This week’s conversation is with Doug Abrams, an author and truth hunter.
Doug is committed to helping catalyze the next evolutionary stage of our global culture – and he’s worked with some incredible human beings along the way.
He co-wrote The Book of Joy with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, he’s worked with Stephen Hawking on his last book, the global bestseller Brief Answers to the Big Questions, and has had the privilege of working with other Nobel Laureates including Nelson Mandela, Jody Williams, and Elizabeth Blackburn.
Doug is also devoted to spreading the importance of conservation and fighting climate change.
He worked with Christiana Figueres, the former UN Secretary on Climate, who led the Paris Climate Agreement, on The Future We Choose: Ending the Climate Crisis, and with plant ecologist Suzanne Simard on Finding the Mother Tree, about her work discovering the communication and network intelligence of trees and forests, and how cooperation is as important to survival as competition.
He co-wrote his newest book, The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times, with Jane Goodall. In this urgent book they explore, through intimate and thought-provoking dialogue, one of the most sought after and least understood elements of human nature: hope.
I hope this conversation gives you the opportunity to recalibrate – to reconnect with that part inside of you that sees the good, hopes for a better future, and works towards it every day.
“What hope allows us to do is to realize that – even in the suffering, even in the pain, even in the challenge that is life – there is incredible possibility.”
In This Episode:
How did he work towards co-authoring books with global icons?
It all has to do with the power of making a list, believing, and hope. It’s about recognizing. There’s something in the science of hope where they talk about us being fear/hope creatures. We’re either in fear – which is in the ancient more reptilian centers and emotional centers of our brain – or we’re in hope, which is in our most evolved prefrontal cortex. And so basically I was working in publishing and I decided I had made enough money for Rupert Murdoch at Harper Collins. And I wanted to set up an agency working with visionaries who were creating a wiser healthier more just world. And I made a list of the 20 or so people I most wanted to work with in the world. The first person on that list was Desmond Tutu, to the Dalai Lama was on that list. Goodall was on that list.
Hope fundamentally is the belief that the future can be better than the president. And one of the things that was fascinating to, and looking at the field of… And let me just say, just to be really candid and honest, I was really skeptical about Hope. I’m a New Yorker. We don’t really do Hope. We do cynicism, outrage.. Hope felt really Pollyanna. Like let’s hope for the best. And what was fascinating was to understand what the scientist said about hope and what Jane said about hope. And we can talk about both what I think I came to see through Jane’s eyes is that hope is a fundamental human survival trait. It’s actually how we get up in the morning. It’s how we accomplish anything in our life. And without it, we fall into despair, depression. Basically, we and our families and our communities fail.
Hope and optimism are not the same
Optimism is fundamentally an approach toward life that says, if you’re optimistic, like things are going to work out for the best, it’s going to be fine. And what was interesting to learn about hope is that it’s not a foregone conclusion. It’s all going to work out for the best. It’s a belief that you can improve things and make them better than they are. And that you have to actually get active and make it happen. And that there is going to be adversity and challenge. That was really interesting that to see that in the literature, hopeful people are not people who say, oh, it’s all going to work out for the best. There are people who say, I hope I can make this thing happen. I hope I can accomplish this goal. I know there are going to be obstacles in my way, but I’m going to do my best to realize it.
The Four Pillars of Hope
Scientifically, the field that studies hope identifies four fundamental qualities of hope of what sustains hope… the first is to have realistic goals. What makes a realistic goal? Working with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu probably wasn’t a very realistic goal, but it was a goal. It was at the time. So even bold goals – going to the moon can be a realistic goal, even if it’s a really bold goal, but then you also have to have realistic patterns or means. You have to have a way to get there. And then you have to have a sense of agency, a sense that you can get there, that you have confidence in yourself. And that doesn’t mean it’s a forgone inclusion that you can get there, but at least you have a sense of agency and belief that there’s a chance that you could make it happen. And then fourth and often left out is social support. And this is really fascinating. I hope we’ll talk some about this because one of the most profound things I heard was this idea that hope is often a social gift. It’s something that we give to one another and hope and despair are these things that are almost like viruses. They spread. They’re contagious. And the more hope that we give to other people, even in their times of challenge, is really fundamental to their wellbeing and their ability to have hope in their life.
