Emiliana Simon-Thomas on HappinessApr 12 2021
Psychologist Emiliana Simon-Thomas of the University of California, Berkeley talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the science of happiness--what research can teach us about happiness.
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Intro. [Recording date: March 17th, 2021.]
Russ Roberts: Today is March 17th, 2021, and my guest is neuroscientist Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, where she oversees its fellowship program, the Expanding Gratitude Project, and is a co-instructor of the center's Science of Happiness online course. Emiliana, welcome to EconTalk.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Thank you, so glad to be here, Russ.
Russ Roberts: Tough question to start with. How could there be a science of happiness? You're a real scientist. I'm a pretend one. I'm a social scientist. As a real scientist, how can there be one--a science of happiness?
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: I mean, an important question and one that I ask myself all the time: How can we know this ephemeral sort of quality of our lives that is really hard to pinpoint? How do we measure it? How do we capture the factors that contribute to it? Some might call these determinants or constituents. You'll hear all these terms that are bandied around in the science of happiness.
And, how do we know what it is, right in the moment, or what it is in this more general sense? How can we understand the outcomes, or the advantages or benefits, or perhaps even, God forbid, the disadvantages of being a person who you might call very happy or who would score high on--the sort of more technical term for happiness in the sciences is well-being. Right? We call ourselves high in subjective well-being, really means the same thing as being high in happiness.
So, what are the benefits of that? What are the outcomes? What are the consequences? All of these are empirical questions that we can try to understand.
There are many different disciplines who are working on understanding the science of happiness and contributing meaningfully to it. We start with trying to conceptualize the idea itself, first. Like, what is it? What is happiness? Again, we call this subjective well-being in psychology circles. And then try to figure out what factors contribute to it most systematically and most reliably. And, what are the outcomes that are associated with it?
It's an emerging field. I will honor that. I say that only speaking of the science: Humans have been interested in happiness, or well-being, or the good life, or thriving, or flourishing for centuries.
Russ Roberts: Millennia.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Philosophers and the humanities have been invested in trying to understand happiness and characterize it. Scientists are just a little bit late to the parade. But, the benefit of having a science is that it feels a little bit more universal and secular than some of the other disciplines or traditions that speak of happiness.
Russ Roberts: The risk, of course, is what Hayek called 'scientism'--the trappings of science without its reliability. Do you think there's anything we've learned reliably about happiness from this large, interdisciplinary effort that you're referring to?
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: I think that we know, with a lot of confidence, that being a happier person is associated with longevity, with more professional and academic success, with lesser vulnerability to cardiovascular disease, and any number of psychological challenges. It gives us a sort of the outcomes space: How can we measure somebody's level of subjective well-being and then track them over a longitudinal window--so, over time--and then measure or examine what the consequences are? Like, what are the results of being somebody who is higher in happiness? Those that I listed, they're found time and time again. People who are happier just do better in life.
Russ Roberts: As you say, those are associations. I noticed you're careful to use that word. We don't know which direction causation runs. It could be that successful people, people in good health, and so on, are happier; not that the happiness causes those things. There's a correlation there. We don't know where the causation is.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Well, you would be able to make that critique for what's called a cross-sectional study. In a cross-sectional study, we ask people a question in a specific time. And then, we look at all the circumstances of their life at that same specific time. And we make those associations. Right? We run a correlation analysis, and we see, for example, that people who perhaps fall into a higher income bracket also score higher in happiness. And, what is it? Is it that more income makes you happy or that being happier puts you in a circumstance or into a position where you end up being more successful in a way that leads to higher income?
The reason that we have more confidence in that is that the studies are longitudinal. So, in other words, we can do a study--and there's several who have used this approach--where we examine the yearbook photos of a sample of individuals. And so, we'll just look, and we'll analyze the expression that they're showing on their face. And, believe it or not, that just moment, that snapshot, that thin slice of your expressive tendency is taken as a index of your overall happiness. Like, do you just spontaneously show a big, authentic, genuine, open-hearted smile, or is your smile a little bit more controlled, or are you showing even a serious expression?
And so, if we measure this at time one--say, when you're 18, 19, whenever this yearbook photo is occurring--and then follow you throughout the course of your life--20, 30, 40, 50, 60 years--and show that, over time, the people who consistently show this pattern of behavior and expressiveness and responses to surveys about happiness also show these advantages that I listed, it doesn't necessarily fall into the class of just a correlation where we can't determine--make--any causal inferences anymore. We know that the relationship, over time, holds and that there is some extent to which the context at time A is predictive of an outcome that is many, many decades later.
Russ Roberts: Well, I'm a little bit skeptical about that. But, I'm going to express my skepticism in a different way maybe than usual, which is: you and I have never met. We chatted briefly before we started the recording. And, I have to say, Emiliana, you strike me as a happy person. You have a nice smile. And there--you smiled. When I said that, you didn't cringe, or brood, or think, 'I wonder what he means by that.' So, it's interesting. I'm using the yearbook thing there, a little bit. You strike me as a happy person.
And I think there are a lot of people who believe that you're either happy or you're not. It's all well and good that there's this, let's say, empirical relationship--let's be agnostic for a moment about the causation--but there's this empirical relationship. But, you're just lucky. You got a good draw to the gene pool. You're the happy person because of your parents, maybe the way you grew up, maybe there's some cultural factors there, as well. But, 'You're happy. Hey, look, you're at Berkeley, of course, yeah.'
But, maybe that's just spurious because you just happen to be a happy person.
So, is happiness--this is another way to attack this question of whether it's a science of happiness--can you really get happier? I mean, if you're just an unhappy person, or you see yourself--worse--if you see yourself as an unhappy person, are there things one would learn in a course called the Science of Happiness to be happier in theory, at least, given your view--I'm going to, again, be agnostic--get healthier, be more successful financially, and so on?
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Well, yeah. I mean, that's the point of most of my work, is to really provide that kind of insight and actionable strategies that people might use to improve upon their own happiness level. Thank you for characterizing me, by the way, as a happy person. I'm glad it comes across that way.
I want to start, though, with maybe coming to some agreement about what happiness means--
Russ Roberts: Excellent idea--
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: because I think some of the confusion around who is eligible or whether it's malleable and how it works comes from the heterogeneity in how people think about and define happiness.
So, for us, in the sciences--and one of my other backgrounds is studying emotion, and so this comes into play as I describe how I define and how most of my colleagues, who I work within the Science of Happiness, define it: happiness is not the same as a momentary positive emotional state.
I did just describe a study where we looked at the expression of a positive emotion as one kind of measurement of happiness, is by no means the standard, consensus way of measuring happiness. There are real limitations to measuring happiness as a specific emotional experience, because, what we know is that happiness is broader and more general in terms of how a person experiences their life. Positive emotions are brief, adaptive processes that help us relate to opportunities in the environment. They are no more important than what we think of as negative emotions, which are also brief, adaptive, multi-system processes that, instead of helping us manage opportunities and access to resources, help us manage threats--right?--and danger, and loss.
All of these emotions are crucial to a healthy, mental human experience. And all of them are part of being a happy person.
So, the mistake that often gets made is that happiness means trying to feel enjoyment all the time. Means that if I'm a happy person, you would expect me to be smiling, to be cheerful, to be enthusiastic, to be proud, to be amused, to be any number of a long list of terms that describe those heartwarming, sort of chest-expanding, warm, and pleasurable states.
Russ Roberts: Fun. Pleasure--
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: That isn't necessarily what happiness is.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. So, what is it?
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: So, happiness, again, is this broader quality of life. And, it gets defined as being able, readily able to experience those positive states when things are going well.
So, consider for a minute, somebody for whom a wonderful context is presented to them--maybe a surprise party, and all of their friends are there. Somebody walks in the door and their eyes light up. They feel that just sense of wonder, awe, and pleasure, and connection, and warmth, and trust, and surprise, and delight.
Another person might walk into that situation and sort of sour, and tense up, and wonder if it's as good as they had wanted it to be or as good as another person's party that they might've gone to three days earlier.
Those two characteristics are part of what it means to be a happy person. Do you experience positive emotions when you're surrounded by advantages, or privilege, or just delight--delightful circumstances?
Feeling good when circumstances are good are part of what it means to be a happy person. We call this the hedonic or affective dimension of happiness. It's only part of the story.
