Dacher Keltner I always remember the first time I met my wife Mollie, and my apologies Mollie for telling this rather protracted story. We actually met first when we were college students in Paris, but regrettably, I was there with my first girlfriend. And years later when I was in grad school I bumped into a mutual friend, and she told me Mollie was in San Francisco. But she wouldn’t give me her phone number and so I made up this elaborate story about how I was hosting a dramatic reading of a play—and Mollie had acted in college and I wanted her to play this role, just to get her phone number. And I hate acting and it was a total lie but I got her phone number. And on one of our first dates we took this romantic date to the sea and had some clam chowder, got sick to our stomachs, and I think we recognized that we were falling in love.
Nate Orbock We worked at a strip mall with a couple of restaurants right next to each other. So sometimes we’d trade food back and forth.
Sam Dugan Well, I worked at Noodles and Company, a very romantic place, and then Nate worked at Coldstone, which is the ultimate place to have a burgeoning romance. But really the funny piece of how we sort of started dating was, I was actually on probation at the time, was not allowed to drive. And so, Nate would give me rides home because we worked next to each other. And so he would just drop me off on his way home. I still just can’t imagine what his mother thought. Being like, “This young lady is on probation and my son is dating her.”
Nate Orbock I guess I like them bad, right? The rebel hearts, as it were.
Sam Dugan Oh, yes, the rebel hearts. He was so cute. He had really long hair and this, like, really tan, olive skin. And so my friends and I would go into Coldstone and make him sing for tips because he hated that. The Peel Bananas one.
Would you like to perform it for us?
Nate Orbock That’s not going to happen.
Sam Dugan He would rather die.
Nate Orbock Yeah you would rather want to die than hear it.
Sam Dugan We were sitting on my couch one day after school, and I think I just looked at him and I was like, “What do you want from me?” And he was like, “I want you to be my girlfriend.” And then ever since then, I was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s exactly what I want.”
Dacher Keltner It often seems like love catches us by surprise. And it’s in those moments when we laugh together, and humor and even absurdity when we realize who we love.
I’m Dacher Keltner, this is The Science of Happiness.
Our guests today are high school sweethearts, now married and living in Salt Lake City, Utah. Nate Orbock works in forestry and Sam Dugan is a public defender.
After 12 years together and one year in COVID lockdown, we invited Sam and Nate to try a practice to bring more laughter into their relationship.
Later in the show, we’ll explore how a particular type of laughter is better for relationships.
Sam and Nate, thanks for joining us.
Sam Dugan Thanks for having us, Dacher.
Nate Orbock Happy to be here. Thanks for having us.
Dacher Keltner So Sam, I mean, Nate looked at you and you’re this outlaw and he’s like, “God, I love her.” But how did you know Nate was the one?
Sam Dugan He was just kind and sweet. And he really, like, he was helping me when things were hard. And even though I was kind of a — I was just sort of a brat at 16 and so he was not a brat. He was the opposite of a brat. And, I just always feel so lucky that I have the life that I have because it’s a really thin line that separates me from a lot of the folks that I represent just growing up in a similar situation.
Dacher Keltner How so?
Sam Dugan So, I was in foster care for eight years. And so I got adopted when I was 11. But, I lived with the family who fostered me. I mean, they’re my family. They’re my parents. And so, you know, kids act out and they respond to drama in different ways. And I responded by becoming involved in crimes. And I always kind of figured, like, “Oh, I do really well in school. So it’s not an issue,” and kind of fell into that, like, thinking errors trap and, you know, ended up getting put on probation. And I say it all the time, but it was probably the best thing that happened to me because I was on a path of destruction. But no, I credit a lot of my ability to be a stable human to meeting Nate and the relationship that we built together. And like therapy. I mean, let’s be very clear. Like one person doesn’t save you.
Dacher Keltner Yeah, I hear you.
So you guys chose a practice where you write down Three Funny Things each day for a week, and they were humorous.
But, you two added a twist, in that you did the practice together and shared your funny things with one another.
What was it like for the two of you to try the Three Funny Things?
