Tag Archives: science

“My Laptop Is My Friend and My Enemy.”

Interview: Alan Burdick.

I’m fascinated by time, and our perception of time. Of everything I’ve ever written, I think this one-minute video, “The days are long, but the years are short,” is the thing that resonates most with people.

So I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Alan Burdick’s new book, Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation. It’s a fascinating, mind-blowing look at the curious qualities of time — how we understand it, how it affects our bodies, how it’s both an objective measurement and a subjective experience.

I just started this book yesterday, and I’m racing through it — it’s just my kind of book. What happens when a person lives in a cave, cut off from any light? Why does time seem to pass more quickly, the older we get? How is it possible that many people (like Alan himself) often wake up at exactly the same minute every morning? How can the years seem so short, and the days feel so long? And so on.

Alan is a staff writer and former senior editor at The New Yorker, and his writing has appeared in magazines from Discover to Harper’s to GQ. His book Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion was a National Book Award finalist. So he’s a great writer to tackle such an immense and thought-provoking subject.

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

Alan: Until I began working on Why Time Flies, I hadn’t realized how deeply time is embedded in us. Each of our cells is basically a clock that beats out a firm twenty-four-hour rhythm; together these form bigger clocks — the liver, the kidneys — that also keep a twenty-four rhythm, and as group they’re responsible for running our physiology. Basically, the sum of me, and you, is a clock, and respecting its rhythm is essential to one’s health. So, for instance, I’ve stopped eating late at night, as that’s the least efficient time of day to metabolize food. And I try to get outside for at least a few minutes every morning, because exposure to daylight at that time of day ultimately helps me sleep better. It’s a matter of listening to the clock that is me.

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

Running — it’s good exercise, of course, but it also clears my mind. I’ve been a runner since forever, and now that my kids are old enough, we can all go to the track in the afternoon or on a weekend and run around it together, I love it.

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

That having and keeping a schedule can be liberating. I used to hate the idea of planning out my day, with certain hours set aside for writing, errands, and whatever else; it felt confining. But that sort of planning actually relieves me of the stress of deciding what to do next – which, in my case, can fill up way more time than it should. So once I’ve blocked out my day, I can actually relax into each block of time a little more, because I don’t have to spend any of that time thinking about what needs to happen in the next period.

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

Procrastination; I put stuff off, although I’m much better than I used to be. Some years ago I read Neil Fiore’s The Now Habit, and that made a difference. I realized that, for me at least, procrastination is often a way of avoiding making a decision – and simply acknowledging that is the first step toward actually making whatever decision needs to be made. I also make a lot of lists now; by writing down all the things I need to do, I remove the distraction of trying to juggle all that stuff in my head. Plus I have the satisfaction of crossing something off a list.

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

One of the healthiest things I can do for myself is to wake up early, at maybe 5 a.m., and put in a couple of hours of writing before our kids get up. That’s the most productive window of my day. But I’m just not a natural early-riser; it’s so hard to get out of bed at that hour! Often, instead, I do the opposite: stay up really late and write until 1 or 2 a.m. That’s also a productive window for me – but it’s exhausting and it makes my next day start late. The key to my establishing the habit of getting up early is to avoid the temptation to go back to work at night after the kids have gone to bed. Like me, my wife is a journalist and writer, and it can be hard for us to unplug from the world, so I always keep a good book by the bed to help me turn off my work-brain.

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

An Obliger, definitely; I’m much better with a deadline set by someone else than with one I set myself.

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

My laptop is my friend and my enemy. It’s where I do my writing, and I’d be lost without it, but I also struggle constantly against getting sucked into its many distractions and wonders – email, Twitter, Facebook, the news, Wikipedia entries about anteaters, and the rest. So I try to block out a couple of hours during my workday when I literally turn off the Internet; the software app Freedom is great for that. Even then, though, I’ll start rooting around in my computer files, looking at old photos, cleaning out the hard-drive, anything to avoid the blank page. That’s the point at which I turn off my laptop, put a notebook and pen in my pocket, and go for a walk.

