What does it mean to be happy? How do you define happiness? What is the difference between awe and gratitude? How do you stay a New York Knicks fans when they’ve given you decades of disappointment?
Sonya sat down with clinical psychologist, author and keynote speaker Jonah Paquette to get answers to all of these questions.
Jonah specializes in the science of well-being and emotional fitness. He is the author of four books promoting those topics including Happily Ever After, Awestruck, The Happiness Toolbox and Real Happiness.
He completed his graduate training at PGSP-Stanford PsyD Consortium in Palo Alto, California. He worked in the healthcare system at Kaiser Permanente before his newer focus on speaking and training.
He’s a native New Yorker, but currently resides in California, where he loves to hike, travel and cook.
“The biggest sort of pitfall that I see people running into is that they again, think that they hear this word meaning kind of like awe, and it’s like, wow, this is what’s the meaning of life? And what’s the meaning of my life? And, we can have this existential crisis, and we feel like it’s not meaningful enough. And, first off, there’s meaning to every life. And a lot of it is just finding the way to thread me as a small individual on this earth, how can I feel like I connect to something that’s bigger than just me. And I think if we start there, and we think about what matters to that person in terms of their values, what do they want to feel like they’re contributing towards, even in the smallest of ways, if I can look back and think about ways that I’ve done that, then that helps to imbue that sense of meaning.”– Jonah Paquette
- The New York Knicks and the New Yorker identity
- How do you define happiness?
- How do you figure out what you need to be happy?
- Making something a daily practice
- The difference between awe and gratitude
- Finding purpose and meaning in life
- Finding your strengths
- The shift to more positive psychology
- The meaning of burnout
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- Learn more about Jonah Paquette
- Check out Jonah’s books here
- Listen to Jonah’s podcast The Happy Hour
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Sonya Looney: Jonah, welcome to the show.
Jonah Paquette: Thanks so much for having me. I’m pumped to be here with you.
Sonya: So I have a funny question to start. It has to do with a lot of your books. And your speaking is about emotional fitness and well-being. And I was wondering if you got really interested in that because you’re always disappointed with the Knicks.
Jonah: Except for this year, but yes, I am a very long-suffering New York Knicks fan. They somehow managed to make their way into my books, and my talks even which a lot of people think is weird. But, when you grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and you spend your life, I always say the Knicks were my first true love. And I’ve never been so hurt as by my first true love when we’ve had 20 years straight of disappointment. But part of being a Knicks fan is that you always believe that success, glory is right around the corner. So one of these years, maybe this year, maybe next year, maybe in 100 years.
Sonya: Yeah. And I read that you’ve lived in California for a long time, but you still identify as a New Yorker. And other than the Knicks, I was wondering what makes you identify as a New Yorker?
Jonah: Yeah, good question. When people ask me, I will say it’s getting a little closer, because it used to be where are you from, and I would immediately just say, New York, because at that point, more than half my life, still, more than half of my life was spent in New York, but it’s evening out with every passing year. But I would say, of course, my love of pizza, my love of 90s hip hop. So I still have my New York roots with a few things. And of course, a lot of my family is still back there, too, so I try to make it back. But yeah, I don’t know if it ever quite leaves you. Although the longer I stay out here, the more people say to me, you don’t seem like you’re from New York, which I guess is a sign that the West Coast is rubbing off on me in some way.
Sonya: It’s always so interesting when it comes to identifying from a place because I grew up in New Mexico, and I lived in Colorado for 10 years before I moved to Canada. And I still very much identify as being someone from Colorado, even though I have lived in Canada for 10 years. And I’m planning to stay for quite some time. So I was just thinking about what are the things that make you identify with being from a place and what cultural things you identify with that make it different from other places
Jonah: Just from what I know about you, I mean, Colorado fits for you as well. Absolutely. I mean, in my mind, the association with Colorado is someone that is outdoors, biking, hiking, being in nature, being on rivers, so you seem like you love adventure, and the Colorado fits. But of course, Canada got a lot of that too.
Sonya: Thanks. So something that I wanted to talk about was defining the word happiness, because I think a lot of people think this is a something I should feel all the time. Or maybe they’ve never thought about what this word actually means. So can you talk about that a little bit?
