1 Big idea to think about

  • Happiness is not about eliminating suffering from our lives. For most of us, happiness is about feeling more alive and being more fully engaged in our own lives.

2 ways you can apply this

  • Begin to make peace with the unhappiness in your life by observing your feelings and naming them. (e.g. I am feeling frustrated right now. This is what frustration feels like.) You may discover words for emotions you have always had, but never fully understood. 
  • Begin to understand your path to happiness by identifying your range of positive and negative feelings by taking the PANAS questionnaire.

3 Questions to ask

  • What emotion am I feeling right now?
  • What are my unique set of gifts and how can I use them to find happiness?
  • How can I cultivate better relationships in my life?

Key Moments From The Show 

  • The first thing you can do to be happier right now.(4:10) 
  • The three things that make up happiness (4:40)
  • Why unhappiness is necessary to find happiness (6:19)
  • How to make peace with our unhappiness (7:04)
  • Understanding your baseline level of happiness (12:24)
  • How understanding yourself helps you to be happier (15:32)
  • If you want to be happy, love others more (17:43)
  • Love is a verb (19:20)
  • How to make it easier to love (20:20)
  • The power of choosing gratitude (23:22)
  • Stop managing your haves and start managing your wants (26:38)
  • How to create a reverse bucket list (28:12)

Links You’ll Love From the Episode

Love Your Enemies by Arthur Brooks

The Harvard Happiness Study

Connect with Arthur Brooks

Twitter | Instagram | LinkedIn | Podcast


Greg McKeown, Arthur Brooks

Greg McKeown 0:03
Come with me on an exploration of self discovery. On this podcast, we decipher what really matters as we unravel the chaos of day to day work, to learn how to build an essential life. Hello, hello. Hello, everyone. This is the Watson central podcast and I am your British host, Greg McEwen. Thank you for joining me. On today’s episode, I am happy to be here with you. How are you doing? You think about it for a second. How are you doing? Really? Are you? Fine? Sometimes we say that. Are you? Great. Are you happy? I think that’s a tough one. How happy? Are you on a scale of one to 10? What’s your number today. And really, the more important thing isn’t what number you just gave, it’s what would make it a 10. As a special treat for the holidays, I am going to replay one of my favorite and top episodes from this year from the podcast. It’s the episode with the Harvard professor Arthur Brooks is a behavioral social scientist. He’s the author of many marvelous books, including a book called Love your enemies. And as you’ll hear, I gave him the challenge to share five researched based ways to become happier. I loved every moment of this episode, his insights are so great, the conversation just has so many different elements to it. And and only a teacher like him who has spent years thinking about these subjects can produce something like this. I hope you enjoy it, too. Let’s get to it.

Arthur Brooks, welcome to the Watson central podcast.

Arthur Brooks 2:01
Thank you, Greg, as your audience are all existing fans of yours, but I am too. And but a wonderful opportunity to talk to you. You were on my podcast. And it was so well received. And it was so much fun. And now we get to continue the conversation. Thank you.

Greg McKeown 2:16
Oh, I hope people will go there and listen to that conversation and subscribe to your podcast too. And hearing you say that, I mean, of course, you’re being polite, but to say that you’re a fan of my work. It’s such a thrilling moment for me, because it’s one of the real pleasures of doing a podcast, I think a tall is the opportunity to talk with people that you know of by rumor or by reputation or by reading. And then you that you get to talk together and get to know each other and have a relationship. And it really is one of my happiest things with having done this. And so it’s my honor to have you on here. I mean, beyond the formal intro. What I should say to people listening is that Arthur Brooks is the real deal. You know, this is this is someone who’s trying striving to live by virtuous principles. Trying to teach, not just trying to be an influencer in some surface level, but trying to be a teacher, and making the classroom beyond Harvard’s classroom, which matters too. But you know, to the rest of us. There’s so many things we could talk about. Maybe it’s a little too forced to do this, but I am looking to you for a discussion today about let’s call it five rules for how to be happier right now you know how to make it easier to be happy right now. I think a lot of people could sign up for insight on that, after a year and a half of the pandemic and the civil unrest and the challenges that we’ve been alluding to here. What’s top of mind, when I asked that question to you? What’s something that just pops first.