The second part of this story is how you think about your life. Do you consider your life worthwhile? Do you think that you matter in the world, and are you connected to what's most meaningful or what brings you a sense of purpose in life? We call this the evaluative dimension or component of happiness.
And then, the third one, which is a little bit overlapping with the evaluative and is a little bit newer in the space of trying to understand and characterize subjective well-being and harkens back to Aristotle's philosophical perspective on happiness. And it's really about virtue and feeling like what you do, again, contributes to, or builds your sense of meaningful contribution to humanity. Right? That you belong; that you've done something that matters in the world.
So, these get asked, like: How do you feel?--is the hedonic or affective happiness. What do you think about your life? Are you satisfied with your life? That's the quintessential way of capturing the evaluative dimension of happiness. And then: Do you have a sense of purpose, or do you feel like your life is worthwhile? That is a eudaimonic dimension of happiness.
And right now, the biggest global surveys that attempt to capture happiness or subjective well-being for policy purposes or for tracking progress over time--to do something beyond GDP [Gross Domestic Product] as a measure of social progress--those are the questions that they're using to capture happiness.
Again, it's not about a specific emotion. It's not that you feel good all the time. It's that you can feel good, that you have a sense of looking backward and forward in your life and seeing it as something that's good, and that it's connected to what matters to you, what feels important and valuable.
Russ Roberts: That's a fabulous summary.
Let's go back to the question we were talking about a minute ago, which is the genetic versus the adjustability of those things. So, let's say I'm a brooding person who struggles. I might be an introvert, by the way. So, 'That party,' is not just, 'Oh, it's not as good as the one I went to last week.' It's just that, 'I don't like parties.' Might not be a positive thing for me at all.
Or I'm, let's say, insecure. On that second dimension, I'm constantly beating myself up that I'm not contributing.
And on the third dimension of using my gifts, say, to flourish, which we recently talked about in the program with Leon Kass, and the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle--and I like to say that just so I can try to pronounce it the way Leon does because I've been mispronouncing it all my life; I'm assuming Leon gets it right.
And that third one, I've never even heard of that. 'I don't have a conscience. I don't have any virtue aspirations. I just want to go out in my life and enjoy it.' 'I'm not good at it.' 'I struggle to be happy on that first dimension. In that second one, I'm so insecure,' or 'I've got a bad career. It's just not satisfying to me. I don't feel like I'm doing much.' You know, what can you do for that person? What can anyone do for that person?
We have many ways of helping people like that. Our families chip in to try to boost folks like that. We have therapy, and psychiatry, and psychology. We might have meditation and religious instruction to help give people a sense of purpose or to make them more aware of their reaction to certain things.
Do those work? Can we really take someone who has, let's say, a genetic predisposition to being challenged in, at least, those first two areas--can we help them?
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Yeah. I mean, one of the most important findings that came out, about in 2010, that was by Sonja Lyubomirsky, was from a study looking at the heritability of happiness, of well-being. Like, how can understand how much do genetics contribute to the variance in happiness levels?
And so, let's just take you and I, for example. Let's imagine that I'm a seven on a scale of one to nine, and that's arbitrary, and you're a five. Okay? And this is not true: this is just our hypothetical.
Russ Roberts: This is self-assessed, though. Correct?
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: What did you say?
Russ Roberts: This is self-assessed? When you say you're--
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: When you're asked about your well-being, you say a seven, and when I'm asked, I say a five.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: That's right. Exactly. We're self-reporting our degree of happiness to a question something along the lines of, 'In general, how would you characterize your life on a scale of,' again, 'one to nine'--arbitrary--'with 1 being not at all happy and 9 being very happy?'
So, this research team examined those kinds of assessments in what's called a twin study. So, they'll look at identical twins, and compare them to fraternal twins, and compare them to siblings, and compare them to people who are unrelated, and look at how tightly linked or similar our happiness score is based on this changing degree of genetic similarity.
And, from their analysis, the genetic contribution to explaining the variance between two peoples' happiness was about 50%. So, about half of the reason why you have a 6 and I have a 9 is our genes.
There is no clear genetic signature that we can tie directly to happiness or subjective well-being. There are neurotransmitters that are involved in signaling reward. There are neurotransmitters that are important for stabilizing our mood, for signaling affection and affiliation or feelings of closeness to others. All of these matter; they all interact with one another; and they all play a role.
But, there's no, like, one [inaudible 00:19:52 sounds like "melio"] of genetic kind of quality that can, right now, tell us how easy or difficult that will be for a single person to be more happy or less happy than the another person around them.
So, knowing that, they wanted to know, well, what else? What are the other big predictors? What else explains the variants and happiness scores?
And they looked at, sort of, life circumstances, and they looked at daily activities. And, life circumstances--I think we do often make a mistake of believing or perceiving our life circumstances: Do we live in Berkeley? Are we the middle sibling or the oldest sibling? What is our income level? We tend to think that those circumstances play a big role. Right? I mean, 'I'm unhappy because my parents did XYZ when I was little.'
In fact, those life circumstance factors explain about 10% of the variance between one person and the person next to them or the historic, lived experience. And the other 40% of the variance in happiness is explained by daily activities. Right? How you spend your time, what you do with your time, how you are engaging with the world around you.
And you alluded to that really nicely when you talked about some of the ways that we quickly think about what we might do if we are feeling less happy than we would like to feel. Maybe we would take on a practice of meditation.
There is a really strong case to be made for the benefits of increasing your awareness of the kinds of thoughts and habits, that reflexive[? reflective?] judgments that we might carry around day-to-day in order to evaluate whether they're actually contributing or detracting from our capacity to experience a positive emotion in a given moment.
I do want to speak to the introvert question. I didn't mean my example to be universally pleasurable to every person who could possibly encounter it. You're absolutely right, that there are these personality, culture, particular context issues that can contribute to any situation in a complex way so that maybe you would experience that surprise party as something unpleasant.
The question is, is: do you have an option in those moments to reflect and interpret and judge yourself and the situation around you in a way that allows that more wonderful experience to happen? Or, are you accentuating, highlighting, and exaggerating the more unpleasant, pessimistic, and negative interpretations of the situation in a way that really doesn't allow for you to experience the warmth of that moment?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think it's a fascinating question. Listeners know that I've been on a number of silent meditation retreats. That I credit--perhaps inaccurately; I may be fooling myself in a number of dimensions, I'll mention both of them, if I remember it--that I credit with reducing stress in my life, feeling more aware of those kinds of emotions, and being able to be less impulsive. Right? I think--you know, I could be fooling myself. I could be both, really unchanged, and, two, it could have nothing to do with the meditation retreat, could just be getting older, having different life experiences.
But, I think that's not the case. I actually think I grew from those experiences in interesting ways.
But, one of the things I've also spoken about that I'd love your reaction to is how hard it is for me to maintain my meditation practice. I'll give you an example that I think I've used before. I apologize to listeners who are tired of it. But, when I'm on retreat, we eat mindfully. I take a plate of food. I observe it before I put it in my mouth. I look at it. I think about where it came from; and, being an economist, something about the division of labor that contributes to our food. And so, I find that wondrous and that puts me in a good mood. And, then I put some in my mouth and I sense its texture and its taste. And, the first lunch of the retreat, that's hard. I can't talk to any of the people around me. I can't ask her to pass the salt. I have to get up and go get it.
But, by the last day of the retreat, I so look forward to lunch, and the food part of it is so small. I'm not eating impulsively or uncontrollably. It's so rich and it takes a very small amount of food. In fact, I don't take much food because it takes a while to eat it, because I'm chewing it mindfully. And so, I usually lose weight on retreat.
And, when I'm experiencing that, I say to myself, 'You know, when I go back, I'm going to eat lunch like this every day.' I mean, why wouldn't you? And, yet when I go back, I don't. I read the sports section while I'm eating. I don't notice what I'm eating. I eat compulsively. I eat more than I, quote, "want."
Why is it that we are drawn away from the contemplation of mindfulness?
And, another way to think about it is I love it when my mind is stilled on retreat and I'm aware of everything in an almost hypersensitive way. But, when I get back, I love monkey mind. I love just letting my thoughts run around and take me wherever they're going to go and check my email too often.
And, what's going on there, in your view? I mean, not just my personal problems, but in general?
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: I definitely don't think it's your own personal problem. I think it's--what you're characterizing is the importance of context. When you're on a silent retreat, everybody's doing the mindful eating. You have some kind of guide or leading figure who is explaining in a very inspirational and moving way, inviting way, why and how to do this.
