Paula Poundstone I remember when I was in junior high, maybe, one summer I was lucky enough that my parents paid to belong to a pool that we could go to. And so, I swam on the team for that pool and I hung out there every day. So, at one point, I decided that I was going to swim laps every day in addition to swim team practice and that I would add on a lap each day. Anyways, I was up to swimming over a mile every day. And, you know, I would be blurry-eyed when I came out like, literally, you know, a little bit physically unstable when I came out of the pool every day because I’d just been in there swimming for so long and then I’d get on my bike and ride home and my mother was getting madder and madder that I didn’t come home earlier and earlier, and I finally had to quit my goal because it made my mother mad. Yeah, I’m a little too old now to put too much stock in that story, but there might have been something to it.
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner. Welcome to The Science of happiness.
Our guest today is not a champion swimmer, but she is an award-winning comedian who performed standup at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Paula Poundstone is also a two-time author and the host of the podcast ‘Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone.’ Paula has achieved a lot of big goals throughout her career. But for our show, she decided to focus on a very small one. Later in the show, we’ll learn how our environment affects our desire to set goals.
Paula, welcome to The Science of Happiness.
Paula Poundstone Thanks very much for having me.
Dacher Keltner For our show, you tried a practice where you identify a small goal you want to achieve in the next day or two, then write down the steps you’d take to make it happen.
Paula Poundstone Was it supposed to be the next day?
Dacher Keltner Well, let’s hope, but I’m starting to have my doubts. How’d it go with pursuing this goal? What did you choose?
Paula Poundstone The goal that I chose was dusting a quarter of my bedroom.
My room is my bedroom/office, and it is Dust Bowl kind of dusty. And I chose a quarter because, frankly: dust the whole room? It’s too overwhelming.
I wrote down these steps and the things that I needed to do in order to make this successful. And I will tell you that one thing that I wrote on my list was: cut back on computer time because one of the problems is—I simply don’t have time. And if I look to where—there’s not a lot of fat in my schedule—but if I look to where there is fat, it’s Twitter. You know, there’s no question that it’s messing around with that, you know, horrible, horrible, horrible machine.
But a lot of people may think: what a weird goal. I have to say, in my own defense, I have two big dogs and 10 cats, and the cats are not allowed in my room. But the dogs sleep in my room and hang out in here all the time. But the other thing is, I don’t have grass in the backyard anymore because of the dogs and because we have a drought in California. We’re going to run out of water altogether soon. So, there’s no grass in the backyard, nothing to hold the dirt down. And so, it is like the Dust Bowl in my bedroom a lot. And so, that’s why I didn’t say the whole bedroom. I thought, you know, if I could just get to a quarter of it.
Dacher Keltner And you were able to do this?
Paula Poundstone It was—I couldn’t do it.
Dacher Keltner Why not? You’re supposed to for the show.
Paula Poundstone I was unable to do it. I did start. I have to say in my own defense, I did start. But you know, there are no broad surfaces. You know? My room is my office, slash, bedroom.
Dacher Keltner Slash kennel. Slash pet store.
Paula Poundstone Slash kennel, yes. So, every surface has stuff that you have to move and then you have to wipe that off. And, I don’t like any kind of process anymore where I have to decide the value of something. Remember that lady that had that show where people were like, I don’t know, kissing their things goodbye or deciding if it made them happy? Remember that?
Dacher Keltner Marie Kondo.
Paula Poundstone She was a type of organizer that was coaching people on television. And one of the things she would have them do is pick up each thing and see and recommend that they see how the thing made them feel.
Dacher Keltner And how’d that go for you?
Paula Poundstone I didn’t do that. I don’t believe in that. But this is my point. I don’t like judging the merits of each thing I come to each time I come to it. That’s a whole nother project.
Dacher Keltner That is. So, Paula, you know, often we have goals and they surface on our to-do lists and they sort of make contact with what our values are. So how does this choice of trying to dust a quarter of your bedroom—what values does that connect to you? Why did you choose that?
Paula Poundstone Well, Dacher, I like to breathe. And I’m telling you, it is so dusty in this room. And, it’s not that I’ve never dusted it before. It’s that it really requires a lot of maintenance and then I get into a situation where it’s so dusty that by virtue of dusting it, it makes it harder to breathe. So I usually, like, I often listen to podcasts while I do chores, but I have to keep the vacuum running while I’m dusting to try to suck in the dust that’s up in the air. And so, I can’t really listen to anything then. So it’s a very lonely pursuit, which is again part of the reason I haven’t done it. But I’m telling you, I have terrible, terrible allergies. Even if you didn’t have allergies, my room is so dusty. It’s almost—
Dacher Keltner You’re trapped.
Paula Poundstone An anti-masker couldn’t come in this room.
Dacher Keltner What happened when you first tried to dust a quarter of your bedroom?
Paula Poundstone I forget what stopped me because I did start. Maybe it was that the phone rang, maybe it was, you know—I go about doing things a lot of times where I don’t entirely complete what I’m doing because, it’s very much like my act, actually, which is that one thing reminds me of another, which reminds me of another. And so, there’s always this feeling, “Well, you didn’t quite complete that.”
Dacher Keltner So, most of the time when we pursue a goal, it kicks in a little bit of dopamine. We feel a little bit better about life.
Paula Poundstone Only if you succeed, though, right?
Dacher Keltner Right. So tell us what that was like.
Paula Poundstone I can tell you. When you don’t succeed, the hole of depression is easily twice as big. Because the other thing is: it was a goal that I really did want to achieve. And, I knew that if I could do that, it would lift me up.
Dacher Keltner We know that’s one of the key things is to be a little gentler on ourselves, so not getting that quarter of your bedroom dusted—did it send you into a spiral?
Paula Poundstone It wasn’t good. I would love to have been able to come on and tell you how great I felt and how—I mean, I didn’t want to disappoint you for one thing. Although you’re not sucking dust into your lungs the way I am. And I was only going to cut down on the dust by a quarter. I may not only have made myself more unhappy, I may have shortened my life.
Dacher Keltner Glad you’re on the show!
Paula Poundstone Yeah, yeah. You know, when I die, archivists will find this little clip and they’ll go, “Oh, yeah, yeah. She was almost happy once, but no, not really.” I am, however—I mean, I think the lesson has been taught for your listeners in this way, which is: I am aware that had I achieved this, it would have been a good thing. If I had just done it in a twenty four hour thing, I might have been better off. I think part of it was that I thought that it was like I was supposed to think about it for days and then do it. And you know, I have this list and sort of reflect on this list. But I think if I felt the pressure of deciding on that goal one night and then doing it the next day—because I live by the list. Oh, I’m a big list maker.
Dacher Keltner Every day?
Paula Poundstone Every day.
Dacher Keltner What kind of things do you put on your list?
Paula Poundstone On a day when I know I’m struggling, I put “Get up.” I make that list pretty easy sometimes. Let me see. There’s a—one of my notebooks with my list is right in front of me. You know what’s at the top of the page? Underneath the first thing on the list, so the second thing on the list is: listen to the CD and it has a line over it because I did it. And the next thing is pack and it has a line over it because I did it. And you know what the top thing on the page is?
Dacher Keltner What’s that?
Paula Poundstone And it’s not crossed off: “Do goal visualization project.”
Dacher Keltner Alright. I’m going to come over and bring a duster and we’re going to dust that corner of your bedroom.
Paula Poundstone See, if we could do it together—that’s the other thing. Dusting is a lonely pursuit.
Dacher Keltner You know, I make some lists too and I think a lot of people understand that and they see the value in it. And, it is in effect like the goal-setting exercise of writing really concrete things down and checking them off your list. Why does it matter so much to you? Why do you still do them?
Paula Poundstone Well, for one thing is, I have a terrible problem with my memory. And so, if I don’t write it down—when my kids were little and they’d say, “I have to have blue sneakers by Friday.” Friday would come and we didn’t have blue sneakers. They’d go, “You were supposed to give me blue sneakers by Friday.” And I would say to them, “Did you see me write it down when you told me?” And they’d go, “No.”
