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Scott Crabtree of ‘Happy Brain Science’: “Cope effectively”

Cope effectively. The research tells us that hardship is inevitable in life. Life is unfortunately filled with war, pollution, disease, and death. Nothing can help us avoid that. Science says how we cope is critical. Many of us turn to ultimately unhelpful strategies, including vices and devices. Studies show that physical exercise, connecting with other […]

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Cope effectively. The research tells us that hardship is inevitable in life. Life is unfortunately filled with war, pollution, disease, and death. Nothing can help us avoid that. Science says how we cope is critical. Many of us turn to ultimately unhelpful strategies, including vices and devices. Studies show that physical exercise, connecting with other people, and mindfulness meditation are among the most helpful coping strategies.


Often when we refer to wellness, we assume that we are talking about physical wellbeing. But one can be physically very healthy but still be unwell, emotionally or mentally. What are the steps we can take to cultivate optimal wellness in all areas of our life; to develop Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing?

As a part of our series about “How We Can Do To Cultivate Our Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Scott Crabtree.

Scott Crabtree helps people apply science to thrive at work. After earning a degree in cognitive science from Vassar College, he went on to lead the design and development of video games and other software. He resigned his senior leadership position at Intel in 2011 to found Happy Brain Science. His _repeat_ Happy Brain Science clients include DreamWorks, Nike, Kaiser-Permanente, Boeing, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Activision, Blizzard Entertainment, NOAA, and NBC.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was born and raised in Massachusetts, USA. My parents were both teachers. My dad taught at Phillips Academy, in Andover, MA. I grew up on campus and went to the school for four years. I learned countless things there, one of which was that other people had a lot more money than we did.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

Unfortunately, I had a sister who suffered from both physical and mental illnesses. My family and I tried everything we could to help her: lots of love, individual and group therapy, psychiatric drugs, and more. None of it was enough. She had a very sad, very hard life, which tragically ended in the summer of 2020.

I couldn’t save my sister, but maybe just maybe, me helping spread the science of happiness will help someone not end up like my sister.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

My high school cycling coach was a key person who saw potential in me and encouraged me. I joined the cycling team as a kid with zero confidence and sense of self. I graduated high school as a kid who had much more of a sense of my own worth in this world.

I could cite countless other examples: my parents, other teachers, friends, counselors…we are all connected, and we are all the result of our relationships.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

Last year I had the unique experience of traveling to Utqiagvik, Alaska, the northernmost town in the United States! I’d been hired to teach presentation skills. One of the points I make is that slides should have meaningful headlines, the way newspapers do. Way too many slides only have category headings, not short sentences that actually tell you something important.

I make this point using the front page of the New York Times the day after Obama won his first term. The headline is “OBAMA! Racial barrier falls in decisive victory”. I show that version, and then show a version I’ve edited to say “Election Results”; the way most people would do it in their PowerPoint presentation.

On the plane ride up to Utqiagvik, I was flipping through my slides and thought “I wonder how this headline will fly in such a remote place. I should edit this to be safer.” The plane had no internet connection hours north of Anchorage, so I thought I would edit it in my hotel. The hotel had poor internet connection, so my first attempt failed.

I found myself standing in front of an audience when I realized I hadn’t changed it. I said, “I’m not trying to be political at all with this slide, just make a point about headlines.” The senior leader in the room stood up angrily and said “This is not OK. You are giving us subliminal messages to vote democratic.” That was the single most awkward and challenging moment of over 9 years of presenting professionally.

I learned that nothing should interfere with the important points I’m trying to teach people. If I’m not trying to be political, use a different headline that won’t upset anyone.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I walked into Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon, because my wife wanted to buy a novel. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. I saw a book called The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky. It was my introduction to the science of happiness (positive psychology). I read it and absolutely loved it. Here was solid research guiding us to more happiness, and all the benefits that happiness brings. After my sister’s suffering — and my own at various workplaces — I thought “I want to remember this, do this, be happier, and enjoy all those benefits”. My next thought was “You’re not going to do that, Scott. You’re going to forget 95% of this in six months, because that’s what the human brain does. How can you not forget this?” Being a kid of two teachers, I thought “The best way to learn something is to teach it.” I started volunteering to give conference talks such as “The Science of Happiness in Software Development”. That experience went viral, and I ended up with a new career.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

“Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” — Abraham Lincoln

This wise man knew well ahead of the research that happiness is primarily a choice. It summarizes all the work I do with Happy Brain Science so well.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I’m developing the online version of my ‘serious’ card game, Choose Happiness @ Work. My card game teaches people the science of happiness at work, so they can make better choices and lead better, more successful, and healthier lives. The online version will allow remote teams and people all over the world to play together. By learning the science of happiness at work, data suggests they will enjoy more creativity, productivity, resilience, and success. By choosing more happiness at work, they will even be healthier and live longer, according to scientists.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. In this interview series we’d like to discuss cultivating wellness habits in four areas of our lives, Mental wellness, Physical wellness, Emotional wellness, & Spiritual wellness. Let’s dive deeper into these together. Based on your research or experience, can you share with our readers three good habits that can lead to optimum mental wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

1.) Cope effectively. The research tells us that hardship is inevitable in life. Life is unfortunately filled with war, pollution, disease, and death. Nothing can help us avoid that. Science says how we cope is critical. Many of us turn to ultimately unhelpful strategies, including vices and devices. Studies show that physical exercise, connecting with other people, and mindfulness meditation are among the most helpful coping strategies.

