July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
My dad worked at the oil refinery and he would come home all dirty, like soot all over his face and he’d like still play baseball or he’d take me fishing like right after work, just throw his work clothes off. So it was pretty good growing up in Mississippi. Even on school nights we’d go in the middle of the night and go out and go digging. Anything old that’s kind of hidden in the ground that people haven’t seen in hundreds of years or have never seen it at all. It’s like digging for treasure. We found old tent hooks, arrowheads, and pottery.
In 2005 I joined the Marines so that’s why I came out to California. I saw on the internet where people were digging fossils. I went straight to them, started digging. A lot of sea fossils, shark’s teeth. It’s pretty exciting. It’s like finding a big wad of cash or something.
I live up at the Ocean View mine in a little camper at the very top kind of overlooking the valley. Right before I got here, they hit a million-dollar pocket of gems. Every time we hit a little bit of clay we get excited hoping it’s a pocket just like that. Everything we find we collect and every six months everything is split equally. I always thought about if I hit the big pocket and a had a bunch of money.
I’d probably just stay here, just digging.
Dacher Keltner: Dillon Lee has spent a lifetime digging up treasures from the past and joins us today to try an exercise that requires a different type of digging.
On every episode of our show, we have a guest try out a research-based practice designed to boost happiness, resilience, kindness, or
connection and then we dive into the science behind why it actually works.
Thanks for being with us, Dillon.
Dillon Lee: Thank you.
Dacher Keltner: Dillon you’re our guinea pig today and of all the different practices that promote meaning and well-being on our website you chose this small talk practice. Why’d you choose that one?
Dillon Lee: I’m really quiet by nature. So been trying to kind of practice on that. Always kind of stayed to myself even when I was younger.
Dacher Keltner: You spend a lot of time just being quiet in your work?
Dillon Lee: When we’re drilling there’s no talking or anything. Everybody’s got their earplugs in.
I started this year working one day a week down at the fee-dig area with the public.
When I first started working down there, I was like terrified because I had to do the presentation and everything myself without any help.
Dacher Keltner: So you’re almost like a tour guide or you’re teaching people and young kids how to what it means to screen through earth and look for gems and stuff?
Dillon Lee: Yup. Doing that and we also do like a quick tour around the mountain. I get to talk about the mine a little bit.
Dacher Keltner: Maybe the small talk practice is a little bit like digging. We go find things out. So tell us about this practice. What’d you do?
Dillon Lee: Just kind of asking each person at each station at the tables down there. Pretty much where they’re from, and what got them up there. You get a lot of interesting people down there. A lot of them are like the fossil hunters and lot of people that come up here they mainly go for gold and then they hear about this place.
Dacher Keltner: They’re looking for discoveries. Stake a claim. How did you feel about making small talk before you did it?
Dillon Lee: Yeah when I first approached somebody I feel a little anxious and nervous because I’m not sure how
they’ll respond. When I actually start talking to somebody that just goes away. I get to learn all kinds of things about them.
Dacher Keltner: There’s this study that this practice is based on where these researchers just ask people like you and me to …you know you’re on a bus and just to start up by asking some questions. And one of the things that’s really interesting in this study is that the people who did this small talk, learn that people wanted to connect a lot more than they thought, right? You know just by asking questions and discovering things like rocks in your own region you find out that other people are really interested in social
connection and conversation. Did you find that to be true?
Dillon Lee: Yeah there’s people, like if I go maybe an hour and I don’t really say anything, there’s people at the dig they’re the same way, just quiet. And I’ll just start off with like one question and then we’ll be talking for 10,15, 20 minutes.
Dacher Keltner: Really?
Dillon Lee: Yeah, there are a lot of other people I guess that are pretty quiet too.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah being a more quiet person and living out you know on top of the mountain and having a lot of time to yourself but then you chose to reach out and to talk to people. So I’m just curious like what you know before you did this practice, and then after, how did it make you feel?
Dillon Lee: It makes me feel better. More relaxed. Once I’ve been talking to everybody, I feel like a little bit less nervous around them. I’m anxious to actually start the small talk, but once I do I just kind of feel relieved.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah. It’s interesting how often our anxieties about stuff in preparation for doing things. But once we get going it it’s actually kind of comfortable.
Let’s listen in on when you tried it out.
Dillon Lee: You said you’ve never been here before?
Man: First time, yeah.
Dillon Lee: What got you into this?
Man: My boy here, he’s been here lots of time. It’s his birthday.
Dillon Lee: Oh, happy birthday!
Woman: Mississippi girl recognized it,
Dillon Lee: What part?
Woman: I was in Mississippi for 26 years. I went to Mississippi State. So where did you live?
Dillon Lee: I lived in Pascagoula along the coast
Woman: Oh I love Pascagoula
Dillon Lee: Did you ever taken the Natchez drive?
Woman: Yeah actually from Tupelo to Nashville, all the time.
