Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner. Welcome to the 100th episode of The Science of Happiness. Nearly four years ago, we launched this podcast to explore the many paths to happiness, featuring the research that we cover here at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, where we produce the show.
When I think back over these four years, I’m filled with so much gratitude—for the stellar production team, for all the incredible guests, and to all of you, our listeners, for joining us on this journey. Thank you for all of your emails of support and for sharing your own inspiring stories and reflections with us.
On each episode, we ask our guests to try a research-tested practice to help them bring more joy or connection or goodness into their life. But for today’s 100th episode, I decided to turn the tables and try a practice myself. One that centers, very fittingly, on gratitude and appreciation.
Each day for the past week, I wrote down three things that went well for me and explained why they happened.
More after this break.
Dacher Keltner Welcome back to The Science of Happiness. I’m Dacher Keltner.
Each day for the past week, I wrote down three things that went well for me and explained why they happened.
For long time listeners, you may remember this Three Good Things exercise from our very first episode of The Science of Happiness. Our guest for that episode is now our Senior Producer, Shuka Kalantari and Shuka joins us today to ask me questions about how the practice went. Hey Shuka.
Shuka Kalantari Hi Dacher. Yeah, I remember that—that was back in 2018 when we first started the podcast, and my now seven year old was three years old and we went to the Marina in Berkeley. I just remember hearing the sound of the trains in the distance, and my son so loved trains then.
So now the tables are turned.
Dacher Keltner Yeah.
Shuka Kalantari And you are the guest of your own podcast. So I want to ask, we have so many different practices on our Greater Good and Action website that you could have chosen from. You’re writing a book on awe right now—why didn’t you choose awe or empathy? What inspired you to try the Three Good Things practice?
Dacher Keltner There’s so much work on gratitude in terms of benefiting your relationships. One of the studies I always teach is Martin Seligman at Penn and his colleagues found just doing this Three Good Things practice, six months later, your happiness is still lifted up.
I have to be honest, Shuka, doing these podcasts, having these conversations during COVID, during a period when I was grieving the loss of my brother—it was a period of gratitude, frankly, to just take stock of what was happening in life and to come in here and have these incredible hundred conversations. So I wanted to express some appreciation for that.
Shuka Kalantari So, how did it go? Tell me what you wrote about that first day.
Dacher Keltner One of them was riding my bike. For people who are in an urban area and they don’t have to deal with traffic and they can feel the air on their face and the like, it always brings me joy. A second was, being in this cafe and, suddenly like: wow, it’s this wonderful cafe. You’re outside under trees. Great cappuccino. I was like, “Man, this is human life, you know?” And the third caught me by surprise and it’s this meeting place in Berkeley on the UC Berkeley campus. Students are streaming onto campus and I literally teared up seeing all these masked students hugging each other and laughing and riding their bikes and the full spectrum of what a college campus can be or what a community is. So, I was grateful for life.
Shuka Kalantari So this is a one week activity and I always am interested to see the progression of the types of good things that you notice from the beginning of the week to the end. So tell me, what were the three good things that you wrote about on your last day of your one week of journaling?
Dacher Keltner My wife and I went on a weekend outing and we went to a place that my family’s been going near the ocean for twenty years, twenty five years. That already put me in this state of reflection and I was driving up—I had to come back to teach—and I was driving back to this place by the ocean. I just had this massive rush of gratitude: one was the California hills, and I grew up in them as a kid. I wandered in them with my brother. Their colors, the grasses, even though they’re parched right now and make me worry, I was just like, ‘This is what I relate to.’ The second thing that I felt grateful for was this time that we’ve had with our family and taking our daughters, Natalie and Serafina, to this place by the ocean, and just knowing that I would see beaches—I’d sit in the same sand that we had sat twenty years ago when Serafina was two and that was profound.
Shuka Kalantari One thing that I’m also hearing is that a theme is this sense of place. Whether that’s on a bicycle, you’re looking at the students on campus, or looking at the hills of California—this underlying sense of home.
Dacher Keltner Yeah, it’s interesting because for me, I, like a lot of Americans, bounced around. I was born in Mexico. I moved around a lot. I lived in L.A. and then we moved to the country and then England. So, I don’t have a childhood home.
