Spring/Summer 2021 | A conversation with Robert Mack
In this interview, Robert shares some of the ways people can look within themselves and dwell on the things already present in their lives through introspection, doing what they love and remaining present.
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A conversation with Robert Mack.
Today’s Exclusive Guest.
About Robert Mack
Robert Mack is an Ivy League educated Positive Psychology Expert, Celebrity Happiness Coach, Executive Coach, Published Author and TV Host Producer. Robert studied under the direction of Martin Seligman, the Founder of Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. UPenn is the only institution in the world to offer a master’s degree in Applied Positive Psychology. The MAPP degree is a degree held by only a few dozen people in the world. Robert is one of the world’s leading experts on the relationship between happiness and success. He helps individuals and organizations achieve an energizing balance of authentic personal happiness and effortless professional success based on time-tested, face-valid empirical data and timeless transcendental wisdom. Robert’s work has been endorsed by Oprah, Vanessa Williams, and many others. And he has been seen on Good Morning America, The Today Show, Access Hollywood, E!. OWN, GQ, Self, Health, Cosmopolitan, and Glamour.
A Brief Background
I’m the least likely person in the world to be a happiness coach. I was so unhappy as a child. I remember at six or seven being deeply depressed. I was beyond dysphoric. I was super stressed out, anxious and self-loathing. I hated myself. I always thought I would just grow out of it. I thought I would perform pretty well academically, athletically and socially; maybe then have a girlfriend one day. I thought that all those things would fix it yet that didn’t quite happen.
As I got older, I just became more and more depressed. I got to a place where I was deeply and seriously suicidal. I used to think about committing suicide dozens of times a day. It was probably the one consistent theme in my life. I eventually did some research and decided I was going to slit my wrist. I went to the kitchen and got a kitchen knife and ran it into my wrist. Oddly enough, something very strange happened when I had a suicidal moment. For no good reason and without anything in my external circumstances changing at all. Overall, I had a great life and a great loving family. I did well academically, socially, and athletically. Despite nothing changing on the outside. Something changed on the inside in that moment. I just felt this peace, this love and this joy that I’d never felt for my entire life. And it was so palpable, and it was so incredibly moving that I decided to postpone the suicide. I was like I’ll put it off for just a couple minutes. I think at the time it was like an hour, which is ridiculous. And at that time, the hour felt really long. So, in that period, I started doing some research about suicide, about depression, about happiness. I discovered some things that were pretty profound, and very helpful. I look back 20 years later, and my life is very different than it was then.
Where the self-loathing stemmed from
We do know that, scientifically, some of us are wired to be a little bit more pessimistic. We’re wired a little low for happiness. So, 50% of our happiness really can be attributed to genetic wiring in our DNA. It doesn’t mean that it’s not malleable, though. Clearly, it’s plastic. It’s something that is changeable. By surrounding yourself with the right people and engaging in happiness producing activities, you can actually raise the happiness set point that you’re born with. I was wired low for happiness. I was wired for unhappiness and pessimism. Over time, I was also a perfectionist. I wanted to be perfect. I was an overachiever and an overthinker. I think more than anything else, it was my overthinking that led me down this deep, dark, depressing hole.
The brain is really designed in such a way that it’s meant to keep you alive. A lot of what keeps you alive doesn’t always seem to make you happy. Most of the brain is a fantastic, phenomenal problem-solving instrument, but it’s also equally, if not even more, so a troublemaker.
Soul Searching Begins
I was working for a management consulting company, which at the time, I couldn’t describe exactly what I did. I just did a whole lot of PowerPoint slides. I had a beautiful girlfriend. She spoke five languages. She could play music by ear. She was beautiful and brilliant, and all that. We, of course, had a very unhappy experience there at the end. I was living in Philadelphia. My family was healthy. I had one German car, on my way to getting a second German car that I did not need. I was doing pretty well. I was spending more money than I probably should have at the time, but I didn’t realize it. I was trying to fill up that void on the inside. My life externally was pretty good. I don’t have a whole lot of complaints. I loved the people I worked with although I hated the job. I was living a life that was, to a large extent, very much out of alignment with who I really am.
My mom shared an experience that she had when she lost her parents. She stuck around because she had us kids, and it’s interesting how that works. I sometimes half joke that I don’t really trust anyone unless they’ve been through a serious bout of depression or suicidal ideation or stress anxiety, because in some ways, as challenging as it is, it’s a testament to how hard life can often feel. It is proof that you’re sensitive enough and intelligent enough to recognize how challenging life actually is.
