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MARGARET CHO I’ve been living in the same house for almost 20 years. And it was really strange that I realized that the entire time I’ve been living here, I’ve been the same person. Like, I really haven’t changed that much. And the day to day hasn’t changed, like, a snapshot of my brain activity from, you know, 1999 would be the same as it would be in 2019. I don’t think that’s good, because it’s mostly kind of just like, I’m kind of worried about dumb things, like worried about, “There’s gonna be traffic and I’m going to experience that.” And, “What if this and what if that?” Your mind is filled with very mundane worries that are kind of the same, you know, 20 years later. And that’s an odd thing.
Part of my personality is just go right to worry, and go right to irrational fears of like, anything that could possibly happen. And the thing about it is like, I’m 50 years old and all of the things that I’ve worried about happening have never, ever happened. And it’s like, I’m still in the mindset that it might. So I have to prepare. But none of my preparation ever served me because nothing that I ever thought was going to happen happened. And so it was really like, I just don’t know why I would keep on worrying about things, because that’s never really helped me.
DACHER KELTNER Rolling Stones Magazine has called her one of the 50 Best Stand-Up Comics of All Time. Maragaret Cho is also a Grammy and Emmy nominated actor, singer, burlesque dancer, and LBGTQ rights activist. She tried one of our happiness practices to help her feel more optimistic and less anxious about the future. And she’s here to tell us how it went. Margaret, it’s an honor to have such a historic artist and activist on our show. Thank you for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
MARGARET CHO Thank you very much. It’s wonderful to be historic!
DACHER KELTNER I just wanted to hear about, you know, your upbringing in San Francisco, You were raised by immigrant parents from Korea. Your dad ran a bookstore, right?
MARGARET CHO Yes. My dad ran a gay bookstore from I think about 1977 until maybe like 1992. And so we were kind of around a very, very changing San Francisco, because Harvey Milk had just been elected into office in 1978. And then of course was assassinated really soon after. So, it was really very, very different. And, but, gay politics was rising, and of course there was AIDS, which really changed our world completely throughout the 80s and early 90s. And so, you know, we saw a lot of changes. But I’m grateful for, you know, having been able to grow up there to see it. It made me very political. It made me very active. And, you know, it made me an artist.
DACHER KELTNER What were some of the ideas as a you know, as a young person developing from such an interesting context?
MARGARET CHO It was really about living your own life and ownership of your own life. That’s the best lesson I got: to be your own being.
DACHER KELTNER I want to share a clip from your ‘Notorious’ comedy tour in 2002 because it really speaks to what you said about finding yourself, and accepting yourself, while being faced with all the societal changes that are out there.
And it’s going to be really hard to find messages of self-love and support anywhere. Especially women’s and gay men’s culture. It’s all about how you have to look a certain way, or else you’re worthless. When you don’t have self-esteem you will hesitate before you do anything in your life. You will hesitate to go for the job you really wanna go for, you will hesitate to ask for a raise, you will hesitate to call yourself an American, you will hesitate to report a rape, you will hesitate to defend yourself when you are discriminated against because of your race, your sexuality, your size, your gender. You will hesitate to vote, you will hesitate to dream. For us to have self-esteem is truly an act of revolution and our revolution is long overdue.
DACHER KELTNER One of the things that I’ve always been impressed with your work Margaret is, you were the first to really recognize trauma. You know, substance issues and sexual abuse. And just really bringing that onto the stage as a way to give people strength.
MARGARET CHO Yeah. I think that there’s something very mystical that happens when you kind of like make that pain into a kind of a communion with others, and then others share theirs with you. And then there’s a kind of, I think there’s that it really absolves it, that makes it really kind of like worthwhile because you connect with other people in a deeper way.
DACHER KELTNER There is so much research that backs up what you’re saying: that connecting with others and building community is really essential for resilience and healing from trauma. And also the power of narratives and storytelling. One of my favorite lines of work in the entire Science of Happiness is James Pennebaker at the University of Texas found that people who journal about their traumatic experiences for a few days report greater happiness days later and seem to have healthier immune systems down the road as well.
I want to turn now to the happiness exercise you chose, called the Best Possible Self Practice. In this practice, we asked you to imagine your ideal future self, considering things like your career, your relationships, your relaxation, your hobbies, or your health. And then you set aside 15 minutes a day for two weeks writing about what could happen in those areas of your life in your best possible future. What drew you to this practice?
MARGARET CHO It was mostly just about trying to see if I could, my future self, could direct my mind to not to focus on those things that are mundane, It’s like there’s so much that is like a countdown. Like, “What time do I have to leave? OK, I have to start getting ready as point. OK, I have to start getting ready at this point. OK. I have two hours until I have to start getting ready.” And then it’s like this weird thing of like, “I know what I’m going to leave! I don’t have to keep saying to myself, “I have this much time.” Or laying in bed and like, you know, watching a clock and like thinking like, “I have this much time to sleep. I have this much time to sleep.” And then, you know, you don’t end up sleeping or even enjoying the fact that you’re laying in bed. There’s so much of this countdown that I was trying to shut off that I just was mostly kind of fighting with that.
