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SANTOS: Angela, you don’t know what a crossover is? Did you Google it?

DUCKWORTH: Well, I did have to Google it. The Simpsons did a crossover with 24.

SANTOS: That’s amazing. 

DUCKWORTH: I think I get it, though. It’s like the Doritos Taco Bell mashup thing. 

SANTOS: The most horrifying new one of these is Heinz just did this crazy new thing where they’re doing all these weird mayo-ketchups and stuff, but they did an Oreo mayo-ketchup.

DUCKWORTH: That sounds terrible!. 

SANTOS: But this will not be terrible! Because today we are doing a cognitive science mashup of the two best cognitive science podcasts out there, let’s be real, Laurie Santos from The Happiness Lab, along with—. 

DUCKWORTH: Angela Duckworth from No Stupid Questions. And we are using this No Stupid Questions format that my usual partner, Stephen Dubner, and I like so much, which is that one of us asks a question of the other. And then, we just have a rambling conversation. 

SANTOS: I’m in for the rambling conversation. That’s usually what we have together when we meet up, Angela. Let’s do it. 

DUCKWORTH: Thank the Lord that you’re here. God damn it! 

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

SANTOS: I’m Laurie Santos, sitting in for Stephen Dubner.

DUCKWORTH + SANTOS: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: why do we mirror the accents and mannerisms of the people we meet?

DUCKWORTH: Monkey A observes Monkey B do something different with a banana. I don’t know if that’s stereotyping. 

SANTOS: They do like bananas. Totally true. 

Also: why can happiness seem so elusive, even when things are going well?

DUCKWORTH: “Holy shmoly, this is the best life I could possibly be living. Why am I not a 10 out of 10 on happiness?”

*      *      *

Laurie SANTOS: I think you have the first question for me, correct?

Angela DUCKWORTH: I do. And this comes from a listener named Sabika Shaban, who hails from Qatar and is a graduate student there. This question is as follows:

“I have a question about mimicking the mannerisms of people we meet, especially in our multicultural environments. Often, in conversations with people with very marked accents — different from my own — I find my own accent taking on nuances of theirs, or interjecting typical expressions from their language culture. Is this a typically observed behavior? And on the flip side, are there many whose accents and mannerisms never change, regardless of who they speak to, and a reason why some do and some don’t?” 

Laurie, I love this question. I am so vibing with it. Sabika, that is me. I spent two years in Oxford. And I ended up speaking, almost involuntarily, with this faux-British, posh accent. And I am from southern New Jersey, so I should not be doing that. Does this happen to you, too?

SANTOS: Oh my gosh. I moved to the U.K. when I was in graduate school and I, too, took on not just a British accent, but the most painful British mannerisms. 

DUCKWORTH: Like what? 

SANTOS: If you told me something shocking you did — “Oh my gosh, Laurie. I just went to the pub and I had eight pints.” I would respond to that with the phrase, “You wot?” And I brought that back to the U.S. for a year. And my friends were like, “Stop. It’d be one thing if you just talked with a fake British accent — would be bad enough. But the fact that you’re, ‘You wot?’ all the time, it’s just terrible.”

DUCKWORTH: Wait. You knew this and you still did it, right? It wasn’t an affectation that you were doing in an ironic, Brooklyn way. 

SANTOS: Yeah. And I think you know this, Angela, about me, but I grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and had what — to the uninitiated — would sound like a terrible Boston accent. If you’re from Boston, you’d know it was a New Bedford accent, just like, “Pahk ya cah at Hahvard Yahd.” 

Basically, I couldn’t say “R” — to the point that I actually lost a research assistant position my freshman year in college. So, I started out my freshman year working in Steve Kosslyn‘s lab with Kevin Ochsner, who’s a professor at Columbia. He was doing some study where he just needed a female voice to say letters. I started recording these letters “A, B, C.” And then, I got to “Q, Ah,” and he was like, “Well, you can’t say ‘ah.’ You have to say ‘R.'” 

I was physically incapable of doing that except sounding like a pirate. I was like “Arr.” And he was like, “No, it’s just ‘R.’” Anyway, so now you notice that, in my perfect podcast speak, I can say “R.” But the reason I think that happened was that I ended up, my freshman year, being paired with a roommate from New Orleans who also had an incredibly thick, this time southern, accent. 

Somehow — again, perfectly unconsciously — we took on each other’s vocal cadences, to the point that by our senior year — this is back when your college room would have a single phone that someone would call, and you wouldn’t know who had picked up except by their voice. And, in fact, people couldn’t tell me and my roommate Catherine apart by our senior year, because our voices had converged so much. 

DUCKWORTH: You took her “R”s. Did she lose hers?

SANTOS: She stopped saying “y’all” as much. In fact, we both picked up another expression from our Pittsburgh roommate, which was “yinz.” 

DUCKWORTH: I like that, because “you guys” is apparently an offensive, gendered, presumptuous, possibly hostile-sounding appellation — so my own students tell me. 

SANTOS: I think “yinz” and “y’all” are better. But the beauty is we just do this naturally. In fact, this is an evolved part of human cognition. Researchers call this behavioral contagion. This is the kind of thing that you see in animals. A classic case is, if you watch fish, they tend to school around. And it looks like they’re all copying each other’s behavior. 

It turns out they are. There’s some lovely work by this guy, Iain Couzin, who does all these detailed mathematical network analyses of how fish school around, but the upshot is they’re just soaking up each other’s behavior, quite naturally.

DUCKWORTH: How do you know that they are really mimicking each other, as opposed to all responding to all the same little piece of floating kelp?

SANTOS: He does these incredibly detailed math-y things that I’m not going to be able to pull up on the fly. He can actually do some predictive coding based on one fish’s behavior about what’s going to happen with the schooling. It really does seem to be behavioral contagion.

But you don’t need to look to fish. This is something that we do quite naturally. One of the most famous examples of this came from my colleague here at Yale, John Bargh, and his colleague, Tanya Chartrand. They found out about this effect that they called “the chameleon effect” — well-labeled, because it’s cases where people just chameleon-ly copy other people’s behavior. 

DUCKWORTH: What’s an example?

SANTOS: They had subjects get interviewed by a scary experimenter. So, there’s this high-status person you think you’re being interviewed by. And what the experimenter did, unbeknownst to the subjects, was just occasionally take on strange movements. So, she would touch her face, or put her arm in a particular way, or cross her legs. 

And what you find is that, as they’re being interviewed, they unconsciously copy all these behaviors. So, as the experimenter is touching her face, they touch their face more. As she’s folding her legs, they fold their legs more. Again, totally unconsciously. And their later work shows that this happens more in the high-status direction. So, you’re more likely to unconsciously copy the high-status people — maybe just because you’re watching them more, honestly.

DUCKWORTH: This is the classic work of Al Bandura also, right? Where the little children who watch an adult take a toy, like a Bobo doll, and beat it with a hammer. Then, when entering a room with the Bobo doll, just like they saw, they will walk over and start beating it with a hammer. Whereas, Bandura points out, they don’t do that in a controlled condition where they have not seen an adult model this. So, I guess, the question I’m asking is: is the phenomenon that you’re describing different from modeling? Or basically the same?

SANTOS: It’s probably the mechanism that leads to this kind of stuff. I mean, you know this well. In cognitive science, we often don’t know the basic mechanisms that lead to other stuff down the line. And there’s lots of hypotheses that things like behavioral contagion lead to lots of nasty stuff. In fact, Bandura is about people beating up a Bobo doll. But there’s evidence from people like Francesca Gino and Dan Ariely that behavioral contagion can lead to some truly unethical behavior in some contexts. 

DUCKWORTH: Lying, cheating, stealing and worse.

SANTOS: Exactly. The Dan Ariely-Francesca Gino cheating study is fantastic. So, they bring these subjects into the lab, college students, and give them a super, super hard math test. It’s basically impossible. If you’re a subject, you’re experiencing, “Oh my God. This is terrible. I’m never going to finish this.” 

And then, you watch one subject raise their hand immediately, like two seconds into the experiment, and say, “Yeah, I’m done. What can I do?” And the experimenter is like, “If you’re done, well, you can just shred your answers so no one sees them, and we’ll pay you.” If you’re the subject, you’re thinking, “Wait a minute. They’re not even going to check that I did them? They’re just going to shred it?” 

And what Ariely and colleagues find is you’re more likely to cheat on these problems if you see somebody else cheating. But the neat thing is that it’s not just if you see somebody else cheating; it actually has to be somebody that relates to you. They manipulated this in a cute way. They’re doing this stuff at Duke University. So, the Duke students are there in this study. And the person that raises their hand and cheats is in a Duke University sweatshirt. Now, all of a sudden, cheating goes up a lot. 

But if the person’s in a U.N.C. sweatshirt (who are the losers from the other school), now all of a sudden people are like, “Oh my God, I’m not going to cheat.” It actually reinforces moral behavior. This is another thing we know about behavioral contagion, which is kind of weird; we’re more likely to contagiously pick up on the behaviors of people who we see as our in-group members, who we see as high-status, who we pay attention to.

