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Atsuko Okatsuka My husband, I told him that I loved him like a month into us seeing each other. I was at a gig that I wasn’t stoked about.
It was like for the celebrity who was throwing an all-Asian themed party and I had to like play a geisha with an accent. It was like pretty racist and really messed up. But during that time when I was taking the makeup off while, you know, looking in the mirror, very Mulan, you know, I was like, “I think I really love Ryan. I wish he was here right now. I can at least talk to him about it.”
And sometimes you have to, like, be somewhere you really don’t like to be at to realize, “I really love that person that’s not here right now.” And so I told him I loved him after that gig.
Dacher Keltner One of the most powerful ways to find happiness is to appreciate the people who support us. We know from science that even just thinking about these people in our lives can activate the safety networks in the brain and make us feel good. But there’s another way to appreciate them – and it has some surprising benefits.
I’m Dacher Keltner and welcome to The Science of Happiness.
Today we’re looking at how imagining life without someone we care about can actually make us feel more fulfilled.
Which is just what today’s guest did today. Atsuko Okatsuka is a stand up comedian, actress, and writer based in Los Angeles.
Atsuko, welcome to The Science of Happiness.
Atsuko Okatsuka Thanks for having me, Dacher.
Dacher Keltner So you tried out The Mental Subtraction of Relationships practice for us. And I love this one because you think about somebody important in your life and all the events that led you to meet this person. And then you almost reverse fate and think about what would life be like without this person? And so who did you do this practice toward?
Atsuko Okatsuka Yeah, so, initially, I started with my grandma, and then I realized the exercise doesn’t really work with a relative.
Dacher Keltner Why not?
Atsuko Okatsuka Or like a family, because the prompts were like, you know, possible difference in scenarios where we would have never met them and I was like, “Well, I didn’t have a choice,” you know what I’m saying? Like, I didn’t choose to meet my grandma. Like my grandma didn’t really choose to meet me either.
Dacher KeltnerIt was genetic fate.
Atsuko Okatsuka Yeah.
Dacher Keltner But did you try it with your grandmother?
Atsuko Okatsuka I started to and then I just maybe like the, uh, not creative part of me was like,
Dacher Keltner I give up.
Atsuko Okatsuka Like girl, you can’t do it with your grandma? Asked questions like, how did you meet her? And, you know, what are the circumstances that led you to meet her? And I’m like, I don’t know. I was born. I was like I just came out like I didn’t have a choice in that either.
Dacher Keltner So who did you end up doing the exercise with in mind with?
Atsuko Okatsuka Right. So I did the exercise with my husband instead because he’s not, you know, someone I came out of or something. Yeah.
Dacher Keltner And so how did you guys meet?
Atsuko Okatsuka We met on a mutual friend’s film shoot. My husband was acting in it and I was helping produce it. And it was at a time I had just gone through a breakup of seven years, and my friend was like, “Do you want to help on this project? Maybe get your mind off the breakup, you know?” So I said yes and yeah, that’s how I met my husband
Dacher Keltner Do you ever do comedy about your husband?
Atsuko Okatsuka One of the bits I do now is like I talk about finding your interests during the pandemic. And like, I really thought I was going to start planting lettuce, for example.
Dacher Keltner I thought I was going to grow stuff, too, but yeah. No luck.
Atsuko Okatsuka Well, here’s the thing. My husband, when I was about to plant lettuce, my husband’s the one that reminded me that that’s not my personality. He literally told me, “Stop, stop. I think that’s someone else’s interests.” And that is one of the kindest things someone can do for someone. He saved me possibly years from living out someone else’s identity.
Dacher Keltner For a head of lettuce!
Atsuko Okatsuka Because I already had the heads of lettuce ready and I was going to plant them. And he said, Stop, stop. Are you sure about this? Like and I was like, oh, my God, you’re right. Like, this is not my interest. Like, I’m not a farmer.”
Dacher Keltner One of my favorite parts of the practice is you know, as you imagine, like all the different events that led you to meet the person. So you’re doing this film shoot. Then you imagine like what would be a scenario in which I wouldn’t have met my in your case, my husband, so what was it like to imagine your life without your husband in it?
Atsuko Okatsuka Oh, well, it’s very masochistic, I got to say, to do that to yourself. I was like, oh God, because I told my husband about the exercise and he was like he looked like he saw a ghost. And he was like, “Why would you do that to yourself?”
He was like so you’re just going to sit there for 15 minutes and just erase me from your mind?” And I’m like, “Yeah, kind of. Yeah.” I’m like, “I’m going to go through - I’m going to get very deeply sad. I’m going to be filled with sorrow.” He’s like, “Yeah, I know.” He was like, “Wasn’t there, like, a happier exercise?” I was like, “I don’t know, I just chose this one.”
Dacher Keltner So what’s the scenario that would have prevented you from meeting him?
