Sustaining Happiness Through Mindful Living: Barry Margerum (Transcript)

Barry Margerum at TEDxSantaClaraUniversity

Full text of Barry Margerum’s talk: Sustaining Happiness Through Mindful Living at TEDxSantaClaraUniversity conference.

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Barry Margerum:

Good evening. What I like to do is have a start off taking couple of deep breaths together.


Inhale, hold, and exhale.

Inhale, hold and exhale.

It’s a great way to prepare for any important meeting, activity or event. Actually should relax you and get you more focused. And it’s certainly going to help me in this presentation.

So how am I doing so far?

Do you like me? What category would you put me in? Friend, foe, neutral or possible mate.

Now before you, while you’re pondering that I should say because I have trouble with this some time. I’m off the market. Okay. Not available. So if you had that uptake on me, ladies or gentlemen, sorry about that.

The reason I asked that question is because we make value judgments about people we don’t even know in the first few seconds we see them. We all do it, we do it subconsciously. We’re wired that way. We’re actually looking for threats.

Our ancestors many years ago weren’t just looking for the saber-toothed tigers. They were worried about who they encountered and whether they would be friend or foe. That’s how they survived. And we carry that with us today.

Joseph LeDoux from New York University says, we’re not… there’s no evidence that our brains are hard-wired for fear. What he does say is that we have the circuitry that allows us to detect and respond in pre-programmed ways that’s modifiable.

So what I’d like to talk about tonight is mindfulness and meditation. So that you can better modify and regulate your pre-programs to deal with this global digital world in which we find ourselves.

The benefit of that is when you get a bad email, you don’t have the same reaction as if you saw a saber-toothed tiger. And it’s bigger than that. It is not just for those events like that, but it’s for devastating events in your lifetime.

How do you go about and make sure that you can manage those properly?

For me, I had a divorce and what I found is through mindfulness and meditation, I was better able to make better choices, make better decisions, and found way to happiness and peacefulness faster than I would have otherwise. And that’s what we’re going to talk about tonight.

I’ve been a student of this for some number of years now. And I became very annoying to my friends because once I learned this, I kept telling him that all the time and I decided that wasn’t the right forum. So I’m glad I have an opportunity to speak with you tonight about it.

The best way to understand mindfulness is to understand the circuitry of the brain. There’s three parts. The first part is the brain stem. It’s the oldest part. It’s referred to as reptilian brain 400 million years ago. It does basic things. It regulates the body and it also allows or initiates the fight, flight and fear or freeze response that you see in reptiles.

The next area is the limbic system found in mammals, referenced many times as the emotional part of the brain. This is the part that records every memory of behavior that created both bad and good experiences in your lifetime. It generates our emotions.

These two together, the brainstem and the limbic system, are what causes many of our automatic behaviors and impulses that come from trained reactions and instincts from that area of the brain.

The prefrontal cortex is the most evolved. It’s the most evolved in humans and it’s the executive function of the brain. And what it does is have the ability to pause before we take impulsive behavior or actions. It has the ability to calm and regulate the limbic and brainstem areas of the brain.

So you’re driving your car and you’re supposed to be merging and the guy or gal cuts in front of you. And if you engage your prefrontal cortex, you rationalize yourself: Well, he must be in such a big hurry that he cut me off.

You don’t do anything. If you don’t engage your prefrontal cortex, you honk your horn, you get all worked up, you flip them off and maybe even go into road rage, to be determined.

So mindfulness awareness practices according to Daniel Siegel, is the ability to create a state of activation that allows you to harness the power of the prefrontal cortex in that moment.

And so that’s very important to be able to do that. It’s able to help you better manage your thoughts and your emotions through meditation practices.

If you look at long-term meditators, what you find out is they have less emotional reactivity than the rest of us. They don’t get worked up like we do.

The brainstem and limbic system, prefrontal cortex is what we’re going to be talking about tonight and we’re going to try to deal with.

What you’ll find is that once you learn how to use these things; that you’re better able to be reflective versus reflexive. You can take stock in that situation and do the right thing as opposed to just not.

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Our best leaders around the world are people who have this skill. Some people call it emotional intelligence, but it’s the ability to manage these things, allows you to lead people, allows you to deal with difficult situations, difficult conversations.

I think that today we find that we need to employ these things even more so than before because of the world in which we live in.

Does this look familiar to anybody? Anybody here in school just got past midterms. Whether you’re a parent, whether you’re a worker, whether you’re a student, the days have gotten longer and more intense.

We get more email, more notification alerts, messages, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat posts than ever before. If you want, you can operate 24/7, 365. Unfortunately, many people do and worse are the people that expect you to behave that way.

60 minutes had a series on it saying that in fact that the smartphone and the applications like Facebook had become addictive and you see people using them all the time. I’m sure you can relate to that. You can see people walking down the street and almost hitting stop street signs because they’re focused on their phone.

I almost did it, this week unfortunately. And I’m supposed to be mindful.

You know, worse is the fact that we also, in addition to those externalities, all this goes on in our lives in general.

