Gretchen Rubin is author of The Happiness Project and the upcoming Better than Before, and is an authority on all things habits and happiness. I spoke with her last month about my own habits: good, bad, and ugly. Now the entire world knows that I crack my knuckles and am a cheap drunk. And also, how much my great-great-grandmother Julia Staab affected how I try to live my life.
Here’s the interview:
Habits Interview: Hannah Nordhaus
I know Hannah Nordhaus from college. Back then, neither one of us talked about becoming writers (or at least I didn’t, and I don’t remember Hannah talking about it, though maybe she did…) A few years ago, she wrote The Beekeeper’s Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America.
Now Hannah has a new book, American Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest, that’s just hitting the shelves this week. I can’t wait to read it — part memoir (I love memoirs), part travelogue, part history — all about Hannah’s great-great-grandmother, who is said to haunt a hotel in Santa Fe. If you want to read an excerpt for yourself, you can read here.
I was curious to hear what Hannah would say about habits and happiness.
Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?
Hannah: Drinking a warm drink each morning. It is something I look forward to every day. Yes! I get to drink a cup of coffee! With honey! It is a simple pleasure that makes me look forward to waking up each day.
What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I suppose I have learned, through years of trial and error, that it isn’t a zero-sum game. There are things you like about yourself and things you don’t; habits you are proud of and ones you aren’t, and if you slip and fall back into old patterns, this does not mean that you have failed. You simply forgive yourself, face forward, and keep trying.
Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?
I stay up too late. I am a night owl by nature, but with small children and limited time to work, I’m unable to keep the hours I did when I was the sole master of my schedule. There’s always something that beckons before bed – one more article to read, one more email to send, one more episode to watch. It is so hard to force myself to go to sleep. But if I don’t, even the warm morning drink can’t save me.
I also crack my knuckles. Which is impossible to stop—perhaps, Gretchen, you can offer some advice? They’re right there, on your hands, begging to be cracked, and it feels so good! I gather that there’s no actual health issue with the cracking, but it drives my husband insane, and so really it’s a habit that gets in the way of his happiness, which then gets in the way of my happiness, because he groans and swats at me and says “stop the popping” whenever I do. But those knuckles are just so tantalizing, there in front of me, every single moment. I’m cracking them right now.
Which habits are most important to you? (for heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
Hands down, it’s getting outside and getting exercise on a regular basis. It is good for my physical health—that goes without saying. And also my mental health; I get cranky if I go more than a couple of days without moving around. But I have also found that taking a break and going for a run or a hike or a bike ride does magical things for both my creativity and productivity.
When I’m hung up on an idea or can’t think what to write next, I can do nothing better than force myself to take a break, get away from my screen, and move and clear my brain. I come back refreshed, and I find that the ideas and breakthroughs just come, unbidden, as soon as I get moving and stop looking for them. My favorite insight in my new book, American Ghost, arrived while I was on a hike. It was on a particularly easy downhill stretch towards the end, where I didn’t have to think about where I was going or what I was doing. The trail wasn’t too rocky underfoot, and I wasn’t huffing and puffing to get to the top. I was just there, running in a pretty laggardly fashion and looking at the mountains, and then whabang: sentence, fully formed.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
When I was in my mid-twenties, I decided I had to give up caffeine. I was, as I mentioned above, a night owl, and I found I was more and more dependent on coffee and more and more jittery, and that I could barely speak in the morning before I had a cup of coffee, and this seemed not a good way to live. So I decided to give it up.
Cold turkey wasn’t my thing, so I first weaned myself down to one cup a day for a few weeks, then switched to decaf. I still needed the ritual—and still do—but for me it’s more the idea of having a warm, sweet drink in my hands to start the day, than the actual pick-me-up of the caffeine.
I also rewarded myself once a week with a frothy full-caff latte. That way it wasn’t like I’d given it up forever. Until one day I realized I didn’t need the caffeine, and that in fact I felt much better if I didn’t drink it.
Now I am trying to cut down on my sugar consumption, with moderate success. Sugar is so much more omnipresent in our lives; it’s awfully hard to avoid. But I am also weaning, slowly, if not always successfully. Now I take a half a teaspoon of honey in that morning coffee instead of two spoonfuls of sugar, and sometimes I skip the honey all together. I’ve given up soda—oh how I loved ginger ale! I try to eat dessert only once or twice a week instead of every day. I look at labels, and think more about what I’m consuming. It is a work in progress.
I’m a questioner, with a big upholder streak. I love being given a discrete task, and I love to do it well. I always return emails and love to rise to a challenge. Give me a deadline; I won’t miss it. However, if I think the challenge or expectations are stupid, I’ll arrange my life so that I am not asked to accept them. There’s a reason I work for myself; I try very hard only to take on projects I find interesting and worthwhile, so I don’t put myself in a position of having to meet expectations that I find objectionable.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)
Wine. I’m okay with one glass. But give me a second (and please don’t give me a third), and all my hard-fought self-control falls by the wayside. I overeat. I double down on dessert. I tell stories I promised I’d keep to myself. I watch that extra show or read that extra chapter. And then I wake up at 3 am in a miserable sweat. I have no idea how I managed to be drunk several nights a week in college.
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.?
I think I generally need to reach these life-altering realizations on my own time, at my own pace. I’m fairly skeptical and not easy to persuade, and I have at my command many powerful arguments for keeping my life the way I like it. It’s pretty hard to lightning-bolt me into changing the routines I have become so attached to. And I’m a historian, a journalist and a perennial questioner—I like to conduct my due diligence, and make sure this new potentially life-altering information is really factual and meaningful, and that changing my habits will really make a difference. I am open to change. But it has to be on my own time, after proper research, and on my own terms.
Do you embrace habits or resist them?
I embrace them. I love the comfort of routine. I love how it shapes my days and gives them structure and meaning. I know the things that make me happy and healthy and strong, and I try to incorporate them into my life whenever I can.
Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?
My great-great-grandmother Julia Staab has left an indelible mark on how I view the world. I never met her—she died in 1896—but in researching her life for American Ghost, I feel that I came to understand her in a way—and also to understand something important about living itself. What I learned about her life has made me deeply appreciative of the daily routines in my own life that keep me content and keep me going.
Julia was severely depressed. She had been shipped from Germany to New Mexico as a mail-order bride and never quite adapted to the rough frontier. She simply didn’t have the resilience to create, out of the less-than-ideal situation into which she was imported, an existence that she could live with.
All of our lives contain sadness, and setbacks, disappointments and injustices—some more than others, of course. But having spent three years examining how Julia lived and died, and trying to understand her state of mind, I realize how much we determine our own happiness. Whether it’s through creating the routines that ground us and keep us going—like those frequent trips I take up into the hills—or learning new things that keep us engaged with the world, we shape ourselves and our reactions to the misfortunes and setbacks that we encounter.
We can’t control what happens to us, but we can strive to shape how we respond to those things. That everyday appreciation of the small routines in our lives, the things we do thatwork for us and keep us on an even keel, both mentally and physically, matter more than I ever realized.