Deliberately Happy: The 5 Happiness Action Principles

I’m standing at the edge of a prehistoric forest clad in a Flintstone-style bearskin, minding my own business, when I see a mastodon approaching me. This one looks like he’s in a bad mood, and starts to charge. I pick up some stones and start pelting him, but that just makes him madder. As he runs at me faster, I have two thoughts: this is the end, and gee I really hope this is a dream. At that moment, ten copies of myself rise out of the ground, and the full soccer squad of us pelt the mastodon with serious-sized rocks and major-league pitcher accuracy. The mastodon has a change of heart, turns tail and goes back into the forest. All eleven of me emit war-whoops of victory.

This particular hypervivid dream was inspired by a book of remarkable explanatory power I read called The Social Leap: The New Evolutionary Science of Who We Are, Where We Come From, and What Makes Us Happy (ebook, print and audiobook) by Prof William von Hippel of Queensland University. The book solved some puzzles I had in my head about human behavior and society. In particular, the last few chapters crystallized a lot of my own thoughts about happiness.

One of the reasons that happiness seems to elude so many people is that our brains are not designed for happiness. They are designed for survival. Happiness is just a neat little byproduct of the survival program that only now in modern times have the leisure to pay attention to.

Happiness arises because of a clever ruse of the brain: it attaches pleasurable feelings to any activity that enhances our survival and reproduction. Eating food? Feels good! Sex? Amazing! Hanging out with friends? More please!

Prof von Hippel’s big thesis is that we humans succeeded so spectacularly compared to our ape forebears because we descended from our tree dwellings to become more social and cooperative (hence the book’s title). One scrawny human against a saber-toothed cat doesn’t stand a chance. But a whole group of rock-throwing, spear-hurling humans will repel a big cat or bring a mastodon to heel.

So at a very deep level, evolution has also programmed our brain to make us feel good when we do prosocial things. Because whenever humans strengthened their bonds, they enhanced their survival.

This is where the 5 Happiness Action Principles (HAPs) come from: they are all survival-enhancing activities that make us feel good when we engage in them. They are also the kind of activities that help us build and grow — our talents, our friendships, our communities.

1. LEARN

The first Happiness Action Principle is Learning. Three hundred thousand years ago on the savanna, when you learned how to build a fire or weapon, your ability to survive went up. We still have those same savanna brains, so even though learning Photoshop or baking sourdough may not be as useful to us in the wild, we’re still going to feel good when we do it.

I also want to make a distinction between pleasure and happiness here. Researchers have a bunch of terms around this, e.g. synchronic vs diachronic happiness, but the distinction I’d like to make is between short-term happiness, which is more like pleasure, and long-term happiness, which is more like joy.

For example, you’re going to feel pretty good while eating a piece of chocolate, and for some minutes afterwards. But you’re not going to look back on that experience two years from now, feel this flush of pleasant emotion and say, Woooow, that was amazing wasn’t it. It’s good mostly while it lasts, and that’s that.

Contrast this to the pleasure of learning a new language, or Photoshop, or scuba diving. Not only is the experience of learning intrinsically pleasurable, but for the rest of your life you can use that skill and derive pleasure from it. From accomplishing the feat, you can also experience an emotion researchers call authentic pride, which also feels good.

So learning gets you a triple dose of happy: while you’re doing it, while you’re using the new knowledge, and every time you give yourself a pat on the back for doing the work and feel pride.

2. CREATE

Creating is the second Happiness Active Principle. We’re all born creators, and creating stuff that wasn’t there before — think tools, buildings, babies — is the prime evolutionary drive. So it’s no surprise that evolution made sure that creating feels good. Like learning, you get the bonus of enjoying both the process of creating as well as its fruits.

As soon as words like “creating” and “creativity” come up, some people panic and say, “Well, I’m no Leonardo da Vinci. I’m just not a very creative person.” Well, the good news is that everybody is creative all the time. You just can’t help it. That sentence you just spoke on the phone? You created that spontaneously out of sheer nothing. And chances are that it has never been uttered before — an original! Frame it and put it on the wall.

That may be one of the blocks to people’s creative instinct, especially if they happen to have a perfectionist streak (yours truly = guilty!). To derive the benefits of creativity, you don’t have to write The Great American novel. You don’t have to paint like Rembrandt or compose like Beethoven. All you have to do is doodle on a sketchpad, noodle on a keyboard, write in your journal. It’s all art, so Make More Art Now. Worry about publishing later.

The beauty of establishing a creativity habit is that when you keep at it, eventually you will create stuff worth publishing. The number one determinant of whether you create work of value is how much stuff you put out. Prolific is better than perfect.

So pick up your calendar right now and set aside one or two one-hour slots this week to just create. It could be an outing with your camera, a session drawing charcoals, a stab at a poem, an article for your blog, 3D printing something, cooking a new dish. Let the perfectionism go — you’re already a masterpiece. And if you make this creating thing a habit, greatness will come of it.

3. SHARE

The third Happiness Action Principle is sharing. Cooperation got Homo sapiens to be the dominant species of the planet, and sharing was a big part of it. Whenever our hunter-gatherer forbears had a big kill, they shared the mastodon meat with the rest of the tribe. In the absence of extra-wide SubZero refrigerators, excess meat would spoil anyway, so it only made sense to share. And the mutuality assured that in lean times, others would share with us. Sharing helped us survive, so sharing still feels good.

So if sharing is such a natural part of our genetic makeup, why do I have to write a whole article to encourage you to do it? I mean, you don’t need articles about the virtues of breathing and pooping, right? Well, it’s probably because about 10,000 years ago, humans switched from hunter-gatherer mode to agrarian mode. With that came the notion of food surplus and private property, and sharing became less fashionable. My farm! My grain! My oxen! Keep your grubby hands off my stuff, please.

Scholars such as Edward O. Wilson and Jared Diamond have called the agrarian revolution the greatest disaster to befall the human race. Egalitarian, healthy, leisurely hunter-gatherer societies gave way to an alternative that wasn’t exactly an improvement. Average heights fell, tooth decay went up, women got subjugated, infectious disease proliferated, and war rampaged. As a species, we’ve never recovered.

Private property is ingrained as a feature of modern society, and now you can store your mastodon meat indefinitely in your SubZero, so the incentive to share is down. That’s why it’s particularly important now to seek out and design sharing opportunities into your life. That’s why it’s called Happiness Engineering — you’ve got to design these features into your life that no longer come so naturally.

Sharing your money, properties and toys is nice, but it may be even more fulfilling to share of your time and talent. The more social, the better. People tend to appreciate and remember experiences better than things anyway.

What are some ways you can bring more sharing into your life? Some ideas:

  • Share a homemade meal.
  • Write someone a poem or letter of appreciation
  • Send friends a funny joke or video
  • Make a playlist of your favorite pop songs or classical pieces
  • Make a list of favorite books and send it to your friends
  • Start a blog or podcast to share your ideas

The key is to start small, start simple, and put it on the calendar to make sure you jumpstart the sharing habit.

4. CONNECT

The better tribe members are connected to one another with bonds of friendship and trust, the more likely they are to cooperate. The more tribe members cooperate, the better they all do. As some wise man said, “People succeed in groups.” Therefore evolution made sure that connection feels really good — probably more than anything else.

This is also why being disconnected from others feels so horrible, because in our savanna days, expulsion from the tribe was tantamount to a death sentence. In ancient times, exile was considered a punishment worse than death. And in modern days, solitary confinement is the ultimate penalty.

Strangely, modern man has inflicted a lot of voluntary solitary confinement upon himself. In affluent Western society, we seem to value privacy and personal space over connection. In his masterful and prescient book Together: The Healing Power of Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Dr Vivek Murthy, 19th Surgeon General of the United States, notes how we were already in the midst of a loneliness pandemic even before coronavirus struck.

Being lonely doesn’t just feel bad; it’s actually bad for your health. Dr Murthy cites studies by Prof Julianne Holt-Lunstad showing that the impact of lacking social connection on reducing life span is equal to the risk of smoking fifteen cigarettes a day — more than the risk associated with obesity, excess alcohol consumption, and lack of exercise.

We build real connection through deliberate effort. Prof Jeffrey Hall has found it takes 80-100 hours to turn an acquaintance into a real friend, and more than 200 hours to become a close friend (part of someone’s “sympathy group”, to put it technically).  Even the least intimate type of friendship, “casual” friendship, only forms after forty to sixty hours spent together.

Straight out of Dr Murthy’s book, here are some strategies “to help us not only to weather this crisis but also to heal our social world far into the future:

1) Spend time each day with those you love. This is not limited to the people in your immediate household. Reach out also to the other members of your lifeline via phone or, better yet, videoconference, so you can hear their voices and see their faces. Devote at least fifteen minutes each day to connecting with those you care most about.

2) Focus on each other. Try to eliminate distractions when interacting with others. Forget about multitasking and give the other person the gift of your full attention, making eye contact, if possible, and genuinely listening.

3) Embrace solitude. The first step toward building stronger connections with others is to build a stronger connection with oneself. Solitude helps us do that by allowing us to check in with our own feelings and thoughts, to explore our creativity, to connect with nature. Meditation, prayer, art, music, and time spent outdoors can all be sources of solitary comfort and joy.”

 5. SUPPORT

Tribes whose members supported one another in trying times such as illness, famine or war fared better, having more offspring survive to future generations. So evolution has designed us such that supporting one another feels good.

How can we support one another? Here are some ways:

1) Give a helping hand. As Dr Vivek Murthy says in Together: “Help and be helped. Service is a form of human connection that reminds us of our value and purpose in life. Giving and receiving, both, strengthen our social bonds—checking on a neighbor, seeking advice, even just offering a smile to a stranger six feet away, all can make us stronger.”

2) Check up on friends and cheer them up. One of the fastest, most effective ways to cheer yourself up is to cheer up someone else.

3) Teach. The flip side of learning is teaching, and it feels just as good, if not even better. If you have a skill to teach (and we all do), volunteer to do so. Give an online seminar. Make an instructional video. Read to kids.

4) Mentor someone. This is a longer-term commitment to a younger person’s growth, and its rewards are commensurately greater.

5) Listen. Therapists are basically people paid thousands of dollars to pretend they’re our friends (while not talking to our other friends) and listen to us without judgment. Well, as a friend, you don’t have to pretend! You can already do that for your friends for free!

You don’t have to solve anyone’s problems. You just have to listen attentively, occasionally saying something like “I really hear you” or “That sounds challenging.” Your friend experiences relief, you’ll feel useful, and your bond will strengthen.

