July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
Chris Duffy I have a friend who sometimes describes himself as like, “I am so grateful and happy for you and for friends and also for the fact that I have brain chemistry that makes me happy.” And I’ve often identified with that like, “Oh, wow. I guess I just have the right chemicals flowing through my brain that make it so that I’m often happy.” And that was true for a lot of my life. And then, the past couple of years, I think, life happened. My wife started dealing with some really challenging chronic health issues. And that was a challenge. And I lost my job and I was looking for work. And so it was kind of like everything was happening all at the same time. And so, I had lost a lot of what I put my identity into. And then on top of that, the pandemic happened. So, all of a sudden I lost the social supports too.
It has made me realize that it’s not just some sort of guarantee that I’m always going to be happy and feel good, and that I actually have to take care of myself and build these processes the same way that anyone does and that’s certainly not to say that people don’t have more of a struggle with it than I do, but it was the first time that I had to think about it as something that I also struggled with.
Dacher Keltner Chris Duffy is a comedian, television writer and the creator and host of “How to Be a Better Human,” a podcast from TED. As he struggled to find ways to take care of himself, he turned to awe—the feeling you have when you’re around vast things that you don’t immediately understand. Today we’ll hear from Chris about how he found that feeling and what kind of impact that’s made on his life. Later in the show, we’ll look at research I helped conduct suggesting that awe can help us feel more socially connected. Chris, thanks for joining us on the show.
Chris Duffy Thanks so much for having me.
Dacher Keltner So you choose a practice that I helped to develop called the Awe Walk, where you go out in nature, or an urban setting, and the idea is you open up your attention to what’s around you, the things that are vast and mysterious. Chris, why did you choose awe?
Chris Duffy I am like a brain person, if that makes sense, right? I like to think things through and I like to have a plan and I like to analyze. And sometimes that is, especially when it comes to happiness, to my detriment, to just, like, overthink everything. So I think the appeal of the all was that sense of like these are things that are bigger than me and that I am part of this vastness and that I can kind of let go and just be present in that, that is challenging for me. So I thought it’d be interesting to try and do.
Dacher Keltner How’d it go?
Chris Duffy Yeah, so I did a slightly modified one in that mine was not an Awe Walk but an Awe Swim. I took the motion and I put it into a different element altogether. But the Awe Walk basically from your website, which I got, and I found this to be really helpful, is you put your cell phone away, you put any sort of distractions away. You go to a place that is beautiful and natural or it doesn’t even have to be right. I think it’s just somewhere where you can be in touch with a sense of vastness and space and something that is bigger than you. And then being really mindful, so starting with taking six breaths, breathing and being in this place and then walking and continuing to breathe and be mindful of what you’re noticing and seeing the space around you in a bigger and better way and then kind of following that and seeing what that brings up for you.
So I had to modify a little bit because when I was underwater, obviously, I didn’t want to take six deep breaths while I was underwater. That would, that would inspire a different feeling other than awe. But I kind of knew, this is like such an ancient idea that going out into nature can bring us this sense of awe. So, I wasn’t shocked that it worked. I had a feeling that it would work, but I was really surprised at how lasting the effects were.
Dacher Keltner I’m a horrible swimmer, so that’s why I wrote the Awe Walk, you know. So how did you do it while swimming?
Chris Duffy So I have the good fortune to be living in Southern California, a place where you can kind of be in water almost all of the year. And so one of the few outdoor activities that I’ve really been doing consistently with the pandemic is swimming outdoors. So there’s an outdoor swimming pool that is near me that has very safe COVID precautions. And then I also go to the ocean sometimes. But the pool was for me, like a place that I’d just been going to a lot and swimming laps and had been more about exercise and, kind of that type of practice. And not, I never associated it with awe. And so for this, I thought, like, I’m going to go and I’m going to be in a place that is natural and where it’s not about how many laps am I doing or have I been in for this exact amount of time. I drove up to a river and I sat by the side of the river and I did the deep breathing and I just was present. And then I jumped into the water…
Ok, diving in now.
Oh baby that feels cold!
