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Welcome to The Bucket Podcast — a series of interviews that features an eclectic mix of people who all share one thing in common — they’re all going to die. But does being aware of that change the way they live? That’s the question host and The Bucket founder, David Abend, asks them in a fascinating collection of stories that explore the concept — and value — of mortality-based living.


3. Dr. Sanjiv Chopra: Happiness is a Choice

Dr. Sanjiv Chopra is a professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School, a motivational speaker, an accomplished author and a man who is often referred to as a happiness guru. Why? Find out in this fascinating podcast in which Dr. Chopra explains the four traits of happiness and how anyone can choose to achieve them. In this episode of The Bucket Podcast, Chopra talks about his new book, The Two Most Important Days, and shares colorful stories, quotes and lessons from a lifetime pursuit of helping people discover that happiness is something we can all create for ourselves.  Explains Chopra, “We are all gurus. We are all on a journey. We are all seekers.”



David Abend: You’ve been called the Happiness Guru. Is that accurate? Would you describe yourself?

Dr. Sanjiv Chopra: I don’t really like the term Guru. My brother once said Guru can be spelled Gee You Are You, right? So, we’re all gurus. We’re all seekers.

David Abend: In your book The Two Most Important Days, you focus on the four traits of Happiness: having friends, practicing forgiveness, doing for others, and gratitude. It’s hard to argue that those aren’t great traits. But is it causal? Are happy people just like that or can being that way make you happy?

Dr. Sanjiv Chopra: I’m totally convinced that if you follow those four tenants, you will be happy, you will be happier, and you will increase your happiness quotient. We talk about IQ. We talk about EQ, emotional quotient. There’s also a happiness quotient. There’s a formula and it’s based on the study of monozygotic and dizygotic twins. What it says is that 50% of our happiness is genetic. It’s like the set point in this room. It’s what we inherit. We all know families where they have loving parents, they may have three kids and two of the kids are happy and the third isn’t, probably inherited some different genes. Even that is malleable, fluid, and dynamic. Only 10% of happiness is living conditions. If you have a roof and running water, that is pretty good whether you live in a mansion in Beverly Hills, the slums of Calcutta or the Shanty towns of Joburg. 10% – it’s astounding! 40% is voluntary action, what we can do to make others happy. One of the best ways for us to be happy is to make others happy.

Now, how can we increase that set point? Exercise! Exercise is as good as any of the antidepressants without any of the side effects and a multitude of other benefits. Also, behavioral cognitive therapy and meditation, but very importantly gratitude.

Sir Robert Emmons, father of modern positive psychology, has written a book. It’s called Thanks. He’s actually done a randomized study where you took a group of people and half the group was to jot down three things they did at the end of the day and the other half were told to jot down three things they were grateful for. At the end of six weeks, the set point of the people who express gratitude went up by an astounding 25%! There is a wonderful anonymous quote that says, “If you don’t know the language of gratitude, you will never be on speaking terms with happiness.”

There’s an amazing landmark study called the Catholic Nun Study. In the 1930’s the Mother Superior Court gave 180 nuns a piece of paper and said write a little bit about who you are what you’re looking forward to. Seven decades later, the researchers could authenticate the handwriting and classified them into expressing low gratitude and high gratitude. An example of high gratitude would be something like “I’m looking forward with joy to serving the lord, and I am so happy to be here.” You see the words joy and happiness in three sentences. There are 180 nuns, all single, nobody drinks, nobody smokes, nobody is married, and they live in the same convent. What happened? On average the nuns who expressed high gratitude lived ten years longer. If we had a pill that would make you live three years longer it be a trillion dollars. A friend is a gift you give to yourself.

Robert Louis Stevenson said that famously “Friends are your chosen family.” I got very lucky with my parents and my one brother, but I got to select my friends. I’m so happy when I’m with my friends. I say celebrate something small or big with your friend, seize every opportunity.

