“There’s never been a more abundant time ever in human civilization, yet we are no happier now than we were in the 1950s.” – Neil Pasricha
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Neil Pasricha (@NeilPasricha) is an author and speaker who is a well-known expert on creating happiness for both yourself and in your organization. He has written several books, including “The Happiness Equation,” and, most recently, “How to Get Back Up: A Memoir of Failure & Resilience.” He is also a speaker, giving an extremely popular TED talk. Today, he talks to Mark about the formula for happiness.
- Being a “big fish” can give you more freedom than being in a “big pond.”
- Happiness is a prime goal – “How to get happy” is one of the most popular Google searches
- Contentment is a part of happiness, but not the only ingredient
Listen to this episode to understand that happiness doesn’t come from success, it’s the other way around. Success comes from happiness.
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Mark: Hey folks, this is Mark Divine with the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Thanks so much for your attention today. I appreciate you coming back to listen to what we have to say. I’ve got a fantastic guest today, Neil Pasricha.
We’re going to talk about happiness and being awesome and all sorts of really cool things. And you know how to get back up when you fall down, fall down seven times. Get up eight. You’ve heard me say that before.
Before I get started. You know, let me take care of the usual stuff. first, our podcast is available at iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, SoundCloud. So whatever your, you know, technology de jour, it’s there. and I just want to remind you, it really, really, really helps if you rate the podcast and if you really, really like what we’re doing, then, you know, give it five stars. Just start at the right side, click there and then you’re done. and that helps other people who are like minded find the podcast, which keeps it relevant and I get more – more and better guests.
All right, so thanks for that. The other thing I wanted to say is, you know, I’m very proud of the Unbeatable Mind philosophy training model our certified coaches. And it all started with the Foundation course, which I developed in 2011. This came out of my work, my deep work with SEAL and Special Ops candidates in our 30 day Warrior Monk Academies. Now I often tell this story to my, you know, my trainees that I had 30 days and I was the head coach and we were training for 15 hours a day. And so it was fairly easy for me to come up with the whole SEALFIT training model and teach them how to, you know, use physical exercise and movement to be, you know, physically and mentally tough. But what, you know, then that filled up maybe seven of the hours. So, what was I going to do with the other eight hours?
And so, over time I developed the whole Unbeatable Mind curriculum, which was to literally train the mental, emotional, intuitional and Kokoro or whole mind aspects of the operators. That training proved to be so effective that the SEALs were getting through BUD/S or through SEAL training 90% of the time, compared to 85% fail rate for everybody else. And a lot of individuals, some of you who maybe are listening, took notice and started asking me, “hey, can I do that? I don’t want to come through your 50-hour Kokoro camp and get my ass kicked, but I do want to learn those techniques.”
And so, I built the online course called the Unbeatable Mind Foundations course. At any rate, the reason I’m telling you that is I just spent 18 months rebuilding the entire thing. All new content, written content. I literally wrote an entire book for it.
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All right, Neil Pasricha from Canada, a Harvard MBA, founder of the Institute for Global Happiness. Isn’t that cool? I mean, who knew there was an institute for Global Happiness? one of the most popular TED talks. So after this, if you’re inspired to see him in action, go just search for Neil on TED. And gosh, got to start working at Walmart. How interesting. I’ve never thought of that is a happy place, Neil. Welcome to Unbeatable Mind. Thanks for being here. Appreciate it. So how did you, you know, was Walmart like the happiest place you ever worked, Neil? What’s the link there?
Neil: Well, the link there was actually, you know, you mentioned… So first of all, thank you for having me Mark. I appreciate being on. You know, it’s really like advice I got when I was at Harvard. Frankly. I was in my first couple of weeks, at school and I was lucky enough to have lunch with the dean. Why? Cause I got like this financial aid thing and so I had this lunch with the old dean of Harvard. And so I go in and be like this kind of older, it kind of like 80 year old guy and he sits me down, we have a tuna sandwich and he’s like, “how’s it going?” And I’m like, “not good.” I’m like, “it’s really not good.” He’s like, “why?” I’m like, “I’m stressed. It’s like I’m working every night until late just on preparing for class.”
And of course, even though it’s September, all the big fancy companies are already here, like Mckinsey and Google and Goldman Sachs. And they’re all these millionaire bankers with black bags under their eyes. And we are all lining up to kind of be just like them. we want to be a millionaire bankers with black bags under our eyes too. So every night where like hobnobbing. We’re going out for beers, we’re going out for drinks, we’re going out for like lunches, case interviews and like second round interviews and all these like researching all this stuff. It’s like, it’s really exhausting.
Mark: And that was the first year?
That was a first year. Yeah. My first year at Harvard business school. Yeah. it was a two year program. So you know what he says to me, he’s like, “well get off the beach. I’m like, “what are you talking about?”
And he’s like, well “you’re like standing at the edge of the beach. You got this fence in front of you and on the beach or like 10 bathing beauties. you can’t wait to like run out on that beach. Problem is, and the problem is there’s a thousand people just like you waiting for the beach to open.”
And so, in this metaphor he’s telling me, of course the bathing beauties are like Mckinsey, Goldman Sachs, you know, like this super cool job at the super cool company. He’s like, “the problem is, your odds of landing a bathing beauty are extremely small. And not only that, but even if you land one, what are you going to be doing? You’re just going to be looking over your shoulder the whole time. You’re going to be thinking someone’s going to steal this job from you, someone’s going to steal this amazing thing you got. You won’t even feel special.”