Arthur Brooks 4:09
And so the first thing that that pops for me is what a lot of people are getting wrong, which is misunderstanding the goal and trying to become happier. And the goal is not to make suffering go away. The goal for most people and being happier is to be more fully alive, more engaged in their own lives. See, most people understand that happiness. Real happiness requires sort of macronutrients, if you will, like food is fat, carbohydrates and proteins. Well, happiness really is three things its enjoyment, satisfaction and purpose.

Greg McKeown 4:45
Okay, let’s let’s hear that. Enjoyment, satisfaction and purpose. Okay. Yeah,

Arthur Brooks 4:50
enjoyment is all positive is pleasure with elevation. So it’s pleasure with education. And so you Enjoy think pleasure is kind of a base a base kind of sense that that we get it’s positive but but you can elevate it with a little bit of education. This is a reason that the more you learn about music, the more you like it, because it actually goes from pleasure into enjoyment. The second is satisfaction. And that is the reward for a goal met or a job well done. Satisfaction is the prize at the at the end of the road for something and it has its own problems, you can’t Mick Jagger saying I can’t get no satisfaction, he should have saying I can’t keep no satisfaction. Because there is all sorts of evolutionary tendencies to not let you keep satisfaction. But that’s a whole a whole topic. The last one is, in a way, the most interesting, the biggest mistake that people make is they want happiness without purpose. How do I know that because they’re trying to alleviate the suffering from their lives assiduously too much. I mean, everybody has suffering and by the way, suffering can tip over your boat, it can become so debilitating that it becomes a medical problem, I understand that. And I’ve had a lot of that and members of my family. But the truth is that to be fully alive, but one foot in front of the other requires a lot of suffering. It requires a lot of challenge. It requires a lot of sadness. That’s what being alive partly is and and nobody finds the purpose in their life without unhappiness. And so the paradox of happiness, the mistake that we make, and the first way to be happy today is to accept unhappiness. It took me a long time to figure that out. As a happiness, scholar, happiness and unhappiness are not the same thing. They’re literally processed in different hemispheres of the prefrontal cortex. But unhappiness is a key in moderation. properly understood and, and diligently managed. Unhappiness is an experience of life, which helps us find your purpose and purposes and macronutrient and happiness. So the first thing that we can do today, to be happier is to make peace with our unhappiness.

Greg McKeown 6:58
How do we do that? If I’m unhappy about something right now? How do I make peace with it?

Arthur Brooks 7:03
To begin with, it’s to take it out of the realm of feelings. So the old Buddhist masters that was talking about observing your feelings, and what they’re talking about is actually making emotions, negative emotions, in this case, metacognitive become aware of your emotions, your emotions, your primary emotions are all produced in the limbic system, if your brain is sort of affectionately known in my profession as the lizard brain, or as Daniel Kahneman, or President calls it system one, it’s free to think fast, because it’s automatic, but it’s not conscious. This is below the level of your conscious imagination of your executive thinking. Your limbic system is the emotions that you have automatically for all of the evolutionary and survival reasons. You need anger, you need sadness, you need disgust you need especially fear, because that keeps you from being threatened and eaten by a saber toothed tiger. The problem is when your unhappiness is when your negative emotions are purely limbic. Because then they happen to you, you’re controlled by them, where it gets really interesting. And where life gets interesting is where you can take these limbic sensations and make them metacognitive, which is to say, to sit with them to be aware of them, when you’re actually are observing your own primary emotions, you’re moving them to the prefrontal cortex of your brain where they can be managed, and where they can become an opportunity for growth. That’s the way that we deal with these things. Now, I’m not going to lie and say I like negative emotions. No, I don’t like them at all. But I understand that they’re necessary and fruitful and meaningful. And they give me something that I need in much the same way that you know, any negative ingredient can be a stimulus. I mean, it’s it’s interesting, there are all sorts of things, pathogens that we that we introduce into our lives that have a paradoxical impact of making us more resilient or, you know, having a particular place in the production process of things that we need. And this is a perfect case, if you want negative emotions, to not be purely perceived as negative. And by the way, they’re not purely negative, they’re keeping you alive. But if you want them to be fruitful in your happiness, you need to make them metacognitive by thinking about them by analyzing them. And by thinking how can what just happened to me that I don’t like that’s making me sad or angry or fearful. What am I learning from this? And how can it be an opportunity for growth? Yeah,

