Neil Pasricha is a New York Times bestselling author of seven books, including The Book of Awesome (Amazon, Bookshop) and The Happiness Equation (Amazon, Bookshop). He’s also the host of the award-winning podcast 3 Books. The latest installment of his bestselling series, Our Book of Awesome: A Celebration of the Small Joys That Bring Us Together (Amazon, Bookshop), hit shelves this week.
I’ve known Neil and admired his work for many years, and I couldn’t wait to talk to him about happiness, habits, and small joys.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Neil: First off, Gretchen! I just want to say thanks. You’ve been talking about me and my OG blog and books with your community since 2009! That’s like the Paleozoic Era of Internet time. So, thanks, more than anything, for your friendship.
Now, to answer your question! What super-high-leverage habit can I impart? This one’s easy for me! Every single day I wake up—with my cell phone out of my bedroom!—and do something I call two-minute mornings.
I grab a pen, a piece of paper, and write down:
- I will let go of…
- I am grateful for…
- I will focus on…
For example, I might write:
I will let go of… comparing how popular my podcast is with Gretchen’s.
I am grateful for… having Internet friends I actually made before my first book still help me for my tenth, the way my 1 year old gets so excited to throw dirty laundry down the stairs, and the one barbecue potato chip in the bag with the most barbecue powder on it…
I will focus on… filling out this Q&A for Gretchen!
Anyway, each of the 3 prompts is backed by research and the practice helps you ‘win the morning to win your day. I could drone on and one about the research here but I’ll just point your readers to a longform viral HBR article I wrote on the concept if they’d like to work it into their life.
Just remember this: The average person is awake for 1000 minutes a day—that’s it!—and taking 2 to do this research-based ritual helps your other 998 minutes be happier.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
You know Gretchen, it’s interesting.
Like you, I grew up reading books. Loved books! And then right about when I was 18 and went to college … I stopped. Not sure if six years of textbooks just beat my love of books out of me or what. But I stopped reading. Stopped! So embarrassing for an author.
I mean I literally remember after my divorce having my not-yet-girlfriend Leslie over to my downtown bachelor apartment and she’s like “Where’s your books?” and I was like “Oh, who has time to read anymore!” and she just looked at me horrified. Like “I should leave this man right now.”
And today? At age 43? I read over 100 books a year. And I know, in my soul, and from the research, that reading books is the single biggest lead domino to almost everything that makes me happy in my life. Reading books makes me a better husband, a better father, a better neighbor, a better citizen, a better activist, a better conversationalist—and all those things bring me great joy.
You may know the George R.R. Martin quote: “The man who reads lives a thousand lives before he dies … the man who never reads lives only one.”
I say we need to read books — real books on real paper — more than ever before. We spend over five hours a day on our phones right now. In a world of endless dings and pings we need to get back to single-tasking. That’s partly why I started up my podcast 3 Books—which you were so kind to be one of my first guests on!—back in 2018. It’s a path to finding great books again.
And, hey, fellow Rubin Lover, if you don’t believe me, take it from a 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology showed that reading triggers our mirror neurons and opens up the parts of our brain responsible for developing empathy, compassion and understanding. That’s EQ! The toughest-to-grow leadership skills of all. Another study from Science Magazine in 2013 showed that reading literary fiction helps improve empathy and social functioning. And, finally, a 2013 study at Emory University showed MRIs taken the morning after test subjects were asked to read sections of a novel showed an increase in connectivity in the left temporal cortex. What’s that? The area of the brain associated with receptivity for language. The MRIs were done the next day.
Just imagine the long-term benefits of cracking open a book every day.
Reading! Books! Reading books! Powerful driver of happiness. Yet 57% of Americans read zero books last year. We have to remember, and get back into, books!
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit?
Well, lemme stick with “not reading” to “reading” for a second here. I mean, seriously Gretchen, I went from reading four or five books a year in 2017 to reading fifty in 2018 to reading over 100 a year now.
HOW? I’ll give your readers three simple ways to kickstart (if it’s dead) or turbocharge (if it’s alive but sputtering) their own reading habit.
- Centralize reading in your home. Back in 1998, psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues performed their famous “chocolate chip cookie and radish” experiment. They split test subjects into three groups and asked them not to eat anything for three hours before the experiment. Group 1 was given chocolate chip cookies and radishes, and were told they could eat only the radishes. Group 2 was given chocolate chip cookies and radishes, and were told they could eat anything they liked. Group 3 was given no food at all. Afterward, the researchers had all three groups attempt to solve an impossible puzzle, to see how long they would last. It’s not surprising that group 1, those who had spent all their willpower staying away from the cookies, caved the soonest. What does this have to do with reading? I think of having a TV in your main living area as a plate of chocolate chip cookies. So many delicious TV shows tempt us, reducing our willpower to tackle the books.
Roald Dahl’s poem “Television” says it all: “So please, oh please, we beg, we pray / go throw your TV set away / and in its place, you can install / a lovely bookshelf on the wall.”
Last year my wife Leslie and I moved our sole TV into our dark, unfinished basement and got a bookshelf installed on the wall beside our front door. Now we see it, walk by it, and touch it dozens of times a day. And the TV sits dormant unless the Blue Jays are in the playoffs. Which isn’t often.
