Introducing “No Stupid Questions” (Ep. 422)
In this new addition to the Freakonomics Radio Network, co-hosts Stephen Dubner and Angela Duckworth discuss the relationship between age and happiness. Also: does all creativity come from pain? New episodes of No Stupid Questions are released every Sunday evening.
Listen and subscribe to No Stupid Questions at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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About six months ago, we put out an episode that was a pilot for a spinoff show. It featured the research psychologist Angela Duckworth and me asking each other questions, and trying to answer them. We asked if you thought this would be a worthwhile spinoff, and your response was overwhelmingly positive. So, we took your advice. And we’ve launched this new weekly podcast, called No Stupid Questions. There’s a new episode every Sunday evening, Eastern Time. You can subscribe wherever you get Freakonomics Radio, and I seriously hope you do subscribe. No Stupid Questions seems to be catching on — it’s already got more than a half million downloads. And we’ve been working hard to keep making it better, and to make it appealing for people who like Freakonomics Radio, but also like a more conversational and personal take on topics like friendship and immortality and whether dogs are better than people. Today on Freakonomics Radio, we’re bringing you a special episode of No Stupid Questions. I hope you enjoy and, again, I hope you subscribe.
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Angela DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
Stephen DUBNER: And I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH: I’m a psychologist at Penn and I run an educational non-profit called Character Lab.
DUBNER: You also wrote the book Grit.
DUBNER: And I’m a writer and I host a podcast called Freakonomics Radio.
DUCKWORTH: And you wrote the book Freakonomics, among quite a few others.
DUBNER: I did.
DUCKWORTH: And you and I became friends
DUBNER: We did. And we discovered that both of us really like to ask each other questions.
DUCKWORTH: And there’s only one rule.
DUCKWORTH and DUBNER: The rule is: there are no stupid questions.
Today on No Stupid Questions: Why do happiness levels tend to start dropping around age 16, and not rise again until our late 40s?
DUCKWORTH: To be precise, it’s about 47 to 48. And I only say that because I’m 49. So, this matters a lot to me.
Also, does Sigmund Freud’s concept of sublimation hold up?
DUBNER: I did love my mother, but I never wanted to marry her.
DUCKWORTH: Well, Freud wouldn’t believe you, by the way.
DUBNER: I know he wouldn’t.
DUCKWORTH: He would say, “There he goes, coping.”
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DUBNER: Angela Duckworth.
DUCKWORTH: Stephen Dubner.
DUBNER: Here’s my question for you today. It’s about happiness, which is an interesting and weirdly contentious subject, in a way.
DUCKWORTH: Because people disagree about what makes happiness.
DUBNER: And you don’t think about happiness the way many people do. Many people think of happiness as goal No. 1 in life. And your father told you, hell no. I don’t care if you’re happy, be successful.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I mostly care about achievement as a psychologist, and as the daughter of my father. But I will tell you, I grew up in the Positive Psychology Center. That’s where I did my Ph.D. So, you can ask me a happiness question.
DUBNER: All right. So, different disciplines look at happiness in different ways. Different disciplines call it different things. But happiness seems to be a word a lot of them have landed on.
DUCKWORTH: There’s really three aspects of happiness that are widely used. One is life satisfaction. And then the second is positive emotion, feeling energetic or joyful. Now I know those sound like the same thing, but life satisfaction is thinking that your life is good. Overall you would say, “Oh, I wouldn’t want to trade my life with another’s.” Whereas this positive emotion thing is quite literally feeling positively. And those aren’t exactly the same thing. But the third aspect of happiness is actually very different, and that is the absence of negative emotion — the absence of anxiety and depression, worry and so forth. Those are three aspects. Economists tend to think about life satisfaction more.
DUBNER: And there are several economists who’ve been working on this for many years. David Blanchflower, who’s been one of the economists studying this, recently published a paper, the latest in a long line. And he talks about the happiness curve. And if you look at the curve, it’s a gigantic U, like a smile. And basically it starts measuring happiness at age 16. That’s when people are the happiest in these data, at least. And then it drops, and drops, and drops, and drops. And then it turns again at about age 50.
DUCKWORTH: To be precise, I think it’s about 47 to 48. And I only say that because I’m 49. So, this matters a lot to me.
DUBNER: Okay, so you’re in for good times ahead. So here’s the question. If you believe the happiness curve, and that our happiness basically drops from teenagerhood, until whatever you want to call age 50 — middle age, late-middle age, middle-middle age. And then, it swings really hard upward for a long time. If you do believe that, why do you think that is the case? Is it that there are things happening in there? Is it adjustments? Is it habituation? You’re the psychologist. Tell us what.
DUCKWORTH: So I’ve seen this work by Blanchflower, and I will tell you that it’s very thorough. I think there’s good reason to believe it’s real. Generally, what Blanchflower is using is survey data, self-report. Usually the phrasing is, “How satisfied are you with your life?” I think it may be because as you hit that midlife period, you’re maybe under a combination of family stress, because parenting is not easy. And work stress.
DUBNER: And could it be that age 48 to 52 is when many parents are seeing their teenagers move out of the house?
DUCKWORTH: That is a possibility. These samples don’t only include married adults, but yes, one of the findings from marriage research is that so many married couples with children fear the empty-nest syndrome. But actually, on average, people tend to be happier once they’ve sort of gotten over the initial crying of your last kid being dropped off to college. I think there are other explanations, though.
DUBNER: That’s what I want to hear.
DUCKWORTH: Blanchflower doesn’t actually say that he knows. And I think that’s right to be humble about, “Okay, look, there’s this U-shaped happiness curve, but nobody really knows for sure what’s going on.” I want to suggest that when you’re in the beginning of life — and this is what I think might account for the downward slope in happiness until you reach your late 40s — you are striving, you are trying to attain goals maybe that you’re not reaching.
And if you think about what happiness is, it’s the achieving of the goals that you’ve set. And there are two ways to do that, right? One is to achieve those goals, and the other one is to have lower goals. So maybe the higher expectations that we have for what we hope for in life earlier, that accounts for why we’re downward sloping until a certain point, and then we reckon with what’s possible. And then, we’re happier.
DUBNER: Are you saying it’s— that there’s just less gap between our dream and reality? Or that we habituate and become more accepting of what we’ve got, even if it wasn’t what we hoped it might be?
DUCKWORTH: Well, that’s a pretty nuanced distinction. But I agree, there’s setting lower goals, not having high expectations for your life. And then, alternatively, there’s keeping those high expectations, but having this distanced perspective, and very Zen about the fact that you missed those goals. But I think, either way, what it says is that the kind of increasing happiness that you are predicted to experience in your 50s, and your 60s, and so forth, are not because you’re actually objectively doing better, but because, in some way, you have subjectively changed the targets themselves.
DUBNER: Are you suggesting — and I think there is research that suggests this — that young people are unrealistically optimistic? And even if the answer to that is yes, can you really say that it is unwise, because maybe one of the things that you need a surplus of when you’re starting out is optimism, because in fact, it can be hard.
DUCKWORTH: There is a psychologist who I love named Don Moore. He’s a judgment and decision-making scientist. And he believes that not only the young, but people of all ages, can be recklessly optimistic. And he thinks that this overconfidence is actually a problem. When he says this, entrepreneurs just leap out of the woodwork and they say, “You know, you got to be optimistic to get anything done!”
And I think Don Moore would say, “No, it’s just better to be accurate.” And he has some experimental evidence to support that. I think that these high aspirations that young people have — rose-tinted movies in their head about what their wedding is going to be like, and how their children are going to be beautiful and perfect, and all these projections into the future — which are probably a little naive. I think you could ask the question whether they’re really unwise or not. I do think that if you reach higher, you’ll get farther, but you might be less happy doing it.
DUBNER: Since we see that measured happiness is very high at 16, and since you’re talking about reckless optimism is a feature of that age, how can you explain, then, the relatively very high and increasing suicide rate? Or maybe it does explain it. Maybe it’s that the cohort that are prone towards suicidal thoughts are those who see that gap between expectations and reality.
DUCKWORTH: Well, first of all, I don’t want to say that optimism is inherently reckless. Some would say that it’s reckless. I wouldn’t use exactly that language. I might amend your question to say, “Look, if young people have these optimistic aspirations, how do we explain increasing rates of suicide and depression?” And I think that’s an excellent question.
DUBNER: That’s the question I meant to ask.
DUCKWORTH: I really don’t think anyone knows. I think the mystery of increasing rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide are still exactly that — a mystery. One hypothesis that has been advanced is the same hypothesis that’s been advanced for why a lot of other people, who are not just young adults or adolescents, are unhappy. And that is that we do have this ratcheting up of expectations.
