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February 22, 2016

The Sweet Spot

Filed under: Books, Personal — Tags: , , , , , — llcall @ 10:48 pm

sweet spot

“Another self-help book?” That’s what Neal said when he saw me reading this one Victoria recently recommended.

Always, is my response. I love nonfiction, in general, whether it’s about history or baseball or the recent financial crisis. But self-help books based on research into happiness and habits? Yes, please! I have to admit that after reading so many, portions begin to get repetitive. Like Gretchen Rubin, Christine Carter cites research from Daniel Gilbert and Sonja Lyubomirsky, for example, both of whom have their own excellent books I’ve read. But still, I enjoy seeing the different emphases each bring to the table. And as my life changes, I find that different pieces of advice apply that didn’t before — like setting boundaries around smartphone usage that I never had to worry about before last March.

In some ways, I struggled with The Sweet Spot because it is just SO packed with tips and suggestions. Gretchen’s Happiness Project and Happier at Home felt easier to digest because she was not so much attempting a formula or comprehensive how-to for success as sharing her story of efforts and attempts. I felt pressure to absorb what I could before I had to return The Sweet Spot to the library — as it was, I was two days overdue — and it just felt impossible. But I suppose that’s also an endorsement because I wanted to own it and mark it up.

While this is in no way a summary of suggestions from her book, I wanted to record some of the specific action items and insights I am taking away (some of these are efforts that I started before reading the book, but that I’ve tweaked based on some of her ideas):

  • Set “priority” calls. I’m very sensitive to noise (have I mentioned that a time or two or thirty?), especially when I’m trying to focus. Whenever we are all home together, you can bet my phone is probably muted simply because a ringing phone is extremely jarring for me. But ever since Addison started school, I’ve been paranoid about always having my phone on during the day. So when Carter said that during her work and writing time, she only takes calls from her kids’ school, I knew I had to get right on that. I guess they don’t call them “smart” phones for nothing! I’m still a little paranoid that my priority setting won’t work correctly and I’ll miss something essential, but if it works, this will be UH-MAZING for my life.
  • Stop multitasking. While we all multitask in some things, the biggest thing I’m working on is to keep my email closed whenever I’m not actively working on it. For much of the time, I’ve been teaching online, I’ve been in the habit of keeping my email open while grading or working in other areas of my course. I’m rededicating to keeping email separate from other tasks.
  • Have more fun. I keep coming back to this periodically . . . and I keep sucking at it. Ever since Neal’s sister Robin-Elise blessed us with Netflix, we’ve been pretty good about watching a comedy show together a couple times a week. But beyond that, I’ve created no specific escapist activities. Sometimes I’ll get sucked into watching comedy clips on YouTube or a funny animal video, but the sort of consistent “recess” Carter describes continues to elude me. (In looking back at some of my previous posts, I realized that I have even cut out some of the things I used to do for fun.) I’m trying something new this month: comedic audiobooks. I just finished both of Mindy Kaling’s books (the faux eulogy at the end of Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? is HILARIOUS, by the way) and now I’m on NPR’s Laughter Therapy for the Chronically Serious because the title was just too perfect not to. I’m finding dishes and food prep much more enjoyable with this addition, though at the rate I’m going, I’m going to run out of the library’s humor offerings too soon.
  • Tie activities together temporally. Actually, I can’t remember what she called this strategy, but the point is this: if I want to write for 30 minutes per day, I have to tie it to another activity that always or almost always happens. Carter’s biggest example is her workout routine, which she does right after getting up because no matter where she is, she always has to get out of bed. Last fall I tried to carve out some writing time and even though I put it on my schedule, it never happened. So this month, I’m trying out tying it to two different parts of my day: (1) right when Neal leaves to pick Addison up from school — perfect because it’s in the middle of the day when I’m usually more energetic and they’re gone for about 30 minutes exactly; not so perfect because 3 days a week this event doesn’t occur (one day we volunteer at school and the weekend). (2) Right when Addison goes to bed — good because that happens every single night (hallelujah!); not so good because I usually feel exhausted by then and it’s prime time for my evening meetings. I wish I could find one set time every day, but for now, I think I will have to live with this fluidity. (The next activity I need to tie to something else is exercise. I’ve been walking periodically since October, motivating myself by listening to my favorite Marketplace podcast only while I’m walking, but it’s still hit or miss in part because I haven’t settled on a specific time and tied it to another activity that always happens. Any suggestions on that one?)

I think the most fascinating chunk of the book for me was the part on “cultivating relationships,” even though I didn’t necessarily come away with any action items. Her first sentence of that chapter is not news: “If we look back at the past two centuries of research in sociology and psychology, the single strongest finding about our well-being is that our health, happiness, and longevity are best predicted by the breadth and depth of our positive social connections . . . .” But she shared some interesting findings about the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, the social thinking part of our brain (also called the “default system” because it’s literally our brain’s default) that I was not familiar with. We moved to the mountains for many reasons — the natural beauty, cost of living, and reduced consumer culture, chief among them — but in doing so, we also moved away from some of our closest social connections. While we’ve made new ones up here, it’s hard to replace family, and reading study after study about social ties has got me reexamining some of our biggest decisions through that lens.

So, another self-help book? Heck yeah.

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