Atsuko Okatsuka Yeah, well, Dacher, I mean, me staying in that seven year relationship, I think it’s mostly if I stayed in that former relationship, I maybe would lose, like, self-confidence. Right. Yeah. To even try to keep up with friendships, you know, outside of the relationship, because he really liked it if all my attention was towards him. So, he tried to make sure I didn’t have as many friends anymore, that kind of thing. So, yeah, I don’t think I would have been I don’t think my friend would have even asked me to help him on a shoot if I was still in that relationship, because by then, you know, my friend would have been like, “Oh, Atsuko is always too busy to hang out because she’s always with that boyfriend of hers.”
Dacher Keltner Yeah, and ending in the practice, you just and I love like you get to think about, you know, what would my life be like today if I hadn’t met this person? And for me, I don’t know why this comes to mind, but I always think, like, I think I’d be working in Santa Cruz, California, in a bakery and like I’d be a hippie and you know, having that kind of life. What would your life look like today had you not met your current husband?
Atsuko Okatsuka Were you a baker?
Dacher Keltner No, I’m a terrible baker.
Atsuko Okatsuka So, OK, I like that you chose baking. That’s an early job, you know.
Dacher Keltner It is. And I’m an early morning person and maybe that’s why. But I don’t know.
Atsuko Okatsuka That’s just perfect.
Dacher Keltner It pops up like, well, that would have been my life. So what would your life look like had it not worked out?
Atsuko Okatsuka I’ll tell you right now, I know myself enough to know I would not be a baker because of the 4:00 a.m. call times. So props to you. You know, I’m more of a night-time person. Yeah. I think it would be really dark, actually, because I already like towards the end of that relationship, I was, like, drinking and a lot of reckless behavior. I was depressed and not living a healthy lifestyle. So, yeah, like maybe I’d be dead. Lind of like earlier when we were saying if I did this exercise with my grandma, I would also be dead. Well, not alive. Right? If I had never met her. Wow.
Dacher Keltner Yeah, think about that.
Atsuko Okatsuka Uh huh, uh huh.
Dacher Keltner So you feel like life would be a lot darker.
Atsuko Okatsuka Or actually non-existent, I guess, because, yeah, the opposite of life is death, yeah, is that right? If I know anything about anything, yeah. I think yeah, life would be dark, a.k.a. like yeah I could, I could see, I could see a really, really bad version where like I get so like maybe even suicidal. You know, if I stayed in that relationship, wow, yeah, because I was really, like, sad and it was very abusive. Yeah,
Dacher Keltner I’m sorry about that.
Atsuko Okatsuka Yeah no it’s OK. I got out of it. Yeah.
Dacher Keltner Yeah. You know one of the surprising benefits of this is um you know, this comes out of research from the University of Virginia is like when you go through this exercise, like, what would life be like without my wife or my husband or this dear friend? You feel this hole and then it brings to mind the things they’ve given you, and so what sort of things came to mind as you did this exercise of imagining life without your husband? Did you feel any different feelings about him being in your life?
Atsuko Okatsuka Yeah, I guess like, grateful and that I don’t want to take him for granted.
Atsuko Okatsuka He’s very supportive and empathetic and so. Yeah, he’s giving me room to be able to actually, like, find my actual self, you know, and my voice. And then once you do that, oh, you just grow from there, right. Instead of grabbing at things like, is this my personality? Is this my interest? Is this my personality? Like because he’s so supportive, like, you know, me grabbing at things and trying to figure out who I am. He was patient through that. And then once I found it, you know, then you just have fun.
Dacher Keltner I love how you phrased it, Atsuko, of like, he provided a space where you find your voice. How does that work on a daily basis?
Atsuko Okatsuka You know, I’m a comedian, So, like, whether it’s me trying to figure out jokes, my latest thoughts on something, you know, and writing it out for a project, you know, another project that I’m working on or, you know, him being there to to to listen, not not just giving the space to work on these things, but to also listen and like, workshop these out with me, for example. That’s a very literal example.
But yeah, but he’s an artist, too. He’s a painter. It has to be a reciprocation of support. So I’ll take time off to look at his paintings and talk about his paintings if he’s working out a new piece. Right. We both have to give each other the space to, to shine, because that is you practicing your voice and voicing her voice, you know. Giving each other the space.
Yeah, the exercise is good, it’s one in appreciation, you know, and I like that when you appreciate the thing, the people that you do love, because you take a moment to be like, “Oh, yeah, I’d be dead without them.” I’d actually be – probably that’s a bold statement, but yeah, without them I wouldn’t be.
Dacher Keltner Or you’d be a farmer.
Atsuko Okatsuka You know what? Oh, my God. I’d be like. Yeah, like a farmer who still has to get up early. So I’d be so mad at myself for like signing up for something just because I saw it on Instagram and thought, oh, that’s my personality, too. But it’s not.
Dacher Keltner Well, Atsuko, thank you so much for being on our show and thank you for your wonderful comedy and thank you for your voice.
