JOLENTA GREENBERG When my husband Brad and I got married, right afterwards, he went and lived on the road for a year because he’s a news reporter and he was covering the election. We had a plan that when he was done covering the election we were going to go on a big trip together to sort of reunite, just get some alone time together, reconnect. And it was gonna be amazing.
We decided to go to Argentina because that was a dream of both of ours. Brad got very into researching and planning, and he was so amped on this trip. I was like, ‘All right, great. Like run with it, dude,’ and I sort of sat back and let him plan everything and every time he talked about a leg of the trip he wanted to plan, I’d be like, ‘Sure, sure, let’s do it. Everything sounds awesome.’ I didn’t really think about it much.
When we got on the very long flight I was like, ‘So what are we actually doing?’ And he was like, ‘We’re gonna go to this remote location and hike with like a group of people forever, and then that location and hike on a glacier with a group of people forever.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, so we’re going on like group hikes with strangers? I thought we were gonna be chilling in like a warm city.’ And I basically had a huge sort of blame-y panic attack on our flight and just freaked out. And I was like, ‘I feel like I’m trapped. I hate this, I hate you. I never wanted to go on this trip. Why are you doing this to me? Now I’m stuck going on hikes with strangers and I’d rather die. And this is not relaxing or about connecting at all.’
I was really harsh. I mean it got to the point where I was suggesting ending our marriage.
DACHER KELTNER That was Jolenta Greenburg, one of our guests today. In every episode, we have a happiness guinea try out a research-tested practice that is designed to boost happiness, resilience, kindness, or connection. And today, we’ll have double the insights because we have two guinea pigs.
It’s a delight to welcome Jolenta Greenberg and Kristin Meinzer to our show today. They’re the hosts of the really illuminating and entertaining podcast, By the Book. Jolenta and Kristen, thanks for being here.
KRISTEN MEINZER Oh, so glad to be here. I’m Kristen, by the way. The one with the Minnesota accent, that’s me.
JOLENTA GREENBERG This is Jolenta. I have the California vocal fry.
KRISTEN MEINZER Thanks for having us, Dr. K.
JOLENTA GREENBERG Yeah, Dr. K.
KRISTEN MEINZER Oh, is that okay if I call you that? Sorry, I didn’t even ask.
DACHER KELTNER I’m glad I’m elevating to Dr. K. So tell us about your podcast.
JOLENTA GREENBERG Well, we are friends that live by self-help books to the letter for two weeks at a time. We report back on whether or not the books have changed our lives, or made us miserable or tortured our spouses. So we’re basically a self-help-meets-reality-show podcast.
DACHER KELTNER Awesome. I’ve been waiting for this. Just out of curiosity, can either of you tell me about like the first self-help book that changed a small piece of your life?
JOLENTA GREENBERG Oh, so many. I still just really love The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
KRISTEN MEINZER I hated that book.
DACHER KELTNER Really? I have to tell you this. My daughter, Sarafina, she heard about this book, and kind of tracked it, and she taught me this idea. Like you look at anything in your life and if it doesn’t bring you joy, you can give it away. And that changed my life.
JOLENTA GREENBERG Right?
DACHER KELTNER I know!
KRISTEN MEINZER I mean, philosophically it seems like a great idea, until you get to Part Two of the book, where you have to live the Kon Mari lifestyle which—
DACHER KELTNER Ahh.
JOLENTA GREENBERG I still like it.
KRISTEN MEINZER Yes. The Kon Mari lifestyles is everything has a spot and you can’t see what that spot is. You wanna wash your hands? Too bad there’s no soap on the counter because that looks like it’s a mess. So, soap is actually in the cupboard and you can find it, after you wash your hands.
DACHER KELTNER Aha! A little criticism. So, how’s doing this show? I mean, it’s such an interesting experiment where you publicly engage in this industry of the self help books and all that they offer. How has it changed you guys?
