July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
MAGGIE SMITH It’s funny, my daughter this year, in her Mother’s Day card wrote to me, “Thank you for helping me be optimistic.” And it made me cry, but it also made me laugh, because if you had told me even five years ago, but certainly 10 years ago, and definitely 15 years ago, that anyone would accuse me of being an optimist, I would have laughed. I’m sure my own mother would have laughed.
I would probably call myself a recovering pessimist. Ever since I was a child, I think I practiced what I would call ‘self-protective pessimism,’ which is something that so many of us do. You know, we imagine the worst case scenario and we expect the worst because, on the one hand, if it turns out well, then we’re pleasantly surprised instead of disappointed. And if it doesn’t turn out well, well, then we were right. And we do love to be right, even if it’s about something negative. You know, in some ways thinking negatively before we even know what’s going to happen, it’s just robbing us of that period of joy before we before we really know how something will turn out.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS Would you consider yourself a “self-protective pessimist,” or do you tend to imagine the best case scenarios? I’m Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the science director at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, filling in for Dacher Keltner this week. Our guest today is poet Maggie Smith. Her works have been featured in The New York Times, The Paris Review, and many other prominent publications. Her poem ‘Good Bones’ went viral a couple of years ago, and has since been translated into almost a dozen languages. We asked Maggie to choose one of our practices for a happier, more meaningful life. And she’s here to tell us what she chose and how it went. Maggie, thanks for talking with us on The Science of Happiness.
MAGGIE SMITH Thanks so much for having me.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS Of the 60-plus practices that we gave you to choose from, you decided to try one called ‘Finding Silver Linings.’
As the title suggests, this exercise asks you to think of, and write about, the good that possibly comes out of bad situations. And you do this on a daily basis, for three weeks. What drew you to this practice?
MAGGIE SMITH For the past several months, every day, I’ve been getting up in the morning and making myself a cup of coffee or tea. And as soon as I get the kids off to school, I sit down and I write myself a ‘note to self.’ And I post it on social media and it’s just a way of me talking to myself, getting out of my own head, maybe putting a little positivity into the world first thing in the morning in the hopes that it will send to my day in the right direction. And when I saw this and the list of options, I thought, “Yes, that that seems like it’s almost a continuation and a sort of deepening of a practice that I’ve been trying on my own.”
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS Can you share a few of your Silver Linings?
MAGGIE SMITH Here are a few, “Let go of the idea that things could have happened differently, as if this life is a choose-your-own-adventure book and you simply turn to the wrong page. You did the best you could with what you knew and felt at the time. Now do better, knowing more. Keep moving.” And here’s another one. “Remember, the word ‘courage’ comes from the Latin ‘core,’ meaning heart. So big hearted means not only kind, not only generous, but also brave. As your heart grows, so does your courage. Keep moving.”
They all end with the same phrase, which is, ‘keep moving.’ And it’s something that I just started in the beginning and I I liked it because I realized there’s sort of no way through a hard time but through. You can’t go over it or under it or around it, and you can’t pretend it’s not there. You just have to keep going.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS Thank you so much, Maggie. That was wonderful. Can you walk us through the steps you took to do the Finding Silver Linings practice?
MAGGIE SMITH Sure, so the practice is, you start with the good, which appeals to me. So you list five things that are going well. That’s how I think of it. Five things that you feel like are going well in your life, at that moment. And they can be general things, or they can be really sort of granular, specific things. And then you think about the most recent time when something didn’t go your way. When you felt angry or frustrated or sad or powerless. And in a few sentences, you describe that situation, the negative, this situation, in writing. And then, the Silver Linings portion comes in. You try to look on the bright side of that negative situation by listing three things, three silver linings, that you can think of despite despite the negativity of that.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS Can you give us some examples of the things you thought of when you were listing things going well, or things that are bothersome, or ways that you were able to discover, imagine some kind of benefit or advantage of some of the challenges you were thinking about?
MAGGIE SMITH Sure. I mean, things that are going well, it’s not hard to think about that. My kids are thriving. They’re doing really well in school, and they’re happy, and they’re healthy. I’m working on a new book and that gives me a place to focus my time and energy. And I have family and friends all around me, in large part because I still live in my hometown. So it’s not that hard to list the things that are going well. What I found most challenging was taking a negative situation and then trying to pull out the spots of light from that.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS So what’s an example of a negative situation or a challenge that you were facing that you actually were able to consider some kind of benefit around?