DUCKWORTH: So, I wanted to ask you what you thought about mirror neurons. I, as more or less an outsider to this literature, have only read articles about these specialized neurons — that if I see you doing a particular action, they are lighting up in my brain as if I were doing the same action. So, A: is that an accurate description of mirror neurons? And B: what’s up with mirror neurons, Laurie?

SANTOS: I’m not a fan of mirror neurons, I’ll be totally honest. There’s a lot of hype around mirror neurons, but what they actually do might not be as cool as we sometimes think. Basically, these were discovered in monkeys in a very famous set of experiments in Italy back in the early ‘90s, where monkeys were watching humans engaging in these actions. And areas of the monkey motor cortex, the spot that would fire if they were grabbing for something; when they are watching these humans grabbing for something, they tended to fire. 

So, seems super cool. “Oh my gosh, the same neuron in me that fires when I reach, fires when I see you reach. Maybe neurons are the code for empathy. Maybe these neurons are the seed of our perspective-taking,” and all this stuff. 

What we know about them is they only exist in motor cortex. So, it’s for very specific motoric movements, like grabbing and reaching. There’s a couple mirror neurons in other spots. There’s some that might be in attention regions, so for eye-gaze turning and stuff like that. But not as rich as you’d think. 

DUCKWORTH: And I think there is some argument that human beings are unique in their ability to learn through observation. Whereas, a dog, or even a chimpanzee, can’t do it, or at least can’t do it as well. 

SANTOS: Which is weird, right? Because the mirror neurons were mostly found in monkeys. In terms of learning by observation, animals do do that. But what they don’t learn by is imitation. I see you behave in this very specific sequence. And I copy all of those very mechanical behaviors perfectly. That’s literally what monkeys don’t do. 

DUCKWORTH: Wait. What do monkeys do? So, Monkey “A” observes Monkey “B” do something different with a banana. I don’t know if that’s stereotyping.

SANTOS: They do like bananas. Totally true.

DUCKWORTH: Okay. Good. I’m glad that holds up. Anyway, what does happen? If it’s not imitation, what is it?

SANTOS: Here’s one study that looked at this. This is not with monkeys, but with chimpanzees. For our listeners out there, pet peeve of people who work with primates: monkeys are not chimpanzees. Chimpanzees actually eat monkeys. So, totally different. It’s like saying a human is a tuna fish sandwich or something. 

So, with chimpanzees, they have this task where there’s a bunch of food outside of some enclosure. And a chimp has to use a tool to get it. They give a chimp a rake, basically, where you could try to use a rake with the tines down, like we’d normally rake leaves. But if they’re tiny pieces of food, that will work sort of, but not super well, because the food goes through the tines. Whereas, if you flip the rake over and you have that part of the rake that’s flat, you can scoop the food up more effectively. 

So, they show kids this behavior. And what you find is the kid will copy whatever the human does. Whereas, if you do the same thing with chimpanzees, they don’t necessarily fully copy what the human does. They realize, “Oh, I can use a rake to try to get the food.” And then, they trial and error it. So, they’re copying the fact that you’re using this tool and you can do it. But what they’re not copying is the perfect actions that go with it. 

DUCKWORTH: It sounds smarter! Doesn’t it sound a little bit more evolved, as it were?

SANTOS: It is smarter! Yeah. In fact, there’s a wonderful bias that is a perhaps human-unique bias — we have some evidence that you don’t see it in primates or in dogs — which is called “overimitation.” This idea that we imitate too much. If you see somebody doing something that’s inefficient — or in the case of this Ariely study we talked about, bad, immoral — you inadvertently copy it anyway. 

DUCKWORTH: Have you read the studies of Cristine Legare — this developmental psychology work on children imitating others?

SANTOS: Yeah. And she finds with overimitation, that part of it seems to be automatic, but part of it seems to be because this behavioral contagion is our way of showing, “Hey, I’m in the group like you.” And this gets to another way that you could think about switching accents in particular, this idea of code-switching. So, code-switching is if you’re a member of a minority group and you’re in a majority group situation, you switch your behavior around. 

DUCKWORTH: To match what the majority group is doing, which is sometimes considered not a great thing — but arguably, as you’re pointing out, is adaptive. 

SANTOS: Totally. If I look back at my own accent switching, my New Bedford accent wasn’t going to necessarily work super well in Ivy League classes. That wasn’t the way these high-status, higher-class people talked. It’s no secret that my accent switched more towards an Ivy League, vernacular English. 

