Tag Archives: memoir

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.

Revealed! Three Excellent Books for April: How to Influence Others, a Romance, and an Art-Filled Memoir.

Because nothing boosts happiness more than a great book, each month, I suggest:

— one outstanding book about happiness or habits or human nature

— one outstanding work of children’s or young-adult literature–I have a crazy passion for kidlit

— one eccentric pick–a widely admired and excellent book that I love, yes, but one that may not appeal to everyone

Shop at IndieBound, BN.com, or Amazon (I’m an affiliate), or your favorite local bookstore. Or my favorite, visit the library!

For all the books I choose, I love them; I’ve read most of them at least twice if not many times; and they’re widely admired.

Now, for the three book-club choices. Drumroll…

A book about happiness, good habits, or human nature:

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini

This is an absolutely fascinating book about persuasion — how do we persuade other people, and what do they do to persuade us? It’s written in an accessible, interesting way, and is one of the rare books that truly transformed my way of seeing the world around me.


Buy from IndieBound; BN.com; Amazon.

An outstanding children’s book:

Flower by Elizabeth Craft and Shea Olsen

Of course I can’t resist recommending the excellent young-adult novel by my sister. The tag line is “She had a plan, then she met him.” There’s romance, temptation, secrets, family drama, best friends, college applications, extravagant gestures, celebrity...delicious. If you enjoy listening to Elizabeth on the Happier podcast, you might get a kick out of reading her book.

Buy from IndieBound; BN.com; Amazon.

An eccentric pick:

Another Part of the Wood: A Self-Portrait by Kenneth Clark

I love memoirs, and I loved reading this self-portrait of Kenneth Clark, the museum director, art historian, and presenter of the blockbuster TV series Civilisation. I especially love reading memoirs by people who describe why they love their work so much.

Buy from IndieBound; BN.com; Amazon.

If you want to make sure you never miss a month’s selections, sign up here for the book club newsletter.

Remember, if you want to see what I read each week, I post a photo of my pile of completed books on my Facebook Page every Sunday night, #GretchenRubinReads.

I continue to read book after book on the subject of color — it’s odd to find myself fascinated by this highly specialized topic. It’s definitely contributing to my desire to collect giant sets of colored pens and colored markers — which I can now use in the coloring book I created! The Happiness Project Mini-Posters: A Coloring Book with 20 Hand-lettered Quotes to Pull Out and Frame hit the shelves this week. It shot to  #1 in Adult Coloring Books (a surprisingly large category) which made me very happy.

Lately I’ve been in the mood for memoirs. Any great ones to recommend? Or books about color, of course.

“Going Blind Turned Out to Be One of the Greatest Blessings of My Life. I Lost My Sight, But I Gained Vision.”

Interview: Isaac Lidsky.

I got to know Isaac Lidsky because he and I both clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Our clerkships didn’t overlap, but clerking for a Justice is like coming from the same very small hometown — you feel an instant kinship.

Beyond that Supreme Court clerkship, Isaac has had a fascinating career. Among other things he played Weasel on NBC’s Saved by the Bell: The New Class and was a tech entrepreneur. He was also diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a retinal degenerative disease that caused him to lose his sight.

Isaac’s new book just hit the shelves: Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Opportunities in a World that Can’t See Clearly, about how he managed to build a life of joy, professional success, and fulfillment while losing his sight.

Can you figure out the meaning of the design of his book jacket?

If you’re intrigued by the book Eyes Wide Open, you can read an excerpt here — it was an immediate New York Times bestseller, by the way.

Millions of people have watched his TED Talk, “What Reality Are You Creating For Yourself?

I asked him to talk about happiness and habits.

Gretchen: You slowly lost your sight from age 13 to age 25, but it didn’t slow you down–you nonetheless  starred on a sitcom, went to Harvard and Harvard Law School, clerked for two U.S. Supreme Court Justices, started several successful businesses, married, and had four children. How did you change your habits to stay driven and pursue your goals as you went blind?

Isaac: When I was diagnosed with my blinding disease, I knew blindness would ruin my life. I was wrong. Going blind turned out to be one of the greatest blessings in my life. I lost my sight, but I gained an empowering vision that has helped me to thrive and brought me much fulfillment. With blindness, I learned to see what is important to me, at work and at home–to understand what I truly want to accomplish with my life. Moreover, I learned to hold myself accountable for the differences between the way I’d like to live my life and the way I actually live it.

What is the toughest harmful habit you’ve overcome?

