Willpower, Stress, Movement, Compassion (Hidden Gem)
Dr. Kelly McGonigal
Dr. Cooper: 0:00
Several years ago, I picked up the book titled the Willpower Instinct that was so intriguing, I went as far as reaching out to the author to see if she would take me under her wing as my PhD advisor. She didn’t agree to that commitment, but she did agree to join us on the podcast and that episode has gone on to become one of our top episodes of all time. Welcome to the latest episode of the Catalyst Health, Wellness and Performance Coaching podcast. I’m your host, Dr Bradford Cooper, and today is a special hidden gem episode with Stanford’s Dr. Kelly McGonigal. Dr. McGonigal is a pioneer in the industry of science health as she aims to translate insights from psychology and neuroscience into practical strategies that support personal well-being and strengthening communities. Her TED talk, you’ve probably seen it is titled how to make stress your friend, is one of the most viewed TED talks of all time with over 20 million views. Dr. McGonigal is the author of the best selling books called the Willpower Instinct, the Upside of Stress, and the Joy of Movement. We took a deeper dive into each of these key areas during our conversation. Two keys on the coaching front include the kickoff of the next virtual wellness coach training on June 5th and 6th. And then the big Rocky Mountain Coaching Retreat and Symposium in beautiful Estes Park, Colorado September 17th through the 19th. You can find all of the details and registration for both at CatalystCoachingInstitute.com, and as always feel free to reach out to us anytime at [email protected]. Now, let’s talk willpower, stress, movement and more with Dr. Kelly McGonigal on this hidden gem episode of the Catalyst Health, Wellness, and Performance Coaching Podcast.
Dr. Cooper: 2:29
Dr McGonigal. It is a pleasure to have you join us here on the Catalyst Health and Wellness Coaching podcast.
Dr. McGonigal: 2:34
Oh, thank you for having me.
Dr. Cooper: 2:36
Absolutely. It’s been fun following your career. Four books, one of the most popular Ted talks of all time. A professor at this little university called Stanford. How did you get here in your life?
Dr. McGonigal: 2:50
Good question. I always feel like with psychology, you know, they say that all research is me search. You have heard that, right. Do you not think it’s true?
Dr. Cooper: 2:58
Absolutely, no that is dead on!
Dr. McGonigal: 3:01
So I feel like I’ve always been interested in psychological topics that relate to my own pain and suffering, starting with the fact that I grew up experiencing chronic pain that really was never treated or resolved. So I got very interested by the time I was in college, in trying to figure out the psychological factors that could influence living in a body with a nervous system that just produces pain all the time. So I am really interested in things like stress, emotions and the mind body relationship. It walked me into practices like yoga and mindfulness. And the more that I explored these areas that seemed very connected to my own experience, I got these opportunities to help other people. Often, who’s suffering was a little bit of a step further beyond my own, which is a really interesting place to be in. So by the time I was a graduate student, I was working with people with more serious chronic pain and illnesses and rehabilitation in a mind body context. I got the opportunity to teach meditation practices, and mindfulness and compassion practices to a very wide range of people. And I feel like every step along the way I found practices and ideas that supported my own well being. And when I found a way to communicate them to others often I found myself being able to to really sort of pass the limits of their application to people who are dealing with real pain and suffering. And I feel like that sort of the heart of my own work is to figure out how to apply ideas that seem really interesting and exciting from neuroscience or psychology, and does it actually work in real life in that moment that matters? Does it really help the people who need it the most?
Dr. Cooper: 4:46
Interesting, interesting. Okay, so we’re gonna talk a little about surprises. What in your journey, and it doesn’t have to be just one. It could be a couple things. But what are some of the things that surprised you most in this journey with all the different things you’ve been a part of, involved with, you know, dipped your toe into etc.
Dr. McGonigal: 5:04
I would say this may not even be something that’s on your radar, but one of things that I learned from teaching, and I think it’s of all my work as teaching, is that when you give people permission to be a certain version of themselves, it just radically changes the way that you view the world and common humanity. And I feel like when you’re offering people practices that meet their own suffering or their own desires with empathy and compassion, people will often reveal themselves as being both incredibly vulnerable and incredibly brave and empowered and strong at the same time. And I I feel like one of things that surprised me is what a privilege it is to be in a teaching position where you get to see those sides of people on a regular basis. Day in and day out. And I feel like it’s given me a kind of strength to move about the world, because when I meet people, even if I don’t know anything about their story, I kind of just understand that’s the way human beings are. And I never thought getting into whether doing research or teaching or writing, I never really thought that it would change my experience of sort of how I believe the world operates and what human nature is. And I think that that is probably one of the most surprising things.
Dr. Cooper: 6:29
Interesting. Very good, very good. So willpower.I bought the Willpower Instinct back in 2013 picked up Upside of Stress actually earlier this year. And then I got a sneak peek at your upcoming release, The Joy of Movement over the weekend. You’re hitting them all. I mean these topics!
