Episode 21: Finding Happiness, Beating Loneliness

Learn Harvard positive psychology instructor Tal Ben-Shahar’s advice for living a happier, healthier life on this episode of the Keep Connected podcast.

Tal Ben Shahar

For Tal Ben-Shahar, happiness is a study and a practice. In this episode of Keep Connected, Tal breaks down steps that anyone can take to lead a happier life, from developing meaningful relationships to keeping a gratitude journal. Learn from the bestselling author and instructor of one of Harvard University’s most popular courses on how to live a happier, healthier life today!

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Episode 21: Finding Happiness, Beating Loneliness

You are going to find out soon why I am so happy. In this episode, we are talking to Tal Ben-Shahar. He’s a bestselling author with books translated into not 10, 20 but 25 different languages. He’s also the Founder of the Happiness Studies Academy. He was also the most popular professor at Harvard. We were talking about happiness. Just read, happiness awaits.

Tal, I am so happy to have you on the show.

It’s great to be here, David.

Tal and I got together for a breakfast. It’s supposed to be a 45-minute, 1-hour breakfast but it lasted over two hours long. We had such a great time talking, barely scratched the surface. I was always a major fanboy of Tal’s after reading his book, Happier, the number one bestseller, amazing book. I highly recommend you read that and any of those many other books. Now I’m even more of a fanboy. I have a question for you, Tal. Let’s get started. Do you practice what you preach? Are you happy? It’s a softball question.

Do I practice what I preach? Yes. Am I happy? That’s a more complicated question. Why? Happiness is not a binary zero one. It’s not like one day I wasn’t happy and the following day, I am happy, rather happiness resides on a continuum. I’m happier than I was years ago when I started in this area. At the same time, I certainly hope that years from now, I’ll be happier than I am. It’s a journey that ends when life ends.

Can happiness be measured on a day-to-day basis or is that something dangerous to do?

Yes. Happiness can be measured daily.

Should it be?

No. I’m all for Socrates’ claim that the unexamined life is not worth living. At the same time, the over-examined life is tedious. If we constantly examine, am I happy? Am I happier? There’s a problem there. Think about it. Usually, during happy periods, we are not concerned about, whether or not we are happy. It’s when we are unhappy that we evaluate and measure. That’s not an effect of being unhappy. It’s also sometimes a cause.

One can’t be happy all the time. Happiness is a relative term and you can experience that joy unless you are possibly experiencing the opposite of happiness. Do you agree or disagree with that? I know this is a funny question but is there an optimal amount of happiness? I don’t believe someone should be 100% happy. You can’t be but is it 90% happy or 50%? Walk me through that a little bit.

Struggles and hardship are important. They shouldn’t be treated as unnecessary.

Sometimes students of mine, especially the younger ones, would come to me and say, “Tal, you talk about the importance of sadness, struggles and hardship. What if I master this field of happiness studies and I’m able to be happy all the time? Is that a problem?” My response to that is always don’t worry. Life will take care of you. Life always takes care of us. It throws us those curveballs.

We will experience those difficulties and hardships. It’s inevitable. Not a bad thing that it is because we do learn from difficulties and hardships. We learn to appreciate our life or happiness more so following a challenging experience, whether it’s good for us or not good for us, it’s inevitable. Some struggles, sadness, anger, anxiety, envy are all-natural human emotions.

Speaking about sadness, anxiety, anger, struggles, most people don’t become psychologists unless, at some point in time, they had thought about their own psychology and tried to figure out what they needed in life. Most psychologists do go to therapy and that’s a very healthy thing. Many of them became psychologists even because of the therapy that they had gone through. Part of the reason why you study happiness and are such a leader in this field of positive psychology is because of your history. Share with us a little bit about what you went through and how that impacted your priorities in terms of the study of happiness.

I became interested in happiness because of my own unhappiness. There were a few points along with my personal history that got me interested in this field. The tipping point, as far as I was concerned, came when I was in college. I was an undergrad at Harvard studying Computer Science. It was my sophomore year. I found myself doing very well academically. I was an athlete, played Squash and did very well there.

I did fairly well socially and yet I was miserable. I must say that it didn’t make sense to me. It baffled me because when I looked at my life from the outside, I checked the boxes. I also had a great summer job lined up that was already offered at post-college. Everything was going great. It didn’t make sense to me why was I waking up unhappy?