Dillon Lee: It’s a nice drive…
Woman: Yeah, it’s gorgeous
Dacher Keltner: Well you’re doing a pretty good job by you know, giving these tours to people you don’t know. One of the really neat things about small talk is, you know like you said like you just get rolling and you’re asking these questions and learning things about people and it’s fun and you’re smiling.. So when you did this small talk practice what was the best mini conversation that you had?
Dillon Lee: There was an older guy here and he said he remembered coming out here when he was a boy in the 70s. Then I mentioned the guy from the mine across the way and he said he knew that guy and was friends with his dad and he’d been in that mine.
That was just cool because they knew the owner when they hit the Candelabra—it was a world famous pocket in the 70’s. And knowing the owner –he was a really cool guy, like not too many people got to meet him. He actually, I mean he had millions of dollars in gems and he had millions of dollars. But he actually lived in the tunnel entrance and slept on a cot.
Dacher Keltner: Devoted.
Dillon Lee: He had never had a house. He always lived in shacks.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah. Do you think if you hit a big strike that’s what you’d do? Just stay close and keep it simple?
Dillon Lee: Yeah, I would.
Dacher Keltner: So you’re learning about the history of the mine. Did you learn some things about people you didn’t expect?
Dillon Lee: One time there was a family and I started telling about different minerals, and then they told me about all the same rocks they were seeing out on their property. We got like just talking and talking and got invited up there to kind of hunt around for the rocks.
Dacher Keltner: Well that’s one of the best outcomes of small talk is to have it lead to other kinds of social activities, so that’ll be fun. Did this small talk practice just doing it this one time has it kind of stayed with you? Are you practicing parts of that?
Dillon Lee: Yeah, I notice whenever I’m not here and I go out in town and different places I’ll actually kind of speak to people more.
Dacher Keltner: That’s great. And if you were to have a friend who came to you and said like you know I just want to connect to people more. How
would you tell them to use this small talk practice?
Dillon Lee: Kind of just to start off with little simple questions. That’s usually what I do. Where they’re from and whatever they’re doing. Like what got them into it.
Dacher Keltner: You know it’s funny. I was asking my mom when I was a teenager and you know I just didn’t know how to interact around people and I was kind of anxious and introverted as a kid and like, what’s the secret? And she’s like, just ask people questions you know and start there. So it sounds like sounds like you’re suggesting something similar.
Well Dillon, I want to thank you for doing something that’s really, for a lot of people, is courageous which is to come out of your feelings of being quiet and engage in this small talk
practice and see where it takes you. And I hope that you’ve learned some interesting things from the practice. So thanks.
Dillon Lee: Thank you.
Dacher Keltner: Dillon Lee did this small talk practice and you know a lot of people think that small talk’s superficial and has nothing to do with well-being but one of the best studies of small talk and the surprising benefits of small talk is by Nick Epley and my Berkeley colleague Juliana Schroeder.
Juliana Schroeder: The big idea came out of sort of seemed like a bit of a paradox a puzzle. There are all these different situations in which connecting with other people make us happier, even can make us healthier, and have all these amazing benefits for us. But there is this sort of one circumstance under which connecting with others doesn’t seem to be preferred. And that’s when you’re trying to connect with a stranger, someone that you’ve never met before.
In particular when you’re commuting to work on a bus or a train and it’s not even a very pleasant experience all the
times. And so we have the opportunity to connect with all these people around
us and yet oftentimes people don’t. You see just completely silent cars. And
we’re like, why don’t people want to do this? One possibility is that they think
it’ll make them less happy. And so is that correct or not.
Dacher Keltner: It kind of builds on this great tradition of, are we accurate in predicting what produces happiness or not?
Juliana Schroeder: Right. We ran field experiments primarily in the Chicago area and it was on commuter trains, buses.
First we collected predictions. What do people think? And what they think is that talking to someone in these contexts would be a bad experience. They think it’ll make them less happy, more sad. They think it’ll make them less productive and even though they’re not that productive in the first place, compared to just being in solitude.
A big reason why people fail to start up conversations in this context is what we call pluralistic ignorance. People infer from others behavior what they what their attitudes are. And so when people around them are not talking, they infer that they don’t want to talk.
And actually if you survey everyone people everyone says that they will be relatively interested in starting up a conversation. But everyone thinks that everyone else is less interested.
Juliana Schroeder: We randomly assigned people into one of three experimental to conditions we had them either connect,
we had them sit in solitude, or we had them do what they would normally do and
the people that do what they normally do. like 90 percent of them are sitting
in solitude. And then afterwards we asked them about their mood and about
pleasantness and about productivity. Turns out that yes, the conversations made
people have a better mood afterwards. So they said they felt more happy, less
sad. And it was a more pleasant experience, so they actually enjoyed the
commuting experience more. There was no differences in productivity between the
We’ve also asked about if people felt more tired afterwards like maybe it would zap your energy or something. In fact if anything there’s a small effect where people said they felt more energized after talking. So if anything, it’s energizing.
There were multiple people that said they met someone that they think they will continue to see, like in a romantic way.
Dacher Keltner: Like our friend Dillon, he actually somebody invited him over to help prospect on their lands. So it could initiate things.
Juliana Schroeder: Right. It can initiate a long-term connection there.