Spend time with family. Enjoy nature. Read books.
These are ludicrously common-sense tips to help you enjoy life, but when Neil Pasricha voices them from a large stage in front of an audience of hundreds, 60 times a year, he gets thunderous applause.
“You know, the stuff that I’m teaching people is so obvious. But I think when they stand up and give me a standing ovation, it’s because I’m helping to remind them what’s actually important in life,” Pasricha said.
Pasricha broke records with his first TED talk “The 3 A’s of Awesome,” and now he blogs, writes, and speaks around the world on intentional living. The talk put him in the category of “motivational speaker,” which at first he disliked because it felt like a hollow title, but he’s since re-evaluated what it is he brings to other people.
“I actually teach people to be happy,” Pasricha said. He doesn’t conduct studies or surveys, but he’s read every positive psychology report he can get his hands on, and works to distill that information into things people can actually do in their day-to-day lives to improve the way they live.
“It’s so obvious when I say read a book, read a book on real paper, you think that’s not obvious? But you know how many people do it? No one! Nobody does it!”
It’s true—over a quarter of American adults read zero books in the past year, on any medium, and the results haven’t improved in the last four years. The typical American reads four books a year, if you count audio books as well.
It helps, perhaps, that Pasricha can cite a score of studies to back up the obvious, the wisdom so well-worn it seems intuitive and just common sense.
“I got off the stage after a speech a few months ago, and a guy, a 50-year-old man, well-dressed executive, runs up to me and says, ‘What’s wrong with my son?'” Pasricha said.
He asked, and found out the son was high school valedictorian, captain of the football team, and got into Duke University with a full scholarship where he graduated with honors. Then on the first day of his full-time job, he got an email from his boss in a rude tone. He went home, cried in bed, and called his dad saying he couldn’t go into work the next day—he was too devastated.
Shocking as it sounds, this is no longer unusual. The story merely solidified a theory Pasricha already had: we are losing the ability to be resilient.
Get Back Up
Pasricha had his own moment of emotional rock bottom—his wife at the time said she no longer loved him and asked for a divorce, and his best friend took his own life; two tragic events that occurred not long after one another.
For the first time in his life, he realized, “I have no ability to handle this.”
He lost a lot of weight, he went through a lot of therapy, and he started writing the 1000 Awesome Things blog, just the latest in a long line of websites Pasricha had made, which out of the blue became a hit, leading to his TED talk and his path of intentional living.
“I worked myself slowly out of that hole, but to be honest with you, I recognized in myself someone who had very low resilience,” Pasricha said.
In retrospect, it made sense.
“I was raised in the 80s—everybody got a gold star, and everybody got a participation ribbon, and everybody told me I was awesome—and I believed that,” Pasricha said.
Then he took a look at his parents’ lives, and realized they had experiences and perspectives a world apart.
“I recognized in their stories that resilience actually is a muscle that they had, and I eventually built when I had to, and which we all desperately need today,” Pasricha said.
His latest book, “You Are Awesome: How to Navigate Change, Wrestle With Failure, and Live an Intentional Life,” is all about resilience.
The fact of the matter is, everyone will at some point deal with failure, and even tragedy, whether it’s the death of a loved one or terrible separation. The book, in nine chapters, is a step-by-step guide not just to climb your way out, but to build those muscles of resilience so these habits enable a virtuous cycle.
Value Your Family
When Pasricha gave his TED talk a decade ago, he stopped in the middle of the talk just to introduce his parents.
“I’ve been told I’m the only person ever in history to [do that],” he said. “And I didn’t do that for any other reason than in East Indian culture your parents are such a huge part of your identity. And I just thought, hey I’ll never have a better chance to say thank you to them, so I did that.”
The book begins with a chapter about Pasricha’s mother, and ends with a chapter about his father. They’re deeply revealing personal stories. He talks about his mother’s arranged marriage with a man she met once, how she gave up her own education for her brothers’, and packed up to move to an entirely new country where she didn’t speak the language and didn’t know a soul, immediately after leaving her family to get married.
Throughout it all, his mother just kept adding a “dot-dot-dot” after any supposed setback. She didn’t know anyone … yet. She changed her story.
Pasricha’s father moved to the first country he got an acceptance letter from, and had the mindset of being a lifelong student and teacher. Every situation was an opportunity for connection and learning from strangers. From him, Pasricha learned to “never, never stop.”
“Those are really, I believe, sort of one-sentence summaries for how my parents lived their lives,” Pasricha said.
He admits they kept a lot of their life journeys from him; it wasn’t until his 20s when he had the idea to sit them down in front of a camera with their permission, and interview them deeply for five hours, that he got the full picture.