Mark: And furthermore, those bathing beauties aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
Neil: Well, there you go. And then so I’m like, “well, what do I do?” And he’s like, “get off the beach.” I’m like, “what do you mean get off the beach?” He’s like, “go find the broken company. The down on the luck company, the bankrupt company. The people wrestling with something. the ones that don’t have money to fly a team of recruiters in a private jet to Harvard. They’re trying to stay alive. And so if you approach them, if you knock on their door, they’ll be a little bit surprised to see you. But if you come in their house, they’re delighted when you start talking. They want your opinion in meetings, they are willing to promote you to jobs of a wider kind of leadership opportunity.
You’ll, you’ll get like more chances there, you’ll learn more there, you’ll be a better person there. And so it’s weird. But I came home, I never went to another job or recruiting session at Harvard business school campus ever again. Literally after that lunch.
I made a spreadsheet of 100 companies that I was intrigued by, but which for whatever reason did not recruit at Harvard. So I was like, maybe they had a big oil spill or maybe they had like, you know, nobody thought that, that nobody wanted to work at Walmart cause like, you know, they kill small towns and they, you know, they don’t pay anyone anything, like… All this bad reputation. So, I knock on their door, I knock on a hundred company’s doors. Okay. Like, when I say that, I mean a hundred cold calls.
Mark: You didn’t walk up and knock.
Neil: No, I did not fly to Bentonville, Arkansas, and knock on the head office door. but I sent a hundred like cold calls. I got like 50 responses. I got like 25 phone calls. I got like ten first round interviews, which they would have called like a coffee or a lunch and I called in my head like I got to impress them. And I got like five job offers. And so accepted Walmart because in my mind Mark, they had the most people in the whole world, 2.5 million employees and therefore the most leaders. And what I was interested in is developing leaders. That’s what I did. I was director of leadership development there and sure enough…
Mark: Straight out? You mean the first job you got there?
Neil: no, that was my last job there. I was a manager of leadership development. I got there, I started as a manager and then I did a couple of the roles in human resources, running up learning and development.
And then I went to go work for a CEO inside the company as his assistant or chief of staff writing speeches and traveling with him and so on. I did that for four years for two CEO’s there. And then I came back out and I was director of leadership development. So I was director of leadership development for like my last two of the 10 years. And you asked me at the beginning “why Walmart.” And I said, now I’m saying, I’m telling you why – it’s this adage that like you got to find a smaller pond to be a bigger fish. Don’t chase the beauty at the beach, but rather find a pond you can win in. And I’m not just saying that because Walmart was a place where they took me seriously and I was like able to like come into my own there. They gave me a lot of development, a lot of opportunity.
I’m saying that because literally 1984 Erasure study comes out saying, “is it better to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond?” And what they found, and this study has been replicated across tons of countries around the world in different cultures. The answer is not only is it a huge yes, but the amazing thing is your positive academic self-concept, i.e., how you think of yourself actually increases for 10 extra years after you leave the pond. So when you put yourself in a game that you can win, then you think you’re great for a way longer time than you’re playing, right? And so I’ve tried to use this model. We’re talking about happiness. I’ve tried to use it and we’re talking about resilience. We’re talking, I’m trying to use this model everywhere in my life and I suck at a lot of stuff.
So, all I’m trying to do is like you and I, before we press record, we’re talking about speaking, right? And so speaking is like this, like, like a speaking agency wants to hire me after my TED talk comes out. They’re like, “Neil, we want you to be this much money.” And I’m like, well that’s ridiculous. Who else speaks for that much money? It’s ridiculous. They’re like an Olympic gold medalist, New York Times bestselling authors. I’m like, “oh, I heard all those people. What about half price? Who’s in that camp?” And they name a whole bunch of people I never heard of before. And I’m like, well what about half of that price? Like what about the smallest pond you got? And they’re like, “well, we don’t even have… Like that’s the smallest pond there is. You can’t work on commission for less than like let’s say five grand.” Put me in the smallest pond you got.
And why did I do that, Mark? well because for the first year I’m speaking, I’m now speaking to like board rooms. I’m speaking to like 20 people at an offsite. I’m not speaking to a thousand people in Vegas.
Mark: And you’re a rockstar. Right. You’re developing your confidence.
Neil: Exactly. And so that’s a really long way of saying why I went to go work for Walmart. It was a great company. They treated me super well. I loved it being there. And then I left to be an author full time two years ago.
Mark: Okay. So you wrote a book called the “Happiness Equation.” So I know a lot of your research and a lot of your thinking is around positive mindset and happiness. Was Walmart a positive place to work?
Neil: Well, here’s the thing, that book you just mentioned, “The Happiness Equation,” was my fifth book. My first book was “The Book of Awesome.” And I wrote that eight years before I left Walmart. So I was at Walmart eight years after that book came out. My wife, and I sadly had a divorce. it was her call and she wasn’t feeling it and she was courageous enough to tell me openly about it, which is an honorable thing to do if you’re not feeling like you should be in a marriage. And at the same time that happened, I lost my best friend from a suicide. And so I started blogging a on a blog called 1000awesomethings.com. Every single day for a thousand straight weekdays. I wrote about simple, trite things like, you know, getting called up to the dinner buffet first at a wedding. Or wearing warm underwear from just out of the dryer, right?
Or, or like, you know, all your socks can match up out of the, you know, when you pull them out of the, out of the laundry, like you actually don’t lose a sock or you know. pulling $5 out of your old coat pocket, playing on old dangerous playground equipment.
Anyway, I wrote a thousand of these essays. The blog went viral at one best blog in the world twice from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. At 50 million readers. Turned into a book called “The Book of Awesome,” that sold a million copies, was on the best seller list for 200 weeks. Spawned three sequels, a kid’s book, five calendars, two journals. I’m at Walmart this whole time, by the way, TED talks, all this stuff. And then, and only then – to answer your question – did I sort of take a step back.