DUCKWORTH: So, we were both in England, which was a higher-status accent — one could argue, certainly — than my native South Jersey. So, I start speaking a faux-British accent. But if a British scholar, for whatever reason, came to southern New Jersey and had to spend a summer “down the shore,” they would not adopt the local vernacular, right? That would be the prediction because of status.

SANTOS: Status is part of it for sure. But I think also, just functionally, getting the inside scoop and seeming like you belong and you’re an insider at that place. So, my prediction is the Brit might do it less in southern New Jersey than this southern New Jerseyer would do it in the U.K. But they would to a certain extent.

DUCKWORTH: It would still happen.

SANTOS: And this is the reason that, again, I have lost, sadly, my New Bedford accent — until I go back to New Bedford for a couple of days. And then, I all of a sudden sound like I’ve been there my whole life. 

DUCKWORTH: I want to hear a New Bedford “Happiness Lab.” I think you should do it full-on and maybe you could record it there. 

SANTOS: Another time it happens — maybe you got this, too, when you were in the U.K. — is when I’m drunk. Those more automatic accents come back. It’s weird.

DUCKWORTH: I haven’t been drunk since I was 18, but that is probably a different question. So, I’ll have to actually get data on that and come back to you.

SANTOS: There’s an experiment we could do, Angela!

*      *      * 

SANTOS: All I do is win, win, win, no matter what. Okay. So, now I get to ask a question, right? Which is so cool. We don’t normally do this on The Happiness Lab

DUCKWORTH: You need another person to be hanging out with. 

SANTOS: That’s true. You’re welcome any time on The Happiness Lab, Angela. But here is question number two. Amelia asks, “Why is it that so many people are restless or unsatisfied, even in terrific or satisfying circumstances?” 

Her context is that she’s in a really lovely place with lots of supportive and happy colleagues. She’s exceeded all these expectations she’s had for herself professionally, but still finds herself looking around at other opportunities, feeling unhappy, thinking she should switch everything. And then she goes on to ask, “Why can’t I just wait it out? Why the need for change? Maybe at some level people don’t want to be happy. What is the deal, scientifically?”

DUCKWORTH: This is such a great question. I think it is timely because as we both were very sad to know, Ed Diener — the scientist who, arguably more than anyone, put the scientific study of happiness on the map — he passed away very recently. So, I feel like this question is a way also for us to honor the great Ed Diener.

 SANTOS: Who was amazing and whose stuff we talk about all the time on The Happiness Lab 

DUCKWORTH: So, I will begin by saying that I had this experience myself. I remember when I was 18 years old writing to Dear Abby, saying how unhappy I was. There were extenuating circumstances. Mostly I was an adolescent. So, that’s partly your job as an adolescent, to be unhappy with your circumstances. 

SANTOS: Wait, wait, wait, wait. Time out. You actually wrote to Dear Abby

DUCKWORTH: Legit wrote to Dear Abby. Yes. It was the 1980s, so I wrote a letter, put it in an envelope, licked it, sealed it, put a stamp on it, and mailed it away. And what my letter said was more or less that I felt like I had a perfect life. 

I had just gotten into college. I was going to Harvard. So, I was getting lots of praise from my Asian family. And my boyfriend, at the time, was somebody I thought I would spend maybe the rest of my life with. And I had a wonderful best friend. And all these great things were happening to me. And there was this contrast from the objective awesomeness of my life and my angst. I was just like, “I’m not happy. Abby, what’s wrong with me?”

SANTOS: What did Abby say? 

DUCKWORTH: She said to go see a therapist. “Go see a therapist,” are four excellent words of advice. But I was very disappointed at the time. And you know what, Laurie? I wish I had listened to her, because it took me a couple more decades to realize that when I am in the state of mind where I’m so unhappy I need to write a letter to a stranger to ask them for help, then really what I should do is go see a therapist. 

But there are times where you just look around at your life, and in the objective sense, you realize, “Holy shmoly, this is the best life I could possibly be living.” And you have this gnawing sense of dissatisfaction. You’re like, “Why am I not a 10 out of 10 on happiness?” Now, I want to start our scientific discussion of this with this very famous idea of the hedonic treadmill, which I know you probably already discussed on your podcast. Am I right on that? 

SANTOS: Yeah. We had a fantastic guest on to talk about the hedonic treadmill, Clay Cockrell. He’s a wealth psychologist. So, he’s a mental health professional for the 0.001 percent. First off, that’s telling, right? That we have to have mental health professionals for the 0.001 percent. You think these people would be like— 

DUCKWORTH: They’re not so happy that they’re like, “No, I’m good.” 

