[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success with your host, Matt Bodnar.
[00:00:12.4] MB: Welcome to The Science of Success. I’m your host, Matt Bodnar. I’m an entrepreneur and investor in Nashville, Tennessee and I’m obsessed with the mindset of success and the psychology of performance. I’ve read hundreds of books, conducted countless hours of research and study, and I am going to take you on a journey into the human mind and what makes peak performance tick, with the focus on always having our discussion rooted in psychological research and scientific fact, not opinion.
In this episode, we discuss the paradox of happiness, why pursuing it makes you less happy and what you can do about it. We dig into the research about what really makes people happy. We breakdown happiness into its essential components and discuss how to cultivate it. We look at the interaction between stress and recovery and why most people think about it the wrong way. We also look at why active acceptance and surrender is critical to processing and dealing with the negative emotions, as well as much more with Tal Ben Shahar.
The science of success continues to grow with more with more than 775,000 downloads. Listeners in over 200 countries, hitting number one in New and Noteworthy, and more. I get listener comments and emails all the time asking me, “Matt, how do you organize and remember all this incredible information?” A lot of our listeners are curious how I keep track of all the incredible knowledge you get from reading hundreds of books, interviewing amazing experts, listening to awesome podcast, and more.
Because of that, we created an epic resource just for you. A detailed guide called How to Organize and Remember Everything. You can get it completely for free by texting the world “smarter” to the number 44222. Again, It’s a guide we created called How to Organize and Remember Everything. All you have to do to get it is to text the word “smarter” to the number 44222, or go to scienceofsuccess.co and put in your email.
I’ve also gotten a bunch of listener emails recently asking me, “Hey, can you provide a link to the books that you guys talked about. Can you give me a transcript of the episode?” All this stuff. I wanted to let everyone know, if you haven’t checked them out, be sure to check out our show notes. It’s got everything we talked about in every episode including this episode and all of our previous episodes. You can get all of our show notes at scienceofsuccess.co. Just click the show notes button at the top.
In our previous episode, we went deep in the concept of free will. We looked at the question of whether or not freewill exists, we examined how quantum physics impacts the existence of freewill, we also looked at the neuroscience behind the concept of freewill, and looked at whether conscious decision making exists at all or whether our decisions arise completely within the subconscious, with Dr. Alfred Mele. If you want to deeply understand freewill, listen to that episode.
[0:03:01.1] MB: Today, we have another amazing guest on the show, Tal Ben Shahar. Tal created the most popular course in Harvard University’s history. He’s the bestselling author of several books including, The Pursuit of Perfect, Happier, Choose the Life You Want, Even Happier. He’s also the cofounder and chief learning officer of the Whole Being Institute, Potential Life, Maytiv and Happier TV.
Tal, welcome to The Science of Success.
[0:03:26.1] TBS: Thank you, Matt. Great to be here.
[0:03:28.8] MB: Well we’re very excited to have you on here. For listeners who may not be familiar with you, tell us a little bit about your background and your story.
[0:03:36.6] TBS: I actually started off my college career as a computer science major. I was at Harvard at the time and I found myself in my second year doing very well academically, doing well in sports, athletics, I played Squash, doing well socially and yet being very unhappy. It didn’t make sense to me because looking at my life from the outside, things looked great but from the inside, it didn’t feel that way.
I remember waking up one very cold Boston morning, going to my academic adviser and telling her that I’m switching course and she said, “What to?” I said, “Well, I’m leaving computer science and moving over to philosophy and psychology,” and she said, “Why?” I said, “Because I have two questions. First question is, why aren’t I happy? Second question is, how can I become happier?” It’s with these two questions that I then went on to get my undergraduate as well as graduate degrees, all the time focusing how can I help myself, individuals, couples, organizations, lead happier lives.
[0:04:40.5] MB: One of the concepts that you’ve shared in the past is, and you’ve described a couple of different ways, but one of them is kind of this idea of hamburger model and the four different archetypes. I’d love for you to sort of describe that and share that with our listeners.
[0:04:52.6] TBS: Sure. One of the first things that I realized when I started to study philosophy and psychology was that I was actually living life in a very far from an optimal way. I was living a life that was actually making me unhappy. I remember one day going to the hamburger joint and looking at my burger and realizing that there’s a great deal we can learn from hamburgers.
