London Always Makes Me Think of Winston Churchill.

Last week, I was in London for my book tour for Better Than Before. What a beautiful, beautiful city. And I took even greater pleasure in it, because I was reminded of Winston Churchill.

One of the great joys of my life was writing Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, my biography of Churchill. What a pleasure it was to write that book! I had so many complicated things (both praise and blame, yes, I show both sides) to say about Churchill, and the problems of biography, and human nature, and I felt that I managed to express them all — to my own satisfaction, anyway.

The sights of London kept reminding me of various Churchill quotations, such as his extraordinary eulogy to Neville Chamberlain. This is one of my very favorite passages, in all of literature and history.

Before the war, Churchill strenuously opposed Neville Chamberlain and his appeasement policy. It was Chamberlain who, after meeting Hitler, decided “here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.” But once Churchill joined Chamberlain’s government, he became a loyal servant, and he continued to treat Chamberlain with courtesy after replacing him as Prime Minister. When Chamberlain died in 1940, Churchill gave a tribute to Chamberlain that honored his life while acknowledging his mistakes.

The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honor.

It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart – the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour. Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with most perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful devastating struggle in which we are now engaged…

Herr Hitler protests with frantic words and gestures that he has only desired peace. What do these ravings and outpouring count before the silence of Neville Chamberlain’s tomb?

No matter how many times I’ve read that, it still puts tears in my eyes.

Another favorite is a passage from Their Finest Hour, the second volume in Churchill’s six-volume history of World War II. Of a visit to a very poor London neighborhood that had been devastated by the Blitz, he wrote:

Already little pathetic Union Jacks had been stuck up amid the ruins. When my car was recognised the people came running from all quarters, and a crowd of more than a thousand was soon gathered. All these folk were in a high state of enthusiasm. They crowded round us, cheering and manifesting every sign of lively affection, wanting to touch and stroke my clothes. One would have thought I had brought them some fine substantial benefit which would improve their lot in life. I was completely undermined, and wept. Ismay, who was with me, records that he heard an old woman say: “You see, he really cares. He’s crying.” They were tears not of sorrow but of wonder and admiration.

These passages give the feeling of elevation that’s one of the most exquisite varieties of happiness.

burnetthomeOf course, London also makes me think of children’s literature. Every single street, it seems, reminds me of one of my favorite books. Peter Pan in Kensington Garden. Harry Potter in King’s Cross Station. Pauline, Petrova, and Posy visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum. Lyra wandering through the streets. I happened to walk by the former home of Frances Hodgson Burnett. Which got me to ponder that unanswerable question, yet again: which is my favorite FHB book, The Secret Garden or A Little Princess? I can’t decide.

I loved London. But boy it’s nice to be home. How about you — Is there a city that’s full of memories and associations for you?

Podcast #8: On Warm Hellos and Good-byes, the Atmosphere of Growth, and Playing “Divorce Lawyer.”

My sister Elizabeth Craft and I are having a great time doing our new podcast,  “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.

This episode was especially fun; I was in Los Angeles for my book tour for my new book Better Than Before, so Elizabeth and I got to be the same room as we were recording. Usually we can only hear a voice through our headsets, and it’s much nicer to be able to see each other.

Elizabeth is shadowed in the photo — sorry about that. I forgot to check to see how the picture turned out before I put away my phone.

As I’ve been traveling on this book tour, many people have told me that they’re enjoying the podcast. Thanks for listening! (If you like the podcast, we’re sheepishly asking people to rate and/or review it, if time and inclination permit; that’s very helpful for a new podcast like ours.)

Before describing this week’s episode, I want to say thanks again to the folks at iTunes; they created something special for me, a single page on iTunes where people can find Happier with Gretchen Rubin as well as my books.  As I wrote in a recent post, I try never to read reviews, but I did read this — and I’m very glad I did:

“We’re major fans of Gretchen Rubin, bestselling author of The Happiness Project. Rubin’s fascination with human behavior–as well as her sincere believe that we can make our lives more fulfilling and joyous–shines through in her podcasts, blog, and books. Her new book, Better Than Before, looks at how we form and break habits and is packed with her trademark warmth, wit, and down-to-earth intelligence.”

So nice. Yowza.

Here’s what Elizabeth and I discuss in today’s episode:

Try This at Home: Give warm hellos and good-byes. I mention a passage from Flannery O’Connor that’s been much on my mind lately: “The things that we are obliged to do, such as hear Mass on Sunday, fast and abstain on the days appointed, etc. can become mechanical and merely habit. But it is better to be held to the Church by habit than not to be held at all. The Church is mighty realistic about human nature.” –Flannery O’Connor, letter to T. R. Spivey, August 19, 1959, quoted in The Habit of Being.

Know Yourself Better: What did you do for fun when you were ten years old? It’s a clue to what you’d enjoy now, for work or for leisure. That’s certainly true for Elizabeth and me (though true, for Elizabeth, it was the reading and TV-watching, not the divorce-lawyer game).

