136: Nataly Kogan, part 2: Happiness Comes From Skills You Can Learn (transcript)

February 14, 2019 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Nataly Kogan

Natalie teaches that happiness comes from skills which you can learn which I agree. Environmental action is also skills. Many people think that starting small isn’t worth it. But watch Natalie’s videos and read her book about improving your happiness skills because any skill that you can learn helps you learn other skills. Maybe her experience developing happiness related skills enabled her to switch to implement her bottle reduction by 99 percent so quickly, in the process improving her family morale. So listening to her you tell me if you think she’s going to apply what she learned more because I think you’ll hear how she made things a lot more meaningful and enjoyable which is available for anyone.


Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I’m here with Natalie Kogan. Natalie, how are you?

Natalie: I’m awesome. How are you doing.

Joshua: I’m great. And I’m glad to hear you’re awesome because so many people just say fine. And one thing I remember is that you were one of the most enthusiastic of all the people of taking on a challenge and addressing this as opposed to just talking about it. And I think that’s because you’re happier.

Natalie: A-ha.

Joshua: I’m curious how happier is going… Before talking to you I went watched a few videos and read a couple of your things and I was reading about how you take a lot of things that annoy people and you make them into things that are pleasant and things that make your life better. And I think…

Natalie: I try. I try. Just to be clear, I try.

Joshua: Well, I’m reading that you do. OK. You try it and several times you succeed. I mean at least if you don’t try, you can’t succeed.

Natalie: Exactly.

Joshua: I feel like that’s a strategy of yours is to take challenges and to find in them ways to improve, ways to make yourself happier. Am I reading you right?

Natalie: Absolutely. And you know as that we shared a little bit of this when we chatted the last time partly I do that because my natural inclination so you know we all have a natural set point of kind of happiness or well-being and it accounts for about 50 percent of how we feel and my natural happiness set point is actually severely low. Like you know I’m a tortured Russian-Jewish immigrant like I spent most of my life being a black belt that’s suffering. So I am aware that it’s super easy for my brain to get really down about stuff. And so I kind of yeah, you know I try to practice what I preach and I teach and I try to find opportunities.

You know I was just giving a huge keynote talk yesterday to this incredible group of twelve hundred women leaders at Fidelity and one of the practices I shared with them is what I call the lens of compassion and it’s a practice of how to deal with rude people. And I came up with that practice, I am happy to share it if you like, but I came up with it just as an example… I live in this Exit 17 out of the Mass Pike into Newton. I’m sure there’s a listener too who’s familiar with it. It’s infamous. We’re five minutes outside of Boston. It’s an infamous exit. It can send you to like an insane hospital because it is the most absurd urban construction I’ve ever seen. There’s like moments where like seven lanes are merging into one, diverging into three, like you go insane. And after we moved to Boston from New York and I started driving, I was never driving in New York, I literally could have the best day at work and then I’m coming home, I take the exit, by the time I get home I’m a raging lunatic because 90 people just cut me off etc. etc.

And so I actually eventually came up with this practice to deal with the rudeness just to help myself not lose my you know whatever joy I was feeling in the moment. So I do try to find ways to… Sometimes I call myself a joy archaeologist like I do try to find an opportunity to either find a little bit more joy in something super mundane or to prevent something stressful from taking me down with it.

Joshua: Yeah. I’m glad you shared some of what you shared. Especially I remember the last I asked you is anything special about you or… And I think this time you’re a little more clear that you… Because I think it’s really easy for a lot of people to say, “Oh, that’s person happier. They’re just born that way or they have some special advantage.” And what I heard you say is that you don’t really have any special advantage. You say that your set point or you grew up with a black belt and making yourself not happy and nonetheless you’re able to do this. Because I think that’s an important message for people is that it’s so easy to say, “Yeah, they’re special. They were born that way.” I don’t find people born that way.

