Do you feel stuck in life? Inwardly you keep repeating the same thoughts, outwardly you keep repeating the same routine, and on and on a cycle of unhappy disappointment goes.
To break the cycle, maybe what you need to do is watch a film that has become synonymous with this kind of stuck-ness — Groundhog Day — which my guest says contains the roadmap to escaping a life lived on autopilot. His name is Paul Hannam, he’s the author of The Wisdom of Groundhog Day: How to Improve Your Life One Day at a Time, and today on the show, Paul unpacks the deeper philosophical layers of what’s considered one of the best movies of all time. Paul explains how the film teaches us that to escape the ruts of what he calls the “Groundhog Day condition,” we must first make an inner change where we learn to approach life in a more grateful, present-focused, engaged way. From there, we can embrace the film’s unique strategy for change, which is to experiment with doing something new every day, thereby refining and improving our lives through the process of trial, error, and progressive improvement.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Groundhog Day
- AoM Article: Getting Over the Horror of the Same Old Thing
- AoM article on Nietzche’s idea of eternal return
- Sunday Firesides: Eternity Is Now
- Sunday Firesides: Care, But Don’t Care
- Sunday Firesides: Life Is a Skill — Practice It
- AoM Podcast #676: Stop Living on Autopilot and Take Responsibility for Your Life
- AoM Article: The Right and Wrong Way to Journal
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Do you feel stuck in life? Inwardly, you keep repeating the same thoughts, outwardly you keep repeating the same routine, and on and on, a cycle of unhappy disappointment goes. To break the cycle, maybe what you need to do is watch a film that has become synonymous with this kind of stuck-ness, Groundhog Day, which my guest says contains the roadmap to escaping a life lived on auto-pilot. His name is Paul Hannam, he’s the author of The Wisdom of Groundhog Day: How to improve your life one day at a time. And today on the show, Paul impacts the deeper philosophical layers of what’s considered one of the best movies of all time. Paul explains how the film teaches us that to escape the ruts of what he calls the Ground Hog Day condition, we must first make an interchange where we learn to approach life in a more grateful, present-focused, engaged way. From there, we can embrace the film’s unique strategy for change, which is to experiment with doing something new every day, thereby refining and improving our lives through the process of trial, error and progressive improvement. After the show’s over, check at our show notes at aom.is/groundhog.
Alright, Paul Hannam, welcome to the show.
Paul Hannam: Well, thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here Brett.
Brett McKay: So you are a speaker, you’re an entrepreneur, you’re an academic who taught about organizational behavior and entrepreneurship at Oxford University, you’ve also written a book about the surprising wisdom that can be found from the 1993 cult classic Bill Murray film, Groundhog Day. I’m curious, when did you start thinking about the life-changing insights contained in Groundhog Day? What was going on in your life when you thought, this movie resonates.
Paul Hannam: Well, you know, I first watched this film in 1993, the year it came out, and I thought, Wow, what a brilliant comedy, it was hilarious and magical. But it also had a profound effect on me, unlike any other movie, and when I talk about this, half the people I talk to think I’m mad, and half the people I talk to get it straight away, because there’s something so much deeper when you go below the surface of what is really a deceptively simple romantic comedy, and what it did for me was it really… I felt that Phil was my story. I was very ambitious, I was very self-centered, a classic only child, and at the beginning of the film, I recognized him, maybe not as bad as him… This is Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors. But by the end, I saw a vision of how my life could be, and like Phil, I had hit rock bottom in my life, and I really had to find my true self.
I always suffered acutely from anxiety and some depression, and for me, the way he changes and transforms himself in the movie was a real path for me, but I was able to escape from a lot of my anxiety and depression and help my clients with too, because I was on a career path where I was motivated by financial success, status, popularity, but now, after this movie, I switched to really focusing on my inner life, rather than my outer life to really focus on my health, my mental health, my well-being, because for me, this is a story, Groundhog Day is a story of somebody who turns the worst day of his life into the best day of his life by changing his story about himself and what it means to be a human being and about what matters the most in life.
