Interview: Ethan Kross.
Ethan Kross is an author, scientist, and teacher, and one of the world’s leading experts on controlling the conscious mind. An award-winning professor in the University of Michigan’s top ranked Psychology Department and its Ross School of Business, he studies how the conversations people have with themselves impact their health, performance, decisions and relationships.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Ethan: Going for a walk, bike ride or run. I try to get a walk or ride in everyday regardless of the weather. Doing so doesn’t just feel good. It clears my head and helps me generate new ideas.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That it’s much easier to advise other people on their problems than it is to advise ourselves, but that we can benefit from this by making a conscious effort to coach ourselves through our problems like we're talking to a friend.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?
The idea that small linguistic shifts can reroute our internal dialogues in ways that improve our happiness. For example, when you’re anxious about an upcoming date or presentation, try silently coaching yourself through the problem using your own name. Science shows that doing this (we call it distanced self-talk) improves the way people think, feel and perform under stress, allows them to reason wisely, and is linked with less activation in brain networks that support rumination.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
About six years ago I bought a pedometer and discovered how much time I was spending sitting at my desk. So, I decided to start walking to work. To break my driving habit, I reminded myself each morning about my goal to increase the number steps I took each day. It worked! My new walking habit quickly took, and I’ve stuck with it to this day.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
I conduct research on how people can manage their inner voice to be happier. But that doesn’t mean that my inner voice doesn’t get the best of me at times and I find myself worrying or ruminating or feeling stuck (what I call chatter). When that happens, I rely on a cocktail of science-based tools. For instance: I use distanced self-talk, organize the physical spaces around me, and turn to trusted friends for support and advice.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
It’s so interesting that you use that phrase. Reminding yourself to, “be Gretchen” is an example of distanced self-talk! I do something similar when I’m stumbling. I say, “Come on Ethan. Let’s do this.”
Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?
Reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (Amazon, Bookshop) in college was transformational. Here was a guy who lost everything in the Holocaust and still managed to thrive. His book introduced me to the idea that we possess the capacity to change the way we think about our circumstances to influence how we feel even under the most dire situations.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
Some people think it’s weird to “talk to yourself.” As I explain in my new book, Chatter, we all talk to ourselves at times. Doing so provides us with an incredible tool that can make us happier, healthier and more productive. Of course, our inner voice can also run astray and lead us to ruminate, worry, and catastrophize. Fortunately, science-based tools exist to help us reroute our inner dialogues when we find them running off course.
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