Her book just hit the shelves: The Book of Moods: How I Turned My Worst Emotions Into My Best Life (Amazon, Bookshop). In it, she explores the role of negative emotions in our lives.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Lauren about happiness, habits, and human nature.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Lauren: Baking is a way I refill the well. As Diana Vreeland said, “Energy grows from itself. The more energy you expand, the more you create,” and I believe that creative acts fuel more creative acts. The act of making something, even as simple as a cake, creating it from scratch, building it, watching it come to form, renews my spirit and gives me the energy to do it in other aspects of my life—like writing.
What I love about baking is there’s structure in the creativity. There’s a recipe to follow, measurements to adhere to, but there’s always room to add my own twist. The structure of it helps me feel in control and creative when I get to deviate from it. It’s that balance of creativity within structure that renews my spirit and excites me to take on other tasks.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
You have to work at happiness. Happiness is not something that just arrives at your door every morning. Like sweat, it’s something you have to move for. I’ve found that it’s easy to be in a funk, in a mood, to let pain overtake you. It’s easy to just lay in bed and let the negative emotions take over. It takes work, practice and faith to get up and look for reasons to be happy. It takes work to move from one emotion into another.
I’ve also found out that happiness is also not a permanent state and that’s okay. The motion of life is up and down and our emotions follow. I used to get so scared and worked up when I was sad or angry, thinking I would always feel that way. Whenever you’re in a mood, you start to believe that you will forever be stuck in it and happiness will never return. Now I’ve learned that happiness always returns, but it also always leaves. And knowing it always comes back is what makes the other feelings tolerable. I now know that no feeling is permanent and happiness is always there for the taking.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
Moods are not some unexplainable phenomenon and women aren’t crazy because we feel them. Women act and feel certain ways because we’re hardwired to. When brain scans were performed on both men and women, a certain area of the brain lit up only in women when participants were asked to clear their minds. This area of the brain, known as the paralimbic cortex, is used to filter emotional reactions to the environment, suggesting that even when women are at rest, our brains are trying to register and process emotional cues around us.
Our brains also evolved differently from men’s in response to maternal needs. Our ability to attach emotionally, to sense emotionality in others, developed to keep our children safe and help propagate the species. It’s also the reason, however, women are prone to pick up on the slightest change in other’s emotions and wonder, ‘is she mad at me?’ It’s the same reason we fret over the subtle change in tone of voice from our boss, or the disposition of the barista handing us our coffee. It’s why a simple look can derail our day. We notice things, changes in emotionality of others, that men don’t, and then we burden ourselves with trying to figure out why.
I always thought that my sensitivity and my emotionality was a weakness. After all this research I’ve learned it’s a strength, one that women have developed in order to keep our species alive. Our emotionality, and ability to sense emotionality in others, is part of the fabric of our being and should be understood, cultivated and celebrated.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
Dreading. I used to get bogged down by it. Meetings, events, chores. I would build things up in my mind for days and eventually, when the task was over, I realized what a waste all that dreading had been. Why had I spent three days worrying about something that was over in thirty minutes?
The way I learned to stop doing this was by reframing how I think about the things I dread. Anxiety reappraisal is a cognitive trick based on the concept that words can trigger emotions. What we think, how we speak to ourselves, triggers how we feel. Like songs or smells, words have memories and associations attached to them. For example, the word ‘excited’ arouses a different emotion than the word ‘anxious.’ One cognitive trick my therapist taught me was to switch “I’m nervous” to “I’m excited.” Nerves and excitement usually feel the same way in the body—butterflies, tapping legs—however, our brain responds differently when we tell ourselves that the feeling is excitement instead of nervousness. There’s none of that cortisol racing through us. We don’t tense up. Our stress levels don’t rise. And we can trick ourselves into believing that we’re actually excited for the meeting, the event, and that changes how we feel and respond.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?
My moods used to be a big interference with my ability to keep healthy habits. For so long I lived according to if I was ‘in the mood’ to do something. And if I got into a bad mood, it was impossible for me to do the things I knew were good for me. In fact, all my worst habits came out when I was in a mood. Drinking. Smoking. Eating terribly. I gave into my worst temptations because I was willing to do anything to appease myself when I fell into a funk.
After writing the book and learning how to change my moods, I learned that most of the time we’re never ‘in the mood’ to do anything we should do. Moods are so random and volatile that if we waited until a mood struck to do anything, we wouldn’t accomplish very much and I would continue falling into those nasty bad habits that my bad moods seemed to demand.
Instead, I learned how to push past the mood, or change it, and force myself to keep my goals and healthy habits. I now understand that most of the things I’m not in the mood to do – working out, eating healthy, seeing a friend after a long day of work – are the exact things that will change my mood for the better once I’ve done them.
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.?
When my husband and I first moved in together we got into our first major fight. The kind of fight where I really thought he was going to break up with me. I had come home after a long, annoying day at work and was in one of my bad moods. He was, as usual, in his good mood, waiting for me, making dinner, excited to see me. Only when I showed up, I was sullen, miserable and no matter how hard he tried, how many glasses of wine he poured me or jokes he made, I just couldn’t get out of my funk. Then he snapped. And I’ll never forget his words. “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t deal with you and your moods. It’s exhausting.”
It was then I realized that it wasn’t just my own life I was ruining, but those around me. Now that I was living with someone my moods didn’t just affect me, but the man I loved. And if I wanted to keep my relationship, I needed to take a serious look at myself, and my moods, and figure out why they were happening and how to stop them. And that’s when I got the idea for the book – or the experiment that became the book.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
Patience is not the ability to wait, but the ability to keep a good attitude while waiting. I think it’s a Joyce Meyer quote. I heard it a few years ago and it shifted something in me. I used to be really impatient and now I realize it’s because I didn’t understand what patience was. Anyone can wait. Everyone, throughout their lives, is forced to wait. At airports, for promotions, in line. Waiting is a fact of life. Patience isn’t our ability to sit there, or stand in line with everyone else, but the attitude we keep while doing it.
It’s a metaphor for life as well. There’s going to be a million things in life we don’t want to do. There’s going to be a million delays and lines and waiting rooms. In a way, our life is spent in these in-between moments. So you could say the overall quality of our life stems from how we react to them. Do we spend them freaking out, breaking down, feeling sorry for ourselves, or do we turn the moment into something else? I didn’t want my life to be this continuous stream of panicked, annoyed, moments. I wanted it to be a flow of serene moments where it wasn’t about the annoying, terrible situation, but my ability to transcend it.