- Make a public commitment. In his seminal book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini shares a psychology study showing that once people place their bets at the racetrack, they are much more confident about their horse’s chances than they were just before laying down the bet. He goes on to explain how commitment is one of the big six weapons of social influence. So why can’t we think of ourselves as the racehorses? Make the bet on reading by opening an account at Goodreads, friending a few coworkers or friends, and then updating your profile every time you read a book. Or put together an email list to send out short reviews of the books you read. I do exactly that each month, with my Monthly Book Club Email. I stole the idea from bestselling author Ryan Holiday, who has a great reading list.
- Change your mindset about quitting. This may be the most important one and it’s a bit subtle. Hear me out! It’s one thing to quit reading a book and feel bad about it. Most of us do this. Vestigial guilt from eighth grade when you didn’t finish reading Lord of the Flies or whatever. But I say: When you quit a book you should feel proud of it. Don’t settle for neutral, Gretchen! It’s pride we want here. All you have to do is change your mindset. Just say, “Phew! Now I’ve finally ditched this brick to make room for that gem I’m about to read next.” I quit three or four books for every book I read to the end. I do the “first five pages test” before I buy any book (checking for tone, pace, and language – things that aren’t gonna change if I like it or not) and then let myself off the hook if I need to stop halfway through.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?
Oh my god yes. So, let’s go back to two-minute mornings. Do I try to do that every morning? Yes. What if my one-year-old is up scream-coughing at 4am and I need to take him on a walk around the pitch-black block so he doesn’t wake up everybody else? That happens! So do a million other interruptions. The growth for me, Gretchen, is honestly just not beating myself up when I fall off the wagon. Recognizing that it’s inevitable. And, here’s the important part, non-judgementally getting back on. The getting back on is key. We so often don’t get back on because we’re busy beating ourselves up. So: If I miss doing two-minute mornings today? I just try again tomorrow.
Remember: The goal is not to be perfect. The goal is just to be better than before. To fully borrow one of your book titles.
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
You mean like you reading Gary Taubes!? Ha! I’ll never forget when you told me about that on 3 Books.
So, I guess yes: This is perhaps a good time to tell people my backstory. Essentially, in my late 20s, after my wife left and after my best friend took his own life, I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, and lost forty pounds due to stress. I started going to therapy twice a week, and, here’s the major change, I began a blog to try and cheer myself up. The blog was called 1000 Awesome Things and for the next 1000 straight weekdays I posted a short essay about one small joy in life.
My mind was dark and many of my attempts were duds—my first awesome thing was broccoflower, the ‘strange mutant hybrid child of nature’s ugliest vegetables’—but some posts started making me smile: Bakery air, warm underwear out of the dryer, and playing on old, dangerous playground equipment.
Still, nobody read the blog except for my mom. Although, one day, she forwarded it to my dad and my traffic doubled. And then one day I started getting tens of hits. And then one day I started getting hundreds. And then thousands. And then … millions. It just got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and then I got a phone call and the voice on the other end of the line said, “You just won the Best Blog in the world award!” And I said, “That sounds totally fake.”
But turns out it was real. It was The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences and they flew me down to New York City to parade me down a red carpet before handing me the award for “Best Blog”. When I got home to Toronto I found ten literary agents waiting for me in my inbox, eager to turn 1000 Awesome Things into . . . The Book of Awesome.
The Book of Awesome came out in 2010 and landed on the New York Times bestseller list and stayed on international bestseller lists for over 200 weeks over 8 years. Over the next two years a litany of sequels and spin-offs followed: The Book of (Even More) Awesome, The Book of (Holiday) Awesome, The Calendar of Awesome, The Journal of Awesome, The App of Awesome, and on it went.
Over a million copies of the books were sold and it spawned a pre–social media movement of people mailing in photos of themselves with the book in front of famous landmarks and hundreds of elementary and high schools creating plays, projects, and homemade Books of Awesome based on the concept. I got invited to give a TED Talk, got asked to “teach America to be happy” on the Today show, and was flown to Abu Dhabi to speak to the royal family.
What’s the takeaway? Well, it depends what you want, of course. But I paint that story out of people here, now, 14 years later, just to show the potential impact of being ‘hit by a lightning bolt’ or making a sudden change.
And now here we are in 2022 talking about the release of my tenth book or journal: Our Book of Awesome. I would never be here without being there.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
I do really like “No or hell yeah”.
I got this idea from the brilliant Derek Sivers. Here’s how it works: You receive an invitation to do something (a date, a job, a social event, whatever), then take a minute to observe your authentic reaction—which is invariably either one of two things: 1) A super emphatic, fist-pumping, “Hell yeah!” where you’re just shaking with excitement to do it (in which case you do it), or 2) Literally anything else at all (in which case you don’t.
The beauty of this model is that it filters every other positive reaction into a no: “Um, sounds good!”, “Lemme check my calendar, I think I’m open,” or the dreaded, “Can I get back to you?” No, no, all no!
