“The quest for happiness is a universal, scientific, fact. We can measure happiness, we can assess it, and we can devise strategies to make ourselves happy and fulfilled human beings.”
This is the assessment of Professor Gad Saad, one of the world’s most sought after experts on psychology, marketing & evolutionary behaviour. Professor Saad, who has been described as ‘…the Lionel Messi of public intellectuals’ is author of the sensational bestseller The Parasitic Mind and the irrepressible host of The Saad Truth podcast. In his latest book, The Saad Truth About Happiness, he roams through the scientific studies, culls the wisdom of ancient philosophies and religions, and draws on his extraordinary personal experiences of coming to Canada as a refugee from war-torn Lebanon, and becoming an academic celebrity.
In this interview on happiness, I speak to Professor Gad Saad, evolutionary behavioural scientist, and one of the world’s foremost public intellectuals. We discuss the fundamental nature of what happiness is, the evolutionary basis of happiness, and strip back layers of culture to better understand what it takes to be happy, and live a good life.
Q: What does happiness mean?
[Gad Saad]: One way to answer this question is by contrasting the ephemeral dopamine rush with enduring serotonin contentment. Suppose I choose to buy the latest Vespa, or to watch an enticing adult film, or to indulge in a succulent burger. That might be termed “making me happy”, as it fleetingly stimulates my pleasure centre in a very transient, microscopic way. But that’s not what I’m referring to when I speak of happiness.
When I talk about happiness, envision yourself at the ripe age of 85, comfortably seated on that metaphorical porch, reflecting upon your life. You’re thinking, ‘Good heavens, I’ve genuinely led a fulfilling life. I’ve established a loving family, spent my life with an extraordinary partner, and devoted myself to a profession that’s injected an immense sense of purpose into my existence. I have minimal regrets and have maintained a light-hearted, playful approach to life.’ This, to me, is what I would categorise as a profound sense of existential happiness.
Q: Is happiness an individual or group pursuit?
[Gad Saad]: …my argument is that happiness shouldn’t be pursued deliberately. Happiness is more of a by-product, a downstream effect of making sound decisions, and adopting the right mindset. To illustrate, I cite a quote from Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, in his book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning‘. He posits that success shouldn’t be sought deliberately but rather, it’s something that materialises when one is engaged in meaningful endeavours. This logic applies perfectly to happiness as well.
So, I don’t rise every morning with a list of tasks to make me happy. Rather, it’s because I wake up beside a woman I deeply love, because I have a job that genuinely thrills me – today, for instance, I’m looking forward to my conversation with Vikas Shah – these elements make me happy. These choices I’ve made ultimately lead to happiness.
Before we delve into the concept of social contagion, it’s worth mentioning that research indicates roughly half of the variation in happiness scores across individuals is attributed to their genes. However, the silver lining is that the remaining 50% is still up for grabs. That’s the point I’m driving at in the book – regardless of where you or I may initially land on the happiness continuum due to our inherent dispositions, we can always elevate our happiness by cultivating the appropriate mindsets and attitudes.
As for social contagion, it undeniably contributes to happiness. In fact, research at Harvard University spanning over eight decades, arguably the longest longitudinal study examining the ingredients of happiness, mental health, and physical well-being, has consistently identified the quality of social relationships as the top determinant. This factor holds greater weight than even your cholesterol levels at the age of 50. If heart protection is your goal, nurturing high-quality social relationships matters more than your cholesterol being high or low.
Thus, there is a social component to happiness. If I’m encircled by people who are buoyant, optimistic, and hopeful, their positive vibes will likely radiate towards me, almost like a contagion. Yet, at the end of the day, it’s the personal choices I make that will hopefully enable me to scale the summit of Mount Happiness.
Q: What do we really want, when we talk about happiness?
[Gad Saad]: If you inquire about most people’s life aspirations, an overwhelming majority will answer, “I want to be happy.” However, if you survey the most common topic philosophers have written about, it boils down to the pursuit of ‘the good life.’ This paradox arises precisely because, while it’s easy to articulate happiness as a goal, it’s more challenging to implement the decisions and mindsets that pave the way to this objective. This difficulty is often due to the pitfalls and traps that can derail us. It’s incredibly easy to log onto social media, consume certain content, and suddenly find your happiness quotient for the day depleted. It’s alarmingly simple to succumb to misery.
