Charged Up! podcast: The art of cultivating joy
Episode 41 with Chade-Meng Tan
Whether you’re looking for financial freedom or to overcome debt and credit anxiety, the art of cultivating joy every day is an important tool to think clearly, make wise decisions and stay grounded. Chade-Meng Tan has figured out how to make that happen after years of depression, even when his career was skyrocketing and his fame was growing.
A computer whiz, Meng found himself leaving his lower-income childhood behind and joining the ranks of the rich tech boomers – but what didn’t come with his financial success, was a sense of happiness or joy. So, he set about figuring out how to find joy no matter what his situation was and spread the word so we can all live more joyful and worry-free lives. He now offers his tools to joy in his book “Joy on Demand.”
Meng has this inner peace and happiness that you’ll detect immediately as he breaks into spontaneous chuckles – a joy he promises we can also cultivate easily and for free.
So, let’s get Charged Up! about finding joy on demand as we pursue the path to financial freedom!
Jenny Hoff: Meng, thank you so much for joining us today.
Chade-Meng Tan: Thank you for having me, friend.
Hoff: So first, tell us your own story of learning how to find contentment and joy within yourself no matter the stresses that you may be battling in your daily life.
Meng: Oh, it’s easy. I started with misery. [laughing] So when I was young, I was miserable, so I was desperate to find my way out, so the short story is I found meditation and then I practiced at that, and over time, I find myself feeling better. Most of the suffering went away, and then one fine day, I discovered something. I discovered I was happy. It was a huge surprise. I realized that in the old days, if nothing was happening, I was miserable. And then on that day, I realized that if nothing was happening, I was jolly, and I realized I made a huge change within myself and then I realized it’s because of the practice I’ve been doing, so there was the story of how I discovered the practice and how I realized how big it was in my life.
Hoff: So when you say that you were miserable, was it just you were overwhelmed with stress about work stress, financial stress, climbing up the ladder, all of those kinds of things and never really finding contentment in where you were at that moment?
Meng: Yes, actually, it was worst than that. [laughing] So everything you said, and I also think that in retrospect, there’s probably an element of clinical depression as well, probably. The symptoms that I was always unhappy, I can always find reasons to beat myself up, and I always find reasons to suffer, so that adds in addition to feeling I’m not good enough, I’m not successful enough, and so on and so forth.
Hoff: So you then dedicated a lot of time to researching this and how it affects really the public at large and individuals when it comes to our psychological and our emotional health. Have you found that this is something that a lot of people, especially in places in the world where work is so important and there’s so many things to juggle and everybody’s trying to do everything at once, do you find that this is a phenomenon that’s not very unique and that a lot of people are actually always in a state of suffering, so to speak?
Meng: Yes. Yes, so I think that everybody has suffering, no matter how rich or how poor you are. I mean, I grew up in a Third World nation. When I was growing up in Singapore, it was a Third World country, and in that setting, it’s strange to think that even Americans suffer. [laughing] [...] Every American suffers. So yes, it is bad in poor countries. People also suffer in rich countries.
Hoff: Absolutely. In fact, sometimes they say that even the more developed countries, there is a higher rate of depression because people are constantly seeking to do more, more, more, more, more, and there’s all of these options and there’s a sense of never having enough.
Meng: Yes. Also, something else I realized growing up poor, so when I was growing up, we didn’t have enough money to eat three full meals a day and so there, that was how we started, and then I realized that being poor and because we were in the growing economy at the time, is there’s always hope. Even though we were poor, is that someday, I won’t be poor anymore, so even though there’s suffering, there’s something to look forward to and I think in today’s America, when people are stuck at the lower middle-class, because of wealth cap and inequality, it’s like there’s not much to look forward to. It’s like no matter how hard I work, I’m still here. So I think that adds to the stress.
Hoff: Yes, so I want to hear, so how did your life then turn? You grew up relatively poor, you said, obviously, pretty poor, you guys couldn’t afford three meals a day. What kind of path did you then take in life career-wise and everything to pull yourself out of that, and then you realized that you still were not happy even though you reached much higher levels of success than where you have started?
