DUCKWORTH: Hello, listeners. Before we start No Stupid Questions, I want to announce that after a ton of amazing, positive feedback from all of you about how much you enjoy listening to Mike Maughan as my conversation partner, we’ve decided to continue the show together. Mike, have you heard the news that we are co-hosting No Stupid Questions?
MAUGHAN: I have, but I’m thrilled to hear it from you as well, because there’s nobody I’d rather be doing this with.
DUCKWORTH: Other than Stephen.
MAUGHAN: No, I’m still picking you. Don’t tell him.
DUCKWORTH: Oh! Okay. We won’t tell him. We do have to say that Stephen has enjoyed three years of co-hosting this and is no longer going to be in the co-pilot seat, but we are both friends of Stephen, and we are very excited to be doing this together. Now, it’s easy for me to explain what I do. I’m a psychologist. But Mike, what the hell do you do?
MAUGHAN: I don’t know that there’s an easy way to describe it, but I — there are probably three things. One, I’m a tech executive. So, I’ve been at a company, Qualtrics, for the last 10 years.
DUCKWORTH: So, what’s Qualtrics?
MAUGHAN: Qualtrics is an experience management company that helps organizations across the world understand their data and use data to help their customers, employees, or lots of academics like you, I know, have used it to do lots of rigorous studies and understand human beings better.
DUCKWORTH: So, it’s like survey software and more.
MAUGHAN: And more. Yes. The second piece is: for the last three years, I’ve spent a lot of time with the professional sports teams in Utah, specifically the Utah Jazz, where I work mostly with the management team there. No — nobody’s calling and asking me which players we should trade, but I do weigh in a lot on the business side. And then the third piece: I run a couple of nonprofits, the Utah Jazz Foundation and another cancer-related charity 5 For The Fight.
DUCKWORTH: So, you’ve got tech executive, you’ve got N.B.A. and other-pro-sports person who solves problems but is not an athlete, and then your nonprofit and charity work. Is that right?
MAUGHAN: Yes. Thank you for noting that I’m not an athlete. I appreciate you pointing that out.
DUCKWORTH: Yes. Well, Mike, I’m so excited to be talking with you and learning from you. Listeners, here’s this week’s episode.
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DUCKWORTH: This is like a physical metaphor for non-commitment.
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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.
DUCKWORTH + MAUGHAN: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: How do you make it through difficult life changes?
MAUGHAN: You get laid off. You get sick.
DUCKWORTH: Your dad moves you from West Cherry Hill to East Cherry Hill.
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MAUGHAN: Angela, I’m super excited for our conversation today. I think we have an amazing question about change.
DUCKWORTH: Change. From whom?
MAUGHAN: This is from Russell. And his question is this: “What are some techniques for dealing with a big life change — such as moving, switching jobs, getting married or divorced? And what is the biggest change you’ve dealt with, and how did you feel before and after?”
DUCKWORTH: You know, change is scary, and generally human beings don’t like change. Actually, most animals don’t like change. There is a kind of adaptive status-quo bias. Because you’re alive and breathing now, change very well could be bad. The story that I think about, thinking about Russell’s email is: I’m in third grade. And this is a, a life change that I had no autonomy over. My dad — it was really my dad, not my mom — my dad moved us from West Cherry Hill to East Cherry Hill. So, this is this, you know, suburb of Philadelphia that is quite literally divided by a railroad track. So, there’s, like, the poor side of the tracks, and then there’s the richer side of the tracks. And so, my dad was moving on up in the DuPont Chemical Company, and I guess he felt like we had enough money to move from 423 Jamaica Drive on the West Side to 16 North Woodleigh Drive on the East Side. And it was the middle of the school year. It was, like, January. Which now, being a mom, I realize is, like — you don’t move in the middle of the school year. So, I got transplanted into a new third-grade classroom, and it was like a culture shift. It was a culture shock.
MAUGHAN: When you’re little, that might as well be a new country, right?
DUCKWORTH: Exactly. I was like, “What?!” You have to make all new friends. And the kids dressed differently. They talked differently. They wore all these clothes — like, designer jeans. You no longer saw all the K-mart clothes that, you know, I was wearing when we were on the West Side. And it was, um — yeah, it was stressful. But I learned a lot.
MAUGHAN: Do you think it would’ve been different if they had consulted you or — or somehow made you feel part of the change — even if it wasn’t ever going to be your decision?
