LEIF HASS I work as a hospitalist, so I have like 15 patients or so I see each day. And I take care of them, and I see them through the length of their stay there.
So a couple of weeks ago, I walked into a room of this guy had not met before, 50 years old, quadriplegic. He’d been shot in the neck 15 years ago and was paralyzed from the neck down. And he was talking to the nurse there and he was smiling. And he was in good spirits. And I said to him, “Mr. Jackson. You seemed so happy. Your life must be so full of challenges, how did you manage to become such a happy person?” And he kind of looked a little stunned. And he said, “Thanks for asking, doc. It’s been hard work. I was angry at everybody for about five years, pushing everybody away. Making myself worse, getting problems with my skin, getting sick. And finally, one day I just had to let it all go and stop blaming other people and stop blaming myself and just start living again.”
And then, you know. You know, I thanked him for that and I came back in the next day. And he and he was watching something on TV and goes, “You know, Doc, I think I got PTSD. I’ve been watching this thing, hear about this guy who got shot and I just like fell apart. Man, the guy who shot me. They knew who he was. They wouldn’t arrest him. And I’ve been think about that all the time.” And I took his hand and I said, “Jackson. Wow.” And he started crying, saying, “Doctor, thanks so much for talking to me about this and opening my eyes up to all this. I’ll never forget you, I’ll never forget our conversation. God bless you.” And I just felt this incredible bond. Like, man, we got right to the core of life right there. You know, all I do is ask a few simple questions, I just was able to connect with this guy, but help him connect with himself in this way and give him some sense of confidence and being proud of what he’s done and also help him see what’s coming up next. And it was just, you know, incredible.
DACHER KELTNER it’s a privilege today to have Dr. Leif Haas, who’s a medical doctor at the Alta Bates Medical Center. But as much as that, he’s a dear friend here at Berkeley.
And for the Greater Good community, one of the things that we really take deep pride in is just learning from what we might call Greater Good Pioneers out in the world, who are taking the kind of science and the practices that we’ve been promoting, and getting them into schools and prisons and hospitals, and Leif’s always been one of our most articulate spokespeople for how do we think about the problems of 21st century health care, and the challenges of health care providers? You know, the complex lives that they lead and build in things like gratitude and on fun and levity and compassion and kindness.
On each episode we have a very interesting person out in the world try out these evidence based practices that boost good feelings and emotion like kindness and empathy. So, Leif, it’s great to have you on the show today.
LEIF HASS Oh, my pleasure, Dacher.
DACHER KELTNER The times that I’ve been in a hospital, it’s almost unimaginable to think about a context that makes it harder in some ways for a person to connect to another’s intense suffering. How do you build connection with these 15 patients a day that you see?
LEIF HASS I feel like if if I can feel like my patients feel, like I really love them, then good things will happen. Yeah. and if I sort of get through my day without having had tears in my eyes, and I’ve missed some low-hanging fruit. Yeah, and that it’s good for me, you know, it gives me meaning in my life. But also it’s really good for them to feel like deeply cared for.
And often I’ll just start when I talk to people by saying, boy, you must be suffering, and you know, instead of going and saying where’s your pain on a scale of one to 10. Suffering takes on the emotional part of it. And it gets right to what they may be suffering, not because their foot hurts, but because, they may not get home again. And if you sort of say, if you just acknowledge their suffering and leave some silence. It’s really powerful. It’s just like in some really super fundamental human beings connecting to human beings way
DACHER KELTNER So Leif, I know one of the things you’re really committed to is being a medical doctor who creates contexts where the people you work with, right, are feeling respected and appreciated and have fun. How do you create the contexts in which you also build these affirmations to your colleagues about work?
LEIF HASS What I do is I get the whole team together, that may be nurses, the social worker of whoever happens to be around, and I’ll just say let’s just say
Let’s all just take a deep breath. You know, as we go through our day, our patients rooms, let’s make sure we take a second to acknowledge their suffering, and let them know that we’re here for them in that way. That’s the energy that keeps the floor going here. OK,. Thanks. Let’s have a good day. Good rounds. Thank You. Thanks, Dr. Hass OK. [fade under]
LEIF HASS Well, I just tell people, “Look at all the love and hard work we give each other. Let’s just look around, make sure that we acknowledge what great teammates we have here. There’s this great desire to provide compassionate care. And it’s not necessarily that easy, because at least as providers, if you’re jumping to the diagnosis, you can walk in the room and say, oh, I got it. If we could just get this guy on an antibiotic and some steroids, then his breathing problems and his abscess will get better. Well, you’re missing your chance to be compassionate, because you weren’t witnessing the suffering first.