And, frankly, you're not inundated with all of the other demands and sources of information. You don't have the sports page right there. You don't have the email notifications dinging away at you. And you don't have all the other people living in that same kind of hyper-engaged with-information way that you normally do, or that most of us normally do in our day-to-day lives.
The context really matters.
I also think that there's a story to be told about the human nervous system. The brain is kind of agnostic to, like, how we are going to feel in terms of some kind of greater virtue. It really just wants to make us efficient. And, what's really efficient is automating repeated experiences.
So, if you over and over again through choice, and maybe just observation of what's normative, read the newspaper while you eat and check your phone while you're reading the newspaper while you're eating, your brain just begins to make that the most simple, automated, automatic go-to experience to support. Your nervous system just goes, 'Oh, okay: this is what's happening over and over again.'
And, while that might be sort of disconcerting or make it seem hopeless, it's also equally promising because what it tells us is the story of neuroplasticity in any direction. And, it really gives credence to this idea that you can change something about your experience in the world--how you think about yourself, how you think about other people, how you interpret and relate to the context that you find yourself in--through deliberate practice. Through engaging in activities, hard as they may be.
I can't think of very many people who would say, 'Hey, you know what? I exercised really hard yesterday and I can't wait to go exercise really hard again today, just because I want to get started on that.' It's always the after: it's the, 'Oh, I know it feels so good. I know it's so good for my health.' It's not that I really enjoy that moment, in-the-moment feeling of pain in the muscles, insecurity about whether I'm fast enough or as fast as I should be, I'm imagining, going for a run. It's that I know it's going to be good for me, and so I do it because I know it will have this positive effect on me.
And, we really have embraced the theory of exercise and health as a society. And so, it's not questionable anymore, right? It's not questionable that it's a good idea. Nobody's going to say, 'No, no. Rest. Don't exercise. It's not worth it. You're genetically predisposed to have the body that you have and to get whatever diseases you're going to get. Forget about it.'
The same sort of eligibility is there for happiness, for subjective wellbeing in life. If we choose, if we're deliberate, if we apply the same intention and discipline to behaving in ways that serve key drivers of wellbeing, our wellbeing will change.
And, there's a fair amount of research to support that claim.
I think it's still a young science and we have a lot more work to do on that front--trying to understand the opportunity for what we might call an intervention, a happiness or a wellbeing intervention, to actually change in a measurable and enduring or sustained way a person's happiness in life.
But, it sounds like mindfulness worked pretty well for you, Russ.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, and yet I'm struck--it did. It was fabulous. And, when I'm there, by the way, my--I don't know how to say it, the lingo--but my affect is very good when I'm on that retreat. It's just interesting to me how hard it is for me to maintain a practice. And, of course, maintaining a practice while feeling guilty about how mediocre your meditation is--is kind of against the rules, because it's not necessarily so goal-centered and you shouldn't be trying to think about whether you're a good meditator or not. Yet, of course, we struggle with that from years of conditioning and all the other things we do.
Russ Roberts: Let me shift gears a little bit and let's talk about virtue, referencing both the recent episode I mentioned with Leon Kass and also a recent episode with Michael Munger. I don't think I've ever called him Michael Munger like that at the middle of an episode--Mike Munger. Sorry, Mike. He's probably listening. Not right now, but he will be.
We talked about the following scenario, Mike and I did, where you find a wallet in the street and it has no identification--it has identification, it's full of cash and no one is around. Again, these kinds of hypotheticals are a little bit silly because in some sense, besides, a religious person might worry that God is around. A person with conscience might wonder that they're around. They'll see themselves keeping the wallet. And, there's always some uncertainty, really, whether no one, literally, is watching. But, let's try to imagine it. There's no external human being who sees you with this challenge.
And, in fact, let's think about our children. You mentioned before we recorded, you have children. I have children. Would you want your child to return that wallet or keep it?
Would you want your child, more importantly I think, to feel good about returning the wallet? Or would you want to inculcate in your child a lack of conscience so they could enjoy keeping the wallet?
And, when you say something like that, I know all us go, 'Oh, that would be a horrible thing to do.' But, in a certain dimension, that would be a good thing to give your--'Don't burden your children with a conscience. Then they can--.' Think about it. If you don't have a conscience you can keep the wallet, all the cash, get all kinds of good stuff for it. When you're traveling, no need to tip because you'll never see that waiter or waitress again. Just enjoy it. Stiff them. Don't tip at all.
We can think of some other horrible examples. These all--I just want to make it clear: They repel me. I think they're appalling. But, what's the argument for why you would want to inculcate, on secular grounds--not religious grounds now but on secular grounds--why would you inculcate a conscience in someone? Won't they be happier without a conscience?
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Great question, and two answers.
One, I want to share with you research by Elizabeth Dunn, who does a similar paradigm to what you just described, except that there is no wallet in the story. Instead, she brings people into a laboratory study and she gives them money, and she gives half of them the instruction after getting--well, she measures their wellbeing. She says, 'How are you doing? What's going on? How happy are you?'
And, then she gives them the money, and let's just say it's $50 bucks. And she tells half of the people, 'Listen, you've got the whole day; go do whatever you do; spend this $50 on something for someone else.' And, then the other half, she says, 'Hey, you got this $50, go spend it. You know? Do something for yourself, enjoy it.' Right? This is the parent who tells their child not to have a conscience and just take the money and then figure it out.
And, then at the end of the day, they come back and she, you know, ensures that they've followed the instructions. And then she measures their wellbeing at the end of the day.
And, you might be anticipating what the finding is, but time and time again, and Elizabeth Dunn and Lara Aknin have done this research around the world. When people give--spend--their money on other people, their happiness level increases more, significantly more, than when they go out and spend that money on themselves.
So, the myth that, like, spending all of our resources on ourselves and that, again, pleasure and consumerism and materialism are actually routes to sustainable happiness is just wrong. It doesn't bear out in the research.
People who are more materialistic are less happy than people who are less materialistic. We can measure this and derive those relationships.
So, that's the first part of the story.
The second part of the story is related, and it's that when we behave generously, when we interact with one another in cooperative ways, when we build social bonds, we're serving a core need that humans as an ultra-social species have.
So, humans, as a mammalian species, rely on one another for our adaptive success. We're not the largest, hairiest, sharp-clawed aggressive species on the planet. Our success is emergent from our capacity to fold into complex and coordinated social groups. That's what makes us successful.
And, so, our nervous systems have evolved to motivate that, --to motivate that and to reward that experience of having these long-term social bonds. Of feeling pleasure in a cooperatively arrived-upon success. More so than we would at arriving at an individual success.
This is all also captured in neuroscience studies that put people into a big scanner and they have them play a game where they, you know, have to hit a button really fast to win money; and they either win that money themselves just by doing it on their own, or they win that money as part of a team where together they're earning the same prize, but they've done it together. And there's a bigger pleasure response in these dopamine reward pathways when people earn those rewards as part of a team--when they're collaborating or cooperating.
So, we're built to be social. This is part of our evolutionary heritage. And our bodies--we've been able to measure both psychological experiences and physical responses that indicate the specific reward that we experience in association with, again, a cooperative endeavor, as opposed to an individualistic endeavor.
Russ Roberts: Well, I'm sympathetic to that research, although I'm skeptical about whether that actually is a reliable finding. Let me give you my skepticism and an alternative way to think about it and see what you think.
There's a replication crisis in social psychology and in lots of economics, science in general. A lot of these small-group studies tend not to replicate partly not through some kind of fraud, but simply because researchers, wanting to find something in particular, are drawn to making choices that either get it published, publication bias--a lot of reasons.
And, part of my thought of being skeptical about that is that, first of all, most people don't give away a lot of their money. They don't choose this route toward happiness, that seems, according to the research, to be there. I encourage people to tithe. I try to give away 10% of my after-tax income. I think it's a lovely thing. I'm a big fan of it. But I'm not--I wouldn't--I do it because I think I'm supposed to, not because it makes me happy. And, I'm not sure it would make you happy, listener, if you did it. But it might. And, that's part of what we're talking about here.
The other skepticism I have is that: having four kids, all of whom are older than three years old, when they were three, their big thing was mine. They weren't so evolved to be in team effort and to share. And, so, I think there's an argument to be made that sharing and cooperating--I mean, I like to think it's hardwired into us, but there's also an argument that it's cultural: that we have to be instructed in it, either through religion or secular instruction.
