July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
TODD ZWILLICH I was having lunch with some friends, and my friend was joking around he said, do you know what smizing is? Smizing is like smiling with your eyes—not with your mouth. Just move your eyes back and the idea is to express a smile only with your eyes, and you have to stare daggers at somebody while you do it. It was fun, it was hilarious and we’re goofing around with this. And one of the friends comes back to the table. He said, ‘What are you guys doing?’ I said, “Okay, look at me,” and I stared at him and I just sort of, you know do it and you kind of just don’t move the rest of your face and you let your eyes do the talking as I’m making eye contact with him.
I melted this guy. He turned purple and started to giggle and he recoiled. And that’s the power of eye contact right there. That’s connectivity right there. That is human connection.
DACHER KELTNER Now scientists haven’t studied smizing yet but research does show that human connection is the key to happiness. On each episode of our show we have a guest try out a practice designed to boost happiness, resilience, kindness or connection. And then we explore the science behind it.
Today we are delighted to welcome Todd Zwillich, host of The Takeaway and Smizer extraordinaire. Despite being a skeptic, he is our happiness guinea pig for today.
So how’s it feel being a guinea pig, Todd?
TODD ZWILLICH I mean I feel like this is where I should be in the universe, Dacher. I had a career in neuroscience that never took off, but when I was in college I was a research assistant, a lab tech in a neuroscience lab. And I made guinea pig of thousands of rats in the radial mazes and the multiple memory systems experiments. I feel like it’s only just that I’m your guinea pig.
DACHER KELTNER Well there’s going to be all kinds of karma in today’s episode. So you chose this really in-depth gratitude meditation. So why did you choose gratitude?
TODD ZWILLICH The one thing I liked was that it had a brief meditation component. I’ve never really practiced much meditation; I’ve had a little experience with it through yoga but not not much. It seemed like an easy, good way to try it out a little bit. and then I’ve got to be honest like just the opportunity to let some gratitude well up within you seemed like a good opportunity for me.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah. Good to hear. What did you do?
TODD ZWILLICH So I sequestered myself in my room and I got comfortable as instructed and listened to the recordings and really tried to do it a couple of times to get into that space where your concerns and sort of the conversation you have with yourself all day long kind of melts away. You know, that conversation goes on in our heads, at least in my head, quite a bit. And I know that people who are heavily into mindfulness practice try to quiet this conversation. I’m not into it. Sometimes I feel like I should be.
So but you can feel the difference when that when that conversation quiets and you make room in this case, you know you make room for gratitude you said sort of not an empty vessel you focus on this this positive thing, on gratitude and it kind of fills the space.
DACHER KELTNER So walk me through what it was like in your mind as you did these steps of this gratitude meditation.
TODD ZWILLICH You know when it started… I’m not skeptical of meditation itself I have lots of close friends who practice it, my sister practices it. You know, you sort of start off with gratitude just for the miracle of birth for being born. I kind of got hung up on this the first time because—
DACHER KELTNER You stopped.
TODD ZWILLICH Well I didn’t stop. I powered through. You branded me a skeptic. I am that and I don’t consider my birth or my DNA to be a miracle or even anything particularly lucky. I think that we’re all accidents of evolution. I sort of demystified in that way for myself. So that kind of hung me up a little bit I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t know if I’m down with that.’ But you know look I didn’t stay on it for a long time I know what the point is not to get hung up on some detail.
You know, hearing the narrator kind of give examples of all of the things that we all take for granted in our daily lives, things as simple as running water, clean food. You have a car to drive you have a public school that you went to—I went to public school. It’s true that it pays to take a little bit of time to have gratitude for these very simple things. But what it did for me was start to kind of open the door to all of the thousands of things in your life that you can express gratitude for. Yes, some of them are obvious. If you’ve taken a look out your window hundreds of millions of people don’t have access to clean water. I do. Start there.
And then you know as it went on I have to say, I was more satisfied with very simple little bits of gratitude than with grandiose ideas.
DACHER KELTNER Can you give an example?
TODD ZWILLICH I started to sort of reflect on, you know, some of the grand things that maybe I have to be grateful for. You know, my career, for instance, being on the radio. Having an audience, by the way, being heard, I should say, is something I’m grateful for. And I guess that’s part of the difference right there. You know, I said, ‘Well, I’m so lucky to have a career in public radio, so grateful for that.’
