Marilyn Pittman I’m searching for a new purpose. I’m going to be 70 in June.
You know, I didn’t have kids and I’ve been an artist. I’ve been a creative person my whole life. I’ve had a very long career, full of lots of different successes.
But, I’m missing myself as an artist. I haven’t had an artistic goal—I haven’t had a creative purpose for several years now. I’m restless and I’m aimless and I’m a little lost. And so I’m trying to get found to myself and I’m trying to follow what’s left. I don’t seem to be dying. I need help. I mean, beyond therapy, I need some help with caring. It’s really about caring. I need to care more to work—to care to do more. I’m tired.
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner. Welcome to The Science of Happiness.
Our guest today, Marilyn Pittman, moved to San Francisco in the 1980s to become a comedian. And she did. Marilyn is also credited with being one of the first out lesbian comics in the United States. But she’s had a lot of jobs over the years: voice coach, radio host, and the creator of award-winning one-woman shows like her 2011 performance All the Rage.
Marilyn’s been feeling like she’s coming to the end of a long career, and she’s seeking more meaning in her work. She joins us after trying a practice to figure out what life goals are closest to her heart, and how to reach them.
Later in the show, we’ll consider studies examining how we can all find a greater sense of purpose in life.
More, after this break.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Welcome back to The Science of Happiness.
Our guest today, Marilyn Pittman, has found joy throughout her life as a comedian and performer, but she’s stayed off the stage for the past few years. Now, nearing her 70s, she wants to feel inspired and motivated again. So, she tried a life-crafting practice to affirm what’s truly important for her in this next stage of life.
Marilyn, thanks for joining us on the show.
Marilyn Pittman Oh, it’s my pleasure, Dacher. It’s great to be with you.
Dacher Keltner So you chose to try our life-crafting practice, where you take a bit of time to contemplate what you really find meaningful. And then based on that, you create goals and plans for how to achieve it. This practice is aimed at tapping into our sense of purpose in life. Why’d you pick this one?
Marilyn Pittman The reason I chose purpose is because I need some new stimulus. I need to refresh my spirit, my brain, my artistry. I want to, at this stage of my life, maybe the last chunk of my career—I wanted to be stimulated.
Dacher Keltner The first step of the life crafting practice is you kind of just sit in a reflective moment and think about, “What are the values that really matter to me?” and Dave Sherman down at Santa Barbara finds, “Man, if you can just contemplate for a minute what your values are that you care about in the moment, it helps you reorient towards the next part of life.” What came to mind when you thought about your values?
Marilyn Pittman I love this. Mine are—I got the document in front of me—honesty, humor—and that is not to take yourself too seriously—thoughtfulness, compassion, open mindedness, critical thinking: those are my greatest values. And when I falter, it’s usually around one of these. Like I forget to be compassionate, I’m judgmental. It was good to remind myself not to take myself too seriously. I think it’s, you know, the pandemic brain has been—it’s been a bit of a funk.
Dacher Keltner Oh my god.
Marilyn Pittman It’s been a struggle mentally.
Dacher Keltner Deep struggle, yeah. Did any of these values surprise you?
Marilyn Pittman No, none of them really surprised me, really. I think it’s part of being my age. I kind of know myself. It doesn’t mean I’m found. It still means I’m lost.
Dacher Keltner After you reflect on your values, you then imagine your best possible future self: what life could be like if there were no constraints at all. What would that ideal future look like for you, Marilyn?
Marilyn Pittman If I had no constraints, I would like my career path to have more recognition for past successes, develop a new audience for my artistic work—whatever that is—and then be heralded a little bit more as a pioneer. Be more visible. I want my ideal future life to be more visible. I might want to work on a new solo show but it’s all comedy. And, so that’s it. It’s just to have more recognition, to be more visible. I feel pretty invisible these days about what I’ve accomplished and what I might want to create next.
I think I was really grateful in the pandemic that I didn’t have anything to promote. I’ve been promoting solo shows and radio shows and comedy shows. I’ve been doing all that for so many years. I felt blessed to not as I watched my friends all do these Zoom comedy things. And, I was just like, “Oh, I’m so glad I have nothing.” But now, the veil is lifting and I’m feeling like, wow, I might have the juice again to go through that grueling task of talking about yourself too much. And so, I think the pandemic has kind of dampened our—like you’re always hitting against some ceiling or something’s pushing against your eyebrows, or it’s always some oppressive feeling. And it’s been hard for this—you know, you introverts out there in the audience, you’re so lucky. You’ve had it really good. We extroverts have suffered.