Greg McKeown 9:31
I mean, what I think you’re saying is that the very second you say, as I’ve heard people suggest, I am feeling this, I am feeling fear, I am feeling angry, I am feeling out of control, the very act of naming it already improves your situation, because you’re now shifting the emotion into as used to describe the different parts of your brain. And it allows you to observe the emotion rather than just being totally flooded with it.

Arthur Brooks 10:02
That’s right. And there’s this. That’s one of the key observations behind cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a wonderful adjunct to medication for people who are clinically depressed, talk therapy, self talk, all that self talk does is you’re not convincing yourself of something that’s not true. You’re simply taking your emotions and making them more than automatic. You’re also making them manageable by simply naming them.

Greg McKeown 10:27
And now let’s just take a moment for an ad break. And now, back to a conversation. Yeah, I love that. And in some of naming is using words you already have to simply state this is this, I am feeling X. And, and the second is to discover new words for things you didn’t have words for before new phrases, and you say, Oh, I’ve had this emotion forever. This is what I’m experiencing. And somehow naming it in that way, also gives you greater control of of the emotion that you’re grappling with. Well, I don’t know how many things we just covered. It feels hard to call that number one. But, but I feel like, let’s break that down. So you certainly covered one thing, which is this naming of the emotion so that we can stand apart from it, that I would take as as one different thing? Did we cover a second that we can use it as a number two? thing someone can do?

Arthur Brooks 11:33
We could call number two making peace with your unhappiness, although they’re they really are part and parcel of the same? Meta?

Greg McKeown 11:40
Yeah, I think so. So we just call that where that’s still going to be bucket one. What’s the second idea for what somebody can do to increase their happiness? Right now,

Arthur Brooks 11:52
the second thing, I think, for people to remember is that we all have a baseline level of happiness that is governed at least half in 50%, by our genetics, that’s incredibly powerful. And believe it or not empowering information, because every one of us has a baseline and our baseline might be lower than somebody else’s. But understanding that helps us to understand also, that we have a unique charism, we have a unique set of gifts. And that in a Boolean, enthusiastic, you know, optimistic outlook on life might not be part of our gifts, but that we have unique gifts. In spite of that we’re wired in a particular way. And let me let me explain what I mean by that. There’s a a test a personality test that I administered to my students at Harvard Business School, every spring, it’s called a positive effect, negative effect survey, or is paid pa na s. And you can find it online Panisse, you can find it online all over the place. And what it’ll tell you is whether you’re unusually high or low in positive effect, which is to say good feelings, and usually higher low and negative effect, which is to say, bad feelings. And what people find is that bad feelings and good feelings are not mutually exclusive. Just because you’re high in negative effect doesn’t mean you’re low in positive effect. On the contrary, you can be high in both low in both high in one, or high in the other. And this is really interesting, because what it what it turns out, it has a lot to do with your heredity, your genetic or epigenetic wiring, in terms of your happiness, and the emotions that you you have a tendency to feel and feel really deeply. And why that’s really empowering is because you know I can I can if you’re somebody who has incredibly strong positive and negative effect, you’re both happier than normal, average and unhappier than average, then you’re kind of a mad scientist. And there’s a world for you, there’s a role for you, but it’s hard for you to find it unless you know it. And believe it or not, knowing about your unique personality profile makes you happier, because it gives you power to understand where you fit in people who are low in low low effect and high in positive effect and low negative effect. I know lots of people like this. I call these judges. They’re sober, they’re stable. You don’t want me as a judge. No way. I’m jumping all over the place. You want somebody who is low in positive and negative effect, who’s not moved to excess emotion that can be counted on all the time.

