July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
JAMES CLEVELAND My grandparents had been together for 50 years. And then when my grandmother died, my grandfather—I mean, he was devastated, devastated. He really felt that there was no purpose anymore to living. I’m convinced he passed because of a broken heart. And his passing was devastating for me but it also, like, woke me up, and it just made me think, ‘Do I have that kind of powerful relationship in my life?’ And I started to recognize that I didn’t have this.
I was working 16-hour days all the time and work dominated me. I became obsessed to the point where it was a little bit unhealthy. I mean, on paper, I certainly had achieved a lot. And yet I felt like a lot was missing. I felt empty, and I realized that I am not making the choices that make me happy. It was a really powerful moment. And that was the moment I realized I got to stop what I’m doing and start over.
I made several decisions. The first big decision was making a decision to resign as the CEO of a national non-profit which I had worked on for more than 10 years. The second thing I did was I left this tumultuous relationship that I had had for over 11 years, and then I finally decided to go on a personal journey, focusing inward on the questions that I was avoiding for the last decade. And I decided that, you know, the best way to do that is to actually return to nature, so I went to the Rocky Mountains.
It’s interesting, when you when you release all of the pressures of life… It’s amazing the clarity that you get. And I did reflect a lot on my own childhood. My dad is African-American, he grew up in the rural south, during the Jim Crow era. And he wanted to make sure that we, as his kids, had a very different upbringing than what he experienced. And I think that brought him intense joy.
And I’m absolutely sure that my father’s influence on me and impact on me, and the happiness that that brought him… That’s who I wanted to be, that’s what I wanted in my life. And it just became clear to me that, like, I knew in my heart, my gut. I don’t think I’ve ever been more certain in my life than that moment. I’m going to be a father.
DACHER KELTNER Soon after his journey, James Cleveland reconnected with an old college friend, fell in love, and together they have two kids. He now heads up the non-profit organization, Education Outside, that has kids learning in the outdoors. James joins us today as our Happiness Guinea Pig. On each episode of our podcast, we have a happiness guinea pig try out a practice designed to boost happiness, resilience, kindness, or connection. And then we explore the science behind it.
DACHER KELTNER James Cleveland, thanks for being here.
JAMES CLEVELAND Thanks for having me.
DACHER KELTNER So James, you made huge changes in your life and now you have the one thing you really wanted and hoped for, which is you’re a dad, twice over.
JAMES CLEVELAND You know, I always think about that big giant button from Staples, you know, ‘that was easy.’ That was not easy. It was scary. But I think of that big giant button. And in a lot of ways it was a reset button. All the choices that I had made to get out of the life I was in, I have found now in my life. It’s exactly what I was hoping for, you know, with my wife and my kids, absolutely.
DACHER KELTNER So let’s talk about the practice that you chose to do.
JAMES CLEVELAND So the practice I chose was the three funny things practice and what you’re supposed to do is either at various points during the day or at the end of the day you stop and reflect and recall the three funny, three funny moments that occurred. And you’re supposed to write down enough specifics so that you can recall the story.
DACHER KELTNER: How’d you choose that?
JAMES CLEVELAND I think I just remember a lot of happiness and laughter growing up. Laughter is an important part of my life. And I recognize I tend to stress about the things at work. And, you know, that—that can basically take the fun out of my day, for sure.
So this really spoke to me because it basically made me realize that, huh, you know, sometimes there is actually a good day happening and I’m not even seeing it, right? And this practice forced me to actually in a disciplined way, find and see it, and then write it down, which I loved.
DACHER KELTNER And we need that. One of my favorite findings in the literature on laughter—you know, little kids laugh hundreds, sometimes thousands of times a day. There are times when little kids can’t not laugh. You know, and then people our age, they’ll laugh like once every two weeks. And so sometimes we need a little bit of the practice behind it.
JAMES CLEVELAND I think our kids can enable that to happen for adults more often than we think.
DACHER KELTNER I agree. So we have some audio that can help us adults laugh a little bit more. So can you tell us what we’re going to hear?
JAMES CLEVELAND Yeah, so on certain nights Jade will play dress-up. We have a box full of costumes and in this night she wore a princess crown. She decided that I needed to wear crown also.
JAMES: I don’t know if Kings have wands. Am I king or a queen?
JADE: A queen.
JAMES: I’m a queen? Oh, I’m a Queen…and you’re a princess?
JADE: Yeah, it’s a star.
JAMES: With a star wand? And cookies?
JADE: Yeah, cookies. No, I’ll hold the cookies while you’re a king, daddy.
JAMES: Oh, so I’m a king again, great.”