Natalie: Yeah, well this is why I will share my story of how you know I spent most… I’m 42, I’ll be 43 in a few months and I spent most of my life overworked, exhausted, swimming in self-doubt, not feeling and forget happy, not being able to like enjoy a moment of contentment for a lot of reasons, my refugee background being an immigrant, all this kind of stuff, my natural set point. And it was only after I went through a really difficult personal time, this is why I wrote my book that I you know did all the research and did all the inner work and came out looking at happiness and emotional health as a skill. And as a skill well, you can improve wherever you are because you just have to practice and so that’s something I try to do and to your point that’s exactly why I will share my background and my story because I am not a naturally happy person at all.

My natural tendencies of my brain…. You know one of the things for example that I think we talked about last time is all of our brains have what’s called the negativity bias so we’re all more sensitive to negative stimuli than positive ones because our brain is protecting us from danger and danger usually comes with negative stimuli. Now the negativity bias is like a bell curve like everything else. Some people have it tremendously, some people very little. Most of us are in the middle. I am on the tremendous side of it like my natural inclination of my brain is like you give me a great situation, I can tell you what could go wrong. I’m one of those people. And so I got to a place in my life you know we talked about it last time all these feelings of overwhelm and stress and anxiety and self-doubt that I just never dealt with they all spilled out and I was truly at a risk of losing my family and my job and my career and everything that was meaningful to me and from there came my kind of journey into the research and into the inner work to really approach it as a skill. Because now that it’s a skill and this is my passion to share with the world, we can look at our happiness as a skill then it doesn’t matter where your starting point is. You can practice. And that’s what I spend my life doing is sharing these skills with people. But yeah, I am just very aware that naturally I can descend to a pretty dark place and so my only answer is to practice. And so you don’t have to be naturally happy or naturally unhappy or anything in between. You just have to be a human being. And if you look at your well-being and emotional health as a skill, then you can begin to practice wherever you are. You can meet the practices wherever your current set point is.

Joshua: While I wish it wasn’t the case that you weren’t naturally happy, I’m glad that you share your situation what you’ve done with it. I’m sure there are a lot of people saying, “You too!?” Because I think a lot of people is like, “I didn’t grow up feeling like [unintelligible] the time.” And I’m also glad you said about skills because I’m going to segue over to environmental talk because I also view so many people say that doing things environmental is hard or a distraction or it’s not what they would normally do. I also view them as skills that the more you practice them, the more that they become second nature. And I think that to the extent that you haven’t already done, I suspect and now I’m putting myself on the line that I think that we’re going to hear that you’ve started having the same perspective on environmental things. But let’s see. Between last time and this time, let’s see what I remember was you were not going to use bottles for a couple of months. Can you give us a little of what happened?

Natalie: Yeah. Well, first of all I gave myself an A minus. I will tell you, I don’t know… I think we had a conversation a couple months ago, I am actually very pleasantly… And I’m a hard grader. I should just say that I’m a tough grader so that’s a very high grade for myself. I am very pleasantly surprised at kind of how binary I went meaning I think I shared with you when we chatted you know it was really common for me to like I’m running out to yoga, I’ll grab a bottle of water. You know we’re going somewhere, I’ll grab a bottle of water like it was pretty second nature. And so the fact that in a couple months and pretty like again, binary and this I guess the kind of person that I am but I just said OK this is what I’m committed to so I can actually recall two maybe three times in several months where I drank water out of a plastic bottle. And one was in a car with my husband of my daughter on a long drive. And that’s what was in the car. And the other time I was running like crazy late, I was running out somewhere, I had a headache and I was like, “OK. I don’t have time to go fill up my bottle.” But other than those few times and my memory is pretty crazy good as my husband’s complaining all the time, it’s one of his biggest complaints with me is I don’t forget anything. It’s true. It’s kind of an annoying quality actually because I think marriage is easier if you forget things.

Other than those few times, I have made a pretty binary switch. So I bought the day we talked….  think either I’d done it or… No, I did it right after. I bought this cool little glass water bottle and I shared this with you where I said, “OK. If I’m going to do this, I’m going to find joy in this.” Actually, I spent like an hour online looking for a glass water bottle that I liked that was visually appealing. You know I’m an artist. I like things to look good. And so I got this water bottle and that’s what I use like when I go to yoga, I fill it up, I leave it out on the counter so it’s always staring at me. So it’s usually with me. And during the day I bought a… I forget the name of it but it’s pretty funky looking like it’s not a Britta but it’s a water filter and it’s good-looking and that sits on our counter in the kitchen and with a glass next to it and so on days where I’m working from home it’s right there. And so that’s the what is that I have eliminated, I don’t know what the percentage is, 99.5 percent of my plastic bottle usage in the last few months.

