With Neil Pasricha, Author of The Book of Awesome and The Happiness Equation, podcast host
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Steve sat down to speak with writer and podcast host, Neil Pasricha. Neil, who authored The Happiness Equation, The Book of Awesome, and How to Get Back Up, also created and hosts the blog 1000awesomethings.com He talked with Steve about his own personal journey toward happiness, which he is working to redefine.
The Beginning And The Shift
Neil began by talking about his life and what eventually became the catalyst for redefining the meaning of happiness.
His marriage was heading south and, at the same time, one of his closest friends was battling severe mental health issues. He told himself that redirecting his thoughts to something positive was what could get him through, so he focused on small, positive thoughts and wrote them down. After practicing this for 1,000 nights, he began posting the list on his blog, 1000awesomethings.com.
The next year, his wife asked for a divorce, he had to sell his home, and his friend with mental illness committed suicide. In the wake of so many losses, Neil directed his energies toward his new blog which soon became his salvation.
The shift in his life occurred when 50 million readers became subscribers and 1000awesomethings.com went on to win the award for best blog in the world by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. After that, publishers began fighting for Neil, the blog, and what would eventually become The Book of Awesome.
A Change In Fortune
While researching and writing his book, Neil gathered information about happiness, how we view it, and why it can be so elusive. A Stanford research group shows that 50% of our happiness is genetic, which is our baseline for happiness. About 10% of happiness comes from our circumstances such as what’s happening in the news and what’s happening in our lives; the other 40% is based on the things we do intentionally, for example, the choices we make, the hobbies we take up, the work we do.
Neil focused his interest primarily on the 40% of our happiness that comes from those things we actually have control of. From this, he realized that his blog was a journaling practice of listing small things that he chose to do that could bring him happiness.
It was during this time that his circumstances changed in a positive way. He met Leslie, fell in love, and got married. On the flight home from their honeymoon, she discovered she was pregnant.
Neil took note that this new chain of events occurred after he’d begun to focus on what truly made him happy. In celebration, he decided he needed to write a love letter to his unborn child, which eventually become his second book, The Happiness Equation. The book was literally a 300-page instructional manual to his child about the ways in which he’d been pursuing happiness.
Redefining Happiness And How To Pursue It
The definition of happiness and how to pursue it had to be basically flipped on its head. Parents tend to teach their children that the happiness equation goes something like this: excel in school, work hard, become successful, achieve happiness.
The reality is that this equation is backward. The science indicates—as Neil found for himself—that pursuing things that make us happy leads us to do better in school, work harder, and, ultimately, to be happier. Our creativity and productivity thrive when we are happy and fulfilled.
But what does being happy really mean? Science calls it a state of subjective well being. Neil redefines happiness as the joy we feel while we work toward our full potential, which is actually an ancient Greek definition of happiness.
The 20 For 20 Challenge
Neil offers a challenge within his writings and his speeches. He states that it takes about three weeks to create a habit. The “20-for-20 Challenge” is designed to capitalize on this. The goal is to spend 20 minutes a day for 20 consecutive days doing something that makes you happy. This makes the practice of pursuing happiness much stronger by developing a good habit.
What you do for 20 minutes depends entirely on you. Do you enjoy nature? Walk through the woods for 20 minutes. Or, you could simply spend 20 minutes thinking about and journaling about things that make you smile or what you’d like to achieve in the future.
What you’re actually doing, however, is creating neural pathways in your mind that help you seek out more positives. This is important because science has shown that our brains are somewhat more naturally oriented to look for negative things
The Controversy Over Retirement
In Neil’s second book, he controversially writes about how we should never retire. In fact, the concept of retirement was actually invented on a whim in 1889 in Germany when youth employment rates were sky high and the average lifespan was 67. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck essentially said, “If you’re 65 and you want to leave the workforce, you can. It’s optional. We’ll pay you a little bit of money.” And retirement was born.
Retirement hasn’t really gotten a facelift since. When the idea was created, 65 was a reasonable age to consider retiring. Ultimately, the rest of the world just adopted this policy along with the designated age. Today, we’re living a lot longer and aging, in most cases, in much better health than past generations.
To emphasize this, Neil traveled to an area in Japan where the population lives longer and healthier lives than in most parts of the world and where the word “retirement” doesn’t exist. Instead, they follow something called “ikigai”, which means “a reason to get out of bed in the morning”.
Instead of seeking retirement, we should be pursuing those things that make us want to get out of bed in the morning. If being out of the active workforce allows us more time to do these things, all the better.
If you’d like to find out more ways to actively pursue what makes you happy or to find out more about Neil or his books, head on over to https://1000awesomethings.com/.
