Tag Archives: books

A Little Happier: A Tough Happiness Lesson from Hollywood’s Judd Apatow.

Ever since I read Sick in the Head: Conversations about Life and Comedy, by Hollywood producer, writer, director, and actor Judd Apatow (This is 40, Knocked Up, Freaks and Geeks, Girls, etc.), I’ve been haunted by this story.

During the course of his interview with the legendary James L. Brooks, Judd Apatow mentions how tough it was for him when his parents split up in 1984, when he was 13. His mother moved out.

He says, “She had a bit of a mental break after the divorce. She claimed that she thought she was going to leave and come right back, and my dad immediately moved his girlfriend in. Right before she died, she told me, ‘I always thought I was going to come right back. I always thought it was going to be a couple of weeks.’”

This strikes me as a great happiness reminder: we have to be very careful not to assume that we can predict how other people will react, especially to big dramatic gestures. We may have to deal with consequences that we didn’t predict.

Have you ever made a big gesture — with unexpected consequences?


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“My Not Procrastinating Stems from Laziness. If I Do Something Immediately, I Can Go Back to Reading.”

Interview: Pamela Paul.

I’ve known Pamela Paul for many years. When I switched from law to writing, one happiness stumbling block was that I didn’t know many other writers. Pamela was among the first writers that I got to know, and through her, I met a lot of other writers who have become my friends. So she has been a huge contributor to my personal happiness.

In her professional life, Pamela is an acclaimed journalist, editor, and author, and she’s also a passionate reader — credentials that make her perfect for her current position as the editor of The New York Times Book Review and head of all things book-related at The New York Times.

She’s also a member of one of my (three) beloved children’s literature reading groups. In fact, she wrote about the Kidlit group in her New York Times piece, “The Kids’ Books Are All Right.

I’m so excited — Pamela has written a memoir that combines her love of writing and reading (and also travel), and it just hit the shelves last week. The day it went on sale, I ran out to get my copy for my weekend reading: My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues. I loved it.

Since high school, Pamela has kept a single journal with her at all times, a book called Bob. It’s her “Book of Books” (“Bob,” get it?), and in it, she records every book that she reads.

My Life with Bob is a reflection on her relationship with the books she reads — how those books have been entwined in her experiences, her relationships, her extensive travels, her work, and her understanding of the world.

When I read it, I was thrilled to see a mention of Kidlit! And myself mentioned by name! Yes, I am a character in someone else’s memoir.

I love memoirs where people explore their passions, and I also love reading books that gives me a reading list for more books to read.

I was also fascinated by the way Pamela reflected on her life by looking at her “Bob.” It’s such an interesting angle. Like writing a one-sentence journal, or taking one photo every day, she found a quick, manageable way to record her experience in a way that allowed her to look back, reflect, and get a better glimpse of her life. So many thought-provoking, hilarious stories.

I couldn’t wait to hear what Pamela had to say about happiness and habits.

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

Pamela: When I am away from my children, I keep my phone by my side. When I am with my children, I (try very hard to) keep my phone away from my side. Obviously, work (and life) can interfere with that, but I really want to be present when I’m with them and available when I’m not. As a parent working full-time outside the home, this makes me happier.

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

I know that you can change your habits, for better and for worse. When I was younger, I thought you created habits for life. Now I realize that life can interfere with even the most ingrained habits. For example, I used to have a habit of exercising three times a week, but I’ve lost that in the last 2 years. Obviously, that falls into the “for worse” category. For better, I have found that when circumstance calls for it, I can start much better habits. When I was pregnant with each of my kids, I was able to learn to sleep on my side and my back, rather than my stomach, which I know is better for my back and overall posture.

Like a lot of people, I’m hard enough on myself as it is. Knowing that there can be a certain amount of flexibility in my habits makes me feel more aspirational and optimistic about the possibility of forming better ones, and more forgiving about falling into poor ones.

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

My most important habit is sleep. If I don’t get between 7 and 8 hours of sleep, I am generally unhappy. If I have less than 6 hours, I almost entirely useless. If I get between 6 hours and 7 hours, I complain about it all day and blame all that goes wrong in the world on my lack of sleep, and that includes everything my kids do that irritates me that day, every unpleasant news development and every personal failing. Also, I send emails I regret and blurt out things I ought never have said. Sleep makes everything better.