Cynicism is way more comfortable than hope honestly. I think there’s a way in which assuming that nothing’s going to work out, you never get disappointed, but ultimately you’re never going to be able to realize anything of great aspiration in your own life or collectively where we fall into that. And I think there’s a way in which that’s part of the danger of our times is that we’re not dreaming big. We’re so in fear and threat that we’re not recognizing that we live in one of the most fundamental pivotal moments in human history. And we have to dream really big to solve the challenges that we face around climate and the environment. And but, we think so little of ourselves that we’ve accepted defeat before we’ve even tried.
Hope is essential in challenging times
The fact that we have faced such enormous adversity as a species throughout our history. And so it’s almost like we’ve been lulled into this complacency that everything should be hunky dory as Archbishop Tutu would say, and that we don’t have to struggle. And that the struggling that we’re doing, whether that’s our own individual struggling in our lives and the importance of that in some ways suffering is inevitable to our experience, but that collectively whether it’s a pandemic, whether it’s an environmental crisis, we have faced and overcome enormous challenges. I mean, Jane talked about growing up in World War II with Nazi, Germany kind of basically at her door with these kind of metal scaffoldings on the shores of Britain and the Nazi U-boats about to invade at any time and the ways in which… It was the imagination. It was that sense of hope and possibility of frankly, Churchill speeches telling, rallying the spirit, the indomitable spirit of the British people to resist the onslaught of that autocracy and that villainous regime. And so I mean, we have faced dark times, and we are facing really challenging times in many ways, very dark in their own way. But it’s really about our, in some ways, our faith and our hope, and maybe even better than faith, our hope in our own capacity to rise to those challenges that’s so essential.
Three ways to think about the future
There’s fantasizing, which is my delusion that some day I will play for an NBA team, which is just a fantasy. Never going to happen because it has no connection to reality or eye hand coordination or anything else, or you can be dwelling. And dwelling, that’s what I grew up doing a lot in New York is all the things that could go wrong, or hoping. And when you’re hoping you’re not fantasizing. It’s not disconnected from reality. It’s not dwelling on the dangers or the problems that could happen. It’s hoping and recognizing the obstacles that are inevitable and thinking about and taking action. And I think that’s another part of hope that’s really powerful. And what can, at least, in the hope science can make it not the Pollyanna wishful thinking or fantasizing or false hope, which is actually thinking, “How do I take action and do something to make those goals and find those realistic pathways?”
When it comes to suffering, we have a choice to make
Something that I learned from Archbishop Tutu, which was so powerful, is that suffering can either embitter us or ennoble us. It can either make us feel like life is meaningless and just filled with pain and suffering, or it can ennoble us and allow us to grow and develop our capacities, our empathy, our compassion, our generosity. And I said, “So what’s the difference? What determines whether suffering embitters us or ennobles us?” And he said, “Well, if we take our suffering and make meaning out of our suffering and use it to help others, then it ennobles us.”
The power of choice
I grew up in a really fortunate and privileged environment where the life of the mind and the life is an exploration and a journey was really encouraged. And I also grew up with a mom who suffered from depression. And I think I was really struck by that pain early, and seeing that I think anybody who’s had a depressed parent or parent who struggles with mental health challenges, you kind of see how much suffering can happen within one’s own skull. And so when I was in the second grade living in New York City in our apartment on the 20th floor, I was one leg over the balcony deciding whether I wanted to live. And I realize in retrospect that that experience helped me to see that I had to choose because actually my mom saw me from the window, but she couldn’t get to me. And I had to, as I was looking down at the little matchbox cars below and the little tiny people below, I had to decide, “Am I going to stick around or not?” And I think that has given me the desire throughout my life to give people choice, to give people freedom to choose whether wiser, healthier, more just ways to live, to be able to choose individually how we’re going to live our lives and have for us to collectively choose how we’re going to create this world.