So I thought that this would be a good practice for me to get out of that, because it’s odd to be, you know, living that same kind of thing daily for for so long.
DACHER KELTNER So where did your mind go? What did you start thinking about in terms of this best possible self Margaret Cho?
MARGARET CHO It really came down to, wow; like all of the conditions that I put on a moment are way too heavy to like really just to experience the moment. So if I could just be in the moment and not be so crazy about getting to the next moment in time, that I could be, I’ll be fine. It’s really just a mental thing of that sort of digitized thing, this hourglass that keeps going. There’s no there’s no point to that. You know, it’s like we’re all going to the same place. We’re all going to die. And that’s OK. And I don’t have to, like, you know, actually quantify, like how many minutes it’s going to take me. It’s actually fine to just let it go.
DACHER KELTNER What do you think ‘letting go’ would feel like?
MARGARET CHO I think it would feel really beautiful, like it would feel really like I can really move and be alive in the space of time as opposed to looking at that clock, like it’s like clock-watching in my mind, and it happens to me like even when I’m sleeping. I’ve never really needed an alarm clock because I will always like, my eyes will pop up and exactly the moment I told myself to wake up. So it’s weird how I think I like never quite let go of consciousness in any shape, and always have one, like, white knuckled fist on it. And I got to let it go.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah, I hear you.
MARGARET CHO I want to just inhabit the moment without having to paint it into a corner in like putting the parameters up. Like I don’t want to look at the brackets that I put up in my time. I would rather just experience time, minute to minute as it arrives and leaves.
DACHER KELTNER I hear you. I think one of the real challenges today in our busy lives is to just let things go, let things happen. So, the Best Possible Self practice suggests that you write about your ideal future self for 15 minutes a day for two weeks. How did it go, Margaret?
MARGARET CHO I did do a little bit of writing, but I thought that then that kind of felt a little bit so much like work, because I just when I’m working, I was sitting and writing. So that was kind of like a little bit too on the nose for me. And then so I made a couple of voice memos that I thought worked a little better.
DACHER KELTNER Can we listen to some of those voice memos now?
MARGARET CHO Yes.
DACHER KELTNER Awesome. Thank you.
MARGARET CHO I think I’m not going to concern myself with the body that I wish I could have and focus more on gratitude and enjoying the body that I have now.
In the future, I’m not going to worry about the future. My future self will be so content in the moment and knowing that everything is okay. Everything can be free from worry, from concern, from plotting. I don’t have to figure out the plot. I don’t have to figure out what’s going to be that thing. That I don’t have to chase anything, build myself up to get something because I have everything, that everything’s already here. That’s what I want. Everything already being here.
DACHER KELTNER It’s always interesting to think about how these insights that we get from these practices, how they can shape our daily life. What do you think living moment to moment would do to your daily life?
MARGARET CHO Well, I would hope that it would make me feel less like I’m dismantling a time bomb, which is kind of like, you know, if I could just even change it to like a traditional clock with hands, you know, instead of a digital clock, which is that’s the worst part is that it’s digital clock, with army time. And that’s the worst.
DACHER KELTNER That would be happiness. I’ll take it.
MARGARET CHO That would be happiness. That’s all I need say. I would just like just change the clock. Or, you know, maybe it’s a sundial.
DACHER KELTNER That I don’t see most of the day, you know?
MARGARET CHO Yeah.
DACHER KELTNER Maybe clocks screwed us all up. I think you’re onto something.
MARGARET CHO I think so. I think so. It’s like time is it’s just an agreed on social construct that we put together so that we can live in a world in relationship with other people. But maybe I don’t need to all the time.
DACHER KELTNER What were some things that you actually sort of wrote down or put into a memo? It’s interesting Margaret, you know, a lot of people when they do the best possible self practice, they’re like, “Well, I’d like to have this job or, you know, move to this house.” And, and yours is really almost more mystical.
MARGARET CHO I wanted to kind of get away from the idea that this was more of an abundance practice where you, like, kind of go and have like think of all the material things that you want or visualize that perfect relationship or that vision boarding. I thought because oh, well, that even has so much of a kind of expectation that I’ve got to have this to show for my time on Earth. You know, there’s a weirdness that I was like, I really didn’t want my mind to go there. But of course, it kept kind of going there. And I kept thinking about like, oh, I’m going to have all this patio furniture. So it doesn’t have to be so like, like directed at that.
DACHER KELTNER Hey, I want that!
MARGARET CHO I know, I want patio furniture, too. But it’s that kind of thing of like, “Well, why can’t I just enjoy the fact that it’s like, I could have a clear mind and it doesn’t have to have all these like props that sort of denotes a successful life, like really nice patio furniture.” It doesn’t have to all be that. It can just be like a peace, and an ease of living, an ease of breathing, and an ease of just being moment to moment.
