The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman & Nan Silver (1999)

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My husband and I married seventeen years ago, when we were just 22-years-old. We  both have always placed a high value on the quality of our marriage and we never shy away from examining our relationship to find ways to improve it. We still talk with great regularity about the highs and lows of our day-to-day life and seek out advice and ideas — such as those in Seven Principles — for making our marriage even stronger. Although this book is nearly 20 years old, the straight-forward strategies outlined in it are still as insightful and relevant as ever, largely because they are simple but effective.

Gottman & Silver do not argue that marriage should be without conflict, and they do not  think that fighting or complaining is necessarily detrimental to the overall health of a marriage. Rather, they argue, that having and handling conflicts– when they inevitably arise — in healthy ways can prevent long-lasting damage to the relationship.

Over the course of the relationship, the key is to build up the “balance of your emotional bank account…learning to turn toward each other, rather than away, can serve as a cushion when times get rough.” (80) How do couples learn to “lean into” their relationship? How do they make sure their are building a resilient marriage? They treat each other well.

Every day, thousands of times each day, a couple has a chance to strengthen their relationship: by valuing each other’s friendship; by taking an active role in each other’s lives; in setting and striving for common goals; by supporting each other in large and small ways; by recognizing the things that are important to the person you love; and by showing your partner that you value and treasure them.

That advice may seem simple…because it is. Taking care of the best parts of your marriage will “shore you up,” so when life gets challenging — a lost job, a new baby, an illness — your marriage already healthy and strong and able to weather the storm. And by downplaying the bad parts of your marriage (everyone has them) you do not let small resentments and petty grievances distract you from the common goal of having a long and happy relationship.

In the early chapters, the book details the things couples in trouble do and contrasts those with helpful things healthy couples do; to give readers a sense of how any situation can be steered in a positive way, easing the stress it puts on the couple. The latter parts of the book introduce the titular Seven Principles that any couple — faltering or strong — can implement to improve their marriage.

Making an effort to keep your marriage strong is one of the most important investments most of us will ever make in our lifetimes and it is worth a refresher course now and then to keep us on the right track. This book — like my husband — is a absolute gem!

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The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha (2010)

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What better way to kick off the new year, than by reading a short little book meant to celebrate all those awesome little things that make you happier, assuming to take the time to notice them?

This little gem of a book was recommended by a good friend of mine, who knows I love collecting lists of things that can instantly make me happier. This book is filled with small, everyday things that — when recognized — can add an instant lift to your day.

All day my family and I have been leafing through it and reading our favorites to each other. The book has been a huge happiness booster and a source of some great conversations around the house about what we would add to our personal lists of “awesome.”

Among some of my favorite “awesomes” in the book are:

  • Strategies for Epic Trick-or-Treating (his rules are all spot on, our family agreed)!
  • Finding the perfect nacho on the nacho platter!
  • Sleeping on new bed-sheets!
  • The smell of onions and garlic sauteing in olive oil!
  • Getting shampooed at the hairdresser!
  • Taking your bra off after a long day!
  • Naps!
  • Snow on Christmas!

A super-cute book and a great reminder that there is a lot to be thankful for, even on bad days. Here’s to an awesome new year!

Younger by Sara Gottfried, M.D. (2017)

Younger: A Breakthrough Program to Reset your Genes, Reverse Aging, and Turn Back the Clock 10 Years

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For the record, I rarely read self-help health books. While I am happy to consider all other aspects of self-improvement, I find books that tout one specific approach to “healthy” living to be gimmicky and overly specific. However, after hearing Dr. Gottfried’s interview on a podcast (http://happierinhollywood.com/episode19/ ) I was sufficiently intrigued by her promises for easing the downsides of aging and — lets be real — her ideas for how to look better with little effort.

The reality of the book is, of course, far less simple than its author (or book jacket) profess. Grounded in very specific information about genetics, medical jargon, and peppered with studies that support her claims, Gottfried lays out what she calls her “protocol” to slow aging and restore a more youthful appearance. At its core, the book encourages readers to adopt the mainstays of improved health: more sleep, less stress, healthy eating, more exercise, and basic self-care. Those recommendations are presented in a clear and straight-forward ways: with plenty of research for those (do you exist?) who still need to be convinced that these changes are vital to good health.

When the book begins to divert from that core message, things get complicated…and expensive. To support your good health efforts, Gottfried offers a long, long, long list of practices to adopt to “turn back the clock.” During your waking hours (which in this protocol is specified as approximately 6AM to 10PM), readers are asked to spend almost every single moment taking action to slow the aging process. Among these activities that the doctor recommendations: swallowing dozens upon dozens of supplements; drinking collagen smoothies; fasting; drinking low-mold coffee or “chain amino-acid” teas; meditating, eating two or more pounds of vegetables a day; eliminating gluten, dairy, and sugar; and — all the while — increasing the amount time you exercise, meditate, and sleep.