It was a very cold Boston morning when I’ve got up and gone to my academic advisor. I told her that I’m switching majors. She said, “What to?” I said, “I’m leaving Computer Science, moving over to Philosophy and Psychology.” She said, “Why?” I said, “It’s because of two questions. Question number one, ‘Why aren’t I happy?’ Question number two, ‘How can I become happier?’” That was the beginning of this journey. I did my undergraduate and graduate studies in these fields, have been asking these questions, especially the second question ever since.

Years ago when you were in college, did they have classes that focused on the Philosophy and Psychology of Happiness? It sounds like you were looking for answers to those questions but what classes or research did they have years ago?

They did have classes on these topics. There wasn’t a field of Positive Psychology that was officially launched a bit later. However, there were classes in Philosophy. I took a class with the late Professor Stanley Cavell. The class was on the pursuits of happiness and looking at happiness through 1940s film through the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and others. I took classes with Robert Nozick, who was concerned with happiness and we studied Aristotle. Psychologists have always looked at unhappiness and depression. I’ve got a lot there. The answer is yes. As a field of study, that came a bit later.

Speaking of your academic pursuits in the fields of study and the courses you took, you were the most popular professor when you taught at Harvard. Your first class had a dozen students and by the end, how many students did you have in each of your classes?

KCM 21 | Finding Happiness
Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment

It’s 855 but who’s counting? In the first class, to be accurate, I had eight students. Out of them, two dropped out, which left me with a broken ego. It did not help my happiness. The reason why the class grew from 6 students close to 1,000 is that students were telling their roommates, their friends that the class made a difference in their lives. That’s why I created that class. I thought when I put together this class, “What would I have wanted to study when I was sitting in their seats, 10, 20 years prior?” I used research questions to answer that. When the class makes a difference in their lives, they are attracted to it. They tell their roommates to come there and that’s how it grew.

It was not because it was a gut class.

People ask me, “How do you grade?” My answer is, “If they are not happy by the end of the semester, they fail.” It’s a class like every other. It’s so conventional in its grading. There is an exam and a paper that they write like every other class. The difference is that I do not teach things that I don’t think can make a difference. This relates to your very first question about this being personal. I only teach what I apply in my life. Carl Rogers, an American psychologist from the 1950s and ‘60s once said, “What is most personal is most general.” I teach very personal things there, how I applied, whether it’s meditation or exercise.

Give us some more examples of something that you apply in your life. How do you teach? Are you doing meditation in class? Are you going bike riding after class together? Probably not, although that could be cool. How do you take the concept? Are you playing Squash together? How do you apply that to the class?

David, all these are wonderful ideas. It’s a bit more challenging to apply them when you have more than 6 or 12 students. The way we apply these ideas in the class is, first of all, there is the theory. We teach a study showing why meditation works and how it works. Their homework would be to take this and try it out. There are so many meditation practices online so try and experiment with them. They talk about it during the section. We talk about writing a gratitude letter where it turns out to contribute to our happiness. They write the gratitude letter as part of their homework again. Everything starts with a study and then goes to application.

Did you get any flak from Harvard if your priority was trying to essentially change people’s lives in a very direct and practical way? You could do that through research but it sounds like research wasn’t the primary goal. Was there a tension between the practical helping of people and the academic pursuits?

There is within academia but my explicit goal from the beginning was to create a bridge between the two worlds, between the Ivory Tower and Main Street. In other words, to make it accessible, applied, and at the same time, for it to be based on rigorous academic research. In a way, I had to be holier than thou because I was watched. Immediately when you offer a class on happiness and this was even more so the case years ago than it is now, it’s suspicious. You are watched with a magnifying glass.

I had certainly in the first year more visitors to my class from fellow professors than other classes to make sure that I was evidence-based. Obviously, the class was because it was offered for a few years. By the way, they didn’t need to visit because this is so important for me. When I realized that despite checking those boxes I was still unhappy, I looked for help in self-help books. I did not find it there. I realized that there is something missing here. Academia, Aristotle, Emerson can help but I would still need to create that bridge between Ivory Tower and Main Street.

