March 21, 2016 by Speakers' Spotlight
Does Author Neil Pasricha Know the Secret to Happiness?
Neil Pasricha is Director of The Institute for Global Happiness and the New York Times bestselling author of The Book of Awesome, which spent over five years on bestseller lists and sold over a million copies. He has dedicated over ten years of his life to developing leaders and speaking about happiness to hundreds of thousands of people around the world. His most recent book The Happiness Equation is now available, and The Globe and Mail took some time to talk to Neil about his mission to make the world a happier place:
Here’s a small sample of the countless titles you’ll find if you search Amazon, or Indigo, or Kobo, for a book about happiness: Real Happiness. The Little Manual of Happiness. The Happiness Hypothesis. Stumbling on Happiness.Before Happiness. The How of Happiness and The Myths of Happiness – these are by the same author. Hardwiring Happiness. The Happiness Advantage. Delivering Happiness. A bunch of books simply called Happiness. Even His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, has written one: The Art of Happiness.
The Happiness Equation, which was published last week, is “the seventy-fifth thousandth” addition to the genre, jokes its author, Neil Pasricha. He’s exaggerating, of course, but only just, which makes one wonder why he’d bother entering into one of the publishing industry’s most competitive sectors, one overcrowded by a field of academics armed with years of research, slick self-help gurus shilling the secret to satisfaction, saccharine motivational speakers with a TED Talk-ready spiel and wannabe life coaches claiming they can change someone’s life.
So why did Pasricha, the ebullient 36-year-old author of The Book of Awesome series, which set up camp on the New York Times and Globe and Mail bestseller lists and sold more than one million copies around the world, pivot from, as he puts it, “the observation of awesome to the application of it?” An almost-evangelical – and, admittedly, infectious – desire to make the world a happier place.
“Our self-reported happiness is totally flat,” he says, citing an ongoing study at Michigan’s Hope College that reveals only roughly 20 per cent of people identify as happy, a number that has remained static since the 1950s despite increased prosperity, longer life expectancy, access to information and other indicators that would suggest a happier society. “It has not changed at all. And add the fact that today, if you type in ‘How to be’ into Google, the first drop-down is ‘happy.’ It’s what people are searching for the most.
“We want to be happy, but we’re not,” he continues. “It’s the hardest thing to find.”
The question is whether it can be found in a book.
Asking someone if they’re happy can be a weirdly intimate question, almost like asking a person how much money they make, or how many people they’ve slept with. Pasricha doesn’t have any such qualms; it was, on a recent weekday afternoon, the first question he asked the fifty-odd people who’d gathered in his publisher’s downtown Toronto boardroom to hear him speak.
Until recently, he served as director of leadership development at Wal-Mart Canada; he left the retail giant last month to devote more time to the Institute for Global Happiness, an organization he founded last November specifically to improve happiness in the workplace. This boardroom struck me as a happy workplace: Almost everyone put their hand in the air – some more tentatively than their colleagues – but certainly more than then 20-per-cent number Pasricha cites. (“It’s hard to use the survey in the room as a sample, because there’s peer pressure,” he later explains when I ask how the response squares with his assertion that most people aren’t happy. “Who wants to be the guy saying, ‘I’m not happy. I’m sitting beside my boss!’ It’s hard!”)
Pasricha, wearing dark jeans, a white button-up shirt, a black blazer and a grin that rarely leaves his face over the next 60 minutes, launches into his talk, which moves from his Oshawa, Ont., childhood – his father, originally from India, was a high-school science teacher, while his mother, who came to Canada from Kenya, was an accountant – to the origins and success ofThe Book of Awesome to his current preoccupation (some might argue obsession) with happiness. It’s a charming presentation, alternating between sentimental and self-deprecating, and shows why his books are now just one part of his brand – Pasricha has become a sought-after public speaker.
“I’m an extrovert – I get energy from people,” he says, afterward, sitting in a quiet conference room down the hall. “I get a thrill from sharing ideas, and seeing people’s faces, and connecting with people, and trying to make a joke based on what someone says in the room right then. Maybe I’m a failed stand-up comic, or a failed comedy writer.”
That’s not far from the truth. Pasricha, while studying commerce at Queen’s in the late nineties, began contributing to Golden Words, the university’s National Lampoon-esque weekly humour newspaper, penning oddball, irreverent pieces under the nom de plume “Phreakshow” and eventually rising to the position of co-editor-in-chief.