Nate Orbock We tended to find pretty similar things humorous and to be honest, the vast majority of the things we found humorous revolved around our dogs or other animals, you know, just being derps. That’s generally what was funniest about the day is this, the dogs.
Dacher Keltner Can you share a few things that you guys wrote down as part of the three funny things practiced for a week?
Nate Orbock We have a dog that she’s basically become disinterested in us at all because we have a nice yard now and there’s lots of squirrels in it, and I mean, there are days we’ll come home and she won’t even acknowledge us. She’ll just go right out the door to squirrel-watching.
Sam Dugan So like today, for example, just before this happened, Nate came home, Jellybean, her name is Jelly Bean. She’s just sitting on the porch staring at squirrel tree, doesn’t acknowledge Nate, doesn’t acknowledge anybody. Nate goes outside to be like “Jelly, like, come here.” And she looks at him, looks back at the squirrel tree, looks at him like sighs, gets off the chair, starts walking slowly toward him, and then just swerves and just goes into the belly of the yard where the other squirrel tree is, like, just doesn’t acknowledge his presence. And apparently, we think that’s funny.
Dacher Keltner I mean, there’s this new thinking, like, dogs coevolved with humans for like fifteen thousand years and they’re masters at doing the things that draw humans in, like doing things that seem funny, even if they’re ignoring you. Can you share some of the, like, during the course of the week of this exercise, like what were some of your best moments in the Three Funny Things exercise?
Nate Orbock We got really lucky in that the week we were doing this, we were on vacation for a solid part of it in San Diego. So, you know, the first vacation really in quite a while, first real vacation since COVID hit, so.
Sam Dugan Are you going to talk about surfing?
Nate Orbock Yeah, we can talk about surfing.
Dacher Keltner Let’s hear about it. Who was it?
Sam Dugan Both of us.
Nate Orbock ...tried, tried surfing. We’ve both done it in the past. Both of us are people that kind of are able to pick up stuff and be at least mediocre at it.
Sam Dugan I am not. That is not true. I am not good at things, like physical stuff. I have to work so hard. Nate, on the other hand, is just good at everything that he does. It’s infuriating. And he is bad at surfing. And I love it.
Nate Orbock I mean, yeah, we just spent a day getting absolutely thrashed by waves which, you know, that’s amusing in and of itself too kind of goes back to laughing at yourself.
Dacher Keltner So, the exercises were at the end of the day, you write down what was he and why was it funny? So how did that getting thrashed in surfing translate to a funny thing, practice?
Nate Orbock Just as Sam said, she has this perception that I’m good at everything.
Sam Dugan He is good at everything. It’s so annoying.
Nate Orbock And she likes when I’m bad at things. So that’s, that’s exactly how it went.
Sam Dugan That was that, was one of the things I wrote.
Nate Orbock “It’s funny when you suck at something.”
Sam Dugan Well, then the next day we were both sort of reflecting on other funny things and we both were sore. And I also love when he is sore, because he’s never sore. Like this man can bike 25 miles, mountain biking, and just not even a problem versus if I do that same ride, I am not, I am very sore and everything hurts and I’m dying. And that was another thing I wrote down, is, “Nate was sore from surfing two days ago and that made me happy.”
Dacher Keltner I know, I remember one of the first serious dates I had with my wife, Mollie, is we went to Yosemite and this ice storm hit and we were trying to do this hike and I had the wrong shoes on. I was just wiping out on each step of the hike. And she laughed—it was like the funniest thing I’ve ever seen her experience. Somehow I didn’t take it as well as Nate, but that’s neither here nor there.
Sam Dugan Nate rolls with the waves, I guess you could say. Whatever that phrase is.
Dacher Keltner What was it like for you guys to share the practice together? What did it give you?
Nate Orbock I think it gave us a sense of how similar our sense of humor is, but also slightly different as well, right. Like, Sam likes to laugh at me. Whereas, I like to laugh at myself.
Sam Dugan So we both like to laugh at you.
Nate Orbock So we both win.