For example, there is the very tasty and unhealthy burger, which many of us love to eat and then feel guilty about, there is the vegetarian burger that perhaps is very healthy but that is not very tasty. Then there is the burger that is neither tasty nor healthy. And then we have the ideal burger; that is the burger that is both healthy and tasty. I thought about these four kinds of burgers as being parallel to four ways, four different ways of living our lives.
The unhealthy and the tasty burger would be that of the hedonist, a person who thinks about their immediate pleasure but don’t think of their long term wellbeing. That’s not happiness; that’s perhaps short term wellbeing but it’s not happiness. Then there is the burger that like the vegetarian burger, which is you know, healthy but not tasty. That’s about thinking of the future but not enjoying the present, not enjoying the moment.
Then there is the third burger, which is neither tasty nor healthy and that, you know, we’re all sometimes in a rut, having bad experiences, not really feeling like we’re going anywhere. That’s the worst of all burgers and finally there is what I’ve come to call “the happiness burger”, the healthy and tasty. That’s when we’re having experiences that are both pleasurable, enjoyable, and are also good for us for the long term.
In many ways, we can look at all happy experiences through this lens. For example, if I’m working at a place where I’m enjoying my work, or I experience pleasure and it’s meaningful to me, it’s important, I can see a long term trajectory in a happy workplace. Or if I’m in a relationship or I’m enjoying the time I spend with my partner and we’re building a life together. There’s also future benefit. The relationship is a healthy relationship. Well, that’s the happy relationship.
Almost every experience we can situation in one of the four hamburger types. Again, the unhealthy and tasty, the healthy and not tasty, the not healthy and not tasty and finally the happiness burger, which is both healthy and tasty. What we want to do is as much as possible, live our lives in that fourth archetype. It’s not possible to be there all the time, but it’s certainly possible to be there more of the time. The more time we spend there, the happier we are.
[0:08:00.0] MB: I’d love to dig into how do we spend more time in that kind of fourth archetype, the happiness archetype? Maybe before we dip into that, how do you define happiness?
[0:08:11.7] TBS: Based on that model, I define happiness as a combination between meaning and pleasure, or between future benefits and present benefit. You see, there are many people who define happiness as just an ongoing experience of pleasure but don’t really think about the meaning part, about the future part.
Then there are other people who say, “Well no, this is all about hedonism and what happiness really is, is about having a sense of meaning and purpose, a long term benefit.” Well, neither definitions are sufficient. As I see it, and again, there is a lot of empirical data backing this up. What happiness is about, the good life is about the ability to bring the two together. To bring the present benefit, the pleasure component and the future benefits, the meaning component.
[0:09:02.6] MB: How do we spend more time in that happiness quadrant?
[0:09:07.2] TBS: The first thing is awareness. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. If I’m able to identify times in my life when I was leading a happy life, when I was having happy experiences, in other words, when I was doing things that were both meaningful and pleasurable. Then I can simply ask myself, “Okay, so how can I have more of it? What did my partner and I do when we experienced the happy periods in our lives? What did I do at work or what work was I engaged in that brought a sense of meaning and pleasure to my life?” Then, the question is, “How can I have more of it?”
So first of all, it’s awareness and then the willingness and the desire to replicate the good experiences. That’s one way of bringing more happiness to my life. There are other ways; so we know for example, what are the kind of things that bring us more meaning and pleasure in life? One of those things, for instance, relationships, the number one predictor of happiness is quality time we spend with people we care about and who care about us. Of course, not all relationships contribute to happiness, they’re also toxic relationships.
But if you look at the happiest people in the world, the thing that defines their lives are relationships and what kind of relationships? That varies you know? For some people, it’s deep intimate friendships, for other people it’s the romantic relationships, for others, it’s family, for some, it’s all of the above. Whatever the kind of relationship is, this is the defining characteristic of the happiest people we know of.
[0:10:53.9] MB: That’s a finding that’s found again and again in the research right? That’s not just kind of an opinion, that’s something that’s very validated from the science itself?
[0:11:03.4] TBS: Absolutely. Let me give you just a couple of examples. The first interesting line of research looks at the happiness levels of nations. The question was, what are the happiest countries in the world? There are various organizations from the UN to gallop that asks this question. The countries that consistently appear in the top 10 of the list are countries like Denmark and Australia and Columbia and Israel. Holland, Costa Rica.
