How the Pandemic Is Making You Happier

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the planet, Americans were already experiencing record rates of anxiety and depression. Loneliness was also at epidemic rates. Add to that income loss, the resultant economic uncertainty, chronic deprivation from meaningful social contact, and the possibility that you might die every time you step outside your house, and you’ve got yourself one seriously bummed-out species.

But even in the midst of the turmoil and contagion, there are aspects of the pandemic that have surreptitiously been adding to your storehouses of happiness — or at the very least, not subtracting from them. Here are the the three ways the pandemic has been making you ever so slightly happier and less stressed:

1) Reduced exposure to loud noises. People don’t realize that ambient noise is a huge and automatic stressor. As part of the research for my Happiness Engineering course, I measured ambient noise levels in various cities. For example, New York City subway cars are some of the loudest places in the world, averaging in the 90–105 dB(A) range while in motion. That alone stresses out the passengers plenty. And that’s even before getting jostled by other passengers, missing your stop, or getting asked for handouts for a song performance you didn’t request.

As an aside, please also keep in mind that exposure to sound levels of 100db(A) for more than 15 minutes can lead to permanent hearing loss. I always wear earplugs inside subway cars, which may be a good idea if you don’t want to go deaf. If you would like to develop a healthy obsession about how ambient sound levels may be wrecking your body and stealing your soul, I recommend downloading the NIOSH Sound Level Meter app for your smartphone.

Onward. People who live in big, loud cities think that they can filter out the noise and go about their business without penalty — “Ah, you just get used to it.”

I regret to inform you: that ain’t how it works. Noise is one of the two things your body never gets used to, because noise cannot be predicted. You just adapt to it by having chronically elevated circulating stress hormones. This can wreak all kinds of havoc on your body, giving you high blood pressure, diabetes, and shredded nerves, amongst other self-inflicted maladies.

So when you’re not exposing yourself to noise from road traffic, construction, car horns, subways and sirens, your nervous system naturally calms down a few notches. Your circulating stress hormone levels go down, you chill out a little, and you’re just a little bit happier.

2) Less commuting. Were you wondering just a minute ago what the other thing was that people never get used to? Well, wonder no more: it’s your commute. Why? Because even though you’re going the same route every day, no two commutes are the same. If it ain’t the same, you can’t get used to it.

Now here’s an interesting study. Scientists wanted to figure out: what activities make people the happiest, and what makes them the most miserable? They would text volunteers at random times of the day and ask them two simple questions: What are you doing right now? And on a scale of 1–10, how happy are you right now?

Well, in every city and every country they did the study, the world champion for misery was the same: commuting. People would rather do anything else than commute. This includes changing poopy diapers and taking out trash. Another study found that the stress levels of a driver commuting to work is equal or higher than that of a jet fighter pilot.

Okay, I’m going to let that sink in for a moment: driving around in rush-hour traffic stresses you out more than being in an aerial dogfight with a Russian MiG-27. Now imagine doing that 26min commute (the American average) twice a day, five days a week. Who’s going to be a stressed-out puppy? That would be you — also with the hoarse throat and sprained middle finger from shouting at other drivers and flipping them off.

Contrast this with a commute-free, traffic-free, road-rage free day of working from home or a cafe. Now who’s feeling more chilled out and happy? You, that’s who! You probably didn’t even notice it until I brought it to your attention. But just note the contrast in the general level of tension in your mind and body the next time you hop in your car, worrying about the cars in front, the yellow light about to turn red, the crazy parking situation downtown… and let that be a source of gratitude for when you’re not driving. Which brings us to…

3) Gratitude. This pandemic has been incredibly hard on a lot of people. Millions have contracted this supremely unpleasant disease. And hundreds of thousands have perished before their time. This is tragic, sad, and heartbreaking, in so many ways that are beyond the scope of this article.

However, I’d like to bring to your attention that if you’re reading this right now, chances are very good you’re not dead yet. And for better or for worse, part of counting our blessings is comparing ourselves to those who are less fortunate. So, if you’re not in an ICU, on a ventilator, or experiencing multi-organ failure, start counting, now. Working lungs, kidneys, liver, brain — that’s a lot of blessings there.

The research on gratitude is very robust: the more of it you practice, the happier you are. So if this time last year you were perfectly healthy and perfectly taking it for granted, this year you can do better. Take time to express gratitude every time you see a pandemic counter on TV, hear about a celebrity who contracted COVID-19 or perished from it, or hear a siren of an ambulance you’re not in. Thank your immune system, thank your genes, thank whoever or whatever runs your universe. Nobody’s tomorrow is promised, so get on your knees for having had yet another one, you lucky beast.

If you want to take it to the next level, contemplate your own death, too. The Bhutanese are famously some of the happiest people in the world because they contemplate their own death five times a day. Hey, as of the writing of this piece, there’s even an app for it called We Croak. Because this much I can guarantee: if COVID-19 doesn’t get you, something else eventually will. If you think about it right, being in a position to contemplate your own death instead of actually being dead can be a source of perpetual joy.

In all likelihood, the net effect of the pandemic is a reduction in people’s overall happiness. However, while we’re counting blessings, let’s remember that you’re commuting less, exposed to less noise, and less dead than many. So let these observations inform how you may want to change your life once the pandemic threat has subsided, lest you inadvertently restore to your life the same self-inflicted miseries of yore.

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


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.


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
Thursday, 23 April 2020, 1pm PT/4pm ET/9pm London/6am Sydney
Friday, 24 April 2020, 5pm PT/8pm ET/1am London/7am Sydney
Saturday, 25 April 2020, 11am PT/2pm ET/7pm London/stay sleeping Sydney


So far some of the topics we have covered:


  • 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


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

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.

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.