JAMES CLEVELAND When you release your assumptions, things just become funny, you know, magical. It sort of opened my mind. And so it’s something that we can laugh about later. What she handed me was a pinwheel. That was my wand. So that also was kind of funny.
DACHER KELTNER You know, it’s incredible, James, I was just talking about this with my Berkeley undergrads. And it’s exactly what happened in that little interaction which is that young kids, at two or three, they start using words in creative ways, like calling a pinwheel a wand is a way to recognize multiple perspectives on a social situation.
JAMES CLEVELAND That’s right. That’s right.
DACHER KELTNER: Right, where you’re learning, like, ‘Hey, dad sees it one way, I see it another, let’s goof around with that.’
JAMES CLEVELAND Yeah, it’s a good reminder for me not to take everything so seriously. So she’s a good dose of reality. It’s sort of like maybe not reality, you know? Like if I can sort of think of it that way.
DACHER KELTNER One of the things that’s really interesting about these practices and I think why people have really been taken to them is they’re just these brief exercises. You know, like you talked about, they’re just these reminders that, you know, sometimes you get it from a friend, or a mom, or a sibling, like, ‘Hey, lighten up.’ And I like these brief gratitude practices and three funny things because it just reminds you to kind of look at this humorous side to life. What do you notice about doing this exercise and hearing the tapes now? And thinking about these moments?
JAMES CLEVELAND Well it makes me smile to think back on it. You know, there’s some hard things that I’m doing right now at work. This allows me to sort of step away from that and release it a little bit. And so I’m noticing that not every moment is funny in my day, but what I’m discovering that even during a long, hard day there are moments of happiness to pay attention to.
I started to see patterns, like the patterns in my funny moments are about my family, right? I made this decision and like every moment that brings me joy is based on this decision that I was so certain about.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah, that’s amazing, and I like your word “released.” And what we know about the physiology of laughter is that it, you know, life has these serious struggles and conflicts and hard work. And humor and laughter gives you this little moment of calm. You know, this little piece that is essential to health and well-being. Right?
And your stories today have that in different variations, so how would you, when your kids are 17, 18, 20 and they’re grappling with the problems of the day—how would you give them humor and laughter?
JAMES CLEVELAND Well, I hope what happens in the house provides a great example and hopefully a foundation for that. We had a moment the other night where my daughter had something come up—oh, she fell out of the chair. That’s what it was. She fell out of the chair and it was funny. It was actually really funny. And she struggled with the fact that she wanted to laugh but she was upset that everyone else thought it was funny, right?
And so we were telling her like, ‘Sometimes you have to find a way to laugh at yourself.’ But being able to do that and model that ourselves sometimes—and I admit it’s hard, it’s hard to do—I hope we’re able to do that.
DACHER KELTNER I mean, often when I give talks to parents, parents are like, ‘What’s the one thing you gotta teach your kids ‘cause I’m, you know, I’m at wits end.’ And I feel like what you just said about laughing at yourself is—that’s a pretty good start.
JAMES CLEVELAND That’s right. It can absolutely keep you grounded.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah. Well, James, I wanted to thank you. And I wanted to thank your kids and your family for being our happiness guinea pig and doing the three funny things exercise. It was incredible and we’re really grateful you’re part of the show.
JAMES CLEVELAND Thank you. I’m really happy I got the opportunity to practice this exercise and talk about it.
DACHER KELTNER If you want to try the 3 Funny Things practice, and other practices like it, you’ll find simple instructions on our website Greater Good in Action – that’s ggia.berkeley.edu
Research shows that laughter and humor have powerful positive effects on our bodies and our relationships. And the three funny things practice has been shown to reduce depression and boost happiness for months after just one week of practice. Here to talk about the science behind the three funny things practice is Dr. Belinda Campos, professor of psychology at UC Irvine and the Director of the Culture, Relationships, and Health Lab.
Belinda, thanks for being on the show.
BELINDA CAMPOS Oh, thank you for having me, Dacher.
DACHER KELTNER So the Three Funny Things practice was studied by a team of psychologists at the University of Zurich. What did they do, and what did they find?
BELINDA CAMPOS Yeah, so the study was really interesting. It examined five different humor-based activities that the authors thought could possibly have an impact on short-term and long-term happiness. And they asked people to engage in one of a series of possible happiness interventions.
Some of their group did gratitude interventions, some of the group did the three funny things intervention, another group collected funny things, and yet another group solved stressful situations in a humorous way. And what the authors were interested in studying is which of these interventions seemed to have the most pronounced effect on happiness both, you know, immediately thereafter, short-term effects as they call them, and up to three to six months later. And so one of the things that they were able to find is that the three funny things was consistently the most potent indicator of happiness changes all the way six months after the intervention.