Dr. McGonigal: 6:48
I feel like I take things that people say they don’t want to deal with or can’t deal with and I’m like you got this! Let’s find a way to do this, whether it’s all the behavior change that you feel like you can’t handle, or all the things you’ve been putting off, stress. Let’s just deal with reality as it is, find a way to harness it and embrace it. And now, with movement, you know this thing that is probably the single most important thing you can do to support your physical and mental well being. And yet so many people have a bizarre relationship with it, haven’t yet found a way to fall in love with movement or physical activity. So I’m just sort of marching along all the things that people tell me is a challenge that I know can make such a difference in people’s lives.
Dr. Cooper: 7:31
I love it. I always feel like you’re reading my mind, because again, I got initiation with you with the Willpower Incident. And then along comes the stress thing as we’re talking about that, and now you’re on the movement. So great stuff. Let’s hit the highlights for people who have not read your books. They’ve got to get them, every single one of them is a fun read. Very interesting and so practical. Let’s just hit each one, things that maybe people aren’t aware of. So we’ll start with willpower. Then we’ll hit stress, then let’s hit movement. But in the willpower area, anything that people might go oh, I had no idea.
Dr. McGonigal: 8:05
Well, so one of the things that I think is really important is setting definitions that empower people. And so one of the biggest takeaways from the Willpower Instant is that willpower is the ability to make choices that are consistent with what matters most to you, when it’s difficult, or some part of you doesn’t want to, because that part of you is scared or exhausted or stressed out or experiencing self doubt or distracted. And when you look at the neuroscience and the psychology of this thing, willpower, people were really good at making those choices that gets them closer to their biggest goals that are consistent with their values that strengthen the roles and relationships that matter most to them. When you look at what those people have, I actually define it as three different powers. Most people think of willpower as what I actually call won’t power, so that’s the ability to say no to temptations or distractions or self destructive impulses. I won’t say that thing that I’ll regret. I won’t eat that thing I’ll regret. I won’t buy that thing I can’t afford. That’s I won’t power. We do need that, the ability to restrain ourselves from impulses or instincts that get in the way of what matters most.
Dr. McGonigal: 9:20
But we also need I will power, which is a totally different kind of energy. It’s the courage. It’s the motivation that lets you do things even when you’re tired, even when you’re busy. Even when you’re anxious, that says, you know what? I’m going to approach my goal. I’m not going to procrastinate. I’m not going to withdrawal just because it’s difficult. I don’t know if I can succeed, or other people tell me I shouldn’t and that will power is a very different kind of energy. Some people actually struggle with one versus the other. Some people who have incredible I will power think they don’t have any willpower because they struggle with I won’t power and I think it’s really important to also acknowledge our strengths. Even when they don’t map classically on to what, you know, we’ve often called will power.
Dr. McGonigal: 10:04
But the third power is the one that I think nobody thinks about strengthening, which is what I call I want power, and that is literally the ability to know what matters most to you. To be clear about what your values are. To have a sense of your near goals and your long term goals to be clear about the relationships that matter most to you. What you’ll take a stand for, who you wanna be, the vision you have for your life. And if you don’t have that, there is no chance of having willpower because you will be putting those other powers to restrain yourself or to motivate yourself in service of who knows what. What your boss says matters what your spouse says matters. What the media tells you is important today, and that’s not really willpower. That’s just self control. And so often, when I’m encouraging people to who want to strengthen their willpower, actually start with the want power to do some values clarification. To have a vision for yourself, so when you’re making choices, you can bring that to mind, then it can really fuel you doing what’s difficult or restraining some impulses.
Dr. McGonigal: 11:11
And I have to say the last sort of highlight from all of this is that, oh gosh, there’s so many things! But I think it’s really interesting to me is that it’s a human instinct that everybody has. So there’s some people who think, oh, I just don’t have any willpower. And that’s because we know what our willpower challenges are and they can be unique. You know, my biggest willpower challenge is related to anxiety, that it’s very easy for me to say no to things that I don’t want to do because they bring up anxiety. And I might have tremendous self restraint around people like, oh, wow, you know, you’re not tempted by that. Well, no, because I’m actually not tempted by it. You know, I’m a vegan for example. I’m not tempted by a juicy burger. There’s no willpower happening there. And if I’m eating healthy, it’s because that’s what I actually want. And like from the outside, it looks like willpower. But it’s just, that’s just me. My willpower is getting out of bed in the morning, getting on a plane when I don’t want to, you know, get on a flight.
Dr. McGonigal: 12:05
So everyone has willpower challenges, and everyone has willpower strengths and one of the things we know is that in order to sort of grow into the areas that are most challenging for you, it’s kind of a biological imperative to take care of yourself. That your ability to strengthen these different aspects of willpower is often dependent on, you know, is your blood sugar stable? Does your brain have the resources it needs to exert self control and planning because you aren’t completely sleep deprived? Do you exercise regularly? Which has an amazing effect on regulating the nervous system in the brain so that you have the best chance of being yourself? And often a lot of the things that we think of as being self care are actually, it’s about priming ourselves to be the best version of ourselves biologically. That was another thing that surprised me early on was like, you know, if you’re sleep deprived, you actually are a different version of yourself. If you are running on empty because you know you’re fasting and you haven’t eaten something healthy in a while, you are a different version of yourself. If you’re sedentary on a regular basis, you’re a different version of yourself and you’re that version of yourself that’s more likely to give into to a short term gratification.