.... and it was very cold, like 48 degrees, freezing cold. So that for one, like, you want to talk about mindfulness and being in the moment? Well getting into freezing cold water, you’re not like, what else is going on? It’s just like it is very cold. And so that was kind of great. Like I got out of the water and I was like, I am so present in this moment. And then I tried to, like, shiver into my towel and dry off while I was still, like, breathing and noticing.
And I did that a few times. So I did that over the course of a few different days. And certainly I noticed that the cold got easier, but also I noticed that when I went down, I was seeing different things. I was seeing the birds that were flying over, the bees that were on the side of the river. Once, while I was sitting there, I saw a family of otters, swim up and they were swimming like where, right where I had been swimming moments earlier. And I grew up in a small apartment in New York City so, like for me, nature is rats and pigeons and that’s it. And so that was incredible and really blew my mind.
Dacher Keltner It feels like you saw things differently through this awe swim.
Chris Duffy Here’s what I thought was most interesting about it is. So, my plan was that I was going to do this river, which was like a quick dip, freezing cold, quick dip, or I was like, OK, it’s all about presence and here I am. And then I was going to do a longer swim in the ocean wearing a wetsuit where I was going to have, like, this more meditative, like, let’s really focus on the expansiveness and the vastness which you talk about him in the prescription for the Awe Walk. And so I was going to do that. And then in a way that was very unpredictable for LA, it started raining and you can’t actually go in the water after it rains because it washes a lot of sewage and human refuse out into the water. So I figured that that was probably not going to make me feel awe.
Dacher Keltner No.
Chris Duffy So instead, I went back to the regular pool that I normally swim laps in.
And what was kind of amazing for me on all level, I got in this regular pool where I have probably swum, I mean, hundreds of laps, if not thousands of laps, and getting in after doing the mindfulness work around, just like breathing and thinking, I noticed all of a sudden the way that the sun comes in and hits the bottom of the pool, the tiles. I noticed when I turned my head, I noticed the blue sky and the smell of the air. And it was such a more enjoyable and broader experience. I really did feel that sense of awe of like, look at this, look at the way that the light comes through this water and that I get to be in this moment here. I really did feel that, and I hadn’t felt that before.
Dacher Keltner Cool. You know, there’s this incredible new science on awe and music and spiritual practice and even psychedelics where one of the things that all these practices do is they shut down this part of your brain called the Default Mode Network, which is sort of keeping you on time and on task, and it’s your ego in a way. And then it opens up these ways of being in the world, which you nicely describe.
Chris Duffy I’ve had that experience a lot with performing when I’m on stage doing, performing comedy or when I especially when I’m doing improv with friends who I know and trust really well. I’ve had that experience of like the Default Mode Network shutting down. And you’re just in this moment, you’re just experiencing flow and feeling that. But it’s a lot harder for me to get that in my regular life. I think especially the last few months, there’s just been so much going on that it’s hard to, like, shut those thoughts out. And so one thing that’s really amazing to me about getting in water, for me, this water really does it is like it’s just such a direct and primal experience where you are in the moment and you are you have to be in flow. And also that’s kind of a thing that I like about it as exercise, is you can try harder and push more. And that doesn’t actually make you move faster or be a better swimmer. It’s more about how can you be more efficient and find the path to work with the water rather than against it.
Dacher Keltner Often when you look at people’s awe experiences in our research, it happens to them, you know, that they get caught in a lightning storm or they see a flood. What was it like for you or how do you think it affected the dynamics to choose this practice and try it a few times and go to the pool. Did it change, given that you sought this out?
Chris Duffy You know, my first instinct is like, to think, does it make it less special that I can get it and that it doesn’t just come from on high when I least expect it? And I think it doesn’t make it less special. I guess I kind of feel the same way about awe that I do about creativity, which is that, like, you can wait until you have a great idea, and that may happen sometimes.
Dacher Keltner You may wait a long time.