You know, when you look at this countries, some of them you would expect to be there. Yeah, Australia of course, the kind of life that we believe that most Australians lead is a happy life. A lot of sports and activity and they seem like a happy bunch. Denmark, yes, understandable. But Israel and Columbia? These two countries consistently appear at the top of the happiest nations in the world list and if you wouldn’t expect that, both Columbia and Israel have their fair share of challenges.
The question is, “Why these countries and not others? Why this countries and not countries like the US or Germany or the UK or Singapore or Korea or Japan? Why?” The first thing that we know is that well, money has very little to do with it. Yes, if countries are poor, they’re unlikely to be happy countries. The population there is likely to be unhappy where there is poverty. But beyond the basic levels, beyond the basic levels of income, when there is enough food and basic shelter, additional money turns out not to make a difference to happiness levels, which explains why the wealthiest countries in the world are not the happiest countries in the world.
What does make a difference? Relationships. In all the countries that I mentioned before, whether it’s Denmark or Israel or Australia or Columbia, there is a real emphasis on cultivating an intimate, healthy social network. Now, what does that look like? Well, in countries like Columbia, for example, family is high on the value list. In Israel, same thing, friendships as well. In countries like Denmark. Social relationships are emphasized. You know that in Denmark for example, 93% of the population — that’s almost everyone — 93% of the population are members of social clubs.
Whether it’s their active members of social clubs, it could be their church or their sports club or whatever it is. Relationships are a priority. This is one line of research that points the importance of relationships. Another one is the by now, very well-known Harvard study, which looked at Harvard graduates, over a period of… well, for the past more than 70 years. Most of them are no longer alive, and also looked at an equal number of men from poor neighborhoods and what they looked for was who were the people who were the happiest among them? The single factor that came out, close supportive social relationships. The number one predictor of happiness.
[0:14:37.8] MB: That’s amazing. It’s fascinating that whether you’re looking at kind of individual experiences or nations as a whole, you see the same kind of conclusion born out in the data.
[0:14:49.9] TBS: Yes, this is one of the most robust findings in the field and by the way, it’s not just happiness, it’s also very much associated with health. People’s immune systems are actually a lot stronger when they enjoy healthy social support.
[0:15:08.1] MB: I think there’s a book called Blue Zones that came out a couple of years ago that delved into this kind of areas around the globe where people lived the longest and one of the major factors there, as well, was supportive social networks.
[0:15:20.7] TBS: Yes, very often we see high correlation between happiness levels and health. For example, we know that people who are optimistic on average live eight to nine years longer than people who are pessimistic. Of course, optimism is closely associated with happiness and what we see in the blue zones are relatively happy people and very healthy people and why are they happier? Well, there’s some interesting findings. One of them absolutely strong, social support, whether it’s friendships or families, sometimes both.
The other things that we see in the blue zones that are also associated with happiness is they’re physically active. They don’t have gyms in those places and again, these places are places such as Sardinia and Italy, or Loma Linda just outside of Los Angeles. Or a place in Costa Rica, or Okinawa in Japan, or a Greek island. What’s unique about these places is that they’re physically active, they don’t have gyms necessarily, but they walk a lot or they work the fields. This is another thing that’s associated with both health and happiness.
There’s some fascinating research here beyond the blue zones about physical exercise. For example, regular physical extra size for as little as 30 minutes three times a week. That’s not that much. 30 minutes, three times a week and in terms of its impact in our psychological wellbeing, it’s equal to our most powerful psychiatric medication in dealing with anxiety, or depression, it also helps a great deal with attention deficit disorder.
Not to mention the great benefits for physical health for against the chronic disease and so on. Now, the reason why physical exercise works so well is because what it does, it releases certain chemicals such and norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. These are your feel good chemicals in the brain and it functions in exactly the same way as our antidepressants do. I should add, without side effects or without negative side effects.
This doesn’t mean that we can get rid of all the psychiatric medication or encourage those who are on them to stop and, not at all. Many people who takes psychiatric medication, really need it and very often they need it just in order to get out of the house and begin to exercise. The important thing to realize here is that physical exercise is very important, not just for our physical wellbeing, also for our psychological wellbeing.