So I used the ideas in the book in the 1990s, in my leadership training, I got my students to watch it at Oxford and other universities I taught at, and 20 years ago, I met Danny Rubin, who’s the screen writer and came up with the initial idea of Groundhog Day, and we became good friends, and he actually wrote the introduction to my book, and when through my conversations with him, I really understood the deep spirituality and philosophy underneath this book and the reason that it has been chosen as one of the most spiritual movies ever made, which unless you can understand what Danny was talking about, and the real meaning of the transformation in this movie is quite difficult to get, but it’s a profound metaphor for the human nature. And when I think about The Art of Manliness, a lot of self-help books are written for an audience, which is men and women, and I would say… I don’t have exact numbers, say 75%, 80% of self-help books are bought by women, but what I found with my book and Groundhog Day, it appealed particularly to men, because it was almost like a comedy, gave them permission to think about their inner life, think about and talk about their feelings, so it’s a great way of opening a conversation about a whole range of personal development areas.
Brett McKay: Okay, for those who aren’t familiar with the basic plot of the movie… It’s become such a cultural touchstone, when you talk about something that happens over and over again, people just say, Oh, it’s like Groundhog Day, it’s become that embedded in our culture, but for those who aren’t familiar, maybe a refresher… What’s the Reader’s Digest version of the plot of the movie?
Paul Hannam: Sure, well, it’s a tale… Groundhog Day is a tale about a very cynical, ambitious weatherman, Phil Connors, who’s played by Bill Murray, and how he becomes trapped in a small town of Punxsutawney and re-living the exact same day February 2, over and over again. Now, there’s a lot of debate about how long he was there, and Danny is never gonna tell me, maybe he’s not sure, but we reckon around about 20 to 30 years, will give you a good idea of repeating the same day, and through this, he goes through the whole spectrum of emotions. At first, he has fun with it, he’s stuck in time, then he goes into… Shifts into real sense of despair and he tries to kill himself again and again, but then he re-frames his whole attitude to what’s happened, and he discovers that actually, there’s real joy to be found in this small town, which he despised at first, and he learns to love it, and he turns his life around, and he learns for perseverance, resilience, resourcefulness to gradually adapt, cope and ultimately triumph over his adversity, and he turns this… This very cold, bitter February day when all hope had seemed lost into really a perfect day, and you see him at the end, he falls in love with Rita, who is producer… Is his producer, and may wake up together on a new day, the 3rd of February and Phil has escaped the time trap and is free at last.
Brett McKay: Okay. Phil starts out cynical and through this refining process becomes less selfish, more engaged with the world around him and love, it’s like love is like what saved him, it got him out of the time loop.
Paul Hannam: Absolutely. He… He really shifted, and we’ll talk about this more, I’m sure, from this idea of living through his personality and his goals and his desires and his self-centeredness, to learning to really transcend his ego and move to this much higher state of consciousness where he was able to find that he had everything he needed in a town that he had previously despised, on a day that he had loathed and with people he hadn’t cared about. He discovered his true self. And I feel that this is a beautiful allegory, a parable for how we can all live and how we can find what’s most meaningful and significant in our lives.
Brett McKay: And as you said, this is considered one of the most spiritual films. I mean, if you just look at that basic plot, you can see the influences of Buddhism like Buddhism has the same sort of idea, you reincarnate until you kind of figure things out and you can escape reincarnation, and reach nirvana. There’s philosophical implications. Nietzsche also kind of did some thought experiments about if you could live your life over and over again for eternity, would you want to live this life? So it makes you think, like, Well, I don’t want to live this life right now.
Paul Hannam: That’s a very good point, Brett. And these philosophical questions are not just dry abstract questions. It’s a superb question, to look at your life and see it from different perspectives, just as Phil was forced to do in Groundhog Day. And with this new perspective, you can see where am I going in this life? Is this the life I want to be living? And you can look back at the past and say, Would I’ve done things differently? Then imagine yourself in the future looking at you today saying what would I do differently now? And this also accords with salvation in Christianity with enlightenment in Buddhism, with other major religions. In fact, Danny who wrote the screenplay, still gets letters from spiritual leaders from around the world claiming to have the definitive interpretation of what this movie is, like all works of genius, it has multiple interpretations.
Brett McKay: So you argue that a lot of people live their lives like Phil stuck in Groundhog Day. They might not be in a literal time loop, but they live the same day over and over again, you call it the Groundhog Day condition. What is that and how does it manifest itself?
Paul Hannam: Well, I’ve been working as a coach and an academic for nearly 40 years now, and I noticed something in the thousands of people I work with, that they could be in London today, in Oklahoma tomorrow, in Japan the next day, but in their inner life, they were replaying the same thoughts and feelings and emotional patterns, often going all the way back to childhood and I call this the Groundhog Day condition. It’s the sense that every day you’re having very similar thoughts and feelings. Some neuroscientists say that about 80% to 90% of what we think about today is the same as yesterday, and we are creatures of habit and we tend to get stuck in these grooves. Sometimes it can really help us but often, we get stuck in a state of worrying, or multitasking or busyness and distraction, and we can feel disconnected from a direct experience of life and from real joy, and for me, when I thought about this idea of Groundhog Day, in its broader psychological meaning, it seemed to answer, offer answers to the questions like why do we feel stuck? Why is change so hard? Why do I feel unfulfilled? Why do I feel that life is passing me by? And why is it that often what we think we want turns out to be disappointing?
And with Groundhog Day, it allows you to excavate below the surface and see what’s really going on in your habitual thinking and feeling which most of us never do. Most of us when we feel sad or unhappy, we try and change something outside of us. We go away, we go on vacation, we might change job, partner, or where we live, but it rarely fixes the issue or the problem. It’s only when we change from the inside out that we make real change and that’s what Phil does in this movie.
Brett McKay: Okay, so you highlight in the book some of the symptoms that you noticed in people who you have this Groundhog Day condition, of feeling that you’re stuck, I’m sure a lot of people feel like that, compulsive thoughts and feelings. That’s a big… That’s a symptom of anxiety and depression. You kind of have these reoccurring ruminating thoughts that aren’t productive, living on autopilot, a sense of meaningless. I’m sure everyone listening has had those moments when they’re lying in bed thinking, What’s the point of it all? What am I doing? And then yeah, the powerlessness to change, like you think everything is determined by your outside conditions.
Paul Hannam: Absolutely. And those compulsive thoughts and feelings are very, very powerful. In fact, one of the best piece of advice I can ever give someone is to say you are not your thoughts, is… And a lot of therapeutic techniques have this where you separate yourself from your thinking and realize that it’s not you. Often it’s just noise. But when you suffer from depression or anxiety, you take your thoughts far more seriously and you ruminate on them, as you mentioned. And I sense that in Groundhog Day, he learned to break away from thinking all the time and just experience life more on being mode rather than thinking mode. And that’s something I feel we all need to do because we’re in… We live in a civilization where everything is around our thinking and about constantly being distracted. It’s the reason, the World Health Organization has said by 2030, depression is going to be the biggest health problem in the world.
Now, a lot of it’s down to a pandemic, political problems, wars, economic crises, but I feel at its root is that in our civilization, we’ve become disconnected from ourselves, and we are caught, we get caught in this thinking loops where we’re fixated on what we don’t have, on what we believe will make us happy. And a psychologist told with the hedonic treadmill, once you get on that, you can never get off because you’re never going to be able to satisfy this constant hunger for more. And Groundhog Day is a great story for illustrating this in my view.
Brett McKay: Well, you also highlight the causes of Groundhog Day condition. We talked about your mind, you know, these cognitive processes and preferences for rumination that aren’t healthy and productive. But you also talk about just your life history can cause it, the way you’re parented, your education, you… The type of career you choose and you’re surrounded by people who, they’re all pursuing a particular goal and you think, “Well, I need to do that because everyone else is doing it,” but that might not be good for you.
Paul Hannam: Very much so. My view, and I think this is becoming more prevalent amongst psychologists, is that we have multiple personalities at some level, or sub-personalities, that different parts of us, we’re one person with our partner or spouse, we’re another person with our parents, another person with our friends or at work, or with the CEO. We change, but we are often governed by these personality patterns that we can trace back to childhood and our conditioning, the way we were parented, the way we were schooled, whether we are the eldest, youngest, or like me, an only child, our friends, then our workplace, our culture, our social media, and the countries we live in. Living in… I’ve lived in Britain, I’ve lived in the States, and they can have a different impact and influence on your personality. But the problem is, our personality becomes our identity and we feel it’s fixed. We feel it’s as real as the microphone I’m speaking into, but it’s not. It’s fluid. It’s dynamic. And again, in Groundhog Day, we see how it can change.