There’s an amazing study. It’s called The Harvard Grand Study on adult development. It’s been going on for almost eight decades. There’s no study like this. They took 600 young people, 21 years of age, 300 went to Harvard the other 300 range from poor parts of Boston, Dorchester and West Roxbury. They have followed them with yearly questionnaires, physical examinations, blood tests, home visits, interviews of the spouses, and now a cohort of their children are being followed. George Valiant, professor of Psychiatry at Mass. General, has written a wonderful book about this called the Triumph of Experience. Robert Waldinger is the current principal investigator and has given a Ted Talk about this. What happened to that group? 19, as of two years ago, were still alive at age 91. Some became lawyers, doctors, accountants, admirals. Some became Skid Row alcoholics and derelicts. Some died of suicide. One became our President. John F. Kennedy was in that group. The major conclusion of the study is that loneliness is toxic and your satisfaction with relationships with your friends at age 50 is a better predictor of health, happiness, and longevity at age 80, three decades later. Better than what? Your blood pressure, your EKG, your cholesterol, and your inflammatory markers in your blood. So, I tell all the students, interns, residents, fellows, and junior faculty of the Brigham and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center: “I know you may have only 15 minutes for a visit but right at the end ask them a little bit about what they do to celebrate with friends, and then point them to this Ted Talk they can go watch and incorporate it. So, that’s friends.

Forgiveness! Gandhi once said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” The Buddha once said, “Resentment is like holding a hot coal, with the intent of hurling it at somebody who’s offended you. That person has moved on, and you’re burning your hand.” To me the prime example is Nelson Mandela after 27 years in prison. It’s hard to fathom. When he’s released, he is asked the question: “Mr. Mandela do you harbor resentment against your captors?” He gave the most brilliant eloquent answer. He said, “I have no bitterness. I have no resentment. Resentment is like drinking poison, and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

That’s the two halves: friends and forgiveness. The third is a derivative of a quote by Albert Schweitzer, who was a physician, theologian, humanitarian, and Nobel Laureate. The Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, when it was the Beth Israel, was a sister hospital of the hospital that he, with his wife, a nurse, created in Gabon. About 19 years ago we celebrated the Centennial. I learned a lot about Schweitzer, especially from a colleague Lachlan Furrows, an ethicist, and he gives a brilliant talk on Albert Schweitzer ethics and skills and his legacy. Schweitzer, in 1952, gets a Nobel Peace Prize. Talk about humility, at the ceremony he says, “Now I have to go earn it.” He once said, “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I’m certain of is the ones amongst you who will be truly happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” That’s the forward and there’s this whole concept emerging about servant leadership. Leaders exist to serve.

Friends, forgiveness, for others, and the fourth is .gratitude. It’s not God. Many atheists are famous people and they do God’s work. Warren Buffett is an atheist and look how charitable he is. Happiness is more than the sum total of happy moments. These things will make you happy, but if you want sustained happiness, we have to find our purpose and live it. That’s why we chose the title The Two Most Important Days: How to Find Your Purpose and Live a Happy and Healthy Life. When you open the book, you see the full quote by Mark Twain. “The two most important days in your life are the day you’re born and the day you find out why.” We give many examples of amazing people who found happiness and their life’s purpose when they witness something stark, negative and jolting. They said, you know what? I want to try to make a difference here, then it becomes their life’s purpose.

We tell the story of Papa Jaime, who was 28 standing at the street corner in Bogota and across the street there’s a sewer. He’s feeling sorry for these orphans who live in that underground city. There’s a seven-year-old beautiful girl looking at him and smiling and he’s thinking I should do something about these kids. As they are having this interchange a car comes around the corner stops in the middle of the street and the window rolls down. Somebody tosses a box with a Fisher-Price toy. The car recedes and the girl comes running to the middle of the street to pick it up. She’s never possessed a toy. She’s looking at Jaime and smiling and as they are having this interchange a speeding truck comes down the corner and smashes it into oblivion. He says, “This is it. I’m going to help these kids.” He has adopted, home schooled and fed 52,000 orphans. They’ve grown up to become computer scientist, professional athletes, teachers, lawyers, doctors, surgeons, and they are giving back to the foundation. If you meet him, you’ll see the sparkle in his eyes. You see the bliss in his eyes. About three years ago, I got wind that he’s had a terrible accident. He’s into hang gliding, and suddenly sees wires that were not there a previous time. He swirls and smashes into a tree. He is at the Neurosurgical ICU in Bogota, and as I connect with him I said, “I’m so glad to know that you’re alive.” He says Sanjiv, “I could not die. I have to be here for my children and grandchildren.” He found his purpose.

