This isn’t another self-help book teaching us how to be happy. Dr. Sanj Katyal, author of Positive Philosophy: Ancient and Modern Wisdom to Create a Flourishing Life, believes that happiness isn’t the goal. While most of us spend our entire lives working hard in the pursuit of happiness, what we really want is a life of meaning and fulfillment.
We want to flourish. But when we’re young, so many of us follow society’s path to success and hope to hit these milestones of achievement and eventually be fulfilled. The good life isn’t built on wealth status and material goods and having it all. That only leaves you wanting more.
In this episode, Sanj distills the discoveries from psychology, philosophy, neuroscience and medicine to give you a practical, easy blueprint for flourishing. By the end of this episode, you’ll have a personal operating system to lead an optimal life, where you can deepen your understanding of yourself and the cycle of materialism and achieve lasting meaning and fulfillment.
Sanj Katyal: I remember a day about 10 years ago, very clearly. I was driving in my car and I began to wonder why I wasn’t happier. I had really achieved pretty much more than I could ever dream of, you know? I was married to my best friend, we have a great relationship, we have four healthy beautiful kids who really mean more to us than life itself.
I had a really good job as a radiologist and a physician, executive at a growing startup company. Growing up, I had no real tragedy in my life. We always have plenty of money growing up. Both my parents and my in-laws are alive, healthy, and live close by.
I began to worry that if I couldn’t figure out how to experience more joy and happiness when things were this good, how was I ever going to deal with any real adversity when it would come?
Which by the way, it has since that time.
I began really searching for answers, and I was searching for answers to a single question. How can I learn not just to function but to actually flourish? And that was the genesis of my journey and this book.
Charlie Hoehn: What does flourishing really mean to you?
Sanj Katyal: Before we talk about what flourishing is, let’s talk about the word happiness. I have a real problem with it. I think it’s overused, but I think the main problem I have is that it’s used incorrectly.
If I ask you if you want to be happy, the answer is of course. If I then ask you, well what does it mean to be happy? The answer becomes a little less obvious. The problem with the word happy is that it denotes an emotional state that is often changing and transitory.
“Yesterday, I was happy but today I’m sad.” Or “I’ll be happy this weekend when I don’t have to work.”
That type of happiness is not what the ancient philosophers, particularly Aristotle was referring to when he made the same quote, “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and the end of human existence.”
That’s a pretty famous quote, but the word that he and other philosophers used was eudaimonia, which is really accurately translated as human flourishing or a state of optimal living over a longer period of time.
That’s kind of the way I think of flourishing and happiness is this state of optimal living over a period of time rather than at fleeting and changing, minute by minute or day by day. Emotional state that many think of when they think of happiness.
About Positive Philosophy
Charlie Hoehn: You divided your book up into two parts. The past and the present. Why did you do that? I mean, your book is sectioned off as just those two sections, what’s the meaning there?
Sanj Katyal: Well, when I began studying the answer to how can I flourish not just function, I found answers in a combination of philosophy and positive psychology. The goals of philosophy are to teach us how to live well, right? How to make sense of our place in the world, better understand suffering, figure out which goals to pursue.
Those were the original goals.
In short, basic philosophy down to a single goal, it’s goal was to teach us how to flourish. The problem was, it didn’t teach us how to stay on the path of flourishing.
“What can we do each day to ensure that we’re on the right track?”
This is where the modern tactical tools of positive psychology can really help. Positive psychology is often called the science of happiness because it offers evidence based strategies to improve our wellbeing.
As I deepened my study into both fields, I realized they both have their limitations and their advantages. Philosophy and ancient wisdom teach us a lot of guidance, but its ideas and concepts can be really challenging to integrate into our daily lives.
For example, what does living a life of virtue mean and how can we live this way, how do I find my dharma or sacred duty? What steps can I take every day to fully realize my unique potential? Those are concepts of philosophy that are key to living a good life. There’s not often a easy to follow road map there, which is what I think positive psychology offers us.
It’s more of a functional blueprint.
They have evidence based research findings and strategies that can keep us on the state of human flourishing. I really try to combine the best of both fields into a personal operating system for flourishing, and that’s why I divided the book into the goals of philosophy and age and wisdom backed by modern evidence based science to form this daily code of living.
