July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
Reporter: Hi. I’m working on a podcast about happiness and I’m just asking people what makes them happy.
Voices: Sunny days…no stress…music, usually…family, community, my daughter…
DACHER KELTNER Imagine your body had a happiness button, with a direct line to your brain. And every time you pressed it, you felt a jolt of joy, satisfaction, and contentment—you could get happy in an instant, whenever you wanted it. Would you use it? Would you press the button?
You know, I’ve asked that question to my students at UC Berkeley for years, and most of them said, “No.” They would rather find true happiness on their own, in a genuine way, even if it means working and struggling for it. That happiness without their own personal pursuit really doesn’t mean much at all.
So the question is, where do you go to find happiness, to pursue happiness? You know, the new-age gurus and the books, the self-help books in the bookstores certainly have lots of answers, or at least, they think they do. But science has taken a crack at it.
It’s the science I cover in my Human Happiness course at Berkeley, it’s the science we cover at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, which we launched fifteen years ago. And it’s the science we cover in a new online course, The Science of Happiness, that reached hundreds of thousands of students around the world. And it’s the science we’ll be exploring in this new podcast.
Hi, I’m Dacher Keltner, and welcome to The Science of Happiness.
In each episode, we’re gonna highlight a key finding from the thousands of studies of human happiness.
And we’re also gonna help you put this research into practice. We’re gonna focus on concrete practices that you can engage in that will raise your happiness and help you deal with the stresses of living.
On each episode of our podcast we have a happiness guinea pig try out a practice designed to boost happiness, resilience, kindness or connection. Then we explore the science behind it. Today, we’ll look at a practice called “Three Good Things.” Joining me is our first happiness guinea pig, Shuka Kalantari. She tried Three Good Things for herself.
Shuka, I know you’re really busy, thanks for being here.
SHUKA KALANTARI Thank you for having me.
DACHER KELTNER So tell me about yourself.
SHUKA KALANTARI I am a freelance journalist and a relatively new mother—I have a two-year-old and for the past two years have been juggling how to maintain a freelance journalism career while spending time at home with my child and not having him at daycare all the time and trying to be a good mother, and a good person, and a good wife. And then occasionally in between, trying to eat and sleep. So it’s been a really educational two years.
DACHER KELTNER It sounds like it and I know—you in many ways are the perfect happiness guinea pig because you’re doing several different things at once in so little time in the day, and so you really, for your first practice did the practice Three Good Things. So what’d you do?
SHUKA KALANTARI Well, I was tasked as the happiness guinea pig to spend about fifteen minutes or more, but at least fifteen minutes a day to reflect about three good things that have happened to me that day. And not just reflect, but physically write them down. And to write them down in as much detail as possible. And then after getting through the details, to reflect on how did this good thing come about? What allowed this good thing to happen in my day?
DACHER KELTNER Nice. And I know, having been a young parent myself, that often when you’re raising a young child, and working, and sort of making all the ends meet, thinking about those three good things can take some work, so how’d it go for you?
SHUKA KALANTARI It went very well. It was a very educational experience. I—somedays were really easy to find three good things. Other days were more challenging. I think those more challenging days were the times that I got the most out of it ‘cause I got to work a little bit harder, you know. And I told myself I couldn’t just fall back on saying, ‘I love my family.’ It had to be a good thing that happened, like a tangible experience.
DACHER KELTNER So the practice gets us to kind of dwell on really compelling good things that happen in our lives. What was the first thing you reflected upon?
SHUKA KALANTARI So the first thing I reflected upon was a day a few weeks ago when my husband, my son and I just spent a few hours alone, the three of us, at the Berkeley Marina throwing pebbles into the water. And here’s a little audio from that day.
(clip) (water splashes, child coos)
Shuka: Okay. Should I help you? Let’s get a handful of rocks (rocks crunch) Get some rocks, uh-uh. Now let’s throw them in the water. Ready? One, two, three! (rocks plop into water) Good job (child coos) Uh-oh.
Forgot how much fun throwing rocks into the water can be (child waddles around) Sometimes you have it all planned out in your mind what your day, your week is supposed to look like. And it’s nice just to kind of throw all those plans aside and just do what feels right. What felt right today to the three of us was just to be the three of us. Come to the marina, throw pebbles into the water and try to keep the kid from running into the water himself. It’s a pretty good thing. (train horn) And he loves sthe sound of the trains. That’s an extra plus (train horn). I do too.
DACHER KELTNER That’s really nice. So I know science shows that one of the things that happens with the Three Good Things is you kind of slow down and start savoring things and I really sensed that in the clip. How’d that work for you?
SHUKA KALANTARI I definitely did slow down and savor it. And furthermore, it made me stop and think, ‘Okay, I have to do three good things today. Or there has to be three good things in my life today. Is there any way I can make room for a good thing myself? Is there any way that it doesn’t happen organically, it wasn’t someone buying me a coffee or someone being nice to me in the street. Was it something that I can create?’ So my final good thing isn’t necessarily a ‘good thing’ traditionally. Take a listen.
Shuka: So I’m sitting in my car on Park Boulevard in Oakland. Was gonna get to the café early, put out my laptop, get a good half-hour of work done and then have my meeting. And I’ve been sitting here for about fifteen minutes now, ‘cause that’s how long ago I realized I left my wallet at home—which is 25 minutes away. So I was technically driving without my driver’s license, and I shouldn’t be saying that because it’s illegal but whatever. Why am I telling you all of this? Because I’m not happy.
DACHER KELTNER What’d you learn from that moment in your pursuit of happiness?
