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Short cuts to happiness with Tal Ben-Shahar

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Today we're going to interview a very, very cool guy. I know you're going to enjoy this interview quite a bit because we're going to talk about happiness. As you probably know, if you've listened to this podcast for awhile, I've recently moved down to Panama and so I've been kind of going through a kind of a stage to move and we came back to the states a couple of weeks ago and moved out some things out of our house to make it a little easier to facilitate moving in closing, when someone does actually make an offer. But it's also been a pretty stressful few weeks and try and get that done. Get our dog down here to Panama, which was an ordeal in and of itself. And also sign the contract and by Island Fitness here in Bocas del Toro.

So now I am a proud gym owner of Island Fitness in Bocas del Toro. If you find yourself down in Bocas, please do come by and drop in for a workout. I'd love to meet you.

But again, that's been a very, very stressful time. So I'm, I'm really glad to go back and reflect on that with a this renewed look at what we were talking about today. If there's anything I can do to help you though, I do really want to help you reach your health and fitness goals. It goes well beyond what we do here at the podcast. I'm all in for helping you find wellness and I'm offering a free 15 minute consult, a no obligation, just a free phone call. We get on the conference call line and we'll talk about the things that matter most to you and your wellness.

You can go to 40plusfitnesspodcast.com/15min and book your free 15 minute consult. That link actually just takes you directly to my calendar so you can just set up the link and nothing else to do. Get on the phone with me and I can try to help you reach your health and fitness goals this Summer.

Tal Ben-Shahar knows the power of happiness. In fact, he teaches courses at Harvard on positive psychology and happiness. On this episode, we discuss his book, Short Cuts to Happiness.

Allan: 02:56 Tal, welcome to 40+ Fitness.

Tal Ben-Shahar: 03:00 Thank you. Thank you for having me here.

Allan: 03:02 Your book is called Shortcuts to Happiness: Life Changing Lessons From My Barber. And your barber's name is Avi last time I went to a barber and I didn't have one that was nearly as cool as yours.

Tal Ben-Shahar: 03:28 Yeah. Well, you know, I must say that during those two years I had at much shorter haircut than usual and not just me also my boys. So I took them more often than necessary to the barber.

Allan: 03:40 Yeah. I get it. It sounds like a really cool place that it seems sometimes you just pop in just to hang out. It was, it was really kind of that, that cool of a place.

Tal Ben-Shahar: 03:50 Yeah. You know, in many ways, I saw it as an island of sanity in our crazy busy world, where things are up in the air and everything is virtual. And here was something, a real, authentic, simple, and wise.

Allan: 04:07 Yeah. My wife and I moved to Panama not long ago to try to find exactly what you're talking about. We were, we literally are on an island and yesterday we went to this this farm, it's an organic farm. They do cocoa and coconuts and all of that. So he taught us all about, walked us all over his property it was really cool to just kind of, I guess I would say disconnect, but it really was reconnect because we spend more time online I think then I do offline and that's really kind of a sad statement. But, I do appreciate that you had that opportunity to hang out with Avi and learn even probably more than probably a second book coming I guess is the best way for me to explain.

Tal Ben-Shahar: 04:49 This is a sequel. Yes. I am actually hoping, I must say I'm actually hoping that other people will write sequels. Cause I think maybe the, the most important, one of the most important lessons I learned is that wisdom is a ubiquitous, it's everywhere. For 25 years I've been in academia, you know, still am and most of my primary source for me was the academic research, ancient wisdom. You know, from the great thinkers, from Plato, Aristotle, Confucius and Suddenly I, when once I opened my eyes or ears, I realize that deep wisdom that is there was just a literally in my neighborhood.

Allan: 05:29 And that's what I thought was so cool is you know, one of the things you did in the book, and I'll have to look it up here real quick because I actually, as soon as I read that chapter, I pulled down the book. It's a fiction book is called the Schopenhauer Cure.

Tal Ben-Shahar: 05:44 Yes, by Irvin D. Yalom.

Allan: 05:46 I've downloaded that book that's now on my reading list for the next one because I just thought it was really cool that you were looking and tying these things together from the conversations that having with your barber to a book you may have read somewhere else, even if it was a novel. And just kind of like, I you said it's just this birth of wisdom that you're getting in your, in your local environment.

