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Hello, hello. To celebrate the new year, I sat down with Dan Harris from the 10% Happier podcast, and we talked about what are some of the things that matter to us when it comes to relationships, values, principles, what he calls the non-negotiables to stay connected. And recently, I've been talking a lot about conflict, about how we stay connected through difference, how we create community at this moment when more and more there's a social atrophy that's creeping up on us. And especially, how do we maintain a connection with people who think differently from us and who soon may vote differently from us. So let's listen.


In December 2020, a Latino couple was falsely accused by a white mom fluencer of attempting to kidnap her children. The Karen phenomenon, where white women falsely accuse people of color of crimes, usually fixates on the accuser, the so-called Karen. But for this series, we focus on the innocent couple at the heart of this story.


I just want the public to know what she did was wrong.


In Perfect Paradise: People versus Karen, available now wherever you get your This is the 10% Happier podcast.


I'm Dan Harris.


Hello, everybody. How are we doing?


When people are making New Year's resolutions, I think they mostly focus on things like diet, exercise, finances, getting a new job, starting a meditation habit, things like that.


Maybe I'm wrong about this, but that's my general impression.


We live in an age of optimization. People are tracking their calories, tracking their sleep, tracking their meditation streaks, tracking their heart rate, committing to arduous diet and exercise plans.


Some of these things are pretty healthy, although I would argue that you need to be careful about not dieting or exercising from a place of self-loathing or conforming to societal norms that may have nothing to do with your actual health.


But anyway, if you are interested in getting happier, healthier, and more successful, my reading of the data strongly suggests that the most effective lever, the thing you really should optimize, is your relationships, which I very rarely hear anybody talking about in terms of resolutions and optimization or general life goals. Some of you may be familiar with this study, but the folks at Harvard have for 80 years or so been tracking several generations of Bostonians to determine what leads to a long life and happy life. The number one variable was not diet or exercise or meditation. It was the quality of people's relationships. Why? Because stress kills, and stress can be reduced most effectively through having strong relationships.


Okay, so that long windup brings me to today's guest, who is one of, if not the smartest people I know on the subject of doing relationships better.


Esther Pirel is a psychotherapist and best-selling author. She has a therapy practice in New York City, and she serves as an organizational consultant for Fortune 500 companies around the world. Her TED Talks have more than 40 million views, and her books, Mating In Captivity and the State of Affairs are huge best sellers. Esther is also the host of a hit podcast called Where Should We Begin? In this conversation, we talk about why accountability and generosity are so important to her personally, how she handles competing needs in her life when it comes to relationships, how to make real connections in an age of artificial intimacy, how to handle conflict, what to do if you're an introvert, and one thing you can do right now, today, to make yourself happier. This is the first part of a big New Year's series we're doing, which we're calling the Non-Negotiables. We've compiled an incredible list of people who we asked one simple question, what are the must-have practices and principles in your life? I was a little worried when we started doing these interviews that everybody was going to say the same thing, I meditate and exercise or eat right or whatever.


But I've been very surprised how asking this simple question so often leads to fascinating and surprising areas. We've got a great lineup. Today, it's Esther. Friday, it's Bill Hater, the comedian who talks about creatively channeling his anxiety. Next week, it's meditation legends, Jon Kabatzen and Pema Chodren, and then Brian Stevenson, the civil rights icon, who talks about how he perseveres no matter how hopeless times seem.


Esther Perel, welcome back to the show.


My pleasure to be here.


It's always great to see you in person or virtually. It doesn't matter.


It's all good. Thank you. Same for me.


I'm just curious, what are the non-negotiable practices for you that you need on a daily or daily-ish basis in order to keep your shit together and keep your life running?


Meaning things that I do on a daily basis that I need to do, because otherwise my life would be out of kilter.


Yeah, exactly.


It's a combination of doing good work, attending to my patients with integrity, attending to my team with integrity. So there's a piece of it that is just showing up. A non-negotiable is to show up where I am expected and to show up fully, to be giving. I think I have a non-negotiable around generosity. And that means who do I call to? Who do I need to think about, who do I need to check in with? That's a non-negotiable. That involves my family, but not only. It really extends beyond. And then a few things that I like to do for myself. I wake up and I practice yoga almost every day, rather strenuous yoga. But it is part of a group that is a community of friends That has become, I won't say a non-negotiable, but it has become such a cohesive force because it's been three and a half years since the beginning of the pandemic that we gather every morning. And honestly, there's no other group of people that I have touch points with four times a week. There's nobody else that I know about how they are four times a week. It's become the front and center for each of us, even though we are not all each close friends necessarily.


