Winifred Gallagher

Winifred Gallagher

Winifred Gallagher's books include New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, House Thinking, Just the Way You Are (a New York Times Notable Book), Working on God, and The Power of Place. She has written for numerous publications, such as Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. She lives in Manhattan and Dubois, Wyoming.

How the Post Office Created America: A History

Penguin Press, 2016

A masterful history of a long underappreciated institution, How the Post Office Created America examines the surprising role of the postal service in our nation's political, social, economic, and physical development.

The founders established the post office before they had even signed the Declaration of Independence, and for a very long time, it was the U.S. government's largest and most important endeavor—indeed, it was the government for most citizens. This was no conventional mail network but the central nervous system of the new body politic, designed to bind thirteen quarrelsome colonies into the United States by delivering news about public affairs to every citizen—a radical idea that appalled Europe's great powers. America's uniquely democratic post powerfully shaped its lively, argumentative culture of uncensored ideas and opinions and made it the world's information and communications superpower with astonishing speed.

Winifred Gallagher presents the history of the post office as America's own story, told from a fresh perspective over more than two centuries. The mandate to deliver the mail—then "the media"—imposed the federal footprint on vast, often contested parts of the continent and transformed a wilderness into a social landscape of post roads and villages centered on post offices. The post was the catalyst of the nation's transportation grid, from the stagecoach lines to the airlines, and the lifeline of the great migration from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It enabled America to shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy and to develop the publishing industry, the consumer culture, and the political party system. Still one of the country's two major civilian employers, the post was the first to hire women, African Americans, and other minorities for positions in public life.

Starved by two world wars and the Great Depression, confronted with the country's increasingly anti-institutional mind-set, and struggling with its doubled mail volume, the post stumbled badly in the turbulent 1960s. Distracted by the ensuing modernization of its traditional services, however, it failed to transition from paper mail to email, which prescient observers saw as its logical next step. Now the post office is at a crossroads. Before deciding its future, Americans should understand what this grand yet overlooked institution has accomplished since 1775 and consider what it should and could contribute in the twenty-first century.

Gallagher argues that now, more than ever before, the imperiled post office deserves this effort, because just as the founders anticipated, it created forward-looking, communication-oriented, idea-driven America.

Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life

Penguin, 2010

In Rapt, acclaimed behavioral science writer Winifred Gallagher makes the radical argument that the quality of your life largely depends on what you choose to pay attention to and how you choose to do it. Gallagher grapples with provocative questions -- Can we train our focus? What’s different about the way creative people pay attention? Why do we often zero in on the wrong factors when making big decisions, like where to move? -- driving us to reconsider what we think we know about attention.

Gallagher looks beyond sound bites on our proliferating BlackBerries and the increased incidence of ADD in children to the discoveries of neuroscience and psychology and the wisdom of home truths, profoundly altering and expanding the contemporary conversation on attention and its power. Science’s major contribution to the study of attention has been the discovery that its basic mechanism is an either/or process of selection. That we focus may be a biological necessity -- research now proves we can process only a little information at a time, or about 173 billion bits over an average life -- but the good news is that we have much more control over our focus than we think, which gives us a remarkable yet underappreciated capacity to influence our experience. As suggested by the expression “pay attention,” this cognitive currency is a finite resource that we must learn to spend wisely.

In Rapt, Gallagher introduces us to a diverse cast of characters—artists and ranchers, birders and scientists—who have learned to do just that and whose stories are profound lessons in the art of living the interested life. No matter what your quotient of wealth, looks, brains, or fame, increasing your satisfaction means focusing more on what really interests you and less on what doesn’t. In asserting its groundbreaking thesis—the wise investment of your attention is the single most important thing you can do to improve your well-being—Rapt yields fresh insights into the nature of reality and what it means to be fully alive.

The Power of Place

How our Surroundings Shape our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions

Harper Perennial, 2007

Are New Yorkers and Californians so different because they live in such different settings? Why do some of us prefer the city to the country? How do urban settings increase crime? Why do we feel better after an experience in nature?

In this fascinating and enormously entertaining book, Winifred Gallagher explores the complex relationships between people and the places in which they live, love, and work. Drawing on the latest research on behavioral and environmental science, The Power of Place examines our reactions to light, temperature, the seasons, and other natural phenomena and explores the interactions between our external and internal worlds.

Gallagher's broad and dynamic definition of place includes mountaintops and the womb, Alaska's hinterlands and Manhattan's subway, and she relates these settings to everything from creativity to PMS, jet lag to tales of UFOs.

Full of complex information made totally accessible, The Power of Place offers the latest insights into the any ways we can change our lives by changing the places we live.