KRISTEN MEINZER Well, I have to say, I think I went in so pragmatic. I went in as more of the critic. But I’m really surprised because I think that working on this show has actually made me a lot more, not just tolerant, but to have a great deal of empathy for people who seek out these books. In the past, it was easy for me to write them off as, ‘Oh, you’re naïve, you think that six steps of A, B and C are going to change your life. And the more we live by these books, the more I just think, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s tough when you’re in a situation and you can’t quite put the finger on what’s not right.’ And living by these books has really just it’s helped me to become, I think, a kinder person.
JOLENTA GREENBERG I feel like it’s helped me get a firmer idea of what I believe. You know, I’m sort of the person who always goes into
these self-help books being like, ‘Yes, tell me how to live, tell me every rule of life and the universe.’ You know, and that works when you’re reading, you
know, one self-help book every few years. But when you consume so many the way we do now, it’s really sort of taught me like, ‘Oh, like my, you know, hair will always bristle at that idea.’ Or, ‘This is not how I see forgiveness at all.’ And it’s sort of helped me firm up my own beliefs, in a weird way.
DACHER KELTNER So what’s an ideal that you consistently bristle at in these books?
JOLENTA GREENBERG I think a lot of a lot of these books seem to really enjoy breezing past ugliness in humanity. When like things are just bad, when society’s dictating rules that you can’t control, that hold you down. And it’s all about, you know, ‘You make your own happiness,’ and, ‘You, if you believe it, you’re happy.’ I just don’t believe that. I believe there are instances where if you force yourself to forgive someone like you’ll be unburdened where it’s like, you can’t forgive systemic racism or sexism. And there’s only so much power you have over your life and over your perspective and you can definitely look on the bright side. But there are things that I think you don’t need to plaster over with a smile and you can see as, you know, a negative influence on the world and maybe work to change it instead of pretending you don’t see it or not acknowledging it because it doesn’t serve you personally.
DACHER KELTNER You know, it’s interesting you say that, after years of teaching human happiness at Berkeley, I’ve moved a passion for justice into one of the passions that we have to cultivate in the meaningful life because of the concerns that you’re raising, which is, you know, when it’s
hard to express gratitude if you have biases in the criminal justice system, so it’s good to hear you say that. You know, I want to applaud you guys and we’re going to move to the practice that you both chose, which is to make an effective apology.
This always catches people off guard a little, like, ‘Wow, happiness involves guilt and saying you’re sorry.’ Why’d you guys choose making an apology?
KRISTEN MEINZER Oh, gosh. I mean—
JOLENTA GREENBERG I think I don’t know if I speak for you, but I feel like I never need to apologize? For the most part? So it would probably be a good thing for me to maybe look at, if my knee-jerk reaction is like, ‘Well, I never need to apologize.’
KRISTEN MEINZER And I, on the other hand, I’ve worked very hard over the years to stop apologizing every 30 seconds. Part of that’s just, you know, the polite upper Midwest thing to do. ‘Oh, sorry!’ Apologizing for all sorts of things, whether it has to do with like what food is on your plate, or I accidentally tripped over your shoe. ‘Oh, I’m sorry I tripped over your shoe. Sorry, sorry.’ I think that women in particular are also just, we’re taught to apologize a lot. And so it appealed to me to maybe possibly put a different spin on the apology.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah, you know, I teach people, in particular women who are rising in leadership positions, and one of the subtleties is to figure out the right forms of apology in modesty that aren’t disempowering. So there’s a real challenge there. Tell us about the steps of making apologies. How’d you walk through it?
KRISTEN MEINZER So you sent along the steps of an effective apology, beginning with acknowledge the offense, provide an explanation, express remorse and make amends. So, well, in my instance, Dean, my wonderful husband who just loves to cook. And last year he really wanted Santa to bring him an Instant Pot. That’s like a pressure cooker-slow cooker combo. He has used it every single day.
DACHER KELTNER I’m hearing about these things.
KRISTEN MEINZER And he loves this pot. He just loves it! He makes everything in the pot. Everything from like pulled chicken, to stews, everything else you can think of.