So that showing up at 8:00 AM is a non-negotiable.


Let me go back to number one, and obviously, there's commonalities between the two. You think of showing up in whatever context for your team, for your patients, for your family as a form of generosity?


Yes, because I want to be present, not just there, but present. I want to be focused. I want to give my full attention. I don't want a distraction, which is very uncomfortable. Common these days. This is one of the last places that I have left, where even though I used to say it's the last techno free environment, that's no longer the case because I often do see patients on Zoom as well. But it's about I'm not multitasking. I'm not thinking about anything else while I do this. And this could be anything having to do with creating a course or doing a podcast episode where it's basically live therapy sessions that you listen in as a fly on the wall or seeing patients in my own private practice. I find that one is so distracted these days. It's so hard to keep focused, to read 100 pages in a book and not lift your head as I used to do. That's what I call showing up and giving the best of what I can and not letting people down who have expectations or letting myself down of my own expectations. All of that for me is showing up.


What are the biggest barriers to showing up for you?


If I am preoccupied, covering a range of issues that make me anxious and that take me hostage and capture my attention, away from where I am, that is a barrier. But interestingly, it can also work the other way around. Is that sometimes when I'm most preoccupied or anxious or even sad because something really sad has happened, I find that those are the moments when I often work the best. Because if I manage to step outside of myself, I feel like I'm in touch with something very raw of life and that I'm able to use that in my work with other people. So it goes in both directions. A certain level of rumination, obsessiveness, linked to something that preoccupies me. And it's that powerful that it can take away my concentration, that's a barrier.


And yet you said, it's so interesting, you said that there are, if I'm hearing you correctly, particularly with sadness, it can be the opposite of a distraction. It can somehow get you out of your head and give you a fuel for showing up?


It's more that I feel like I'm in touch with something that you are trying to talk to me about. And because I'm in touch with it, I'm more able to respond with a different pitch. It's a conversation I used to have with colleagues. It's like some of us would say, when I'm really in distress, I can't work. And I would say sometimes when I'm really in distress, the thing that helps me the most is to work because it takes my attention outside of myself and I can focus on somebody else. And probably on some level, I so don't want to focus on myself that I'm even more focused on others. And I have even more of an openness that is available to me. So that's how I present it.


Let me try a theory with you. It may be completely off. I'll just float it. But after 9/11, and we've seen this after other major cataclyisms globally, people were raw in a way and in touch with the inherent precarity and impermanence and poignancy of life. Facts that we tend to armor up against in our daily lives, but if we're shaken up enough, we get back in touch with it. And in those moments, actually, it is in some ways, counterintuitively, easier to be available and altruistic and compassionate. Does that roughly describe what the mechanism is for you?


Yes, I have it now as well. There's such a dread of instability. This world is really in a very, very shaky place, and I am experiencing a combination of sadness and fear and grief and compassion and longing and a desire to connect and to reach out and for others to reach out to me. And all of this emotional landscape comes with me to work.


What's the type of stuff on the more... You brought me a dig in.


I'm following you, Dan. You took me to a very serious, solemn place. So here we are.


I'm happy to go wherever this dance us. I'm curious, you said before that if you're preoccupied, that actually can take you out of the room for your family, friends, patients, team members. Do you have psychological Achilles heels, things that actually you're prone to be preoccupied by?


Oh, I think a very easy one would be if something is going on with my kids. That's number one. You're only as happy as your kids are happy. So I have memories. It's not happening so much now, but I have memories of I can barely focus because I am thinking about what the schmerfs are dealing with. That's an easy preoccupation. Health matters, health issues, my own or people that I I love. That's a big one. There's a way in which it's a contradiction, and it works on both sides of the contradiction. When my inner world or my world, my life is not stable, it's more challenging to provide stability for the people I work with. On the other end, when my world is unstable, it opens up, it gives me access to a range of emotions that I'm not necessarily in touch with on a daily basis. And that range of emotions does open me up to working with a level of depth that I often think is even bigger than the one I strive for in a regular day. Does that Do you relate to that?


Yeah, I do. I think about when something happens in my little world or in the world writ large that is destabilizing, it puts you back in touch with the fundamental sorry to use this word again, non-negotiable realities of life, which is that this thing moves fast. There's no guarantee that the next breath is going to be successful for you or for anybody you love. The ground beneath our feet is not as stable as we would like to think. We spend a lot of time, and I think are in many ways, programmed for denial of these underlying realities. But when they become salient, there is a, I don't know if I love this word, but like a tenderness that is available.