“I recommend everyone do this,” he said. “I have [the] video on [my] laptop and it’s one of my most prized possessions, which actually is a multiple-hour video of my parents. And through that interview process—because we never actually talk to our parents! We talk to our parents, but how often do you ask, ‘What was it like moving to this country? How did it feel when you landed here? How did you learn to drive here? What were you scared of? How did you learn to process that fear?'”
“And then it turns out my parents met this woman, this 90-year-old woman next door named Edith who kind of took them in, and taught them how to buy baby stuff because they were having a baby. It was one of these stories of a woman who would have never been discovered,” he said.
And this is not by any means limited to something worth knowing only when your parents have moved halfway around the world. Pasricha rattled off studies that indicate how social connection is the leading driver of happiness, and how the happiest societies with the most longevity around the world are those that value family. Yet we don’t.
“We have lost our sense of family,” Pasricha said. “We now fly somewhere for a good school, fly somewhere else for a great job, and fly somewhere else for a great promotion. You know what happens as a result? We only see each other on Thanksgiving and holidays.”
“Live, please, live near your family. Have lunch with your mom. See your sister on Sundays. Make sure your sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law are part of your life,” Pasricha said.
“The number one value I want society to embrace is re-value your family—dramatically increase the value of living and seeing your mom and your dad and your sister and your brothers and your sons and your daughters. Be near them. Otherwise, this is partly what’s driving so much loneliness.”
What’s Distracting Us
You really need only to own a smartphone to sooner or later realize it’s engineered to drain your energy and attention.
“I believe the culprit behind a lot of this low resilience is actually cellphones,” Pasricha said.
“Cellphones are killing us. Cellphones are an addiction we all share today, and they are dramatically spiking our anxiety levels, our depression levels, and our loneliness levels.
“Cellphones, while they give us tremendous problems … they are productivity killers; when you’re on your cellphone, according to McKinsey, you spend 31 percent of your time bookmarking, prioritizing, switching tasks, meaning you don’t actually do anything! You’re just deciding what to do.”
Digital screens and their blue light also inhibit melatonin, disrupting sleep on a physical level, and then there’s a whole host of psychological ways in which smartphones impact people, including what Pasricha says is comparing our regular lives, the “director’s cut,” with everybody else’s “greatest hits.” The implication is anxiety, depression, and the low resilience so many people suffer from.
Rather than the serotonin and oxytocin chemical rewards we get from bonding with loved ones and being in nature, we chase quick hits of dopamine via endless notifications until we numb our pleasure receptors and whittle away at our resilience.
According to some studies, around a third of college students have clinical anxiety, a quarter of the population have a mental illness, and four out of five people are lonely—rates skyrocketing from just a decade or two ago. These spikes not only correlate with the rise of smartphone adoption, but plenty of research on screen addiction shows it’s a serious and pressing problem.
“I’ll tell you exactly why I know it’s a problem—because I am definitely addicted to my cellphone,” Pasricha said. “I am so addicted to my cellphone that the only recourse that I have—by the way, my phone is in black and white, I live in airplane mode, that’s just how I have to live … my only recourse is I give my wife my phone and I tell her to hide it from me.”
“It’s a huge problem. I know it lowers my resilience—if I’m on the phone at night before bed—I shouldn’t be, but if I am—then guess what? I sleep terrible. Guess what I want to do in the morning? Jump on my phone. What’s my fantasy football score? Did someone reply to my email? How many likes did my Instagram post get?”
“I’m worried about it for my own children. How do we handle failure or even perceive failure?” he said.
“The reason I know it’s a problem is because I am suffering from it. I wrote this book for me, and for my kids,” Pasricha said. “Add a dot-dot-dot, shift the spotlight, you know. If my wife were to leave me today, or a child will pass away, or my parent’s in the hospital or something’s happened, I’m going to have to quickly remember to see it as a step; shift the spotlight, tell myself a different story. These are ways I’m going to have to move forward.”
In our chaotic world of constant communication, of endless “breaking news” cycles and scare-tactic headlines, reminders become necessary.
One of the things Pasricha gets asked most often is how to be happy.
“People forget that the model we grew up with on happiness is broken—we were taught that great work leads to big success and that leads to happiness,” he said. “It turns out the model’s backward, we need to be happy first, and then we do great work, and then once we do the great work, the big success follows.”
“Once people get that—I teach them how to get it,” Pasricha said. He talks them through things like reading 20 pages of fiction, deleting social media, journaling at night instead of being on your phone, and going on nature walks. It sounds simple, and it works—if you do it.
At these talks, Pasricha usually asks for volunteers to stand and make a public commitment to do these things—another study says that voicing that commitment publicly increases our follow-through tremendously—and he constantly gets emails from people who tell them it has worked.
“The umbrella term I use to define my own work is ‘intentional living,'” he said. “All I spend my time on is thinking, writing, and speaking on how we can live the best possible 30,000 days of life that we get.”