Interview: Amy Blankson.
Amy Blankson is a person who knows a lot about happiness and good habits. Remarkably, she's the only person to be named as a "Point of Light" by two presidents (President Bush and President Clinton). What a credential -- a two-time Point-of-Light! I get a big kick out of that.
Her new book just hit the shelves, The Future of Happiness: 5 Modern Strategies to Balance Productivity and Well-being in the Digital Era.
I was eager to hear what she had to say about happiness and habits.
Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded on the subject of habits?
Amy: I’ve learned that, despite being highly sophisticated human beings, we regularly make irrational decisions that move us further from our goals.
We have just enough information at our fingertips to think that we have thought through an idea well; however, on closer examination, there are major gaps in our thought processes (called illusory knowledge). For example, as you look at each of these pictures below, your brain begins to add shapes and lines that are hinted at but don’t actually exist.
The brain does the same thing each time we are faced with a decision, whether big or small. The brain fills in the gaps with illusory knowledge—that may or may not be accurate—to draw conclusions and make decisions. It turns out that, most of the time, we are all-out wrong. In fact, roughly 50 percent to 80 percent wrong!
This phenomenon explains why we so often talk ourselves out of making choices that we know are good for us, like practicing gratitudes or journaling or exercising.
To truly create sustainable positive change, we have to learn to recognize the illusory knowledge in our environment that causes limiting beliefs about our potential (i.e., I want to lose weight, but I don’t really think I can because I know lots of people that struggle with it—even if I have never tried). Only then can we begin to reframe our thought processes so we can mindfully begin to fill in the gaps where we might need more facts and information so that we can make empowered choices.
Or for a more personal example, let me tell you a story: Two years ago, a group of girlfriends invited me to walk a half marathon with them in the Outer Banks. Now, mind you, I have always hated running, but I thought walking wouldn’t be too bad. Plus, I was really craving a girls’ weekend away, so I signed up on a whim. About one week into training, my “friends” decided we should run the race instead. What?! I panicked. I had never run longer than one mile before. In elementary school when I was five years old, they asked me to run a mile. About a quarter of the way in, I almost collapsed because I couldn’t breathe. Since then, I had resisted running at all costs.
But, as I now understand, I had a limiting belief based upon a single data point: my loss of breath at age five. I didn’t know whether that was an asthma attack, or if I had been born with one lung (a condition somehow undetected by every doctor in my life), or if I was just perhaps not in the practice of running. So I set out to log and quantify a renewed attempt at running, using the MapMyRun App, which geo-tagged my location as I ran my first five minutes. During my first training session, I noted that my breathing began to get difficult at exactly .39 of a mile (at the four-minute mark). I also logged how long it took me to get my breath back (six minutes), how my legs felt, what my heart rate was, and in what kind of weather conditions I was running. Two days later I tried again. I made it the same amount of time before my breathing became labored. I logged that information. Then over the next few runs, my run duration began to increase, my speed got faster, and my breathing recovered sooner. I suddenly had real knowledge: I could run at least four minutes without breathing hard—but my full potential was still unknown.
Six weeks later (the halfway point in my training), picture me running five miles in the mountains on vacation. Yup, that was me. This transformation did not happen overnight but was rather a series of little battles and choices along the way that required me to rethink what I thought I knew about myself. By the end of my training, I found myself sprinting to the finish line of the half marathon, having run the whole 13.1 miles without stopping.
This feat continues to be one of the proudest moments in my life, not just because I finished the race, but even more so because I overcame limiting beliefs that I had struggled with for years. Quantifying my behavioral patterns and having more than one or two data points changed everything.
Illusory knowledge threatens to derail our decision-making about behavior change by skewing our perception of reality. These traitorous ideas are often hidden in the smallest, quietest thoughts in our heads, whispering falsehoods, spreading seeds of doubt, and holding us back from achieving our full potential. The key to making better decisions is taking the time to look thoughtfully at the details that shape our larger environment. You’ve probably heard the expression, “Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees.” It’s worth stopping to realize that there would be no forest without trees.