But the problem is, Brett, we get stuck in our ego and the stories we tell ourselves. We get stuck in our roles, our conditioning, our neediness, and our unconscious drives. And it’s only when you can get out of those and rise above them and see them for what they are, that they’re not you, they’re only part of you and they’re fleeting, and often they’re not very helpful, that’s when the real change happens. Now, it took Phil, in the movie 20, 30 years to get there. What I tried to do in the book was come up with a framework to use the same process, which I think is very valid, but applied in your life, to cut through all these different versions of yourself which can hold you back.
Brett McKay: Well, you also argue this Groundhog Day condition creates what’s called the conditioned self, and this is the self that’s just created by all these conditions that we find ourselves in, like we’re controlled from the outside. What are the… How does the conditioned self manifest itself? What are the characteristics? How do you see those in Phil in Groundhog Day?
Paul Hannam: Well, with Phil, I identify five core characteristics, but they are all versions of the conditioned self. For Phil, the dominant one that came across at the beginning was a sense of entitlement. He was selfish, proud, self-centered, almost narcissistic. When he came into town, he wanted the best hotel. He called himself the talent. He wanted to find a phone line for celebrities because he believed he was one, and he believed that the more he focused on satisfying his own needs, the happier he would become. And it took the whole experience of the film to eliminate that very negative and erroneous attitude. So that’s for Phil, the sense of entitlement is stronger. For me, my dominant conditioned self has been the need for approval. I wanted my parents’ approval, especially my dad, my friend’s recognition. I went to a school where your whole self-esteem was based on how well you did in tests, or whether you were good at sport, you were called by your surname. There was no joy. There was no friendliness or amicability. You were just a number and you were measured. In business, it was very much the same. Now, I’ve really managed to overcome that drive. It’s taken me many, many years, but we have a need for approval. Others could be a need for security or dependency or control, perfectionism.
But I believe, based on my experience, that everyone listening to this podcast will know that there’s some part of them, going back to their childhood, that could be limiting their potential for happiness, and it could be sabotaging them in some way. And these are stories which go back to our childhood, which we buy into, often to cope, to survive a playground, to survive bad parenting, to help us get through life. But what can be useful as a coping mechanism in the playground can be very damaging in adulthood, and can ruin our relationships too.
Brett McKay: Okay. So Phil started off the movie arrogant, the conditioned self. How did he become aware that he was a conditioned self in the movie? And then how do you think we become aware of our conditioned self? ’cause that’s the first thing. You have to know that you are this thing before you can make a change, right?
Paul Hannam: Exactly. Well, one of the reasons I wanted to write about Groundhog Day, rather than do a more academic book or a more traditional self-help book, was I believe Groundhog Day is so accurate to how we live our life, in that, Phil doesn’t have a guru. There’s no magic wizard or mentor helping him through here. He has to find out everything through trial and error, through learning by doing, learning through experience. And through the film, he tries out every possible strategy to be happy. He sleeps with different women. He commits crimes. He eats till he’s obese. He does anything he wants. And gradually he eliminates these needs from his conditioned self. He lets go the entitlement. He lets go of the need for control. He lets go of his need to be admired by everybody, and he just lets go and naturally becomes a more loving kind person. And I feel that when you cut through the conditioned self, and you go to what I call the authentic self, you can touch who you really are, and you are so much more than your personality. But to answer your question, Brett, it gets fair through trial and error, and that’s the only way ultimately we can learn. We can have therapists, we can have coaches, but we learn from observing our own experience and acknowledging it, and trying something new every day. That’s the essence of the movie. He tries something new every day.
Brett McKay: Well, it’s sounds like Phil kind of follows the Buddha, is that right? So like Buddha goes out there, he’s looking for enlightenment. The first way he tries to find it through sensuality, trying to like hook up with a lot of women, and he is like, “That didn’t work.” And then he found an ascetic who was kind of life denying and I’m just gonna live in this cloistered world, not eat, and that didn’t get it. Phil, basically, he becomes life denying in the most extreme way, killing himself, trying to kill himself. And then he finds this middle path, basically, like the Buddha.