We have the fact that didn’t get into fraternity or sorority that you wanted to get into, get that job, breakup with a girlfriend or boyfriend. I mean it’s tough being human. It’s very tough being human.

And I like to describe it as that our lives are continuous successions, ups and downs, twists and turns of agreeable and disagreeable situations.

The US Army War College has a term they call VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. They describe it for war time situations because you don’t know what’s going to happen next. That’s what our lives are like.

2017 is a pretty good example of that. And I’m not talking about the Cubs winning the World Series. So the problem is that we think the world revolves around us. We think the road should be straight and flat. We think it should be simple, certain, predictable. That’s (like): ‘Hey, I’m the star of the movie here’. Right?

That’s the problem. Because we want everything to go with the way we want, when the world is a windy road, we get stressed out. So what causes our stress? Not having things worked out the way we expected them to work out.

So what happens when that happens is two things:

First, if you look at the, on a macro basis, Hariss International did a study and showed that we lose about $300 billion a year in lost productivity because of work related stress.

On an individual basis, Matthew Killingsworth did a study with where he tracks your happiness, found out that 47% of the time you were either distracted or your mind is wandering because of issues going on in your life; 47% of the time.

And he also found that when your mind wanders it’s typically negative. You’re not very happy when your mind wanders because it’s about some other issue.

Now, I take exception to that because when I was in business school, one of the professors was noticing that one of the students that happens to be the prettiest students in our class, was not in the lecture at all.

And he, for whatever reason, decided to say, “So what are you thinking about? You’re clearly not listening to my lecture.”

And she said, “Well, I’m having a sexual fantasy”… in the middle of the class. That was the end of that class. We couldn’t even get back to class because that was it. He had to blow a class.

So this is a problem. Now, Matthew Killingsworth would tell you that mind wandering is a cause, not a consequence of unhappiness.

And I think that’s what we’re going to address tonight is that we have to deal with this unhappiness because being unhappy is really detrimental to your success and wellbeing.

There’ve been over 200 studies of 275,000 people that shows that being happy improves every domain of your life: marriages, your work, your health, your relationships.

You know, it’s a case where we all have a pursuit of happiness and we’re actually happy people by default. The problem is all the stress we bring in our life makes us unhappy. And that’s what we’re trying to try to deal with.

And then there’s the other point, which is, how many people like to be around and work with unhappy people?  Anybody?

No. So we want… there’s a desire to be happy. And what I’m going to propose tonight is one way to do that.

This is my definition of mindfulness: paying attention in the moment in an open accepting way to what you’re experiencing.

Paying attention in the moment in open accepting way to what you’re experiencing. Let’s break that down a little bit.

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Paying attention to the moment. Eckhart Tolle wrote a book called ‘The Power of Now’. It’s a groundbreaking book at a time. And what he talked about was the fact that you never experience, think, do, feel anything outside the present moment, and you never will. Our lives are based on the present moment, so our focus should be on making the present moment the best we can.

Now the problem we have is we have this thing called the monkey mind or chatter that comes in our brain from that limbic system. It remembers everything that ever happened that was bad to you. It’s like that part of the memory; it’s like Velcro for bad things and Teflon for good things.

It remembers every single bad thing that ever happened to you. And it’s bringing this forth. So it’s bringing out guilt, resentment, bitterness, sadness, all these things that cause you to get out of the present moment; that mind wandering.

What you’ve got to realize is you got to let it go. Those events are done. There’s nothing… you can learn about them, but now they’re done and you should have learned. And now you’ve gotta be in the present. You can’t take away from the present.

And you see this a lot of times with sports psychologists. They say to the players, the football players who missed the catch, they say, ‘forget they miss the catch. Next play.’

It’s always the next play.

Or the guy who gets his car stuck in the mud and he beats himself up: “I’m an idiot. I get my car stuck in the mud again. I always do this” as opposed to saying, “Hey, I got my car stuck in mud. What am I going to do now to get my car stuck out of mud?”

Dwelling in the past doesn’t help. It takes you away from the present. So your focus should be on the present.

The same is true of the future. Anxiety, tension, unease and fear. They’re all there if you want them to be, and they will be. Thing is, they’re the future and they take you away from the present.

We try to predict the future, but we never do a very good job of it. It’s always worse than what we think it is.

I remember my son got a bad grading in one of his classes. I thought he’s going to get a bad grade for the class. I thought his GPA was going to go down. I thought he wouldn’t get into a good college. I thought he’d get depressed and then he’d be homeless.

Right? That’s what our mind does.

So we’ve got a, you know, basically the future we’ll get here and when it does get here, it’s what our actions and attitude are at that moment in time, that matters. That’s where your focus should be.

So now we don’t want to be in the past, we don’t want to be in the future. We don’t want to be in the present, but now we’re in the present. So now we need what, we need the right mindset. We need a positive mindset.