[0:18:06.1] MB: I think exercise is so critical and, you know, I’m a huge fan of doing cardio multiple times a week and not at all for the health benefits, purely for the psychological reasons and I kind of view the health benefits as almost a positive side effect of what I consider sort of primarily a psychological intervention.
[0:18:28.1] TBS: Yes exactly. I often say to my students that even though I know a lot about positive psychology and I know the techniques and the tools and obviously I apply them to my life as well. If physical exercise was taken away from me, I don’t think I would be able to lead a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life. I think that is a central component, certainly for me, of happiness.
[0:18:56.8] MB: What causes people to fall out of the happiness quadrant?
[0:19:01.9] TBS: There are a few things; one of the things actually that paradoxically takes people out of happiness is their direct pursuit of happiness. Interestingly, there is research showing that people whose primary goal is to be happy, they end up being less happy. They end up being frustrated and they experience more painful emotions. The problem there is that you know, in the one hand, if you directly pursue happiness, you become less happy but on the other hand, we know how important happiness is. The benefits to happiness are not simply in that it feels good to feel good.
People who increase their levels of happiness are as I mentioned earlier are healthier, they’re also more creative, my likely to think outside the box, they are better partners, better team players in the workplace, they have more energy, they get more done, they’re more productive. There are numerous benefits to happiness beyond the fact that we all want to feel good. We have a problem that on the one hand we know happiness is good but on the other hand, we know if we pursue happiness, it actually makes us less happy.
So what do we do about that? The way to resolve the seeming contradiction or this impasse is to pursue happiness indirectly. What does this mean? It means that we look at the ingredients of happiness, the components that lead to happiness, for example, if I know that relationships lead you happiness, well, then one of the objectives that I can set for myself is to cultivate healthy relationships.
To spend an extra hour a week with my BFF. To think more about, “How I can improve my relationship with my partner?” Or whatever it is. To pursue relationships. If I pursue relationships, that will indirectly lead to more happiness or to think about, how can I exercise more or better? What kind of exercise contribute to my wellbeing? For some people, dance is the best form of exercise, for other people, it’s the meditative nature of swimming. Find and persist. We know that another thing that contributes to happiness is a sense of meaning and purpose. How can I find or how can I engage in things that for me provide a sense of meaning and purpose. I’m not pursuing happiness directly.
What I’m doing is I’m engaging in those activities or implementing those ideas that I know will contribute to happiness. Because just saying, I want to be happier and I’m going to pursue happiness. That’s too abstract and it actually just leads to frustration rather than happiness. That’s why it’s important to study the field in order to breakdown happiness into its essential components.
One way to understand it is to look at happiness as the sunlight. To look at the sunlight is difficult, it’s even unhealthy, not possible for a long time. However, if I break down the sunlight then I get the spectrum of colors. that I can look at. That I can savor and enjoy and benefit from. It’s breaking down that sunlight into its components to breaking down happiness into its components and pursuing those.
[0:22:44.9] MB: I’ve heard you talk about before that upon hearing that you lecture and have written extensively about happiness. People often ask you, “Are you happy all the time?” I’d love to hear kind of your answer to that and how you think about that.
[0:23:00.8] TBS: Sure. Another barrier to happiness is the expectation that we will be, or even can be happy all the time. So I remember when I was teaching my first class in positive psychology, was having lunch in one of the undergraduate dorms at Harvard when a student came over and asked me if he can join me for lunch and I said, “Sure,” and he said to me, “You know Tal, my roommates are taking your class,” and I said, “Great.” Then he said to me, “You know Tal? Now that you’re teaching a class on happiness, you’ve got to be careful.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Tal, you’ve got to watch out.” He said, “Why?” He said, “Because Tal, if I see you unhappy, I’ll tell my roommates.”
Now, suggesting that of course I ought to be happy all the time, given that I’m teaching a class on happiness. I told my students the next day in class, “The last thing in the world I want you to believe is that I experience constant happiness or that you, by the end of the year will always be happy. Because there are only two kinds of people who do not experience painful emotions like sadness or anxiety or anger or envy or disappointment, two kinds of people who do not experience painful emotions. The first kind are the psychopaths. The second kind are dead people.
You know, I told my class and I told this to myself as well. The fact that we experience painful emotions, it’s actually a good sign, it means that we’re not psychopaths and we’re alive. It’s a good place to start; we can really build on that and in fact, when we do not allow ourselves to experience the full gamut of human emotions including anger and sadness and envy and anxiety. If we don’t allow ourselves to experience these emotions, these emotions actually strengthen, they fortify and they become more dominant.
