Hello and welcome back, everybody. We have an amazing guest today. This is actually somebody I have followed, sort of half known for a long time through a very, very close friend, Shala Nicely, who’s been on the show quite a few times, and she connected me with Dr. Ashley Smith. Today, we are talking about happiness and what makes a “good life” regardless of anxiety or of challenges you may be going through.
Dr. Ashley Smith is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist. She’s the co-founder of Peak Mind, which is The Center for Psychological Strength. She’s a speaker, author, and entrepreneur. She has her own TED Talk, which I think really shows how epic and skilled she is.
Today, we talk about how to be happy. What is happiness? How do you get there? Is it even attainable? What is the definition of happiness? Do we actually want it or is it the goal or is it not the goal? I think that this is an episode I needed to hear so much. In fact, since hearing this episode as we recorded it, I basically changed quite a few things. I will be honest with you, I didn’t actually change things related to me, but I changed things in relation to how I parented my children. I realized midway through this episode that I was pushing them into the hamster wheel of life. Ashley really helped me to acknowledge and understand that it’s not about success, it’s not about winning things, it’s not about achievement so much, while they are very important. She talks about these specific things that science and research have shown to actually improve happiness.
I’m going to leave it at that. I’m going to go right over to the show. Thank you, Dr. Ashley Smith, for coming on. For those who want to know more about her, click the links in the show notes, and I cannot wait to listen back to this with you all. Have a great day, everybody.
Kimberley: Welcome, Dr. Ashley Smith. I’m so happy to have you here.
Dr. Ashley: I am excited to be here today. I’ve wanted to be on your podcast for years, so thank you for this.
Kimberley: Same. Actually, we have joint friends and it’s so good when you meet people through people that you trust. I have actually followed you for a very long time. I’m very excited to have you on, particularly talking about what we’re talking about. It’s a topic we probably should visit more regularly here on the show. We had discussed the idea of happiness and what makes a good life. Can you give me a brief understanding of what that means or what your idea about that is?
Dr. Ashley: Yeah. Oh, this is a topic that I love to talk about. When I think about it, I have a little bit of a soapbox, which is that I think our approach to mental health is broken. I say that as someone who is a mental health practitioner, and I really love my job and I love working with people and helping. But what I mean by that is our traditional approach has been, “Let’s reduce symptoms. Let’s correct the stuff that’s ‘wrong’ with someone.” When it comes to anxiety or depression, it’s how do we reduce that? And that’s great. Those are really important skills, but we’ve got this whole other side that I think we need to be focusing on. And that is the question of how do we get more of the good stuff. More happiness, more well-being. How do we create lives that are worth living? That’s not the same as how do we get rid or reduce anxiety and depression.
In the field of psychology, there’s this branch of it called Positive Psychology. I stumbled on that 20 years ago as a grad student and thought, “This is amazing. People are actually studying happiness. There’s a science to this.” I looked at happiness and optimism and social anxiety and depression and how those were all connected. Fast forward, 15 years or so, I really hit a point with my professional life and my personal life where I was recognizing, “Wait a minute, I need more. I need more as an individual. The clients I work with need more. How do we get more of this good stuff?” This is the longest preamble to say, I did a deep dive into the science of happiness and learned a lot over the years, and I want to be really clear about a couple of things.
When we talk about happiness, a lot of people think pleasure. “I want good experiences, I want to enjoy this.” That’s a part of it, this positive emotion that we all call happiness or joy. But that’s only a piece of it. There’s actually this whole backfiring process that can happen when we chase that. If I’m just chasing the next pleasant event, what that actually does is set me up to not have a happy life. Think about it. I mean, I love chocolate, and if I eat that unchecked because it brings me pleasure, at some point, it’s going to take a toll on my health. What does that actually do to my well-being and happiness?
What was really interesting getting into this area was, it’s not just this transient state of pleasure or enjoyment, but they’re the other factors that contribute to a good life. It’s things like relationships. It’s things like meaning and purpose. It’s engagement. It’s achievement even. It’s these things that are not always pleasant in the moment, but that really contribute to this sense of satisfaction with life or contentment with life. I think it’s really important that we need to be looking at what are the ingredients that really make a good life.