You know was starkly single during all of this. Like, lost weight, was really stressed, was not sleeping. Was in a bachelor apartment, living by myself for the first time. Yet ironically I had become a sort of international… Like I’m on the today show and Meredith Viera was like, “how does the whole world learn to be happy? And I’m like, “Oh crap. Like I’m, my friends would tell you I’m depressed. You know what I mean?” Like, but I’ve become this spoke because the blog got popular.
Mark: Being awesome doesn’t necessarily mean being happy, then.
Neil: Well, I wasn’t awesome. I’m blogging about this stuff to teach myself it, right. That’s what we’re all doing. That’s the secret of the whole self-help industry. It’s like the thing that people are writing about is the thing they’re trying to learn. Right?
Neil: So, I’m like trying to write this up too. Like my dad was an immigrant. He was like, “life’s really good. You got it good. You got it lucky, man.”
And I’m like, no. I’ve lost 40 pounds due to stress. I got black bags under my eyes. My wife just left me. I lost my best friend. I have six contacts in my phone and I have nowhere to live. That’s how I felt. So the blog was my medicine and because it got popular, I was then forced through all these questions like the one you’re asking me to say like, “okay, happiness? Let’s take a stab at that now. That’s the bigger question. That’s the 2000 year old Aristotle kind of like goal of life, you know.” So my attempt was to spend essentially an entire year writing a 300 page love letter to my unborn child. I met a new woman, we fell in love over a couple of years and on the plane home from our honeymoon… this is my second marriage now – she tells me she’s pregnant. Like on the plane. Like she bought the pregnancy test in the Kuala Lumpur airport and did the pregnancy test in the plane, in the plane bathroom.
So, I get home. I’m like, my world is gone again. No, she didn’t get pregnant in the airplane. She found out she was pregnant. Mark, come on. Just kidding with you. Although, yeah, I guess it could have… No, I’m just kidding.
So, it’s like, but then so this baby is like coming, and so I wrote this letter, 300-page letter to my unborn child on how to be happy. And that’s the book you’re asking me about. “The Happiness Equation.”
So, was Walmart a happy place? It was for me. the way workplace always works in my opinion is a job is the five people you’re surrounded by. And I was very lucky. I had great bosses. I found the culture really inspiring.
There’s a lot of bad press about Walmart, but you honestly won’ hear any from me. Cause the 10 years I was at that company, I had great leaders. I liked my job. And so did the people around me. And so we always felt where I was working and the people I was working with that we were saving people money to help them live better. It was a cost… Lower, the cost of living. And I always find that the people that don’t like it can afford not to. You know what I’m saying? Yeah. It’s like… Yeah, go ahead.
Mark: I was going to say my litmus test for an organization is, or the quality of life in an organization is the worse the news is, probably the better it is at the organization. Because the news is completely the opposite of reality.
Neil: Well that’s a good index. I never thought of that. I like that.
Mark: Walmart is actually an extremely professional organization and they do things, you know, a certain way, of course. And I remember, you know, upstate New York when the Walmart was going to come into, you know, Lake Placid, New York and there was all that gnashing of teeth and I was thinking, “well, Walmart’s just basically trying to make money and they’re going to employ a lot of people and they’re gonna provide really low priced products and some local merchants aren’t going to be happy. And so like 20 people will be injured and about a thousand to 5,000 will be happy they’re coming in.” And of course the media trashed it and so they never came in. But anyways. I don’t know why I went down that rabbit hole.
Neil: No, that’s fine. I think there’s something to the idea that size attracts attention. Like Amazon’s really, really big and like what’s on the front page of the newspaper? The poor guy’s divorce. Like, he’s getting a divorce like the CEO and it’s like do you really need all these investigative journalistic reports? I’m like the guy’s marriage falling apart like do you really need that? I don’t know if you need that. I don’t think you do.
But when you’re big they come for you and I remember the day that, I think it was Sam Walton, founder of Walmart or it might have been Bill Gates… Think it might’ve been Bill Gates. They told him, “Hey, guess what? You’ve officially become the richest man in the world.” And he replied, “no good can come of that.”
Mark: Right. I love that.
Mark: So, you just alluded to one of my questions. You have a bunch of bench tests for decision making that you allude to in your happiness book. And one of them is the five people tests. And so are you alluding to the fact that he’d look at the five people around you and they will determine your own happiness in an organization? If you’ve got five negative nellies, then you, chances are your environment’s going to be negative.
Neil: Yeah. there’s a great book called “Connected,” and there’s a great article in the New York Times called “Can your friend’s friend’s friend, make you fat?” And the answer from the book and the article is yes, even if you don’t know that friend. And the point is that we are a function of the people around us where the average typically of even things as simple as like their height and their weight and their intelligence and whether they are, introverted or extroverted. And so, it’s very hard to grow and develop self-awareness. It’s extremely important and it’s very difficult to do. But one way you can do it on the road towards happiness is to simply ask yourself, “hey, who am I spending time with? Who are the five people I spend time with the most? I’m probably the average of those people.” And the science says you are, which is the same adage that says, you know, “show me your calendar and I’ll tell you your priorities.”
Don’t tell me what your priorities are. Show me your calendar and then I’ll tell you what your real priorities are. So similarly. I think that’s why people like to surround themselves with you. Mark. Honestly, it’s like, seriously. Unbeatable Mind. Accelerate your inner warrior. Guy’s a navy SEAL. Like they want to spend time with you. And I feel that way about podcasts I listen to, right? I feel like I’m hanging out with the host. And that becomes, I meant for a while… honestly, if you asked me like two years ago, who was the top five people I spend time with, I’d be like number one, Tim Ferriss. I don’t know Tim Ferris, but I was like, listen to his show every episode. So, I was like, he was one of the people in my head every day.
Mark: Doesn’t have to be a physical presence, you’re saying. I agree with that.