Atsuko Okatsuka Thank you so much for having me.
Dacher Keltner We know that many relationships have their honeymoon phase. But that almost always ends.
Amie Gordon Where does that all go wrong? How do we go from that initial love to often what ends up being, you know, anger and hate and dissatisfaction? Do we sort of start to take the other person for granted?
Dacher Keltner More on how the mental subtraction technique can help, after this break.
Dacher Keltner Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner and today we’ve been exploring what happens when we imagine life without a loved one in it. And I’m joined by our Senior Producer Shuka Kalantari. Hey Shuks.
Shuka Kalantari Hi Dacher, Hi everybody
Dacher Keltner Give us a brief rundown – how do you do the Mental Subtraction of Relationships practice?
Shuka Kalantari First take a moment to think about an important relationship in your life. So who is an important person to you?
Dacher Keltner You’re asking me?
Shuka Kalantari I am.
Dacher Keltner I’ll say my wife Molly.
Shuka Kalantari OK you’re wife Molly … then you think about how you met that person. So I met my husband at an Alice in Wonderland-themed college party. I was the Cheshire Cat.
Dacher Keltner We met in a classroom in Paris on the first day we arrived in France to go to college for a year.
Shuka Kalantari That’s a much more romantic story, Dacher.
Dacher Keltner I don’t know, man.
Shuka Kalantari Next step is, think about how your life would have unfolded differently if you hadn’t met this person.
Dacher Keltner Oh, God.
Shuka Kalantari What would you be doing? Would you really be a baker in Santa Cruz, California?
Dacher Keltner Definitely I’d have a camper van and I’d be sleeping in it and I’d be hitchhiking around and living in Bahaja. But you know, what I probably wouldn’t have is a comfortable place to be and a home and a sense of a home and the sense of rituals that make relationships wonderful.
Shuka Kalantari Ok so then you think about all the ways you have enjoyed your relationship and all the good things that have come from it. So, name me one good thing that’s come from your relationship, Dacher.
Dacher Keltner Well, I am not very good at reading motifs and understanding nuances in novels and just living with my wife for all these years I’ve really learned how to understand narratives in novels.
Shuka Kalantari Nice. All of this is supposed to make you feel more grateful that this person, which it sounds like even just doing this in a few seconds it made you feel more grateful for your wife Molly. And there’s some research to back this up, right?
Dacher Keltner Yeah, that’s right. And this gratitude we feel for our partners is shown to help couples stay together longer. That’s the takeaway from studies by Amie Gordon, who’s now at the University of Michigan. She found that couples who were dating were more likely to still be in a relationship nine months after the study ended if they practiced gratitude and appreciation for their partner.
Shuka Kalantari Wow that’s amazing. So you co-authored that study.
Dacher Keltner I did. Amie was at UC Berkeley at the time. I spoke with her about why doing mental subtraction techniques makes us feel more grateful, and how that gratitude helps make relationships last. She said it has to do with countering our tendency to adapt to the good things in our relationships.
Amie Gordon When you first start out in a relationship and or let’s say you move in together with a partner and you’re so excited to be living with them and you wake up in the morning and you’re feel so grateful to have this person next to you in bed each day and to be able to cook dinner together at night. And then over time, you know, you’re waking up in the morning and you’re annoyed because they’ve pulled all the covers off you. And they didn’t do the dishes. And it’s easy to get used to this new way of being. We’re really good at adapting.
And, I think the mental subtraction can help us do a reset, like a mental reset to say, OK, I’ve gotten used to all these good things and I don’t see them as much anymore because they’re there all the time and I kind of take them for granted. But if I can have a moment of imagining my life without that and having to reset, it can help me have a little bit of a start over and say, “Oh, I have this partner who cares about me, who appreciates me. I’m pretty lucky to have a good partner like that. I’m pretty grateful to be in a relationship with someone who feels that way about me and shows that. And then that makes me want to engage in more of these behaviors and be more committed to my relationship.
Shuka Kalantari So it’s sort of a snowball effect. One partner starts to appreciate the other more. So they want to do nice things for them.
Dacher Keltner Right. That other person feels appreciated. They want to return the favor. And in that way gratitude can promote generosity and commitment between people and sort of create this upward cycle of satisfaction in the relationship.
On our next episode of the Science of Happiness, we explore the science of play.
Demond Hill My grandmother, showed me that play is everything and it should be an everyday practice from the way you wake up in the morning, how she gets up and goes to work.
Dacher Keltner We look at how play is good for our health. And what happens when we all don’t have the same access to it.
More, on our next episode of The Science of Happiness.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining us.
If you’d like to try the Mental Subtraction of Relationships practice, visit us at ggia.berkeley.edu
Our Senior Producer is Shuka Kalantari. Sound design by Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our Associate Producer is Haley Gray. Our Executive Producer is Jane Park. Our Editor-in-Chief is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.