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Episode Transcript

DUBNER: So, wait, you’re saying you’re deeper than me?

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Obvi. 

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

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

Today on the show: Do your friendships predict how successful you’ll be in life? 

DUCKWORTH: My friends are all practically manic. They’re so, like, “Wehhh!”

Also: How do different occupations correlate with happiness? 

DUCKWORTH: You were the bricklayer who was not building the temple of God. You were just the bricklayer. 

DUBNER: Yeah. I was just building the outhouse. 

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Angela DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I have a question that was tweeted at us by @deathbyfoui. “Is the correlation of your five closest friends a real predictor of success and where you’re going in life?”

Stephen J. DUBNER: Oh, I like that question. I can see why you like the question, too, because I know that you care about and study friendship. So, to me, there are two central questions we need to try to answer there. One is whether there is a strong correlation between your friend group and your future. And, if so, whether there is something about that friend group that significantly causes your future to change, or whether you choose friends who will fit the future that you’re planning. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes. I think that we should get to causality. Once we get beyond correlation, that’s the most interesting part of this question. Because there is this expression — look at your five closest friends: that’s who you are, and that’s who you’re going to be. 

DUBNER: That is a saying, but I’ve always been very suspicious of that saying, have you not? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, if I think of my five closest friends—  

DUBNER: What number am I? That’s all I care about. Am I number 18? Do I make the top 12?

DUCKWORTH: You’re number one, Stephen, always. Okay, my other five closest friends. First of all, they are a lot like me. So, my friends are all practically manic. They’re so, like, “Wehhh!” They’re all women. They’re all around my age. They’re all around my educational demographic. I think it’s interesting to observe that our closest friends are so much like us. 

DUBNER: Okay. So, if that observation is accurate, let’s say, in the aggregate, then I would have to think that that’s a strike against the argument in the question. I would think it’s more a byproduct of the fact that you choose people to be friends who are moving in the direction that you’re moving in. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah and it’s often called homophily. Birds of a feather tend to flock together. And if that’s really the heart of the correlation that, because we’re so similar, we aggregate, then that does argue against your friends having a causal effect on your outcome, because that’s not really what’s going on. 

DUBNER: But there is evidence, and I’m sure you’re familiar with it, by Nicholas Christakis, who runs the Human Nature Lab at Yale. He’s the co-author of a book called Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. He makes an argument that our social circles influence us greatly in terms of emotions and behaviors, everything from health to politics, etc. And his argument is that, really, what we think of as “the individual” is actually much more a compounded result of the people that we know and listen to. So, what do you think of that research and argument? 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, Nick is probably the most famous researcher on this idea that our social networks are not only a reflection of ourselves, but actually cause changes in ourselves. And he has this data from the Framingham Heart Study, which, by the way, was about, as it suggests, heart health and cardiovascular disease and so forth.  

DUBNER: But it’s also been mined by researchers just because it was a really robust set of data, yes?  

DUCKWORTH: Opportunistically, yeah. And I believe Framingham is this little town in Massachusetts. And I think the interesting feature of this data set is that, because it was in this one geographic location, the people in the data set happened to know each other. And you can map out who’s friends with whom, who’s relatives of whom, who’s married to whom, who’s two degrees of separation, three degrees of separation, etc. 

And when Nick analyzed this, one of the famous findings was the finding that obesity is contagious, in the sense that your weight and your weight change was predicted not only by the people you know, but the more startling finding is, it’s not even necessarily that they’re in your direct circle, but maybe the outer circle. If I influence you, Stephen, and you happen to know someone else, I don’t even have to know them, but my politics, or the way I eat, or anything else could “go viral,” as it were, in the same way that an actual virus goes viral. 

DUBNER: So, let me just push back on that a little bit. And I know that some of the Christakis research has been challenged as well in arguing that he and his colleagues maybe conflate a variety of issues that should be considered separate. 

So, along those lines, when you talk about obesity in a social circle or in a community — yes, I can see a channel by which there’d be behavioral rub off, but I can also see a channel that is purely environmental. In other words, if I live in a place where the easiest, cheapest, most available food is food that really makes you fat fast, then maybe you’re looking at a community effect more than a “social behavioral” effect. What do you think of that idea?  

DUCKWORTH: Well, the statistics behind these social network analyses are very sophisticated, and they try to get around that.

DUBNER: The old “sophisticated statistics” argument, huh?

DUCKWORTH: That old saw. But you’re right. Actually, your good friend Steve Levitt and I were recently in conversation. He came as a guest speaker to an undergraduate class at Penn. And he said one thing to keep in mind from an economist’s perspective is that there is a bright line between correlational data and experimental data. We can try to get the correlational data to be closer and closer to an experiment by controlling for lots of variables and doing fancy-schmancy acrobatic stuff, but it’ll never be an experiment.

So, the Framingham Heart Study never randomly assigned people to have friend A instead of friend B, and indeed, that is the major limitation. And there have been critiques of the social network analysis approach. For example, there was one paper that said if you use the same analyses, height is contagious too. So, I think it’s a limitation. I would say that there is enough converging evidence that we do influence each other to basically say: look, let’s assume that there is some prediction going on and then try to unpack it. I have to believe that, yes, we have influence on our friends. 

DUBNER: So, it sounds like we’re coming down, kind of, in the middle on this, which is that, yeah, it makes sense that there’s some predictive power, or some causal relationship, but it’d be easy to read too much into it. I will say this: As much as I would like to make the argument that the arrow is maybe traveling in the other direction, that we choose people — as it sounds like you and I have both chosen people to be our friends who are a lot like us, as opposed to us becoming like them through friendship.

On the other hand, my gut response would be to think that there really is a strong causal relationship. Because, if you just think about all the channels by which your friend group can influence your life, all your outcomes: so, who you choose, or stay with, as a romantic partner — I can see that being influenced by your friend and social group; maybe how you met your romantic partner, and that may lead to whether you have a family, etc. 

I can also see your friend group influencing what kind of career options you consider, the choices you make, and then also how you assess the choices you’re making. Something that you may consider brilliant as a job or project choice, and your friends may think is a waste of time, do you then get new friends? Or perhaps, which I would think is more likely, you shift your orientation. So, I can see a lot of ways in which, yes, friends, especially in your teens, 20s, and less when you’re at the advanced age that you and I are, could have a deep influence on how your life actually turns out. So, I am coming down a little bit on the side of yes here, with reservations.  

DUCKWORTH: There’s research not on teenagers, or even young adults, but in the workplace — where, of course, the average age is well above 20s — that emotion is contagious. And I’m thinking about the work of Wharton professor Sigal Barsade. She calls this emotional contagion. And her idea is that you come to work — or I guess you get on a Zoom call — and you’re in a good mood, or you’re in a bad mood, and the emotion “goes viral” in the sense that you are expressing yourself with your facial expressions and your body language, the tone of your voice, etc. 

Now, the next thing in her theory that happens is that other people, without their conscious knowledge, mimic you. And mimicry is actually this hardwired human response. I notice this about myself when I’m talking to somebody who has a British accent. And, oh my God, it’s so terrible. I start mimicking their accent. People from South Jersey should not mimic British accents. And I don’t want to, but it just happens. 

So, you come on, you’re in a really high-energy, positive mood, without even my conscious awareness, I start mimicking your tone of voice, your body language, your facial expressions. And then I actually start to feel the emotions that I am behaviorally mimicking. So, I just think it’s a very interesting phenomenon that’s probably not just when we’re teenagers or young adults. Even at our distinguished, gray-haired age. 

 DUBNER: What you just explained sounds like a plausible chain of connections. 


DUBNER: The emotional signaling happens and then there’s some mimicry. But I really would wonder about the decay rate of that emotional mimicry. It might be useful to me in the next hour for the Zoom call, but is that going to change me? And I would argue probably no.  

DUCKWORTH: Oh, well, I don’t know if it’s going to make you into a dispositionally happier person. 

DUBNER: But I mean, that’s what we’re talking about. I think it’s an interesting way to think about things. But also, if I were counting that as a channel of causal mechanism, I would think that’s a pretty weak or short-lasting channel. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, fair. But I would say this. I had a roommate. I loved this roommate. But the year that we lived together, it was not a very bright and happy year in this roommate’s life. And I have to tell you that after not just one Zoom call, not just one conversation, but constant exposure to somebody who’s in a melancholy, blue mood, I did feel like it was starting to seep in.  

DUBNER: And what did you do? You got out of there, didn’t you? 

DUCKWORTH: I did. As soon as the lease was up, I was like, “That was great. I’m moving.” 

DUBNER: See, I think that’s the mechanism that is often overlooked when people are looking for the positive result of a relationship. It’s hard to measure the negative, or it’s hard to measure the omission. I mean, I think of how hard it can be to break bonds when you feel that the friendship is leading you somewhere you don’t want to go. I had a friend in college who was a very close friend. But he was wild, and we did a lot of wild things.

DUCKWORTH: Wait, hold on. I need details. 

DUBNER: I’m guessing statute of limitations has gone on most of the stuff. But yeah, there were cars driven that didn’t belong to us, and motorcycles ridden at speeds that are not legal and to places that they shouldn’t have been ridden to. 


DUBNER: Now, as it turns out, he had a serious drug and alcohol problem. And in college, you can kind of chalk that up to the vibe of the place. I will say, though, as the years went on I became increasingly less comfortable having him in my life. 

The very sad ending of the story is he was Irish and he wound up dead in the River Liffey in Dublin. That was a friendship that scared me, and it took me a long time, but I had to back out. And I told myself, “If I continue down his path, then I’m going to go somewhere that I don’t want to be.” And I would offer that story, granted, it’s just one story, but I would offer that as counter-evidence against the fact that we fall in with a group of friends and they shove us towards some destiny that we cannot control. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, you could also use the exact same story to bolster the argument that there is a causal influence of friends, and therefore, people often curate their friendships, wary of the bad effects of friends whose influences we don’t want, right? 

DUBNER: Well, I did not mean to suggest causality. In fact, I would argue that if this were a little miniature data set, that this would argue against the underlying argument that friendships deeply influence our futures, because he was one of my closest friends. 

DUCKWORTH: So, just taking this reader’s question at face value, which is: take your five friends — great, now that’s the crystal ball for the rest of your life. Yes, I think you’re right. Obviously, if you actively change your friendship group to not be like the people in your friend group who you don’t want to be like, but I think I was reading the reader’s question at this deeper causal level. 

DUBNER: So wait, let me just back up and make sure I understand your objection. You’re saying you’re deeper than me?

DUCKWORTH: Uh, yeah. Obvi.

DUBNER: I didn’t understand the question on the proper depth. And now you’re here to set me straight. 

 DUCKWORTH: I’m glad you caught up. Finally. But okay, I was reading a little bit into this tweet, and maybe I’ve read a little too deeply into it, but I thought the question was really about whether our friends do or don’t have a causal influence on our own personality and character. And I wanted to say that, of course, this story must argue in favor of their having a causal influence, because otherwise we wouldn’t take the trouble to avoid certain friendships, etc. But you’re right, I was reading six levels down into a tweet. 

DUBNER: Well, you’re also arguing that influence can be positive or negative, which is obviously a good point. 

DUCKWORTH: Is there somebody in your life that you would say, “You know what, I wouldn’t be the man I am today were it not for — fill in the blank.” 

DUBNER: I’ve had maybe one and a half people like that, but I wouldn’t have called them friends, I would have called them mentors or teachers. 

DUCKWORTH: Did you become more like Ellen, your wife, after being married for a long time? 

DUBNER: Oh, I’m sure I’ve become more like Ellen. I mean, isn’t that what happens to couples, though? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, that’s why I wanted to ask you that. Because that’s a version of this question, too. 

DUBNER: I guess it is a version, but I do see that as a different version because there’s usually one partner at a time, not a circle of five partners. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes, that’s true. 

 DUBNER: And Angie, what about you? Is there a person or group of people who you feel turned you into Angie Duckworth, and that without them you’d be Susan Donovan?

DUCKWORTH: I can name somebody who I think did change my development. And it was in my high school. I started getting to be really good friends with this guy named Greg Miller. He was reading John Steinbeck novels for fun, and he was such an intellectual, and he wrote really well. And he was just thinking about ideas, and sometimes smoking pot, but mostly thinking about ideas, and sometimes both. But I remember when I got to be really good friends with Greg, it was an enlightenment, and I was like, “What? Thinking is cool? And you do it for ‘funsies’ instead of just for the AP exam that’s coming up?”

DUBNER: And you were anti-thinking before then? 

DUCKWORTH: I mean, I was a cheerleader, and I was having keg parties. I wasn’t exactly an intellectual. So, I do think it changed who I was. It changed where I wanted to go to school. I was like, “Oh, I want to go to a good college, and I want to be with other people like Greg.” And so, yeah, I think that probably changed my life forever. 

DUBNER: I do find it really exciting, I have to say, to make friends now, at this stage in my life. There’s something just exhilarating and rewarding about it because, even though it’s plainly very different from when you’re making friends as a kid, or an adolescent, or in college, I feel like when you meet someone now, there’s less insecurity, there’s more confidence. You know what you like and don’t like, you’ve already made a lot of those decisions, and you know how to express yourself.

And so I feel that when we think about friendship formation and how it will influence your life, it’s a great question. I’m glad the listener asked it today, but I do think it’s worth thinking about it from a longer view, in that friendship formation, and the influence of friends, and the value of friends, and the value of being a friend, can continue throughout your life. At least, I hope that’s the idea. And I should say without making you blush too much on the radio, I feel like our friendship is awesome. And we’ve only known each other for four or five years. I’ll take it.  

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, I am blushing. And I think if my future is the average of my five closest friends, I think since meeting you, the future got a little brighter.




Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss how your career choice may affect your mental health. 

DUCKWORTH: Oops! I checked the wrong box and now I’m a man of the cloth! 

*      *      *

DUBNER: Angela, my question for you today is from a listener named Kevin Hunter. And Kevin is working on a Ph.D. in chemistry education at the University of Iowa.  

DUCKWORTH: That’s very noble, chemistry education. 

DUBNER: So, Kevin wants to know which profession has the happiest people? But I think there’s a little subtext here that’s particularly relevant for you. It sounds like he is already suspicious of academia. Because he writes that, “My friend and I often talk about how difficult it is to view ourselves in the academic world, given the way some of our advisors and colleagues act.”

So, reading between the lines, I’m guessing he’s seen either some unseemly behavior or maybe just a lot of misery. Anyway, that leads Kevin to ask, “whether there was a line of work that seemed to generally have the happiest people who are amazingly happy to work with those they work with.” So, Angie, let’s start broad. What can the literature, whether in psychology or elsewhere, teach us about happiness and work generally? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, my advisor in graduate school was Marty Seligman. So, Marty Seligman is the father of positive psychology, which is the scientific study of happiness and other good things. So, I’m very glad to be getting this question. There is just a mountain of research, first of all, that happy people do better in the workplace, by any metric, including objective ones. 

Then the question is: Why? And does happiness have a causal influence? If you come to work and you’re happier, will you automatically start working better, or are you happy because you are already a high performer? And there, there’s not as much evidence because it is hard to randomly assign people to happiness levels. But you actually can do a little bit. You can get people to do things that induce happiness, like think about good things in their lives, etc. And it does seem, on balance, that happiness may have a causal influence in the workplace. So it’s better to be happier, just from a performance standpoint.  

DUBNER: Okay. So, that makes perfect sense. But then, I would think that there’s going to be a measurement problem, because if we try to look at which professions have the happiest people, it sounds as though the professions may not be what’s making people happy. It may be that people who are happy choose a particular type of profession. Can you tell us anything about that? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I’m guessing that that must be part of it, right? These selection effects. What are the professions to which happy people versus unhappy people are disproportionately drawn? It’s such a basic question: What are the happiest professions in the world? There’s not a lot of data. I know there was a study, I think it’s over 10 years ago, by an economist at NORC, and they looked at self-reported job satisfaction and life satisfaction. And there is actually an answer to what is the happiest job in the world. So, Stephen, I’m going to let you guess what this survey research suggested was the happiest job in the world. 

 DUBNER: In the world or in the U.S.? 

DUCKWORTH: I guess it was probably in the U.S. Yeah, it was the General Social Survey, so I think it must be U.S.

DUBNER: I’m going to say the top three are clergy, physical therapists, and firefighter.

DUCKWORTH: You’re a genius. 

DUBNER: I can Google, too. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Okay. Good. There you go.

DUBNER: So, while you were talking, I happened to look up this 2007, as it turns out, survey. I’m sorry, that was the worst cheating. 

DUCKWORTH: And, by the way, the most unhappy job in the world is apparently roofing. Next unhappiest is being a waiter or a server in a restaurant. This is, by the way, pre-pandemic, 2007. And then, the third most unhappy job is basically being a manual laborer. 

DUBNER: So, if we were to look at those two groups: the happy group, which is clergy, physical therapists, and firefighters, versus the top of the unhappy group, which are roofers, waiters and servers, and manual laborers, what do we see as the characteristics of those two groups? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I think one thing about roofers and laborers in particular, but I guess, you could also say this about waiters and servers, is that what they lack is autonomy. You don’t get to make a lot of your own choices when you’re in those occupations. 

DUBNER: Right, but the thing that jumps out to me of the happy jobs is that those are caring professions, or what are usually called caring professions, right? Clergy, physical therapist — you’re helping people. Firefighters — I mean, that’s kind of an extreme version of caring. 

DUCKWORTH: Couldn’t you just make the same argument about somebody who’s helping you with your food in the restaurant? They’re serving you. That’s why they’re called “servers.”

DUBNER: Yes. But I think it’s different. I think it’s delivering a service as opposed to serving the individual. 

DUCKWORTH: You know, one thing that’s interesting — let’s just take the roofers, servers, manual laborers. By the way, if anyone’s curious, the list goes on: bartenders, packagers, freight stock and material handlers, etc. It’s not that you’re not helping people, but I think it’s not obvious that you’re helping people. You don’t get someone who says, “Father, I’m so glad that I came to confession because you really set me straight.” You have this distal, or delayed effect on other people. When someone looks up at their ceiling and they’re like, “Wow, thank God the roof is not leaking during this storm,” you’re not even there to be thanked.

By the way, if anybody Googles this 2007 study, the difference between the roofers and the clergy is not, like, a tenth of a decimal point. It’s a pretty yawning gap. For example, close to nine out of 10 clergy would consider themselves very satisfied with their work — but only one in four roofers. The proportions are really flipped. So, I think where we would come to agreement is that it’s probably partly the objective features of the job — whether you have meaningful relationships with the people you’re helping or almost none, whether you have autonomy or not. 

 DUBNER: But I think, again, this gets to the selection problem, which is what kind of person goes into what kind of work, and how much of that is driven by their temperament and/or their happiness? 

DUCKWORTH: So, do you think that surly, unhappy people decide to become waiters?

DUBNER: I wouldn’t say that, but I would say that maybe it’s not the first choice always. And, as we know with a lot of waiters and servers, they are literally doing it while pursuing something else. I mean, at least in New York, that’s the cliché, but in New York it’s certainly often true. In other words, this is not the work I chose to do. You don’t end up in the clergy by accident, I don’t think. 

DUCKWORTH: One would hope not. “Oops! I checked the wrong box and now I’m a man of the cloth!”

DUBNER: How do I get out of this cassock? Okay, so, the description that accompanies the survey lists the top and bottom 12 occupations in terms of job satisfaction. It says the most satisfying jobs are mostly professions including those involving caring for, teaching and protecting others, and creative pursuits. The least satisfying dozen jobs are mostly low-skill, manual and service occupations, especially involving customer service, and food, beverage preparation and serving. 

But I feel that there is an elephant in the room we’re ignoring, which is: you and I, and probably a lot of people who listen to a show like this, are extremely fortunate to have work that is fulfilling and satisfying on one or many levels. But we know from the data that even though the share of people who like their work has increased a little bit over the millennia, it’s still not very high. It’s something like 40 percent. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I think one of the statistics from the Gallup poll is, ”Are you engaged at work?” And the proportion of people who are anywhere close to, “Yeah, pretty engaged” — it’s pretty low. It’s definitely south of 50 percent.  

DUBNER: Right. So I think you and I are speaking from a minority position here. And look, this guy Kevin who wrote to us, he’s getting a Ph.D. in chemical education. So he, too, is heading for that minority quadrant. But I think it’s worth asking, for people who don’t have that as a feature of their work life, what is the best way to think about the role of happiness in your work? Because many people absolutely do not have the option or the access to work that makes them “happy.” So, how do you think about the tradeoffs? And if your job doesn’t make you at least a little bit happy, what’s good advice for coping with that?  

DUCKWORTH: So, the research of Amy Wrzesniewski at Yale on callings — she looked at the idea that you could approach your work as a job, you can approach your work as a career, you can approach it as a “calling.” Each more meaningful than the last. But one thing that was interesting is that, at least in her research, if you look at, for example, people who are attendants for hospital rooms — not the doctors, not the nurses — there are people who do feel like that work is a calling. And that would probably fall into one of these manual labor categories. 

So, it’s not just what the occupation is, but the way you perform your occupation. Some of the same researchers who study callings, including Amy Wisniewski, have done work on what they called “job crafting,” which is where you don’t switch jobs, you craft the job you’re already in, and you do things to change your mindset about it. But also, you might take certain features of your job that you hate and then try to get them swapped out.

DUBNER: Get somebody else to do them. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, like on a team. And I know that sounds ridiculous because there probably are some tasks that everybody hates, and so nobody wants to do them. But let’s just take for example, I don’t really like doing expenses. I really don’t like smoothing out all my receipts from my pocket and then trying to organize them. And obviously things are more electronic now, but I still don’t like it. And believe it or not, there are people who like doing that kind of thing. They’re like, “Oh, I like putting things in order. And I like checking off this box.” 

And so, I think the idea of job crafting is, if you could audit your job and say, “These are things I super love, or kind of love, or sort of like, and then these are things I absolutely despise.” There might be a little bit of horse trading where you could swap with somebody else. So I think that’s good practical advice. Look, you said that in the study, when you look at the top 10 list of job satisfaction by occupation, you’re like, “Okay, these things have creativity, or they’re about teaching, or they’re about caring for people.” I think if people could say even if you are somebody who is, say, a waitress — I don’t want to be too Pollyanna about this, but is there a way that you could think about—  

DUBNER: Bring some of the creativity, or teaching, or caring. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I think the best people do do that.  

DUBNER: Yeah. It sounds to me like good advice, although, I’m thinking back to my youth. And I have to say, having worked a lot of manual labor, I hated it very much, and it tortured me because I couldn’t get my mind to stop hating it. I couldn’t turn my mind off from thinking how boring and hard— 

DUCKWORTH: You were the bricklayer who was not building the temple of God. You were just the bricklayer. 

DUBNER: Yeah. I was just building the outhouse. Your advice would not have resonated with me. And I would say, “Well, you want me to bring creativity to baling the hay?”  

DUCKWORTH: I know that sounds crazy, but I had a job running the photocopier in the basement of somebody’s home office and then taking the photocopies up to the first floor and then going back down again and then making more copies. And there was a little complexity. Sometimes it had to be on green paper and sometimes on yellow, and sometimes it was double-sided or pink and stapled. But not a lot of room for creativity and self-expression. 

But okay, it reminded me that sometimes I would be like, “Okay, I’m going to get up to the top of the stairs, and I’m going to do it in three seconds.” And remember when we interviewed Gabrielle Hamilton from Prune, and she said making brunch after your learning curve starts to level off is mind-numbing. And she would create these little challenges where it was like: this time I’m going to brunch with no crumbs. 

DUBNER: I have some friends who do New York building and renovation, and they tell me that many people who come to your house or apartment to do things like install shades and minor carpentry, they say that they are all stoned all the time. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, that explains a lot about my new house, actually. 

DUBNER: But the, the reason being that it’s just, it’s just—

DUCKWORTH: It’s so terrible. The job is so terrible that you’re self-medicating? 

DUBNER: I’m reluctant to say that, but yes. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, that’s interesting. 

DUBNER: So, I guess the real question that Kevin is asking is: What if there’s an occupation that you think would make you happy, as Kevin sounds like he thinks about education or academia, but it has a lot of unhappy people already in it? Do you join anyway and hope that your underlying happiness will carry you through? Or do you say, “No way I’m going into that den of vipers. I’d rather dig ditches or, I guess, join the clergy.”  

DUCKWORTH: I think that my closest social circle within academia — the people I write papers with, the people I converse with — are, as a group, remarkably happy people, who are just wondering how it is that they get paid to do what they do because they clearly would do it even if they didn’t get paid. But I would say this. You really ought to move toward the people that you feel make your life better. And I think sometimes that means doing a little switching of departments or advisers. 

I’m not saying this to Kevin’s adviser, I’m sure you’re great. But if I think about the twists and turns that my own career has taken, there were times where I was like, “Oh, I’m going to sidle up more to this person because they’re happy and productive, and spend a little less time with this other person, who is not a very happy person and they’re kind of a buzzkill.”

DUBNER: You’re also echoing our earlier conversation about your friends influencing your future because, again, it sounds like you hang out with a circle within academia that is a lot like you, and that Kevin has somehow intersected with a totally different circle.  

DUCKWORTH: Even though he’s in Iowa, where I thought everybody was happy and nice. Is that not true about Iowa? Isn’t that true of generally the whole Midwest? Well, at least nice. I don’t know about happy.  

DUBNER: So, Rebecca has some fact-checking to do. And I think the proposition here is: Everyone in the Midwest is nice and happy. 

DUCKWORTH: Yes. Check that for us. 

DUBNER: It sounds like you really took that advice that they now give four- and five-year-old kids in school. I don’t know if they gave it when you and I were little. I don’t think they did. But you have to advocate for yourself. There’s a lot of things you can teach children. A lot of them are facts and figures, which turn out to be common knowledge but not that useful.

But one of them is to learn to think your way through a system, or an organization, or community, and to really learn how to get where you need to be. And it sounds like you learned that really, really well. I think you do it beautifully. If that is a talent that Kevin, and maybe other people listening, have not quite discovered, rather than eliminating this whole possibility because there are a bunch of sourpusses over there, just find a way to avoid the sourpusses. 

DUCKWORTH: I think you’re right, Stephen, maybe when we were growing up, the received wisdom was, “This is the way the system is. You just have to fit into it.” So, yeah, I think it’s good advice to consider yourself the driver.  

DUBNER: Or you could just get high.  

*      *      *

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio and People I (Mostly) Admire. This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now, here is a fact-check of today’s conversations.

During the conversation about occupational happiness, Angela and Stephen discuss the results of a 2007 self-reported job-satisfaction and life-satisfaction survey. Angela says that the research was conducted by an economist at NORC, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. The survey is NORC’s, but it wasn’t conducted by an economist. The man behind the data is actually historian Tom W. Smith, who directs NORC’s Center for the Study of Politics and Society. He’s also worked on the organization’s General Social Survey since 1976, which, as Angela guessed, collects data nationally, not globally.  

Later, Stephen and Angela requested that I investigate whether or not everyone in the Midwest is, “nice and happy.” Clearly, this sort of blanket statement doesn’t apply to every individual in a region that accounts for 21 percent of the U.S. population. I’m sure there are at least a few grumpy, misanthropic Midwesterners. But in general terms, a 2013 study from the University of Cambridge assessed the personality profiles of more than 1.5 million Americans based on the Big Five Personality Traits, a tool which, unfortunately, does not simplify complex characteristics with terms like “nice” and “happy.” However, the researchers did find that, on average, midwesterners displayed moderately-high levels of extraversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness, as well as moderately-low neuroticism, but they also experienced very low levels of openness. This configuration of traits, “portrays the sort of person who is sociable, considerate, dutiful, and traditional.” In comparison, people on the West Coast were found to be generally relaxed and creative, and people in the North East, where Stephen and Angela are, tended to be more uninhibited and temperamental. That’s it for the fact-check. 

*      *      *

No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Mark McClusky and James Foster. Our intern is Emma Tyrell. 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 And if you heard Stephen or Angela reference a study, an expert or a book that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out, where we link to all of the major references that you heard here today. Thanks for listening! 

DUCKWORTH: Okay. Wait, is this a good time to pee? 

DUBNER: I think it’s a great time to pee.

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  • Nicholas Christakis, professor of social and natural science, internal medicine and biomedical engineering at Yale University.
  • Sigal Barsade, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • John Steinbeck, Nobel Prize-winning author.
  • Marty Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Amy Wrzesniewski, professor of management at Yale University.
  • Tom W. Smith, director of NORC’s Center for the Study of Politics and Society.



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