And I am, and I don’t take anything away from the gratitude I have for that. But then it started to become obvious that there was something more basic for me about that. It’s that I’m heard, that I have the ability to be heard.
I think that people when they don’t feel heard, when they feel ignored, I think it does some negative things to the human psyche. And then I started to—I’ve noticed that over the years people around me either in public life or in the neighborhood are just people I know. If they don’t feel heard they get frustrated, they get angry, they start to lash out in ways so that they get noticed. I think we all do that probably to some degree if you have a mate or a spouse or a partner and they’re ignoring you. Yeah, that gets frustrating right away. So there’s different levels to this. I started to focus down on the very basic gratitude I have for being heard.
DACHER KELTNER You know you know I’m really struck by what you’re saying, Todd. And it reminds me of this incredible new neuroscience. It’s building upon being heard, and that our deepest craving is to be appreciated. When you get friends just to record sort of sayings about their friends about what they’ve done that’s good, right? And then you hear those words from a friend, certain networks in the cortex that are associated with physical safety light up. And it’s just being heard is fundamental safety.
TODD ZWILLICH Hmm. You know that gives me an appreciation also for the importance—I guess this is connected to gratitude, I’m getting the sense that it is—the small gestures you can do for people in your life, for instance, especially with smartphones in our hands. If somebody is talking put that damn thing down and make eye contact with them until they’re done.
The value that you can give somebody, by looking them in the eye and letting them know you’re focused on them, is huge.
DACHER KELTNER It’s profound. you know and I know, you know, when I talk to skeptical audiences with trainings like yours, you know medical doctors, neuroscientists and like, I remind them that one of the really potent triggers of oxytocin in the sense of connectivity and trust and collaboration is eye contact. You know, that somehow the brain—well the big parts of the brain that are tracking when people look into our eyes in the right way, it often triggers oxytocin release which is a foundation of a sense of common cause.
One of the things that really struck me about this meditation that you did is the connectivity dimension and you know, often we lose sight of the people who got us to where we are. You know our parents and grandparents and the incidental act of charity that gets us to get an internship at a public radio station or into a lab.
I like in this meditation, I just love to hear your thinking about what you thought about that. It gets you to think about all the people, this web of people who, through their various actions are why you are the host of The Takeaway today, right? And have this opportunity to be heard and let people be heard. Who came to mind?
TODD ZWILLICH Yeah. I mean my parents. Obviously, my sister.
DACHER KELTNER Wow. How so your sister?
TODD ZWILLICH My sister has always been close to me. She always let me know, even then, how much she loved me, you know? And when we were in high school and, you know, an older girl is going to ignore her little brother and just like, pretend he doesn’t exist because he’s awkward and annoying and stupid. And she didn’t she really didn’t do that.
You know, my sister’s a media person too and she had some TV shows in Canada. And during that whole phase of her career I was a print reporter. I wasn’t involved in broadcast at all really. And watching her work and talking to her about the way she works and her sort of nurturing me. This helped gear my interest towards a whole new area of journalism that kind of renewed my focus on the profession, you know, and has ever since. I owe a lot of that to her.
DACHER KELTNER Starting early, no. You know, your reflection on the gratitude meditation—and I really appreciated it—it really brings into focus it’s this wonderful complement to the science. One of the things that’s really striking to me is to take these old contemplative practices that a lot of cultures have rituals and practices around, then link it up to the neuroscience and the health science. You know, the what’s going on in the prefrontal cortex or the Vagas nerve or your inflammation response
TODD ZWILLICH See this is the part I love. This is Dacher, you know from coming on The Takeaway with me that this is the part I always try to steer you to. Tell me what’s going on in the brain, this is what I want to hear.
DACHER KELTNER Well, you know, so one of the things that’s going on in the brain when you go into a meditative state and or you have a transcendent state or a mystical state really aligns with your first insight which is, wow the all the self-relevant processes like, ‘What am I doing right now, what are my goals, who am I talking to, what’s happening next?’ Kind of quiet down and those are supported by the default mode network, right, that has regions in the prefrontal cortex and on the side of your brain that track the self. And it seems like meditation shuts that off and frees things up. Does that make sense given your experience?
TODD ZWILLICH Having this very J.V. experience that I’ve had with it, the first experience for me that you get when you focus your attention on letting that go and quieting it, are the other things that can grow up from it.
You’re at a party and everybody has a glass of wine and it’s like no one conversation really stands out. You can hear snippets and voices from a million different places and then dial all that down, dial all that down and hear the one person over in the corner who’s saying something in this case really constructive and focus on that and realize that voice is probably there all the time if you can dial down the rest of the room.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah. you break out the smizing at that time?
TODD ZWILLICH You know I’m not going to over-use that. That is a potent weapon so I’m not going to I’m not going to deploy it too much
DACHER KELTNER Use with care. What do you hope for going forward?
TODD ZWILLICH I’m interested in making this part of routine. And so I’m trying to think about how to do that. I am kind of a creature of habit so adding a new practice can sometimes be a little hard for me. And I’m thinking one good place I can get this into my life is I do exercise regularly. It’s a big thing with me, and talk about like, lowering your stress. It’s what makes me able to feel like a human, frankly. So there are quiet rooms in quiet places at my gym that I’ve noticed like yoga rooms that they don’t use and you’re allowed to go in there kind of thing. I think that, you know, a couple times a week.
DACHER KELTNER Exactly. You know, I find for a lot of people who their minds keep worrying late at night and buzzing along, a little bit of gratitude practice can calm the mind at night. So it’s useful in many different places in those brief moments we have.
TODD ZWILLICH And I’ll tell you something else. I did get in touch with a couple of people in my life who were part of that gratitude to take the opportunity to let them know. Because you know, another thing this does for you also when the gratitude comes to mind, it raises the important corollary, which is when is the last time you told them?
And I have already talked to one or two friends—not pushing it on them. I’m not evangelizing for you yet, Dacher, but just telling them that I did this and like, ‘Hey, it was a really useful little exercise. It didn’t overwhelm and changed my whole life. I don’t think it’s meant to do that but it’s opened up a couple of channels, you know, and that’s worth doing.’
DACHER KELTNER Yeah, absolutely. Well, Todd, I know you’re remarkably busy putting out The Takeaway which we really appreciate and you’re a remarkable voice out there and we appreciate you being a guinea pig for a day
TODD ZWILLICH Well, Dacher, I appreciate it too. We’ve loved having you on and to the extent that we’ve helped get your message out and your pod out to more people. I think that’s for the benefit of just about everyone. So if we could be a small part of that and then I’m grateful for that.
DACHER KELTNER If you want to try the Gratitude Meditation, and other practices like it, you’ll find simple instructions on our website Greater Good in Action – that’s G-G-I-A dot Berkeley dot edu.
For years, scientific studies have found that when people practice and experience more gratitude, they reporting feeling happier, healthier, and more connected to others. But that research doesn’t always convince skeptics like Todd, who want harder evidence that gratitude actually works.
Fortunately for these skeptics, neuroscientists have started to look at gratitude’s impact on the brain and other parts of the nervous system, and yielded really exciting results. At the cutting edge of this research is Christina Karns, a neuroscientist in the Brain Development Lab at the University of Oregon. We’re fortunate to have Christina with us today to talk about the neuroscience of gratitude. Thanks for joining us, Christina.
CHRISTINA KARNS Thanks for having me, Dacher.
DACHER KELTNER So we’re going to be talking about the gratitude practice, and how would you define gratitude? How do you define it in the literature?
CHRISTINA KARNS Well, I think about gratitude as a motivation, which is a little different than how some people think about it. A motivation to express how you feel when someone else has done something good for you. When you’ve received some benefit from someone else. And it really drives you to want to give back in some way, either through saying thanks or doing something nice for that person. And it’s a special kind of motivation too, because it’s really coming out of a sense of humility that when we feel grateful we also feel humble, because someone else has recognized our need and done something for us. And through that humility there’s an openness to bonding with other people. Or doing good things for others. Paying it forward.
DACHER KELTNER So how do you think gratitude changes the brain?
CHRISTINA KARNS I’ve been working on several studies that are ongoing. One is looking at the way that practicing gratitude might change our brain, our brain’s response toward when we receive things, but also when we give things to other people. I’ve been working with a collaborator. His name’s Ulricht Meyer. And what these collaborators did is develop a task where you put people in a brain scanner, you give them money, they see themselves get money, or they see a charity get money. And you can compare the brain’s response to when they receive versus when they give. And what they found is that people that have a more benevolent personality tend to give more. And their brain responds more to that act of giving. And then they also found that brain response increases with age. So as you get older, the brain becomes more benevolent. More giving.
