Tejal Rao So for two weeks, every day, I would go outside, sometimes with a cup of tea, and just walk around my garden and treat it like a space that deserved my attention. It’s not a fancy garden, I only just started planting it in the last year. It was mostly just concrete before and yet there’s so much stuff going on, like, there’s a whole universe of little characters.
Usually, I would notice a bumblebee but I noticed so many other insects visiting flowers, hummingbirds, little tiny wasps and flies. Oh, and this very large cricket, kind of tan looking guy with spiky legs, and he always sits in the same spot. And because I was paying such close attention, I got to appreciate it, you know?
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner. Welcome to The Science of Happiness.
Sometimes the hardest thing to do is just take a moment to pay close attention to the more beautiful things that surround us. But when we do, the results can be awe-inspiring.
Our guest today, Tejal Rao, devoted her career to this deep focus—on food. She’s an award-winning restaurant critic for The New York TImes.
Tejal tried a happiness exercise where she directed that same kind of sharp focus on the natural environment by taking photographs of it. We also dive into how spending time in nature versus a busy city affects our focus and performance levels.
All that, after this break.
Welcome back to The Science of Happiness. I’m Dacher Keltner and I’m joined by The New York Times restaurant critic, Tejal Rao. Tejal, thanks for joining us today.
Tejal Rao Thank you for having me.
Dacher Keltner Tejal, your amazing work has earned you two James Beard awards and a spot in The Best American Food Writing anthology. And you’ve had a really diverse culinary background because you’ve had such an incredible upbringing: you were born in London by a Ugandan mother who was raised in Kenya. Your father’s from India. You’ve lived all over the world from Kuwait to France, now in Los Angeles, and I’m curious—have these experiences given rise to your food writing in some way?
Tejal Rao It started when my family moved to France when I was about nine years old and my parents put my brother and I in the local French public school, and neither one of us spoke French. So, it was a couple of very intense months of learning a new language, feeling foreign, feeling isolated.
We had a neighbor named Danou who was just this extremely generous middle aged lady who had grown children and cooked every day, and she would just hang out with me and show me how to cook things. And I started to get interested in techniques like melting the gelatin to set a chocolate mousse or whisking egg whites until they’re fluffy. Just really simple but exciting things to me.
Dacher Keltner Yeah, there’s something orienting about food that helps you feel connected to a place and to the people there, and that’s really been born out in the research. Lisa Miller at Columbia found that sharing food suggests an intimacy or a close connection between people.
Tejal Rao Yeah, it’s like an anchor. Even if the language is unfamiliar—maybe even the food itself is unfamiliar—but sitting down with someone and eating can feel like home.
Dacher Keltner I remember my brother and I had this very strange year in the middle of England, not in their great period of cuisine. It was 1978 and somehow like getting the fish and chips with our friends, our new friends, was like this, ”Now we’re together.”
Tejal Rao Yeah.
Dacher Keltner Another way we can anchor ourselves is through nature, which is what you did for the show. You tried a practice where every day you make it a point to notice the nature around you and when something catches your eye and moves you in some way, you take a photo of it and then afterwards jot down a few words or sentences about what prompted you to take them and how it made you feel.
The practice was based on a study showing that people who did this for a couple of weeks straight felt happier and more connected with others and their environment. And you did this practice in your own backyard in Los Angeles. What did you see?
Tejal Rao So for two weeks, every day, I would go outside, sometimes with a cup of tea, sometimes just on my own with the dogs kind of pottering around with me and just walk around my garden and treat it like like a space that deserved my attention, you know, observe little things, sit on a rock for a while.
The first couple of times I did it, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing, and that felt really good. That felt really nice. It’s like, “Oh, the assignment is that there is no actual assignment.”
Dacher Keltner Oh, that’s such a nice description of it because you’re not told what to notice, you’re not reflecting on gratitude or kindness or your breath or your toes in the body scan or whatever it is. So what’d you notice? What’d you observe?
Tejal Rao Gosh, so many things. It’s sort of like being a kid unsupervised in the garden, like that’s how it felt. Pick up a rock or a leaf and keep walking. There was one day where I went out and all I noticed was—and I think it was because of the time of the day and the fact that it was a breezy day—shadows of trees and plants against the house itself or against the fence, just so beautiful. And it’s the kind of thing that if I was on vacation, I would catch myself noticing it and think, “How beautiful. Oh, you know what a beautiful city. What a beautiful place.” But I don’t know that I’ve ever noticed that in my own garden before, you know, and the sound of the leaves rustling and how that can sort of tell you how much of the foliage is alive, still or dying.