There’s no home I could go to and say, “I grew up there.” But these practices give me home. You so got it—like the moment in that cafe and it’s like, “Wow, look at all these students and life”—that felt like home. And it’s not a building. It’s not an address. It was just the people and the feeling.
Shuka Kalantari Nice. All of our practices have very concrete steps to follow. For the Three Good Things practice, write down three good things and an explanation for why you think the event happened, why it went well. And then there’s these guidelines, right? Number one, give the event a title. Number two, write down everything in as much detail as possible. Number three, include how this event made you feel at the time. Number four, explain what you think caused the event. You can write it. You can type it. You can sing it. That part, there’s no rule.
Every time I’m speaking to guests before they come on the show, I say, ‘Here are the rules that were designed in the lab. But guess what? We don’t live in a lab. So just do what you can and how you can.’ I’m not going to lie—when I did this Three Good Things practice, I didn’t give the event a title. I started to and I was like, ‘This is a little weird for me.’ And it still seemed to work out, so I want to candidly ask you: did you follow all of these steps exactly as is?
Dacher Keltner No. The idea of these steps is a couple fold, you know? One is, there is sort of a sensible almost neuroscience to this of like when we name things and describe them in detail, it gels in our mind. And this helps people get an image or a structure of the experience. So, in some sense, beginning there is really great. The same is true of mindful breathing, which I teach students a lot and do a lot of. It has this set of steps that really kind of guide the process. But ideally, you end up in a place where you can call it up more easily without writing stuff down, you know?
And for me, it ends up being like—just name it, kind of get an image of it, and then appreciate it and hold it, right? And you can do that more quickly and not worry about the steps and so forth. So, no, I’ve never been able to follow instructions. I couldn’t build an IKEA anything to save my ass. But it is this idea of: can you call up the image of the event or whatever it is and just feel that.
Shuka Kalantari Yeah.
Dacher Keltner I’ve done this practice for so many years and, poignantly, I remember I really put it to the test when my brother was ill. And even though I knew he was on his way out, I would spend time thinking about what I’m grateful for from our brotherhood together. So this practice—it really was powerful in those moments of real duress. And in general, I think these kinds of practices open our eyes to the good things.
I think evolutionarily, the paths to happiness or gratitude and awe and love and kindness come out of our response to peril and suffering. Most people will tell you they find their real paths to happiness in the hard stuff, you know? For me, it was the divorce of my parents and struggling with anxiety and losing my brother and family mental health issues. So I think facing the hard stuff, which is inevitable, with these paths to happiness or tools—that’s where you really feel how striking it is.
Shuka Kalantari One thing that the data shows and that we’ve discussed frequently on The Science of Happiness is the amazing power of social connection. Community. And that makes me think of the second time we did the Three Good Things practice on the show with comedian Maz Jobrani. This was pre-COVID. He was on vacation in Japan with his family, and he recruited his wife and son and then seven year old daughter to do this practice with him.
Maz Jobrani My daughter, she would write a little bit and then she would draw a picture that related to it and then she did a poem about it. So her’s is called, “The Pudding.”
Maz’s Daughter Pudding, pudding so delicious. Pudding, pudding, but not nutritious. Pudding, pudding, feels good in your belly. It wants to make me hug Auntie Kelly.
Shuka Kalantari You said you’ve done the Three Good Things practice many times over the years. During one of those times that you’ve done it, have you ever recruited a friend or family member? Have you ever tried to do this practice together?
Dacher Keltner We did this. It was a dinnertime conversation and it was with our kids—and for all the parents out there and I know you’re facing this—parenting is amazing, but it’s also chaos and full of conflict. It’s just full-on emotional drama. When you raise kids today, they’re going to be really outspoken and empowered, which is great. But then, they mainly are empowered in their criticism of you and your cooking.
We had a period coming out of the Three Good Things practice where it was just like, ‘ Let’s just think of something that was good today.’ Shelly Gable talks about it at UC Santa Barbara as ‘capitalizing on the good.’ And it was like 18 months of the best dinner times we ever had—it was this indirect way of learning about your children’s lives. And then it was also a way just to appreciate.
