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Today’s guest is a “happiness explorer,” and she discusses her realization of the need to strip back negativity in life through her experiences on the hit CBS reality series “Survivor.” She highlights how the show’s contestants revealed their true potential and capabilities only when faced with extreme challenges. She emphasizes that happiness is a choice backed by intentional, consistent action and shares insights from her book, which provides practical activities like photography and journaling prompts to help readers explore and enhance their happiness.

Tune in as Emmy Award-winning TV producer Maria Baltazzi, author of “Take a Shot at Happiness: How to Write, Direct and Produce the Life You Want,” shares a lifetime’s worth of knowledge about finding happiness framed around “Survivor” stories.

“And I think positive thinking has also taken on a bit of a negative connotation. I don’t really prescribe to positive thinking. I prescribe to constructive thinking. What is going to serve you? What is going to serve the greater good? And what makes you a happier human being?” ~Maria Baltazzi, PhD, MFA

Maria Baltazzi

Maria Baltazzi is a Happiness Explorer. Her experience as an Emmy-winning TV producer, well-being teacher, world traveler, and luxury travel designer specializing in transformative adventures has given her a unique lens into conscious living. Maria has developed and produced shows around the world. She was one of the original supervising producers of the mega TV hit Survivor. She is a member of both the Producers and Directors Guilds of America, a Fellow National Member of The Explorers Club, and an Advisor for the Transformational Travel Council. Maria holds an MFA in film from ArtCenter College of Design and a PhD in Conscious-Centered Living from the University of Sedona. Additional studies include Mindfulness Meditation Teaching Training with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, Primordial Sound Meditation Teacher Training from The Chopra Center, Happiness Studies with Tal Ben-Shahar, Positive Neuroplasticity Training with Rick Hanson, Spiritual Psychology with Ron and Mary Hulnick at the University of Santa Monica, Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, the Science of Happiness at the University of Berkley, and an Inner MBA from MindfulNYU.

Gabe Howard

Our host, Gabe Howard, is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.

Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.

To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.

Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.

Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.

Gabe Howard: Hey listeners, welcome to the podcast. Calling in today we have Maria Baltazzi. Maria is a happiness explorer and an Emmy Award winning TV producer who is best known for her work on the CBS reality series Survivor. Her latest book, “Take a Shot at Happiness: How to Write, Direct and Produce the Life You Want,” is out now. Maria, welcome to the show.

Maria Baltazzi, PhD, MFA: Oh, thank you. Thank you for having me as a guest. I’m very excited for our conversation today.

Gabe Howard: I am excited because I am a huge Survivor fan. And what’s interesting is you shared publicly previously that working on survivor led you to realize that you personally needed to strip back the negativity in your life in order to have a more fulfilling future, and I have so many questions about that. But the big one is where was the a-ha moment for you?

Maria Baltazzi, PhD, MFA: The a-ha moment was a bit of an unfold over the seven seasons that I did the show. And what I came to realize was, you don’t know what you are capable of doing until you are in that situation. I had the honors of doing the last episode every season, so I was with the survivor contestants the entire time that they were that they were competing and Survivor is a microcosm for society, and over my time doing the show, I witnessed the best and the worst of human behavior. So these survivor contestants would sit in interview with me and saying, well, this isn’t me, this is me playing a game. And it is so them. They just had never been on a remote beach, vying for life changing money to really know what they were capable of. And we all have untapped potential, good or bad, that we don’t fully understand until we are tested or explore it.

Gabe Howard: I think that people tune in to watch Survivor, at least I tune in to watch Survivor because I want to see what the contestants are going through. Now, I know the contestants are isolated and they’re going through this big experience and they’re sleeping on the beach, they’re in a competition. But I’m going to assume that at least you are marginally better rested. While you are observing these people, what did you see? I suppose a very specific question is what did you learn from your vantage point of watching people be tested and learn what they are capable of?

Maria Baltazzi, PhD, MFA: Well, the two big takeaways that that I have from Survivor. You know, one is not to judge a book by its cover. And what I mean by that is that you can be sitting in a hotel room interviewing a survivor, someone who is a potential survivor contestant. And they are articulate. They’re fit, they’re funny, they’re insightful, and you think, wow, they are. They’re going to be a great contestant. And then they get onto a remote beach and they don’t have their family and friends around them. They don’t. They don’t have their wardrobe of clothes. They don’t have the things that the creams and, and the, the hair product and whatever makes their, their life whatever makes their life go and some of them just fall apart. Some of them just really connect. And you and you see this, you know, as an audience, you see where some of these people just cannot emotionally or physically take being in, in such a remote environment without that their creature comforts. And what that taught me was that there is a difference between being urban, mentally fit and physically fit, and being outdoor, remote island, mentally fit and physically fit. That they are two different things. So I always found that to be fascinating. And the other one, which we spoke about a moment ago, which is that you don’t know what you are fully capable of doing, good or bad, until you are tested, until you are put into that situation. Those are, you know, years later after leaving the show, those are the two things that really stay with me.

