Interview: Mel Robbins.
Mel Robbins is a leading voice in personal development and an international bestselling author. Her work includes the global phenomenon The 5 Second Rule: Transform your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage (Amazon, Bookshop), four #1 bestselling audiobooks, the #1 podcast on Audible, an extremely popular TEDx talk, "How to stop screwing yourself over," as well as signature online courses.
I couldn't wait to talk to Mel about happiness, habits, and self-knowledge.
Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Mel: This is going to sound like the cheesiest thing you've ever heard but trust me, the research on this simple habit is mind-blowing.
During a time when I was feeling overwhelmed and defeated by life (hello, pandemic!), I did something corny, surprising — and powerfully transformational.
I call it The High 5 Habit: Every morning, I mindfully stand in front of my bathroom mirror to see (I mean, really SEE) the woman staring back. I think about what she needs (More fun? Some kindness? Some quiet?) and make an intention about how I’m going to show up for her today. Then, I raise my hand and high five my reflection.
I know it sounds unbelievably schmaltzy, but before you roll your eyes and stop reading, let me tell you: like Gretchen, I'm a former lawyer. I’m skeptical and cynical about quick fixes. I’d never share anything with you unless the research proves it really works.
And high fiving your reflection really works.
I saw a profound shift in my happiness, mood, and energy from doing this High 5 Habit — and it wasn’t just me. I posted a photo of myself doing it online, with no explanation, and soon, thousands of people were writing to me, sharing that they were also high fiving themselves, and seeing massive changes in their attitude and confidence.
Why is something so contrived, and so simple, so damn powerful and contagious? I started digging for answers.
A year-long research project unearthed heaps of information on the motivational power of a high five. I interviewed the people who were high fiving and spoke to some of the world's leading experts in behavior change and neuroscience. I dove into studies, research, and literature on motivation, happiness, self-esteem, and leadership.
There is so much deep, compelling science behind this habit. I know you love research, so I want to share some of what I found. There’s so much more that I explore in my new book, The High 5 Habit, but here are some of the highlights.
First, Dr. Daniel Amen, one of the world’s leading experts on brain health, said The High 5 Habit boosts your mood, confidence, and energy. Why? Because your brain gets a drip of dopamine with every high five. That’s how it switches your mood from “Blah” to “OMG” in seconds.
And that’s not all. You’ve got a lifetime of positive associations with giving high fives to other people. When you give somebody a high five, it says, “I believe in you,” “I love you,” “You got this,” “Let's do this.” So when you raise your hand to the mirror, all that positive programming gets fused with your reflection.
This is a field of research called neurobics. Neurobics uses mental exercises to create new neural pathways in the brain by employing the senses in unconventional ways, like a high five in the mirror. MIT uses similar body/brain exercises in their lab schools for kids with learning differences. Using the positive associations with a high five is one of the fastest ways to create new neural pathways associated with your reflection, and you don’t need to travel to Cambridge to do it!
Make The High 5 Habit part of your morning because it’s a way to foster self-confidence, motivation, and of course, more happiness in your life. You get a whole new, loving relationship with yourself (and a brain rewired for more positivity).
You don't need to believe me. You just need to do it for five days. Why five days? Because you’re going to resist it for the first few days. It’s normal for your mind to resist it — it’s a new habit. Ignore the resistance and do it anyway. Within five days you’ll be creating more positive automatic behaviors, beliefs, and new neural pathways in your mind.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That I'm not responsible for anyone else's happiness and they're not responsible for mine.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?
Having struggled with anxiety for most of my life, I probably spent 45 years with a dysregulated nervous system. I was constantly on edge due to childhood trauma, and anxiety became my learned coping mechanism. Coming out of the pandemic, every single human being is living with a dysregulated nervous system, anxiety, and possibly some trauma.
One of the most fascinating things I learned in researching my new book The High 5 Habit is that you have to calm your nervous system before your brain can focus on anything or learn anything new. Think about it, if you're walking into work feeling like you're about to get fired, there's no way you could concentrate on a math problem. You’re too amped up. You have to calm down before you can think. That makes sense, right?
I've learned how to relax my on-edge sympathetic nervous system by flipping on my parasympathetic nervous system. Here’s the science, in short: Inside your body is a treasure called the vagus nerve. It's like an on/off switch for your nervous system. Putting yourself in a calm and grounded, “off” state is the ultimate power move. I call this “high fiving your heart” and I write about this in Chapter 13 of The High 5 Habit.
