When theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking passed in 2018, the world also lost what many consider to be one of the greatest minds of our generation. The Cambridge luminary and best-selling author of A Brief History in Time (which changed the way we view physics) regularly tackled some of the most complex subjects of our time with breathtaking insight. And yet the secret to his longevity (against all odds given his medical condition) was breathtakingly simple.
No, it wasn’t a superfood like kale.
In a 2016 Q&A session for RadioTimes, Hawking responded to the question “What Inspires You to Keep Going?” in the following manner (I’ve condensed and lightly edited his answer for clarity):
My work and a sense of humor. It was important that I came to appreciate what I did have. Although I was unfortunate to get motor neurone disease, I’ve been very fortunate in almost everything else. I’ve been lucky to work in theoretical physics at a fascinating time, and its one of the few areas in which my disability is not a serious handicap. It’s also important not to become angry, no matter how difficult life is, because you can lose all hope if you can’t laugh at yourself and at life in general.
Hawking could imagine and articulate things most of us can barely comprehend–and his secret to an astonishingly long life, despite suffering from ALS? Appreciating what you have and having a sense of humor.
It may be the wisest of all Hawking’s musings with applicability vaster than the cosmos he pondered. I can think of no two more important sentiments in my life as an entrepreneur now four years in.
Why Hawking was right about gratitude.
As a speaker, author, coach, and online course instructor, I find the “comparison dragon” to be insatiable. Far too frequently, I have to remind myself to stop defining my success in comparison to others and remember that the only comparison that matters is to who I was yesterday.
Have I become a better version of myself and advanced my goals, even if just a bit? That’s what matters.
For example, I’m part of a speakers mastermind group that shares success stories and advice on Facebook. I spend about 50 percent of my time in that group reading, learning, absorbing and sharing what I can that’s of service. I spend the other 50 percent of my time feeling intimidated and inferior to the world-class talent that’s in that group.
I find I’m at my absolute happiest when I catch myself in that destructive comparative mindset and instead shift to feeling grateful for what I’ve already accomplished and how far I’ve already come.
Robert Emmons, the world’s leading researcher on gratitude, indicates that gratitude so directly links to happiness because it reminds us that there are good things in the world and that these good things are often brought to you by others. Thus it feeds self-appreciation and strengthens relationships with those that are bringing the very things into your life you can express gratitude for.
Why Hawking was right about having a sense of humor.
In my corporate days, I was blessed to rise to a position to run several multi-billion dollar businesses and I can honestly say that my sense of humor was one the biggest keys to my success and happiness.
I leveraged humor to diffuse the tensest of situations, to make communications memorable, to make a point in a compelling way, used self-deprecating humor to be more vulnerable and better connect with the troops, and most importantly used humor just to laugh, build bonds, strengthen culture and enjoy the thing that was taking up two-thirds of my waking hours.
Harvard research shows that using (appropriate) humor (that’s actually funny) in the workplace can cause others to see you as more confident and competent. Now, I can attribute keeping a sense of humor as an entrepreneur as the key to keeping the ups and downs in perspective and to keeping my sanity.
I really do find it interesting that a man who thought about things as vast and interstellar as Stephen Hawking could also make things so incredibly simple for us: gratitude and a sense of humor.
Build more into your vast universe–starting today.