Statistics about happiness
The average age for the first bout of depression in 1950 was 29 years of age. So, 29-year-olds facing their first bout of depression. Fast forward 50 years later, you had 14-year or 13-year olds who were contemplating suicide, who was deeply depressed, maybe even committing suicide, as that was the average age for the first bout of serious depression. We call that the progress paradox. Despite things getting better in the world with technological advances, longevity, and all these improvements, we’re actually not feeling happier for it.
We’ve got 10 times the level of access one and access two disorders, way more drug use and opioids. We’ve got a lot more deaths of despair, we see that with COVID. More abuse, whether drug abuse or other forms of addiction, alcohol abuse, it could be domestic violence. It’s always really an inability to regulate emotion.
I think sometimes just looking into your own life and seeing the ways in which you’ve fallen victim to myths and misconceptions about happiness.
So, the first piece is to stop looking for happiness where it doesn’t exist. You can never quite get enough of what you don’t really need. Just notice how despite maybe making more money, and having all these prayers answered, and manifesting all this stuff, and even manifesting all these relationships, how, ultimately at the end of the day, you’re probably in lots of cases, no happier than you were before all your prayers were answered, or you had manifested all this stuff. So that’s the first piece stop looking for happiness where it doesn’t exist, which is outside of you and in the future,
Start looking for happiness in the only place that it lives in exists, which is inside you, here and now. It can sound like such a cliché, but clichés are clichés for a reason. Those are really the two steps. If you’re looking for happiness where it doesn’t exist or live, you’ll never find it.
Dwelling on the happy moments
Notice that there are moments during the day when you don’t feel unhappy or depressed despite not having so many of the things that you want and deserve and maybe even need. Eight hours every single night, maybe more, maybe a little less, you fall asleep, and you enter into a dreamless state where you’re deep asleep and there’s no dream and notice how exquisitely peaceful and happy you feel in that state. But notice when during the day, you’re a little distracted, you see a beautiful little baby or you see a beautiful man or a woman or you see a beautiful sunset or you’re lost by an incredible song or take a piece of chocolate, notice how in that moment, everything else becomes completely irrelevant. You’re lost in this experience of true joy or even just pleasure. And so, nothing externally is really changed for you. It’s just that your focus has changed. And because your focus has changed, your experience of life has changed in that moment. So you want to do what you can to sort of cultivate more and more moments like that. A lot of that is just simply about presence. When you’re truly tapped into it and turned on and focused on that which you can control but even more focused on the peaceful liveliness that exists inside of you in every moment. It’s amazing not only how you improve the subjective quality of your life here and now, but how you also improve the objective circumstances and conditions of your life here moving forward out into the future. So how you feel now, dictates not just how you feel now, but also how you do later.
High off your own supply
I worked as a model and actor for about 10 years. I was trying to put myself through graduate school, and I couldn’t find any jobs. I was voted most shy in my high school class. I was the last person to also do that. Had I not been through it but this random agent happened to be walking down the street who said, ‘Hey, you should check out this modelling agency.’ I would have never, have done that. I met a photographer once on a shoot for Victoria’s Secret and all these places and he said, ‘You know, every great photograph makes a promise that it cannot keep.’ And that always stuck with me. I never quite understood that. But as I started living my life, I noticed that everything and everybody in your life unintentionally makes a promise that it cannot keep. The promise is, ‘I will make you happy.’ They all say the same thing. Money, relationships, even health says that. But at some point in your life, you begin to see through that, because you start to experience, hopefully, lots of it. You realize that none of it makes you happy. Instead of trying to get happy off of anything outside of you in the future, you really do want to try and get high off your own supply. You need to get high or happy off of your own existence, off your own presence, off the way in which you think about your life and the way in which you live your life. So it’s something that you’re ultimately in control of, not the world and not anybody else.
The MAPP field of psychology is about 27 years old, founded by Martin Seligman. He’s like the grandfather of positive psychology. But before studying positive psychology, he studied helplessness and depression, essentially what leads to unhappiness. He found that if you don’t remove the dysfunction from people, you don’t remove what’s wrong from people’s lives, you’re not going to get a thriving individual. You get a flat-lining individual. He talked on the need to focus on the positive in people and what’s going well with people and the strength in people. That’s really how you get a healthy, wealthy, thriving individual, or family or organization or world, right. And so this entire field of positive psychology sprang out of his work at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s all about focusing on what makes life worth living. It’s incredible some of the findings that have unfolded over the last 20 years or so.
