July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
DACHER KELTNER Did you make a New Years resolution this year?
My new year’s resolution is to try super duper hard to not take anybody close to me for granted.
My New Year’s resolution to find a better tasting wine.
My New Year’s resolution is to see more art. All the kinds.
My resolution is to dive more, work less. But my work is diving. So I don’t know what to do now.
My New Year’s resolution is to really be present with my kids after I get home from work.
DACHER KELTNER Mine is to see science of happiness to lead to a more just and kind world. Our guest today also made a resolution: to create more quality time for herself and her friends in the midst of her very busy life. Lisa Genova is a neuroscientist, a mother of three, and a New York Times bestselling author of multiple novels exploring how the mind works, including “Still Alice.” Thanks to that writing, she now advocates on behalf of people with Alzheimers. When we asked Lisa to do a science-based practice to boost kindness and joy in her own life, she chose one to help her slow down and reconnect. And she’s here today to tell us how it went. Lisa, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
LISA GENOVA Thank you, Dacher. It’s so much fun.
DACHER KELTNER I wanted to ask you, you started in neuroscience at Harvard. What were you studying?
LISA GENOVA I was actually studying the molecular neurobiology of addiction.
DACHER KELTNER Then you turned to writing fiction.
LISA GENOVA I wasn’t flirting with being a writer whatsoever. I was a total science geek like math. And science had always been my thing. Neuroscience, I was very deep into it and loved it. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s right about the time that I was finishing up my graduate work and I was down at NIH. She didn’t know who any of us were anymore. And I mean, this really was lovely woman who had, you know, really built a beautiful life and an amazing family, didn’t recognize any of it or know any of it. So it’s just such a horrible price to pay for living into old age to become disconnected from your entire life’s work. And and what what you’ve lived for. Yeah. So I’m watching all this happen. And I feel so bad for her and I feel so bad for all of us. We’re just heartbroken. And yet I didn’t how to feel with her. So I had sympathy but not empathy. And so I felt very disconnected and frustrated and unnerved by it all. And so that was that. And recognizing it was empathy that I was missing and that it was having a hard time with. That was the connection to fiction. I’m like, oh, well, fiction is a place where you can explore empathy and walk in someone else’s shoes. And at the time, there wasn’t a fictional account, at least a good one, about someone with Alzheimer’s, told from the perspective of the person with it, because, you know, it’s always the caregiver’s story. Yeah. And that story is important for sure. But what about the voice of the person who’s becoming silenced? Yeah.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah. Well, I know many people are grateful for this work you’re doing: teaching us the science of the mind through fiction.I wanted to ask you about the practice that you chose for our show. It’s called, “Creating and Recalling Positive Events,” and it’s a call, really, for you to actively seek out happiness by doing fun, engaging, and meaningful activities. Can you describe the steps of the practice?
LISA GENOVA Yes. So the first step of this practice says you need to choose an activity that you enjoy doing alone and then set aside some time during the day to actually do it. The second step is of the practice asks you to set aside some time to do something you enjoy with someone else. The third step asked you to choose an activity that you consider personally important and meaningful. So like helping someone or volunteering at a charity, contributing to something in the community and the world at large. The last step really sort of crystallizes that and locks it in so that it doesn’t float away on you. So the fourth and final step of this practice says that at the end of the day, you record what happened both during and after these three activities.
DACHER KELTNER Why did you choose this practice? It takes the better part of a day to go through all four of the steps, and that’s quite a commitment.
LISA GENOVA So I actually had a lot of resistance to choosing this one because I really was like, oh, can I just do something that’s 10 minutes and move along. But I chose this in part because I am so busy and I have got three kids in this career and I’m trying to finish a book. And it’s just so busy, busy, busy. And I thought, you know, maybe this is something that I need.
DACHER KELTNER So the first step is to choose something that you really enjoy doing, but don’t normally set aside the time for. What did you do?