DACHER KELTNER: So what’s this study tell us?
BELINDA CAMPOS Well, I think the study tells us something really profound. I think it tells us that humor is important. We’ve thought about these other things that promote relationships, we thought about gratitude, for example. Gratitude, like humor, they’re fundamentally “other-focused” things, they’re fundamentally emotions, actions, things that we do with others. Or they’re enhanced by others so we know a lot of work on amusement, humor, that those effects are enhanced when we’re in the presence of others. We find things funnier in the presence of others. When things are shared, it’s funnier. The laughter of children is incredibly contagious.
And so, I think that what they hit upon was exactly this; that when you’re finding things funny that it does these wonderful things for you of shifting your perspective in a cognitive way for a moment, maybe enough to sort of make you strong for anything negative that might come later. It has cardiovascular effects, right? Because you’re laughing and that involves the breath in ways that changes your heart rate patterns.
DACHER KELTNER: Yeah, it’s striking to me, you know, we often think of soul-searching exercises but this really simple one—you know, you’re listing three funny things for a week and you get these reductions in depression and better well-being. It’s like you’re saying, it’s really counterintuitive, but it’s powerful. Did the findings surprise you at all?
BELINDA CAMPOS The finding was not surprising to me but it was very welcome. I think it’s really important to highlight the possible role that humor has in happiness and in health and I think that this has been really understudied. In other studies that we’ve done we find that humor for example, shared humor, makes people feel closer than if they have the same experience by themselves. We find that humor is linked to psychological well-being. The studies of others have shown that humor helps you recover faster in terms of cardiovascular activity or after stress. So I think that these findings, I hope, that they are part of a new wave of research on humor and its possibilities for happiness and for health
DACHER KELTNER So Belinda, you’ve straddled many different cultures. From Mexico, your folks, and then being a professor in the United States at the University of California. Do you think the humor and teasing and laughter are different in the two cultures?
BELINDA CAMPOS I do, I think that humor practices are different in the two cultures. So, for example, we found that children’s nicknames in European American families had this more uniform positive quality to them. You know, we call people things like Pumpkin or Mr. Perfect. But when we looked at other at either East Asian or at Latino folks who were describing their childhood nicknames, they had a distinctly more negative flavor. you know. Somebody who would be called Cat because they screech like one or somebody who would be called Gordito, you know, because their family thinks their big cheeks are so cute. So it’s, there’s definitely a difference and I think ethnographic work also highlights how much humor is used in everyday life as a way of coping, as a way of socializing.
One of the things that we learned is that if you’re able to do this the work of putting others in front of the self, of being willing to look a little silly, for the laugh, is really good for relationships and it’s good for humor.
It’s okay if someone’s making a little fun as long as it’s between friends, couples, family. You have to kind of build that foundation of relationships that shows us that we’re connected. And humor does that. It lets us know that we’re kind of seeing things on the same page. And it helps us to, I think, cope well when things go wrong, and it helps us celebrate when things go right.
DACHER KELTNER What would you give from this science, from this cultural wisdom, to our broader understanding of happiness?
BELINDA CAMPOS I think that we need to take stock of the cultural changes that have been happening in the United States for the last 50 years. When we worry about things like the increased loneliness that people feel, the extent to which people are more likely to be involved with their smartphones than they are with their relationships—I think that one of the great insights is to look at this space where you have these unexpected happiness and satisfaction in health patterns and say, ‘Well, what has been historically prioritized in those spaces? What does it mean to have been contented around relationships and be willing to give of the self for relationships? What can we learn from that?’
But one of the striking things about the about the literature—it’s that Latinos here in the United States, but also throughout Latin America, tend to report higher than expected levels of happiness. And this is a culture that doesn’t emphasize the self in the same way as American culture tends to. And also this tends to be really surprising to people; I’ve even seen it described in some journal articles as a paradox of happiness. We think that more money should be linked to greater happiness. And we just don’t find that to be necessarily true. And what you find is that it’s relationships that are really important.
I don’t think it’s at all too late to put the genie back in the bottle, and I think that, you know, cultures shift in one direction for one period of time, and they can shift in another.
And one thing to think about is like, what really good changes for our society can come from the incorporation of peoples who are a little bit more collectivistic, a little bit more other-focused? Are there relationship things that we can grab?
DACHER KELTNER Well Belinda Campos, it’s always a delight to have you in conversation. Thanks for joining us here on the Science of Happiness.
BELINDA CAMPOS Oh, thank you for having me, Dacher.
Thanks for joining me for The Science of Happiness.
In our next episode, we take a walk outside with Pete Docter, the director of the Academy Award-winning film Inside Out.
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.