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

Books keep me up later than they should that isn’t good for my most important habit, sleep. Also, really good TV shows, when I have the chance to watch them, are terrible for sleeping. The most recent one was “Stranger Things,” which I was possessed by. Now it’s “The Night Manager.” A few years ago, it was “Breaking Bad.” That show nearly destroyed me, and a few weeks after I’d finally finished binge watching it again, I started watching the first episode from the beginning and knew immediately that if I finished watching that episode, I would fall right back down the rabbit hole and not emerge again until I’d gone through every season. I had to turn it off at that very moment. It’s taken effort not to go back there.

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

Like most kids, I procrastinated doing everything: raking the leaves, constructing dioramas, bringing in bagels from the outside freezer. Then one day, I had a kind of epiphany though I can’t say it began with a lightning bolt. Instead, I recall it happening as I was sitting in my childhood bedroom, pushing a pencil through the grayish pink carpet while contemplating what I didn’t want to have to do that week. Here was my realization:

Say I had a homework assignment. I realized that I could either put the assignment off for a week and thereby add to the list of things I had to do, which is to say, add a week’s worth of low-level stress and then a day of high-stress when I struggled to get it done at the last minute. Or, I could simply do the homework as soon as it was assigned, and then spend a week feeling accomplished and relaxed and able to read or play games on my brother’s Apple II+ or do whatever else I wanted to do with that time. It seemed like a no-brainer to me, and it has ever since. I know it sounds show-offy to brag about it, but fundamentally, not procrastinating stems from a profound laziness. If I do something immediately, I get it out of the way and I can go back to lying around reading or watching a movie instead.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?


“The Incremental Improvements We Make Become Dramatic and Powerful over Time.”

Interview: Tasha Eurich.

As someone who values self-knowledge, I was intrigued by Tasha Eurich’s new book, Insight, about self-awareness. Her research shows that we are remarkably poor judges of ourselves and how we’re perceived by others, and it’s rare to get candid, objective feedback from colleagues, employees, and even friends and family.

In my own life, I’ve found that responses from others have helped me better to understand myself and how I come across. My daughter Eleanor recently made me see myself in an entirely new light. And through my discussions with Elizabeth on the Happier podcast, I’ve come to understand better how my Upholder ways may sometimes rub people the wrong way. What, I’m being rude when I send that work email over the weekend?

In Insight, Tasha tells stories of people who’ve made dramatic self-awareness gains, and offers secrets, techniques and strategies to help readers do the same — and therefore improve their work performance, career satisfaction, leadership potential, relationships, and more. I was curious to learn about her habits.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded on the subject of habits?

Tasha: I love this question because my research on self-awareness relates so nicely to your enlightening work on habits. I’ve spent the last three years researching what self-awareness is and how we can improve it to be more successful and confident at work (and at home). Part of that involved studying people who’ve dramatically improved their understanding of who they are and how they’re seen by others. Interestingly, I didn’t find any consistent patterns by gender or by job type or even by age—what they all had in common was a belief in the importance of self-awareness and a daily commitment to it.

In a way, self-awareness was the habit they cultivated. Whether they spent time each evening reflecting on what went well and what didn’t or regularly questioning their assumptions about themselves by getting feedback from people they trusted, or daily mindfulness meditation, each person made it a habit to reflect on their self-knowledge.

What I love about this is that it shows that often there is no big moment or epiphany for most people, rather, it’s something we can chip away at each and every day. Added up, the incremental improvements we make do become dramatic and powerful over time.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Most recently my adopted dog Fred! She’s a five-pound poodle and puppy mill survivor, from the National Milldog Rescue (an incredible organization!!). I’ve taken to bringing her with me to lots of the places I go—to restaurant patios, to friends’ houses, and even on some of my business trips. Whenever I’m taking Fred somewhere, I’ll announce to her that we’re about to go on an adventure, and her ears perk up and she runs towards the door. It’s a small thing but I think any day that I get to practice that habit is a day that we both feel more relaxed, happy, and at peace. We are each other’s emotional support animals!

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

About three years ago, I joined Orange Theory Fitness, a gym that does high-intensity interval training. I’d literally never run a mile in my life—I was the awkward kid who sat out in gym class because of my asthma. I started going once or twice a week, and not only did I find it surprisingly enjoyable, I was actually sad on the days I didn’t go! I joke that I wrote most of my book while running on the treadmill at the gym. I’ve found that there’s no better way for me to get unstuck—intellectually and emotionally—than high impact exercise.