LISA GENOVA So for me, I chose reading fiction. Oddly enough, I’m a fiction writer and I tend to save reading fiction to bedtime. So during the day I’m reading, you know, scientific papers and staying up on Alzheimer’s research and reading nonfiction at night, that’s when I save, you know, reading the stories that I really want to read. I’m exhausted and I make it like a couple of pages and I’m I’m asleep. Yeah. So it doesn’t happen. So I’m like, okay. So on this day, I’m going to spend a couple of hours, it was in the morning, I had a tea on my living room couch overlooking Boston. And I was like, “I want to read fiction. I’m going to read a novel.” So I spent a couple hours reading and it felt like a vacation. I amazingly did not feel guilty, I think, because I had made the decision to do this practice. I was doing what I was supposed to do because I had consciously decided to make room for it. It just it felt delicious that. Like, I just felt happy. I really did. I felt like, why do I not do this more? I don’t do this normally because I have so much to do. And I know constantly to do list that I never get to the end of it. Yeah. I don’t allow myself the, you know, a two hour time period. But interestingly, it also made me think of how much time I dumped down the drain on social media or emails or I don’t even know. But I definitely I lose a lot of hours to monkeying around on my cell phone.
DACHER KELTNER Tell me about it. And it’s interesting how we schedule ourselves like crazy, but we don’t set aside time for, you know, reading or just exploring. Yeah. So the second part of the practice is where you do something with someone else. We know from if there’s a truism in the science of happiness, literature is like get together with people you care about. It just is robust. So what do you do?
LISA GENOVA Yeah. And so I have a friend in the city. And we text a lot. I know it’s been most of my time on Cape Cod and she’s in Boston. I’m in Boston, you know, not as often. But we text a lot. And that’s kind of our our friendship relies on these messages back and forth, which is lovely, but I don’t get in front of her enough. And so I asked her if she could take some time out and maybe go for a walk with me. And we we walked for a couple of hours. And what was great about that is it was also not only was it in person, but it was just the two of us, because I’ve found that when we do get together, we try to get efficient about it. All right. Well, let’s get together with all the other people I don’t normally get to see. And so we go out as a group and her husband and my boyfriend and a girlfriend and a bunch of people. And it doesn’t allow for that deep dive, intimate, like, “OK. Like, tell me everything. What’s going on?” So we chatted for two hours while walking. It was, you know, the good, the bad, the ugly, the full, the dreams, the fears, all of it.
DACHER KELTNER And then for the third step, you’re supposed to do something for others. What did you do then?
LISA GENOVA So the third interestingly, I wasn’t quite sure what it was going to be. I’m like, well, I spent a lot of my days contributing to a greater cause. The third step is to do something helpful or contribute to someone or something in the world.
DACHER KELTNER As if you don’t do enough already.
LISA GENOVA Thank you. But I do spend my days, I get you know, a lot of people come at me. Can you help with this? And my mother is experiencing Alzheimer’s. You know, what do I do? And I spend a lot of time trying to be a resource for folks. And so I thought, well, I could get a little lazy on this one. And just, you know, mail it in. And in terms of what I already normally do, but interestingly, I love like when you’re calling something into your life, you’re paying attention to the possibility of it. You’re sort of in, you know, calling out to the universe, inviting this experience in. Like if you’re walking to work and didn’t pay attention to anything about the cars and someone’s that. How many red cars did you see on the way to work? I don’t know. But if you paid attention looking for red cars, it’s like, well, I saw eleven. Yeah. So I’m sort of thinking about this idea of like, well, what could I do? That’s a contribution. And my friend Sarah Swain texts me out of the blue and says, Hey, I’m in Boston at the youth climate rally, and I think sent me a picture. I said, I’m in Boston, I’m going to meet you. And she’s like, fantastic. So that became what I did that day for a contribution, which was so phenomenal. And again, if I hadn’t had this exercise, if I hadn’t consciously made the decision to do this practice, if she had texted me, I would’ve been like, oh, that’s great. But I’m too busy. I have all these responsibilities. I need to get my book written. I don’t have enough time. Yeah, I have this sort of scarcity mentality with respect to time.