Dacher Keltner Yeah. It’s been profound.
Marilyn Pittman Horrible.
Dacher Keltner Do you hunger for laughter?
Marilyn Pittman I do. Oh my god. Like. I’m losing my mind, not having it. So now I’m finding myself. I see myself kind of starving, starving to make people laugh again.
Dacher Keltner The third step of this life crafting practice is to get practical and write goals based on your values and your ideal future self. And you make a plan for how you’re going to achieve these goals. What’s your plan?
Marilyn Pittman One of the things that was interesting about it is that I sort of realized something. I’m too alone. I thrive on being around people. And one of the things I came up with about how to attain the goals is: find collaborators.
To stop thinking I have to do everything myself and to find other people to help me. And, that was a huge thing this morning where I realized as I was doing this practice that I need to get out of this house now that I can—now that we can—and I need to reach out and I need to find a team to help me achieve these things. And so creating structure, asking for collaboration, asking. And that was really an operative word today, was to ask for help, to ask for help and then find ways to get out from under the pandemic brain and the aging slow-down, is what I wrote.
Dacher Keltner Yeah, tell me about that.
Marilyn Pittman When you’ve had a career for 46 years and you’re going to be 70, you feel like, “Okay, I’m done.” But I’m not because apparently—I’m not. Because, I’m driving my partner crazy and I’m driving myself crazy by not having any focus, any purpose—back to the word purpose. So I looked at the obstacles and the strategy to overcome them—that’s part of the practice—is to manage my time and desire, to talk to myself about my desire.
As an artist, desire is huge. You know, you don’t have anybody cracking the whip behind you. It’s your desire to do something. And so, again, it comes down back to the collaboration and to map out a plan to each day just reach out to different people to see if I can have lunch with this person. I mean, I know so many people. I’ve got the resources sitting there. All I need to do is start tapping into them. And that’s what I realized this morning. This was a huge thing that happened. I just want you to know you’re part of the creative process here.
Dacher Keltner You know, Marilyn, I’m curious, it sounds like it’s working on something creative that really gives you a sense of purpose. Is there something in particular that’s calling you?
Marilyn Pittman I have this idea where I narrate my own funeral and tell all the stories of my life. Who better than me? Why would I leave that to someone else? I want to call the show—don’t anybody steal this. I don’t really care. Whatever, I’ve already copyrighted. No, I haven’t.
I was thinking about a collection of stories. But then I was thinking about hosting my own funeral. And then it became a combining of the two that would be oBITCHuary. B-I-T-C-H in capital letters—oBITCHuary and then parentheses: I did some things. I know. I’ve got it developed.
I want to talk about, you know, dying. I think hosting my own funeral is hilarious. And so to me, that’s a real, like, honest sort of, you know, “Hey, I’m going to be 70. I’m dying. We’re all dying. You know, I’m old. You’ve got to face your death when you get to this age.” And maybe that’s why I’ve avoided it. I’m not sure.
Dacher Keltner So you’ve had this incredible idea brewing inside you and it sounds like now you’re feeling more motivation to work on it. What’s changing for you?
Marilyn Pittman I think looking at 70, I think and I’ve accomplished so much, but I think the thing that’s in my way, the biggest obstacle in my way, is that I really don’t want to be forgotten. There it is. I’m looking at death from both sides now. I don’t want to be forgotten and I don’t want the work—I did the pioneering work as a comic—I want some sort of marker to my legacy. I feel like I’ve done more than people even know about.
Oh, that made me want to cry! Okay.
Dacher Keltner So, the final part of the practice is important, which is to make a public commitment and you tell other people what your goals are to move towards this more purposeful future. Who’d you tell and what’d you say?
Marilyn Pittman I have yet to make a commitment about this because I’m very emotional and I wanted to see how I felt at the end of the interview, how I felt at the end of doing the practice about purpose. And, so what I can do now is share it, first of all, with Deb, my wife, and then start sharing it with these people that I’m going to identify to be the collaborators, which is something I discovered in doing the practice, is to begin to sort of come out about this. Because by telling other people and asking for help, then I’m kind of more—it’s kind of more in print.
Dacher Keltner You’ve had the kind of career that is pioneering, that is worthy of legacy, that because of cultural biases, it may not be as easy to get the legacy if you don’t have the clubs there to welcome you in initially, etc.
Marilyn Pittman Right. That’s right.
Dacher Keltner So going forward, how did this practice sharpen your focus on finding that legacy?