This is precisely why numerous traditions, be it Buddhist, Jewish philosophers, or the ancient Greeks, have dedicated an immense amount of time deliberating on steadfast rules to cultivate happiness. But, circling back to your initial question, I don’t believe this pursuit should be willful or forced. There isn’t a universally applicable mechanism instructing us to maximise our happiness.
However, if I engage in intellectual variety-seeking, consider anticipatory regret when making decisions about my future, maintain a playful mindset, select the right life partner and profession, these choices, taken together, will hopefully enable me to arise on the summit of Mount Happiness.
Q: Do we require the challenge of negative experiences (such as your experience of war), to be happy?
[Gad Saad]: Seneca, the ancient Greek philosopher and Stoic, features prominently in one of my chapters titled ‘Persistence and the Anti-fragility of Failure’. The opening quote or epigraph in this chapter from Seneca perfectly encapsulates what my Lebanese contemporary, Nassim Taleb, elaborates as ‘anti-fragility’. This concept, though articulated by Taleb, has indeed been around for millennia. Seneca elucidates how a tree needs exposure to wind stressors to grow strong and establish deep roots. Without such stressors, it becomes brittle and can break off easily.
I argue that a crucial aspect of excelling at the game of life is to expose oneself to stressors that, hopefully, won’t be fatal. As the saying goes, ‘what does not kill you makes you stronger.’ There’s another well-known maxim, ‘squeaky doors don’t break.’ These maxims endure precisely because they underscore the truth that weathering difficult periods, while painful and often tragic, can make us resilient. We can draw from that well of hurt and use it to contextualise any current difficulties against that backdrop of past pain, enabling us to find happiness in our day.
For instance, I’m currently embroiled in a tough situation, with cancel culture and Quebec media targeting me due to a misunderstood joke I made on the Joe Rogan show. I could easily get upset, but then I remind myself that I miraculously survived the Lebanese civil war. Compared to that harrowing experience, whatever a hyper-woke Quebec journalist has to say about me is trivial – I can simply brush it off. Thus, we can use the pain of our past as a catapult propelling us forward.
As the saying goes, ‘the best revenge is a life well-lived.’ So, the most gratifying way to spite all those who tried to harm me during my childhood is to say, ‘Look at me now; I’m speaking to Vikas Shah, 50 years later.’
[Vikas: But do we need stress and challenge to be happy?]
[Gad Saad]: Absolutely, the stressors we face don’t necessarily need to be as extreme as the cases you’ve mentioned or my experiences in Lebanon. It’s more about cultivating a mindset. For example, I ran two marathons in 1985 and 1986, not because I necessarily aspired to be a professional runner, but because I found the stress, the challenge, and the pain invigorating. I wanted to see if I could endure and overcome it.
I also chose to study mathematics and computer science in my undergraduate years. Not because I dreamed of becoming a mathematician, but because I knew I was proficient in mathematics, and it would equip me with a rigorous analytical mind. Studying pure mathematics is one of the toughest academic pursuits one can choose, and I willingly took on that challenge. I believed that if I were to lead an intellectual life, I should seek the best possible training. Thus, consistently seeking stressors to test oneself against can indeed serve as a beneficial pathway.
But, let me circle back to an earlier point. In the last chapter of my book, I share two poignant stories of individuals who managed to contextualise their great tragedies against the backdrop of even worse potential scenarios. This, again, boils down to a mindset of gratitude.
One of these stories involves a guest on my show, David McCallum. He may not be widely recognised, but his story is one of the most remarkable ones I’ve shared on my platform. David was wrongfully convicted for a murder, spending 29 years in prison before his exoneration. During our conversation, which you can find on my channel, I was taken aback by his extraordinary grace and lack of vindictiveness. I told him, if I had nearly 30 years stolen from me, I’d likely be consumed by vengefulness. His response, however, underscored the power of adopting a positive and healthy mindset. He compared his ordeal to his sister’s lifelong struggle with cerebral palsy, saying that in light of her condition, what he went through didn’t seem so bad. Despite having 30 years of his life unjustly taken away, he spoke of his own fortunes. The mere retelling of his story gives me goosebumps every time. It speaks to the astonishing resilience of the human mind. Can you imagine a greater tragedy than losing 29 years of your life to a wrongful conviction, only to emerge from a violent prison with such grace? It’s utterly incredible.
