"Life is Not About an Ideal Endgame": Max Strom on Finding Meaning
Max Strom is a global speaker, author, yoga teacher, and trainer, best known for deeply impacting the lives of his students with teachings that reach past the limits of contemporary yoga culture. Over the past decade, Max has become a prominent voice of personal transformation skilled at touching the hearts of people from all walks of life, nationalities, and backgrounds.
1440: How do you define happiness?
Max Strom: Quite often when people use the word happiness they’re referring to pleasure. But at some point in our life—it can take some longer than others to get there—we arrive at a place where we understand happiness to be about finding meaning. We realize then that we can find meaning in pleasurable circumstances as well as in the worst circumstances. So I would say my definition of happiness is the daily experience of meaning. Of course I prefer pleasant things like everyone else, but those things are fleeting and meaning is not.
1440: Do you think of happiness as something out there we are trying to find or as something that’s already inside us that we’re trying to uncover?
Max Strom: I think people often assume when they meet a charismatic teacher or spiritual leader that that person has more light than everybody else—but I don’t think they do. I think they’ve revealed more of their light than most people, but we all have pretty much the same capacity for happiness.
It’s about how much you are willing to reveal yourself and be vulnerable and intimate.
Most spiritual practices are about undoing what’s in the way of us recognizing this. Imagine it’s nighttime and the electricity has gone out. You have a candle on the floor and you cover it with a big basket. You would see a little bit of light flickering through the small spaces of the basket, but not much light would escape. That’s what we do to our own light, our own heart. We cover it up to protect it. Most of us did this when we were very young, and practices like yoga, meditation, breathing patterns, etc., are how we start to remove the basket and break apart the armor so more light can be revealed.
1440: In your book There Is No App for Happiness, you talk about three key ways to work at revealing our happiness. The first is self-awareness. What is self-awareness?
Max Strom: If I were to ask you what your favorite sports team is or your favorite TV show, you would be able to give me an answer pretty quickly. But if I were to ask you what makes you happy at the deepest level, what gives your life meaning, or what is your purpose, most people won’t have an answer. Having self-awareness means we understand our motivations, desires, and ethics and are able to express them.
1440: How can we cultivate self-awareness?
Max Strom: I would start off by setting aside a weekend to practice self-inquiry. If you can afford to go on a retreat, great—if not, stay home and unplug. Be quiet and ask yourself a few very important questions.
I was on a flight recently and sat next to a guy who was a consultant for a huge firm. He was very anxious, and when I asked him if he was clear what he wanted from life, he said he only knew he wanted to make a lot of money to get a better position and more prestige from his job, so he was working 70 hours a week. Beyond that, he had no idea.
Having an answer to the question, “What do you want from life?” is an important foundation. You can always change it, but it gives you a baseline, a direction. You can also ask yourself what will be left of you to enjoy your life after you’ve met all your goals? Would you want your children to live the way you’re living now? What do you value?
Life is not about an ideal endgame, but an ideal way of living.
These questions help us see we don’t want to just live a life of semi-controlled madness for an idealized future.
1440: So if I realize I wouldn’t recommend my life to my kids, how can I begin to change it?
Max Strom: This is the second imperative to happiness: working with time. Let’s go back to the consultant I met on the plane. I asked him if they used a cost-benefit analysis in his work and he said yes. You can use this same approach in your life to assess the personal costs and benefits of living a certain way. You may be able to make a lot of money working so many hours a week, but what is the cost to your health, your family, and your happiness?
To be happy, you must include a cost-benefit analysis of where you spend your time. If you feel like you’re killing time, you have to remember that time and life are the same thing. Our life span is finite. We sleep a third of that time, hopefully, and what’s left is all you have to do things that give you meaning and pleasure. So you better be clear on what you want to spend your time on in those hours.
1440: Almost everyone these days seems to feel their life is too busy. How can we develop a daily practice, which is your third imperative for happiness?
Max Strom: When you do a cost-benefit analysis on your personal life, you will discover the places you’re filling up your time with things that divert you, like video games, substances, social media, and television. These diversions are an attempt to deal with unreconciled emotions. We are basically running from ourselves in these precious hours we have. To me, if you can reconcile your past through yoga and breathing practices to release the frozen emotions you’re carrying, you’ll no longer need to run.
Sometimes we have to trick ourselves to get ourselves to practice. If I’m really exhausted and I don’t feel like doing it, I say to myself, “Okay, I’m just going to change clothes and get ready for practice. That’s all.” It’s like tricking the body into starting the routine, because once I have the clothes on I say, “Well, I might as well practice for five minutes.” And then at the end of five minutes I might keep going for ten. It works for me every time! And since breathing practices make me feel better immediately, I want to keep going, because in the end the benefits far outweigh the costs.