It is. It's a fragility. It's a tenderness that is a response to an awareness of the fragility of things. So you want to protect it. You feel suddenly that things can really go wrong. So So there's a cherishing, there's a holding the fragility, and that is a tender expression. Yes, I think so.


The other non-negotiable you listed at the beginning of the conversation was yoga. And I noticed a commonality between the two things you listed. The first was showing up and the second was yoga. The commonality, at least one of them, is that both involve other people. These are not solitary pursuits. Correct.


Because my life is more organized with the presence of other people. I'm very well aware of that. And there's a level of accountability. So it's also because of your question. Your question is, what's a non-negotiable? And I think a certain level of accountability for me is a non-negotiable. I expect it on the on their side. So that's a word we haven't used, but in effect, it's a lot of what I'm talking about, right? So this yoga group is a thing I would like to... If I could package it, I would sell it because it's been an amazing experience. It starts in the pandemic. I realized that I'm really not somebody who's going to have discipline by myself because I need social accountability. And I'm also not going to go and buy classes online. That whole thing doesn't work for me. So I start to talk with one or two girlfriends, and I say, why don't we do it together? And then I say, okay, I'll lead. Of course, I'm not a teacher at all, but I've listened to my teachers for enough years that I can repeat even what I can't do. Anyway, we are about 15 or 16 now.


We're not always there at the same time for every class, but we meet four times a week. We just met this week on the roof of one of us. And just to gather, some of them had never met in person. And literally, imagine four times a week, as you wake up, it's basically among the first things you do. And you meet these people and you discuss various things of life. And then 10, 15 minutes later, we get going and we are serious. And there's five teachers amongst us, four of them that are really trained and licensed. And it becomes this incredible cohesive force. It's an intergenerational group that spans from 30 to 67. Babies were born, parents passed away, relationship Relationships broke up, relationships begun. I mean, it's an unbelievable thing. It's really a novel, actually. It's a beautiful novel to write because the characters are hilarious. And we were this week literally saying, what makes this an interesting group? And it says all of this, it's the different generations, it's the different backgrounds, it's the serious and fun, the light and heavy, the mischievous and the solemn. It just inhabits so many nuances. And in that lives this hour and 15 minutes of intense dedicated yoga that has literally changed.


None of us were serious practitioners before, but we had nothing to do during the pandemic. So here we are. So we became devoted to this thing. And it's communal, it's supportive, it's remote. We do it on two continents. Sometimes people get to meet in person person in practice. It's like an amoeba. It's just a very interesting, flexible shape of a group that has become, without any planning, a very important stabilizer in many people's lives. That's the best way to describe it. And you can do it with a movie club, a book club, yoga. It doesn't matter. But there's something about the frequency of it, because when you're younger, you're in college or you're at work with people that you see every day, the friendship is built around sharing life together. But often later on, your friendships are the people that you meet to talk about your life, too. But it's not the people with whom you experience the most amount of time. You don't see them at school, you don't see them at So you see them at dinner. And this thing has switched that around. You can actually share life without having to just retell life.


Long explanation for a thing that... Because I literally went to the group this week, so I had a lot to say about it.


Long explanations are welcome here. And I think it's really fascinating what you're pointing to. And it reminds me of one of my favorite Estherisms, which is the quality of your relationships will determine the quality of your life. It is therefore very important to nurture relationships in many different contexts so that you have people you can march arm and arm with through this very unstable and precarious situation of being alive. I imagine some people listening to this might think, Well, I'm not Esther Porel. I don't have as many friends. I don't have access to so many interesting people. Maybe I'm lonely. We're in the middle of an epidemic of loneliness, or I work remotely. I don't get to meet that many people.


How do I- Start this thing. I started with one person. I said, I'm having a hard time doing this alone. How about you? This could be, I'm having a hard time going out of the house, making a walk, running, whatever it is. I'm having a hard time doing this alone. Many of us lack that motivation. But if somebody waits for you, it gives it a secondary meaning. The meaning is no longer just the activity, but the person you share the activity with. And then constantly people say, there's somebody who wants to join. There's somebody who wants to join. That's how this thing grew. They all start by being people that are my friends. But it's also because I'm very interested at this point, especially talking about the loneliness epidemic to create situations that are not artificial intimacy. That's the thing that I'm very preoccupied with. Real life, flesh, present. That's why I also started with the showing up. And adult friendships. I We're seeing that friendships were tested during the pandemic. Friendships are being tested right now in this acute period of polarization, or period of acute polarization is more even correct. And what does adult friendship represent?