And, that: I'm a big believer in the earlier point you made, and it came up in the episode we did with Dan Klein on Adam Smith and honest income, that you might start off having a natural urge to keep the wallet and the money. But, if you continually urge yourself to become the kind of person who returns wallets, you can start to get selfish satisfaction from that altruistic act. And, I think that's an incredibly deep insight.
I think it's true. I don't know it's true. I don't have any evidence for it in the research or scientific way, just my own armchair thinking about it, my own life.
I do think that the habits that we ingrain in ourselves that you alluded to earlier about, say, how we eat or how we observe ourselves, or how aware we are, that they can be grooved in different directions. And, that part of growing up is acquiring the habits that are the right ones, are the better ones, are the virtuous ones; and that they lead to a sense of meaning in life that's rewarding.
And, that's, I think, one way to raise your kids. It also, I think, helps literally for their own outcomes, because people want to be around people like that, if you can do it well without looking like you're scheming to look nice when you actually are nice.
And, I think the insight that Dan brought--and it's in many, many religious traditions and I'm sure it's somewhere in psychology, is that: if you develop that alternative habit, it will become "natural," akin to the previous natural urge that you had. That you can overcome that and create an alternative. What do you think?
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: You know, it's a very common narrative of humanity; and I sort of blame Sigmund Freud for it--this idea that we're at our core driven by this Id, this savage self-interested, competitive Id that we'll just grasp at whatever it can possibly pull into its own sphere of resources--
Russ Roberts: Mine, mine, mine. Give me, give me, give me.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Yeah, exactly. But, I don't think that evidence from psychology, from developmental psychology, from social psychology, from the science of wellbeing or happiness actually supports that perspective.
I think of research by Felix Warneken and Max Tomasello with little kids. These are kids who are under two, who--over and over again, they put them in situations where they're given a chance to choose between helping another person in the room or do something that is going to be fun for themselves. And, the crowning majority of the time, way more than by chance level, the kids will always help the other person in the room. That's just, they see a need and they go do it. They put their own toy down. They decide not to avail themselves of some other fun possibility and instead they go help.
They go back. They go back and find the fun thing that they want once they're done helping. But, at a very core early level, kids behave in ways that are cooperative and helpful--spontaneously--without any affirmation or reward from any of the adults in the room.
So, again, the idea is that it's not our core nature to be selfish. And, we may, as parents, notice and remember those embarrassing times, those ns] had quicker responses early on this time.
Japan it seems, I'm not quite sure I understand what they did that mattered, but they have donesort of disconcerting times when our kids act selfishly and we're sort of surprised by it. But, to me, that's just a function of the unpalatableness of those moments and how our minds actually do sort of highlight--we're biased to really notice, it's called the negativity bias, to notice those moments that are more challenging to our sense of what's right and what's safe and what's normative.
And, so, we think they're really common, but they're actually not that common. onWay more of the time our three-year-olds are very graciously cooperating with each other, making up games together, figuring out how to enjoy time in a shared way with one another.
So, I don't really believe that notion that at the core we're selfish. I believe that we've evolved as mammals, and this is also work by Frans de Waal, whoai is a primatologist. Work by, oh gosh, my friend at the University of Chicago, Jean Decety, who has looked at rodents, looked at rats who free each other from small enclosures. Not because they're, like--there's no other reason for them to be freeing one another from this uncomfortable situation, other than that they feel like that's the important and rewarding thing to do. It's a mammalian behavior that supports social living. Right?
So, yeah--I just don't think that that narrative holds in these research studies that look at primates and whether they cooperate and whether they share and whether they express gratitude and whether they reconcile after conflict. Time and time again, the finding is they do. They exhibit these pro-social behaviors--spontaneously, and quite often contrary to a sort of mythical rendering of chimpanzees that may have emerged from some tradition that I can't really explain.
Russ Roberts: Well, I'm really skeptical of that. But, you know, we might just agree to disagree. Maybe we'll talk about it for another few minutes. I'm thinking about Jane Goodall, for example, who did extraordinary work with primates. There's a wonderful documentary about her work that has incredible footage of when she was younger and on the ground: it's an amazing documentary. I recommend it.
The punchline of that work--not the punchline, but one of the punchlines--of that work is that she had a romantic image of primate life that was deeply shattered by their violent and murderous tendencies with strangers.
Now, I'm not saying that's the way we are. I don't want to suggest--I just think it's very hard to overcome either our romanticization of human nature or the other way, which I think it can go too far the other way and just say, 'Yeah, we're just a bunch of selfish animals designed--.'
I think both of those views are wrong. I think we have a cooperative side and I think we have, obviously, a strong self-interested side. I've mentioned it before, but it's, I think, relevant here: my older son used to trade with his younger brother with baseball cards. And, I had to act as the commissioner, because my oldest son knew more about the value of the cards than my younger son, and it was awkward.
I don't think that's a unique experience of parenting. I think we often have to teach our children to be cooperative, and I think, the rewards of cooperation that I think don't always come naturally.
And, I'm also struck just by the religious traditions. It says in, I think, Leviticus, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' It says that because it doesn't come naturally. It says 'Honor your parents': don't love them, because it's too hard to love them. I think that would be, like, a tremendous achievement.
And, I just would say, as an aside: of course, some of our awareness of our own children's graspingness, probably comes from their being in their parents' presence--not always so much with siblings or strangers. And, I assume that children and parents have complicated genetic and cultural issues in terms of drawing away and self independence, autonomy. I'll let you respond to that if you want, and then I want to move on to something else.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Yeah. I mean, I think you're right to caution against over-presuming the higher influence on anyone's moment-to-moment experience. By that, I mean: Is it self-interest or is it pro-social? Is one more important, or more prominent, or more influential than the other? I don't know of any evidence that suggests that either is less worthwhile or less crucial.
I think What I'm trying to do with my work is put the pendulum back towards the middle and create a narrative of agility, so that we don't feel like it's automatically the case that we have to react in self-interest, or that we have to react in a cooperative and generous way, no matter what the situation or the circumstances at hand present us with.
There are certainly situations where acting in self-interest is the right choice, right? Moving yourself out of the way of an oncoming vehicle--really, really important to do. Even if you see, through the vehicle window, that the person might be crying and feel the urge to, like, stay right where you are and maintain some kind of supportive eye contact, right? You might have both of those urges. Hey, getting out of the way is the right choice in that moment.
So, again, not to say that I'm trying to make the case that overall, human's primary role is always to invest their resources into the other, right? 'That's always what we need to do.' Definitely not the case. I just think that the narrative, historically, has been overly focused on self-interest and at a disadvantage to the possibility of leveraging our prosocial tendencies to benefit our own wellbeing. I think if we don't utilize those pro-social inclinations and we don't behave in ways that are consistent with them, we end up having less happiness in our lives.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I couldn't agree more about that generally. It's complicated, right? Some of the most satisfying things we accomplish, we do on our own. Writing a book would be an example of that.
And, yet, working together with a group of people to achieve something great, is extraordinary. You see it in sports. You see it in putting a person on the moon. It's obvious that there is something profoundly human about that kind of cooperation. So, I certainly don't want to undervalue it or discourage people from seeking it out because I think it's easy to stay narrowly focused.
Russ Roberts: Listeners know I'm writing a book on decision-making, and it's dealing with issues about--one of the things I'm trying to deal with is parenting and marriage. What do you think we know about the roles of marriage and parenting and in creating happiness? We live in a time where, at least traditional marriage--as opposed to living with someone--officially marrying someone is not as common as it used to be for people to, say, 20 to 30. Age of marriage is getting later. Number of people never married is larger. People are increasingly not interested in having children. And, those that do have, typically, one, in the United States and wealthier countries.
Do we know anything about how these two things, marriage and parenting, create or destroy happiness--because I think both are possible. What are your thoughts on that?
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Yeah, I think you're right. I think both/and is the response to that. Although, I will back up for a moment and just say that what matters is the presence of long-term supportive social bonds. Right? Having relationships with people that are supportive, that allow us to go through life with a sense of safety and trust.
And so, what this presents us with in the literature on marriage and becoming parents is a murky set of findings. You may find--when researchers try to study, 'Well, does getting married make you happy?' And they measure happiness over time. And they measure before the wedding, and then on the day of the wedding, and then a year later, and three years later, and five years later. Generally, the pattern is that of a set point, right? And the set point is the genetics of happiness story.
You can have a particular experience that's really remarkable, both in the positive or the negative direction. You just described moving--right?--as a life experience that you're about to undertake. That can be incredibly stressful, a real disruption of your normal life. And it's big. It's a real emotional experience that is important to acknowledge. But, it's not going to make you unhappy and stressed for the rest of your life. Right? You're going to adjust to it. You're going to adapt to it. You'll be back to your set point of whatever happiness you arrive at--
Russ Roberts: My baseline--
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: So, the same can be said for getting married, for having kids. Again, the pattern tends to be that just before, the anticipation--there's this little blip upwards in happiness. Right when it happens, there's this bigger increase in happiness. People are really excited about this new experience in life. And then gradually the happiness line goes back to the kind of set-point level that it was before.
That's on average across everyone, right? All the large-sample studies where we're measuring thousands of thousands of people globally, or at national levels, and examining these patterns.
Now, if you ask something about the quality of these relationships, the stories are a little bit more interesting. And, I think one of the big stories that came out recently was that marriage is great for men and not so good for women, right? The people who get married, their happiness goes up, if they're men; then it stays up, and it's this great boon to their wellbeing. For women, it might go up and then kind of go back down, and maybe even dip below, right?
Russ Roberts: It's hell, mostly.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Well, there are some interesting insights to arrive at in trying to interpret those findings.
If you pull them apart even further, and ask people, like, about how their relationship is--like: How is your relationship conflictual? Is your relationship supportive? Do you experience meaningful growth in the company or connected with each other? And, if so, the happiness benefits endure. Right? The health benefits endure. The relationship serves the people in the relationship.
If the relationship isn't of high quality, right?--if somebody feels like they're not seen, or they're not being respected, or served, or supported--yeah, none of that is good for happiness.
So, it's a little bit of a blunt hammer to try to understand what having kids, or getting married, does for happiness if you don't also take into consideration the nature of the relationships. It's complex.
If you become a parent and you have a very difficult child, for a number of reasons it's going to be a different experience than if, for whatever reason, you're lucky enough to have a child who's really easygoing, and independent, and motivated to do well in school, and to get along with other people. Those kinds of parents tend to experience an increase as a result of it.
There are also findings about the number of kids. One kid has a certain increase in happiness. Once you have your second kid, the increase gets a little bit lower. By the third kid, increase even lower. By the fourth kid you actually don't get an increase at all--you're just so stressed about trying to manage the demands of being responsible for this many small people that it can really make it difficult to experience any of the joyful moments, or maybe relaxing or contented moments, that are important to your equation of happiness.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. As someone said, 'Once you get to the third kid, you're playing short-handed.'
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Yeah, exactly--
Russ Roberts: Even if you have a spouse, there's two of you, three of them, you're outnumbered. I don't like that joke, but it makes me laugh anyway. I don't think of my children as a source of conflict that way--at least I don't want to.
Russ Roberts: But you have written a piece on this--some of these findings--where single, unmarried women--unmarried women without children--are the happiest group. That finding, in particular, was the result of a misunderstanding of how the data were collected. But I will mention that I once mentioned that to a stranger in the airport, that finding, and she was so excited. And I said, 'Are you married?' 'No.' 'Do you have children?' 'No.' I said, 'Well, unfortunately, it's not really a reliable finding.'
But, I think the real answer is, of course as you said: If you marry the, quote, the "right" person--which is impossible to define, but someone who is supportive, has certain other characteristics--you are much more likely to have a contented time as a married person. And obviously, if your children are troubled, it's much harder. If they have health issues, mental issues, it's obviously harder.
I'm blessed to have four healthy children. My feeling on this, and I don't know if this is common. Francis Bacon, the 16th century essayist, said 'the joys of parenting are secret.' He didn't have any kids, by the way. He had a horrible marriage. But, his point in that essay, where he's talking about parenting, is that parents keep their troubles to themselves; and their joys. And I think there's a lot of truth to that in day-to-day life. Most parents I know, we don't sit around talking about how great our kids are. Excuse me--we talk way too much about how great our kids are. We don't talk much about what it's like to be a parent, and how that changes a person.
And I think it changes a person in really important and powerful ways that are way beyond the affect of what day-to-day life is with four little people. I have four kids. Any one day as a parent, and I say even the same thing about marriage--I'm very happily married, I love my wife deeply, I'm so grateful that we're together--but any one day you might wish you weren't, or that you didn't have kids, or that they weren't doing this to you, or whatever.
And I think it really highlights, for me anyway, the importance of the non-affect part of life: the non-Benthamite pleasures and pains, the satisfaction I get from life. Even though there are plenty of glorious moments as a parent when your kid does something beautiful, funny, delightful, sweet.
But, that's not why you become a parent. You don't become a parent so you can show them off, or do whatever pleasure you get from your children on a moment-to-moment basis. You do it because it transforms how you see yourself.
And I think that eudemonic understanding of life is profound. I think Aristotle was onto something there.
If you'd asked me, 'Are you glad you are a parent?' I'd say, 'A hundred percent.' Again, not because it's fun--because a lot of it's not fun. But because it's meaningful. It's powerful. It enriches your life in ways--for me, it's like bittersweet chocolate, or I've used the example in here Laphroaig Scotch. It's an acquired taste. But it's more than just a taste: it infuses your sense of self.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: You just said that beautifully. I agree.
I would add that I think there's good evidence that the act of caregiving--
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Great point.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: the pathways in your brain that are involved in that urge to approach and affectionately nurture a vulnerable conspecific--it's a very dry way to describe your baby, or a young child.
Russ Roberts: What was the phrase?
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Vulnerable conspecific. Right? [?] The small, and need something. Something that you, alone, can provide in that given moment.
Russ Roberts: But what's the phrase before specific?
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Conspecific.
Russ Roberts: What does that mean?
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Just another person.
Russ Roberts: Okay.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: A person who is [?]--
Russ Roberts: Who is not me?
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: A species of similarity to you. And I use that term only because we have those feelings. We have that urge when we walk down the sidewalk and a person we've never met is holding a puppy. Right? We have that, like, draw towards this puppy to do something--to pet them, to nurture them, to hug them--even though, you know, we have no relationship to them, and no future with this puppy necessarily.
That's just a small version of what most parents feel when they confront their own infants; and their growing infants and children into young adults, into teenagers, and adulthood. I think that there is this meaningfulness element to it, but there's this also, sheer affection element to it.
And, again, the evidence I was thinking of is from Stephanie Brown, who is a researcher at SUNY Rochester [? No university by that name--Econlib Ed.], who studies parenting in the brain, and the parenting pathways, and how actually a sustained engagement of these nurturance pathways--I'm using parenting and nurturance interchangeably here--is associated with longevity and just benefits to health over the course of life.
So, again, evolution has sculpted us to be, to benefit from using this affordance that we have as a species to become parents--to serve, to be more generous than any philosophical kind of argument might suggest is natural to a human. Right? We do everything, and anything, for our children. And, there's something about that generosity, that nurturance, that affection, that is profound and instrumental to the human experience.
Russ Roberts: Let me add onto that. Obviously not everybody can have children--men or women. Not everybody is able to find a partner in life to be married. But, what you're suggesting, which is really quite beautiful, is that there are other ways to tap into that human experience. You can nurture others who are not your genetic offspring, not your adopted children, but total unrelated to you in any way. You can connect and find supportive friends that substitute for these things that we've culturally honored--marriage and children, obviously. They've got a long history of encouragement from, again, religion and secular tradition. But there are other ways to get there from here.
Russ Roberts: I don't want to leave this before I mention Adam Smith, and I'm going to disappoint listeners at home with the drinking game. This is a slightly different quote, but it's the same point, so I'm sorry about that. In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith wrote a beautiful thing. He said--this again is roughly in 1759; I don't know if it was in the first edition, "The chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of being beloved." And he got a lot of it right there without any studies, and regressions, or cross tabs.
I think there's a long understanding that as human beings we need some kind of connection with other people. And by 'beloved,' he didn't mean romantically only. In particular, he meant praised, respected, honored, to be well thought of by the people around us that we interact with. And I think that's an easy thing to forget, and a good thing to remember.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: I agree. I think another really important part of that statement, which I'm not sure if it's implied, but I will tease it out anyway, which is: It's also 'beloving', and I'm making up that word. It's not just being beloved, but it's knowing that you are an important person in relationship to others, be that your family members, be that your spouse, be that your friends, your community, your colleagues. You have a role in beloving the people around you and that that is valuable, that that matters.
