July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
JOANNE ROCKLIN I was really poor. I was struggling, and I was very anxious as a single parent of two sons. My sons and I had moved to this ground floor apartment in L.A. because it was near the middle school, within walking distance. It was also near Chippendale’s which is a male strip joint. Some of the staff were our next-door neighbors so the nights were kind of rowdy.
Our home was really tiny. At night I would cook dinner for me and my sons and it was probably very cheap. Something like pasta or meatballs, but it tasted good. And we’d sit at that rickety table and we would just talk about our day. And as the three of us are eating and talking together, I remember thinking, ‘God, I really am enjoying this.’ We were doing nothing except eating. I remember thinking, ‘I am really happy right now. Right this minute. I am really happy.’
DACHER KELTNER It’s a real delight to have Joanne Rocklin here today on our show. Joanne has this incredible career of teaching in schools and being a practicing clinical psychologist and has won just about every award you might imagine for her writing for children. Joanne, thanks so much for being with us.
JOANNE ROCKLIN Thank you for having me.
DACHER KELTNER One of the things that I noticed in your writing, and I wonder if this comes out of your clinical practice, is writing for that really sensitive age group 8 to 12 years old, kids are heading into puberty and pre-adolescence. You really take on difficult themes, right, like divorce.
JOANNE ROCKLIN I do.
DACHER KELTNER And the state of relationships.
JOANNE ROCKLIN I do. It’s a fun age to write for because they are just starting to think about these themes, but perhaps they don’t quite understand it. And they’re refreshingly honest. So stretching those two limits of not understanding, but being honest, leads to a lot of humor. They just come out with things and they’re sort of a teeny bit wrong. But also very right.
DACHER KELTNER I mean you’re absolutely right. Like, ten years old is such a magical age. A lot of parents really struggle with the kinds of things that kids start sort of introducing to them. Like, they’re interested in love, and sex, and relationships, and conflict. What do you advise parents to how to talk about these things with their kids?
JOANNE ROCKLIN A, to talk about it. I don’t think there’s any limits to what you can bring up in your home with your children. Especially while eating, at the table. That’s where my kids used to get me with, you know, interesting topics. And I hope that my books lead to conversations. So for instance Love, Penelope, which is my latest book, is about having two mamas. And one of the mothers is pregnant.
DACHER KELTNER So Joanne, alongside books like Love, Penelope, in many ways you precede and anticipate the Science of Happiness, which is in your early writing, as you kind of think about the brain and think about what kids are doing. And it started out titled, Getting High in Natural Ways and now it’s—
JOANNE ROCKLIN That’s right.
DACHER KELTNER –it’s come out as Feeling Great.
JOANNE ROCKLIN It was around the time when Nancy Reagan was saying, ‘Let’s say no to drugs,’ but she wasn’t saying what to say yes to.
DACHER KELTNER Shut down everything.
JOANNE ROCKLIN Sometimes that’s hard. You have to think of some alternatives. Each chapter kind of pointing us in the direction of what would make you happy without drugs. Laughter, exercise, friendship. I guess we were precursors.
DACHER KELTNER It’s interesting, you know, clearly you’ve had the chance to think about well-being and kids. How do you feel we’ve changed over the twenty, thirty years you wrote this book?
JOANNE ROCKLIN When I wrote that book I was a young mother. And there was more of an emphasis on free-flowing happiness. There’s more programming of kids, in terms of them finding what they, quote-unquote, like. And I remember in, from my own childhood and my kids too maybe, just kind of lolling around and doing nothing.
DACHER KELTNER I just have to reflect on that incredible synthesis of—in particular like the programming and the structure of today—and we all know we’re over-scheduling our kids. And a lot of the key forms of joy that bring kids happiness like feeling awe, or joy, or, you know, flow, or play, or love, are really about, at their core, unstructured states.
JOANNE ROCKLIN That’s right. We’re afraid of allowing our children to do nothing. And doing nothing can bring us joy.
DACHER KELTNER So Joanne, you’ve been thinking about the minds of eight to 12-year-olds for thirty, forty years. How do you think they’ve changed?
