Emanuel Hahn I didn’t grow up with my parents starting from age 12. And I think because my parents weren’t around, I just didn’t have the habit of asking for things. And so, whenever I needed something or if I encountered a challenge, I would try to solve it on my own. And on one hand, it made me extremely independent and resourceful because I could kind of figure out things on my own. But, it also kind of made me weary. It just didn’t give me that habit of asking for help when I needed them.
And my default with any situation would just be like, “Oh, I can do this on my own. I can figure it out.” And then I think maybe sort of a related part to that is this idea that if you’re asking for something, you’re burdening them because they have to take time out of their day and effort and resources to help you. And I think again, with the whole sort of independent mindset, I think I just didn’t want to burden people. And, maybe to a certain extent, also was kind of like, “Why would they help me? Like, why do I deserve to be helped?”
Dacher Keltner There’s a lot of vulnerability when it comes to asking for help. Fear of rejection, of being a burden, of people thinking we hold our time as more valuable than theirs. But that’s not what we usually think when we agree to help others.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Welcome to The Science of Happiness.
Our guest today, Emanuel Hahn, hates asking for help. He’s not good at it. And when you’re not very good at something, one way to get better is through practice. That’s a core principle of the science of happiness.
Emanuel joined us after taking on his fear of asking for favors by trying a practice where he had to ask for help at work every time the need arose.
Later in the show, we’ll consider an experiment from psychologist Vanessa Bohns of Cornell University showing we’re not very good at predicting other people’s responses when it comes to asking for help.
Vanessa Bohns We expect people to reject us. We expect them to be resistant to our requests, when in fact, they would be more than happy to help us out.
Dacher Keltner More, after this break.
I’m Dacher Keltner, welcome back to The Science of Happiness.
Our guest today, Emanuel Hahn, recently found himself in a predicament. He needed help. But he hates asking for help.
He joins us today after trying a practice where he makes a commitment to ask for help whenever he needs it.
Emanuel, great to have you on our show.
Emanuel Hahn Thank you for having me.
Dacher Keltner Your book, Koreatown Dreaming, is this amazing series of photos and short essays that document the identity and culture of Asian American business owners in LA’s Koreatown. Tell us about the book.
Emanuel Hahn I had moved from New York to L.A. in the middle of the pandemic, and so I ended up going on these kind of long photo walks. And then I thought, “Why not go to Koreatown?” Because, as a Korean person, I love Koreatown. And I think Koreatown is this sort of spiritual home for a lot of the Korean diaspora. But I think the saddest part was just walking into stores and just seeing it empty and the shop owners were just kind of sitting there on their phones and just kind of looking despondent. And so, I ended up talking to one or two shop owners, and I was just kind of curious. I was like, “Hey, how’s business going and how’s life?” And I think they sort of poured out their life story to me. I think the pandemic really forced them to reflect on their immigrant journey and their history.
And so I started collecting these stories. I photographed them, I took their portraits, and I just kind of wrote this little piece. And then when all the Asian hate crimes started happening, it just gave me even more fuel to tell these stories and to do it in an honest way. And at a certain point, I was like, “Oh, I have all the ingredients to make a book. And so I did.”
Dacher Keltner It’s a beautiful book, Koreatown Dreaming. Congratulations.
Emanuel Hahn Thank you. Fast forward to March, when the books finally arrived, all 2,000 books. And then I had to figure out, “Oh, now I have to ship all these out and fulfill my orders.”
Dacher Keltner “Now I gotta get these somewhere.”
Emanuel Hahn I really didn’t think the books would arrive until like June at the earliest. And when my shipper emailed me and was like, “Hey, your books are coming in three days,” I was like, “Oh no, I have to figure out what to do now.” And that’s when the scrambling started. And this was about, what, two and a half weeks ago?
I was really anxious. I was really stressed out. I’ll admit that I had dreams that my books fell off the container of the ship. I had dreams of angry customers being like, “Your book sucks. I want a refund.” I don’t know why. It was kind of a crazy time. And also, my body was kind of feeling the effects of just the amount of stress I put it through. I was sneezing a lot. I wasn’t feeling that great. I was just fatigued all the time and I was just running on fumes, honestly.
I was like, “Oh, my God, I’m losing my mind.” So, this exercise kind of came at a really good time.
Dacher Keltner Good. Emanuel, you tried the Asking for Help at Work practice where you, over the course of a week, ask people anytime you need a favor—you ask them for it. Was asking for help—has that been a hard theme or hard thing for you to do in your life?
Emanuel Hahn Yes. Asking for help is probably one of the hardest things that I have to do.
Dacher Keltner Why?
Emanuel Hahn I think I just didn’t want to burden people and, maybe to a certain extent, also was kind of like, “Why would they help me? Why do I deserve to be helped?” And I think in photography itself—like, the industry—photography is such a solo sport. You’re a freelancer, so you don’t really have coworkers. You sort of have to figure everything out on your own from the technical aspects of shooting to the business side of running your business. And so, I think the industry itself also sort of reinforces this notion of, “Oh, you have to kind of figure things out on your own.”