DACHER KELTNER What’s your favorite dish that he makes in the pot?
KRISTEN MEINZER Oh, my gosh, he made a really great chili the other night. But while making that chili, I—OK. So this is what happened. He was making the chili. Meanwhile, I was helping out in the kitchen, and I grabbed the lid from the Instant Pot and I put it on the skillet on the stove that was turned on high. Now a lid of an Instant Pot top is made out of plastic, and it’s a special sealing top with a rubber ring and a lot of other special parts. And when you put it on a stove. and it starts to melt, and then the smoke alarms go off and all those things happen, your Instant Pot lid no longer functions and neither does your Instant Pot ever again.
DACHER KELTNER That must have been a very sad moment.
KRISTEN MEINZER Oh, my god, it was so sad. It was his favorite toy.
DACHER KELTNER So do you mind if we listen in on your apology and see how these steps of the apology go?
KRISTEN MEINZER Oh, go for it. Yeah, let’s do it.
DACHER KELTNER Alright, let’s listen in.
DEAN Hey, this is Dean.
KRISTEN MEINZER Dean, it’s Kristen Meinzer, your wife.
DEAN Hey, honey, how are you?
KRISTEN Hi, honey. I want to apologize about last night. I’m so so so sorry about putting your Instant Pot lid on the skillet on the stove. I’m sorry for melting it. I know it was a dumb mistake and I shouldn’t have done that. I should have been paying more attention.
DEAN Oh, it’s ok, hon. It was just an accident.
KRISTEN MEINZER But I feel just horrible about it and I won’t do it again. And I want you to know that I’ve done everything I can to make amends. I went to the basement where the old neighbor left their Instant Pot and I found that what they had was actually not an Instant Pot and it was dented, but I still brought it home anyway for you this morning. And I put out a notification on my Instant Pot Facebook community and thanks to their feedback, I found out that Instant Pot actually just sells the lids themselves, so I ordered one for you and it will hopefully arrive in the next week and a half.
DEAN Hon, that’s just fine. You know what, you’ve been nothing but really sorry and apologetic about it ever since it happened, but it was just an accident. These things happen. And you’ve done more than enough to make up for it or replace it or whatever. It’s gonna be great. I mean you really are, however, going to be super sorry.
KRISTEN MEINZER Super!
DEAN I can’t make any soup.
KRISTEN MEINZER You’re just the best husband ever.
DACHER KELTNER Man!
KRISTEN MEINZER Jolenta is rolling her eyes.
JOLENTA GREENBERG My teeth hurt, that was so sweet.
KRISTEN MEINZER Jolenta is so mad right now. She’s like, ‘That was so saccharine I want to punch somebody.’
DACHER KELTNER Now, Jolenta, you were rolling your eyes.
JOLENTA GREENBERG No? Yes. They’re just so sweet. I’m both jealous and in disbelief.
DACHER KELTNER I bet a lot of our listeners are like, ‘What is going on in that marriage? I want that.’
JOLENTA GREENBERG I promise they’re not putting it on for the microphones. That is what they are like though. They are just very expressive, very sweet people.
DACHER KELTNER So Jolenta, we’re not trying to set you up, but you also tried making an effective apology, to your husband, for that trip to Argentina that we heard at the beginning of the show. It’s a little different from the Instant Pot, isn’t it?
KRISTEN MEINZER Yeah, not as adorable.
DACHER KELTNER So let’s listen in. See you see how it goes.
JOLENTA GREENBERG You ready?
JOLENTA GREENBERG OK. Brad.
BRAD I’m scared.
JOLENTA GREENBERG I’m scared too! I don’t know why I need to laugh. Let me just take one sip of wine.
BRAD That’s a big sip.
JOLENTA GREENBERG I know. OK. Brad. I definitely messed up with the Argentina trip. I’m sorry I didn’t do any research or planning. And I’m sorry I said that everything sounded fine, without knowing if I meant it or not. And I definitely misled you. And misleading people is not OK. But I promise that I only did it because I was trying to make you happy. And, you know, once plans were set and I felt trapped by meeting all of your needs instead of checking in with any of mine, I exploded.
And I’m disappointed in myself for not being able to say how I felt in the moment. And waiting until how I felt like, overwhelmed the moment. So, I want you to know that I promise I’m working very hard on to not just blindly agree and let resentment build up so it explodes. Like I want to stop doing that and I am really trying to get better at that because I know it’s a problem I have.
And if it’s OK with you, I want to also start planning things for us together that maybe aren’t something that you would pick on your own or I would pick on my own. But like something that works for our dynamic as a couple. How was that apology?
BRAD That was really nice.
JOLENTA GREENBERG Was it really?
BRAD That was really nice to hear.
JOLENTA GREENBERG Really?
BRAD Yeah. When you said you misled me. That was really powerful just to hear you label it like that and say like, ‘I understand that that’s what I did to you.’ Even though I know it wasn’t something you did maliciously and it wasn’t something you did in a vacuum.
JOLENTA GREENBERG I wasn’t like lying to like fuck you over or anything.
BRAD I understand that I did a lot of things wrong, but bottom line is like that’s how I felt. And that’s ‘cause that’s how you felt, like you probably handled it. So it was really nice to hear, and then for you say that you have like a way to try to make it better is really nice to hear. So I mean, that’s like a kickass apology.
DACHER KELTNER Wow, Jolenta, you know, we do have to rewrite our instructions. And step one has to be ‘have a big gulp of wine.’
JOLENTA GREENBERG Yeah that was the first step for real, wasn’t it?
DACHER KELTNER That was really nice. First of all, you have wonderful husbands they’re really—
JOLENTA GREENBERG They’re good sports, yeah.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah, so appreciative. What was that like for you, Jolenta?
JOLENTA GREENBERG It was hard. I realized the hardest part for me, and a part that definitely stood out to Brad, my husband, was just the acknowledgement coming first. I like to skip right to, you know, explaining why I did what I did, or just trying to make amends and offer an alternative or something we can do next time without just naming the situation and what I did that hurt the other person, as opposed to just trying to fix it.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah. I think that acknowledgement is often the hardest step in the apologies, just to say, ‘Hey, I hurt your feelings,’ or whatever the case may be. You could hear at the end of your conversation just this nice reuniting and loving, emotional tone. Did it have some enduring effects?
JOLENTA GREENBERG Oh, totally. Yeah. I think like I’m obsessed with this apology method, I guess. I love it. And afterwards, Brad asked me to send him the link and he’s like, ‘I’ll apologize to you about something.’ And like it was a nice moment where—also, I think both of us are very stubborn, opinionated people sometimes and we think of giving an apology as admitting to losing. And I think this really helped us reframe and enjoy the process of, you know, you can explain your intent without calling the other person wrong. Or, you know, blaming them for misunderstanding, and it can be a productive experience that doesn’t feel like taking a loss at all.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah. I think that’s such an important frame that often we look at some of these things like forgiveness, and expressing kindness, or apologizing as forms of weakness. But as we heard in your examples, they’re actually forms of strength, which is really striking. So Kristen, how was doing this kind of this step-by-step approach to making an apology different from more ordinary kinds of apologies?
KRISTEN MEINZER Well, it made it feel much more like it was a real process that could have real outcomes, versus something that—I mean, normally Dean also apologizes quite a bit, I have to point out. I apologize a lot. He apologizes a lot. And I’m not sure if it’s ‘cause he’s from New Zealand and I’m from Minnesota, but I think both cultures love apologizing; so we apologize all the time anyway. But I think that there was something about going through these steps that made it feel like different than how we normally do things. It added some weight to it, if that makes sense, rather than just being what we naturally, reflexively do in the moment.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah. More than just a culturally-based language practice and more of a kind of a real, intentionally produced act.