Chris Duffy Yeah, you might wait a long time. And you might have one great idea. And it’s while you’re driving and you can’t pull over, and then you lose it. But you could also then put yourself in a place where you just do a practice of writing or creating or whatever it is, and you do it all the time, regularly. And sometimes it’s not good and sometimes it is. But you kind of force that to happen and rather than waiting for it. And that’s kind of how I felt about awe on this. Like, I have certainly had that experience of like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe where we are. Look at this moment.” But I think that it doesn’t have to be like that. You can also put yourself in a place where you make yourself more likely to feel it and I like having agency around that. I like the idea that I can make it happen.
Dacher Keltner Yeah. You know, it’s so encouraging to hear you say that because, you know, we just did this study published this year with Virginia Sturm and we had all elderly people, who, you know, they start at that age, you really start having a little bit more anxiety and depression for obvious existential reasons. And we had them do an awe walk each week for eight weeks. And what we found aligns with what you’re saying, which is, you know, you have this intention, you go do it and you actually see increasing benefits. So, I think there’s an interesting lesson to be drawn about finding agency and awe, which often we don’t think is productive.
Chris Duffy It also just makes me think about like, what you leave yourself open to, right, like it’s not like awe isn’t there the same way that like it’s not like the sky in clouds or mountains are only sometimes they’re, right. It’s just that we tend to not notice them. So it’s like, how do you leave yourself open to those experiences to like, put yourself in a place where you’re receptive to it as well? That was kind of what I thought about for myself was like, it’s not like the sun doesn’t often come into this outdoor swimming pool. In fact, it comes every single time. But why is it that I only sometimes notice it? How can I put myself in a place where I can take that in?
Dacher Keltner That’s so well put that, you know, openness is, is one of the things that is most important in terms of lasting effects of awe. One of the things that I have come to appreciate about these practices that we profile at Greater Good In Action, and this has been documented in studies of gratitude and kindness practices, and we also have documented it with awe, is, they kind of shift how you move through the world for a while. It’s almost like an epiphany you have about yourself. One of my favorite studies of this is Paul Piff, who’s at UC Irvine. He took students on the Berkeley campus, had them look up into these beautiful eucalyptus trees, or in a control condition they looked off to a science building.
Chris Duffy I love that that’s the control condition! That’s so funny! Look at these trees! And what’s the ugliest building around? Probably my building. Look at my stupid office!
Dacher Keltner And it’s so funny you pick up on that, because when I show people the picture of it, it is comedic. You know, it’s like stucco and, you know, very anonymous. But, but, you know, what Paul found is just, just that moment of awe, right? You look into these trees and you see the light and so forth. And the students, you know, they felt less entitled. They were less self-focused. They were less materialistic. A stranger comes by and drops some stuff, which was part of the experiment, and the person feeling awe helps them out, kind of shifted their mode of being for a minute.
Chris Duffy The people looking at the science building did not help the stranger?
Dacher Keltner Less so, you know.
Chris Duffy What an indictment of science, undergrads.
Dacher Keltner But what do you think about that? Did you have that sense, that kind of building some on your swimming shifted your mode of being for a little bit?
Chris Duffy I was also really aware of, like I’m doing this for this podcast, for this interview. And so I was aware of the experience and trying to think like, what does this mean in a way that perhaps I wouldn’t have been otherwise. But I think that I think that any time I see something that I have not seen and or notice it in a while, then it opens me up to all the other things, at least the idea that there are all these other things that I’m not noticing, and I’m not seeing. So whether that’s looking out the window into the room where I’ve spent most of the last year just in the same room next to my computer and noticing like, oh, there’s the shadow of a tree on the roof next door, I can see that. That’s the kind of stuff that I think it lifted up.
And I think one thing that at least for me, is both incredibly obvious and also really profound every time I realize it, is that nature goes on and nature exists, apart from all of my day-to-day struggles and worries and fears and insecurities and all of that, like you go outside and you’re in the ocean or you’re in a river or you’re just outside walking around and looking at the sky and you see like these things continue. These are bigger than us. It’s not like just me, which every single time I realize that, it kind of is a comfort.
Dacher Keltner I hear you. Well, Chris, I want to thank you for being on our show.
Chris Duffy Thanks so much.
Dacher Keltner Research has found that awe reduces stress in the moment, but can it have lasting effects on our brains and bodies?
