July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
THERESA SCOTT When I first got into a relationship with Louis, I kind of thought to myself, “This person doesn’t seem like a person that has been imprisoned for as long as he has.” He had such a balance to his personality, to the way that he carried himself. I’m like, what is going on with this person.
We kind of saw each other for two years. Initially, I kind of kept him at arm’s length because I figured that this isn’t what my life is supposed to be like. You know, I’m supposed to find someone in the world living outside of the walls, and meet and marry and fall in love. You know, everything on the outside. Never considered someone behind prison walls. And then I had to ask myself after I took a couple of steps back: What makes this person any different from any other?
It really became a friendship first. We did a lot of laughing. We discovered we had a lot in common. Some of the ideas I should say that that his parents had as far as bringing them out. But then you know, it has a real hard line in stopping because you see the different path that our lives took.
When you run across somebody who is is genuine and caring and loving and just more man than I have ever met in my, you know, in my life. It’s something to recognize it. It really is.
DACHER KELTNER When Theresa Scott first met Louis, he’d been in prison for almost two decades—part of a 109 prison year sentence for sex trafficking. During his time in prison Louis started an anti sex tracking program, became a journalist, and fell in love with Theresa. Theresa joins us today as our Happiness Guinea Pig. She tried a research-based practice to boost her well-being and help deal with the stresses that come with trying get Louis out of prison. Theresa, thanks for being with us today.
THERESA SCOTT You’re quite welcome, Dacher. Thank you.
DACHER KELTNER I had the great privilege of meeting Louis through restorative justice work that he leads in San Quentin Prison. It’s really been transformative for prisoners out there. And you met Louis through your friend! She was visiting someone in San Quentin and asked if you wanted to come along to meet Louis. The two of you instantly connected. And now you’re married
THERESA SCOTT Yes.
DACHER KELTNER What’s it like getting married in San Quentin!?
THERESA SCOTT You can invite up to five guests and the good thing is that your visit cannot get terminated for the rest if it gets overcrowded. They cannot terminate you. That’s a good thing. It was a little happy moment there, but yeah. So they do it right there on the grounds, and they have a room that they bring everyone into. It’s got a door on it and so it’s kind of quiet, and you could say vows if you want. And so that’s where it happens. It’s pretty quick and uneventful. I remember the lady who married us. She was like, okay, let’s get this next one on the road; I got a birthday party to go to. I’m like, is she’s kidding. I couldn’t believe it. But yeah. It does happen.
DACHER KELTNER So Theresa, I know you’re dealing with all the legal issues that come with Louis’ case. How in the world do you keep perspective in these with that kind of stress? What do you do?
THERESA SCOTT If I had to take a step back and look at it, I have to say that I think I have a pretty strong personality and pretty strong will. A big part of it is not letting him down. I know that he does not belong there anymore. He’s not a person that should have gotten the time that he was given. Yeah. I do what I can.
DACHER KELTNER You know one of the amazing things in the show is just the practices that people choose. You know, put into the role of the happiness guinea pig. And you chose ‘Gaining Perspective on Negative Events.’ Can you walk us through the steps?
THERESA SCOTT It takes about five minutes. At first you take a few moments to think about a difficult experience you’re dealing with, or some anxiety or worry you have about the future. Then you can try to understand your feelings using “you,” “he,” “she” and in my case, “Theresa,” as much as possible. So I’d ask myself why does Theresa feel this way? What are the underlying causes and reasons for her feelings? If you begin to see the event in your mind, try to watch through the eyes of a distant third party observer. The goal here isn’t to avoid or separate from your feelings but to analyze with a clearer perspective. Spend three minutes reflecting in this way. Writing down your thoughts if you feel so inclined.
DACHER KELTNER And your negative event is your husband Louis being in prison.
THERESA SCOTT The trials of getting Louis out of prison. It involves finding an attorney that’s not going to take advantage of you. It involves making sure that I go to visit him to keep his spirits up while we’re trying to work on getting him out of prison. It involves making him feel like he’ll have a home to come to when he’s out of prison. It means allowing him to express himself when he has his bad days, and listening and being a sounding board when he needs it. Which is every other day. It involves putting up with the staff. They seem like they’re just—it’s their goal you know to to piss you off for that day.
DACHER KELTNER Not the usual complexities for a marriage.
THERESA SCOTT Not at all.
