Interview: Lucy Maddox.
Dr. Lucy Maddox is a consultant clinical psychologist, lecturer, and writer.
She's just published an intriguing new book, Blueprint: How Our Childhood Makes Us Who We Are. She argues that our adult selves are rooted in our childhood selves, and explains how to get insights into our current personality, relationships, and daily life by understanding this influence. The book uses cutting-edge research, everyday experience, and clinical examples to examine that central puzzle: who are we, and how did we become who we are.
I couldn't wait to talk to Lucy about happiness, habits, and productivity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Lucy: Ooh, there are a few. Not that I always manage to do all of them but they are all things that definitely help when I do. Regular writing makes me feel happier, regular mindfulness makes me feel calmer, regular exercise makes me feel more alive and regular sleep just makes me feel more human!
Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Lucy: The importance of the basics: sleep, eating well, and not cramming too much in. I find it hard to say no to shiny opportunities and always have done, but as I’ve got older I have started to embrace JOMO (Joy Of Missing Out) as well as FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).
Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers -- most?
Lucy: One of the things that led me to write my book Blueprint: How Our Childhood Makes Us Who We Are, was that I was teaching on child development and was constantly surprised by how few of the really juicy experiments from this area we are taught about in school. Everyone has been a child and there’s lots in child psychology that can help us understand ourselves as grown ups, yet most people aren’t taught about the classic psychology experiments, unlike the way we are taught about classic physics studies like Newton’s apple or Archimedes’ bathtub. I wanted to explain child development and psychology in clearly accessible language for anyone interested in how they’ve become who they are, and also reassure people that although our childhoods are important not everything is set in stone.
Gretchen: Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?
Lucy: Making myself too busy is the main one.
Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
Lucy: Probably the overall habit of balance, if I can call that a habit--trying to do enough fun things I like but also enough cosy things and having enough space where nothing is planned in.
Gretchen: Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
Lucy: I’m a sucker for a list or a star chart. One thing which helps me to achieve something I want to is writing lists and ticking things off. I employed this when I was writing my book--I had a spreadsheet of the chapters and coloured a box in yellow each time I completed a draft or green when I finished the final copy. This is a bit like what happens in NaNoWriMo, or national novel writing month, when you have to write a certain amount of words each day and your online bar graph changes colour when you achieve it.
Gretchen: Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Lucy: I love the books and the podcast but with my psychologist hat on I struggle to accept the Tendencies without more of an evidence base on how reliable they are. I think you would say that this makes me a Questioner, and that’s what your quiz called me too.
Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)
Lucy: I find it harder to stick to exercise or eating well when I’m travelling a lot, especially for work, and also harder to guard time for writing.
Gretchen: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
Lucy: For me, not so much. I see keeping healthy habits as a process rather than an event. There’s a classic theory on motivation by Prochaska and Diclemente who described the ‘stages of change’. They didn’t see these as a linear process, but as a cycle, that we can loop back around. This was a really new idea back in the late seventies and early eighties when they first wrote about it, even though it's now very much accepted.
They thought it all starts with pre-contemplation, where we aren't even thinking about making a change, then progresses through contemplation - where we become aware of something being problematic but don't do anything differently, to preparation for a change, then finally taking action, and then maybe hardest of all trying to maintain that change. It's really hard to stick to a change in behaviour so often we relapse back into our old way of being, but we might cycle through those initial stages much quicker the next time round.
I like the way they describe this as a cycle, which means we don’t have to beat ourselves up if we do fall off the wagon, but instead just climb back on. I also like the way they include a phase where we might not even be consciously aware of the need to change. Sometimes looking back at decisions I’ve made to change something I can think of a reason why, but it’s not always totally clear at the time.
Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
Lucy: Actually something my Dad once said to me: “everything is fixable.” I sometimes think of that if I’m feeling a bit panicked about something. I find it really reassuring. I also really like the phrase “adventure is waiting”--it tends to make me feel more excited about new opportunities and less scared. Another thing I say to reassure myself if I catch myself worrying over something is to try to put things in perspective by asking myself if anyone is going to be hurt as a result of whatever it is. If not then it’s sometimes possible to shrink the worry down a bit. In a similar vein, on getting things in perspective, there’s something called the Overview Effect, which astronauts experience when they look back at the Earth all small and feel that day-to-day human problems are insignificant. There are some meditations which try to bring about a similar kind of feeling, by talking you through a guided visualisation which zooms out so you see how small we really are in the wider context of the universe.