“I Try to Make a Regular Custom of Listening to Music for 20-30 Minutes Without Any Other Distractions.”

Interview: Steven Johnson.

Steven Johnson has written many fascinating books, such as How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World. (which is also a PBS series). I absolutely love the title (and argument) of his book Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.

His most recent book just hit the shelves: Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, for which there’s also a podcast. Wonderland is all about how playful aspects of life — like fashion, shopping, music, illusion, games, taverns, parks — have had a big impact on our history.

I was eager to hear what Steven Johnson had to say about habits and happiness.

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

Steven: I think the most interesting finding is really closely connected to what you’ve tried to wrestle with in The Happiness Project — that we are surprisingly creative and innovative when we’re having fun, when we’re in a playful state. There are probably a hundred different stories in Wonderland that showcase how an idea that came into the world originally in the form of a toy or a game or a new fashion ended up laying the groundwork for a “serious” revolution in science or technology or politics. The best example of that is the industrial revolution. When we were kids, we’d read accounts of why industrialization happened, and it would always be about these brilliant engineers and early capitalists building steam engines and designing the factory system. But if you go back and look at the sequence, what really started the whole process was the moment of delight that Londoners experienced (mostly women) encountering the soft, beautiful fabrics of calico and chintz for the first time. That obsession with imported cotton ended up triggering a huge backlash because it threatened the existing wool industry in Britain at the time, but eventually it lead to the inventions of the industrial age. You see that again and again in history: interests and passions that start out just as seemingly idle pursuits end up changing the course of history.

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

Working on a book every day. Or even better, working on two books every day. I like to have one active book that I’m focused on writing, and then another one that’s in the background, that I know I am going to write eventually, that I’m researching and thinking about in the gaps between working on the main project. I try to write 500 words a day when I’m actively writing a book, which is really not very many words — it’s like three paragraphs. You can write them in an hour or two if you’re well prepared. So I rarely have that feeling of sitting down at the computer in the morning and thinking, oh my god, I have so much writing to do. But I’m pretty rigorous about hitting that target. And if you write 500 words a day for 4-5 months, you’ll have a book. Or at least enough words for a book.

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

One of my rituals that is very important to me — that I have preserved from my teenage years — is that I try to make a regular custom of sitting and listening to music for twenty or thirty minutes without any other distractions. Not background music as I work, music that I am listening to without any distraction, no screens, no other people in the room with me. The only distraction, I suppose, is that I usually have a glass or two of wine while I do it. It is very soothing as an experience, even if the music is not, but it’s also a very creative time for me: my mind wanders over different ideas, digests the day’s work. I sometimes get a comparable experience going out for a long walk in Brooklyn, or a hike in California — sometimes with headphones on, sometimes without a soundtrack. Just giving yourself that continuous time to let your mind wander, with some kind of sensory accompaniment — either the scenery or the sonic landscape, or both — is incredibly valuable, I think.

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

My wife and I have a wonderful shared quality in that we both are entirely happy to stay home every single night of the week. We have no compulsion to be social and always have something on the calendar. When we are out in California we often have stretches of 10-15 days with literally zero social events on the calendar — no dinner parties, no drinks, no lunches. And it’s always a terrifically productive time for us. When we are in NY the calendar fills up a lot more easily, but I’ve gotten very good at just saying no to things because I know that if I have a week with a ton of meetings and evening events, I’m not going to be happy. And it has a nice positive effect when we actually do go out: we’re both like, “oh it’s so fun to hang out with friends! we should do this more often!”

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I was always a very habitual person, with very fixed tastes and attitudes about things — though not a particularly organized person, I should say. I would drink a certain kind of coffee, and only eat certain dishes, and could only write in certain environments. For like fifteen years, the only kind of alcohol I would drink was low-sugar red wines. But one of the strange things that happened to me becoming a middle-aged person (I’m 48) is that I started shaking things up. I’m still very habitual; I just keep changing my habits. We moved to California full-time for three years about six years ago for no other reason than it would be change of pace. I started drinking white wine almost exclusively like two years ago. I suddenly decided I like spicy food about six years ago. It’s a good antidote to getting old, I suppose: don’t let yourself get settled in your ways. Invent new ways!

Podcast 91: Delete a Soul-Sucking App, and a Deep Dive into Happier 911 Songs

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

NOTE: This episode was recorded before Election Day 2016, which is why Elizabeth and I don’t mention it. The election has been unusually emotional and contentious. As with any milestone moment, it provides an opportunity for us to reflect about our own values, and how we can serve the highest ideals of our country and ourselves.

Update: Elizabeth and I discuss the site Longitude Books: Recommended Reading for Travelers, where you can find books related to your travels.

Try This at Home: Amy suggests “Delete or disable soul-sucking, productivity-depleting, creativity-sapping apps.”

If you want to hear the episode where Elizabeth and I discuss our “preciousssssss,” it’s episode 17.  We picked up this term from The Lord of the Rings. Whenever Gollum refers to the ring, he calls it “my precious.” “Losst it is, my precious, lost, lost! Curse us and crush us, my precious is lost!“ Want to see a ten-second clip of Gollum talking about his precious, from The Lord of the Rings movie The Two Towers? It’s here.

We talk about the Abstainer/Moderator distinction — you can read more here.

What app is your precioussss app?

Happiness Hack for the Holidays:  Make homemade place-cards.