Kimberley: I love this, and I love a good recipe too. I like following recipes and ingredients. It’s funny, I’m actually in the process of getting good at cooking and I’m realizing for the first time in my life that following instructions and ingredients is actually a really important thing, because I’m not that person. First of all, what is a good life? When I looked at that, I actually put it in quote marks. What is a good life? What do you think? You explained it; it’s not chasing pleasure. We know that doesn’t work, otherwise, you just buy a bunch of stuff you don’t want and behave in ways that aren’t helpful. Not to also villainize pleasure, it’s a great thing, but what would you describe as a good life?
Dr. Ashley: On the one hand, it’s the million-dollar question. Philosophers and scientists and religious leaders and all kinds of people have been trying to answer that question for eons. I don’t know that I have it nailed down. I think I’m humble enough to say I have my own ideas about it. To me, what makes a good life, it’s really when the way we spend our time lines up with what’s important to us, when we’re living in accordance with our values to use some psych buzzwords, but when we’re doing the things that really matter. I think also part of a good life is having daily rhythms and lifestyle habits that support us as biological creatures. I want to contrast that with the demands of modern life, which are that we should be productive 24/7, that we should be multitasking. People sacrifice sleep and movement and leisure time and stillness. I think all of that compromises us. It impacts us on a neurological level. Our brains are part of our system. If we’re not taking care of our system, they’re not going to function optimally. That gets in the way of a good life.
When we’re sacrificing relationships, when I look at all of the research, when I look at my own experience, a huge component of a good life is having quality relationships. Not quantity, quality. Trusting ones that are full of belonging and acceptance that are two-way support streets, those are really important. I think a lot of times, modern life compromises that. We get pulled in all of these other directions.
Kimberley: Yeah. Oh my gosh, there’s so many things. I also think that anxiety and depression pull us away from those things too. You are anxious or you’re depressed and so, therefore, you don’t go to the party or the family event or the church service. That’s an interesting idea. I love this. Tell us about this idea of meaning. How do we find meaning? I’ll just share with you a little bit of my own personal experience. I remember when I was actually going through a very difficult time with my chronic illness and I know I was depressed at the time. It was the first time in my life where I started to have thoughts like, “What’s the point?” Not that I was saying I was suicidal, but I was more like, “I just don’t understand why am I doing all this.” I think that that’s common. What are your thoughts on this idea of the meaning behind in life?
Dr. Ashley: That’s a fantastic question. I have a vision impairment, so I’m legally blind. It’s a really rare thing and it’s unpredictable. I don’t know how much sight I will lose. Ultimately, the doctors can’t tell me there’s no treatment options. It’s just I go along and every so often, there’s a shift and I see less. For me, I hit that same point you were talking about back in 2014 when I had to stop driving. I was anxious and I would say depressed and really wallowing in this, “What does this mean for my life? I can’t be independent. People aren’t going to associate with me personally or professionally when they see this flaw.” It was a dark point. For me, that’s when I went back to the science of happiness when I finally got tired of being stuck and I realized my anxiety skills and my depression skills. They’re helpful and I practice what I preach, but it wasn’t enough. And that’s really what propelled me back into this science of happiness where I figured, you know what, someone has to have done this.
I did come across this theory of well-being called the PERMA factors. These are like the ingredients that we need. I’m getting back to that because the M in this is meaning. With this, the PERMA factors, P is positive emotion. That’s the pleasure, the joy, the happiness. Cool. I know some strategies for boosting that. E is engagement. Are you really involved and engaged in what you’re doing? Are you present? Are you hitting that state of flow? R is the relationships, A (skipping ahead) is achievement, but M is this meaning, and it’s a hard one to figure out.
I remember then, this started what I was calling my blind quest for happiness where I started to think about, what do I need to do? How do I experiment? How do I live a happy life despite these cards I’ve been dealt? We don’t get to choose them. You’ve got a chronic illness, I have a vision impairment, listeners have anxiety and depression, and we get these cards. I think of it like if life is a poker game, we don’t get to choose the cards we’re dealt, but by golly, we get to choose how to play them, and that’s important. I think a lot of times people can turn adversity into meaning.
