Tag Archives: research

Podcast 59: Find a Lucky Charm, Distract Yourself for 15 Minutes, Listener Mantras, and Godparent Guilt.

It’s time for the next installment of  “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.

Update: Elizabeth is still in New York City, as she works on her pilot. We also talked about the new mini-episodes I’m doing every Monday morning. Two or three minutes to help you start your week “A Little Happier. (As always, it’s a huge help if you rate or review. Not sure how? Scroll down, here.)

Try This at Home: Find your lucky charm. (Sidenote: I was surprised to learn that Elizabeth wears her wedding ring only occasionally. Do you wear your wedding ring all the time?) What’s your lucky charm? I mention CB I Hate Perfume. Beautiful scents! But alas, I don’t think you can buy the Hay accord online.

craftservicesBetter Than Before Habits Strategy: The Strategy of Distraction. Particularly helpful for fighting cravings. As promised, here’s a photo of Elizabeth at craft services. You can’t see the huge amount of food that’s there.

Listener Answers: In episode 57, we talked about the try-this-at-home of “choosing a daily mantra,” and listeners sent in so many great mantras.

 Gretchen’s Demerit: Elizabeth wants to be a better godparent.

 Elizabeth’s Gold Star: Jamie gets a gold star for knowing exactly how to make me less crabby.

As always, thanks to our terrific sponsors

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1pixHappier with Gretchen Rubin - Podcast #59

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Want to know what to expect from other episodes of the podcast, when you listen toHappier with Gretchen Rubin?” We talk about how to build happier habits into everyday life, as we draw from cutting-edge science, ancient wisdom, lessons from pop culture—and our own experiences (and mistakes).  We’re sisters, so we don’t let each other get away with much.

HAPPIER listening!

A Little Happier: Stressed? Try This.

It’s a Secret of Adulthood, and one that never fails me: When I give more to myself, I can ask more from myself.

What are your healthy treats? We should all load ourselves with healthy treats! (Pictured: my idea of a healthy treat. Not for everyone, but works for me.)

I hope you’re enjoying the new mini-episodes. I love doing them.

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How I Do My Research: Is “Despite” Actually “Because?”

People often ask me, “How do you do your research?”

I’m a kind of street scientist. I don’t have a lab full of undergrads eating marshmallows to study; I rely on my own observations.

Really, I feel more like Samuel Johnson or William Hazlitt or George Orwell, in the way that I analyze human nature. I love reading the science, and I think about the science all the time, but in the end, I pay the most attention to what I see around me. And what I read — not just science, but memoirs, biographies, novels.

I tell people this, and they say, “But how do you draw any conclusions?”

I can never think of a good answer. I just read a lot, talk to people a lot, take gigantic amounts of notes, and ponder. I look for patterns. Certain actions or remarks strike my attention, often for reasons that take me months to identify.

But it did occur to me that I’ve hit on one very useful analytic technique, without quite realizing it.

If I’m stumped by something I see, I substitute “because” for “despite,” and see if a proposition makes sense.

For instance, one thing that puzzled me tremendously when I was writing Better Than Before was the number of people who trained for the marathon as a way to get into the habit of running. But over and over, people told me, they’d had a great experience training, they’d successfully run the marathon — and then they’d stop running! This seemed counter-intuitive to me. Wouldn’t hitting a big goal like completing the marathon make people more committed to their habits? These people didn’t make sense.

Then I realized: I’d been thinking, Despite the fact that they successfully ran the marathon, these runners quit running.” What if I thought, “Because of the fact that they successfully ran the marathon, these runners quit running.” Eureka! For the first time, I was able to grasp the great danger posed by finish lines in forming habits. (To read more, check out the chapter on the Strategy of Reward in Better Than Before.)

This technique works surprisingly often.

Despite the fact that Americans are eating less fat than before, obesity levels continue to rise” becomes Because of the fact that Americans are eating less fat than before, obesity levels continue to rise.” This was a huge Lightning Bolt for me! For more on this, read Gary Taubes’s Why We Get Fat.

A friend told me about taking her father to the doctor, and although the doctor emphasized the importance of following his instructions for taking medicine, and how he’d be monitoring to see if the medicine had been taken, her father wouldn’t take the medicine. “Despite the fact that the doctor ordered him to take the medicine, and checks up on him, her father won’t take the medicine.” Could it be that “Because of the fact that the doctor ordered him to take the medicine, and checks up on him, her father won’t take his medicine.” Yes! Her father is a Rebel.

I’m sure my legal training was helpful here. In law, you always have to make the contrary argument, to push as hard as you can to make the opposite points, to make your case as strong as it can be.

Have you ever discovered that a “Despite” is actually a “Because?” Or do you have other techniques you use to figure things out?

Podcast 32: Why Elizabeth and I Raise the Bar, the Surprising Downside of Teasing–and Please Comment on Four Tendencies.

It’s time for the next installment of  “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.

Update: I talk about Barnaby, our new dog! (As promised, here’s a picture of Barnaby with our producer, Henry Molofsky.) And a shout-out to our super-fans in Omaha, Nebraska.

Also, you’ll hear us talk about our new (and we hope improved, though Elizabeth is doubtful) way of referring to previous episodes, so that you can easily find them here on my site. That’s happiercast.com/32 (or the number of whatever episode you’re looking for).

Try This at Home: Raise the bar (yes, you remember that right, in episode 29 we suggested lowering the bar; the opposite of a profound truth is also true). What works for you — lowering or raising the bar, or (more…)

“Habit Change Is Easiest When People Move House or Undergo Some Life Transition.”

Habits interview: Wendy Wood.

I was very pleased to get the chance to interview Professor and Vice Dean Wendy Wood, because she’s one of the top experts in the field of habits, and has done much of the most interesting research in the area.

For instance, it was her research that showed that about people repeat about 40% of their activities almost daily — and usually in the same place.

I read a lot of her work as I was writing Better Than Before, my book about how we change habits. (To hear when it goes on sale, sign up here.)

I was very curious to hear more about Wendy’s ideas about habits, and how she thinks about them in the context of her own life.

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

Wendy: Habits are a simple, basic form of learning. Even rats form habits.  It’s amazing that this simple form of learning underlies so many of our daily activities.

People repeat about 40% of their activities almost daily and usually in the same location (shown in a  study I conducted at Texas A&M Univ–not Duke, as often reported). Given this high level of repetition, people easily form habits for daily activities.

Once habits form, the habitual response comes to mind automatically when you are in the familiar context.  For me, walking into my kitchen first thing in the morning brings to mind making coffee. And I usually just go ahead and make it without asking myself whether I particularly want to drink coffee this morning. It’s just my habit to do so, and I find myself doing before thinking—that’s the hallmark of habit.

What aspects of habits would be most helpful for people to understand?

Habits develop slowly, across many experiences. So they don’t shift easily when people change their goals and preferences. This means that we can actually be of two minds about something.  Your habitual mind might suggest one activity whereas your preferences and goals might suggest another.

The two minds were evident in a study I conducted with people at a movie cinema. We gave some cinema-goers stale, week-old popcorn and others fresh popcorn. And no surprise, people reported really disliking the stale popcorn. But those who had a habit to eat popcorn at the cinema ate the stale popcorn anyway. It was as if, even though they told us they didn’t like it, they were propelled by the cues of being at the cinema to keep eating it. People without popcorn-eating habits didn’t eat the stale popcorn, only the fresh.

Usually, our habits and our preferences are more in line than with the cinema study. But this study is important because it reveals the two minds problem. Habit learning (in that case, a cinema-popcorn habit) doesn’t integrate easily with our current goals and plans (disliking the stale popcorn).

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

Ah, there’s the rub. With repetition, action tendencies become stronger.  The more often you drive to work the same way, the stronger your habit to drive that particular route. When habits are really strong, then you are even repeat them when you don’t intend to. On a Saturday, when not thinking about what you are doing, you might find yourself inadvertently taking the route to work when you meant to go to the store.

