Tag Archives: experience

Agree, Disagree? Memories Live Longer Than Dreams.

Interview: James Wallman.

I’ve long been fascinated by the relationships between people and possessions. It’s a complicated, rich, emotionally-fraught bond. In the chapter on the Strategy of Distinctions in my book Better Than Before, for instance, I discuss the difference between over-buyers and under-buyers, and abundance-lovers and simplicity-lovers, and how those differences affect habits.

On this fascinating subject, James Wallman has a new book, Stuffocation: Why We’ve Had Enough of Stuff and Need Experience More than Ever,

I was very interested to hear what James had to say about habits, possessions, happiness, and human nature.

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

James: In a note my Granddad, Jack, gave me on the day he died, he wrote that “Memories live longer than dreams.” As you can imagine, I’ve thought about that note a lot since then. I now believe he meant that what matters in life isn’t material things but experiences. So I have an ingrained habit to spend as little (money, time, energy) as possible on stuff, and as much as possible on experiences. When I come to any decision, I ask myself: will this, at the least, create a memory? It’s a great habit because it informs everything I do, it makes making decisions so much easier. I buy far less stuff, and do more things. And it makes my life full of interesting experiences.

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

The most important thing I’ve learned about forming healthy habits is the difference between the conscious and unconscious mind. Daniel Kahneman calls them System 2 and System 1 in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein think of them, in Nudge, as Homo Economicus and Homer Economicus. And Jonathan Haidt, in The Happiness Hypothesis, describes them as like the elephant and the rider. These ways of seeing the conscious and unconscious mind have made it clear to me that you have to set things up to help yourself follow your habits. Your System 1, Homo Economicus, rider has to “architect choice” for your System 2, Homer Economicus, elephant—so it’s easy for you to follow any habit.

So, if you don’t want to eat chocolate, don’t have chocolate in the house. If you don’t want to drink beer, don’t go to the pub. If you don’t want to end up with more stuff, don’t go shopping. And then, don’t only not do something, but have something positive to head towards. Have an alternative, non-sugary treat in the house. Have another way to spend time with friends: go climbing, for a walk, to the cinema, or anywhere where beer or shopping isn’t the main activity.

By architecting choice, you (the rider) can steer the elephant in the right direction.

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

Checking email! I’ve removed email from my phone so I can’t check it when I’m away from my computer.

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

I believe in sacred time. I can’t multi-task anyway, but I find it’s too easy to get distracted (hello, email). So whatever I’m doing, I try to completely focus on it. I switch my cellphone to airplane mode when I go to the park with my kids, for instance. So instead of checking Twitter and catching up with friends by text (hah, getting rid of email only takes you so far!), I actually focus on hanging out with them.

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

I didn’t understand the categories till I’d taken the quiz, to be honest. But since I took the test and it says I’m a Questioner I totally get it. It’s me exactly: I question everything that I’m told, and I like to stick to things that matter to me. How else can any author be good at what they do? Our job is to question things, work out if they’re true, if they work, if they’re worth sharing. And then, we have to knuckle down and put hours, days, years, early mornings, late nights into bringing our passion from that idea that struck us at some obscure, quiet moment into the bright light of publication day. Hey, that’s how it’s been for this author at least!

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

I like to meditate early in the morning. It’s great for focusing the mind, setting up the day, getting things done. But I have a one-year-old and a three-year-old – and as often as not, they get up too. Hey, at least I get to hang out with them and have breakfast… which I guess is a healthy habit too.

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.?

That note from my Granddad.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I’m realistic: we’re creatures of habit. So the best thing is to try to create good habits.

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

My Mum and Dad. They’ve always been very positive. It wasn’t that they pushed my brother and I, but they would always say: “It doesn’t matter how well you do, just do your best.” And they meant it. They didn’t judge us (or at least, I didn’t feel like they were judging us) on whether we succeeded or failed at something. They were happy if we’d had a go. And I think that’s a good practice, a good habit to have. Life throws all sorts of things at us: ups, downs, amazing surprises and frustrating setbacks. And if you know you’re doing all you can do, if you know you’re not wasting your opportunity, the result doesn’t matter. You can stand tall, be satisfied and happy with yourself, knowing you’re doing your best.

Secret of Adulthood: Experience the Experience.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:



I constantly struggle to experience the experience, to experience now. Not to think about the past, or the future, but now. In fact, the last chapter of Happier at Home is titled “Now.” It always seems as though experiencing the present moment should be easy, but it’s so challenging. At least for me. But then I struggle so much with mindfulness.

How about you? Do you have a mantra or a habit or a Secret of Adulthood that helps you “experience the experience?”

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Do You Have the Most Vivid Memories from Your Life from Age 15 to 25?