“Hope is contagious…”
We’re born into a community that is either more or less hopeful. And then our own hope contributes to the hope of that community. And one of the really interesting scientific studies was finding how the measure communal hope was fundamental for the wellbeing of the community. And so it’s obviously the economic factors play a huge role in how hopeful people feel. But it’s incredible that that sense, hope is actually almost this measure of how well the human spirit is doing.
What they found in the longest study of human health and happiness, this Harvard adult development. Is that it fundamentally satisfaction in our life comes down to our social relationships. They discovered that the quality of your relationships at our age, in your fifties, determines how long you live in your eighties. And so, that prioritizing, focusing on our relationships and choosing that from a week to week, is crucial. And then the third piece of the practices that they talk about are, what we do from year to year. That’s about meaning and purpose. That’s about going after those long term goals. And fundamentally, it’s also about relationships,. It’s about: where can we contribute? Where can we make a difference that gives us meaning and purpose?
Acceptance is the first step of making change
Acceptance as the only place from where real change can occur, right? You got to accept the reality that the challenges that we’re facing in order to make any changes or difference. And then from acceptance, once you accept the reality of it is, then you’re able to accept the reality of what was. So you’re able to have forgiveness and forgive those people. And as you’ve said, it’s no longer that other person’s fault or what they did to me. And from forgiveness, when you’re able to forgive and give up the hope of a different past, then you’re able to step into gratitude. And to be incredibly grateful for the abundance that we do have. And from that abundance and that gratitude, you naturally have compassion for those who don’t have as much as we have. You have a sense of generosity and generosity spirit that you move into.
Getting out of our own pain
I think it’s total cop out to say the power of young people is going to save us alone. Saying that is really, “we fucked it up and it’s up to them to make it better.” That is a betrayal of our children and our grandchildren. I think when we recognize that we didn’t inherit the earth from our parents, we are borrowing it from our children – as the famous quote says – then we need to get our shit together and figure out how we can make a difference and get out of our personal pain. Right? This is the challenge, right? When we’re in our personal pain, it’s really hard to focus on the pain of other people. And it’s really hard to see the pain that exists in our society and try to deal, but that is exactly the solution, right? The way to get out of our own personal preoccupation is to turn, as Arch says, and wipe tears from the eyes of another. And that, that actually is the secret of joy. He said it so powerfully. He said, “When you go beyond your own self regard, you will be surprised by the joy.”
What we can learn from nature
Nature is resilient because it’s adaptable. And we are the most adaptable species that’s ever lived on this planet. And 99.9% of all species have gone extinct. So our ability to adapt and to change is what’s going to determine our capacity to meet the challenges of our time. And one of the things that distinguishes an invasive species from a welcome species in an environment is that an invasive species takes more than it gives to the ecosystem, a welcome species gives more than it takes. And so the question is: can we learn to be a welcome species on this planet and earn our place and give more to the rest to one another and to life than we take?
It’s bigger than you
I was scared to death to do those interviews with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, right? You can imagine, right. I was sitting there the night before I was like, “When is Oprah Winfrey or Anderson Cooper going to come and take over so I can sit my ass down?” But sometimes as [inaudible 01:33:54] says, you are the one in the room and if you put yourself in the room, then something can happen through you that’s bigger than yourself. And so that ability to both be, it’s like this incredible boldness and somewhat arrogance to say, “I can and want to do this,” and then the releasing it and the surrendering and saying, “This isn’t about me. This is about something beyond me that I want to be in service to.”
The opportunity ahead
The “greatest generation” was only the greatest generation because of the adversity they faced in World War II. And now, we have the greatest challenges that humanity has ever faced. And we have the opportunity to be called to our greatness because of those challenges and to rise to the occasion and to be the greatest generations, not just the young people, us adults as well and the next several generations, the next 10 years are going to be decisive for humanity. So we have an opportunity to rise to that occasion and to create one of the greatest revolutions in human history, which is going to be on the scale of the industrial revolution with the speed of the digital revolution. And that is the movement to go beyond hydrocarbon and to create a world that actually gives to the environment more than it takes. And that’s the great challenge of our time. And we need to be up to that challenge.