DACHER KELTNER So the basic idea of the gaining perspective on negative events practice is you kind of get outside of your own immersed point of view and you look at yourself. My first experience of this was kind of comical. My parents told me they were getting divorced. I was 16 and it was traumatic. And I remember that night I had this chance to go bounce on a trampoline with friends, and I literally was getting perspective on my life by like floating in the air. And that’s kind of the idea; you use different kind of mental practices or cognitive devices to look at your stress from the outside. And you actually took the perspective of a friend. Of someone living across the street?
THERESA SCOTT I was my best friend that I didn’t know was there. And so I took a couple steps back like across the street if you will. And I was saying, you know, she had the opportunity to make that person feel better about themselves. Why didn’t she? And things like, I wouldn’t do that if I was her!
DACHER KELTNER And “her” in this case is you.
THERESA SCOTT Yes, yes it most definitely is. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to have a perspective of yourself from being able to step outside of yourself and look at what you’re doing, what you’re saying, why you’re saying it, you know, who you’re saying it to.
I actually said, “Don’t argue with the correction officer because you know what they did to the other person that had an argument with him.”
DACHER KELTNER They don’t get to visit anymore.
THERESA SCOTT They have that capability. Yeah. To stop your visits. And so I had to say, “you know it’s not worth it. Don’t do it. You remember that. You know Susie let’s just say got her visits suspend it for a year.”
DACHER KELTNER And this is the voice of this friend who’s counseling you.
THERESA SCOTT Yes.
DACHER KELTNER Wow. Was there difficulty in doing this?
THERESA SCOTT It did feel very difficult. Yeah.
DACHER KELTNER How come?
THERESA SCOTT Because I usually like to say what I want to say when I want to say it. I have groomed myself to assert myself because I’m like 5’1” and three fourths of an inch. I always have to have my three fourths of an inch
DACHER KELTNER It matters.
THERESA SCOTT Yes it does. And being female. Yeah. You have to learn how to assert yourself in a certain way.
DACHER KELTNER But self-assertion changes once you’re dealing with correctional officers and the power dynamics in prison as I’ve learned. I’m curious Theresa when you took this friend across the street’s perspective on that dynamic. How did it make you feel?
THERESA SCOTT It was a reckoning within myself. It was the reckoning. Some of the things that my best friend from across the street asked me were things that I have thought about before but I didn’t have someone else asking them.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah.
THERESA SCOTT I think what made the difference for me is instead of thinking about it inside my head was to verbalize it out loud. Yeah that is what made the difference. Because when you hear the words, it sounds a lot different from you keeping it quiet to yourself in your own head. Yeah but the minute the words spill from your lips and you can’t get them back like, “Oh my God what did I just say,” you know. You hear it out loud and it’s a completely different feeling.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah, that is cool. The power of spoken word. One of my favorite studies of the gaining perspective literatures is actually they had people who were in conflict with a romantic partner do this you know social conflict and somehow looking at yourself from a different perspective as you’ve described helped people sort of communicate more peacefully in their blood pressure dropped a little. We all need that! So then being the creative type that you are, you actually did the gaining perspective practice with Louis. How’d that go?
THERESA SCOTT You know it turned out a little bit differently than—Because it’s hard to talk third person when you’re actually in a one on one conversation with someone.
DACHER KELTNER It gets confusing.
THERESA SCOTT It does. Yeah. It’s like, did you, did you mean me? I’m sorry were you talking to her? I guess we did our own thing once we got in there but it turned out interesting.
DACHER KELTNER Do you mind if we listen in to your conversation with Louis?
THERESA SCOTT Not at all.
DACHER KELTNER And before we do, tell us how you got this conversation recorded.
THERESA SCOTT He called me from quote the house phone and the house phone is considered the pay phone at the prison that the inmates used to call family members and friends with.
DACHER KELTNER And is it hard to get access to?
THERESA SCOTT Well you have to wait in line. Yeah. And so we didn’t know if he was going to be able to call me when he needed to. I think he said he was 10th in line and so I’m waiting you know for him to call and. Yeah. So he called me on the house phone and we started the conversation. And then I had my cell phone recording our conversation. So I had to put him on speakerphone.
DACHER KELTNER Okay, great. Well let’s listen in.
THERESA SCOTT Babe, how was your day today?
LOUIS SCOTT Okay so far.
THERESA SCOTT I know a lot of the time I find myself thinking how much time are we going to spend you know getting you out of prison. And I just say you know, Theresa what are you going to do if Louis doesn’t get out of prison? And my answer is, okay, you already know that he’s going to get out. That’s what I feel in my heart.
LOUIS SCOTT I love you to death and I’m always thankful and appreciative.
Not a lot of people would take on this notion of marrying someone who’s been incarcerated for almost 23 years with a sentence for 190 years plus four months. That is exceptional.