Dr. Cooper: 13:21
Yes, very good. Very good. Okay, so everybody’s going out to buy your willpower book. But before they do, let’s talk about The Upside of Stress. I’ve got it sitting here in my hand. Such again, such a fun read. Not just valuable, not just practical, but it’s a a fun read as well.
Dr. McGonigal: 13:36
What did you find fun about it?
Dr. Cooper: 13:40
I think it just grabs you. For example, the study that goes through the hotel workers. That’s a pretty detailed study, but you read it and your eyes just open. You know, not deer in the headlights, but just excited deer in the headlights because you look at it saying, oh my gosh! Especially in our role in the health and wellness world, the impact of something like that is just so powerful, so valuable. So I think it’s the way you bring that to life, something that might feel dry, read in an academic journal, comes to life and gets applied on a regular basis.
Dr. McGonigal: 14:13
Well, let’s talk a little bit about the finding that that study was demonstrating. So you’re talking about one of Allie Crumbs first research studies where she looked at how if you believe that the everyday physical activity you do counts as exercise, it actually improves your physical health as if you went from not exercising to exercising. And she’s done a number of studies that sort of, you know, test my own sense of possibility. I tend to be pretty skeptical about a lot of findings. And so you know, her studies they’re always at that edge of is that like, really? Does that actually work? And she studied things that you could call a placebo effect but really are what she calls a mindset effect, and one of the way she talks about it is when there are multiple possible effects from any given behavior or, say, a treatment that you’re going through. It’s possible that you could have negative side effects as well as therapeutic effects, that the effect you expect is the effect that you are more likely to get. And so she’s done a lot of work looking at how your expectations prime both your literal physiology, changing what hormones are circulating in your bloodstream, changing how your brain reacts to experiences even downstream to longer term consequences, like how healthy you are or how happy you are, and that when you frame your experiences in a certain way, you can literally change the experience of your body and brain produce in a way that has real consequences. Again, very similar to what we know about the placebo effect, which is very real. Your brain and body has an amazing capacity to do things that are useful when you give it the chance to do so.
Dr. McGonigal: 15:57
So the Upside of Stress is basically looking at how do you apply that amazing capacity that your brain and body has to produce physiological realities that can allow you to respond to stress in healthier and more skillful and even more joyful ways? How do you harness that? Because, as it turns out, your body and brain has this amazing repertoire of stress responses. It is not the case, so talk about number one takeaways, it is not the case that stress is always a toxic state of mind and body. It is not the case that stress is synonymous with fight or flight, and every time you’re stressed out, you’re having this toxic fight or flight response that is going to make you aggressive or paralyzed by fear. There are so many ways the body and brain can respond to stress. Many of them are healthy, many of them are helpful. And when you know that, when you know what those responses are, when you remember them in moments of stress, you can literally prime your brain and body to have those healthier, more helpful stress responses, which is different than calming down. I’m talking about actual stress responses that are good for you, not take a deep breath and bring yourself to some non-stressed state. That’s really what the whole book is about, about how to find the mindset resets that allow you to rise to the challenge or connect with other people during stress or use stress as an opportunity to learn and grow.
Dr. Cooper: 17:21
And have you had a lot of pushback on this? Because I love what you’re saying, you know very well out in the popular press people are saying oh stress is this horrible evil thing that you can’t talk about enough because people love to read about it and put themselves in that situation. What type of pushback have you had where people just, they’re not getting it?
Dr. McGonigal: 17:40
There were two things I got push back on early on when I first started talking about this research in around 2012, 2013. And then maybe when the book came out in 2015. One thing I would like to point out is that right now people are catching up with the science. So you know, when I published this book in 2015 there had been really less than a decade of research on a lot of this stuff. It was pretty new. It was growing. And since then it has become much more robust, replicated in a number of different contexts. The ideas are getting more sophisticated. The biological findings are becoming more fascinating. So where we are now, it is a world away from when the book was published and I felt like I was challenging a lot of people to give up a belief they very strongly held. So it’s been nice to watch that happen. Although part of me is like hmm, should’ve waited a few years for when people were ready for this idea, I don’t know. But so the first push back I got was primarily from people who I think of as being part of the stress industrial complex or the stress reduction industrial complex, which is where they have put in the name of their business, like I will reduce your stress. Stress free living. I will get rid of your stress. And that’s totally understandable. When you, like I, have been taught your entire professional career that stress is the enemy of all things good. And the easiest way to sell your service is to someone is to tell them you can get rid of their stress. I get why the idea that stress, that you might actually have to acknowledge that you’re never going to get rid of it and find ways to deal with it, that that could be a threatening message. And so I got a little bit of that early on, and some of it was actually quite sincere. I write about this in the book. I got this email. I don’t remember what talk the psychologist had seen or maybe read something I’ve written where I was talking about this research, and the psychologist said, this is a really dangerous idea that you are communicating to people that it is okay to have a stressful life. And I remember thinking, you know, this is really where my years of experience and mindfulness and contemplative traditions in communities, I think gets pit against some other ways of thinking and operating in medicine and psychology. The idea that it would be dangerous for people to think it is okay to have a stressful life is so counter to what the message people actually need to hear, because we don’t get to choose the stress in our lives that when you are facing a medical crisis, when you have lost your job and facing financial insecurity, when you are grieving or you’ve been through a trauma and someone says to you, it’s not okay to have a stressful life, you are telling people there’s something fundamentally flawed with your life, where you have failed so severely at life. It’s not okay, and it will never be okay. That message that either you are inadequate to your life or your life is fundamentally broken because it’s stressful. Life is wrong. You did it wrong, you don’t have the life you should have had. I think that message is actually a horrible message to give. And so I feel like that even when it’s sincere, this idea that it’s dangerous and people will go out and they’ll do stressful things. You mean like have body, have a job, have kids, get through this chaotic world. You mean that they might do that? It’s probably happening anyways. So that was one aspect to push back.
