Jonathan Fields is a serial entrepreneur, growth strategist, and award-winning author who leads a global community in the quest to live more meaningful, connected, and vital lives. Scott Barry Kaufman is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, the scientific director of The Imagination Institute, and the author of Ungifted and Wired to Create. The two recently had a conversation on The Psychology Podcast about owning the unknown, finding your people, and, yes, making exercise more fun than sex.
Scott: Why not write a book on happiness or how to get more money? Why on a good life? What’s the difference?
Jonathan: There have been so many books on happiness over the last decade or so; I think the topic has been extraordinarily well-covered. Part of what the research is uncovering is that the maniacal pursuit of happiness can set up expectations for an end state that’s not attainable, and leave you anxious and stressed—it’s not unusual for you to end up less happy than when you started.
The research [also] shows that we’re not 100% in control of “happiness.” There are certain things that we can do, but at the same time, there’s almost a genetic set point for happiness that we tend to revert to. [So] to say, “My happy should look like the happy of this person who’s bouncing off the walls and wakes up smiling all the time,” can set you up to feel even worse about the whole thing.
Then there’s the third confounding variable, which is that it’s hard to understand what anybody is actually talking about when we use the word “happy.” In the research, nobody defines “happiness.” Generally the questions are asking people, have they laughed or been happy in the last 24 hours, but you can’t give a universal, objective description of it. We end up with literature that’s fascinating, but there’s this big, gray, undefinable in the middle: what does it actually mean to be happy?
From what I’ve seen, the things that most effectively deliver people to this state that we call “happy” are pursuing relationships, pursuing connection, pursuing meaning. This state of happiness ensues more as a side effect of those other things, rather than trying to pursue it as a direct outcome.
Scott: You talk about the different buckets that we have and how to take proactive steps to fill them. You include resiliency, optimism, and mindfulness in the vitality bucket. Why did you decide to group these things together?
Jonathan: When you look at almost everything that’s written [about] figuring out an optimal life, [people] split your body and your mind. But all the research now shows that it is a falsehood to speak [of] them as two separate things. When I think of vitality, I think about optimizing your state of mind and your body because they’re one seamless feedback mechanism.
Scott: That makes a lot of sense. When we’re feeling depressed, what’s the reaction? To stay in bed all day, a very physical reaction.
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Jonathan: I mean look at the research that goes the other way too, [like] Amy Cuddy’s work on how standing in a particular posture literally changes your state of mind.
Scott: Absolutely. So let’s talk about a couple things people can do to fill their vitality bucket. How can people make exercise more fun than sex?
“If you put the average five-year-old on a treadmill and said, ‘Walk at four miles per hour for the next 40 minutes,’ they’re going to last four seconds. As adults, we’re no different.”
Jonathan: When we were kids, we exercised harder than your average adult will ever exercise. We got home from school, we ran around all day, we played, we moved our bodies until we just couldn’t keep our eyes open, and then we dropped.
Then in “grown up exercise,” everybody’s response is “Ugh, this is something I have to suffer through.” When did play turn into exercise, and when did something that we couldn’t get enough of turn into something that we dread? As we’ve industrialized fitness, we’ve taken the novelty out of it, we’ve taken socialization out of it, we’ve stripped [out] all the things that would actually engage your mind.
We’ve left people with boring, repetitive movements that, of course, we dread. If you put the average five-year-old on a treadmill and said, “Walk at four miles per hour for the next 40 minutes,” they’re going to last four seconds. As adults, we’re no different. Now players like Crossfit, Tough Mudder, and SoulCycle are realizing that they’ve got to bring the mind engagement back into it, they have to bring the community back into it.
When you bring people and novelty into the mix, you drop people into that hyper-present awareness state, and you get a communal movement, and the oxytocin starts flowing. That’s how you make it more fun than sex. You’re bringing movement back into your day in a way that it becomes a source of engagement and joy, rather than something that you dread.
Scott: Let’s talk about gratitude, because it’s a big boon for well-being.
Jonathan: It’s one of the most effective boosters of mood and mindset. To build that into a regular practice can be really powerful in filling your vitality bucket.
There seems to be a split in the best way to do this or the frequency to do it. I’m really curious what your thoughts are on this.
Scott: I think the gratitude journal is very helpful, and keeping a daily reflection of who you have gratitude for in your life. As well as three good things that happen to you [each day], but also, what are the things that were negative, and what could you learn from them?
Jonathan: [Another] thing is the gratitude visit. You write something to someone meaningful to you, and then you make the time to actually be with them to share it with them. That, from what I’ve seen, can be really profound.
Scott: You talk about waking up in these two different paths. [Either] you wake up [feeling like] you’re controlled by everything external, or you [feel] fully alive. How close do you personally get to that second scenario, that ideal way of living?
Jonathan: I certainly aspire to be that person, but of course I have a family, I have deadlines, so that’s not 100% my reality. What I will say is that I really try and move through each day as intentionally as possible, and I wake up every morning [with] a morning ritual. The centerpiece of that morning ritual is a seated mindfulness practice. That sets in motion the rest of the day for me to focus a lot more on being intentional and less reactive. I have a bit of a daily challenge every morning to not check my email or Instagram and just to tap the button for my meditation app. I feel like it’s important for me to start my day with that single choice, because it sets things up a little bit differently.