Marilyn Pittman Well, that remains. Look—oh, me, speechless. That remains to be seen. But I had a feeling taking this on. I had a feeling and I was nervous about it. So that was always that’s always, oh boy, something. Maybe you’re going to grow, maybe you’re going to change.
And so that’s what I’ve kind of asked for, and that’s what I’ve kind of opened myself up for, is what I’m hoping for, is that this gives me—that starts the new beat, that this is an auspicious beginning to a new beat. That this work with you, and this document I created, can be a sort of the beginning of the mapping out the plan, the beginning of me humbly asking for help and seeking help and not being afraid. Believing in myself and what I’ve accomplished and the legacy of what I’ve accomplished and what I have left to share. It isn’t just about preserving a legacy. I’m ready to do something new.
I think that’s partly what’s been hard for me to take this next step, to get that sense of purpose—the new sense of purpose—is that I would love to just do things out of joy. But that’s not quite enough for me right now because of the things I’ve said before, which have to do with preserving the legacy and getting more recognition and not just dying invisibly.
Dacher Keltner Well, Marilyn Pittman, thank you for being on our show and your incredible work and, you know, your pioneering work as a comedian and everything else that you’ve done in your shows and for your intelligence and honesty and kindness. It’s just been a whirlwind tour of a remarkable life, so thank you so much.
Marilyn Pittman You’ve made my day. Thank you, Dacher.
Dacher Keltner You can follow Marilyn Pittman on Twitter at @marilynpittman, and check out her YouTube channel by the same name.
Shintaro Kono it’s just you wake up in the morning and you’re kind of excited about your day and week maybe, and you want to get out of your bed and get going with your day so that you feel meaningful. That’s what ikigai is, I think.
Dacher Keltner Up next: the Japanese concept of ikigai, or purpose in life, and how to achieve it.
Welcome back to The Science of Happiness. I’m Dacher Keltner.
Many of us were raised to believe we’ve got one true calling or purpose in life. And that to be happy, we should do that thing for our career. But that’s not realistic for most people. So, can our leisure time fill that void?
Shintaro Kono Maybe leisure can be part—I’m not saying that that’s the only reason—but it’s one part of why people keep going and people can feel meaning and hope and purpose when life seems to be so dark
Dacher Keltner Shin Kono’s a professor of leisure studies at the University of Alberta in Canada. He’s interested in something called ikigai: a Japanese concept that roughly translates to one’s purpose in life. But it’s more than that. Ikigai can also refer to what makes your day-to-day feel worthwhile.
Shin wanted to understand how the way we spend our free time impacts how much purpose we feel like our life has. He asked 27 university students to share photos of things they thought related to their ikigai. And then he interviewed each of them about their choices.
Shintaro Kono And it’s amazing how leisure can be, in terms of ikigai, so embedded into your life. Just having a nice conversation or meal or just hang out with your buddies, play some sports, you know, those things.
Dacher Keltner Shin also asked them about other aspects of their lives, like how much they worked and studied.
Shintaro Kono There are students who are making a lot of effort, like taking five courses at a time and also doing part time job.
Dacher Keltner He found that for the students who were working especially hard, spending their free time doing things just for pleasure was really important to them.
Shintaro Kono For example, you’re watching the same TV show with your partner.
But, the enjoyment can be different things. There’s different shades of enjoyment.
Dacher Keltner For those not working as hard in school, having challenging hobbies was an important source of their ikigai.
Shintaro Kono People get serious about leisure or people are committed to leisure. You want to finish 20 K, you do everything that you could do and achieve that goal. That’s meaningful.
Dacher Keltner Students found joy and a sense of accomplishment in achieving a major goal, but they were more likely to have strong ikigai if it wasn’t all they were doing.
Shintaro Kono If you don’t have enjoyment at all and you have a whole lot of work, effort. That’s daunting. That’s stressful and you break eventually. And that is not ikigai.
Dacher Keltner The ones who felt the most purpose had more balanced lives overall.
Shintaro Kono You can’t go to your boss and say, “Hey, I want to have more enjoyable work, please.” No, that’s not going to happen. But you can do that with leisure. I want people to be aware and intentional in their leisure. And that could help their ikigai.
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness. This episode is part of our Purpose Across the Lifespan initiative, a partnership with the John Templeton Foundation and Encore.org
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Our Executive Producer of Audio is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Associate producer Kristie Song. Sound designer Jennie Cataldo of Accompany Studios. 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.