July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
Luke Burbank: I’m in a hotel room in Seattle and I’m looking out on a little shipping canal. And this is just by total coincidence, or maybe by serendipity, that my hotel room I’m sitting in looks out on this little body of water where I used to have a boat moored. It was a boat that I bought because I got in this phase, I don’t know, five or six years ago, where I decided that the thing that was gonna make me happy was having an old wooden boat that I could, you know, sand down and re-varnish and take out on the water and essentially be a different version of myself when I was on the boat. At the time I thought if I just have this certain kind of old Chris Craft wood boat, I will drive it around Lake Union in Seattle, I will finally feel calm and at peace.
Now the problem with that boat is that it costs a lot to maintain. And the other thing was I was really bad at driving the boat. Like it’s kind of hard. Like every time I took it out was a real danger of me like crashing it or like just sinking it somehow. The final time that I took the boat out, my friend and his wife and actually my friend’s parents were in town and I said, “Hey we should go on the boat.” Like it was a beautiful Sunday, and they said, “OK.”
There was a stronger current than I was expecting and because of the vagaries of this particular marina I had about one point five seconds to put this all together and steer the boat out of danger. And I was unsuccessful in that. And I crashed it into three other boats in the marina. It was so mortifying because there’s like all these people that live in the marina. There’s like 10 guys and they all just hang out on their boats watching people like me embarrass ourselves trying to get the boat out of the marina. And so thankfully the boat, after I crashed it, was a total insurance loss. And so I was able to hand it back over to somebody else. I no longer own the boat.
As I’m sitting here looking out on this body of water where there was once a boat that I had no business owning that I thought was gonna bring me happiness, I’m just looking at the water and it’s beautiful and I’m realizing that like I really did not need the boat to be involved in the equation. Just looking at the water is gonna be enough for me today.
Dacher Keltner: Owning an old vintage boat didn’t bring him happiness, but one thing that does make Luke Burbank happy is exactly what you’re listening to right now: podcasts. Luke has decades of radio experience under his belt. Today Luke is the host of Live Wire Radio, a live-theater radio show in Portland, Oregan. He’s also host of the daily podcast, Too Beautiful To Live. Luke joins our podcast as our Happiness Guinea Pig. On each episode of our show, we have a Happiness Guinea Pig try a research-tested practice from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good in Action website that hones the skills we need for a happy, meaningful life. Luke, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
Luke Burbank: Thanks for having me Dacher. I feel happier already just talking to you.
Dacher Keltner: Excellent. Then we’re off to a good start. You know, I’m always fascinated when people have such deep careers and histories with a particular medium and yours is radio. What got you into radio? How did you end up doing such interesting work in radio?
Luke Burbank: Well, I grew up one of seven kids in a very kind of evangelical home where T.V. was kind of frowned upon. And so I listened to the radio a lot as a kid. I was also, because of my deep evangelical roots, very afraid that the rapture was going to occur overnight. And so I would listen to talk radio like in the middle of the night to feel less scared. By the way the talk radio shows I was listening to were like financial advice shows and I had zero idea what they were talking about, but I just liked the sound of these voices.
Dacher Keltner: Somehow as you worry late into the night about whether you’d make the cut for the rapture or not, you found solace in financial news.
Luke Burbank: Yeah. You know just like, “Is this the right time for me to move my money into a Roth IRA?” That old chestnut, those typical questions that the eight year olds hiding under a blanket in Seattle, Washington are asking themselves.
Dacher Keltner: So I have to ask you about the practice that you chose by telling a little story my daughter. One day, I can’t remember what grade she was in she was in, maybe fifth grade. It was a rainy day and I asked her like, “What do you guys do on rainy days at your school? When I was in fifth grade. We played this game called Slaughter Ball where big guys threw volleyball at small guys heads.” She said, “Dad that’s really weird. We did this thing called the raisin meditation.” And that was the first time I learned about it. So describe the practice to us.