Meng: So in my case, when I was growing up, I taught myself the program Computer at the age of 12, and that was my PDT too, so it was a big deal. And then I won my first national competition in programming at 15. I was national champion at 17 and so on and so forth. And then so when I grew up, I met also the dotcom boom. So I came to the U.S. for graduate studies and that was the year 2000. There was a dotcom boom so my skills, my talent suddenly became very marketable, and so working as an engineer already I was middle-class, and then to meet the dotcom boom, I went beyond middle-class. So that was how I became financially successful which doesn’t apply to anybody. That was me.
Hoff: So you became financially successful, suddenly you’re not anymore the poor child who has to worry about food. You’re financially successful, you have a booming career in an industry that’s quickly growing yet you still found yourself never happy?
Meng: Yes, so I was miserable, especially when I was a teenager and remember back then, I was already quite successful. I already won national acclaim. National acclaim, that was huge at 17, right? Yes, nothing work for me and even in my early 20s, when I had a successful career, I was in the best research institute in Singapore. I was a rising star and even that, I wasn’t happy, so it took a while.
Hoff: That’s why I wanted to go through your history because I think what’s interesting is you really experienced a lot of levels of the spectrum, right? From poverty to being middle-class, to being kind of a celebrity and successful in your field, to really making it big, and then to kind of still search for happiness and joy, and I wanted to talk about this because a lot of times in our podcast, we concentrate on building wealth and getting financially fit and making good investments, and that those are all important, and happiness, a lot of it – if you’re comfortable and you can feed your family and you can send your kids to school, that plays a big part in your happiness and satisfaction but it also goes deeper than that and I want to talk about as we are working toward to the next level financially, career-wise, etc., how we can achieve this inner contentment with where we are at every moment in our lives, and I think if we can achieve something like this, it makes our brain so much clearer and to be able to actually accomplish those things. So in either situation, we’re always in a state of anxiety, it feels like, whether it’s finding financial success or getting out of financial distress. What have you found as a way to get out of that state of anxiety as we work toward those goals?
Meng: Right, that’s a very important insight which I’m guessing your listeners are already familiar, with which is that if you go from poor to being not poor, so from poor to middle-class, it makes a huge difference in happiness. But if you go from not poor to rich, it makes very little difference. If you go from rich to very rich, it makes almost no difference.
Meng: So in other words, wealth doesn’t make any difference in the level of happiness except the case of going from poor to not poor or getting out of poverty, so that’s a very important insight. So that answers half the question. Half the question is about financial success versus financial distress. I think that if you are no longer poorer, then you are in a different ballgame, so from that point on, I mean, even more money doesn’t make that much difference, so from that point on, when you’re poor, yes, you should try to make more money. Once you’re no longer poor, you should change your game and to try to look for happiness in other places, so that’s the first insight. The second insight is that happiness, it turns out, it’s a scale. It’s something that we already know how to do and all we need to do is practice, and so for example, one example is that it turns out there’s something called the joy of ease, so to be at ease, and then when you’re relaxed, and you will actually know where you’re not like falling asleep, but just relaxing, and then sometimes, you’ll find that, “Wait a minute, this is a very nice state. It’s kind of joyful,” and then with enough practice, it’s like, you can experience it sustainably and reliably. Every time you’re sitting, nothing’s happening, it’s like, “Whoa, I’m just happy,” right? So that is an example of a skill of happiness. Another skill has to do with our relationships, so for example, it turns out , calling to the sanctity of research is that relationships make a huge difference in happiness. If you’re in fulfilling relationships, it makes you happy, so the skills here involved are kindness, so one example is to be able to look at the human being and feel any human being, and the first thought is, “I wish for this person to be happy,” and afterward, it becomes a skill. It becomes something that you do naturally without even thinking and do to everybody, and you could do that then you’re always happy and you’re always spreading happiness independent of how rich you are.