It’s when I give myself what I’ve come to call the permission to be human when I allow myself to experience the full range of human emotions. That’s when I open myself up. A, to these emotions, leaving my system and B, opening myself up to also more pleasurable emotions such as joy, happiness, love and so on.
Paradoxically, it’s when I do not give myself the permission to experience anxiety and anger and sadness, that’s when I experience more anxiety, anger and sadness. When I give myself the permission to experience these emotions, that’s when I more likely to experience happiness.
[0:25:44.7] MB: I’d love to dig in to that a little bit more and the kind of “what happens when someone tries to suppress their negative emotions?”.
[0:25:53.5] TBS: Let’s do a quick experiment. If you’re listening to this interview, do this experiment. For the next 10 seconds, do not think of a pink elephant. Five more seconds not to think of a pink elephant. Now, I bet you, almost everyone listening thought of the pink elephant. Why? Because when we try to suppress a natural phenomenon such as visualizing the word that we’re hearing, that phenomenon only intensifies. Just like we can’t suppress the seeing or thinking of a pink elephant. We cannot suppress the experience of painful emotions. When I tell myself, “Do not experience anxiety, do not experience anger, then anger and anxiety will only intensify, will grow.
In contrast, when I simply give myself the permission to experience these emotions. Okay, I’m anxious, okay, I’m angry. Wow, I’m not a psychopath and I’m human. These emotions actually lose their hold on me and they flow right through me and when they flow right through me, when this set of emotion flows right through me, it means that other emotions such as joy and pleasure can also flow freely through me.
[0:27:18.1] MB: And correct me if I’m wrong, but is this kind of the same concept that you talk about of active acceptance?
[0:27:24.5] TBS: Yes. So when I talk about “acceptance and permission to be human” I don’t mean passively accepting these emotions. In other words, I don’t mean “Okay well I’m just angry, or anxious, or sad, so I’m going to do nothing just vegetate in front of the TV.” No, what I’m talking about is accepting these emotions, experiencing them and then asking myself, “Okay what can I do now in order to feel better?” But only after I’ve accepted and experience these emotions.
Now how long do I accept and experience them for? Well that depends. If, for example, I’ve just lost someone who’s dear to me, well then I need a fair amount of time to just be sad, to just cry, to just talk about the painful emotions. If I just got a poor grade on an exam, well I need some time but less time than I would if I’ve lost someone dear to me. So it’s contextual.
But some time is always necessary to experience the emotion and then to ask, “What can I do now? And “what can I do now?” could be, “Well maybe I should go for a run” or go out and dance with my friends or watch TV but that is the second step after the first step, which is full acceptance, full surrender to the emotions, whatever they are.
[0:28:45.7] MB: I like the inclusion of surrender in there as well and I think this is something that I’ve personally — a lesson that I’ve personally learned really deeply over the last year or two is when you accept these emotions instead of fighting them and trying to bury them or hide them, it’s really powerful how much better you feel and how much more effectively you can deal with them.
[0:29:09.0] TBS: Yes. So the idea of surrender, when people especially in the west, when we talk about the word surrender or surrendering to emotions we immediately see it as associated with giving up of course and that is by necessity something which is bad, which is necessary. You know we’re all about “never giving up” and “giving the good fight” and “stand up straight” and that’s not always the right approach. Yeah, maybe it’s the right approach when we were playing a sport or when we have a real challenge at work, but it’s not the right approach when we are facing emotional difficulties.
When we’re facing emotional difficulties sometimes the opposite is what we need to do. It’s not to try harder, it’s actually to let go. It’s not to stand up straight, it could be just to lie down. It’s not to fight, it’s rather to surrender and these sound better or more helpful responses to difficult emotional experiences.
[0:30:17.2] MB: I’d love to segue into talking about perfectionism, and I know that’s something that you’ve written a lot about. It’s very related to these topics. Tell me a little bit about your take on perfectionism.
[0:30:30.5] TBS: Right, so perfectionism essentially is unhealthy fear of failure and unhealthy extreme sometimes obsessive fear of failure that permeates those areas in our lives that are most important to us. So, if I can give a personal example, when I was a professional Squash player losing a game was an absolute disaster or even having a practice session which was not perfect, that was an absolute disaster. Or later on, it was when I was a student, perfectionism permeated my academic experience, at least for the first two years.