Luke Burbank: Well it’s fairly straightforward and yet like many things the more that you delve into it I think the more profound it can become. I mean you’re eating a raisin is really what it comes down to. But you’re eating it in a very purposeful way. I’ll tell you this, I have never eaten one raisin at a time in my life like I’ve never eaten one anything that small. I mean I take life in by the fistful. That’s just how I move through the world. And so, you take a raisin, you feel it in your in your fingers, between your fingers, and kind of get a sense for its its shape and its size. Think maybe about where this raisin come from, like it’s powerful like, you know, here it is in my hand but it started out somewhere far away as a grape. And what was that journey like? You smell the raisin, which raisins are more fragrant than I think I gave them credit for. You put it in your mouth and again you just kind of take a little time to consider its shape and its size and and then you take not the entire raisin, but a bite of the raisin.
Dacher Keltner: That’s tough.
Luke Burbank: Yeah it took me a couple tries to figure out how to actually do that because like I’m not a ‘nibble on the raisin of life’ kind of guy. I am so over scheduled that the only time I could get raisins was to buy an oatmeal at the Starbucks drive through that I knew came with raisins.
I multitask to a degree that is it creates a lack of me being present. And this was a very that’s the hardest part for me was really dedicating five minutes to do this. But one of the things that was so amazing to me was how flavorful this raisin was. I don’t know if it is just this but these particular raisins I got from Starbucks or what but it was I think the most flavorful raisin I’ve ever had and I think it was because of how intentional and deliberate I was being around the consumption of this dried up grape.
Dacher Keltner: When you look at the suite of offerings on Greater Good in Action and you have exercises in compassion and kindness and gratitude and awe, you know all these lofty topics, you chose eating a raisin. What gives?
Luke Burbank: Well, I am ultimately a narcissist and I felt like at least I get to eat some raisins out of this, right? That seemed, you know, like at the minimum that would be a pleasant experience for me. And also part of it is, all joking aside, I have for years now been trying to figure out how to carve out some time to take up a meditation practice. I have every single meditation app that has ever been invented downloaded to my phone and there is a folder and it is like the graveyard where being present goes to die because these apps go into this book this folder on my phone they never emerge from the folder. Like downloading meditation apps is my form of meditation at this point. And so like I felt like this would force me to, at least for about five minutes a day for a week actually, take the time to do this.
Dacher Keltner: These exercises, just to be quiet for a while or to sort of sense silence. What is it like for you?
Luke Burbank: It kind of slowed down what I call the “internal idle” inside me. I drove a lot of really crummy cars in my high school and college days. A lot of those cars they either wouldn’t idle enough so they would constantly be dying or you could take them to a shady repair person who would turn something in the carburetor up so that the car idled really high.bAnd I feel like I’m a person whose internal idle is set way too high usually. And it’s helped me get through life. It’s helped me do a lot of the things that I wanted to do. But it’s really challenging for me to just sit with myself and to just be present and to just let that idle go down to a more calm place. And so I think that this exercise, this practice, I think it was really good for me because for, you know, at least five minutes a day while I was eating this raisin that idle actually went down somewhat. And that’s really big for me.
Dacher Keltner: We know from a lot of research how stressed people are. So much multitasking and just finding five minutes of quiet or focused attention is about as hopeful a thing we can accomplish from these tasks. You know, one of the things that’s interesting about the raisin meditation exercise and other ones like it is people often talk about you know, “I had this experience when I tried it a little and the next thing I know I was doing it with my family at the dinner table. Or when I was eating the chili verde burrito which I love every day here at Berkeley, I felt it or I brought it into that experience.” Are you applying what you learned to other experiences?
Luke Burbank: What I’ve been trying to do, because I live a life that’s really busy and I’m somebody who’s really tended to stimulate myself through things like drinking alcohol and being in exciting places and doing things that felt exciting to me, what I’ve been trying to do overall is just kind of wean myself back off of a lot of this stimulus that in the moment seems like it’s making me feel better or makes me think something’s really happening like, “Wow, this is exciting!” But that stuff is so illusory in my experience. And so I have been doing a lot of things like, I stopped drinking and I have just started to build in a lot of practices for me that are about basically trying to redefine for myself what it is to have something “going on.”