Families often disintegrate. And friendship, it's the first relationship we choose, really, when we are little, and it remains the most reciprocal relationship throughout. So I'm very interested in friendship at this moment. And I would say to all of the people for whom this becomes interesting, it starts with one, then it becomes two. And then you will notice how much hunger there is for this. You don't have to go look for people. People will present themselves to you, but you have to tell them that you're doing this. I don't necessarily go around talking about my morning activities. But now I think I have a story I want to share because I see what it's doing for the 15 in other people. And not all of them have the same social circle that I do necessarily. But something changed in their life, especially the younger ones. It's like 30-year-olds with 60-year-olds. Nothing more important than intergenerational, which used to be done naturally by extended families. But we don't have that. So we are so locked into our own cohort, people with kindergarten together and people with teenagers together. And that's not the way that wisdom gets passed.


All these elements, find the activity, and then just think of one or two people and just say, this is what I would like to create. Are you interested? And then let me know what happens.


What if you're an introvert?


An introvert can write a message and just say, I've listened to this music. Are you interested in this music? Introverts are not social. They experience their sociability differently. I think we have to be very accurate about that. Introverts may need to replenish alone and then accumulate the energy to be with others versus extroverts who get energized by the presence of others. But that doesn't mean that introverts don't like the company of people. There's a range of introversion. There's a lot of people who are very sociable that tell you, I'm an introvert. It's about not being alone. It's about being supported. It's about having witnesses to your life. It's about not feeling that when you go through the hard things of life, you're doing it without an empathic witness. And that's what makes all the difference. And especially in this moment, reach out to people. Just tell them, I was thinking of you. I think what's happening may be affecting you. It affects me. Don't be afraid if you reach out and somebody says, no, no, everything okay. Well, then you say that's so nice to hear. But it demands the minimum of what is the thread that will help us not dry up in solitude.


No, solitude is not the right word, in a loneness, not even in loneliness, but in a loneness.


Coming up, Esther Porel talks about how to get around the obstacles that hinder connection with other people and the role of conflict in relationships and why we shouldn't be afraid of it.


Just to build on that, and this is about me interviewing you, so I won't say too much here, but I had an experience where two years ago, I retired from my job as an anchorman at ABC News, where I was working on the weekends. I didn't have much of a social life as a consequence for the 10 years or 11 years where I anchored on the weekends. And simultaneously, there was a pandemic, as we all know, and my family and I moved to the suburbs where we didn't have any friends. And so when I retired, I found myself with these empty, blighted spaces on the weekends. And I really had to start over, my wife and I, together.


What did you do? What did you do that you feel really made a difference?


Yes, that's exactly where I was going. So one is I just made it clear to everybody, old friends, that I was available and that I was in yes mode. And if there was a party in the city and it involved me driving, I was still going to go, and I was going to show up for things that my friends were organizing, the type of stuff I used to not show up for. The other thing I started doing is getting much more consistent about doing something you mentioned, which is reaching out to people at random times, just to touch base, and even people I hadn't heard from in years.


Well, they hadn't heard from you in years either.


Yes, exactly. I'll give you just one example that I found particularly poignant, which was just the other day, a friend of mine popped into my head. I hadn't seen him in a couple of weeks. We're very close. And so I do see him regularly, but I hadn't seen him in a couple of weeks. And I just sent him a quick text to say, How are you doing? He called me immediately, which is rare. He said, The universe just delivered you into my lap, the perfect person. I'm at the vet. My dog is really sick, and I have to decide whether to put him down. And I need somebody to talk to about this. And we talked it through, and he cried a little, and he made his decision. And I just thought, I don't believe in anything metaphysical. I don't have any proof for it. But that's just an interesting example of how if you get in the habit of being externally oriented, interesting things can happen.


So just to not scare off the introvert, it's really not about being externally oriented. It's about staying connected.




It's really about staying connected. And so many forces these days are hindrances, obstacles to connection, to real connection, food that feeds you, not artificial food. And it's a strange It's a strange thing that that suddenly becomes the thing one is supposed to say in public, but it is so basic, and we are losing the basics because there is a social atrophy going on where we are lacking the skills for the situations that we need to face with people. What are two situations that are very challenging for a lot of people in relationships? One is to ask for help, which your friend did, and one is to disagree. I've been spending a lot of time thinking about conflict these days. And how people stay connected with people they disagree with, or they have diversions of opinion, or they have different values, or that whole set of things reinforced by the political situation of the moment. But it's happened already before. So conflict and help are two essential challenges, big topics of relationships. And one of the things that helps them the most is the one-on-one connection. And so So it's a beautiful thing, A, that you just spontaneously reach out, B, that he just said, oh, just in time, someone for me.