We have a tendency to perceive others in our lives as our heroes or villains–to imagine that others control the way we experience our lives.

This is especially true when we’re afraid of the unknown, in times of great change or crisis. Without relevant experience to draw upon, fear beats a retreat, and we look to others we can blame or credit, others whose wrongs we can condemn, others we can turn to for rescue. Too often, the result is that we remain on the sidelines, stay out of the fight, fail to take control.

I used to see heroes and villains in my life, and I unwittingly outsourced to them my destiny.

How did you overcome this habit?

It takes ongoing effort and discipline–in a sense, it requires forming a new, healthy habit. Whenever I’m afraid I ask myself two questions: (1) What, precisely, is my problem? Right now, concrete, broken down into its smallest, most manageable pieces. (2) What, precisely, can I do about it? Emphasis on “I”; no heroes, no villains, just me. I focus on the elusive distinction between what I know and what I think I know, and I remind myself that I alone bear responsibility for how my circumstances are manifested in who I am or how I choose to live my life.

What is a healthy habit you would encourage others to adopt?

I think introspection is a neglected skill that is critical to living well. Clarity of vision demands that you are absolutely honest with yourself and accountable to yourself–for your thoughts, beliefs, opinions, actions. We do ourselves great harm when we lie to ourselves. It’s even worse, though, when we avoid facing ourselves altogether. In every moment, we choose who we want to be and how we want to live our lives–whether we realize it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we do so with awareness and intention or by default. I think folks should make a habit of thinking critically about those choices.

You write that losing your sight gave you your empowering vision. How?

What we see feels like “truth”–something out there that is objective reality, that is factual, that is universal. But as my eyes progressively deteriorated, I literally saw firsthand that the experience of sight is altogether different. It is a unique, personal, virtual reality that is constructed in the brain, and it involves far more than our eyes. Our sight both shapes and is shaped by our conceptual understanding of the world, other knowledge, memories, opinions, emotions, mental attention, and many other things. I began to search for other ways in which I was misperceiving as objective “truth” the beliefs and assumptions that were in reality creations of my own making-creations I could change. This was the eyes-wide-open vision that enabled me to take control of my reality and my destiny.

For Habits, “Adopting a Sabbath Pause Has Been Revelatory.”

Interview: Abigail Pogrebin.

I met Abby Pogrebin because our daughters, now seniors, have been in school together since kindergarten, and she also lives right around the corner from me.

I’m a huge fan — of the many and various things that Abby’s involved in. She wrote a fascinating book about her experience as an identical twin, and about the twin phenomenon generally, in One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I’ve Learned About Everyone’s Struggle to Be Singular. (If you want to hear me recount what I found to be one of the most striking observations from this book, you can watch that that two-minute video here.)

She was recently featured in the fascinating documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, about the making of the Stephen Sondheim/Hal Prince musical Merrily We Roll Along, which opened with enormous fanfare in 1981 and closed after sixteen performance. The show starred teenagers and young 20-somethings, and Abby was the youngest member of that cast. Yes, she was in a Broadway musical at age 16. You can read her account of the experience in her Kindle Single, Showstopper.

And now Abby has a new fascinating, candid, funny, heavily researched book: My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew. Although she grew up with some basic holiday rituals, Abby realized that she didn’t know much about the history, purpose, or current relevance of the Jewish calendar. To reconnect with her Jewish roots and spirituality, she decided to immerse herself for a year — to research, write, and observe eighteen important holidays on the Jewish calendar.

I love this kind of year-long-experiment book — like my own book The Happiness Project (my year-long experiment in how to be happier), A. J. Jacobs’s hilarious The Year of Living Biblically, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. (Foreshadowing: I’m not sure, but it’s possible that after The Four Tendencies comes out, I’ll write another book that takes the form of year-long experiment. Stay tuned.)

Abby has so many interesting things to say — I couldn’t wait to hear her answers.

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

Abby: Having a cappuccino in bed reading the New York Times on my iPad every morning.

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

It’s very hard to do any healthy thing consistently if I didn’t get in the habit of doing it when I was in my teens or twenties. To that end, I would not, at this stage, be able to give up sugar or butter unless I absolutely had to.  But I did manage to start weekly yoga in my thirties and that added enormously to my ever-elusive sense of equilibrium, which– truthfully– remains elusive.

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

Yes. I hate my habit of being unable to get off email at night, when all I want to do is read a book.  I also hate my habit of waking up each morning thinking about the one thing I’m worried about, instead of the ten things I’m grateful for.