Paul Hannam: You’re spot on. There are a lot of parallels to the story of Buddha. But if… I would encourage everyone to stop and think for a moment about what is their story about what will make them happy. What do you think will make you happy? Because in the movie, Phil has this unique opportunity through the time loop to test out every possible strategy for living, everything, because he’s got infinite time. And as far as he knows, he’s trapped in time forever, for eternity. And through trying out everything, he discovers what the great religious leaders have told us, what many of the great psychologists have told us, what we’re now learning from positive psychology, from neuroscience, is the way to live, which is to be in the present, which is to be loving, kind, find meaning, help others. This is the beauty of the film, is that through this incredible story he’s actually summarizing what we’re now learning from modern science, modern psychology, as well as what we’ve known for thousands of years from ancient wisdom, like Buddhism.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show.
Well yeah. Now that’s the… One of the big take-aways, the thing that… The transformation that happened in Phil, there’s a couple of transformations by being stuck in the time loop. One, he realized, okay, he can’t change the outside world, right, everything is just gonna happen, the same thing over and over, and he can’t change that, so he has to change himself. But the other one is his relationship to time changed by being stuck in the time loop and it shifted him from that past and future orientation to a present orientation. And you talked about in the book, oftentimes, like a… Most of our thoughts are about the past and the future, and thinking about that can make us happy sometimes, right, if you think about a good memory from the past that makes us feel good. If you think about… You’re looking forward to a trip you’re going to, that can make us happy, but oftentimes when we’re focused on the past and the future, it often makes us miserable. Why is that?
Paul Hannam: Well, that’s an extremely important point. And you know, Brett when I was writing this book and before, I’ve been practicing mindfulness, so I’ve always been interested both professionally and personally in how we can spend more time in the present moment. I love books like, The Power of Now, Michael Singer’s work. But again in Groundhog Day what’s fascinating is how his relationship to time changes throughout the movie. At first, time is an irritation to be endured. He’s waiting there impatiently to… In the town he doesn’t wanna be in to return to his former life as a celebrity weatherman in the city. There’s a contrast between this slow, dull, what he calls Hicksville and the exciting vibrant city. Then time becomes a resource where he can use it to exploit other people, so he uses the time loop to seduce women, as I said, and do other things which are not really helping anyone.
Next though it becomes its terrible honorous burden to be suffered for eternity. There’s that wonderful point in the movie when the clock turns around very slowly and there’s this loud crash as it comes to 6 o’clock and time is a weight pinning him down. But then finally, when he goes to the present moment and he stops thinking about the past, and the future and he realizes he is in an eternal present, then become… Time becomes a great gift where he can learn new skills like sculpting, he’s got the time to learn piano, to help others and ultimately to find happiness.
And when he becomes aware that time’s a gift, he relearns how to master time and he slows right down and pays attention to the present, and he reframes what had become a terrible… What previously had been a terrible day when he was just focused on the past, what he’d lost and the future, how he could get out of there and became grounded in the present moment, and that’s where his happiness lied. And ironically, it’s only when his future was removed, that he could really recognize the gift of the present moment, and he says to Rita at one point, “No matter what happens tomorrow or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now.”
Brett McKay: And you argue that, that shift that he makes from not being focused on the future to just being focused on the present and the world around him, like he achieves… And going back to sort of the religious motifs in this movie, he achieves a state of grace in this time loop.
Paul Hannam: Very much so. For me, a state of grace is a phrase, not a common phrase, but to me, it means being in the present, it’s a peak state when you feel most calm, most present and most alive, it’s when you’re in the flow, or maybe what Maslow calls self-actualization, if you look at the characteristics of that. It’s about being present and alive and Phil achieves this state when he changes his story about what’s happened to him. And the key moments in the movie, the real pivotal moment is when he’s trapped in the time loop and he’s teaching Rita to flick cards into a hat, another useless thing he’s learnt in the time. And she asks him, “Is this what you want to do with eternity?” Then she suggests, that eternity could be a blessing in disguise. She says to him, “I don’t know Phil, maybe it’s not a curse. It just depends on how you look at it.”