Hoff: Absolutely, and so your book “Joy on Demand,” and you talked about that, that this is a skill, this is something you practice and that you can acquire, and it’s not just something that’s going to come to you one day, out of the blue, that happiness is there and you would finally achieve all your goals and you have it. So when it comes to the skills, what do you think are the main skills there? Is it meditation, is it this idea of feeling happy for other people and wanting them to find happiness? What are the things that we often deal with now that are not helping us on the path to happiness and what are the skills that we should be acquiring in order to change that?
Meng: So there’s three sets of skills. The first set, so we covered a little bit just now, the first set of skill is the joy of ease or easing into joy, and this is a skill where you learn to relax your mind and body and then through relaxation, you’ll find that the mind at piece is a joyful mind so you’re going to ease and use the ease to create joy, and using the joy to create more ease because when a mind is joyful, you find that it’s even more at ease, even more relaxed, and then it becomes a virtuous cycle, so this is one set of skills.
Hoff: So how do we get into that joy of ease? How do we practice that? What if calming our mind is not a skill that we possess or for us, ease might be watching TV until we fall asleep or reading a book, and in a sense, that’s not ease, right? You’re still entertaining yourself and entertaining your brain.
Meng: Correct, correct. In those cases, what we are doing is actually not ease, what we’re doing is actually stimulating the mind with pleasure, pleasure of senses, like pleasure of eyes and ears, and so on, so what I’m talking about is the kind of joy that’s independent of sensory input and the way to do that, at first, it’s just learning to rest the mind and resting is very easy. Just resting is an instinct. When we’re tired, we all know how to rest. So in this case, for the beginner, it begins with as little as a single breath, six seconds. Do you want to do that now, six seconds?
Hoff: Let’s do it.
Meng: OK, I want you to, for six seconds, bring full attention to in breath and full attention to out breath and do in a way that is a call to attention but relaxed. Sounds good? OK, just do that now. In breath. Out breath. Thank you.
Hoff: Yes, thank you.
Meng: You will find that you are a little bit calmer already, but just a little bit, in six seconds. There are two important reasons. The first reason is physiological, so when you bring attention to a breath, you end up breathing slower and deeper, and if you do that, you are stimulating your vagus nerve. What that does is it stimulates a reaction called, let me see, it’s the opposite of a stress response; it’s called a relaxation response, so it does everything opposite of stress, so it lowers the heart rate, it lowers your blood pressure, and it relaxes your muscles and so on, starting from the first breath. This is amazing. So you have reverse stress already, so that’s one reason. That’s the physiological reason. Psychologically, even more powerful, because to worry, you need to be in the future. To regret, you need to be in the past and when you bring full attention to your current breath, then you’re fully in the present and so for the duration of one breath, you’re free from worry and regret, and that is why it’s so relaxing, so you find that already, first breath, everybody can do that and the practice is simply to go beyond one breath, as simple as that. The longer you can do this, the calmer you’ll be, so maybe you begin with let’s say one breath here, one breath there, and then as you get more comfortable, you stream three breaths at that time, three breaths of full concentration, say, “Ah, my life's started changing.” And after a while, you find that it’s a skill. It’s like running, the more you do, the better you are, and you find that you can sustain this for like an hour, an hour of profound rest and freedom from worry or regret, so that’s how you do it. Very simple.
Hoff: So you really find that this is kind of now, the ease part which is the skill of being able to ease your mind, not occupy it with a distraction, not just fall asleep but actually put it in that state of just complete relaxation, and so this is the skills that we start acquiring. Now you said the second one would be the skill of finding happiness for others?
