July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
AVERY TRUFELMAN Two different couple friends of mine came in from out of town and stayed on our couch, and I think for the next week we just left the bed open. It is a reminder of connectedness. And it is this idea that like, “Oh, our friends were here,” and it kind of just switches it up to like, there’s another bed. And yesterday I just laid down and kind of did my writing that I had to do in that guest bed. I don’t normally sleep in the living room, and so even just lying down during the daytime and doing some work on that bed, and then pausing for a minute and looking at the ceiling. Waking up, seeing what the view was that they had when they were sleeping in my house. That is their memory of their stay in my apartment. It is just a really nice memory of those friends who live in Boston and Michigan, and reminders that you know, maybe they have a full that couch, and maybe we can go to them. It was more just seeing things through the eyes of a guest.
DACHER KELTNER Avery Trufelman spends most of her days thinking about stuff— objects, architecture, clothing, and the stories behind them. She’s a producer at 99% Invisible, a radio show that focuses on design and architecture. She’s also the creator and host of Articles of Interest, a podcast that looks at the history behind the clothes we wear. On every episode of our show, we have a happiness guinea pig try out a research-based practice designed to boost skills like kindness, resilience, and connection. And then we dive into the science behind why it actually works. Avery, thanks for joining us on the Science of Happiness.
AVERY TRUFELMAN Thank you.
DACHER KELTNER Avery, of all the different happiness practices on our website, you chose the one called ‘reminders of connectedness,’ which is right up your alley—it’s about reflecting on the objects in our homes, in our offices, in our classrooms that promote connection. So the idea is to curb our tendency to focus on ourselves, and instead to get us to think about how we’re connected to other people. Can you describe the steps of the practice?
AVERY TRUFELMAN One. Take a moment to look around your home, office or classroom. What kinds of objects, words and images surround you? Two. Count how many of these objects, words, and images are related to social connectedness. This could include pictures of people interacting; words like “community,” “together,” or “friendship;” or even two stuffed animals facing one another on a shelf. Three. Notice where there any empty walls or shelves where you could add new objects related to connectedness, or places where you could replace existing objects. Four. Next time you’re out shopping, see if you can find objects that evoke connection even in a subtle way, and use them to fill these empty spaces, or to replace existing objects. And finally, consider how the furniture in this room is arranged. Are the chairs facing towards or away from each other? Are there common spaces that are conducive to social interaction? Rearranging the layout of your home, office or classroom can also help promote feelings of connectedness. Take ten minutes to complete the first three steps. After that, the amount of time it will take to complete the rest will vary. Try to go through this exercise at least once per month.
DACHER KELTNER So where did you do this?
AVERY TRUFELMAN So I did it in my apartment. Which is one room.
DACHER KELTNER A quick tour!
AVERY TRUFELMAN Well there’s a bedroom, and then there’s a main room. That was where I was.
DACHER KELTNER And as you follow these instructions, what did you see, and what what did it evoke, and what was it like?
AVERY TRUFELMAN So it’s a small space, but it’s very stuffed with stuff. And I like that. It feels cozy and it feels like a nest. And the biggest thing that takes up the most space that people walk in and they say “whoa” is the bookshelf. Which is funny. This has been Marie Kondo’s whole scandal. She tells people to get rid of their books and be like, “No, not my books!” And then the backlash is like, “Well, you’re pretentious you know—get rid of your books!” But I’m so wedded to my bookshelf. Mostly it is books I have not read yet, because the books that I have read I like to give away. The ones that are really sentimental are the ones that were given to me, that have like an inscription on them, or my partner is a cartoonist, and he he draws me book covers for holidays and stuff, and it’s the sweetest thing. And so like we keep those.
DACHER KELTNER What’s your most sentimental book in your bookshelf that you look to and feel a lump in your throat or feel warm?
AVERY TRUFELMAN Well there’s this book called The Pursuit of Happiness by Myra Coleman. And it’s a gorgeous book, and a friend of mine gave it to me. And when I opened the front of it, it said, “To Avery from Myra” and I was like, “Oh my God, you met her.” And he didn’t. He bought it at a thrift store, and it just happened to already be signed to me by the author, who’s one of my favorite people.
DACHER KELTNER Did you have specific feelings as you looked at these objects and you moved through the objects of connectedness?
AVERY TRUFELMAN I just felt really, really lucky and in awe of all of the talent of the the people around me.
DACHER KELTNER So Avery, what was your overall takeaway from doing this practice?
AVERY TRUFELMAN It’s been really interesting, a really interesting exercise.
Especially in this—I mean, everyone’s talking about Marie Kondo right now. And everyone’s throwing away all of their stuff. And you know the news about the way that thrift stores are inundated with stuff that people have decided no longer sparks joy. And it’s just a really interesting time to really think about in a clinical way like how how the psychology of this works beyond this kind of pop phenomenon that has swept everyone, which I have very conflicted feelings about. Objects are incredible. They’re around for so much longer than we are. Like, metal and plastic, and in some cases paper, last so much longer than flesh. And yes, I do think it’s important that we are decisive in the things that we own, and the things that we buy, and to make sure we really take care of our stuff. But the the idea of purging and minimalism? I’m not quite sure that I get behind that.