Now, he begins to realize that the time loop is a blessing, and he shifts to this state of grace, he shifts to a higher level of consciousness. You could call this enlightenment, but whatever your views, he fundamentally changes the way he looks, the way he acts, everything about him shifts and he’s in this state of grace and this higher level of consciousness, which is just extraordinary to watch, and I think we all have this grace, this innate well being, this appreciation, this love, this wisdom and that one of the key goals of our life is to connect to it or reconnect to it. Maybe we had it as children before education got hold of us, maybe we had it when we weren’t just thinking all the time and we were just being. So I think that’s a very powerful moment in the movie.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and I… For me, like a state of grace, it’s kind of like you realize what you do doesn’t matter, but it does matter at the same time. Right, I mean I think Phil realizes that… There’s that really powerful moment where Phil, he’s making that shift from selfishness to selflessness, and there’s that homeless guy, the old homeless guy, and he dies every day and Phil at first tries to save him, and you can tell that he’s like, I gotta save this guy, and he gets really frustrated that he can never save this guy, this guy will just keep dying. And then he realizes, I’m not gonna be able to save him. I can’t do anything about that, but what I can do in the meantime, I can just give this guy a warm meal, I can be kind to him. That’s what I can do. And once he let go of that. I mean… I think that’s that state of grace. He knew he couldn’t change any, but he knew he could do something now.
Paul Hannam: Yeah, that is again, a very important part of the movie where I think several things are going on here. Everything you say is absolutely true, he realizes it’s not… Not everything is gonna have an end goal or an end state, he’s not gonna be successful in everything, but it’s the actual act of doing it, it’s the quality of his moment-to-moment life that’s more important in a way than actually what happens. And we live in a culture where everybody’s focused on goals and achieving things and end states, we’re working towards these end states we think will make us happy, but it’s true… Truly happy people are people who enjoy the journey. I know this is a cliche, but the movie really brings that out. But there’s something else about the old man that I think is critical here, and that is, at some point, Phil could almost believe that he was divine, that he was a god, he had almighty power, but when he realizes he can’t save the old man, he lets go of a lot of that hubris and a lot of that pride, and has an even deeper compassion for other people.
Because there’s a compassion, but we are all… He can’t save everyone, and people are gonna die and not even he can fix that, and that gives him a deeper appreciation of human nature and a deeper compassion in my view.
Brett McKay: So how do you think we can make that shift from… To this present focus and get into that state of grace without having to be stuck in a literal time loop. What does that look like on a day-to-day basis?
Paul Hannam: Well, I think there’s a number of things. I think mindfulness is incredibly important, and I’m sure you’ve had many guests who talk about mindfulness, but mindfulness allows you even momentarily to escape from the noise, escape from all the future projections and just be. For me, being out in nature is critical, we have forgotten that this world is a miracle. Groundhog Day is a story of how he discovers that his life is a miracle, that even in this town which he hated at first, with these people he was contemptuous of, he has everything he needs to be happy. And so whether it be for mindfulness, for gratitude, practices, through being in nature, through volunteering, there’s many different roads to get there. I encourage everyone to spend far less time focusing on what you don’t have or what you think will make you happy, and far more time focusing on what you do have. We’ve known this for thousands of years, but now we know… You know, a place like the University of Berkley have a massive department dedicated to the study of gratitude, and we know from many studies that the people who are the most grateful are also the happiest.
And also the people who might be billionaires, but they’re worried why they’ve got less billions than their main competitor are gonna be miserable in many ways. But the whole of our society is set up for scarcity, for focusing on what we don’t have than what we do have so we need to have rituals and behaviors to counteract these social and economic forces which are always based on scarcity and lack.
Brett McKay: Yeah, so we got mindfulness, I think just paying attention more to the world around you, that’s the big shift that happens with Phil, he actually starts engaging with this small town and he realized, well, here’s this homeless guy, and then here’s this person, this person has a story. He just… Instead of seeing these people as means to an end, he starts seeing the world around him as an end.
Paul Hannam: That’s very true. And in the work I do with leaders, we have a model called transactional leadership and transformational leadership. Transactional leadership is where you lead or manage people as a means to an end, you treat people almost like pawns on a chess board to control them to achieve your goals, increase productivity, and it takes all the emotion out of it. Transformational leadership is the view that everybody you come across, you can transform, you can improve their life, it’s about giving, not taking, it’s about helping people feel good about themselves, and Phil goes from being very transactional to being transformational, and he does that by letting go of his ego and reconnecting to his deeper self.
Brett McKay: Well, you argue… And you mentioned this earlier, that one of the most powerful lessons from Groundhog Day is that all of life consists of skills that you must practice to master. How did this idea show up in the movie?