Listener Question: “Happiness is tied to a sense of accomplishment. What are your thoughts on people who can make and set goals?”

Elizabeth’s Demerit: Elizabeth neglected to tell her husband Adam that she wanted praise, not constructive criticism. If you read this post from a few days ago, Why I Don’t Read Reviews or Profiles of Myself, I mentioned her comments in my post.

Gretchen’s Gold Star: A friend’s mother-in-law said just the right thing: “You know, sweetheart, there will always be a special place in our hearts for you.”

Want to get in touch? Email: podcast@gretchenrubin.com. Twitter: @gretchenrubin and @elizabethcraft. Phone: 774-277-9336 (774 HAPPY 336). Click here for Facebook Page. Or comment right here.

And we would love to hear from you — about whether warm greetings and good-byes made you happier, what you did for fun when you were a child, your questions, and any other comments. (For instance, one listener suggested that we include the contact information in this weekly post and on the podcast links. Great idea. Done. See above.)

To listen to this episode, just zip to the bottom of this post and hit the red “play” button.

Or if you’re reading this post by email, click here to view online, to listen to the podcast from this post.

Want to know what to expect from other episodes of the podcast, when you listen toHappier with Gretchen Rubin?” We talk about how to build happier habits into everyday life, as we draw from cutting-edge science, ancient wisdom, lessons from pop culture—and our own experiences (and mistakes).

Each week, we give  a “Try This at Home” suggestion, for some easy habit you can try, as part of your ordinary routine, to boost your happiness—something like setting an alarm to signal your bedtime, or using the one-minute rule, to help yourself stay on top of small nagging tasks.

We also suggest questions to help you “Know Yourself Better”—like “Whom do you envy?” and “Are you a Marathoner or a Sprinter in your work style?”—and explore “Happiness Stumbling Blocks,” those small, seemingly insignificant parts of daily life that drag us down—everything from the problem of the Evil Donut-Bringer to the fact that working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.

We “Grill the Guest” (well, we plan to — we haven’t had a guest yet), consider “Listener Questions,” and finally, we get even more personal, and each of us either gives ourselves a “Demerit” for a mistake we made that week, that affected our happiness, or awards a “Gold Star” to someone or something that deserves recognition.

We’re sisters, so we don’t let each other get away with much!

HOW TO SUBSCRIBE: If you’re like me (until recently) you’re intrigued by podcasts, but you don’t know how to listen or subscribe. It’s very easy, really. Really. Instructions here.

Or for an amusing short how-to video made by Ira Glass of This American Life, click here.

If you want to listen to more than one episode, and to have it all in a handier way, on your phone or tablet, it’s better to subscribe. Really, it’s easy.

Tell us what you think! Drop us a line at @gretchenrubin, @elizabethcraft, Facebook, podcast@gretchenrubin.com, or call 774-277-9336. Or just add your comment to this post.

Again, be sure to subscribe and listen and subscribe on iTunes so you never miss an episode. And if you enjoyed it, please tell your friends and give us a rating or review. Listeners really respect the views of other listeners, so your response helps people find good material. (Not sure how to review? Instructions here; scroll to the bottom.)

Happy listening! Or I should say, HAPPIER listening!

Why I Don’t Read Reviews of My Books or Profiles of Myself.

Yay! Better Than Before was reviewed this weekend in the New York Times, in a  piece by Hanna Rosin. You can read it here. Here’s the illustration that accompanied it — flossing seems to be one of the paradigmatic habits-that-everyone-wants.

I was thrilled to included — these days, very few of the books that are published get a review there. But I don’t know what the review says.

Years ago, when I was just starting out as a writer, a novelist friend’s book was reviewed in the Times.

I wrote him an email to say, “Great review, congratulations!” He wrote me back, “I don’t read reviews of my work, so I don’t know what it said, but I’m happy to hear that it was a good review.”

I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t understand this at all. How could he not read a review of his own book?

But now I understand, completely.

And these days I don’t read reviews of my books, or profiles of myself.

For a long time, I forced myself to read reviews and profiles, even though I hated doing it. It always upset me (weirdly, even a terrific review upset me) and certain phrases continued to ring through my head as I was writing, for years. Then one day I thought, “Wait, I don’t have to do this.”

Believe me, I’m delighted to get any spotlight on my work. I deeply appreciate the fact that someone has thought that it was worth a hard look. I’m very happy when my books get reviewed.

But I’ve found that I’m happier, and a better writer, when I don’t read these pieces.

For the kind of writing I do, I need to be honest and open-hearted. I have a very thin skin, and if I read something negative — even slightly negative — I feel attacked and defensive and self-conscious. That’s not good for my writing (or for my spirit).

True, I might get helpful criticism about my future writing from a review — but maybe not.

I have many, many smart people around me who give me plenty of constructive criticism about my writing. Plenty. Even though it’s sometimes difficult to handle that criticism, I do it. Each time I have trouble facing a round of edits, I shake myself and remember, “This person is helping me.”

