July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
MICHAEL LEWIS I was at my aunt’s ninetieth birthday party on Saturday night, and my cousin was talking about how he had a scary colonoscopy where they’d found polyps. And I flashed back to my own colonoscopy. My first and only colonoscopy. And then, I’d never written this down or really dwelled on it, where they can kind of put you under. And I remember liking that. I remember liking the doctor. And I remember when it was done the nurse coming over and saying, “You’re fine. You can go home.” And I said, “Can I say goodbye to the doctor? It was really nice talking to him.” And she said, “He doesn’t wanna talk to you.” And I said, “Why not?” Because you know you were really mean—you know the things you said to him? I said, “What did I say?” She said, “Well the thing that really ticked him off was you looked up and you said, in the middle of your colonoscopy, you said, “When you were a little boy did you imagine this would you be doing this your whole life, looking at people’s buttholes? Or did you want to be an astronaut?”
DACHER KELTNER Most people know journalist Michael Lewis as the best-selling author of books like Moneyball, The Big Short, Home Game, and The Blind Side. But I also have the great pleasure of knowing him as a hilarious and dedicated friend. And I’ve also recently been enjoying his phenomenal new podcast, Against the Rules. On each episode of our show, we have a Happiness Guinea Pig try a research-tested practice to bring more feelings of joy and connection into their life. I’m really looking forward to having Michael Lewis as our Happiness Guinea Pig today. So Michael, did you like writing as a kid?
MICHEAL LEWIS No.
DACHER KELTNER No?
MICHAEL LEWIS No. Didn’t occur to me. I associated writing with homework. The only time I ever wrote was when someone made me write. Yeah. And it was a distraction from basketball, baseball and football. And so I got through it as as quickly as I could and grudgingly. And I was so, I give you a really good example. This is this is this is a microcosm of my youth. In the seventh grade we had to review Johnny Tremaine. And I flipped over the back cover without reading it. And there was a beautiful description of the book, of course, as there often is on the back cover. So I just copied it out and handed it in as my book report. It did not even occur to me this was a bad thing. I thought it was a shrewd thing to do. Right. Like you can’t you get it that, I don’t even have to read the book. And I got hauled into the principal’s office and he asked me, where’d you get this? In the back of the book. Yeah. Isn’t that smart. And he goes, that’s called plagiarism. That’s where I learned what plagiarism is. So they actually tried to throw me out of the school. My parents had to come in to stop me from getting thrown out. I certainly didn’t think I was going to be a writer one day.
DACHER KELTNER You often write about funny things that people do around you. Like your book Home Game is full of hilarious stories about your kids.
So it’s probably no surprise that when it came time for you to choose one of the Happiness Practices for our show, you chose one called ‘Three Funny Things.’ What are the steps of the Three Funny Things practice; what did you do?
MICHAEL LEWIS Here’s what I did. Every day, at the end of the day before I went to bed, I’d take out a yellow notepad and I’d scribble down first, three funny things, not the funniest. I didn’t want to like agonize over it. But three funny things that happened. The first three things that came to mind along with a couple of notes about why I thought they were funny. It was pretty easy to come up with the three funny things, although it got harder and harder the more I thought about it. It was less easy to explain to myself why they were funny except in the crudest, broadest terms. Yeah and I think in the same way it’s true that the more you try to explain a joke it ceases to be funny. Yeah the more I tried to understand why it was funny the less funny I found it, but nevertheless I did this exercise every day and I did it, I did it pretty religiously.
DACHER KELTNER And the assignment is to write these three funny things every day for a week. What were some of your funny things?
MICHAEL LEWIS The first thing I wrote down was actually, what’s funny is how much it changes what’s funny when you feel pressure to find things funny. I thought that it would be easier than it was. Because I laugh all day. Yeah. I mean I must be laughing at something. I’m not a crazy person. Yeah. So then the next thing that happened was I got great pleasure out of a conversation I had not really listened to properly between myself and my son. I needed to explain how the stock market worked. And it works very complicated.
DACHER KELTNER That’s a tough one.