And that is the journey that I’m trying to go on where like I want to redefine my idea, what is enough for me? I guess that’s really what I’m trying to say. I want to really change what is enough. So the raisin, eating a raisin and having it be flavorful and having that be enough for me, that’s something I’ve been trying to do on a few different levels so this was like perfect this dovetailed really nicely with kind of an overall journey that I’m trying to be on right now.
Dacher Keltner: You know, often when we teach the science of happiness and we try to convince people that these practices are beneficial we always keep an eye on studies of materialism and hyper-consumerism and how it misleads us in our pursuit of happiness. And what a wonderful tale that you’ve told about how just this simple raisin meditation gets you to the idea of what is enough. You think you’d recommend this to other people?
Luke Burbank: Well if you love raisins it’s gonna be hard because you can only one at a time, so get ready for that. I would recommend it. And you know what, if some of the listeners are folks like me, I mean who doesn’t feel like they’re over scheduled? But if you’re somebody who is listening and you have a hard time setting aside time for yourself then I would highly recommend this because it’s just five minutes a day. You don’t have to block out a huge amount of time. It’s a fairly simple experience. You don’t have to be the Dalai Lama to do this. Like this is it feels very ‘beginnery,’ which is good because I’m a beginner in the practice of meditation. I think it’s a really good place to start.
Dacher Keltner: Well, Luke I wanted to thank you for being on our show and taking time out from your podcast and your Live Wire Radio show just to talk about the raisin meditation and all the places that it took your imagination. Thanks so much for being on the show.
Luke Burbank: Thank you very much for having me. It was a really fun experience for me. And now I’m gonna go stare at the water where my boat used to sit.
Dacher Keltner: Excellent.
That feeling Luke Burbank described of being present… aware of what you’re sensing and experiencing in the moment—another word for that is mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness has become a major area of interest for psychologists, neuroscientists and other researchers. Studies suggest it can help with anxiety, depression, stress. And it can also help with our relationships.
That’s what Lynsey Mahmood’s research at the City University of London suggests. Lynsey wanted to know whether doing mindful activities—like the raisin meditation—could actually influence how we judge other people. In one experiment, she had people read about a student who was assigned to write an essay that was either in favor of nuclear power or against it.
Lynsey Mahmood: And in the instructions they were also told that the person who wrote the essay had no choice about the topic, whether it was for or against. They were assigned that topic as part of their class. After they’d read this information participants took part in either a five minute raisin eating mindfulness meditation or they just had five minutes where they were given time to eat two raisins. And in the five minute meditation participants are kind of guided through imagining that they’ve never seen or eaten a raisin before. So this five minute audio kind of guided them through eating these two raisins in a more mindful manner. And participants in the control condition, they sat with headphones on there was an audio instruction, but the instruction only said to them you have some time now to eat a raisin and wait for further instructions. So they had the choice to then just pop the raisin in their mouth, carry on and wait for more instructions. And they basically sat in silence for around four minutes and then they were given this instruction again that said, “Okay now you can eat your second raisin and then the study will continue.”
So we asked participants whether they thought the essay writer, whether or not that person personally was in favor or against the use of nuclear power. And we also measured mindfulness. So we used a scale that measures states of mindfulness and we found that those who had eaten the raisin in a more mindful way not only scored higher on this state mindfulness scale but they also were less likely to jump to the conclusion that the essay writers personal opinion matched the topic of their essay.
We tend to use very quick shortcut processes to make decisions to evaluate people and make judgments. And one explanation could be that mindfulness is just making us use a different route to reach that conclusion. So it’s slowing us down and making us re-evaluate the information we have and pay more attention to the situational cues. So there’s the potential that mindfulness could be more beneficial in a kind of social or interpersonal interaction. So when you’re making a judgment or an evaluation of a person that mindfulness might be doing something more positive than merely paying attention to the information in front of you.
Dacher Keltner: If you’d like to try the Raisin Meditation or other happiness practices, visit our Greater Good in Action website at GGIA dot Berkeley dot edu. Then email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and tell us how it went.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me on the Science of Happiness.
Our podcast is a coproduction 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 executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. Special thanks 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 me, Jack Kornfield, and lots of other speakers at our first-ever, three-day Science of Happiness event, held in Northern California near Santa Cruz.