JOANNE ROCKLIN I don’t think they’ve changed. I really don’t. I think kids are still thinking about things that scare them. Things that make them brave, friendships, love. In terms of the core of what makes a human, I don’t think they’ve changed.
DACHER KELTNER You know, it’s so refreshing to hear you say that. I feel there is this tendency to think that there’s always this sort of radical revolution, but I think that what you’re writing tells us is these cores of laughter and dance and movement and food—
JOANNE ROCKLIN That’s right. Friendship.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah. They’ve always been part of our species. Part of our happiness.
JOANNE ROCKLIN Absolutely.
DACHER KELTNER So I want to talk about your happiness practice, and it’s something that you’ve done in many different ways which—and you’ve really done it in the spirit of serving different communities and people—is cooking.
JOANNE ROCKLIN Right. I didn’t realize it was my happiness practice until—
DACHER KELTNER Well, you have many.
JOANNE ROCKLIN Yeah, but it is. It really, really is. And I will say that I am not a professional chef. I’m not trained. I’m just what they would call a good home cook.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah.
JOANNE ROCKLIN OK. And I have—I love to eat. I think that’s a prerequisite. I have a very good palate, and so I can read a recipe and taste it in my head. So I save a lot of time. It stimulates my feeling of curiosity. What’s this going to taste like? Something that you’re making really starts with nothing. It’s like a miracle, you know. Because I’m in my head so much, it gets me out of my head. It’s very it’s very sensual. You’re using your senses. You know, you’re smelling, you’re seeing, you’re touching, you’re tasting.
DACHER KELTNER And seeing things evolve and grow and change.
JOANNE ROCKLIN That’s right. That’s right. And so that’s really good for me. And at the same time, it gives me that sense of, which I think is like a definition of happiness, as, time stopping. You’re not thinking about being happy, you’re just, you just are. When I cook a dish there is a sense of a connection with the past and whoever cooked the recipe before.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah, history to it.
JOANNE ROCKLIN That’s right. Or I wonder who made it up. But it’s a connection to other people.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah. It’s really regrettable in the science of happiness we don’t study cooking and eating as much as we should, even though it’s one of the more fundamental practices. And there are these amazing anthropological studies of hunter-gatherer societies, and other kinds of cultures, where food-sharing is foundational to culture and they have all of these rituals of sharing what they’ve grown, and sharing food, almost like a potlash, and other kinds of things like that. And you’ve really made it a happiness practice to share food as a form of service.
JOANNE ROCKLIN Right. At our temple, which is Temple Sinai, it’s a big congregation and generally people don’t meet easily. So we thought of something called Pop-Up Shabbat—Shabbat is the word for Sabbath—where hosts volunteer to have Friday night or Saturday evening meals in their home and then congregants sign up for these meals. Nobody knows who’s going to be there until the great big reveal. Everybody brings a dish. And then they get together. So what we’ve found is it’s inter-generational. Most of the time. Kids who don’t have grandparents living in this state get to bask in grandparently love, you know, which is nice.
DACHER KELTNER Which is so wonderful and wise.
JOANNE ROCKLIN Right. And also, probably most importantly, people who don’t have a chance to have a family meal get that chance. And you would be amazed at how we take that for granted. That is really a crux of our—I think of mental health.
DACHER KELTNER You know, I was really struck by something that you said earlier, Joanne, which is that, you know, the best time to talk to your kids is at the dinner table about the complicated issues that are part of happiness. And here’s this really interesting work by Franz Duval with primates, and there’s work with human cultures, that really at the shared meals is when we really figure out our identities and our moralities and how we share and how we collaborate. What would you tell parents today who really struggle to find those meals with their kids?
JOANNE ROCKLIN I would sympathize. Parents today, I’ve noticed, are struggling with that because they recognize the importance. And those lost moments. The eating, the talking, the connecting. The ability to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ If it’s important to you, and you recognize the importance of getting together, it takes a certain amount of planning. So it’s not all spontaneous. Family meals doesn’t have to be every night. And that’s just another thing to beat oneself up about
DACHER KELTNER Exactly. So Joanne, you were gracious enough to allow us to record a dinner with your friends. So let’s listen in.