Dr. McGonigal: 21:10
The other push back that I got comes from the sort of the perception of who I am and what my context is and sort of a misperception. So because I’m affiliated with Stanford, there was this idea that I was talking about research that was done on Stanford undergraduates. A very privileged group, and only applied to a similarly young, healthy, privileged group. But actually almost all the research I write about in the book, the research that I care about is done with people who are facing extraordinary stress. I write about everything from kids who’ve experienced severe trauma, poverty, violence. I’m talking about people who are incarcerated for life. I’m talking about people recovering from natural disasters, people dealing with grief and loss. That’s the research that I’m primarily interested in and focused on. And people who hadn’t read the book, they just sort of heard it and thought of my context and thought I was saying, oh, stress can be good for you if you’re not really stressed. And you have enormous economic and social resources. And that’s really the opposite of both what I’m most interested in and what the research says, that this idea that you can harness what is good in you during moments of stress is actually most helpful for people who have the least control over the stress in their lives.
Dr. Cooper: 22:25
So good, so good. All right, that leads us into the current one. The Joy of Movement. I know you’ve got to be fired up about this. Got all that energy with the release. Talk to us about a couple of surprises in that one. That people may not have any idea could be tied into this idea of the importance of movement.
Dr. McGonigal: 22:43
Okay, well I’ll tell you my favorite finding, which I think is an example of how deeply integrated movement is with the human capacity for wellness and psychological resilience. And this is an idea most people have not heard of. Everyone knows that exercise can give you endorphins and make you feel good. I think everyone knows that exercise is good for your physical health. You might have heard that exercise is good at preventing brain aging or dementia. We sort of have this idea that it’s good for us. But what we’ve learned in the last 10 years is that your muscles act as an endocrine organ. So in the same way that you have glands like your adrenal gland or your pituitary gland that pump out hormones and these things that go through your bloodstream and affect every system of your body, including your brain. We now know your muscles do that, too, which is phenomenally fascinating that your muscles right, your quadriceps, your calves, your biceps that your muscles manufacture these proteins that when you use your muscles through physical activity, when you contract your muscles, particularly through exercise, like walking or running or hiking or swimming, or cycling or dancing that your muscles secrete these proteins into your bloodstream that are enormously good for your physical health and your brain health and psychological health. And one of the first papers that looked at this effect actually called the proteins that your muscles secrete during exercise hope molecules. Because these proteins, when they go from your bloodstream to your brain, some of the effects that they have on your brain is they act as a quick acting antidepressant. So, for example, a myokine named irisin can act as a quick acting antidepressant to restore your sense of hope and motivation. It can also restructure your brain in a way that makes you more resilient to stress. Other of these chemicals that are called myokines because they come out of your muscle. Myo means muscle. Other of these myokines can actually counter act some of the after effects of chronic or traumatic or severe stress that float through your bloodstream. Sometimes stress is bad for your health, it’s sever and chronic and pervasive, and when you exercise, you actually kick off this metabolic chain of events that transforms those toxic after effects of stress in your bloodstream so that it can’t get to your brain where it’s normal effect might be to increase your risk of depression. So literally when you exercise like you have this alchemy going on in your bloodstream. That says, even if you are severely stressed and chronically stressed, we’re just gonna erase that residue of that stress so that it can’t affect your brain and your mental health.
Dr. McGonigal: 25:37
And again, I think this is amazing. There’s dozens and dozens that have been identified. There are probably hundreds of these specific Myokines, and the only way to get them into your bloodstream so they can have this profound effect on your brain and your mental health is to contract your muscles through exercise. So imagine that. So every time that you go for a walk or run or you do any sort of exercise, it’s like an intravenous dose of hope. And the reason I like to give that example is most people don’t know that that’s happening, and I could give you a dozen examples of things like that where at every level of your biochemistry and your physiology, exercise unleashes your capacity for happiness, for pleasure, for psychological resilience and especially your ability to connect with other people. That physical activity primes our physiology to help us bond with others to trust others to strengthen relationships. And it’s not in some kind of loose psychological way. It seems to be the way that human physiology evolved, to link physical activity with mental health, resilience and community.
Dr. Cooper: 26:48
That’s so good. I’m just jotting notes down here, I love all of these quotes. Good stuff. Good stuff. Anything else from that one you wanna highlight for folks before we jump into the next question?