Neil: no, no it doesn’t. Because we’re hanging out with the listener right now. Right? I have a podcast is called three books. I always set up a chair beside me and the guest just to remind me the whole time that I’m interviewing the person that there’s someone else here.
Mark: That’s cool. I’m on a couch right now. So, there’s plenty of room for guests.
Mark: So, what about the… I want to stick with this idea, because you had these different tests. One of them was “Saturday morning test.” Explain that.
Neil: Sure. A lot of people come up to me and when it comes to happen, all the tests you’re pulling are from book. “The Happiness Equation” has nine secrets. You’re, you’re pulling everything from this one secret all about authenticity. Okay. Which was one of the ingredients that I found in the research that really leads to happiness. One of those of course ingredients is self-awareness. So how do you develop the self-awareness and the authenticity? One of the tests is the five people test. The other test is the Saturday morning test.
Okay. And there’s a third test we can talk about it if you like. The Saturday morning test is asking yourself one simple question, which is “what do you do on a Saturday morning? When and if you have nothing to do?” Okay, so say you wake up Saturday morning, it’s totally blank slate. Now how do you occupy your time? Your natural tendency will reveal to you a whole bunch of interests that you may not know. People are like, “well, I don’t know what I want to do with my life. I don’t know what job I want to be and I don’t want to my career.” I’m like, well, what do you do on Saturday mornings?” And they’re like, “oh, I go to the gym.” Or, “I play my guitar.” And then so you start brainstorming wildly from that and you’re like, well, it could be a personal trainer.
I could start a supplements company. I could impart Ukuleles, I should start teaching guitar online on YouTube. Point is all those things come from the answer to that root question, which is when you got no one pushing you, no advice, no one yelling in your ear, no parental pressure. No what your friends are doing. When all of that stuff is completely removed, how do you genuinely enjoy spending your time and that will reveal to you a whole world of brainstormed ideas that you can kind of get off on because they resonate deeply with something, you’re naturally passionate about.
Mark: Yeah. That’s cool. I like that. And as you were talking, I was like fact checking that like what do I do on Saturday mornings? And I’m thinking, “Hunh. Yeah, I’m pretty aligned because I wake up and I be a warrior.” Right? I do warrior stuff, I train. And I do that every morning when I wake up. Saturday’s no different.
Neil: So, the fact that you’re on a podcast with a tagline “Accelerate your inner warrior” is aligned with what you naturally like to do. It’s not like you’re… You’re like “basket weaving is my real thing. I don’t, I should really get on that.” Okay. So, let me tell you the third test by the way?
Mark: Yeah. The bench test for all decisions. Is that what it’s called? I’ve just got the notes here…
Mark: All right, let’s hear about that.
Neil: So, the third and final test is the bench test. This is on the path to authenticity, and it is… My friend Fred, when I was a kid, like he was way smarter than me and anyone I knew and he got into like every Ivy League school. Okay, I’m in Canada. So like hardly anyone even applies. So he got in and he’s like… Got into Princeton, got into Harvard, got into Dartmouth. And so I’m like, Fred, “wow, congratulations man. First of all, I guess we’ll see you later. You know, like you’re going to move to another country, but how are you going to decide where to go?” And he told me, he’s like, “oh, I looked at all the books and all the rankings and stuff, but they just tell you like, how many books are in the library and how new the gym is and how fancy the residence is.
He’s like, “actually, I realized that the price of renting a jeep for a week is like $300 and the value of this decision is worth much more than $300.” So he’s like, “I’m renting a jeep for the week. He did it. He left. He goes away for a week. He goes to every campus. He drives down there. They’re all like together, Like, driving wise. No ivy league schools in Arizona for some reason. I don’t know why. Right?
So, he goes to all there. They’re all in the northeast and he says, he comes home. I was like, Fred, “what did you do? What’d you do on your trip? Like, how’d you figure out what school? He’s like, “Neil. I looked around on campus, walked around until I found a bench somewhere situated somewhere deeply in the middle of campus. I then sat on that bench for one hour in total silence, patiently observing and listening to what was around me. The snippets of conversation, how people were talking to each other, what they were talking about, and I asked myself deeply in my heart, does this connect with me? Considering that, yeah, I’ll have 10% of my time in class, but you know, 90% of my waking hours, you’re just going to be in conversations like this with classmates. And then over meals and social events and stuff.
So, he’s like, “I picked the school which connected with me the most based on the bench test.” And I was like, “well which school?” He ended up going to Princeton and of course as you can imagine, met his wife and all his best friends and it’s like he’s a devoted alumni. And I thought, well that’s fascinating, because when you go on a job interview – and I was in, at least as when we talked about it, I was in human resources in Walmart. And you go on a job interview. No one ever asked me, “Oh, can I take a tour of the office?” But if you ask him that question in, in the, at the end of your job interview, say, “Oh, can I have like a two minute tour of the office?” They’ll always say yes. And if you do that tour, guess what?
You see how people talk, how they walk, what’s on the walls, how do they interact with each other? Are they polite? Do they smile or do they not? And you get a bench test. If you want to buy a house, walk around on the sidewalks. If you want to buy a car, test drive the damn thing, right. It’s like about putting yourself in testing situations. And the reason that I came up with this test for the book is because a lot of my friends are lawyers and all my friends that are lawyers hate it. They’re like, “I don’t know why I became a lawyer, I blah blah blah. And I’m like “didn’t you ever, like, go to a law firm? Like for one day? And like even just sit there or like file, do some free filing?” They’re like “never thought of that.” So, I’m like before you decide to devote your entire life to like, for example, a thing or a profession or a person or whatever, do the bench test, give yourself a small version of it to see if you like it.