But because of the negativity bias, negative comments are far more memorable than positive comments, and I worry that my writing will become distorted by my reaction.

This happened to me with audio-books. I recorded The Happiness Project myself, and although I try not to read reviews, somehow I glimpsed a comment where a reader said that my reading was “flat.”

So when it came time to record my next book, Happier at Home, I thought, “I’d better let a real actor do the reading. It’s fun for me to record my books, but a proper actor will give readers a better experience.”

But no! So many people wrote to tell me that they wished that I’d read Happier at Home myself, and many wrote explicitly to ask me if I’d recorded Better Than Before. (I did. Read about it here.) One person’s comment had influenced me far too much.

Again, I realize that this is a wonderful problem to have. I’ve written seven books, and I sure know what it’s like not to get any attention for a book, at all.

And I’m not sure that I’ll be able to resist taking a look at this review. It is the New York Times, after all! But so far, I haven’t.

Spoiler alert — in an upcoming episode of our podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin, Elizabeth talks about a related problem, when she accidentally asked for criticism when she should’ve asked for praise.

P.S. I do read every comment that’s made to this blog, so obviously, please don’t say anything in a comment that means that I’ll inadvertently imbibe the review.

Is It Better To Be Held to an Action By Habit, Than Not To Be Held at All?

“The things that we are obliged to do, such as hear Mass on Sunday, fast and abstain on the days appointed, etc. can become mechanical and merely habit. But it is better to be held to the Church by habit than not to be held at all. The Church is mighty realistic about human nature.”

–Flannery O’Connor, letter to T. R. Spivey, August 19, 1959, quoted in The Habits of Being

I think of this quotation often when someone asks me (and it comes up surprisingly often), “You make a habit of kissing your husband every morning and every night – but if it’s a habit, doesn’t it become an empty, inauthentic gesture?”

Yes, kissing my husband can become mechanical and merely habit. But it’s better to be kissing by habit than not kissing at all.

Also, although we assume that actions follow feelings, in truth, feelings often follow actions, so we should act the way we want to feel. When I act in a tender, romantic way, I feel more tender and romantic. So the habit doesn’t make me feel less loving, but rather, more loving.

How about you? Is there a habit that you keep in this way?

Want To Talk about Your Habits in a Group? It’s a Good Idea.

It’s been so satisfying to have Better Than Before out in the world at last. I must admit, I do look in every bookstore I pass, to see it on the shelves. I get a thrill every time. (I’ve also been known to sneak around putting copies of my books in more conspicuous places.)

And I was thrilled, yesterday, to hear that Better Than Before is still holding strong on the New York Times bestseller list. Yay! Thank you, readers.

It’s fascinating to me to hear how people are responding, now that there’s been time for people to have read the book — what ideas they’re finding most helpful or most surprising, and how they’re using the habit strategies themselves.

Please email me or post a comment here if you find a great way to apply one of the 21 strategies! I simply cannot hear enough examples. For instance, yesterday, I got an email from one reader who had leased a new car, and then used the Strategy of the Clean Slate to break the habit of eating fast food during the commute home from work. In the new car, no fast food. So simple, so brilliant.

In particular, many people have told me that they’re discussing the book in a group.

For instance, people are discussing Better Than Before in book groups, groups at work, and in spirituality-based groups (Bible study groups, spirituality groups, and the like). And support groups–one group discussed it during a support group for weight-loss surgery patients.

So, if you’d like one of the discussion guides for these groups, email me your request at gretchenrubin1 at gretchenrubin dot com or click here to download the guides (scroll down).

I’m in four book groups myself, so it gives me special pleasure to hear that Better Than Before is being discussed by a book group.

I’m also getting a lot of requests for the starter kit, from people who want to launch a Better Than Before habits group, where people work on their habits together.

No surprise, many of these requests come from Obligers, who now see that external accountability is the key to sticking to their good habits — they want to form the group that will give them that crucial accountability. Which is a great idea!

Some solutions — like hiring a coach, working with a trainer, or taking a class — work extremely well, but they carry a cost; starting a habits group is free. If you’d like the starter kit, email me at gretchenrubin1 at gretchenrubin dot com, or download it here.

If you’re reading the book in any kind of group, and your group would like signed bookplates to make the books feel more personal, request them here (I’m so sorry–I can offer this for U.S. and Canada only, because of mailing costs). Or request a bookplate for yourself, or a gift, if you want.

Unrelatedly, in a book-signing line, someone asked me, “Do you really make your bed when you’re staying in a hotel? Even on the morning you’re checking out?”

Yup. I really do.

This is a good example of something from my Habits Manifesto: We’re not much different from other people, but those differences are very important. This hotel-bed-making habit, which seems natural and unexceptional to me, strike many people as deeply weird. As I’ve discovered. On my book tour, I’ve had many opportunities to make my hotel bed.