Pursuing Positive Psychology
There was a point in my life when I was so depressed and suicidal that I was like, ‘I really don’t know much about life.’ I might think that I know a lot about life but if all of my achieving and accomplishing and acquiring is leading me to want to kill myself, I have to admit I don’t know much. I thought maybe if nothing else, I’ll just try to do the opposite of what I’m doing. I think I had seen an episode of Seinfeld. I said I’m going to start doing the opposite of what I’m doing. I live in a cold, rainy place that I don’t really love. I’m going to move to Miami. I have a job that makes good money. I’m not going to do this job very much longer. I’ll find something else. This relationship is incredible or the woman I was dating was incredible but it’s not really making me happy. So be single for a while. I made all these decisions in a one-fell swoop, and it began to actually have an effect on me. I felt a little alive. Part of that was selling the two German cars and getting a scooter. I cannot tell you how free I felt just by being relieved of the financial burden, but also this rat race and hedonic treadmill that I had been on for so long.
Authentic Versus Synthetic Happiness
We try to synthesize or manufacture this happiness. It’s like eating junk food all day every day. That may appeal to your eye. It might seem so interesting and fun and exciting, but when you notice how you feel as you’re eating and particularly afterwards, you notice that you just feel sick and you end up getting less and less healthy as a result of it. So absolutely authentic happiness comes from within while synthetic happiness is something that you try to manufacture from without.
Lazy Intelligence Approach to Happiness
One of the things I appreciate my parents for was teaching me the value of hard work and discipline. I got to a place in my life when my dad sat me down and said, ‘Alright, son, you’ve done well in terms of the hard work and now it’s time to focus on working smart.’ A huge part of happiness is really trying to get equal or better results with respect to happiness with less time, energy and effort. You want to get the laziest but smartest path to happiness. The long scenic path is fine but that essentially means stop routing your happiness through other people and other things. Instead of going through middlemen and middle women and middle things, go directly to the source of it. One key tip and trick there is just identify the activities and the people that with very little time, energy, effort, allow you to feel inspired, energized, uplifted, and happy to be alive and you want to do everything you possibly can to spend more time doing those activities, or spending time with those people.
Ideally, you’re going to need to surround yourself and drown yourself in happy circumstances, conditions or just happy activities and people, most importantly, and even if they’re not happy people, at least people to aspire to be happy. It’s interesting how most of us think so long and hard about what we’re going to eat, what career we’re going to take and maybe even where we’re going to live or what we’re going to wear, but we very rarely take the time to think about what our life is ultimately for. What do you optimize in your life or why do you get up every single day, go to a job, work out. Why do you do that? You really just do it because you think you’ll feel better for having done it. Even when you give money and you give blood, ultimately you do it because you think you’re going to feel better as a result of it. We can take a much lazier, smarter, more direct path to happiness instead of routing it through so many other middle things.
Wizard of Oz reference
I’ve watched Wizard of Oz so many times and the whole point of Wizard of Oz is that Dorothy goes on this incredible journey, looking and searching for and meeting all these people on the way and it’s interesting, it’s fun, it’s super scary at times. She does all that only to come back to realize that everything she was really looking for was in her own backyard, there all along! That’s really the journey of life to some extent. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go on the journey, enjoy the journey of absolutely incredible people and stuff but it will be so much more of an enjoyable journey if you can remember that you take happiness with you wherever you go, that also means that you take unhappiness with you, and hell with you wherever you go. That’s really the realization, recognition, is that heaven and hell isn’t just something that you enter into one day in the future. Heaven and hell is something that you carry with you here and now.
Everything works together for good
Scripture says everything works together for good for those who love God, or those who love good, or those who love happy. Use any word you want. But that’s exactly right. It’s fascinating how thoughts of death for instance, when I was 14 years old, or 17 years old, 22 years old, were the bane of my existence. It was a hell of a hellish experience. I look back a couple years older now and those thoughts actually bring me such joy, I feel such relief about that. Thinking about death enhances the value and the worth of my life now. I’ve also come to realize that thinking about death in the ways that I have has helped me to discover and realize something that’s perfectly deathless inside me. There’s no fear around that anymore. It’s interesting how, depending on your eyes, depending on your vision, the exact same thoughts or people or activities or experiences or circumstance or conditions, in one time in your life can be absolutely depressing and lead you to suicide, and another point in your life, they can actually be inspiring and uplifting and energizing, and lead you to feelings of happiness.
You can’t have a rag to riches story without having had rags at some point. We are all inspired by the stories of people overcoming the most tremendous adversity, the most incredible trials and tribulations and tragedy and to go on to triumph. We love those stories. We pay money to go to a movie theater or to rent the movie. We pay money to read books, and certainly do a podcast about it. We pay money just to hear it. It’s hard when you’re in the thick of it, and you’re in the throes of something that’s extraordinarily traumatizing or frustrating or upsetting. It’s hard to remember that this is all part of your story. That this mess will eventually one day become your message or provide you with real immediate impact but that’s precisely the story. My greatest problems have led to my greatest purpose. My greatest problem is depression and suicide. It’s led me to a career that’s all about helping people out of that experience. Our highest purpose always or often comes from our deepest problems.
I am an avid voracious reader, obsessed with books. I think the one thing that’s clear about my life is that I’m smart enough to know I’m not very smart. So I should reach out to smarter people. To that end, they’ll all say the same thing, which is that, it’s a practice. It’s something that you have to continue to invest energy in. I don’t like to call it effort necessarily, because I believe that it can be play, it should be joyful, I find it fun. I don’t call it discipline, it’s blissipline because I’m so committed to making it fun, or enjoying it. Sometimes I say that all cases of happiness are cases of mistaken identity. We know scientifically, statistically, that when you become happier, you improve the objective conditions and circumstances of your life in very measurable and tangible ways. So happy people live six to seven years longer, sometimes up to 11 years longer. They make more money $600,000 to $700,000, on average, over the course of their entire lifetime. They get married earlier, stay married longer, are happy in the relationships, whether they’re married or not. Because definitely, it’s not about marriage. It’s about love and happiness, better health outcomes, all those things. So happiness is not only the greatest success, because it’s why we want success, but it also leads to success in very measurable and tangible ways. It does it through a lazy intelligent approach.
The Higher Vibrational State
Walk into a room, you could feel the energy and predict if you’re an empath. You can feel if there’s lots of stress there or anxiety there, or its upliftment. You can feel the energy, I can. When I was a kid, I was so sensitive to energy that I couldn’t tell the difference between my own emotions and anybody else’s. And that was a problem then. But now as a coach, the second I get on the phone, before the other person has said a word, I can already know what they’re feeling without even them speaking to it. So emotion is more contagious and infectious than anything else on the entire planet. It’s creative. Emotion is creative. It’s a vibrational equivalent that we quote, unquote, attract back. It’s one way of putting it. It’s an emotional journey more than a physical journey, ultimately.
The Timeless State of Present
When you know better, you do better. You cannot find yourself in the past and you will not find yourself in the future. You will only find yourself in the present and presence itself. And lots of us feel and think that we need time to manifest what we want or we need time to discover who we are, but we actually need the timelessness, and that’s all about presence. When you’re in the presence, we call it flow state. When you’re so tapped into and turned on, dialed in and consumed and absorbed and engaged with what you’re doing that you have no interest in evaluating or analyzing how you’re doing, where you’re just enjoying the moment that deeply, you find that that presence takes care of the future. So we take care of the present, the present takes care of the future. That’s not about time. That’s about timelessness. So you lose a sense of self consciousness, you lose a sense of time consciousness, and things just seem to come to you. Everybody knows that flow state. You played sports, if you’ve been in entertainment, if you’ve just lived your life, there have been specific periods of your life when you’ve been in flow state and things just seem to come so easily. That’s about not waiting on time. It’s all about being in that timeless state of presence.
There’s an argument here that we always only live in the present. The past is history and the future is really just imagination. We only really ever live in the present moment. You can’t put a finger on the future, no matter how much we talk about it. You can’t run to the past or the future. But are you aware of that? Do you live in your mind or in your head where you’re always projecting the future or projecting into the past?