House Thinking

A Room-by-Room Look at How We Live

Harper Perennial, 2007

IKEA, Ethan Allen, and HGTV may have plenty to say about making a home look right, but what makes a home feel right? Is it the objects you've collected from your travels, or that armchair by the window that reminds you of your grandmother? Is it the "friendly" feeling of a classic American farmhouse, or the "prestige" of a formal Tudor mansion? These kinds of questions, which have more to do with environmental psychology than mere decorating, can give us a new way to think about the diverse spaces Americans call home.

In House Thinking, noted journalist and cultural critic Winifred Gallagher takes the reader on a psychological tour of the American home. In each room, Gallagher explores many of our deep but often unarticulated intuitions about the power of place. Drawing on the latest research in behavioral science, an overview of cultural history, and interviews with leading architects and designers, she shows us how our homes not only reflect who we are, but also influence our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Using a variety of examples—from famous historical homes to experimental rustic pods—Gallagher examines why traditional dining rooms and living rooms have given way to "great rooms," how the oversize suburban garage threatens civility, how kids' rooms can affect their development, and why Americans increasingly think of their homes as "sanctuaries" and "refuges."

House Thinking's unique perspective raises provocative questions: How does your entryway prime you for experiencing your home? Do you really need a mega-kitchen, or just a microwave? What makes a bedroom a sensual oasis? How can your bathroom exacerbate your worst fears?

It's simply not enough to think of our domestic spaces as design statements or as dumping grounds for our stuff. We need to approach our homes in a new way: as environments that actively affect us and our quality of life. Stressing the home's substance over its style, House Thinking is a surprising look at how we live -- and how we could.

It's In the Bag
What Purses Reveal—and Conceal
(HarperCollins, 2006)

The time is perfect for a short, smart purse book. The "good bag" has nudged out shoes, jeans, and jewelry as the must–have fashion possession. Despite price hikes—$1,445 for a Prada bowler bag that once cost $940—the craze for high–end purses helps fuel the booming luxury–goods market and, via knock–offs, hugely influences the $6 billion–a–year mainstream handbag industry. But purse mania isn't just an outgrowth of a strong luxury–goods market—human thoughts, feelings, and dreams are involved, too. As Nadia, a high–powered interior designer says, "My cell and my big Tod's purse—that is my life."

In It's in the Bag, noted journalist Winifred Gallagher explains it what means for a purse to be a life. This cultural history of the handbag borrows from psychology (Freud noted that sometimes a purse is a vagina—which is perhaps why the first "handbags" were carried by men!), sociology (a purse as a "status symbol") and even economics (Why have prices gotten so steep?). Researched and erudite yet always fun, Winifred Gallagher offers in It's in the Bag a charming theory of modern identity as seen through one of our keenest obsessions.

Spiritual Genius

The Mastery of Life's Meaning

Random House, 2002

In Spiritual Genius, journalist Winifred Gallagher, the acclaimed author of Working on God, asks Rabbi Lawrence Kushner to define holiness. "Standing in the presence of God," he says. "Everyone has it, but some people seem to have more of a knack for accessing it." Like holiness, the gift that Gallagher calls "spiritual genius"--which she defines as "the uniquely human ability to search for and find life’s meaning, then express it in our lives as only each of us can"--is one we all possess but don’t necessarily recognize.

Whether they are called saints, gurus, tzaddiks, or shamans, there have always been people who possess exceptional insight, altruism, and charisma. In this disarmingly inspirational book, Gallagher investigates what ordinary people trying to live decent, meaningful lives can learn from such extraordinary men and women, who are specially attuned to the deepest truths, and who exemplify-and radiate-spiritual genius.

In a clear-eyed, ecumenical approach that's free of dogma and bias and suffused with profound respect, Winifred Gallagher highlights the common wisdom-and down-to-earth good humor-of these religious leaders, revels in their differences, and identifies the capacity for spiritual genius that all of us share with them. On an island in the Arabian Sea, Gallagher visits Mata Amritanandamayi, regarded by devotees as a Hindu goddess, who transmits divine love through hugs and charities. She travels through America's inner cities with Tony Campolo, an Evangelical preacher who counsels national leaders and serves the poor. She learns how Riffat Hassan, a Pakistanitheologian, uses the Qur’an to defend the rights of her Muslim sisters. She journeys to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas to understand how an exiled minority has enchanted the world with their deep, resilient spirituality. In these diverse lives, Gallagher argues, we can glimpse our own potential for spiritual genius writ large. Each story testifies to the profound good in the world, even during a troubled time, and to Gallagher’s groundbreaking theory of a human capacity for finding life’s meaning that is nothing less than genius.