For me, I’m now at a point where it’s not that I don’t care about my vision, it’s just I really accepted it. It is what it is, it’s going to do what it’s going to do, and I’m focusing on the things I can control. That has given me a sense of meaning. I want to help other people live better lives. I want to help other people crack the code of how our brains work against us and how do we play our cards well.
If we go to all of this, “meaning” is really just finding something that’s bigger than you are, finding something to pursue or contribute to that’s bigger than you. I think when we look at anxiety and depression, the nature of those experiences is that they make us very self-involved. I mean, people with anxiety and depression, in my experience, have giant hearts, tons of empathy, but it locks our thinking into our experience and what’s going on in these unhelpful thoughts.
When we can connect with something bigger than us, it gets us outside of that.
If I go back to grad school, writing my dissertation was decidedly not a fun experience. Would I do it again? Yes. Because it was worth it on this path to my reason for being—helping people live better lives. Sometimes I think when we have this meaning, this purpose, this greater good, it helps us endure the things that I want to say suck.
Kimberley: You can say suck.
Dr. Ashley: Yeah. That’s where it’s not just about how do I get rid of anxiety or depression. Sometimes we can’t. Chronic health conditions, anxiety is chronic. My vision is chronic. I’m not getting rid of this, but how do I live a good life despite that? I think there are a ton of examples throughout history and currently of people doing amazing things despite some hardship.
Kimberley: Yeah. I love this idea. It’s funny, you talk about being outside yourself. When I’m having a bad day, I usually go, there’s like a 10 minutes’ drive from us that looks over Los Angeles. If let’s say I’m having a day where I’m in my head only looking at my problems, and then I see LA, I’m like, “Oh honey, there is a whole world out there that you haven’t thought about.” I’m not saying that in a critical way, just like it gives me perspective.
Dr. Ashley: I think that’s so important, to realize there’s so much more. When it does shrink our problems, all of a sudden, it’s manageable.
Kimberley: Right. Let’s talk about just one more question about meaning. I’m guessing more about people finding what’s your why and so forth. What would you encourage for people who are very unhappy, have been chasing this idea of reducing anxiety, reducing depression, chasing pleasure, and feeling very stuck between those? Let’s say I really have no idea what my meaning is. What would be your advice to start that process?
Dr. Ashley: Experimentation. I think experimenting is a lifestyle that I wish everyone would adopt, because what happens is we want to think. We are thinkers. That’s what our minds were designed to do. That’s awesome and sometimes it’s really helpful, but I don’t think we’re going to think our way into passion or meaning or a good life. I think we have to start trying things. What will happen, if you notice, is your mind is going to have a lot of commentary. It’s going to say, “That’s dumb. That’s not going to work. Who are you to try that? You can’t do that.” It’s all just noise that if we look at what is it doing, it’s keeping you stuck. With the experimentation, I’m just a big fan of go try it. Whether you think it’s going to work or not, you don’t know. We want to trust our experience, not what our mind tells us. Trust your actual experience.
For me, I remember getting my first self-help book. It was actually called Go Find Your Passion and Purpose. Because I was at this crossroads, I had been doing anxiety work for a long time, had plateaued, and was feeling a little bored, and that coincided with the stopping driving. My whole personal world was just in disarray and I was like, “I’m going to go hike part of the Appalachian Trail while I can. While I do that, I’m going to find my purpose in life.” I did not find it, but it was an experiment. I go and I get this experience and I can say, “Okay, I’m not going to be someone who does a six-month hike. I made it four days. Awesome.” But go and experiment with things. I never thought that I would really want to write and I started a blog, and that has turned out to be such a positive experience. Prior to that, my writing experience had been very academic where it was a chore. Now, this is something I really enjoy, or talking to people.