MICHAEL LEWIS In this tape, I grab him out of bed and apologize for getting him up in the morning
Sorry to wake you up to do this. No it’s fine. All right.
MICHAEL LEWIS And he’s sitting at my desk and I’m trying to show him on my computer how we buy stocks at Charles Schwab and so on. And I’m thinking, he knows nothing about this. Yeah. I mean how could he? He’s eleven year old he doesn’t you know I’ve never talked about the stock market. And he goes, “I know all about the stock market.”
At school when I’m bored, I can just open up the stock market app and it tells me how much a business is growing and making money.
MICHAEL LEWIS And I said, “How do you know this?” He says, “I play in the stock market at school.”
DACHER KELTNER Wow.
MICHAEL LEWIS And I say, “What do you mean? How do you do that?”
It’s an iPad. It’s on the iPad pro they give us. At school? Yeah. There’s this thing on the iPad at school that says ‘stocks,’ and I pressed on. And then I just typed something random, I, I just typed ‘fart’ on it and FARTOX came up. So I have that on my front page now. FARTOX? Yeah, FARTOX. Is that a company? Yep. It’s called FARTOX? How do you spell it? F-A-R-T-O-X. FARTOX. What did they do? Let’s just check this? It’s really funny.
MICHAEL LEWIS And my son has been following FARTOX for the last year.
DACHER KELTNER How’s it doing?
MICHAEL LEWIS Well, it’s been going up.
DACHER KELTNER What Is it?
MICHAEL LEWIS Well it’s not a company I think it’s some sort of index fund. But in his mind it was like a basket of farts. He’s watching the basket of farts go up and down and he says it moves around a lot. And so this conversation, I found this conversation hysterical. I thought it was funny. So then the next thing that happened was I was speaking to a group of tax accountants in the Fountainbleu Hotel in Miami Beach. And they were insisting that my dress is to be business casual, appropriate to Miami Beach. Yeah, but I was packing and I realized that from my lifetime when I go to speak to these kind of audiences when they’re in these kind of places. They all say they want you to look like you got to Miami Vice but in fact what they want you to look is highly uncomfortable being business casual.
MICHAEL LEWIS First thing is I go to give my business casual talk and it was half business casual and half what Miami actually looks like. Yeah. And I just burst out laughing when I walked in because it was just so shocking to see. It was like a strip club meets H&R Block. It was funny. And I thought, “Why is that funny?” It’s just the contrast. Yeah. And also the idea that these tax accounts that all showed up thinking, “I’m going to Miami.” but they still; you could bring the tax accountant to Miami but you can’t take the tax accounting out of the tax accountant.
DACHER KELTNER Where did your sense of humor come from in your childhood and how does it play out today as you look for funny things?
MICHAEL LEWIS I was never punished for play, or having fun, or finding joy. I was always encouraged to do that, or at least not discouraged. And it has seemed to me that most of the rich things in my life, and it’s not that they aren’t sometimes hard, but they’re also fun. If I’m not having fun with a book or podcast or a screenplay, the audience is not having fun. So it’s reinforced by what I do. Now part of fun is laughter. And finding ways to extract the laughter from situations has become a habit. I’ll give an example. Yeah so I coached, I don’t know how many seasons of the softball league and the basketball leagues. And I found the best way to coach little kids, we spend about half, three quarters of the time coaching baseball, and about a quarter of the time doing improv comedy. And I would have these improv comedy exercises I’d put them through and everyone would just have a ball. Yeah. You know and and it made them want to do everything else more.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah, lightens it up.
MICHAEL LEWIS I found just generally I mean when I’m feeling out of step with my own life when I’m feeling like I’m not living properly is when I’m having the least amount of fun. So that I think that humor is just like a subset of fun. Now where people get their sense of humor. Yeah. I mean this is a mystery.
DACHER KELTNER Sometimes people feel when you do these practices that it sharpens your eye, or your ear, and you pick up the theme a little bit more?
MICHAEL LEWIS The honest truth is I probably do go through life laughing a lot. Yeah. It’s actually not that hard, in theory, for me to find three funny things a day. However the moment I have to write them down, it’s a constraint. And it’s also, they feel less funny. It didn’t get easier. Yeah, it got harder. It got so hard that the last day I was asking my 19 year old daughter to give me a list of all her funny things in case I need to steal them.