Sam Dugan I mean also like we’ve been together for so long and we grew up together, right? And so when you have been together for so long, I think sometimes you … You stop learning new things about the other person, you know, and this, I thought was a really fun way to sort of just learn a new thing about Nate that happened to him that he thought was funny and it sort of like a structured way for us to interact because probably this is the script every single day. “Hi, how are you? What did you do for work? How was your day?” And Nate goes, “It was work.” So, I like that he is forced to engage in a conversation with me.
Dacher Keltner I totally hear you. You know, Sam, we fall into these patterns, like you get home, “What was good. What was bad?” And, and doing the funny stuff. They’re surprising. It’s an opening to things you don’t know, which is which is really cool.
There’s this amazing work on couples of, you know, the first wave of it and it was done by John Gottman and Bob Levinson and others is, you know, kind of what they call the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Relationships of like criticizing people too much, being too defensive, not being open, and taking yourself too seriously. I love how you guys have been revealing how humor and laughter and finding the funny things in the day is almost the antidote, you know, to that, that you don’t always want to be serious.
Nate Orbock We find ourselves joking back and forth fairly frequently even about things that need to be done.
Sam Dugan Like housework. So, for example, we are actually picking up chicks today. So we’re adding six chicks to our…
Nate Orbock By chicks she means chickens, not females.
Sam Dugan Not human beings. We are not trafficking anything or anyone. And Nate decided that he would like to build the chicken coop. And I was like, “We could just buy a chicken coop.” And he was like, “No, it is important that I build it.” So I was like, “That’s a ‘you’ problem. I am not helping you.” So we got into a pretty, not a fight. But, like, I was infuriated because I don’t really know how to build things. I don’t know. And he was like, I want your opinion on this. And I’m like, I can’t give you an opinion because I don’t understand math. I don’t understand physics. Like, I don’t understand the slope of things. That’s not a thing. But even through that, where I considered myself to be infuriated, Nate and I were both sort of laughing because it was just, I was incredulous that we were in the position that we were in, which spoiler alert, it’s fine. The chicken coop is coming along fine.
Dacher Keltner You know, one of the things about the Three funny things practice, is it allows you to create space for the experience. You name it, you know, you describe it, you almost give it a little narrative structure to it. So I’m really curious, even though you guys have this back and forth of humor and laughing at each other. What did it give to you?
Nate Orbock It’s kind of one of those things about just appreciating general life every day. It gives you that like, “Yeah, things aren’t so bad because even if it was a terrible day, these funny things still happened to me today.”
Sam Dugan Yeah, I loved that, Nate. I think especially now, like the world just feels really hard. And so, I like what Nate said about just calling it out and being aware of it. It makes you more mindful because obviously we’re really silly people and we like to have fun together. But, I think just being mindful about humor and creating a space where we were intentional about sharing that, was really nice.
Dacher Keltner You know, I don’t think science has even come close to this, which is when we laugh at the absurdities of our daily lives, it’s almost an opportunity for gratitude, like, “Oh, you know, this happens every now and then. That’s just life.” But, a lot of life is worthy of gratitude.
Nate Orbock Yeah.
Dacher Keltner If you were to describe what this life together of humor and laughter gives you in three words. What would those words be?
Sam Dugan Necessity.
Nate Orbock Silliness.
Sam Dugan Unity.
Nate Orbock Respect.
Sam Dugan I like that.
Nate Orbock I mean, that was more than three, by my count.
Dacher Keltner Pretty amazing.
Sam Dugan Neither of us are great at math.
Dacher Keltner And it reminds us, right. Laughter and humor feel lighthearted. But the things they give us are pretty, pretty fundamental.
Sam Dugan Oh, yeah, that’s very key, I would agree with that 100 percent.
Sam Dugan Nobody makes it out alive, right? You may as well have fun while you’re doing it. And I just feel lucky that I get to hang out with my favorite person – most of the time.
Nate Orbock Except one we’re building a chicken coop.
Sam Dugan Except one we’re building a chicken coop, good God! Wooh!
Dacher Keltner Well, Sam and Nate, thank you so much for being on the science of happiness. It’s been a treat to hear about the life of humor that you guys are leading. So thanks so much.