Here’s how to do it: Just put your hands on your heart, and say to yourself, “I'm okay, I'm safe, I'm loved.” Repeat it as many times as you need to. You'll notice, after repeating it over and over, it is true! You are okay, you are safe, and you are loved. You’ll also notice that you feel grounded in your body and ready to take on the day. Your nervous system is calmer, so you can move on feeling clear-minded and connected to yourself.
You may be noticing a pattern. The happiness tricks I recommend are simple, even cheesy at first glance, but they’re grounded in a tremendous amount of science. I love things that are easy, memorable, free, and that work for absolutely anyone who tries them.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
My negative self-talk used to be relentless and a total beat down, and it was intertwined with the anxiety I felt.
About a decade ago, I created something that I call The 5 Second Rule. It's another super-simple, backed-by-science tool you can use to stop procrastination and launch into action.
To interrupt any negative pattern (like procrastination, negative self-talk, or worry) or habit (like smoking or overeating), you need to give yourself a five second window of control to insert the new action. To do it: Count backward from 5 and immediately jump onto the new action when you get to 1. Count, 5-4-3-2-1 and take action.
I use the countdown technique 5-4-3-2-1 to interrupt that jerk in my head that says, “It’s too cold to work out today,” or “The project can be a day late.” I also use it to silence my worry about pretty much anything (as an anxious person, I have a PhD in worrying). I just count down 5-4-3-2-1 and say, “I'm not thinking about that,” and move on with my day.
Here’s the science: The 5 Second Rule works like a cheat code for motivation. It interrupts the self-sabotaging habit loops programmed into your basal ganglia, and the counting backwards makes your prefrontal cortex come alive. Habit research classifies this as a starting ritual.
The 5 Second Rule started as a simple trick I created to get out of bed during the worst moment of my life, and has grown into a global phenomenon that has changed the lives of millions. The Rule is now used by pediatricians to help kids with anxiety, veterans organizations are using it to help reframe traumatic triggers, and I know of 111 people who have used it to stop themselves from attempting suicide.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Obliger, for sure. I was really hoping to be a Rebel because it sounds cooler. But I’m an Obliger.
The fact is, I'm a people pleaser. I like it when people are happy. I like it when everyone feels good. And yes, I'm working on that—or really, I'm working with that. I know that's my tendency, so I notice it and make sure I don't fall into the traps.
High fiving my reflection in the mirror helps me get a handle on this. People pleasing comes from insecurity––you’re seeking validation outside of yourself.
If you can stand in front of a mirror and see a human being who is trying hard and needs your support and celebration, and then start validating yourself, you'll stop worrying about what other people think. If you're a people pleaser like me, you’ll love this High 5 Habit. It teaches you to stop focusing on external expectations, achievements, and it helps you build a habit of seeking that validation from yourself for yourself.
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
The lightning bolt that struck me in the was hitting rock bottom and 2008. My husband and I were nearly a million dollars in debt and I was facing my problems by drinking myself into the ground and trying to blame everything on my husband.
I could barely get out of bed, the anxiety was so crushing. The lightning bolt moment was this thought: “Maybe, if I launched myself out of bed like NASA launches a spaceship into space, maybe I wouldn't be in that bed when the anxiety struck.”
That was the moment I created The 5 Second Rule, which I explained to you earlier. I started counting backward, 5-4-3-2-1, just to get out of bed. I discovered the secret to changing everything is taking action in that five second moment of hesitation. Psychologists explain this as a brain hack that moves you from “a bias towards thinking” to “a bias towards action.”
It just takes simple habits like these to change your life. And I hope that reading about The 5 Second Rule is a lightning bolt moment for you.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
Yes! That there is something wrong with you if you're trying to change your life.
Human beings are designed to grow, to change, and to learn. If you are like me, it’s the colossal screw ups, failures, mistakes, and regrets that teach you the most and create the biggest breakthroughs.
Maybe that's why most of us try to make changes in secret. But that’s not the proven way to get the best results. The fastest and easiest way to change your life is when you do it with other people. So if you feel stuck, frustrated, lonely, or overwhelmed, let me help you.
Please take my free five-day challenge, The High 5 Challenge. It’s free, you’ll be doing it with tens of thousands of other people. It will give you the boost, the tools, the coaching, the energy, and the positive community that you need right now. Plus, you’ll get coaching from me every day of the challenge.
I’ll help you break through the doubt that is holding you back and teach you how to take control, one high five at a time. Do not miss this—it’s exactly what you need. I’ll see you in The High 5 Challenge.
One Last Thing
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