“The really creative stuff, the real form of innovation and expression and growth, happens when you step out into the unknown.”
Scott: I want to talk about another thing to fill up your vitality bucket, which is owning the unknown. This is a theme that you’ve been interested in for a while, right?
Jonathan: I have. It’s a very personal one for me because I’ve been an entrepreneur and an artist for the better part of my life. When I was a kid, I painted a ton with acrylics and oils, and just this week I started to go back to the studio.
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What I learned is that you have to be able to exist in this place of not knowing and just continue to work and experiment. It can be frustrating. You have to try a whole bunch of different things and invest yourself and [your] resources, not knowing how it’s going to work out. If you’re not okay [with] taking action and making choices without knowing how it’s going to end, it can not only be pretty devastating psychologically, but it can also be stifling in terms of you ever feeling like you’re fully expressed [or] contributing to the world in the most meaningful way possible.
Scott: So how does that relate to owning the unknown or being comfortable with unpredictability?
Jonathan: I’ve found that the best work comes when you let go of certainty. When you say, “Okay, I pretty much know how this is going to end,” you generally don’t create stuff that’s satisfying for you or meaningful for anybody else. The really creative stuff, the real form of innovation and expression and growth, happens when you step out into the unknown, where you don’t know if you’re going to succeed or fail, you don’t know if you have the skills and abilities and resources to make it happen, yet you take action anyway. You continue to wade into the abyss. The longer you can ask questions and make choices and take action in that space of uncertainty, the more likely it is that you keep going deeper and deeper and get to better ideas and solutions.
We see this in brainstorming. There’s a three-phase approach to brainstorming. Phase one is you come up with all the obvious ideas. They’re usually pretty mundane, not really the good stuff. Then some people will push through to phase two, and that’s where it gets pretty grueling. You feel like you have nothing left, and you’re exposed. You don’t know if you’re going to figure it out. You start throwing out ideas, and they’re better because you’re working harder and going deeper. [But] as a general rule, even those ideas aren’t the innovative ones.
Then there are a small number of people [who] stay in this process long enough, in that place of uncertainty, [who] endure it to a point where that next wave, of truly extraordinary, riveting, innovative ideas starts to emerge. That’s the place where real magic takes hold, in art, in business, and in life. Yet most of us are so physically and psychologically uncomfortable staying in the process, taking action in the face of absolutely not knowing how it’s going to end, that we run from it or we shut it down. [But] developing the ability to be in that place long enough for your greatest work to emerge is so empowering.
Scott: You talk about that connection bucket, finding your people. Tell me why that’s important.
“I think a lot of people are walking around feeling a sense of pain, feeling a sense of isolation, and not really understanding where it’s coming from.”
Jonathan: One of the most fundamental human needs is the need to belong. It’s something that isn’t spoken about a whole lot these days: the things that provided this sense of belonging are either going away or just not providing the same thing anymore. So what are those things? Traditionally it was faith-based organizations, employers, local trade groups or leagues. Local trade groups and leagues are vanishing these days. There’s such a short time that the average person is at any one company that employers are not invested in delivering a sense of belonging. And in the United States, the single fastest-growing group of people when it comes to faith and religion are people who consider themselves spiritual, but not affiliated with any particular faith, and they don’t attend a congregation or any sort of community.
We have a physiological and psychological need to belong. As an introvert, I love time in solitude, but I also have to have time where I’m around people who are like-minded, who share a set of values and beliefs, who have similar aspirations and a similar ethos about what matters in the world.
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I think a lot of people are walking around feeling a sense of pain, feeling a sense of isolation, and not really understanding where it’s coming from. A lot of it’s coming from the fact that they no longer have a clear place to belong to, a clear community or a group of people.
Scott: I want to talk about the contribution bucket. This is where meaning and purpose come into one’s life. A lot of people say, “I don’t know what it is that I like. I want to have that spark, but I’m missing it.” What would you recommend for people like that?
Jonathan: There’s been a bit of a maniacal focus on finding the thing that you’re on the planet to do.
Scott: No pressure.
Jonathan: Right, this singular life purpose, this one passion that you’re here to do, can be so destructive for so many people. On rare occasions you do find people who, early in life, stumble upon that one thing that they do for life. [But] most people end up running series of experiments to try and figure it out.
A much better approach is to ask yourself, “What can I do or what do I do that gives me a sense of passion or purpose? When I think about the things that have really lit me up in life, what generally have they been? Am I driven deeply to answer a particular question? Am I driven by a topic?”
If you can find the spark that really incites this sense of passion and purpose, and do more of that every day, you [will] find yourself doing that for months and years, and then looking back, you’ll end up having lived a life filled with purpose and passion. And you never had to deal with that false question of, “What is my passion or purpose?” as a noun. You treat it as a verb and say, “What do I do with passion and purpose?”
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full conversation, check out The Psychology Podcast.