At GoodThink, we define optimism as the belief that our behavior matters. And when we latch on to this idea, we begin to take ownership of these small moments, recognizing that they are not just fleeting thoughts but critical choices that shape our future. Until you believe that your behavior matters, change is virtually impossible. Every day, you have the opportunity to make an active choice that your behavior does matter, both for your success and happiness—not in some distant future, but right now, right here in your life.
What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?
Saying gratitudes every day consistently boosts my happiness level. When I’m having a hard day, this practice reminds me that there are multiple ways to perceive the same scenario. In fact, psychologist Sonja Lubyamirsky writes in her book, The How of Happiness, that 90% of our happiness is up to our perception of the world, which explains why so many people reading the same book or listening to the same talk can perceive that event in entirely different ways.
In 2008, my husband Bobo and I were stationed with the Air Force in Biloxi, Mississippi. I can honestly say that Biloxi was not on my top 1000 places to live in my life, but I genuinely tried to make the best of the experience. We bought our first home, got our first dog, and starting making friends in the community. However, three months later, Hurricane Katrina hit and I lost my house, my dog, and my community. Anxiety began creeping into my life as I felt like the world was out of my control, but practicing gratitudes really helped me to climb out of that dark place and anchor myself in what I could control.
Today, I teach my three young daughters to say gratitudes at bedtime, and I’m proud to say that they have become incredibly good at coming up with long lists of gratitudes (either that, or they are professional stallers at bedtime; either way, I feel like I’m winning).
What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
First, habits are a work ethic. This sounds obvious, but at 18 I thought I could simply conceive of a new habit and it would magically happen. Now that I’m 3x older, I realize the importance of habit sustainability. I understand that there are seasons in our life, where habits ebb and flow. When I was a young mother, I was pretty excited to just get a morning shower and remember to brush my hair; now that my kids are older, my habits are much more focused on being a positive role model (reading in front of my children, saying my gratitudes around them, doing acts of kindness, etc.).
Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?
Absolutely! I actually have a t-shirt that says, “I’ve had my morning coffee. Now you may speak.” Coffee has become a bit of an addiction for me, not because of volume but because of ritual. I love waking up to making a steaming mug of coffee and sipping on it while I launch into my work; but if I don’t get my coffee, I turn into a whiney version of Jekyll and Hide that can’t think straight and isn’t on her game. As a naturally anxious person, I know caffeine is not good for my long-term happiness, but this is most definitely a work-in-progress in my life.
Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
A few years ago, I realized that my husband has certain habits that make him tick…I call them the four F’s: family, friends, faith, and fitness. But for me, my list is a bit different. Acts of service, the arts, meditation, and exercise are my keys to feeling like my optimal self. When I take the time to do community service or play piano or just stare at the clouds and think, I feel the greatest sense of alignment internally and externally. I try to maintain a growth mindset about striving towards my potential (which is how the ancient Greeks defined happiness). For instance, I recently decided to pick up the cello at age 37 because I crave learning and growing with intention. I also regularly try out new wearables like posture trainers to give me new insight into mind and body.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
This past January, I tried something called The Daniel Fast, which was an incredibly restrictive diet that is based on the book of Daniel from the Bible. No meat, no dairy, no sugar! For some people, this would be no big deal (evidently you, Gretchen, are one of these!); but for me, no sugar was a serious challenge.