There is another way I think we can find our purpose. A friend of mine, Adrian Wilkins, and I have done a workshop on invitation to happiness. We gave everyone 30 3” x 5” cards and said at the end of the day write down three or four things you did that day and give it a ranking of one, you were pretty miserable, to 10, if you were lucky you and in bliss. At the end of the month look at everything from 1-2-3-4-5 and strike it out. Look at 6-7-8-9: that’s what made you happy, that’s what resonated for you. Your purpose is lurking in there. That’s a practical way of looking at it.

David Abend: Another idea you talk about in the book The Two Most Important Days is the importance of failure and how essential it is to growth. You say the avoidance of failure can lead us to insulate ourselves against not just failing, but success as well. I think taking risks is something that we’re much more aware of when we’re younger. So, somebody quits their job and starts a business, or they pull up the stakes and they move out west or something like that. With people in their 50’s or 60’s, as they approach retirement, you could say that there’s less pressure to take risks. In fact, we’re kind of encouraged to put it on cruise control. I was wondering what you thought. Can a case be made that this is a time in life where it’s most important to take risks to find your purpose?

Dr. Sanjiv Chopra: Absolutely. I totally agree with you David. Winston Churchill once said, “Success is going from failure to failure without lack of enthusiasm.” He also said, “Courage is rightly esteemed, the first of human qualities,” because it is the quality that guarantees all others. I think as human beings we are afraid of failure, but we are also afraid of success. Some people say if I apply for the job and I get it, am I really up to it? Do I have the credentials? They worry about it. You’ll grow into the job. You can always get somebody to mentor you. Jack Welch once said, “It is a badge of honor to get good ideas from someone else.” When Susan Hockfield became the president of MIT, she reached out to one of her mentors at Yale. She said, “Please give me advice.” He said, “Three pieces of advice: listen, listen and listen.” We can all grow into the job. We should be risk averse. There’s a nurse who interviewed about a thousand patients in hospice. They said the following: I should have spent more time with friends, I should have traveled more, I should have been the bigger person, I should have said I’m sorry, I should have said I love you more often, I should have had the courage to pursue my dreams and aspirations. See? Regret. Nobody said: I should have lived in a big mansion in Beverly Hills, belonged to three country clubs, got a new Ferrari every two years or every six months. The point is we have to be doing those five things. Now, let’s not any of us have any of those regrets!

David Abend: When people reach retirement age and they’re getting older, especially when people retire, a lot of people feel like they’ve lost their purpose, like they had a job, and this is what I did. I’ve read a lot of articles about people who are struggling with losing their purpose. What would you say to that?

Dr. Sanjiv Chopra: I would say that you had an amazing career.  You had amazing skills and talents, you’ve got so much knowledge and wisdom, share it, volunteer, join the Rotary Club, join some charitable organization, welcome new people in your neighborhood. There are hundreds of ways in which you can find some meaning. World-famous hepatologist, liver specialist by field, worked for 70 years, and was world-renowned.  At 70 or 75 years old he was retired, but he had no purpose. He had no vocation other than medicine. He was withering away. He begged the hospital, “Give me a small little closet so I can come back and I can read. I can teach the students.”  He found more meaning and purpose in his retirement. I was in Singapore recently and the dean and CEO of one of the major University Hospitals there said to me, “Sanjeev you’ve done something remarkable in your career. You’ve sort of developed a second parallel career with your books and your speaking.” I said, “Thank you for saying that.” He said, “In Singapore compared to the 60’s, when it was a cesspool of drugs and prostitution, the average Singaporean is now living 30 years longer.” “We have a big challenge,” he says, “I call it the 30-year dividend, but what do we do with it? I’m speaking to a consultant at Stanford. And, would you be willing to work with us as well, and help our physicians and our older folks as they’re retiring find meaning and purpose and ways to contribute to society?” I said, “John I’d be honored.” This is so true.

David Abend: Definitely! You talk in your book about Stephen Southwick’s book on resilience. You quote him as saying, “Face your fears, avoiding fears strengthens them. Facing them even for a few moments allows the brain to weaken the fear connection.” Do you think this applies to facing fear of death?