Jonah: Sure. People find it interesting that I always say I have a love hate relationship with the word happiness, even though it’s like in three of the titles of my books. Reason being, I think, when we hear that word, it can mean so many different things to so many different people and getting on the same page about what we really mean by it is important. So I think when we think of happiness, we sometimes think of just the sort of frivolous feeling good all the time; it means that I can’t have rough days. And I think before we even get into the definition, I just want to point out, to me, and the way that I think and more of the research that I draw from, there’s nothing about being a happier person or working to become a happier person that doesn’t mean we still don’t experience pain, hardship, heartache. If there’s one money back guarantee is that life’s gonna knock us down sometimes, and we want to make room for really all of our emotions. So I’ll say that right off the bat, but then, when it comes to happiness itself, tend to think of it as an interconnection of three different ingredients, if you will. So the first sort of happiness is more, what would be called hedonic happiness, which for listeners is more about your emotional state. So for example, if I asked you today on Monday, as we’re recording it, or Wednesday, or Friday of this week, how are you feeling generally? What is your general level of positive emotions in that moment, versus challenging emotion, so to speak, and how you’re feeling on an emotional level would be more of that first type of happiness, which is emotional happiness, hedonic happiness. That’s one piece. It’s far from the end of the picture. And unfortunately, a lot of people think it’s just about that. So then the second piece would be more what we would call evaluate of happiness or life satisfaction, which is a little bit of a different question, right? If you’re kind of listening to this and thinking to yourself, well, I can think of times when I was feeling really good, but I wasn’t really content with where life was. Or conversely, you’re not feeling very good on a particular day or a stretch of days or period of time, right, but generally, you step back and you look at life and you’re feeling pretty good about that. That would be more sort of that life satisfaction piece or evaluative happiness. And then third, last but not least, is this idea of meaning purpose connection, sort of that deepest level of happiness or eudaimonic happiness. They love coming up with the kind of jargony terms for these, but really meaning purpose connection to something that’s bigger than just me. So putting all that together, you’ve got kind of emotions as part of the picture, you’ve got a sense of contentment, or life satisfaction, do I feel good about where life is at? And then third, of course, that sense of meaning. And I just want to throw one more thing in by the way, now, they’re sort of talking about a different type of happy life, psychological richness, which is a whole other kind of a, that’s right up your alley, Sonya I think, but we can talk about that later at some other time, as well, sort of that life that’s filled with excitement, passion, challenging yourself, pushing your comfort zones. And it turns out, roughly 10% of people really kind of gravitate most to that one. So maybe it’s going to even evolve further as time goes on.
Sonya: That’s really interesting whenever we think about it, because I think a lot of people want to just, “feel good”, they want that quick hit of like, but like you said, there could be meaning and purpose and satisfaction missing in that, because you can feel really good on the couch watching Netflix eating popcorn, which I did last night, it was awesome. And then, but overall, you could be trending in a direction where you don’t feel good. And I like thinking about a spectrum or a continuum or a trajectory and thinking about what direction am I heading with all of these different elements. Because especially right now, I have a one year old and a three year old and there’s lots of moments where it’s really hard, and I’m not feeling super stoked in the moment. But if I pause the zoom out and take stock of my life, how was my life going overall, then there’s a lot of meaning and purpose there. And you can say, Yeah, I feel really good. But the hard part, I think, is for people to pause and to take that moment to evaluate their life and to say, do I have meaning and purpose and defining even what life satisfaction means to them, because success and satisfaction can be really confusing.
Jonah: Absolutely. And we get all kinds of misconceptions that are I think, either sometimes we try figured out the wrong way along the way, or they are imposed on us to some degree by what’s modeled for us, or what we see or what sort of values get instilled in us. And I think a lot of people to your point, just go about life thinking that happiness is going to come as the result of this, that or the other, making more money, achieving certain notoriety or fame, meeting the right person, having more zeros in your bank accounts, living in a new town, whatever it is. Sometimes those things make a difference, but oftentimes, not so much, or they don’t make as much of a difference as we think. So we end up barking up the wrong tree, half the time when it comes to happiness, and not really pausing and asking, hey, for me, what is the life that matters to me? What is the life that I want to live? And, by the way, different people have different needs, even within those three pillars of happiness that we talked about some people, really, it’s about meaning and purpose and connection to something that’s bigger. For others, it’s more about contentment, or for others is more about finding more joy. And, I think it’s important to also think what do I need as a person when it comes to living a good life?
Sonya: So how do people start figuring out what they need? Because it’s easy to look and see what everybody else is doing or what is prescribed, knowing the book or in the literature, but figuring out what you personally need can be really hard.
Jonah: Yeah. Well, one way really is sort of thinking about values and kind of thinking about what kind of choices can I make that are going to either leave me with less regret for one thing. When I visualize life down the road, what does that life going to look like? How do I feel as a result of sort of doing different? Do I feel a sense of emptiness from these kind of frivolous, happy experiences versus what seems to stick with me a little bit longer. But in my book, I write about 12 different kind of core principles that we can get into, of course, to at some point, and I think the thing about them is that we don’t really know offhand, who’s going to really resonate more from this, that or the other. And so part of it too, is experimentation, thinking about what seems to really resonate for me in terms of kind of constructing the life that I want. What we can say is that for a lot of people, we invest a lot of time and energy on things that don’t yield a whole lot when it comes to happiness, versus how many of us step back and really think how can I invest in relationships? How can I invest in noticing the good as opposed to focusing on the bad in life? How can I invest in finding more opportunities for wonder? How can I treat myself with the kindness that I treat others because so many of us are much more self-critical? So I think, unfortunately, a lot of us become conditioned to spend a lot of life pursuing happiness in the wrong way, or thinking that it’s going to come as a result of that. There’s not a magic answer, which I think is unfortunate of what’s going to be the exact path for anybody. But I think if we pause and even ask ourselves, what kind of life matters to me, not what I should live, not how it’s supposed to be, but what really matters to me, we’re already going to be on the right track, if we just have that intention in my mind.
Sonya: You mentioned constructing your own life, and in your life, you’ve been constructing it. And you mentioned before we started the call that you’ve made some changes in your career path. What principles are you focusing on right now as you’re constructing your life?
Jonah: Oh good question. Yeah. So for listeners, I had spent about 12 years working in a large hospital system. And I loved a lot of what I did. But I also have these other parts of myself that I love to write books. I love to give talks. And I started to find more and more situations where I was having to say no to things that I really wanted to do in those areas because I was just so swamped and busy over here, and I definitely had this experience of thinking of myself, in 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, right, regrets of omission versus comission? What am I more likely to regret? Trying something new and having it not work out? Okay, that happens at life. Or never trying and wondering kind of where that could have taken me? And so for me, it was really a question of, there were these parts of me that I definitely genuinely give me joy give me flow like flow states, two of the things that give me the most flow states are writing and speaking to groups of audiences and sharing these kinds of ideas. And I wanted to have more of that in my life, even if it meant sort of taking a risk and seeing where it goes. And at the end of the day, worst case scenario is not all that bad. We sort of tell ourselves it is we convince ourselves with these barriers sometimes. But I think in reality, betting on yourself, even if it doesn’t go perfectly, is part of the journey of life and not going to regret it. So yeah, I’ve been trying to invest that and honestly, balance, which is like a cliche term. But I started to have more and more times where I was like, I love being outside, but I can’t remember the last time I went on a hike. I love being in nature, but I can’t remember the last time I went camping, I love spending time with this person or that person snd I haven’t been doing enough of that. And I think sort of constructing a life that allows more of that. Because again, at the end of the day, I’ll back up, at one point, I did work in a hospital setting. And I can count on zero fingers, the number of people that were like, I wish I had invested more of my time doing all the other stuff and less of my time doing the things I loved or being with the people that I loved. So I always try to remember that all these years later, that was 12 years ago, thinking to myself what really matters.
Sonya: It sounds like perspective is a big strength of yours. You use mental time travel, to look into the future to think how you might choose differently today so that you can live a life with less regret, and also learning from others in a hospice setting. That’s something I do a lot too, I think about, in the future, even if I’m having a hard time making a decision today about something, I think how am I going to feel about this later. And that big picture perspective can really help me make the hard choices. And like you, I struggle with “balance” because I love work, I love what I immerse myself in my work, I find flow states in my work, it brings me a lot of joy. But not having time for relationships or spending time outside or, you know, having a little bit more diversity in the things that I’m doing doesn’t actually make me feel better. And I think that it’s really easy to get sucked down the rabbit hole, whether you’re passionate or not about the things that you’re doing, because we’re so focused all the time on performance or on getting that goal. But we forget that these elements of well-being actually help us perform better.
Jonah: Absolutely. I think that’s the part that too, even on a personal level, I noticed myself getting away from some of the things that intellectually, I write about this stuff. And so that was a big aha moment for me to where I was thinking, I have been fixating on some of the wrong things. I’ve been feeling less connected. I’ve been doing fewer things that give me a sense of awe and wonder in the world. I’ve been kind of pulling away. And as you said, I think that’s such an important point is we sometimes think happiness is the result of getting these things and in reality, like if we become a happier person, we become that much more likely to achieve the goals that we want to have things go more our way to be more successful at work, but we want to put the cart before the horse a little bit more than we sometimes do when it comes to this. So if we become more a happier person, a lot of those successes do become more likely.
Sonya: It was actually something I wrote down that I wanted to ask you about because a lot of us note these concepts, and I want to get into them a little bit deeper for those who don’t know them. But a lot of us know that we should spend time in nature, we should spend time connecting with people, we should try to focus on things that we have, instead of things that we don’t, we should have a gratitude practice. We know these things. When we read about them, and we listen to a podcast like these, but then we’re not practicing them in our lives. So how do you go from learning about these things to actually practicing them on a daily basis?
Jonah: Yeah, great question. Because, yeah, I think the putting it into action part, for a lot of people, myself included at different points in life, is the hardest. And I think part of it is that we first off we set at times too high of a bar, when it comes to this. Like I sometimes will write about creating a gratitude journal, and talk about writing down three things from today that went well. If that feels to uphill for someone who’s struggling with depression, or is pulled in 50 directions, start with one who cares, just start to build up some of those successes, you know, on your calendar, if you can see a success every day, that is something even if it’s five minutes outside, even if it’s reaching out to one person that you’ve felt, maybe you wanted to connect a little bit more with, I think we sometimes make our jobs too hard in the sense that we expect a lot. Life is busy, everyone listening, I can promise you is pulled in a lot of different directions, whether it’s professionally, personally in their families, as parents, as humans, have other hobbies, other demands. So the first thing I always like to think about is, can I think of something that’s literally doable in five minutes for someone I’m working with. Can in five minutes and take off, for example, we talked about that. Most of us, if I were to say I want you to go to the Redwoods, or to the Grand Canyon or to go mountain biking, that starts to feel really daunting if you’re sort of life is busy. If you can get there awesome. But like today, could any of us not step outside and notice one thing that surprises us? Notice one small part of our life out there that’s beautiful that we sometimes miss. I think most of us could do that. Or could we pause and reflect on one thing in our life that in this moment, we feel a sense of appreciation for and to really close our eyes and visualize that and spend 60 seconds just getting in touch with that, then it starts to feel a little bit more doable. And the more that we can kind of in the 1% change kind of way each day just start to move towards that and build these mental muscles. We also know then from neuroplasticity, that our brains will literally start changing to make tomorrow easier than today and to make next week easier than tomorrow. It doesn’t mean life is not going to still be hard, of course. But all of these skills and concepts that today feel really hard and hard to reach become easier over time. I actually said I’m thinking back to when I learned how to drive I was in New Yorker, as you know, I didn’t learn how to drive until I was like 23. And I remember the first time I was trying to drive it was like really hard. And if you think about driving it is really hard. It’s like you’re doing 50 things in there, you’re checking your mirror, and that’s by the way, if you’re doing like an automatic, I can’t even imagine doing a manual. But anyway, at some point though, you’re just driving, right, because all of these things start to click as a habit. And I think the same thing happens with a lot of parts of our life just with mental skills, which have to be patient and kind and not beat ourselves up when we’re not doing it perfectly.
Sonya: Yeah. And I think knowing what mental skills you’re practicing is really helpful. Because whenever things get really challenging in your life, and you’re doing a lot of these things automatically, you don’t realize it so pausing and coming back to the basics of what am I doing, that’s something that I do a lot whenever things get really hard. And a lot of these gratitude things, and everyday awe, those come really naturally to me. But whenever I’m struggling, I try and make sure that I’m focusing on the things that I just naturally am doing.
Jonah: I love that. And the other thing we do when we’re busy, as we say, well, I’ll do that when life calms down, I’ll get back to getting outside more. And I’m guilty of this too sometimes, by the way. Things pile up, and oh, I’ll get back to that gratitude practice, when things get a little calmer next week I can I can see things getting a little bit less busy soon, and then I’ll get outside more. And one thing that I’ve tried to do not only for myself, but clients that I work with people that I consult with, and when I teach on this is to really think more in terms of what are your well-being non negotiables that like everything else flows out from there. Of course, we have to work, we have other demands, but can we make sure that we are scheduling in each and every day time outside in the sun? Even if it’s 10 minutes. Can we schedule each and every day five minutes to maybe cultivate some of these practices around gratitude like we talked about, and to start there, as opposed to having that be the thing that we kind of squeeze in if everything else is done in the day. To actually have that be more something that we are building in just like we do our other duties or demands or tasks that we have to do.
Sonya: Another thing that came to mind when you’re talking about the 1%, better, and that’s something I love talking about as well, because in my coaching practice, a lot of my clients, the number one takeaway every single time is I set such a small goal, and I didn’t think it was gonna matter and it made such a big difference. But a lot of times when people are setting such a small goal, I’m going to do this for five minutes. To them, it seems so ridiculous. And they’re almost embarrassed that it’s so easy, and they want to feel impressive by setting a bigger goal or I’m not good enough, unless I’m setting a big goal. This five minutes thing, I’m not going to do it, I’m not going to start that small. So for a person, people would like that personality tendency of it has to be big or it’s not impressive; it’s not meaningful. What advice do you have for them?
Jonah: Yeah, I’d say two things. One is, I still much prefer to start with a small goal and if they want to blow right past it and keep going, great. Like that’s like extra credit on the homework assignment. But I think sometimes, like you say, the bar being higher, actually gets in our way. I remember I was working with a very high achieving gentleman a few years ago, very sort of type A, and we were talking about starting a meditation practice, a mindfulness practice. And we’re describing some of the benefits, how it could help him with focus, with stress, and so forth. And I said, so how about we start, maybe 5, 10 minutes a day, set aside time, few minutes here, a few minutes there, we’re gonna set a timer for 10 minutes and do it. And he was not impressed with that. He said, yeah, this stuff is good for me, right? I want to do 45 minutes a day, hour a day, just kind of dive into the deep end of the pool. Next time I saw him, how is that gone? He said, well, I didn’t do it the first couple of days. And I got frustrated myself, I haven’t done at all. And this is what we sometimes do when we feel like we’re not meeting those goals is we throw up our hands, we beat ourselves up and we just stop. And I think one of the advantages of those smaller goals is that we can actually start to see the success build, it reinforces itself, we see the changes happening in real time. If you want to do more great, but like don’t set that as your expectation. And so when we set it, we recalibrated, set it back to five minutes a day, or it might even three I’m trying to remember. And within a couple of months, he was doing 20 minutes, 30 minutes, it was part of his life at that point, but wouldn’t have gotten there. If we were just starting off with that go big go home mentality for sure.
Sonya: I want to go back to talking about awe. I really loved Dr. Keltner’s work. And he had a book that came out and your book is fantastic as well. Can you talk about some different types of awe because I think people think of awe as this thing where you see like a beautiful sunset and you feel so connected but so small, but there’s so much more to awe than experiencing something really massive, like seeing the Grand Canyon or something?
Jonah: Yeah, and by the way, I do love his book. I’m looking over my computer at it right now. Highly recommend his book and so much of the work that I based my book Awestruck on was definitely like a lot of Dr. Keltner and other amazing people that have done some of that primary research; I’m very grateful for. Yeah, so I think it’s easy when we hear this word awe to think in these automatically very grand terms. Sort of, first off, let’s just back up, like what do we even mean by awe because it’s like, that can mean a lot of different things to different people? Most of the research on awe sort of identifies it as that feeling we get in the presence of something that’s bigger than us in any sense, that challenges our assumption or blows our mind. Now, we think that and we think Grand Canyon, night sky, first steps, these like once in a lifetime moments. One of the things that I always love to reinforce both in my writing and my speaking and when I’m talking about this is like, we actually want to remember that opportunities for awe are all around us. We just usually have blinders on and miss them. Like for example, wherever you are as a listener, and you and I can think about this right now is literally in your field of vision, how many things would be absolutely mind blowing to someone if they were teleported here from 50 years ago or 500 years ago or 5000 years? This is amazing, like we’re in real time through a screen, being recorded. I mean, it wasn’t all that long ago that the best technology I knew was like my Walkman with like cassette tapes like that was mind blowing. And now here we are, but like we think in these really grand terms but it’s turning on a light switch and having light come on are having this conversation like we are the changing color of leaves during the changing seasons. There’s just endless, there’s so much that we can see right around us that mind blowing, but we don’t realize that. So well, you know, in my book, The non sight it’s not a scientific term, but I talk about capital A on lowercase A on capital Al is like you see the Grand Canyon, the night sky, all that, great, wonderful. Northern Lights, I’d love to see those someday. But like, we actually don’t want to get so fixated on that, that we lose sight of the magic that’s right in front of us, but that we don’t see as magic. So right off the bat, I think for listeners, I’m guilty of this, too, we talk about awe, we think, wow, it’s the big stuff. It’s the once in a lifetime stuff. Sure. But it’s a lot more than that. It’s something that we can find, of course, through nature, we can find it in sharing experiences with people we love, we can find it through technology, as we talked about a moment ago, through arts, music, performance, through the courage of other people, people that inspire us and uplift us. In these ways through kind of developing a gratitude practice and just noticing the beauty that’s in our life that we don’t often see or mindfulness we talked about earlier, and just like being in the here and now and saying, what can I see right here? What can I touch right now? That’s absolutely magical. And I think all of those are outlets as well, for all.
Sonya: Something that I really wanted to ask you actually was, what’s the difference between awe and gratitude? Because, like you mentioned, appreciating things around you, taking a picture of a flower like that, that could be like gratitude pictures, but also it can have awe so is there a difference between gratitude and awe?
Jonah: Yeah, great question because I think there’s, there’s times where they can certainly overlap. And I would tend to think of them as sort of as a bi directional relationship, for sure, in the sense that not only can they at times overlap, but the more grateful we become, the more awe inspired we are o awe prone, we tend to become. Because we’re noticing all sorts of the beautiful things, the great things and vice versa, we can have great gratitude for the things that give us a sense of awe. I think the big difference has to do with sort of that definition. If we think back to all of if there’s something that I’m encountering, that’s bigger than myself, that could be in the physical realm or the idea realm. But there’s something that’s sort of there’s a quality of, sort of vastness would be the word to it, which doesn’t have to mean Grand Canyon, night sky. It could mean the vastness of someone’s ability at something, right? Watching Michael Jordan play basketball as a kid, even though he would always beat my Knicks, there’s like, wow, how is somebody that talented, that’s amazing. With something that sort of challenges what I thought I knew about other people about the world. So that’s the second ingredient of like, transcendence as it’s called. So vastness and transcendence put together is kind of what we would think of awe. I can have gratitude for a lot of things that don’t quite do that, right. Like I can have gratitude for my cat who’s sleeping right behind my computer, right now. But I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m in awe of my cat, no offense to the cat. Here’s where I think they can definitely overlap is like, I can see my cat, I can be grateful to the cat, or for the cat. Then I can start to wrap my head around the fact that like, alright, so this cat sitting right here was related to, 10s of thousands of years ago to a wild cat that lived in Africa that has somehow made its way onto my couch right over here in California. The odds of my existence is close to zero. The fact that I’m able to have an actual genuine connection with an animal that’s crazy, and then it sort of becomes a very awe inspiring thing. So there’s a lot of overlap and interplay, I think, between those and I think, where we take things mentally can often kind of evoke a sense of awe. And so you can have sort of these different layers to awe too, you can see the Grand Canyon and be like, wow, I mean, all of just the scale. But then you can start to wrap your head around the fact how ancient is this? How old? What had to happen for this to be carved? How am I in that, where am I in that timescale of millions of years, and the fact that of all those millions of years, I get to be here right now. Awe can come sort of in that form as well for many people.
Sonya: It sounds like the underlying current there is curiosity, asking, like, how can this even be?
Jonah: Yeah. And actually, it’s interesting you say that because one of the big effects of awe is actually that it makes us more curious. Yeah, there’s a lot of great benefits to experiencing awe but in my book, I call it the three C’s, of all the letter C of when we experienced this emotion, whether it’s from the night sky or nature, watching a child take their first steps or arts or whatever, when we have that emotion, it makes us more connected to other people, it makes us more compassionate towards others and it makes us more curious. So three C’s: connection, compassion, curiosity, are three major effects that you see as a result of experiencing this very unique emotional state.
Sonya: I’m gonna shift gears a little bit, we’ve thrown around the word purpose and meaning a little bit. And for some people, it’s really challenging for them to find purpose and meaning in their life. Like they might be 50 or 60 years old and say, gosh, I’ve lived my life a certain way. I’m having these wakeup calls. And now I don’t have the purpose and meaning that I once thought I had. How can people find that in their life? If they feel like maybe they haven’t thought about it, they don’t have it, or they’ve changed. They’re changing who they are so they need to do something different?
Jonah: Yeah. It’s a great question. It’s one of the things that when I work with folks that are sort of near or approaching even retirement is a huge challenge, because sometimes for some people, not all, but you have that sense of purpose of the why built in. I think this is another one of those situations where we sometimes you throw in words like meaning and one of my favorite books by the way is Man’s Search for Meaning probably my favorite book of all time for any listeners that want to check it out by Viktor Frankl. And I think too, it’s like another one of those words that runs the risk sometimes of we think the bar has to be too high, like a meaningful life means that I’m somehow changing the world. That I’m doing this really important thing that from the outside people going to talk about for thousands of years. And as I jokingly would talk about when I have clients say that I was like, how many people from 1000 years ago do you know their name? It’s like most of us, probably not going to be the case. But meaning really to me, is there something that’s beyond just myself, right? We live very individual lives sometimes. And we want to think in terms of self-transcendence. So going beyond just me, Jonah, and you, Sonya, it’s like, what can I do that helps me feel like I’m contributing to something that’s bigger than just my individual life? Is there a cause? Is there a community? Is there another human life that I can touch? Is there some sort of part of life that I can feel like I belong with, whether it’s faith, whether it’s family, whether it’s community, whether it’s giving back in some ways, whether it’s volunteering? That can look different for everybody. But I think again, the biggest sort of pitfall that I see people running into is that they again, think that they hear this word meaning kind of like awe, and it’s like, wow, this is what’s the meaning of life? And what’s the meaning of my life? And we can have this existential crisis, and we feel like it’s not meaningful enough. And, first off, there’s meaning to every life. And a lot of it is just finding the way to thread me as a small individual on this earth, how can I feel like I connect to something that’s bigger than just me. And I think if we start there, and we think about what matters to that person in terms of their values, what do they want to feel like they’re contributing towards, even in the smallest of ways, if I can look back and think about ways that I’ve done that, then that helps to imbue that sense of meaning.
Sonya: I love that. And I think that something that can be challenging down the road, and something I’ve certainly struggled with is, yeah, I’ve lived a meaningful life, I want to be impacting others, but then you are starting to measure that impact on others. And there’s validation that comes with I’m impacting X number of people. I speak at this many conferences, or this many podcast downloads, and then somehow it becomes you’re not impacting enough people. And there’s this all this pursuit of more, this still isn’t enough and defining success, whenever you’re trying to have meaning and impact others. So it can get really convoluted if you lose sight of why you’re doing it in the first place.
Jonah: I think that is such an important point because, and to me, this isn’t gonna be the right term for all listeners, but when that ego gets involved, right, and it becomes less about the mission, less about what you’re trying to serve, and more about feeling a certain way about ourselves. And it’s very sneaky. I think even very well intentioned people, it’s very natural. If I go to a conference, and there’s I’m one of 10 talks that are happening simultaneously, it’s very natural to say, why are there more people filing into that room than mine, as opposed to stepping back and back and saying holy crap, I get to talk to this cool conference. And I get to share these ideas with people, whether it’s one person sitting in front of me or 100 or 1000. Like that’s what matters. But it is so easy to kind of get this very human tendency, right to kind of fixate on the wrong thing. So I think stepping back and asking like that, that why again, that bigger why. Why am I really doing this? Why does this really matter to me as opposed to wanting praise, wanting notoriety, those are very seductive traps for us to fall into, but they rarely lead us to either feel happy, to feel a sense of meaning at the end of the day. But I’m glad you pointed that out because that can be a very sneaky kind of slippery tendency.
Sonya: Yeah, and that feeling is constrictive. And you think that we’ll all feel a certain way, once I get some sort of notoriety. In sports, winning a game or getting on the podium or whatever is an example of that. And you think, well, once I get that, then I’m going to feel good enough. And that’s an arrival fallacy. So I’m going to be happy when I get this. And a lot of times, you won’t feel happy when you get that. So I always try and remind myself and I try to remind others that if you’re trying to achieve something to feel a certain way, you’re probably not going to feel that way. It comes back to looking at these principles that are in your book. And if you want to feel a certain way, it’s working on all these different things that actually have nothing to do with getting something from somebody else.
Jonah: Hmm. Yeah, so well said, so hard to do. So as you know, sometimes when I write about this, and I talk about it, I always like to kind of throw in those reminders to people that are watching or listening of just like, if you find yourself doing any of these, join the club, because this is what we as human beings do. We all have these biases, these blind spots, these frailties, but a lot of it is about building awareness to it, pausing having that intention, and thinking about how can I make deliberate choices in ways that matter for me, as opposed to just those automatic kind of cycles that we often find ourselves on.
Sonya; You also talk about strengths in your book, which is something that I also love, and I’ve done the VIA strengths survey so many different times, probably five different times, to see if they’ve changed at all. Can you talk about strengths?
Jonah: Yeah, I love that topic. And you chime in too, because you’ve had first hand experience and learned about it quite a bit as well. But, as a clinical psychologist, most of my training to focus on strength, well-being, we have this lovely thing called the DSM, which they call it the therapist Bible, and it’s got 297 different ways that you can be diagnosed with a mental health disorder. And I don’t mean to poopoo it, I mean, there’s valuable reasons to understand suffering, of course, but we’ve been so fixated on suffering for so long that we’ve lost sight of what’s right with people. Even Freud once said, that the goal of mental health treatment of sorts was to turn hysteric misery into common everyday unhappiness, like that was the best.
Sonya: Very uplifting.
Jonah: Very pessimistic. So one of the things I really love learning about when it comes to strength is like a very kind of well researched, well validated way of understanding the things that are right with you the things that are right with listeners. And so by the way, if you want to do this yourself, you can go to for free to VIAcharacter.org. Viacharacter.org would be the website. And you can sign up and you can take this test doesn’t take that long, probably like 40 minutes, you’d say 30 minutes, maybe even less.
Sonya: Yeah, it depends how well you know yourself, and how much you thought about these questions in advance, I guess.
Jonah: Yeah. Or, if taking multiple choice tests brings too many flashbacks for you. And then you get and then you get this score that gets spit out of what are your top strengths and first of all, that’s really empowering for us, because we’re so used to focusing on what’s wrong for one thing. If I say to you what’s something about yourself that you wish you could change? People have a bunch of answers. What’s something that’s right with us? We’re like, I don’t know. Let me think about that. So we learn what’s right with us, we can start to see our lives through that lens a little bit more, we can start to see how our strengths have shown up to allow us to be the people that we’ve been. And we can start to think about, how can I kind of use those a little bit more than I might be right now in my life? How can I lean into those? How can I tap into those a bit more than maybe I’ve been doing so that I can find more flow, find more joy, find more connection to things that matter to me, that I’m good at, and to kind of harness that. So I think there’s a lot of beautiful ways it can get used. But I just think even at the core of shifting that focus from pathology, illness, deficits, that we’re so conditioned to think about with ourselves to what is right with you, what is right with you the individual, the listener, within your family is like, do it as a group. And it’s really amazing to kind of see what can come from that.
Sonya: I think like psychologists and therapy in general got a really bad rap, especially maybe in the 90s and now, I feel like it’s more of a positive thing whenever people talk about this. It’s not about oh, what are all these things that are wrong with me and tell me about your childhood and looking for problems. I think that’s what a lot of people think psychology is, but it doesn’t, it’s not always that way. There’s a lot of different pieces that are about helping somebody thrive and flourish in their life instead of focusing on all these things that are wrong with them.
Jonah: Yes, and I’m glad that our field has started to shift a bit, because I agree that for a while it was grim. And a lot of pop culture depictions of us don’t help, I will say. I think it has shifted, and I think we are starting, and I think we’re reaching a nice balance in the field of mental health where it’s important to understand trauma, it’s important to understand depression, it’s important understand panic disorder, and to have ways of not only understanding those, but to treat those. But it’s also important to see the other side of the coin, what’s right with people, how to cultivate and harness their inherent strengths to help them become the best version of themselves they could be to find more gratitude and awe and wonder and compassion, and all these sort of positive mental skills that we don’t focus on as much. And I think we are hitting a nice, I hope, equilibrium. And I mean, in that in our broadly speaking, mental health world ecosystem, where there’s room for all of that, depending on what a person needs, where they are in the journey, what their goals are, and hopefully coming up with a nice kind of better equilibrium than we sometimes have been.
Sonya: Yeah, and also, it sounds like some of these tools that we’ve talked about are actually used in dealing with some of these psychological pathologies. Like you mentioned, in your book, there was a guy that had depression, and there was the gratitude practice that you were trying to help him apply. And it was about coming down to starting super small, so that it was really easy for him to find ways that he had, find moments of gratitude in his life. And it’s not always about this super negative thing and it’s helping people look forward.
Jonah: And I think to that point, by the way, one of the things that I was really heartened to learn more about in the experience of writing happily, even after the newer book was basically how a lot of these skills, what they offer us, it’s just a different pathway out of pain. It used to be the idea that a lot of these concepts would be good if you were already doing pretty well, not too many complaints, and you wanted to do better, sort of going from like a plus two to a plus five, almost on the spectrum. But actually, even if we are struggling with depression, stress, anxiety, loneliness, these are some of the same concepts that can actually help pull us out of that hole, right. If we can become more in touch with the good in our lives, if we can feel more connected to other people, if we can experience more awe, practice more mindfulness, all of these can actually help alleviate depression and anxiety and stress in ways that I think are really cool. So yeah, it doesn’t have to be something where we just wait until we’re doing pretty well and then start talking about strengths, it can actually be using our strengths to overcome the challenges of life.