Virginia Sturm We wanted to know whether awe, might help people not only just feel good on a momentary basis during a walk, but if they might also feel more connected socially to the world around them, again with the goal of improving healthy aging.
Dacher Keltner More on the science, up next.
Virginia Sturm As people get older they become more at risk for loneliness and social isolation. And those, kind of, sustained negative feelings can have bad impacts on physical health as well as mental health.
Dacher Keltner Virginia Sturm is an associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco. She led a recent study of the Awe Walk that I collaborated on.
Virginia Sturm We wanted to know whether awe, as a specific positive emotion, might help people not only just feel good on a momentary basis during a walk, but if they might also feel more connected socially to the world around them, with the goal of improving healthy aging.
Dacher Keltner We recruited adults who were 60 to 90 years old, then had them take short walks outside, once a week, for eight weeks straight.
Virginia Sturm Every day of the study of the eight weeks, they also responded to an email where they rated their emotions that day. They told us, you know, I didn’t feel sad today. I felt disgusted. I felt a little happy. You know, we went through a range of emotions.
Dacher Keltner We also asked them to take selfies before, during, and after their walks.
Virginia Sturm And so in the selfie is what we did was we coded people smiling and smiles can be of different intensities. And you give it a score of how strongly or weakly they smiled, or not at all.
Dacher Keltner They all received the same instructions, to go out on 15-minute walks by themselves while trying not to look at their phones—except for when they took selfies. But half of our participants were also instructed to try and feel a sense of awe out on their walks.
Virginia Sturm We told them that awe is an emotion that you feel when you’re in the presence of something vast and not immediately understood. And we asked them to try to tap into their childlike sense of wonder, see the world with fresh eyes, and notice the world around them in more detail than they might have otherwise. And that was really it.
What we were really looking for was to see whether the people who took awe walks showed increasing levels like compassion, admiration, gratitude.
Dacher Keltner They did. They also felt more joyful and happy. And they felt that way even on the days when they didn’t take awe walks. They also smiled more frequently and more intensely over the course of the study—which we assessed from the photos. Their selfies also included less of themselves.
Virginia Sturm We traced the silhouette of each person in each photograph that they submitted. And then we counted the number of pixels that were within the silhouette or within the background of the person.
Virginia Sturm And so it was a measure of unconsciously how much people were emphasizing their own face versus the world around them.
Dacher Keltner Over the course of the eight weeks, the ‘awe walkers’ filled less and less of their photos with their own faces, and more and more with the world around them. The people who weren’t instructed to focus on awe, didn’t do that.
Virginia Sturm Often they kind of shifted from the center of the selfie kind of down to the side in the corner just to make room for the background in their walk. They also reported greater feelings of things like feeling the presence of vast things and feeling more connected to others.
I don’t think you have to go to great heights to feel awe, no pun intended. I think you can feel awe just in your, in your back door and in the pandemic, actually, I think moments of awe have been, on the one hand, harder to come by, but on the other hand, with a little bit of effort, I think they’re a little easier to come by. So an example is my husband over the pandemic has recently started telling me about the activities of this one hummingbird that comes and visits this tree outside of our house.
And, you know, that hummingbird was probably there before the pandemic and we just never had the time or the wherewithal to appreciate it. But, I think these little moments are really all around us. And so personally, I try to experience, you know, in the small moments. I try to focus on them and appreciate them rather than just kind of passing by and being in my own head.
Dacher Keltner Our next episode will be the first in a series exploring the science of music and happiness. I speak with David Byrne, a singer, songwriter, author, and the former frontman of Talking Heads about how music makes us feel more connected.
David Byrne When I stepped on stage, I felt like now I can say what you know, say what I want, I can perform these things, I can do sometimes kind of outrageous things. And that’s my way of communicating. It’s a way of saying, “Oh, here I am. I exist. I’m doing my best to communicate here.”
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
What songs have made you feel more connected to other people, the natural environment, your culture, our solar system? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Science of Happiness 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 is Haley Gray. Our Executive Producer is Jane Park. Our Editor in Chief is Jason Marsh.