So, I think that's an important part of what being beloved means. It's not just that others are providing that to you and you feel safe and supported, but also that you figure importantly in upholding the safety and supportedness of others.
Russ Roberts: It's a fantastic point I've never thought of directly in that context.
One way to think about that--let me give an example. Obviously, when I've had a bad day, when I'm struggling with something, I love that my wife cares about me, takes care of me, and so on. And, then, 'Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I like when I help her, too.' But, it's so much--I didn't get to read this yet, but one of my children sent me, recently, an article by Bagley, whose first name I don't know. I haven't read the article, but the gist of it is, is that a good relationship is like jazz--an ensemble--where you're interacting in unexpected and complementary ways.
And I think a good relationship, especially a marriage, isn't just, 'Oh, you have a good marriage. My wife loves me.' And, it's not just, 'Oh, and I love my wife.' It's that our mutual nurturing--and this is true of children, it's true of our best friendships--our mutual nourishing is reliable.
As Leon Kass mentioned in the last episode on this topic we were talking about--I love this--: 'It's without impediment.' It's direct. It's not what's in it for me, or what am I going to get out of this and return later. It's not calculative or purposive in that way. It's simply being in close support of a fellow human being.
And I think that does tap into something profound in all of us, whether it's in friendship, marriage, parenting--or being a child, by the way, of a parent, which we all are.
I love that addition. I think it's--being self-centered, we tend to think about being loved. But, if we're mindful, we can remember that we also need to belove others.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Well, I think one way that can make it more poignant to bring to mind is imagining a moment when you are, for whatever reason, are unable to provide the support that you know is required to somebody who you really care about.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: I can think of few more unpleasant and stressful states than that one--
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Yeah--
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Right? We're all going to encounter it, at some point. Our beloveds will suffer. They will pass, and we will be unable to prevent it or to alleviate the distress around it in the other person. And that, that is really, really troubling. That's an existential challenge.
And so, to try to connect with how important it is--it might not be easy to be like, 'Oh yeah, helping them feels really great,' but instead, 'How hard is it when I can't? How terrible is it when I know that I'm not doing what needs to get done for this person to feel as supported, or comfortable, or safe as I want them to feel?'
And yeah, I also just want to echo how important it is that relationships are not based in a kind of transactional orientation: that it's not tit for tat in our long-term lifelong bonds, social bonds, whether they're with our spouses, or our dear friends, or any other sort of community that we feel a sense of belonging with.
Russ Roberts: My father passed away a year ago. We were very close. And, one of the things that's been hard about the last year is that I can't tell him things that I know--I want that respect from him that he used to give me--not easily, by the way. He made me earn it, which I have also appreciated, even though it wasn't always appreciated at the time.
But I never thought about the other side, which is what you're talking about. The part of what I miss is the opportunity to help him--and not just in the health way--of course, which when he was older, I had to do some of that. But more the opportunity to be a teacher. Which is interesting to think about. He was my teacher, obviously, for at least 20 years when I was younger.
Of course, when I got older, I could teach him. I could bring books to him that he hadn't read, music that he hadn't heard. And part of it, to be honest, was I wanted him to recognize, of course, how wise and tasteful my choices were in music and books. But it's more than that. I loved making him happy.
It was much easier for him to make me happy than for me to make him happy, because that's the way parents and children are sometimes. But I never thought about that sense of loss--the inability--not just what I got from the person, which we all understand immediately as part of loss, but the opportunity to give to another person, which is silenced and ended in that, with that. It's a really important to think about. It's really sweet.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Well, first, I'm super sorry for your loss, and I know that that is just one of the most difficult things that we face in our lives. And, yeah, you said it beautifully. Not being able to continue to bring joy to another person, in a way that fuels our sense of meaning and purpose as people, is real.
Russ Roberts: You've written a lot about gratitude, and we had A.J. Jacobs on the program talking about his book, Thanks a Thousand, which is a sweet, sweet paean--ode--to the virtues of gratitude and the challenges of being grateful in the modern times, when so many people often contribute to what we get to enjoy. Why is gratitude important? And, what would you encourage people to do who want to have a practice of gratitude in their life?
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Gratitude is important because it orients us to the things that are good. Right? In any given moment, there's an infinite number of things we could be focusing on or paying attention to or reflecting on or ruminating on. And, in that set of infinite things, some of it is good. Something is good. And gratitude kind of gets you to bring that stuff into your awareness.
Gratitude is important, because it takes the focus off of yourself. Right? By nature, gratitude is not about things that we revere that we've earned. It's about things that have come to us, goodness in our life that we get that we didn't have to work for. That somebody else did, or some other force of nature or the world that we live in has presented to us. So, it sort of steers our thinking away from self-focus.
And, then when gratitude is about other people--which I think is the most powerful kind of gratitude--it gets us to connect other people with reward. With pleasure, with goodness in our lives.
And, I just think that's so valuable. You know, again, we do live in a kind of a society, most of us, where we encounter lots and lots of people, day in and day out. And, evolutionarily, we probably aren't prepared to interact with that many strangers on a day-to-day basis. In fact, strangers tend to arouse the subtle stress response, because we're just not sure what they're going to do.
But, gratitude is a way to steer our bias away from suspicion and vigilance to threat, and towards the possibility that any human that we come across or interact with in our workplace or in our neighborhood might actually be a potential cooperator or cooperative partner.
So, again, it brings us this place of optimism, of recognizing what's good. It gets us to stop being so self-oriented and self-focused. And, in many cases, given the kind of highly competitive, perfectionistic culture that us overachievers tend to live in, self-critical. Right? If we can sort of quiet that; and then also steer ourselves towards recognizing and tuning into the goodness of other people and the way that other people in the world can contribute to goodness in our own lives, is why gratitude is important.
How could you get better at gratitude? Honestly, just say it more often, but say it in a way that is specific enough that it can have the impact--the most notable impact.
And, what I mean by that is: Throughout the day, other people do things that serve you. And, we most often come to take it for granted, because we're used to having somebody bag our groceries, or we're used to the person on the telephone reminding us of some opportunity that we may or not be interested in.
Is there a way to capitalize on that moment, leverage those moments? To express, one: 'Thank you for doing what you do.' So, describe what the other person did. Acknowledge the effort that the other person put into it. 'I know you had to set aside time and energy to do this.' And, explain how it benefited you. 'I really learned something important from hearing what you just told me.'
Or--I'll try a different example, and this one will pertain to family relationships. Let's imagine that your spouse washed the car. Right? Washed the car, and you're like, 'Great. The car has been dirty.' That's one way to think about it. 'Thank God. They finally did what they were supposed to do.'
That's like the non-gratitude way to think about it. You don't feel connected to them. You feel, actually, kind of strangely adversarial about whose job is what, and whether anybody's done what they were supposed to do, in a kind of comparison way.
Instead, can you go, 'Wow, you washed the car. Thank you for doing that.' And, describing what you did for going outside, getting it together, and washing it. 'I know you could have gone for a walk with a friend or called your mom and had a conversation about, you know, the Grammys Award [Gramophone Award in music achievement--Econlib Ed.] ceremony. But, instead, you decided to go out and wash the car. That really matters to me.'
And, then now, when I go outside and I drive to wherever you're going to go--I know there's fewer options in these pandemic times, but wherever it is--maybe you're driving to get your vaccine: 'I won't feel embarrassed or ashamed or weird about how terrible our car looks to other people.'
And, again, like, just doing that, taking that extra--I don't know--45 seconds, to describe what the person did, acknowledge their effort, and explain or describe how it benefited you, it just changes everything.
It's like an immediate way to shift the tone of your own feeling, the feelings in the other person, and the sense of connection that you have with them. And, it can be to the person bagging your groceries, or it can be to the people who you feel very close to in your life.