Feelings, however, become weaker with repetition. So, the more often you eat ice cream, the less pleasure you get from eating it.  Philosophers refer to this as the difference between the “active” and “passive” components of habit. With repetition, our action tendencies get stronger but our feelings habituate and weaken.

The bottom line is that, if you really enjoy something, you don’t want to repeat it in a routine way so that it becomes a habit. You lose the pleasure in the experience. Instead, you want to make habitual the necessities in life….that is, regular exercise, a healthy diet, saving money and paying the bills, and working. The pleasures in life should be savored and not performed in a habitual way…..including time with family, a great glass of wine, and the sunset over the ocean.

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

Oh, jeez, we all have bad habits. These are habits that are inconsistent with our goals. Some bad habits were probably learned unintentionally, and others may have even been intended at one point, but no longer fit with our current goals and plans.

Many habits are tough to change. They become really resistant when they get tied up with physiological addictions such as smoking, drinking, and taking drugs. But even habits that are not addictive are tough to change. When you are in the context in which you performed the habit in the past, that behavior automatically comes to mind. You may have decided to change that behavior. Not to do it anymore. But it takes energy to inhibit the habit in mind and to choose to do something new. Often, we don’t have the willpower to make these decisions, and it’s just easier to act habitually.

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

Yes, I’ve had several points in my life when I was overweight, especially after both of my pregnancies. Me at 200 lbs was not fun. But I was fortunate to be able to lose that baby weight. That experience was partly how I got interested in habits. In the U.S., most of us know what we should do to be healthy—exercise, eat lots of fruit and veg, and avoid sweets and fried foods. But few of us do this. I started to believe that researchers are focusing on the wrong thing when trying to get people healthy (think, the “Strive for 5” health campaign). Psychologists are very good at changing people’s beliefs—or at changing behaviors for a short period of time. Many people can lose weight briefly, but longer-term change is tough. That’s been the focus of much of my research—to figure out why habits are so tough to change and to identify strategies to change them.

One insight has to do with performance contexts. Habits are activated automatically by context cues. So, change the context. We find that habit change is easiest when people move house or undergo some other life transition that changes the contexts in which they live (e.g., start a new job, get married). This is perhaps why people often report that they started a new, healthy behavior when on vacation. Away from familiar cues to bad habits, people are freed to act in new ways. Beware, though, that changing everyday contexts also removes cues to good habits. And in my research, people who were exercising habitually didn’t continue to do so after they moved and the cues to exercise changed.

People also can take charge of some of the context cues in their personal environments. For example, many people keep cookies, candy, and chips on their kitchen counter. Removing these cues to eating can help to stop habitual snacking. In restaurants, even something as simple as moving desserts to the end of a cafeteria line can reduce people’s consumption of sweets. Obesity is really an environmental problem.

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

Yes, as described above, out of familiar everyday contexts, people are freed-up to act in new, nonhabitual ways.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I had a speech teacher once who said she tried to do everything in a new way each day. She claimed to walk to school a new way, eat different things for lunch every day—you get the idea. To me, it sounded exhausting. She was clearly resisting habit formation, or at least the habituation of feeling that comes with repeating activities.

To me, habit formation is beneficial. Through habits, I pay my bills and I write for a couple hours every morning. I do those things automatically. They aren’t a struggle and so don’t take too much energy and decision making. Instead, I want to think about the activities that are important to me, especially spending time with my husband and sons.

This idea of doing some things habitually and others in a more thoughtful way follows from the two minds problem I mentioned above. We all have a habitual mind (even my old speech teacher, although she fought it). Might as well make it work for you—it is reliable at doing the same thing as in the past. And some tasks don’t require more than this. Of course, when I say that my writing is habitual, it’s really making time to write that is habitual. The writing itself requires effort and thought. But if you have a habit to write at a certain time every day or to write a certain amount every day, then you don’t have to struggle to make yourself do it.