DACHER KELTNER Exactly.
LISA GENOVA But instead, because I was looking for it, it was like, oh, that’s just landed in my lap. How perfect. Yes. I will meet you down down at the state house. And so it felt good to be part of that.
DACHER KELTNER You know, one of the really striking things in this part of the Science of Happiness is they have these those experiences have these kind of enduring effects where you really just try something for an intensive period. Did that happen to like you felt reverberations?
LISA GENOVA Oh absolutely. In terms of the rally, I felt, you know, part of something bigger than me. I felt connected to all of those strangers. They weren’t strangers. They were, you know, community. They were me. They were they weren’t other. You know, we were together and this and that felt great. And then in terms of like past that day, I did feel more connected and happier. And I was definitely in awe at the rally. I felt closer to that friend Sarah as well, because we experienced it together. I think life is often a collection of, you know, shared experiences. So normally that day for me would have been spent alone writing. And so instead, this day was about connection and love and community. And it made me appreciate that I if I choose to I do have time in the day to invite those things, then they don’t deplete me. That they actually nourish.
DACHER KELTNER So one of the really interesting things about this practice is it kind of puts you in different contexts, right? You’re by yourself for your friends doing service writing. Did kind of the tone or quality of the feeling you had differ for the different parts of the practice?
LISA GENOVA Yeah, it did a bit. So for when I was just reading alone, that really did feel—that happiness felt like it was a gift for me. It was a treat. It was this. Yeah. Was this yummy thing that was really just for me. And it again, I didn’t feel guilty or selfish about it because I was doing it on purpose. The other activities, the happiness was more about being connected to other people. Yeah, it was the focus. I felt great, but the focus didn’t feel like it was on me. I was listening to Sarah. We were connecting. We were laughing. We were, you know, really trying to understand life together. And it was about the two of us. So the happiness felt like in the connection in the space between the two of us. Yeah. And then the happiness that was involved in the march again at that felt more about that felt massive. But again, it didn’t it wasn’t about me an idea. Really. It didn’t even necessarily reside in me. It was all of that connection between those thousands of people and it was more awe than happiness.
DACHER KELTNER Collective effervescence, or whatever you call it.
LISA GENOVA Totally, yeah.
DACHER KELTNER So the final part of this practice is to write about it?
LISA GENOVA Yeah.
DACHER KELTNER What was that like for you?
LISA GENOVA It was lovely. Creating the space to reflect rather than just barrel ahead, you know, really helped me understand the impact of what I experienced that day. And it gave me the chance to appreciate how wonderful it was for me and how wonderful it was to be, again, a part of other people’s days and be a positive impact to them and them to me. I think journaling is lovely like that because it gave me a chance to really reflect on what did all that mean to me? What do I want to carry forward into the next day and beyond with with what happened? And I didn’t lose it. So it was nice to do that.
DACHER KELTNER So Lisa, you’re in the thick of raising kids, a big career, you’re flying all over—do you think you’re likely to give yourself the time to read a book for fun in the morning, or go on a walk with a friend—- just really try to consciously create more of these positive experiences in your daily life?