I don’t have much time to write, because I’m leaving for L.A. in an hour–I’m going to be on The Talk on Tuesday, which will be a lot of fun. Tune in! I’ll also get to see my sister and her family, which will be a real treat.

I was very intrigued by this observation in Jennifer Senior’s piece in New York magazine, Why You Truly Never Leave High School:

Give a grown adult a series of random prompts and cues, and odds are he or she will recall a disproportionate number of memories from adolescence. This phenomenon even has a name–the “reminiscence bump”–and it’s been found over and over in large population samples, with most studies suggesting that memories from the ages of 15 to 25 are most vividly retained.

Fascinating! It reminded me of a passage from Robert Southey, which I quoted in Happier at Home:

Live as long as you may, the first twenty years are the longest half of your life. They appear so while they are passing; they seem to have been so when we look back on them; and they take up more room in our memory than all the years that succeed them.

According to the science, Southey was half-right.

What do you think? Do you remember certain years of your life with particular vividness? Would you say it’s from age 1-21 years, or 15-25 years, or some other period?

“My Experience Is What I Agree To Attend To.”

“My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.”
–William James, The Principles of Psychology, Vol.1

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“The Things That Go Wrong Often Make the Best Memories” — and Further Secrets of Adulthood.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: More Secrets of Adulthood.

What have I learned, with time and experience? Not much, I fear. Here are my latest Secrets of Adulthood. Although these items may not seem particularly profound, each one was a revelation when I finally figured it out:

The things that go wrong often make the best memories.
Approval from the people you admire is sweet, but it’s not enough to be the foundation of a happy life.
If you don’t really want something, getting it won’t make you happy.
It’s enormously helpful, and surprisingly difficult, to grasp the obvious.
The quickest way to progress from A to B is NOT to work the hardest.
Go outside.
It’s easier to prevent pain than to squelch it. (This is true literally and figuratively.)
Where you start makes a big difference in where you end up.
Remember to choose your boss carefully.
There’s no place like home.
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. (Actually, Voltaire came up with that one, not me.)

Here are my previously identified Secrets of Adulthood:

The best reading is re-reading.
Outer order contributes to inner calm.
The opposite of a great truth is also true.
You manage what you measure.
It’s nice to have plenty of money.
By doing a little bit each day, you can get a lot accomplished.
People don’t notice your mistakes and flaws as much as you think.
Most decisions don’t require extensive research.
Try not to let yourself get too hungry.
Even if you think they’re fake, it’s nice to celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
If you can’t find something, clean up.
The days are long, but the years are short.
Turning the computer on and off a few times often fixes a glitch.
It’s okay to ask for help.
You can choose what you do; you can’t choose what you LIKE to do.
Happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy.
What you do EVERY DAY matters more than what you do ONCE IN A WHILE.
You don’t have to be good at everything.
Soap and water removes most stains.
It’s important to be nice to EVERYONE.
You know as much as most people.
Over-the-counter medicines are very effective.
Eat better, eat less, exercise more.
What’s fun for other people may not be fun for you–and vice versa.
People actually prefer that you buy wedding gifts off their registry.
Houseplants and photo albums are a lot of trouble.
If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.
No deposit, no return.

I’ve modified one Secret of Adulthood to replace “Someplace, keep an empty shelf” with “Someplace, keep an empty shelf; someplace, keep a junk drawer.”

One of my favorite things to do on the Happiness Project Toolbox (okay, my favorite thing) is to see what other people are saying. A few of my favorite Secrets of Adulthood from other people include:

Some things are worth waiting for, some things are not.
It’s okay to like watching cartoons (even if you are 36).
A job where someone pays you to do nothing is not awesome, it’s boring.
Maturity doesn’t mean acting serious all the time.
If you buy an item that has a part that will frequently need to be replaced, go ahead and buy a replacement at the same time.
When someone is mourning a loss, don’t worry about saying the right thing. Just say something.
You need old friends and new friends.
Seek mentors for more than your career.
It is what it is.

I’m tempted to keep going. but will force myself to stop here. How about you? Have you identified a helpful Secret of Adulthood?

* I love getting the chance to see other bloggers face to face, so am very happy to be meeting Emily from TheMotherHood this afternoon.

* It’s Word-of-Mouth Day, when I gently encourage (or, you might think, pester) you to spread the word about the Happiness Project. You might:
— Forward the link to someone you think would be interested
— Link to a post on Twitter (follow me @gretchenrubin)
— Sign up for my free monthly newsletter (about 46,000 people get it)
Buy the book
— Put a link to the blog in your Facebook status update
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Thanks! I really appreciate any help. Word of mouth is the BEST.