DUCKWORTH: You know, I don’t know how many families in the 1970s were, like, consulting with their kids about major life changes. I know that happens in, you know, 2023. It certainly didn’t happen in my Chinese-American family. But I will say that when I got plopped down, you know, new playground, new school, I figured out fast how to make friends. I was like, “Oh, I am the new kid, and I have to make friends with these other girls and boys who have no real need to make friends with me.” But here’s what I recall. I had to basically accomplish two things, and then it was all going to be fine. So, first, I had to make sure they knew that I liked them. Second, I needed to communicate that I liked myself. And if you can do those two things, the third thing happens automatically, which is that they like you back. So, every time I would meet someone, I didn’t say it out loud, but I remember thinking, like, “I like me. I like you. Let’s go. Let’s be friends.” And I, I have found that to be true as a grownup. I mean, does that match your experience? I think you are somebody who, in moments of transition, because you’ve moved a lot, et cetera, I am guessing that when you go somewhere new, you’re pretty good at communicating exactly that formula.
MAUGHAN: Well, I think it’s really interesting, because if you go back to Russell’s question, “How do you deal with these moments of change?,” I wonder how frequently the piece of “Do I like myself?” actually falls away a little bit. I mean, he’s talking about switching jobs, getting married or divorced. I think some of these moments are such vulnerable moments. Like, when you move to a new job, all of the social capital you’ve built up, all of the reputation you have, you have to sort of earn that again with a new group of people in a new situation. And, I mean, if you come in with a lot of confidence in who you are, and you like yourself, and you know that you’re the right person for the job, then I think you probably communicate that well. I think that if you are trying to, you know, move up or try something new in any new situation, there tends to be — in my experience — some feeling of, “I hope I made the right decision. I hope I’m really the right person for this.” And I wonder if that leads to this difference in what Russell’s talking about, especially something as traumatic as divorce or as life-changing as marriage or having a new kid, I think it’s very natural to be like, “Whoa, am I going to be able to be a good parent here?” And I wonder if the construct we’re setting up is what makes change so difficult, because there is a lack of confidence in maybe these change moments.
DUCKWORTH: So, there’s actually a lot of science. I don’t know how many years it goes back, but one of the earliest and most-used scales to measure these life-event changes is the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, and it was published in 1967. So, you know, it’s older than me. The purpose of the original study was actually to look at how these events would affect your physical health — for example, getting sick.
MAUGHAN: And just to clarify quickly. You said 1967, has it been updated? Do we feel like it’s still super relevant?
DUCKWORTH: Well, it’s still, I think, widely used. You know, since 1967 we’ve done a lot of research as social scientists about, like, all the complexities, but I think the major point is that there are certain events in people’s lives that require you to adjust more — you know, whether it’s good or bad, it still requires adjustment — I think that still stands. So, this scale actually ranges nicely from zero to 100. 100 is the most stressful, meaning it requires the most adjustment. That’s why it’s called the Social Readjustment Rating Scale. And then, it doesn’t actually have anything that was rated as a zero, because all of the events require some amount of social readjustment, but the lowest score of the events that were studied originally — and I think, again, these are still the events that are used when people use the scale — the lowest one is 11. So, it might be helpful just to name where these events that we’ve been talking about fall on this continuum. Like, I said “moving.” That was just the first thing that leapt to mind. Russell mentioned it as, like, one big life change. But I will tell you, Mike, that moving is close to the bottom. It’s at 20. I know!
MAUGHAN: Truthfully, those are, I think, among the most stressful experiences of my life. These people have had a much diff — okay, look, I’m just going to tell you this. When I finished grad school — I’m living in Boston — I moved to Utah. I grew up in Utah. It’s an amazing place. But I was really, really unsure about coming back. I’d been gone for years. I’d lived in Phoenix, in Chicago before that, and when I moved here, it was such a mind-messing situation. Because I didn’t know if I wanted to be in Utah. Qualtrics was still in its early days. We rented two floors of this office building. I just didn’t know if I was making the right decision. And I’m not joking. For the first six months, I rented a room in an apartment on a month-to-month rent. I slept on a blow-up mattress. I borrowed a desk from my brother and a folding chair from my parents, and that was all I had. And the apartment I lived in, the kitchen — like, the stove was broken.
DUCKWORTH: This is like a physical metaphor for non-commitment.
MAUGHAN: Exactly! And so, one of my dearest friends — we went to elementary, junior high, high school. I didn’t know that she’d started at Qualtrics. She was our first attorney that we hired. And six months in, she just looked at me and said, “Mike, this is never going to work unless you’re all in and you decide to commit.” And so, she went and helped me find an apartment and get furniture, And signing that year-long lease to just say, “Okay, I’m committing to this job. I’m committing to be in Utah. I’m committing to do these things,” changed everything for me. But I couldn’t make that transition for some reason. So, I get that there are things that are way more stressful. Maybe it wasn’t just moving, but it was the whole idea of, “Gosh, you’ve got to really commit to this or not.”
