An interview with Paul Pearsall PH.D.
by Michael Peter Langevin
From Issue 82
Dr. Paul Pearsall believes we are killing ourselves with success.
A clinical and educational psychologist who has a doctorate in
psychoneuroimmunology—the study of the mind's effects on
the body—Pearsall conducted a 10-year research project that
focused on the lives of 100 people considered to be highly successful.
An alarming percentage of those he studied exhibited a pattern
he identified as "Toxic Success Syndrome," in which
the trappings of success hide a disassociated personality, someone
who is unable to enjoy their success, unable to give their full
attention to the present, incapable of true intimacy. In his book,
Toxic Success, Pearsall describes the causes and costs of this
societal malaise, and recommendations for how to "detox."
Using as a model the people who have achieved what he calls "Sweet
Success," he tells us what it feels like and looks like to
be fully present, content, and connected to the people, events,
and experiences of your life—and still accomplish important
work in your profession or public life.
Pearsall spoke to us from his home in Hawai'i, where he finds
daily inspiration to lead a life according to his principles.
Recognizing that Hawai'ian wisdom perfectly corroborates his findings,
he sees his work as a way to achieve a "magical blend"
of science and Polynesian cultural insights.
I have to tell you that your title, Toxic Success, put me off
from the book right away. I personally feel that I'm a very healthy
success, but looking into the book and then hearing you speak,
I realize that there is a lot of room for improvement. What made
you come to the title and to the subject matter?
Almost exactly the same reason that you reacted negatively. Because
most people equate success with health or flourishing or doing
well. When I was doing medical training in my clinical work, that
was almost the clinical diagnosis; we would say "the treatment
was a success." But in working with patients and working
with executives from around the world—men and women who
are highly "successful" in terms of accomplishments,
status, and finances, all of these measurable characteristics
of success—it looked at they were really just sort of "making
it" on the emotional, spiritual, and physical levels—that
they were actually in stress. And we saw that there is more than
one kind of success: a healthy success and an unhealthy success—a
success that is toxic. There is a kind that makes your life better
and the kind that robs your life of its energy. There is a kind
that draws you together with your family and friends and the kind
that takes you away from them; a kind that devastates your health
and the kind that enhances your health; a kind that makes every
day just a joy to live and the kind that makes it such a hassle
that you have to struggle to find time to add any joy to your
Your Ph.D. is in psychoneuroimmunology. How do you contrast that
with your background in Hawai'ian culture, which seems so important
They are exactly the same. Every time I publish a new book with
all of the research, every time I present these remarkable findings,
saying "Oh my goodness, success isn't always healthy! We
are supposed to look for it and look what it does to us. It may
be killing us," my Hawai'ian family and teachers would say
"Nothing new to us. We knew this all along." Remember
what Mark Twain said, that "the ancients have stolen our
My very first book in the early eighties was titled Super Immunity,
and I had written then that the immune system is not just an automatic
responder but responds to our feelings and learns. Well, now that's
common knowledge in medicine, but it has always been common knowledge
in Hawai'ian medicine. So, it's not really a struggle at all to
put these things together because it's almost as if every time
I do research that shows these findings, it reaffirms the Hawai'ian
How can people who find themselves on the treadmill start moving
toward a healthier way of living?
You may be surprised with my answer. I don't think that there
is anything wrong with being on the treadmill. And as I said in
my research, there is nothing wrong with being type A; people
who are type A do pretty well in life—they survive heart
attacks, for example. The only trouble with being type A is that
you kill the type B people you are living with. But there's nothing
wrong with being a workaholic, nothing wrong with working long
hours and being a competitive person. The problem, the root of
Toxic Success, is a form of chronic attention deficit disorder—
not being able to fully pay attention to now. I know that is a
cliché about being in the now and I don't just mean the
moment; I mean attending to what really matters most in life.
We teach here in Hawai'i that "the work will wait while you
show your child the rainbow, but the rainbow won't wait while
you do the work."
We have all heard it said that no one says on their deathbed,
"Gee I wish I had spent more hours at the job."
Right. And what has been problematic for me—and if I can
be very candid about this—is that I think Toxic Success
will either be one of the biggest books right now or it will flop
completely. And my reasoning for that is that it is calling into
question so many central assumptions people make because there
are so many books on, for example, living in balance. But I don't
know anybody that lives that way.
It's so true. We have to have balance, yet we are killing ourselves
by filling our schedule with more things rather than less.
It's bizarre. That is why those six magic words—"Have
less; do less; say no"—are so crucial. But the danger
is, when I speak to a lot of major corporations around the world,
the reaction is "Well I don't want you to tell my workers
not to work hard. I want them to be competitive." And as
you saw in the book, the first criticism I ever got was this one:
"What's wrong with striving?" And I say, look at the
definition of the word and see if you still mean that. Most of
us don't want to be a striver.
We want to breathe and enjoy those rainbows.
We really do. And it's a hard call for me. It's always been my
kuleana, which is a Hawai'ian word for responsibility. My Hawai'ian
name, Ka'ikena means "person charged with sharing the vision."
It's my responsibility to try to get people's attention. And the
number one risk to our health is not diet, not lack of exercise,
it's normalcy. The way you and I, all of us—I am not immune
either—have come to accept as a normal way of living is
pathological. I remember Maslow, he has certainly been mentioned
in a lot of articles in your magazine.
Without a doubt. He is definitely one of my heroes.
Oh yeah. I still think he is really underrated, as much as both
of us admire him. He said that there is a danger of a pathology
of the average, and he said "Just because everybody is doing
it doesn't mean that it's not sick." But the Western mind
doesn't buy that concept. Not at all.
That's my struggle and, as you know, in the book the solution
is not Eastern or Western—it's Polynesian. That is my kuleana:
the blend of the best of science and the best of the Hawai'ian
message. Out of all of the research and all of the people you
interview, I bet you seldom hear discussions of the oceanic model.
No. When I heard you speak of it, I wondered, why is that so
For my whole career I have been battling that. I think Eastern
traditions have great wisdom. I think the Western tradition have
some great wisdom. I think the Native American Indians have brilliant
wisdom. But Hawai'ians don't think "either/or," we think
"and." And this 2,000-year-old oceanic model has not
yet found mainstream acceptance.
And yet what somebody says Hawai'i, Maui, or Tahiti, you see
them take a deep breath and smile. Don't you?
You do. Time and again. What are little things that people can
do that don't upset their whole applecart, but move them in the
Excellent question. Let me tell you what they shouldn't do. Don't
cut back. Don't try to find balance. Don't try to redo your whole
life again. Don't try to reschedule. The issue is not time management;
it is attention management. And that is different. Here are three
quick suggestions and they are very difficult but very simple.
First suggestion: Never just get up in the morning. Thoreau wrote
something like "The first thing I do in the morning when
I awaken is I take time to wake up." What he meant is, that
first moment in the morning sets the tone of your mind and heart
and consciouness immediately. So the first thing to do when you
wake up is to not get up. Lie there. Breathe. I died of cancer
12 years ago. I had three deaths from it. I had a bone marrow
transplant. I was on a recusitator. I was intubated. When they
took that tube out and I took a breath on my own, I should have
died. I never take the nature of breathing for granted.
No. Once you lose that it's true, you never take it for granted
When I get up in the morning, my first thought is that I can
breathe myself. The one thing about human beings is that we have
the ability to place our attention. Animals are very reflexive.
But you and I can put in our minds what we want there in our consciouness.
But for many people, when they wake up their first thought is
"What do I have to do? Where do I have to go? Where are the
kids? Gotta get breakfast, gotta go! Where is the car? I gotta
call this person." I am saying the most important moment
is when you wake up. So that is one suggestion. Second: Now this
is going to take some time. These people who are so toxic sometimes,
they say that they don't know if they have the time. Well they
do. The issue isn't time; the issue is attention. And you just
take a minute in the morning, afternoon, and late afternoon at
work to do something that's very radical . . .
Right. And boy is that difficult. I didn't say meditate, although
meditation is a great thing. Everybody knows about that already.
I am saying just do nothing. Sit. For a minute. And let your brain
do whatever it wants to do. The brain is not going to want this
because the brain has lost its mind. The brain is going to say,
"Get busy, make a call, check your e-mail, don't just sit
here, what are you doing?" because the brain is in a lethal
alliance with our body. And it is driving it to toxic levels.
I just came back from New York; that's the capital of Toxic Success.
Great place to visit. Gives you good perspective.