Mark: I love that. You know, this brings up, I was talking to Geoff before you came on – you know, Geoff’s my tech/producer and he was mentioning a blog he had just read or an article you just read about how we’re heading into the experience economy and how Millennials are gravitating toward experiences versus material things. Because obviously experience has a lasting impact, it has emotional energy to it. And they’d much rather spend money on an experience. And it’ll make them happy and they’ll remember the good parts of the experience and not the bad and you know… Than let’s say on a new toy.
And your bench test really is speaking to that, you know? to experience something before you buy it, or before you make a big decision like that. As opposed to just, you know, accepting the marketing blurb or the material or just buying it like a product or like another thing that you’re going to get into. That’s powerful.
Neil: It totally is. And it makes sense for so many reasons. And one of the reasons I think that, I don’t know if it was mentioned in the article Geoff read or not, but it’s because it used to be that stuff was scarce and experiences were plentiful. Or at least the experiences you were aware of you didn’t know you could like, you know skydive in New Zealand when you were like in the 1800s in upstate New York. So, like you just didn’t think about it.
Mark: And practically speaking to pull that off was really hard.
Neil: Yeah. What are you going to do, take an ocean liner for three months? That’s the thing. So, so now it’s the opposite where stuff is abundant and experiences are scarce. A good example is speeches. We already mentioned speeches. Why do people like you and me give speeches when our content is free, like you go on YouTube, you can watch my TED talk. You can watch my Google talk, you can watch hours of my YouTube videos. You can… What I’m saying, if you just want to watch me. There it is. It’s all there and it’s free.
Neil: But the reason the speech is valuable is because it is ensconced within a live event, that is rare. The idea of going to TED or to summit or to like the once a year conference that your industry has that brings in Malcolm Gladwell and Brenae Brown and these people. And then there’s Pasricha in some side room, you know. But my point is that’s the point. The experience has now become the rare thing. So of course, that has the most social equity.
Mark: Right. That’s cool. I mean I’ve been in the experience business since we launched SEALFIT and people come to experience essentially Navy SEAL training, not knowing that we’re going to transform them in the process, you know, and they leave changed. It’s very cool. But you’re right, they could watch it on TV.
Neil: Well the good news is, it’s going to be a long time before the robots can do that. You’re safe. You and physio therapists.
Mark: You mentioned there were other secrets that you allude to in the happiness book. What are some of the other most potent ones that would resonate to a listener?
Neil: Sure. Well, let me zoom up a level, and this is in the book as well, but here’s the thing about happiness. If you go to Google right now and you type in “how to be,” you know, how it suggest stuff, like it tells you what everyone else is typing in? Well guess what the first dropdown is? It’s “happy.” We want it more than anything else. And by the way, the numbers two, three and four are “rich,” “pretty” and “real estate agent,”
Mark: That last one really got me. I was not expecting that.
Neil: So, we want happiness more than anything. I’ll start there. And then the next question you probably ask yourself as, “oh, Neil, you just went on a big rant about how it’s the age of abundance. Are we happy?” And it’s true. It is the age of abundance. We have never lived longer. We’ve never had higher literacy and education rates and postsecondary education rates. We have never been richer. Even on relative terms. We’ve never been, we’ve never had more money, just in terms of disposable income. We’ve also never been able to travel as far, see as much stuff. Like there’s never been a more abundant time ever in human civilization. You could eat food from anywhere in the world, outside your house,,, Again, you know, it goes on and on. Yet we are no happier now than we were in the 1950s.
And this is research from the University of Michigan. Professor David Myers has been studying it for a long time. It’s like, no, we’re just as happy now as we were 70 years ago, even though apparently everything’s improved. And in fact, when you look closer at the data, some things you could argue like anxiety, loneliness, depression, suicide, these things are actually going up, right?
So, then you’re like, “okay, wait a minute.” Just a quick summary. We want it more than anything else. We don’t have it yet. Why not? Whose fault is it? And the person whose fault it is, your mom and your dad, it’s your parents’ fault. of course, it’s your parents fault, and it’s not their fault. It’s their parents’ fault. It’s not their fault, it’s their parents’ fault. And if you’re a parent, it’s kind of your fault too, because what do you tell your kids?
You tell your kids, “Oh, if you do great work, then you’ll have a big success and then you’ll be happy. So come on, we want you to get into a good school. Come on. We want you to get a good job. Come on. If you study really hard, that’s the great work. Then you’ll get good grades. That’s the big success. And then you’ll be happy.” Which in Indian parlance, is becoming a doctor, right? I’m Indian. My parents or my mom’s from East Africa, my dad’s from India. Or if you work really hard to get a promotion or you make more money then you’re happy. We tell our kids this. The problem is that model is totally backwards. After reviewing all the kind of positive psychology literature, I can tell you it’s not just backwards. It’s like fundamentally reverse. So, the root secret as you asked me on happiness, is reverse that model.
It’s learn how to be happy first. I mean when you wake up in the morning, when you’re alive for your thousand minutes of the day. That’s just how many minutes you’re awake for every day. And you’re alive for your thousand months on this planet, which is the average lifespan right now, which is a thousand months. if you can prime your brain for positivity in the morning, if you can put 20 minutes into you, then for the other 98% of the day, the other 980 minutes, you’re going to be disproportionately happier, and we know that the big success comes there. You’re more productive, you’re more creative, you’re more likely to get a promotion. People like spending more time with you. You live longer, you live an average of 10 years longer according to the nun study. So it’s like the fundamental secret on happiness is reversing the model that your parents taught you. That is that great work leads to big success leads to be happy. No, it’s being happy leads to great work, which leads to the big success.
Mark: Couple of thoughts. First were the nuns, did they live longer or shorter? I’m curious. Were they happy or unhappy? I could go either way with that one.