Q: What is the link between religiosity (or lack of) to happiness?
[Gad Saad]: In one of the early chapters of my book, I delve into various factors that correlate with happiness, such as how personality, wealth, and culture influence our state of contentment. I have a particular section dedicated to the relationship between religiosity and happiness. The general body of research suggests a moderate positive correlation between the two. This means that, all other things being equal, if I’m religious, I’m more likely to be happier. In a moment, I’ll address the secular and spiritual aspects of your question.
There are several tangible reasons why this correlation between religiosity and happiness exists. Religion provides a sense of community and cohesion within an in-group. It draws clear lines between in-group members, with whom I can engage in cooperative behaviour and reciprocal exchanges, and out-group members. Religion also offers purpose and meaning through a supernatural narrative. These are earthly benefits derived from being religious.
However, in the next section of my book, I preempt your question. I didn’t want non-religious readers to feel destined for unhappiness due to their lack of faith. You can still experience community and group cohesion through other avenues. For instance, while you’re a fan of Manchester United, which I consider one of your few flaws as I have a preference for Manchester City, the camaraderie that develops among fans of a sports club can be similar to the connection felt within a religious community. This sense of ‘appurtenance‘ or belonging can be attained without a supernatural narrative.
Moreover, spirituality isn’t confined to religious narratives. When I engage in an unexpected, profound conversation with a stranger on the street, that’s a form of spiritual connection, a manifestation of the divine. If I find myself in a naturally awe-inspiring landscape, I can experience that spiritual awe without any religious connotations. So regardless of religious beliefs, anyone can access these mechanisms, which might make the religious slightly happier than the non-religious.
Q: How do we stay happy, when confronted with death?
[Gad Saad]: I‘ve suggested in numerous forums, including my writings, that religion offers a ‘solution’ to our mortal concerns, our existential angst. As far as we know, we are the only species aware of our impending demise. We understand that we’re on a countdown, that the party will eventually come to an end.
If I have high cholesterol, I can visit my physician, receive a statin prescription, and see my bad cholesterol scores drop. Everyone’s happy. But what is the remedy for my existential angst regarding my mortality? There is one, and it’s called religion. Many religious narratives promise eternal life. But now, let’s discuss an earthly way to achieve immortality for those who might not be particularly religious.
I’ve proposed, and briefly discussed in my book as well as in an article for my Psychology Today column, that there are two very earthly pathways to immortality that don’t require a belief in an afterlife. First, I could have children. This allows me to propagate my genes, rendering me immortal through my offspring, the carriers of my genetic legacy.
But there’s a second pathway to immortality: mimetic immortality. When I write books that hopefully endure, I infect numerous people with my ideas. A library is essentially a collection of memes, catalogued ideas that will potentially exist forevermore. The great bridge built by an architect or the Mona Lisa, these are instances of achieving immortality. So, through either genetic or mimetic means, it’s possible to gain a form of immortality.
Q: How can the philosophical fight for truth and our defence of it, contribute to happiness?
[Gad Saad]: In one of the chapters of my book, I explore the concept of authenticity. Now, authenticity can manifest in two forms. The first is related to personal dynamics. Essentially, am I a genuine individual or a fake? Am I a pretender, or am I authentically me? This is authenticity on a micro-level.
Then, there’s existential authenticity. As I retire for the night, I’ve discussed this in my book ‘The Parasitic Mind’ when I talk about my two life ideals: truth and freedom. As I lay my head on my pillow, the only way to ward off insomnia is to review my day – was I truthful? Did I stay authentic? If the answer is yes, I can rest. If not, I feel like a fraud. Consequently, my rigorous personal conduct code pushes me to be a ‘honey badger,’ as there is no greater critic than myself, in the deepest corners of my mind.
For some people, experiencing the backlash you’re referring to, having a throng of irate Quebec nationalists coming after me just because I made a playful comment about the grating nature of the Quebec accent, which they perceived as an unprecedented crime, might discourage them from making such a joke on the Joe Rogan show. They might not think it’s worth the trouble. However, I would argue that a greater principle is at stake here. In a free society, people should have the right to make light-hearted jokes about anything. If something is true, it should be robust enough to withstand mockery, ridicule, and laughter. If it’s too fragile, if it isn’t ‘anti-fragile,’ then it’s probably false.
