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UJ Ramdas: The Science of Gratitude, Goal-Setting & How to Hack Your Happiness

Why scribbling for 5 minutes leads to happier life: http://bit.ly/ujramdas

Today’s episode is with my good friend, UJ Ramdas, the co-creator of the Five Minute Journal. The 5-Minute Journal has been getting a lot of buzz from our friend and fellow podcaster Tim Ferriss – stay tuned for a new episode with Tim coming soon!

On this show, we’ll share little changes you can make in your life that add up to massive long-term results.

UJ is my kind of dude.

You’ll like him, too.

On this throwback show, you’re going to learn:

  • How regularly practicing gratitude can improve your life
  • 3 goal-setting secrets to master your mindset
  • How to hack your happiness set point
  • And much, much more!

UJ RAMDAS: WHY SCRIBBLING FOR 5 MINUTES LEADS TO HAPPIER LIFE

Abel: Today we’re here with my friend, UJ Ramdas, the co-creator of the Five Minute Journal and Intelligent Change. UJ is a big fan of the wilderness, Eastern meditative practices, and a good old cup of tea. And actually, before we started recording this interview, I was so jealous of UJ’s cup of tea that I took a break and ran upstairs and got my own. So, cheers to UJ. Thank you so much for that.

This is a healthy habit. It feels good, virtual tea with UJ.   

Can you tell us a little bit about how you started The 5-Minute Journal?

Absolutely, Abel. First, thanks for having me here. It’s a real pleasure, and it was such a pleasure, that cheers with you over a virtual cup of tea.

So the journal started because I’m a fan of positive psychology and behavioral change. It’s what I obsess about; it’s what I think about.

I’d actually been doing a version of the Five Minute Journal for about six years. And I was taking a walk with a very good friend of mine, Alex Icon, who I believe it connected with. And he’s got a background in e-commerce, and we talked about stuff we’d normally talk about: marketing, behavior, belief change, and things of that nature. We would talk about our morning routines and our night routines, and he was interested in what I used to do every night before I’d go to bed. And it was a longer process; it was not five minutes, it was more like fifteen or twenty where I wrote ten things that were good in the day, etcetera. And he said, “This would be really great if we could systematize this and we could bring it to the world. I think that would be really, really good, and worst-case scenario, we’ll just use this for ourselves.”

It’s a cool tool to have for ourselves morning and night. We looked at the research and the science, and looked at how we condense everything we know in twenty years of positive psychology and bring it to people in a way that’s easy to apply, easy to use, and easy to implement into a habit.

At the end of the day, the habit is what really matters—the habit that sticks, that is easy to use. That is why it’s called the Five Minute Journal: It takes five minutes. It takes away your excuses—”oh, it’s going to take up too much time. It’s going to take too much effort. It’s not going to be rewarding.”

The challenge is, if you do this for five days and don’t find yourself significantly happier, you can just give it back. You can give it back.

Abel: I love its simplicity. So just for all of you out there who might not be familiar with what it is, it’s a souped-up gratitude journal. Gratitude means just taking a moment every day to acknowledge what you’re thankful for and be present. That’s been scientifically proven over and over again to improve happiness and productivity.

UJ, would you mind talking a little bit about the science behind this? This is legit. You can look at the numbers and see that people are actually improving their lives in massive ways by engaging in this practice.

Absolutely. I think it’s important to distinguish between the “Law of Attraction gratitude” and the gratitude in the research that’s supported by real numbers. And nothing against the Law of Attraction crowd, it’s just that I like numbers and I like figures, and I like to touch and feel things and know they’re real. And across the research, what’s clear is that gratitude is kind of like the gateway emotion, like marijuana is a gateway drug.

Gratitude tends to be the gateway emotion and tends to be the opposite of depression. For example, if I ask you to feel joy right now, it’s a stretch, because it’s difficult to figure out, “What really gives me joy right now?” It’s too much of a stretch. But if I ask you, “Abel, what’s good right now? What’s good right here?”

Abel: This tea is delicious. I can tell you that much.

Exactly. It’s easier to focus on that. There’s a really good book called Thanks by Robert McCullough, and he talks about the improvement in just a few weeks of weekly gratitude journaling. And people, in about ten weeks, just every week writing down the things they’re grateful for, they increase their closeness of their bonds with their loved ones. They actually improve the time they exercise by 1.5 hours a week, which is significant.

Abel: That’s epic. Yeah, if you can exercise 1.5 hours more a week and you’re exercising right, then that’s the difference between being fat and being totally ripped. It really is.