Those are lukewarm reactions that remain positive until just before you get to the commitment and realize you wish you’d said no instead. Maybe you even bail last-minute, which destroys trust and hurts your reputation. It’s much easier to simply filter your options through the “No or Hell Yeah” model up front, to make sure you’re only committing to things you really want to do.
And if that tiny iota of life advice isn’t hitting I also just recently wrote a list of 43 Things I’ve (Almost) Learned By Age 43. Here it is right here.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
Yes, people often assume that ‘awesome’ should be reserved for ‘staring into the Grand Canyon’ type feelings only.
I say: No! Wide eyes on graduation stages, father-daughter dances at weddings, healthy babies screeching in delivery rooms – these big moments only ever add up to a tiny, tiny percentage of our lives. We need to train our brains to see awe in the simple and smaller joys of life. Research from Maria Monroy and Dacher Keltner show that experiencing awe is associated with lower stress and inflammation levels and a higher sense of meaning and connection. And awe is quickly being redefined in the literature to apply to small pleasures, too. We were just ahead of the curve! LOL. (Do you remember your cover blurb for The Book of Awesome back in 2010, Gretchen? “Little things, it turns out, are extremely important to happiness.”)
What kinds of small, simple things am I talking about? I’m glad you asked! Here are a few from my new book Our Book of Awesome:
- Successfully carrying the ice cube tray to the freezer without spilling
- When your kids don’t hear you opening a bag of chips
- Seeing your parents dance
- Nailing the timing on that avocado
- When the cake plops flawlessly out of the pan
- Finally unsubscribing from that annoying email you’ve been getting forever
- When the hand sanitizer isn’t that extra slippery kind that never dries
- Adding a gift note to yourself in your online order
- When a human answers the phone
- Actually making the right amount of spaghetti
I have a few secret ingredients to source awesome things:
– I do 1 NNO (“Neil’s Night Off”) a week and my wife does 1 LNO (“Leslie’s Night Off”) each week. We have little kids but these two nights ‘pay for each other’ and it lets me take long walks which is an incredible tool to combat stress and anxiety and fuel creativity. Plus, trees release a chemical called phytoncides which lower cortisol and adrenalin levels. As Thoreau said “Nothing can befall me in life—no disgrace, no calamity—which nature cannot repair.”
– I take deep cell phone breaks—My wife and I keep our chargers downstairs. Research shows exposure to bright light within two hours of bedtime reduces our melatonin production. Everyone’s talking about intermittent fasting with their food. They should be talking about intermittent fasting with their phones.
– I don’t believe in retirement—I believe retirement is a false prophet based on assumptions that are no longer true—that we want to do nothing, that we can afford to do nothing, that we can afford to pay others to do nothing. I believe we don’t actually want to retire. We just want the 3 S’s instead: Social (having friends), Stimulation (always learning), and Story (purpose). If you have those 3 S’s you never need to retire.
I would also, of course, shine a spotlight on anything that you’d particularly like to bring to readers’ attention.
Well, I have a new book! For the first time in 10 years I have returned to writing a new Book of Awesome. It’s a 432-page hardcover from Simon&Schuster and you can check it out right here: www.ourbookofawesome.com
Why did I write this book? Honestly, I’ve found myself feeling overwhelmed by a world that seems messed up with algorithm-infused addictions, widening wealth gaps, destabilizing senses of reality, reductions in privacy and freedoms—all against a backdrop of environmental, political, and mental health turmoil. I have felt raw, fried, chewed up, and spit out, and so I have turned to the medicine that research proves works. Finding small pleasures. Writing them down. Sharing them. Reminding ourselves of the endless simple joys we’re surrounded by every day.
Why is this book called “Our” book of awesome?
As Daniel Gilbert wrote in Stumbling on Happiness: “If I knew everything about you—your race, your income, your health, your nationality—none of it would compare to the strength of your relationships with your friends and family.” I believe the collective ‘we’ is being lost in society today. You can see it in any public space where, instead of interacting, we all have our heads down in our phones.
Our Book of Awesome is the first book of awesome where you can hear voices from people all over the world. (I took out my face, bio, and even the dedication and acknowledgements, so it could feel like our book—not mine.)
In addition to awesome things by me you’ll hear the story of a couple using awesome things to connect on a brief Christmas layover between military stints, a cancer patient using awesome things with her young children, teachers teaching lessons on awesome things to students, and lots of incredible entries from people around the world like:
- Wheelchair accessible nature trails
- Cooking for a loved one whose just been released from 27 years of incarceration
- A steaming bald head after a satisfying winter run
- When you go out for lunch and your daughter is your server
- Hearing the little boys playing upstairs from my basement apartment
What else do you want to share with us, Neil?
Well, sadly, we live in overwhelming times. Nothing is more important—and vital!—today than cultivating the habit of positive thinking. Being happy first is the lead domino to becoming a better spouse, parent, son, daughter, brother, or sister… Our Book of Awesome is a tool to cultivate a positive mindset. I hope it’s helpful for everyone. I know it has been for me. Thank you deeply Gretchen for another joyful connection. I think this has to be our ninth or tenth over the years. It’s a real treat, as always. Grateful for your friendship and the light you endlessly leave on for the world.