Dr. McGonigal: 26:56
Well, you know this idea that I mentioned that exercise primes us to connect with others? You know, one of the other things that I explored, so I’m not a runner. My favorite forms of exercise are dancing, yoga, and cardio kickboxing. Sort of mixed martial arts. I don’t go for a run. So I was really interested. A lot of people in my life, are you a runner? Is that why you are laughing?
Dr. Cooper: 27:16
I love to run, yes. I’ll be down near you for the SIM Marathon just down the road from you in a couple of weeks.
Dr. McGonigal: 27:21
Fabulous, think about all of those myokines you will be releasing! Actually, there’s so many benefits to doing that sort of training, psychological and physiological. But anyways so I have a lot of people my life who are runners who love running. My twin sister, my husband is a runner, and they’re just so dedicated to it. I wanted as part of this book. I wanted to understand why. And I will say, by the time I was done with this book, I was convinced that runners have the most fabulous relationship with movement of anyone I talked to because runners are really good at understanding movement as a metaphor, which I thought was fabulous to observe. This idea that like you’re putting one foot in front of the other, you are moving forward in life, that you are experiencing your own ability to persist and endure. There’s so many fabulous metaphors that were coming out of running. But that’s not the idea that I wanted to share but what’s behind a runner’s high? And I found all this amazing research suggesting that a runner’s high is not only endorphins. Endorphins probably played a role, and endorphins basically make us feel good. But that a runner’s high is also caused by endocannabinoids, which are a neurotransmitter, that it doesn’t only make you feel good, but it particularly makes you more optimistic and enhances the pleasure you get from social contact. Whether you are cooperating, whether you are teaming up with others, whether you’re sharing, whether you are experiencing a hug or shared laughter or any sort of play, endocannabinoids just increases the warm glow that you get from from social contact and interaction.
Dr. McGonigal: 29:05
And at higher levels of intensity, you’re probably also releasing oxytocin, which has a similar effect, but it’s particularly powerful at bonding us deeply to others. We may already have positive relationships with like friends and family. And so it’s not only running, although running seems really, really good at producing the state because it’s this kind of continuous, persistent, moderate intensity movement that tells our brain, hey, you’re engaged with life. Now would be a good time to shift into this state because you’re a human being and you need to be social. So while you’re so you know, wonderfully engaged with life, let’s make sure that your brain and body are in a state where you can do this thing that’s so important to human survival. Connect with others and enjoy it. Runners get it often very reliably, but I experience it, too, when I’m doing any sort of cardiovascular exercise that I can persist at that’s not sort of crushing me.
Dr. McGonigal: 30:00
So that was one of the most fascinating things I found as well and again that it comes back to this idea that it’s not like it’s a trick. It’s not like your brain is trying to reward you for exercising so that you’ll exercise. So that you maintain a healthy weight or don’t have a heart attack. That’s how we think about it now because we live in a culture and a society that really puts a lot of barriers on movement. And we’re so much at increased risk for lifestyle diseases that we think of exercise as this like thing we need to do to prevent these negative health outcomes. And so we tend to think of things like a runner’s high is like this trick that maybe we could exploit to force ourselves to do this thing that’s not really you know, fun. But you know, that’s not really what’s happening. We evolved to be incredibly active, and when we are active, our brains recognize that as sort of us fulfilling our role as a human being, and it puts us in the state that makes us better able to be a part of our tribe and to strengthen the relationships that are so important to our survival. It’s like your brain takes the feedback from your movement as a sign again that, like things are going well and it’s important to be this version of ourselves that’s really set up for success at being a human.
Dr. Cooper: 31:18
Excellent. Excellent. All right. One of the interviews I read through preparing for this, you mentioned being a workaholic, that seems to be obvious from everything that published.
Dr. McGonigal: 31:29
That was a joke, that was the life hack one. It says describe your work style in one word.
Dr. Cooper: 31:34
Yes, that was your word.
Dr. McGonigal: 31:36
and I said aholic, and it was sort of a joke. So here’s what I mean by that, and you’re the first person who’s ever called me on that. I don’t mean to imply that like I drive myself in some punishing away. What I was joking about it is, I just kind of like, I work all the time in that I don’t have this sort of work life balance where like at six o’clock or seven o’clock at night, I would say I’m done with anything I label work. Now is the time to recover from work and, you know, connect with friends and family or entertain myself in some way. You know, whatever. I have this enormous integration of my work life with everything else that, friendships and how I interact with my family and what I take personal meaning from its all this jumbled thing. And I am incredibly blessed and lucky to have created a life where that’s true. That like what I do in my fun time, like yesterday I had some free time. So I learned some choreography that I’m gonna teach in a dance class tonight at Stanford, so I’m getting paid for it. But what else would I have been doing yesterday that would have been as much fun as learning this incredibly powerful dance routine? I got to spend an hour dancing and it’s connected to my work, but it also supports my mental health. And then I got to show it to my husband, and I might show it to my sister who loves Bollywood movies when I see her, I’m gonna see her in a few hours. I don’t know. It’s all just kind of, it’s connected. So yes, sorry, I don’t know what your question was.