The fact that all these people are in an uproar simply because I said – as a fully Francophone individual – I find the French Canadian accent unattractive is equivalent to stating that I prefer the British accent to the Mississippi accent. It’s a matter of aesthetic judgment, and people in a free society should have the right to express such opinions. For me, I don’t see how I could be internally happy without being truthful, although I can understand that others, who are not yet fully embracing their ‘honey badger’ nature, may choose to appease and moderate their speech.
Q: Do comedy and satire play a deeper role in truth-telling, and hence, happiness?
[Gad Saad]: … this is why I frequently employ satire, sarcasm, hyperbolic prose, and exaggeration. In my previous book, ‘The Parasitic Mind’, I discuss the immense power of satire. When executed correctly, satire is like a surgeon’s scalpel cutting through warm butter. This is why the first people that dictators tend to execute are not the muscular ones, but those with sharp tongues – the satirists. They possess the mighty sword of wit that could potentially bring down a dictatorship. It’s an ideological battle.
This, incidentally, is why people have reacted so strongly. You should see the hate mail I’ve been receiving for the past 24 hours. No Quebec media has paid any attention to me throughout my 30-year, highly productive academic career. But the moment I made a flippant, hyperbolic joke about the accent, I was deemed to have committed an unpardonable crime. I’ve been slated for metaphorical, if not professional, elimination. This certainly isn’t a pathway to happiness.
People who are genuinely happy are capable of laughing at others in a good-natured manner, and more importantly, they can laugh at themselves. I indulge in self-deprecation quite a bit. For instance, when someone uses an old photograph of me – back when I was considerably heavier – for their podcast, I’ll jestingly call myself a beached whale. I’m confident enough in my own skin that I can poke fun at myself without crumbling. For society to become completely unhinged over a casual joke I made on the Joe Rogan show isn’t indicative of a secure society.
Q: What can we do, practically, to improve our happiness?
[Gad Saad]: Well, I don’t believe there’s a seminar out there that can teach you step-by-step on how to be funny, satirical, or self-deprecating. However, in my book, I devote an entire chapter to the concept of “Life as a Playground”. Here, I propose that the innate desire to play is one of the fundamental aspects of being human. Just as we require food, water, the bathroom, or crave sex and intimacy, we also possess a profound longing to play. This isn’t simply about playing with puzzles, trucks, or dolls – the term ‘play’ encompasses much more.
For instance, I argue that my scientific research is the ultimate form of play – it’s intellectual play. What does a scientist do? They solve puzzles. There are numerous variables out there, some of which might be correlated or influence other variables, and I’m faced with this massive puzzle, endeavouring to make sense of it, much like I would be if I were assembling a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.
Even something as solemn and serious as the practice of medicine or the practice of science, or enduring harrowing times like the Holocaust or my own experiences in the Lebanese Civil War – people find a way to infuse elements of play, even in the most dramatic situations. So, if you can adopt such a mindset, I think that while there isn’t an exact 1-2-3 recipe, the idea is not to take yourself too seriously. Don’t lose your cool just because someone made a joke about your accent. Be humorous. Life is short and fleeting, and there are always problems lurking around the corner. Embrace fun, savour every moment, and hopefully, find happiness.
Q: Is there a need for rhetoric, and metaphor, in happiness?
[Gad Saad]: Well, if you consider the education of Ancient Greek philosophers, many of whom are now household names, one of the subjects they all studied was rhetoric. It’s a matter of how you structure an argument, how to employ satire and mockery, how to compile evidence to support your stance, what kind of language to use, what types of metaphors to employ, and the power of analogies. All these elements are essential tools in your arsenal when you’re trying to persuade someone.
That’s exactly why, within my own toolbox of persuasion, I sometimes use humour and mockery. Just yesterday, I released a clip – not sure if you’ve had a chance to watch it yet, but it’s gone viral. I hadn’t planned on releasing a clip, but as is often the case, I find myself besieged by a tsunami of nonsense and feel compelled to respond in true honey badger fashion.