Neil: Yeah, well, there’s a bunch of researchers at the University of Kentucky who realized something. They’re way smarter than me, so they’re like, “oh nuns. They’re like perfect lab rats. They’re all the same gender. They wear the same clothes, they eat the same food, none of them smoke or drink or have sex ever. Okay. Although sometimes if I say that to like an audience, people are like, “not the nuns. I know.”
Mark: Exactly right. So, they say,
Neil: Yeah. So they say… haven’t you seen Sister Act? No, I’m just kidding. But the point is they look to these nuns and they looked at all the ones that joined convents in like the 1930s, okay. And they looked at the autobiographies that they wrote before they joined and if they used one of three key phrases, the three key phrases were “looking forward,” “eager joy,” and “blessed life.” That’s six words total. But one of those three words. So I’m looking forward to joining the convent. I went to Notre Dame, I had a blessed life. If you used one of those three key phrases, they called you happy, they called you a happy nun. And the other kind of 75% or more were just sort of like normal nuns. Well, because the research was done recently, they could find out what happened to the nuns and they found out that the ones that entered the convent happier with that positive state of mind lived an average of 10 years longer.
They found that the average group, and this still applies today, in an average group, 15% of us will live to the age of 94, but if you’re happy then you more than triple your chances of making it that long. Whenever they do these interviews, like 100-year-olds, you’ve probably seen a bunch of them. It’s like “I just mind my own business. I like, I think every day’s a gift.” Like these are like the, it sounds overly simplistic. You’re like, “oh, that person must work for Hallmark or something.”
But no, when you are genuinely happy, when you can train your brain to be that way, when you can put yourself and you can flip that switch in the morning or the night, even though we all live the same life of pain and struggle and challenge and breakups and people cutting you off in traffic and telemarketers ringing your doorbell. I know I live the same life. I’m not happy all the time, but I just know that it’s a thing that it’s a muscle that we can work and if we work that muscle, it has massive dividends.
Mark: Yeah. You know, I think this is a good time to like talk about semantics because it is very easy to get trapped in language and the deficiencies of language, right? So let’s define the characteristics of happy, because you just said something really profound. Just because you consider yourself happy doesn’t mean you’re not going to struggle. And it doesn’t mean that you’re not going to have moments of complete misery. And you can be in misery and still consider yourself a happy human being with a positive outlook. Knowing that this too shall pass. Right. And looking forward to the future and all that. So really it’s not just a word, it’s a set of characteristics, and it’s a mindset and an attitude toward life. Right? So, what does that look like to you?
Neil: I think it totally… I agree completely. And I think this totally applies to your work because a lot of people… I use the same definition that a lot of folks in this kind of world, in this world of research and writing would use, which is, it’s the joy you feel while striving towards your potential. And so you can teach me about the Navy SEAL stuff, but I would tell you like, you know, if a woman gives birth that’s incredibly painful, but she’s happy. Or if a guy’s running a marathon and he’s getting shin splints and it’s freezing outside and like, you know, he’s about to collapse. But how’s he feel at the end of the thing? He’s overjoyed. So building a deck in the summer with your bare hands. Like you can feel happy even when you’re going through something that’s challenging.
Mark: So, is happiness the same as contentedness?
Neil: So, in the happiness equation, the way I define it, the subtitle of the book, by the way, is a “want nothing plus do anything equals have everything.” And so I define those things as “want nothing” is contentment. “Do anything,” is freedom. And then have everything is happiness. So it’s contentment. I define it as contentment plus freedom equals happiness. And then we can go into the detail of that, but, but wanting nothing… And there’s a lot of philosophy around this as well. That is a huge, you get that. A lot of people are like, they like right away, they’re like, “I disagree with your book. Cause like I want, I want lots of stuff and that’s good.” And I’m like, “oh, you’re American.” No, just kidding. I’m just kidding. I’m Canadian. So that’s a common Canadian joke.
Mark: No, that’s good. We tell Canadian jokes too, so…
Neil: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. You have a lot more because you have a lot more, you have a lot more people. But, but I sort of say, “okay, okay, I get you.” But actually yeah, if you can do what you just said, Mark, if you can actually earn your way forward towards this idea that you don’t really need anything, you know… It’s about minimalism. It’s about simplification. It’s about the paradox of choice and simplifying your decision making. It’s about having less decisions to make. It’s about lowering your access points. These days the average person has seven access points. You realize that? The people can Facebook message you and they can text you and they can… Mckinsey says 31% of your day is bookmarking, prioritizing and switching between tasks. So, a lot of what I’m preaching here on contentment is actually just like getting rid of things like social media and things that are like completely swallowing up our dopamine centers and just like pulling us away from happiness.
Mark: I’m a little bit stuck and I’m not disagreeing or arguing with you.
Neil: Please feel free to disagree, though. Tell me more.
Mark: Well, this idea of wanting. I do think that there’s relevance for wanting things, but the question is to want the right things and to differentiate wanting from desiring. So I have the sense that, you know, when it comes to like material things or gravitating or being drawn toward things that aren’t… that distract us. You know, like you just referenced social media. Social media is very distracting. It’s more tapping into our desires, which then you know, constantly feeding that desire is what causes the addictive tendencies toward constantly checking your, your social media and whatnot.
Whereas you can want to be whole as a human being, to be grounded and to be happy. And so therefore that want is coming from your higher self and it’s going to override the desire, which is kind of coming from your lower self. And so wanting the right things actually leads to discipline. And like my friend Jocko said, discipline then leads to freedom where you can do anything because you’re wanting the right things, which is overriding the desires, which has been moving toward the wrong things.
Neil: Yeah, I totally, I think that’s right. And I think the way I think about it is it’s very related. It’s about extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. Okay. So, we know from the research…
Mark: So, you’re thinking extrinsic for the want.