Ok, that’s the same thing as not telling me. If it’s not written down, it didn’t get said. That was a long time ago. So it’s not like—I don’t think I have early Alzheimer’s or anything. I just think that I, you know, the more stressed I am, the more poorly I remember things. And so part of it is just as simple as that. And the other thing is, there is something very gratifying about being able to measure even daily accomplishments. Most of my pages end up with one or two things that never get done and I transfer it to a new page. But every now and then, there’s a whole page where every single thing on it got done.
Dacher Keltner How’s that feel?
Paula Poundstone It’s glorious. I’ll tell you how often it happens: about the same frequency as your suitcase being the first one up on the carousel.
Dacher Keltner Well, The Science of Happiness now is thousands of studies and it’s all these practices that I teach—you can write down three good things or volunteer or find something that’s really funny or do an awe walk or write down your goals. And sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t, like it did for you. I’m curious what your thinking is about how we approach our own lives in these experiments of happiness that you’ve tried on our show? What do you think, Paula?
Paula Poundstone Well, I think sometimes it depends how you’re defining happiness. I remember one year at Christmas time—Christmas Day in our house with my children was often very, very difficult.
Dacher Keltner Mine too.
Paula Poundstone One year, it dawned on me. Because, I had my expectations of what I wanted it to be. I worked really hard. I bought the kids, you know, gifts, the tree, the huta, the hata. One year it dawned on me that part of the problem was that I had an image in my head that simply wasn’t what they were going to do. And where did that image come from? How dare I even have that image in my head? What was giving me that expectation was all this other stuff that had nothing to do with these children.
Why did I think Christmas Day was going to be any different in most ways than any other day? It is just a ridiculous notion that I got from movies and Christmas cards and foolishness—and I enjoy Christmas cards and I enjoy those movies. I enjoy all those things. But the idea that I expected us to look like that is kind of ridiculous. Once I kind of got a hold on that, I did much better. So, some of it just depends on what your expectations are, and I do think that our expectations are often so far off.
By the way, particularly in the area of family—you know, I remember when I first showed my children The Three Stooges, who I love, I explained to them that you can’t really hit each other, you can’t run a saw over somebody’s head—that would not be funny. That these guys are acting like, you know, pretending that you can get up after that happens to you. But in real life, you would not. So I made that little Three Stooges viewing speech. But I made a much longer speech before I showed them Leave it to Beaver.
Dacher Keltner Exactly.
Paula Poundstone Because I was like, no one solved the problem in 22 minutes. I don’t care who they are. And no mom vacuums in pearls. And I said, “It’s a made up story, and it’s funny if you listen to it that way, but don’t think that we’re supposed to be like that because we’re not.” So, I recommend that people who have children give themselves my Leave It to Beaver speech before they do so.
Dacher Keltner Nice. You know, what I like about your approach and what I always take from the efforts at happiness that don’t work is: it’s an experiment. And that’s what makes it a mystery and a challenge is—we don’t know, and we try things and sometimes it works, and sometimes we can’t do it like the goal of visualization practice. And I think that’s really: we learn a lot when it doesn’t work.
Paula Poundstone Do people expect you to be happy all the time? Because you have the answer?
Dacher Keltner Oh yeah. And in fact, that’s a lie. I’ve had my struggles and people always assume that I’m, you know, it comes really easily and it’s not true. It’s a complicated task finding happiness.
Paula Poundstone Maybe it should be more of a byproduct of other things, anyways.
Dacher Keltner Yeah, I agree. I totally agree.
Paula Poundstone You could get it on the side.
Dacher Keltner Point ourselves in a direction, and then we’ll find it and get it on the side! Paula Poundstone, thank you so much for taking your time today to be on our show and I hope you can get back to dusting that room someday.
Paula Poundstone Oh, my gosh. If anybody ever comes to my house with white gloves, I’m throwing them out. It was fun talking with you. Thank you.
Dacher Keltner Thank you so much.