So, Neil DeGrasse Tyson released this 1.5-minute clip where he’s speaking in a breathtakingly narcissistic and pompous manner about what it means to be male or female. He suggests that if he puts on makeup, he could be 80% female, and if he takes it off, he could be 80% male. He even goes as far as saying that we’re too foolish to understand the concept of a gender spectrum.
This made me think about how I could demonstrate the insanity of such a statement. Until a few minutes ago, there have been 117 billion people who have lived on earth, all of whom knew precisely what it means to be male or female. But suddenly, we needed the astoundingly profound astrophysicist, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, to condescend to us, the unenlightened masses, about our ignorance.
So, I decided to test his theory through humour. I started by declaring that at that moment, I was 100% male, the epitome of manhood. But then, in line with Dr. Tyson’s theory, I put on different wigs to show how I was becoming more female. I applied lipstick, and depending on the amount I put on, I became more female. So, I transformed from 100% male to 100% female based on his theory.
Why didn’t Neil DeGrasse Tyson challenge my mockery? Why didn’t he invite me onto his show or offer to come on mine for a discussion? Probably because he knows that by using all of these tactics, I’ve dismantled his nonsensical argument.
Often, I find myself contemplating, both privately and publicly, whether someone who voices these viewpoints has managed to lie to themselves to such an extent that they’ve started to believe their own fabrications. Or, are they merely posturing, engaging in a kind of performative theatre? I struggle to imagine – and I say this without intending any disrespect – given that he doesn’t strike me as the sharpest tool in the shed, that he could be foolish enough to actually believe any of this nonsense. He was, quite literally, playing a role, acting like a thespian. To me, this represents the ultimate form of existential inauthenticity.
With the platform that he has, as a purported physicist, people trust his word. Yet, the fact that he can launch an assault on the most fundamental aspect of reality – the fact that we are a sexually reproducing species composed of two phenotypes, male and female, which is not up for debate – is concerning. Such a stance is not a pathway to happiness. Being in alignment with reality is a crucial component of living an authentic and contented life.
Q: What are some of the practical things therefore we can do to improve our own happiness?
[Gad Saad]: …there are several dimensions to this, some of which I’ve touched on already. I’ll mention a few more. Strive to the best of your ability to live an authentic life. What does this mean? Regret is something that can persistently gnaw at us as we grow older. Picture yourself sitting on a metaphorical porch, looking back on your life, and realising you missed your calling because you chose to become an accountant. You followed this path because your father told you it was a safe, respectable profession, and his father was an accountant. However, you loathed accounting and always wanted to be an artist. Now, it feels like it’s too late to do anything about it.
So, one way to attain happiness, I believe, is to truly know oneself. This may sound flippant or overly simplistic, but the Ancient Greeks had a powerful Delphic maxim: ‘know thyself.’ It is a profoundly deep principle. To chart a course towards happiness, I need to fully understand who I am. In my case, I knew I wouldn’t be able to lead a life of fulfilment if I wasn’t constantly engaged in the intellectual realm. Hence, I became a professor. There were only two things I excelled at in my life: soccer and being a dedicated student. I knew one or both of these paths were my calling.
In other words, lead an existentially authentic life. Don’t live the life that others expect from you, or that you feel you owe them. Don’t become a paediatrician because your father said you should be a doctor. To highlight this point, let me share a brief story. About a year ago, I had a guest on my show who was a perfect exemplification of this principle. He earned his MD in 1955 and, while training as a haematologist, completed a PhD in biochemistry in 1967. However, his real passion had always been physics. His parents, however, had advised him that it wasn’t a practical field and encouraged him to pursue a ‘respectable’ profession in medicine. Despite this, he never let go of his passion for physics.
At the age of 89, this gentleman completed his second PhD, this time in physics. He spoke with me on my show, excitedly sharing that he was looking forward to hopefully publishing some quality papers from his dissertation. Here was a man with an MD and a PhD, yet at 89, he was as enthusiastic as a young graduate student. That’s the kind of mindset to strive for. Cherish life as it’s precious. Every moment matters. Avoid getting entangled in nonsense. Lead a meaningful life. Play. Be happy. And hopefully, read my book ‘The Saad Truth about Happiness’.