MAGGIE SMITH I wrote one day about a text from my ex. I wrote another day about an email from my divorce lawyer, which is never a good thing. And one of them was a child at home from school with pink eye, which, you know, in the grand scheme of things is not a big deal. But it certainly throws off the day when they can’t go to school. So the silver linings I wrote were: having the support system, that if I had a deadline and I needed some help with childcare that day, I could easily call my mother or my father to come and hang out with the kids for a few hours while I got something done. The other silver lining, which, you know, is something that we often don’t think about, but, I have health insurance, and I’m able to call my pediatrician, have them call in the over-priced eye drops to my local pharmacy, and I could just go to the drive thru and pick them up. And that is something that I think we often take for granted. And then the third was just the fact that I work from home, and didn’t have to call off work, didn’t have to explain it to a boss. I could just be there, pop a DVD in, and maybe play some Monopoly, and have a day with my child and sort of rearrange things in a way professionally that made sense for me. And maybe that just means working after they go to bed at night. But it was completely possible. And so, in the moments where I wanted to be like, “Agh! I can’t believe I had to deal with this today,” taking a beat, and, a breath and thinking about A) how much worse it could be, but B), also just, all of those things that that I have going on in my life that made it possible to deal with it.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS What were some of the other experiences that you wrote about?
MAGGIE SMITH So one that happens frequently, so it’s close to my mind is the negative mail or snarky text message from someone in your life. And it’s so tempting, A) to respond with snark or anger or frustration. And it’s also really tempting, B) to let that small moment color the rest of the day. It’s so easy to let that happen. You know, you wake up first thing in the morning and there’s an e-mail or a text message that upsets you. The person’s not taking responsibility for something, or they’re blaming you for something, or they’re just being not very nice. And it’s really easy to let that set the tone for the day. And so this practice really came in handy because I got to write and sort of unload a little bit describing that situation and how it made me feel. And then I got to list of the three silver linings that I could find from that situation. And depending on the sort of contents of the text message, the first two silver linings might be different.
But the biggest thing and I would say the sort of silver thing that came up in every single time, regardless of the situation, was that it gave me an opportunity to be a better person then I maybe would have been before starting this practice.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS So how do you think that works? How do you think reflecting on this unpleasant social interaction, virtual as it may be, enables you to be a better person?
MAGGIE SMITH Well I think, first and foremost, that it makes you slow down and not be reactive. So much of what so much of the hot water I think we get ourselves into is being reactive. And that’s especially dangerous when we are emailing or texting or tweeting. And the person’s not right there in front of us, because it’s just so easy and so fast and so accessible to say the clever thing, and not the kind thing. And I’m always telling my kids, it’s better to be kind than to be right, or to insist on your rightness. The moral high ground is only going to get you so far. And just slowing down. Frankly, taking the time to process all of this. Even just the act of writing about it gives you a chance to sort of bring your blood pressure down a little bit, slow your heart rate. Take a deep breath and think it through before responding. And I think that, for those of us who were extremely verbal, and perhaps tempted to say the snarky thing back right away, is, it’s sort of a safeguard.
And so for me, the silver lining in maybe disengaging sometimes, or being the bigger person, or choosing to let things go, is, it’s a way of being true to myself and being able to live with my own choices and having I mean, ultimately, isn’t it about personal integrity?
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS Yeah, I love that. So in a sense a challenge was disappointing, interpersonal challenge is an opportunity for us to strengthen our own integrity. There’s a silver lining.
MAGGIE SMITH I like that.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS So how long did you have to try finding silver linings, and how long did it take for it to feel like it was really having an impact?
MAGGIE SMITH It’s a three-week process. I will be honest and say I think I only wrote for probably the first week, and then after that I didn’t spend time actually writing the process down. But I sat and reflected on it. And absolutely within that first week, I felt it making a difference.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS Do you think people will get as much out of just reflecting on it, or doing it in a kind of internal mental way, as they would actually writing stuff down with pen and paper?
MAGGIE SMITH I think writing is better. I mean, if time allows and you have that space, and can carve out a space, I think writing it down, even just the sort of act of syncing your mind with your hand and your pen is really useful. And ideally, I would have done that the whole three weeks. But I do think even if on your morning commute, when it’s not really safe to be writing in your car, but if on your morning commute, or on the subway or or wherever you are, even riding your bike to work, if that’s what you do in the morning, iIf you take time on your commute to even process these sorts of things, mentally list the things that are going well, think about something that upset you, and try to find a handful of things to pull and glean from that situation, it can’t hurt.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS From a scientific perspective, we know that looking for potential upsides or eventual benefits of these difficult or challenging, unpleasant situations that we’re bound to face in life enhances our level of happiness, our overall happiness. We’re able to recover from negative feelings more quickly. We enjoy and boost our sense of self-worth and our endurance towards pursuing goals. Do you feel like any of this was the case for you?
MAGGIE SMITH When you were talking, I thought, yes, this absolutely reflects my own personal, anecdotal, non-scientific experience. You know, I think sometimes, especially when we’re going through really rough patches, it’s almost sort of, fake it till you make it. You have to sort of try hope on for size and wear it for a while. And it may not fit well in the beginning. It may feel really uncomfortable and strange, but I think the more that you wear it and the more that you try it, the better it fits. And at least that’s been my experience that, you know, that optimism begets optimism and hope begets hope. And the same thing goes on the flip side. I mean, I do think that negativity creates more negativity. And so if we think about what we want to put into the world, and the kind of daily life we want to have, I do think strangely it’s a choice even when things are going seemingly terrible to say, “OK. Yes. I’m not denying that that is happening. But what about X, Y and Z?” And that, that ‘but’ I think is the space that we all have room to to do some more with.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS It reminds me of a conversation I had recently with an organization in San Francisco called ‘Futures Without Violence.’ One of their board members was saying that someone was kind of critical of their entire mission and said, “You know, violence is inevitable.” And she was worried that she didn’t have enough of a comeback. And I said to her, well, you could try this one, which is “Conflict is inevitable, right. But violence is not.” We can learn from conflict. Conflict is very important to progress, to making change, to addressing injustice and inequality. But it doesn’t need to lead to violence. And in a funny way, to me, that feels like an analog to finding silver linings in its relationship to our emotional experiences, particularly the more challenging and difficult ones.
MAGGIE SMITH Absolutely.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS What would you say is your biggest takeaway from doing the finding silver linings practice?
MAGGIE SMITH Well, it’s funny, I was thinking of what you just said, that conflict is inevitable, but violence isn’t. It reminds me of something a friend said to me recently, which is, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is not.” And I do think that one of the big takeaways from this practice for me was sort of getting out of that rut of that sort of dark room that you put yourself in, that prolonged dark space, that you put yourself in, the actual suffering when things are going wrong. And if we can pull ourselves out of that and try to think in a different direction, it doesn’t it doesn’t make the pain of the experience go away, but at least it alleviate the suffering, if that makes them.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS Absolutely. So, Maggie, a lot of our audience and listeners are probably grappling with our current political atmosphere. Lots of signals about the impending environmental demise. Climate change. Is there a way to use silver linings for for experiences like that?
MAGGIE SMITH Goodness, that’s hard. Yeah. We’re killing our planet. What are the three good things we can glean from that! There are still glimmers of hope. When we see young climate activists doing important work; that gives me hope for the future and for future generations. Not that it should be their responsibility to fix our mess and the mess of past generations. But I do see hope in that.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS Thank you, Maggie. Sorry to pitch you such a tough question.
MAGGIE SMITH I know, I’m like, “Wow!”
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS You’re like, “I thought this was gonna be easier!”
MAGGIE SMITH Wow, that was really hard! I mean, it’s so easy to be complacent. And there’s nothing more dangerous than complacency. You know, environmentally, politically, personally, artistically, there’s just nothing more dangerous. Maybe cynicism and complacency go hand-in-hand. Which is why finding silver linings is so important, because it is motivating.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS Well, it’s so interesting, because I do think critics would make the claim that finding silver linings actually makes us complacent because we become overly optimistic. Maybe even oppressively optimistic and force ourselves to feel enthusiastic and excited about any anything and ignore evidence to the contrary. And it’s so provocative to do to stand by the claim that actually silver linings is a way of not being complacent. It’s a way of strengthening our resolve to take action around the issues in life that we care most about.
MAGGIE SMITH I 100 percent agree.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS Maggie, did you ever have any kind of moments of cynicism or thoughts like, oh, there are some real pitfalls to doing the silver linings practice, or are there some real barriers that make it difficult for me to do something like this?
MAGGIE SMITH Sometimes, it can be too raw. Sometimes the situation can be too big, and too painful to in the moment be able to find a silver lining. Just like a situation can be too painful and too raw to write a poem about. I mean, the one thing I’ve learned as a writer when dealing with really, sort of hot emotional material is to give myself a little distance from it before trying to write it down. I don’t see myself as having to be some kind of emotional first responder.
I can let myself feel a thing before I need to process the thing. And I do think sometimes. Not with pinkeye and not with emails and not with text messages, but there are some things that we grieve in our lives that it may just be that day or that week or that month, we’re not ready to see the bright side. And that’s okay. It’s not a failure. It’s just not time yet.
But I think in time, it does help the healing process to be able to look at a situation and think, what did you learn from it? That’s a silver lining. You know, learning something from pain, learning something from grief. Finding a way maybe to process your own pain that is useful to other people and maybe help soothe them in a moment. That’s the silver lining. But it might not happen that that day.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS Well, thank you, Maggie, for joining us as our Science of Happiness guest and for taking the time to share your thoughts about the finding silver linings exercise.
MAGGIE SMITH Thanks so much for having me. It was my pleasure.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS Poet Maggie Smith calls herself a ‘recovering pessimist,’ so the Finding SIlver Linings practice was a kind of perfect fit for her. But what if you’re still a pessimist?
MYRIAM MONGRAINE Our study looked at how a practice in finding the silver lining would affect the self-proclaimed pessimist.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS More on the science of looking on the bright side, up next.
Can the Finding Silver Linings practice work for you even if you’re more of a pessimist? To find out, Dr. Myriam Mongraine, a psychology professor at York University, recruited people for a study.
First, each participant took a test to see how optimistic or pessimistic they were, and whether they had depressive symptoms. Then they were all divided into different groups. Myriam’s team instructed one of these groups to write about the details of their day in a diary.
MYRIAM MONGRAINE Which didn’t have any ingredients that were expected to improve, let’s say, optimistic thinking.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS A second group did the Finding Silver Linings practice.
MYRIAM MONGRAINE They would write about the things that were happening during the day by highlighting the good things that had happened during the day. And they were also instructed in talking about a set back and the silver lining on the set back.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS They all did their assignments for 10 minutes a day, for three weeks straight. And throughout that time, Myriam’s team continued to measure everybody’s optimism, pessimism, and depressive symptoms.
MYRIAM MONGRAINE We wanted to see whether there would be a greater effect for individuals that would score as more pessimistic.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS There was. Looking at the brighter side of life for three weeks caused pessimists to show fewer depressive symptoms. And that lasted up to two months after the experiment ended. Nothing changed for the people who kept a diary about the details of their day-to-day experiences.
MYRIAM MONGRAINE And this is suggesting that the pattern of thinking, and the outlook that is endorsed by pessimists is, in fact, creating distress, is making them more depressed. And when you work on changing this way of seeing themselves and their circumstances, you see an improvement in mood. You see a significant reduction in depression. So this was very encouraging.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS It’s encouraging because the study implies that pessimists can teach themselves another way of looking at life. And not just pessimists, the Finding Silver Linings practice was helpful to everyone. Even optimists reported less negative outlooks. No matter who you are, seeking out the bright side of things can help.
MYRIAM MONGRAINE Even if it’s just for 10 minutes a day and for a few weeks, I think it’s really a habit and it’s about learning to acknowledge the different ways in which you could construe difficulties in your life and everything that could emanate from emphasizing the positive and believing in your own capacities to achieve your goals. There’s tremendous benefits in learning how to do that.
EMILIANA SIMON-THOMAS If you’d like to try the Finding Silver Linings practice, visit our Greater Good in Action website at ggia.berkeley.edu. Then tell us how it went by using the hashtag, #HappinessPod, or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the science director at the Greater Good Science Center, filling in for Dacher Keltner.
Thanks for joining us 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 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.