PATAnd Joanne you’re going to be really happy, you know why?
JOANNE ROCKLIN Wait, I’m going to give you some plates. Yeah?
PAT I’m famished.
JOANNE ROCKLIN Oh, good.
STEVE Is this ceviche?
JERRY Well it is—well, why don’t taste it and you tell me what it is.
PAT It looks fab.
JOANNE ROCKLIN OK, so here’s some olives.
PAT Mm, it’s delicious.
JOANNE ROCKLIN I collect my recipes in binders and this was given to me by my good friend Marilyn, who died two years ago. But every time I look at her recipes—and it’s her got her notes on it. She’s like, she’s here. And I called her husband and I said, ‘Guess what we’re eating.’ I don’t know if it made him happy or sad. I wanted to tell him that. So we’re eating your wife’s appetizer.
STEVE These are some of my favorite foods.
JOANNE ROCKLIN Comfort food.
DACHER KELTNER Joanne, we’ve been deeply saddened and reflecting upon the massacre in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life synagogue. Part of what really is striking is you actually set a book in Pittsburgh, Fleabrain Loves Franny. Tell us about it.
JOANNE ROCKLIN Fleabrain Loves Franny is a middle grade novel which I wrote a few years back set in 1952, in the Squirrel Hill, which is a place that I went to research my story. And the reason it was set in Squirrel Hill was because that’s where Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine. And my main character has come down with polio, and Salk is very much on her mind.
DACHER KELTNER So you went there?
JOANNE ROCKLIN I took myself there, and stayed near Squirrel Hill—meeting the most generous, lovely—generous with their time, and also their memories. Because they loved Squirrel Hill, and they remembered it vividly. They remembered their childhoods. So I was able to create an authentic environment.
DACHER KELTNER What did they love about Squirrel Hill?
JOANNE ROCKLIN The community, the friendships, the togetherness, the diversity. It’s also a very beautiful place, and Franny happens to be Jewish. And I had her attend the Tree of Life synagogue.
DACHER KELTNER Are you kidding?
JOANNE ROCKLIN Because I loved the name. And, of course, I was devastated by the news that this would have happened.
DACHER KELTNER There’s this new book, Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg, and it’s just about the—it’s just the physical structures, the social infrastructure, he calls it, or community of neighborhoods like Squirrel Hill—that give us happiness.
JOANNE ROCKLIN That’s right.
DACHER KELTNER Can I ask you, Joanne, I mean, what was it like just knowing that neighborhood? You know, knowing Tree of Life, and knowing streets, and the history of the neigh—and then suddenly you see it on TV. What was that like for you as a writer, and as a person who’s built community?
JOANNE ROCKLIN Yeah, well, the neighborhood felt very familiar to me in that I had been there but also there are many, many neighborhoods like that in the United States. My own neighborhood in Oakland is like that. That could have been my temple. I knew what they were doing there that Saturday. They were coming to a familiar, warm, loving place to be with friends, to pray, to think, to meditate, to be peaceful.
Well, the first thing I wanted to do after it happened was go there, my temple. And I did, my husband and I went. It felt really important to be there. But all over the United States, maybe all over the world, ecumenically too. Not just in synagogues. Hundreds and hundreds of people were meeting. They just wanted to be together.
And Jews in the United States have never associated the United States with the terrorism and horror and fear that their grandparents and great-grandparents experienced in Europe. And it was very scary to have this happen here, at home, in the country that we love so much. I immediately wrote to all the people who were so wonderful to me, and some of them had even been in that synagogue when it had happened. So it was horrible. I mean I think we were all affected. In the same way.
DACHER KELTNER And I’m just wondering how you would channel Franny, and her wisdom, and her journey. What do you think Franny would say to kids today about this massacre?
JOANNE ROCKLIN When this happened, my first thought was that, ‘What do we tell the kids? What are my grown children going to tell my grandchildren?’ And another person who lived in Squirrel Hill, as we know, was Mr. Rogers. It actually was Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, and his famous story is that his mother had told him in the middle of a terrible crisis to look for the helpers. And of course, there were lots and lots of helpers, and still are in Squirrel Hill.