Meng: Yes, so the first one is alert and relax the mind for this one. The second one is, inclining the mind toward joy, so what does that mean? So in the old meditative traditions, they were inclining as inclining the mind, it’s compared to inclination of a mountain, a mountain slope. So when a mountain slopes in a certain direction and water flows effortlessly in that direction. The keyword is effortless, so if you incline your mind into a certain way, then experience its flow effortlessly in that direction, so for example, you are inclined toward anger. Every other thing makes you angry without effort but if you can change your inclination of mind toward joy, then your mind will effortlessly become joyful, so the question becomes how do you do that? How do you incline the mind toward joy? Surprising enough, it’s just to familiarize the mind with joy, so what is familiarization? So how do you do that? You’re just going to do that, is to notice all the attention to thin slices of joy, so example, example when I’m drinking water, so usually, when drinking water, it’s just like, “Eh,” nobody cares. You carry on, but you could pay attention to this, right? So now I’m thirsty, and then I have a sip of water, and then it’s like, “Whoa, now I’m not thirsty. I feel good, this experience of drinking is pleasant. It makes me happy,” and just pay attention to that, and that slice of joy is very thin. It’s thin in space and time. Thin in space as in it’s not like, “Yay!” It’s like, “It’s kind of nice.” And then thin in time because it lasts maybe three seconds, maybe two. But if you pay attention to it, you find that you start to experience that everywhere, and then you start to notice them all the time; it’s like there’s a thin slice of joy here and thin slice there. It’s like drinking water, seeing a best friend, coming home safely, and so on and so forth. And then you find that everything, maybe not everything, but many things in life become sources of joy, and the reason is because now the mind is inclined toward the joy, and so joy comes effortlessly, and so this is the second set of skills. The way to train that is very simple, as I just said. It is simply paying attention to thin slices of joy. It takes no time and it takes very little effort.
Hoff: So in a sense, gratitude, right? So it’s feeling also grateful in the fact that you took that sip of water now you feel refreshed or you see a friend or you got home safely, or your child runs to give you a hug and it’s experiencing that and feeling grateful for that?
Meng: Yes and no, so yes, it is gratitude but the practice, that is only one of the side effect, one of the good side effects of this practice. So just pay attention to goodness and then you find that. [...] So gratitude, and another thing that happens in this practice that is also very powerful, maybe even more powerful, which is you begin to notice the absence of pain. So normally, we don’t notice, so right now, I don’ have a tooth ache. I didn’t notice and when I had a toothache I was like, if I don’t have this pain, I’ll be so happy, and then my pain went away after I see a dentist and forget to be happy after three days, so if you start inclining your mind toward joy and then one fine day, you’ll realize that, wait a minute, right now, I’m not in pain and I’m so happy, and that inside right now, I know [inaudible 00:18:00] comes more and more often with more practice, and so that’s another side effect of this practice, really powerful. It’s life-changing.
Hoff: OK, and so then the third one?
Meng: And then it’s the third –
Meng: The third practice is uplifting the mind, and uplifting specifically with kindness and compassion, so for example, love and kindness. Again, let’s try an experiment, shall we?
Meng: For two or three seconds, let’s bring to mind somebody you care about, just think, “I wish for this person to be happy,” let’s do it now.
Meng: If you notice, when you think and wish for this person to be happy, you yourself, you’re smiling, you’re happier, so to be on the giving end of a kind thought is intrinsically rewarding.
Hoff: Yes, absolutely.
Meng: Yes, and I find that it’s reliable. Every time I do that, I feel a little bit happier. At least a little bit happier. Sometimes, a lot happier. So after a while, you practice this a lot, it becomes a skill. Like I said, every human being will see this as first instinct, the wish for others to be happy, and they’ll be happy a lot, so that’s the first benefit but it goes beyond that. Scientifically, the Huntington Neuroscience, the happiest they ever measured in the history of neuroscience was the state of compassion which is caring for other people suffering, so when you practice this love and kindness, wishing for a lot of people to be happy, after a while, it morphs into compassion and then you’re even happier because you‘re always having concern and love for everybody. So it’s really powerful.
Hoff: You stop your obsession with yourself a little bit. You are now not only thinking about yourself but you’re finding joy in other people’s joy as well.