Paul Hannam: Well, I think the unique, if you like, model or strategy coming out of Groundhog Day, if you’re looking at Groundhog Day as a template or as a blueprint for your life, a lot of what I’ve said, you can find in other books, probably find in other movies, but what I think is unique about Groundhog Day, is this concept of practice, is establishing what skills do you need? And I think that Phil learns a whole range of skills, through resourcefulness, resilience, appreciation, how to change each day, a growth mindset, how to grow through learning, how to create a positive intention at beginning of the day, and how to find meaning. But these are all skills and not just attitudes, they’re skills. And the genius of Groundhog Day is how he learns, he learns by changing something small every day through incremental small daily changes.
Now, we know from psychotherapy, we know from coaching, we know from health interventions, that the best way to bring about behavioral change is through small incremental changes, and Groundhog Day is a beautiful parable about how he does that. So the end of every day, he can reset, he knows tomorrow, everybody’s gonna be doing exactly the same, they’re gonna be going to the same places, the same activity, saying the same things with the same people, the only thing that changes is him, so he can try something new every day until he gets it right.
And my feeling is from working also with thousands of people, coaching and leadership is, those people, maybe about 10% or 20% of people who really get the big changes in their life, it’s not because of knowledge, it’s not the cause of desire, it’s not because of personality, it’s because they change their behavior, they do the work, they do the practice, and Groundhog Day is all about somebody who does the work. And so I think that’s the absolute key to this in terms of, if you wanna change your life, then the biggest message of the movie is that daily practice.
Brett McKay: Okay, yeah, so with this trying something new every day, it doesn’t have to be anything big, just try doing little things in your behavior or your daily routine, something as some examples here, try doing an active service for your wife every day, see what happens, say no to people when they ask you to do something you don’t wanna do instead of… Looking at your phone first thing in the morning, try meditating for five minutes before you pick up your phone. Or you could try… If you watch Netflix at night before you go to bed, try reading a book instead. But as you say, the key is just to pick one thing. You don’t pick multiple things at the same time. Just focus on one thing at a time, and then see what happens.
Paul Hannam: No absolutely. And with Phil, he learns to play the piano, he learns ice sculpture, he learns other skills, but he also learns the art of living. Now, he doesn’t even learn that consciously, he doesn’t sit down with a self-help book, but he just learns it through his experience. My view is we should approach living in the same way we approach learning how to read and write or drive a car or play golf, and through practice, all the skills are out there, there are free courses all over the internet from some of the best universities in the world, but it’s how you practice. That is the absolute key here.
Brett McKay: Yeah, so big life skills, the quality, you talked about the quality of your life is determined by the quality of the small decisions you make, so get better at decision-making, that can be a big game changer.
Paul Hannam: Yeah, and again, in Groundhog Day, he can see how his decisions work out. Now… Because he can try something on a Thursday and the next day he’ll know whether it’s worked or not and he could make these small little changes and monitor results. But we can do this too. If you’ve got a difficult boss, try saying something new to them tomorrow, try a new approach, try smiling more and just notice what happens. The worst thing is we get stuck, and this is the Groundhog Day condition, we get stuck in these habitual default reactions and responses to things, but we can only change if we’re trying something new which he does again and again.
Brett McKay: Well I think what’s empowering about this movie, it helps you realize, “Okay, I might not be stuck in a literal time loop, but I’ve got hopefully 20, 30 years to live, 40 years left of life. I can make the most of that time. I can start the changes that will accumulate over time today.”
Paul Hannam: Absolutely. And there’s one sentence that I take away from my book and the movie, this concept that he turns the worst day of his life when he tries to kill himself again and again into the best day of his life when he’s in love and he’s happy, he’s joyful and passionate and the only thing that changes is him. He doesn’t move to a new place. He doesn’t have a new job. He doesn’t become a billionaire, win the lottery. He doesn’t win MVP. He just changes his inner life and his outer life becomes magnificent. And there is achievable for absolutely everyone. Anybody can follow that. You don’t need to be in a time loop. All the tools are out there. All the ingredients and the recipe are there. I think Groundhog Day is a beautiful recipe, but the ingredients are all there.
Brett McKay: Well Paul, is there something like if you… There’s like one thing someone can start doing today that’s from your book and from the Groundhog Day that can start getting them on this path of escaping the Groundhog Day condition, what would that thing be, you think?
