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An Interview with Joe DiMaggio on Happiness

Happiness after Midlife, April 01, 2010

"Performance is not always caused by or an effect of something, but rather is correlated to — or in a dance with — the way the world shows up for us."

Joe DiMaggio is a faculty member and executive with Landmark Education, a global leader in the field of training and development. Since 1993, as a Landmark Education Forum Leader, he's impacted the quality of life of thousands of individuals around the world. He's an M.D. and former medical oncologist. He worked and studied at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where he focused on the treatment of malignant melanoma. Recently, he led a team which for one year engaged in a project that dealt with researching happiness.

In this interview, Joe presents two key distinctions: "transformative learning" and "speech acts" that directly impact our effectiveness and happiness.

Dr. Fred: Joe, since 1993 you’ve been leading the Landmark Education Forum to thousands of individuals. Landmark Education, a global leader in the field of training and development, offers programs in over 20 countries. The Landmark Forum is the foundation of all Landmark Education's programs. Its goal is to bring about a fundamental shift or transformation in what is possible in people's lives.

You’re an M.D. and former medical oncologist. You worked and studied at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where you focused focusing on the treatment of malignant melanoma. Recently, you led a team which for one year engaged in a project that dealt with researching happiness.

As you know, I’m a former dentist who gave up dentistry because of eye surgery. My participation in an earlier program preceding Landmark Education opened up a new world for me. It was a landmark event.

I’m asking you the following questions within the framework of happiness, fulfillment, full self-expression and effectiveness as they relate to midlifers and beyond. It’s also within the framework of you as a Forum Leader.

Dr. Fred: What was it that had you transition from being a medical oncologist to becoming a faculty member and executive with Landmark Education?

Joe DiMaggio: Although there were a number of factors that influenced my decision to transition from medicine to being part of Landmark, what influenced me most was seeing and experiencing the kind of impact Landmark’s programs were making in people’s lives. I was turned on and greatly impressed by the positive change in people—the level of performance and quality of life that occurred in such a short period of time.

Dr. Fred: There’s been an explosion of interest in happiness (at least in developed countries), not only in terms of popular resources available that deal with it but also in academia. Considering our high standard of living, how would you account for all this scrutiny and preoccupation?

Joe DiMaggio: Interest in and the study of happiness has actually been around for a long time. Aristotle wrote about it over 2,000 years ago. Another great example is in United States’ Declaration of Independence, where the Founding Fathers refer to the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right (along with life and liberty, etc).

However, I suspect that in modern times, our elevated interest or, as you say, preoccupation with happiness may in some way be related to our difficulty in coming to grips with the fact that after all of our scientific and technological achievements, there’s not a parallel trajectory for happiness.

There is no question many people are seeking “happiness” because, while their circumstances may have improved, their sense of happiness and satisfaction still remains below what they may have hoped for or thought was possible.

Dr. Fred: I know that people tend to look for answers, formulae and recipes that will impact their lives and for the most part, they don’t (succeed? Find them?). This would account for all the books and seminars on subjects like happiness, diet, leadership and relationships for example, which keep getting turned out year after year. There’s a certain way that we know that doesn’t make a difference. You address “knowing” in a particular way that gives participants in The Landmark Forum and Landmark’s many other programs an access to insights. Would you briefly share how this works?

Joe DiMaggio: When you are looking to achieve permanent breakthroughs in performance, it is important to understand that there is a difference in the dimension of “knowing” that comes from the form of education we are all familiar with (what could be called “informative” learning) and the kind of natural “knowing” that results from Landmark’s education (which has been referred to as “transformative” learning by Jack Mezirow).

In Landmark’s programs, rather than learning “theoretically”, you learn by direct personal discovery. As a result, you are left confident about what you have learned. Rather than trying to remember and working hard to apply what you have learned, you are able to apply it naturally and without effort. Rather than merely understanding, this kind of “knowing” actually frees you from self-imposed limitations and leaves you with an immediate new found effectiveness in life.

Dr. Fred: There are a number of schools of thought that say that happiness is “overrated.” Positive psychology has become popular. Some writers are saying that too much emphasis on happiness and positivism is inauthentic. What’s your view on this? I know that one of the key notions (“distinctions”) of Landmark’s education is “authenticity.”

