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Having strong relationships is vital to our well-being. We tend to be happier and healthier when we’re involved with community. Today’s guest is the world-famous scientist Temple Grandin. She was born with autism, which led her to be socially isolated from her peers. Join us on this episode of The Science of Happiness to hear about how Grandin credits her support networks for her success and making her into the person she is today. We’ll also look at the science behind the health repercussions of not having strong social networks. Feeling socially disconnected can lead to a higher risk of dementia, cardiovascular disease, cancer and more.
Temple Grandin is a leading scientist, prominent author and speaker on autism and animal behaviors. Today, she teaches courses at Colorado State University. Her latest book is Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think in Pictures, Patterns, and Abstractions.
Temple’s Website: https://www.templegrandin.com
Follow Temple on Twitter: https://twitter.com/drtemplegrandin?lang=en
Check out Temple’s Latest Book: https://tinyurl.com/3tftxpck
Tegan Cruwyis is a clinical psychologist at The National Australian University who studies social connection and how loneliness and chronic isolation are literally toxic.
Learn more about Cruwyis and her work: https://tinyurl.com/3etuvket
Follow Cruwyis on Google Scholar: https://tinyurl.com/yc5ujhaj
Resources from The Greater Good Science Center:
Four Ways Social Support Makes You More Resilient https://tinyurl.com/34ntce8u
What is Social Connection? https://tinyurl.com/nk8crbbz
Is Social Connection the Best Path to Happiness? https://tinyurl.com/4wxc66tn
Why are We so Wired to Connect? https://tinyurl.com/uttppd3p
More Resources for Improving Social Connections
Emotional Wellness Checklist https://tinyurl.com/4wxc66tn
How to Strengthen Social Relationships https://tinyurl.com/5fdv8ra9
The Science of Social Connection https://tinyurl.com/3tftxpck
Tell us about your experiences with building social connections. Email us at email@example.com or use the hashtag #happinesspod.
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Temple Grandin: I had a lot of good things happen. Did lots of fun things when I was in my elementary school years. I had a really good childhood playing outside, making things. Where I started to get into trouble was in high school. High school was an absolute disaster of bullying and teasing. Absolutely terrible. I went to a large girls school and the girls and the teenagers- they were more than boys then doing things like building things. And I ended up getting kicked out because I threw a book at a girl called me ***, and I ended up getting sent to a special boarding school for kids with problems. I was absolutely not motivated to study. I had basically just messed around and not done any studying. Then my science teacher came along, and what he did, is he gave me the motivation to study because now studying was a pathway to a goal of becoming a scientist.
Dacher Keltner: Welcome to The Science of Happiness. I’m Dacher Keltner. Our guest today is one of my intellectual and cultural heroes, Temple Grandin. Born with autism, she was ostracized by her peers, socially isolated, and experienced a lot of anxiety as a child. Now, Temple is a world famous scientist, and she credits this to her support networks. We hear from Temple about the kinds of relationships that shaped who she is today. And we also talk about what the research has to say about health repercussions of not having strong social networks.
Tegan Cruwys: I don’t think we should see social groups as an optional extra when it comes to health. Like, this is really core business.
Dacher Keltner: We’ll hear from psychologist Tegan Cruwyis and get tips on the types of relationships that support us the most. More after this break.
Dacher Keltner: Welcome back to The Science of Happiness. I’m Dacher Keltner. This week we’re talking about support networks and the tremendous impact they have on our lives. Our guest is the world’s leading expert on humane animal handling and an advocate for people on the autism spectrum. Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. Her most recent book is Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think in Pictures, Patterns and Abstractions. Temple, now 75, was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3, and doctors wanted to institutionalize her, as they often did with kids with autism at that time. She credits her success in part to the strong social connections she’s built. And we know from the scientific literature how fundamental that is to our well-being. Temple- It’s an honor to have you on our show.
Temple Grandin: It’s great to be here.
Dacher Keltner: In your lectures, you have this fascinating statement, and I wanted to see if you’d be willing just to expand on it. You said “If I could snap my fingers and be non autistic, I would not. Autism is part of who I am.”
Dacher Keltner: And what is happening a lot right now in our society is people are claiming neurodiversity and variations on what humans are… claiming autism as a strength in many ways as it has been for you. How has your own autism been a source of support for you in your life and work?
Temple Grandin: Well, I’m an extreme visual thinker and that helped me in my work with animals. Animals live in a sensory based world, and it helped me in my design work because the visual thinkers like me, there’s actually a scientific name for them- we’re object visualizers- see the world in photorealistic pictures. An animal lives in a sensory based world, not a word based world. So you got to go “What is it seeing? What is it hearing? What is it feeling? What does it smell like?”
