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Agree, Disagree? “Habits of the Mind Far Outweigh Habits of the Body.”

Interview: Heather Harpham.

A friend recently gave me a copy of Heather Harpham’s new memoir Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After, and I whipped through it.

First of all — the title. Of course. Plus, I love memoirs generally, and among other things, this memoir covers the time during which Heather Harpham’s young daughter went through a bone-marrow transplant.

I’m hugely interested in the subject of transplants and organ donation generally (read here if you want to know why, and about the happiest day of my life).

It’s also about romantic love, marriage, parenthood, crisis. And all told from the perspective of a Rebel! I do love spotting the Four Tendencies in action.

Heather Harpham also writes fiction, essays and reviews for many publications, has written and performed multiple solo plays, and teaches at various colleges and universities.

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

Heather: Walking in nature. Specifically, the aqueduct that runs parallel to the Hudson River, and cuts through my small town. In summer, it’s a leafy green lacy canopy. In winter, it’s bare and you can see the water. I love it there. Typically, I walk with my friend Barbara Feinberg, who is also a writer and a teacher and that means we get to talk shop, and gossip, as we walk. Secondly, eating (very consistently, almost every morning!) a croissant from Antoinette’s French bakery. I’m a giant believer in butter and flour as a habit that brings happiness. And in pausing to pet the cat, if you’re lucky enough to be allowed. Petting the cat might be the key to happiness.

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

That habits of the mind far outweigh habits of the body. How you think is everything. Everything.  It’s the one and only thing we have control over, our perceptions and reactions, the loop our mind runs. I think of political prisoners—Geronimo Pratt in this country, or the South African writer Breyten Breytenbach are just two examples of so many who endured decades in prison without losing hope, without becoming like their jailers. Resisting bitterness or despair, simply by tending their thoughts. That amazes me.

I had no idea of this possibility before, say, 30. I would willingly junk up my mind with any kind of self-destructive or judgmental nonsense that occurred to me. The world was much more comfortingly black and white, good guys and bad guys; I was often furious with unseen forces. Or with myself. Not in a productive, how can I change this behavior kind of way, just idly furious. After college, I made a choice not to become an attorney because, as much as a life fighting for causes appealed to me, I feared I’d lean too far into the angry, intolerant side of myself. And that turned out to be a good decision because being a writer has gradually nudged my mind into better habits. Storytelling forces a slower pace, a wider lens. If you want to describe someone, or someplace well, you have to widen your field of vision. You have to divine, or try to, motive and subtleties. Writing invites the act of empathy, even when empathy is out of reach. Somewhere, a staggeringly compassionate soul is maybe—through the acting of writing—figuring out how the small boy who was Donald Trump grew into a guy capable of demoralizing, alienating and insulting millions with a single Tweet. Hats off to them! I’m not there yet. That’s the big leagues. But I do believe kindness or empathy, as a habit of mind, can be cultivated.

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

Thinking I’m right. It astonishes me how reflexive that impulse is; I almost always, in any conflict, assume my own moral ascendancy. And that’s really too bad because when you think you’re right, you generally stop listening. Why would you listen when you already know the answer? My kids, as you can imagine, are not great fans of this quality. Ditto my husband. Luckily, happily, I’ve had almost two decades of partnership and of parenting to help remind me that there is another way to look at what I think I see clearly. Having a sense of humor helps in this cause. Kids don’t let you get away with arrogance; with other things maybe, but not that. They are great at pointing out your inconsistencies, your hypocrisies. I’m so thankful to them for that, but only a week or so after the fact.

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.?  

When we were living in Durham for my daughter’s medical care and I had to watch her and many other children around us suffer on a pediatric bone marrow transplant unit, I began, not quite consciously but not totally unconsciously either, to restrict my eating. Obsessing over body image or food had been a habit since puberty, and this was just another iteration on that stale refrain. I’d drift through the day on coffee or a chocolate bar and then drink half a glass of red wine for dinner. I liked it, honestly. I liked fulfilling an ideal of “thin” as competent or in control. I was so out of control over what happened to my daughter that even an illusion of control was comforting.