Philosophy of Stoicism
Charlie Hoehn: Yeah. In the first part of the book, you dive into stoicism. Now, there are different types of philosophies. What drew you to stoicism?
Sanj Katyal: Stoicism has an interesting concept. I think the thing that attracts me to stoicism is its simplicity and its accessibility to everybody. There are a few key concepts that are easy to understand but difficult to master. But these concepts can be really transformative, you know?
The concept of focusing on what is within your control versus what’s outside of your control.
That’s a concept that’s used by alcoholics anonymous in the serenity prayer, it’s used by various religions. If you get upset at a situation at work where somebody’s not giving you credit for something, you have two choices: you can get annoyed, complain, gossip, all of which is in your control, or you can focus on doing the best you can do and letting the results speak for themselves.
I think this idea of focusing on what’s in your control is a big deal in stoicism. The other big piece of stoicism is that all you need to live a good life is virtue, which is when you delve deep into virtue. It’s really excellence in character or character development.
If you can focus on developing your best self, that’s really all you need in life to be happy. The stoics live their lives this way, and many were exiled, treated poorly, and so forth, but this philosophy really helped them stay the course.
Charlie Hoehn: Sanj, how do you feel on your current journey? I’m just curious on a personal level where you are with virtue, developing excellence in character. How have you transformed, since really diving into this?
Sanj Katyal: I think that’s been probably my biggest area of improvement honestly, and it’s probably an area that many of us, when we were younger, have a lot of room to grow. Virtue is kind of a nebulous term, so I like to think of living with integrity.
The best definition I found for integrity is having complete congruence between what you think, say, and do.
I find myself in situations where, if I can keep congruent between those three areas, things go a lot better. When I get annoyed or when I have internal unrest, it’s usually when something is incongruent.
What I’m thinking about is different than what I’m doing, and so forth.
“I think it’s a journey, and I’ve got a long way to go, but at least I’m climbing the right mountain.”
Charlie Hoehn: Could you give a personal example of how you behave now versus how you might have behaved in the past, thanks to incorporating positive philosophy?
Sanj Katyal: I’ve been fairly successful in medicine and the business world, and I was very concerned with getting my fair share of credit, making sure that I had a lot of influence, making sure that people knew who I was, what I was doing.
I often didn’t think about others as much. I often didn’t think about the consequences of some of my behaviors and actions.
Not that I was evil or did anything evil, but when you’re out there, trying to succeed and climb the ladder in life, it can be difficult to remember that the next promotion or the next title or the next raise in the end is all that matters.
It’s how you acted on the way up the ladder, how you treated the people all around you, both above you and below you that really matters.
What’s the feeling when you come home at night and you’re hugging your children? Do you feel like you did a good job and treated people the right way, or were you just out there trying to take as much for yourself as you can get? I think I shifted from the former to the latter through the concepts and the application of positive philosophy.
Charlie Hoehn: It’s such a common story in our culture, right? So many people experience exactly what you described at the beginning.
Sanj Katyal: Yeah, I think it’s probably one of maturity rather than experiencing some deep discontent. I think it’s just an evolution in our being.
Carl Jung talked about the four stages of spiritual evolution. When you’re young, you’re the athlete, you’re concerned about your body and appearances, you move to the warrior state where you go out and take what’s yours in the corporate world. Then you evolve more to the statesman where you’re more concerned with helping others than you are with helping yourself.
Then if everything’s successful, you eventually evolve to a spiritual state. I think I was probably somewhere between the warrior and the statesman when I made this transition.
The Philosophy of Hedonic Adaptation
Charlie Hoehn: Tell us about hedonic adaptation?
Sanj Katyal: Yeah, this is an amazing principle and I really believe it should be taught in schools. When I talk to students and I ask them, “What if I told you you’re going to get used to all the good things in your life? You’re eventually going to take for granted your great job, your new house, your sports car and even your family.”
Some people call this human nature while others use more scientific terms like hedonic adaptation. I first heard about hedonic adaptation while studying stoic philosophy. The stoics believed it was precisely because of this process that we should be indifferent to any external conditions and events as they relate to our happiness.
They thought the only thing needed for happiness was virtue, things that from a character development and how you act in life. They knew 2,000 years ago, what modern research is now confirming—the new house, bigger salary, all produce temporary spikes in happiness but we quickly become used to these things and return to our baseline levels of happiness.