Neil: Exactly. Exactly. So you mentioned social media. It’s like I went on my blog, so I started 1000awesomethings.com 10 years ago, and I was really smart at the beginning. I was like, “no ads. I don’t want any… I want to just write cause I want to write.”
But of course, guess what happened? I became obsessed with like the hit counter. I’m like, “oh, there’s this number on the side. I got to ratchet that up. And then I was like, “oh, I need 50,000 hits.” And then I was like, “oh, I got that pretty easily. I need to like get a million.” And I was like, “oh, that doesn’t mean anything. I need a book deal. And I was like, “well, that doesn’t mean… I need to be a bestseller.” The book was a bestseller, I’m not kidding.
In the first week it was number two and I was like, oh, I looked at the side of the best seller list. I’m like, it says weeks on list, like how many weeks has it been a bestseller? On my week? My book has only been a bestseller for one week. Every other book was like two weeks, five weeks, 10 weeks. I’m like, “mine’s a one hit wonder.”
So, then my books on the bestseller list like a hundred weeks in a row. I’m not kidding. So I’m like, “oh my gosh…” And then I’m like… It never ended. And the point is, I’m like, “oh my gosh…” I got pulled away. I wanted all those things. I wanted it to be bigger. I want it to sell a million copies, I want it to get blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I want my TED talk to have lots of hits, blah, blah, blah, blah. But I totally, and this is getting back to you and Jocko’s point. I totally was pulling myself away from the root, intrinsic motivator to begin with, which is I want to write an awesome thing every day to cheer myself up. And…
Mark: You stick with that. The rest will follow. And if you do it with authenticity and integrity… Or enough will follow.
Neil: Exactly. And this is proven by research. This is a really famous study done. Theresa Emma Billet, at Brandeis University has done a lot of studies on this. One of the famous ones is she had two sets of girls – like young girls – teach even younger girls how to play the piano. So one of the sets of girls was given like, you know, “you get to spend half an hour teaching the young girls piano.” It was like 11 year olds teaching like six year olds, or something. “And at the end, you know, they’ll say thank you, you’ll make a meaningful difference in their life.”
And the other set of girls was told, “once you complete your half an hour of training as the teacher you get a free ticket to the movies.” Okay? And then she tested the groups before and after the teacher and the student and you won’t be surprised to hear Mark that the ones that were only intrinsically motivated, like they didn’t get any payment.
They got no nothing. they got, they were just told you got “thank you.” Guess what happened? They were more patient. They stayed longer. The people reported a greater sense of learning. And the ones that were given the movie ticket were like…. They were quick to leave as soon as the half an hour was over, they were shorter in their temper, they were like more frustrated easily, because they weren’t doing it for a reason that they could attach themselves to.
And this is actually proven by neuroscience as well. Truly what happens in our brains is when we’re given the shiny object of the number of Instagram likes we get on a photo or whatever that is, we cannot see our intrinsic motivator anymore. It actually in our brains from a neuroscience level… Because we are distracted by the shiny number and this is why, you know, the social media companies have figured out that the thing we’re actually addicted to on social media is the fact that we don’t know how many likes it will get.
We don’t know if it will be two likes or 150. That’s the thing that we’re addicted to. There’s a really famous test where they had like a rats press levers to get food pellets and if you don’t know how many food pellets are coming out, you can’t stop pressing the button. If you know that it’s always going to be one food pellet, you stop pressing it. But when it’s zero, zero, 50, 2 to 29, then you can’t stop pressing cause you don’t know how many treats you’re going to get.
Mark: That’s like gambling.
Neil: Exactly. That’s exactly what it is. That’s why cell phones… Essentially, if you look at a cell phone in front of your face, okay, your iPhone screen and you compare it to like walking into Caesar’s palace, they look the same. They’re all bright, shiny colors flying and that are totally addictive. The only thing is now the slot machine’s in your pocket,
Mark: Right. With icons popping up and sometimes it’s, you know, lots of shiny things and sometimes zero. Most of the time its zero.
Neil: It’s totally by design.
Mark: This has huge implications for designing work and life in the workplace. You know, in terms of incentive and compensation and setting up the workplace for Intrinsic Motivation and growth as opposed to competition and you know, earning incentives,
Incentivized with money and shiny things, you know. So anyways, I think that’s more of a statement and this is probably… it’s a fact. Let’s talk about happiness at work. You know, what do you think about that? what else can you do to improve intrinsic happiness?
Neil: To your point, there’s a really famous Harvard business review article written by Mintzberg. I think I’m getting the name right, called – and then maybe we can throw it in your, kind of like your post or whatever, right? It’s called like kind of like why do people work and, and it says that there’s a bunch of hygiene needs and money is one of them. So you hit a minimum base threshold and there’s a famous Woodrow Wilson Study that at, for instance, like if you make $70,000, you kind of hit it right? Maybe that’s 80 or 90,000 in today’s currency point is people don’t work for money. They don’t, they work to make a minimum amount that helps them meet their needs. But beyond that, they’re working because they need to love the high level purpose of their organization. They have to personally connect with what they’re doing.
It has to be something purposeful, right? So if you get off on organizing the world’s information, you might like working at Google. If you don’t really care about selling ads, to everyone who has eyeballs, you might not like working at Google, but what do you see the mission as? How do they articulate it, what do they talk about it inside and can you connect and identify with that? So I think your point is really valid. We need to motivate with intrinsic motivators, but it’s very hard to do in an organization when you’re paying people. So how do you, so that’s why you have to hit people’s minimum and then you have to talk about belief systems all the way.
Mark: Yeah, I agree. You talk – we got to wind down here. We’ve already been at this for 45 minutes and holy cow, I just noticed that.
Neil: That’s a good sign that you have no idea.