DACHER KELTNER I really think you’re speaking to both a scientific and an applied revolution about compassion. We know compassion activates parts of the brain and vagus nerve that feel good and bring about these effects you’re talking about.
LEIF HASS If you have a once a day where you walk out the room, feel like you’re walking on air because you’ve connected with somebody, you’re missing something at work.
DACHER KELTNER I’d like to turn now to the happiness practice that you chose to do from our Greater Good in Action website, the Feeling Connected practice. Walk us through the steps of the practice. What did you do?
LEIF HASS Okay. The practice says, “Try to think of a time when you felt a strong bond with someone in your life. Choose a specific example of an experience you had with that person where you felt especially close or connected. It may be a time you had a meaningful conversation, or gave or received support. Then once you have that example, spend a few minutes thinking about what happened, and then a few minutes writing about what happened. And I actually spent quite a bit of time thinking about it as I was thinking about it before I was actually sitting down. And then so it was a sort of two phase process where I was thinking about it and then refining my thoughts with the writing. And I thought that, you know, the putting the pen on the paper does a way in which, that, I am not a neurobiologist, but there’s some way or you make a fatter memory tube or something. You write things down as a way in which to create a bigger spot in your brain. It really sticks there with the writing of it.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah, absolutely. So who did you write about when you did the Feeling Connected practice?
LEIF HASS Well, I initially thought about some people at work, which was I thought maybe that’s a sign that I’m spending too much time thinking about it. It’s healthy thing to be thinking about these people because I’ve had connections.
But then what I realized that I have been neglecting the most important relationships in my life. I go out of my way at work, but at home, among my friends haven’t been savoring the relationships.
I’m not taking the time to reflect on them as I’ve learned to do is a way of fueling my well-being at work. I need to be doing the same thing at home is fueling. And so it was really terrific. Then I thought about the other day when I was getting over a cold. This was not a historic moment in my relationship with my wife, but I was getting over of a little bug, and she just came in and was just kind to me in this way. And I just reflected on that moment. I’m really at the time just looking at her and this thinking how beautiful she was. And you know, her blue eyes and her graying hair and her skin colored her ability, our ability to hold gaze together is, you know, is something I don’t have with anybody else. And the knowledge I have of her over 30 years. I just have incredible appreciation for our relationship. I’ve been feeling it more. And I’ve actually told her that I’m happier in our marriage than I’ve ever been. And how much I love her. But this gave this that same thoughts even a deeper feeling. And it was really, it will stick with me. It’s one of those moments that will that I won’t forget about understanding that.
DACHER KELTNER And then did you end up doing the practice about your wife?
LEIF HASS I did. So then I thought about it and then I sort of wrote down some things and I told her about it and which was another unintended positive. And then we just you know, it was just we had we sort of repeated the moment in this terrific way.
DACHER KELTNER Would you mind reading some of what you wrote down?
I don’t have what I wrote with me. I’ll just say what I, I think I wrote.
LEIF HASS So while I was just getting over this cold, Margaret came into the bedroom and sat down next to me and just asked how I was doing. And she looked at me. In the eyes and we held his gaze, I just felt such compassion from her. I felt like I was held so gently from her, and I and I realized that there was this beauty in a relationship that’s been there for a long time. The joy of young love. It feels like elevation where you’re flying in the air, you’re soaring. But this felt like I was a relationship, a love where you’re being just gently cradled and floating together in this harmonious way that that had not appreciated before. And I’m just sensing that. And as I’m writing this, I realize I’m feeling this feeling come back even more. And it’s it’s building and it’s creating some longevity, I think, in my in my consciousness.
DACHER KELTNER Wow, what a wonderful portrayal of love. After you did the Feeling Connected practice thinking about your wife, you did end up taking it back to work; you asked one of your patients at the hospital, Ray, to do the practice with you. And our associate producer Annie Berman was there to capture a bit of that experience. Tell us about Ray.
LEIF HASS Ray is a guy that I met a couple of years ago. I remember meeting him and thinking, this guy’s like the happiest person I ever met. But Ray clearly had a lot of physical problems. He had cerebral palsy. He couldn’t really move his legs, and he could hardly move his arms. He had some kind of speech impediment. He’d been losing weight. And I thought, this guy is like unbelievably joyful wow.