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

Based on the quiz, I think I’m an Upholder and I am very goal and rule oriented. But I also care about others’ expectations of me. The day my first book hit the New York Times bestseller list, I literally turned to my husband and said “Well, I guess it’s time to start the next book!” He was horrified and dragged me to a celebratory dinner. I’ve always had pretty unreasonably high expectations for myself and while it’s helped me achieve many of my goals, it wasn’t always healthy. I’ve found myself worried about whether I’m meeting others’ expectations—am I being a good consultant? A good wife? A good friend? A good daughter? Most days, asking these questions is healthy, but I have to make sure that my own needs are not getting lost in the shuffle, which is a little Obliger-y. [From Gretchen: These views are absolutely consistent with Upholderness. Upholders respond both to outer and inner expectations.]

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I’ve always craved novelty in my day-to-day life. It’s so interesting being married to someone who has worked for the same company for 22 years—my husband loves having the same routine every day and finds comfort and excitement in it. For me, though, one of the reasons I was less-than-fulfilled when I worked in the Fortune 500 world was showing up to the same office in the same place with the same people every day.

But that’s also why I love what I do now—I go from being locked in my office or a coffee shop writing one day to getting on a plane and flying to work with a consulting client or do a keynote. No two days are the same, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

That said, I don’t think that an ever-changing routine necessarily precludes one from developing habits—for example, if anyone messes with my airport check-in/security routine, I get pretty stressed. These habits just might not be as apparent to outside observers as they are to me!

One of the things I hope people learn from my new book Insight is that self-awareness allows you to acknowledge the things that are important to you—not what you think should be important but what actually is—and design your life (and by extension, your habits) around them. I can have both novelty that I crave and habits that create healthy order.

“It’s Easier to Let Myself Down Rather than to Let Other People Down.”

Interview: Amy Blankson.

Amy Blankson is a person who knows a lot about happiness and good habits. Remarkably, she’s the only person to be named as a “Point of Light” by two presidents (President Bush and President Clinton). What a credential — a two-time Point-of-Light! I get a big kick out of that.

Her new book just hit the shelves, The Future of Happiness: 5 Modern Strategies to Balance Productivity and Well-being in the Digital Era.

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

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded on the subject of habits?

Amy: I’ve learned that, despite being highly sophisticated human beings, we regularly make irrational decisions that move us further from our goals.

We have just enough information at our fingertips to think that we have thought through an idea well; however, on closer examination, there are major gaps in our thought processes (called illusory knowledge). For example, as you look at each of these pictures below, your brain begins to add shapes and lines that are hinted at but don’t actually exist.

The brain does the same thing each time we are faced with a decision, whether big or small. The brain fills in the gaps with illusory knowledge—that may or may not be accurate—to draw conclusions and make decisions. It turns out that, most of the time, we are all-out wrong. In fact, roughly 50 percent to 80 percent wrong!

This phenomenon explains why we so often talk ourselves out of making choices that we know are good for us, like practicing gratitudes or journaling or exercising.

To truly create sustainable positive change, we have to learn to recognize the illusory knowledge in our environment that causes limiting beliefs about our potential (i.e., I want to lose weight, but I don’t really think I can because I know lots of people that struggle with it—even if I have never tried). Only then can we begin to reframe our thought processes so we can mindfully begin to fill in the gaps where we might need more facts and information so that we can make empowered choices.

Or for a more personal example, let me tell you a story: Two years ago, a group of girlfriends invited me to walk a half marathon with them in the Outer Banks. Now, mind you, I have always hated running, but I thought walking wouldn’t be too bad. Plus, I was really craving a girls’ weekend away, so I signed up on a whim. About one week into training, my “friends” decided we should run the race instead. What?! I panicked. I had never run longer than one mile before. In elementary school when I was five years old, they asked me to run a mile. About a quarter of the way in, I almost collapsed because I couldn’t breathe. Since then, I had resisted running at all costs.

But, as I now understand, I had a limiting belief based upon a single data point: my loss of breath at age five. I didn’t know whether that was an asthma attack, or if I had been born with one lung (a condition somehow undetected by every doctor in my life), or if I was just perhaps not in the practice of running. So I set out to log and quantify a renewed attempt at running, using the MapMyRun App, which geo-tagged my location as I ran my first five minutes. During my first training session, I noted that my breathing began to get difficult at exactly .39 of a mile (at the four-minute mark). I also logged how long it took me to get my breath back (six minutes), how my legs felt, what my heart rate was, and in what kind of weather conditions I was running. Two days later I tried again. I made it the same amount of time before my breathing became labored. I logged that information. Then over the next few runs, my run duration began to increase, my speed got faster, and my breathing recovered sooner. I suddenly had real knowledge: I could run at least four minutes without breathing hard—but my full potential was still unknown.

