“I Put the Device Face Down If My Daughter Wants To Talk or Physically Turn from the Screen”

Happiness interview: Ron Lieber.

Now, how do I know Ron Lieber? I can’t remember how I met him. For a long time, I’ve been a big fan of his work. He writes a thought-provoking, helpful personal-finance column, “Your Money,” for the New York Times, and also writes for the Motherlode blog there. Recently, he wrote a post that got a huge amount of buzz: Why you should tell your children how much you make.

He has a new book that’s just hitting the shelves this week. The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money, which is an essential guidebook for any parents who want to talk sensibly with their children about money — and about good values related to money. This subject is very interesting and important, and I was particularly intrigued by the title, because I’ve often asked myself, what makes a person spoiled?

I was very eager to hear what Ron had to say.

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

Ron: That there’s an epidemic of silence around money in families, no matter how much they have and no matter where they live. Somewhere along the way, we decided that talking honestly with children about money is impolite or age-inappropriate or will scare them or cause them to be money grubbers. But having money or talking about it doesn’t subvert values. In fact, having the right conversations about it over a decade or two can actually imprint good habits like modesty, generosity and perseverance.

Given what you’ve learned, what habits do you think are most important for parents to try to instill in children?

We live in a world nowadays that conspires against waiting. You don’t have to wait through the commercials. You can pay to skip the line at the theme park. Everyone has their own phone line. Homes have more bathrooms.  But patience is good; it’s the foundation of saving, after all. Plus if kids have to wait a while before they buy and get things, the yearning just may pass (albeit on to the next thing that they must have right that very moment).

And let’s not forget curiosity. The primary job of a child is to learn how the world works, and it’s parents’ job to answer their questions. All of them.  Including the hard ones about money.

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

Expressing gratitude.

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

Holding a device or facing a computer screen while my daughter is trying to talk to me. It makes me feel like a bad dad. I now put the device face down if my daughter wants to talk or physically turn from the desktop screen and lock eyes with her to make sure she knows I’m fully present.

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

Automating every possible financial transaction. For me and my wife, this helps reduce anxiety around missing payments or not saving enough.

Soon, we’re going to start automating allowance payments into a virtual account for our daughter so we never have to worry about forgetting to give it to her or not having enough singles to pay her on the appointed day each week.

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

An Obliger. I do a decent job of meeting most people’s expectations of me, whether it’s editors or friends or family. But I’m not as nice to myself emotionally as I should be.

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

I write a weekly column for the New York Times, plus a post every two weeks for our parenting blog, Motherlode. It is an enormous privilege, but the deadline looms each and every Friday. My midnight Thursday eating habits are, well, deeply problematic.

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.?

The Apartment Therapy “landing strip” riff has completely changed the way I walk in the door when I come home each day and has made the logistics of arriving (and leaving) much more calm. Everyone has to check it out!

Video: Are You an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel?

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative.

My forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To pre-order, click here. (Pre-orders give a real boost to a book, so if you’re inclined to buy the book, pre-ordering now is a big help.)

In this video, I talk about the Strategy of the Four Tendencies. I have to say, of everything I write about in Better Than Before, I’m most proud of this section. It’s the most original, the most startling, the most helpful — and predictably, it was the most difficult to write.


If you want to find out your own Tenency, take this Quiz. More than 35,000 people have taken it!

It’s very important to know ourselves, but self-knowledge is challenging.  I’m like a Muggle Sorting Hat: I sort everyone into four categories, which describe how people tend to respond to expectations: outer expectations (a deadline, a “request” from a sweetheart) and inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution).

Your response to expectations may sound slightly obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.

In a nutshell:

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%)
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense (my husband is a Questioner)
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves


What’s your Tendency? Does knowing your Tendency give you some insight into how to change your habits more readily? From what I’ve observed, Obligers find this the most helpful, because when they realize that external accountability is the key for them, they can easily plug that in — and succeed.

Revealed! Book Club Choices for February.

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

· one outstanding book about happiness or habits

· 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 the wonderful Brooklyn indie WORD, BN.com, Amazon (I’m an affiliate of all three), or your favorite local bookstore. Or visit the library! Drumroll…

An outstanding book about happiness or habits:

Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam Grant

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

An outstanding children’s book:

The House Without a Christmas Tree by Gail Rock

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

An eccentric pick:

Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers by Janet Malcolm

Buy from WORD; BN.com; Amazon.

Some readers have said that they wished that I’d describe and make the case for my book choices, instead of just providing links. I’ve noticed that many times, when someone describes a book to me, I want to read it less. And often, weirdly, the better a book is, the worse it sounds.

Nevertheless, because so many readers have requested it, I’ve decided to give a bit more context for these choices in the book-club newsletter. So if you’d like to know more about why I made these selections, check there. To get that free monthly book-club newsletter, and to make sure you don’ t miss any recommendations, sign up here.

In any event, I assure you that, for all the books I choose, I love them; I’ve read them at least twice if not many times; and they’re widely admired.

If you read last month’s recommendations…what did you think?  An Autobiography by Anthony Trollope; Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls; Dear Genius by Ursula Nordstrom. So good!

These days, I can’t talk about books without making a pitch for my own forthcoming book, Better Than Before. I love all my books equally, but I do love this book.  As I’ve mentioned before: for book publishing these days, pre-orders give a big boost to a book. If you’re inclined to buy Better Than Before, it’s a huge help to me if you order it now. You won’t be charged, of course, until the book ships.

Agree? In Order to Find Something, You Must Possess It Already

I often become preoccupied with an idea, and take great pleasure in seeing that idea appear over and over.

One of the ideas that I’ve traced for years is the paradoxical idea — to put it in the most simple terms — that in order to find something, you must possess it already. What exactly does this mean? A koan.

I became preoccupied with this idea after reading a line from Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson. It had great significance for my happiness project, and in fact, I used it as an epigraph for the The Happiness Project. Boswell quotes Johnson remarking:

“As the Spanish proverb says, ‘He who would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him, so it is with travelling, –a man must carry knowledge with him if he would bring home knowledge.’”

In Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil writes:

“Nothing can have a destination which is not its origin.”

From Stephen Spender:

“Travel is an art which has to be created by the traveler.”

Put another way, by Cavafy, in the poem “Ithaka”:

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon — you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Put another way, by Thoreau, in his journal entry from August 30, 1856:

“It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog in our brains and bowels, the primitive vigor of Nature in us, that inspires that dream. I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador any greater wildness than in some recess of Concord, i.e. than I import into it.”

How about you? Do you have an idea that you look for, everywhere you go? And do you agree that you can only find what you possess already?

The Perfect Office Design — How Does Your Office Measure Up?

I’m a huge fan of the work of Christopher Alexander, and yesterday, for the hundredth time, I found myself urging someone to read his book, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction.

This strange, brilliant, fascinating book uses architecture, sociology, psychology, and anthropology to describe the most satisfying environments.

Instead of talking about familiar architectural styles and elements, it focuses on “patterns,” such as the Sitting Wall, the Front Door Bench, Child Caves, the Sequence of Sitting Spaces, Sleeping to the East. I love these! I want them for my own apartment!

Ever since I read this book, I’ve been working my way through everything written by Christopher Alexander. As Huckleberry Finn said of Pilgrim’s Progress, I would say, “The statements was interesting, but tough.”

A Pattern Language discusses houses, but it also covers commercial spaces and offices.

It offers insights about why certain offices are more or less satisfying to work in. Take this quiz to see how your office measures up.

I put a “yes” or “no” after each element, as it applies to my own office.

-there’s a wall behind you (so no one can sneak up behind you). Yes.

-there’s a wall to one side (too much openness makes you feel exposed). Yes.

-there’s no blank wall within 8 feet in front of you (or you have no place to rest your eyes). No, I sit right in front of a wall with a window.

-you work in at least 60 square feet (or you feel cramped). No; my office is tiny.

-your workspace is 50-75% enclosed by walls or windows (so you have a feeling of openness). Not exactly sure what this one means’ wouldn’t that give me a feeling of closedness?

-you have a view to the outside (no matter how large your office, you will feel confined in a room without a view). Yes—no nice view, but I can see outside. Having a window is enormously important to me.

-you are aware of at least 2 other people, but not more than 8 people, around you (less than 2, you feel isolated and ignored; more than 8, you feel like a cog in a machine). No, I’m all alone.

-you can’t hear workplaces noises that are very different from the kind of noises you make at work (you concentrate better when the people around you are engaged in similar tasks, not very different tasks). Yes.

-no one is sitting directly opposite you and facing you. No.

-you can face in different directions at different times. No.

-you can see at least 2 other people, but not more than 4. No.

-you have at least one co-worker within talking distance. No.

Most of us can’t change much about the design of our offices, but these elements at least furnish a few ideas.

My office is very, very small. If I had more room and space, I would love to have a horseshoe-shaped desk, with enormous amounts of surface space, as well as a treadmill desk. Oh, how I long for a treadmill desk! In Better Than Before, I describe how I did the next best thing: I bought a treadmill desk for my sister. She sometimes walks seven miles — during a work day!

I have to admit, that of all the habits that I changed, or that I helped other people to change, as part of writing that book, getting my sister that treadmill desk was one of the very most satisfying.

How does the design of your workplace measure up? Do you agree with these points? What would you add?

To state the obvious: this list sheds light on why many people don’t like the current trends in office design.