CONCLUSION

Learn, create, share, connect, support: nature has hardwired us to feel good when we engage in these activities. As a bonus, they don’t just feel good right now; they also form the foundation of our long-term happiness.

I sincerely hope that you have the opportunity to incorporate some of the principles from this article into your daily activities so you can develop new mental and physical happiness habits. You even have some suggestions to get you started, and some great books to get you going. To start the sharing process, you can send this article to friends who would benefit from it.

I also understand that creating lasting change can be challenging. So when you feel called to make these changes stick, putting your life on a permanently higher trajectory of joy and generativity, here are two ideas:

• I invite you to apply to the first Happiness Engineering class, starting soon. This is where we support one another as a cohort for 3 months to tune up our lives in five areas so we can better fulfill our purpose in life of fully giving our gift to the world. 

• If you would prefer to consult with me one-on-one, write to me at drali at happinessengineering.com.

Happiness comes to those who take action, and there is no time time better than right now to do just that. Go forth and generate some greatness!

Brain Yoga: New Sessions

You asked for more Brain Yoga, so here are the upcoming classes. The good news is that the fee is only $10 per class — 10-20x cheaper than therapy, and  probably more effective. The even better news is that the first one on Tue June 16, which is the Special Session on Joy, is free of charge. Those who attend will find out why we’re having a Special Session 😉

Format: 15-20min meditation, followed by 30min lecture and Q&A. Click on date to register.

Tuesday, June 16, 1pm PT/4pm ET/9pm London
Meditation: On Joy
Lecture: Joy on Demand: How to Bring More Pleasure and Joy Into Your Life

Wednesday, June 17, 1pm PT/4pm ET/9pm London
Meditation: Wheel of Awareness
Lecture: How to Handle Challenging People & Situations with “The Work”

Thursday, June 18, 1pm PT/4pm ET/9pm London
Meditation: Focus (Hum-Sau)
Lecture: Making Friends with Your Shadow

Friday, June 19, 1pm PT/4pm ET/9pm London
Meditation: Open Awareness
Lecture: You, the Creator: The 6 Principles of Generative Happiness

Saturday, June 20, 11am PT/2pm ET/7pm London
Meditation: Compassion (Metta)
Lecture: You, the Creator: The 6 Principles of Generative Happiness 2

Happiness Engineering presents Brain Yoga, June 3-5

Thanks for your responses to my “How can I best serve you” email last week. Here’s some of what you suggested:

  • Brain Yoga
  • “Energetic blocking techniques, e.g. you’re working from home with other family members – how do you block their energy if they are stressed out? How do you not let toxic co-workers get to you, especially if you are super empathetic?”
  • Happiness Engineering 3-month course
  • Individualized coaching
  • More book recommendations

So I’m going to start with Brain Yoga. You know how you go into a yoga class all harried and tensed up with a zillion things on your mind, and leave it feeling calm and energized? Well that’s what we’ll be doing in Brain Yoga class. Only more powerful, and dealing directly with your mind.

Each class will be a 15-20min meditation, followed by a 30min talk, in which I teach you a technique to increase resilience, equanimity and compassion. About 45min total. If you’re wondering what that’s like, check out these recordings. Optional Q&A at the end of each session.

If you thought this was a good idea during the pandemic, it’s probably an even better idea during pandemic + riots. As this is a time for us to bring our most balanced, strong and compassionate selves to the fore, we all could use some reinforcements.

No charge for the three sessions this week. There will be a fee starting next week, because eventually, I too will have to make a living. If you want a Saturday session, let yourself be known and I’ll consider it. Sign up for one, sign up for all:

If you’d like individualized coaching, my office hours are Thursday, 2-5pm PT/5-8pm ET. Write to me directly and we’ll see how we can address your challenges, short-term or long-term.

Stay healthy, stay safe, stay sane

Dr Ali

Staying Sane in Trying Times: Seminars Apr 22-25

By popular request, I’m holding another series of Staying Sane Seminars this week.

Now, attendance at the seminars has been robust, but not exactly internet-breaking. I myself just took an online seminar on marketing, and my instructor would tell me that I need to do a better job of letting you know what these seminars are and who they’re for.

To that end, I will be sharing with you today a little bit more about my background and thinking:

  • Why these seminars are necessary
  • What qualifies me to teach you this stuff
  • Why this stuff is worthwhile
  • Who it’s for
  • What’s in these seminars anyway

1. WHY THESE SEMINARS ARE NECESSARY, PANDEMIC OR NOT

Here’s the deal: the universe was kind enough to drop the most complex machine in the entire cosmos into your cranium. It’s called your brain.

Unfortunately, the universe forgot to give you an owner’s manual. So most people — and by “most” I mean 99.964% — are running around feeling feelings and thinking thoughts that don’t necessarily serve them all the time. Stuff like fear, doubt, worry, self-loathing, shame, loneliness, and various flavors of self-inflicted misery.

What makes things worse is that evolution designed our magnificent brains for survival on the African savanna 300,000 years ago. This is before the era of gridlock traffic, report deadlines, “Real Housewives” and competitive kindergarten admissions. So there’s a lot of evolutionary mismatch between what our brains are optimized for and the challenges we encounter in 2020 C.E.

That means all of us have these ancient brains that aren’t adapted to modern environments. So we don’t feel so good all the time. And that’s where I come in.

2. WHAT I HAVE TO TEACH YOU (a.k.a. who the hell is this guy anyway)

Hi there! Dr Ali here. I have been studying how the mind works for over 20 years now. As an undergraduate physics and biology major at Harvard, I did lab research in neuroscience. After that, I studied medicine and workings of the body-mind at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

One day I sat in on a class on clinical hypnotherapy to heckle it. I found that hypnotherapy was effective beyond all reason for many conditions — and massively underused. Subsequently I got certified in it not once but twice, and have been practicing clinical hypnotherapy since.

I also got twice certified in another mind-healing modality called Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). Like an antibiotic, it was very effective for treating specific things. And when it worked, it was mind-bendingly effective. It could do in 20 minutes what 3 months of therapy couldn’t accomplish. Like magic.

Since 1999, I have been studying and practicing yoga. Yoga is a supremely powerful way to train the mind, and fortunately, it has become more popular in recent years. These days, people think of yoga as mostly aerobics with Sanskrit. Although doing “yoga booty ballet” is still better than not doing it, the truly transformative aspects of yoga are in meditation and breathwork.

I’ve also attended dozens of personal development workshops and lectures, from the mainstream (e.g. Tony Robbins), to the offbeat (e.g. Wim Hof ice baths), to the esoteric (inner fire Tibetan tummo tantra taught by a reincarnated lama). And I read 160 nonfiction books a year, mostly on psychology and personal development.

I’m telling you all this because you need to know that these Staying Sane Seminars aren’t just any old seminar. They’re a collection of THE best, most effective practices I’ve gathered over the past 20-some years. Stuff that works astonishingly well to transform the way you feel and think.

I call it Creative Repatterning: you’re using the creativity of your own mind to change its patterns.

You know how you feel after watching a Cirque du Soleil performance? How you say “wooow” a few times, and feel like a different person? Senses elevated. Mind expanded. Think of this as the Cirque du Soleil of personal development seminars.

Definitely not ordinary.

And for the time being, they’re free. Come on down.

3. WHO THESE SEMINARS ARE FOR

Who is this for? Anyone with a mind. Especially one that experiences occasional disquietude and suffering.

Access greater equanimity. Diminish stress, anxiety & worry. Build a happier you no matter what’s happening. Join me, Dr Ali Binazir, as I share with you Creative Repatterning techniques for altering your body-mind that are quite literally life-changing.

Click on the link to register via Zoom:
Wednesday, 22 April 2020, 1pm PT/4pm ET/9pm London/6am Sydney
(+1)
Thursday, 23 April 2020, 1pm PT/4pm ET/9pm London/6am Sydney
(+1)
Friday, 24 April 2020, 5pm PT/8pm ET/1am London/7am Sydney
(+1)
Saturday, 25 April 2020, 11am PT/2pm ET/7pm London/stay sleeping Sydney

4. WHAT’S IN THESE SEMINARS

So far some of the topics we have covered:

Meditation:

  • Focus and calm the mind and clear it of thoughts (hum-sau)
  • Becoming more compassionate towards others and self (metta or loving-kindness meditation)
  • Re-processing and transforming uncomfortable emotions (Tibetan tonglen)
  • Practicing integration of the full self (Dr Dan Siegel’s Wheel of Awareness)

Emotional self-regulation:

  • Byron Katie’s “The Work”: a crazy-effective process for dealing with challenging people and situations
  • Whack-the-Ball: diminish painful emotions instantly
  • The Volume Dial: diminish suffering or physical pain on demand
  • Breathing techniques
  • Re-framing with modal operators

Useful concepts and stories to shift your energy:

  • Spanda: the technique from Kashmiri Shaivic tantra to feel the vibration of the universe
  • Embodied cognition and the pen technique: the body leading the mind in feeling
  • Name it to tame it: Naming emotions as a way to make them more manageable
  • Meta-cognition: how to have thoughts about your thoughts  
  • How to generate and move energy through your body to change how you feel
  • Create your own happiness playlist on Spotify, or just use Dr Ali’s Moodlifter

5. INTEGRATING THIS STUFF INTO YOUR LIFE

If you’d like to get better at regulating your own feelings and developing an unshakable foundation of happiness, I’ve been working on a course that I’ll be starting soon for 20 people. If you’d like to be part of this first cohort, fill out the application here.

I have time slots for 3-4 one-on-one coaching sessions per week. They are $200/hr, or $100 for 30min. If you’d like to book one of those, click here.

Additionally, I have for you recordings of the first 6 seminars. Each one is different, with at least 80% new material:

Happiness Engineering in Trying Times 1

Staying Sane in Trying Times 2

Staying Sane in Trying Times 3

Staying Sane in Trying Times 4

Staying Sane in Trying Times 5

Staying Sane in Trying Times 6

Staying Sane in Trying Times 7

Staying Sane in Trying Times 8

Staying Sane in Trying Times 9

Staying Sane in Trying Times 10

Staying Sane in Trying Times: Seminars Apr 8-10

You have let me know that there is a need for the Staying Sane series. I hear you, so I’m scheduling three more this week. The format will be 15min of meditation, 30-40min lecture, followed by Q&A. Here’s the Zoom description: 

Access greater equanimity. Diminish stress, anxiety & worry. Build a happier you no matter what’s happening. Join me, Dr Ali Binazir, as I share with you techniques for altering your body-mind that are quite literally life-changing.

