July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
ERIN MORROW I went to school for communications because that’s where my strengths were. But I never really had a path or clear vision. I started my career doing marketing for a big construction firm and every job after that was sort of to get out of a previous job. I wasn’t super good at it, I wasn’t super bad at it. But I just sort of kept doing it. So this last job I took in October and I knew, I was like, “I don’t think this is gonna be successful but I’m going to take it.”
My boss who is usually based out of North Carolina was up for the week to cover someone’s vacation. So early one Thursday morning she called me into a conference room. They’re just like, “It’s not working out. Your insurance ends at midnight. Do you have any questions?”
So then I’m back in my car and it’s 8:20, and I’m sitting in traffic to try to get back into the city and I said, “I don’t have to sit in traffic right now. I can go do whatever I want.” So I just went to Starbucks which is what you do when you get fired. And it’s 8:30 on a Thursday morning. So I just was like, “Alright this is the next step.” I’ve been laid off, I’ve been fired before. So it’s like I’m pretty resilient now, but it’s still really hard. And it really crushes your confidence.
DACHER KELTNER Before Erin Morrow lost her job, she had another big problem weighing her down. Her love life.
ERIN MORROW I’m 44. No children. Single professional lady. Never been married.
DACHER KELTNER Some of you may know Erin because she recently let the the Boston Globe’s “Love Letters” podcast chronicle her steps and missteps in the dating world.
ERIN MORROW I’ve tried it all. I’ve done OK Cupid. I’ve done Plenty of Fish. I’ve done Match. I’ve done E-Harmony. I’ve done Bumble. I did Hinge. I tried Hinge recently and I was like, “This is interesting.” It it wasn’t successful.
DACHER KELTNER We thought it’d be great to have Erin on our show as our happiness guinea pig to try a practice that foster connection with others, that could maybe help on her journey to find love. But life comes with unexpected turns—like losing a job. After Erin got laid off, she said she doesn’t really want to think about romance at the time—she’d rather do a happiness practice that boosts her own self-love and self-compassion. And she’s here with us today to talk about how that practice went. Erin, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
ERIN MORROW Thanks for having me.
DACHER KELTNER You’re grappling with what we know is one of the harder transitions in terms of happiness, which is losing a job.
ERIN MORROW Yes.
DACHER KELTNER Shifting careers, what happened?
ERIN MORROW So I took this job and I was like, “Well…” And it was pretty good for a couple months and then it wasn’t good. According to the boss, I was doing everything wrong, but I’m like, “But my work looks just like everybody else’s work.”
DACHER KELTNER One of the things that my colleague Steve Hinshaw writes about in this amazing book about women and perfectionism, The Triple Bind, is—and you know I really saw it just in raising daughters—is how self-critical women can be. You know, I think they’re just tougher on themselves. Did you find that to be the case when you were kind of recovering from losing this job?
ERIN MORROW When I was in the job, and it was not feeling good, I was super critical myself. I just knew, you know, from being raised from my parents, they were like, “Just always be able to support yourself.” So I think that was always my goal. It wasn’t like, “Find a job that makes you happy.” Both my parents struggled professionally too, like my dad was an engineer. He always worked, and was successful but he always seemed really unhappy. And he retired early and he was super happy ever since he retired. And my mom changed careers at 50 and became a journalist and loved it, but said to me very clearly, “I wouldn’t be able to be a journalist if I wasn’t married to your dad because he supports us with his salary.” So yes my confidence took a hit.
DACHER KELTNER And as our happiness guinea pig you chose a practice that really works on rebuilding that confidence—the ‘Self-Compassionate Letter’ exercise. A lot of studies show that when we practice self-compassion and recognize that it’s okay to fail—that everyone experiences mistakes and has setbacks, that’s something we have in common with the rest of humanity—it really curbs that self-critical voice we have in our minds.
ERIN MORROW I’m feeling kind of embarrassed just because it’s like such a sore subject but this is kind of the perfect exercise to do right in the middle of it all.
DACHER KELTNER I know. Well we really appreciate you sharing your journey with us! So please take us through the steps of writing a Self-Compassionate Letter.
ERIN MORROW The instructions I got were to identify something about myself where I feel shamed, insecure or not good enough. It could be related to my personality, my behavior my abilities my relationships or any part of my life. Once I’d identified it I was to write it down and describe how it makes me feel . Does it make me feel sad or embarrassed angry? And I had to be really honest. And then I had to sit and write a letter to myself expressing compassion, understanding, and acceptance of these parts of myself that I don’t like. And so I had to follow some guidelines. The first one was that I was to imagine that there’s someone who loves and accepts me unconditionally for who I am and to imagine what that person would say about this part of myself. The second step is to remind myself that everyone has things about themselves that they don’t like and that no one is without flaws. And then I was supposed to think about other people in the world who are struggling with the same thing that I’m struggling with. The third step is to consider the ways in which events that have happened in my life may have contributed to this negative aspect of myself. The fourth step is I’m supposed to ask myself whether there are things I could do to improve or to better cope with this negative aspect. To focus on how constructive changes could make me feel happier healthier and more fulfilled and to avoid judging myself. In the fifth and final step is after writing the letter to put it down for a while and then come back to it later and read it again. It could be especially helpful to read it whenever I’m feeling down about this aspect of my life. And as a reminder to be more self compassionate.
DACHER KELTNER How did it feel the first time you tried writing this letter to yourself?
ERIN MORROW When I first started to write about the process, I was feeling kind of bummed out because it was writing down all the reasons why I took the job and sort of why I failed. And then that’s when I stopped myself and said, “I know what happened already. I don’t need to keep telling this story over and over again. Now why don’t I be compassionate instead of just sitting here writing about the process or about the event? And so I wrote a line that says, “Your talents to showcase.” And so I just started writing positive attributes about myself. And it helped me sort of shift from feeling bummed out about what had happened and made me feel positive about what is yet to come and what I’m moving towards.
And then I you know stepped away from it and had a couple days away from it and went back to it and wrote a little more. And I felt immediately better sitting down to write it because I felt like I was starting from the positive place that I had ended with at the last time writing the letter this time. So I felt like I was saying, “Hey you’re going through a hard time but it’s it’s gonna get better. And these are the reasons why.”
DACHER KELTNER Erin would you mind reading a few excerpts from what you wrote?
ERIN MORROW Sure. I said, “Life is hard but I become very resilient. I’ve had many failures in love and work and I kept moving forward regardless. Not only because I needed to survive, but because I wanted to get a lot out of life other than just a mundane existence. I worked too hard on trying to figure it all out that I refused to go back to a type of work that sucks.” I felt like that was sort of the biggest revelation that you know. I finally hit the wall where I said I’m not going to do it anymore. Even though it’s what’s on my resumé and what would be easy to sort of continue to do.
DACHER KELTNER And I’m curious you know one of the really important parts of this self compassionate letter is to kind of think about somebody who’s a real deep source of kindness and sort of think through the words they might direct to you during a hard time. Who’d you choose?
ERIN MORROW My dad. My mom or my dad but my dad’s a little, he doesn’t try to give suggestions as much as my mom. He’s better at listening and better at reflecting, and then just good at sort just being like, “You’ll be OK” And I don’t feel like it’s an empty promise you know or an empty statement. So I was like, “Dad knows it’ll be OK.” Even though I know they’re worried for me it felt like he felt confident that I knew what to do to get to where I needed to go.
DACHER KELTNER One of the parts of the self compassionate exercise is you know you just start reflecting on how other people have had very similar struggles. I remember I was talking to my Berkeley class a couple of weeks ago and I had them all talk about what they’re really stressed out about and they all said roughly similar things. And there’s something reassuring about that. How did that work with you in the self-compassionate letter just thinking about what other people were going through?
ERIN MORROW It helped me feel less burdened. It released a lot of the heaviness that comes with being unemployed and feeling like everything is terrible. It helped me feel less burdened knowing that there was people out there that have gone through similar experiences and more extreme experiences and survived and come out to be successful in one way or another.
I’ve enjoyed taking some walks and they’ve been much more reflective since starting this process which is good. And I have been listening to some other episodes and doing some other exercises which has helped too.
I actually started, and I never know what to call it, but the three things, the three good things, at the end of the day….
DACHER KELTNER Right, three good things! That’s the practice where you write down three good things that happen to you each day, and then you explain why each one was a good thing.
ERIN MORROW Yeah I listened to Maz Jobrani’s recent interview and how he did it with his family when he was on vacation and I really enjoyed that.
MAZ JOBRANI It’s a diary entry basically but it’s trying to make you know as opposed to telling your diary “I broke up with my girlfriend or whatever” You know this is just stay positive. Here’s three good, positive things. And then what it would make you do is then the next day I would tell the kids guys don’t forget we’re gonna find three positive things. So it makes you look for positive things throughout your day.
DACHER KELTNER Wasn’t that great?