Greg McKeown 14:34
Two things were interesting to me one, can people go and take that assessment?

Arthur Brooks 14:39
Yes, absolutely. There’s a website that my old friend Martin Seligman teaches at University of Pennsylvania, he invented the field of positive psychology, and he has a website called authentic happiness. So if you just Google authentic happiness, and then you log into their website, and there’s a battery of about 30, personality and happiness tests, and Panis is one of them. It’s one of them. Interesting.

Greg McKeown 15:01
The other thing that was interesting to me is just that simple point, that understanding that you are a particular type is itself correlated with feeling happier. And it seems that that makes sense to me. But it named something that we Joe, like a deep breath, like, Ah, I don’t have to be like everyone else, there’s a version of me that I get to be. And I don’t need to try and force my way out of, of certain ranges that I’m in. And so this idea of becoming more and more of who you really are, and less and less of who you really aren’t, I think is key to happiness. But also, I think key to just a more effortless life, or less wasted effort on, you know, on things that just aren’t going to produce great results.

Arthur Brooks 16:02
We’re in your turf, and we’re talking about effortlessness, and you can’t, your life is full of needless effort, when you’re not being yourself, when you don’t actually understand what your unique talents are. If you’re trying to, you know, get in the big leagues of somebody else’s personality and you don’t fit, you’ll just feel incompetent. That’s there’s no way that you can lead an effortless life when you don’t understand yourself. So that brings a lot of happiness to take a lot of the excess effort out of what you’re trying to do to succeed. As I

Greg McKeown 16:31
listened to it just had a feeling of relief. I can imagine people hearing it just, oh, yeah, I That’s right. I don’t have to be like everyone else I need to embrace that actually, a lot of me, is fixed a certain way. And there are things I can do beyond it, of course, through action, to improve or to be more happy. But I one of the ways to get there isn’t to just be like my ultra optimistic spouse, child, mother, or father or whatever. Like, there’s a there’s a place for me. And my particular way of being give me number three.

Arthur Brooks 17:11
Number three is what comes out of the all of the data on how to live a happy and successful life and and all appeal on this too. There’s a famous study that came out of Harvard University called the Harvard study on adult development, which is an 80 year longitudinal study that started with college students, match them up with people who didn’t go to college that looked at their kids and grandkids and over 80 years, it became a crystal ball. And if you are this most likely, it’s gonna turn out like that. Very, very powerful. At the end of the day, there’s, there’s a lot of things that go into it. I mean, there’s, there’s a lot of, you know, the seven things that you should do if you want to age well, if you’re there’s any, any clue that there’s drinking problems in your family or in your life, you just stop drinking, because that that will lead to huge problem. So you shouldn’t smoke, you should exercise, you should stay interested in things you should read, etc, etc, etc. But number one on a walk is good relationships and having a lot of love in your life. That’s the secret to a happy life. And it fits in with the 80 years of the Harvard adult development study that happiness is love. Full stop. And so what we need to be doing is cultivating the love relationships in our life. If you want to be happier today, love more today. If you don’t feel any love, it doesn’t really matter. Because two lovers to will the good of the other. You can act out love and the feeling the feeling will come naturally. And so secret number three, to becoming happier today, tomorrow next week and for the rest of your life is to love others more.

Greg McKeown 18:47
I love that. Remember, Stephen Covey used to say love is a verb. And we tend to want it to be or it gets presented in any number of movies and books and so on. As a feeling. I mean, there’s almost always presented as a feeling. And he’s saying, of course, love is a feeling as well, but it it starts as love as a verb. It’s what you do. It’s how you treat someone, as you treat them. As you treat them with love. You tend to receive love, there seems to be an almost exact reciprocation. We are deeply reciprocal beings. I love principle three,

Arthur Brooks 19:30
it’s open to all of us to because it’s an act of will to people who say I don’t feel it is, as you mentioned, doesn’t matter. Each of us has this under our control. It’s the ridiculous most easy thing that we could possibly do is to show love.