How much feedback did you get from students when you were teaching them? Do you have any stories for us about students that you taught, students while you were teaching them or students after you taught for 2, 3, 4 or 5 years, and the impact that teaching happiness had in their lives?

Many students share, whether it’s during the course or sometimes ten years later. For instance, one of the ideas that I teach in my class and probably the idea that students respond to most is the idea of permission to be human. The permission to be human is about permitting ourselves to experience any, and all human emotions. It’s natural to be sad, angry and frustrated. The only two kinds of people who don’t experience painful emotions are psychopaths and dead people.

Don’t worry. Life will take care of you. It throws you those curveballs and difficulties, but you’ll always make it through.

Students remember that. When they experience sadness, they are permitting themselves to be human. What does paradoxically helps to alleviate that feeling? It’s when we reject painful emotions that they intensify. In a happiness class, the first step is allowing in unhappiness and they remember that. They tell it to their children. Many of them now have children. They don’t tell their four-year-old child don’t be sad, upset or angry about the country. It’s natural to be upset, angry and sad. This is probably the number one comeback from students.

Especially hard-charging, over-ambitious Harvard students who don’t ever likely cut themselves any slack. We all suffer from that. We don’t give ourselves permission to fail and be human. That is an amazing number one. Give us number two. What’s the number two takeaway you often hear about?

By the way, in your number one, as you summarize it, there is a number two because experiencing sadness and pain goes hand in hand with accepting failure. This is a very important lesson. What people are not aware of is that the number one predictor of long-term success is the number of failures that we are willing to endure. Every successful individual in every field, whether it’s a successful business person, scientist, artist or every successful relationship has gone through ups and downs, hardships, difficulties, falling down and getting up again. That’s number two.

I like to tell the story that my wife and I started going out when we were very young, twenty years old. We went out and broke up. We went out and broke up. People oftentimes said to us after we’ve got married, “First year of marriage is challenging. It’s hard.” We said, “We had a great first year of marriage. We had so much failure, challenge and pain. While we were going out and breaking up and going out, it made for a more successful first-year foundation of marriage.” That could be an example.

It is because you went through it earlier. Other people will go through it later. It’s inevitable in every relationship. When we know that this is part and parcel of every relationship, we are in a better place. Another critical element and this is probably the best-known study in Positive Psychology, is the importance of gratitude. Gratitude has many faces. One is to do what Oprah Winfrey admonished us to do and that is to keep a gratitude journal.

Another for people at work is writing down what progress they made regularly. All these interventions, whether it’s a gratitude letter writing about progress or appreciating what’s going well in your life contribute significantly to our levels of happiness. They make us more resilient. They contribute to our physical health. There’s research connecting it to our immune system. We are happier for it.

This is something that numerous students continue to do down the line. Talking about families, they do it with their families once a week around the dinner table. We do it every Friday night when we get together. We go around the table. Starting with my parents up until a few years ago with my grandmother and all the way down to the little ones, “What can you appreciate about the week that you had? What are you grateful for?”

I sadly only do that once a year around Thanksgiving where we all go around the table and say what we are grateful for. How much better would it be to do it 52 times a year than only once a year? Many people like myself only do it once a year. To make every week a thankful and gratitude-oriented week is a beautiful process. Thank you for that.

Let me add this. This is another very important idea within the field of happiness. I was talking about the weekly gratitude with my family around the Shabbat dinner table Friday night. I was speaking in the Jewish community in Florida. When we had time for the Q&A, the rabbi recommends to his community members to do the same once a week only to talk about acts of kindness. “What act of kindness did you commit during the week?” He says that if a child or a parent has nothing to say that week, he urges them to make one up, which I love because it’s like fake it until you make it up. The following week, you are much more likely to do it. Acts of kindness, committing them, and also sharing them can go a long way when it comes to happiness.

KCM 21 | Finding Happiness
Finding Happiness: The number one predictor of long-term success is the number of failures that we’re willing to endure.

I want to talk about community and the impact of community on happiness. At Meetup and on this show, I feel like we need to define happiness for our audience.

There are many of them. There is no one right definition but my definition of happiness comprises five elements. I have come to call them the elements of SPIRE. The S stands for Spiritual wellbeing. Spiritual wellbeing is about a sense of meaning and purpose. It’s about being present in the here and now. We can find it in religion but we can also find it in a meaningful and purposeful work that we engage in. The P stands for Physical wellbeing. That’s about nutrition and exercise. There’s research showing that regular physical exercise has the same effect on our psychological wellbeing as our most powerful psychiatric medication.