LISA GENOVA That’s a great question, because I’ve thought about that like, “OK, this was great, but is this just a one off and I’m never going to incorporate this into my life?” And I kind of do this, but I wait, right, OK, I will give myself days like this, but it’s like, well, “I can’t do it until I’m done with this book.” And while a book isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. So I might go you know, it might take me a year to write the thing. So what I’m not going to allow myself an opportunity to experience this kind of day again for, you know, a year from now. So how do I create some space for this? And it’s you know, I think a lot of us I certainly spend too much time monkeying around on social media. It’s kind of my default go to like, oh, I’ll just check this and oh, I don’t know. Next thing you know, I’m looking around and I’m buying something, or I don’t even know. So it’s about getting mindful of like, “OK, Lisa, like, let’s plan, I got a plan it.” So I’ve got to put it on my calendar that I’m going to do this. Yeah. Set an intention to do it because otherwise the days will just slip by. And then to not feel guilty or feel like my work is going to suffer because I’m not spending all my available hours on, on it, because I know that adding something like this into my day, a) I do have the room if I consciously create it, and b) that it fills me up in a way that then when I go to my work, when I go to my kids, I am a more alive, better version of me. Yeah. And that’s like, yeah, that’s what I can count. Yeah. That’s yeah. There’s more value to that than me dragging my depleted self too my, my book or my kids.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah, I was just talking to somebody who’s done a lot of work in this area. You know, just thinking about what are the benefits of things you talked about like an hour experience at a collective gathering or a deep social connection experience where you walk with somebody. And she put it really nicely, which is very often it helps us make the micro decisions more effectively in life. Right. For the days or weeks after that. Oh, gosh. Given this experience, here’s how I can listen to my child or here’s how I should spend a little less time in social media. So there are these nice benefits for decision making.
DACHER KELTNER Well, Lisa Genova, I want to thank you for your writing, your insights into the complexities of the human mind, and thank you for being on The Science of Happiness today.
LISA GENOVA Thank you, Dacher. You bet.
DACHER KELTNER Have you ever wondered whether seeking happiness can backfire? We’ll find out more next. Before the break we posed this question, “Does seeking happiness make you happier or does it backfire and lead to less happiness?”
LAHNNA CATALINO I think that the answer to that is it depends.
DACHER KELTNER Lahnna Catalina is an assistant professor of psychology at Scripps College.
LAHNNA CATALINO There are self-defeating ways of pursuing or relating to happiness. And there are fruitful ways of pursuing happiness.
DACHER KELTNER Lahnna wanted to see if “prioritizing positivity” would be a fruitful approach.
LAHNNA CATALINO Prioritizing positivity. It’s an approach towards life that involves people carving out time in their daily routine to do things that they genuinely love to do.
DACHER KELTNER She conducted a survey where over 200 people answered how true or false a series of statements were in their own lives.
LAHNNA CATALINO So example items are, “What I decide to do with my time outside of work is influenced by how much I might experience positive emotions.” Another example item is, “I structure my day to maximize my happiness.”
DACHER KELTNER Then they assessed to what extent those people were experiencing a variety of depressive symptoms, like problems sleeping, or disturbances in their appetite.
LAHNNA CATALINO We found that people who scored higher on prioritizing positivity measure also were scoring higher on their general tendency to feel positive emotions. They were more satisfied with their lives. They exhibited fewer depressive symptoms and fewer negative emotions. You know, they’re structuring their daily life so that it affords them this steady diet of positive emotions. And so I think that’s why people who prioritize positivity, are happier and less depressed because, you know, the structure of their daily lives sort of elicits more positive emotions for them.
DACHER KELTNER Prioritizing positivity is different then seeking out joy at all times. That actually predicts overall lower well-being.
LAHNNA CATALINO When people, you know, really try to feel the greatest amount of happiness as possible from moment to moment while doing something pleasant, this actually appears to backfire.
DACHER KELTNER So instead of seeking out joy in each moment, Lahnna believes we should reflect upon the different things that make us happy, and then tweak our daily routines accordingly. The key then is to create situations that naturally bring more happiness into our lives.
If you’d like to try the ‘Creating and Recalling Positive Events’ practice, visit our greater good in action website at ggia.berkeley.edu. Share with us how the went for you, by emailing greater at berkeley.edu or using the hashtag, “Happiness Pod.”
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 PRX. Our Senior Producer is Shuka Kalantari. Production assistance from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our associate producer’s are Annie Berman and Ariella Markowitz. Our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. Special thanks goes to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.