One day it hit me that this was actually a very selfish thing I was up to. It’s a fantasy to think you can limit your self-destructive practices to yourself—they spill over. Any drug addict will tell you that, any alcoholic. When I realized that restricting my eating meant I had diminished energy, physically and emotionally, to give to Gracie and Brian and Gabe, I was very disappointed. I thought, I like this, I don’t want to give it up. On the other hand, I suddenly saw it as a kind of stealing. Hungry, I was often short tempered or fuzzy headed; I was taking away a good enough mom and replacing her with mediocre one. So, reluctantly, I began to eat normally again. I didn’t want to, and I was still in a loop of mental mishegoss over body image (what a waste of so many women’s TIME!). But I recognized that this was a behavior that could be stopped. And, once I was well fed, I did in fact have more conversation, more caring, more jokes, more flexibility, more of whatever the heck the self is made of—to share.

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

I have three people whose habits I try to adopt daily: a humanist-atheist (the novelist Brian Morton), a Buddhist (the improviser Ruth Zaporah) and Jesus, the original Christian, who appears in my imagination as a kind of Casual Friday Jesus, but Jesus.

Brian is my husband so I get to watch and learn from his habits at close range. He’s phenomenally disciplined as a writer and always has been. He writes daily, or tries to. Every single day, in his view, is a work day creatively speaking, and that’s a beautiful thing. He’s taught me that if you want to be taken seriously in the world, if you want the privilege of sharing your work with others, then step one is to take yourself seriously by showing up for work. I love that.

Ruth Zaporah is a master teacher who I’ve studied with for almost 30 years. Her art form is improvised physical theater, predicated on the belief that attending to the present moment is the only way to be vibrantly alive, imaginative and inventive on stage. She views the body’s sensations as potential narrative gifts, little benedictions that appear at the exact moment we need them. To enter this state, we have to pay keen attention, beat by beat, in a way that’s antithetical to the receptive, passive state that many of us default into with technology (i.e. the iPhone stupor). It requires a kind of galvanized attention, which can also help transcend our unconscious ruts, to refresh the brain. Training with her has re-aligned my thought patterns in the best way possible, it’s helped me be more awake, not just on stage but out in the world.

And finally, Jesus, who’s habits are hard to argue with: wash the feet of those who need it, stop to help, look out for each other. I’m a big fan of those core Christian ideals, even while failing at them every day. I grew up Greek Orthodox; the presence of a religious instinct has been, if not a habit, a touchstone that’s sustained me since I was a kid. The beauty of the physical building (our cathedral had a copper domed ceiling painted with a very beautiful, sexy, dark-eyed Jesus, surrounded by his twelve apostles) together with the beauty of the rituals—the music; the communal standing and sitting and walking together towards the alter—acts moved me in a way I found hard to articulate. Later, when I could absorb the actual teachings of Christ (minus, if such a thing is possible, the horrific crimes committed in his name) I was deeply moved in a whole new way by the simplicity of the message—practice kindness. Act out of empathy and caring, especially towards “the least of these.” What a beautiful basic plan: make compassion your first move, your habit. Even if we only get to that ideal some tiny percentage of the time, what a great thing to reach for.

How a Health Coach Harnessed Her Rebel Tendency to Lose 40 Pounds and Boost Her Energy.

I love hearing how people put the Four Tendencies framework to work — whether by using knowledge of their Tendency to improve their own lives, or to work more effectively with other people.

Recently, I got an email from Nagina Abdullah, health coach and founder of MasalaBody.com. She listens to the “Happier” podcast, and she told me about how she was able to eat more healthfully, lose weight, and boost her energy by harnessing the strengths of her Rebel Tendency.

This story was particularly interesting to me, because — as Rebels themselves often point out — the strategies that work for other Tendencies often don’t work for Rebels.