Dacher Keltner Solitary artist.
Emanuel Hahn Exactly.
Dacher Keltner I’m curious, what did you ask for? What was the first thing you asked for at work?
Emanuel Hahn Okay, so I had 2000 books arrive. So the first thing I actually had to ask for was physical space—for someone to be like, “Hey, you can store all the books in my garage.”
Dacher Keltner Who’d you ask?
Emanuel Hahn So, I put this thing out on Instagram being like, “Hey, does anyone have space that I can borrow for a few weeks up to a few months?” And then a few people responded and one of them said yes. And then a few days before the books were shipped, they looked at the address on Google Maps and they were like, “This house is on a slope and we can’t unload the pallets of books because it’s on a slope. It’s going to roll down, so you have to find another place.”
So I was scrambling and literally the day before, my friend Richard Tranley, he reached out and he said, “Hey, I have a spot in Alhambra. You can use the garage.” And so, kind of down to the last minute, I found a spot to house all my books.
If I really think about it, if Richard hadn’t come through, I would really be at a loss. I think I would be stressed beyond measure. And the moment he said, “Yes, you can store the books at my place,” that burden was just lifted 100%. I know for myself, when people reach out to me for help, I would do it, you know, right there and then. It’s not even a question, especially if it’s someone that is a friend, you know. I think I naturally am a person who wants to help in whatever situation, but for some reason it’s so hard for me to expect the same from other people, even though we’re all people.
Dacher Keltner So profound. And, you know, in the science of happiness, there’s this set of findings that you could call a virtuous cycle, which is that when somebody helps you, they feel good. Dopamine is activated. Their helping behavior makes you feel supported. That’s good for you. If we don’t ask people for help, we don’t enter into that virtuous cycle, which is too bad. Has doing this practice changed your view of asking for help or how you do it?
Emanuel Hahn Yes.
Dacher Keltner How so?
Emanuel Hahn Well, so the next thing after finding storage for the books was to pack the preorders and ship them out.
Dacher Keltner That’s work.
Emanuel Hahn That’s physical labor and that’s extremely tiring physical labor. I was like, “There’s no way that I can pack 800 books into mailers and ship them out.” And so again, I sort of started reaching out to a few friends. It started off, I was just like, “Maybe I’ll ask one person or maybe I’ll ask two person.” Because again, it was kind of this mindset of like, “People are going to say no or they don’t want to help me or I don’t want to be a burden.”
So I started small and then on the day of, I had one or two people confirmed to come. And so then I was like, cool, cool, cool. And then we started packing and then within the first hours I was like, “This is way too slow. There’s no way we’re going to get through everything.” So then as I was packing, I was just kind of scheming a little bit in my head and I was like, “Who do I know that’s within a ten mile radius?” So then I just started texting like, “Hey, I know it’s a Sunday, and I know you probably have plans, but on the off chance that you’re not doing anything, would you like to come and help me pack some books?”
Dacher Keltner When you sent out the requests for help and you sent those texts, what was in your mind?
Emanuel Hahn I think at first, it’s apprehension. It’s kind of the fear of someone saying no. So I definitely feel my heart beating a little faster. Sometimes I’ll drop the text and I’ll put it down and then I’ll pace around my apartment and I’ll go make some tea, you know? Just kind of procrastinating. And then at a certain point, you can’t procrastinate anymore. So you just hit that send button, and then you’re just waiting. You’re just kind of like, “Oh, what are they going to say?” And just from sending three to four of those texts, I had three to four people come.
Dacher Keltner Right on.
Emanuel Hahn I know. And it ended up being like seven to eight people total.
Dacher Keltner A party!
Emanuel Hahn Yeah. And it was a party and it was such a great atmosphere too because I think everyone who came, they were all down for the book, they were all supporters. And then I bought them lunch and so we all ate together afterwards and it was just this really nice time of communing. And, I think food is just such a beautiful platform for people to connect. And we all know this, but when it’s a common mission of, like, Koreatown Dreaming plus the food, I think maybe that made it even more profound in some way.
So then it became this party and I think at the end—I mean, everyone was kind of exhausted by the end—but I could tell that everyone was so happy to have been there and to help me pack these mailers. And I was just so grateful and even, I guess more practically, I was like, “I’m so glad I have all these books ready to go and all I have to do is just ship them out.”
Dacher Keltner It’s an amazing story.
Emanuel Hahn It is an amazing story. And I think the funny thing is, I could have an amazing experience like this, and then the next time I need help again, I’m like, “Oh, can I ask for help again? Is it gonna—it’s just so weird that you can have such a positive experience and the next day you kind of go back to this default state of, “Oh, I’m afraid to ask for help,” and I don’t know what that is about.
Dacher Keltner I hear you. After the project that led to Koreatown Dreaming and this sort of follow up week of asking for help and getting your books out. At the end of that process, did you learn basic things about you asking for support or sort of ways you may go forward with this?