Meng: Oh, yes, I love the way you put it. Yes, precisely.
Hoff: Absolutely. In this podcast, as I said, right, I said I always try to be helpful for ways for listeners to better their financial lives, and you talked about it a little bit in your book that we attract more of what we want in life by cultivating this inner joy. How does that work then in kind of practice especially maybe when it comes to finances or further in your career once we’ve kind of now practiced this and we have this sense of happiness and contentment and joy but we also don’t want to be stagnant? We want to see how far we can go, we want to see what our potential can be, those kinds of things.
Meng: Right, so in my mind, there are three or four things that this practice contributes directly to your success. The first thing is, it contributes to your career success. So for example, what these practices do, you find that over time, you have acquired a lot of qualities that are very conducive to success. For example, you find yourself calmer, you find your mind clearer, you find you can make decisions under fire, and so on, right? So those things, and also, you care about people. People start loving you and when you acquire those skills, it doesn’t mean that you become successful tomorrow. However, you create a condition for your own success, so for example, let’s say a supervisor position opens up and then okay, how about Mrs. Suzy? She’s always calm, she handles every situation calmly, and she can think and everybody loves her and her customers love her, so maybe let’s promote her. So by practicing those skills, you find that people start to notice over time and then when the opportunity opens up, they think of you, since you’re the person who can do the job. So this is the first way, this practice help you become financially successful, by helping you in career success. And the second way is it helps you to save money, at least in my experience, and the way it does that is by reducing the compulsion for material consumption, so I find that a lot of times, we buy stuff, especially expensive stuff because we have a hole in the heart to fill, and we fill it with stuff. And then once we find that we are happy independent of wealth, then it’s like the hole that we need to fill starts getting smaller, I mean, there’s still a whole but smaller. So I still need a car, but I don’t need a Mercedes anymore. I mean, I can have like Honda Civic and I’m just as happy, for example. So I saved $30,000, right? And my watch, I don’t have $1,000 watch. I have one I bought from Target. So after a while, you find that by doing that, you save a lot of money and you’re equally happy, so because of that, you’re saving rate increases and then it helps your future success, so that’s number two. And number three is, especially in the financially distressed situation, you find that even if that practice, even the first two things that I talked about, right, career and more saving, it takes a while, it takes months or years to get away from financial distress to financial success, and so the skills that help you in this instance, are the skills that help you sustain yourself during these few years, and so these skills that we talk about, they are the ones that help you, so for example, it helps you calm your mind. It helps you learn to be kind to yourself, it helps you be patient, so doing those two or three, is it takes to get you back to financial health, you find that the process is much easier. So these are, I think the three ways where the practices that we talk about have direct bearing on your financial success and maybe I mention one other thing. The fourth thing is what happens when you become rich? You may find, because say, if you go from poor to not poor, it’s always positive. However, if you go from not poor to rich, not always positive. I have friends who after become rich, they are more miserable, and scientifically, a study of people who win the lottery, you’ll find that a year after winning lottery, most of them are miserable, more miserable than before, and for a variety of reasons. But I find something, I find that for myself, after I became financially very successful, I gave a lot of my money to charity and because of that, I was one of those few people who are rich and happy. I did it without thinking because it’s just part of my practice. I realized that it makes a huge difference, so even if you practice all this before you become rich, once you become rich, you won’t sink into the misery track.
Hoff: Yes, absolutely. It’s not hinging your happiness. Your happiness is not dependent on becoming rich, and so then when you do become rich and realize, “I’m still not happy,” I think that’s when people can really hit a low and that’s what we see, I think, with a lot of actors and celebrities, and people who are really at the pinnacle, they height of where they can reach, and there’s still upset and others they were miserable, and they’re still depressed, and so again, as you said, it’s really independently cultivating this joy and the satisfaction so that being rich can be a great thing. It’s not a bad thing. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to be unhappy but it means that your happiness shouldn’t depend on how much money is in the bank and that you can spread that happen more when you have money, if you’ve cultivated that practice before hand. Is that what you’re saying?