DACHER KELTNER I hear you. So what was your takeaway, overall, after doing the Best Possible Self practice?
MARGARET CHO It did feel like a prescription. Like your future self, like you’re like a doctor writing a prescription for what you need to get there. So that really felt good. You know, you was sort of like, “OK, well, we’re going to direct you to do this. And this, this, and this is going to improve it. And this all this is what your outcome will be.” And so, and that’s really great. You know, and that’s a wonderful thing to kind of put forth, that idea that this will heal me. That these small things will make a big difference.
Because I think a lot of like a lot of us define our lives with our livelihood. And that is true to some extent. But for the most part in my mental state, it’s never, my livelihood is always a part of it. But it’s never really that involved. It’s really just like the tone of my existence really demands for a more peaceful one.
DACHER KELTNER So when you think about this radical career in comedy and these past couple of decades, and where it’s taken your life, what kind of insights does it lead you to want to share with other people?
MARGARET CHO I think it’s like you can laugh about something, you’re beginning to heal from it, you know, because laughter is really just a forceful induction of breath. So like you’re like breathing all over this thing that like is so awful because sometimes, you know, when you’re in pain, it just like you stop your breath, like you’re holding your breath. And so this is more like I have to, like, shock myself into taking a huge inhale. And that kind of is a weird way to kind of oxygenate the problem, which I find is, that’s always been the way that I’ve gotten through anything, or that it’s like starting to be better, is if you can laugh through it or you know, and that to me is, I think is, very, very cool and something that it’s a good gift to be able to do that.
DACHER KELTNER You know, it’s so interesting when I teach laughter, you know, the science of laughter, you know, there are all these different kinds of laughs from snarky laughs, to loving laughs, to embarrassed laughs. And the fundamental fact of laughter is you exhale, right? So I think you’ve tapped into something that has some good science and wisdom behind it.
MARGARET CHO Thank you.
DACHER KELTNER Well, Margaret Cho, I want to thank you for the groundbreaking work you’ve done on ethnicity and race and sexuality in so many different forms. So thank you for really advancing our culture and for being part of The Science of Happiness.
MARGARET CHO Thank you so much.
DACHER KELTNER What are the long term benefits of visualizing your best possible future?
KENNON SHELDON The problem is is that you can do something that makes you feel better immediately but then that fades away and you’re kind of back to where you started.
DACHER KELTNER More on the science behind the best possible self practice, coming right up.
The Best Possible Self practice can not only improve your happiness, research suggests it also can increase your optimism about the future and help you cope with the stresses of daily living. But is this just a quick happiness boost that dissipates over time? Kennon Sheldon, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri, did a study to find out.
KENNON SHELDON We randomly assigned participants to one of three groups.
DACHER KELTNER The first group had to write down the details of their day, however mundane.
KENNON SHELDON And then we selected two promising positive psychology inspired, hopefully happiness producing conditions. One of them was to write about your best possible self in the future.
DACHER KELTNER The ‘best possible self’ group was given this prompt:
Imagine yourself in the future after everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of your life dreams and of your own best potentials…
The third group did a gratitude activity that involved counting your blessings.
KENNON SHELDON And so we just wanted to compare the effects of doing those three activities upon people’s positive mood and negative mood.
DACHER KELTNER Then all three groups went home, with a bit of homework: keep up with your assigned activities for two weeks, and then report back.
KENNON SHELDON We just asked them to continue thinking in this way; we didn’t say do more writing. We just said try to keep this on your mind.
DACHER KELTNER After two weeks, Ken’s team followed up with the participants. Those who did the best possible self exercise reported the greatest boost in positive emotions.
And those who actually did keep up the practice continued to feel greater positive emotions one month later. But people who stopped doing the practice stopped feeling the effects.
KENNON SHELDON So it’s just like you know you can start off exercising and it makes you feel good. But then if you stop, then that good feeling is going to go back to where you started. So it really does seem to take effort to get benefits from these kinds of positive psychology activities.
DACHER KELTNER So as a reminder, the best possible self practice asks you to think about your ideal self, then write about it for 15 minutes a day, for two weeks straight. But there is room for creativity. You can record yourself on your smartphone, like Margaret Cho did.
MARGARET CHO In the future, I’m not going to worry about the future.
DACHER KELTNER And as psychologist Ken Sheldon says, what’s most important is that you really stick with the practice.
KENNON SHELDON What really matters is: What am I doing today? How does that connect to where I’m trying to get in my best possible life, you know, 20 years from now? And that’s a habit of mind that you can you can develop.
DACHER KELTNER If you want to try The Best Possible Self practice yourself, or other check out other happiness exercises, visit ggia.berkeley.edu. Tell us how it went by using #HappinessPod, or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for listening to The Science of Happiness.
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Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRI/PRX. Our producer is Shuka Kalantari. Production assistance is from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our associate producer is Annie Berman, our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. Special thanks to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.