And there is this gap between what we are achieving and our aspirations, not because we’re achieving less. We’re probably achieving more. I’m mean, we’re learning more. We’re having, in some cases, higher-quality experiences. But our aspirations are growing faster than our objective achievements. By the way, another possibility, Stephen, is that the people who are happier are just different from the people who are depressed, and they’re both growing in number and the middle’s getting carved out.
DUBNER: If you do believe these data, what do you do with it? Let’s say, you’re a 16-year-old person. Let’s say, you’re a 50-year-old person. Let’s say, you’re a 75-year-old person. By the way, happiness does start to decline when you’re older. A lot of people around you are dying. Your own health is not doing so well. But if you see that big U in front of you, if you’re 16 or if you’re in the middle of the upslope, how do you hack that happiness curve? What do you do with that information?
DUCKWORTH: Let’s start with the 16-year-old, because I have one. So, what would I say to one?
DUCKWORTH: She’s so wonderful! She’s actually a shockingly-happy 16-year-old.
DUBNER: She’s all over the data.
DUCKWORTH: That’s right! She’s at the top of the curve. She just doesn’t know what’s ahead.
DUBNER: Also, we should say, the teenager can be happy while making the parents miserable.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I think what teenagers experience is actually, high highs and low lows. And there’s a lot of scientific evidence for that, too. I’m a university professor, so I see lots of 18- to 22-year-olds who have their fair share of angst. And they are experiencing the decrease in happiness. They have memories of being carefree children. And I think that downward slope, my guess is, is feeling the difference between what it was and what it is today.
We’re very sensitive to changes. And to feel that everything was so simple then, and that you could eat an ice cream cone without guilt. They’re all of a sudden burdened with the weighty responsibilities of adulthood – their first career choices, their first disappointments professionally, or maybe major ones romantically. And when you’re sad it’s really hard to be convinced that you’ll ever not be sad. I like to tell young people who are in emotional turmoil, or experiencing the decrease in their emotional well-being, that life is long and that they won’t feel exactly this way forever.
DUBNER: Well let’s say you’re at the bottom right now. Right? Technically, you’re about there. So, how do you exploit the oncoming onslaught of happiness you’re about to experience?
DUCKWORTH: I mean, other than just looking forward, which, of course, science says that we can actually derive pleasure from anticipated future rewards.
DUBNER: The vacation you haven’t had yet is way better than the one you just had. Always.
DUCKWORTH: Exactly. Aside from anticipating the future, this shift in your mindset from, “What’s going to happen? What could I do? What haven’t I yet done?” To, “Life is complicated, and there’s a lot to be grateful for.”
DUBNER: I know that Blanchflower and his colleagues do suggest that one potential reason for the upswing in happiness around midlife is that you’ve seen people that you grew up with having really bad fortune, dying and whatnot. As you said, your gratitude may start to kick in a little bit more.
DUCKWORTH: I mean, the cynical interpretation of that is it’s all downward social comparison. You look at people who, “Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe that happened.” And that somehow makes you feel better. I mean, just having some perspective, right? And that is something that 16-year-olds, God bless them, do not yet have in abundance. The wide-angle lens on life that allows you to appreciate a good cup of coffee and, wow, nothing went wrong today.
DUBNER: Wow. You really have lowered your expectations, haven’t you?
DUCKWORTH: I guess that’s why I’m so happy.
DUBNER: Let me ask you one last question. Let’s say that someone listening to this just wants to optimize their happiness, no matter how old they are, no matter what circumstances they’re in. One thing that strikes me about looking at the curve is, it feels too imprecise to see it grouped just by year of age. Right? If I’m 52 and supposed to be at the bottom of my happiness, about to climb, that doesn’t really relate to the things that actually happen day to day. How would you suggest people try to get rid of the things that make them unhappy and increase the ones that work?
DUCKWORTH: Anytime you see a pretty graph that has a nice U or a line, you know it’s an average. It’s not exactly the same curve for everyone. But I think more to the point, what can I do to make my slope a little more steep? Or make my inflection point happen now and not a year from now? I think the key to so much of our emotional well-being is attention. For example, if I think of what happened in the last 24 hours, I mean, gosh, the mental landscape is vast.