Gabe Howard: I want to disclose, as a TV viewer, I’m looking for bad behavior. That’s I I’m in it for the fighting. I is. I know that probably opens a Pandora’s box of information about me, but I’m watching for the not so great dramatic moments. But you look for the inspirational moments and you’ve learned quite a bit about human behavior and about yourself by focusing on that inspiration. Can you share maybe your favorite inspirational moment from your time on survivor?

Maria Baltazzi, PhD, MFA: Oh, yes, that’s an easy one. The story takes place during season two, which was Australia, and the contestants were coming back from playing an endurance challenge all afternoon long, and they were hot and tired and. They came to the they came they had they came back to their camp, only to find that the tent that they had built in a dry riverbed was hit by a flash flood while they were at the challenge and swept away almost everything that they had and just being exhausted from the challenge. Being that all of their things were basically gone. It just broke their spirit. And they just they just collapsed into the sand and they huddled up next to each other for warmth because it was getting to be nightfall and it was getting colder and.

Maria Baltazzi, PhD, MFA: They were just so despondent and. Suddenly one of the contestants, which was Elisabeth Hasselbeck, said, guys, it’s Thanksgiving. And as soon as she said that, there was a notable shift. It was as if the game stopped and they were really surviving. And spontaneously, each one took turns saying what they were grateful for. I’m grateful that I just found a fishing hook. I’m grateful that I brought a fleece to the challenge and now I have something warm. I’m grateful that we have each other. And it was such a touching moment. And I think about this every Thanksgiving, because it reminds me that we can have almost everything taken away from us, that we can have so little, yet still find something to be grateful for. And when you then take that out into the real world, when you look at, when you look at. What happened in Maui. You know, floods in Libya. You know, the earthquake in Morocco. You know, you will see these news stories of people crying but still saying, gosh, I’m thankful I’m alive. I’m thankful my family is still here. You know, they are finding something to be thankful for. And what this is saying is, you know, they have hope. And that is huge, huge, huge for our overall happiness.

Gabe Howard: I want to kind of stick with that story that you just shared for a moment, because what if all of that happened, but it wasn’t Thanksgiving? What if the contestants didn’t have that moment where they were able to support one another? What if there was no inspirational moment to observe? How would you have moved on from that? How do you keep yourself from just getting bogged down in all that defeat?

Maria Baltazzi, PhD, MFA: Our thoughts are very sticky, especially the negative ones. When you consider our thoughts, and especially the negative ones, the ones that are unproductive, you can feel them in your body and you and all the listeners can just do this little thought experiment with me to, to see what I’m talking about. You know, just for a moment, you know, close your eyes and think of something that is negative, unhappy, unproductive for you. Just bring that to mind and notice how you feel in your body.

Gabe Howard: And once you notice that, what’s the next step? I’m, I’m asking because I can feel the difference. I do notice in my body that the unhappy, negative thoughts make me feel bad, but I’m not sure what to do now. I’m not sure how to turn that into something that would make me feel good instead.

Maria Baltazzi, PhD, MFA: Okay. So then the next part is to now shift your mindset. And think about something that that makes you happy. That is uplifting. And notice the difference.

Gabe Howard: Is this a bit like turning? What’s that phrase? Turn, turn lemons into lemonade. Is it a bit like taking that negative thought, feeling how it feels, and then finding a positive thought and feeling how that feels, and then making the decision to stick with the better one?

Maria Baltazzi, PhD, MFA: Yes. Yes. Being aware of you. And this takes this takes commitment. This takes vigilance. I have been doing this for years, and it’s it’s an on it’s an ongoing thing that you do. However, if you can notice the kinds of thoughts that you are having and the ones that are negative, that aren’t helping you, that you don’t want to have, you can make your you can make a choice with awareness. You can make a choice. You know, you literally interrupt the thought. So you can choose a different thought.

Gabe Howard: As you were describing choosing a different thought, I’m reminded of your bio where you describe yourself as a happiness explorer. Now, I have never heard that terms before and I, I really don’t know how to become one. I’m really excited that after the break, you’re going to share with us exactly what a happiness explorer is and does.

Sponsor Break

Gabe Howard: And we’re back with the author of “Take a Shot at Happiness: How to Write, Direct and Produce the Life You Want,” Maria Baltazzi.

Maria Baltazzi, PhD, MFA: A happiness explorer is someone who seeks to better understand themselves and what makes them happy, or at least happier. What are the things that give your life meaning, a feeling of contentment? And how do you value yourself? You know it’s. A constant exploration throughout your life because you change and you grow. What is fulfilling in your 20s changes in your 50s. In college, I had a lot of I had a lot of happiness and constantly being around a specific group of friends. We did everything together and as time went on, I found myself enjoying more and more my own company. And by spending time on my own, I found that I enjoyed hiking and cooking a nice meal for myself or just, you know, simply sitting in meditation. And I found that I loved the enjoyment and freedom that came with doing things on my own. So it’s a constant exploration. As an explorer, you are gathering data, so to speak, about yourself, so you better understand what makes you a happier person.