Hoff: That’s fantastic. Another question I have, and we only have a few minutes, but a lot of times now, we’re just constantly inundated with information when we’re at work or we are at home with kids or with our friends and it feels that we cannot spend a minute, and I’m one of those who are guilty of this, a minutes without some sort of mental distraction, so the minute that you’re free, you’re sitting in a subway or you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, you pull out your phone and you check social media or you check the news, or you check your emails. I’m assuming this is just not good for that overall sense of ease that we’ve talked about. How do we get out of this addiction, this practice of having to constantly feel like we have to occupy our brain?
Meng: So the solution to this is the awareness of the cost of doing so, so what does that mean? Let me give you an example. So why do I eat so much junk food, right? Because I can. And if junk food was free and example, all the time, I will be eating all the time, however, if I’m aware of the cost. OK, I’ll be fat and I will be unattractive and my health is going to be – and then, I’ll eat less. Maybe I’ll stop eating, so same thing, same thing is to be aware of the cost of consuming junk information. So we consume so much junk information because we think it’s free, because I mean, I look at my iPhone or whatever and it’s just there, I don’t pay money. So what price are we paying? The price is attention. So the currency of information is attention. In order to consume information, we need to pay attention, so therefore, an overabundance of information leads necessarily to a deficit or a poverty of attention. Attention is a very valuable resource because all our experiences are based on attention. Our whole world, everything we experience is based on what we are attending to, so it’s really very expensive, so therefore, once you realize that and consuming this information and I am paying a huge price, I’m paying price of attention, and I’m paying what’s called opportunity cost. Whenever I’m looking here, I know I’m deploying my attention in places where I’ll be happy, like for example, looking around me, looking at my kids and playing with my kids, and so on, and even looking at the flowers or the sky, those things make me happy. I’m deploying my resources someplace else, so therefore, I think just being aware of that and over time, when somebody invites you to go shopping, you take out your phone and say, “No, I’d rather look at the flowers.”
Hoff: Yes, so it’s really that awareness of knowing that as you, I like that, you are paying attention, it’s even in the phrase. You’re paying for that experience and it may not be with money but it is with your time and your attention, and your focus, and the capacity you have in your brain to absorb new information, and instead of putting that toward something, as you said that will cultivate joy inside, you’re putting it toward that oftentimes, if anything, it shows and it sparks maybe a mild curiosity but more often than not, maybe it would increase more stress because a lot of times it’s negative news or information, or comparing yourself to others, so I think that’s something we can all practice and not just say it but really trying to pay attention to noticing that I am giving of this attention that is a scarce resource to something that’s not bringing me joy. I wanted to say three practices that we can start now to be finding our inner joy, but I think we kind of went through that and you said these breathing techniques, it’s being able to ease your self, it’s finding happiness for other people, and it’s finding those little slices of joy throughout the day, and would you say those are three practices that we could start right now that we could see and start making a difference?
Meng: Yes, except even not finding, just paying attention to them. Finding these are not very defined but those things, joy, they’re already here. All you have to do is just notice that they’re there.
Hoff: Right. OK, so it’s not even an active really experience, you just start paying more attention to what’s happening, and then finally, our show is called “Charged Up,” what gets you charged up about discovering your own inner capacity for happiness?
Meng: What charges me up is discovering that – I mean, what I really want to do is to serve and I find that when I have more capacity to serve, that makes me more happy, and what charges me up is that these practices are giving me increased capacity to serve others.
Hoff: That’s fantastic. Meng, I’ll tell you, even just this 30 minute conversation, I feel happier, already also talking to you, so you’re doing great at what makes you happy and I think that we could all really benefit from just these very simple practices and finding that inner joy where laughter will bubble up out of us even if we are not experiencing something exhilarating at the moment. I think that’s probably the ultimate goal for a lot of us in life. Thank you so much for sharing your time with us today.
Meng: Thank you, my friend.
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