DASHER KELTNER There are all kinds of problematic dynamics with it. For one, it becomes a denial of something that you seem to be interested in, which is that our objects have these deeply personal and sacred histories. And they transcend our own identities. And if we move into this realm of just finding joy in things and then releasing them, we remove history from that equation.
AVERY TRUFELMAN Exactly. And I think it’s part of why it’s important to not just keep things around that spark joy for you right now, but to have things that were remembrances of a past you loved having. I think there’s some stigma around having books on your shelf that you haven’t read yet. But I love, like, gifts to your future self. Because we’re shedding our skin every fourteen years; we’re becoming new people all the time. Our tastes are constantly changing. And if you try to tailor your life to exactly who you are right now with the assumption that you’re going to stay that way. I think we need a range of objects and clothes and books in our lives, instead of consuming and throwing away and consuming, and throwing away as we go through the world. To just try to have like a broad range of interesting things that you fall in and out of love with at different times, you know?
DASHER KELTNER Well Avery I wanted to thank you so much for doing this wonderful exercise, and thank you for all the really creative work you’re doing in your shows and your stories.
AVERY TRUFELMAN Thank you.
DACHER KELTNER When the objects, images and words around us evoke connection, it doesn’t just make us feel good, it also makes us more likely to be kind. In general, we humans have a strong propensity to be kind and generous to others, but we don’t always act on those tendencies. We’re too distracted by life, or worried about bills, we’re thinking about deadlines. Relationship problems intrude. But studies show when we can create these subtle reminders of connection in the environment around us—things like photographs on the wall, objects from our travels, even the way our furniture is arranged—those changes can lead to us to be more kind and helpful to one another. Malinda Carpenter is a developmental psychology professor at the University of St. Andrews in the U.K. Her team wanted to see if showing a subtle reminder of connection, in this case a photo of two dolls facing one another, could get eighteen month olds to be more likely to help an adult.
MALINDA CARPENTER What we did was divide the infants into four groups, randomly assigned them to groups. So what we did was show them eight different photographs of familiar household objects in the foreground. So in the foreground of the photographs, we had a big picture of a teapot, and a shoe, and a clock. And in the background of their photographs we had two little wooden dolls standing face to face, looking at and smiling at each other. And we compared that to each of three other conditions. The main one of which was in the background, instead of two dolls there was just one little doll, and that was the alone condition. And in the other two conditions, there was a baseline condition in which we had no dolls at all—we just had little stacks of blocks. And in a fourth condition, we had a back-to-back condition in which we had two dolls again, but they were standing back-to-back not looking at each other. So without this kind of togetherness feeling. After they saw these series of photographs, an adult walked into the room. And she was carrying six sticks in her hands and in a box. And as she knelt down at a little child sized table, she accidentally dropped the sticks on the floor. First we wanted to see whether the infants would help spontaneously without any cues from the adults that she needed help. So the adults started by just looking down at the fallen sticks, and looking up at the children, and down again into the sticks, and up at the children again, for ten seconds.
And then she started giving cues in case the infants didn’t help already at that point. So she started reaching towards the sticks unsuccessfully, and saying things like, “Oh my sticks, they have fallen on the floor.” With a little pause and some looks at the infant. And then finally at the end, if they hadn’t helped yet, she asked them, “Can you help me please?” And so the results were very striking actually. In the together condition where they saw the little photograph of the little doll standing in affiliative relationship, they ended up helping significantly more than in any of the other three conditions. They helped spontaneously three times as often as the kids in any of the other conditions, and overall across all the different phases of the experiment, they helped twice as much as the kids in any of the other three conditions.
Any reminder of affiliation should work fine. So if you and your partner are hugging each other a lot, or you and your kids are hugging each other a lot, that should do it too. It doesn’t have to be a picture on the wall, it can just be reminders of affiliation.
So one study that we’ve been talking about doing for some time is instead of having two same-race dolls in the background of the photograph, have two different-race dolls. Or two dolls in national dresses. It’s important to increase prosocial behavior towards your group members. That’s the basis of this study. But many of the most serious social problems in the world these days are precisely due to the fact that we often connect with our own groups, and help them too much in the sense that we help them and affiliate with them preferentially over out-group members.
So what we need to do is increase helping not just to our own group, but to other groups as well. And this can be other racial groups, other religious groups, political groups. If we can just manage to see ourselves as part of the same group even though we’re different in some ways, then we’ll start helping a wider group of people.
DACHER KELTNER If you’d like to try the reminders of connectedness practice, or other happiness exercises, visit our greater good in action website. And then email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us how it went. I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me on the Science of Happiness.
Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRI/PRX, with production assistance from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our producer is Shuka Kalantari, our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. Special thanks goes to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Join us for a live recording of an episode of the Science of Happiness, and hear from Jack Kornfield and me and lots of other speakers at our first-ever, three-day Science of Happiness event, held in northern California near Santa Cruz. Learn more at ggsc.berkeley.edu.