Chemicals go into your body during exercise.

In fact, it’s the exact same chemicals. It’s norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, the feel-good chemicals in the brain. Physical wellbeing is also about rest and recovery, whether it’s sleep or taking five minutes off and recovering. Intellectual wellbeing is about curiosity and asking questions. There’s research showing that asking questions or being curious in general doesn’t just contribute to our happiness. It also helps us live longer. There’s a direct connection between curiosity and longevity.

Intellectual wellbeing is also about engaging with text, nature or a work of art. Deep learning contributes to our wellbeing. The R, Relationships, number one predictor of happiness. The quality time we spend with people we care about and who care about us. Relational wellbeing is also about giving, generosity or kindness. This is the glue that brings us together. The E of SPIRE is Emotional wellbeing. That has to do with permission to be human dealing with painful emotions, as well as with cultivating pleasurable emotions, whether it’s gratitude, joy, love and so on. These are the five elements of SPIRE.

Let’s talk about the R of SPIRE around relationships. Let’s talk about both the one-on-one relationships but also group relationships, community and the loose bonds of community and the tight bonds of relationships. One of the beautiful things about Meetup is its impact on the loneliness epidemic and its ability to help to drive happiness for so many people. Coincidentally, I was at a dinner party. I mentioned that I was at Meetup. A woman sitting next to me said, “You have saved my grandmother during the pandemic. She was in Florida and had no one around her.”

She went to a ton of Meetup events where she visited her mother for the first time in close to two years. Her son spent hours working on her Meetup profile so that she could build more relationships with her community. Talk to me about community and its impact on happiness. As Meetup organizers and Meetup members, what could we do better to foster greater senses of community, Tal?

There are a lot of research showing how and why relationships are the number one predictor. First of all, they are the antidote by definition to loneliness, which is a very powerful predictor of depression, unfortunately, also suicide. When you get to meet and interact with people, loneliness dissipates. The thing is that when we look at relationships and the importance of community, the interesting thing is that it doesn’t matter what kind of relationships they are.

They can be in romantic relationships. If one is fortunate to be in an intimate long-term relationship, great but it doesn’t have to be. It can also be family, friends or colleagues. It can also be meetings that are generated randomly. It can be meetings with strangers because once you meet, you are no longer a stranger. These are precisely the interactions that reduce feeding loneliness and increase physical health, as well as overall mental health.

Strangers and loved ones, according to the research, have the same impact in driving happiness for people.

Give yourself permission to be human and allow sadness to flow within you. The first step to happiness is allowing unhappiness.

It’s not necessarily the same impact but they have a very powerful impact. If you can cultivate a strong, intimate relationship with a friend or a romantic partner, they have the same long-term effect. Meeting strangers or meeting people around a common theme, as very often happens at Meetup, contributes significantly to alleviating loneliness, depression and increasing happiness.

Tal, why are people reluctant to meet strangers?

There is the startup cost because it’s challenging and embarrassing, especially for introverts. Extroverts often need it. I have a good friend, Yair Amichai-Hamburger, who’s one of the leading researchers in the world on the internet and wellbeing. What he found was that introverts benefited more from meeting online or at least initially meeting online because it broke the ice. For extroverts, they go out, meet random people on the street and start talking to them. Good for them. Introverts find it a lot more challenging so they need something to break the ice and the internet does that or can do it.

I teach a class at Columbia, as you may know. A few of my students said to me that they preferred online classes and all the 3, 4 or 5 students said, “It’s because I’m an introvert.” When I’m brought to a breakout room in an online class and unforced because there are only 3, 4 or 5 people, it’s much easier for me to be able to participate. I have a chat, which allows me to participate in ways that I felt uncomfortable teaching in a class.

There is a clear value to meet-up experiences and events that are online, especially for people who are introverts but let’s talk about in-person experiences. If you are an introvert, what can you do to increase your chances of driving your own personal happiness once you get to an event? What would you suggest they do?

