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Dr. Diane R. Gehart: “Why happiness is a conscious habit, not the result of auspicious circumstances”

Happiness is a conscious habit, not the result of auspicious circumstances. It’s a life skill that anyone can develop and master. The road to happiness has been clearly and consistently identified for millennia in different cultures. The Buddha and contemporary positive psychologists identify the same behaviors and attitudes that lead to life-long happiness. Unfortunately, these […]

Happiness is a conscious habit, not the result of auspicious circumstances. It’s a life skill that anyone can develop and master. The road to happiness has been clearly and consistently identified for millennia in different cultures. The Buddha and contemporary positive psychologists identify the same behaviors and attitudes that lead to life-long happiness. Unfortunately, these happiness habits don’t fuel capitalist economies, so they’re not readily promoted or reinforced.


As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Diane R. Gehart, Ph.D.. Diane has practiced psychotherapy for over 25 years and is a Professor in the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at California State University, Northridge. She is the author of Mindfulness for Chocolate Lovers: A Lighthearted Way to Stress Less and Savor More Each Day, as well as several professional titles, including Mastering Competencies in Family Therapy, Theory and Treatment Planning in Counseling and Psychotherapy, and Mindfulness and Acceptance in Couple and Family Therapy, which have been translated worldwide. You can learn more about her at dianegehart.com.


Thank you so much for joining us Diane! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

Desperation. When I first became a professor, I was desperate to find good texts for my students. At that time, there were few if any that meaningfully addressed the realities of contemporary mental health work contexts. After becoming exacerbated by trying to piece together a collection of unrelated readings, I decided to write the book I needed. That resulted in a unique textbook series that helps students bridge their academic training with real-world skills. After several books for professional audiences, I started expanding my work to include writing for the general public.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

Early in my writing career, I experienced a major impediment that later turned out to be a critical steppingstone to the next phase of my career. At the time, I had wanted to continue to work on a piece that I had initially coauthored. Even with professional intervention, we could not reach an agreement on how to continue working together. I felt as if an incredibly important door had been shut on my career. However, reaching that dead-end forced me to create something new, which ended up being far more successful than the first project. It was a reminder that when one door shuts, another is sure to open.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In both my professional and general audience books, I use a down-to-earth, humorous style and frequently address the reader directly. This style is extremely rare in textbooks, especially when I initially used it 15 years ago. When the copyeditor worked on the manuscript, she took out every joke, snarky comment, and first-person story. She had worked on over 500 pages of the manuscript when I first had a chance to review her work. After talking with my editor, I was able to reverse the changes. I quickly learned to warn future copyeditors about my style before I let them touch a manuscript. The readers of my textbooks often tell me that my books are the only ones they read cover-to-cover because they don’t want to miss a joke.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

As a mother of two boys aged 10 and 6, I am concerned about raising healthy children in the digital age. Toward this end, I’ve conducted two projects that included disseminating research to the general public: the first related to mindfulness for children and the second addressing screen time for children. Because I wanted to teach my children mindfulness, I started a mindfulness project at their school, which includes preschool and elementary-aged children. I focus on teaching the children how to use mindfulness to improve their focus and regulate difficult emotions. I never imagined that children could benefit from mindfulness at such young ages and am constantly inspired by their enthusiasm and insights. I created a website to help schools create cost-effective mindfulness programs: www.mindfulschool.net. In a related project, I researched the existing professional literature on the effects of screen time on children and have summarized the evidence and current recommendations for children of all ages at www.screentimeforfamilies.net.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e., perseverance, discipline, play, craft study). Can you share a story or example?

Speed writing! Speed writing involves setting a timer for 5 minutes each morning and writing — unedited — for the entire time. If words don’t come, type gibberish but keep the fingers moving. It’s sometimes referred to as “right brain” writing. The idea is that the 5 minutes of free-flowing writing break through writer’s block and keep the ideas moving. I typically run before doing my speed writing and find that my best ideas come while running. I think the combined habit of running before speed writing encourages the mind to continually “percolate” all day on the project. Using speed writing, I draft the outline and major concepts during the semesters that I teach at the university. I go back during summer breaks when I have extended periods of time to integrate professional research and references. The balance of spontaneous (speed writing) and academic writing creates a final product that includes warmth and humor with academic rigor. I used the same technique in Mindfulness for Chocolate Lovers. The fun and playful parts are almost entirely the product of speed writing; the academic sections required longer, more focused writing sessions.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