I think the challenge and opportunity for all of us is to spend more time living from our heart. And by that I mean, living from that place in space. We call it the heart, but it just means the center of your being, where you’re no longer obsessively and compulsively thinking about everything or everybody or anybody or anything, and you’re just feeling that peaceful aliveness, that not only is within you but then you ultimately are. When you come from that place of heart centeredness, it’s incredible how much more peace you feel. That’s the first sign that you’re on the right path, you feel that peace. Then secondly, you start to or notice how things work themselves out for you. The path ahead of you becomes perfected. You pre-pave this beautiful experience that’s both joyful and successful.
The prefrontal cortex, not only evolutionarily was the last to develop, but also in kids. Kids don’t really have the ability to think in abstract terms until they enter into their early teenage years and beyond. And so they come from a very heart-centered place. And that’s why we often talk about things like childlike faith. It’s not really about just belief, belief can only get you so far, but kids don’t have a whole lot of spiritual religious ideas. They just live deeply and fully in the present moment with total trust in life. It’s not about thinking your way there and figuring out everything all the time, because that’s impossible. It’s more often about taking this emotional journey. It’s really about living and coming from the heart.
Learn from nature
I’m the poster boy for overthinking. That’s how I am in this position. I was in this position 20 years ago, overcomplicating everything. If you want a tip on how to live your life, look into nature. Nature experiences the same problems, trials, tragedies, mishaps, accidents, losses, illnesses, deaths that we experience as human beings, but only people have made a problem of their own existence. Only people have made a problem of living. And all of nature’s blissful except for human beings. Take a tip from nature if you’re ever in doubt. And if you notice, nature is deeply, fully present, still silent, and just enjoying life.
There’s like four states or phases in your happiness journey.
The first state is you’re chasing things in the world, people in the world. You certainly want to pivot and focus instead on doing things that make you happy. So start with happiness is what I do. And identify your happiness on things that you love doing, that you feel inspired doing, that you feel energized for having done and try to do more of those things. In order to get there you have to identify your happiness values. Those are things that you don’t enjoy doing, things that don’t energize you, things that drain you. You want to try to outsource or delegate or reduce or eliminate all the happiness value. So that’s step one is think about happiness as what you do but then you graduate from that at some point. And you realize that even the habits, activity sometimes don’t bring you happiness, and even the least happy activity does bring you a sense of happiness.
You graduate from this ‘happiness is what you do’ to ‘happiness is what I think.’ And then you start to think about happiness as a state of mind. Then you’re really wanting to focus on happiness, happy things, or unhappy things in a happy way. It is impossibly hard to be happy if you’re focusing on unhappy things consistently. So, if you live in heaven and there’s a pothole on Main Street, and you focus all your attention and energy on the pothole, I promise you, it’s not going to feel like heaven. And so happiness is what you think.
The third stage, and these don’t always happen in the way I’m describing. Sometimes they overlap and you do things in parallel but the other part is, happiness is who you spend time with. That’s critical. So, the first thing is identifying the happiness activities of your life and trying to do more of those. Second part is making sure that you’re telling better feeling stories based in truth about your life and especially yourself but about everything and doing it just to feel good. Then trusting that it’s going to lead to better circumstances or conditions as well. But the third piece is about doing everything you can to reduce or eliminate the time you spend with people who make you unhappy or make you feel stressed or anxious and spend more time with people that make you feel uplifted and inspired and at peace, and make you feel loved.
The fourth is what I would really call a master key. It’s the ultimate key. It’s really the cheat code. And I, because I’m impatient, like to jump here but most folks will find it difficult to just make the Quantum Leap directly to this. But ultimately, happiness is presence. And presence is not thinking. It’s being able to be in the presence of someone and hear them perfectly with your heart but not being in your head the entire time. Not just waiting to talk, but really being there; mind, body, soul, mind, and spirit. It’s being able to enjoy your day, without being lost in discursive thinking but instead, to rest in and as God, to rest in and as the true self which is thoughtless, wordless, infinite, eternal. This faceless, formless presence and awareness that you are, is happiness already. It’s that feeling of that blind, naked awareness of your own presence and existence. That ‘I am.’ Just the recognition that you’re alive before there’s any thoughts to complicate it is already happiness. But most of us skip right over that, and we put so much time, energy and attention in thoughts and sensations and perceptions and in all that we just lose the sun that’s always shining from behind the clouds. We’re so obsessed with clouds that we forget about the sun. So that sun exists within you. We call it the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind because it means the thoughtless wordless mind. But that Eternal Sunshine, that invincible summer exists within you as you all the time. You just want to put more time or more focus and attention on that.
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