Six weeks later (the halfway point in my training), picture me running five miles in the mountains on vacation. Yup, that was me. This transformation did not happen overnight but was rather a series of little battles and choices along the way that required me to rethink what I thought I knew about myself. By the end of my training, I found myself sprinting to the finish line of the half marathon, having run the whole 13.1 miles without stopping.

This feat continues to be one of the proudest moments in my life, not just because I finished the race, but even more so because I overcame limiting beliefs that I had struggled with for years. Quantifying my behavioral patterns and having more than one or two data points changed everything.

Illusory knowledge threatens to derail our decision-making about behavior change by skewing our perception of reality. These traitorous ideas are often hidden in the smallest, quietest thoughts in our heads, whispering falsehoods, spreading seeds of doubt, and holding us back from achieving our full potential. The key to making better decisions is taking the time to look thoughtfully at the details that shape our larger environment. You’ve probably heard the expression, “Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees.” It’s worth stopping to realize that there would be no forest without trees.

At GoodThink, we define optimism as the belief that our behavior matters. And when we latch on to this idea, we begin to take ownership of these small moments, recognizing that they are not just fleeting thoughts but critical choices that shape our future. Until you believe that your behavior matters, change is virtually impossible. Every day, you have the opportunity to make an active choice that your behavior does matter, both for your success and happiness—not in some distant future, but right now, right here in your life.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Saying gratitudes every day consistently boosts my happiness level. When I’m having a hard day, this practice reminds me that there are multiple ways to perceive the same scenario. In fact, psychologist Sonja Lubyamirsky writes in her book, The How of Happiness, that 90% of our happiness is up to our perception of the world, which explains why so many people reading the same book or listening to the same talk can perceive that event in entirely different ways.

In 2008, my husband Bobo and I were stationed with the Air Force in Biloxi, Mississippi. I can honestly say that Biloxi was not on my top 1000 places to live in my life, but I genuinely tried to make the best of the experience. We bought our first home, got our first dog, and starting making friends in the community. However, three months later, Hurricane Katrina hit and I lost my house, my dog, and my community. Anxiety began creeping into my life as I felt like the world was out of my control, but practicing gratitudes really helped me to climb out of that dark place and anchor myself in what I could control.

Today, I teach my three young daughters to say gratitudes at bedtime, and I’m proud to say that they have become incredibly good at coming up with long lists of gratitudes (either that, or they are professional stallers at bedtime; either way, I feel like I’m winning).

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

First, habits are a work ethic. This sounds obvious, but at 18 I thought I could simply conceive of a new habit and it would magically happen. Now that I’m 3x older, I realize the importance of habit sustainability. I understand that there are seasons in our life, where habits ebb and flow.  When I was a young mother, I was pretty excited to just get a morning shower and remember to brush my hair; now that my kids are older, my habits are much more focused on being a positive role model (reading in front of my children, saying my gratitudes around them, doing acts of kindness, etc.).

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

Absolutely! I actually have a t-shirt that says, “I’ve had my morning coffee. Now you may speak.” Coffee has become a bit of an addiction for me, not because of volume but because of ritual. I love waking up to making a steaming mug of coffee and sipping on it while I launch into my work; but if I don’t get my coffee, I turn into a whiney version of Jekyll and Hide that can’t think straight and isn’t on her game. As a naturally anxious person, I know caffeine is not good for my long-term happiness, but this is most definitely a work-in-progress in my life.

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

A few years ago, I realized that my husband has certain habits that make him tick…I call them the four F’s: family, friends, faith, and fitness. But for me, my list is a bit different.  Acts of service, the arts, meditation, and exercise are my keys to feeling like my optimal self. When I take the time to do community service or play piano or just stare at the clouds and think, I feel the greatest sense of alignment internally and externally. I try to maintain a growth mindset about striving towards my potential (which is how the ancient Greeks defined happiness). For instance, I recently decided to pick up the cello at age 37 because I crave learning and growing with intention. I also regularly try out new wearables like posture trainers to give me new insight into mind and body.

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

This past January, I tried something called The Daniel Fast, which was an incredibly restrictive diet that is based on the book of Daniel from the Bible.  No meat, no dairy, no sugar! For some people, this would be no big deal (evidently you, Gretchen, are one of these!); but for me, no sugar was a serious challenge.