However, I had a couple of factors that propelled me to successfully maintain the diet for 21 days: first and foremost, I knew deep down that I needed to change my sugar habit because I was addicted. It was time to do something, so I was mentally ready. Second, I had a number of friends trying the diet at the same time; I know from positive psychology that social support is the single greatest predictor of long-term success and happiness, so I leaned on my friends to help me stick to the plan. There was a LOT of whining involved, but after about 5 days, the cravings began to subside and I became a nicer person. And third, I knew that this habit change was for a defined period of time, which enabled me to feel like the task was do-able and also not permanent.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I’m an Obliger. I wish I weren’t, but I am. Because I’m an optimist, I attribute my tendency to meet outer expectations rather than inner expectations to my strong sense of empathy. But even as I write this, I know it’s a cop out. I don’t like conflict, and it’s easier to let myself down rather than to let other people down. However, as I’m growing older, I’m beginning to realize that other people’s opinions don’t matter as much as my own; in fact, other people are watching me to shape their own behavior. As a thought-leader in the digital well-being space, I need to lead the way, even if I make mistakes along the way. I receive letters on a daily basis from readers who remark how my authenticity and transparency is inspiring to them. So if my story helps inspire one other person, it’s all worth it.
[For those particularly interested in The Four Tendencies: Note that this is an accountability strategy that works for many Obligers: thinking of their duty to be a role model for others.]
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)
Travel certainly throws me off of my healthy habits, but I recognize that I tend to baby myself a bit more when I’m traveling (more coffee, more chocolate…) to deal with the stress and uncertainty. I’m actively trying to fight these temptations by indulging myself in other ways. I recently found a bag of Biena Honey Chickpeas in an airport store. I indulged on those instead, knowing I was loading up on protein and fiber instead of just sugar and caffeine—and I felt so much better afterwards!
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.?
In my line of work, I test out hundreds of gadgets and apps designed to increase well-being. I’ve been shocked by posture trainers, pricked by blood testers, and had my skin ripped off by Velcro adhesive. I’ve literally got my skin in the game! That being said, I was particularly shocked to have a lightning bolt experience with a wearable called the Spire Stone last summer.
As back story: the Spire Stone is a small lava-shaped rock with a clip that attaches to your waistband or bra strap; it uses your breathing patterns to determine if you are feeling calm or focused or tense. As a naturally anxious person, I found this feedback loop useful to remind me to breathe more often; however, about five days into my trial period with the Spire, this device went from fascinating to fundamentally transformative for me.
Through an unfortunate series of circumstances, my eight-year old daughter Ana broke her neck last summer in our backyard pool. Fortunately, she is fine now and doing back handsprings all over the house; but at the time, I remember driving Ana to the hospital to get X-rays while wearing my Spire stone, and it surprisingly said that I was feeling quite calm…it wasn’t until we were walking out of the hospital, with Ana in a giant neck brace, that the Spire stone began to vibrate, indicating that I was feeling tense. And I thought, yeah I know--my daughter just broke her neck!! But the vibration caused me to pause and think about why I was feeling tense, and I realized… “I was worried about what other people would think about me, as the mom of a child with a broken neck…rather than being present with Ana, supporting her as she wrestled with her new reality—a summer of no gymnastics, no lacrosse, no swimming. This 30-second feedback loop from the Spire stone was just enough to help me reframe my thoughts and mindfully pivot to be more of the mother I wanted to be.
For me, this is technology at its finest—helping to raise our consciousness and to fuel well-being through science-backed solutions. And I was incredibly grateful to have this lightning-bolt moment to help me align my intentions with my actions.
Do you embrace habits or resist them?
I embrace habits whole-heartedly! I maintain a chart on my bathroom mirror called “My Journey to Health and Happiness” to help me keep track of my daily habits; rather than by tracking my habits by the day of the week, I focus on trying to maximize my “win-streak.” Speaking to another gold star junkie, I know you’ll appreciate this—I literally give myself a gold star if I complete a task, which helps me get back on the horse if I miss a day or two.
Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?
My brother Shawn Achor (author of The Happiness Advantage) has had a big influence on my habits. He was the one who introduced me to the science of positive psychology, and taught me how “the twenty second rule” could help me stick to my positive habits better (i.e., make positive habits twenty seconds easier, and make negative habits twenty seconds harder).