Dacher Keltner What’s really interesting is, we’ve had people do the noticing nature and awe walks and so forth and and often when they, you know, they’re given the instructions they like, head off to Yosemite or, you know, go to the ocean and they take a trip and you’re the first person that’s picked one place and really close by. What inspired that choice?
Tejal Rao I really like the idea of paying really close attention to what was very ordinary. You know, what was around me. And then I also recently moved into this space and I wanted to get to know it better, to learn it, and this seemed like a good way to do that. And, I liked the idea of, I don’t know, sometimes I think people imagine Los Angeles to be like a big, sprawling city that doesn’t have a lot of nature in it. It’s just one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever lived. The wildlife here is incredible. There’s so many public parks. It’s pretty stunning. But, I wanted to specifically notice the nature directly around my house.
Dacher Keltner Wow. So I’m getting all these images, and I have to ask, like, what in the world did you take pictures of in these absorbing experiences? Can you describe a few?
Tejal Rao Ok, so, there’s a monstera plant in the back of the house, and I saw a new leaf coming up, and so I photographed that every day until it unfurled. But on the very—maybe on the second or third day—it looked like a, sort of like a leaf burrito, you know, like the leaf is rolled up really tightly, but you can tell it’s going to be a leaf. And every day, it would open up a little bit more. That was particularly exciting. Morning Glory flowers with insects inside them, like casting their shadow inside the flower. What else? The sky…
Dacher Keltner You know, one of the real challenges in the science is when you go out into a garden or you watch a bee or smell things, it really produces this incredible cascade of effects on your body. It reduces cortisol, helps your immune system, introduces a certain sense that takes you on journeys and then the feelings you have, you know, can range from beauty and awe and contentment. How do you describe what this practice gave to you emotionally?
Tejal Rao The thing I felt most frequently, I mean, this is every time every day—I felt like a sense of delight in seeing all the tiny little creatures in the garden, you know. It was like being in a children’s book or something, like there’s a whole universe of little characters in the garden. And like, I found that so delightful, and I also cannot imagine getting tired of it because it keeps changing.
Dacher Keltner Wow. Well, you’re certainly speaking the language of awe, which we’ve been profiling of shifts and scales and noticing the unexpected and wandering.
Tejal Rao I felt a little bit like I was developing a crush on someone or like I was falling in love a little bit. You know, when you’re paying really close attention to someone at the very beginning of a relationship and every single thing they reveal to you, regardless of what it is, somehow has meaning and wonder. And, I’d probably be incapable of explaining that to anyone. You know, anyone else would just see a regular person. But you look at that regular person and you see so much and you’re caught up in that feeling and it doesn’t matter what it means.
Dacher Keltner Their extraordinary nostrils and you know…
Tejal Rao Yeah, the way they reach for their coffee cup, you know? Just all these tiny, tiny, ridiculous things that seem so beautiful because you’re just caught up in that feeling.
Dacher Keltner I’m just curious, like as you reflect on these two weeks of taking photos of things you’ve noticed around L.A. What’s it feel like? What does it teach you about your life?
Tejal Rao I think the thing that I enjoyed most about the exercise was not having to explain the feeling and just to kind of be in it. For work, I have to—I mean, so many of us have to sort of articulate exactly why we like something or why we don’t like something, what it means or intellectualize it on a certain level—and this exercise was so powerful for me because I didn’t have to do that. I just got to feel the feeling and that was enough.
Dacher Keltner It’s so interesting because often people—and you know, there’s this kind of conventional notion of when we label an experience or a feeling, it’s like, okay, now I’ve represented it and captured it—but your exercise took you in a different direction, which is it created this kind of this knowledge about this realm you’re experiencing. But the feeling is still it’s, it’s own separate thing. So, really nice insight.
Getting back to your regular schedule and your busy work days as a restaurant critic for the New York Times, how do you preserve this sense of wonder going forward?
Tejal Rao Oh, I’m just going to keep doing it. It’s become part of my daily routine. I call it—which makes it sound very, very official—I call it Garden Patrol now. And I just go outside with my cup of tea in the morning and it’s part of my day. I actually, I cannot imagine not doing it, especially when I did this in the morning, just made me feel kind of calm and prepared, but not in the same way that, you know, sometimes you have a lot to do in the day and you wake up and you make a to do list and then you feel like you can handle the day. You know what you’re supposed to do.
This is the complete opposite of that because I wasn’t thinking about what I had to do. I even made a point to not think or make notes about work I had to do in the garden based on the walk, right? Like anti-planning or whatever, just to kind of take things in and enjoy it. But, I think that put me in a space to then do my work and cook and write well, you know? Like, not from a frazzled space.