Joe DiMaggio: People are free to pursue whatever is important to them, and the pursuit of happiness itself is in no way inherently problematic or inauthentic, nor does it need to be looked at in a particular way. I doubt there will ever be complete agreement or a singular definition of happiness. On the other hand, what I do think may be problematic (and perhaps even “inauthentic”) is the growing emphasis on what I would call a pseudo-happiness or Pollyanna type happiness. I would caution against the idea of “total and complete happiness” at all times.

Dr. Fred: Landmark faculty members present themselves as coaches. My earliest appreciation of coaching, as distinct from consulting and providing expert advice came from the writings of Tim Gallwey in the 1970s and his “inner game” books. Rather than having his tennis students focus on technique, he had them develop their capacity to “notice;” for example, to keep their eye on how the tennis ball was spinning as it approached them. They let go of “trying” to hit the ball and became more effective.

Landmark presents a fascinating notion that our actions and ways of being are determined by how life “occurs.” Would you comment on this and how it relates to happiness and effectiveness?

Joe DiMaggio: My colleagues and I have been at work for some time to develop a new approach to elevating performance. Rather than simply adding to the already vast number of theories that explain how and why we act in particular ways, this new approach to performance is designed give people a direct access to impacting their effectiveness and their quality of life.

To oversimplify, one aspect of this approach is that our actions and our ways of being are not primarily determined by the usual assigned causes (like motivation or commitment or knowledge) but rather are correlated with the way life occurs for us. In other words, performance is not always caused by or an effect of something, but rather is correlated to—or in a dance with—the way the world shows up for us.

Let’s use the game of tennis to illustrate this point. All of us know that in professional tennis there is an objectively standardized tennis ball of a particular size, shape and weight. We are also clear that you can accurately measure the speed of the ball coming off a player’s racket with a radar gun. As an observer in the stands, it looks like the players effectiveness on the court is determined by their drive and ability to effectively interact with the “objective” ball at the measured speed. But consider that theoretical view of what determines effectiveness in tennis is not the whole story.

If you or I were on the receiving end of a tennis pro’s serve (Andy Roddick or Rafael Nadal for example), our actions would not be in a dance with the “objective” ball. What we would be interacting with (or more likely in this case, failing to interact with) would be a ball that occurred something like a bullet, swooshing by us before we could even move—in other words, a ball that occurred “unhittable.”

Now, a tennis pro in the same circumstance would interact with a ball quite differently. In the actual playing of the game, they’d be interacting with a ball that is eminently “hittable.” In other words, the way that ball is occurring for them gives rise to different actions.

Being able to shape the way life (or any specific circumstance in life) occurs so that desirable and effective actions naturally arise (and undesirable and ineffective actions drop away), leaves one with his or her hands firmly on the levers and dials of performance and with an extraordinary competitive advantage in whatever “games” of life you are playing.

For a fuller exploration of this approach, I recommend reading the book, The Three Laws of Performance written by Steve Zaffron (a senior faculty member of Landmark and CEO of the Vanto Group) and co-author David Logan (faculty member, Marshall School of Business, and senior partner, CultureSync).

Dr. Fred: As far as I can tell, all the wisdom traditions say that the source of suffering is a misidentification with the “I” (ego, identity). Would you please comment on what you refer to as the “superstition "I” and how that affects our happiness?

Joe DiMaggio: What we mean by a “superstition” is more akin to one’s world view or the system of ideas, beliefs, social and cultural assumptions, and taken-for-granted conclusions, etc., through which an individual interprets and interacts with the world, other people, and himself or herself.

For the most part, people do not consider that they are seeing themselves (and life, for that matter) through a worldview and go through life as if their view of themselves and of life (a view that is shaped, limited and even at times distorted by superstitions) is just the way it is. Until these superstitions are seen for what they are, they impose constraints on what we perceive, how we think and what we experience, our creativity, and even our actions.