With the cattle, the first thing I looked at is what cattle were seeing when they went to a shoot to get their vaccinations. I didn’t know at the time that other people thought verbally. I didn’t know that at the time that I started this. So it’s obvious to me to look at things like shadows, coats on fences, vehicles parked alongside of the silo. These are things that would make the animals stop and refuse to go through the shoot. That was the very first thing that I did. And I found if you remove the distractions, like move the vehicle with a shiny reflection away from the handling facility, then the cattle would go through it. And no one had thought to look at this before.
Dacher Keltner: Nice. That’s really cool. You talk about, you know, being a child and feeling ostracized and being ostracized and experiences of anxiety. And I’m really curious where you found support as a child.
Temple Grandin: I had a lot of good things happen. I got into early speech therapy really early by two and a half. My mother was always encouraging my ability and art. Mother was very creative. We were always doing art projects together, carving pumpkins, making Halloween costumes. She was very much encouraging all of those kinds of activities.
Dacher Keltner: Cool. You’ve had this remarkable intellectual, scholarly, academic career. You’ve got a Ph.D. in animal science. You did research on pig behavior, cattle behavior and the like. And yet you struggled early in school, in high school. How would you think about your support system in high school and your academic journey?
Temple Grandin: I ended up getting sent to a special boarding school for kids with problems. And the first thing I did is they put me to work running a horse barn, cleaning nine stalls every day, feeding the horses- didn’t do any studying. But boy, did I learn how to work.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah.
Temple Grandin: And also riding horses gave me friends through shared interests. I also had friends with model rockets and electronics. And I was absolutely not motivated to study. Then my science teacher came along.
Dacher Keltner: What grade?
Temple Grandin: That would have been practically your senior year in high school.
Dacher Keltner: Okay.
Temple Grandin: I had basically just messed around and not done any studying. I had no motivation to study. And what he did is he gave me the motivation to study because now studying was a pathway to a goal of becoming a scientist. There now is a real reason for studying. What really supported me during hard times was Mr. Carlock, my science teacher, and [being] out at the ranch. Because while I was at the special school, I spent summers out at my aunt’s ranch in Arizona, and she was another very important mentor. I cannot emphasize enough how important mentors are. Without my aunt and without my science teacher, I don’t think I would have gotten through high school.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah, I hear you. A lot of people, when they have had this career like you have, of just different contributions to the world and, you know, really making a difference- They get this deep sense, you know, at our stage in life of like there have been people who really supported that were always there for them. How would you answer that question of who’s always been there for you?
Temple Grandin: Well, let’s talk about people that got my career started. And one of them was Jim Ool, a contractor. Starting a small steel and concrete business, he was a former Marine Corps captain. He had seen some of my drawings, and he sought me out. He showed me how to set up a business. I had no idea how to do that. And for ten years, he was an extremely important mentor. And I designed a lot of jobs for him and we built jobs together, mainly in Arizona throughout the seventies. There was still Anne out at the ranch. I was still talking to her.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah.
Temple Grandin: You know, there were people that helped me and, you know, I know today COVID lockdowns and stuff [like] that- I’ve often thought I’m an older person and I thought about what if COVID had happened when I was in my twenties, and shut down all my stuff? And if I was a young person, I think I might have reacted to it worse than reacting to it as an older adult. All I could think about as an older adult is can’t wait to get the vaccine and then I’m free.
Dacher Keltner: And that’s true of the empirical data is that the younger people have really been hit hard. So I hear you saying, you know, when I think about the message for our listeners out there, many of them younger than you and I, and making their way is like finding those mentors. Where do you think you found the strength? I mean, you were, you know, bullied in high school and ostracized and so forth. Where did the strength for that fierceness come from?
Temple Grandin: Well, in high school even though I was bullied, there were still refuges away from bullying. There were horses, Model Rocket Club which my science teacher ran and Electronics Lab- these were places that were bully free. And we also had skiing, that wasn’t as important, but bullies weren’t out there most of the time.
Dacher Keltner: Did you feel a sense of home in the Rocket Club?
Temple Grandin: Yes. Yeah. Because the people- we had a shared interest. We could talk about how to build rockets. And I made a rocket to look like our principal. The other kids thought that was really funny. So, Mr. Paytey Rocket, I’m a big believer in the friends who share interest because the thing that gives me a decent life and a fulfilling life is having an interesting career. I mean, I had a great time talking with the construction person that was probably on the autism spectrum.
And some of the most fun times we ever had was just talking about how to build things, how to solve a problem. Find stuff you really can get interested in, and then you’re going to find friends through those activities. Yeah, I think that’s a really important thing to do because the one thing at that boarding school they wouldn’t let me do is sit around and become a recluse in my room. That was not allowed. I was absolutely not allowed and I had to get out and I had to do things even though I wasn’t studying, I still had to attend the classes and not disrupt them. But we need to get out, do some stuff, find something you like to do with other people, that’s a shared interest. I think this is really important,
Dacher Keltner: Profound. Well, Temple Grandin, I want to thank you for your work and your visionary voice. And I want to thank you for being on our show. I’ve long been inspired by how you’ve changed our thinking in the world, and it’s an honor to be with you. So thank you.