And that he then said, I need you. And then that he made his decision with you and that he could process the immediate emotion surrounding the decision with you. And you will never forget this. Neither of you will never forget this moment because he will remember the day he had to decide about letting go of his dog. And therefore, Therefore, that's going to associate in his memory with you, and that's going to associate with this friendship that he had. And this is how we live not feeling alone. What helps us not feel alone? There's the concept of object constancy, right? When the You're a little kid and you drop a toy. And for the first time, you realize that the toy still continues to exist, even though you're not seeing it. And then somebody picks it up for you and then you throw it again. They pick it up, you throw it again. But you learn that you continue to exist even when the other isn't here, that you live inside of them. To be internalized by other and to internalize others is the fundamental fabric of connection that helps us not to feel alone in the world.


On a big level alone, I'm talking. I'm all alone. Of course, we are alone in front of death. And there's that truth. I know that answer. But there is the aloneness that is fundamental aspect of life. And then there is the psychological reality of aloneness. And that is what you experience with your friend. He lives inside of you. You thought, Yeah, what's happening? And he took the hook and went with it.


I love everything you just said. And to get Back to the question you asked before, what have I done? And therefore, what can one do to make up for the social atrophy that the culture is in many ways imposing on us? Another thing that comes to mind related to what you just said is, I don't know if I would have been able to crystallize this until we got into this conversation, that I want to be the person that other people talk to when shit's going wrong.


It feels so good to help others. It does. You don't have to be a therapist. I do this for a living, but it really feels so good. You feel honored when people come to ask you, not always, but sometimes you just feel like, I'm so glad that I'm the person you're thinking about. I'm not talking about all the help that we need to dispense that we didn't choose. I have that, too. But this type of help that you describe, to be the one that one reaches out, you're the one I can talk to about this? Wow, that's a compliment I wish many people should receive.


For me, a key learning within this, and I'd be interested to see whether you agree with this, is that I don't need to fix any of these problems. I just need to, as Brené Brown says, sit in the dark with them.


Absolutely. Absolutely. The definition of trauma is not the thing that happened to you, but it's the fact that it happened to you without the presence of an empathic witness. So many times we will figure out what we're going to do, dog or something. We'll sit with it. Ultimately, in that sense, he's alone. He's the only one making the decision, and your friend is the only one who's going to live with the consequences of his decision. In that sense, he's alone. But he's not alone because he can share it with you. So it's this both end. And your presence changes his experience of this whole process. That's how you live with both of these realities at the same time, being connected while you are alone in making a decision, but you're not alone in the decision. So I like what you say. And is that a new discovery for you that you like people to turn to you?


I think I've felt this way for a while, but I wouldn't have been able to articulate it so clearly had we not had this conversation.


So what is it that we said that made that clear for you?


You're asking for a level of recall that I am currently unable to achieve. I think it's just something that's been bubbling in the background of my psyche for a while. Anyway, I said it to my friend, too. He expressed some gratitude, and I was like, Look, we We are really close friends. I'm going to play to the whistle with you. In other words, I'm going to be friends with you until the game is over. And so whatever is coming up, I'm your guy. You can call me. And I feel that way about a significant number of people in my life. And that's a good feeling to have.


Do you call them?


Yes. I take very seriously what I'm sure you know, Dr. Robert Woldinger, the guy from Harvard. Yes.


But you should say who he is because it's one of the most extraordinary studies.


Yes. So this study... You want to describe it? You're more familiar with this than I am.


I mean, it's one of the longest studies done on men, specifically, and on the social life of men. For six decades, I think he has been doing this study, right? About 60 years. And the most important piece of data or information is that the majority of these men, when they talk about quality of life, happiness, fulfillment, satisfaction, et cetera, will emphasize one thing above all, and that is their social connection. The quality of your life depends on the quality of your relationships, or the quality of your relationships determines the quality of your life. Turn it in every direction. It's not their work, it's not their achievements, it's not their money, it's who cares about them and who do they care about. That's how I would summarize it. What would you have said?


I think that's exactly right. And as Waldinger has explained on this podcast and on others, that what they found is that longevity is very much linked to the quality of people's social connections. And he says the mechanism for that is that stress is generally what kills us over time, and that stress can be reduced through having strong relationships. And he crystallizes it in this phrase that I love and that I would get potentially tattooed on myself, which is never worry alone. And so you ask me, do I call other people if I've got a Yes, I do. Well, often my number one confidante lives in this house with my wife. But if she's unavailable or I want outside opinions, I will not do it alone. I used to, and I don't anymore.


And I think that because it's a study of men, it has even more power. Because there is a sense an internalized set of messages by which men often think they have to do it by themselves, that To depend on others is a diminishment of them and a belittlement of who they are, and that the power comes in the stoicism and in the fearlessness and in the self-reliance, et cetera. And there's a reason men die a lot earlier than women, and often alone. And it doesn't have to be this way. And it wasn't always this way. That's the other thing. This is a rather recent development in our Western societies. I think it's important to say that there's nothing intrinsic in masculinity that sets us up for that.


That's so interesting. Yes. So it's not impossible to overcome this conditioning because it's not right in our DNA or in our chromosomes as male identified people.


No. When you look at the research and you look at history in 19th century, men were surrounded by men. They had a different way of defining friendship and things that they shared as part of friendship. But it's okay. Friendship can be multilingual. It's not one way to experience friendship.


Agree completely. Let me just go back to something you said earlier, Esther, about conflict, and that you've been thinking a lot about this. What are the headlines in your thinking vis-a-vis conflict and relationships?


It's an interesting thing. I started to think about conflict because I had a sense that more and more people were coming to talk to me about how they don't know how to maintain a connection with people they disagree with, friends, families, and family members. And as a couples therapist and a family therapist, working with conflict is a central piece of the work. But I wanted to conceptualize it. And I actually created a course on it. It's a one-hour course where I just summarize what I think is important for people, because when you deal better with conflict, what you actually are doing is connecting better. The conflict is just the obstacle to the connection. It's not like you want to just do a course on conflict. So it's called turning conflict into connection. And what I wanted to say is conflict is intrinsic to relationships. I mean, we are meant to argue. We are meant to sometimes fight. Sometimes fighting is extremely useful. It restores a wrong. It creates a different balance. It allows for certain things to be changed. I mean, this is not a negative in and of itself. And therefore, there is productive conflict and there is destructive conflict.


And I wanted to pass that out. What's the difference about that? What are the feeding strategies that people consistently get into when they enter into the dark space of conflict, the cycle of conflict? For example, kitchen sinking. It's like, instead of having an argument about the thing that we are arguing about right now, I am bringing back our entire history, everything else that happened between us, even things that we had long resolved. They come in handy at this moment. And if you pile up all the dirty dishes in the sink, you can't wash a single one. So you can't have a conversation. And the minute the intensity of one argument drops, the person brings back something else. And what about that? And the last time this. So there's all these defeating strategies. One of the main ones, which is very important in this moment, is fundamental attribution error. We think of ourselves as more complex than the other when we polarize. And we think that when we do something, it's circumstantial. I didn't respond because I had different things happen to me that made it challenging for me to respond. And so unfortunately, I wasn't polite or caring.


But you didn't respond because you are a cold person and you are a non-caring person and you are an irresponsible type, et cetera. So mine is circumstantial and yours is characterological. This is happening at this particular moment as well. Totalistic thinking. You are this, you always, you never, rather than understanding that much of this is rooted in our experience and it's pseudo factual talk. But we think that we are making statements about the other defensiveness, blame. And basically, what is polarization is I say something that provokes you and makes you then say the thing that is harder to me. I hurt you, you're going to hurt me back plus. And we escalate, we escalate, and we find ourselves both in complete different corners in a massive trigger chain. And this happens in intimate relationships, and this happens in families, and this is happening now on the vast social landscape of our countries. And I just thought, If I can do something on the micro, maybe it can have some effect on the macro. But helping people save themselves from these cycles, it's probably one of the most challenging aspects of our work and one of the most important aspects of our work.


Did I explain that well?


Very well. I have a million more questions. It's super compelling and I think universally relatable. I've heard it argue, and I wonder if you agree that there is healthy conflict And then there's high conflict. Maybe this is just another way to say what you said before about productive conflict and destructive conflict. We need some level of conflict, but it can lapse into a vicious spiral.