SHUKA KALANTARI Um, just letting go, that sometimes it’s okay to have a bad day, and instead of struggling and fighting and beating yourself up for not being the best that you can be, just let go and let the day unfold.
Shuka: Some days things just suck. Some days it’s really hard to find three good things. Anyway, I see the interviewee walking towards the café, still arriving early so, signing off now. Not having a good day still. Not happy. Sorry, folks.
SHUKA KALANTARI Funny enough, when I accepted that the day sucked, good things started happening. I only had enough money to pay for 16 minutes of my parking meter, and our meeting lasted an hour and I didn’t get a ticket. My interviewee bought me a coffee and me leaving my wallet at home was a conversation point. And funny enough, she even recommended me a book on happiness
DACHER KELTNER (laughs) You know, one of the things we learn from the practice of sort of thinking about three good things is that it kind of helps us avoid ruminating and it has these long-term benefits of sort of shifting your sense of happiness or well-being and now that this is a little bit, you’re a little bit out from this experience, what do you keep from it?
SHUKA KALANTARI One thing I really appreciated by it is that it got me to start processing and thinking and writing things down and reflecting. You know, I have a two-year-old, I haven’t journaled in two years until I did this project and I’m journaling again, and I’m finding that maybe not in the traditional three good things form that I’m writing and reflecting and I think that any form of reflection is good for your psyche and your well-being. Positive reflection. It was worth the effort.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah, well certainly we can sense that. Do you think you’ll keep doing it?
SHUKA KALANTARI I do. Maybe not every single week, but I’m gonna try to keep it up, not just when times are hard but when things are going well also, like now because it really—I really like what you said earlier with throwing pebbles in the water, it makes you stop and process what’s happening at the moment.
DACHER KELTNER Well, we wanted to thank you for being our happiness guinea pig, Shuka, and we hope to have you back.
SHUKA KALANTARI Thank you for having me.
DACHER KELTNER So if you want to try out Three Good Things, or other practices, there’s simple instructions for it at Greater Good In Action– that’s G-G-I-A dot Berkeley dot edu.
So how does Three Good Things work? Well, what Three Good Things does is it helps us pay attention to the joys and delights in our lives. What’s interesting is that the mind tends to adapt or get used to those sources of happiness, something that scientists call hedonic adaptation.
SONJA LYUBOMIRSKY Hedonic adaptation is basically the phenomenon that human beings are remarkable at getting used to changes in their lives, especially positive changes.
DACHER KELTNER So that’s my friend Sonja Lyubomirsky, who’s a psychology professor at UC Riverside, and really one of the leading scientists asking the question of what makes us happy, and devoted a lot of her career to understanding the dynamics of hedonic adaptation.
SONJA LYUBOMIRSKY When things are the same, when stimuli are constant, when things are familiar, then we don’t tend to notice them or pay attention to them very very much.
And sort of the downside of that is that when a relationship becomes familiar and constant over time, when there’s not a lot of change or surprise—or when a job becomes familiar, or when your new car becomes very familiar to you—then we start taking them for granted. And then we don’t—we stop paying attention to them, and that’s when we have adapted.
DACHER KELTNER So what Sonja is saying is that adaptation is the enemy of happiness. All the little things that bring us happiness on a daily basis – the laugh of a friend, or sharing a good story with family members – our mind gets used to those experiences they no longer bring us joy. So what three good things does is it focuses our mind on those daily sources of happiness and then the old pleasures become anew again.
But you know what? Hedonic adaptation isn’t always bad. In some contexts, it can actually bring us happiness.
SONJA LYUBOMIRSKY Human beings are remarkably resilient, right? And I was just reading a study on breast cancer patients and it showed that two—this is kind of amazing—two-thirds of women who have breast cancer say that the cancer has actually sort of led to positive changes in their life, so almost as though it were a positive thing. I mean, it’s amazing—they say that it led them to a renewed appreciation of the preciousness of life, it led them to sort of understand what their true priorities are, it led them to realize that they have certain strengths of character that they didn’t realize they had, to sort of know who their true friends are. And so of course we wouldn’t want to wish upon anyone, you know, getting cancer or having any kind of adversity, but many people experience what’s called “post-traumatic growth” after adversity.
Another example is divorce you know, breaking up a relationship. It turns out that people are remarkably resilient after divorce—including children, because a lot of us don’t divorce because we think it’s going to hurt our children permanently. But I was just looking at some data that show that it takes a few years, but people after a divorce are actually quite a bit happier than they were before. So they don’t go back to the baseline—they way exceed their baseline.
I guess the underlying theme is that nothing is as joy-producing or as misery-inducing as we think it is. There’s no sort of sure course towards happiness, and there’s no sure course towards misery either.
DACHER KELTNER Okay, but there is scientific evidence that shows you can can at least boost your happiness in a meaningful ways. And in each episode, we’re gonna spotlight concrete things that you can do to boost your happiness.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me for “The Science of Happiness.” In our next episode we’ll hear from a guest who spent most of his life behind bars.
(clip) If you live in self-loathing, you can read all the books you want on self-compassion. It doesn’t add up to anything.
Can the science of happiness help? Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, and PRI, produced in coordination with Jennie Cataldo, and Ben Manilla from BMP Audio. Our producer is Jane Bahk. Executive producer is Jason Marsh. Our original music is by David Michel Ruddy. Funding for the Science of Happiness comes from the donors to the Greater Good Science Center and from PRI donors including Javier Escobedo and Bego Lozano.
You can learn more about the science of happiness and find related articles, videos, quizzes… all kinds of stuff on our website, greater good dot Berkeley dot edu. And shoot us an email, tell us what you think about what you heard. Send it to Greater at Berkeley dot edu.