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

          • Having Sunday breakfast with my family – at a nearby diner or our own kitchen table.
          • Going to synagogue services every Friday night.
          • Always being in the middle of an interesting book.
          • Volunteering to serve breakfast to the homeless once every few weeks.
          • Exercising in some form five times a week.
          • Connecting with my twin sister daily.
          • Reading the New York Times daily.
          • Being mindful of my carbs.
          • Enjoying a great almond croissant when I find one.


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

The healthy habit I adopted is to make sure I forcibly slow down at least three times a week – whether that means doing a yoga by myself (admittedly, often in front of CNN, which quickens my pulse counter-productively), meditating for 10 minutes (the recommended 20 minutes is still too much for this rookie), or not looking at email on the Sabbath – from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.  Adopting a Sabbath pause has been revelatory.  It’s untethering and freeing.  The unhealthy habit that all of these address is my addiction to constantly crossing off the to-do list or thinking of what I’ve forgotten to accomplish – an exercise which is obviously bottomless. Maria Popova of the always-fascinating Brainpickings.com site which I read every Sunday once quoted author Jonathan Fields saying that, “busy is a decision.” I am trying to make a different decision than “busy” – at least part of every week; to decide to be unscheduled and inefficient.

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

Definitely, unequivocally, and a little pathetically, an Upholder. Everything you describe fits the bill.

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

Calls and coffee dates.  I often look at my calendar and see that there are too many coffee dates scheduled with people and too many work calls — with little space remaining for reading, working, walking, or exercise.  I am currently President of Central Synagogue, so these coffees and calls are important – and admittedly always interesting, even enriching.  But there can be too many in a day and leave me craving the chance to shut my mouth for a couple hours.

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.?

I started slow-weight lifting for 30 minutes every week (lifting very heavy weights for very few reps, to the point of muscle failure), after taking a walk with Gretchen Rubin and hearing her report that this regimen made her feel stronger.  I’ve continued that habit for a decade now.  [Yes! I converted Abby to Inform Fitness, the gym that trains Super Slow method that I “love.”]  But I have been unsuccessful when it comes to jettisoning my daily one-Diet-Coke-at-lunchtime habit.  I stopped for a while, after a nutritionist said it was potentially bloating and dehydrating.  But then I started again because my husband likes it and he pours the soda over ice, which makes it look good.

Do you embrace habits or resist them? 

Embrace them.  I like routine because it’s reassuring and I’m not someone who feels the need to shake up – or even vary that much –my exercise, eating or sleeping habits.  Maybe that makes me dull and predictable, but there is plenty of other unpredictability in my life; habits give me a sense of stability, having a home base.

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

My identical twin sister.  When she tries something and likes it, I often follow suit.  That has happened with yoga, meditation, and eating Grape Nuts for dinner every once in a while.

“My Highest Ambition Is To Be What I Already Am.”

“Finally I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am. That I will never fulfill my obligation to surpass myself unless I first accept myself–and if I accept myself fully in the right way I will already have surpassed myself.

–Thomas Merton, Journal, October 2, 1958

I love this quotation so much that the first line of this passage is the epigraph for my forthcoming book The Four Tendencies. (Choosing the epigraph is probably my favorite part of writing a book. How I love quotations!)

I’ve spent a lot of time studying Merton, because as a Trappist monk and definite Rebel, he was a fascinating case study. He kept voluminous journals, as well as writing essays and memoirs, so it was possible for me to have true insight into his thinking.

When I first started studying the Four Tendencies, I was puzzled by the not-infrequent pattern of Rebels being attracted to areas of high regulation, like the clergy, the military, and big corporations. Now it makes sense to me. It’s a whole section in my book.

If you’re intrigued by the book The Four Tendencies, you can pre-order it here (pre-orders really help me, so if you’re inclined to buy the book, I very much appreciate a pre-order).

If you don’t know which of the Four Tendencies describes you — whether you’re an  Upholder (like me), Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel (like Merton), you can take the quiz here.

I also love the way writer Flannery O’Connor put it: “Accepting oneself does not preclude an attempt to become better.”

These quotations remind me of one of the paradoxes of my happiness project: I want to accept myself, but also expect more from myself.

This tension between “accepting myself’ and “surpassing myself” — how we must accept ourselves in order to surpass ourselves — is something I think about often. What is self-acceptance, really? Or self-knowledge? A mystery.

How do you think about self-acceptance and self-knowledge?