My book includes many stories, but readers most frequently mention the story about my encounter with a black widow spider. I’m not sure if it’s the most exciting story in my book or if it simply brings up the most intense emotions for those who share a fear of spiders. One day when I was getting ready to leave for work, the garage door didn’t open. When I went to check the sensors for the door, I met her: the biggest black widow I’d ever seen. Admittedly, I hadn’t seen many and liked it that way. Like in the scene from a Disney movie, I could almost hear her cackle, “Just try and make me move.” I knocked on the doors of my neighbors, one who was in the military and the other who was a general contractor. Neither was home. Not knowing what else to do, I went to the hardware store only to discover humans have not yet created a spray that would kill black widows. This discovery only exacerbated my fears. When I returned home, I felt like I was alone in a battle for my life. I grabbed a shovel, but she outmaneuvered me and got away. The thought of her haunted me when I went to bed that night. I was unable to sleep fearing that the slightest breeze or shift in the sheets signaled that she’d found me. For months, every time I needed something from the garage, I engaged in a complex set of self-defense dance moves that involved a process of tapping, shaking, dropping and then kicking the object, each time looking for the evil one to appear.

Many months past, and then one day it dawned on me: I hadn’t seen her or any of her kin. My fear — that had become nearly paranoia — was totally unfounded. She hadn’t grown to monstrous proportions and murdered me in the middle of the night; nor had she plotted a spider invasion to destroy me. In fact, whatever universal intelligence that determined the proper ratio of humans to black widows had done a good job because we live in close quarters, yet rarely encounter one another. Upon further reflection, I realized that she was actually helping me by catching pests in her web that could easily create new problems. Even more surprisingly, she taught me to be more mindful about how I moved about my house and garden. In the end, she’d become one of my many instructors in mindfulness.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

Happiness is a conscious habit, not the result of auspicious circumstances. It’s a life skill that anyone can develop and master. The road to happiness has been clearly and consistently identified for millennia in different cultures. The Buddha and contemporary positive psychologists identify the same behaviors and attitudes that lead to life-long happiness. Unfortunately, these happiness habits don’t fuel capitalist economies, so they’re not readily promoted or reinforced.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a bestselling author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

Like so many, finding the time to write is my greatest challenge. Speed writing helped quite a bit. However, in the end, I had to make writing a priority. I spend long days writing and put it above other activities. One way I’ve made it work is to move my home office to my patio. Whenever I can, I write outdoors. Feeling connected to nature inspires my writing and makes it feel more like luxurious play than a job.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I love the poetry of Jalal Rumi. Rumi’s words are infinitely multifaceted and nuanced with hope, joy and laughter, always lifting my sights higher and opening me to new ways of viewing the everyday.

How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?

As a professor and practitioner of marriage and family therapy, I have one singular purpose: to teach love and kindness. Whether writing for a professional or general audience, I try to help people find doable yet meaningful ways be kinder to themselves and others. Ultimately, nothing else really matters.

What advice would you give to someone considering becoming an author like you?

Just write. Keep writing. Don’t stop writing. The number of drafts doesn’t matter. Never second guess yourself. Welcome anyone with a red pen that clarifies your ideas. Keep revising until your ideas become crystal clear. When you experience that moment of clarity, you feel a deep sense of peace — only then can you insert a final period with confidence. You’ll know when you’re done.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

When I first imagined writing, I had images from British romantic novels: wind billowing through my well-groomed hair as I wrote in a countryside manor, enjoying every minute of it. In reality, I often wore my sweaty workout clothes, had my hair pulled back in an untidy mess, and frantically worked with the few spare minutes I had to write. The job is not as glamorous as it seems, but it certainly is worth the effort.

What I wished I knew before I started is:

  1. You will never have enough time to write. You must create it.
  2. You will rarely “feel” in the mood to write when you finally have a spare moment to write. Write anyway.
  3. You don’t have to be the best writer to be successful, just “good enough.”
  4. If you’re a perfectionist, stop writing when you believe you’re 95% finished. Otherwise, you’ll never finish a single manuscript.
  5. Professional writing can be a massive decrescendo: it begins euphoric and joyful as you outline the major premise of the work and then write the initial draft. But the later drafts, proofing, final editing and marketing phases are often more like work. Thankfully, the cycle begins again.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The world needs more kindness and understanding. Ultimately, to achieve this goal we all need to learn how to manage our minds better. Practicing mindfulness in any form is a significant step to help one more effectively manage thoughts and emotions. Intentionally cultivating compassion and kindness is another. Seeking insight into how the mind makes meaning, forms beliefs and acts upon assumptions enables one to reflect upon the reality we experience. We all shape our experience of reality far more than we consciously realize. The more aware we are of this process, the freer we become and the more empathy we have for others. Chocolate meditation is one of the easiest ways to get started.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

In addition to my personal website (www.dianegehart.com) and my book website (www.mindfulnessforchocolatelovers.com), I host two websites designed to provide free resources to the general public based on my research studies:

www.mindfulschool.net

www.screentimeforfamilies.net

You can also follow me on:

Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/c/DianeRGehartPhD

Twitter: @DianeGehart

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/diane-gehart-phd/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/DianeGehartPhD/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/dgehart

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

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