Russ Roberts: I think one of the challenges of marriage is that you don't care about the same things your spouse cares about. You don't care about them as intensely. Your spouse might really care about the car, and you don't care at all. And so you don't clean it, because 'It's stupid to clean the car. I mean, really, what does it matter?' It doesn't, really. It's just superficial. But, your spouse doesn't feel that way. And putting yourself in your spouse's shoes and being able to see it through their eyes and then doing something for them that you actually are not so focused on, is--it's an act of kindness. It's not unimportant. And, I'd say it's interesting how hard it is, I think, to come to those realizations. Those people out there who do live with someone or are married to someone, I recommend your thinking about those in your down moments, now and then.
But, listening to you talk about gratitude, I was struck by a very un-economist-like thought, which is: It's really a free lunch, feeling grateful. I mean, there's no cost to it. Feeling grateful, for sure. Saying it is a little bit costly. It might require a little bit of self-abnegation, and you might have trouble with those kinds of feelings.
But, feeling grateful is totally free. If you can get yourself acclimated, accustomed to it, it's a glorious--plus, it does give you a little bit of a rush, too, and I'm all for it. I think it's a wonderful, easy habit. Tried to inculcate it in my kids, and that wasn't so easy. I have to confess. For some of them, it's challenging, I think. It's hard to remember. It's hard to remember. It's not a cruel thing. It's not like, 'They don't deserve my gratitude.' It just, like, it could easily--if you're not careful in life, you can go through life just not appreciating people, and more importantly, not expressing it.
I got my second vaccine a week ago or so, and I found it very moving, actually. One was the amount of knowledge embedded in that needle that came into my arm, which--the amount of giants whose shoulders had to be stood upon to get that, to make me feel safer, is just an amazing human achievement.
But, the other part was that this person, the pharmacist assistant, who was just beautifully doing her job. In her mind, I think she didn't show any signs that this was a profound moment, like it was for me. And, I just said to her, 'You know, thank you for being here. I know it's not always easy.' She's encountering dozens of strangers every day, within breathing distance. Mask? Forget the mask. We're all wearing masks; it doesn't matter. What a courageous and glorious thing to do, and to just take it for granted is appalling. It was a wonderful thing that she did, and I suspect she didn't think about it so much, day to day.
And, I hope everyone says thank you to those folks. Not because they're heroes--that's a phrase I don't like; the front-line people. Because they're doing something human for another person that isn't so easy, sometimes. And, you should thank people for that, I think.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: No, and I think you're absolutely right. It's not costly. It's something we can get better at. There are lots of other ways. People have studied gratitude journals. You can take a few minutes each night to write down the things you feel grateful for. There are gratitude meditations. You could Google 'gratitude meditation MP3' and find a number of really wonderful people who have thought about how to lead you through a reflective gratitude exercise.
And, you know, you might also wonder--your listeners might wonder--'Well, other than just a free lunch, like why? What's the point? Maybe I have enough free lunch.'
Well, gratitude is associated with lower blood pressure. People who are more grateful are more socially appealing. Other people like you more when you tend to be the kind of person who expresses gratitude more readily and more often.
You're better at managing setbacks. You're not as vulnerable to post-traumatic stress if you're higher in gratitude.
So, it's just one of these things that you can practice. It's a skill. You can get better at it. You can just do it enough times that it emerges more spontaneously as the go-to thing to do. And, it's a benefit in your own life and your own health and wellbeing, to your own happiness.
And, it's a boon to your relationships when you say thank you to each other. You might go do the car thing, even if you don't care about it, because it's so dang rewarding to have that moment of connection and understanding, when your spouse shares that more specific and expressive kind of gratitude with you.
Russ Roberts: One of the most amazing experiences I've ever had was on one of the silent meditation retreats I was on. And, we were asked--for 45 minutes, in silence--to just think about people who had done kindness to us. Of any kind: trivial, profound. And, I thought, 'You know, this isn't going to--how can I do this for 45 minutes? I mean, this is going to be: My parents were nice to me. My wife's a good person to me, whatever it is.' I thought, 'This is not going to work so well.'
And, the teacher said, 'Start when you were young, the youngest you can remember. Just work your way forward.' And, I was so overwhelmed by that experience. I don't think I could--I'm not sure I can recommend it to listeners to try. It took a certain point in that retreat for me to be in a place where I could access that and feel it strongly.
But, when I came back from that retreat, I called some people who I had not talked to in a long time and just thanked them. And, I'm so grateful for that--opportunity to express gratitude. And, it's an extraordinary thing to be appreciative of what other people have done for you. I think we grossly underestimate it, the magnitude.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: It's just we're a little out of habit. There's this survey that the John Templeton Foundation conducted, I don't know, maybe eight or nine years ago now. And, basically, they just asked, like: 'What do you think about gratitude? Is it important? Do you care about it? How often do you feel it? When do you feel it? How often do you experience it? How often do you hear it from others? How do you think you are? Are you more grateful than you were 10 years ago? How do you think about society?'
And, the finding that I'll share is that, bar none, people felt like gratitude was very important. It was a virtue that they valued and that they aspire to. People generally described themselves as becoming increasingly grateful over the course of their lives. They were getting more grateful, and they described society as diminishingly grateful.
That's not possible, right? Mathematically, you can't have everybody--I'm speaking to an economist, so hopefully, I'm not too off-base. You can't have everybody increasing in gratitude, but society decreasing. That doesn't make sense.
But, one possible explanation is that we're just not saying it to each other. And we're not hearing it from each other.
And, that was also borne out in the data. Like, people never thanked their bosses at work. Never. People never thank wait staff who they give tips to. Right? There's all this confusion between a transactional relationship and just a human relationship. And we sort of let the transactional, by habit, kind of overwhelm the underlying nature of just the benevolence behind people's contributions to the goodness in one another's lives.
And so, I think kind of unwinding that transactional mentality and just going for it--you know, dive in. Say thank you.
Your experience sounds profound and wonderful, and I do hope that many of your listeners have a chance to experience something like that, with some kind of careful context and guidance.
But, I also think writing a letter to one of those people and calling them up and reading it to them or sending it to them by email, if that feels more comfortable, is a very profound way. And, it just gets started to launch your journey into experiencing more gratitude.
Russ Roberts: I want to close with a personal question for you. Before we started recording, you mentioned that you were living in the house you grew up in, that you were raised in Berkeley; you still live in Berkeley. That's an incredible connection that many Americans no longer have. They don't live in the place they grew up. But, even moreso in your case. You're not just living in the area you grew up, the neighborhood, or the town. You're living in the same house.
And, we had Lamorna Ash on recently, talking about some of the connections people have with a sense of place. Certainly, Chris Arnade's episode of Dignity, on his book, Dignity, was about the fact that many people don't like to leave where they grew up, even though there might be better economic opportunity elsewhere, because they have a certain sense of self and meaning, being close to the people that grew up with.
I don't have that. I moved away from--I left home for college. I went away for graduate school. I then lived in a bunch of places nowhere near my parents. I visited them from time to time, but I don't have that kind of connection.
And, I suspect there is something deeply human in us that craves that, even though I convinced myself that 'Yeah, I don't need that.'
I'm curious what your thoughts on that are, as someone who thinks about happiness and satisfaction and has that gift/outcome of your life, that your sense of place is very--very, very strong.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Yeah. I think my sense of place is very strong, but interestingly, I connect it more with my family and my community than the physical location. In research on wellbeing and the science of happiness, contextual changes often have a much less enduring impact on happiness levels. In other words, if I were to move to Washington, D.C for a professor job that was more prestigious and higher-paying than what I'm doing at U.C. Berkeley, my wellbeing might go up in a period of time, but with continued time, it would go back down to that regular, kind of set point level, those contextual changes. And, I consider place, in many regards, a contextual change.
That said, for me, again, I'm one of five children. My siblings all still live in the Bay Area, also. We're very close to one another. My parents still live in Berkeley. So we have a lot of connection. And whenever I did face that opportunity to pursue a different career path or an extension of my current career path that took me elsewhere, that was the thing that kept me from going--was thinking, 'Gosh, I'm going to have to raise my kids without their aunts and uncles and their grandmother and their grandfather and our neighbors, who we have very close relationships with, also.' We have a very family-friendly block with lots of similar-aged kids.
And I just--I mean, in some ways, I think there could have been great benefits to moving somewhere and meeting new people and exposing myself to the challenge of creating that community again. And, then in some ways, it was just easier to stay, and I was willing to take the blow to my professional career in order to have this enduring and sustained sense of community that I've gotten to enjoy. It's such an important part of my life.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Emiliana Simon-Thomas. Emiliana, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Thanks for having me. It's been such a fun conversation, and I really do hope your listeners get something out of it and figure that there is possibility to arrive at a more happy level of themselves, if they so have that interest.