Disclosure: The opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and not necessarily of the radio show. Interviewee is not a representative of the radio show. Investing involves risk and investors should carefully consider their own investment objectives and never rely on any single chart, graph or marketing piece to make decisions. Content provided is intended for informational purposes only, is not a recommendation to buy or sell any securities, and should not be considered tax, legal, investment advice. Please contact your tax, legal, financial professional with questions about your specific needs and circumstances. The information contained herein was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however their accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. All data are driven from publicly available information and has not been independently verified by the radio show.
Steve Pomeranz: Recently, my company invited a speaker to our annual conference, and I was so impressed, I asked him to join me today. He’s Neil Pasricha, and he’s basically redefining the way we think about happiness.
He’s the host of the Top 100 iTunes podcast 3 Books with Neil Pasricha. He’s creator and host of the 50 million hit award-winning blog, Awesome is Everywhere, and the author of two books, The Happiness Equation and The Book of Awesome.
I’m excited that you’re going to get to meet him and to hear what he has to say. Neil, welcome and thanks for taking your time to talk with us.
Neil Pasricha: My pleasure, Steve. Great talking to you too.
Steve Pomeranz: The TED talk that I saw, and I think that you also gave a version of at this meeting I was at, was the “The 3 A’s of Awesome.”Please tell us your story.”
Neil Pasricha: Sure, Steve. Well, listen, like many people in life, I was going through a horrible year about 10 years ago. I found myself in a marriage that was heading in the wrong direction, and my closest friend had some super severe mental illness. As that was going on, I thought to myself on my drive home one day, I was like, “I need to focus on something positive because the news isn’t positive. The radio is not positive. The TV’s not positive.”
You turn on CNN, you’re depressed for a week right after that. I was like, “I got to go online.” I literally type a blog. I type into Google, “how to start a blog”. I start up a little website called 1000awesomethings.com just out of nowhere.
Every single night for the next 1,000 nights, I come home and write about a small, simple pleasure, like getting called up to the dinner buffet first at a wedding or wearing warm underwear from out of the dryer or hitting a string of green lights when you’re late for work.
Over the next year, Steve, my life got much worse. My wife did tell me this wasn’t going to work for her. She asked me for a divorce. We had to sell our house. My best friend, who had already attempted suicide once, sadly was successful in his next attempt. I lost him and the marriage and my house in the span of a few weeks.
As I struggled through depression and losing a lot of weight and finding a place to live by myself for the first time, this blog became salvation for me. 1,000 days is a lot of days. It’s almost four years.
I’m literally coming home at night and writing about the cold side of the pillow. I’m coming home at night and I’m writing about waking up and realizing it’s a Saturday or peeling an orange in one peel.
What happened is the blog found an audience. It ended up finding, and you mentioned it earlier, 50 million readers. It won the award for best blog in the world from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. Your listeners are probably thinking what I thought. It was like, “That doesn’t even sound like a real thing.”
Steve Pomeranz: You have won …
Neil Pasricha: Sounds totally baloney. I got pulled to New York, I won this big award. There’s literally selfies of me and Jimmy Fallon and Martha Stewart. I come home and guess what? You can probably guess—10 publishers are waiting for me in my inbox, eager to turn 1000awesomethings.com into The Book of Awesome.
The Book of Awesome, here we are 10 years later, of course, the thing’s been crazy lucky and sold a million copies and New York Times bestseller, the whole deal. Ultimately, you ask for my story, the root of it is just, I went through the worst year of my life, and I was trying to write down stuff to cheer myself up.
Steve Pomeranz: Sounds like the Lady Gaga version of A Star is Born. You walk into a bar once, and you sing one song, and everything comes from that. Really, I’d imagine you’re writing these 1,000 awesome things, and you’re not feeling very awesome yourself.
Some of that time must have been feeling like, maybe you felt kind of fake, maybe like you’re a poser.
Neil Pasricha: Exactly, and I never got to sleep with Bradley Cooper either, unfortunately. For me, as I’m starting to do this, I’m slowly cheering myself up. Life is complicated. Relationships are complicated. You can’t just turn yourself around by writing, but it was helping.
I’d add in some therapy, add in some time, and then I stumbled upon something fascinating. There’s research done out of Stanford by Sonja Lyubomirsky, which shows that 50% of our happiness is genetic. If you’re a parent of two children, maybe one has a higher baseline than the other.
Then the research shows that 10% of our happiness is based on circumstances, so what’s in the news or what’s happening in your life. Then the remaining 40% are your intentional activities, literally the choices you make on how you spend your time.
Therefore, the 40% became very appealing to me, and I started realizing, “Hey, it turns out I’m not just writing a blog. I’m doing a journaling practice. I’m creating a gratitude practice. These are scientifically proven things that actually make you happier. What else is there?”
I got excited. I started reading this, and as I started falling into the trap … partly I’m reading this because journalists like yourself are calling me up and saying, “Neil, how do we make everyone happy?” I’m like, “I don’t know.”
I figure I need to do my homework. As this is happening, I eventually, a few years later, meet someone new. Her name is Leslie. We fall in love. Over the next couple of years, we move in together, I get down on one knee, I ask her to marry me.
It’s happening like Deja Vu, I get married again. On the flight home from our honeymoon, Steve … you aren’t going to believe this … she actually says to me on a layover in Malaysia, she’s like, “I don’t feel well. Do you know if there’s a pharmacy here?”
Of course, neither of us has ever been to Malaysia. We were just there for a six-hour layover. We look for a pharmacy. She goes in, she looks for a place to lie down, whatever. We get back on the plane, it’s a 12-hour flight home. I live in Toronto, Canada, so it’s a 12-hour flight home.
I say, “Leslie, are you sure you want to get on this plane? You aren’t feeling well.” She’s like, “I’ll be okay. I’ll be okay.” We get on the plane, we go up, up, up, up above the clouds. She goes to the tiny little bathroom at the front of the plane. She comes back to our seats. She looks me in the eyes and she says, “I’m pregnant.”
She bought the pregnancy test at that pharmacy. She did the test in the airplane bathroom. We land home in Toronto, now this is a few years after The Book of Awesome, and I say, “This is it. I have to write a love letter to my unborn child on how to do all this stuff I’ve been reading about. What if something happens to me? What if I get hit by a bus?”
I spend the next nine months, her entire pregnancy, writing a 300-page love letter to my unborn child on how to live a happy life. I suspect the rest of our conversation will come from that letter because that letter was published as a book called The Happiness Equation.
You mentioned it at the top, but the book, The Happiness Equation really legitimately is the letter I wrote when my wife was pregnant with our first child.
Steve Pomeranz: Wow, that’s a great story. I think you turned this equation on its head. You speak in your talk that the typical equation is—and this is what your parents taught you—number one, do great work, go to a good school, get good grades, work really hard, then become a success, then you’ll be happy.
You’ve turned that around. How have you done that?
Neil Pasricha: That model is every parent. “Come on, we want you to get into a good school. We want you to get good grades. Then you’ll be great. You’ll have everything you need.” The problem with that model is, based on reviewing over 300 positive psychology studies, it’s backward.
In fact, it does not go, great work, big success, be happy, based on the science. It goes, be happy, leads to great work, leads to big success. Being happy first, that’s the model reversing, according to the research, increases your productivity by 31%. It increases your sales by 37%, and aren’t we all in sales?
Sometimes it’s just a sales job, but I think everyone’s like, “We’re selling ourself. We have to be confident. We have to be out there.” Even if you’re dating, you’re in sales. Then your creativity goes up 300%. Your mind is just much more open when you start with happiness.
If I ask people, they always say, “Oh, yeah, I love working for a happy boss. The happy guy on my team, he’s what keeps us going when we’re all tired or spent or burnt out.” People get that intuitively, but we don’t practice it.
Instead of telling our kids-
Steve Pomeranz: Well, hold on. Let me stop you there.
Neil Pasricha: Please.
Steve Pomeranz: Happy is a word that we all use, but I think it’s almost impossible to define. When you say happy, what do you mean?
Neil Pasricha: The science is really clear on this. They call it subjective wellbeing, that is the official technical term. The definition that I want to insert here into this conversation is is the joy you feel while striving towards your potential.
That means if you are training for a marathon and you have shin splints and it’s raining on you, even though that’s painful, you might be happy because you’ve got joy because you’re reaching your potential, just like a woman after giving birth to a child might say, “That didn’t feel good, but I’m thrilled that I’m here.”
That definition, by the way, that I just gave you, the joy you feel while striving towards your potential, that comes from … it’s 2,000 years old. That’s the ancient Greek definition.
In the studies I’m quoting, they ask people at the front end, “Hey, rate yourself on a scale of one to 10. You guys go do some forest walks. You guys do journaling. You guys hang out here, and 10 weeks later, let’s ask you again.” We look for the delta or the change in how you perceive your own life satisfaction or what we call subjective wellbeing.
Steve Pomeranz: You call it the 20 for 20 challenge, so you’ve put this into an idea. I think that’s one of your areas of brilliance is to take these complicated concepts and put them into simple catch phrases and things that we can easily work on in our busy lives. What is the 20 for 20 challenge?
