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199: How to Acquire the Ultimate Asset: Happiness

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Buck: Welcome back to the show everyone. Today my guest on Wealth Formula Podcast is Dr. Joel F. Wade PhD. Joel began working with clients in 1980 as a marriage and family therapist. He’s also taught at the graduate level and serves as a life coach for his clients. As a life coach, Joel helps clients to reach their goals in the service of creating a truly wonderful life, whatever the specific realities of their life might be. Joel, welcome to the program.

Joel: Thanks Buck, great to be here.

Buck: Yeah it’s good to have you too. Now I know you went to UC Santa Barbara where I live right now is obviously nearby there. You’re a water polo player. But how did you get into the business of happiness?

Joel: So I first got inspired to go into this work by Nathaniel Brandon 1979 right around then and I’d read his stuff and I went to a workshop I knew exactly what I want to do which is a wonderful thing to happen. Not everyone gets to know what they want to do. And their approach was very different from what I understood psychology to be because they were focusing on what makes for a good life, whereas most psychology for most of the you know its history is focused on how do you treat these symptoms and so that got me started originally and then when Marty Seligman became APA President had as his theme flourishing and what became the positive springe of psychology I felt like I was home. That’s always been where I’ve come from. Because well we suffer with symptoms you know we can have depression or anxiety or any number of different things in the big picture and trying to have a life that works those symptoms get smaller in comparison, whereas if you’re focusing just on the symptom it’s easier to deal with the problems of life too.

Buck: Right, right. so let’s let’s kind of talk about this idea of positive psychology which is really focused on it’s almost like preventive psychology the analogy here to medicine right just rather than just reacting to symptoms you’re actually getting in there and you know you’re you’re taking a role in sort of defining your wellness your well-being. I want to start out by just making a distinction because when you do this kind of work obviously you have to have some baseline and that baseline in this case is okay well how do how do we define some of these terms that we’re after like happiness and joy and well-being and so in your work how do you even start you know defining that so that if you want to attempt to achieve that you know what it is that you’re trying to go for?

Joel: Yeah exactly well you know we can feel happy moment by in a lot of different ways I mean something good happening, getting what you want, you could even I mean you could take a drug or something and feel happy for the moment but then have lots of negative downsides later. So my definition of happiness that I find useful is Aristotle’s definition which he would call eudaimonia which has more to do with being happy about your life in general so because life has lots of vicissitudes, we all have tragedies and loss and hard times and and good times and wonderful things that happen, we’re organic we’re not machines that just keep a steady state. So what’s useful is to find a way of being where even when things are hard, even when things are challenging, you still can feel good about yourself and about your life. And then when things are going well and you get to enjoy the love or the joy or the success or the elation, you can really take it in and really savor it. So the principles that I write about and talk about and work with people about are more long-term, they’re more about how are you gonna feel tomorrow if you do this today.

Buck: Right. So do you do you draw a distinction between you know some of these terms like when you say are you happy I mean do you feel joy I mean again I guess I’m just going back to this idea I guess we all kind of have this sense of you know what those terms mean but is it just that it’s just hard to define and we just kind of have to roll with it or I mean is there at least clinically a way that you define those things?

Joel: No I think it’s possible to define joy I mean that’s a feeling that you you have when things are going well or when something is delightful and we all know joy when we feel it and there are there are some some folks that define a certain amount of positive emotion by joy, love, elevation, you know the you know contentment. We can define these different emotions that are for me our emotional life has so much more to do with the future than most of us think. In fact there’s a wonderful book by Marty Seligman and Roy Baumeister and and two other authors Homo Prospectus where they really have gone deep into how our emotions focuses towards problem-solving in the future. We usually think oh I’m angry because somebody did something or I’m sad because I lost something or I’m happy because I got something, but more often than not it’s I’m angry because I don’t want this to happen again. And so what action can I take to prevent this from happening again. And about 85% of our emotional life is actually more geared toward the future.

Buck: I guess the question in my mind is is that a good thing or a bad thing because you know a lot of what you know I think especially in today’s society and you know constantly being on social media or you know looking ahead and not necessarily having as much social network around us, it seems to me that we’re increasingly living somewhere else rather than the present.

Joel: I would say with social media and and our phones and our little boxes that we get in, that’s really more around the present because it affects our whole dopamine system and it’s addictive. And so when we drop when we’re drawn to check our email check our texts, that’s all for that moment Perry hit of dopamine almost all of it is. So it actually takes us away from our a deeper sense of satisfaction that we get from going I’d like to visit my friend or I’d like to take a walk on the beach with my wife or I’d like to spend some time with my kids, what would be fun to do and where we’re connecting that’s present into the future, whereas our gadgets are about right now this moment.

