Dacher Keltner We all need breaks. Lunch breaks, coffee breaks, snack breaks. And we also need happiness breaks. I’m Dacher Keltner. Welcome to Happiness Break, a new series on The Science of Happiness, also produced by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX. On each Happiness Break, we’ll guide you through research-backed practices and we’ll explain the science behind why they work, all in about 5 minutes or so. A little break in your day. It’ll air on alternating weeks from The Science of Happiness. So we’ll be back with another Science of Happiness episode next week.
Today, we’re trying a happiness break to feel more connected to both loved ones and strangers. We know that even brief moments of connection reduce levels of cortisol and support a better inflammation response in your immune system. One of the best ways to create these social ties is the simplest, through our questions. Thirty-six questions in particular, that have been shown in lab studies to make complete strangers and people of different ethnic backgrounds form fast friendships. They can even help you fall in love, or more in love. These are questions you take turns asking and answering with a partner. I’m going to walk you through some of these questions so you can try them with whomever you like. To give you a sense of how they work, I recorded myself trying them with my wife, Mollie. The 36 questions are divided into three sets of 12, each set more probing and intimate than the last.
Dacher Keltner All right, Mollie. When did you last sing to yourself, to someone else?
Mollie McNeil Well, you know, I think actually yesterday I was grocery shopping, and I caught myself sort of humming in the popcorn aisle. But to someone else, I think a birthday party. I was at a birthday party in December and sang “Happy Birthday” to my sister.
Dacher Keltner Aw, that’s nice.
Mollie McNeil Dacher, when did you last sing to someone else?
Dacher Keltner When did I last sing to someone else? It may have been one of our daughters from sometime ago. As you know, I don’t like singing in public.
Mollie McNeil What did you sing?
Dacher Keltner Well, I had a whole suite of lullabies that I made up that, you know, I’d sing for a long time to try to get them to go to sleep. So, how did it go? Momma, Dadu love you.
Mollie McNeil So does Baby Fina.
Dacher Keltner Here are a few more examples of the first set of less probing questions. If you’re alone, think of the answers on your own. But listen again with a friend later. This is really a two-person activity. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest? Would you like to be famous? In what way? For what in your life do you feel most grateful? From there, we turn to the second group of questions. These are a little more personal.
All right, Mollie. So now we’re going to alternate sharing some things that we consider to be positive characteristics of your partner. So I will begin and I will say I am astounded at your eye for aesthetic detail.
Mollie McNeil I love how in the fight or flight scenario, you’re definitely a fighter.
Dacher Keltner I love your sense of humor.
Mollie McNeil And I like the way you are often elevating the underdog.
Dacher Keltner Your turn. Try a few of these questions with your conversation partner, either now or later when you have the time. What is your most treasured memory? What is your most terrible memory? What does friendship mean to you? Group three gets really personal, and that can be hard to do, which is why we started with the lighter questions, building our narrative muscles so that we can better connect.
Mollie McNeil Okay, let’s see, group three. When did you last cry in front of another person?
Dacher Keltner I last cried in front of you. And I remember it was when my brother was, you and I were really realizing that he was going to pass away. And we both shared that moment of, you know, this is it. And I started crying and you held me and that was that. When did you last cry in front of another person?
Mollie McNeil It was kind of mid-pandemic and I was talking on Zoom with three people, two of whom I didn’t know that well. And it was pretty clear that I was going to have to teach a class on Zoom. And I really wanted to teach in-person. And I just remember so being really embarrassed to start crying in front of them, but it was like, well, you just can’t control it sometimes.
Dacher Keltner Now your turn. Third set of questions. First question. Your house containing everything you own catches fire. You have time to safely save one personal item. What would it be, and why that? If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? One final question to consider. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
Mollie and I have been married for 29 years and known each other for 40. But taking this brief time to ask each other these 36 questions opened us up. We kind of laughed at each other’s responses. You know, it led to other kinds of conversations and memories. And I just think about what our relationship means right now. When we create and strengthen social ties, we get a feeling of reward. We feel giddiness and excitement, and even euphoria, which is activated when dopamine is released in our brain. Psychologist Arthur Aron developed these 36 questions with his wife and then took them to the lab. He did experiments with both couples and strangers asking these questions, and in this research, people felt more connected and more passionate love for their partners.
A few tips. Make sure to take turns. One of Arthur’s studies showed that if one person answered the whole set of questions and then the other person answered them afterwards, it didn’t have the same positive effect as going back and forth. And change up the questions if you want. It’s not the exact questions that matter, but rather, starting from simple ones and then going deeper from there, in order to build closeness. If you want to try this 36 Questions practice on your own and want more suggestions for different questions you can ask, check out our show notes wherever you’re listening to this podcast. You’ll also find some tips there about how to do this practice on your own, as well as more about the research behind why it’s so effective for increasing closeness.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining us on our happiness break. We’ll be back next week with another episode of The Science of Happiness. Happiness Break is a production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX. Thanks for taking a break with us today.