I think she would say give yourself time to be sad and angry and afraid and that’s OK. And reach out, like Mr. Rogers said, to everybody that you love who can comfort you. Don’t be afraid of asking for that. And know that many, many, many other people are feeling the same way you do. And the theme of my book was the theme of tikkun olam, which is repair of the world, and sometimes crises like these can lead to good and change and strength. We may not know what they are, but just be optimistic that we can see the slivers of light through the darkness.
DACHER KELTNER We talked about the pop-up Shabbat you provide in your temple for people, and have you cooked anything out of this experience, or turned to the kitchen?
JOANNE ROCKLIN That’s all I do. Yeah, that’s what I do. The first thing I did was beef and barley and mushroom soup. And so it’s all about connection and community; but it’s also an act of creation, and healing, and maybe even solace for the person making, putting the meal together. Especially now, in this time of, many crises, people want to get together. And I think that once you’ve begun a meal you start talking and connecting.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah. Changes the conversation.
JOANNE ROCKLIN It absolutely does. We need that, just sitting across a table with a pencil and paper doesn’t do it. You got to have a piece of cake.
DACHER KELTNER I should have brought something to eat.
JOANNE ROCKLIN Yes, you should have. Yeah, but when people are eating together it just calms them down, it makes them—it normalizes things and it creates intimacy. We need that now. We need that connection.
DACHER KELTNER Absolutely. Well Joanne, I wanted to thank you for your writing. Thank you for the community building. Thank you for Fleabrain Loves Franny. It’s such a pleasure to talk to you about that book today.
JOANNE ROCKLIN This is lovely to be here. Thank you.
DACHER KELTNER One of the deepest human universals that’s been documented in studies of anthropology is that food-sharing in communities brings about the best in human nature. This is seen in studies of rituals and celebrations in other ways in which people share food. And then it brings out the things we really care about at the Greater Good Science Center, like gratitude, and empathy, and cooperation, and compassion.
Ayelet Fishbach at the University of Chicago has actually been trying to capture this in the lab studying how food can facilitate relationships between people.
AYELET FISHBACH So the thought was that as we share food with others; that is as we eat from a common source like a family-style meal, you need to be attentive to them. So we thought maybe that will facilitate conflict resolution in situations where in order to do well, I need to think about how you are thinking about it. What are your interests? What you trying to achieve? If I can take your perspective, I will do better on it.
Then we translated it to a very basic scenario, where you are eating chips with salsa, with another person, a stranger. Eating salsa from a common bowl requires some coordination in the sense that I need to see how much you eat, and I need to make sure that I don’t reach my hand at the same time as you do, so I need to pay attention to your actions.
And after they are participating in a game of conflict resolution. In one study, they needed to decide on an hourly wage where one person is taking the perspective of management, the other person is taking the perspective of a union leader, and they exchange bids. And the trick is that they lose money as they go on. They both want to solve it as soon as possible.
If they ate food from the same source, the same bowl, was on average 8.7 rounds. And that went up to 13.2 rounds when they were eating from separate bowls. So what we
learned from these studies is that when people share their meal they better coordinate with each other and that means that they can better cooperate, they can reach faster resolution. In terms of overcoming conflict, I would say go eat together, and go to a Chinese restaurant, ok, go somewhere where you have to cooperate over the food. That will facilitate the cooperation on the more important issues. Cultural background taught us that someone who eats the food that we eat with us is someone that we can trust. So eat with other people, use that to connect.
DACHER KELTNER To learn more about happiness practices, you’ll find simple instructions at our website, Greater Good in Action. That’s GGIA dot Berkeley dot edu. And then email us at email@example.com and let us know how it went!
I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me for the Science of Happiness.
Our podcast is a coproduction of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRI, with production assistance from Jennies Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our associate producer is Lee Mengistu, executive producer is Jane Park. The editor-in-chief of the Greater Good Science Center is Jason Marsh. Special thanks to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. You can learn more about the Science of Happiness and find related articles, videos, quizzes—all kinds of stuff—on our website, greatergood.berkeley.edu. And shoot us an email, tell us what you think about what you heard. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.