In addition to those activities, which I agree all seem largely beneficial, there are even more things readers are encouraged to adopt — although when they are to find time for even more activities than the core “protocol” encourages, I’m not sure — a list that grows each and every chapter. A few samples of extra ideas to work into your “restore youth” regimen: sesame oil tooth-pulling, making bone broth, wearing “amber tinted glasses” after dark, sitting in from of a light therapy box, taking yoga several times a week, spending 20-40 minutes a day in a sauna, and many more.

Even more unsettling this (mind-boggling) long list, it the cost of this “protocol” is bordering on outrageous. Hundreds of dollars of supplements, powders, genetic testing, organic foods and cosmetics, special light-bulbs, light boxes, toxin-removal treatments, electric toothbrushes, bio-dynamic wine, home mold-removal/water filtration systems, and installing a sauna! And that is the short list! To incorporate even some of her suggestions would be a huge financial commitment and at times it seems that this book is for wealthy women, since there are very few inexpensive options (other than sleeping more and walking) offered in lieu of the more costly ones. I would love to see her write a companion book for Younger that is aimed at low or fixed-income women living in rentals that they cannot modify; women who cannot afford gym memberships or Whole Foods groceries, not to mention $200+ per month supplement fees or sauna installations.

Gottfried is no-doubt passionate about promoting good health, but her rules are many, complex, and costly (and, to be real, a bit ridiculous at times). I am sure that should you adopt her protocol, the reader would see improved health and younger looks but I fear for the woman who tried to undertake all of her suggestions…it would be a full-time job!

On a side note, I found myself intrigued by her brief mention of the company Hairprint: an all-natural, food-grade hair treatment system that uses break-through science to naturally reprogram gray hair to its original color. Check it out at: https://www.myhairprint.com/products/true-color-restorer-for-women

Lonely by Emily White (2010)

I have always loved reading memoirs. I find that one person’s deep journey into her or his personal experiences uniquely informative, all the more so if those experiences are vastly different from my own. Memoirs offer us an opportunity to think — sometimes for the first time —  about how different lives have been lived. Lonely is a perfect example of reading a memoir that brings into focus something that I never thought too deeply about before: loneliness. Lonely is raw, vulnerable memoir that brings the author’s battle with chronic loneliness into the light for intense examination.

“Given the choice, [loneliness] is not a journey I would have gone on. I would have preferred to have lived a life of connection, one in which loneliness did not assault me on a daily and yearly basis. But we don’t get to choose the main facts of our lives. Loneliness was something I was born into, something that claimed me as its own.  The only thing I could do in response was to try to follow and understand it, to chart it as fully and cleanly as I could. If it was clutching me, the last I could do was twist in its grip and really look at it. If I couldn’t ward it away, I could at least see it as clearly as it saw me.” 6

Like everyone, I have suffered from bouts of loneliness on and off through my life, but my experiences are what White terms “situational loneliness:” short-lived moments of loneliness that arise out of a huge life change, such as a move or a new career. White’s affliction of chronic, lifelong loneliness is vastly different; a state of living that is physically and emotionally dangerous and puts the sufferer at great risk for illness, depression, anxiety, and (paradoxically) even more intense bouts of social disconnectedness.  This work opened my eyes to a struggle that so many face, but that I was largely unaware was such a huge and lasting challenge.

White’s book is a honest description of her own battles with loneliness; first as a child of divorce, then as a college student battling depression, and finally as an adult lacking in deep and meaningful relationships. From the beginning, White disputes the common belief that loneliness is a “punishment” for social awkward or inept people, but rather a sense of social disconnection that causes the person to feel unhappy and isolated.  She paints a picture of herself — and a cast of fellow sufferers who populate the book through interviews conducted and reported on by White — as people with adequate social skills but who nonetheless find great difficulty in forging deep and lasting social bonds.

It is also further noted that solitude and loneliness are not the same thing.  Even though those who identify as lonely do admit to being comfortable with a certain amount of solitude, there is a line in which lonesomeness is no longer nourishing. White writes, “the relationship between loneliness and solitude can be hard to delineate: the former is often seen as canceling out the legitimacy of the latter, as though a lonely adult or child is simply not entitled to want or need time alone. But the feelings of isolation that accompany loneliness are entirely different from the more sated and creative feelings that accompany solitude.” (13)

“What lonely people find is that they are drowning in absence. They have to struggle with the unnerving sense of being too much on their own, and having to rely on themselves in an effort to meet their own needs. And once the self has been searched and patted down for a sense of companionship — which is something it can’t provide — the the lonely person is left with is a worn out sense of insufficiency.” 28

White’s book  draws not only on her personal experiences, and that of her interviewees, but from a vast trove of data from research studies and social-psychology experiments which back up her claims of the risks lonely people face. These risks include impaired physical health, mental and emotional strain, anxiety, stress, and fear.  She notes that the human need to connect with other people — to share, touch, talk– is a deeply rooted, biological need that has serious consequences for those who are lacking. The longer the state persists, the greater the risks and the harder the sufferer must work to overcome their fears to reach out to others. “Loneliness can start to feel rooted in your life, as central and definitive as your work or your marriage.” 81

Although she does not spend too much time on making distinctions between the types of loneliness — lonely for a romantic partner; lonely in a new city; lonely for someone to have deep conversations with; lonely for a person’s ‘quiet presence’ — they are mentioned through out the book as separate but equally important connections to restore. White highlights all of the ways we need to find like-minded people to share our lives with in order to remain healthy and happy

“What I needed was someone at home with me, some whose breath I would hear as I sat reading, whose footfalls would sound in the hallway, whose voice would reach me from an adjoining room. I needed the strong, steady companion that a friend, lover, or family member could offer and without it my loneliness persisted.” 73

A truly thought-provoking discussion of a problem so deeply stigmatized it is almost overlooked, but one that is clearly an enormous challenge for millions of people suffering without being able to voice their need for fear of social condemnation.

The podcast that brought Emily White’s memoir to my attention, Episode #110 of “Happier with Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Craft,” can be found here: http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2017/03/podcast-110-lonely/

A thought-provoking examination of the different strategies for battling loneliness, by author Gretchen Rubin, can be found here: http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2013/11/feeling-lonely-consider-trying-these-7-strategies/  and here http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2016/01/lonely-5-habits-to-combat-loneliness/

A Place of My Own by Michael Pollan (1997)

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“What is a place after all but a bit of space that people have invested with meaning?” (38)

In this book, the outstanding non-fiction writer and journalist Michael Pollan has created a completely unique piece of work: one that is part memoir, part how-to, and part complex cultural commentary about the abstraction that we call “place.” The novel chronicles the author’s efforts to design and build — by himself — a cottage in which he can conduct his work as a writer. Along the way, Pollan educates himself — and all of us — on the various disciplines that inform our ideas about place, home, and ownership; including discussions of history, geology, geography, science, architecture, sociology, literature, and carpentry…to name just a few. The resulting book is a rich, in-depth discussion about our place in the world and the places in the world that we attempt to make our own.

At the start of the book, the author lays out his reasons for wanting a work space that is wholly separate from his living space. “A room of one’s own,” he argues, allows for privacy, solitude, and freedom from interruption — all elements that he deems essential for daydreaming, daydreaming being the heart of all creative work. By carving a space from himself away from his home, rather than in it, he seeks to gain an entirely different perspective on the place he calls home. Pollan’s decides to build the house on his own (with one helper) in order to meet a need he has to build something that will exist in the physical world, not just the intellectual one. He longs to do “work that involves very little intellect, but all the senses. It reminded me just how much reality slips through the net of our words, and that time spent working directly with the flesh of the world is the best antidote to abstraction.” (25)

The idea of abstractions versus concrete realities runs throughout the book and offers readers an examination of the physical act of building a place, as well as a dissection of its emotional and cultural importance of trying to lay claim to a piece of the earth. Pollan discusses building codes as well as daydreams; the realities of weather, soil, and climate versus the desire to build a place that suits our whims regardless of its practicality; or even the abstraction of “lumber” that allows him to separate himself from the discomfort of cutting down living trees to meet his needs. The greatest contradiction, though, comes from Pollan’s ruminations about whether any piece of land can ever really be considered ours, or whether it is on loan from nature, and who may reassert her claim at any time.

When we lay claim to an area, and call it “ours” we suddenly infuse that place with a tremendous amount of meaning. Far beyond just ground, air, light, and plants; our “place” comes to represent our goals, dreams, ideals, and our sense of ownership of a piece of the earth. While it may be just a cottage on one level, it is also a place of refuge, safety, comfort, wealth, and a place that tells the world the work you conduct there is completely your own.

“Houses only comes into their own in bad weather, when the poetry of shelter reaches its fullest expression…’I will be an inhabitant of the world, in spite of the world.'” (18)

Quiet by Susan Cain (2012)

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

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In this fantastic and immensely informative book, Susan Cain introduces readers to the historical, social, psychological, and scientific aspects of the introvert-extrovert dichotomy and offers in-depth explanation about why the distinction is important for everyone to understand. Cain uses a wide breadth of research-based examples to demonstrate that introverts are not a personality subgroup that is less than or lacking in comparison to extroverts; but rather they are a group of people who have a unique and equally important set of skills and strengths that they offer the world. Introverts should be included, not forced to convert or conform, in decisions about how to design our classrooms, workplaces, and relationships.

Cain argues that beginning at the start of the 20th century, the long-valued character strengths of commitment, reliability, determination, and long-term goal setting began to give way to a “new” model of the ideal American: loud, outgoing, talkative, aggressive, comfortable with strangers or crowds, and quick to make choices. In other words: an extrovert. These skills allowed Americans living during the enormous changes of the Industrial revolution — including the rise of corporations, mass immigration to cities, decrease in work in single pursuits (farming, shop-keeping) in favor of working for large businesses — and workers who exemplified these new ideals were better suited to succeed in 20th century versions of education, business, and social life.

The worship of extroversion, and the demonization of introversion, soon had transformed education, advertising, religion, and psychology and even pediatrics. Quiet, reflective, people (especially children) who took time to make decisions, preferred to single-task, and needed quiet time away from others were seen as lacking and needed to be forced to change. As the century unfolded, American culture began to more and more reward extroverts and demand that introvert learn to “fake” skills of extroversion or accept lesser social and professional success. As of result, more than one hundred years later, the skills associated with extroversion have become the skills that represent “universal success.” It is has become widely accepted that louder, more outgoing, more assertive people are the ideal workers and partners.

Cain’s book seeks to transform that idea. She offers evidence that introverts, with their more subtle skills — long-range planning, aversion to risk, contemplative problem solving, and comfort with delayed gratification — can, if allowed to flourish, transform businesses, classrooms, research labs, and even personal relationships. Offering examples of well-known but successful introverts — Rosa Parks, Bill Gates, Albert Einstein — and presenting fascinating new research from social science, psychiatry, and neurobiology; Cain presents an alternative way of viewing the traits of introversion; she offers examples of ways that introverts are a valuable resource in all areas of life; and she even offers concrete ways that introverts can set up their environment for success…and ways that the world can better accommodate introverts.

You can find Susan Cain’s wildly popular TED talk about her research into Introverts here: https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts

You can hear the author interviewed on the March 8, 2017 episode of Happier here: http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2017/03/podcast-107-happier-susan-cain/

 

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo (2014)

The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

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Two different people who saw me reading this book asked me, “are you reading a book about cleaning?” The answer is yes and no. Marie Kondo’s book is, on one level, a book about how to tidy up your home; but on another level it is about the psychological relationship we have with our possessions and the ways that those items might be interfering with our happiness. The result is a book that deep and insightful, as well as practical.

“When your room is clean and uncluttered, you have no choice but to examine your inner state. You can see the issues you have been avoiding and are forced to deal with them.”

Kondo introduces readers to an extremely simple two step process for tidying your entire home (or office) which she promises will never need to be repeated: discard all but your most beloved, useful possessions and then find a specific home for those remaining items to permanently reside. Her argument centers mostly around her belief that we all own far too much stuff and that mountain of stuff is making us unhappy and disorganized. By unburdening ourselves of all of the surplus in our homes, we can reveal our true selves: the books we truly love and use; the clothes that make us look and feel our best; the mementos that bring us true joy; and the tools that help us live our best lives.

Tidying is the act of confronting yourself; cleaning is the act of confronting nature.”

Told in a no-nonsense manner, Kondo explains why we need to discard almost everything we have been struggling for years to organize or store and then we will have no need to find a place for all of it. Gone are the mementos we have convinced ourselves we must keep to remember friends and events! Gone is the “aspirational clutter” that does not inspire us to learn new things, but rather causes us to constantly reflect on who we are not! Broken items, duplicates — gone and gone! Paperwork — all gone! Books pared down to just a few most treasured volumes!

The end result is, Kondo tells us, a home that is a place filled only the few treasured items that bring us joy every day. With so few possessions, she argues, there is no need to tidy…simply put the remaining items where they belong and your done.

While it does seem excessively simple, there is something profound about Kondo’s approach. The connections she draws between our mental state and the state our home feel momentous. If our home is messy and crowded, if we are in a constant battle to find things or methods to corral all our junk, then we live a life in which we are too busy to reflect deeply on our choices. By overcoming our messes, we can create room for our true values to shine through.

This is a wonderful book filled with great ideas and lots of interesting insight in to modern Japanese culture. It might be worth picking up a copy if one of your New Year’s resolutions is to tidy up your home.

“When we delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear of the future. The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”

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