“Fake it until you make it or fake it until you become it,” as David Myers and Amy Cuddy said. We need to put ourselves on the line. I’m quite an extreme introvert. I remember the first few times when I spoke up in class when I was still a student. I was sure everybody could hear my heart beating. I would very often begin to sweat or blush. These are all things that I also experienced as a teacher, certainly at the beginning but that too shall pass.

The more we do it, the better we become at it. We never changed from an introvert to an extrovert or vice versa. However, we have become much more comfortable with it. There’s no reason to do it for the sake of doing it. Challenge ourselves. In this respect, challenging ourselves is healthy because if we create more relationships, hands down, we will be happier. The reason why extroverts’ starting point is higher when it comes to happiness is that they have more relationships. They open up more. That doesn’t mean that introverts need to give up.

I read a study. I don’t remember where it was from. It’s part of the fake it until you make it a theme, which is if you are not happy, smile. The problem with that is that if you fake it when you are not happy, that can possibly lead someone to even greater depths of unhappiness because they have to fake it all the time. How do you reconcile the fake it until you make it smile, feel good with the advice that if you do smile and act in a certain way, you will feel better?

This is a very important point. The first thing that we need to do and that’s the first thing that I teach is to permit ourselves to be human. Allow ourselves to experience the full range of human emotions after we accept them. How long? It depends on the situation. God forbid, we lost someone dear to us, 3 months or 1 year is normal. If I had a rough day at school, maybe 10 minutes, 60 minutes or 1 day is normal. Gandhi subtitled his autobiography My Experiments with Truth. The subtitle wasn’t my finding truth or my ultimate truth. It was my experiments with truth.

KCM 21 | Finding Happiness
Finding Happiness: Writing down what progress you made on a regular basis and keeping a gratitude journal is very beneficial for your wellness.

There’s an important message here for us. We need to experiment with smiling. If that feels complete off and you are feeling worse, go back to moping. If you think maybe, “I have cried enough. It’s written in my journal and I have talked about it enough, maybe I can go out and dance.” If after a half-hour of dancing and you feel that it’s enough or too much, go back home. It’s all about experimenting. In my classes, I emphasize a lot of research but even more than that, I emphasize me search. That is about experimenting with my truth.

Sage advice, especially when it comes to individuals who are introverted and how to get out of that in a sustainable way, not just a one-off way. In the spirit of community, let’s say someone is organizing an event or a group. What things can or should they do to maximize the happiness experience of those who are in the group? What thoughts do you have there?

It’s a lot easier for introverts to speak in small groups. How can you boost their confidence gradually? Initially, 1 person or in a diet perhaps, 2 people and then 4. Can you share any, if you haven’t shared before and made it explicit? For some people here it’s difficult. Many of my students share in webinars that we have much more so than they did in the past because they know that I’m an introvert. I tell them, “I blushed. I was sure everyone heard my heartbeat. I would sweat profusely. All it means is that I’m human.”

By doing that, you are permitting them to be human as well. The thing is it doesn’t take much. There is research showing that very shy introverts and extremely shy individuals were able to become significantly more open after an intervention of an hour where they were allowed to speak up and that was reinforced positively. It doesn’t take much to change the trajectory sometimes of our life. This is an opportunity in those meet-up meetings.

Vulnerability, transparency, and facilitating small groups of people are very helpful. You talked about the importance of failure and making mistakes. I have to ask you, Tal. Tell me about a mistake in teaching the science of happiness that you may have made in the beginning or in your writing that you have looked back and you said, “I can’t believe I used to say that to people.” Where did you go wrong? What have you fixed?

There are two places. The first place was the role of expectations. There are a lot of research on the power of expectations and beliefs in a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe that you can succeed, you are much more likely to succeed.

It’s giant goals.

That’s what I taught because that’s what the science shows. It still shows that. However, I taught it as a general rule. Have high expectations. I know that it’s more nuanced than that. You have high expectations about your success and if you fail, no big deal. You learn from it and you continue. When it comes to happiness, having high expectations as a principal is not always helpful. Why? Inevitably, we will also experience the hardships and the difficulties saying, “I’m going to be happy all the time.” That’s setting us up for failure. Not just on the individual level but also on relationships.