Paul Hannam: As a practical technique, Brett, I think there’s nothing better than journaling. I insist on everyone I work with journaling, because journaling allows you to capture and record what’s happened today, to investigate what’s happened today, to write in your total privacy, complete confidentiality about how you feel about it, and then set an intention that tomorrow you’re gonna try something new. So whether it be in a relationship or something to do with your mental health or a new skill you’re learning, just take one behavior and for a few weeks, just record the experience of trying something new everyday, note what works, what doesn’t work. When you journal, the actual act of getting it out of your head onto paper is profoundly liberating and it means it’s far more likely that you’re gonna follow through on those behavior. It’s a form of commitment. It also allows you to de-clutter your mind and it can make you feel calmer and happier.
This is why so many therapists and in positive psychology, people use journaling and researchers use because it works, it works brilliantly. It’s a simple technique. There are many, many others, but that is the one I would encourage you, if you like this idea of Groundhog Day and this daily change, start recording your day and see each day almost as a lifetime and when you wake up tomorrow, you can be reborn, you can reinvent yourself. You can wipe the slate clean from yesterday and reinvent yourself today. And journaling is a mechanism to do that.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think this whole idea of treating your life like an experiment is powerful, but I only think it works if when you’re testing out these different hypotheses to see if it will improve your life, you have to record the result of your experiments, even if it’s not like a formal journal, you just kind of make a note for yourself maybe on your phone in the Notes app. Because you think, “Okay, I know this about myself now and I’m gonna remember this in the future,” but you don’t. I mean here’s some examples from my own life. Whenever I get invited in a social event, I think, “Oh geez, I don’t like this thing, I get ready, you gotta go there and do the small talk,” but then afterwards, after I’ve gone to the thing, I’m like, “Man, I really had a great time. I’m so glad I did that.” Or here’s another thing I’ve learned, I had to keep re-realizing that I don’t like to go on vacation somewhere where I’ll be doing things in crowds of people. I mean, you weirdly have to record that kind of stuff so you remember it, so you don’t end up in that Groundhog Day condition.
The journaling can also help you figure out if you are in the Groundhog Day condition. ‘Cause you mentioned this in the book. I had a similar experience with journaling. I don’t journal anymore regularly, but as a regular journaler, and one thing I noticed that okay, different stuff would happen and I’d write about it, but there’s this underlying current of just pessimism and negativity that I could see that would happen 20 years ago, 15… It’s the same thing. I was like, “Okay, I’m repeating these thought patterns over and over again. I need to do something about this.” And I think you mentioned you had a similar experience.
Paul Hannam: Oh, absolutely. Again, one of the reasons I wrote the book was I was living what most people say was an amazing lifestyle. I lived in a 9000-square-foot house in one of the most luxurious real estates in California. I had very successful businesses, I was flying first class around the world. But when I looked at my journals, it was the same anxieties, the same insecurities, the same resentments, the same fears day after day after day. And I suddenly realized I can’t carry on doing this. This is insane. I’ve spent my whole life on this floored strategy of going outside to fix these inner problems and through journaling and looking at my journal and seeing this year after year, I realized… I thought, “Well, I’m over insane. I’ve got… [laughter] There’s something going on here,” and it really woke me up. Because a journal is a record and we forget things. We easily forget how we feel. We forget our moods. We can remember dates, we can remember people, but we lose sight of our feelings and experience. But when you look back at it and investigate it and learn techniques for questioning it, like “What else could this mean? What else could cause this? What could I do next to help me get through this?” There’s some beautiful questions you can learn from cognitive therapy, acceptance, commitment therapy and many different techniques. It’s all available on the web and in very good books. But just the act of journaling makes yourself your own coach, your own mentor.
Brett McKay: Well, Paul, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Paul Hannam: Well, sure. Well on my website, I have excerpts from the book and more about me, which is paulhannam.com, www.paulhannam.com. My book is The Wisdom of Groundhog Day. Most of my time now, I’m doing a lot of work around mental health, I have been for years, which I think is one of my serious issues in the world right now. And find out more about me there, most definitely.
Brett McKay: Well Paul Hannam, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Paul Hannam: Thank you very much.
Brett McKay: My guest here is Paul Hannam. He’s the author of the book, The Wisdom of Groundhog Day. It’s available on amazon.com. Also check out his website, paulhannam.com and check out our show notes at aom.is/groundhog where you find links to resources, we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM Podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of The AOM Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up and use code MANLINESS and check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of The AOM Podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to The AOM Podcast but put what you’ve heard into action.