Joshua: Wow. A lot of people say, “It was easier than I expected.” and it sounds like 99.5 percent reduction and I heard you describing… I’m tempted to ask about the marriage and forgetting thing but we’ll stick with the bottles for now. Well, I was actually just watching a video of how you turn things into rituals and I feel like you’ve turned something into a ritual that there’s a purpose to it and you like it and what could have been a challenge of like “Oh, onerous”, I’m hearing it’s artistic, it’s expressing yourself, it’s…

Natalie: And it’s cool and it’s fun and my family’s in on it. And by the way, I think my daughter actually said this… I think we also talked about this last time. I am notorious for not drinking enough water like [unintelligible]. I’m just someone I don’t like the taste. I just am notorious and I get a headache and all this stuff. And my daughter remarked the other day she’s like because I was pouring water from this filter on the counter into a glass and she said, “Mom, you’ve been drinking so much water. I’m so proud of you.”

So I would say like yeah, like I went and I made it fun and I have this cool water filter and this cool water bottle. But it’s also what I enjoy that is what makes a routine into a ritual the way I see it is intentionality. So a routine thing is to drink water, we all need to drink water, that’s a routine. But by putting a little bit of intentionality around it that I’m going to drink it from this beautiful water filter, I’m going not grab a plastic water bottle that makes every time I drink water it’s like there’s a little bit of meaning in it because I feel like I’m doing something with intention. And so it’s absolutely you know that’s kind of been my approach and yeah, like I don’t see it as a drag at all.

In fact, I forget where I was… I can’t think of where I was but I [unintelligible] my parents. I’m not sure. I was somewhere where there was a bunch of water like Poland Spring little plastic bottles filled with water on a counter and I had to move them to make space for a dish that was putting down and like I picked it up and I was like, “Uh, this does not feel good in my hand. Like I don’t want to put that up again.” Because it’s like you know focusing on like tactile like well, I like the way that the glass water bottle feels in my hand. And so this shift that is good for the environment has actually helped me unearth a little like tiny moments of little joy and meaning in my life which is you know my whole philosophy of what I try to teach people to do and the research you know we talked about it last time shows that it’s the frequency of small positive experiences in your life rather than anything big that improves how you feel. And so there it is it’s like now when I drink water it’s a little tiny positive experience.

Joshua: I’m wondering… This is so positive for you. You are not building this up just because you’re talking to this audience, are you? I mean did you describe it to other people this way?

Natalie: No, I totally like… This is again and we started with that. That’s just my approach. So my approach is OK. Here’s the thing I want to do. How can I make it more pleasant, more meaningful, more fun? And that’s exactly the way I approached it. And the thing is I think I said to you why I was shooting this one is because a) I wanted to drink more water like I wanted to do something that was good for me as I don’t drink enough water; and I wanted to like take your challenge like do something that’s good for the environment. And so I’m absolutely not building it up. It’s just you know… Is it the highlight of my day? No. But the point is there’s all these tiny little moments of joy and meaning that are in plain sight hiding in our day. And all they ask us to do is become a little more intentional about them, more aware of them, more grateful for them, more appreciative them and then all of sudden there’s all these little sprinkles of joy everywhere. And that to me is the practice.

Joshua: So it sounds also if people want to do this… If people want to do something environmental or actually take on challenges at any place, starting with your work will probably make them happier. No pun intended. Or actually, pun intended.

Natalie: Well, I think it’s about you know we’re human beings. So we’re all aware that it’s very difficult to change behavior. We’re stubborn. It’s easier… Forget even the stubborn thing. Our brain likes things that are familiar. It’s just how we’re built. And so to take on a new behavior however small it’s pretty challenging for our brain, always. And so my approach and this is why I do the work I do is well if there’s a challenge you want to take on or you’re doing something challenging, can you find a little bit of joy in it? Can you create a ritual around it? Can you find your bigger why in it? Can you connect to your sense of meaning for why you’re doing this? Can you connect it to helping someone else in some way and those doing that work, this is the work that I teach people to do, allows us, gives us both the resilience to get through difficult things but also makes a lot of things that are tedious and boring and challenging more joyful and fun to do and so we end up doing them not because we’re forcing ourselves but because they actually feel good when you do that.

Joshua: Well, when you said that we naturally don’t like to change…. You said there’s some limitations that we have. But is it more accurate to say the untrained person because it sounds like maybe that was the case for you but when you have the skills then it’s not so hard to take on this changes if you do it with purpose and the skills that you develop.

Natalie: It’s true. But here’s the thing. So naturally like you know what the brain prefers we can’t change in a generation. That’s going to take a while. Our brain has been developing for tens of thousands of years. But you know one of my favorite quotes is “Your brain is a terrible master but a great servant.” And I actually am not quite sure who said it so I don’t want to quote anyone but what I love about that quote is left to its natural tendency is if we just do whatever we like the brain wants to do we’d have a pretty crazy life because we have a brain that prefers everything familiar, the switches, you know you’re driving home where your brain is thinking about the dishes, you’re watching a movie your brain is thinking about you know going on vacation, our brains switches topics all the time so like just following our natural tendency as a brain is not fantastic but when we give our brain a purpose, when we give it a practice, when we ask it to do something to help us it’s fantastic in doing it.

And so yes, I think if we learn, this is why I teach happiness as a skill is why I teach these five happier skills to companies to people in that if we learn to apply these skills into the different situations and conditions of our life, it does become more purposeful, more joyful and less challenging. Our brain still kind of wants to do the familiar thing. It still wants to find things that are wrong. But we now have this arsenal of practices and skills that the more we practice, the easier it becomes so it becomes easier for us to do the things we want to do.


Joshua: I just want to throw in something else about the world we live in and how we follow things that… Social media and cell phones. There are teams of PhD in psychology and so forth who figure out how to get you… I shudder to say this because now some will start thinking of like checking their email or you know they had a little red dot that shows you have messages and that will get you check it and then like two hours later you’d still been there and you didn’t mean to do that. And so we happen to live in a world which I think is engineered to get you to buy stuff and get you to do things not necessarily… Well, it’s to make someone money because someone’s paying those psychologists but it’s not necessarily to make you happy. It’s often going to make you stuck in their treadmill I guess and this is a way out.

Natalie: Yeah, and by the way, that the thing I would say you know there is a tremendous value to seeing a psychologist. There is a tremendous value to talking to people. And like I want to make sure that like we acknowledge that. But the thing is there’s also a tremendous value in learning the skills with which we can approach the challenges in our lives so that they become a little bit easier to get through that we gain the resilience to get through them. So I think both are valuable but yeah and this is why I talk about happiness as a skill because when we think about it that way, then we can begin to practice and the more you practice, the easier it becomes. And so we get tools that are at our own disposal to help us when we need them.

Joshua: Now I want to ask something. Did you face any hurdles? Were there any big challenges? Were there struggles?

Natalie: I wouldn’t say challenges or struggles. I’d say my hurdle is you know again it’s shifting, it seems really small. But like if you take the natural flow, I’m running out to yoga, I would leave at a certain time and I’d grab a water bottle. We have this big case in the basement. So I had to change the flow. And it’s a pretty small thing. I just had to make sure that the glass water bottle was on the counter so I could fill it up. But it’s a new thing. It’s a new behavior. And as small as these behaviors are, they require intention because I can’t actually get to my car in the basement in the garage and grab it. I actually have to think about it before. I have to like think about, “I’m going. I need to grab a water bottle.” So I wouldn’t call it like a significant hurdle or a significant challenge but definitely it required intention is the word I keep coming back to. It required my intentionality because when I’m intentional about it then I can be like, “Oh, well, you’ve got to grab it before you go to yoga.” “Oh my God, we’re going on a drive, you got to grab your water bottle before.” But it starts with intentionality. It’s not so much remembering it it’s just creating that intention that this is something I’m going to do.

Joshua: It sounds like for me when I go shopping it’s just natural. I just pick up a bag and go if I get to the store and I don’t have a bag with me I’m like, “Oh, I can only get as much as I can carry.” Because I’m not going to get a new bag. And enough times coming home not having food in my fridge because I was like I didn’t… I just know now just bring a bag with me. And it was effort… To me I guess that there’s a transition period when it’s effort, then becomes effortless because it’s like putting on a seatbelt – you just do it.

Natalie: Exactly.

Joshua: And also you mentioned a challenge that I gave you and I’d have to go back to listen to it but what I try to do is not to give people challenges but to ask people what they value and ask them to act on their values. And so I hope I didn’t say… I have to go back and listen but I hope I didn’t say to you, “How about not using bottles?”

Natalie: No, I came up with that.

Joshua: And so what value did it connect with independent of what you said before? As you did it what was it?

Natalie: Well, you asked… I think I believe the question you asked was, “What is a challenge that you want to take on in the sphere of doing something good for the environment?” And we talked about the importance of taking action. And so for me the value was OK, I’m generating less waste like plastic is not good waste to generate. So that was value number one. Value number two was actually a personal value, I don’t remember if I shared it last time, so it’s also not healthy to drink from plastic. The plastic that we manufacture mostly in the United States has a bunch of stuff that is bad for us and it ruins our digestion and all sorts of things. So the second one was actually a personal value. This is something that is healthier for me and therefore my family which is my biggest priority in life. So those are the two values that kind of underline the bigger why.

Joshua: It’s really cool to hear it because we didn’t talk… I don’t think we talked about that before and I tend to find people when they start doing something… Actually, I’m going to go back.,,, If I talk to people who have not done anything about doing something environmental, I get a lot of academic analytical, “Well, if I do this and they do that, well maybe I should do this but maybe that thing’s more effective.” and they don’t really get anywhere. Whereas people that do something when I ask them how it went, they talk about what they got out of it and what they want to do next. And it’s much more… I hear people sound empowered; they sound more emotions that they enjoy. And that’s what I’m hearing from you.

Natalie: Exactly. Exactly. Right. So I think that’s exactly the point. And you and I talked about it last time that I see there’s a lot of parallels between getting people to do things that are good for the environment it parallels with getting people to do things that are good for them and their emotional health and the emotional health of their families and teams. And that if we shift the lens from, “Blah, this is something I have to do” to “Here is why I want to do it.” it’s connecting to your sense of meaning. It’s one of the five skills that I teach because exactly that when you connect what you’re doing to why is it meaningful, how does it help someone else, how does it contribute to a cause or an organization you care about, it helps to elevate the mundane and it helps you take on a challenging task with a bit more ease and even joy.

Joshua: That’s why I have people like you on here. I mean you as someone who is an influencer and not necessarily you as someone who… I didn’t know if it would come out as a positive experience. But I want people to hear not just this academic stuff of I don’t know carbon dioxide levels and IPCC predictions or doom and gloom but to hear… I think another big thing is what influences people here and other people doing something. And I hope that they hear this is an opportunity for growth, for discovery, for developing skills, for connecting with family and emotions that they enjoy. You know I support legislation and I support science and education and things like that. I think what was missing is what you are sharing here which is people who you know authors and so forth and teachers and coaches and leaders of all sorts to share their experience. So that’s just why I am doing this but also thank you for sharing and being open. It sounds like you’re going to continue this.

Natalie: Oh, yeah. I mean at this point it’s just a thing. You know I mean like at this point it’s like a little daily ritual and my day is like made up of these. Yeah, definitely. And you know having these conversations with you and during and I’m actually planning and I am going to write about this to the Happier community because it seems like such a simple thing and it is. And yeah, the more we talk, the more I realize it’s really illuminating in terms of how we can approach bigger challenges in our lives because the foundation of it is the same. And so I’m definitely going to continue it. And it’s been a great experience for me not just in that one ritual habit that I feel like is meaningful and a little bit joyful but in actually teaching me about you know another aspect of how to apply these Happier skills some would say that to share it with our community as well by sharing my experience and kind of how and why and what you and I have talked about and hopefully giving people a very concrete almost like a little roadmap of how they can take on a challenge big or small.

Joshua: I’m glad that you found the two. That’s something I found. There are a lot of areas where people want to improve their lives – relationships, family, jobs, among many others. And a lot of them if you don’t improve say your social, emotional skills at work, if you jump in to ask your boss for a raise or promotion, it’s really jumping the deep end and it helps as you said developing skills. You start with the basics and grow and build and build and build and something I found with environmental action is that it’s really low risk. You know if someone wants to not eat meat for a week or not use water bottles or not buy bottled water for some time, it’s an experiment that they can do on their own. They don’t have to tell anyone. They can tell people if they want the accountability and yet you develop the same skills that will apply in many, many other areas. And so I think it’s a really low risk high benefit place where anyone who wants to improve in any area whether this is money management or lose weight or whatever, getting more fit, this is a place where they can practice of skills. And the worst that happens I think is it doesn’t work. But I think the upside is that you start with something really basic and you know you’ll probably end up cleaner, healthier, more pristine environment, stuff like that.

Natalie: Exactly. Doing the little things leads to the bigger things.

Joshua: So let’s wrap up with asking my two questions to end with. One is is there anything I didn’t think to ask that’s worth bringing up?

Natalie: I would say it’s maybe this last thing that I just said in that what did doing this one little challenge, did I learn anything new or did it make me connect to something new? And the point there is I think that it reminded me of how fun and joyful it can be to do things that are good for others in some way. So that’s just a great thing to be reminded of that it’s not you know sometimes I feel like we live in this world that’s like oh, it’s either being selfish or being altruistic. Actually, those two are quite connected. So that’s the thing I would say that we haven’t like just to make explicit in that doing this one little challenge just reminded me that it’s not an either-or thing in the world like, “Oh, I’m doing this for the environment.” It’s actually I’m doing this for the environment and it’s for me and it’s for my family and it’s fun. So just like what a fantastic way to look at things. And so now I’m thinking about like what are other things I can do that are like that. And so that’s one thing that I just wanted to share.

Joshua: I’m glad you shared that. That makes me feel really good because that’s what got me started in this is finding that if you do something little it improves your life, the next one you want… Why do little things to improve your life? Do big things. And yeah, thank you for sharing that. And the last thing I ask is is there anything that you want to say to… You might have just actually said it. But is there anything you want to say directly to the listeners besides what you just said?

Natalie: I guess I would just wrap with if you are taking on a challenge, whatever it is small or big, can you find one or two ways to take it from the have-to to the want-to? And the best way I know how to do that is to create a little bit of ritual about it to infuse something that is joyful into what you’re doing. And the second is can you really connect to your bigger why or why you’re doing it? Can you articulate why this is important to you? Who does this help – what human beings, group of people, organization? And can you keep those two in mind as you take on your challenge so how can you infuse it with a little more intention and joy and constantly reminding yourself of your bigger why for doing it?

Joshua: Natalie, thank you very much. And what you do and environmental work seems to work together very well so as before I’ll have links to your page where people can go and find exercises that they can do. There’s your book Happier.

Natalie: Happier Now.

Joshua: Happier Now. Sorry.

Natalie: Yeah. It’s called Happier Now and it’s on Amazon and everywhere else. But if you go to happier.com, it’s a great place to start. You can prescribe to our weekly newsletter which I write personally. You can learn about the five core happier skills. There’s videos and articles and ways to begin your practice and much more. So happier.com is a great place to go.

Joshua: And I want to leave you with an open invitation. If you start other things and you want to come back and share how those things have gone, I’d be happy to have you on and share that with listeners more.

Natalie: Sounds fantastic.


Natalie is all about making things that you want to do rewarding, fun and enjoyable. So I ask you what are you waiting to start? You can make whatever you want to do enjoyable, even the starting part, if that seems challenging. Naturally, I hope and suggest that you take on acting on your leadership or environmental values but improving your life in any place will do. You certainly won’t regret making yourself happy. Natalie is not growing up happy sounded familiar to me and if so, it probably did to you too. But she sounds pretty happy now. So developing the skills that she learned and that she shared sounds like a pretty good start.

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