THE SCIENCE OF GRATITUDE

Absolutely. And it increases pro-social motivation. So typically, when people think of things they’re thankful for, they think of people, and they start to empathize with people; they start to look after people more. They start to do things for other people, and that’s a significant indicator of happiness.

How much you do for others, believe it or not, is a significant indicator of happiness, and also a significant indicator of how well you emote, how well you feel. And gratitude is the opposite of depression. So people who are clinically depressed feel fifty times less gratitude numerically than people who aren’t.

Abel: So cool. It’s not just the journal itself, though. Is there anything that you want to share about how you put that together?

It was a lot of fun, because this is what I enjoy doing anyway. I really enjoy the pursuit of wisdom, and there’s nothing cooler than going through several hundred quotes to pick the ones that you want to put.

Abel: So what’s your favorite?

That’s a tall order. The one I like, that I think is in the journal toward the end, is, “Kindness is more important than wisdom, and the beginning of that is the understanding of wisdom.” Care is really important, and it’s more important than anything you might have here. This is more important than this.

Abel: For those of you on audio, UJ is pointing to the heart instead of the head. But what is positive psychology, and why is it catching on so much these days?

So positive psychology, as opposed to “negative psychology,” is from the last eighty or so years of formal psychological academia, research papers, etcetera. Now, this is a pretty crazy ratio… There is an 80:1 ratio of studying negative emotions to positive.

So for every eighty papers that focus on depression and what’s wrong with people, there’s one that focuses on positive emotion.

Abel: That’s a lot of bummed-out scientists.

No kidding. Because you feel what you research. Whatever you’re focused on, you’re going to experience that emotionally, and that’s going to make up your happiness or your unhappiness.

For every one paper on positive emotions, there are eighty papers studying negative emotions. So that one paper, that accumulation of papers, is what is known as positive psychology. It’s the study of positive emotions. It’s the study of performance. It’s the study of people who are already doing well or modeling, as I’m sure you are aware of, success, as opposed to looking at what’s wrong with people and how can we get them to zero.

A good analogy is, if you look at the continuum, the eighty papers focus on how to get people from a minus ten to a zero, and the rest, the positive psychology, focuses on how to get people from a zero to a ten.

HOW TO HACK YOUR HAPPINESS SET POINT

Abel: See, that sounds way more fun to me. And that’s what we’re looking to do with this show as well, is take people who thought they were normal or the best they could be and then boost them up to a higher level of performance and happiness.

There’s a lot of science that shows that happier people simply achieve more. It doesn’t matter if it’s business or their bodies and their own health, or if it’s high performance in athletics. All of this comes back to mental work at some point.

You talk about happiness set point, and how you can actually hack those to a higher level. Riff on that.

First, what is a happiness set point? Let’s define that before we move on to the hacks. A happiness set point is—science and research talk about how typically, most people have a happiness set point.

They looked at people who won the lottery, and then people who were just diagnosed with a chronic illness. And they looked at the change in happiness. What was found is that over the course of a few years, they returned back to their previous levels of happiness.

The first group that won the lottery, a lot of people think that would normally boost happiness significantly. And the other group were significantly ill and were diagnosed with this illness. In the research, they typically say about 50 percent of happiness is predetermined, 10 percent is genetic, and 40 percent you can control. Right?

Now, what’s been found out through the research on positive psychology is that A, it can be hacked. It’s a range. It’s just like physical fitness, just like physical genetics. You can hack physical genetics.

And one of the ways to do it is, obviously, gratitude journaling. Now, there’s a really interesting exercise that I don’t think I’ve ever talked about on a podcast before, so this is going to be new. This is going to be pretty cool. It’s this one-time exercise that actually was a permanent booster in happiness and in overall general well-being. So this is pretty wild.

A group of students was asked to write a letter of gratitude to somebody they felt they hadn’t expressed enough gratitude to. And they had to write it all out and they had to finish when they felt like they expressed enough gratitude. And they had to call this person up, they had to say, “Hey! I want to meet you.”

Nothing about the letter, nothing about what they wanted to tell them. “I just want to meet you. I just want to see you, spend some time.” When they meet in person, they’re asked to read the letter out to this person in front of them. And there’s a really cool story. There’s an undergraduate psychology student and he wrote this letter, but he was too embarrassed to tell his parents about the letter. He felt it was awkward, he felt it was… He didn’t want to express those feelings. And unfortunately, his sister died in a car accident.

And when he returned home, he took the letter with him and thought that would be a good time to read the letter, and almost invariably, like it happens, when he was reading the letter, the entire family started crying. The entire family started crying and they were stronger for it. They emotionally became open and honest and vulnerable to each other. And they became a stronger unit. And that’s what gratitude does: it brings people closer together. And that is the number one predictor of lifelong happiness—the depth and the closeness of your relationships.