So I was fascinated to hear her story, and she wrote an account of it to share — which is below, with my comments in brackets.

Nagina writes:

When I was a kid, I got sent to the principal’s office on a weekly basis. While my teachers would ask the students to be quiet and obedient, I would end up in laughing fits and get sent to the principals’ office to get disciplined.

I struggled with following expectations for my whole life. As a child, I resisted my teachers’ rules. As I got older, I resisted being healthier.

See, I love food. I love sweets, fried food, food trucks, BBQs – everything that isn’t good for my waistline. I ALSO resist following the rules of having to be strict to get healthy.

My tendencies finally made sense when I took Gretchen’s Four Tendencies Quiz. I wanted to see if I was an Upholder, Obliger, Questioner, or Rebel.

I wasn’t surprised when I scored as a “Rebel.” Rebels resist outer and inner expectations.

After decades of being addicted to sugar and feeling unable to control my cravings, I embraced my Rebel tendencies. As result, I lost 40 pounds, skyrocketed my energy and started wearing the clothes I had dreamed of wearing.

The “Healthy Rules” I Did Not Want to Follow

After having two kids and working 60+ hour weeks, I felt exhausted and overweight, more than ever before. I needed to get healthier to feel better and have more energy for my kids.

I didn’t want to deprive myself of food I loved and I didn’t have time to spend hours in the gym.

Here are the rules to getting healthier I would regularly hear:

  • “You have to count calories, points, crumbs, licks, and drops”
  • “You must exercise 3+ days a week”
  • “No eating cupcakes, donuts, and everything else you love”


Even though I wanted to get healthier, I resisted restrictive rules like these.

This led to a lot of internal frustration, yo-yo dieting, announcing “It isn’t worth it!” and “Why is this so hard for ME?” [Rebels often get frustrated when they try to use the same techniques that work for other Tendencies.]

Even if I wanted to be healthier, I couldn’t even follow my OWN rules.  [Rebels resist outer and inner expectations.]

Would I ever change my habits to get healthier when I kept rebelling against the rules?

I finally got my dream body when (only when) I broke the rules.

Here’s how I broke the rules to lose 40 pounds and keep it off for now over six years.

Above All I Wanted to Be a “Rebel Mom”

Being a mom is the greatest gift, but I feared I would be overweight, exhausted and put myself last in the name of my kids, which is the stereotype of a mom I held.

That’s when I decided to be a REBEL MOM and break through the stereotype.

Here’s my vision of being the mom I wanted to be:

  • Feel confident in a bathing suit so I could swim and play in the sand with my kids
  • Run 5k’s with my kids and set healthy examples for them
  • Feel sexy around my husband
  • Go rollerblading, biking, ice skating, roller skating, skiing, snowboarding and more with my family and feel strong and agile as I am doing it


Having a goal of a “Rebel Mom” inspired me to be healthier.  [Rebels want to express their identity; they want to live in accordance with their authentic self; they can do anything they choose to do, in order to be the kind of person they choose to be.]

3 Rules I Broke to Get My Dream Body

I started by eating healthy, because I found that it is the most impactful thing to do. But I needed to make eating healthy enjoyable and realistic for my life and family, and that’s when I realized there were three rules I had to break. [Rebels do well to focus on enjoyment. They also often enjoy breaking rules or achieving aims in unconventional ways.]

Rule 1: “You need to eat healthy every day to lose weight.”

How I break Rule 1:

I have one “Cheat Day” a week where I eat everything I want, so I always get a “break” from the rules and have something to look forward to. A Cheat Day is KEY to losing weight if you hate following those strict diet rules. [As an Upholder and an Abstainer and a very low-carb eater, this would not work for me — but it works for Nagina.]

Rule 2: “You have to eat boring food in tiny portions so you feel like you are starving to lose even 5 pounds.”