“We got in trouble weekly,” he says of his time with the newspaper. “And we loved that, because we thought that meant we were being provocative and we were challenging ourselves. We sent subscriptions of Golden Words to The Onion, to [The Late Show with David] Letterman, to The Simpsons.”
The summer before his final year, Pasricha spent the summer in New York, where he’d landed an internship with Modern Humorist, a now-defunct comedy website founded during the heyday of the first dot-com era, working side-by-side with writers from The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live and National Lampoon.
“I got paid $10 a day – it was a stipend, they called it – and I rented an apartment on the Lower East Side for $2,000,” he recalls. “On top of all that, I hated it.” It’s a story he recounts in The Happiness Equation in a chapter called “Why your dream job could be the worst job you ever have.” “Golden Words was freeing, it was creative, there was no one getting paid. [Modern Humorist] was like, ‘We’re on deadline, and the deadline is today, and you have to write with that guy, and you have to be funny.’ It became constrictive, and it became like work, and so I told myself – I didn’t follow my own advice – that I wouldn’t do something for extrinsic motivators ever again, because that’s a path to not loving what you do.”
During the time I spent talking with Pasricha, I sometimes sensed a tension between the flippant, take-no-prisoners humourist he was and the always-smiling, speaking-in-platitudes happiness guru he’s become. “I worry sometimes if I’ve strayed from that person,” he says at one point, dropping his guard. Later, he says that “I hope I am authentic, always. It would be a real blow to my identity if someone were to tell me, ‘Hey, you’re a fake’ or “You’ve become a shill.’ That would kill me.” It’s not that he’s a fake – while painfully earnest at times, there’s little question Pasricha wholeheartedly believes what he’s selling – but that any edges that might have once existed are now smooth. He’s a pro at making you feel, well, happy.
The irony is that he started his career-making blog, 1000awesomethings.com, in the summer of 2008 during a profoundly unhappy period of his life.
“I was not in a good place,” he says. “I had lost 40 pounds due to stress. I was going through a divorce. I was seeking therapy – I was talking to a therapist sometimes twice a week. I was processing my emotions through my blog.”
What began as an off-kilter, idiosyncratic ode to the small, often-overlooked joys in life – fat baseball players, getting grass stains, picking up a Q and a U at the same time in Scrabble – had become something deeper by the time the countdown reached #1 in April, 2012. (The final entry was “Anything you want it to be.”) Reading the blog today, you can see Pasricha’s transformation into a more mature, introspective writer, one concerned with not only the things that make him happy, but making others happy, as well.
“What really struck me about Neil’s blog is how universally appealing it is,” his literary agent, Erin Malone, says. “I was at a family wedding around that time, and ended up sitting around a laptop with family members of all ages long into the night reading entries aloud. No matter if we were 8 or 80, each struck a chord with all of us. And that’s how it’s been with everything Neil has written.”
After the site won a Webby Award for best blog in 2009, Malone and other agents flooded Pasricha’s inbox with proposals to turn his site into a book.The Book of Awesome was published in April, 2010, followed by The Book of (Even More) Awesome in April, 2011, and The Book of Holiday Awesome in November, 2011. (There was also a “Journal of Awesome,” several editions of the “Calendar of Awesome,” an App of Awesome, and a picture book,Awesome is Everywhere, which came out last year.)
“From a creative output [perspective], I’m very happy. Looking back, I didn’t realize how unique it was to release three new hardcover books in 18 months,” he says, a feat accomplished while he was working full-time for Wal-Mart. “[But] when I look back on it from a personal health point-of-view, I could have taken better care of myself. I should have gone to the gym. I should have maybe taken up meditation. I should have cooked once. I should have done something on a Friday or Saturday night, once, besides writing. I was obsessive.”
Somewhere in there, Pasricha got married for a second time, to a Toronto elementary school teacher named Leslie Richardson. It was on their honeymoon, on the plane back to Canada, in fact, that the book that became The Happiness Equation was born – Leslie discovered she was pregnant. Soon after, Pasricha began a letter to his unborn son, getting up at 5 a.m. each morning before going to work, writing down everything he knew about happiness.
“What I actually [wanted] to give him was a manual – and I hate that word, ‘manual,’ because you picture programming a VCR – but I mean like a handbook, a guide,” he explains. “It’s, like, what do you want most for you kid? Literally, what does any parent want most for their kid? I just want my kid to be happy.”
Pasricha, for his part, is fully aware of the glut of books on the subject: “I would be the first to say there is happiness fatigue in the world. The last thing anyone wants is more stuff on happiness. There’s too much!”
“You’ve got to be very sure that you’re got something to say – that it’s not just going to be a rehash of every other book that’s been written,” says Gretchen Rubin, author of the mega-selling The Happiness Project, and host of the podcast Happier. “It’s so easy, especially with happiness, to fall into cliché.” She rattles off a few shudder-worthy sentences readers may find in most self-help books before adding her own commentary. “Blah, blah, blah. It writes itself. You read it in near-identical terms a million different times! And so, how do you say things in a way that makes it feel fresh? How do you bring a voice to it so somebody can [read] it without their eyes glazing over?”
Pasricha, in Rubin’s mind, accomplishes this; she agreed to blurb The Happiness Equation, a book that is almost sinking under the weight of its blurbs – from fellow happiness authors such as Rubin, CEOs, Fortune 500 executives and even astronaut Chris Hadfield, who calls the book “unstoppingly useful.”
The book, whose subtitle is Pasricha’s formula for happiness, “Want nothing + do anything = have everything,” is structured around nine different secrets: “Do it for you,” “Never retire,” etc. It’s stuffed with exercises to increase happiness, inspirational anecdotes and quotes from the likes of Tom Hanks, Aristotle and John Lennon, hand-sketched doodles, charts and grafs (i.e. “The triangle of success”), and motivational poster-ready buzzwords.
A happiness aggregator of sorts, Pasricha buttresses his advice in part by relying on a degree’s worth of various happiness studies, lending his work a layer of credibility.
“There are more books now that are based on empirical research, and the reason is that the authors are reading it – before, self-help authors, or self-help gurus, were just kind of writing their opinions,” says Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of The How of Happiness (which Pasricha calls “the best study ever done”) and The Myths of Happiness. “More and more, Gretchen Rubin, people writing about happiness now, they’re reading my and my colleagues’ work … [but] they don’t necessarily interpret it the way that I would.”
It’s a concern echoed by Dr. Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory and social action at Swarthmore College and author of, among other books, The Paradox of Choice, which Pasricha cites. Schwartz says he reads “almost none of the self-help stuff, largely because I find it thin at best and entirely made up at worst.
“The authors sometimes mis-describe or misinterpret results, but what bothers me more is the tendency to glom onto one study and make global generalizations on the basis of that study,” he writes in an e-mail. “Even worse is when they go from generalizations to life recommendations. To be clear, academics do this too when they are writing for general audiences. I tried not to commit this sin in my own book, but no doubt I, too, had some blind spots.”
Still, while Lyubomirsky maintains “not everyone can be a happiness expert,” she sees value in even the most dubious of titles. “There’s always going to be someone who finds any particular book incredibly useful and life-changing.”
In the case of The Happiness Equation, Pasricha hopes the book will appeal to everyone from “the business person who’s looking for a way to become happier at work” to the “stay-at-home mom who coaches a soccer team.
“At the end of the day, though, you write, no matter what you’re writing, for yourself,” he says. “So I need to read this book. I need to remember these rules, because I constantly break them, and I’m searching for happiness myself.”
One of the reasons he left Wal-Mart, which he calls “a dream job,” is that between a nine-to-five job, public speaking engagements, writing and home life, Pasricha felt – while not unhappy – that he was being stretched too thin. As well, Pasricha and Richardson (who serves as the institute’s director of education) are expecting their second child in April.
“There’s a fallback plan in place,” he says, “which is I’ll go ask someone for a job again if the whole thing crumbles like a house of cards. Which it could easily do.”
If the institute fails to take off, he can probably make a decent career writing books; The Happiness Equation was the best-selling non-fiction book in Canada during its first week in stores, and I e-mailed Pasricha on Wednesday afternoon, not long after getting the news, to ask what he thought. He was in Calgary, preparing to give a talk at WestJet’s head office, but replied within the hour.
“We all want to be happy! We want it more than anything else. Managers want it for their teams. Parents for their kids. And kids for their parents. I think and hope that The Happiness Equation hitting #1 means parents, teachers, and managers all now know that happiness is a choice and that cultivating it – step by step, secret by secret – is the single biggest difference we can all make in improving our lives and relationships. I wanted The Happiness Equation to be the action book I could give to my son. I’m happy it’s finding homes everywhere else, too.”