DACHER KELTNER How did she do?
MICHAEL LEWIS She was great.She was great. So I mean, there were plenty of funny things. But the exercise itself, it didn’t have the effect I thought was going to have. I’m trying to figure out why this. It is true, that when I, periods in my life I’ve kept a diary. It’s been really enriching. Yeah there’s something about the act of keeping a diary that forces you to observe your life you know slow it slows life down. Yeah. That’s what it does. Yeah. Slows down. It makes things memorable. It sears into your brain stuff that you would just have forgotten and it’s a highly enriching experience. And it may have been that I just didn’t play ball, you know, in the right spirit here. But what I did is I became I was just listing three funny things and making a couple little notes about why I thought was funny but I didn’t actually like sit down and write. I just didn’t have time. And that may have been partly why the exercise didn’t completely take on the other hand, I mean I still had funny stuff. It was still coming you know all the way through.
DACHER KELTNER You know final question is, and it’s interesting why people often take the practices and they take them in different directions, so how would you change this?
MICHAEL LEWIS I’m only saying this because you’re not going to do it to me, but I would have made me do the one I was least comfortable with, rather than the one I was most comfortable with.
DACHER KELTNER That’s a good idea.
MICHAEL LEWIS I think the fact that it was easy made it have less effect. Yeah. And so if you asked me, I glanced at a couple of the other options before I instantly scrambled back to this, and one of them was like, apologizing to someone who you did something bad to. It’ll never happen! So but if I was forced to do it I would probably have traumatizing effects that we could talk about and I’d be a changed person, and maybe even happier, if I was still alive. I think that’s probably the real lesson here. Yeah. It’s a backhanded one. Yeah. Don’t let the person do the one they want to do. Yeah. See what’s the one you least want to do, and then go do that one.
DACHER KELTNER Excellent.
DACHER KELTNER Well, Michael Lewis. thank you for being on the show. Thank you for your funny things. Thank you for Against the Rules. It’s a delight to listen to. And thanks for being a friend.
MICHAEL LEWIS Always a pleasure talking to you, Dacher.
DACHER KELTNER Writing down three funny things every day didn’t seem to have a big impact on Michael, which is a good reminder that not every happiness practice is the right fit for everyone. It’s important to try out different techniques.
But in general, we know that humor has positive effects in relationships, it can serve as a buffer to stress, it helps us deal with negative emotions, and it even helps teachers teach more effectively. It can also boost your immune system and improve blood flow in your body, which is good for your heart.
And though Michael didn’t love it, research has found a lot of benefits to writing down the funny things in our lives.
Willibald Ruch of the University of Zurich had people try the Three Funny Things practice in a study. Every day for a week, they wrote down three funny things that happened to them that day, and why they thought they were funny. Ruch had another group just write down early childhood memories. He measured everyone’s levels of happiness and depression before the study, and for months afterwards.
The people who did the Three Funny Things saw significant improvements, much more than the other group did.
WILLIBALD RUCH Happiness did increase from pre to post. Depression was lowered immediately. And then it stayed low. But it was not significant all the time. So the stronger effect here was raising happiness. This affected the increase in happiness, was still there one month after, three months afterwards, and six months afterwards—which is surprising because we thought it might fade out over time. It’s so easy to remember what was funny in your life. The induction is very quick. So having a journal with all of your humor memories could be very beneficial. I mean, if you have a period of time that you don’t feel that great or you want to feel better just browsing through the journal and seeing all those funny memories where you’re with friends and laughing about whatever weird thing has an effect it can be used again over and over.
DACHER KELTNER If you’d like to try the ‘Three Funny Practice’ practice, visit our greater good in action website at ggia.berkeley.edu.
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 to Pushkin Industries for the clip from Michael’s Against the Rules podcast. And to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
You can learn more about the Science of Happiness and find related articles, videos, quizzes—all kinds of stuff—on our website, greatergood.berkeley.edu. And shoot us an email, tell us what you think about what you heard. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.