Attention is central because I can choose to either think of all the things that happened that were good or I can choose to think about things that were bad. And if I make no choice at all, the default is to actually think of negative things. And that is why one of the most reliable interventions to increase happiness is called the “three blessings exercise.” And you simply think of three good things that happened, usually in the last 24 hours. And you rattle them off. I’ve gotten so good at it. I can do it usually in 10 or 15 seconds: Lucy, Amanda, the avocado was ripe.
DUBNER: Wait. Just naming your children fulfills the three? That’s what you’re saying?
DUCKWORTH: I know you’re going to say that’s a cheat, or how is that possible? But when I bring my kids to mind, I’m like, “Lucy’s healthy, Amanda finished her midterms.” I mentioned the avocado, I don’t want to put that on the same level as my children. But it was a miracle of God that the avocado was actually not too ripe and not underripe.
DUBNER: Just so you know, that avocado was probably grown in Mexico where the avocado ranch is run by a criminal cartel killing and extorting innocent people.
DUCKWORTH: I’ve got blood on my hands.
DUBNER: But if that makes you happy, Angela, that’s fine.
DUCKWORTH: There you go focusing on the negative, Stephen. You have so much to learn.
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DUCKWORTH: You do a lot of writing and podcasting. I would say these are creative pursuits. Are you sublimating? And do you need me to define sublimating for you?
DUBNER: This is the psychological form of sublimating and not the chemical form of sublimating, I assume?
DUCKWORTH: I didn’t mean going from a solid to a gas.
DUBNER: Without bothering to stop and become a liquid along the way.
DUCKWORTH: You could say that you’re going right to gas form and bypassing liquid. I wasn’t thinking that. No. I meant like Freud.
DUBNER: Sure. Why don’t you tell me what Freud meant by sublimation?
DUCKWORTH: Well, this is what I think Freud meant. You know, having not known Freud personally, but Freud had this idea that pretty much all of human behavior could be explained by these unconscious conflicts that we had deep in our psyche. And that when you had to deal with the pain of these conflicts, like wanting to marry your mother, but not being able to, or wanting to do things that you couldn’t do, you would, in some cases, have a mature response and some cases have a less-mature response. But they were all coping mechanisms.
And sublimation was a coping response that he would have said was a mature coping response that was essentially taking your pain and transforming it, primarily through art or through creativity. Or more recently, as Carrie Fisher, the actress, said, “It is taking a broken heart and turning it into art.” Freud didn’t say that, but I think Freud would have endorsed that.
DUBNER: Let me say first, I did love my mother, but I never wanted to marry her.
DUCKWORTH: Well, Freud wouldn’t believe you, by the way.
DUBNER: I know he wouldn’t. And I have my differences with Freud.
DUCKWORTH: He would say, “There he goes coping.”
DUBNER: But now the way you just described sublimation is, well, I don’t know if it’s a broader or different definition from my understanding of Freud’s definition of it, which I thought was more tied to sexual drive than just pain. Are you asking me this question because Freakonomics Radio is such a sexy show, and you’re wondering where that comes from?
DUCKWORTH: Yes, of course that’s why I was asking you, Stephen. No, I wasn’t asking you that. I think Freud had it right that we have needs and drives and that sometimes, in ways that we’re not fully aware of, we’re trying to meet them. But I don’t think it was all about sex.
DUBNER: Okay, are you asking whether something like writing or a creative thing, podcasting, whatever, is my form of sublimation? Or just whether I believe in sublimation?
DUCKWORTH: I am asking you particularly about your creative process. Now, Freud would say that this is a waste of time, because Freud would say that you can’t ask somebody directly to introspect. But I think Freud was wrong, by the way. I think if Freud would have lived long enough to see modern psychotherapy, he would’ve seen that he’s wrong.
DUBNER: I would say I do often think about why it is that I, or anyone who is excited and passionate about doing what they do, where the drive comes from. Why is this the thing that I do? And why does this thing still drive me to want to do it after doing it for a long time? And the thing that is what I do is essentially ask questions.
In fact, the reason I started a podcast years and years ago was that my favorite part of reporting and research was often interviewing and speaking with people. And it’s always heartbreaking when you write a magazine piece or a book, the vast majority of what people said was cut out, just because of the way the medium of text writing works. I really wanted more of the interview left intact, more of the conversation. And the reason I’m so drawn to that is because the act of asking questions, it does feel like magic — in that, when I was a kid, I was really super, super shy.
DUBNER: Yeah. I mean, honestly, I’m still shy.
DUCKWORTH: Some psychologist I am.
DUBNER: Well, I think I fake it pretty well.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, you do.
DUBNER: But if you give me the choice between, here’s a group of people and you can go up to them and have a conversation, or there’s a book or a bunch of golf balls and a fairway to hit, I’m always going to go for the solo thing. But one thing about asking questions, because my dad was a journalist, my mom was a writer, although not professionally at all. She was a full-time mom with eight kids. But she’d been a ballerina, so she had a kind of way of looking at the world that had a creative angle to it. And even in my little family, we had a family newspaper. And the thing that I loved about journalism from the time I was about 3 was that it allowed you — in some cases forced you — to go up to people and ask them questions that I simply wouldn’t have had the nerve to do otherwise.
So I don’t know enough about sublimation to say whether what I do daily is an act of sublimation. But I do know that I love what I do in part because it is connected to something that, for me, was a deep-rooted — I don’t know if I would call it pain or suffering, necessarily — but something that wanted to be gotten over. And so, it’s one of the reasons that I’m most grateful that I get to have a living based on this thing that is actually mostly incredibly fun and scratches an itch that’s otherwise really hard to scratch. So, I don’t know if it’s about marrying my mother. In fact, I think it’s quite not, but I’m probably doing a whole lot of sublimating without knowing it.
DUCKWORTH: Your desire to connect with other people, which shy people have as well as extroverted people have, you found a way. You found a solution, which is being a question-asking journalist who gets very intimate with your subjects. You probably also love that the interview has an end and then you’re just, “Okay, bye. That was great.” You get to scratch the itch, but you don’t have to deal with the things that you felt uncomfortable with either at the beginning or the end of these interactions.
DUBNER: I also do probably 95 percent of my interviews remotely, which means that I’m in my home or office recording studio and somebody else is somewhere else. I don’t actually even have to make eye contact. I mean, I know how to make eye contact.
DUCKWORTH: I’ve had conversations with you in-person.
DUBNER: I can replicate a normal human pretty well. I’m adaptive in that way. But it’s very costly to my immune system. And, I’m exhausted after an hour-long conversation with some other human. Ugh.
DUCKWORTH: Even when you’re in journalism mode?
DUBNER: Well, that’s a whole other level, because not only is it a conversation with a stranger, but your mind is constantly trying to process and then get to the next place, knowing that there’s a limited amount of time.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. So, what’s more exhausting? You’re having an interview. You’re processing it on multiple levels and then you’re synthesizing it in real time. Versus a cocktail party conversation for the same amount of time with a stranger as well, but now in this very different setting and it’s no longer Stephen, the journalist. It’s just Stephen, the cocktail party invitee.
DUBNER: Yeah. I would say the cocktail party is more exhausting only because what you’re subtracting is usually the exhilaration of the conversation. Not that every interview is exhilarating, but the conversations in the podcast aren’t just casual conversations with people I happen to want to talk to. You’re trying to find out information. You’re trying to learn something specific about some scenario or phenomenon or whatever. And so, you’ve got a goal. Plus, you have to factor in if alcohol is a factor, which at cocktail parties it usually is and in interviews it’s usually not. That’s a big instrumental variable, honestly, in human interaction. So, maybe I should drink more while interviewing, or interview more while drinking less at cocktail parties.
DUCKWORTH: You could try it. You could try a little experiment.
DUBNER: Yeah, but I feel that, as with many questions that are asked, that the person asking the question really is interested in answering the question. So, what about you? For you, being a research psychologist, to what degree is that a form of sublimation? You chose to become a research psychologist. You teach, too, and you write. But most people, when they think of a psychologist, they think of a clinical psychologist.
DUCKWORTH: Or, as I like to say, a “real psychologist.”
DUBNER: Well, okay. You didn’t go that route. You didn’t want to engage in therapy or clinical treatment, and you went this way. Is what you do a form of sublimation? And why did you go that route instead of the clinical route?
DUCKWORTH: Well, before I was in graduate school, I remember filling out the application to go to graduate school. And there was a box that said, “Do you want clinical training? Yes or no?” And I asked my soon-to-be adviser, Marty Seligman, famous psychologist and a clinical psychologist. I said, “What does this question mean?” And he said, “Oh, well, think of the most boring person you went to college with. Do you have a clear picture of that person in mind? Okay. Now think about being in a small room with them for 40 hours a week. If the answer is, ‘I would love to do that,’ then check yes, right?” That’s literally what he said.
DUBNER: That’s terrible. I mean, it’s wonderful, but it’s terrible.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. So actually, I was pretty prepared to still check yes, because, he then elaborated that’s also the box that you check “yes” if you really want to help people. I was like, “Oh, it seems like a good box to check.” For me, it was partly logistical. Because when you become a clinical psychologist, you have to do your Ph.D., and then you have to go on a residency or an internship. And I was already 32 and pregnant with my second daughter. I knew we wouldn’t be able to move in four or five years. So, I thought that wouldn’t be the right move for me.
But I will tell you this, Stephen. I think in principle I would really have wanted to be a clinical psychologist and actually help people directly, but also, that I’d be pretty bad at it. I’d probably spend the whole hour talking about myself. I’d be like, “Oh my God, that reminds me of a story. Just hold on! Let me just.” I would be a terrible therapist.
DUBNER: Well, I disagree. And maybe that’s only because you’ve had the last bunch of years to be doing research that actually produces insights that, I think, are really practical.
DUCKWORTH: Don’t overestimate me. Okay. So, am I sublimating in my own career? Am I redirecting some inner tension to some productive end like my research?
DUBNER: Is it possible to not be?
DUCKWORTH: Well, let me start by saying I think Freud was right about a lot of things. In the kind of broadest brushstrokes, the idea that we do a lot of things to avoid psychological pain, I think he was spot on. I do believe that a lot of things that I do are defense mechanisms, in a sense, right? Things that avoid pain. I am sure that in my life, that I have been coping with things, like trying to get needs met, but probably the explanations are a little less exciting than unresolved sexual conflict and much more in the realm of, like, I grew up in a family where achievement was important.
When I was when I was a little girl and my dad would say things like, “The meaning of life is not to be happy, the meaning of life is to be successful.” So, I think maybe you could argue that the fact that I grew up then to study achievement and then, I am so obviously achievement-oriented. In my family, I felt anyway, like love was somewhat proportionately meted out according to your accomplishments. So you get a little more love the day you get into Harvard. And I think that that probably did motivate me to please my father and to be more accomplished. Maybe that’s a form of sublimation.
DUBNER: Can you think of other professions that would have fulfilled you similarly?
DUCKWORTH: Let’s see. I could have become a doctor. Freud said that so much of this happens below the level of awareness that we’ll never know. But I think I know why I really didn’t want to become a doctor. And that’s because my parents really wanted me to become a doctor. And I was trying to go contra-stereotype, I think partly. There was a point in my life — this is in my late 20s — where I was wrestling with what to do. And I thought I might want to be something in human resources.
DUBNER: And in a way, H.R. is very similar to some pieces of psychology, right?
DUCKWORTH: Human impact. Yeah. And human nature.
DUBNER: I don’t know if I ever told you this. When I quit playing music, so that was my first profession, I had three things that I thought I might be not terrible at. One, for some reason, was financial planner. Because even though I didn’t know much about the markets and economics, I was really interested in it. And I thought there’s so much bad advice out there that if I could get even somewhere above terrible, it would be really fun to help people.
DUCKWORTH: A net positive.
DUBNER: Right. So, that was one, and I didn’t do that. And then I went to grad school for writing and I thought I would teach writing in college. I did teach at Columbia for a year. And it was super exhilarating because the students were brilliant. And I just realized I was way too selfish. I wanted to spend my time on my writing, not on other people’s writing. But that was the reason also why I didn’t do No. 3, which was I thought really hard about becoming a psychologist, a therapist.
DUCKWORTH: You did?
DUBNER: I did.
DUCKWORTH: What? I did not know this.
DUBNER: And it was really number one on the list for quite a while. I loved the idea that there was a methodology, and a huge canon, and a bunch of brilliant people who had spent their entire lives and careers in research trying to figure out how people think the way they do, how to change patterns, habits, etc. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to read that for several years and then help people with that understanding?” But I quickly came to the conclusion, as did you, that I would not want to be in that room with that person for more than five minutes, just out of selfishness.
DUCKWORTH: I think we’re not nice enough.
DUBNER: I think you’re actually quite nice.
DUCKWORTH: Maybe we don’t have the patience, the temperament.
DUBNER: Can I just say, in defense of us, most of the therapists I know are some of the wooliest bundle of anxieties, neuroses, misplaced dreams, and so on. Because the way you were describing why we would fail was because, basically, we’re not the angels that therapists are. And I’m just here to say that many of the therapists I know — and they would be the first to admit it — they’re not the angels either.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, that’s fair enough. They’re just human. But I don’t know if this counts as Freudian sublimation, but you do get to scratch the itch of connecting with people and exploring human nature. I frankly have no plausible explanation for your desire to be a financial planner, but everything else fits it.
DUBNER: Question: what is the opposite of sublimation?
DUCKWORTH: Going directly from a gas to a solid without passing through liquid. Well, okay. If you want to take the Freudian hierarchy of defenses from the most mature, which is sublimation, but there are also some others — humor, altruism — like turning your pain of not being able to have a child and then, for example, spending a lot of your energy in charity work for mothers or something. That would be altruism. And then there were the immature defenses which are other coping mechanisms that had the effect of getting you into more trouble, right? Narcissism, denial — famously, passive aggression. I mean, people use this term vernacularly without probably even knowing that that’s Freudian in its origins.
DUBNER: You haven’t named a thing that I don’t have. I guess I’m thinking that if I’m sublimating, I’m not doing it well enough.
DUCKWORTH: As a financial planner, you might want to move some of your assets out of the narcissism and passive aggression.
DUBNER: Into the sublimation column?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. That might be a better way to invest your psychological energy.
DUBNER: I’m going to make a note to call my broker on Monday. Sell narcissism. Buy some sublimation. I appreciate that sage advice.
DUCKWORTH: I hope I get a commission on that.
* * *
Stephen and Angela discuss reckless optimism and the work of psychologist Don Moore. “Reckless” is probably too strong of a word for how Moore perceives optimism, but he does conclude that optimism doesn’t improve performance. That doesn’t mean that pessimism is better — Moore’s experiments found that pessimistic mindsets didn’t improve outcomes either. Instead, like Angela mentioned, he says that realism is the most desirable lens for achievement. That doesn’t mean that optimism is never beneficial. Meta-analyses have shown that it’s linked to psychological well-being and negatively correlated with depression and anxiety. So, I guess, stay optimistic about life in general, but realistic when it comes to performance goals? I’m not super optimistic that’s realistic.
During the conversation about sublimation, Angela references a quote by the late actress Carrie Fisher. The quote was actually never shared publicly by Fisher. It was made famous by Meryl Streep as part of her Cecil B. DeMille acceptance speech at the Golden Globes in 2017. Streep and Fisher had become friends after Streep starred in Postcards From The Edge, the movie version of Fisher’s semi-autobiographical book. Streep shared the quote as a way to honor Fisher after her recent death, which had occurred less than two weeks prior to the awards ceremony. The full quote is this: “As my friend the dear, departed Princess Leia said to me once, take your broken heart, make it into art.”
That’s it for the fact check.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network. You can subscribe now on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Spotify, wherever you get your podcasts, or use the R.S.S. feed. This episode was produced by Rebecca Lee Douglas. This episode of No Stupid Questions was specially designed to give you a feel for our show. The conversation about happiness is from episode three, and the sublimation question is from episode four. If you want to listen to those full episodes, they both include some other unique conversations about human psychology and behavior that we didn’t get to feature in this special episode. You can find No Stupid Questions on any podcast app and at freakonomics.com/NSQ. No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, James Foster, and Corinne Wallace. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder and C.E.O. of Character Lab.
- “Is Happiness U-shaped Everywhere? Age and Subjective Well-being in 132 Countries,” by David G. Blanchflower (Dartmouth College, 2019).
- “(Too) Optimistic About Optimism: The Belief That Optimism Improves Performance,” by Elizabeth R. Tenney, Jennifer M. Logg, and Don A. Moore (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2015).
- “Great expectations: A meta-analytic examination of optimism and hope,” by Gene M. Alarcona, Nathan A. Bowling, and Steven Khazon (Personality and Individual Differences, 2013).
- Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth.
- Optimism & Pessimism: Implications for Theory, Research, and Practice, by Edward C. Chang.
- “Reasons to Be Cheerful,” Freakonomics Radio (2020).