How I break Rule 2:

Instead of making my food flavorful with heavy sauces and creams, I use spices and herbs that pack in the flavor and have natural health benefits (like anti-inflammation and reduced water retention). I feel like I’m “cheating” and indulging even though I’m actually eating healthy.

I love to add a pinch of cinnamon (lowers your blood sugar) in my morning coffee because it tastes so delicious. [Again, the focus on pleasure and choice.]

Rule 3: “You are “supposed” to eat healthy.”

How I break Rule 3:

Remember the last time you were at an airport? Temptations at every turn, with most people indulging in them? It’s HARDER to eat healthy than not!

As a result of eating healthy, I feel in control of myself, and feel like I’m rebelling against the “norms” of society. [Rebels often benefit from reminding themselves, “I’m not going to be trapped by a sugar addiction. These big companies can’t control me with their fancy marketing campaigns and crinkly packages. I’m strong, they can’t make me eat their junk.” Rebels also often love a challenge: “Most people can’t resist the goodies in an airport, mall, or store, but for me, it’s not a problem.”]

 What you can do to get healthier:

If you resist outer and/or inner expectations (Rebels resist both, and Questioners and Obligers resist one or the other), and/or you have found it challenging to get healthier, try to BREAK some of the traditional rules by using one of the methods that worked for me:

  1. What’s a stereotype you would break by getting healthier? Embrace that and make it your goal.
  2. Include one cheat day a week and eat whatever you want on those days, while staying healthy on the other days. [Very effective for some people! Not effective for others! Know yourself.]
  3. Add herbs and spices to your foods to make it taste indulgent without the extra calories.
  4. Resist the unhealthy temptations around you and feel in control of yourself.

To help you, I have a special gift for Gretchen Rubin readers. I would like to send you my three spiced late-night snacks to banish your sugar cravings forever AND a bonus recipe e-book, “7 Spicy Recipes to Help You Lose Your First 7 Pounds.” You can get these here.

What I love about Nagina’s account is how carefully she examined what works for her, what she wants, and figured out her own way to get there.

By embracing her Rebel Tendency, she was able to get the benefit of its enormous strengths. By contrast, when Rebels think they “should” be able to use techniques like to-do lists, scheduling, monitoring, or accountability, they often get very frustrated with themselves.

There’s no one “right” way, no one “best” way — only what works for you.

“As Soon as I Finished the Video Game, I Thought, ‘Well, There’s 8 Hours of My Life I’ll Never Get Back.'”

Interview: Eric Barker.

I got to know Eric Barker through his blog, Barking Up the Wrong Tree.  It’s a funny, practical, and interesting look at “how to be awesome at life.”

His new book, Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong, came out last month. It’s already a bestseller and has generated a lot of buzz.

It’s all about learning what makes people successful — or not — by looking at science, great figures in history, and stories from everyday life. Some of his conclusions are quite counter-intuitive.

I knew that Eric thinks a lot about happiness, habits, health, productivity, and all the related topics, so I was curious to hear his answers.

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

Eric: Exercise. Spending time with my girlfriend makes me happier, but that’s less of a habit and more of an addiction.

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

Stanford professor BJ Fogg has a concept called “Minimum Viable Effort” which I love. Since consistency is so critical to building a habit, he says to start off doing the absolute minimum — but doing it consistently. So even if I was utterly exhausted, I would make myself go to the gym. I wouldn’t work out, but I’d go. Then I’d turn around and leave. It felt utterly ridiculous but it got me into the habit of going every day. (Now I actually exercise and it’s far less ridiculous.)

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

I tend to ruminate. I’ve reduced this by using something mindfulness expert Joseph Goldstein told me: whenever you’re dwelling on negative thoughts, pause and ask yourself, “Is this useful?” 99% of the time, it’s not.

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

Exercise, meditation, and socializing (I’m quite the introvert. If this isn’t practiced like a habit, often it doesn’t happen.)

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

For me, the most effective way to break bad habits and encourage new ones has been through manipulating my environment. Eating healthy is easy when you only have healthy food in the house. I often employ Shawn Achor’s 20-second rule. I make good habits 20 seconds easier to engage in and bad habits 20 seconds harder. It’s shockingly effective.