SANTOS: Yeah, they need him. And the problems he sees in his patients are just— I mean, if you’re not in the 0.001 percent, you get a little bit schadenfreude-y, because they’re things like, “I don’t know where to park my yacht.” And you’re like, “Well, dude, maybe if you didn’t have a yacht.” 

But the point is, these ostensibly, objectively, terrific circumstances don’t always feel terrific. And that is the hedonic treadmill. We just get used to stuff. So, if you have something objectively awesome happen, you notice and you feel that it is good. And it affects your happiness for a short while, but then you just get used to it.  

DUCKWORTH: And that’s the idea of the treadmill, you keep running and running, and you stay in the same place. But I think we would both agree that there is, to some extent, a phenomenon by which, through either things that we do intentionally or unconsciously, we do come back from either extreme — too happy, or the opposite.

SANTOS: The flip side is that we also get used to circumstances that are pretty awful. They don’t continue to affect our psychology as bad as when they first happen. So, you break up or you lose a job. Those things suck for a while. 

DUCKWORTH: And they feel like they’re going to suck forever. I think that’s one of the fascinating things about emotions. When you’re in the middle of one — like when you’re anxious, or lonely, or extremely sad — you can’t really see around the corner. Even if intellectually, you realize like, “Oh yeah, I’ve been in this kind of place before. And I’ve seen things get better,” but it doesn’t feel that way in any visceral sense. 

But, though we would agree with that, I think one of the nuances here that is important to underscore is that the returning to the set-point isn’t always exactly to where you were before. So, the famous 1978 study of accident victims who became paraplegics, it’s often described as, “Follow them long enough, you see that they come back to where they were before their accident.” But, sadly, not quite. Yes, they adapt hedonically, but not all the way back on average to where they were before. 

SANTOS: Yeah, and there’s a few cases like that where hedonic adaptation isn’t perfect. I think another one is in the context of unemployment. That’s another case where you go down a little bit. Actually, one that’s the opposite is divorce. You have a hit to your happiness when you first get divorced. But you actually pop up past baseline. 

This is the thing about these happiness set points. They’re not perfect. Sometimes you go a teensy bit down or a teensy bit up in the good cases. But the point is, it moves. It’s not like, “This person’s going to break up with me and I am stuck there forever.” It has to move.  

DUCKWORTH: Let’s talk about coming down from the highs. People do — at least a lot of us — walk around basically shooting for the 10 out of 10. “Why can’t I be a 10 out of 10 every day?” Is there something we can say about the adaptiveness of not living life at the extreme end of “everything is great”? 

SANTOS: When you think about the extreme end, this reminds me not of a scientific tip, but a philosophical one. Aristotle thought that virtue was living in the middle. If you’re shooting to be brave, you don’t want to be the bravest dude ever such that you’re reckless, but you also don’t want to be cowardly. 

There’s something to be said for this with happiness, too. Happiness is going to be elusive if you’re constantly analyzing, “Do I have it yet? Do I have it yet? Do I have it yet?” We really want to get to a point where we’re feeling grateful, noticing the good stuff in our lives, doing everything we can to savor what we have. But, pushing, pushing, pushing might not necessarily be the best thing for your happiness anyway.  

DUCKWORTH: I have long pondered this Aristotle “golden mean” idea — in part, because the things I study, like self-control or grit, people always ask, “Can you be too self-controlled? What if you’re too gritty? What’s the dark side of excessive grit?” 

And when I think about what Aristotle is saying, I’m a little confused. What is the deeper reason why something in between the extremes is, as a rule, better — not just in the case of bravery and cowardice, but as a general truth about human nature? And I wonder whether there is some cost to being at the 10 out of 10 which makes us not want to be there all the time. 

SANTOS: Well, I think one is: if you were always at a 10 out of 10 and you never change, you wouldn’t notice any change. And I think this actually gets to Amelia’s question. She’s asking, “Why the need for change?” The need for change is that we don’t notice our absolute objective status. We only notice when we change from it. 

People who live in Southern California don’t appreciate the weather because it’s just perfect all the time. But when you live in the Northeast, you get enough sucky days that, all of a sudden, when it’s sunny out, you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, it’s sunny and 80. Thank you,” whatever divinity you’re praying to. The other thing is, I think you’re totally right on the cost. Sometimes if you are pushing happiness too much, that can be costly. 