I would say experiment and continue to seek out those new experiences. One, seeking out new experiences helps on the anxiety side because you’re continually putting yourself into uncertain and new, so your confidence level is going to grow, your tolerance for not knowing grows, and your tolerance for awkward grows. That’s my plug for go try new things, period. Somewhere along the way, you’re going to find something that sparks an interest or that sparks this sense of, “Yeah, this is me.” Notice that. I know you talk a lot about mindfulness, we need to notice what was my actual experience, not what did my head tell me. What did I actually feel? And keep experimenting until you find something. I think that’s really the key.
Kimberley: I love that you said your tolerance for awkwardness. I think that is a big piece of the work because it is a big piece. We talk about tolerating discomfort, tolerating uncertainty, but I think that’s a very key point, especially when it comes to relationships, which I know is one of the factors. Tolerate the awkwardness is key.
Dr. Ashley: Yeah. I think it’s huge. I’ve been seeking out new experiences since 2017. This is going to be my New Year’s resolution. It was such a transformational experience over the course of the year that I’ve just continued it, and I’m trying to get everybody to join me because it’s such an expansive practice. I think it’s great for anxiety and depression, it’s great for humans, it’s been great for me on this quest for a good life. But with this, it means I have put myself into some awkward situations on purpose. Sometimes I know going into it, sometimes I don’t.
I went to this one, it was called Nia. I practice yoga. That’s cool. That’s very much in my comfort zone. This was yoga adjacent, but it was also an interpretive dance with sound effects. You had to make eye contact with people and dance in these weird ways. I distinctly remember having this conversation with myself when I showed up, “What did you just get yourself into?” And then it was immediately, “Okay, you have two choices here. You can grit your teeth and hate the next hour, or you can embrace the awkward and dance at a three. Because she said, you can dance at a one, itty bitty, at a two or at a three and really go for it.” That for me was my, “All right, let’s just do this.” I embrace the awkward, and that was a turning point. That was amazing. And then now, when I think about good life, I feel like so many doors are opened because I’m not afraid of, “This is going to be awkward.” It’s going to be and you’re going to be okay or it’s going to make a hilarious story. I said, “Go for it.”
Kimberley: You’re here to tell the story. I love it. You didn’t die from awkwardness.
Dr. Ashley: No.
Kimberley: Can you tell me about the P? Can you go through them and just give us a little bit more information? Because I think that’s really important.
Dr. Ashley: Yeah. I love this theory because you can think about it as like, how are my PERMA factors doing? When you’re low, raise them. You know that those are the ingredients for a good life. The P is positive emotion. That is, we do need to spend time in positive emotional states. The more time we’re in the positive emotional states, the better compared to the negative ones like anxiety or sadness, or anger. Now that said, we know if we try to only pursue pleasure, it’s going to backfire. If I’m trying to avoid anxiety, I’m actually going to get more anxiety. But this is where behavioral activation comes in. Do things that are theoretically enjoyable and see if it puts you in a positive state. Again, theoretically enjoyable, because if you’re in the throes of depression, nothing feels enjoyable, do it anyways. And then notice, did it bring on a pleasurable emotional state? Cool. We want to do those things.
E is engagement. This is when people talk about finding flow or being in the zone. These are the activities that you’re fully engaged in it. Self-consciousness goes away. You lose track of time because you’re just in it. We know that the more consistently we are able to put ourselves in states of flow, the higher our well-being tends to be. Athletes will talk about this a lot. When they’re on the field, they’re in the zone. Musicians, artists. But there are other ways to do this. This is a place for me personally, I didn’t know. I was like, “Well, okay, great. I need E, I need engagement. What puts me in a state of flow?” It took experimentation and noticing. For me, writing does it. Web design, I’m not techy, but when I start to do design projects, I get in that state of flow. It has to be this perfect apex, this perfect joining of skill and pleasure, like enjoyment. If it’s too easy, you will not go into a state of flow. That’s just the P. If it’s too hard, we go into a state of stress or anxiety, so that’s not flow. We have to be right on the cusp of our skillset. It’s hard work, but we’re into it. That’s the E.