Neil Pasricha: Thanks for saying that, Steve. You picked up on the nomenclature side of it. You’re like, “How do you define it?” A lot of people go there. I often skip over that. I say, “Why don’t you just do this, if you can spend 20 minutes a day doing a happiness exercise for 20 days in a row, we believe it takes three weeks to develop a habit, then you will have a new happiness practice.”
I can tell you what the exercises are to choose from. People are like, “Okay, well, what are they?” How about this? Go on a 20-minute nature walk. It turns out that trees release a chemical called phytoncides, which literally lowers the cortisol level in your body. That’s why nature walks, forest therapy, forest bathing, these terms are becoming really popular because we’re starting to really discover this.
I say it a bit tongue in cheek because we used to just call those people hikers. Now we pay them money and we call them forest bathers. At the end of the day, literally a 20-minute nature walk, we all suffer from NDD right now. We suffer from Nature Deficit Disorder. We’ve got our phones attached to our thighs, we’ve got our brains somewhere thinking about Instagram. We have to untether ourselves, so that’s one.
Another one is, do what I did on my blog. When I wrote 1000awesomethings.com, I didn’t realize it, but I was doing the journaling practice. The research from the University of Texas shows that your strength of your relationships with your friends, with your family, with your sisters, with your brothers, improves dramatically if you can literally start or finish your day by just journaling about the positive things that happened during your day.
Did you have a nice breakfast? Did your dog learn a new trick? Did your husband put the toilet seat down? Just writing a few of those things, what you’re doing without you really realizing it is, you start creating neural pathways in your mind to look for more positive things.
The reason that’s important is because we know from brain science that our brains are actually oriented naturally the other way. We intuitively look for negative stuff. That’s why if it bleeds it leads on the front of the newspaper because our brains actually want, we are craving negativity because that’s what led to our survival as a species for 200,000 years.
Steve Pomeranz: Well, I’m in the investment business, and we’re constantly fighting the effects of the media that is stressing euphoria when things are getting pricey and bubbly, and depression and fear when things are going down in the marketplace. People are reacting to this because it’s in our natures to do so. We’re constantly fighting that and telling people to turn off financial TV.
Neil Pasricha: Even the most basic financial advice, buy low, sell high, is the opposite of how our brains want to do it.
Steve Pomeranz: That’s right. It’s literally impossible for most people to do.
My guest is Neil Pasricha. He is the author of two books, The Happiness Equation, The Book of Awesome. Find him on YouTube and TED talks to get more of what he’s talking about here.
Steve Pomeranz: In the interest of time, we were talking about the 20 for 20 challenge. That’s 20 minutes, what, for 20 weeks? Is that what you’re saying?
Neil Pasricha: No, 20 days, just 20 days. There’s some research that says it takes three weeks to develop a habit, so I rounded that down by a day. My point there is, after three weeks, it’s going to be harder to stop. Like a good diet, like a good gym routine, now you’re in it.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, it feels good. Nature walk, journal … I’m going to read the others … meditation, to meditate 20 minutes, writing down five gratitudes a day. Even something as simple as a random act of kindness each day can change the chemicals in your brain and get you moving on.
I need to change subjects here because this is, I think, an important subject that I don’t want to pass by. In the United States, and actually in the Western World, we’ve been programmed to think of retirement in a certain way.
You tell a story about how retirement actually was created. Tell us that quickly.
Neil Pasricha: Sure. Well, it turns out one of the most controversial chapters I ever wrote in The Happiest Equation was this idea that I say never retire. I just say never do it. I know most of your listeners are down in south Florida. I get that. They’re going to be like, “What are you talking about?”
Don’t forget, retirement was invented out of the blue in 1889 in Germany when they had a youth unemployment rate over 20%, they had a lifespan of age 67, and Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, coolest head of state name ever, he decreed … He’s like, “You know what? If you’re 65 and you want to leave the workforce, you can. It’s optional. We’ll pay you a little bit of money.”
Well, the problem is, he made up that number. It was close to when people died. The UK and the US and Canada where I live, lots of western countries, we just copied the number. What’s happened in 120 years? Well, 40 years after that we invented penicillin. Our lifespans have gone skyrocketed.
Steve Pomeranz: You often hear about that with social security, that the age 65, people were only expected to live a couple of years afterwards on average, and yet the reason that the system is so challenged is that people are living a lot longer.
Neil Pasricha: There’s three false concepts here. Number one, retirement is a new thing. It didn’t exist anywhere before the late 1800s, and really doesn’t exist in most of the eastern world now. Retirement, it assumes that you want to leave the workforce, and it assumes that we can pay for you to do so.
To research The Happiness Equation, to write this letter for my kid, I look around the world. What do I find? I discover a place called Okinawa, Japan, where the average lifespan is seven years longer than Americans.
I read the National Geographic study on them. Why are they living longer? It turns out they do not even have a word for retirement. There’s a couple of other things. They eat some seafood, they eat smaller plates, but they don’t have a word for retirement.
Instead, they have a different word, and it’s called ikigai, I-K-I-G-A-I, which roughly translates to, the reason you get out of bed in the morning. The amazing thing about that word is, they don’t know what retirement is. They have a greater percentage of people over 100 there than anywhere.
It’s like, my ikigai is to fish for my family. My ikigai is to take care of my great, great-granddaughter. My ikigai is to teach boxing, and that’s a 98-year-old dude who says that. My wife, Leslie and I, we leave little cards on our bedside tables. I call them our ikigai cards.
It was a great Christmas present, cost $0.10. On them, we write down our purpose. When I open my eyes, Steve, I see a little note that says to me, “I’m trying to help people live happy lives.” My wife, who is a school teacher, sees one that says, “I’m trying to build empathy in the classroom.”
Having a little sense of where you’re going helps you get there. Don’t seek retirement. Instead, seek an ikigai or a purpose or a reason to get out of bed.
Steve Pomeranz: All right, sounds great. Let’s funnel it down a little bit. It’s one thing to say you have a reason to get up in the morning, but what are some of the things that you should be looking for in retirement to get this happiness and to have this reason to get out of bed, the four S’s?
Neil Pasricha: The four S’s, and by the way, one of those S’s is not salary. You don’t actually need money to be happy. Here’s what you do need. You need social, you need a social connection. Do you have a best friend at work, or when you leave your workplace, do you lose your friends? That’s the connection we need. We need to have friends where we are.
Number two is stimulation. That means, are you learning something new every day? Are you having to learn a new operating system? Are you learning a new process or how to deal with the young pup that just joined the company? What is it, stimulation, some type of learning.
Structure, do you have a reason to get out of bed in the morning, a reason to set your alarm clock? Why wake up? What is your reason to do something?
Story, this is related to ikigai. Do you have a purpose greater than yourself? Most organizations call this a mission statement, like a giant positive force for good. Google is organizing the world’s information. Red Cross is helping families in need. Coca-Cola’s giving the world happiness breaks—literally, that’s their slogan.
You’re like, “What is my social connection, the stimulation I have of learning, the structure I have to get out of bed, and the story to contribute to the world?” If I have those four S’s, then I have a great and happy life.
Steve Pomeranz: In retirement, being part of something bigger could include what?
Neil Pasricha: Well, say you volunteer for the town library. Now you’re increasing literacy in the community. You are helping young people on their course projects. You might not be making money, of course, you’re still retired. I’m saying, now you’ve baked into a purpose.
You might just do three hours in the mornings, but you’ve got a great sense of connection to your community. You’re helping young people learn. That’s beautiful.
Steve Pomeranz: You write that the most dangerous years of your life, it’s been statistically proven, are what?
Neil Pasricha: The year you were born and the year you retire. I tell the story of my high school guidance counselor, who we all adored and loved, and that we forced him at age 65—the law at the time where I lived was, you had to leave the workforce.
The next week, he had a heart attack and he died. It was sad, and there was tears, and it was a terrible story, but then when I tell people this story, every time someone says, “That happened to my brother-in-law. That happened to my uncle. My dad sold his family …” sold his family. Hopefully, he didn’t sell his family. “My dad sold his company, and then he’s never the same.”
What we’re doing when we chop away people’s work is, we think, “Oh, we’ll give them endless days of bliss on the golf course,” but what you might be doing is taking away their friends, their support system, and their sense of purpose. That’s what you don’t want to lose.
Steve Pomeranz: Interesting, you have to continue that. Neil Pasricha, basically redefining the way we think about happiness. He’s the creator of this huge award-winning blog, Awesome is Everywhere, and two books, The Happiness Equation and Book of Awesome.
Of course, we will put all his links on our website. To hear this interview and any interview again, if you have a question about what we’ve just discussed, if you just want to start a conversation with us, we’d love that. Go to stevepomeranz.com and join the conversation.
While you’re there, sign up for our weekly update for upcoming live events and the important topics that we’ve covered this week straight into your inbox. That’s stevepomeranz.com.
Neil, thank you for taking your time. I so appreciate it, and enjoyed what you had to say.
Neil Pasricha: My pleasure, Steve. Thanks so much for having me.