Abel: And kindness to one another.

Kindness. Yeah.

Abel:  When you externalize gratitude, it turns into kindness, doesn’t it?

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Abel: Great. I really liked that.

I know, I know. And so everybody who’s listening, you can do this. If you have a little bit of courage, it can transform your happiness. And all of those students were tested six months later. It was like a 17 percent jump from their baseline happiness score.

So it’s a very powerful exercise, but it’s going to take some courage. Because you’ve expressed something that you’ve never expressed before. And you’re opening parts of you that you might not have shared with other people before. But almost always it is so valuable to do that, and hopefully, it doesn’t take something unfortunate or a tragedy to make that happen. And you can do it now.

Abel: And you can do little pieces of that every single day.

Let’s talk about morning rituals. I’ve talked about this on a bunch of other shows, but now I’m here with the master of morning rituals, the guy who actually made the tool that I use pretty much every day. What is the importance of a morning ritual, and what does it look like for you?

So, I think the beginning and the end are really important. I love strategy, and I know, Abel, you’re a fan of strategy yourself. I just geek out on this stuff. This stuff is fun for me, and the beginning and the end can be game changers.

Very early in the day, a lot of people make the decision whether it’s going to be a good day or not a good day. And that’s an unconscious decision. It happens automatically. It happens by rote.

Sometimes I’ll ask people, “How do you know the day is going to be good?” They’ll think about it. And they’ll say, “You know what? If I worked out in the morning,” or they’ll say, “If I slept well.” And if you systematize that, you can literally make every day a really good day.

And the end is just as important: to tie up loose strings, to apologize where you had to apologize, to finish things that were incomplete so you can sleep well. There’s good research to show, if you sleep feeling good in your body, a sense of a buzzing happiness, you’re going to sleep deeper and sleep longer. And you’re going to wake up more refreshed.

So, for me, my morning routine… Actually, it changes in the winter and in the summer. So in the summer I like to take a walk. I like to take a walk and just appreciate all that is.

I think it’s really important to start the day without any tension, and just feel and be present to everything around you. I do the Five Minute Journal. I like to meditate in the mornings. It really starts my day off well. And sometimes I’ll do some degree of movement, so it could be some stretching, some yoga, some kettlebells, some fifteen- to twenty-minute workout.

Then there’s a part of the day I like to call “intense realism,” which I took from Robert Greene’s book. I just like to focus on some intellectually challenging problem. I love solving problems, and just some problem that I want to solve. And it could be a business problem; it could be a problem that is just purely interesting to me. And I’m just going to throw away the piece of paper after. But it’s just to work out my intellectual muscles.

And then have breakfast. And there’s a really good book called The ONE Thing that I like. So, I like to tackle the one thing that I really have to get done today. And if I’m lucky, I can book off two to three hours for that. And then as soon as that happens, then I’ll email, all that other stuff.

Abel: Once you stack the deck with whatever you needed to do to have a good day, then the rest is gravy. It doesn’t matter if you’re barraged by an inbox of three hundred things, of people who need something from you yesterday. You can withstand that, because you’ve already had a great day. It’s already done.

You’ve stacked the wins. So you got a whole bunch of wins early in the day, and you’re kind of on a high already. Sometimes literally, if you’re drinking coffee.

Abel: Right. And then you also said that you round out the day doing that. What do you do at night?

At night, I like to just go through the day as I’m in bed. And I have the journal in my hand. I just like to close my eyes and go over, “Okay, that was twenty-four hours. What happened?”

What happened? That was twenty-four hours and we have work to do. Everybody hopefully has a plan, an impact that they’re looking to make. Has a, for lack of a better word, a purpose—a reason to do the actions that we do every day. And for me, it’s just an evaluation of what happened.

A lot of people, when they have a near-death experience, they report looking through their life, at all the pains and frustrations, and all the things they wished they had done. Well, what if they did that every night so they could spare themselves some regret?

So I like to do that just to say, “Okay. What went well? What didn’t go so well? And how can I become a better person?” And a lot of that is in the journal.

And it’s an introspective activity. I really enjoy that because one of the most terrifying things about life is age does not correlate with wisdom. And it’s terrifying if you’re growing old, and all of us are growing old. We’re all moving forward in life. And the fact that you can go a year or two without growth is the scariest thing to me. It’s the scariest thing; it’s petrifying. Which is why introspection is really important. It can save you years. It can shave years off your learning and your development, and for that I am so grateful.

Abel: That reminds me of a story. When I was in high school, I was hanging out with one of my goofball friends, and he decided to go up to this one guy he knew, who was like one of the oldest guys he knew, whose face was covered in wrinkles. He clearly had lived a hard life, had a voice like Tom Waits, just all gravelly and beat up.

My friend asked the old man, and I’m standing there just completely shocked, he asks this guy, “What’s it like to get old?”

He was expecting the guy to say, “Well, it’s the worst thing ever, I feel like I’m going to die.”

What he actually said was, “I love getting old. Getting old is so cool, because every day I learn something new, and I’m not worried about the things I was worried about when I was in my twenties and thirties, and all the superficial nonsense and all the noise from everyone around me. I just love getting old, because I feel like I’m getting closer to who I’ve always wanted to be.”

I thought that was the greatest thing ever.

But that’s clearly a decision that the man made, to think that way. Whether he knows it or not, that’s something either his subconscious was able to do, or maybe he used his conscious mind to somehow wrestle his subconscious into submission, to think that positively by intentionally infusing his day with these habits.

Why scribbling for 5 minutes leads to happier life: http://bit.ly/ujramdas

Abel: When I started working in consulting, I found that a lot of my breakthroughs came in my dreams, and that’s in large part because I’d send myself to bed with a problem. But now I try to do that pretty much every night. It doesn’t have to be a problem, but something you’re working through, like looking for your next path, what you are going to do that day. Your subconscious is so much smarter than you are, and you might as well use that time that you’re in bed to come to your next breakthrough.

Is there anything you’ve asked of yourself recently, UJ, that the folks out there might find useful?

Actually, I find that right before I go to bed, I like to review my goals and review the person I want to be, and the things I want to do.

There’s two aspects to gratitude, and just to doing this. One is the cognitive aspect—thinking about it. And the other one is feeling about it, and both of them are equally important. Really, really important. And so I think about really getting into that space, and I sleep in that space. I like to rest knowing that I’m resting in line with where I want to be. And so if there’s something really pressing on my mind, I’ll ask the question, but my request is to let my path continue.

So I’m curious, actually, what questions do you write in the journal? I would love to know. I love getting feedback on this.

Abel: One thing I like to do in the morning is go through the good stuff that happened the day before, and go through a couple of things that I’m planning on doing in the next day. So I talk about what I’m grateful for today. So basically, the top of the Five Minute Journal I use exactly as it is, and then the bottom, I turn it into that, gratitude for yesterday. Or something to look forward to, basically, for the next day.

And every once in a while, I’ll switch it up. I’m constantly trying different things.

It’s all that personal journey. Everyone kind of has to find their own way of doing this that works for them in terms of time of day. Maybe some people just have that feeling in the afternoon where they have to write something down or whatever, and every day at 3 o’clock they set an alarm, and that’s when it happens. But I would say if anyone wants to get started with gratitude and upping their performance, and productivity, and most of all, happiness, it’s best to start very simply. Very low commitment. Get those easy wins in so you can actually turn it into a habit. Because it’s the things that you do every day without really noticing that make the biggest difference, and gratitude is absolutely huge.

And the cool thing is, Abel, we recently just launched an app for the Five Minute Journal, because a lot of our audience was saying, “Hey, do you have an app for this? I would love to get the digital version of it.” Because sometimes people travel, or there’s a younger audience that’s just hooked on a phone. There are stats to show that about 60 percent or so of teenagers can’t remember the last time they were fifty feet away from their phone.

Abel: Can you say that again?

Why scribbling for 5 minutes leads to happier life: http://bit.ly/ujramdas

Abel: That’s crazy.

Yeah. So let’s make it work.

WHERE TO FIND UJ RAMDAS

Abel: Before we go, can you tell people a little bit about the app, where they can find it, as well as where they can find you?

Absolutely. So they can find all the work that I’m doing at fiveminutejournal.com. That’s where you’ll find the links for the app. That’s where you’ll find the links for the journal. We have a blog. And they can connect with me by just going to my website, ujramdas.com. They can send me email from there and I have a podcast too. You’re welcome to subscribe if you like.

You can also find him on Instagram @FiveMinuteJournal and @BeProductive.

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Do you write in a journal every day? How has practicing gratitude changed your life? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts!

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2 Comments

  • Mo says:

    First, I want to say, I am grateful for your podcasts and this one was much appreciated. Lots of good information. The reference early in the interview to marijuana being the gateway drug is a slippery slope comment. Since marijuana is finally getting the research and attention in the positive…I would hope the enlightened might avoid such statements. It’s part of the dialogue that suppressed marijuana’s medicinal value for decades. Thank you.

  • KJ says:

    Hi, I cannot find the book “Thanks” by “Robert McCullough” anywhere – is that the right name for the book? Let me know please, thanks!

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