I just said, “Ray, you’re such a great person. I remember thinking, you’re the happiest guy ever met.” I said, “How did you do this, Ray? He said, “Well, I just wake up every day thinking how I can help other people. And I get teary, I still do. Here’s this guy who can’t hardly move. Who thinks about that? That’s how he does it. And the truth is, it works. You know, the nurses love to be in the room with him. And the doctors love being the room because he’s just such a kind hearted man.
DACHER KELTNER So the Feeling Connected practice is usually done in solitude. You think about a bonding experience, then you write about. I loved that you changed it up by doing it in conversation with someone else. How did it go with Ray?
LEIF HASS Well, I read him the practice. And what I said, the practice is basically think of a time when you felt a strong bond or connection with someone in your life and choose an example of a time you felt really connected to that person. And there’s a little more to it than that. And I ran it through with him and I said, “Well, who are you thinking of Ray? And he said, well, I’m thinking about my grandparents and my mom.
RAY BRYANT My mom, my grandmother, my mom. My parents, they just loved me so much and they they made me feel special, no matter what was going on they made me feel special. And it was so cool. It made us better. It made us better human beings, and better grown ups.
DACHER KELTNER You know Leif, there’s so much robust evidence suggesting it’s really powerful to reflect on the people we really care about and feel connected to. It activates the vagus nerve, the big bundle of nerves in your body that calms your body down and helps you connect to others. One of the things that’s interesting about these practices that a lot of people report on is that, you know, you’ll do a gratitude practice or feeling connected practice and then it tends to have this momentum. And the next thing you know, you’re trying it in another context. You’re trying it in a different way. It’s building these experiences. Did you have that sort of experience with the Feeling Connected practice? [one of last versions]
LEIF HASS Well, you know, it’s funny, I thought, “Oh, this is a virtuous cycle.” I mean, “Oh, I’m you know, having doing this now makes me want to go out and sit with my wife and look in her eyes.” And I told her about this and we went through the same thing and that other level. It makes you want to go out there and experience it. It makes you want to have the experience that you can then savor. And so it makes you go out there and look for good.
DACHER KELTNER How do you think that works? I mean we know with the gratitude literature that when you practice gratitude, the next thing you know, you’re kind of like seeing the world in terms of reasons to be more grateful, right in subsequent interactions or context? How did it work for you? Just did it make you think about people’s faces more, or things you’ve shared together?
LEIF HASS Well, it made me I, I actually kind of went through my list of people I know and thought, what was a time when I really felt connected to that person? I was sort of doing an inventory. I’m like, well, I need to go and spend time with Marc and make sure that Marc feels loved and taken care of. And so I sort of it made me actually say it, like I said, to do an inventory of who I need to check in with. And that is what a waste it would be not to find great conversations where there’s real deep meaning? When those are the things that create more meaning as time goes on.
DACHER KELTNER So I have a final question, Leif. And it’s just been wonderful to hear your reflections on the practice and your work more generally. You know, one of the things that strikes me is I mean, you encounter more suffering and complex human circumstances than almost any career you could imagine. I mean, maybe somebody in combat or, you know, in working in a prison might be comparable. So what has it taught you?
LEIF HASS The power of connection. When people are suffering and you connect with them, the connection that you bring, that they receive from this interaction with you can be bring great meaning to people who are suffering. There’s a way in which you could sort of want to shy away from things because it’s like, oh, my God, this person is there’s too much going on here. But if you connect to them, it can be really therapeutic and that you can you can really speed up the kind of therapeutic relationship or personal relationship you get with people. If you put some energy into it.
DACHER KELNTER You know, Leif, just in closing, I really see you as somebody who’s doing something that a lot of people feel is urgently needed in health care. Kind of taking this ancient wisdom, gratitude, mindfulness, compassion and figuring out in complicated days how to put it into the context that make up health care. So thank you for being an amazing doctor out there.
LEIF HASS Oh, pleasure’s all mine, Dacher, believe me. Thanks.
DACHER KELTNER How do moments of connection actually change our minds and our bodies?
JAMES COAN What happened in that moment when she grabs his hand and nothing else about the environment has changed? What is that hand signifying, and what is it doing to his mind and his brain?
DACHER KELTNER More on the science of connection, up next. There’s so many reasons why feeling socially connected is crucial for health and happiness: it’s associated with better mental and physical health, less anxiety, a longer lifespan, and acting with more kindness toward others. Studies show that even just writing about our bonding experiences makes us want to be kinder to others. One way we tend to connect with the people we love is to sit next to them, or hold their hand. Our guest, Leif Hass, talked about the love he felt with his wife when she just took a minute to just sit down next to him when he had a cold. And earlier in the episode, Leif shared the story of Jackson, his patient who became parapelegic after gunshot wounds.
LEIF HASS He said to me, man, the guy who shot me. They wouldn’t arrest him. And I’ve been thinking about that all the time. And I took his hand and said, “Jackson. Wow.” And he started crying, saying, “Doctor, thanks so much for talking to me about this.”
DACHER KELTNER The simple act of holding someone’s hand can calm the bodies stress response and promote more kindness and connection. A few years ago James Coan, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, noticed the power of hand-holding when he was treating a veteran. Whenever a painful subject would come up, the veteran would reach over and hold his wife’s hand for support. And it seemed to help.
JAMES COAN What happened in that moment when she grabs his hand? What does that hand signify, what is it doing to his mind and his brain? So that’s what that was the sort of proximal motivation to design the hand-holding study.
DACHER KELTNER In the ‘hand-holding study,’ people came into the lab with a romantic partner or a really good friend.
JAMES COAN We ask one of them to go into the scanner while the other person stays out, and is going to provide the handholding.
DACHER KELNTER Then different symbols would appear on the screen while James’ team scanned their brains.
JAMES COAN A blue circle which indicates that they’re completely safe and nothing bad is gonna happen in the next four to 12 seconds. Or it’s a red X, and they know that if a red X appears that means that within the next four to 12 seconds they might get an electric shock on their ankle.
DACHER KELTNER There was about a 20 percent chance participants would get an electric shock if they saw that red X.
JAMES COAN It wasn’t a terrible shock but it’s definitely uncomfortable and people didn’t like it. So that makes them a little scared.
DACHER KELTNER The team did this a bunch of times. And sometimes they changed it up so that the person in the scanner wasn’t holding anybody’s hand, and sometimes they held a stranger’s hand.
James’ team found that when the people in the scanner were holding hands with their partner, their brains seemed less freaked out by the threat of an electric shock at least compared with people who didn’t have a partner’s hand to hold.
JAMES COAN When the first study came out, we got into the New York Times and I was so excited it was like, Wow. So I called up my mother you know, and she’s like, “Oh my God. How did you get in the New York Times?” And I said because we found out that when you stress someone out, and you have them hold hands, they’re less stressed. And she’s like, “That’s how you got into the New York Times?” She was like, “You should have called me! I could have saved you so much money.”
DACHER KELTNER Of course, the point of James’ study wasn’t to find out if holding the hand of someone you care about makes you feel good. He wanted to know what was happening in the brain when we’re feeling those connections through touch.
JAMES COAN We originally predicted that was going to happen is that when people were holding the hands of their sweetie that the hand holding was going to activate regulatory circuits in their prefrontal cortex that was going to calm down the rest of their brain. The prefrontal cortex tends to be activated when we regulate our own stress related emotions. But the results of James’ study showed just the opposite pattern. The prefrontal cortex was actually less active when people were holding the hand of somebody that they cared about. James thinks that was because the hand-holding was soothing them enough that their brain didn’t need to kick into overdrive to regulate the fear of getting shocked.
JAMES COAN In other words, the environment gives less for you to do, fewer problems for you to solve. And so you don’t have an emotion in the first place. There’s nothing to be regulated.
DACHER KELTNER But the results weren’t as clear cut for participants who were holding strangers hands. Some felt soothed, others did not.
JAMES COAN And when you look a little more closely at who it is that benefits from hand-holding by a stranger, you know they tend to be relatively well-off financially, they grew up middle class or higher. They they tended to be white.
DACHER KELTNER One way James interprets this result is that people who are relatively privileged expect others to help them more - even strangers.
JAMES COAN But the good news is that if you’ve got someone that you know and trust nearby they can be helpful under almost any circumstances for almost any sort of childhood background.
DACHER KELTNER If you’d like to try the ‘Feeling Connected’ practice, or other practices to help you feel closer to the people in your life, visit our greater good in action website at ggia.berkeley.edu.
Tell us how it went by emailing us at greater at berkeley.edu or using the hashtag, “Happiness Pod.”
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. Our producer is Shuka Kalantari. Production assistance 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 goes to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.