When I was first starting to think about the book I just started paying really close attention to television commercials. It is wild how there can be commercials for cat litter, or detergents, or for stainless steel cleaners, and the people are all beautiful! It has nothing to do with how the thing’s going to clean my refrigerator and get the grunge off the dishes.
Much of the economy runs on us not feeling like we’re enough. Then we try to buy or achieve our way out of it, and those go hand in hand, because the way that most people gain money to buy things is by achieving. There’s no time left to focus on things like building a strong community, or having patience, because it’s like you need this thing now to be happy.
How did you decided which practices are worth recommending?
I did a huge scan of the third wave behavioral therapies for depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder. In particular, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy. I started there because those all have really good, randomized controlled trials, and a solid evidence base. These things change behavior and experiences.
Then I looked at research psychology. So not clinical effectiveness, but when you take undergraduate students and measure them in a lab, or in an acute setting, what are predictors of a good life, or predictors of fulfillment? I looked into wisdom. What were the Stoics talking about? What were the Buddhists talking about? What were Taoists talking about? You start seeing these same patterns and themes emerge.
Then in reporting, I talked to people that seem like they’re quite grounded now, and often people that went through periods of time where they weren’t. I’ve asked them, “What’s changed? What do you practice?” I started to hear all these themes.
I’ve read a lot of the books you cite and it is interesting that like Lao Tzu is saying a similar thing to what, 2500 years later, psychology or self-improvement books are repeating.
When I was sick with OCD and I was going through therapy, I was seeing these principles. For me it was really eye opening. I read Mark Epstein’s book [Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart], and I’m like, “Holy shit. Everything I’ve been doing in therapy is just Buddhism.” The Buddha wrote cognitive behavioral therapy. Your thoughts, feelings, and sensations are all separate processes. You can watch them. You can separate from them.
So then I started saying, “What would a Stoic say?” It’s maybe a less self-compassionate framework, but it’s all the same stuff. Taoism? All the same. These acceptance and commitment [therapies], cognitive behavioral therapy, they’re branded as these cutting edge therapies, and in some ways they are because they’re the first psychological therapies that have been studied with scrutiny and showed good outcomes, but the content is not cutting edge at all. It’s just ancient wisdom.
There’s a coaching client of yours that you talk about towards the end of the book who knows intellectually all the things he needs to do to feel grounded, but he just can’t make himself do them. I think we’re all kind of that guy! We know what we need to do and we struggle to do it. Why do you think that is?
I think some of it is the human condition. We evolved very much in a way where we want to be lazy and conserve energy, and hacks definitely appeal to that. When you’re out on the savanna and there’s famine and constant caloric restriction deficit, you need to do everything you can to conserve energy. Then if you can get a big kill, you eat it and then you go back to conserving energy. It’s just hardwiring.