Greg McKeown 19:44
Okay, so now now you intrigued me on that. How is it so easy?

Arthur Brooks 19:49
It’s easy insofar as it isn’t a conscious act of will. And it can be very small. When you don’t feel like saying I love you. That’s When you should most say I love you. And it’s three words, it’s only hard because we make it hard. And the reason that we make it hard is because of our pride. No. So when when you’re fighting with your spouse, and you don’t want to say I love you, it’s because you’re being prideful. And that of course that pridefulness is is hitting yourself in the head with a brick is completely counterproductive. The easiest thing to do is to do it, you want the thing that you want, you crave love, but you’re blocking yourself off, you’re making it harder than it actually should be. There are acts of love that are tricky, that are challenging, that are that take lots of time that are hard for us to do that are relatively hard. But the basic act of of will, of willing, the good of the other of expressing something, not withstanding our feelings, that’s something that’s open to all of us, we’re all able to do that. Because we’re sentient human beings, we can go against our instincts, and doing that, in and of itself is unbelievably freeing. So that’s what I’m talking about. That’s actually not hard, and it gets easier with practice.

Greg McKeown 21:09
I remember coming across in the research for effortless that the idea that that according to some psychologist and in neurosciences, they’ve measured it between two and three seconds. That that’s really the now we experience. And so it has a lot of ramifications. It takes it from the philosophical Oh, the now the great. Now we all live in the now to going oh, we have to in three seconds. Like that’s it. That is our that is our actionable window. And so when you say, I love you, it’s three words. Yeah, it’s the two to three seconds we have, what did you say love is ridiculously love is ridiculously easy. That’s, to me a profound statement. As you know, as I’ve been teaching principles of effortless now, I am amazed at how deeply entrenched people are in the idea, that virtuous action, that essential work is inherently the hardest work. What a clever lie. All it really means is looking at someone else, and saying something nice to them saying something kind, expressing an action, a small sense of love or admiration or encouragement.

Arthur Brooks 22:29
And you will immediately be happier,

Greg McKeown 22:32
medium, immediately be happier. This is a hack,

Arthur Brooks 22:35
but it happens to have its basis in the deepest, deepest truths of philosophy, theology, spirituality, of all the good things that have gone back for all the millennia of human civilization. Give me number four, you want number four, and number four follows from number three, which is choose gratitude. Gratitude is is unbelievably underused by people, and it is free to everybody. And you know, there’s a lot of research that says, you know, if you make a gratitude list on Sunday, just make a list of the five things that you’re most grateful for in your life. And I don’t care if they’re little or small or stupid or profound. And then study it every day for five minutes and updated on Sundays. But at the end of 10 weeks, you’ll see you’ll be somewhere on average, between 10 and 25%, happier. Gratitude is the most efficacious, it’s even easier than love and it’s way it’s the most efficacious way that people can turn their, their orientation toward the world around, they can become happier immediately, they will also change the orientation that people have towards them. Gratitude in a way it reprograms your brain, there’s a lot of good neuroscience about how gratitude affects your your outlook on things in the parts of the brain the from the ventral striatum, which is the part of the brain that that governs good feelings and pleasure, you will literally feel better immediately you will have happier sensations and you will will become no matter how you started, you will become more grateful if you express gratitude. So number four is express gratitude.

Greg McKeown 24:16
Yeah, I’m completely consumed with this, this idea that you can’t overdo it with gratitude. Most principles have a quite a quick limit to them. You say okay, well, we’ll do this but not too much. I Viet devout anything like the edge of that. In my own pursuit of it. I’ve kept a gratitude journal for 10 years now. I don’t think I’ve missed a day in 10 years, which means that have, you know, well beyond 10,000 items written down now. And now let’s just take a moment for an ad break. And now, back to our conversation. and I love it. I love doing it every day, it’s great for mental health. I started a practice, I don’t remember if you and I talked about this before, but after I complain, I will say something, I am thankful for that simple rule. And how when we’ve done it in our family, and introduced it, and so I’m encouraging everyone else to do it, someone will complain. And I’ll say it’s fine. Now tell me something you’re thankful for. Right? And my son? Well, I’m thankful that dad wants to play this game where we always have to say something we’re thankful for after we can play. And everyone laughed and immediately worked. And that’s its power. I love that. So number four, number five.