Sam Dugan Thank you so much. We appreciate it.
Nate Orbock Thank you for having us.
Dacher Keltner We all know that laughter is good for us. But is there something particularly powerful about sharing a laugh in relationships?
Laura Kurtz So we wanted to explore, specifically, this behavior of shared laughter. So, what does that signal about their relationships?
Dacher Keltner More on the science of laughter, up next.
Dacher Keltner Studies have found that couples do better when they engage in fun activities together, have good conversations, and appreciate the humor of life. But until recently, research hadn’t really looked at what happens when couples share a laugh.
Laura Kurtz What happens when two people laugh at the same time together?
Dacher Keltner Laura Kurtz is a social psychologist and the program manager for the Love Consortium at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Laura Kurtz A lot of the existing research on laughter sort of clumped it all together. So it was just laughter generally as a behavior. What does that mean for relationships? So we wanted to explore, specifically, this behavior of shared laughter.
Dacher Keltner In one study, they had couples come to their lab and talk about how they first met, for five minutes. Then, they answered some questions about how close, passionate, and supported they felt in their relationship.
Laura Kurtz After the couples left the lab we had a coder go back through each of the recorded videos and code for any laughter that occurred during that interaction. So first they would go through and they would code the start and stop timestamps of one person, and then they would go back through and watch the video again and record the start and stop timestamps for the other person. So, any instance of laughter.
Dacher Keltner From those timestamps, they calculated how much couples laughed together, by themselves, and overall.
Laura Kurtz So, what we found was that the couples who laughed more together, so, who engaged in more spontaneous, shared laughter during this conversation, also tended to report feeling closer to and more supported by their partners. So, it was evidence to suggest that shared laughter is at least a marker of high-quality relationships.
Dacher Keltner The couples who tended to laugh separately during the conversation reported feeling less close.
Laura Kurtz So, not all laughter is created equal, right. We find evidence that that shared laughter seems to be particularly potent for relationships. So, it’s not so much how much you laugh in the presence of another person that’s important and predictive of your relationship, but rather how much of that laughter is shared.
Dacher Keltner Laura’s study tells us that shared laughter is correlated with satisfying relationships, but it doesn’t tell us that it causes them.
Laura Kurtz So we set out to, then, test that causal link.
Dacher Keltner They had individuals come to the lab thanking that they were going to be part of a study about first impressions.
Laura Kurtz So we told them, “You’re going to be interacting with a participant in another room. And we’re interested in how these first impressions are influenced by computer-mediated communication. So, you’ll be interacting with them over this computer.” In actuality, there was no other participant. They were watching a video of a prerecorded actor.
Dacher Keltner First, they watched a series of GIFs in a slide show while also purportedly video chatting with the other participant – again, not a real person.
Laura Kurtz So we had a chunk of GIFs that were really funny and that would often elicit laughter, reliably. And then another half of GIFs that were less funny, that didn’t elicit laughter as consistently.
Dacher Keltner Laura’s team rigged it so that, for half the group, when they laughed, they saw the person in the video laugh at the same time.
Laura Kurtz And what we found is, those who are assigned to the shared laughter condition reported thinking that they had more in common with the actor, thinking that they were on the same wavelength. So, this greater perception of similarity and that perception of similarity then predicted greater reports of liking and greater desire to get to know the other person further.
I think there’s tremendous power in these seemingly inconsequential moments of connection that we experience. So, something that is as simple as a shared laugh can actually signal common ground with people that we don’t even know. So, I think it’s really important that we extrapolate these results to how we go about our everyday lives, recognizing that even these little micro-moments of connection can actually be really important for our relationships. So, the next time you’re in a and in the grocery store, in the checkout line, strike up a conversation with the cashier, maybe engage in a little bit of shared laughter. And, it might just be exactly what that person needs and that in that moment.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining us on the Science of Happiness.
We have instructions for the Three Funny Things practice on our Greater Good In Action website at GGIA.berkeley.edu.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the hashtag #happinesspod.
The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX. Our Senior Producer is Shuka Kalantari. Sound design by 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.
I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us.