I’ve done my best (which is far from perfect) throughout the pandemic to get exercise, meditate, and connect with others. It’s made a very hard time a bit more bearable.

2.) Flow to your goals. The world is distracting. We get interrupted or interrupt ourselves a lot. Research shows that when we focus completely on a challenge that is possible for about 20 minutes or more, we get into a focused zone called flow. Flow is delightful and productive.

I keep a sticky note on my desk that says, “Flow first”. It reminds me to avoid the temptation to do email first, which exhausts the brain and isn’t good for happiness. It nudges me to focus on a lengthy challenge first. I’m doing this interview as the first thing in my day thanks to that note.

3.) Revitalize relationships. Science is clear: for most of us most of the time, the single most important factor in our wellbeing is the quality of our relationships. So, investing in relationships is investing in our wellbeing.

When the pandemic hit, my colleagues and I started working from home. It was too easy to fail to connect with them regularly. The saying goes, “Out of sight, out of mind.” I put up pictures of my colleagues and contractors at my desk. It’s easier to remember them, connect with them, and treat them like human beings when you see their faces.

Do you have a specific type of meditation practice or Yoga practice that you have found helpful? We’d love to hear about it.

I’ve meditated (almost) every day for at least 5 years. It’s changed my brain and my life for the better.

A brilliant study by Dr. Barbara Frederickson showed that a kind of meditation called lovingkindness meditation is especially helpful, in part because we do it more. In that kind of meditation, we focus on our heart and nurture positive emotions toward others and ourselves. When I do it correctly, it’s one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in life. I have no doubt it’s made me a more loving and kinder person.

Thank you for that. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum physical wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

1.) Sleep well. When we don’t sleep well, our brain basically shuts down in reverse priority order. So, the part of our brains that think “Wow, all my colleagues are wonderful people and I’m lucky to work with them” is optional and doesn’t fire when we are tired. The part that is essential and stays working even when we are tired is “Which one of you colleagues is trying to undermine me and steal my credit!” Sleep is easier said than done. Basic “sleep hygiene” is essential. Beyond that, many guided meditations are specifically designed to help us sleep, and often work wonderfully.

When I’m struggling to sleep, I listen to guided meditations…the first half of them! I’m usually asleep before they end.

2.) Exercise, ideally with a dog. Studies show a dog is a better exercise partner because you can’t talk it out of wanting a walk or run.

My family was fortunate enough to get a dog right before the pandemic started. She has an endless appetite for me to throw her a ball or frisbee, or take her on a walk or run. Thanks, Maupin!

3.) Remember exercise makes you happier. The research is clear: physical activity is good for our mental health, not just our physical health. Exercise is as effective as antidepressants in treating moderate depression in the long run.

The first step I took after learning the science of happiness was to vow not to let 3 days in a row go by without exercise. Because I realized I was in a pattern. I’d get busy, say I was too busy to work out, become grumpier and less effective, which made me feel I didn’t have time to work out. I’ve stuck with this for about a decade, and I have a better life because of it.

Do you have any particular thoughts about healthy eating? We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?

We need to be motivated to eat in a healthy way. My main motivation is that eating fruits and vegetables leads to happiness! Scientists believe that healthy eating causes happiness because the happiness shows up the day after eating fruits and vegetables. Each additional serving, up to seven, leads to more happiness the following day.

Knowing this, I’m eating a lot more fruits and vegetables than I used to. In particular, I eat either eggs with lots of veggies in them or a smoothie with fruits and veggies as my breakfast. It’s a great way to start the day and then I don’t have to worry about getting fruits or veggies later in the day; if I manage to get more, it’s a bonus!

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum emotional wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

To me, emotional wellness is the same as mental wellness. The research is clear that happier brains generally do much better work. Happier brains are more productive, creative, and resilient. Again, three key habits for emotional and mental wellness are

  1. Cope effectively
  2. Flow to your goals
  3. Revitalize relationships

Do you have any particular thoughts about the power of smiling to improve emotional wellness? We’d love to hear it.

The experimental data is clear: there is a two-way connection between your face and your brain. When we smile, our brain seems to think, “Hmmm, I must be happy, I have this big smile on my face. So, I’ll produce more dopamine and serotonin to match this mood I must have.”

It’s not just smiling. Walking with a spring in your step, standing taller, and generally acting happy seem to lead to genuine happiness. Of course, I believe in being authentic. But sometimes, acting like a happy person is an effective way of becoming an authentically happy person.

Finally, can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum spiritual wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Meditation
  2. Meditation
  3. Meditation

😊 Seriously, for me and many others, meditation is the best path to spiritual wellness.

Meditation is not a quick fix. But it’s changed my life for the better, and it can change almost anyone’s life for the better.

Do you have any particular thoughts about how being “in nature” can help us to cultivate spiritual wellness?

Studies suggest that being in nature is one of the very best ways to revive and restore us. Even just looking at pictures of nature can be helpful. Human beings were around for a long time before cities were. Now most of us live in cities. It’s unnatural. Get back to humans’ roots; go on a hike! My wife regularly tells me I get “hiking face” when we are out in nature. The relaxation and wellbeing you get might just be visible to others!

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

“Time in” with other people. Many of us are addicted to our devices. They generally don’t help our wellbeing. Science says the single most important factor in our wellbeing is connecting with other people. I challenge everyone reading this to spend 5 minutes every hour focusing completely on another human being and connecting with them.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

Jane McGonigal often works at the intersection of games and wellbeing. That’s where I focus most of my time, as well. I’d love to collaborate with her on a video game that helps people thrive.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

www.HappyBrainScience.com.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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