Tal Ben-Shahar: 06:08 Yes,and what I realized is that the minute I decided to write that book. It happened. When I was having my haircut and I was not having a good day, but I, you know, went for the haircut. 20 minutes later I come out, you know, just looking better, but also feeling better. And that's the moment I said I have to write a book about this guy because I wasn't the only one having these experiences under his scissors and tutelage. And the minute I decided to write this book, suddenly this almost, this whole world opened up. And, uh, every time I went to have a haircut or took my kids to have a haircut, there were more and more pearls of wisdom. It's just about having, you know, opening our eyes, opening our ears to the opportunities.

Allan: 06:55 And that was what again, like I said, really cool because the book opened my eyes to a few things that I guess I, you know, I knew, I think, like you said, a lot of this stuff is there. It's just sometimes it gets buried in us. And one of the first topics that I kind of want to get into because as soon as soon as I read it, I was like, ah, that's it was your chapter on posture and the impact it has on us psychologically if we're not in a good posture.

Tal Ben-Shahar: 07:22 Yeah. You know, the connection between mind and body. And then in the west primarily we don't recognize this connection. And I thought about it when my kid was having a haircut and I saw how Avi essentially straightened his back and suddenly his posture changed. And I could see that psychologically he changed as well. And as soon as he did that, you know, I thought to all the research out there on the importance of posture, showing that, you know, for example, people who walk briskly with their shoulders back and hands swinging are happier. Also if they just fake it. In other words, if you fake walking, cause even if you don't feel, feel that way, you still start walking this way, you actually start to feel better. Or if you put on a on a smile, happy face, even if you initially fake it, you become it over time. So it's the connection between our postures in our psychological state, our external state in our internal state.

Allan: 08:29 Yeah. Since we traveled to Panama, I haven't had a chance to move my studio stuff down and I have this adjustable desks and I've been in this apartment that we rented. It's near town. It's perfectly located for us to learn where things are. But I'm literally sitting at a kitchen counter on a, on a chair and I just realized as I was reading the book, because it's on my computer as well as I was all hunched down and I, you know, closed and leaning forward and I was like, let's try this. I got up, I get up and actually walked to the store and when I got back, it's like I had drank a pot of coffee. I felt so much better. I had so much more energy. And so I think just, just kind of taking that moment when we realize, hey, you know, I'm not open I'm closed and I need to open myself up. I think there's a lot of joy, a lot of happiness and positive vibes that are going to come out of just kind of realizing the body is connected to the mind and vice versa. And they both can be used as tools to help the other.

Tal Ben-Shahar: 09:30 Exactly. So the fact that it's a loop between them in a loop, you know, circular relationship, uh, cycle means that we can start anywhere. We can start by changing our mind. We can start by changing our, uh, our posture. Now the interesting thing is that there is another loop, not an internal loop, but an external loop. In other words, if a, you know, you walk to the store and you know, slouch, looking down, you're unlikely to have interactions with others. Whether when you open yourself, up physically then others are much more likely to respond to you in the same way, which of course will lead to a, to an upward spiral.

Allan: 10:12 Yeah, I know my career is as an intern when I was an internal auditor, I tended to have more of a, like you said, a closed posture at work. And that affected my relationship with everybody at work. You know, they saw me as this scary guy and even though we were on the same team, the, you know, working for the same company it did, it did put off that vibe that I was unapproachable and it's sometimes difficult for me offline now, you know, just dealing day to day with just normal people to have the right vibe. And so I do need to keep myself cognizant of how I'm projecting.

Tal Ben-Shahar: 10:46 Yeah. And you know, as, as you were talking, I'm thinking of something else regarding our life in the office. You know, we spend a lot of time in the uh, in our isoffice sitting down and it's very unhealthy to spend all these, uh, all these hours. Even if you are sitting up on a positive, open posture, just being static, being sedentary is unhealthy. There are doctors who actually are talking today about sitting is the new smoking now. I think there are exaggerating but not much. Meaning there's a lot of research showing just how bad sitting for you know, eight hours, 10 hours a day is for us. And the suggestion is that the rule of thumb is, you know, every half hour get up for, even if it's 10 20 seconds, you know, get up and move around and then go back to sit. This will have an impact both in your psychological wellbeing as well as your physical wellbeing.