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.?

One night at dinner, when our kids were maybe 6 years old – we have twin boys, they’re now 10 – one of them said for the zillionth time, “Dad, hey dad …” and it suddenly hit me: I’m their dad. Obviously, I knew for years that I was a parent and a dad. But I still thought of me as just me: Alan, writer, editor at various magazines, ran track in high school, traveled after college in Central America, and all of the other memories. That was my identity, and it matched pretty well with the way that Susan, my wife, sees me. But suddenly I realized that here were two people very close to me who knew none of that: to them, my identity was dad.

That made me sit up straight. In the book I write about how, as I grew into the role of parent, I sometimes felt like I was dismantling a ship and using the planks to build a ship for someone else. The story of my self wasn’t just mine any more. It also meant that my habits, weren’t just mine anymore either, so I needed to work harder at developing some good ones — regular exercise, getting my full dose of sleep, writing at the same time every day. I’d gotten bogged down in the book, but that exchange with the kids pushed me to get reorganize, double-down, and finish. Also, by then, the boys were old enough to say things like, “I bet J. K. Rowling writes faster than you,” and that prodding helped, too.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I’m very good with habits once I start them – it’s the starting-them part that I resist!

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

For the first couple of years after our twins were born, our life was chaos; we were learning to be parents, twice over; both of us were trying to work; and we’d just bought our first house and were discovering how much work that entails. Somewhere in there my mother-in-law gave us some priceless advice: make your bed every morning. It seems like such a small thing, which is exactly why it’s so worthwhile. We start the day having accomplished one small task of self-improvement, so subsequent ones feel easier to achieve. And at the end of the day, if life is still chaotic, we have a well-made bed to crawl into. All these years later we still make our bed every morning, often together — it’s a like a gift to our future selves.

“Humans Are Primed to Love the Natural World, But We Still Have to Cultivate It.”

Interview: Florence Williams.

One of my happiness-project resolutions is toGo outside.” I get energy and mood boost from the light, the fresh air, the exercise –and from being around nature.

I’m very lucky, as a New Yorker, because I live near Central Park, which is a beautiful, beautiful place.

A new book by Florence Williams makes me all the more certain that my resolution to “go outside” is a good idea. Her fascinating new book is The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier and More Creative.

In addition to writing The Nature Fix, Florence is also a contributing editor at Outside Magazine and a freelance writer for the New York TimesNew York Times MagazineNational Geographic, among other places, and she’s a fellow podcaster — she’s the writer and host of the Audible Original series, Breasts Unbound. A fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature and a visiting scholar at George Washington University, her work focuses on the environment, health and science.

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

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

Florence: The big takeaway is that spending time is a necessity, and not just a luxury, in order for humans to be our best selves. We’ve become disconnected from the natural world by accident – we’re busy, we need to live in cities, we’re increasingly tempted by fun and addicting technology. Now we need to put some intention into regaining the connection, for ourselves and our families, because it will help us be happier, healthier and sharper, and it will, ironically, help us build stronger bonds with each other.

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

I make it a priority to walk outside at least 30 minutes a day. If it has to be on a street, I try to pick the route with the most trees. And while I’m out there, I remind myself to notice the beauty around me – to hear the birds, look at the pattern of branches against the sky, watch the buds coming in. This boosts my mood and helps my attention span for the whole day.

You say that short walks in nature cause measurable changes in our physiology. Have you found that different natural environments yield different benefits?

Definitely. Humans are primed to love the natural world, but we still have to cultivate it, and cultivate it early. Because of how and where we do this, I think there’s a lot of variation in what people respond to emotionally. For some, it’s the ocean. For others, the ocean freaks them out and it’s a sunset over a city skyline. Because I grew up in New York City, my heart starts to sing when I enter Central Park. I also love the desert and a big river rolling through it. Think about where you were happiest outside as a child, and chances are you will feel joy in landscapes that are similar.