Dr. Cooper: 33:04
No we’ll just keep going on this path. I love it. So with that context, you’ve got a lot of people out there listening. Well, let me back up. Was that something you’ve always done? Or has that been a gradual evolution of this was Dr McGonigal 15 years ago,and this is you today, and this is where you hope to be in the future. Has that been an evolutionary thing or did you just grow up and it just happened that way?
Dr. McGonigal: 33:29
Well, so I grew up in a household that was very much the Protestant work ethic. As in, you’re either working or you’re wasting time. I will say that. And by work, I don’t mean make money. My parents were both classroom teachers and were involved in a number of other community projects. There’s sort of a sense that you’re either doing something of value to others or what are you doing? So I feel like that, whether through genetics or modeling, I definitely inherited some of that that like the things that I just find intrinsically most valuable are probably in service of others, and especially through teaching, which is what I was exposed to so much, although my parents tell me it’s in my genes. So I would say that has sort of always been a general mindset that, like I don’t have a strong impulse toward hedonism. Like I don’t have a dream for myself where I get to retire and lie on a beach. That would be a punishment to me.
Dr. Cooper: 34:26
Oh, I’m with you.
Dr. McGonigal: 34:28
But I feel like one of things that I learned early on is that if I gave myself permission to do the things that made me feel most intellectually curious and most alive and joyful, people would pay me to help them do it too. And so that was a thread that I caught on to pretty early and I basically let that be the path my career followed, where when I became fascinated with something, I tried to learn as much as I could about it. Figure out how does this work? How is this useful to myself and others? And wait until I’m so full of whatever that is, just bursting out of me that other people are, like write a book about it, give a talk about it, teach a class on that. And that has sort of been the model of my career. And that’s part of I think, what makes this like I said, this lack of work, life separation. That’s part of what makes it not separate, because I’m pursuing the things that I find interesting and meaningful and useful, and that that part of me that always wants to put it in service of others. It just once I’m at that stage where it seems like I can, I just automatically move in that direction. But it’s still supporting me, and it’s still fascinating to me.
Dr. Cooper: 35:45
So that’s worked perfectly for you. Can you see some sort of a transitionary aspect for the person is out there listening and saying, oh wow, yeah, I really like that idea. But right now I’m in exactly what you described like I’m up at this time, I’m at work here, I shut it off at six. Any tips for that person that hears that and loves the concept but doesn’t see how to get from where they are to the approach that you’ve been taking?
Dr. McGonigal: 36:14
Well I actually think, you know, the most important thing is to follow what is personally meaningful to you, and it may or may not turn into something that people are paying you for. Actually, I was having a conversation with somebody who is a wellness expert, and she was asking me sort of what’s your single definition of health and wellness. And I said that it was to be of use in the world in a way that feels personally meaningful or satisfying. And I think, if that matters to you, you can do that simply by listening to what your calling is at this moment in time. And it’s not for everybody, and it also, I don’t think it has to turn into a a profession for it to be meaningful and satisfying. I think people may vary in the degree to which they have an intuition about sort of the direction to move in. And maybe the first step is to strengthen your intuition a little bit, too, to start asking yourself, what could I do today that would just bring more joy and meaning into my life today? Like an experiment and you know treat it as a hypothesis and find out if doing that thing actually does bring more joy or meaning or relief from suffering into your life. And you know, so many of the people who are in this world that you and I live in there is this desire to help others, and I think that it should naturally emerge from whatever has brought joy to your life or whatever has done the most to relieve your own suffering and to the degree that you’re following that thread. I think you will come upon the resources that you need to eventually share it with others and to just trust that path.
Dr. Cooper: 38:01
I think you’ve just created your 2022 book.
Dr. McGonigal: 38:04
No, my 2022 book is The Upside of Caffeine. I’m really really tired of people acting like caffeine is some sort of vice that is bad for your health. I know there’s some people who don’t metabolize or digest it well, it doesn’t mean it’s bad for your health it’s just some side effects. But there is such tremendous research that caffeine and particularly coffee is the most helpful substance you can consume. And I really feel like somebody needs to write a book about it. So stay tuned.
Dr. Cooper: 38:37
We’ll I don’t think our listeners will need any nudging on the interest in that topic. All right. Another comment you made in a previous interview is this idea of productive procrastination. Love that. That was a perfect. Now you like to follow, just for the audience, when she says that she’s talking about following a rabbit trail of some intriguing research on, and I think you mentioned that Pub med is your favorite. Now in this,
Dr. McGonigal: 39:04
It used to be yes, I finally switched to Google Scholar. Google Scholar used to not be as reliable. Now it’s pretty much the only search engine I use.
Dr. Cooper: 39:11
Okay, then that’s helpful to the question I was gonna ask you because in this area of wellness, there are so many fads. That’s one of our goals is to try to push back and get people focused on the evidence based practices. Now for people that are not in academia. My question was going to be what can they, because obviously in your role you’ve got access to all the different Web of Science. Pub med, etc. For somebody who’s not in that role, is Google research the best way to go? What are you thoughts on that for the everyday person out there who says I want to dig in, but I don’t have access to a library or a academic research aspect.
Dr. McGonigal: 39:49
So when I work with people who are coaches or trainers, so, for example, in the Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training, we’re teaching people the current state of the science of compassion and compassion training. But I want them to be able to stay up to date. I always tell them to set Google Scholar alerts so that you get emailed weekly, or I get these emails daily about new research that’s been published on certain key terms. Now the thing is, you have to be somewhere close to being able to understand research for this to be of any benefit at all. So you’ll get sent the abstracts, and if you have some some sort of training, abstracts can often make some degree of sense. And the good thing about Google Scholar is if there’s a free version of the article anywhere online, it will show you when you go to Google Scholar. If there’s a PDF, it’ll say PDF and you can click on it. It will be like all 10 versions, and you know, even if you don’t have access to a library, if you click on that all 10 versions, you often find a version that’s free. Maybe the author posted it on their personal website. So that’s why I like Google Scholar if you have the capacity to actually understand abstracts and read articles if they’re available to you. If you don’t have any training, where you’re gonna get a neuroscience article and it’s gonna be like in another language. I like ScienceDaily.com, so ScienceDaily.com has a number of different categories. They do physical health, they do mental health, mind and body, it has a lot of psychology stuff. And they are press releases written by journals, sometimes the universities where the scientist have done the work and as press releases go, they’re pretty good. They’re not gonna be the kind of press releases that often like the next level, where you’ll find it in like a newspaper, where it’s totally blown out of proportion. And they don’t tell you anything about like oops, by the way, the study was conducted on mice, not humans. But you read the article on it, and like they never tell you that it was conducted on mice, not humans. So science daily is very readable, very digestible. You’ll learn a little bit about the methods, but it’s all in a language that’s meant to be user friendly. So I would encourage people to, you know, check out that site, click on the topics that are interesting to you and it’s like a daily feed. You could go there once a day or once a week or once a month, and just sort of to see what’s been published on the areas that are are of interest to you.
Dr. Cooper: 42:09
Perfect. Perfect. Exactly what I was looking for. All right, let’s turn the mirror around a little bit if you’re up for it. I love to hear, on a personal level, current health and wellness stuff that you’re working on, you’re focused on, you’re trying to tweak, maybe hitting some walls and barriers. And how is some of your research helping you in that area that you’re working on instead of helping other people do that?
Dr. McGonigal: 42:33
Hmm. Good question. So one of the things that I became aware of, for a few years, 2012 to 2016 I was living in both Palo Alto, California and New York City, which meant that I really wasn’t living in either place in the sense that I couldn’t commit to doing things on a daily and weekly basis in my community. So I had to give up a lot of my movement classes because I couldn’t be there every week. I gave up a lot of my teaching at Stanford. I was only doing like one class, you know, every other quarter when I could commit to being here more. And I lost a sense of connection to my community that I hadn’t known was so important to my mental health. So since 2016 when my husband was able to relocate back out to California and we moved back here permanently, one of the main focuses for my own health and well being has been deepening my connection to my local community at the level of my neighbors and the people I see, within a distance that I can walk to, and reinvesting in some of my long term professional relationships around Palo Alto and at Stanford.
Dr. McGonigal: 43:48
And that might not seem like you asked something in health and wellness, and we’re so used to thinking about things like that are related to physical health. But it was very clear in that period when I was commuting between the coasts that I was at serious risk for depression, and I didn’t become clinically depressed in that period. But there were times when I got awfully close because it became obvious just how crucial to my daily mental health it was. To be able to go someplace on a regular basis and do something that was of use to others in a familiar setting and just that relationship, that social fabric that forms.
Dr. McGonigal: 44:25
So that’s my main focus right now is doubling down in that, reinvesting in it. I’m traveling less. I am trying to decline opportunities that seem like really amazing professional opportunities that involved traveling someplace to maybe speak to thousands of people that I’m never gonna see again. And instead of that, I’m going to say, you know what? I’m not doing that because I have to get a sub for my Tuesday morning dance class with these women I teach who are mostly over the age of 60 and 70. And if I get subs on a regular basis, that community’s gonna dissolve and that won’t be there for them, and it won’t be there for me. So I’m gonna teach my Tuesday morning class and not travel halfway around the world to give a talk. That is the commitment I’ve been working on that has been making most difference to me. And who knows? Maybe there actually is a version of this because I think there’s a lot of interesting research around this, this sense of belonging and attachment to a place and what it means to to feel yourself as a part of a social system that cares about you and also gives you an opportunity care about it. I’m very interested in that. You might have noticed in the Joy of Movement that theme has crept in in a number of ways. Even when I’m talking about sports or power lifting like CrossFit, I’m very interested in how people at CrossFit become this kind of community where they help one another out during life crises. I can’t help that that’s where my my gaze is fixed right now because it’s so important in my own life. So maybe there’s gonna be a version where I figure out how to communicate that to others in a way, where that can actually be the, you know, the direct suffering that we’re trying to address as people become increasingly isolated.