Temple Grandin: Oh, thank you very much.
Dacher Keltner: Up next.
Tegan Cruwys: If you belong to no social groups and you’re a smoker, it’s a toss up whether you should stop smoking or stop joining in terms of the benefit to your health.
Dacher Keltner: We hear about the effects of loneliness and how even thinking about our social connections can strengthen our well-being.
Dacher Keltner: I’m Dacher Keltner. Welcome back to The Science of Happiness. Strong relationships with friends, family and mentors are some of the most important factors to our health and longevity. The more we’re part of a community, the healthier and happier we tend to be. But right now, we’re living through an epidemic of loneliness in the United States and around the world, with some more at risk than others- like young adults.
Tegan Cruwys: The other broad umbrella group of people who are at risk of loneliness are people who are, generally speaking, excluded from society for some reason. So, you know, LGBTQ, if they have a disability, if they’re in a minority cultural group, these tend to be markers of people who are more likely to be at risk of loneliness.
Dacher Keltner: Tegan Cruwyis is a clinical psychologist at the National Australian University and returning guest on The Science of Happiness. She studies social connection, how to feel more of it and how loneliness and chronic isolation are literally toxic.
Tegan Cruwys: If you belong to no social groups and you’re a smoker, it’s a toss up whether you should stop smoking or stop joining in terms of the benefit to your health, that sounds really provocative, but honestly, if you look at the data, it’s spot on.
Dacher Keltner: Feeling socially disconnected can be worse for our health and being overweight, not exercising, or experiencing air pollution.
Tegan Cruwys: This is a really significant health risk factor that we probably need to take more seriously.
Dacher Keltner: In one of Tegan’s experiments, she simply reminded people of their social identities and connections before they experienced a setback.
Tegan Cruwys: So in this case, we gave all our participants in the study the same setback.
Dacher Keltner: Everyone had to answer five questions that were actually impossible to solve.
Tegan Cruwys: And we gave them 5 minutes to work on this. And none of them got any of the questions right because they were, in fact, impossible to solve. And what we found was that the people who had been reminded of their social identities prior to doing this task, they were less likely to attribute their failure to personal, internal reasons.
Dacher Keltner: So they didn’t say, “Oh, I’m bad at these tests, or I’m just too anxious, or I’m not good at these things.”
Tegan Cruwys: They said things like, “The test was too hard. I didn’t have enough time. It’s these scientists’ fault”. And they felt less depressed. So their mood was better despite that experience of setback. We had given them that psychological resource of that sense of being part of a collective. And that seemed to mean they were less likely to fall into those unhelpful thinking patterns in the face of a setback.
Dacher Keltner: In another study, she found that the more groups someone was in like a bowling league, an exercise class, or a book club, the less likely they were to be depressed the next year.
Tegan Cruwys: Among those people with a history of depression who had started engaging in social and recreational type activities, we saw a much lower risk of depression relapse. And that’s exciting because relapse is a huge problem in depression.
Dacher Keltner: Other studies suggest that it’s not being part of just any collective that matters. It’s about being part of a group you genuinely identify with.
Tegan Cruwys: So it’s not just that I am a fan of a particular team, right? That is part of my identity. It’s who I am and I care deeply about that team’s success. I feel happy when they win. I feel sad when they lose, and I want to spend time with other people who are part of that community. It can be my family. It can be my group of friends. It might be my neighborhood. It can be my profession. It doesn’t actually need to be that sort of, you know, formal joining organizations. I think it’s more about thinking about, you know, “Who are my people and how can I connect with them better?” That seems to do more heavy lifting when it comes to health than just having strong friendships. These groups, they don’t just exist out there in the world, right? They get under our skin and they influence our sense of self and speaks to the fact that I don’t think we should see social groups as like an optional extra when it comes to health. Like, this is really core business.
Dacher Keltner: On our next episode of The Science of Happiness.
Kelly Corrigan: I want this person, I want this relationship, and I want it to be the very best that it can be. It’s worth every minute you could put into it. It’s worth it, and I’m certain of that.
Dacher Keltner: I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness. What communities have supported you throughout your hard times? Share with us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or use the hashtag #HappinessPod. Our executive producer of audio is Shuka Kalantari, our producer is Hayley Gray, sound designer Jenny Cataldo of Accompany Studios, and our associate producers are Bria Suggs and Ruth Dusseault. Our editor in chief is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX