the useful tools for exploration. 

    They are able to do this because they are in in touch with the inner lives and curiosities of their readers. They have a sense for what anxieties, dreams, and questions people are thinking about when they’re laying awake at 3 am. Then they find ways to explore those areas – mostly questions. In all, I think good writers are sort of like the divers who explore these great oceans inside of us, and then they hand you a snorkel and flippers or maybe even a scuba set so that you can do it yourself.

     
  • feedwordpress 16:00:36 on 2022/04/28 Permalink
    Tags: , , Bomb Shelter, , Interview, Mary Laura Philpott, memoirs   

    Mary Laura Philpott: “I’m What I Call an ‘Anxious Optimist.’” 


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    Interview: Mary Laura Philpott

    Mary Laura Philpott is an author, former bookseller, and Emmy-winning co-host of A Word on Words, the literary interview program on Nashville Public Television. She's the author of the national bestseller I Miss You When I Blink (Amazon, Bookshop) and her new memoir, Bomb Shelter: Love, Time and Other Explosives (Amazon, Bookshop) just hit shelves this month.

    I couldn't wait to talk to Mary Laura about happiness, habits, and seasons of life.

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

    Mary Laura: I was so skeptical about meditation before I started, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work. It should be required from preschool onward — we humans need it!

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

    There’s no finish line. I keep having to re-learn this lesson. I’m always setting my sights on some elusive goal or state of being, thinking, “Once I reach _______, I can finally relax and be happy.” Nope. Happiness doesn’t come from finally reaching a particular status or achievement.

    Can you think of a spontaneous, unexpected moment of joy, silliness, or amusement you’ve had recently? What sparked it?

    During the Winter Olympics, there was a tweet going around asking what song people would choose if they were doing a figure skating routine. I knew the answer instantly: “MMMBop” by Hanson. Wait, hear me out! I know it’s cheesy, but it is one of my core beliefs that you cannot feel sad listening to that song. Can you even imagine someone gliding out onto the ice as that chorus kicks in?

    It makes me laugh every time I think about it.

    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.?

    I changed my eating habits significantly when I was pregnant with my first child and I was diagnosed with borderline gestational diabetes. I’d always had a sweet tooth — I loved good ol’ refined carbs and white flour, too — and I had never tried very hard to eat better. Knowing that what I ate would be the only source of nutrition for my unborn baby and that if I didn’t change my ways he’d be swimming in sugar-water (*not a scientifically accurate description) made me overhaul my habits completely. I do eat sugar and carbs now in moderation, but I never really went back to how I ate before. That’s the number-one way to get me to do something: tell me someone else’s well-being depends on my behavior.

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

    Oh, I am an Obliger, through and through.

    Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?

    My own brain! I’m what I call an “anxious optimist.” I have a general baseline belief that most things will probably turn out okay, but my mind also never stops spinning an array of horror stories about all the ways things could go wrong. It’s as if by anticipating every possible catastrophe, I can be prepared for them all, and thus avoid any unfortunate surprises…which, of course, is not really how life works. And it’s exhausting. That’s how meditation helps me; it makes me practice holding my mind still in the present instead of letting it run wild into a hundred hypothetical futures.

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

    This is my favorite work motto lately: “Be so good they can’t ignore you,” a quote from Steve Martin. It can be hard to stay confident and focused during the in-between phases of a literary career, the years when you’re just sitting alone, writing, with no idea what will ultimately become of what you’re creating. There are so many ways a book can ultimately succeed or fail, and during those long periods of uncertainty it’s easy to get caught up in comparisons. Will my book sell as many copies as so-and-so’s? Will the reviews be good, or will it even be reviewed at all? The truth is that I can’t control any of that. The only thing I can control is the work itself, and I’m the only one who can make that work great.

    I also tend to be attracted to shiny, new endeavors and often feel drawn to multi-task more than is actually good for me. I’m always thinking, should I start another newsletter? Maybe a blog or podcast or show? I tell myself, “Be so good they can’t ignore you” as a way of saying, “Get back to work, and write a book that’ll get you on everyone else’s blog or podcast or show.”

    In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?

    There’s a funny tendency among readers — not all readers, obviously, but enough that I’ve heard it often: People will say they love the latest novel set in space, they can’t wait for the new tell-all biography about a movie star, or they’re absolutely addicted to a murder mystery series. And then some of these same people, if you were to recommend to them a memoir that includes motherhood, will say, “Eh, I can’t really relate to that. I’m not a mom.” Really?? You’re not an astronaut, a celebrity, or a serial killer either, are you?

    I used to avoid writing about family and motherhood, and I still draw my boundaries very carefully when I do write about it, but exploring the experience of parenting another human being is at least as good a way to illuminate the meaning of love, risk, joy, and pain as writing about the trials of life on Mars. I mean, didn’t we all — at some point, for at least a little while — come from a mother?

    Anyway, I guess my point is this: Books, especially memoirs, are not meant only for readers who are just like the people in those books. It’s wonderful if you can relate to something you read, but it’s especially cool when you find something elemental to relate to in a story about someone who, on the surface, is different from you.

    If you were to describe your work using a comparison from a different field, what would that be?

    I write books, so I’ll use a comparison from a different entertainment medium, television: I’d say the experience of reading my new book, Bomb Shelter, combines the big, cathartic emotional range of watching a show like Parenthood or This Is Us with the quirky, feel-good laughs of, say, Ted Lasso. I love it when something hits that sweet spot that lights up my whole emotional circuit board — when I’ve both cried and laughed by the end of an episode or a chapter. That’s what I’m going for.

     

     
  • feedwordpress 16:00:41 on 2022/04/26 Permalink
    Tags: , , , cleaning, , How to Keep House While Drowning, Interview, KC Davis, , , ,   

    KC Davis: “You Don’t Have to Care About Yourself to Start Learning to Care for Yourself” 


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    Interview: KC Davis.

    KC Davis is a therapist, author, and creator of the mental health platform Struggle Care. She has a new book, How to Keep House While Drowning (Amazon, Bookshop).

    I couldn't wait to talk to KC about happiness, habits, and mental health.

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

    KC: Closing duties! As a busy mom, I found myself collapsing on the couch each night at 7:30pm as soon as the kids were down, and not moving again until I went to bed. This made my mornings stressful because I had to hit the ground running as soon as the babies were up. Yet the idea of cleaning the house after my kids went to bed was daunting because…when do you stop? I felt like I could clean for hours and there would still be more to do. 

    Since doing nothing wasn’t functional, and trying to do it all wasn’t possible, I took some inspiration from my waitress days and came up with a short list of “closing duties” to do every night after my kids go to bed. It only takes me about 25 minutes, but I am always shocked how much I can get done in that time. Having a list helps keep me on track and feel accomplished. Every night I unload and reload the dishwasher, clear the island, sweep the kitchen floor, and take out the trash. Voila! Functional space for a calm morning. I often add something to the list that just makes me happy, like making ice coffee or making sure my slippers are by the bed. It’s been a game changer to find a way to be kind to morning-me, while still having my evenings to myself to rest or create. 

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

    I have always struggled to stay on top of housework. Laundry, dishes, clutter…it all seems to pile up so quickly and I get too overwhelmed to deal with it. For most of my life I felt embarrassment by this, as if it was some sort of moral failure to not be good at domestic tasks. I would always tell myself that I just needed to try harder – and, in general, I had a lot of critical self-talk around it. 

    Today, I have amazing systems in my home that keep it functional, and I don’t feel overwhelmed anymore. The big change was when I started practicing self-compassion. I realized that being messy is not a moral failure. I deserve to be treated with kindness, even when speaking to myself. I started changing my self-talk, and realized that as a woman with ADHD, I may need to think creatively about creating systems in my home that work for me. I gave myself permission to throw out all the rules, and just think about what works for me. 

    So now we have a family closet and a no-fold bin system for all of us. And just like that—laundry gets done every week. I bought a dishrack and a second silverware caddy for my dishwasher and set up a “dirty dish station” where I could quickly dump dishes throughout the day, but they stayed organized and out of the sink. Like magic, now my dishes get done every evening. I do my “closing duties” list at night, and I’m kinder to myself. It’s amazing how self-compassion and adaptive routines have completely changed how I function in my home. 

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

    I got Rebel! That makes sense as I prefer to be internally motivated, rather than to simply meet expectations. 

    Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?

    My ADHD certainly does. I find that I need to give myself lots of grace and work with my brain, instead of against it. Like most people with ADHD, I benefit from having structure in my life, but I also get easily bored and prefer to always be inspired to action. I’ve learned that trying to stick to a habit through pure self-will doesn’t work for me. Instead, I think of ways to create momentum in my life to push me forward, making it easier to engage in rituals and behaviors that help me. 

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

    Whenever I talk about hacks for taking care of yourself or your space, I always have someone say, “but what if I don’t feel I deserve a functional space or self-care?” One motto that I use frequently on my platform is “you don’t have to care about yourself to start learning to care for yourself.” There are three powerful reasons why this statement is so profound. 

    First, I think a reason a lot of us get stuck when we struggle with mental health is that we feel like the motivation to care for ourselves must come from thinking you deserve to be cared for. So, we often spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to love ourselves, so that we can care for ourselves. I have found that it’s the opposite. Once we begin the journey of learning to care for ourselves, often liking ourselves flows from that. 

    Two, trying to learn to love yourself is an ambiguous goal and we can become absorbed with self by thinking about it all the time. Learning to care for yourself, on the other hand, can be a very practical and actionable journey—one where you do not have to dwell on yourself, but can face outward towards the world. 

    And three, the connection between care and admiration isn’t as innate as we assume. We can always make the choice to care for someone that has done nothing to deserve it. We care for our newborns that haven’t done anything, we rescue dogs even when they’ve bitten people or torn up the furniture, and we give to charities even when those receiving have made big mistakes in their lives. So, it often hits people like a ton of bricks when they realize they can just….decide to care for themselves, even though they’re not entirely convinced they deserve it. Heck, most of us agree even murderers have the right to three meals a day—yet how many of us have skipped a meal because we feel we don’t deserve to eat that day?

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

    A couple of years ago I read The F*ck It Diet by Caroline Dooner (Amazon, Bookshop), and it had a profound impact on the way I view my body and my diet. It helped kickstart my journey of moral neutrality around food and weight; this idea that there are no good or bad foods and that my weight was not a moral failing or something I had to fix. This inspired my philosophy of moral neutrality when it comes to housework. There is something life-changing about the idea of moral neutrality that makes us kinder to ourselves, and in turn makes it easier to make changes that benefit us. 

    In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?

    One misconception I get is that people believe I am enabling people to be dysfunctional. The truth couldn’t be farther from that. What I am doing is empowering people to care for themselves in a way that makes sense to them and is sustainable. I want people to function, and I find that the best foundation sustainable motivation and skill building is radical self-kindness and self-acceptance.

     
  • feedwordpress 09:00:03 on 2019/05/23 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , Interview, Lori Gottlieb, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, , , therapy   

    “The Most Important Habit I’ve Changed Is Going from Being Self-Critical to Being Kind to Myself While Holding Myself Accountable.” 


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    Interview: Lori Gottlieb.

    Lori Gottlieb is a bestselling writer and a practicing psychotherapist. I can't remember how I became aware of her work. Did I meet her at an event? Did I read a magazine story she wrote? Do we have a mutual friend? It's lost in the sands of time, but for some reason, for several years, I've paid particular attention to the career of Lori Gottlieb. I know I read her books Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough and Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self.

    Now she has a new book, an instant New York Times bestseller: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed.

    She also has a weekly “Dear Therapist” advice column in The Atlantic.

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

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

    Lori: Breathing! This might sound strange, but as a therapist, I notice that sometimes people forget to breathe—I mean really replenishing themselves with air. We tend to take shallow, short breaths as we rush through our days, but a simple way to make you happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative is to close your eyes and take a one-minute breathing break (slow, deep breaths) every so often throughout the day. It resets you both physiologically and emotionally. This one easy practice really works wonders!

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

    I’ve discovered that happiness—a lasting sense of peace or contentment—is simply a byproduct of living your life in a fulfilling way. This will mean something different for each person, and that’s important to remember when comparing your own happiness to what you imagine other people’s happiness looks like. (You’re often wrong.) If you live your life with intention—What am I doing and why am I doing it? Am I really trapped doing what I don’t like or are there other options? Am I wasting time today on people or activities that don’t matter?—the happiness follows.