Dr. Cooper: 46:05
What a great message, I just as I’m listening to you again, we started this off by saying, you have done so much with your career, with your life, with your time, and yet you’re providing a message to us saying, but I’ve found that this piece has such value on a daily basis. So wonderful, wonderful. Okay, just a couple more. The phone genie shows up in your office tomorrow and grants you the opportunity to have one message show up on the home screen of everybody’s phone tomorrow when they pick it up. What key message comes from you that you’d want to share.
Dr. McGonigal: 46:43
Go to your local animal shelter and adopt something. For real, that could be my next book, too. But actually somebody already wrote a wonderful book. It’s called Mutual Rescue about the science of why adopting a shelter animal is so good for you as well as the animal, psychologically and emotionally. And that’s sort of one of my side hobbies, I’m an adoptions counselor for a rescue organization, for two rescue organizations. And I do believe that most people’s quality of life would be greatly improved if they had a pet.
Dr. Cooper: 47:13
Very cool. I love it. I love it. All right, last question. Just kind of open ended. Any other message you want to share with this audience, especially thinking about current future wellness coaches. Something I haven’t asked about that you’re like Brad, you didn’t ask that question, seriously?
Dr. McGonigal: 47:29
Well, you know, you didn’t ask me about my work on compassion, maybe because I haven’t written a book about it yet. Let me give you two ideas that come from my understanding of the science of compassion, that’s relevant for people who are in these helping rolls. The first is how important it is to practice compassion satisfaction. So when you are in a helping role, and even if it’s not sort of the extreme helping roll like emergency responders who are constantly responding to trauma and disaster, I think we can understand why that could be stressful. But even in the context of being a coach or a mentor or a teacher, when you’re constantly in that role of trying to look for the good in others, help people reach their goals, and and relieve some of the pain and stress in their lives, that it’s really important to understand the value of your work in a concrete way on a regular basis so that it’s sustainable. So that it feels like some of that energy is flowing back to you.
Dr. McGonigal: 48:26
And, you know, for example, if somebody gives you a thank you card to not drop it in the recycling bin. But to post it up somewhere on the wall, where you can see it. When somebody does thank you to have a practice of taking it in, like literally, somebody could be thanking you and you just pause and imagine. you could breathe their gratitude into your heart like a nourishment or a sustaining energy. Maybe when you go to sleep at night, you think about one professional interaction you had that was fun or meaningful or joyful where you were grateful to have the professional role that you have. These things are really important. It’s also important for any sort of role. I mean, you could think about the same thing for parenting, but it was to practice that kind of compassion satisfaction where you’re regularly checking in and appreciating the value of what you do and your gratitude for being able to do it.
Dr. McGonigal: 49:16
The other thing that I often find myself telling helping professionals is to make sure that the circle of compassion is complete and that you understand how important it is to let others help you. Some of those people who go into these rolls of coaching or helping or psychology, they’re really good at helping others, but it can be hard to be transparent about your own difficulties. Maybe you think you’re supposed to have it all together and not have any struggles so that you could be a good role model or be inspirational. Maybe like me, you’ve been told that it’s a burden to let other people know that you have problems so you keep it to yourselves. You’re not a burden on others, you know, for any number of reasons. And I think that helping professionals understand instinctively how valuable and meaningful it can be to get to help others. And that’s true for everyone else in your life as well. So to give yourself permission when you’re struggling in any way to allow the people who care about you to know about it and to support you so that they get some of that that benefit, that we all know how wonderful it is to actually be able to help and to care to make a difference in someone else’s life. And to think of that as part of the the way that you embody and bring compassion to the world is also your ability and willingness to be open to the compassion that is available to you.
Dr. Cooper: 50:37
Wonderful, great way to wrap it up. This is so much fun. How can people follow you? Obviously, you’ve got a lot more to share with them. Twitter? What’s your preferred way of folks keeping track of what you’re up to?
Dr. McGonigal: 50:47
Yes, I am more active on Instagram now than Twitter, I finally made the leap, but people can find me at KellyMcGonigal.com and sign up for my monthly newsletter. That’s where you can find all my social media handles and information about classes and books and that sort of thing. So KellyMcGonigal.com
Dr. Cooper: 51:08
Perfect. Dr McGonigal, really appreciate it. Thank you so much
Dr. McGonigal: 51:11
Dr. Cooper: 51:20
Practical, intriguing insights on willpower, stress, movement and compassion. How’s that for a dose of scientifically backed guidance in four absolutely critical areas to every single one of us? Thanks again to Dr. Kelly McGonigal for those insights and the work she is doing that has helped so many people. Thank you for tuning into the #1 podcast for health and wellness coaching. Next week we’ve got a special feature that we have never ever done in our 165 episode history. I’ll be curious to hear what you think. As always, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us, [email protected] anytime if you have any questions about the national board exam, Rocky Mountain Coaching Retreat and Symposium, or anything related to health and wellness coaching. And of course, you can always find additional resources at CatalystCoachingInstitute.com. Now let’s go be a catalyst, a catalyst on this journey of life making a positive impact on the world without burning ourselves out in the process. This is Dr. Bradford Cooper signing out, I’ll speak with you soon on the next episode of the Catalyst Health, Wellness, and Performance Coaching Podcast or maybe over on the youtube coaching channel.