And in my definition of mindfulness, we want to be open, accepting and learning. We want to be curious. We want to be growing. We want to make the present the best it can be by having a good attitude. As opposed to having a negative mindset. Negative mindset, which could be judging, comparing, controlling, all the negative things that come in.

And the problem is that, we compare all the time, is what we do. It’s part of our egoic mind, is always comparing. And I can tell you that if you compare against better people than yourselves, you’re going to be unhappy.

I can tell you, if you compare yourself with less fortunate people, you will be happy. So if you’re going to compare, at least compare with lesser people. But I’m not suggesting you compare in the first place.

And I think the problem we have today in our society is that it’s much more easy to compare because of social media. Everybody’s posting this and that, and you get to see everything, everybody’s doing, everywhere.

So Barbara Kahn at the University of Pennsylvania has been studying this FOMO, fear of missing out for the parents, what FOMO is. And she’s done studies to show that basically this is making you unhappy.

She gives the example of a person who gets to go to this exotic wedding and having a great time at the wedding. It’s really not unusual and different wedding. He goes back, gets on a computer, finds out that all our friends at the beach that weekend, and she’s missing out. She’s thinking she’s not going to be part of that experience that group creates and she’ll be missing out.

So what does that do? It dulls her experience at the wedding.

Now if you asked her to do it all again, what would she do? She still goes to the wedding, but what she’s done is she’s taken herself out of the present, not enjoying something that’s remarkable because of that comparison.

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So that’s what you have to watch out for.

Likewise, we judge all the time. We think we know what’s the best thing for us. The problem is we don’t always know what the best thing is for us.

To take the boy in the neighborhood, who gets a horse, and everybody says, what a lucky boy.

Next day he falls off the horse, breaks his leg. What an unlucky boy.

Next day war breaks out, all able bodied boys go to war. He stays home. What a lucky boy.

We don’t know what’s good or bad for us. We think we do. You connect the dots later in life. There may be a silver lining if you make it and no matter what happens to you. So if you get worked up about something, that’s not what you want. Keep this in mind.

So here’s my mental framework that I’m suggesting that you try to use. That’s called getting in the zone. So it’s kind of summary what I’ve been talking about. You want to be in the present, not the past or the future. You want to have a positive mindset, not a negative mindset. And that’s where you want to operate.

Now you say, well Barry, you just told me that 47% of the time, my mind is wondering. How am I supposed to do this? How am I supposed to stay in the present? My mind will keep going in the future, in the past.

That’s where meditation comes in. Meditation is the concept of being able to actually train your brain to be able to stay in the present. There are many forms of presentation, but the one we’re going to talk about tonight actually deals with concentration and how to keep your mind in the present moment.

So what we’re going to do is we’re all going to do this. We’re going to focus on our breathing, we’re going to do a little meditation and we’ll focus on our breathing. And what’s going to happen is your mind’s going to wander.

That’s what happens. So our mind will wander and then we’ll notice it’s wandering and then we’ll bring our attention back to our breathing and this circle, the cycle will continue.

By practicing this daily, you can develop the neuro-circuitry in your brain to have better concentration. And I can tell you, I really wish I knew about this when I was younger because I would have been a much better student. I’m a much better person in life because it’s all this other stuff that gets in our head that causes us to have the problems we have.

So this technique is one that you can do and we’re going to do it now.

Okay? So if you would get your feet flat on the floor, you can either close your eyes or you can lower your head looking down at the floor. And again, we’ll start off with a couple of deep breaths.

You would inhale in, hold and exhale.

Inhale, hold and exhale.

Now what I want you to do is just breathe normally. Feel yourself relaxed in your chair. Soften your knees, your stomach, your shoulders, your jaw, all the muscles of your face.

And now just focus on your breathing. Notice when your in-breath begins, when you hold it, when it ends, and find that place in your body where it’s easiest place to notice your breathing. Is that your nostrils, your chest, your stomach…?

Okay. You get the idea, that’s all it takes. The more you do that, the more you’re bringing your mind being able to bring it back to your breathing. You’ll develop the circuitry of brain to know, oh my mind wanders to the present or the future. I need to bring it back to the present. 

So let me finish with the following.

This is life. It’s a continuous succession of ups and downs, twists and turns of agreeable and disagreeable situations in your life, except that that’s what it is, except it’s not a straight road, except that you are not the star of the movie.

There are all these other people in the world that actually have other things they want to do too. Try to be stay in the present moment when these things happen. Take a couple of deep breaths when something happens to you. I strongly suggest that’s what you do.

Try to understand how to be present so you can best decide what to do and how to behave. If you do that, I think you’ll find a path to peacefulness and happiness.

Thank you very much for your time.


Resources for Further Reading:

You Don’t Find Happiness, You Create It: Katarina Blom (Transcript)

6 Ways To Be Incredibly Happy Every Day: Kristina Mänd-Lakhiani

What Makes A Good Life? Lessons From the Longest Study On Happiness by Robert Waldinger

How Mindfulness Can Help You to Live in the Present: Rev. Takafumi Kawakami at TEDxKyoto (Transcript)

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