Buck: Right. So you know you mentioned the dopamine hit and you know as uh as I mentioned you before I’m a physician I was a biochemistry major, former neurosurgeon. So I have you know a lot of these interests in the brain in general and fundamentally when I think of happiness I’ve been thinking about this lot lately and I wonder you know, is this sensation a psychological phenomenon or is it a physiologic phenomenon? And I would argue that I think it is a physiological phenomena but I don’t know which comes first the psychology or the biology what are your thoughts about that?

Joel: When you talk about that what is it that you’re referring to?

Buck: Well so to me happiness or the feeling of joy is ultimately you know I look at it as a you know from the physiology of it there’s something going on chemically and you mentioned the dopamine hit. But I do think that there is a sense of, again I’m the amateur psychologist here so, but I get the sense that some people are born with different happiness thermostats right, where they may have a range, they’re born in a range. My wife is a very inherently a very happy person, she’s always smiling she gets up in the morning she’s you know gonna know what’s going on it’s like she’s on the drug or something right whereas I tend to be a little bit more brooding and I’ve always been that way and I see my ten year old daughter and she’s kind of like me and she has no reason to be but she is. And so to me that is further sort of hits that idea that if we start with this idea that this is a fundamental physiological phenomena, it gives us potentially a better window in which to examine what we can do about it.

Joel: Yeah and so I think that said the answer to your question is yes, it is both physiological and psychological in that we do have a set point we do have a set range but with our minds and with our habits and our practices that we develop we can aim ourselves towards more the top of our range rather than being stuck towards the bottom of our range and so that’s really what we’re working with here and is we all come into the world with certain temperaments and some people are very outgoing and you can see that when they’re babies and some people are just they don’t like novelty as much and you can see that as an infant they’re the ones that when a stranger comes into the room they kind of snuggle into mom yeah whereas other kids early on a stranger comes in the room and they go oh what’s that, that could be good. So we have these temperaments in these set ranges and so then it’s a matter of okay given that just like any other capacity that we have biologically, how do we make most of it? So that that’s one reason why you know a big problem with like Facebook and social media is we have these comparisons with everybody else and so if we’re not you know the happiest or the most successful or something it’s easy to feel like well we’re not anything, we haven’t done anything. Whereas we each have our own personal range and the mission to me is given who you are your circumstances and everything, how do you make the most of that how do you make your best life out of that?

Buck: Yeah do you think do you think there are tools and I’m sure you deal with these things in your coaching etc, some of the you know research behind mindfulness, meditation, things like that, can allow you to sort of to change the range of your thermostat let’s put it that way to make it so that you can achieve greater fulfillment or happiness and by you know essentially training your brain, do you feel like in psychology there is some any evidence that you can do that?

Joel: Absolutely yes yeah there’s no question about that I mean that’s what my work is about is there’s a lot of very practical things. For example if you wanted to feel a moment of joy, the most effective thing you could do is do something kind for somebody else and I can almost guarantee you, if you do something kind for something is somebody else you’re gonna feel good. You’re going to have this feeling that’s really pretty wonderful and it’s immediate and it’s very predictable. If you want to feel happier in general some of the things we’ve looked into around gratitude. So thinking about three good things that happen at the end of each day and reflecting on those thinking of somebody you’re unambiguously grateful for and writing them a letter and bring it to them and reading it to them you can have about three months of a higher sense of well-being from doing that. So there are some very specific tangible things that you can do that can boost your overall level of well-being and happiness.

Buck: What do you and your practice, what do you see the role of meditation if any is this part of what your is this something that you think is you know very important maybe not for everybody what’s your take?

Joel: Yeah I think it’s very important there’s look there’s a lot of great research typically on the mindfulness and Barbara Fredrickson has done some work around the loving-kindness meditation and showing that if you practice that for six to seven weeks regularly it gives a significant boost to well-being that lasts. They’re very, very useful. One of the things that I teach people to do because not everybody is going to sit for an hour or even 15 minutes but even just slowing and deepening your breathing for about two minutes can have a positive effect especially if you if you tend to be stressed out and anxious a lot that can really kind of settle you more into your higher brain function and part of our nervous system that’s more calming more connecting and it just takes a couple of minutes and it’s not complicated.

Buck: Another concept that you know I actually think is interesting because of its relationship with the idea of mindfulness is flow and I heard you talking about this and I’ve heard you know others in the past and I’ve always kind of connected this with mindfulness in a way. Can you for our audience maybe just define the idea of flow you know in significance and you know how it might relate to a sense of well-being or happiness?