KRISTEN MEINZER Yeah. With very very intentional attempts at trying to fix the situation as well. As I said earlier, I think women are told to apologize a lot and that we should not do it so much. But I don’t see apologizing as a way of giving up. I see it as a way of getting closer to your partner. It’s a way of saying, ‘I don’t want to hurt you. And I know I probably did, and I feel horrible about it.’ And that’s an act of kindness, it’s not an act of giving up.
DACHER KELTNER Wonderfully put. Well, Jolenta and Kristen, I wanted to thank you for sharing your voices, and sharing your apologies, and sharing your husbands, in this digital way. And for all the good work you do on your podcast, By the Book. It’s been just a delight to have you here.
KRISTEN MEINZER Thank you so much.
JOLENTA GREENBERG Yeah, thank You. It was lovely.
DACHER KELTNER So there’s a lot we can learn from Kristen’s and Jolenta’s stories. So no matter how in love we are in our relationships, how hard we work at them, or how close we feel, part of intimate life is having conflict, and occasionally hurting people. You know, we’re going to ruin an Instant Pot, or a vacation, or say something to hurt somebody’s feelings. One of the really important things we can do to maintain the quality of intimate bonds is to say we’re sorry, to make effective apologies.
But of course, that’s easier said than done. We’ve all given or received apologies that feel insincere, or they fall flat, or even sometimes they make the other person feel resentful. And that’s why it’s so important to look at how researchers think about the subtleties of what makes for a really effective apology. One of those researchers is Beth Polin, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University.
BETH POLIN We found that there are really six components to an effective apology. First, an expression of regret. The second is an explanation—just a statement for which the reasons for the offenses are described to the victim. The third is an acknowledgement of responsibility. The fourth is a statement in which the violator expresses their promise not to repeat the offense. Fifth is an offer of repair. And the sixth is a request for forgiveness
DACHER KELTNER Polin and her colleagues recruited hundreds of participants for their study, and they had those participants read a short, fictional story in which an accountant apologized to a client for botching the tax return. But there were many different versions of the story, with different kinds of apologies.
BETH POLIN So some participants only saw one component—meaning they only saw the expression of regret, or they only saw the acknowledgement of responsibility. Other participants saw groups of three, and then some participants saw an apology with all six components. We asked people, ‘How effective was this apology? How credible was it? How adequate was it at repairing trust?’
If you can get all six components into an apology, that will be a much more effective apology than only including three components, or only including one component. If you’re in a situation where you cannot include all six components, we found that the acknowledgement of responsibility is greatly important to a victim who’s had trust broken. We care about getting that statement that demonstrates the person understood that they did something wrong. We’ve unfortunately all experienced that moment where we’ve had someone apologize to us and say, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way.’ Those sorts of apologies almost come across as offensive. I mean the, ‘I’m sorry’ is in there, that expression of regret is in there. But the acknowledgement of responsibility is missing. If anything, we are we are making a specific attempt to not take responsibility for a situation, and that does not sit well with people who are on the receiving end of apologies. So if you can only make one statement, make it be some kind of acknowledgement of responsibility.
Apologizing is not always easy. Having to express regret, having to acknowledge responsibility; that can be painful. We also know, though, that not offering an apology can lead to greater problems that are much more difficult to deal with than working your way through an apology. Offering what we term to be an effective apology is much simpler than having to address a failed personal relationship, a failed business relationship, because we just did not want to work through the awkward moments of apologizing.
DACHER KELTNER If you would like to try the Making an Effective Apology practice, or others like it, visit our website at GGIA dot Berkeley dot edu. And then call us at 510-519-4903 and let us know how it went! I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me for the Science of Happiness.
Our podcast is a coproduction of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRI, with production assistance from Jennies Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our executive producer is Jane Park, production assistant is Lee Mengistu. Editor-in-chief of the Greater Good Science Center is Jason Marsh. Special thanks to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. You can learn more about the Science of Happiness and find related articles, videos, quizzes—all kinds of stuff—on our website, greatergood.berkeley.edu. And shoot us an email, tell us what you think about what you heard. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.