Allan: 11:45 Yeah, there was a, there's a lot of people that follow this thing called Pomodoro. Are you familiar with that? No. Okay. It's basically where you have a work and you know you're gonna be sitting in there doing this work task. You set your clock for 25 minutes and you just focus on that one task for your 25 minutes and when the 25 minutes is up, you now have a five minute break to get up, move around to not think about that project, to stare at blue sky, to do anything that would give you some moment of, of rest, some moment of refreshment, and then you can go back for another 25 minutes. And uh, they've found scientifically that people are a lot more, um, effective, a lot more productive following that method.

Tal Ben-Shahar: 12:27 Yes, I can certainly see why that happens. And again, the impact is both psychological and physiological.

Allan: 12:36 There's another important loop that you talk about in the book that I think a lot of us forget and it reminded me of, you know, when you read books like the blue zones and things like that, about how people are living longer and healthier, happier and healthier lives. It's about being connected is like being part of the whole.

Tal Ben-Shahar: 12:52 Yeah. You know, number one predictor of happiness is relationships. There's a wonderful study at Harvard. It was, it started almost a century ago. It followed the Harvard students as well as people from the community around Cambridge, Massachusetts followed them for over 75 years. And, um, what was fun at the end of the 75 years after collecting quite literally millions of data points. What was fun was that there was one major predictor of both health, physical health and happiness, psychological health, and um, and that was relationships. Now the interesting thing about relationships was that it didn't matter what kind of relationships, meaning some people had romantic relationships that they enjoy for, for decades. Others had very close family ties, others had very close intimate friends. Um, professional relationships, it didn't matter, but people who had close, intimate, real, genuine relationships, were both happier as well as healthier. The best predictor. Now, today, you know, you alluded to this earlier today, we're losing this connection because real relationships are being substituted by virtual relationships. And unfortunately, 1000 friends on social media are no substitute for that one, you know, best friend that one or two intimate relationships.

Allan: 14:21 Yeah, it's a 400 square foot apartment right now. So my wife and I have been spending a lot of intimate time together and you know, at first I thought when we first got here, I'm like, you know, we're going to be, we're going to be fighting all the time and I'll say there's been some, you know, some moments, little flare ups here and there, but really I feel much more connected to her, to the world, just having this opportunity to have this time with her.

Tal Ben-Shahar: 14:44 Yes. Um, I can, I can absolutely see that. The other thing though is also, you know, in the best relationships, whether it's the romantic relationships, whether it's friendships, there are disputes, there are disagreements. And there are no sterile or perfect relationships. In fact, a very important part of a healthy long-term relationship is, um, dealing with the conflict to disputes.

Allan: 15:08 Well, when you're in a one little bedroom place together, there's a few, there's a few here and there, but no, really, it's, it's been pretty, it's been pretty awesome. There's another chapter you had in here. One of the things you said about the book that I think's important is these, these lessons are not something you just read through one time and say, oh, okay, I got it and I'm going to follow this. You'd go back to these, I think these are some great lessons for you just have this book nearby. Uh, and when you feel okay, I'm angry, or I'm not connected or I'm not happy, flip through the just the table of contents. I went through kind of an episode earlier this week and I got angry. I just, you know, and so I found myself just very angry at this event. And I went back actually because I'd read this chapter before I went back and read it again. And so that's on anger management and I have to say it did help me kind of put this all back into perspective. And I'm not going to say I perfectly managed that situation, but it's, it's, it is past me now. And so can you talk a little bit about how we can approach anger?

Tal Ben-Shahar: 16:08 Sure. So, you know, if I can tell the background behind that chapter, which was a real fun chapter to write. So, you know, I was having my haircut and this woman just storms into the barber shop, all angry and upset. And Avi asked her, you know, what's up? And she says, well, you know this. And then she used an expletive, this guy, you know, cuts me off, uh, how dare he, and so on and so on. And Avi says to her, you know, I have a, I have a method of dealing with this kind of behavior on other people's parts. And she says, what. And you know, we both both actually thought, you know, he said, I beat him up because, you know, is a strong guy. But no, he takes another other routes. And what he says is that if he's, let's say waiting for a parking spot and you know, the, the parking spot frees up and is this, you know, he's been waiting and as soon as he tries to go in with a car, an SUV cuts him off.

Tal Ben-Shahar: 17:01 And then he said to us, he said, what I imagined then is that a cow cut me off and you know, both of us, you know, just laugh and say, a cow? and he says, exactly because when you're thinking of a cow, you laugh and a, and then you're not angry. And you know, he was, he was actually basically talking about some very interesting research that has been conducted over the last 50 years on emotions. And the basic idea here is that you cannot experience to emotions. Simulatanously for example, especially if they are opposites. Emotions such as amusement, a cow is cutting me off, an anger and SUV cut me off or empathy and anger and therefore introducing some humor into the mix. Actually shift our mindset as well as the set away from away from anger. And, uh, I must say I've been using this very often, not just when, you know, when people cut me off when on the road, but in other occasions, you know, imagining something funny when I tend to be angry or upset. It's very simple. It's, you know, it's even silly, but it's the silliness of it that makes it so effective.

Allan: 18:10 And that's what I kind of liked about it, was it's something internal that you can control. You know, if you recognize that you're having an emotion and that emotion is not the frame of mind that you want to be, and it's not your ideal state, you have this tool click and you internalize the humor, have a little chuckle and then move on about your day.

Tal Ben-Shahar: 18:31 Yes, exactly. And I think the thing that you're pointing to is the idea of, uh, of choice. I have a choice. I have a choice whether to focus on in a big evil SUV or a, or a funny, cute cow.

Allan: 18:47 Yeah. In my case, it's, a person that revokes a contract that I thought was going to be good for us, and then boom, it's gone. And I'm like, okay. And I'm powerless. So there was a bit of anger and then I'm kinda like, well, you know, um, how would I feel if that was a penguin, you know, that I had to prove on the Godrej no, it does. It is what it is. You know, I'm a monkey pees on you here on the, you know, in the jungle and you just, you just keep going. You know, he's just, you know, you don't get angry at the monkey, you know, the, the choice part of it is also, I think, kind of a critical aspect to this whole management of happiness or trying to find happiness. And I wouldn't say so much. You call it shortcuts. None of these are really shortcuts, but they are, they are the most direct path. And sometimes getting somewhere that you want to get is not about going fast. It's actually about slowing down.

Tal Ben-Shahar: 19:45 Yeah. I think that this is, um, this is such an important tip or shortcut you call it in, especially in our modern life when things are so fast, when that, when there is in constant flux of information and uh, and noise and happenings and you know, you, you moved to Panama, I'm, I'm assuming at least to slow, too slow down this frantic pace significantly. Yeah. And the question is how can we deal with the frantic pace and it's in one way is to just, uh, you know, move away, retire getaway from, from it all. The other approach is to find, again what I said at the beginning to find islands of sanity in this crazy busy world and island of sanity can be a going out with a dear friend to dinner and switching your phone off and not being available and really being there with that person or going for a walk once again without technology or meditating, but it's these small breaks that can make a very big difference.

Tal Ben-Shahar: 20:51 You know, one of the things that I talk about a lot is dealing with stress. And you know, stress is a not of an epidemic in the U S it's a pandemic, right? It's a worldwide phenomenon that even Australians are suffering from excessive stress. And the question is, what do you do with the stress? So what, you know, one way to think about it, you said, okay, I want to eliminate it. I don't want stress in my life. The other way to think about it, which is actually better, healthier way to think about it is the stress in and of itself is not bad. Uh, you know, I go to the gym and I lift weights. What am I doing to my muscles? I stress my muscles, not a bad thing. I actually get stronger as a result unless I don't take recovery. You know, if I just lift weights and more weights and more weights than this stress mounts and I get injured, its the same way in life, it's okay to experience stress as long as they are also periods of recovery. And so we need to punctuate our crazy busy lives with recovery, whether it's recovery, as I said, in terms of that meal with a friend or a good night's sleep or a day off at least once a week.

Allan: 21:56 Yeah, that is so important. And I think we, it is hard in today's society to actually like turn off, to leave your phone off, to take a day off because you kind of feel like something's leaving you. You're losing something. There's this fear you're going to miss out on something. And so it is this, to me, this one might be the, the hardest thing to really kind of wrap your mind around is that if you don't recover, then the stress is not good for you. And it's like you said.

Tal Ben-Shahar: 22:25 That's when burn out happens. That's when an injury happens. It is bad for you. And the thing is that, as you said, it's not easy to disconnect. And the reason why it's so hard is because most people in the in developed countries are addicted, literally addicted to technology. And last week I was giving a lecture somewhere in, in Latin America and um, the audience were, um, partners in that particular firms, very senior people and their spouses. So there were 400, uh, couples there. And I said to them, look, I have a question for you. I don't want you to answer it aloud just in your mind. Just think about the answer. And my question was in the morning when you, when you wake up, first thing you open, your eyes do turn, who do you turn to? And then you know, there are chuckles in the room. And I said, do you attend, do turn to your lovely husband, wife, partner? Or did you turn the other way? And it was a rhetorical question. I mean obviously most people turn to the phone first thing when they opened their eyes in the morning, now I said to them earlier. I said, look, this is an addiction like any other addiction. Now imagine if you're an alcoholic, would you have a bottle of Tequila right next to you in bed as you open your eyes? Of course not. Why do we have our phone right next to us when we go to sleep,

Allan: 23:55 Well, I know one answer I always get when I talk to folks about this because I typically won't have my phone right by the bed. I've been fortunate enough to, to know that that's not what I want. But they use their phone for their alarm. They use their phone for a of other things. And so it again, that's what makes it so hard is that you see this, this is a valuable tool, but it's also a problem.

Tal Ben-Shahar: 24:17 Yes. Yeah. You know, I, I hear you. And about a year ago I actually bought myself an old fashioned watch with an alarm clock specifically for that. But I don't need to put the, uh, the phone next to me.

Allan: 24:30 Perfect. Alright, so Tal. I define wellness as being the healthiest, fittest and happiest you can be. What are three strategies or tactics to get and stay? Well,

Tal Ben-Shahar: 24:43 so, you know, the, the first, uh, the first thing is that we need to allow in unhappiness so that we can fulfill our potential for happiness. You know, there's a common misconception that a happy life is a life, which is devoid of a painful emotions. But in fact, there are only two kinds of people who don't experience painful emotions such as sadness or anger or a frustration or anxiety or invy. Two kinds of people who don't experience these painful emotions and they are the psychopaths and dead people. And so experiencing these painful emotions, it's actually a good sign. That means we're not a psychopath and we're alive. The problem in today's world is that, especially given social media where we see others who seem to be happy all the time, uh, we think there was something wrong with us when we experienced painful emotions and we reject them.

Tal Ben-Shahar: 25:36 And when we reject painful emotions, they only intensify. Moreover, when we reject painful emotions were also inadvertently rejecting the pleasurable emotions. So the first step is accepting painful emotions. And by the way, this applies to our mental health as well as to our physical health as suppressing repressing, rejecting emotions is essentially a prescription for not only unhappiness, it's a prescription for illness. So that's one thing. The second thing, physical exercise. So much research on a physical exercise and its importance once again, not just for physical wellbeing, for a psychological wellbeing. More and more psychologists are talking about physical exercises, the wonder drug and so as as little as 30 minutes, three times a week, and punctuate your day to day with the ongoing movement. You know, that's enough. Or I should say that's the minimum we need to sustain mental health and then of course I mentioned relationships is the number one predictor of happiness. Putting time aside. It's also the number one predictor of physical health and finally gratitude. You know, Oprah was right, an attitude of gratitude does contributes to to health and happiness.

Allan: 26:55 I completely agree. Those are, those are really cool. Thank you for sharing. If someone wanted to learn more about you, learn more about your book, Shortcuts To Happiness, where would you like for me to send them?

Tal Ben-Shahar: 27:07 Well, on my website, which is TalBenShahar.com there is access to my books also to my own online programs that are offered to the happiness studies academy. So I'd love people to visit and join.

Allan: 27:23 Okay, well you can go to 40plusfitnesspodcast.com/386 and I'll be sure to have the link there. So Tal, thank you so much for being a part of 40+ Fitness.

Tal Ben-Shahar: 27:34 Thank you Allan. Thank you very much.

Allan: 27:40 I hope you enjoyed today's episode and if you did, would you please consider becoming a supporter of the podcast? It's pretty easy. You go to 40plusfitnesspodcast.com/patreon and that will take you to a website where you can actually contribute to the show. There's different access levels that you have so you can get some additional goodies on top of just being mentioned in the show notes or something like that, but even a dollar an episode is, you know, it's not asking a lot I don't think, but I really would appreciate your support if you can go to 40plusfitnesspodcast.com/patreon and become a patron of the 40+ Fitness Podcast. Thank you.

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