Apr 12 2021 at 12:47pm
Next time I get into a debate on why I call it Social Studies and not Social Science, I will direct the person to this exact episode. And economics is Social Studies, too, not science. See COVID silence by economists. I expect we will get plenty of “after action” analysis.
We do the world a huge disservice by not calling it “Studies,” because it biases the reader/listener to jump (the shark!) to correlation. I am all for episodes like this and do enjoy them as long as there is a disclaimer up front not to consider any of this causal, etc.
Happiness is not even fixed within a 24 hour period. How many of us know someone who is the life of the party, joy at work, awesome yearbook picture… then gets home and completely crashes into a horrible mood. Just like someone takes 200 pictures before posting the perfect one to Facebook, many are faking that yearbook+ photo.
If I were Emiliana, I would slap a wearable on test subjects and measure HRV + other vitals. Connect it to GPS tracking. See how stress changes throughout the day. Use haptic feedback and ask subjects to journal specific moments during the day based on device data.
Apr 14 2021 at 3:11pm
David: Interesting observation. You never come out and say, however, whether you consider “happiness science” a science or whether you would consider it “happiness studies.” My personal sense, having done both science and studies, is that this is well over on the “studies” side of things. Pretty much any attempt to explain human behavior or even biology falls on the “studies” side with only mostly non-invasive science on the margins, non-invasive meaning not that helpful in the macro sense and often unhelpful because it is pseudo-science with the admixture of higher doses of contemporaneous (faddish) or individual (“me-search”) biases. All the best, Tom
Apr 12 2021 at 7:08pm
I wish there were a way (maybe there is?) for all of us to know that we’re talking about the same thing when we talk about “happiness.” For example, I imagine being hooked up to a device that would monitor my brain activity and then provide various stimulants until I have a “happiness” reaction. The researcher can then tell me, “You feel that? That feeling is what we mean by ‘happiness.'”
Apr 14 2021 at 3:22pm
John: I might offer a contrarian view if that’s OK. Humans seem to be far too variable to reduce something like happiness to something that one can point to it and say “there it is.” I tend to proceed from the “N of 1” perspective with lots of N variability–we are so widely variable that any generalization will fail to account for very important “tails” or outliers, often ones that matter in emergent civilization dynamics. On the one side you have what could be called maladaptations (sickness) but that are part of the human condition. We have to deal with them! On the other you have certain very functional humans in civilization terms, e.g., good citizens, but for whom happiness looks very different that the discussion here. In most cases (like this author) we are talking about an imaginary “mean” human with much interpretive spin (very similar to the pretentions underpinning “homo economicus”) and not “the human race.” Thus, these inherently normative discussions cannot fail to miss and become feel-good entertainment rather than helpful. To be forthcoming, one of my very few high-reliability principles (this itself highly suspect): utopians are virtually always dangerous and come in many varieties of sheep’s clothing. Utopianism often starts from normative generalizations designed to narrow the human race rather than deal with its astonishing variability.
Apr 15 2021 at 11:49am
Tom: Thanks for your thoughts. Whenever happiness studies come up in Russ’s interviews, I find myself wondering what academics mean by “happiness” and “being happy.” A commenter below suggested “contentment” as a substitute, and at least in my case, I would find it intuitive and easy to say with confidence whether I’m contented, whereas the question whether I’m happy always puzzles me. I feel like Andy Bernard in the episode of The Office (U.S. version) when he needs someone else to tell him whether he’s gay or not. Maybe there’s some “happy” state that most other people enjoy but I’ve been missing out on, much like the experience of having children as Russ often points out. And as I think you’ve hinted, maybe happiness is so individual that the only way to even come close to understanding it is through literature rather than measurements.
Apr 12 2021 at 7:55pm
Since Black Americans report much higher levels of self-esteem than Whites, & Whites kill themselves @ 3 times the rate of Blacks, will she say that racism is irrelevant to happiness, & therefore unimportant in general?
Yeah, I didn’t think so.
I suspect by her metrics the cultists in Jonestown were the happiest people in the world, up until the day they handed out the Kool-aid.
Whatever she thinks happiness is, I don’t want it.
Apr 14 2021 at 3:36pm
Bob: I tend to agree, but not for myself, just for the broader society. (See my post above in respond to John’s comment.) Her definition of happiness, and I realize it is somewhat of a “consensus,” a concept I find strongly non-scientific since science should be inherently skeptical and be affected not by the herd but by the evidence and challenges to it, applies to an imaginary and I would guess narrow slice of humans, one of which I can safely say is the speaker herself. Research, as it is said, is often “me-search.” Russ often plants little skeptical seeds in his discussions with people like this person, an important one being the discussion of “scientism.” All too often science tends toward Lysenkoism, the search for conclusions that make one popular or trendy or…happy. Happiness Science strikes me as mostly tautological, contemporaneously congruent, and most of all, narrow. Attempting to speak for all humans in a happy-talk way (ironically but predictably), it misses the fact that a civilization must deal with the broad range of human conditions, not the least of which is that it must compete with other human groups for survival or scarce resources or pride. As Thucydides noted, people go to war for reasons of “fear, honor, and interest,” a framework that is difficult to compete with for its depth and brevity. But listening to it did make me happy if I let myself marinate in its invitation to wishful thinking. But ultimately I just couldn’t, so it didn’t make me happy. And I was deeply happy that I didn’t allow myself to be happy about that.
Apr 13 2021 at 12:32am
On Gratitude: “We’re used to the person on the telephone reminding us of some opportunity that we may or may not be interested in.”
I love the tribute to salesmen and she’s right. They’re among the most underappreciated of servants.
Apr 13 2021 at 9:19am
Happiness is a very fuzzy concept, I think being content is probably better and easier to measure. And being content depends on what you expect from life, that’s why a lot of modern people aren’t doing much better than our ancestors when it comes to this even though we might have more things. My parents and a lot of relatives had told me that when they were children they were very poor, sometimes they didn’t have anything to eat, but because they didn’t know any better they were content with they circumstances. Everybody around them was in the same boat. This changed when ever-present mass communication became a thing.
Apr 13 2021 at 11:43am
Emiliana answered the wallet-full-of-cash question once and for all. We don’t teach our children to be happy taking the money despite being able to help the wallet’s owner because to do so is to deny and to work against our own humanity.
Toddlers help others without being taught to do so; it’s just part of who they are. Experience greadually teaches us to dial that back, lest we get hurt or taken advantage of, but that urge to help is part of us. To be human is to be pro-social.
Thus teaching someone (oneself or one’s child) to be happy while acting anti-socially is to undermine their humanity, to work against their flourishing, and to make them a little less lovely. You’re not burdening your child with a conscience; nature has already done that. Instead, you’re teaching your child to be fully human.
Teaching someone to be happy just keeping the money is like teaching them to like uncooked meat, because look at all the time we waste cooking! Wouldn’t you be happier just chowing down and moving on with your day? No, not at all.
We teach our children—and strive to learn ourselves—to be good to strangers because that’s how we lean into human nature in all its quirky, pro-social, help-the-stranger, loveliness.
Apr 14 2021 at 3:47pm
Justin: Interesting thoughts! I would suggest, however, that you’re missing a simple phrase before you posted: “For me…” You are stating your preferences for yourself and for certain others, but that’s a very, very narrow slice of humanity. Teaching someone to be inclusive or to work against their genetically deep mistrust of others makes them more likely to be victimized by those not socialized in the way you might prefer. Thus, their genetics might not be very well propagated. What’s missing here is the sense that in order to have a society trending more (i.e., like nudging a huge supertanker ever so slightly) toward the society you would like, it also needs and cannot hope to avoid a wide variety of other human types, motivations, teachings, and a whole long list of what makes humans highly variable. But at the core you have survival and propagation; thus how we deal with violence. I refer you to Colonel Nathan Jessup’s “you can’t handle the truth” speech from the movie “A Few Good Men.” It takes a village, they tell me, and that has been my experience. All of one type probably doesn’t survive as a group, especially if they are all “nice.” Full disclosure: I spent over 40 years in the national security (defense) business where we can’t afford to be wishful thinkers so others in our society can be. But I wish more people were nicer, especially around me! Then I might be happier, or maybe not. Depends…on a lot of things.
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