When I ask my son whether MLB 2018 is worth spending his money? Given that he’s got last year’s game at home, he replies with a lot of things he wants. He’s like, “Yeah, it’s going to be awesome.” Emphatically.
Then a couple of months later I ask him the same question and he’s like, “It’s okay.”
“He’s adapted to it.”
We can’t think of this process going on in many aspects of all of our lives. I think the key thing to understand about hedonic adaptation is it’s an evolutionary survival technique. If we didn’t get used to stimuli that were constant, we wouldn’t be able to differentiate new and more important events or potentially threats from less significant ones, older events that should fade into the background.
As we evolve, this adaptation process is really a huge obstacle in our ability to sustain or improve happiness levels.
I mean, nature, she just wanted us to survive long enough to procreate. Didn’t care how happy we were along the way. I think this is a big issue in modern society for us. I see it everywhere, from teenagers to very successful physicians.
Pay Attention to the Good
Charlie Hoehn: What is the prescription? Once we understand that hedonic adaptation is built into us, what is the prescription with dealing with it?
Sanj Katyal: Yeah, because we’re evolutionarily wired to feel this way, a prescription takes some intentional effort and strategy. But really, the key antidote to hedonic adaptation is basically learning how to pay attention to the good in our lives. That’s the key to stop taking all the positive things for granted.
As we think of our own lives, once that new relationship or higher paying job no longer grabs our attention, we have adapted to it. On the other hand, anything or anyone that keeps popping into our heads is going to be less prone to adaptation.
So we need to learn to pay attention to the good aspects of our lives, and I think the best way to do this—and this is probably positive psychology’s greatest contribution—is the study of gratitude.
There is a lot of work on cultivating gratitude. It’s everywhere. It is on the cover of Time, many blog articles are written about it. But as I was studying hedonic adaptation, it become clear to me that gratitude works and is so popular precisely because it’s an antidote to this process.
“Write down three things three times a week either in your notebook or on your phone.”
It helps to go beyond the big three, health, safety, family, and to really delve into things that happened that you can appreciate. One thing I have noticed since doing that probably I have been doing the gratitude journal for five years now. I think probably two months into it I was at work and I was noticing something that happened that I said, “I’m going to write about that tonight.”
What I realized was that I am not noticing things in real time and appreciating them in real time. It’s really powerful to be present and appreciative at the same time, in a moment. That’s what the practice of gratitude journaling did for me.
I am not saying I’m a saint and don’t get upset or yell at my kids. That stuff—as long as we’re engaged in life, that stuff is going to be there.
One thing for sure is that the frequency and duration of feeling down or angry or upset has become much less for me personally as I’ve become more grateful.
Inside Not Outside
Charlie Hoehn: So you actually have a chapter called Inside not Outside. What is that about?
Sanj Katyal: I think that chapter came about as I was thinking about how we’re raising our kids. I looked around and there was this cult of business. People wearing it as a badge of honor and they put it on their kids as a badge of honor.
So it is not enough to be playing for your school soccer team. They’ve got to be on the travel team as well. It is not enough to play community baseball, little league. You’ve got to have private hitting lessons and pitching lessons on the side.
Charlie Hoehn: Do you think that’s changing at all? It seems like more people are becoming aware that’s a problem.
Sanj Katyal: Yeah, I think definitely the pendulum is swinging back but you know, when I was raising my kids and going through a lot of this baseball and soccer, this is the experience that we were all immersed in.
Focusing on developing good kids that are resilient, that are compassionate, that care about the world around them, that are curious—those kinds of qualities. If you ask parents if that’s what they want, they’ll of course say yes.
But they’re not living and teaching their kids to do that.
They are just teaching them to be not left behind or fear of missing out on this or that. So that’s really what that chapter goes into and really how to deal with it.
Charlie Hoehn: Let’s talk about mindfulness. This is of course all the rage, I guess, right now both in the corporate world and in personal development. This is the final chapter of your book. Tell me about it.
Sanj Katyal: Yeah mindfulness is almost like happiness, right? It is so overused right now, but it is overused because it is really important. It’s like gratitude. I think attention to the present moment is probably going to be our greatest currency, and I tell my kids this. So if you can learn to cultivate attention in your life, you are going to be so far ahead of everybody else. This is made worse by smart phones and social media and particularly Snapchat.