Deep Dive into Happiness 911 Songs: To hear the Happiness 911 songs, the link is here, or you can search for “Happier 911” on Spotify. Currently more than 400 songs — that’s more than 26 hours of happy music.

Elizabeth’s  Demerit: Elizabeth hasn’t been going to the mindfulness class at her son’s school, even though she found it so helpful last year.

Gretchen’s Gold Star: Eleanor’s teacher took the time to send a positive progress notice.

If you want easy instructions about how to rate or review the podcast, look here.

Remember,  I’m doing weekly live videos on my Facebook Page to continue the conversation from the podcast — usually on Tuesdays at 3:00 pm ET. To join the conversation, check the schedule.

As always, thanks to our terrific sponsors

Sign up for The Great Courses Plus today and you’ll get a month of unlimited access to thousands of fascinating lectures taught by top professors and experts in their fields. Try it free for one month when  you sign up at www.thegreatcoursesplus.com/happier.

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1pixHappier with Gretchen Rubin - Podcast #91

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A Little Happier: Flannery O’Connor Writes About What Some Folks Would Do.

How I love the work of Flannery O’Connor. Her novel Wise Blood is one of my favorite books, and I also love O’Connor’s non-fiction. I’ve read The Habit of Being, her collection of letters, many times.

The passage I read is from her O’Connor’s essay “Writing Short Stories,” in Mystery and Manners:

I lent some stories to a country lady who lives down the road from me, and when she returned them, she said, “Well, them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do,” and I thought to myself that that was right; when you write stories, you have to be content to start exactly there—showing how some specific folks will do, will do in spite of everything.

I don’t understand why these lines have haunted me for so long — but I think of them often — what some folks will do, will do, in spite of everything.

For instance, I thought about them a lot when I was trying to identify my Four Tendencies framework. It does explain what some folks will do.

If you’d like to hear O’Connor read her famous short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” it’s here.

Check out Yogi Tea. When it comes to enjoying life, little moments — like drinking a delicious cup of tea — can make a big difference.

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“I Am Being Swept off My Feet at Last.” A Good Thing–or Not?

“ ‘Don’t you worry about me! I am as happy now as I have ever been, and that is saying a great deal. But the time has come. I am being swept off my feet at last,’ he added, and then in a low voice, as if to himself, he sang softly in the dark…”

— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

If you know your Lord of the Rings trilogy (and we all should), Bilbo Baggins makes this remark to Gandalf, just after Bilbo’s 111th birthday party, as he’s leaving Bag End forever.

How I love that line! “I am being swept off my feet at last.”

A good thing, or a bad thing, to be swept off your feet at last? It could probably go either way.

Why the Smell of a Hallway Taught Me Something Important about Myself.

Yesterday, I went to the Panoply offices to record an episode of the Happier podcast in the studio there.

As I walked down the hallway to the water fountain, I was suddenly struck by a “Proustian memory” — a flood of remembrance triggered by a smell or taste.

For some reason, this hallway smelled exactly like the hospital where I worked as a candy-striper in high school. I hadn’t thought of that experience in years, and suddenly it came flooding back to me. (Gosh, what a funny term, I realize, so 1950’s–I just looked up the definition, and a “candy-striper” is a teenage girl who does volunteer nursing in a hospital. Yep, that’s what I did.)

And the strongest aspect of this memory was a sense of tremendous discomfort and a longing for release. At the time, I wouldn’t have said that I intensely disliked being a candy-striper, but looking back, I understand that I did.

I was constantly worried that I’d make a dangerous mistake (I didn’t realize that they never asked me to do anything that actually mattered). I wasn’t interested in medicine. I didn’t learn anything.

That scent in the hallway brought back so many memories…the cafeteria where I ate my lunch, the look of the elevators, the noises of the machines, the feeling of dread, all of it.

And those memories made me think of the Four Tendencies — after all, everything reminds me of the Four Tendencies these days.

I’m an Upholder, and we Upholders find it pretty easy to get ourselves to do things, even things we don’t particularly want to do.

This is one of my favorite things about myself. It’s one of my greatest strengths.

And, I’ve learned, it’s also one of my greatest weaknesses.

Sometimes I’m too good at getting myself to do things that I don’t want to do.  Even though I don’t want to do them, I push myself, instead of thinking, “Hmmm, maybe this isn’t what I should be doing after all. Maybe I should do something else.”

That’s what I’ve seen, more and more clearly, with the Four Tendencies — and with all aspects of human nature. Our strengths are our weaknesses. Our gifts come with a shadow side. The more I can recognize that in myself, the better off I’ll be.

How about you? Do you find that your strengths are the same thing as your weaknesses?

I continue to be fascinated by the sense of smell. So often overlooked, so powerful.

Speaking of the Four Tendencies…

Don’t know if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger or Rebel? You can take the Quiz here. More than 500,000 people have taken the Quiz.

–Are you as interested in the Four Tendencies as I am? Want to learn about how to harness it to manage yourself better — and to manage other people better?

Check out my app, Better!

Go here or search “Better Gretchen Rubin” in the app store. Lots of info about the app here. And if you need accountability (Obligers!), you can join an Accountability Group within the app.

Want to be notified when my book The Four Tendencies hits the shelves in fall 2017? Sign up here, and I’ll let you know. I’m finishing the book now.