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. You know, when we say that moving scores a 20 — and I do need to give you a sense of the other things on the scale, you should know that the way these numbers came about was just by asking people to essentially rate or allocate points to this. And by the way, people can be wrong. You know, one of the sturdiest findings in psychology is that when you ask people to predict what something is going to feel like, we’re terrible at it, right? So, it very well could be that when you’re sitting, and filling out a survey, and allocating points to, you know, changing where you live, getting divorced, that you’re allocating points that don’t match, actually, lived experience, but be that as it may, with that big caveat, let me give a sense of the scale. So, at 100, I think you might well guess this one. Mike, what is the single life change that you can make that would require maximal readjustment?
MAUGHAN: Yeah, I mean, I think there has to be nothing bigger than a death and probably of — of spouse. And I was — I assume especially so if you have younger children in the home still.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, so, you get full credit. It is the death of a spouse or a significant other. There’s no asterisk here for, you know, “what if you also have children” — and by the way, death of a child is not on the original scale, at least. So, that comes in at 100 — death of a spouse. I could imagine if it were death of a child, that would be higher than that. And then, the next most stressful event — meaning the one that requires most readjustment — it’s, like, you go all the way from 100 to 73. So, anyway —.
MAUGHAN: And people are estimating what they think this would feel like, or these are people who’ve actually lost a spouse?
DUCKWORTH: It’s actually just this hypothetical. Like, you give people all these events, and then you ask them to rate. And that’s why I think we should take it all with a grain of salt. But, guess what’s number two? So, it’s a score of 73 on a scale from zero to 100.
MAUGHAN: I would guess that, uh, marriage or divorce? I mean, marriage is weirdly stressful when you’re bringing two lives together. So, I don’t know, marriage and/or divorce?
DUCKWORTH: By the way, I told you about Cherry Hill. Well, on the West Side of Cherry Hill — at least in the ’70s and ’80s, there was this, like, strip shopping center. You know, we have all these little ugly, you, like, pull off the highway and they’re these, like, six stores.
MAUGHAN: Once again, great ambassador for Filthadelphia.
DUCKWORTH: This is the suburbs of Filthadelphia! Um, and on one end of this shopping strip was a divorce lawyer, and on the other end was, like, a wedding gown thing. And I just thought, you know, depending on what you needed —.
MAUGHAN: And the wedding gown people was a lead generator for the divorce guys. Like, “Hey, in five years, call these people.”
DUCKWORTH: Some real synergy! Get the card of one when you go to the other! But, okay, so divorce comes in at 73, and marriage comes in at 50.
MAUGHAN: Wait, but are those the top three?
MAUGHAN: Oh. I thought I got it right.
DUCKWORTH: Death of a spouse at 100, divorce at 73, marital separation at 65. So, I think that’s you know — that’s the prequel to divorce, right? At number four is jail term, at 63.
MAUGHAN: Jail term. Your own? Or that of a —.
DUCKWORTH: I assume your own jail term. I assume this means, like, being incarcerated.
MAUGHAN: I mean, that would be very stressful.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. But apparently not as stressful as getting divorced, according to this self-report. But, you know, these are all clustered together.
MAUGHAN: Okay. But wait, let me ask about that, because I, I wonder — again, you’re the psychologist here — do you think maybe part of why jail term is lower is that, if you still have family, and relationships, and support, then you can kind of get through anything. What are your thoughts there?
DUCKWORTH: I think that when most people are filling out a survey where they think for, like, 10 milliseconds about how stressful it would be to be in jail — I mean, honestly, I don’t know, because I would’ve given that, like, close to 100. I think I can’t imagine having done something that would land me in jail. That’s probably the most stressful part of the whole thought exercise. But, I don’t know. I don’t know what goes through someone’s head when they’re allocating stress points to something that is really hypothetical, right, for the large majority of these survey respondents, one can imagine.
MAUGHAN: And you can also think through, what — now we’re going down a weird rabbit hole — but, “What am I going to jail for?” You look at Martha Stewart or Elizabeth Holmes, their jail term, while not delightful, was in a low-security prison where I think Martha Stewart was doing, like, gardening classes in jail.
DUCKWORTH: Why does everyone still — I mean, I don’t hate Martha Stewart, but it’s interesting that we have, like, what, completely forgiven Martha Stewart for — I don’t even remember what she did. Did she do inside trading?
MAUGHAN: I think it was insider trading. The thing about Martha Stewart that’s really interesting is she has continued to evolve her brand constantly. I think she’s very smart, very savvy. She is the ultimate homemaker who went from that sort of brand to partnering with Snoop Dogg — to now she, you know, goes on these comedy shows with kind of racy jokes and stuff like that. And she’s sort of evolved her brand to be edgy now to fit the culture of today. And I think someone who can continually evolve themselves — somehow we forgive them and say, “Okay, they’re still cool.” Or maybe they’re just developing a brand-new audience.
DUCKWORTH: Maybe what Martha Stewart exemplifies is actually social readjustment, right? This is the “Social Readjustment Rating Scale.” Like, here are events that require you to readjust, and maybe Martha Stewart is a paragon of being able to do that. And actually she did, I think, lose her husband many years ago. And she can check off on this list that she has also been incarcerated. Pregnancy comes in at 40 points. So, it’s 12th on the list. She’s actually accomplished a lot of these transitions. And maybe she’d be the best person to ask. But in lieu of Martha Stewart, I want to hear from our listeners. I want to know what their story is of a big life change that they’ve dealt with. How did you handle this transition? What was it? We, of course, want to know your name and where you’re from. Record in a quiet place. Put your mouth close to your phone, and email NSQ@freakonomics.com and maybe we will play your life transition story on a future episode of the show.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Mike and Angela discuss how to deal with significant life changes that feel uniquely unfair.
DUCKWORTH: “I can’t figure it out. Like, this doesn’t add up.”
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Now, back to Angela and Mike’s conversation about the best ways to handle major life transitions.
DUCKWORTH: I will say that what psychology has to offer in terms of practical advice on how to navigate these changes — whether they’re moving, divorce, or actually death of a loved one — there are two things that you want to do: benefit-finding and sense-making. So, benefit-finding is often advice given in the wake of negative life transitions that kind of happen to you — things that are imposed upon you against your will. Moving, at least for my dad, was a voluntary choice. I guess you could say moving was imposed on me because I was in third grade. But the benefit-finding thing is: whether you had responsibility for the transition or not, you find a silver lining. The most common, I think, is to say that you learn something. So, I say I learned how to make new friends from having to move from West Cherry Hill to East Cherry Hill. And there could be other benefits, but in research on how people process or think about major life events, there was a paper that came out just, uh, 2022 called “Stability and Change of Perceived Characteristics of Major Life Events.” These researchers found that when you ask people about a certain big life event, but you ask them about it again, and again, and again, over time —.
MAUGHAN: You mean over the years?
DUCKWORTH: I think it was over one year, and they asked people five times over that one year to think about this life event again. The thing that they noted was that over time the extent to which these people thought, “You know what? That really changed the way I look at the world” — that increased. And it was notable because, like, they asked lots of questions, you know: “Was this positive? Was it negative?” Et cetera. But the idea that this major life event — like, I’m telling you about moving in third grade. That’s quite some time ago. And I’m telling you that it changed the way I think about meeting people, you know, my way of operating with strangers and a new culture. Like, that is consistent with this research, which suggests that one way that we find benefits in transitions is to learn something about the world and ourselves that we didn’t know before.
MAUGHAN: Okay, so, I think this is fascinating. Looking back, we’re sort of reliving the memory, right? And it sounds like we just reframe how we experience the change. Is that a way to say it?
DUCKWORTH: I think the idea is that when you are processing a major life transition — and again, when people talk about benefit-finding and sense-making, they often are talking about what do you do to make something good out of something bad, because these life transitions aren’t all bad. Hopefully, we generally think of marriage as a good thing and, like, having a child. There are positive changes, but usually when people talk about benefit-finding and sense-making, we say this with urgency because we’re talking about a negative event. And it is flipping the script, but it’s more than just reframing it in your mind. It’s actually literally finding some benefit. Like, now you have the mindset that you’re looking for benefits in all of your life changes. You’re looking for the silver lining, but then you find the silver lining. It’s not just a mindset shift. The mindset shift is supposed to lead to actual benefits. This idea of benefit-finding sounds kind of Pollyanna. I mean, especially if you really are dealing with something which is terrible, you know, not just divorce, which I think for many people is terrible even if they want one, but certainly, you know, loss of a spouse — it’s nevertheless true that people find some silver lining in those clouds. And sometimes this is called Post-Traumatic Growth. Even in the wake of trauma, we can find things that we didn’t have before. You know, new friendships, deeper friendships, new understanding of selves and so forth.
MAUGHAN: So, what I think is really fascinating about this — there’s a guy named Bruce Feiler and he wrote a book called Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age. And he basically crisscrossed the United States for a year or two and just collected hundreds of stories from people who had been through a major life change, whether that was losing a job, losing a loved one, changing careers.
DUCKWORTH: And he’s a, a journalist?
MAUGHAN: He’s written three New York Times bestselling books.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, so he’s a writer.
MAUGHAN: And so, he gathered all these stories — again, everything from getting sober or just looking for a fresh start to some of these things you talked about on the Social Readjustment Scale. And he even went through this idea of voluntary versus involuntary. Voluntary: you leave a bad marriage, you start a new company. Involuntary: you get laid off, you get sick.
DUCKWORTH: Your dad moves you from West Cherry Hill to East Cherry Hill. I don’t know if that was in the book.
MAUGHAN: It was not, but he talks about these massive life disruptions as “lifequakes.”
DUCKWORTH: Ooh, that’s cute. “Lifequakes.” Sounds like a cereal.
MAUGHAN: That doesn’t sound like a good cereal. But here’s one thing I thought was so interesting. He says, whether it’s a voluntary change or an involuntary change, what he found was a little bit what you’re talking about — that regardless of the change, you are responsible for the transition. And the people that owned that and said, whether this happened to me or I created the change, if they felt that they personally were responsible for the transition, then they had a much better experience with the change. And maybe that’s similar to benefit-finding. What are your thoughts there?
DUCKWORTH: To be clear, the proposal is that you don’t take responsibility for the event, but you take responsibility for your response to the event, right?
MAUGHAN: Yes, 100 percent.
DUCKWORTH: I love that because, like you, I love me some agency. I really think that feeling like you’re the subject of the sentence in your life and not the object of the sentence, right? Like, what’s the verb going to be? You decide. I think that’s a, a very adaptive way of approaching pretty much everything. And I think the distinction between taking responsibility for the event happening to you — which in many cases, not all, it’s really not your fault — but what you do with it and feeling like your responsibility then starts with how you’re going to manage it, learn from it, find benefits, or make sense of it — which we should talk about that, too, because sense-making and benefit-finding are not the same thing. I love this agentic view. It sounds like his journalistic research is pretty lined up with the more scientific perspective on this, because both benefit-finding and sense-making are agentic.
MAUGHAN: So, talk more about sense-making. I mean how — how do you make sense of your spouse cheated on you and now you’re being divorced, or how do you make sense of getting fired?
DUCKWORTH: So, the difference between benefit-finding and sense-making to me was, T.B.H., a little blurry for a while. I’m like, “Isn’t that the same thing? But actually, what sense-making is, I think, is recovering from cognitive dissonance. So, one thing that happens in these big transitions is that your world order — the way you think things work, the way you think you work, the way you think you work in the world, like, your place in the world — oftentimes it’s disrupted. And again, sometimes in a good way, but often in a kind of like, “What? I thought I had added a lot of value to this company. What? I thought you loved me.”
MAUGHAN: Right. It just messes up your entire perception of self and the world.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. And the idea here is that it’s not just the event is bad, but the kind of like, “I don’t get it. I don’t understand. This doesn’t add up. This doesn’t make sense to me.” That itself is extremely stressful. Cognitive dissonance is an aversive state of the mind that people very quickly exit from, by the way. Like, we have all of these automatic I guess you call them “defense mechanisms” to avoid cognitive dissonance. That’s not always a good thing, because sometimes you do need to be grappling with things that don’t make sense, and you don’t want to rush to put them all back in order, because you could, you know, lose the “lesson,” as it were.
MAUGHAN: I’m not sure I totally get it. So, let me give an example and you tell me where I’m off. My sister’s a therapist, and she talks about: often people don’t take time to feel their emotions. And she always talks about giving yourself time to mourn and you sit with the emotion for a little bit. Are you saying sit with the cognitive dissonance to try to be like, “Wow, the world doesn’t work like I thought anymore,” and then you move on, and people move on too fast?
DUCKWORTH: Well okay, I think, eventually, you do want to make sense of things. Eventually, you need to come back to some equilibrium where, like, the world makes sense again and your place in it makes sense. So, in this study that I mentioned where in 2022, these researchers looked at stability and change of how people think of major life events, not only did they find that over time people said, “You know, more and more this has changed my worldview.” Another thing they said that changed was they found this event, in their own estimation, to be less and less extraordinary. I think one part of sense-making is realizing that most things that we experience that are stressful, when they happen, they really do feel like nobody else in the world could understand what I’m going through, because this event is so extraordinary. I felt that this past year when I had these low-lows working, as you know, Mike, on this book that I’m finding sometimes that I’m successful at working on and sometimes disastrously unsuccessful at. But when I’m having a bad day, my experience is that, like, nobody could possibly know how terrible it is to be at an impasse on a project like this. But with time and perspective I’m like, “That is ridiculous. Everybody has had the experience of being at an impasse on a project that they’ve invested a lot in.” So, I think sense-making just is what it sounds like. You’re making sense of an event that at first doesn’t make sense to you, like, feels out of the blue, improbable, extraordinary. Like, how could it happen? And when you get through the process, you put it in perspective, and you’re like, “You know, this happens to a lot of people.” It’s just coming out of this stage of cognitive dissonance and like, “I can’t figure it out. Like, this doesn’t add up.” And coming to like, “It does make sense. I can kind of move forward with a — maybe an updated worldview.”
MAUGHAN: Well, and it sounds like, again, the non-psychological approach is so many people just talk about: you need some perspective-giving, and some idea that “this too shall pass.” There’s this old fable that Abraham Lincoln and many others talked about over time, where this amazing, powerful king gathers all these wise men together, and he asks them to produce something that would make him happy when he is sad and sad when he is happy. Basically, something that can give perspective, in essence, to these moments so there’s no extreme emotion. And they make him a ring, and the ring just says, “This too will pass.” And it’s that idea that no matter what is happening, we get the perspective that, one, we’re not in it alone. Other people have been through this. That’s why support groups are such a, a huge piece — whether it’s patients going through cancer, or families who’ve been through a situation, or new parents have support groups. Just get with people who are going through what you’re going through, and talk about it, “Realize you’re not alone. You’re not crazy. This is hard. We can get through it together. Here’s how I did it.” And the idea that somehow we’ll get through this and there’s some level of impermanence to what we’re going through.
DUCKWORTH: It sounds better if you say “This too shall pass.” I mean, if I were going to get a ring, I would not say “This too will pass.” I would be like, I’m going to pay, you know, two dollars more and get, like, “This too shall pass.”
MAUGHAN: Okay. Can I add one last thing that I think is super interesting. So, Bruce Feiler, who wrote this book about lifequakes and major transitions, one of his major points was that you have to own your own story. You have to write your own story. And it goes back to sort of maybe this idea of sense-making, but he basically just says it’s a meaning-making exercise where you kind of take what happened to you, revise it, and retell your life story to yourself. At Qualtrics, we always tell people, “Go write a press release about where you’re going to be five years from now, or 10 years from now, or when this project is through. Write the press release as to what the end result will be, and then drive toward that.” And one of the things that was most impressive to me, a few years back now, Monica Lewinsky did a TEDTalk and just said, “Hey, look, I’m coming back out into the public sphere, because for the last however many years, I’ve let everybody else write my story and tell my story, and for me to get over what’s happened to me, it’s my turn to own my own story.” And Feiler talked about, again, the people who control the stories of their own transition are so much healthier and able to process what happened to them and define it in these good ways that you talked about — this benefit-finding, this sense-making — and just say, “I’m going to own my own story. I get to tell it my way, and I get to create the life that I want out of whatever the transition was that either I chose or that happened to me.” And I love this idea.
DUCKWORTH: Mike, I love this idea too, and before we finish with, um, Russell’s question, I do want to say something else about these life transitions and especially, you know, since you and I were both talking about our moving stories. Recently, Jason and I moved from the suburbs — I’m not going to call it “Filthadelphia” — from the suburbs of the City of Brotherly Love into the Center City area of the City of Brotherly Love. There is something with that in particular that I want to say is a pretty sturdy recommendation I can make based on psychological science, and that is that when you are in charge of the life event, like moving, you should move to be where people live who are living a life that you want to live.
MAUGHAN: So, surround yourself with, like, aspirational people?
DUCKWORTH: You know, like, if you want to be more outdoorsy, go and be somewhere where everybody’s being outdoorsy. If you want to be the kind of person who goes to museums and, like, public library readings, go somewhere where people are doing that. I know this in some ways is so blindingly obvious that you don’t need a recommendation, but for a long time, social scientists wondered whether when you found little pockets — like, famously people are really happy — I think Fresno, California is, like, the happiest city in America. Well, according to survey research — and happiness is pretty hard to measure in any other way than just asking people.
MAUGHAN: We got to figure out what’s in the water in Fresno.
DUCKWORTH: They have very low crime. They have great schools. It’s economically booming. It’s in California, so it’s got really nice weather for the most part. So, one of the things I would say about maybe moving in particular, maybe this doesn’t apply to all of these life transitions, is, like, when you can take charge of this event and make it happen, and not only control how you manage it, but actually create the transition itself, I think the thing that people fail to do is what social science has now affirmed, because there are these research studies — I’ll tell you about one of them — which is that it actually does change your life. So, social scientists were like, “Well, when you find all these happy people in Fresno, maybe Fresno does something to you. Like, when you move there, it actually changes your level of happiness. But maybe it’s just that the kind of person who moves to Fresno was already happy,” right? We would call that, like, a selection effect.
MAUGHAN: So, not necessarily causal.
DUCKWORTH: Exactly. So, anytime you find these geographic patterns, like, “People weigh more here, they exercise more there, they have more education over here,” social scientists skeptically would wonder whether it’s just a selection effect. It’s like, “Ah, but all those people tend to flock there, but it’s nothing causal.” But the evidence suggests that it’s both. And here’s the clever study that shows it — this type of study. So, the military in particular basically randomly assigns people to where they’re going to go. In other words, out of fairness, when you have a soldier who’s going to have to move from, you know, training to a military base, for example, you don’t actually ask the soldier and their family where they want to go. There’s kind of a flip of the coin. Like, of these 12 military bases, you’re going to have to go to one and so are the other people in your class, but we’re not going to let you choose. And that creates a natural experiment. Was the effect of the move influential on their health, on their weight? And the answer is yes, it is. When people are forced to move somewhere — so, it wasn’t their choice — they actually start looking like the people who live there. For example, if you move somewhere where people are generally a healthier weight, you start to be the weight that the people are. And there are some nuances, and this doesn’t always happen, and sometimes there’s reactance.
MAUGHAN: I gotta find a place with skinny people.
DUCKWORTH: Well, you know, I am sure Utah — I don’t want to say that, like, everybody in Utah is mountain biking all the time. But, you know, if you were going to try to be in a healthy place, I think Utah would be good — but at the same time I want to say, you go on these 100-mile bike rides.
MAUGHAN: I do 100-mile bike rides. I climb tall mountains. Okay. So, Angela, we’ve talked about so many different concepts today. When you think about this question of how to deal with big life changes, if you were to tell your younger self when you’re moving from West Philadelphia, born and raised, to East Philadelphia —.
DUCKWORTH: West Cherry Hill to East Cherry Hill! Very different.
MAUGHAN: I had to bring in a little Will Smith Fresh Prince of Bel Air, right? But if you’re moving, or going through one of these big transitions, and you had to give yourself some advice to how to get through that better, what would you summarize and say, “Hey, this, Angela, is what I wish I had known.” Or “Mike, if you’re moving to Utah in this non-committal, awful way that you did,” how would you tell me to do it a little bit differently? A little bit better?
DUCKWORTH: Well, Russell did ask about the biggest life changes we’ve dealt with and how we felt before and after, and I talked about this move in third grade. Before we moved I thought, “Oh no, this is going to be terrible. How is this happening? Nobody moves in the middle of third grade. That can’t happen to anyone.” I think, just like in the research study, I eventually met other kids for whom similar things had, you know, happened to them. That they also had to move. They also had to make new friends. This now makes sense. It’s not an extraordinary event. This is a story that doesn’t necessarily have a bad ending. It can have a very happy ending. So, I would say, in sum, that in every life there’s a life transition. In fact, more than one. And I think, you know, both that journalist’s book and this scientific research and our personal experience, Mike, says: find a benefit, make sense, and making the best of it — I guess as cliche as that is, it’s true. And I think it’s possible.
MAUGHAN: And my advice is just: move to Fresno.
No Stupid Questions is produced by me — Rebecca Lee Douglas, back from leave. And now here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation: In the first half of the show, Mike and Angela say that Martha Stewart went to prison for insider trading, but she was actually convicted of conspiracy, obstruction, and lying to federal investigators. Also, Mike says he thinks that Martha Stewart was doing gardening classes while in jail. While we weren’t able to confirm that the home and hospitality magnate participated in horticultural work during the five months she spent incarcerated at a minimum-security prison in Alderson, West Virginia, we do know that she taught cooking and yoga classes, and she made pottery. Angela comments that Stewart, quote, “lost her husband many years ago.” In fact, Martha Stewart did not experience life’s number one most stressful event, according to the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, but she did have to face the second most stressful. Her 29-year marriage to publisher Andrew Stewart ended in an acrimonious divorce in 1990. Mr. Stewart is still very much alive and, like his ex-wife, he reportedly enjoys spending time in the garden.
Later, Mike says that Bruce Feiler, the author of Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age, has written three New York Times bestsellers. Actually, he’s written seven. Then, Angela says surveys have ranked Fresno, CA as the happiest city in America, and Mike subsequently urges listeners to move there. Unfortunately, Angela misspoke. According to a widely-referenced study from the personal finance website WalletHub, the top-ranking city on “30 key indicators of happiness” is not Fresno but Fremont, also in California. Second place goes to San Jose, California, and third is Madison, Wisconsin. We apologize to any listeners who have already taken Mike’s advice and moved to Fresno, which comes in at number 126.
Finally, Angela references a paper that explores how the locations where military service members are stationed affects their body mass index. She says that the study looked at 12 military bases. That was initially the case; the study expanded to include 38 different installations. Angela also says that part of the reason this made for such a strong natural experiment is that soldiers and their families are not asked where they want to be stationed. That was the case when the research was conducted, but in 2020 — after the study was published — the US Army began asking noncommissioned officers to rank the top five locations they would like to be assigned in order to better place soldiers based on their, quote, “knowledge, skills, behaviors, and preferences.” And in 2022, the Army started allowing new active-duty recruits to select their first duty station. That’s it for the fact-check.
Before we end today’s show, let’s hear some of your thoughts about last week’s episode the social pressure to drink alcohol:
Ana WHITEHOUSE: Hey y’all. It’s Ana from Augusta, Georgia. I’ve been a bartender for the past 10 years, and it has certainly been a struggle not to drink. My coworkers drink. My boss drinks. I know plenty of other people who drink, and I see the negative effects around me constantly: liver cirrhosis, anger problems, death, DUIs. But as I’ve approached my thirties, it has gotten a lot easier to ask for that non-alcoholic beverage and actually want that non-alcoholic beverage.
Beck: Why are drinkers uncomfortable around nondrinkers? As someone who used to drink and has currently not had a drink in three years, I think the answer is that when you’re drinking, you’re not as aware of your behavior. And so when a nondrinker joins the mix, you now have a foil character, you have someone to compare your behavior to, and so it becomes more of a self-judgment, I believe.
Alyssa RENDON: In some situations, especially work-related, it is a little awkward when everyone is going out to happy hour, and I decline and say I don’t drink. And having to explain why I don’t drink is sometimes a little bit personal. I’ve been sober for about 10 years now. And I’ve actually spoke up a few times in work situations requesting that some of our activities or socializing be around something that’s not drinking, because sometimes people are earlier in their journey of not drinking and don’t feel as comfortable as I do speaking up about it.
That was Ana Whitehouse, a listener who chose to remain anonymous, and Alyssa Rendon. Thank you to them and to everyone who sent in their stories. And remember, we want to hear about your experiences of dealing with a major life change. Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. You might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: How do you make a genuine connection with someone who you just met?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I’m going for it. I’m asking the mother question.
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had production help from Katherine Moncure. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
MAUGHAN: Angela, you’ve sat courtside with me, and I remember one of the games you — after about a quarter sitting courtside, which is kind of the dream of most people who are basketball fans —.
DUCKWORTH: I know. I looked to my left, I looked to my right. Everyone was so excited to be there.
MAUGHAN: And then. you just kind of were like, “Okay, I’m done. This has been great. I’ll see you later.”
- “2023’s Happiest Cities in America,” by Adam McCann (WalletHub, 2023).
- “Stability and Change of Perceived Characteristics of Major Life Events,” by Peter Haehner, Sarah Kritzler, Ina Fassbender, and Maike Luhmann (Journal of Personalty and Social Psychology, 2022).
- Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age, by Bruce Feiler (2020).
- “Assessing Social Contagion in Body Mass Index, Overweight, and Obesity Using a Natural Experiment,” by Ashlesha Datar and Nancy Nicosia (JAMA Pediatrics, 2018).
- “The Price of Shame,” by Monica Lewinsky (TED, 2015).
- “Benefit Finding in Response to General Life Stress: Measurement and Correlates,” by Tony Cassidy, Marian McLaughlin, and Melanie Giles (Health Psychology and Behavioral Medicine, 2014).
- “Measuring Meaning: Searching For and Making Sense of Spousal Loss in Late-Life,” by Rachel A. Coleman and Robert A. Neimeyer (Death Studies, 2010).
- “Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence,” by Richard G. Tedeschi and Lawrence G. Calhoun (Psychological Inquiry, 2009).
- “The Social Readjustment Rating Scale,” by Thomas H. Holmes and Richard H. Rahe (Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 1967).