Working on God

Modern Library, 2000

Why do I exist? Is this all there is? What is my true nature? What is most important in life? How should I live? These are humanity’s oldest spiritual questions. At the year 2000, however, many who ask them are profoundly estranged front religion. To some, religion is belief in the unbelievable -- incompatible with intelligence and learning. To others, it's just another bureaucratic institution -- legalistic, hypocritical, untrustworthy. Still others have been alienated by their birth traditions, while an increasing number lack any such grounding. What unites this diverse group of skeptical, ambivalent "neoagnostics" is a sense of something deep and vital that eludes the reach of their intellect and education and an inchoate desire for meaning.

A half-century of the great secular experiment of' Einstein, Marx, and Freud has proved that if religion -- the record of our struggle to understand existence and behave accordingly -- has grave flaws, so do the materialistic "faiths" that were intended to replace it. After looking for answers in some obvious places, from relationships and accomplishments to art and science, Winifred Gallagher realized that she had not seriously considered religion since childhood's version of Christianity collided with a college education. Asking the question "What if religion could be about something else?" she decided to explore her own heritage, as well as Buddhism, Judaism, and the New Age. She discovered a vast, quiet, "millennial" spiritual revolution that is transforming religion into a process of moving toward -- and struggling with -- the sacred, Transcending denominational boundaries, this new sensibility embraces modern realities from physics to psychiatry, addresses existential questions, values personal experience over institutional authority, draws insights from multiple traditions, welcomes women as clergy and teachers, and expands morality beyond the personal to the systemic, from economics to ecology.

A reporter of behavioral science, Winifred Gallagher began her investigation of postmodern religion with research and interviews, but watched it also become a very personal story of epektasis—straining toward mystery. Journalism and journey unfold over time spent in a Zen monastery and a cloistered convent, small-group discussions and healing rituals, a Conservative synagogue that shares a Christian church, and the birthplace of the New Age. Written with humor, empathy, and a rigorous curiosity, Working on God breaks new ground in depicting the broad-based spiritual movement that is transforming culture as well as religion.

Just the Way You Are

How Heredity and Experience Create the Individual

Random House, 1997

A highly readable fusion of hard science and cutting-edge psychology, this text not only raises, but answers the age-old central questions of human individuality such as: Who am I? Was I born that way? Why are my relatives so different from me? Or so similar? How much can I influence my children? Can I change? Find out the answers in this celebration of the wonders and mysteries of being human.


How Heredity and Experience Make You Who You Are

Random House, 1996

In I.D., Winifred Gallagher addresses a timeless question: Who are we and how did we arrive this way? She addresses this fundamental question by looking at the science and history of temperament, including new, fascinating research on how heredity, anatomy, biochemistry, and the way we are raised affect the patterns of human behavior. Tackling a formidable subject and lacing it with the true story of an abandoned child, she has produced a readable and important book.


Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change

Penguin Press, 2011

Exploring our unique human genius for responding to the new with curiosity and creativity, the bestselling author of Rapt shows us how to embrace our changing world while living a fuller, saner life.

In today's fast-paced world, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by the mind-boggling number of new things—whether products, ideas, or bits of data—bombarding us daily. But adapting to new circumstance is so crucial to our survival that "love of the new," or neophilia, is hardwired into our brains at the deepest levels. Navigating between our innate love of novelty and the astonishingly new world around us is the task of New: helping us adapt to, learn about, and create new things that matter, while dismissing the rest as distractions.

With wit and clarity, acclaimed behavioral science writer Winifred Gallagher takes us to the archaeological sites and neuroscience laboratories exploring our species' special affinity for novelty. All of us are attuned to things that are new or unfamiliar because they convey vital information about potential threats and resources. As individuals, however, we vary in how we balance the sometimes conflicting needs to avoid risk and approach rewards.

Some 15 percent of us are die-hard "neophiliacs" who are biologically predisposed to passionately pursue new experiences, and another 15 percent are "neophobes" who adamantly resist change.

Most of us fall squarely in the spectrum's roomy middle range. Whether we love change, avoid change, or take the middle path, neophilia plays a crucial role in all of our lives. No matter where we sit on neophilia's continuum, New shows us how to use it more skillfully to improve our lives.

At this time of unprecedented change—when the new information we handle daily has quadrupled in the past thirty years, with no sign of slowing—we must look beyond such secondary issues as voracious consumerism, attention problems, and electronics addiction to refocus on neophilia's true purpose: to learn about and create the new things that really matter.

How the Post Office Created America

The Wall Street Journal
Putting Its Stamp on the States
In 1953, when Arthur Summerfield was named Postmaster General, he learned that the agency employed not one certified public accountant. Full review online at The Wall Street Journal ($).