THERESA SCOTT I was never in love with anyone until meeting you and getting to know you. I don’t feel like there’s anybody that even comes close to giving me what I get from you. That’s why I married you. We put so much energy into both of us making making sure that this relationship survives, you know everything that we go through while trying to get you out of prison.
You have sixty seconds remaining.
LOUIS SCOTT It’s unbelievable sometimes that I can meet somebody in this situation who makes me happier than I’ve ever been in my entire life. I know my background, and I did all the criminal activity situation, all the hard things in life thinking that those things are what would bring me happiness. I’m in prison and I want to get out, but I’m happier now than I’ve ever been in my entire life.
THERESA SCOTT That’s saying something.
LOUIS SCOTT I just want to tell you that I love you and..
This call and or telephone number will be monitored and recorded.
LOUIS SCOTT I just want to say thank you.
THERESA SCOTT You’re welcome, babe.
DACHER KELTNER You know Louis referred to it and you know there are all these interesting things about this kind of experience that you’ve thrown yourself into Theresa, falling in love with someone in prison when you know that he talked about feeling happier now in conversation with you than he’s ever felt in his life. How do you tell your friends about this relationship or what is it. How do you describe love with somebody on the other side?
THERESA SCOTT When I first started seeing him, my sister told me specifically, she said this is gonna be so difficult. And I said I’m up for the challenge. And she just kind of looked at me like you idiot! So I felt like I was up to it and I haven’t backed down yet and that was five years ago right.
DACHER KELTNER What do you think your biggest takeaway is from doing this practice?
THERESA SCOTT My biggest takeaway would have to be seeing myself and my relationship with Louis in a more, I want to say a healthier light. In other words, I kind of give myself permission to think a certain way about the situation and the only way to be positive for me is to consider those negatives, work through them, and have everything be put on the table for myself and for Louis, and work it out. I mean that’s the big accomplishment is being able to take that step back look at everything for what it is. As if I’m not myself, you know we do it all the time we do it. People watching. And it’s kind of exciting because it makes you aware of how you know we feel.
DACHER KELTNER I want to express my gratitude for all the work you do alongside your work on Louis’s case, and thank you for being on the show.
THERESA SCOTT Oh you’re welcome. Thank you, Dacher, thanks for inviting me in.
DACHER KELTNER When we shift from thinking or talking about ourselves in the first person—as “I” or “me” to “you” or in my case, “Dacher,” research suggests that start to see ourselves through the eyes of an outside observer, and that helps us deal with our negative feelings in a more constructive way. A lot of this research was done by Ethan Kross, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. Ethan wanted to better understand why third person “self talk” is so good for our mental health. To do that, he studied people’s brain activity.
ETHAN KROSS We brought people into an MRI lab and we had them reflect on a series of negative autobiographical memories that were still quite painful. So for example you might think of the last time you were rejected by someone at work or in love. We reminded people about these memories that they had told us about while we were measuring blood flow to different parts of their brain using an MRI machine.
And half of the time we would cue people to reflect on their feelings in the first person. “Ask yourself, why am I feeling this way? Why did I feel this way?” And in the other half of the trials we told them to do the same exact thing but using their own name. So why did Ethan feel that way? And what we found was when people were in the “I” mode, that led to greater increases in a network of brain regions that are associated with thinking about the self and feeling intense emotional responses, we call it the cortical midline network regions.
When you look at people who are clinically depressed or anxious, you see this same cortical midline being more activated among those individuals than among healthy people. So it’s this network of brain areas that seems to play a role in reflecting on one’s life.
But what was interesting is when we asked, “Well what happens when you’re using your name? Are you activating these brain regions that are involved in effortful cognitive control?” We found that the answer that question was, “No.” So we saw it changes in emotion areas without the activation of these effortful cognitive control areas. And so that was really exciting to us.
What we think is happening with these distant self talk instructions as we’re getting people to think about themselves just a little bit more like they think about other people. And you know, the extension is that reducing how immersed people are in their experience, that can be sometimes really useful for helping people think more constructively and objectively about really painful life experiences.
DACHER KELTNER If you’d like to try the “Gaining Perspective on Negative Events” practice, or explore other happiness exercises that might be the right fit for you, visit our greater good in action website at ggia.berkeley.edu. And then email us at email@example.com and tell us about it.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me on the Science of Happiness. We’ve moved to a biweekly schedule and look forward to sharing all new episodes with you in two weeks, and every two weeks after that, without interruption.
Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRI/PRX, with production assistance from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our producer is Shuka Kalantari. Our associate producer is Annie Berman. Our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. Special thanks goes 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.