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

    I started to notice that many of my therapy patients were so unkind to themselves. There were these critical voices in their heads that they weren’t even aware of. I had one therapy patient write down everything she said to herself in the course of a few days, and when she came back the next week, she was almost embarrassed to read it to me. “I’m such a bully to myself!” she said. “If I talked this way to any of my friends, I wouldn’t have friends anymore!”

    The more I saw this in my patients, the more I made a concerted effort to be kind to myself. Being kind and having self-compassion doesn’t mean that you don’t take responsibility for your mistakes or what you’d like to do differently. But you don’t have to self-flagellate while you take responsibility. In fact, the kinder you are to yourself, the easier it will be to make the necessary changes.

    Also, having self-compassion breeds compassion for others, so being kinder to yourself also tends to improve the other relationships in your life. Hands down, the single most important habit I’ve changed is going from being self-critical to being kind to myself while still holding myself accountable.

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

    According to the quiz, I’m a Rebel. Not surprising, given that I went from being a film and TV executive to medical student to journalist to therapist! It was a very circuitous route, and people often thought I was crazy to leave what I was doing for something else. But I did what I wanted to do—it was my life to live, after all, not theirs—and in the end, it makes so much sense. Everything I’ve done and continue to do are related to my greatest interests and passions: story and the human condition.

    I went from telling fictional stories (in film and TV) to real people’s stories (in medical school), and then from telling people’s stories (as a journalist) to helping people change their stories (as a therapist).

    If I hadn’t had some “Rebel” in me, I wouldn’t have taken those risks.

    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.?

    In the book, I write about my experience treating a young newlywed who’s diagnosed with breast cancer. Her doctors think she’ll be fine—it’s a very treatable form of cancer—and after surgery and chemotherapy, she is. But then, six months later, on a routine scan they discover a rare, aggressive form of cancer, and they tell her she has only a few years to live.

    “Will you stay with me until I die?” she asks. It was such a profound experience, looking death in the eye with her in way we normally don’t, and it made me consider my own mortality in a new way, a healthier way. We can deny death completely, even though we’re all going to die one day—and most of us have no idea how or when—or we can have some awareness of it so that we can pay more attention to the time we do have.

    There were many lightning bolts moments with her, but one stands out. In a session, she said that because of her illness, she noticed how much other people put things off for the future—I’m going to apply for that job I really want next year; I’ll try dating again after I’m done with this project in the summer; I’ll apologize to my sibling or repair that relationship when I’m not so busy—but what, she wondered, is everyone waiting for? I remember sitting in that session and thinking, “What am I waiting for?” It changed how I approached my daily life—I stopped putting the important things off for “later.”

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

    “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” - Viktor Frankl

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

    I think a common misperception of therapy is that you go in, talk about your childhood ad nauseam, and never leave (or leave years and years later). In my book, I wanted to bring people directly into the therapy room to show them what therapy really is. Therapists will hold up a mirror to you so that you can see your reflection more clearly. We all have blind spots, ways of shooting ourselves in the foot over and over and ending up in the same place because of something we’re doing that we aren’t aware of.

    Therapy is about helping people relate to themselves and others more smoothly so that they don’t have to struggle so much. We all struggle, of course, but we can change our role in it, and our response to it. That what therapy teaches you how to do. And then you leave—our goal is to encourage your independence, to get you not to need us anymore, to be able to manage life’s universal challenges more easily with the insight and tools you gained in therapy. As the late psychotherapist John Weakland famously said, “Before successful therapy, it’s the same damn thing over and over. After successful therapy, it’s one damn thing after another.”

    Maybe You Should Talk to Someone

     
  • feedwordpress 09:00:35 on 2019/05/09 Permalink
    Tags: , , , failure, Interview, It's Great to Suck at Something, Karen Rinaldi,   

    “Happiness Doesn’t Mean We Are Feeling ‘Happy’ All of the Time.” 


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    Interview: Karen Rinaldi.

    Karen Rinaldi has a double bookish identity. She's worked in the publishing industry for decades, and is now the publisher of Harper Wave, an imprint that she founded.

    She's also a writer herself. She wrote the novel The End of Men, and now she has a new non-fiction book with an absolutely great title and premise: (It's Great to) Suck at Something: The Unexpected Joy of Wiping Out and What It Can Teach Us About Patience, Resilience, and the Stuff that Really Matters.

    She makes the case for why it's great to push yourselves, try new things, and find joy in the pursuit rather than the goal.

    I myself have been trying to tap into this kind of joy during my frustrations at trying to learn to play the ukulele!  (#7 on my "19 for 2019" list).

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

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

    Karen: Surfing!

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

    Karen: Happiness doesn’t mean we are feeling “happy” all of the time. We can be “happy” but still experience sadness, frustration, anger, loneliness—which are all part of what it means to be an open-hearted human. Our attachment to those negative feelings is what gets in the way of our happiness. But respecting those more uncomfortable feelings, making room for them, and not judging them allows us to release them and make room for happiness.

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

    Karen: I don’t know yet what my readers think but what surprised me the most while writing my book was that with every deep inquiry, in much of the research and reading, the philosophy and the science—it all kept leading me back to concepts and questions of the divine. I wasn’t expecting to wind up there at each turn, but it was a beautiful and unexpected journey. I was humbled by humankind’s constant search to understand meaning and to grapple with our mortality. This is as true for physicists as it is for poets, for doctors as it is for philosophers.

    Gretchen: Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit?

    Karen: Yes—I have been able to change a bad habit when I was finally convinced that it was bad (it’s easy enough to lie to ourselves about stuff to keep us at it) and I’ve started new habits with the expectation, understanding, and self-forgiveness that I would fail to uphold it, so that the pressure was eliminated.

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

    Karen: I would consider myself a Rebel, but according to the criteria and the questionnaire, it turns out that I am an Upholder, which I think is funny! It’s probably true and just shows that we like to think of ourselves one way, when we are really something else. Can I be a rebellious Upholder? (Probably not, right?)

    Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?

    Karen: Yes, my tendency to be an Upholder (now I know!) sometimes puts obligations before personal health and happiness. But that said, I’m pretty good at pulling back to focus on what I want, even if it results in actually fulfilling that obligation. I make a habit of asking myself why I am doing something that I might at first resent or resist doing, only to realize that I’m doing it because I want to do it. I make the best decisions when I respect the tension between volition and duty, productivity and rest, and accept that none of it is binary.

    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.?

    Karen: Yes, there are three times specifically in my life when this happened. The first was when I was in my late twenties and struggling with my self-confidence, I was complaining to someone that so-and-so “made me feel stupid.” My friend’s response changed my life. He said, “Karen, no one can make you feel anything.” That one comment gave me agency in my responses to all kinds of things. It still does.

    The second time was when my son was struggling at school—he was eight years old at the time—and a father of one of his classmates said to him, “Rocco, it’s so great to suck at something.” Rocco’s eyes lit up and I think it helped him enormously. I had been five years into my efforts to surf (which I still suck at doing) and John’s comment became my mantra. It allowed me to keep failing but to embrace the joy of it anyway. Rocco became valedictorian of his high school class and I didn’t give up paddling out. That one aha-moment turned into a more than decade-long journey to this book and new way of living for me.

    The third time came with a diagnosis and year-long- everything-gone-wrong battle with breast cancer. I finally understood the age-old wisdom of how “Why me?” is only answered with, “Why not me?” These three experiences were lessons in freedom.

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

    Karen: From Samuel Beckett: “Every tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.” That about sums it up for me. Anything is possible in that framework.

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

    Karen: I wouldn’t say that there is a single book that changed my life, but I couldn’t imagine my life without books. As a reader, editor, and writer, books—or, rather, the intimate communion between writer and reader—have helped me in absolutely every single aspect of my life. Books are like oxygen or water—completely essential.

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

    Karen: If my field is publishing and writing, I would say that, like anything else that looks simple from the outside (surfing, for one)—and all those books out there in the world would indicate otherwise—it’s harder than it looks!

     
  • feedwordpress 09:00:32 on 2019/05/03 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , Interview, , Nora McInerny, , The Hot Young Widows Club   

    “Our Hearts Are Like the Hogwarts Room of Requirement—They Magically Open Up a New Room Just When We Need It.” 


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    Interview: Nora McInerny

    A few years ago, Nora McInerny went through tremendous period of grief and loss. Within a month, she miscarried her second baby, her father died of cancer, and then her husband Aaron died from a brain tumor. She explains, "These are all really sad stories, but they are not only sad stories. They are love stories and life stories and sometimes even funny stories." She has a terrific podcast, Terrible (Thanks for Asking) with honest talk about sorrow and loss.

    She's written several books, such as It's Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too) and No Happy Endings: A Memoir, and her latest book is The Young Hot Widows Club: Lessons on Survival from the Front Lines of Grief.

    As it happens, I have a friend who is a member of this club—though in his case, it's for "young hot widowers." So I was very interested to read Nora's new book.

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

    Nora: I’m from Minnesota where the winters are absurdly long and the days are short. I really couldn’t live without my medical-grade SAD lamp. I’m an early riser, often up by 5:30 am. I blast myself with light while I read or write first thing in the morning. Not only does it help me feel physically better, It also helps my winter depression a ton. Some of my best writing sessions happen while I’m sitting in front of the lamp. I highly recommend them for those of us surviving northern climates.

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

    I didn’t know much about happiness when I was 18 because I was a truly miserable person. I thought happiness meant checking achievement boxes. Get into a “good” college. Check. Move to NY. Check. Work in advertising. Check. It wasn’t until my boyfriend was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor that I decided to start living in the ways that taught me pursuing happiness did not mean the absence of pain. We got married one month after Aaron’s diagnosis and first brain surgery. I knew that happiness meant being with him for as long as I could. Being with him also meant becoming a widowed mother at age 31.

    Happiness can live alongside pain, grief, and sadness. They are not at odds. Though we are often taught that happiness is a perfect, permanent state of being, sometimes saying “yes” to happiness means saying “yes” to a whole bunch of other feelings.

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

    I stopped drinking about two years after my first husband died. I realized that I was using alcohol to cope with grief and that it wasn’t helping or working. It wasn’t particularly hard for me to stop. My dad was a recovering alcoholic, so I know first-hand that it's much more difficult for some people. I realized that I had succumbed to some wine-mom culture peer pressure and thought that drinking rosé was the cool way to deal with grief, but when I interrogated that belief, I realized it was empty for me. I didn’t really enjoy drinking that much and from there I just stopped. Also, drinking made me sleepy, and kind of a jerk!

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

    Lots of things are disruptive to habits, but I find social media an especially appealing and destructive distraction. I can skim through hundreds of positive comments on my work and completely fixate on that one negative review. I know the first and last names of everyone who gave my books a less than four-star review on Amazon because I’m a super healthy, normal person. When I’m deep in the internet rage machine, I hand over my passwords to someone trusted (Hi, Hannah!) and take a break for a week. It feels great.

    There are certain habits I just don’t bend on, no matter what is happening. When I’m in book writing mode, I write 2,000 words a day, five days per week religiously. My writer friend, Jo Piazza, taught me that no one needs to write more than 2,000 words a day. Sometimes it feels like pulling teeth and it’s all garbage. Sometimes I’m inspired and can write for hours. I’ve written four books and countless scripts for my podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking this way and it gets the job done.

    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.?

    My life today is very much the byproduct of a major lightening moment when in 2014 I miscarried a pregnancy, lost my dad to cancer and my husband, Aaron, died of a brain tumor all in a matter of weeks. When losses so profound and at such a dizzying rate struck my life, the very foundation on which I stood shifted. Everything changed. I quit my job after going back to my cubicle seemed impossible. My financial advisor did not recommend this strategy, but gratefully I had a safety net when friends, family, and perfect strangers showed up to make sure my toddler son and I could live. I started my non-profit, Still Kickin, in honor of Aaron. Since then I’ve made over 70 episodes of the Terrible, Thanks for Asking podcast and written four books. Watching my dad and Aaron die without fulfilling all their creative potential really lit a fire in me to stop waiting for the perfect time to do things and allow myself to take risks because the worst had already happened.

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

    Man’s Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl. If you can’t learn from a Holocaust Survivor, you are BROKEN.

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

    You might think that what I do—talking to people about the worst and most terrible moments of their lives—is the exact opposite of what The Happiness Project does. But, there is no real way to access happiness without also understanding suffering, which is a universal human experience. Everyone you love is going to die. There’s no way of getting around it, no cheat, no hack, no habit that can save us from that reality and so many other terrible realities. (I’m really fun at parties)!

    There are lots of ways to look at this. One is to simply says, “This is hard.” And it is. You are not obligated to make lemonade from your lemons! Sometimes they are just lemons and they’re sour and it sucks AND we can move on with these life-changing, painful experiences. We can experience grief and joy simultaneously, sometimes even in the same breath. When I met my current husband I thought the part of my heart that loved Aaron would shut down, that there was only room enough to love one person at a time. That could not be further from the truth. Our hearts are like the Hogwarts Room of Requirement—they magically open up a new room just when we need it. This is where we can find new joy and new love. The rest of the castle is still there. We just keep building new wings.

     
  • feedwordpress 09:00:54 on 2019/05/02 Permalink
    Tags: A Way to Garden, , , , gardening, Interview, Margaret Roach, , ,   

    “I Garden Because I Cannot Help Myself—But It’s the Best Kind of Compulsion.” 


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    Interview: Margaret Roach

    Margaret Roach worked in publishing for many years, at places like the New York TimesNewsday, and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. Then at the end of 2007, she left the city and "success" for a life lived much more quietly and closer to nature.

    She's a passionate gardener; has published a popular garden website since 2008; opens her garden for tours a few times a season; writes books; and lectures frequently to help foster an interest in gardening.

    Not only that, she has a highly praised, weekly gardening radio show and podcast called "A Way to Garden," produced at “the smallest NPR station in the nation” in nearby Sharon, Connecticut.

    Her new book A Way to Garden: A Hands-On Primer for Every Season was described this way by Publishers Weekly: "Filled with expert information, this book is less a 'how to' for novices than a meditation on 'why to' for veterans. Those with dirt already under their fingernails will treasure Roach’s in-depth knowledge, wry humor, and reflective look at how seasons in gardening mirror the passage of time."

    I myself love reading gardening books, though I have no interest in gardening, just the way I love reading cooking books, though I have no interest in cooking. A great writer makes these subjects compelling.

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

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

    Margaret: I always say that I garden because I cannot help myself—but it’s the best kind of compulsion. With the garden as my lens on life, I have opened to matters of both science and the spirit, gaining a tiny glimpse of how all the pieces fit in each realm.

    I have written that by becoming a gardener, I accidentally—blessedly—landed myself in a fusion of science lab and Buddhist retreat, a place of nonstop learning and of contemplation, where there is life buzzing to the max and also the deepest stillness. It is from this combined chemistry that I derived the motto of my website and book: “horticultural how-to and ‘woo-woo.’”

    I discovered a connection to plants—and in turn, to nature’s complex interconnections—in my mid-20s, during a time that was anything but happy. I found myself suddenly back at my childhood home, managing the care of my widowed mother, who was barely 50 years old but had early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. One can only sit inside and watch so much daytime TV. Miraculously someone gifted me a garden book, and I started ordering plant catalogs and then plants, gradually conducting horticultural therapy on myself in the front yard. Daily contact with the world outdoors has been my life practice since.

    Just go outside, already. Not willing or able to make a garden? Get a pair of binoculars and the eBird.org app, and go chat up some local birds.

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

    That solitude, and stillness, are not to be feared, but rather to be cultivated, because each of us requires the nourishment they provide.

    My impression, perhaps like many other young women of my generation, was that key to fulfillment was finding Mr. Right, like the spirit of that “Jerry McGuire” quote, “You complete me.” (This was decades before that movie, of course.) I chased a lot of boys before it dawned on me: It turns out the “you” in that kind of equation alludes to “yourself,” not another (though loved ones are immense treasures, too).

    Learning to kindle joy in regular doses of solitude, rather than rushing to cram every moment with something or someone, was my best life lesson ever. As a complement to that, I make time to really focus my emotional energies on a few key, years-long and devoted relationships (and yes, I suppose the garden is one of those).

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

    I got a first insight into how my own habit-modification inner thing works at the onset of severe asthma in my 20s, when I became a vegetarian, after being advised to “reduce” intake of animal foods that might contain drugs like antibiotics or hormones. A vegetarian diet evolved and has stuck, but first—after considerable struggling—came the revelation that I am a very black-or-white, on-or-off person when it comes to changing habits. It was simpler for me to give up meat, poultry, fish than to “reduce,” and eat it once in a while. (And yes, I still miss bacon.)

    That it’s easier for me to flip the switch to “off”—to stop something completely rather than limit it—was an important trait to come to recognize and accept, rather than continuing to bang my head against the wall of attempted moderation, and “failures.”

    One other trick I have learned around exercise, which I loathe: I am more likely to show up if I set an appointment involving another person. Though I am happy to do garden chores anytime the weather permits, no urging required, I am highly resistant to formal “exercise”—aerobic workouts or classes at a gym. Making a date, which my brain regards as a contract, means I show up. I won’t let another person down (but I will wriggle out of a workout, endlessly excusing myself, if it’s “just me” scheduled to attend).

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

    The quiz says I am a Questioner. As a career journalist, I suppose that makes sense, but the so-called 5 W’s that used to be taught—of who, what, when, where and why—are at this age mostly centered on the why’s. I’ll admit I can be a bit pesky on this score, but what is life without incessant curiosity? I question, therefore I am. [Gretchen: Hmmm....your answers to some of these questions make me wonder if you're actually an Obliger.]

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

    Though friends long said I was “not Type A but Type AAA,” a being can throttle it up only just so long.

    A decade or so ago, I made a complicated decision to leave the city and my career for my former weekend home and garden, in a rural small town. The incessant stress and skyscraper existence—total disconnection from nature five days a week—just did not nurture me, I had to finally admit. Though I was described as “successful,” I had to acknowledge that the relentlessness back there also eroded my happiness and wellness, because I was fighting my natural rhythm and inclinations.

    The change required that I give up many things, from a salary and benefits to the proximity of some people I love and the city’s amazingness. I wrote a memoir about the transition, called And I Shall Have Some Peace There (a line from a Yeats poem, written about a place in nature that sustained him, as the place I have chosen does for me).

    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.?

    All of the above, or so it seemed that some key decisions were sudden at the time, as if the next step has just occurred to me in that instant. Looking back at most of them from a bit more distance, though, I can see that they were not sudden at all but that I had simply reached an “enough is enough” moment. (No wonder we have multiple expressions for such thresholds, like “the straw that broke the camel’s back” and lately “the tipping point.”)

    The book or conversation or birthday was catalytic, maybe, but I’d been brewing the change beneath the surface for some time. The decision to drop out of my career, and the city, was like that—sudden, and not so sudden at all.

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

    Various ones, but among them is “Keep weeding,” as in: working my way through the tangles that life (and a garden) can present, hoping to stay ahead of becoming engulfed or overwhelmed.

    I guess in the same spirit, I often find myself ending emails or letters with the one-word sentence: “Onward.”

    There is a line from a Wendell Berry poem, too: “All we need is here.” That is what I think of gratefully as I look out the window each day.

    A corollary to that (probably watering down a tenet of Buddhism once stated far more gracefully): “Want what you have, and don’t want what you don’t have.” Simpler said than done, but sound advice worth remembering.

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

    Jack Kornfield’s 1993 A Path With Heart, the title of which hints at which fork in the road to choose. I think the core lesson I took away was that struggling to make change—trying through some act of will to change—just reinforces patterns of self-judgment, and isn’t helpful (nor does it achieve any transformation, typically).

    Lots of lessons in Kornfield’s teachings are about compassion—including compassion directed at ourselves, which even many of the kindest people I know often forget to cultivate.

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

    I know that a big barrier to trying gardening is the impression that it is too hard, time-consuming, or expensive. But I also know (because hundreds of people tell me so each year) that those who succeed with even one houseplant can experience unexpected, inexplicable elation. Go ahead.

    It should not be a barrier, either, that we are powerless over a lot of what gardening places you face-to-face with—like the weather, or that your subjects are living things (meaning: they may die). In this world of 24/7 connectivity and instant answers from Google and all of it, finding ourselves humbled by forces bigger than ourselves through an undertaking like gardening is a good thing, a reality check, an antidote for hubris. The word humble comes from the Latin humus, for earth or ground. Ready to surrender?

    a way to garden cover

     
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