Mark: And it’s one o’clock your time, which means you got to go soon. So why don’t we…? Real quickly, can I ask you one more question?
Mark: Work. We spend so much time at work. How can an individual improve their happiness at work? Beyond aligning with purpose. I get that one. Yeah, we know that.
Neil: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Gallup reports and then the stat comes out every year, but it’s always dismal and depressing. It’s something like 11% of, of workers around the world are engaged in their jobs. It’s like something terrible.
Mark: That is terrible.
Neil: Yeah. And so here’s the thing. We know how to be happy. We do, we have the research. There’s, there’s been 300, there’ve been more than 300 studies done in positive psychology since Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi kind of invented that whole area of research in the late 1990s. So we know what those things are. We know what they are. They are things like taking a nature walk for 20 minutes in the day. They are things like reading fiction, reading fiction from real book. They are things like journaling for 20 minutes or even less, just journaling for five minutes about a couple of highlights from your day. They are doing something small that’s nice for somebody, like writing an email to an old boss or a coworker or grabbing a coffee for the person you work with.
Right? So we know what those things are, we know what they are, but they aren’t in the workforce design. And so if you’re a leader today or you’re listening and you’re thinking, “well, I’ve got a team of five people or 10 people,” are like, “what do I do?” Like it’s about bringing those things… That’s what my whole, that’s what the whole institute I’m trying to create is all about, so it’s globalhappiness.org. All I’m trying to do is give people tools that they can implement in the workforce. I’ve even gone so far to actually put out workshops. They’re totally free. Just click a button and you download it. It’s like got the PowerPoint slides, it’s got the like invitation in Microsoft Outlook, everything and all it does is like literally give people the slides I used from a stage and say here you can, you can just have them but all I beg of you is could you all just go for a walk at lunch together?
Could you please do that? Because if you do, your productivity afternoon goes way up. Or could you please start your day by just putting a calendar reminder at 9:00 AM to send a nice note, a three sentence email to one person about something that you want to thank them for? Like start your day with that three sentence email. If you do that, you will feel better all day. And there’s millions of these things but we don’t do them. They’re basic things.
The problem is at work optimists are closeted. The problem is that if you appear to be happy at work or if you appear to be like the kind of person that has time to go to the gym at lunch, then the perception in most unfortunate corporate cultures… It’s not in every corporate culture. There’s healthy cultures out there too… But the perception is, “oh that guy’s got a lot of time on his hands.” Well that person clearly either A doesn’t have enough work, or B isn’t working hard enough. And so we have stigmatized people who are actually valuing their happiness. I’ll tell you what though, is the lady who meditates at lunch, will be the best employee on your team.
Mark: Right. Right. Yes. So it’s incumbent upon leaders to set structure and culture where happiness is allowed. And encouraged.
Neil: And do it yourself so people can see it.
Mark: Lead by example.
Neil: Exactly. Exactly. Cause people always say, “what do I do? My boss doesn’t want to…won’t let me.” I’m like, well just go for the low hanging fruit. Take the person with the dusty running shoes out for lunch and then soon everyone will join. It’s harder people. Social signals are really effect their behavior. So if the boss has a team of five people, all going for a 20 minute walk at lunch, they will feel like a big like loser if they don’t join because now you’re like a Scrooge McDuck. You know, you’ve got to, you got to… Social signals affect behavior change more than information or knowledge does.
Mark: Right. Awesome. Well we got to wrap here. You’ve got a new book coming out that you’re only publishing it in Audible form. It’s interesting. I’d love to talk to you about that, but maybe some other time. it’s called “How to Get Back Up” right? Around about failure, resiliency. When does that come out?
Neil: It just came out. That’s an Audible original. And to answer your question, it is also coming out as a print book from a big publisher. It Just takes another year to like kill a bunch of trees and print on them, you know, so just it’s slower.
Mark: So, you can get the Audible out quicker.
Neil: The Audible is out now. It’s called “How to Get Back Up: a memoir of failure and resilience.” it’s a story with a whole bunch of models, like the big fish, small pond one that we talked about at the beginning, on like what do you do to get back to your baseline? Cause I hate self-help, because to me the self-help category is like how do you get better? How do you get more done? How do you get I get…? I like all… I understand that. I’m in that world too. But also it’s like the reason I will ever walk down that aisle is when I’m sucking, when I’m failing. Like when I need to get back to normal. And so this is what the book is, it’s about a whole bunch of stuff you can do when you are finding that you are not at your best when you’ve suffered a loss, a divorce, lost a friend, had to move, changed a job, lost a job, gone through a challenge, come through a struggle, got a terrible diagnosis or, you know, whatever it is. This book is designed to help you get back up.
Mark: Nice. And how do folks find you? You got your podcast still called three books. What about a blog? Do you have your blog or where would you like?
Neil: Well, neil.blog. And that’s got all my articles. I write articles on there. if I ever publish an article like on Harvard Business Review, I always just write it on my own blog too. So really neil.blog is kind of a center point for, for me and for everything I’m doing.
Mark: Awesome. Thank you so much for your time. I appreciate everything you do and look forward to meeting you in person someday. I’m going to go buy your audio book as soon as I hang up. I can’t wait to listen to it. And yeah, be happy my friend.
Neil: Thanks so much for having me.
Mark: Yeah, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much. Wow. All right folks. So that was really, really interesting. And extremely valuable. I encourage you to check Neil out at neil.blog. I didn’t even know you could get a dot-blog domain. I’m going to go look for divine.blog. That’s kind of cool.
Mark: Check out his new book, “How to Get Back Up” and you know “The Happiness Equation.” Good stuff. All right. As usual. You know what I’m going to say? Stay focused. Do the work every day and be unbeatable. And I can’t wait to talk to you next time.