When I started to study psychology, very quickly I realized first of all that I was a perfectionist and secondly, the consequences of perfectionism. We were all unhappy when we failed. It doesn’t feel good to fail, but there are very different kinds of responses. One response, the perfectionist response, “This is awful, this is terrible. Now I’m never going to succeed again. I’m a complete failure.”
The healthier approach is, “Okay, I failed. It’s not pleasant, not fun, but what can I learn from it? How can I move forward? How can I go ahead?” What’s the upside of failure? If you listen to many of the most successful people in the world, they would tell you that the most helpful experiences that they had over the years were experiences of failure, when they learned from it and grew as a result and that’s the much healthier approach to failure.
Now when I talk about failure I mean it in the broad sense. Also while we can look at a painful emotion as a form of failure because the perfectionist, one form of perfectionist, is the person who wants to have a perfect, unbroken chain of pleasurable, positive emotions. Now that of course is not possible, and then when the perfectionist experiences a painful emotion, that immediately is a disaster and he enters or she enters a downward spiral of self-criticism, very often self-hate, and of course unhappiness as a result.
[0:32:45.9] MB: So for somebody that is caught in one of those cycles or has very unrealistic expectations about their happiness and their well-being, how do they deal with that or how do they break out of that cycle?
[0:33:01.8] TBS: Yeah, so there are a few ways. The first is really understanding what perfectionism is and distinguishing between healthy perfectionism and unhealthy perfectionism. So often when people are asked interviews, “So, tell me your shortcomings?” And very often what people say, “Oh I’m a perfectionist,” and of course, they talk about it as a shortcoming. But actually what they mean is, “Well you can trust me. I get things done really well. I make sure. I’m a responsible person. I make sure things are bent perfectly.”
So they’re saying it as a short coming, as a problem but actually they mean it as something that they’re somewhat proud of and being responsible and being hardworking and being persistent and reliable, these are positive traits by and large. So there is this part of perfectionism, which is not bad, which is actually good but there’s another part of perfectionism, which is harmful. Which is harmful to first of all happiness but second also to creativity, to relationships.
Because if I’m a perfectionist I cannot hear criticism and if you cannot hear criticism and you’re not open to other people, I mean intimate relationships are almost impossible and there is very little learning when there is perfectionism because there is a reluctance to admit imperfections, to admit that, “I don’t know.” So there are two kinds of perfectionism, what psychologist call the “adaptive” and the “maladaptive” perfectionism. So first thing is to be able to understand, what kind of perfectionism do I want to get rid of or do I want to make less dominant in my life?
Second, the ways you make it less dominant, less pervasive is paradoxically by failing more. You see, one of the reasons why perfectionist are so afraid of failure is because they have elevated failure to a larger than life status and they don’t fail much and then in their minds failure becomes this potential catastrophe. Whereas if we fail a lot by putting ourselves in the line time and time again, after a while we see, “You know, the world didn’t come to an end after this failure and neither after this failure.”
And in a sense, we get used to failing. We begin to get used to being imperfect and overtime, we become more comfortable failing. So that’s one way. Another way which indirectly helps a great deal is actually meditation. Because what is meditation? Meditation is learning to be present, learning to be here and now and when I’m present to an experience, to any experience, whether it’s the experience of sadness or the experience of failure, it becomes less difficult to tolerate. I learn to live with it and then I realize, “Hey that is actually not that bad not only is it not that bad, I actually learned a lot by being present to this experience, so there’s no need to fear it happening again,” and I become less of a perfectionist then.
[0:36:09.6] MB: I’d love to explore the interplay between stress and recovery and I’d love to get your thoughts on that.
[0:36:17.5] TBS: Sure, so one of the things that over the last few years have become very clear through the research is that for years and decades, psychologists, professionals as well as lay people have looked at stress in the wrong way. If you ask most people, conventional wisdom today would tell you that “stress is bad”, that what we need to do is eliminate stress, get rid of it or at the very least minimize it in our lives because it’s associated with chronic disease, with happiness, with depression and anxiety, you name it; stress is the culprit.