Click on the link to register via Zoom:
Thursday, 9 April 2020, 5pm PT/8pm ET/1am London/10am Sydney
Friday, 10 April 2020, 2pm PT/5pm ET/10pm London/7am Sydney
Saturday, 11 April 2020, 11am PT/2pm ET/7pm London/stupidly early Sydney

Additionally, I have for you recordings of the first 3 seminars. Each one is different, with at least 80% new material:

Happiness Engineering in Trying Times 1
Staying Sane in Trying Times 2
Staying Sane in Trying Times 3

What would be very useful to me:

  1. Feedback on how this material is helpful to you,
  2. How you’re putting the material to use.
  3. The specific challenges you’re experiencing, and how I could help solve them.  

Let me know your thoughts via email: ali (at) happinessengineering.com.

Connect then, Dr Ali

Reading list for the end of the world: A balm for trying times

So you’re cooped up at home. Hopefully with people you like, but more likely with family members. You can’t go anywhere, including work, which means you may or may not be making money. Your gym is closed, so there goes that stress-management outlet. On top of that, stores seem to be chronically out of toilet paper.

Oh, and there’s this pandemic raging outside that has already infected people you know. And is out to get you, too.

If you’re feeling distressed, lonely, confused, bewildered, angry, or just plain exasperated, you are not alone. And I’ve got a list of books that can take you to a much better place. That place is actually remarkably similar to the spot where you are right now, just with a slightly different, more resilient perspective.

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, by Pema Chödrön (ebook, print, & audiobook). “I used to have a sign pinned up on my wall that read: ‘Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.’ Somehow, even before I heard the Buddhist teachings, I knew that this was the spirit of true awakening. It was all about letting go of everything.” Chödrön points out that all times are difficult times, and things are always falling apart. Groundlessness is the essential feature of existence. So to the extent that we choose to “lean into the sharp points” of life instead of running away or seeking comfort, we become resilient. Blissfully short, I hand this one out to friends like candy, and re-read it at least once a year.

Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha, by Tara Brach (ebook, print & audiobook).”Radical Acceptance reverses our habit of living at war with experiences that are unfamiliar, frightening or intense. It is the necessary antidote to years of neglecting ourselves, years of judging and treating ourselves harshly, years of rejecting this moment’s experience. Radical Acceptance is the willingness to experience ourselves and our life as it is. A moment of Radical Acceptance is a moment of genuine freedom.” What people may not know about Brach, a well-regarded Buddhist teacher and psychologist, is the chronic disease that keeps her in a state of constant bodily pain. This may be why people experiencing hardship resonate so deeply with her writing. Think of this as a well of compassion you can come back to drink from regularly.

The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, by Eckhart Tolle (ebook, print & audiobook). This is spiritual balm in book form. You may think you already know what’s in it, either because you’ve seen it everywhere (Oprah!) or you’ve read it. And you would be wrong, because this is one of those books that changes every time you read it. Not interested in being spiritually enlightened? No problem – the book is still super useful. I’ve come back to this one several times during personal crises.

Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl (ebook, print and audiobook). “We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” A classic worth reading and re-reading.

The Choice: Embrace the Possible, by Dr Edith Eva Eger (ebook, print and audiobook). “If you asked me for the most common diagnosis among the people I treat, I wouldn’t say depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, although these conditions are all too common among those I’ve known, loved, and guided to freedom. No, I would say hunger. We are hungry. We are hungry for approval, attention, affection. We are hungry for the freedom to embrace life and to really know and be ourselves.”

Edith Eva Eger was interned at Auschwitz (spoiler alert: she survives). She was forced to dance for Josef Mengele, which is why some foreign editions of the book are called The Ballerina of Auschwitz.

After many other harrowing incidents, Eger makes it to the US, where she ends up rebuilding her life from scratch twice. Then she goes to college at 32, finishes her PhD at 50, and becomes a world-renowned psychologist. Mentored by Dr Viktor Frankl himself, she publishes this remarkable book at 90. This is a story of many things – trauma, survival, luck, resilience, regret, guilt, triumph – that is as uplifting as it is wise. Read it to live a few extra lifetimes through Dr Eger, and check out her YouTube videos too.

Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come, by Richard Preston (ebook, print and audiobook). This is an astonishing book. The reporting, the writing, the pacing, the compassion, the scientific accuracy are world-class. It reads like a thriller, except that all the characters are real and everything actually happened.

The story of the outbreak of Ebola virus is one that not enough people (i.e. less than 100% of the population) are familiar with, presumably because it happened over there, to those people. Now it’s become clearer that in an interconnected world, there is no over there and those people — the whole planet is your backyard. Preston tells the story of how a virus can jump from animals to humans, and then spread like — well, like a really contagious virus. Aided by poor sanitation, local custom and superstition, mistrust, institutional inertia, and lack of data on a new pathogen, Ebola cut a swath of death and terror through Africa. But the coordinated courage of frontline medical workers (many of whom sacrificed their lives), public health officials, and top-notch scientists eventually contained the contagion.

COVID-19 does has neither the contagion profile nor the 80% fatality rate of Ebola. But this book’s an excellent case study of what happens when a new zoonotic disease rips through an immunologically naïve population. You’ll have a better understanding of what’s going on with corona virus, and thank your lucky stars that it ain’t nearly as bad as it could be.

An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System – A Tale in Four Lives, by Matt Richtel (ebook, print and audiobook). Every day, billions of malign agents are trying to kill you, and fail only because your immune system is on guard. How to recognize and ward off the infinite pathogens that could invade and lay you low? How to tell invaders from self? And how to put the brakes on itself when it’s in full defense mode?

The inner workings the immune system should make you gasp at something so insanely intricate and effective. Now is a good time to get acquainted with the system that saves our asses every minute of every day of our lives.

Richtel compellingly interweaves the science and history of immunology into the lives of four patients, each dealing with different aspects of immune function & dysfunction: overreaction, underreaction, recognizing self as enemy, recognizing enemy as self, and much more.

It’s an ambitious premise, and he pulls it off magnificently; I read the whole thing in one sitting. What makes the book supremely compelling is the vivid story of his childhood friend Jason’s cancer treatment. The result is an unusually well-rounded psychological portrait of a patient, along with the tortuous course of his treatment that reads like a detective story. These are poignant tales; I found myself crying (and laughing) multiple times.

Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases, by Paul A. Offit, M.D. (ebook & print). Dr Maurice Hilleman arguably had the greatest positive influence on human health in the history of the world. By number of human lives saved, he’s the #1 scientist of the 20th century, hands down. Yet hardly anyone knows his name.

Through ingenuity, drive, and sheer chutzpah, he developed not one, not two, but NINE modern vaccines: to prevent measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, Hep A, Hep B, pneumococcus, meningococcus, and Haemophilus influenzae type B. Most remain in use to this day, and have collectively prevented billions of cases of disease and death. Crazy thing is even I had never heard of him even though I went to med school – a crime!

Dr Paul Offit, himself a prominent vaccinologist, does a fantastic job of telling the story of the poor orphan from seriously hardscrabble Montana beginnings. Read it not just for a gripping story of the triumph of 20th century medicine and one helluva mensch, but also to appreciate the gargantuan boon that vaccines are: where they come from, how they’re made, how they work, and how many lives they save. Get one copy for yourself, and another for your favorite anti-vaxxer friend. Required reading for all humans who dislike dying of preventable disease.

Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, by Susan David (ebook, print & audiobook). Full of practical, immediately usable strategies, this gem of a book will keep you in good stead no matter what’s happening in your life, especially in time of crisis. Her TED talk based on Emotional Agility is supremely moving and uplifting, with 6.7 million views as of this writing. She also has a March 2020 45min interview with Chris Anderson, the director of TED, on specific strategies for mentally coping with the coronavirus pandemic.

The Great Courses by the Teaching Company. What happens when you go to universities, cherry-pick their top-rated professors, and make audio and video courses based on what they teach best? The Great Courses, that’s what: a candy-store of classes on everything from Astronomy and Archeology to Roman history, Physics, Psychology, Photography, Secret Societies and Zoology. At $20/month for access to their entire catalog, there are few deals in this world that make me happier. Free to join for the first month.

The breadth of knowledge and richness of choice makes it hard to find a good place to start. As a consumer of dozens of their courses over the past 20 years, I suggest you start with the music courses of Professor Robert Greenberg, quite possibly the greatest lecturer alive. The breadth of knowledge and wit of the man is breathtaking. Start with his course on opera or Bach and the High Baroque. Right now I’m really enjoying Music and the Brain, with Aniruddh Patel, and Meteorology: An Introduction to the Wonders of the Weather with Robert Fovell.

Jack Kornfield, Ph.D. is the closest thing we have to an American Buddha. In the first hour of this interview with Tim Ferriss, he shares strategies for mental resilience and reducing anxiety, drawn from his 40+ years of experience as a meditation teacher and psychologist. All his books are fabulous, too.

Happiness Engineering for Trying Times, by yours truly Dr Ali Binazir. Robust relationships. Meaningful work. Sound sleep. Mental Fitness. Physical Fitness. The Five Pillars of Human Thriving are always important, but perhaps never more so than when you’re locked down at home for weeks. Here are some principles & practices for staying sane, healthy & productive. Download my 56min seminar here.

Happiness Engineering for Trying Times, Fri 27 March 12noon PT – free online class

Robust relationships. Meaningful work. Sound sleep. Mental fitness. Physical fitness. No matter where you are and what’s happening in the world, you’re better off attending to The 5 Pillars of Human Thriving rather than leaving them to chance. Join me as I suggest how to keep yourself healthy, happy and sane as the world changes.​ Bonus: some ideas for reducing self-inflicted misery.
You will probably feel better about yourself and the world at the end of this talk. No charge and no registration required. Will have Q&A at the end to address your concerns. Please share.
Time: Mar 27, 2020 12:00 PM Pacific Time/ 3pm ET/7pm GMT
Zoom Meeting link: https://zoom.us/j/8234694023

What’s making New Yorkers unhappy? The top 4 culprits

“Don’t get me wrong, man. I love New York. It’s so much fun. But I just had to get out. It was just too intense.”
“Too fast-paced.”
“Sensory overload.”
“Too much going on all the time.”
“Just too much.”

“Too much” seems to be a recurring theme amongst the New York City refugees I’ve spoken to in Los Angeles and San Francisco. And I agree: every time I spend some time in NYC, I end up a little exhausted. But precisely what about it is too much? What are the specific stressors that make it more difficult to be happy in a place like NYC?