But attention to the present moment is really the goal. It is how we experience more fulfillment and more joy in our life.
One of the best ways I found to cultivate mindfulness is through meditation. It’s interesting that the younger generation is far more likely to meditate than people in my generation in their 40s and 50s ever are. So that is another pendulum that is swinging back.
You can meditate for 20 minutes a day, and sure, that’s going to help. But if the rest of your day is spent surfing the internet, checking Facebook, snapchatting your day away, it’s the equivalent of going to the gym to work out for an hour and then spending the rest of your day lying on the couch eating potato chips, right? Or the athlete who smokes.
That’s the piece that I think a lot of people are missing.
So they may meditate, but the rest of their day is just filled with distractions and poorly dispersed attention, and that is a big problem. That’s something that I’m really focused on with my kids particularly.
Charlie Hoehn: So apart from meditation, is there anything else that you recommend for us to stay mindful, to stay present, to resist some of these technologies that are engineered to be super addictive?
Sanj Katyal: That is exactly right. They are engineered, they’re designed to grab your attention. I think one of the big things is to set constraints on yourself.
“Constraints create freedom, actually.”
If you are free to do whatever you want to do, surf the internet, check your social media sites as often as you want, it is really hard to fight that. But if you create constraints in your life—so for instance, if you turn off all your notifications on your phone.
So when you are working and you don’t get a new Snapchat or even better yet, what I’ve made my kids do is put their phone in a different room on the charger when they’re doing their homework.
Turning off notifications, separating yourself physically from your phone when you’re doing something.
I often leave my phone on the car. In fact I have a rule when you go out to dinner as a family, all the phones stay in the car. I think the other big thing is just one thing that I have done at work is I check email about probably 10 times a day at work.
But before I do that, I’ve got to do a quick set of body weight exercises. So I may do 25 pushups or 25 squats or whatever and just adding that little bit of friction before you can check email or other things, I think helps.
And then you end up being more intentional when you are checking those sites. So those are a couple of things that I have experimented with that seem to be working and seem to be working for my kids as well.
Positive Impacts from Positive Philosophy
Charlie Hoehn: Sanj and I am curious, have there been people in your life, apart from your loved ones, that you shared these principles with and it’s had a positive impact on them?
Sanj Katyal: Yeah, I have been lecturing on concepts in this book, particularly hedonic adaptation for three or four years to physicians and particularly radiologists. It is amazing. Radiologists rank dead last in happiness among physicians, but they have very high earnings and they have pretty good work-life balance.
I think the field is prone to hedonic adaptation. I think people forget the thrill of becoming board certified in radiology, getting your first job. Reading your first MRI and helping a patient.
I think all of those things have become so habitual because of the number of cases that everybody reads per day. It is easy to adapt to that. One of the things for people that I found and people have come up and told me that this has really helped is negative visualization.
I have friends and colleagues that have been fairly discontent and disgruntled with medicine, and what I have them do is on their drive home from work—and this doesn’t take more than one minute.
So an easy one would be imagine if your job no longer existed. Your group just fell apart, you lost your hospital contract, what would that be like? And actually visualize yourself going through that process. The process of looking for another job of interviewing around different places, having to undergo this change. Contrary to what may seem morose, visualizing yourself without some of the good things in your life actually makes you really appreciate them much more.
And it’s actually more powerful than even gratitude because we’re wired to react even stronger to bad than we are to good. So when we visualize things happening negatively, it has a better impact. I’ve had many physicians come up and tell me that that single practice and the concept of hedonic adaptation has really helped them look at their work life and even their home life much differently.
Connect with Sanj Katyal
Charlie Hoehn: So final two questions for you Sanj, this has been great, how can our listeners connect with you, follow you, that sort of thing?
Sanj Katyal: Well I am on Twitter @sanjkatyal. They can also reach me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I also have a website. It is called positivepsychologyforphysicians.com, all one word, where I blog and post new articles that I’ve published as well as just a variety of different other media sources that are interesting to me.
Charlie Hoehn: Excellent and the final question, give our listeners a challenge. What is the one thing they can do from your book this week that can have a positive impact?
Sanj Katyal: I would do negative visualization. When you’re in a car and you’re waiting at a red light, instead of getting annoyed at the driver or reaching for your phone to look at it, I would take one good thing from your life and mentally subtract it and visualize what your life would be like for 30 seconds.