What I always encourage our audience members and people I teach to to take from these practices is, ‘Here’s the ideal form of it. Write it all out, right about the context and why it happened and so forth and what it unfolded like and what it was about.’ But also, try little pieces of it—try a little piece at night. So, we just tried a piece of it and it was incredible. Then, they became deep teens, and I won’t say anything else.
Shuka Kalantari Oh my goodness, my kids, by the way, are four and seven, and I remember trying this practice with them. I just started working at The Science of Happiness podcast, and I was like, “All right, there’s this practice called Three Good Things. We are going to do this on our road trip.” Ok, my kids were like two and five, then. One of them could barely talk, and we just couldn’t pull it together.
I couldn’t get us all to focus in on doing the Three Good Things. We couldn’t do it then. But, upon reflection, it’s a lot to ask of a two year old to keep a thought for ten seconds straight, let alone the one that you’re telling them to keep.
Dacher Keltner “Write about why this happened.”
Shuka Kalantari Yeah. So tonight, I am going to try the Three Good Things practice with my children.
Dacher Kaltner Good luck. Tell me how it goes.
Shuka Kalantari I will report back to you. But, a little bit more seriously. there’s a lot going on, as you said. It’s happening all at once. How does this practice impact us in a positive way—admits these very real problems—and how can that inspire us to be part of a bigger solution, bigger than our own happiness?
Dacher Keltner The criteria that I’ve always used for this science about whether it’s good for the world are: does it help your nervous system? Does it reduce inflammation or elevate vagal tone that our listeners have heard about—which is good for your body and life expectancy and good for your costs of healthcare.
Shuka Kalantari That’s a checkmark: yes.
Dacher Keltner The second one is: does it make you a better community member? Just helping people and most of them do. And I think we’re adding a third going forward, which is, is it good for the environment? So, at the psychological level, it enhances tendencies that make us less costly citizens for our health care system, more environmentally friendly. And people are increasingly knowing that and hopefully our show can be a little part of adapting to these hard times.
Shuka Kalantari Yeah. So, the idea is that we try these different positive psychology practices, and it’s like training for our brain like people are training for a marathon I will never run unless someone’s chasing me. But that was an example. Just based on all the research out there, what do you glean from your own experience of not only teaching this at UC Berkeley, but really incorporating it into your life?
Dacher Keltner I grew up with no religion and I grew up raised by counterculture parents. So we didn’t have the traditional ceremonies and rituals that mainstream America relies on. But my parents gave me these kinds of practices like, “let’s go backpacking” or “let’s all listen to music really intentionally and find what moves us”, or “let’s think about inspiring people and awe.” These practices, to me, flow out of contemplative traditions.
They’re like a set of physical exercises that you should at least have two or three that you can have with you. For me it’s: look at the world to find some awe. Know how to breathe and then, think about some gratitude. And I would say giving, just any chance you can—give. Always give.
Shuka Kalantari Well, Dacher Keltner, thank you for being a guest on your own show, The Science of Happiness.
Dacher Keltner Thanks for having me, Shuka.
Shuka Kalantari And I am Shuka Kalantari, filling in for Dacher because if he were to ask himself questions, it would be really weird.
Dacher Keltner On our next episode of The Science of Happiness: two girls became best friends in high school through their shared faith found in a Pentacostal Church. And then one of them came out as queer.
RUE So to put it all in a very blunt way, Hannah was saying that I was going to Hell and that people who were queer were going to hell. So, my best friend—it felt like she hated me from then on out and I was just like, “Well now what?”
Dacher Keltner The estranged friends reconnect, next time on The Science of Happiness.
I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on our 100th episode of The Science of Happiness.
You can try the Three Good Things practice and many others like it on our Greater Good in Action website at ggia.berkely.edu.
What would you like to hear more of on The Science of Happiness? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and share your ideas.
Our Senior Producer and guest host for today is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Our associate producer is Kristie Song. Sound design by Jennie Cataldo at BMP Audio. Our Executive Producer is Jane Park. Our editor in chief is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.