And I think we see that in the context of clinical disorders like mania. Those people would report, “I’m 10 out of 10 on a happiness scale,” but they’re gambling, and wrecking their car, and hurting their family, and things like that. I think that Aristotle might not have been perfect with the middle road, but he was on to something. And the “something” I think he was onto, that’s most relevant to Amelia, gets back to this idea of the power of change. 

When we’re just consistently good, we don’t notice it. The consequence of that is what Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky referred to as diminishing sensitivity. We can get small changes that objectively feel good, but we just don’t notice them, which is sort of sad. The example I give my students is — I try to be hip, right? I try to know what a crossover is, and know all the new songs. And there’s this D.J. Khaled song called “All I Do Is Win.” Do you know this song?  

DUCKWORTH: No, of course I don’t. Tell me.

SANTOS: It’s like, “All I do is win, win, win, no matter what.” The idea is, he just wins all the time. And I tell my students, “That is a crappy way to live a life, because if you’re literally winning all the time, you don’t actually notice the subtle changes.  

DUCKWORTH: What is the optimal design, then, of a good life? Should you have a shitty childhood, a decent adolescence, and like, oh my God, by the time you’re 85, you’re living your best life? I mean, that would maximize the derivative. That would maximize change. Maybe it’s just 99 great days and one really bad one to make you appreciate the rest of the 99? What do you think?

SANTOS: I think about this one a lot. What you want to do is maximize the change somehow. And it’s optimal if that change is going in a positive direction. But you actually want it to go down sometimes, because another feature of this diminishing sensitivity — I mentioned Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky, it comes from their famous idea about prospect theory, which is this idea that we don’t evaluate prospects or things in our lives in terms of absolute values. We recognize them and represent them in terms of changes.  

If I was like, “Angela, right now The Happiness Lab is going to give you one million dollars,” you’d be like, “That’s amazing!” But if I was like, “Right now, The Happiness Lab is going to give you two million dollars,” I mean, that’s better, but you’re not twice as happy. That is diminishing sensitivity. And that sucks. It means for you to get that extra happiness benefit from the extra million in the two million, you would have wanted to go back to baseline first, so it feels like two separate gains instead of one big gain.  

DUCKWORTH: That’s another reason not to obsess about being a 10. You think going from nine to 10 is going to be just as good as going from eight to nine or seven to eight. But according to diminishing returns, it’s better, but not much better as it was to go from seven to eight.

SANTOS: That gives us some hints about how to do it better, right? So, one is: split your gains. You don’t want two million at once. You want one million. And then, come back a couple months later and get another million. This is something I actually try to do.  

DUCKWORTH: How? How do you do it? 

SANTOS: Sometimes my husband and I will have a date night. And we’re like, “All right. We’re going to see the movie we really wanted, and get the dinner we really wanted, and get ice cream, too.” And it’s like, “Wait, let’s do the nice dinner and then do the ice cream tomorrow.” 

A really stupid way I do this is sometimes when I’m buying stuff— this is not very ecologically savvy, so maybe this is not helping with my climate-change goals. But you know what it’s like — you get the package of a bunch of stuff that you bought on Amazon. It’s not as fun as if you got the shirt one day, and then, the next day, you get the shoes. And you’re like, “Oh, yeah!” So, you split your gains.

DUCKWORTH: I have a proposal that may or may not have as severe consequences as getting two Amazon packages. Vacations are something that I don’t know how to take very well, but according to the principles we’ve been discussing, rather than taking seven days off and cramming in all of your dinners out, and your extra desserts, and your walks around whatever city you’re in with iced coffee — that would be my preferred vacation — why don’t we have seven three-day weekends? I think that that could result in a massive global gain in happiness without any obvious downside.

SANTOS: I love it. My other tip on this — I don’t know if you like Hostess cupcakes.

DUCKWORTH: I’m from Philly. We have Tastykakes. 

SANTOS: Oh, I think Tastykakes are similar. But the key to the Hostess cupcake is that you get two of them. Hostess could have made that much chocolate cakiness in a single big cupcake, but if you got that cupcake, you’d just plow through it. They had the insight to break those up. And what happens is you eat the first one, you wait, and then you come back to it. You’re at baseline again and you get more happiness. 

DUCKWORTH: Wow. Do you think that the Hostess people really had behavioral science staff? 

SANTOS: They read prospect theory. They’re like, “Wait a minute.” This is why people like the mini black and white cookies better than the one huge black and white cookie. You can pause in between them. And you go back to happiness baseline — no cookie. And then, you’re like, “Oh my gosh, another cookie,” and then spike back up. 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know how many people, by the way, eat the one Hostess or Tastykake — in the Tastykake version there’s no white, swirly line across the top, but it’s basically the same cupcake. 