Emanuel Hahn I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned in the past few years is you just have to ask and sometimes people say no, and that’s completely fine. Because, I’ve had situations where people have asked me for help and for whatever reason, I’ve said no because it was the right decision at that time. And I think it’s maybe kind of learning to grow a thicker skin about asking, if that makes sense. Maybe it’s the psychological trick where I ask people for help expecting a no. And so when they say yes, I’m like, “Oh, great. That wasn’t too bad.” But, not taking too much from a rejection or not being affected too much from a rejection, because that happens as well.
Dacher Keltner I hear you. I tell my students, you know, how many hundreds of rejections I’ve gotten on papers and what a great lesson it is. Well, Emanuel Hahn, congratulations on Koreatown Dreaming. What a beautiful book and such beautiful stories. And thank you so much for being on our show.
Emanuel Hahn Thank you so much for having me.
Dacher Keltner Up next, we look at the psychology behind why it can be so unnerving to ask for help.
Vanessa Bohns In my studies, I get to see this “aha” moment that they have where they suddenly realize that it’s not nearly as painful. And people are so much more receptive than they expected.
Dacher Keltner More, after this break.
Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner.
We’ve been talking about that uncomfortable feeling so many of us get when we need to ask for help.
Vanessa Bohns People will bend over backwards in real life to sort of avoid asking for things, right? They’ll try to do everything themselves when they could very simply often get help or do it more easily if they just ask someone quickly.
Dacher Keltner Vanessa Bohns is an associate professor of social psychology at Cornell University and the author of the book You Have More Influence Than You Think. She did an experiment to see why it’s so hard for people to ask for help.
Vanessa Bohns So, we wanted to see if people’s idea of how people would react to their help requests actually matched reality. And as soon as we would tell them, this study involves going out and asking people for things. A handful of people would be like, “Yep, nope, goodbye.”
Dacher Keltner Thirty five college students stuck it through for the experiment.
Vanessa Bohns And we told them that in this study you’re going to be going out and asking random strangers for a favor.
Dacher Keltner Vanessa and her team split the students into two groups. The first had to ask strangers to borrow their cell phone until three people said yes.
Vanessa Bohns They were to go up and say, “Can I use your cell phone to make a call?”
Dacher Keltner When they got a phone, they’d call the lab so researchers could tally how many unique numbers each person called in from. The other group had to make an even bigger request:
Vanessa Bohns They had to ask people to take them to the gym on Columbia University’s campus and if they start to say, “Oh, it’s up here,” you know, and start giving you verbal directions, you’re supposed to say, “I couldn’t find it. Will you just walk me there?”
Dacher Keltner A researcher would discreetly follow them to make sure they stuck to the script and got to the gym.
Vanessa Bohns They weren’t pleading in any way. They weren’t adding anything fancy. It was just super simple. “Can I use your cell phone to make a call?”
Dacher Keltner But before heading out, the students had to estimate how many people they’d need to ask before completing the task.
Vanessa Bohns They thought they would have to ask seven people before a single person agreed to walk them to the gym. When they actually went out and did it, they only had to ask about two people.
Dacher Keltner As for borrowing the phones, they thought they’d have to ask 10 people in order to make three calls.
Vanessa Bohns They actually had to ask only six people,
Dacher Keltner They consistently underestimated how likely others were to help them.
Vanessa Bohns And so, in our follow up studies, we wanted to see what mistake are they making? What are they missing about the other person’s experience?
Dacher Keltner Vanessa thought maybe we’re so focused on how awkward we feel asking for help, that we forget how bad it would feel to turn down someone asking us for help.
Vanessa Bohns And so, we had participants read a scenario where they imagined asking other people for things or they imagined the situation from the other side. They imagined being asked for those same things.
Dacher Keltner Like, you’re running late for a doctor’s appointment and your phone is dead, so you ask to borrow a stranger’s.
Vanessa Bohns Or, imagine being on the other side. Someone tells you that they’re running late for a doctor’s appointment, comes up to you and says, “Hey, can I use your phone?”
Dacher Keltner The people who imagined the scenario from the perspective of being asked thought most people would say yes, and that it would be really uncomfortable to say no to someone asking you for help.
Vanessa Bohns But we forget that when we’re not in that immediate position. People are just more happy to help than we realize—that people do get this warm glow from helping. People enjoy being helpful. And so, we also underestimate how much people actually do enjoy helping other people
Dacher Keltner On our next episode of The Science of Happiness:
Drew Ackerman As a kid, every night I would stay up kind of worrying about what was going to go wrong the next day. And then, it got to the point where I was like, “Wait a second, I can’t sleep. And now I’m tired. How am I going to get to sleep?” And it was this cycle that just went on and on and on.
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness. You can try the Asking for Help at Work practice and others at ggia.berkeley.edu. Our Executive Producer of Audio is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Associate producer Kristie Song. Sound designer 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.