Yes. I mean, you can call it healthy. It's not an objective I find particularly useful here. But when I was doing the course, a scene came back that I had actually not thought about in a while. Friday night in my house, we often had family dinner. And we would launch into the most acrimonious political conversations. We're in the '70s, so you can decide what are the issues we were all fighting about. And we would scream. And I would say, how can you think such a thing? And what person says this I think. I'm like, '16, '17, '18. And in the middle of the argument, somebody would say, the apple cake is delicious. And then we would continue. And we lived with very powerful, strong differences of opinions about major events of the day. But the connection was preserved just by this little bid that said, the cheesecake is good or something like that. So what is not healthy or what is destructive is when you attack the person, when you want to shame them, when you talk to them with content, when you belittle their concerns, where you tell them, oh, you have a problem?


Let me tell you about my problem. Or you think you have a little booboo, or you think you are in pain, or you think you have a major problem? Let me tell you about a bigger problem. When you disqualify systematically what the other person is saying, when they say five things to you and you take the one thing you can disagree with and you start to argue just on that one thing when everything else would have demanded a little acknowledgement of your part. Or in other words, I think there's three main themes that undergird every type of fighting, no matter what the subject is, because it's not what you're fighting about, it's what you're fighting for. So that's what you're working on, right? What is it that these people are fighting for? Are they fighting for power and control and they feel that there is an imbalance and the priorities and the decisions of the other take precedence? Are they fighting for care and closeness? Do you have my back? Can I trust you? Or are they fighting for respect and recognition? Do you value me? Do I matter? These are three ideas that I take from the work of Howard Markman.


And I think it's very clear and very simple. And when you present it like that to people, they know instantly. It's not the kids, it's not the money, it's not the sex, it's not the in-laws, it's not the values, it's any of these three that is underneath. What are you fighting for? And I thought this is part of the atrophy that is happening, too. This is something I want to say. I'm on a roll. One of the questions I asked at a recent talk that I did, there were almost 4,000 people, and I asked, did you grow up playing freely on the street? Did you then?




Do your children grow up playing freely on the street?


I try to encourage them to, but they don't. Right.


And in that transition, what we lost is years of unmonitored, uncoreographed unscripted social negotiation between children who negotiate rules and breaking the rules and making friends and breaking up friends and being jealous and competing and making up this entire toolbox of social skills that de facto helps you deal with conflict. And that entire apprenticeship is disappeared. That's part of the social atrophy. And that's part of why people cut off family members, friends at a speed that is unprecedented because I shouldn't have to be uncomfortable with somebody who very differently from me. That has social consequences for a society at large. That doesn't just stay in the domestic realm.


Coming up, Esther talks about ways to get better at experiencing anxiety or discomfort so that you can better handle the ups and downs of life and the simple thing you can do right now to make yourself happier.


I did an interview recently that has really stayed with me with this Dr. Ross Maron, who runs the Center for Anxiety at Harvard. I like to joke that that's probably not the most fun place, the Center for Anxiety. But one of his theories, and you just touched on it, is that part of what's driving this epidemic, never before seen levels of anxiety, is not that the world is in any way less safe, because by every objective measure, it is safer, we are wealthier, we're more educated, than it's ever been. But what's happened is this diminution, this atrophy in our willingness to be uncomfortable. And so any little pings of anxiety, we tell ourselves that we've got a big problem as opposed to understanding, well, that is just part of being alive.


Right. And I think that one of the things that is contributing to that is that we are basically often today experiencing from very early on a type of assisted living. We have a set of predictive technologies that are telling us how to get somewhere and what to watch and what to listen and who to date and where to shop. Everything shows up. And every one of these predictive technologies has a goal, which is to remove friction, to remove obstacles, to remove discomfort, to make it smooth and polished. And that has had an incredible effect on levels of anxiety because life is filled with uncertainty and discomfort and friction and obstacles. And if you develop a sense that things should be like that without anything disrupting you and you get lured into it, when things happen, you do not know how to handle it. So we know that there is an increase of anxiety that is a direct consequence of the inability to tolerate uncertainty, to tolerate obstacles, frictions, and the lack of practice. What you describe is the fact. What I'm trying to ask myself is, where does it come from and what contributes to this?


There's never just one thing. I'm giving you one example. For example, because it's one of the most salient ones. Artificial intimacy also contributes to that high rise of anxiety because you live in a situation. Here's the script. I'm talking to you. I'm saying something something really important to you. And I hear you say, and I know that you're doing something else. You're texting someone else or you're multitasking. And I'm sharing something important. And I'm having this experience of are you there or are you not there? Ambiguous loss, we call this. Ambiguous loss makes people feel very anxious, too, because you don't know, are you with me or are you actually not with me? So there's a host of different situations situations like that in our social life, living at this moment, that contribute to this heightened anxiety or to the inability to tolerate discomfort.