Dr. Sanjiv Chopra: I think it does, but a lot of the perceptions and feelings we have about death are cultural.  If you believe in reincarnation, like Hindus do, then we’re just disposing of this body. The soul is eternal. It’s like, okay, we’ll get a new suitcase, this one is old and worn out. For most Americans, we are not ready to embrace death. It’s a tragedy when you see a patient, and as a physician I’ve seen this play out so many times, who has end-stage cancer that has spread to the brain, the liver, the lungs. Now, they’re having a G.I. bleed, or they have horrific pneumonia. You say to the family that things are really dismal.  “No, I want you to transfer my father to the ICU. I want you to intubate. I want you to get a pulmonary consult, critical care consult.” We have to do that. In reality, what we are doing there is prolonging dying, we’re not prolonging living. After three or four days, when things look equally bad or worse, then the family may say, “Shut off the ventilator.” We’re not ready. Our culture somehow doesn’t embrace death. Death is a part of life.

David Abend: I think that is something that people are afraid of and they don’t want to think about it. By not thinking about it, they keep their heads down. When I talk about The Bucket and I’m trying to explain it to people I’ll say, “People live their lives with their heads down. They don’t want to pick their heads up and see what’s coming because that’s death at the end. So, I’m going to keep my head down, and keep doing what I’m doing.” By not picking their head up, they might miss out on doing something. They may not make a choice. When I was reading your book, you had the gorillas in the midst. Can you talk about the gorillas in the midst?

Dr. Sanjiv Chopra: It’s amazing. If you’re not thinking of something and looking at it, you’re not even aware it exists. This experiment they have people throwing passing basketballs to other people on a court, some are dressed in white and some are dressed in black. You’re told to count how many times the white players pass the ball and how many times the black players pass the ball.  People are focusing on that and focusing on that, and then in the middle of it, there’s a guy in a gorilla suit pumping his chest, as he walks across the basketball. Half the people at the end when you say, “Did you see the gorilla?” They say, “What gorilla?” They don’t see it. They were concentrating. They weren’t taking in the whole picture. We can go through life not looking at the whole picture. That’s why Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Many of us go to our grave with the music still playing inside us.”

David Abend: I thought that was such an amazing way to look at things. I re-read that a couple of times to say, “This was a real experiment.”

Dr. Sanjiv Chopra: Yes, you can  watch it on YouTube. One of my cardiology colleagues actually incorporated it into one of his talks. He was talking about angiography and how you look at lesions. Now we know that artificial intelligence, aided intelligence as some people are saying, may be much better than any pathologist reading a biopsy, any radiologist at reading mammogram, any dermatologist at looking at the skin lesion and wondering whether it’s benign, atypical or melanoma. We have our limitations in how well we can look at life, even the world’s experts.

David Abend: One of the points you make in your book and your talks that really resonated with me was this idea that happiness is a choice. Can you talk about that?

Dr. Sanjiv Chopra: I think it’s a choice in the sense that we can do very simple things to be happy, and yet some of us choose not to do that. One of my favorite quotes, in the book by Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust Survivor, Man’s Search for Meaning in Nine Days, says “Happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue as the unintended side effect of dedication to a cause greater than yourself.” I think we can choose that. We can say this is a charity, look at it, they are impacting 80,000 orphans. They’re feeding poor school kids for twenty dollars a year. I want to be part of it. The moment you make that decision and start helping, you’re happy. That’s the choice. There’s a story of this young girl walking on a beach where there is 10,000 starfish are stranded, picks one throws it into the ocean, picks another one throws it into the. There’s an old man sitting on the beach in a rocking chair smoking a pipe reading a book. He says, “Young lady come here. What are you doing? Do you think you’re making a difference? 10,000 starfish are stranded here. Look across there’s another beach with 15,000 starfish.” She looks at him, smiles, picks up a starfish, throws it into the ocean, turns to him and says, “It made a difference to that one.” We can all make a difference. We don’t have to do things that Papa Jaime has done, but we can all make a difference. Even helping one person, the ripple effect, the cascade effect, that they’ll have through generations, will bring us happiness and joy.

David Abend: Thank you very much. I’ve learned a lot, and I’m sure our listeners will as well. Thank you for listening! For more about how to get the most out of your life by embracing your own mortality, Go to If you know someone you think should be in a future bucket podcast, please let us know at