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

Questioner. Definitely. If something doesn’t make sense to me, I have a really hard time with it. I find this helps me accomplish tasks effectively, but can cause problems in my relationships if I don’t temper it.

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

I don’t work according to a clock. Things are done when they’re done. So that means sometimes I pull crazy long hours and everything else gets shoved aside when I’m in the thick of working — including good habits.

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.? 

Years ago I spent an entire Saturday playing a video game from beginning to end on my Xbox. As soon as I was finished I thought, “Well, there’s 8 hours of my life I’ll never get back.” I haven’t seriously played a video game since.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I resist them until they’re solidly a habit. Once they’re something I do daily, it’s like flipping a switch and I get irritated if I can’t do them.

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

Yes — but generally because they were a very bad example and I said, “Whoa, I don’t want to be like that.”

“It Is Not Just Okay But Necessary to Let Myself Feel Good.”

Interview: Courtney Maum.

Courtney Maum is a gifted writer, and her terrific new novel Touch just hit the shelves — so if you’re looking for a book to read this summer, here’s one for your stack.

It’s getting a tremendous amount of buzz, such as being chosen as an Editors’ Choice by the New York Times Book Review, as one of “The 6 Juiciest Summer Reads” by Glamour, and as one of “The 29 Best Books of the Summer” by the New York Post.

And while I know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, I always do, and I think that Touch has one of the best covers I’ve seen in a long time.

It’s about Sloane, a trend forecaster who goes on a quest to understand the value of “in personism,” that is, real-life human interaction. Many of the fictional trends mentioned in Touch have already proved to be eerily prescient.

In addition to writing, Courtney Maum also has a position that instantly caught my attention – she is a product namer for the cosmetics MAC cosmetics and other companies. As someone who is obsessed both with color and language, this fascinates me.

A great job for a novelist!

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

Courtney: Horseback riding. This was something I got great joy from when I was a little girl, but I stopped riding when I was ten. Thirty years later, I decided to start again. At first, I was reluctant: it felt really indulgent, it takes a lot of time and resources to ride. But it brings my mind and body such strength and honest joy. Now I feel proud that this is something I’ve decided to do for myself, on my own terms. The fact that I’ve made a habit of it reminds me to remind myself that I am worth it: that it is not just okay but necessary to let myself feel good.

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

Do not drink three Venti servings of Starbucks coffee in one day! I ruined my young adulthood with caffeine. I became completely hooked at a young age. I’ve always been incompetent at math, and growing up, I was at the kind of school where it wasn’t kosher to underperform, so I had a math tutor. I was thirteen, and she’d show up to our sessions with the huge cups of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, which have such a specific smell. I was so entranced by her beverage, she started bringing one along for me as well. And that was it. I became addicted to caffeine.

In high school and college, I worked at Starbucks—this was back in the late 90s when Starbucks was still novel, and I got the coffee for free, so I’d just take it around everywhere with me, like a designer handbag. I got free refills. I was drinking it all the time. I was awake my entire sophomore year.

I haven’t given up “caffeine” per se—although I stopped drinking coffee about ten years ago. I’m a black tea drinker now, one cup of tea a day. I don’t get jittery and nervous and sick-feeling the way I did with coffee. If I could go back, I’d tell my younger self that caffeine addiction is not a good look for a person who already struggles with sleep issues.

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

Insomnia. I’ve always struggled with sleep issues, even when I was a little girl. It’s never been easy for me to quiet my mind, and like many people with similar challenges, the less I sleep, the more I worry about not sleeping, and so the less I sleep.