On this visit to the city, I put on my Happiness Engineer hat — similar to my usual hat, with a more skeptical tilt — and observed what was going on that could potentially contribute to the malaise. Amongst all the ways that New York City could make you unhappy, these four reasons stand out the most:

1. Loud noises

Almost everywhere I went in NYC, the ambient noise level was above 80dB. For comparison, that’s the loudness of an average alarm clock — y’know, the incredibly annoying sound that’s loud enough to jolt you out of deep slumber. Now imagine alarm-clock level noise following you around wherever you go.

But 80dB was just the average noise level outside. On a bus, average noise was around 85dB (3x louder than 80db), and on the subway, it routinely spiked to 100+ dB (100x louder than 80dB). In a crowded café in Koreatown, I recorded an ambient noise level of 90dB.

Loud noise is a primal stressor. If you think about what it must have been like for our ancestors living on the savanna 300,000 years ago, there probably weren’t a lot of loud noises. When you did hear a loud noise, though, it was probably important: the roar of a predator, the cracking of a branch about to fall on your head, a burst of thunder. Responding to that loud noise had survival value. Almost every loud noise was salient.

This is probably why we still respond to loud noises so vigorously. Our muscles tighten, our heart and breathing rates elevate, and we get a jolt of cortisol and adrenaline in our bloodstream: ready for action! Some of us even startle and literally jump in respond to noise that is loud enough.

Unfortunately, in a big city like New York, there are a lot of non-salient loud noises. Buses, trains and café conversations aren’t necessarily going to kill you (unless you get in the path of the wrong one). But our bodies still respond to loudness as if it’s threatening.

There are certain adaptations that our bodies make to manage loud noises. Two of the smallest muscles of your body, the tensor timpani and the stapedius, have the sole purpose of dampening loud noise (especially while chewing). However, these muscles fatigue after a few minutes. Also, keeping them constantly contracted is by definition a state of tension.

The problem with loud noises is this: it’s impossible to get used to them. We have mechanisms to adapt somewhat to high ambient noise levels. But there’s no defense against the piercing wail of an ambulance siren, the earth-shaking rumble of an approaching train, or the high-pitched screech of its brakes. Your body will give you a squirt of cortisol and adrenaline, which will make you a little more stressed. Do that a few dozen times a day, every day for years on end, and it adds up.

Suggested remedy: The best thing you can do to mitigate the effects of loud noises is to always carry and wear earplugs in loud urban settings. I’ve been carrying earplugs with me for years, and they are a game-changer. I buy them by the 100-pack in flesh tone that blends in with your skin when you wear them.

Exposure to high ambient noise levels also causes progressive deafness, which is another good reason to get over being too cool to wear earplugs, especially at clubs and concerts. But that’s a story for another day.

2. Commuting

Many studies show that for every minute of additional commuting, there’s a corresponding decrease in overall life satisfaction. And a famous study discovered that commuting is the daily activity that makes people the least happy. (In case you were wondering, #1 on the list was sex. This is why we need science.)

Millions of people in NYC commute daily to work. And as real-estate prices climb higher, the duration of commutes get longer. I know people who work in Manhattan but live over an hour away from their work. One of them is an artist who needs space for her studio, so she lives in deep Brooklyn where it’s more affordable. Another is a successful entrepreneur mom who likes to live in her posh Greenwich home where her kids have more room and access to better schools.

Whether by choice or necessity, a two-hour daily commute just eats into your overall happiness, and there’s almost no amount of money or niceness of house that makes up for it (although some Swiss researchers say a 40% salary increase is a good start). Especially when it’s in a city as densely populated as New York (see next item on list).

Suggested remedies:

  • Deliberately choose to live closer to work.
  • Biking and walking are better than driving. Some researchers say being able to walk to work adds about as much happiness to your life as being in love.
  • Add enjoyment or productivity to the commute. Listen to an audiobook, practice your singing, or catch up with friends on the phone. Make it your me-time.

3. Overcrowding

When scientists want to experimentally induce stress in lab animals, they put too many of them in one cage. The 59-square km island of Manhattan (22.8 sq mi) houses 3.1 million people in the daytime, 1.6 million at night. That’s a population density of 52,542 people per square kilometer in the daytime, 27,118/sq km at night — one big, overcrowded cage.

In case you’re wondering if that number’s small or large, visit the New York subway system during rush hour, or cross a street, or walk into a coffee shop in the early afternoon. There are lines, crowds and jams everywhere. I visited this new development called Hudson Yard over the weekend, where they have built a very shiny staircase to nowhere (called “The Vessel”). At 4pm, it was full of people and already sold out for the day. Moral of the story: given enough people, even a staircase to nowhere sells out.

When you have that many people around all the time, everything becomes a competition: getting a seat on the subway; scoring a reservation at a restaurant; getting a parking spot; getting a seat at a park concert. Last night I was sitting at a park table at Bryant Park to watch a free staged performance of Bizet’s Carmen by the New York City Opera. My friend who I was going to meet called me, so I stood up and took three steps away from the table to find him. I looked back, and within those 5 seconds, someone had taken my seat.

Suggested remedy: Move somewhere less crowded — like, anywhere.

It seems highly anxiety-provoking to constantly worry about getting a spot or losing one. But that’s mostly episodic. There is another form of NYC anxiety which never turns off, and that is…

4. Status anxiety

Am I rich enough? Am I good-looking enough? Is my job cool enough? Am I scoring reservations at that hot new restaurant, and if so, is my table any good? Am I hanging out at the Hamptons enough this summer, at a cool enough house with cool enough people? Was my bonus large enough, especially compared to my colleagues? Is my address prestigious enough? Am I winning yet? Am I enough?

Issues like these exist in most major metropolitan areas, but I feel as if status anxiety is particularly pronounced in a place like New York City. (Incidentally, the other cities that have maxed out my status-anxiometer were London and Hong Kong.) I recommend the always eloquent and insightful Alain de Botton’s book Status Anxiety if you’d like to explore the topic further.

Status anxiety is a holdover from our evolutionary past, where we lived in small hierarchical tribes. Our very survival depended on our rank in the tribe, because low rank meant you wouldn’t get access to food or reproductive resources. We still have the genes of those rank-sensitive primates, so even in a big city with enough food and partners to go around for everyone, people still worry about status totally out of proportion of its effect on their survival.

Potential remedies: This is one of those deeply ingrained evolutionary behaviors that’s just very difficult to snap out of once you’re embedded in a hyper-competitive milieu like New York City. So the simple (if not necessarily easy) remedy is to move somewhere more chill.

Barring that, it helps a lot to meditate. Over the long term, meditation reconfigures your brain such that you can take a step back and look at your thoughts and see that they’re just thoughts, not you. Kind of like whatever show is playing on the TV screen is just the show, but not the TV. You are the TV. And so, you’ll become able to see the survival-based status anxiety thoughts as just thoughts, which you are free to smile at and ignore, and nothing more. Pretty liberating, isn’t it?

Thanks for reading! If you found this useful, please spread the word and share it with friends via social media and email. And if you’re a New Yorker itching to prove me wrong by getting angry at me, you can write me at drali (at) happinessengineering.com.

