Robert T. Stephenson meets with Neil Pasricha at the CFA Society Boston Annual Meeting

March 11, 2021

The CFA Society Boston hosted its 35th Annual Market Dinner on March 11th.  The dinner is usually held in the ballroom of a prominent Boston hotel but this year due to the pandemic the event was held virtually on a Zoom call. The featured speaker for this year’s event was Neil Pasricha, a Canadian author, podcaster and public speaker who is known for his advocacy of positivity and simple pleasures.  He is best known for his “The Book of Awesome” series and “The Happiness Equation” which were international best sellers.  His TEDx talk “The 3 A’s of Awesome” is ranked as the ninth most inspiring TEDx talk with over 3 million views.  Both the books and the TEDx talks are based on his popular and three-time Webby Award-winning blog “1,000 Awesome Things”.  Mr. Pasricha received his undergraduate degree from Queen’s University and his MBA from Harvard University.

J.P. Marvel’s Executive Vice President and Director of Research, Robert T. Stephenson, attended the CFA Society Boston event and provided the following report:

“Neil Pasricha’s presentation started by giving some background on his life and what led him to his present career and where he is in his life.  He told of how he had moved back to his native Toronto with his wife after graduation from Harvard Business School.  He thought he was happy but one day he came home from work to find his wife crying in front of his house.  She told him that she was no longer in love with him, she had met someone else, and she wanted a divorce.  He was totally blindsided and in complete shock.  Three days later he was on the phone with one of his HBS friends having a inconsequential conversation about a tv show they were both watching.  The next day he received a call that this friend Chris had taken his life.  In three days, his wife left him, and his best friend committed suicide.  He noted that suicide is the number 2 cause of death for people 28 years and younger and number 10 overall.  Neil suggested that we be more open to talk about this because you are the most dangerous person to yourself.

This was in 2008 and there was also a lot going on in the world including an economy that seemed to be on the verge of collapsing.  Against this backdrop and after these two huge life events, Neil decided he needed to find a way to look for and find positive things in life to make him feel better, so he started blogging.   His blog was called 1,000 Awesome Things and each day from 2008 to 2012 he would write of something innocuous that was “awesome”.  He wrote this blog to cheer himself up but ultimate he won the Webby Award for “best blog in the world”.  This notoriety led to a book deal where he put this blog into book form and The Book of Awesome became a #1 international bestseller.

Neil asked the group if we knew what the Amygdala was.  He told us that it is a part of the brain that helps humans look for, find and solve problems as well give emotional responses including anxiety.  This is something humans are good at.  He commented that social media is designed to go after that part of the brain and that platform is designed to make you keep looking at things longer to sell more ads and this certainly does not make you any happier.

Neil then spent time on his thoughts about being a happier person.  He suggested that most parents extol a belief that they impart to their children.  They tell their kids that they should do great work (school, job, etc.) and then they will be a big success (great job, family, etc.) and finally they will be happy.  Neil feels that this is completely backwards.  He suggests the proper message should be: be happy which would lead to being a big success and you would then do great work.  He feels that only when you are happy, can you perform at your highest level.  Doing good work and being successful does not necessarily lead to happiness in of itself.

Neil then started to tell the group about three things they should do and make a permanent part of their life and routine. He asked the group how many people slept within 5 feet of their cell phones and almost the entire group said they did so.  Evidently 95% of people do this.  He suggests this is not great for people, but we are all “phonoholics”.  The first thing one does when they wake up is grab their phone. The first thing we wanted the group to add to their life routine was an exercise for one to do each morning instead of going to the phone first.  He calls it Two Minute Mornings where you ask yourself three questions with the hope of releasing a concern.  The three questions are “I will let go of…”, “I am grateful for…”, and “I will focus on…”.  He believes if you do this each morning it will make you happier and happier people live longer than unhappy ones.  Also, he suggests it makes you 31% more productive.

The second exercise is a little different.  He says you should have a Weird Hobby.  Learn how to make balloon animals, brew your own beer, learn to paint, join a local theater group.  Go and so something you have not done before.  People usually do what they already know and what they have always done.  He suggests that trying new things will steepen your learning curve because your learning rate is the steepest when you know they least.  Learning something you did not know makes you happier and a more interesting person on top of that.

The third exercise he calls Go Untouchable.  This is where he suggests you schedule one day each week where you become totally untouchable which means you go without your smartphone and without internet.  Most people use their phones over 5 hours a day.  Using the phone before bed impairs your quality of sleep.  Looking at social media puts us in a constant state of comparing ourselves to others which results in unhappiness.  We constantly multitask, inhibiting our productivity.  He suggests as a remedy to try intermittently fasting technology from bedtime to lunch the next day.  Importantly, every day you should turn off your phone one hour before bed if only to allow for a better night’s sleep.

Outside of those three exercises he had two other thoughts/suggestions for people to employ.  One of those is a game he plays each day with his wife right before going to bed.  It is call “Rose, Rose, Thorn, Bud.”.  The first Rose is where each of them share a highlight of the day or something they were grateful that day.  The second Rose is the same as the first but now you have a total of four positive things from the day.  Thorn stands for something that did not go well that day and gives you an opportunity to show empathy and compassion for your partner.  Lastly, Bud is where you say something you are looking forward to either tomorrow, next week or any time in the future.  The second is he feel people should read more.  One in three Americans read zero books in the past year.  He suggests reading 20 pages of a real book each day opens your brain and specifically areas of the brain related to empathy, compassion, understanding and emotional intelligence.

It was a different type of speaker than usual, but the CFA members walked away with things to consider employing in their life to promote happiness and well being which in turn could make their more productive in the work and life.

On a personal level, I did reflect on his thoughts and his story and felt like some of these exercises could be helpful in people’s lives, mine included.  Being someone who is always plugged in and like one with their smartphone, I can see how detaching at times could be a nice break and good for one’s mental health.  Finding time to be thankful and appreciative of all one has in their life instead of focused on what is wrong could be healthy as well.  Lastly, less screen time, especially in the evening, could be great to get better night’s sleep which helps one in so many ways.  I’m not sure which of Neil’s ideas will be employed in my life, that remains to be seen, but even thinking about it is a good start.”