Well, it actually turns out that not only is stress not the culprit, that actually stress potentially is good for us. How come? Look at this analogy: You go to the gym and you lift weights, what are you doing with your muscles? You’re stressing your muscles, now is that a bad thing? Of course not. You lift weights and you become stronger. You stress your muscles two days later and you become even stronger and on and on and you become fitter, stronger, healthier, happier. Stress is not a bad thing actually. It’s potentially a good thing.
When do the problems begin at the gym? The problems in the gym begin when you lift weights and a minute later, you lift more weights and then you increase the weightage and the following day you go in and again, you push yourself again and again and again. That’s when the problems begin. That’s when you get injured. That’s when you get weaker rather than stronger. The problem therefore, when it comes to stress, is that we don’t have enough recovery. In the gym when you have enough recovery, you get stronger through the stress.
The same happens on the psychological level not just on the physiological level. On the psychological level, we can deal with stress. We’re good at it. We were created whether it’s by God or evolution, we were created to be able to deal with stress. The problem is that we don’t have enough recovery today. You know the difference between 5,000 years ago or even 50 years ago and today is that in the past there was much more time, many more opportunities for recovery. Today there isn’t because we’re on most of the time.
You know, there’s a wonderful book by a Harvard professor, Leslie Perlow called Sleeping With Your Smartphone. It has become our most intimate companion and we’re on it constantly, we’re available constantly. Instead of switching off, instead of taking time for recovery. Whether it’s a meal with our friends or family or whether it’s going to the gym or whether it’s just going for a walk in the streets, or even better, the woods, these forms of recovery are so very important for us to reset the system in a sense and just like we need recovery in the gym, we need recovery in life. And the stress today, the problem with stress today is that people don’t have enough time to recover. If they do have time to recover, that stress can only make us strong, happier, and healthier.
[0:39:26.7] MB: How do we build or find more time for recovery?
[0:39:30.7] TBS: Unfortunately we can’t find more time. We have finite amounts of time but what we can do is put time aside for what we think is really important and recovery is really important and it’s not giving up time. Recovery is a form of investment. So when I invest, if I invest money, yes I’m in the sense giving up money but I’m giving up money for the sake of future gain so that I have more of it in the future and in the same way with the recovery. Yes, I’m putting some time aside for recovery when I am not working, for instance. But I am actually getting much more in return because in the time after I recover, I will be a lot more productive, a lot more creative and of course happier.
So recovery is a good investment and recovery, again, is something, whether it’s 15 minutes of meditation or an hour in the gym or just hanging out for a couple of hours with friends and recovery is also a good night sleep. A lot of research on the importance of sleep for well-being and for cognitive functioning, it could be a day or two off over the weekend and recovery can be the vacation, the week or four week holiday once or twice a year. So all these forms of recovery are great forms of investment. I get much more in return.
[0:40:56.3] MB: I’d love to talk about — we’ve examined a couple of the different mind-body interventions that deal with anxiety and stress. We’ve talk about exercise and how important that is, we’ve touched briefly on meditation. One of the other things you’ve talked about is the power of breathing and I’d love to hear some of your insights.
[0:41:15.5] TBS: Sure. So there is, again, a lot of work, a lot of research on breathing and the nice thing about it is that it’s always there for us literally from the moment we were born until the moment we die and we need to make better use of this thing that’s right under our very noses and what does it mean to make use of breathing? Because we breathe naturally and again, we always do it. But there are helpful and unhelpful forms of breathing.
So for instance, when stress levels rise and when we don’t have enough recovery, our breathing actually becomes shorter and shallower. We don’t take a deep breathe in. Now it’s very easy to simply decide, to set our alarm clock or smartphone to remind us, say every two hours to take three or four or five deep breaths, which you spend 10 minutes first thing in the morning just breathing in deeply and focusing on the breathe going in and out and we’re benefiting then from both breathing and it’s a form of meditation as well.
Now what is proper breathing? It’s really like what a baby would breathe. When you watch a baby breathing, you see their belly go up and down. This is called belly breath, and engaging in belly breathing, again, three to four deep breathes every hour or two and then maybe a couple of minutes in the morning and a couple of minutes more in the evening, that can go a long way as a form of recovery, as a form of taking in sufficient oxygen as a form of changing our experience from the fight or flight response.
A stressful response to what Herbert Benson from Harvard Medical School calls “The Relaxation Response” and again, it doesn’t take much. It’s a very simple intervention that’s with us all the time. I, as a ritual, engaging in deep breathing a few times a day and that has done wonders to my overall experience of wellbeing.