Joel: Yeah so flow is the state of total engagement and absorption in in work or play so it’s that state where you get in and you don’t notice time going by you’re not particularly noticing what you feel or what you sense you’re just all in with what you’re doing and it’s happens to be the state of mind where most of us feel the happiest and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi did some wonderful research on this and one of the things that he found is is that what flow does is and increases our complexity and it organizes our mind. So I mean you can be in Flow watching TV because you’re absorbed in it, but it doesn’t challenge you it doesn’t increase your complexity so you don’t have a sense of satisfaction afterwards. But if you have something that where you have high skills and the challenge is high so you have to stretch your skills to meet that challenge then when you’re in flow with that afterwards it’s one of the best feelings you can have because you’ve organized your mind at a higher level from doing it, you’re different from having done that in a way that maybe something with a low challenge wouldn’t do or if you’re distracted and not absorbed in what you’re doing.

Buck: To me there’s a little bit of a parallel in there with you know what we’re trying to accomplish with mindfulness right which is just being in the present right. I don’t know if there’s any you know and of course I’m always thinking about the physiology of this but I wonder if there’s any studies showing you know any relationship between you know the brain centers for flow and those that were activated during mindfulness.

Joel: I’m not familiar with any but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are the difference mindfulness you’re watching your own thoughts and emotions and and you’re observing them whereas flow you’re absorbed in an activity. And is generally more external but I wouldn’t be surprised if when we’re doing mindful meditation we’re in the state of flow doing that so it’s almost like maybe that’s a subset of flow in a way.

Buck: Yeah and I’m curious too because I know you know I was an athlete as a kid and I was completely obsessed with ice hockey growing up in Minnesota and I know you were basically a world-class water polo player. To me that’s when I think back of what people describe is flow I think of some of the times when I was playing ice hockey when I you know when I was a pretty good player and it was all nothing else mattered and there was a crowd and in you know the four high school hockey and you couldn’t hear anybody is that is that kind of what you’re talking about flow?

Joel: Absolutely that’s that’s been my one of my greatest joy most joyful connections with flow is that and it’s you just totally absorbed and totally focused to the point where one of the things that I noticed because I still play on the Masters level is when I’m thinking about the score or I want to win or I hope we win, I’m not in the game. The only thing if I’m thinking of any of that or any external things then I’m not in the game. I always have to bring myself back to the very fundamental just play my best just focus be absorbed play my best and then that makes it possible to have to have the best chance of winning and it feels really wonderful during and afterwards but any time if I’m distracted or wanting to know what the score is or what you know anything external it takes me out of it and it’s no fun either it takes the fun out of it.

Buck: You know I’ve thought about this too in the sense of I’ve thought about this in the sense I’ve been thinking about happiness a lot lately just in the context of you know we talked about a lot of wealth of stuff but you know happiness is such an important part when you reach this that I was trying to distinguish in my own head the happiest times in my life compared to you know just where I am every day now which is not bad but the happiest times of my life were when I was a kid just out playing just playing right so it’s almost to me it’s almost like okay what’s the biggest difference between you now as an adult and a serious adult and you as a happy-go-lucky kid and the answer may very well be flow the answer may be that every day that I was out in recess and every day I was playing with friends that was an exposure to this constantly what do you what do you think of that?

Joel: I think you’re right on the money with that because I as grown-ups we have so many different things on our mind you know financial things or you know how our kids doing or whatever you know what appointments are happening. All those things are necessary but they’re they take us out they’re not absorbing they’re not creative they’re not they’re not processed as we dive all the way in. There are things that it’s almost like we have this little calendar with data points that we’re referring to. It’s almost probably like when I talk about checking the score during a game and I think those take us out of it and so I think the more you can sort of put those on a shelf when you’re in a creative place and and allow yourself total absorption that’s when we get to feel that that sense of play and joy like we did when we were kids.

Buck: And it’s not just that moment either I mean it’s sort of you know sort of exercising a muscle right that maybe is as adults it’s not uncommon for us to to let atrophy with the you know with the monotonous things that we have to do to support ourselves.

Joel: Oh yeah yeah yeah we we get good at whatever we practice so if we’re practicing worrying and and and dwelling on things all the time then we get really good at we spend most of our time doing that and one of the things that really helps me and that I’ve noticed has been helpful for my clients and people I work with is separating out what we can control from what we can’t control. It’s an old stoic principle but it really whenever we’re worrying about something it’s almost guaranteed we’re thinking about something we don’t have control over. And as parents were sort of stuck with it because our kids have our pain receptors on their bodies so we but we can’t control them so there’s going to be a certain amount of worry when you have kids it’s gonna come in but to remind yourself you know I don’t have control over that. That’s one of the things that can help you come back to okay what do I have control over and those are the things we can really dive in and get into that state of flow about.