Sonya: I wanted to talk about burnout for the last couple of minutes here, because I think that a lot of people have brushed up against burnout. And well, first of all, can you define burnout? Because I think that it’s a word that hasn’t been properly defined, and it’s used a lot incorrectly.
Jonah: Yeah, and actually, by the way, I’m a huge fan of a couple of people in that burnout space. So for listeners that are interested, Christina Maslach, Maslach. One of my colleagues Jacinta Jimenez, I’ll give her a shout out to she wrote a great book called the Burnout Fix. You know, there’s a number of ways that burnout has been defined, and there’s sort of different signs of burnout, it’s now kind of more officially recognized as a real syndrome. At its core, it’s really about a person’s internal sort of capacity to deal with the challenges of their job, are kind of overwhelmed by the demands of that job. So there’s feelings of helplessness, there’s feelings of exhaustion, there’s feelings of cynicism that are often kind of part of that jadedness about one’s work. But it’s really where we feel like we don’t have the resources, time, skills, bandwidth, whatever it might be, to deal with what’s being asked of us, right. And a lot of us who work in very demanding jobs, whether it be in healthcare, whether it be education, whether it be really almost any field can obviously, be rife with this. In fact, we are at a record high right now, of burnout. So, if you are listening feeling burnt out you’re definitely not alone when it comes to that. Burnout is a little tricky, I’ll just say because sometimes we focus a lot on individual level concepts like becoming more grateful meditating, self care, physical exercise, eating right. And unfortunately, in a lot of cases, what we’re talking about with burnout is something that’s much more about what’s being asked of the person being outside of their capabilities more about that systemic kind of system that they’re dealing with, in a sense. That is where it gets a little challenging unless you’re able to really intervene more at that kind of broader level. But I’m always of the mindset to, by the way, that if I can still find ways, even if I can’t change all of that, I can still find ways to kind of develop the internal skills and strengths that I have. A) I’m gonna be able to deal with that more effectively; B) I’m also gonna be able to make healthier choices to myself for myself, when it comes to is this the right job for me? Is there a way to cope? Or is this actually a situation where I need to kind of think about alternatives? So I think there’s never a wrong time to focus on those parts, too. But bottom line, burnout is tricky, because it often involves things that are out of our control, too.
Sonya: Yeah. And I think that the optimism piece is really hard. Whenever you are in a situation where you feel like you don’t have control, and you’re working super hard, you don’t have control over something or what do you do? How do you stay optimistic whenever you’re kind of stuck?
Jonah: Yeah, and I think with optimism, we hear that word, sometimes we think like Pollyanna, like everything’s great, don’t worry, be happy. And that’s sort of what the buzzword they’re talking a lot about these days is toxic positivity, right. But bottom line, I mean, I joke, because there’s always like a new term for everything that’s people doing for years, but you got to come up with a fancy new way of saying it. But yeah, there is this tendency to kind of over swing the pendulum and think that, well, if I want to find a sense of optimism, I just have to pretend like everything’s fine. And I think to cultivate optimism in a challenging work situation, or just any situation in life, we really want to be focusing a bit more on realistic optimism. What is in my power to do something here, as opposed to when we’re on the other side, it’s very easy to feel demoralized, beat down, like powerless. And that’s not true or healthy, either. There’s always something that we can do that’s in our hands, it might not be that sort of perfect solution, but, thinking in terms of, what is one step that I can take to help myself in this situation? What is a different way of interpreting this, instead of just that worst possible place that my mind tends to go? With a coworker with a boss or whatever it might be at work – is there a more realistic, flexible way to think about this? Is there a way to not personalize something that might be beyond just me? So I think those are some ways that we can, I think, cultivate a bit of optimism without it being feeling disingenuous or fake.
Sonya: Yeah, I mean, we could probably record an entire podcast on burnout and optimism and hope.
Jonah: Yes, if there’s a part two, you know where to find me, but lots of lots of lots of ground to cover and all of these, these concepts for sure.
Sonya: Yeah. So where can people find your books? And if they want to, you know, book you as a speaker? Where can they find you?
Jonah: Yeah, so you can learn whatever you want about me at my website, which is just Jonahpaquette.com. And there you can learn a lot about my speaking my workshops, my keynotes, I do quite a bit of speaking. I’m also in the process of soon launching some online courses on wellbeing that you’ll be able to take through my website, one stop shop for that. And in terms of my books, by writing, you can find those obviously, Amazon, anywhere that you tend to get your books as well. There’ll be links on my website, too. And of course, if you are on social media, LinkedIn, Instagram, I finally after many years of resisting things like Instagram, Sonya and others, you can find me all in those places. And if you search for me on there, Jonah Paquette on Instagram, or just my name on LinkedIn, I would love to connect with anybody. And I always do I respond to every email that I get. So if you have any questions or anything like that, I will get back to you even if it is a couple of days.
Sonya: That’s very generous. Thank you so much for coming on the show. And I’m so excited about what people learn today.
Jonah: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been it’s been great. Thanks so much.