In our flagship program, The Landmark Forum, people are given the tools and the opportunity to discover and become aware of the superstitions they hold as “the way it is” and to eliminate the constraints imposed by those superstitions. As a consequence, in The Landmark Forum you produce breakthroughs in those aspects of yourself and those areas of your life that are most important to you, those that make the greatest difference to your success and to the quality of your life.

Dr. Fred: One of the most important premises of Landmark’s work is that people have a “say” regarding how life occurs for them (related to question 4). There’s a strong relationship between speaking a particular way and our ability to be happy and effective. Would you share your thoughts on this matter?

Joe DiMaggio: Mostly we think of speaking as a tool for transferring information or for describing the world (including talking about specific circumstances in the world or about others or about ourselves). This mode of speaking is often referred to as “representational” language, but language is not limited to the mode of representational language. There is a kind of speaking—a kind of language—which in itself is a creative act. John Searle, the philosopher and linguist, calls this kind of mode of language Speech Acts.

Let’s use a couple of simple examples. When I say the word “chair,” I am representing an object in the world that is part of the set of objects we call chairs. To state the obvious, the word “chair” is itself not a chair.

Now let’s look at the word “promise.” When I say “I promise,” I am not representing or describing something out there in the world, rather, I’m speaking in such a way that generates or creates something—that is, my speaking actually generates a promise. That promise will start to call forth particular ways of being and acting that are consistent with realizing that promise. Declarations are another form of generative speaking. For example, when two people get “married,” in the moment the officiant says, “I now declare you…,” that declaration creates something that wasn’t there before. When you create a powerful relationship with language, declarations give you the power to speak the future you are committed to and then to have your life show up in ways that alter your experience of life and your actions so that they are now consistent with that declared future.

Dr. Fred: Midlife and beyond brings up questions, especially existential ones, like (1) Who am I, really? (2) What do I want to do with the rest of my life? (3) What’s really important for me? (4) Am I connected to something bigger than me? (5) What will have me be truly fulfilled and happy? (6) What have I accomplished? (7) What legacy do I want to leave? (8) In what ways can I give back to society?

The Landmark Forum speaks about human beings sometimes living their lives from a past-based place. Those of us who are midlifers and beyond have a relatively long past—in other words, our neural connections are strong. In your view, what’s the pathway for midlifers and beyond for inventing a new future?

Joe DiMaggio: When we step back and look honestly, what becomes apparent for most people is that, while our circumstances are often changing, how we approach life seems repetitive—an extension or variation of our past. You start a new relationship and think "This is going to be completely different,” or you start a new job and think, "This is going to be ‘the’ one."

Then at some point you find that new relationship or that new job falling into an old, familiar pattern. You may even find yourself thinking, "Here we go again." And, as you said, this often generates real existential questions and dilemmas for us midlifers.

In our programs, we address those kinds of futures as what you might call “default” futures, as they are derived from the past. And there is nothing wrong with that future. In fact, as recent findings in neuroscience and cognitive science tell us, that is the kind future the human brain is designed to realize. However, to be able to truly invent a new future, the first and fundamental step is to be able to free yourself from the grip of the past—to create a blank canvas, so to speak—so that a new future, a created future, informed by but not constrained by the past, becomes a real possibility.

One of the most potent aspects of the Landmark methodology is giving people an access to recognizing this default future for what it is—and how it got there in the first place, and how we are unwittingly at the effect of it. When that shift takes place, there’s a freedom to create and invent life newly.

Dr. Fred: What were the key findings that you and your team came up with in your investigation of happiness? How could midlifers benefit from them?

Joe DiMaggio: First, our initial research verified what many other researchers and experts have confirmed time and time again—that is, that once your basic needs are met, improving your circumstances does not necessarily translate into an elevated sense of happiness and satisfaction with life. Even documented correlations to intelligence, attractiveness, success, money, fame don’t seem to hold up over time and across cultures.

What we have found in our programs with hundreds of thousands of people is that, with an awareness of the basic structures in which human beings know, think and act in the world, comes a fundamental shift leaving them more fully in accord with their own possibilities and those of others.

This shift is the single most powerful attribute of The Landmark Forum and Landmark’s other programs. Participants find themselves able to think and act beyond existing views and limits—in their personal and professional lives, relationships, and wider communities of interest.