SANTOS: But there’s two, right? 

DUCKWORTH: There is two. And I do think spacing out our gains could be helpful, just as you recommend. And maybe, just reframing the inevitable bad days as like— I mean, here’s a trivial example. Last night, I made kasha, the buckwheat thing. I followed the recipe to the letter, because I had a friend, she’s like, “I’m going to call my grandmother. We’re going to get this exactly right.” 

And then, I left the pot on the stove, not even thinking, and it just burned to a crisp. And it was horrible, and both mushy and burned at the same time, which I didn’t think was physically possible. So, that was a bad experience. I grieved a bit, but maybe if I reframe that as, “Hurray for the burned kasha, now it’ll make the next non-burnt batch all that much more delicious and appreciated.”  

SANTOS: Totally. And, in fact, this gets back to a different form of ancient wisdom. This was exactly the strategy that the Stoics had. So, the Stoics thought you should, every morning, do what they called negative visualization. You wake up and you say, “My kasha is going to get burned. My husband’s going to leave me. I’m going to lose my job.” 

You don’t ruminate on that forever, but you do that as a little five, 10-minute meditation. And you go to your day, and you’re like, “Oh my gosh. My kasha didn’t burn today.” So, the Stoics were really into this idea that you don’t necessarily have to have the change to notice the change. You could just imagine the change. And it gives you a lot of gratitude for the stuff you have. 

One technique I use in some of my talks is, I look out at the audience, and I say, “All of you people who have kids, imagine whatever the last time you saw them was, that was the last time. It’s over. You’re never going to see them again.” And the idea is the next time you hug your kids, you’re going to hug them much more tightly. You didn’t have to have a horrible thing happen to them. The reference point didn’t have to change in a bad way for you to get the appreciation. 

DUCKWORTH: I had a shudder. I just had to say, Laurie. That was rough. 

SANTOS: I mean, that moment was rough, but now, you’re going to be so nice to your kids today. When you see them, even if they’re annoying, you’d be like, “But I’m so happy they’re alive.” 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. My daughter is going to leave her shit everywhere. And I’m going to be like, “Thank the Lord that you’re here. God damn it!” Okay. You have given us one thing you could do. You could wake up and think of three bad things, and they are just imaginary. And then the whole rest of your day is going to go better. But I recall the study that you and I did — wake up and think of three good things, the classic gratitude exercise. These are opposite recommendations. 

So, should people wake up and think of three good things? Or should they wake up and think of three bad things? I am going to vote for the three good things. I did this, as I usually do, this morning. And I actually thought about the kasha. “Thank God the house didn’t burn down,” because I did discover the pot of burning buckwheat in time to prevent a fire. Yay! 

And then, I thought of a couple of other things — my daughter got home safely. I really love this collaborator. And built in is a contrast to the counterfactual. My collaborator could be a jerk, but they’re not. And, my daughter could have not gotten home safely. So, maybe the Stoics had a good idea. But I think it’s improved upon by this much more positive experience of thinking about three good things. 

SANTOS: To be fair, I think that’s what the Stoics mean. They don’t mean like, “Oh my God, my house is going to burn down.” They think you should do that because immediately afterwards you’re going to think about the positive thing too. You’re going to be grateful for your kids leaving the stuff on the floor, because you had that moment of thinking about what it could be like to not have kids at all. 

Naturally, in the way the Stoics are talking about them, they focus on the negative side, but they’re hoping you’re going to get to the blessings really fast. And I think the negative side is important when you’re feeling really down. The example of breaking your leg — because I’m clumsy, this actually happens to me with reasonable frequency. I recently broke my knee. 

DUCKWORTH: You literally mean this happens to you with frequency? You injure yourself in a serious way?

SANTOS: Yeah. This was the second time I had broken the same kneecap when I fell on it.

DUCKWORTH: Oh my God, Laurie! That’s terrible!

SANTOS: Yeah. I was like, “Woe is me. I broke my kneecap. This sucks.” And then, I actually went back to the Stoics, because I knew I needed hardcore people who were going to help me with this. And I read a book by this current practicing Stoic, Bill Irvine, and he went through like, “Let’s talk about some cases that you could have.” 

He’s like, “You could be a shut-in.” These are people who have some sort of accident happen who are fully conscious but so paralyzed that they can’t move any part of their body. They have to blink an eye to communicate with people. And I was like, “Okay. Well, at least I don’t have that. I can crutch to the kitchen. I can carry things with my arms.” 