9 Simple Strategies for Reading More Books: How I Read 130+ Books a Year

I have a mini-confession for you: I love bookstores. Actually, that’s not entirely true: I am crazy for bookstores. They exert a gravitational pull on me like a black hole pulls in a photon and obliterates all signs of its existence, putting a stop to time. My brain goes ooooh as I see all the shiny new books and browse the little treasuresI vanish into a sea of stimulus, novelty, and discovery. But with the ecstasy there also came the agony of not being able to read all of these insanely cool books. When would I find out about Operation Mincemeat, the successful British disinformation campaign against the Nazis? Or master the physics of cooking? Or delve into the 900-page lives of John Rockefeller and Alexander Hamilton (thanks a lot, Ron Chernow)? I would add them to my Amazon “Interesting books” list, which someday my future self would no doubt tackle all 640 titles thereof. And then, there were the 100+ unread books in my own library. They occupied three shelves in my bedroom, covered by a towel so I would feel less guilt when I passed by them (true!). Visitors assumed that it must be something shameful I was concealing. They weren’t wrong. My name is Ali, and I am a non-read-book hoarder. One of these books sitting there diligently gathering dust was Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Prof Daniel Siegel (ebook & print). I remember purchasing it enthusiastically several centuries ago, fully intending to read it right away. And then picking it up again a year later and getting to page 40 before putting it back on the shelf again, where it could capture dust and radiate guilt. One day, I picked it up, looked at the purchase receipt doubling as a bookmark (still on page 40), and realized the book had been on my shelf for six freakin’ years. Out of a mixture of pique and embarrassment, I just decided to drop everything and read the damn book. Holy cow! Here was a book that provided a whole new framework for mental health. It was enlightening, revolutionary, revelatory: chaos and rigidity as the pathological ends of the mental health spectrum, and integration as the desirable mean.* That epiphany made me realize the magnitude of the treasures hiding in the open on my bookshelves and reading lists. I fully appreciate Umberto Eco’s point about the benefits of the antilibrary of unread books, but this was getting ridiculous. Page 40 boy no more; I was going to read more. If I read 100 books a year—just 2 a week—I would not only go through all the unread books on my shelves, but also be able to read all the other books I was hankering for. So in 2016, I read 100 books. In 2017, 132 books. In 2018, I set a goal of 156, and ended up reading 170. According to Pew Research, the average American read 4 books last year. If you’re reading this now, I’m assuming you really like to read books, but somehow just don’t. And whether your annual book count falls closer to 4 or 400, you’d like to increase it. This article will help you do that. Before you make any rash decisions about not being able to do this because 170 books wtf man, some unfair advantages that enable me to read a lot:
  • I have designed my life to make writing and reading books my job. Your probably have a different job.
  • I read 2-4x faster than average, thanks to some mixture of talent and training.
  • I use my fallow time to read (see below).
  • I’m a single, self-employed man without children, wife, or lawn care duties, so I have chunks of uninterrupted time.
In 2015, I read a mere 48 books, and thought that was a lot. If you had told me I’d triple that number in a few years, I would have asked you to share what you were smoking. But I believe that by applying the strategies I’m about to enumerate, you can easily double or triple your yearly book count—even if you have a 9-5 job, spouse, and 2.3 children. These strategies work with the life you have right now. My goal is to help you jettison your excuses into low earth orbit so you get to enjoy reading all those books you’ve always wanted to read. Ready? Let’s do this. 1. MAKE READING BOOKS A CONSCIOUS PRIORITY Right now, the main reason you’re not reading as many books as you want is not that you can’t, or don’t have the time. It’s that you have not made it a priority. In the meantime, you have made other things priorities that you value less than reading, consciously or not. Noodling on social media. Reading random online articles that you encounter on said social media. Posting photos of your cat, dog, kid, or food on social media. Watching TV. Attending bullshit work meetings. Marathon video game sessions. Pulpy magazines. And did I mention social media? Yeah, social media. I hear ya—if you don’t attend the bullshit meetings, you can get fired. But the rest? If you want to get serious about reading more books, it’s time we make book reading a conscious priority. As in, this means a lot to me and I’m going to make it a permanent part of my life. As in, I only get 460,000 waking hours in this life, and every minute I spend doing one thing I kinda like is a minute I can’t get to do the thing I really like. As in, I love reading, dammit, and I’m going to make it a priority. Once you make this shift, from reading only when all the other important stuff is done, to reading being the important stuff, from giving it the dregs of your time to making it your prime-time activity, everything changes. And really, short of your relationships and life-sustaining activities, what’s more important than learning? One more thing before launching into the rest of the strategies: Go easy on yourself. Remember that reading is a joy and a privilege. We live in this totally bananas time in history when we have access to unlimited books for free or nearly so. In the Middle Ages, books were expensive enough to be priceless, and no one but the elite had access to them. Later, people like Voltaire and Charles Dickens had to choose between food and books. So instead of thinking must read more books high-achieving reading Hulk smash and making it one more thing to be competitive and neurotic about, think whooaaa I get to read. A privilege and a joy. Let’s get started. 2. SCHEDULE DEDICATED READING TIME The #1 way to signal to the universe your intention to read is to schedule it in your calendar. You mean like along the grocery runs, picking up the kids, and bullshit meetings, doc? Why yes! That’s what we do with important stuff: we put it on the calendar. That’s how we make it a priority that gets done. If you’re not serious about reading, we can stop right here and spare you the remaining 3000 words of this article. But if you are serious, and reading is a joy and a privilege for you, let’s get some time blocked out for you. Like, right now. Get your calendar, and block out at least three 30-minute reading sessions for this week. I have my dedicated reading time first thing in the morning, after showering and meditating. That way it gets done, and any additional reading time during the day is just gravy. I recommend that you select a time slot that you can stick to on a regular basis: right after lunch; right after putting the kids to bed; before everyone wakes up, whatever. Just make it consistent. If you can do 3 days a week, do that. If you can only 1 day, do that. The point is to improve from where you are right now, and build on it later. For now, I just want you to show an upward trend. If you’re spending zero time reading, any dedicated time is an improvement. Even one single page in the morning. And once you do get started, you’ll find that adding more time gets even easier. I have total faith in you. Let’s go, you bookbeast you. 3. RE-ALLOCATE TIME I used to be a semi-serious poker player. Sessions would gobble up acres of time: 4-8 hours for an evening cash session; entire days for tournaments. Once I stopped playing poker, all that time could now be spent doing something more worthwhile, like reading. What’s the poker in your life—your big time-suck that returns little on the investment, the guilty pleasure that’s maybe more guilt than pleasure? Is it watching TV? Playing video games? Noodling on social media? Surfing Wikipedia? Whatever it is, realize that you’re already spending that time, so the “I don’t have time” excuse is bullshit. Now consciously decide to re-allocate that time to reading instead. If you’re serious about reading, here are some tactics:
  • Get rid of your TV entirely if you have one. It’s easily the most pernicious time-waster in every household. I haven’t had one since high school, and seriously have no idea how people get anything done when 400 channels just sit there and say it’s Shark Week again and pretty much always watch meeeeee, for which I have no defense.
  • Cancel your Netflix subscription. After you watch the Wild, Wild Country documentary. Damn.
  • Get rid of your video game console. Unless you’re 13 and under.
  • Install the News Feed Eradicator extension to your internet browser.
  • Install website-blocking extensions to your browser, like RescueTime and StayFocused.
  • Delete all compulsively addictive apps from your phone: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Just do it. You won’t miss them, and trust me—anything else you do is better than spending time on those apps. Especially reading. This could reclaim you 20-90 minutes a day, depending on how addicted you are to those apps.
  • Get the Goodreads app for smartphone or tablet. It’ll help you read more books. And follow me there if you want to hear about my book recommendations.
Even if you do just one of these, you can easily recover 30-60min of daily time to devote to reading. Which raises the question: How much can you cover in 30min/day? The average educated adult reads at a speed of about 300 words per minute (wpm). That’s 18,000 words per hour. Let’s say the average serious book such as The Tao of Dating is around 280 pages and 70,000 words (ebook, print & audio). If you read half an hour a day, that’s around 180 hours/year, or 3.2 million words. That’s 46 books, yo! On just half an hour a day!! More than 4 standard deviations above the American mean of 12 per year!!! I’m running out of exclamation marks here, but the point is that the little bits of time add up. Book reading is an investment—unlike, say, all that time spent on social media, games and other compulsions. And you don’t have to quit all of your time-suck guilty pleasures to become a champion book reader. Assuming you sleep 8 hours a night, 30 minutes represents just 3% of your waking hours. Can you commit just 3% of your time to doing something you not only love, but that also brings massive positive returns to your life? Seems like a decent deal to me. 4. USE FALLOW TIME If I had a dollar for every time someone told me “I don’t have time to read,” I’d have many dollars. So we need to send this excuse to its swift and everlasting demise by proving that there’s all kinds of fallow time in your day that you can repurpose to reading time. a) Commuting to work. One day when I was visiting my friend Ben in Chicago, he was kind enough to drop me off to my meeting on his way to work. I asked him if he listened to any audiobooks on his 20-minute commute. “Nah, it’s not enough time for me to get into anything.” Are you kidding me? It’s the perfect time! The average American commutes 25 minutes to work each way, for a total of 50 minutes a day, five days a week. That adds up to 12,500 minutes a year (which, by the way, is totally bananas, and probably making you all kinds of miserable without your knowing it, which I will talk about extensively in my Happiness Engineering book. But I digress). If you commute by bus or train, you can read 53 books in that time (1 a week!). If you drive, you can listen to audiobooks and, at 8-10 hours per book, get through 20-26 of those. This is a substantial—nay, gargantuan chunk of time, bigger than your 30min daily reading allocation! b) Waiting in line. Stuck at the DMV or passport office? Waiting for your turn at the hair salon, or for your oil change to finish? These are perfect times to get in a nice chunk of reading. Each one of them may not be much, but put together, they add up to a lot. To make this work, ABAB: Always Bring a Book. Or read on your smartphone’s Kindle app like I do, which means you’ll always have 5 million books on you. c) Running. I’ve gotten through many an audiobook while running. It helps if it’s a lighter read, say a memoir like Amy Poehler’s hilariously heartfelt Yes, Please (ebook, print, and audio), vs a computationally complex