However, I had a couple of factors that propelled me to successfully maintain the diet for 21 days: first and foremost, I knew deep down that I needed to change my sugar habit because I was addicted. It was time to do something, so I was mentally ready. Second, I had a number of friends trying the diet at the same time; I know from positive psychology that social support is the single greatest predictor of long-term success and happiness, so I leaned on my friends to help me stick to the plan. There was a LOT of whining involved, but after about 5 days, the cravings began to subside and I became a nicer person. And third, I knew that this habit change was for a defined period of time, which enabled me to feel like the task was do-able and also not permanent.

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

I’m an Obliger. I wish I weren’t, but I am. Because I’m an optimist, I attribute my tendency to meet outer expectations rather than inner expectations to my strong sense of empathy.  But even as I write this, I know it’s a cop out. I don’t like conflict, and it’s easier to let myself down rather than to let other people down. However, as I’m growing older, I’m beginning to realize that other people’s opinions don’t matter as much as my own; in fact, other people are watching me to shape their own behavior.  As a thought-leader in the digital well-being space, I need to lead the way, even if I make mistakes along the way. I receive letters on a daily basis from readers who remark how my authenticity and transparency is inspiring to them. So if my story helps inspire one other person, it’s all worth it.

[For those particularly interested in The Four Tendencies: Note that this is an accountability strategy that works for many Obligers: thinking of their duty to be a role model for others.]

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

Travel certainly throws me off of my healthy habits, but I recognize that I tend to baby myself a bit more when I’m traveling (more coffee, more chocolate…) to deal with the stress and uncertainty. I’m actively trying to fight these temptations by indulging myself in other ways. I recently found a bag of Biena Honey Chickpeas in an airport store. I indulged on those instead, knowing I was loading up on protein and fiber instead of just sugar and caffeine—and I felt so much better afterwards!

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

In my line of work, I test out hundreds of gadgets and apps designed to increase well-being. I’ve been shocked by posture trainers, pricked by blood testers, and had my skin ripped off by Velcro adhesive. I’ve literally got my skin in the game! That being said, I was particularly shocked to have a lightning bolt experience with a wearable called the Spire Stone last summer.

As back story: the Spire Stone is a small lava-shaped rock with a clip that attaches to your waistband or bra strap; it uses your breathing patterns to determine if you are feeling calm or focused or tense. As a naturally anxious person, I found this feedback loop useful to remind me to breathe more often; however, about five days into my trial period with the Spire, this device went from fascinating to fundamentally transformative for me.

Through an unfortunate series of circumstances, my eight-year old daughter Ana broke her neck last summer in our backyard pool. Fortunately, she is fine now and doing back handsprings all over the house; but at the time, I remember driving Ana to the hospital to get X-rays while wearing my Spire stone, and it surprisingly said that I was feeling quite calm…it wasn’t until we were walking out of the hospital, with Ana in a giant neck brace, that the Spire stone began to vibrate, indicating that I was feeling tense. And I thought, yeah I know–my daughter just broke her neck!! But the vibration caused me to pause and think about why I was feeling tense, and I realized… “I was worried about what other people would think about me, as the mom of a child with a broken neck…rather than being present with Ana, supporting her as she wrestled with her new reality—a summer of no gymnastics, no lacrosse, no swimming. This 30-second feedback loop from the Spire stone was just enough to help me reframe my thoughts and mindfully pivot to be more of the mother I wanted to be.

For me, this is technology at its finest—helping to raise our consciousness and to fuel well-being through science-backed solutions. And I was incredibly grateful to have this lightning-bolt moment to help me align my intentions with my actions.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I embrace habits whole-heartedly!  I maintain a chart on my bathroom mirror called “My Journey to Health and Happiness” to help me keep track of my daily habits; rather than by tracking my habits by the day of the week, I focus on trying to maximize my “win-streak.” Speaking to another gold star junkie, I know you’ll appreciate this—I literally give myself a gold star if I complete a task, which helps me get back on the horse if I miss a day or two.

1pixAmy Blankson Happiness Habit Chart

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

My brother Shawn Achor (author of The Happiness Advantage) has had a big influence on my habits. He was the one who introduced me to the science of positive psychology, and taught me how “the twenty second rule” could help me stick to my positive habits better (i.e., make positive habits twenty seconds easier, and make negative habits twenty seconds harder).

How Do We Learn Most About Another Person?

“You learn more about a person by living in his house for a week than by years of running into him at social gatherings.”

–Philip Lopate, “Reflections on Subletting” in Against Joie de Vivre: Personal Essays

Agree, disagree? I agree.

What are other good ways to get to know someone? Travel together, work on a project together, meet his or her family, look at the photos on his or her phone…