ERIN MORROW Yeah I loved it and I told my friend and she’s like, “Oh I’m gonna start doing that.” So I actually started doing it a few nights ago. And you know I think it was also the fact that there is a scientist connected to it the end of the episode that says like, “It does increase serotonin.” and I was like, “Well there’s scientific proof.” This is proven a successful tool. So it’s it’s been good to incorporate all the different tools and techniques into the practice.
DACHER KELTNER I love that doing the self-compassionate letter, Erin, led you to other happiness practices from our Greater Good in Action website. You said earlier that when you first sat down to do the practice it was a big embarrassing, why do you think that was?
ERIN MORROW Sitting down to to sort of face myself was hard. I really was avoiding it. But then once I started writing and once I sort of stopped being negative and started trying to be positive and supportive that’s when it got easier. And that’s what made me able to go back to it today and just work with it more and talk to myself more in a compassionate way.
DACHER KELTNER Would you recommend this to other people?
ERIN MORROW Yeah I would definitely recommend it. I have other friends right now who are really struggling in different parts of their life and they’re wonderful, smart people. And I think they would really benefit from being kinder to themselves. It’s good to remember that. And so I plan on sharing it with some of them.
DACHER KELTNER That sounds great. What do you think you’ll tell them, the biggest kind of lesson you’ve learned from the practice?
ERIN MORROW It’s easy to get lost in all the sort of negativity that we heap on ourselves. And then maybe the negativity that’s coming at us from horrible bosses. But mostly from ourselves. I feel like it helps to make a switch in our brain. Maybe that’s just me imagining a switch happening, but it’s just a nice way to retool thoughts.Just sit down with your thoughts and make it positive and helps you move forward and get out of your own way, in a way.
DACHER KELTNER Well, Erin, I so appreciate your personal candor and honesty and you know telling us about the journeys of your love life and work and the role of self compassionate and I really appreciate you being on the show.
ERIN MORROW Well it’s been my pleasure. Thank you.
DACHER KELTNER It’s such self-critical time in our culture. Not only is our society really stressed out, we’re also really hard on ourselves about our careers, our relationships and our personal lives. I think a lot of us can relate to Erin’s experience. It takes a lot of effort to quiet the self-critical voice in our heads and to be more gentle and forgiving towards ourselves. But when we do treat ourselves with kindness, studies find we’re less likely to experience depression, stress, and anxiety… and we’re more likely to be happier and even work on our own self-improvement.
Myriam Mongrain is a psychology professor at McGill University in Montreal and a clinical psychologist. She wanted to see if writing self-compassion letters could help her own therapy patients—people who were more vulnerable to experiencing depression. In one study, she had one group of people write about an early memory. A second group was asked to do an ‘optimism exercise” where they had to write about imagining a successful future. Finally a third group was asked to think about a distressing event and then respond to themselves with kindness by writing a self-compassionate letter. Each group wrote for ten minutes a day, every day for one week.
MYRIAM MONGRAIN So what we found is that both the self compassion and the optimism exercise were significantly better at improving mood. When I looked at the self compassion group they seemed to show progressive increases in happiness over time. At three months and six months there were sustained improvements and that to me says that people who had been given sort of a basic set of instructions around how to be more compassionate towards themselves who practiced that over a brief period of time tended to probably continue to use that skill. That’s the only reason why we would see continued improvements in terms of mood. And those in the optimism condition also showed improvements over time. And one thing that was of interest to us was the match between personality and type of exercise. The dependent types, people who are more interpersonally oriented, who are relationship oriented, particularly benefited from the self compassion exercise. Those who were less dependent and maybe more achievement focused did better with the optimism exercise. The whole idea of finding an intervention that suits a particular individual better, especially if we’re looking at improving their levels of happiness, and decreasing depression, I think it’s a complex question and we have to look at the person and where they’re at and what they’re struggling with in the moment. And also their own personal orientation and style. And if we can find you know a good fit between individual and those kinds of self-help if you like we’re going to be better equipped to produce real change.
DACHER KELTNER If you’d like to try the “Self-Compassionate Letter”, or explore other happiness exercises that might be the right fit for you, visit our greater good in action website at ggia.berkeley.edu. And then email us at email@example.com and tell us about it.
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, with production assistance from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our producer is Shuka Kalantari. 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.
Join us for a live recording of an episode of the Science of Happiness, and hear from experts on self-compassion, mindfulness, empathy, and more at our first-ever, three-day Science of Happiness event, held in northern California near Santa Cruz. Learn more at ggsc.berkeley.edu.