Dacher Keltner Tejal Rao, thank you so much for your incredible reflections on this practice of noticing nature, and thank you for your writing on food. And, thanks for being on The Science of Happiness.
Tejal Rao Thank you. Thank you so much.
Dacher Keltner Up next, how being out in nature versus out in the city can affect our focus and memory.
Marc Berman Participants heard digits out loud, like 5, 6, 7, and they needed to repeat them back in backwards order.
Dacher Keltner More after this break. Welcome back to the Science of Happiness. I’m Dacher Keltner. Taking photographs of nature, even in our own backyards, can make us feel both more connected to our environment and other people. So many studies have repeatedly shown how spending time in nature has a profoundly good impact on how we feel. It activates the vagus nerve, it cools the inflammation response, it quiets down blood pressure and cardiovascular activity. And, it also enhances cognitive performance.
Marc Berman And so the hypothesis was that if interacting with nature was really beneficial for cognitive performance, that we should show benefits after they walked in the nature environment, but not after they walked in the urban environment.
Dacher Keltner Marc Berman is a psychology professor at the University of Chicago. He wanted to know more about how our environment impacts our attention and memory. He and his colleagues brought college students to a lab, and one by one, gave each of them a set of three numbers, and asked them to repeat them, but backwards.
Marc Berman The task is really easy, but we increase up until about nine digits. At about five digits, the task is really, really hard.
Dacher Keltner Then Marc and his colleagues assigned each person to either take a two-mile walk through a busy city, or through a peaceful, tree-lined park.
Marc Berman I would characterize it as kind of a really nice urban park, pretty secluded from car traffic and I have to say too, the urban walk was not a very nice walk. We kind of made it a walk on a very busy street, with not a lot of interesting things to look at.
Dacher Keltner When they got back to the lab, they did the digit-recall test again, the one where they had to repeat the long numbers in the correct order, but backwards.
Marc Berman And what we found is that when participants returned from the nature walk, they improved on this task by about 20%, which is pretty amazing.
Dacher Keltner He tried this exact same experiment in June, September, November, and January.
Marc Berman When it was like 25 degrees Fahrenheit, people said they did not like the walk but the people that walked in January showed the same cognitive benefits as the people that walked in June.
Dacher Keltner Marc’s work is based on a theory that there are two kinds of attention. The first is called voluntary attention—you use it when you’re purposefully focusing on what you’re doing, like a task, or when you’re studying.
Marc Berman And it’s thought that this kind of attention is fatigable or depletable.
Dacher Keltner Like when you hit that three o’clock slump, and it’s hard to get anything done. The other kind of attention is in-voluntary.
Marc Berman Which is the kind of attention that’s sort of automatically captured by interesting stimulation in the environment.
Dacher Keltner That could be something like hearing a car honk and reflexively jerking your head to see what it’s about. Or, it can be really relaxing, like when you’re totally transfixed watching a campfire, and it doesn’t take any effort at all to stay focused.
Marc Berman That kind of attention is less susceptible to fatigue or depletion. So while you’re watching the fire and the flickering flames, it doesn’t capture all your attention harshly—it kind of softly captures your attention and you can kind of mind-wander and think about other things at the same time. We can just kind of let our mind go and have our attention be automatically captured and replenished by the environment and we think natural environments kind of meet these criteria.
Dacher Keltner Things like watching the leaves of a tree rustle in the wind or water running in a stream can have the same effect.
Marc Berman Try to go for walks in nature as much as possible and particularly when you’re feeling kind of mentally fatigued, when you get that feeling like you can’t concentrate. That’s a really, really good time to go take a break in nature.
A lot of people think of nature as being an amenity and not a necessity. But I think what our research and a lot of other people’s research is saying is that actually, this is not an amenity. We have to have it. And, it should be like a first page issue, not a second page issue—that humans need to be interacting with these environments to reach our capabilities. Even in a small garden, you can get a lot of fascinating things that are happening in that environment that capture our attention.
Dacher Keltner Next week on The Science of Happiness, we look at an exercise that is shown to not only help people cope with grief, but to work through it.
Jen Bailey The women who were most influential to me—I don’t have the ability to just pick up the phone and call and ask them a question. But, sometimes I just really want to call my granny. I really want to call my mama.
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
Are you inspired to take photos of things that move you in nature? We’d love you to share them with us. Email us at email@example.com or share your pictures using the hashtag happiness pod. You can find instructions on how to do this practice at our Greater Good in Action Website. That’s ggia.berkeley.edu.
Our Senior Producer is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Our Associate producer is Kristie Song. Sound design by Jennie Cataldo of Accompany Studios. 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.