Gabe Howard: Maria, we’ve talked a lot about happiness, but I have to ask you, do you know what the key to happiness is? And maybe a better way to frame the question is, what do you believe the key to happiness is?

Maria Baltazzi, PhD, MFA: I believe it is choice, backed by intentional action that you take consistently every day.

Gabe Howard: Can you expound on that a little ?

Maria Baltazzi, PhD, MFA: Well, I think nothing happens if you don’t make the choice. If you do not make the choice to be happy. If you do not want this for yourself, nothing happens. You know that choice is motivation. However, if you just say, oh, I want to be happy because let’s face it, we all do, and you don’t do anything about it. Then you’re just dreaming again. Nothing happens. It only happens, change only happens, your happiness state only shifts, when you do something about it.

Gabe Howard: I know that in your book you talk a lot about journaling prompts or picture prompts or activities. I believe there’s one at the end of every chapter. Can you share one of those prompts with our listeners, maybe something that they can go out and do right now?

Maria Baltazzi, PhD, MFA: Sure. And this comes from my gratitude chapter, The Happiness Essentials. This particular photo op, you know, photo opportunity. So you’re taking your cell phone and then you’re going out into the world and taking photographs. You’re on photo assignment, if you will. And this particular photo op is, is, you know, finding what feels good to you. So for at least the week that you capture images that you will then journal about, so you know, you’ll capture images of things that that you are appreciating in the moment. So say you’re walking through the neighborhood, it’s the morning, and you come across a rose that is perfectly lit by the morning sun. And, you know, you take a you take a picture of that, and then later you journal about how, you know, perhaps that rose made you remember that joy that can be found in the simple things in life, and you feel grateful for that lesson. When you do this consistently enough over time, you know, you start, you start to shift. And what that does is it takes the intellectual ideas of happiness and makes them hard ideas. in a way that is specific to you, therefore more likely to be lasting, you’re never going to get rid of negativity. I mean that that is what you’re learning to do is manage negativity.

Gabe Howard: Now that that is an excellent point. I, I we need to accept the things that will sometimes be bad and go on from there. And that’s, that is that is certainly something that I struggle with. Now, Maria, before we wrap up the show, what else from your time as a producer on Survivor really made a lasting impact? You’ve already told us about your most inspirational moments. What other types of things stuck with you?

Maria Baltazzi, PhD, MFA: Yeah. The favorite types of moments that I had on the show were the times when the contestants were kind to each other. So when one contestant was without a shirt and was cold and another contestant would give them their shirt, I mean, literally the shirt off their back, or when there would be a food reward and a contestant would choose those 1 or 2 people that were really, really, really hungry, you know, that they would have compassion for their physical, mental, nutritional state and being in a position to do something about it by providing food or maybe being able to have an overnight in place that that was warm, you know, so when they would reach out to each other that way when there was a real show of loyalty to one another. Yeah. We one of the, one of the endearing relationships that that happened was during one of the all-star seasons with Amber and Boston Rob, where they formed an alliance which became a lifetime alliance. They fell in love playing the game together.

Gabe Howard: And they’re still married to this day. I think a lot of people maybe don’t realize that.

Maria Baltazzi, PhD, MFA: Yeah. That was, that was for real that, that and it was, it was beautiful to see that.

Gabe Howard: I’ll be the first to admit I am cynical, and I thought it was for the show, I thought. But then as time went on and they were still together after a while, even my cynicism had to say that was a beautiful, beautiful moment. And. And you had a front row seat to them falling in love.

Maria Baltazzi, PhD, MFA: Yes. It was very sweet and genuine. He was very protective of her, and she was very loyal to him. Yes. That that that alliance blossoming love was genuine and it was very sweet to see. So the moments that that I loved in the show was when there, there was genuine kindness and loyalty that was shown to one another, and that really did happen.

Gabe Howard: Your book, “Take a Shot at Happiness: How to Write, Direct and Produce the Life You Want” is out right now, and the app is available on the App Store. Maria, where can folks find more information about you and your work online?

Maria Baltazzi, PhD, MFA: They can go to MariaBaltazzi.com that’s my website. That’s my Instagram handle. That’s my Twitter handle. That’s my Facebook. And I am also a meditation teacher on Insight Timer.

Gabe Howard: Maria, thank you so much for all of your wisdom and for all of your advice. And of course, for seven wonderful seasons of survivor.

Maria Baltazzi, PhD, MFA: Thank you and thank you for having me as a guest. This has been terrific.

Gabe Howard: Well, you are very welcome, Maria, and thank you to all of our listeners. My name is Gabe Howard and I am an award-winning public speaker, and I could be available for your next event. I’m also the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” which you can get on Amazon. However, you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me by heading over to my website, gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free and you don’t want to miss a thing. And listen up! Can you do me a favor? Recommend the show to everyone you know. Share it on social media. Send somebody a text message. Bring it up in a support group. Sharing the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.

Announcer: You’ve been listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast from Healthline Media. Have a topic or guest suggestion? E-mail us at show@psychcentral.com. Previous episodes can be found at psychcentral.com/show or on your favorite podcast player. Thank you for listening.