[0:43:28.8] MB: I’d love to touch on rituals, you just mentioned that. What are some of the rituals that you found daily that have really helped you cultivate wellbeing and happiness?
[0:43:40.1] TBS: Yes, first of all maybe I can just say a couple of words about the importance of rituals. Because many people think that if they understand something, so for example, I understand the importance of exercise or I understand the importance of breathing or the importance of relationships, well then that’s enough to bring about change. I’ve had the “aha moment” I was convinced by a study and a research and now I’m ready to live happily ever after.
Well unfortunately that’s not the case. Knowing what’s good for us doesn’t mean that we’re doing what’s good for us and doing is necessary for bring about the real change. Rather than relying on knowing or understanding, what we must rely on to bring about lasting change are rituals, are habits. You know, John Dryden, the British philosopher/poet once wrote: “We first make our habits and then our habits make us,” and it’s important to make habits to create rituals that will contribute to our wellbeing.
So let me share you some of the rituals, some of the daily or weekly rituals that I have. One of them is physical exercise, three times a week on particular days, particular times I exercise. For me it’s usually a stationary bike or swimming. Three days a week I do yoga. Every morning when I get up, I spend between 10 and 12 minutes deep breathing while reminding myself of the things that I want to be reminded.
For example, I remind myself — and this is all written down. I remind myself to be present. I remind myself to bring more playfulness to my work, to my family. I remind myself to contribute, to help others and cultivate healthy relationship. I remind myself to be patient and finally, I remind myself to give myself the permission to be human, to be humble about myself, my life, my expectations.
Now these things, I remind myself of everyday. They are already second nature, I’ve formed neural pathways in my brain around these ideas that I believe are so important for a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life. It’s only by engaging a ritual around them that they can become second nature, they can be assimilated, internalized and finally another ritual that I have before going to bed is expressing gratitude for at least five things in my life.
[0:46:25.7] MB: That’s such a great exposition about rituals and I love that quote, “We first make our habits and then our habits make us.” That’s really powerful. I’d love to dig in to the concept, and this goes back a little bit to kind of when we were talking about perfectionism and the permission to be human. I’d love to talk about self-forgiveness. Can you share some of your thoughts about that?
[0:46:49.9] TBS: Sure. The Dali Lama, when he came to the west for the first time, interviewed many western scientists, psychologist, practitioners, theoreticians. One of the most surprising things that he found was that compassion, the word for compassion in the west stands for compassion towards other people. He said, in Tibetan, the word for compassionate is Sewe. Sewe is equally about compassion toward others and towards one’s self. We’re very hard with ourselves, that has to do a lot with perfectionism or is a cause of perfectionism.
We’re not forgiving, we don’t give ourselves the permission to experience painful emotions or to fail, to be human. Unfortunately, that’s a cause of a great deal of unhappiness. There’s no one who is perfect and no one ever was or ever will be. The sooner we accept that, the better, the more forgiving we are of our imperfections or of our failures, the happier, and paradoxically, the more successful we’ll be in the long term.
[0:48:02.2] MB: For somebody who has been listening and wants to have kind of a concrete starting place to implement some of the ideas that we’ve talked about today, what’s sort of one simple piece of homework that you would give to one of our listeners?
[0:48:16.4] TBS: What I would do first, we are potentially the best teachers that we have. What I would do is, I would sit down and I would write, I would write about my best experiences from the past, “When was I at my happiest?” From those stories that I write down, I would extract what I consider the essentials. Keep in mind all the things that you heard about permission to be human and about relationships and about exercise and about expressing gratitude and try and extract the essentials.
In other words, do research on yourself, or rather what I distinguish between research and search. Research is very often about other people. Search is within one’s self.
[0:49:08.3] MB: For people who want to learn more about you, where can people find you and your books online?
[0:49:13.0] TBS: Well, my books are on Amazon or you can go onto my website, www.talbenshahar.com.
[0:49:22.4] MB: Well Tal, thank you so much, this has been a fascinating conversation and I know I’ve taken away a ton of insights and I think the listeners are really going to enjoy this. We just wanted to say, thank you so much for being on the show.
[0:49:37.0] TBS: Thank you Matt for the opportunity.
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