Up next we’ll learn how our environment affects our desire to set goals.
Bob Fennis We were fascinated by how people respond to a sense of disorder, chaos.
You can experience a sense of, let’s say, randomness or disorder, when you’re exposed to your own super messy room or your messy desk.
Dacher Keltner More on the science after this break.
Welcome back to The Science of Happiness. When we achieve small goals, it makes us more confident that we can do it again in the future.
Shuka Kalantari And if we fail, at least we get to try again?
Dacher Keltner And here with me is our senior producer Shuka Kalantari to go over how to do the goal-setting exercise that Paula Poundstone did.
Shuka Kalantari Hi everyone. So this goal visualization practice is relatively simple.
First, choose a goal that you want to achieve in the next day or two. Something small. Something simple.
Then write it down, describing in detail how you’re going to do it. The key is to break the goal down into a series of manageable steps to show you how you’ll get there.
You’re supposed to do this daily for three weeks, so that ultimately you get to cross a few goals off your checklist. And then that creates a momentum.
Dacher Keltner The writing down’s really important, isn’t it? The writing down kind of allows you to visualize how you’re going to achieve these goals.
Shuka Kalantari For me, it provides structure, which I think is something we all desire.
Dacher Keltner Well, we are a species that loves to have goals and pursue the goals in the rhythms of the day and the structures of the day. By contrast, when we don’t have those goals and those patterns and those rhythms, it can feel threatening. It can stoke anxiety that gives you a sense that your life’s out of control.
Shuka Kalantari Right, like a lack of order like natural disasters, war, COVID-19.
Dacher Keltner Even a lack of order on a smaller scale produces anxiety, like when you walk into a messy store.
Bob Fennis A store environment that’s messy or when you’re exposed to your own super messy room or your messy desk—it’s not well structured. It’s disordered, it’s chaotic. And we have that frequently.
Dacher Keltner That’s Bob Fennis, a professor in consumer psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. He studies how disordered environments affect how we pursue our goals. In one of his experiments, he had people look at one of two photos on a computer screen.
Bob Fennis Either with a picture of a messy store environment—messy, the clothes were everywhere. Like sort of what you see after, let’s say a Black Friday sale.
Dacher Keltner Or they saw a photo of a very organized department store. Afterward, everyone rated how much they agreed with various statements like:
Bob Fennis “I enjoy having a clear and structured mode of life.” And for instance, “I find that establishing a consistent routine enables me to enjoy life more.”
Dacher Keltner Bob wanted to see if the chaotic-looking photo boosted people’s need for order.
Bob Fennis And yes, it actually does. Just being inconspicuously exposed to this chaotic store environment raises people’s acute sense—need for order.
Dacher Keltner Finally, they asked everyone to imagine they were halfway through a loyalty rewards program, you know, like a punch card where you get your tenth coffee free.
Bob Fennis So, subscribing to these loyalty programs is actually setting yourself the goal of collecting these points in order to ultimately be able to redeem rewards.
Dacher Keltner The people who saw the picture of the messy department store were more likely to say they really wanted to earn the rest of the points and get the reward.
Bob Fennis The well-structured goal is more appealing when you, after having been exposed to a chaotic store environment, experience an elevated need for order
Dacher Keltner It made people crave more immediate structure in their lives.
On our next episode of The Science of Happiness, we’ll explore how our experience of time can depend on what we’re doing and how we’re feeling.
Bryant Terry Just in 2020, I decided that I needed to be very intentional about spending time with my wife. Carving out time to spend with both of my daughters separately to give them some love. And it did feel like just time was melting away because we were being so present with each other.
Dacher Keltner If we were to ask you to ‘give someone the gift of time,’ what would that mean to you? Share with us by emailing email@example.com or using the hashtag happiness pod.
I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness. The goal visualization practice and others like it can be found online at ggia.berkeley.edu.
Our Senior Producer is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Our associate producer is Kristie Song. Sound design by Jennie Catalado at BMP Audio. Our Executive Producer is Jane Park. 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.