After touring for my first book, my insomnia got so bad, that (along with some other personal issues I was dealing with) I spiraled into a depression. So over the last year, I decided to do whatever I could to tackle this unhealthy habit. I saw a therapist and a pharmacologist; I tried different medications. I went to an acupuncturist, a shaman, the works. I saw a nutritionist who put me on an herbal regimen that helped. I tried going off of stimulants, off of dark chocolate, off of white rice…I tried whatever the professionals wanted me to try, but the irony of course, is that you can’t be stressed out about adhering to the rituals that are supposed to improve your sleep, because stress just makes it worse. So what I’m focusing on mostly right now is treating the root cause—my brain. I do what I can to give myself access to real happiness and rest. There are inevitable periods when I’m overworked, but I no longer want “overworked” to be my way of life. And I don’t give myself a hard time about taking medication anymore. I used to be really dyed-in-the-wool against that: I used to think that I could treat anxiety and depression by going for a run. Now, if I need support, I take a sleeping pill, and I don’t beat myself up about it.

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

De-connected quality time is extremely important to me. And I literally mean de-connected: time spent away from the Internet and my phone. I try to start workdays writing by hand with my phone off and my computer stored away somewhere out of sight.  When we join friends for dinner, I don’t tolerate cell phones being out. I can’t stand the sight of that frenetic slab pinging away while we’re trying to settle into a conversation. It’s tough being a parent, because ideally I really want to spend time with my daughter without my cell phone on me so that I don’t even have the option to be distracted, but this is hard to do because common sense tells you that you should always have the capability to place an emergency call. This is one of the reasons I’m tempted to get a dumb phone: a secondary cell that only calls and texts. Light Phone has a great one out right now.

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.?

Oh, yes! Earlier in my career, I gravitated toward professional opportunities that had me in close contact with a super intelligent, super creative, super passive aggressive boss. I would constantly find myself unhappy and destabilized in a job that was unpredictable and usually underpaid. And I’d drop everything for these bosses, time and time again. A single email from them would see me decimating an entire weekend of plans just so I could come through for them, be asked “what they would ever do without me?” in a thank-you text. [Courtney, I suspect that in my Four Tendencies framework, you are an Obliger.]

As creatively fulfilling as a lot of these jobs were, I often felt terrifically unhappy and unsure, and I was always nervous: I couldn’t settle into my present or enjoy a moment with friends because I was constantly expecting a missive from my high-powered boss.

The lightning bolt came in 2007 when my husband, on another day that I’d come home from work crying, told me, “You know, this job pays nothing. You went to a great college! You get that there are other jobs out there, right?” But although I quit that particular position, it took me a decade to break the bad pattern I was in. I’m mostly freelancing in the branding world now, but I now choose to collaborate with people who respect that I have a personal life, that I need private time. This has resulted in my private time feeling like a much safer space. I don’t have to worry about crazy desperate “need this ASAP” emails any more.

“I Simply Have to Put All My Energy into Hope and Life, Rather Than Trying to Avoid Doom and Death.”

Interview: Amy Silverstein.

Amy Silverstein is a writer who has written extensively about her very tough health challenges. Her acclaimed, award-winning first book, Sick Girl, explores her experience as an organ-transplant recipient — she was a law student when she received a heart transplant.

Her riveting new book, My Glory Was I Had Such Friends, just hit the shelves. It’s about her experience twenty-six years later, when she needed a second heart transplant. To have a chance to survive, she had to uproot her life to go to California, and the book is a tribute to how her squad of nine close friends put aside the demands of their own lives to support her. Her account is a terrific example of how love and friendship can sustain us.

Her story is a great reminder: If you support organ donation, sign the registry! Tell your friends and family you want to donate your organs! If you’ve ever considered doing a “random act of kindness,” here’s one of the most random, most kind, and also most convenient acts you can ever commit.

If you want to know why I care so much about this issue, you can read about my husband Jamie’s experience, and one of the happiest days of my life, here.

I was very eager to hear what Amy had to say about happiness, habits, and health.

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

Amy: An hour of intense exercise – six days a week.

Good sleep – seven nights a week.

Breakfast (preferably Wheaties – it’s the Breakfast of Champions, after all!) – every day.

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

The years have taught me that healthy habits are about choice—at least at first—and that I have the power to decide to control my choices every day in every way.  Part of growing up, I think, is about discovering self-control.  This is not a completely positive discovery; I mean, watch a three-year-old eat an ice cream cone and you might feel nostalgia for that utterly joyful, face-smearing, shirt-staining abandon.  But, for the most part, growing up and growing into self-discipline is, I think, a big part of habit-forming and happiness.   And the payoffs are huge.  For me, the payoffs may be part of the reason I am still alive nearly 30 years after receiving a heart transplant at age 25.

I couldn’t know at 18 that habits were based in deliberate choice.  I didn’t give any thought to healthy habits back then.  Good health was a given, or so I thought.

Then I became suddenly ill at 24 and needed an immediate heart transplant (doctors said a virus had attacked my heart).  I was told that my life expectancy post-transplant might be ten years if I was lucky. Because of the nature of transplanted hearts and the medicines required to sustain them, the risks to my survival were described to me as a dreaded trifecta:  artery disease, cancer, and deadly infection.

As I saw it, I had no choice but to form healthy habits—fast.  And keep at them—forever.  So I made a decision to exercise vigorously six days a week; no doctor told me to do this.   And further, I decided I would eat a diet very low in unhealthy, saturated fats; again, this was not on any doctor’s advice.  It just seemed to me that if my arteries were at risk due to transplantation, I should not fill them up with cholesterol.

Now, you might think, Well, you have enormous health risks—of course you are going to choose and stick to healthy habits.  But I have met many grateful, smart heart transplant recipients, young and old, who do not strive to make the choices I have made, or who make them half-heartedly (no pun intended) and bend or break them regularly.  I never do.

I can’t know if, had I not received a heart transplant in my early 20’s, I would have grown into the habits I’ve chosen and kept them going strong and consistent for decades.  But I’d like to believe that even for those who are healthy, a habit must begin with a strong belief that this habit will make a positive difference.  And when this conviction meets awareness that we control only ourselves in this world, (because, really, who else can make your legs run or your hand reach for a doughnut) then we can choose our habits, form them, and live them.

Heart transplant or not.

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

I’ve tried over the last couple of years to break habits that make me unhappy.  With this second heart transplant, I found an opportunity to press the reset button and give up habits that, on reflection, caused me more harm than good.

For instance: journal writing. Over my 26 years with the first transplanted heart, I wrote in a journal every night, continuing a practice I had started in high school and carried over to college and law school.  But while my pre-transplant journals were full of life and hope, the entries during the transplant years quickly became a litany of medical woes and fears—more like a terrible medical chart than a jotting down of adventures and aspirations.  Soon, it became a sorry habit: get into bed, write down of all my symptoms in detail, and add any new medical fears to the long list in the back of the book.  My intention was to be a smart patient—keep careful watch so that I might save myself from the transplant dangers that threatened to take my life.

Several times, my journal did just this: made a lifesaving difference in my medical care.  My careful records allowed me to be a full partner with my doctor.  Sometimes even supplant my doctor.

But mostly, the daily habit of writing was a sad reminder of how challenging my body was, and how hopeless.  And when, finally, I did become critically ill and needed another transplant, I realized that my journal had not helped stave off the inevitable.  I learned that no matter how carefully I had watched and documented all aspects of my body and its health, the unfortunate fate of my transplanted heart’s demise played out anyway.

So, now, after this second heart transplant, I do not write in a journal anymore.  I am still a careful and observant patient, sure, but not a habitual recorder of my body’s ills.  I know now that habits are not going to save me.   I simply have to be courageous and put all my energy into hope and life, rather than trying to avoid doom and death—come what may.  My new motto (a habit in phrase form):  Che sera sera.

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

For creativity and writing, my most important habit is getting all other activities out of the way—i.e. my morning run, all emails and calls, a shower, Wheaties breakfast of champions—and then setting myself up for serious writing.  This means creating a specific environment and my place in it so that my unconscious knows it’s writing time.  Here’s where habit takes over.

I put on a robe that my husband bought me for me a few years ago—put it right over my clothes.  It’s my writing cloak, of sorts, and it triggers my mind to settle in.  I turn on a Himalayan rock salt lamp that sits on my desk (a gift from my son), switch on the lamp beside it and—now comes the most important part—plant my butt in the desk chair.  I mean plant it—for hours.  I’m talking six or seven or eight, with only a quick break to grab a yogurt, which I eat at my desk while working.

For me, the habit of creating and entering a specific writing environment is the only way I can get myself to face the empty page, and fill it.

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

I am an Upholder, for sure.  But as a person who has had serious life-threatening health issues since my early 20’s, I find that expectations directed at me from the outside are not particularly high.  In fact, they often come with provisos like Only do what you can do—don’t push yourself.  And I suppose this is apt, because during my first 26 transplant years, I was only able to actually achieve about fifty percent of what I set out to do.  So, friends and family and even employers went easy on me. But I never went easy on myself.  My achievements—including finishing law school after my transplant, passing the bar exam, working in law, writing a successful book, hiking mountains, running miles, etc.—went way beyond what anyone expected of me.

And now, after my second transplant, when I feel so much better than after my first, my expectations for myself are quite high.   It is easy to do what you set out to do, I think, when you feel well.  It’s a gift, in fact.  And I do not waste one minute of this gift.

People around me are beginning to notice that these years after my second transplant (there have been 3 of them so far) are different from the earlier ones, and so they are beginning to expect more from me.  To meet their expectations now (and, even better, to exceed them) is my great delight.

How have you viewed habits as part of your health experience?

I’ve chosen healthy habits over the last 30 years based on my hope that they will make a difference in my health.  Of course, this hope has to be set against a background of the medical challenges and shortened life expectancy that are my heart transplant reality.  But still, I’ve felt that if I apply healthy habits with absolute rigor—run that extra mile, pay attention to every tiny detail of my care, take every medicine every day, eschew artery-clogging foods, etc.—I can make a positive difference in my survival.  Well, to be honest, I’ve hoped to make more than just a positive difference; I have hoped to save myself from serious illness and death.

But you know, in spite of all the habits I devoted myself to with diligence and fervor for nearly 3 decades, my heart still succumbed to vasculopathy—the common artery disease that is a deadly heart transplant scourge.

So, now what?  How do I view my habits now that they have disappointed me?

I am so fortunate to have a second heart transplant.  Automatically and out of inured habit, it is natural that I delve into the same healthy habits that characterized my first 26 heart transplant years, because I love and value my donor heart and I want to live long.  But now I know that my health-promoting habits, admirable as they may have been, did not protect me as I had hoped.  Doing my all and doing it diligently did not prevent vasculopathy from invading my arteries and nearly killing me.

What do you do when life shows you that your healthy habits have no efficacy?

 This question applies to everyone, of course.  What happens when you develop and excellent study habits and apply them for months and months, and still, you fail the exam?  Or when you eat healthfully and sparingly and you exercise consistently, and then, a month later, you get on the scale and see no weight loss?

I do not have an answer to this.

Efficacy is all, as I see it, when it comes to assessing our habits in hindsight.

But a transplant cardiologist told me this recently:  “Amy, your extreme healthy habits are the reason you defied the odds and lived 26 years with that heart.  Given the available science and medication when you were transplanted in 1988, a generally healthy lifestyle would have gotten you 8 years, maybe 10.  Fifteen would have been amazing.  But 26?  That’s extraordinary, and that’s all you.”

The vasculopathy was inevitable, he said, because the transplant medicines back in the 80’s weren’t advanced enough to target it early on.  The appearance of artery disease was inevitable; no health habits could have won this battle.

And so, what now?

New medicines.  New treatments.  New hope.

I return to my healthy habits with renewed vigor and hope.