If my expectations when I enter a relationship are we will live happily ever after from here on and we will experience the honeymoon effect that we are experiencing, I’m in for disappointment, frustration and unhappiness. The problem is so many of us have this perception of a relationship. Why? It’s because we watch movies. What happens in movies? They live happily ever after, also in fairytales.

The problem is that love begins where movies end. Inevitably in the best of relationships, we will experience challenges and difficulties, whether it’s in the startup phase, what your wife experienced and/or throughout the relationship. Having more realistic expectations is what we need to have when it comes to happiness, love and life in general.

Experiencing sadness and pain goes hand in hand with accepting failure.

Number one was setting high expectations. Is that 1 and 2? If that was number one, the only thing I have to add is setting too high expectations oftentimes can limit the opportunities for small wins. Small wins are so critical in terms of then deriving happiness because you then have achievement. If you set too high goals, you don’t get that goal, and then you don’t get that win. Was that both or was there a second?

There is another one. In the beginning, when I started to teach, it was very important for me to communicate very high levels of confidence when it comes to happiness. I went in front of the class. I knew and I have the answers. As I grew older and I hope a little bit wiser, I realized not quite what Socrates knew is that I know nothing. I need to be more humble about what I know, what I don’t know, what I can offer and what it is attainable. My philosophy certainly is always under-promise and over-deliver. In the beginning, I truly believe that to be a good teacher, you have to seem like you know everything, ultimately also live up to the facade and know everything. That’s not possible. It never will be.

That would make you a robot and not a human. You wouldn’t be able to have the most important art. Art doesn’t stand for a robot. It stands for relationships. People tend to want to have relationships with other humans. It makes good sense.

In hindsight, it’s very clear for a young, ambitious success-driven individual.

We are going to hit some rapid-fire questions. Here we go. The first time you start yourself as a leader, Tal?

When I was seven years old playing basketball.

First job?

It was for a shipping company in Singapore. It was working as a trainee on a ship, which was such a learning experience. I’m still processing the lessons I learned there.

Favorite quote?

“In the midst of winter, I found within me an invincible summer,” Albert Camus.

KCM 21 | Finding Happiness
Finding Happiness: The more we do something, the better we become at it. We never changed from an introvert to an extrovert or vice versa. However, we have become much more comfortable with it.

If you could access any time and any place in the world, where are you going, Tal and when?

I’m going to visit Aristotle’s academy, The Lyceum. I would give up a lot to meet him. I consider him the father of the field of happiness.

Last and not least, what do you most want to be remembered by?

What I would like to be remembered for beyond being a good and helpful person is helping to create a serious academic field of happiness studies so that it’s accessible to millions and billions of people around the world now and in the future.

I believe you will. You have already set all the foundations for it. If there are any ways that Meetup, I or others that we can connect and help you in that goal, there’s nothing that I would enjoy more. There’s no one else I would want to get more behind. Tal, thank you so much for being a part of the show. I feel more connected to you. Our audience feels connected to you and connected to Meetup. Thank you so much again.

Thank you, David.

If you couldn’t tell, I was a fanboy beforehand and I became even more of a fanboy afterward. This is like One Direction or whatever people have as their fandom. Tal is my One Direction here. Thank you so much for reading. Sometimes I have 2 or 3 key takeaways. I have seven takeaways. Here we go. Number one, permission to be human. 2) The SPIRE concept. 3) Allowing unhappiness to be happy. 4) The importance of gratitude. 5) Do me search before research. 6) Fake it to become it and, 7) His advice around introverts.

There is so much here for Meetup organizers and Meetup members to be able to unpack. If you can’t unpack and live it, then fake it until you can become it, as he said. If you enjoyed this episode or even if you didn’t because you could fake that too, then please subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Review it. Write something positive. Let’s keep connected because life is better together.

About Tal Ben-Shahar

KCM 21 | Finding Happiness

Tal Ben-Shahar is an author and lecturer. He taught two of the largest classes in Harvard University’s history, Positive Psychology and The Psychology of Leadership.

Today, Tal consults and lectures around the world to executives in multi-national corporations, the general public, and at-risk populations. The topics he lectures on include leadership, happiness, education, innovation, ethics, self-esteem, resilience, goal setting, and mindfulness. His books have been translated into more than twenty-five languages, and have appeared on best-sellers lists around the world.

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Last modified on December 13, 2021