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

In addition to the 30 minutes minimum of walking, I have another one that I’ve become very attached to, and that’s walking again,  a little bit, with the dog, in the dark before bedtime. It’s quiet and dark, and I look for the moon and say hello. I’m convinced this helps me sleep better (recent studies suggest darkness before bed resets your circadian rhythm and titrates the proper release of melatonin from your brain), and it certainly makes my dog happy.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

Ah, I have to admit, I’m a bit of resister. I embrace intuition rather than proscription, and then feel a bit smug about it, but that’s probably self-delusion. Fortunately, my intuition is to take good care of myself, and that means embracing healthy habits. But I allow myself wiggle room and I’m not hard on myself for messing up. Sometimes I think there’s a reason for not keeping a promise, and it’s worthwhile to dig around for that.

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

Yes, My dear sister-in-law, Lisa Jones, who lives in bucolic Boulder, Colorado and who hikes literally hours every day when she’s not writing brilliant books. Lisa inspires me to take bigger, longer, more bad-ass hikes, and she convinces me this will help my creativity and problem-solving in the long run. Plus she passes along cool dietary advice, like: Eat Rye!

America has a long tradition of people writing about walking in nature, from Thoreau to Bill Bryson. Where do you see yourself within this spectrum of American nature writing?

I don’t really consider my work nature writing, which can lean a bit too romantic for my taste. I have a journalist’s eye, and I like finding connections that are sometimes obscure. I’ve always been interested in the intersection of humans and the environment. I like putting people into the equation, and I like to think I bring a balance of humor and serious science and social questions about why we feel and think the way we do.

“Zombie Mode Is Not Nearly as Delicious as Diving Deeply into Fully Living Life Every Day.”

Interview: Judson Brewer.

I was very pleased to get the chance to talk to Judson Brewer, because he and I are interested in so many of the same subjects.

He’s a leading figure in the “science of self-mastery” — oh, self-mastery! How I love that subject; it so appeals to my Upholder side.

He wears many hats and has many balls in the air (to mix metaphors horribly): Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness and associate professor in Medicine and Psychiatry at UMass Medical School; adjunct faculty at Yale University; research affiliate at MIT.

One of his specialties is using mindfulness programs to address addiction. He’s developed and tested novel mindfulness programs for habit change, including both in-person and app-based treatments (e.g. www.goeatrightnow.com, www.cravingtoquit.com). He has also studied the underlying neural mechanisms of mindfulness using standard and real-time fMRI.  In 2012, he founded Claritas MindSciences to move his discoveries of clinical evidence behind mindfulness for eating, smoking and other behavior change into the marketplace.

In just a few weeks, his new book will hit the shelves — The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love, Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits.

I was so interested to hear what Jud had to say about habits.

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

Jud: I’ve been blown away by how habits are the basis for so much of our lives – from smartphones to romantic love to getting caught up in our own thinking to even how we judge “right” and “wrong” in the world. Now I understand more where the phrase “we are creatures of…” comes from. And it’s amazing how much our modern scientific tools such as probing people in their natural environments via smartphone technology and detecting brain changes using fMRI machines have helped fill in the picture of what’s going on. All of these seem to repeatedly point to the same end: that we are tapping into a very evolutionarily conserved process that was set up for survival (trigger, behavior, reward).

Perhaps the most fascinating part of my research and clinical work was a paradoxical discovery: that we can tap into this natural reward-based learning process and by simply paying careful attention to different habit loops, we can learn to step out of them (paying careful attention to the “reward” is critical here).

In our clinical and brain studies, my lab has found that simple mindfulness trainings to help us pay attention and build awareness around our habits can have big effects on changing them (e.g. smoking, stress and emotional eating); our research has shown that these practices can not only help us quit smoking and change eating habits but literally change how our brains fire and wire.

What are some simple habits that consistently make you happier?

Practicing simple acts of kindness. Being curious. Smiling.

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

That changing habits is less an act of force or will than focusing on seeing the “reward” more clearly. I’ve also learned that curiosity is a key ingredient here.

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

Judgment (of myself and others).

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

Being kind. Listening carefully and completely when in conversation with someone. Exercising (running, mountain biking).