read, like Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (ebook & print), or Behave by Robert Sapolsky (ebook & print), which is, incidentally, the greatest book I’ve ever read. d) Traveling. Airport bookstores have noticed: people read while traveling. I use earplugs to minimize distraction, improve concentration, and save my eardrums. Reading on Kindle means I don’t have to carry extra weight on board. Those 5 million books can take up space. e) Right before falling asleep. Bedtime is a good for a few more minutes of readage. I keep a non-taxing, not-too-exciting book bedside. A thriller will keep you up, so you may want to choose something less stimulating. This is how I slogged through the overlong but still excellent Mark Twain: A Life by Ron Powers (ebook & print). Some elephants are best eaten one bite at a time. 5. GET INTO AUDIOBOOKS I listen to an audiobook every time that I go for a run or get on a treadmill. This kills two birds with one stone: it allows me to consume a cool book, and it makes me more motivated to run so I can listen to a cool book! I noticed that the better the book, the more likely I was to run. Feel free to borrow that motivational technique. Less fun than running is driving in California, but a good audiobook can soften the sting. The 60-minute slog from Santa Monica to Downtown LA was an opportunity to listen to more of Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah, the greatest audiobook and memoir I’ve ever listened to, and Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike, also the greatest memoir ever. Depending on how much running and driving I’m doing, I get through 1-2 audiobooks a month. You can listen to them during your commute, run, walk, or other low cognitive-load activity that does not involve heavy limb-shredding machinery. I subscribe to Audible’s monthly audiobook program, which is exactly the right amount of audiobooks for me. At $14.95 a month, it also saves me a bunch on the mind-blowing Great Courses, which usually cost several times that. The key to listening to audiobooks while driving is to turn the book on immediately, regardless of the length of drive. Even those 10-minute jaunts add up. I’ve been doing this for so long that I honestly have no idea whether my car radio works or not. What times could you be enjoying listening to an audiobook? 6. READ BOOKS, NOT ARTICLES I swear I’m not looking over your shoulder right now, but if you’re reading this sentence, it’s safe to say you read articles online. So if you’re already spending time reading something, make them books, not articles (present company excepted). Articles are like bubble gum; books, like main courses, meals, or whole harvests. This means chucking both magazines and online pieces. I do read some articles, especially those in The New Yorker, the world’s greatest magazine. However, I have made a point of reading books instead of articles, and never reading news if I can help it. Wait what, no news? You choose to be ignorant about your world, doc? See, I subscribed to The Economist for over 15 years, and still think it’s great. But one day, I realized my waist-high stack of old issues was the equivalent of, like, 50 books. As much as I appreciated The Economist’s diligence in keeping me abreast of developments in Congo (still warring!), the Middle East (still quarreling!), and world economy (still fluctuating!), I realized that it was mostly a cloud atlas, obsolete as soon as it was printed. Sub sole nihil novum, said some wise man with much better Latin than mine, and he had a point. There’s nothing new under the sun; news should justly be called olds. One thing is up; another thing is down. The names change but the story is the same. Unless you use the news to take action (e.g. enlist for military service, run for office, evade a hurricane or dump bad stocks), then it is literally useless to you. And, while we’re on the Happiness Engineering website, I’ll remind you that most news is negative and designed to make you miserable. Reading good books about stuff you actually care about will make you much happier in the long run. 7. READ A LITTLE FASTER So we calculated that reading for 30 minutes a day at 300wpm translates to around 46 books a year. It follows that if you increase your reading speed, you stand to read even more books. Let me say here that I don’t believe in “speed-reading.” You can scan the words faster and faster, but there’s an upper limit beyond which you’re just skimming text without understanding anything. That said, most of us are reading at far below the upper limit of our speed. You can stand to increase that speed by moving your eyes across the page faster. Train yourself to do that by following a finger or pen across the page, and gradually increasing the speed up to your limit. There are also apps to train you to read faster. I recommend that you use them not to read books, but to train yourself to move your eyes faster. One app is Quickreader, which highlights text at the speed you specify. I suggest you use it to overclock your brain to read at some absurd speed like 2000 wpm, which will go by in an incomprehensible blur. After that, dial back to some fast-but-not-ridiculous speed like 750wpm, which feels leisurely in comparison. But that’s over double normal reading speed! High-five, homie. Another useful app is Kindle’s WordRunner, available on Kindle Fire devices and Kindle for Android apps (but not the iOS Apple Kindle, for some strange reason). This app runs words by in one spot at the speed you specify. Once again, practice overclocking your brain at some stupidly fast speed. Then go back to reading a normal book, only faster than you did before. I dropped $50 on a Kindle Fire 7 just so I could get this feature. To improve your speed without having to download any new software, go to the Spreeder app, paste some practice text, and go to town. And if you want to get really serious, the same company makes software for $80 called 7 Speed Reading that will increase your reading speed. I found it a useful training tool which helped me improve my eye-fixation speed, and to get rid of some bad habits like back-skipping. Also note that you will read different books at different speeds. Computationally complex texts that require thought and processing may take 2-5x longer to read than the average book, while a pulpy novel or memoir may take half the time. Remember that it’s not a race in any case: you still want to enjoy the book and absorb its contents. A joy and a privilege! 8. READ ONLY BOOKS YOU REALLY LIKE When a book is fun and compelling, I read it quickly. When it’s boring, pointless, or poorly written, it takes forever. So you know what I do now? I only read books I really like! Crazy, I know. But you’d be shocked and amazed how many people feel like they need to get through The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as if it’s some badge of honor. Life’s too short, yo! Even at 150 books a year, I’m going to get through at most another 6000 books in this lifetime. That’s not even 0.1% of what’s in the Library of Congress, so these books had better be awesome. There are enough stupendously great books out there such that you don’t ever have to read a crappy one. If partway through, you find a book tepid, you have my blessing to abandon it for something that’s great. So check out the Amazon and Goodreads ratings and reviews, and stick with the great stuff. Here are some lists of the best books I read last year: the most useful, most important, and just plain insanely great. This is one of the reasons I’m starting a podcast called The Ideaverse, which showcases truly extraordinary, mind-bending, life-altering books. Sign up on this website to be notified when it launches. 9. TRACK YOUR READING AND SET YOURSELF A CHALLENGE One way of signaling to the universe that you’re getting serious about reading is to set yourself a reading challenge: “In the next year, I will read 24 books.” Then keep track of your reading on your smartphone’s Notes app or some notebook. The management god Peter Drucker is famous for saying, “What gets measured gets managed.” Now that you are measuring your reading, you have a much better chance of improving it. An app like Goodreads allows you to both track your reading and set a public challenge. Having the challenge out in the open adds a smidgen of accountability which may make you more likely to adhere to it. And, let’s face it, how else are you going to brag about all the cool books you read? Especially ebooks, which do not show up on any shelf. CONCLUSION: HOW ARE YOU SPENDING YOUR LIFE? Not so long ago, I made a list of things I really enjoyed doing—the things that make life worthwhile, y’know? On the list: attending classical music concerts, running, dancing, cooking, socializing with friends, reading, traveling, and a bunch of other stuff that I strangely was not doing very often. Huh? I had time, and I could afford the activities. But somehow I was spending my days doing other things far less fulfilling. Forces other than myself had decided how I would spend my life, and I had tacitly consented. So I made a deliberate choice to do more of the stuff that made me happy. And now, I’m happier! And devouring books like some gigantic book-devouring termite from outer space (much cooler than a wimpy little book worm). If there’s a book I want to read, I put it in the queue and know I will get to reading it soon enough. I don’t have to do this. I get to do this. A joy and a privilege. I hope this article also impels you to take stock of how you are spending your time, and to deliberately incorporate into your life the activities that bring you joy and meaning. If reading is one of those activities, test and see which strategies in this article work for you, and report back to me! And if you have effective strategies of your own, please share them in the comments. Read on, my fellow super space-termites, AB PS: Most of the product links in this article are affiliate links. This means that every time you purchase through those links, you support the blog by having several shiny pennies deposited into my Amazon account. That allows me to buy more great books (currently about 20 a month) and tell you about them. I am infinitely grateful for your support! *Dan Siegel should be at least as famous a psychiatrist as Sigmund Freud, with the difference that Siegel’s work actually makes sense, helps heal people, and is backed by science. Freud, on the other hand, is only one letter off from fraud. RESOURCES Read faster: I got this software called 7 Speed Reading in 2014, and found it useful. It has drills for gradually increasing your eye-scanning speed, your wordspan (the number of words you can take in per eye fixation), and other stuff that will make you read faster. It’s sophisticated software, and it worked for me. Great books: If you are interested in reading some truly excellent books, here are the top 13 from what I read last year. You may have noticed by now that I only read nonfiction. For full reviews of each, go here.
  • Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (2016) by Trevor Noah (ebook, print & audio).
  • Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions (2016) by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths (ebook & print).
  • On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017) by Timothy Snyder (ebook & print).
  • King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1999) by Adam Hochschild (ebook, print & audio).
  • The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (2010) by John Vaillant (ebook & print).
  • The Art of Loving (1956) by Erich Fromm (ebook & print).
  • The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (2016) by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Abrams (ebook & print).
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970), by Dee Brown (ebook, print & audio).
  • Everyday Engineering: Understanding the Marvels of Daily Life (2015) by Prof Stephen Ressler (Great Courses). This 36-lecture course was one of the meatiest, most useful I’ve ever taken from The Teaching Company/Great Courses.
And the two greatest books I’ve ever read:
  • Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017) by Robert Sapolsky (ebook & print). Tied for my Greatest Book Ever.
  • The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1987, revised 2012) by Richard Rhodes (ebook, print & audio). This is the greatest nonfiction book I’ve ever read. It won the Pulitzer, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award, so others seem to have liked it, too.