R is relationships. We need quality relationships where we are being open, where we are being vulnerable, we’re really connecting with other people. That is huge. I mean, if we look at what’s the best predictor of life satisfaction, it’s quality relationships. This also is doing things for other people. Altruism, ugh, I love this side note. The act of kindness thing hits on three different factors. It feels good to do something good for other people. If you want a mood boost, go do an act of kindness. That reliably boosts our mood. It also improves relationships and it can tap into that meaning. I love that as just a practice.
The M we talked about, that’s meaning. And then the A, that’s achievement for achievement’s sake. As humans, it feels good to conquer goals. It feels good to accomplish things. And that contributes to our well-being independently of the positive feelings that we get from it, or the meaning in the relationships or the engagement. I’m also a really big fan of set goals and then crush them. It can be silly little things like, I’m going to hold my breath for two minutes. Okay, cool. That’s a silly little thing, but then it feels good to do it. Or it could be something huge like crossing those bucket list things off your list.
Kimberley: You know what’s funny around achievement? I’ve got a couple of questions, but first I want to tell you your stories. Last year, I was struggling to do a couple of things that were really important to me for my medical health. I found an app called Streaks. Have you heard of Streaks? It’s a $5 app. But when you do the action, and for me it was taking my medicine, it does this little spiral and then it’s like, “You’ve done this for three days in a row.” And then tomorrow you click it and then it says, “You’ve done it for four days in a row.” You would think that the benefits of taking my medicine would be enough. But for me, it’s actually knowing I get that little positive reinforcement of like, “Look at me, I’ve taken my medicine for 47 days in a row, or now are like 300 days in a row.” I don’t think I deserve a medal for being able to take my medicine. But for me, that little bit of reward center on the achievement was a huge shift for me. And then it became, how many days did you practice your Spanish in a row? Even like, how many days did you do your Kegels? I’ve got all of the streaks happening and it’s really incredible how that little achievement piece does boost your mood.
Dr. Ashley: Yeah. But what I love about this is you’re also talking about how to hack the system. We’re talking about our brains and this is the stuff that just lights me up, because oftentimes our minds will say, “Well, you should just take your medication. You should just do these things.” Well, that’s not how it works. There’s a million reasons why we don’t do the things we know we should do. But can we figure out how to hack the system? Yeah. Our brains love streaks. They love streaks. it taps our reward centers, like you’re saying, and so let’s use the tools that work. That got you if your goal is to take your medication consistently. Using our brain’s glitchy wiring to our own advantage is something that’s huge. That did it. And then it does feel good. And then you get some momentum going and then you create a habit around that and it’s fantastic.
Kimberley: Yeah. What about those who are overachieving to the point that it’s bringing their happiness down? What would we do there?
Dr. Ashley: Yeah. I think that’s a great question and it’s something that comes up a lot, especially when we look at anxiety and perfectionism. At least the way I think about it is coming back to what’s driving this. Is this being driven by fear? Is this being driven by values? For me, I almost think of it as—I’m going to try to make sense with it—is it the -ing or the -ed? Meaning, the doING (I-N-G) or the -ed as in I did this past tense. What I mean by this is, I notice for me when I’m approaching something, say a big goal, like I want to write a book this year. If I can approach that from a place of, “I am doing this because this is important to me, I feel driven to get this message out into the world,” the -ing, the process of doing it, that feels like it’s going to boost my wellbeing when I start to get pulled into the thoughts of the outcome. I’m going to write this book and how many people are going to read it and is it going to sell? I’m really looking at all of this, and underneath that is fear. What if it doesn’t sell? What if people judge it? What if they think it’s stupid? Then I’m focusing on the outcome, kind of when it’s done. That I think is actually going to detract from my well-being because it’s not coming from a valued place; it’s coming from this feared place.
A lot of times with overachieving, we’re chasing this other people’s expectations or we’re chasing this promise of happiness. When you do this, then you’ll be happy. It’s not going to work like that. It may be for a moment and then the bar just changes again. Now you’ve got another target. We have to come back to this, I think the process or the journey. Are you doing this because it matters to you, or are you doing this because some sort of fear is compelling you?
Kimberley: Right. I’m just asking questions based on the questions I would’ve had when I was struggling the most. I remember hearing something that blew my mind and I actually want your honest opinion about it. I remember I used to chase happiness, like you talked about, even though I was doing all these things. I was doing all these things, but there was that anxious drive behind it. I remember hearing somebody saying life is 50/50. Even though you’re doing all these things, you’re still going to have 50% great and 50% hard. For me, that was actually very relieving. I think I was caught in and I think a lot of people experienced this like, “Okay, I’m at 50%, how can I get to 55? How can I get to 56?” What are your thoughts on also accepting that you won’t be happy all the time, or what are your thoughts on balancing this goal for happiness or this lifelong playfulness around happiness?
Dr. Ashley: I agree with you completely. I think we have this cultural myth that we should be happy all the time. If you’re not happy, there must be something wrong. You’re doing something wrong. It sets up even this idea that being happy all the time is possible. It isn’t. If we look at, again, happiness, what people mean by that is a pleasurable or enjoyable state, an emotion that we like. Humans are wired. Two-thirds of our emotions would be under that negative category. Just by the way we’re wired, we’re more likely to have negative emotions, and they’re just messengers. They’re just designed to give us information about a situation. Some of them are going to be dangerous, so we’re going to feel anxious. Or we’re going to lose something we care about, so we’re going to be sad. We’re going to mess up, so we’re going to feel guilty. It’s unrealistic to expect to not have those emotions. I think that is a hundred percent something that we need to work on, just accepting happiness all the time is not possible and pursuing it is like playing a rigged game.
The other thing, you know how on the anxiety side we talk about facing fears because then you habituate or you get used to them. But that habituation process happens on the pleasurable side too. This is why when we chase happiness, we end up on this hedonic treadmill where it’s, “Oh, I’m going to go buy this thing. And then I’m going to feel really happy,” and you are. And then you’re going to habituate. Your body goes back to baseline so that happiness fades. If you’re looking to an external source, you’re going to get caught up in this always chasing something bigger and better, not sustainable.
I like to look at happiness as the side effect of living a good life. Do the things that we know matter. Take care of your health and wellbeing. Sleep, eat well, move your body, practice mindfulness, the PERMA factors that we talked about, and live in line with your values. If you’re doing those things, happiness is the side effect of that.
Kimberley: To make that the goal, not happiness the goal.
Dr. Ashley: Yeah.
Kimberley: I think that’s very, very true. Again, for me, it was a massive relief. I remember this weight falling off of like, “Oh,” because I think social media makes it so easy to assume that everyone is just happy, happy, happy content, to feel all the things. It was delightful to be like, “Oh no, everyone’s got a 50/50.”
Dr. Ashley: Exactly. When we know that’s normal, then all of a sudden, you can accept it. Like, I’m anxious for now, I’m sad for now. To do that, it does keep us from piling on extra. I have this saying that I love, “Just because life gives you a cactus doesn’t mean you have to sit on it.” A lot of times, we sit on it because we’re ruminating or I don’t want to feel this way and we’re fighting it. And that’s just amplifying it and making it a lot harder. When we can say, “Oh, this is where I’m at today. I’m still going to choose to do the things that I know are good for me, that are part of me, living a good life by my standards or my terms,” that’s going to be the side effect, is I’m going to end up with more happiness down the road, but not chasing it in that moment.
Kimberley: I love this. Thank you for coming on and talking about this. I think this has been enlightening and so joyful to have these conversations. I feel a little lighter, even myself, after chatting with you, so thank you. Tell me how people can hear from you, get in touch with you, learn about your work.
Dr. Ashley: Yeah, absolutely. I have a blog that I publish every week, so if you’re interested in that, you can subscribe at PeakMindPsychology.com/subscribe, o you can just check out all of the blog posts. That’s probably the best way to follow me and follow my work. I also have a TEDx Talk that came out pretty recently and you can watch that as well. It’s called Is Your Brain Deceiving You, and talk a little bit about learning to play my cards well.
Kimberley: I love the TED Talk. Congratulations on that. It was so cool.
Dr. Ashley: Thank you.
Kimberley: Thank you again for coming on. This has been just delightful. Really it has.
Dr. Ashley: I appreciate you having me.