Buck: One of the other things that I was thinking about regard to flow and I wonder if this is a at least a part of what you do with your clients is you know take a guy like me who was an ice hockey player and that was really where I found my flow, I also found flow by the way when I was operating. I didn’t really practicing medicine anymore but I did like operating I know it sounds terrible and you’ll hear that from a lot of surgeons I’m just being honest. But the truth the matter is that that was something that I really when I was doing it would give me the sensation okay now I’m a retired surgeon I’ve had back surgery four times and I’m not really in shape I can’t really play hockey anymore. In some respects do you feel like when people get into these situations they have to figure out okay well where can I find my flow now and start going out trying to discover new things?

Joel: Yeah absolutely and the interesting thing is I was just reading something the other day about how really elite athletes in that state of flow their eyes have a certain quality to them where they focused a little more before and after an event a shot or something than somebody that’s not so good and so that that focus and they’ve also found that with surgeons. So the chances are you are feeling the same quality while you’re doing surgery as you were playing hockey, very different circumstances but I would say yeah it’s very important to find something where you can have that kind of intensity. That’s one of the reasons I still play water polo is it just feels so good to be all in with that and even though it’s slower at 60 you know it’s a much slower game than at 20 it feels the same and there’s the same intensity of it.

Buck: I want to ask you one more question because you know at the end of the day this is you know we this is a personal finance show as well and just to shift a little bit in on the topic of money. Can money buy you happiness and if so how much money do you need? There was a Princeton study on this I believe right something else.

Joel: Yeah so I think it depends on where you live you know but basically the the biggest return for happiness is when you have your basic needs met. So you have food shelter clothing you know and you’re not in a state of anxiety over or you can be able to make your rent or something. So once you’ve established that, that’s the biggest increase in happiness. But and a lot of people say well then that’s all you need and that’s that but it also grows as you as you earn more money depending on what you do. I think at that point all the different factors come in so like are you making more money at something you hate well that’s not a good trade but are you making more money and you love your work that’s going to have more of a synergistic effect in you so beyond your your fundamental needs then the other questions really matter. But it does it does make a difference particularly what I mean when you get beneath that level that’s when it really hits our survival level and it’s scary.

Buck: Yeah so the interesting things I think this was and it’s a good point that you bring up that it probably should be based on where you live do you like it Southern California versus you know misses your Alabama here you know if you’re I think the Princeton study cited a you know no significant increase after $75,000 but you know right in San Francisco you’ll be living in the below the poverty. Well listen I want to know a little bit about your programs. Tell us about your programs and I know you have a podcast to which unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to listen to but you were you know recommended by a friend of mine I was a listener on this show as well so tell us about your podcast tell us about you know all your programs.

Joel: So my podcast is The Mastering Happiness podcast and where I talk about things like we’re talking about today but more focus you know the same each one has a theme I have a book The Virtue of Happiness is my most recent book and Mastering Happiness is a little earlier. I work with people as a life coach around the world via phone and Skype and I work with businesses helping them bring the principles of positive psychology and and effective culture building into their businesses and helping them really make that work. And a lot of it has to do with having very clear principles rather than something abstract on the wall as a mission statement. So those are those are my main focuses of my work today.

Buck: And tell us about the coaching program.

Joel: So I work with people around lots of different issues my background is in and family therapist I’m still licensed but mostly what I do is coaching nowadays so I work I do couples coaching I work with people around work success or in I’ve worked with elite athletes to hone their skills and their mental skills and just anybody that wants to feel more happiness and more success in their lives and it takes lots of different forms I have the honor of working with a lot of different people around different things and one of the things that I love is what I get to do when I work with people is see a part of people that’s really heroic that a lot of people don’t get to see and that’s what’s really sort of profound for me is the the unseen heroism and you know courage that we bring that maybe it’s around things we don’t even talk about with people.

Buck: And if somebody might be interested in your coaching how can they find out about this our website?

Joel: Yeah my website is drjoelwade.com and all my contact information is there and there’s a little thing you can write if you’re interested in coaching. I offer a free conversation by phone to see if it’s a good fit, don’t like to charge people if I’m not the one to help them and and so everything you can find that all on my website.

Buck: Fantastic Joel. Thank you so much for your time and for being on Wealth Formula Podcast today.

Joel: My pleasure. This is a lot of fun.

Buck: We’ll be right back.