The Nation
USPS vs. Congress
If ever there was a time to make a case for the Postal Service's necessity in American civic, political, and cultural life, it may have already passed. More online at The Nation.


Library Journal
Have you ever wondered why humans, as a species, are so attracted to novel experiences? Gallagher (House Thinking: A Room-by-Room Look at How We Live) brings her talents to the topic of neophilia—the love of novelty. She suggests that, from an evolutionary standpoint, attention to change, interest in new experiences, and adaptability are hallmarks of our species. She also explores individual behaviors concerning novelty and risk-taking and investigates the ways that society and environment affect one’s attitude toward novelty. Considering experiences that range from video games to consumer food preferences, this book is an engaging, enjoyable read. The section that treats the complex interaction of nature and nurture as related to neophilia is particularly interesting. VERDICT An accessible, well-­researched work that crosses a variety of disciplines and will satisfy scientifically curious readers. It will appeal to those who enjoy Stephen Jay Gould and Oliver Sacks.—Carla H. Lee, Univ. of Virginia Lib., Charlottesville


“As the 19th-century philosopher William James wisely understood, what you selectively notice and attend to is what makes up your experience. It is your life! Winifred Gallagher gets it. She has written a provocative, illuminating, and captivating book on the power and importance of attention in multiple domains of life – relationships, work, leisure, health. What makes some people happier, healthier, more fulfilled, more creative, or more engaged than others? Because of what they pay attention to.”
—Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness

"Many will benefit from this thoughtful book. Among other 21st century challenges, the increasing velocity of communication threatens to drive us into a permanent sea- storm of distraction. Thank you, Winifred Gallagher, for bringing our attention back to the essential matter of attention."
—David Shenk, author, Data Smog and The Forgetting

“This wonderful and inspiring book asks readers to remember something so simple and yet so little appreciated—what you focus upon profoundly affects your quality of life. I can’t think anyone who wouldn’t benefit from the message contained herein. It’s a powerful and much needed prescription for these tumultuous times.”
—Sarah Susanka, author of The Not So Big Life and The Not So Big House series

House Thinking

"Enlightening." -- New York Times

"An intriguing examination of an elusive topic, with a depth and range that go beyond predictable terrain." (Kirkus Reviews )

"This rich and intelligent book...leads us on an intimate and revealing pilgrimage into America's restless soul." (Boston Globe )

"An engaging book.enlightening and helpful." (Los Angeles Times )

Gallagher is...a cultural collector, serving up tasty morsels of research and history...about our homes. (New York Times )

[Gallagher] conducts a tour like no other of the American house, excavating its fascinating history and covert psychological influences. (Book List, starred review )

Gallagher writes fresh and nuanced interpretations of the subtler aspects of life. (Book List, starred review )

"The book's strength lies in the author's intuitions...a small book with many valuable insights." (Architectural Record )

"Enlightening." (New York Times )

The Power of Place

"The Power of Place is first-rate and alarmingly fresh... A wonderful book." -- -- Jim Harrison, author of Dalva

"Engrossing." -- -- New York Times

"Entertaining and convincing." -- Booklist

"Got some problems? Think that moving to a more compatible place is 'running away'? Read this intriguing and well-researched book." -- -- Tom Cahill, author of Pecked to Death by Ducks

"It is a brand new vision of how we are affected by how and where we live. A wonderful book." -- Jim Harrison, author of Dalva

"Ricly textured and intriguing." -- --Kirkus Reviews

Working on God

"A fascinating mosaic of contemporary religious thought.... A rich and beautifully written harvest for the reader."--The New York Times Book Review

"An intimate and revealing pilgrimage into America's restless soul. The result is an honest and sometimes poignant appraisal of a religious revolution afoot in this country. An outstanding piece of writing that shows the strength and beauty of America's beating religious heart."--The Boston Globe

"Working on God is one of the greatest spiritual works of this decade, as delightful as it is wise."--Anne Lamott

Using Denial to Cope with Grief and Depression

Winifred Gallagher discusses a study that shows people recover from tragedy with more ease if they do not dwell on their grief. Drawing from this, she suggests it may be best to refrain from "obsessing" over distress and trauma. Can we train our focus? What's different about the way creative people pay attention?

Los Angeles Public Library | April 2009

Can we train our focus? What's different about the way creative people pay attention?

Winifred Gallagher, an acclaimed behavioral science writer, makes the radical argument that the quality of your life largely depends on what you choose to pay attention to and how you choose to do it.

Contact info for Ms. Gallagher's literary agent:
Kristine Dahl
International Creative Management, NYC

Contact info for Ms. Gallagher's lecture agent:
Ellie Deegan
The Lecture Bureau