We may have a couple of minutes left, but if there was one or two things that you could recommend to people to get better at experiencing discomfort and anxiety so that they can fortify themselves for the inevitable ups and downs of life, what would those be?


I think your line about don't worry alone is crucial. You know that thing that I said number three, when you asked me the non-negotiables, who do you owe a phone call to? And I'm saying a phone call, which is after the text. Because the voice, the voice is so important. I mean, you and I both are podcasters. Most of us, the people know your voice and my voice by listening with AirPods to very gripping conversations or for me, it's sessions with couples and individuals that are just so you're right there. You've never, ever seen the intimacy of others to such a degree. So I say to people, call. The voice is the first thing we develop in utero. It's an important aspect of our connection and of not being alone. If you can, who do you owe an apology to? That's another big one. Who do you want to take a walk with? Just basic things like that. So I am a major promoter of social interaction. It can be, who do you want to go to a live concert with? When you buy tickets for a concert, buy two. Or this is an interesting thing.


When I did this talk in London that I just mentioned before, I asked people to stand up if they had come alone. And I was really amazed. A third of the audience came alone to an evening on relationships. And I thought, wow. And then I said, all of you sitting next to someone who is standing, please introduce yourself and make sure that they don't leave the way they came as the new kid in the class. So it's about engineering these kinds of interactions. I was coaching a patient of mine in a group of young people. I said, you're going to go out? Why don't you check who is having dinner plans? People may often be busy three weeks before, but they're not busy the day off. It's an amazing thing how many people are going to spend the night at home. Who wants to go have a bite? You don't cook. Just bring people, four people into your house, and just each one bring something or cook together. Nothing has to be fancy. We did a whole study on families in Ukraine and mothers in Ukraine a couple of years back. And What was so interesting is that what did people want the most to help them with their anxiety, with their sense of dread, with the war that was raging around them, is to come together in a kitchen, cook and talk as they cook.


Don't just talk. Do something with your hands. And if you can do something with your feet, be in motion, because then the body processes this and it discharges some of the tension. And you can co-regulate together as you are in the kitchen or as you are on a walk. So it's these touch points that I think are crucial for our basic well-being at this moment. I mean, I can go on and give others, but I spend an enormous amount of time telling people to do these little motions. And then I say to them, just send me a text with a check. So I know you did it. If you want to tell me more, go ahead. 99% of the time, people just send me even a smiley just to say this was such a good idea. I would never have thought about it. You're going swimming, call somebody. You're going to the gym, call somebody. Because there is always someone who needs the one who's going to go anyway in order to do the thing they want to do but wouldn't be doing alone because they're on the couch and they're just saying, not too much.


I don't have the energy. But I've never known anybody who went and regret it afterwards.


I'm going to put some links in the show notes, one to your conflict course and also to a talk that you gave at South by Southwest that you texted me a couple of months ago that I just thought was unbelievable. In that talk, you mentioned ambiguous loss and some of the detrimental impacts of having a friction-free life, courtesy of digital technology. I just want to say in closing here, and I hope you already know this, but I'm just such a massive fan of yours in person and professionally, and you're just doing the Lord's work. So thank you for coming on the show and for everything you do.


It's a pleasure. It's always a real treat of a conversation. And I was on a roll.


I had a lot to say today. I love that. I love that.


Thanks again to Esther. Absolutely adore her. We mentioned a couple of other episodes of this show in that conversation. As you may remember, those episodes episodes were with Dr. David Ross-Maren from the Center for Anxiety at Harvard, and Dr.


Robert Woldinger, who coined what may be my next tattoo, Never Worry Alone.


We've put links to those episodes in the show notes for this episode. We've also put links to my earlier conversations with Esther.


She's been a fantastic guest on this show a number of times.


Before I go, let me thank you for listening. I really mean that. Go give us a rating or a review if you are so inclined. And most of all, I want to thank everybody who worked so hard on this show. 10% Happier is produced by Gabrielle Zuckerman, Justine Davy, Lauren Smith, and Tara Anderson. Dj Cashmere is our senior producer. Marissa Schneidermann is our senior editor. Kevin O'Kunal is our director of audio and postproduction. And Kimmy Regler is our executive producer. Alicia Mackey leads our marketing. And Tony Magyar is our director of podcasts. Finally, nick Thorburn of the great band Islands wrote our theme.