8 Strategies to Stay Slim Forever in a World Trying Its Darndest to Make Us Fat: One Man’s Story

When I first moved to Los Angeles from Iran at 13, I was a scrawny little punk. This changed soon after I discovered Big Macs, Double Cheese Whoppers, one-pound bags of peanut M&Ms, Pringles potato chips, and boxes of Twinkies, scarfing them down in front of Knight Rider reruns. Soon, I was chubby—for the first time in my life. And, fortunately, for the last. Then I read a magazine article that listed the amount of calories and fat in the junk I was devouring: something like 800 calories and 65 grams of fat for a Double Cheese Whopper from Burger King. With the help of some scolding from my older sister, I got religion: I dropped all the junk food, joined the local YMCA swim team, and became one healthy sonofabitch. I’ve been trim since then, around 175 pounds (80kg) for the past 25 years or so at a height of 5’10” (177cm). I never thought of trimness as much of a feat, attributing most of it to my excellent choice in parents, whose weight has been pretty stable their entire lives. But a few things I noticed recently made me think that perhaps I am doing something differently. After all, over 60% of Americans are now overweight. And my metabolism has slowed down significantly since I was a college athlete. And at my recent college reunion, about half of my classmates were seriously overweight. Why did I not balloon out? One thing I’ve noticed: people make piss-poor choices when it comes to eating. They buy chips and candy from convenience stores. They load up on french fries, steak, and cheesecake at open buffets. They drink sugary sodas and fruit juice. I used to think that this only happened to people who were uneducated, or didn’t have access to good food. But at that Harvard College reunion I just mentioned, my classmates were making the same piss-poor choices, even though some of them were not just doctors but medical school professors. America—we’ve got a big problem. Pun always intended. The statistics for slimming down and keeping the extra stuff off aren’t encouraging. It seems like you have a better chance of recovering from cancer. So let me be clear that this article is not about shedding mass. This article is about staying slim, or at least maintaining your current size, which is much easier than shedding mass. And if you, eagle-eyed reader, noticed that I use “shed mass” instead of “lose weight”, there’s a good reason for that. Nobody likes to lose, or wait. Nobody likes to lose stuff, either. And some of our most ecstatic moments happen when we find stuff we’ve lost. No wonder people are so good at finding the weight again! Trying to lose weight is a losing proposition that your unconscious will battle every step of the way. Although I am a physician by training, I emphasize that this is the report of one man (i.e. me) on what seems to work for him to stay trim so far. It is purely anecdotal and not scientific. I do not have an evil donut-chomping twin or clone, so there is no control experiment either. All I know is this works for me. This is also not some universally applicable panacea, and your results will vary. That said, you may find some useful ideas here that work for you to stay slim while still fully enjoying the culinary and gustatory pleasures of life. Let’s dig in. As I was writing this article, a few principles emerged for staying slim and healthy. I’ll introduce these to you now, and fully flesh them out later in the article. A. Sustainability. Ask yourself, “Could I stay slim if I did this every day for a month, or a year, or a lifetime?” If it’s not sustainable every day for the long term, then don’t do it at all. B. Use habits to regulate your behavior, not willpower or thought. Hunger does not operate in the logical part of your brain. So if you have to think about food choices, you’re toast. Willpower and motivation are also weak allies. Use strong habits instead. C. Use rules so you don’t have to think about food choices as much. Similar to #2, if you have think about your choices every time you come across a slice of cheesecake or a double margarita, you will lose. Have ironclad, unbreakable behavioral rules instead. D. Hara hachi bu. From the Okinawans, the champions of healthy longevity, featured in the National Geographic Blue Zones books by Dan Buettner: eat only up to the point that you’re 80% full. E. Use extreme categories for undesirable foods. Perceiving danger is an effective way to change your behavior; some wimpy relativism of “oh potato chips aren’t that bad” ain’t gonna cut it. This is why I classify all junk food as poison, and encourage you to do the same. E. Use the Power of Zero: zero times anything is zero. So substitute zero-calorie things for stuff that has calories that add up: water instead of soft drinks; plain coffee or tea instead of adding cream and sugar; vinegar or no salad dressing instead of Thousand Island. F. Move a lot. Given a chance to move vs sit, move. Walk or bike instead of driving. Over the course of your lifetime, this will burn up 10x more calories than going to the gym. And now, for the rules: 1. EAT ONLY WHEN HUNGRY This may seem so insanely commonsensical as to not even be worth mentioning. But the fact is that humans do a lot of mindless eating: that’s why we’ve gotten so fat. This is probably because our brains, holdovers from our stone-age evolutionary past, are designed to hedge against scarcity and famine, which happened a lot. So when it sees food, it just goes into eat eat stuff face noooow mode. We gorge on the antelope now, because we don’t have a fridge and might be involuntarily fasting for two weeks after. In the era of ubiquitous supermarkets and restaurants, we can afford to relax this famine-phobic hypervigilance. And instead of eating dinner because it’s 7.30pm, or because other people around us are eating, we can think: “Am I even hungry?”, and only eat when we’re actually hungry. If you’re not hungry, feel free to skip the meal entirely and go for a walk instead. 2. NO LIQUID CALORIES The easiest way to add unwanted mass to your body is by drinking your calories. Your body has a precise mechanism for regulating the amount of solid calories you ingest. Let’s call it the appestat, like a thermostat for your appetite. The appestat is thrown off by calories consumed in liquid form: soda, juice, milk, beer, smoothies, wine, pumpkin spice frappelattecino, frozen double-fudge mudslides. It’s almost like your body says, “Oh, that stuff went straight through so it probably doesn’t count.” Well, it does, ‘cause it’s still going into your bod, bud. Here’s a key number I want you to remember: 3500. That’s the approximate number of calories in a pound (or half-kilo) of body weight. There are 365 days in a year, so if you eat an extra 10 calories every day for a year, it adds up to 3650 calories, or about one extra pound. Coffee and tea When you add sugar, milk, or cream to your coffee, it may not seem like much. But in fact, that’s anywhere from 10 to 100 calories added to a normally calorie-free drink—or 1 to 10 pounds per year (PPY). And if you have that coffee many times a day—or if it’s a 400-calorie frappelattecino—the numbers can add up fast. Alcohol Drinking alcohol is so woven into the fabric of social life that we don’t even notice it’s happening. And it’s not like it’s food; it’s just a drink! Drinks don’t count! They do. It’s where beer bellies come from. For our purposes, let’s say beer, wine, and liquor have about 100 calories per serving. More precisely:
  • 5-ounce (150ml) glass of wine: 122 calories
  • 12-ounce (350ml) bottle of beer: 153 calories; light beer: 103 calories
  • 1.5 oz shot of 80-proof liquor (gin, rum, vodka, whiskey): 96 calories.
Just one drink may not seem like a lot. But even that one drink is 10 PPY, and who has just one drink? It all adds up over the course of the evening. Fancy cocktails add even more. A gin and tonic has 200 calories, because the sugar in the tonic water is what makes the gin taste less like a Rottweiler’s ass. A margarita can be anywhere from 300-500 calories; drinking two is like eating a whole pizza by yourself. And something like a frozen mudslide—consider investing in Champion elastic waistband sweatpants, because you will need them soon. Soft drinks Sodas and juice are the biggest culprits of them all. I include them together because juice is the more dangerous of the two by masquerading as a natural, healthy option while having the same effect as soda: delivering excess sugar to your body in a way that avoids the appestat. Listen up: there’s nothing “natural” about juice. Ever seen an orange tree growing square cartons instead of round fruit? That would be cool in a psychedelic kind of way, but it’s not how nature works. Instead, the liquid in the fruit is complexed with skin and pulp and fiber and a whole bunch of other good stuff that makes it really hard for you to eat 4 oranges in one sitting. Take all that fiber away, and what you’re left with is mostly water and sugar from the formerly nutritious fruit. Your best bet for a drink is water. It is the perfect drink, which means it cannot be improved upon—not by adding caramel coloring, phosphoric acid and sodium benzoate (that’s Coke); not by adding cream, pumpkin spice, caffeine and sugar; not by adding sulfites, tannins and ethanol (sorry, wine); not by adding anything. Water is what your body needs. It has zero calories, and zero times anything is zero, so a lifetime supply still has zero calories. Drink up. Implementation The way I implement the no liquid calories rule is that I generally refrain from calories in liquid form: no juice or soda, no sugar added to my green tea. Every once in a while I’ll have a glass of wine at a social event, which I then burn off by doing jumping jacks in place for the duration of the party. Actually, no, I don’t really do that ‘cause it would be weird, which is the point: don’t get so overzealous about this stuff that it’s makes you miserable and/or pointlessly eccentric. Feel free to be sociable. Enjoy life, and realize that you won’t miss the empty liquid calories once you cut them out, and you will feel much better in the long run–with the added bonus that you’ll save thousands of dollars a year. You will, however, make exceptions for the occasional glass of Château Petrus and flute of Dom Perignon rosé, especially when someone else is buying. 3. BE BULLET-PROOF – ER, BUFFET-PROOF Here’s the thing about a buffet: you will overeat. Guaranteed. So the first rule of buffets is: don’t go to them. But sometimes you’re at a multi-day conference or cruise, and the buffet is the only choice. So you might as well concede defeat, put on those gray Champion sweatpants, and declare Homer Simpson as your spirit animal. Or—you could go into full commando mode and defeat the buffet with your ironclad Buffet-Proof Rules:
  1. Eat salad and veggies first—lots of them.
  2. Drink lots of water.
  3. Avoid fried crap.
  4. Eat slowly.
  5. Skip dessert and eat fruit instead.
When you eat salad and veggies first, followed by water, you basically fill your belly with high-nutrient, low-calorie food that makes you feel full. If the salad contains high-pectin foods like pears, apples, plums and citrus, drinking water on top of it creates a jelly-like semisolid matrix in your tummy that makes you feel full fast. Then, you can go to town with the lasagna since you’ll only have so much room left for it. Eating slowly gives the satiety signal from your tummy the time it takes to reach your brain and say, “Enough already, yo.” This is how you keep the hara hachi bu rule: stop eating when 80% full. And I have a whole section on skipping dessert, which we’ll get to in a bit. And if you do end up overeating at a buffet, you may expiate your sins by walking the full length of the Camino de Santiago, or sending a generous donation to my Champagne Fund. Or you could just skip the next meal—more on that later. 4. USE MICHAEL POLLAN’S FOOD RULES If I had to boil down this whole article to its bare minimum, it would be Michael Pollan’s Food Rules:
  1. Eat food.
  2. Mostly plants.
  3. Not too much.
“Food” is stuff you can recognize: apples, blueberries, chicken breast, carrots, broccoli. It is in contradistinction to “food-like objects” (FLO) that have been processed, packaged, and engineered to taste good without necessarily being good for you: potato chips, candy bars, nachos, french fries, ice cream, chicken nuggets, and almost anything you buy at a convenience store. My rule is simple: if it’s not food, it’s poison. I won’t put it in my shopping cart, and I won’t eat it. Waitasec, doc: you’re saying Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is poison? No, I’m saying ice cream is poison. Not necessarily poisonous the way, say, cyanide is. But you can’t eat ice cream all day long without getting sick and fat. Some things that I consider poison: soft drinks; cookies; brownies; doughnuts; pretty much any UFO (unidentifiable fried object); come to think of it, almost all IFOs (identifiable fried object); potato chips; nacho chips; candy bars; milkshakes; anything sold at a fast-food chain. The point is that classifying things as food vs poison may be extreme, but it may be the only method that keeps you honest. Your brain sticks to the good stuff and avoids the nasty stuff. Feel free to choose the nomenclature for the bad stuff that works for you. Some suggestions: junk food; supremely fattening food; toxic waste dump extract; heart-attack fodder. Your pick. Eating a mostly plant-based diet may be the best damn idea you’ll ever have for your health and that of the planet. The evidence for a plant-based diet being good for your long-term health is overwhelming. But this article is about staying slim, so: eat a plant-based diet because plants are nutritionally dense without being calorically dense. And they take up a lot of space in your tummy, which makes you feel full without actually taking in gobs of calories. What a deal! A vegan diet may be a bridge too far. The point is to eat plants instead of meat whenever possible, but not to the point of becoming sanctimonious and difficult to feed. Also, no society on earth has had a long-term vegan diet. It’s an unproven experiment and a fad, and your health should not be subject to fads. And finally, not too much. What does that mean? That means you obey the rule of hara hachi bu: eat until you’re about 80% full, then stop. This is how Okinawans live to be 1000 years old, according to Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones books (ebook & print). This is a rule I’ve been pretty good about: I never eat dessert or sweets. And by never, I mean once or twice a month I break this rule, usually with dark chocolate, which I basically consider somewhere between “medicinal” and “reason to live.” What?! No cheesecake? No danish? No chocolate mousse? You may think I possess some kind of stupendous dessert-avoiding superwillpower bestowed upon me at birth, and you would be wrong. There are two secrets to my successful lifelong implementation of the no-dessert rule. The first has to do with human neurology. If you stop eating sweets, after 2-4 weeks, you will stop enjoying them. Huh? It’s totally true. See, your senses are really good at adjusting to the level of stimulus you present it. For example, when you walk outdoors into bright sunlight after having been indoors all day, you initially can’t see at all, until your eyes adjust to the new light levels. In the same way, if for 100,000 years the sweetest thing you’ve been eating is a plum or banana, and then someone suddenly hands you a cheesecake, your taste buds will go whooooaaaaaa nelly this is way too intense. Because there is nothing in nature as insanely rich as cheesecake. It’s the gustatory equivalent of shining a floodlight in your face, or a bullhorn in your ear—overkill. But your neurology is good at adjusting, and soon, you get used to the cheesecake, just like you get used to direct sunlight. The problem is that now you will be barely able to taste anything less rich than a cheesecake. Do this experiment: go have a bite of an apple or banana. Delicious, right? Then have a bite of a candy bar, or a spoonful of cake. Then go back and have another bite of the fruit. What happened? Since you almost certainly didn’t do the experiment, let me tell you the results: after cheesecake, the fruit will taste like cardboard. A banana that was way tasty and sweet two minutes ago is now completely devoid of flavor. Weird. And that’s the problem: once you’ve gotten used to the cheesecake, it’s like you’ve been walking in the bright sun all day. Eating fruit is like walking indoors: your taste buds will be blind to it. What happens when you stop eating sweets? You get your senses back, that’s what! Gradually, you start to appreciate the subtleties in food that you were missing. You taste the sweetness of a carrot or green peas. You can tell the difference between brown and white rice. A whole range of foods that seemed uninteresting before—broccoli, brussels sprouts, lentils, spinach, arugula—suddenly become fascinating. Your senses regain their acuity. A good strawberry or blueberry becomes a divine experience. So many flavors! So many textures! What had you been missing out on this entire time? Which finally brings me to the point I’m trying to make. Once you quit eating sweets for good, you will no longer crave them. They will simply be too treacly, too cloying, too sickeningly sweet—just too much. This is why I don’t require a whole lot of willpower to avoid dessert. They are now simply unappealing to me. And it’s not like I’m not enjoying myself: fruit is my dessert. The ecstasy of a perfect summer strawberry in Helsinki, which I am having right now even as I write this sentence, is hard to match. The second principle is that avoiding sweets isn’t something I do; it’s who I am. It’s an identity-level statement. For some reason, identity-level statements like “I’m a non-dessert eater” work really well, implementing the Be-Do-Have system of behavioral success:
  • Reconfigure your identity to fit the kind of person you want to be: I’m someone who doesn’t eat sweets.
  • Then, do the things that that person does: I never eat sweets.
  • Then, reap the results: I stay slim and get to enjoy a wide range of foods a helluva lot more.
The paradox of quitting sweets is that you get to enjoy life even more. Who knew that moderation could feel so good? 5. EAT SALAD WITHOUT DRESSING Salad’s great for you. Greens! Veggies! High nutrition, low calories! So when you drench it in 10,000,000 calories of Thousand Island dressing, you completely defeat the point of salad. This makes the salad sad. I never add dressing to my salad. If I do, it’s some no-calorie or low-calorie thing like balsamic vinegar and dijon mustard which is high on flavor, low on fat. Remember the Power of Zero: zero times anything is always zero. Zero dressing equals zero calories, for ever and all time, hallelujah and amen. An added bonus when you stop drenching your salad in dressing is that you get to appreciate the subtle taste of the greens and vegetables. Arugula, mesclun, butter lettuce, dill, parsley, carrots: they all have flavors that get drowned out by the fat and sugar in heavy dressing, like starlight gets drowned by sunlight. Skip the dressing, and get to savor the extra flavor you bring into your life. 6. TAKE THE DAMN STAIRS AND WALK EVERYWHERE This is one of those rules that, over the course of your life, can result in burning up millions of extra calories, no joke. My rule is simple: if it’s less than 5 stories, take the stairs. And if it’s less than 25min away by foot, walk. Over time, this will add up to a lot more exercise than a gym membership, and it’s much easier to integrate into your life. Biking also works. Pro tip: wear shoes comfortable to walk in. Fancy dress shoes or high heels will make you reluctant to implement this rule. 7. MINIMIZE MEAT CONSUMPTION I never eat red meat; stopped doing it at 14. And by “never”, I mean that I’ll eat it once or twice a year on special occasions, like when reindeer meatballs are being served at a Swedish midsummer party, or it’s a particularly tasty filet mignon of grass-fed beef in Buenos Aires, or when a Maasai tribe has just sacrificed its last goat in my honor, and not eating the very tasty roasted goat would not just be ungracious but would probably result in the wrath of people with pointy spears. But avoiding red meat is an identity-level thing for me, which makes it easy to refuse red meat and never seek it out. For me, red meat just tends to be laden with saturated fat, and heavy in a way that just sits in (and on) my body. It’s also super-dense calorically, with 100g of beef having on average 10 times the amount of calories in 100g of, say, broccoli. Eating lots of red meat is an easy way to get fat. I do eat some fish, and occasionally chicken. Finding lean cuts of chicken is easy, though it’s much harder to find the stuff that’s not factory-farmed. I never eat pork, because I’ve seen pig factory farming and it’s horrifying. There are many strategies for reducing your meat consumption. As Dan Barber suggests in his magisterial book The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food (ebook & print), it’s useful to think of meat as flavoring to your food, as opposed to being the main dish. Or as author-chef Marc Bittman suggests, be vegetarian before 6pm. You can also opt for changing your mind. Books like The Third Plate, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals make non-hysterical, reasoned, utterly convincing arguments for switching to a plant-based diet. And if you prefer shock therapy, watch the documentary Earthlings. After watching it, my pork consumption dropped from once a week to zero, and has stayed there. 8. ALWAYS EAT HOMEMADE FOOD. Restaurants have a vested interest in having you come back, but not necessarily in keeping you healthy. That’s why they liberally add salt, sugar and fat to their dishes to make them maximally appealing to your brain. At least in the US, they also serve gargantuan portions far beyond what we would normally eat. And they’re constantly trying to upsell you with empty-calorie drinks (the main profit center for most restaurants) and appetizers. Add to this the human tendency to mindlessly finish whatever’s on our plates, and we’ve got a formula for adding hundreds of extra calories per meal and dozens of pounds per year. The solution is to eat out as little as possible–never, if you can help it. This may be hard to do if you’re in a line of work involving lots of client meals. In those cases, be vigilant about what you order. And if you did overeat, you can always skip the next meal. If you don’t have to eat with clients, then always bring your food from home. I recommend the never-eat-out manifesto called Foodist: Using Real Food and Real Science to Lose Weight Without Dieting (ebook & print) by neuroscientist Darya Pino Rose, which changed my behavior. IMPLEMENTATION So you found some ideas in this article that you’d like to implement? Groovy! This is the most important part of the whole process. Information alone does not become transformation. Behavioral change leads to transformation, by creating new habits. And the way to change behavior is gradually. The way to set yourself up for success is to implement these suggestions one at a time. More than that, and you’re upsetting your homeostasis and inviting your unconscious mind to revolt against the changes. And you don’t want to have a revolting unconscious, do you? Didn’t think so. I know it’s fun to just go for a huge change and do a bunch of things at once. But we’re trying to change behavior here that’s been ingrained for a long time, so let’s eat this elephant one bite at a time, shall we? I recommend staying with one new habit for at least 4 weeks before launching the next one. Research shows that median time for habit establishment is 66 days, so even 4 weeks is pretty quick. Luckily, we’re aiming to establish lifelong habits, so time is on your side. CONCLUSION AND RECAP We live in an unprecedented time in human history where many of us don’t have to expend any effort to acquire food, nor worry about shortage. Yet, we still have these ancient brains that are adapted to a supermarket-free, refrigerator-free environment when food could become scarce any day. Evolution will eventually adapt us to these new conditions in a couple of hundred thousand years or so. But you and I aren’t that patient, so let’s get clever and use some rules to circumvent the environmental distractions, shall we? So once again, the principles: A. Sustainability. Ask yourself, “Could I stay slim if I did this every day for a month, or a year, or a lifetime?” B. Regulate your behavior with habits, not willpower or thought. Hunger does not operate in the logical part of your brain. So if you have to think about food choices, you’re toast. Use strong habits instead. C. Use rules so you don’t have to think about food choices. Similar to #2, if you have think about your choices every time you come across a slice of cheesecake or a double margarita, you will lose. Have ironclad, unbreakable behavioral rules instead. Rules enforced over the long term can often turn into habits. D. Hara hachi bu. Eat only up to the point that you’re 80% full. E. Think of undesirable foods as poison. Slow-acting poisons perhaps, but poisons still. F. Use the Power of Zero: Zero times anything is zero. Eat and drink lots of zeros, like water, and air salad dressing. G. Move all the time. And if you found this article helpful, please help spread the word so people don’t spread their waistlines 🙂 To your health and flourishing, Dr Ali PS: The links to the books in this article are affiliate links. This means that every time you purchase through those links, you support the blog by having several shiny pennies deposited into my Amazon account, so I can buy more great books (currently about 20 a month) and tell you about them. I am infinitely grateful for your support! RESOURCES Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan (ebook & print). Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. If it’s processed, your grandma can’t pronounce it, or it’s got 17 syllables, it’s not food. Have a reference copy to keep in your kitchen. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (ebook and print). Essential reading if you haven’t read it yet, even though it came out in 2006 (sadly, not much has changed). Pollan takes you through the origins of the ingredients of 4 meals: from a fast-food joint; from Whole Foods; from a biodynamic farm; and hunted and foraged by himself. In the process, you learn where food comes from, how industrial livestock farming works, the real meaning behind the “organic” label, what naturally raised eggs and chicken taste like, and how you can do your part to eat healthier and more sustainably. The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, by Dan Barber (ebook & print). Barber is the chef at the famed farm-to-table restaurant Blue Hill in New York City and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. A multiple James Beard Award winner, he spent 13 years writing this book, and it is a masterpiece. Barber urges us to deeply reconsider our default food choices, currently based on transportability, pest-resistance and shelf life thanks to giant agribusiness firms. Instead, we should bring flavor, nature’s way of signaling high nutrition, to the center of our food choices. In the process, he takes us to the best (and most sustainable) seafood restaurant in the world, Washington University’s Bread Lab, ethically-raised foie gras, and his own restaurants and farm (Stone Barns). It’s an utterly convincing tour de force, and fun to boot–Dan can write. The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest by Dan Buettner (ebook & print). Want to live to be 100? The people in the five Blue Zones do, at rates vastly disproportionate from the rest of the world. A big part of their highly functional longevity comes from their eating habits: locally produced food, eaten in good company, mostly plant-based, with good red wine. Written in conjunction with National Geographic, the whole Blue Zones book series is well worth reading and re-reading. If all you get out of it is hara hachi bu, moai, and Cannonau red wine, you win huge. Foodist: Using Real Food and Real Science to Lose Weight Without Dieting (ebook & print) by Darya Pino Rose, Ph.D. A manifesto about real food and real science that proves once and for all that sustainable weight loss is possible by incorporating fresh, seasonal—and delicious—ingredients into every meal.

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by Prof John J Ratey. As if you needed more reasons to exercise, Prof John Ratey of Harvard Medical School provides a truckload of evidence on how exercise can positively affect learning, stress, anxiety, depression, attention, depression, hormonal changes and aging. Although the science has moved forward to bolster the benefits of exercise since he wrote this book in 2008, the book is still enormously persuasive and worthwhile.

7-Minute Workout app by Johnson & Johnson. Don’t have time for a serious workout? Can’t afford a gym? The good news: as publicized by a 2013 New York Times article, a properly designed 7-minute workout can convey the benefits of a much longer one. This free app by the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson has different 7-minute workouts that exercise the entire body. It even has a smart workout setting that allows you to up the intensity to your ever-improving fitness level. And did I mention it’s totally free? The bad news: I just destroyed any last excuses you had not to exercise. Who doesn’t have 7 minutes to spend on exercise? You spend more time every day watching cat videos. Get on it.