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

Eating healthfully. Looking back, I think the roots of this started to grow when I was racing BMX bikes in junior high school. I started noticing that when I ate donuts and drank soda before a race, I’d quickly run out of steam – which I later learned was probably due to getting a sugar rush and subsequent crash. As an adult, I’ve really started noticing how my body and mind feel after eating junk food (especially refined sugar) as compared to healthy food. It’s amazing how much wisdom comes from simply paying attention to the process! I couldn’t maintain a “don’t eat ice cream because it’s bad for you” mindset (which was totally cognitive/thinking in nature), but now when a craving comes on to pig out, can more easily remember what it felt like last time I ate an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s. This helps me stop with a small serving, while at the same time enjoy what I’m eating even more because I’m not mentally leaning in for the next bite.

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

Definitely a Questioner!

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

Both – it is wonderful that we don’t have to relearn how to tie our shoes every day, and also great to pay attention to how much of our lives we spend on “autopilot” so that we can step out of old habits that no longer serve us, or may get in the way of really embracing life. I know that sounds hokey, but its true. Zombie mode is not nearly as delicious as diving deeply into and fully living life every day, no matter what is happening.

If you’d like to hear more from Jud Brewer, you can watch his TED talk, “A simple way to break a bad habit”:

News Flash: Watching TV with Your Sweetheart May Boost Your Happiness.

I’m very interested in the role of TV-watching in our happiness. After all,  after sleeping and work, it’s the biggest consumer of the world’s time.

So I was interested to see that new research suggests that for  couples who don’t have lots of mutual friends, watching the same TV show (or reading the same book or going to the same movie) can help both people feel that they inhabit in the same social world.

It turns out that couples who have lots of mutual friends tend to have the strongest bonds, and for those who don’t have a lot of mutual friends, having “shared media experiences” helps them to feel connected.

This rang true for me. My husband Jamie and I have some mutual friends, but our social worlds don’t overlap extensively. Years ago, we both worked at the Federal Communications Commission, and I remember how much fun it was when we knew so many people in common.

We do have the habit of choosing shows to watch together, and it really is an activity that draws us closer. For instance, we’ve watched Transparent, Game of Thrones, The Wire, Lost, The Shield.

I bet this finding is true for non-romantic relationships, too. With my daughters, I’ve watched The Office (American version), Friends (yes, questionable judgment on my part, it’s raunchier than I remembered), The Mindy Project, SuperStore. And I’ve heard of offices that have a specific “office show” that people watch and discuss. It gives everyone something to talk about — and a form of unhurtful gossip — apart from work.

I love to read, and I like reading in a room where someone else is reading, but it’s true that this activity has never seemed as…companionable…as watching the same TV show or movie. We’re not inhabiting the same inner world, we’re not reacting to the same material at the same time.

I always felt a bit guilty about watching these TV shows with my husband — shouldn’t we be doing something else? But now I recognize that it’s a valuable, relationship-strengthening activity.

Do you have a TV show that you watch with your sweetheart? Do you feel as if it draws you closer?

A Little Happier: A Lucky Charm That Works Even If You Don’t Believe In It.

Back in episode 59 of our podcast, Elizabeth and I talked about the value of giving yourself a lucky charm.

Relying on lucky charms is superstitious, but in fact, it actually works. Researchers have found that people who believe they have luck on their side feel greater “self-efficacy”—the belief that we’re capable of doing what we set out to do—and this belief actually boosts mental and physical performance. Many elite athletes, for instance, are deeply superstitious, and in one study, people who were told that a golf ball “has turned out to be a lucky ball” did  better putting than people who weren’t told that.

Any discussion of superstition reminds me of this perhaps-apocryphal story, about physicist Niels Bohr. I love this story!

Most of us aren’t superstitious—but most of us are a littlestitious.

Thanks to my terrific sponsor: Squarespace. Start building your website and get your free trial today.  Go to Squarespace.com, and enter the offer code “happier” to get 10% off your first purchase.

Want to get in touch? I love hearing from listeners: