New York Times-bestselling author, popular TED speaker and director of the Institute for Global Happiness, Neil Pasricha, is on a mission to get people happy. After initially embarking on his pursuit for positivity when he started his blog about life’s simple pleasures, 1000 Awesome Things, he went on to publish The Book of Awesome, a much-needed reminder that it’s the things we overlook that often make us smile. His newest book, The Happiness Equation, comes out today and proves that unlike what we may believe, happiness is a choice – and there are simple, science-backed steps we can take to get there. BRIKA spoke with Neil about what some of these secrets mean.
Some people seem to be naturally happier than others. Regardless of external circumstances, do you think happiness is something that comes from one’s nature or nurture?
Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky at Stanford University did a study that shows that 50% of our happiness is based on a genetic set point, so there is a big chunk of it that’s your personality. 10% is what happens to you—your external events. 40% is your intentional activity, which means that things you do have 4X the affect on your happiness than anything going on in your world, so happiness is actually a choice and we know specifically how to get there. Here are five things (and the scientific studies that prove them) that will make you happy right now.
- Three 20-minute walks a week. (Pennsylvania State)
- Writing down five gratitudes a week. (Emmons and McCullough)
- Committing five random acts of kindness a week. (Stanford University)
- The 20-minute replay, or a 20-minute journal exercise at the end of the day to write about one positive thing that happened during your day. (University of Texas)
- A five-minute meditation practice. I use an app called Headspace (that I have no affiliation with) which lets you do free, guided meditations. (Massachusetts General Hospital)
Would you have to do all five of these acts to feel happier?
You don’t even have to necessarily aim for doing all five of them. Take three 20-minute walks a week, for example—it’s funny how small and simple that sounds, but most people don’t do that. When it’s 11pm and snowing, you certainly don’t want to take your dog out. But when you actually force yourself to do it, you feel energized. You’re invigorated. Your cheeks are red and you have been filled with a sense of life, a connection with nature, fresh air, and literally moving your bones. And that comes from doing just one of those five things.
You talk about the value of authenticity and how that can lead to happiness. What’s the easiest way to start adopting that into your own life?
Increasing you authenticity has been a personal issue for me for years because everyone says ‘Be authentic,’ but very few people know how to do that. My book goes into this in detail and provides three tests anybody can do to increase your personal authenticity:
- The Saturday Morning Test. Ask yourself the question, “What do I do on a Saturday morning when I have nothing else to do?” Your authentic self will lead you towards your true passions when you have an absence of schedule.
- The Bench Test. I tell the story of my friend Fred who was lucky enough to get into a number of Ivy League schools. Rather than reading about them in a book or taking a campus tour, he rented a Jeep, drove to each of the campuses and found a bench in the middle of campus. He then sat there for one hour doing nothing other than listening to and observing the nature of the conversations people were having. Why? He reasoned that four years of college are really important, and classes only take up 5-10% of your time. The vast majority of your time will be spent in conversations with professors and peers. So where did he naturally fit into the new situation? And what was his reaction to it? I’ve repurposed what he called The Bench Test in the book to say you can do The Bench Test for any job—you can do the office tour test. You can do The Bench Test for any house you want to buy—it’s called the sidewalk test. You can test your own natural reaction to a situation before you do it.
- The Five People Test. This one’s based on the New York Times article “Are Your Friends Making You Fat?” The thesis of the article is that when your friend’s friend gets fat, so do you. When your friend’s friend starts smoking, so do you. It turns out we’re all connected—we mimic behaviors that we see in our peer group. That’s why when you walk by a group of 12-year-old girls on the street, they all kind of look the same. We are the average of the five people around us—in height, looks and intelligence, for example. It sounds crazy, but it’s proven. And so the Five People Test is simply looking at the five people closest to you and remembering that you are literally by definition the average of those five people. A good gauge on your authentic self is to say, for example, are you optimistic or are you happy? Well, take a look at who you’re hanging out with. Are they? Because if they are, you are. If they’re not, you’re probably not either. This test shows us who we are to ourselves.
I find it’s hard to be your authentic self because you’re always worried about what people think of you.
That actually is about confidence—there’s a box in the book called a confidence scribble. Think about it on a 2×2 matrix: your opinion of yourself if on one axis, and your opinion of others is on the other axis. Now let’s fill in each of the boxes on the matrix:
- A low opinion of yourself and a low opinion of others is called cynicism.
- A high opinion of others but a low opinion of yourself is called insecure.
- A high opinion of yourself but a low opinion of others is called arrogance.
- A high opinion of yourself and a high opinion of others is called confidence.
How do you ignore other people’s opinions? The trick is not to ignore what other people think of you, but to have a high opinion of them and a high opinion of yourself. You can do both—and it’s hard! If you can strive to adopt this as a practice, then that’s confidence.
With the advent of technology and social media, it’s hard not to compare yourself and your worth to others. How do you stay positive by focusing on you?
I think using the confidence box we just discussed is a big one. The second thing is a model I use called “laugh at it,” which is HAA. I went to Harvard Business School, but I find when my classmates get asked where they went to school, they say Boston. People hide something they’re embarrassed about, which is the ‘H’ in this equation. You don’t want to be the victim of other people’s perceptions. The second letter is ‘A,’ and that stands for apologize. You create an openness to apologize for yourself, and when you do that, other people apologize on your behalf as well—you would apologetically relay that you went to Harvard, for example. The second ‘A’ stands for accept, which is when you straightforwardly answer “Harvard” when someone asks where you went to school. There’s no positive or negative inflection, it’s a flat fact. Acceptance is how you protect yourself from the washing machine of emotions that the world will provide you. So, go through the HAA practice in that order—from hide to apologize to accept. Think about what you’re hiding in your life today, because everyone has lots, and learn to accept yourself.
Who do you look to as an icon of someone who is living their happiest life and why?
My dad. He came to Canada as an immigrant in his twenties from a poor village in India, having no family or friends here. Yet, he has a belief in the wonder, beauty and positivity of the world that has afforded him a beautiful appreciation for life. I grew up with his immigrant sense of wonder—he saw beauty and amazement in everything in the world and it really rubbed off on me. I think that’s a great way to go through life, regardless of your external circumstances.
What are words that you live by?
Be happy first. Here’s the formula:
Be happy → Great work → Big success
It’s the exact opposite of the model we’re taught at a young age. We’re taught if you work hard, you’ll get promoted, and then be happy. The model is actually be happy first, and then you do great work, because you’re happier doing it. A study from Stanford says that happy people are 31% more productive and do 3X more creative work than their peers. So, be happy first. It’s secret #1 in the book.