Arthur Brooks 25:39
Number five is one of the most counterintuitive, but it’s going to make sense when I say, we all think that we’re going to find satisfaction in life. If we have what we want, we need to stop managing our haves and start managing our wants. Now, the way to understand this basic concept is that your satisfaction is not a function of what you have you act that way, we all act this way. That much regretted bucket list, I suppose when you came to the United States, you are amazed by this concept of, of keeping an actual list of your cravings and desires and your attachments. I mean, it’s just so it’s the most non Buddhist thing in the world. And you’re supposed to look at it and admire it and say, I’m going to get these things, what you’re doing is you’re you’re lowering your satisfaction, people believe that their satisfaction is a function of what they have, they forget that their true satisfaction is a function of what they have divided by what they want. And we all remember enough of our high school fractions to know that when you increase the denominator of a fraction, the entire number falls, that’s just absolutely true. In the case of our wants, and so we have this lifelong halves management strategy where you acquire, and you work to get things and you desire, possessions and entertainment and relationships and status and prestige and power, and especially money and stuff. And you’re on a treadmill. And you can’t get that satisfaction. Why not? The reason is because you’re not managing the wants. So what I recommend that everybody do to become happier, immediately is today, to make a reverse bucket list. Take some time to make a list of your desires and your cravings, your the things that you wish you had absolutely. And then make it metacognitive like we talked about earlier in the conversation by going through that list and say I am detaching myself from these things. I don’t mind if I get these things, but I no longer want them. These are not things that are going to be my priority to have. This is what the Dalai Lama says. He says that if you for stable and steady satisfaction, you need not to have what you want, but you want what you have. And the way to do that is with this idea of wants management. That’s the fifth secret. And that’s a big one. And that actually is a hard one. It requires conscious action, the reverse bucket list is a good place to start. Another good place to start is to go on consumption fast for one week, a month, don’t buy anything except essentials like food, one week, a month, you’re not going to even look@amazon.com You’re not going to look at eBay or Etsy or any other or you know, realtor.com or whatever is your vise when it comes to consumption. Because what that’s doing is that’s that’s a halves management strategy, which is leaving you in lower and lower lower states of satisfaction, which lowers your happiness. That’s one of the macronutrients of happiness, to manage your wants aggressively and confidently counter culturally. Boy, that’s really powerful stuff. And you’ll never you’ll never be sorry that you’ll never go back, quite frankly. I mean, it’s easy to stop these patterns. But once you get into the habit of managing your wants, it’s life changing.

Greg McKeown 29:00
That there’s so much more to that one and I personally can attest to it, and and struggle with it and and love the idea of aggressively managing your wants. I think that’s terrific. Arthur Brooks, I just can’t wait till the next time. Thank you so much for being with us.

Arthur Brooks 29:18
Thank you. Great, thanks to all of our listeners.

Greg McKeown 29:24
Thank you for being here. Again, listening to the what’s the central podcast joining me in this case with Professor Arthur Brooks. Isn’t he marvelous? Those five specific research based ways to be happier, whatever answer you gave at the beginning, again, assuming it’s not a 10 wouldn’t all of these actually help to make happiness a more achievable goal in your life or even right now at this time? As a special thank you. At this time of year, I am offering the first 10 People write a review of this episode of the podcast on Apple podcasts. a signed copy of effortless. All you have to do send a photo of your review to info at Greg mckeown.com with your mailing address. Enjoy the holidays, be safe, be a little happier in the journey. And I’ll see you next week.

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Greg McKeown


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