I would have been in such a funk that I couldn’t do the blessings with that broken knee. Nothing seemed good. But sometimes, if you get the right negative visualization, you’re like, “Wait a minute, I can actually be grateful for the broken knee, too, because at least it’s not ‘X,’ ‘Y,’ and ‘Z’.” And I think this is a nice way to solve Amelia’s problem. You don’t necessarily have to get the change from your real actions. You can make your current reference point seem good just through these imaginations. 

DUCKWORTH: Do you think that would change Amelia’s set point? Do you think that if she chronically were comparing her pretty awesome life — she says she has a lovely department; she’s doing really well — if she regularly did these mental counterfactuals, that she would be enduringly happier?

SANTOS: If, every morning, she could have the counterfactual of, “What if I didn’t have this lovely supportive job with my interesting colleagues?” as she mentions, “What if my colleagues sucked?” That bumps up the appreciation you have. It breaks your hedonic adaptation. So, I actually do think it would be a nice strategy. 

DUCKWORTH: I think we need Amelia to agree to be a pilot subject in a study with only one subject. So, Laurie, you want Amelia to wake up every day for a week and what, think of three bad things? 

SANTOS: Of the things she loves about her life and her job, imagine that those weren’t there. 

DUCKWORTH: I would propose the second week be that she try the three good things exercise. And after a month, we could all get together and find out which week was better. 

SANTOS: I want a third condition where she does both, where she imagines the bad thing and then thinks, “Oh my gosh, I’m so lucky to have these colleagues.” Because I think if you just do bad, then it could be ruminate-y. And to be fair to the Stoics, that’s not really what they meant. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. Now, we need six weeks of your life, Amelia, right? 

SANTOS: Love it. To be continued.

Early on in the episode, Laurie and Angela say that they are horrified by the idea of Heinz-Oreo mayonnaise. I’m sure they will be thrilled to hear this is not, in fact, a real product. In June of 2021, the Instagram account Doctor Photograph posted a convincing photo of “MayOreo” sauce that immediately went viral, but the image was later proven to be altered. For those who are disappointed that this crossover product doesn’t actually exist, fret not: plenty of other Heinz mashups are actually real. The company now produces Mayochup (a combination of mayonnaise and ketchup), Mayomust (a mix of mayonnaise and mustard), and Kranch (a blend of Ketchup and Ranch), among others. 

Later, Angela and Laurie discuss recently deceased psychologist Albert Bandura’s seminal Bobo doll experiment. I was unfamiliar with the concept of a Bobo doll, and I surmised that many listeners would be as well. I found that the toy isn’t really a doll at all, but rather a large, inflatable, plastic clown with a heavy, rounded bottom. When it’s pushed over, the clown temporarily wobbles, but quickly bounces back to center — making it a perfect toy for children and adults to beat up in Bandura’s experiments. 

Finally, Angela says that Tastykakes, like Hostess cupcakes, come two to a package. Standard Tastykake boxes do include six packs of two cupcakes, but you can also opt for a single package of three cupcakes! Either way, if you have the self-restraint, you can still enjoy the happiness that comes with more dessert later that day.

*      *      *

No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, James Foster, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowdich, Jasmin Klinger, and Jacob Clemente. Thanks also to The Happiness Lab producer Ryan Dilley for his help with this episode. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us on Twitter at NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to nsq@freakonomics.com. And if you heard Laurie or Angela reference a study, an expert, or a book that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out Freakonomics.com/NSQ, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening! 

SANTOS:”Oh my God, the perfect crossover doesn’t exist.” And then you’re like, “Oh, it’s actually Angela and Laurie.” 

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Sources

  • Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University and host of The Happiness Lab. 
  • Stephen M. Kosslyn, professor emeritus of psychology at Harvard University.
  • Kevin Ochsner, professor of psychology at Columbia University.
  • Iain Couzin, chair of Biodiversity and Collective Behaviour at the University of Konstanz.
  • John Bargh, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University.
  • Tanya Chartrand, professor of marketing at Duke University.
  • Albert Bandura, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University.
  • Francesca Gino, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.
  • Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University.
  • Cristine H. Legare, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
  • Edward Diener, social psychologist.
  • Clay Cockrell, psychotherapist and founder of Walk and Talk Therapy.
  • Aristotle, philosopher.
  • Daniel Kahneman, professor emeritus of psychology at Princeton University.
  • Amos Tversky, professor of psychology at Stanford University.

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