So what made me curious is, ‘Okay if this is getting improved with age, well, what can we do about it? Do we just have to kind of wait around for the wine to reach the right vintage? Or is there something we can actually do to improve gratitude and improve this generous brain response?’ And I thought that a gratitude journal might be a good way to do that. So we recruited a bunch of students to participate in a journaling experiment, and at the beginning of the experiment, we put everyone, one at a time, in the brain scanner. And had them do the same charitable donation task that my colleagues had developed. And what we found is just at the first day when they came into the lab, people that were more grateful also had a larger response in the brain toward charitable giving.
DACHER KELTNER Wow.
CHRISTINA KARNS Okay, so that’s pretty cool. There’s already these differences among people. But what happens now when we split that group into two? One group just journals like maybe most of us journal about day to day events. Neutral things. And the other group is assigned to journal about gratitude. What we found is after three weeks this group of people that wrote about gratitude showed a greater reward signal neural response to giving than they did before relative to the group that was just journaling about just neutral things. So we could change the brain response. It wasn’t just luck of the draw who we recruited into the lab.
DACHER KELTNER Wow, that’s really striking—so after we practice gratitude for just a couple of weeks, the reward circuits in our brains show a stronger positive response when we see or do nice things that are nice to other people—it makes that kindness feel more rewarding. That’s really exciting.
So I wanted to just get your thoughts about what happens in the mind when we do this gratitude meditation? How do you as a neuroscientist studying gratitude, think about what that meditation does?
CHRISTINA KARNS Well when people are meditating on the good things that they have and the good things that people give to them when they’re settling into a quiet state of appreciation, their body is relaxing. They’re regulating their breathing. All of those signals of safety are triggering a flow of neurotransmitters. Your endorphins, your dopamine response, that flood is surrounding your brain and helping you feel safe and loved. And it’s also doing something that’s going to last the more you practice it. So a really key skill, a system in the brain that’s really important for shaping our brains is attention. When we pay attention to something, it’s like a filter. And with practice, you get better at using that filter.
So for instance, if you’re in a really noisy coffee shop, right, and you’re trying to focus on your work. You’re starting to suppress the sounds around you and focus on the deadline at hand. Well, with practice you get better and better at that. So when people take the time to get into a state of appreciation and feeling safe, it makes it easier for them to access that state later.
DACHER KELTNER Fascinating. There are different kinds of gratitude practices. Why would you recommend this one? What do you think’s unique about this deeper reflection on gratitude?
CHRISTINA KARNS Well the gratitude meditation, by asking us to reflect on things like all the people that work together to help us have good things, even our ancestors potentially, that’s not something that’s always accessible to your senses, right? We don’t always see those things. It does take a deeper reflection to be aware of them. So you’re concentrating your awareness on something that you might normally take for granted.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah, Todd Zwilich, our guinea pig. You know, he’s a self-confessed skeptic. So how would you convince a skeptic to practice gratitude?
CHRISTINA KARNS Well, our brain points us in the right direction toward actions that are in sync with our values. So if Todd is performing actions that align with the things that are important to him, his brain will reward him with that, you know, those juicy neurotransmitters. He’ll have more of that currency that the brain cares about. But it’s also, it’s not just about ourselves. It’s about the kind of world we want to live in. And a kinder and more just society requires individuals to do good things for other people. These kinds of practices help us rise to the challenge. They help us feel good about doing the right thing.
DACHER KELTNER I’m persuaded. Well Christina, thank you so much for being our resident neuroscientist to talk about gratitude meditations and beyond and all the amazing work you’re doing on what happens in the brain. Thanks so much.
CHRISTINA KARNS It was my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
DACHER KELTNER Thanks for joining me for The Science of Happiness. Join us next time when our millennial guinea pig takes a glimpse into her future, and feels anxiety. Find out why on our next episode of the Science of Happiness.
Our podcast is a coproduction of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRI, produced in coordination with Jennies Cataldo and Ben Manilla from BMP Audio. Our producer is Jane Bahk, executive producer is Jason Marsh. Our original music is by David Michel-Ruddy.
Funding for The Science of Happiness comes from donors to the Greater Good Science Center and from PRI donors including Javier Escobedo and Bego Lozano.
You can learn more about The Science of Happiness and find related articles, videos, quizzes… all kinds of stuff on our website—Greater good dot Berkeley dot edu. And shoot us an email, tell us what you think about what you heard. Send it to greater at Berkeley dot edu.