Many of us believe that hard work and persistence are the key to achieving our goals. But is that true when it comes to the pursuit of happiness? This week, we kick off a month-long series we’re calling Happiness 2.0. We talk with psychologist Iris Mauss, who explains why happiness can seem more elusive the harder we chase it, and what we can do instead to build a lasting sense of contentment.
Spontaneous Suppression in Dating Couples: Social and Physiological Correlates of Suppressing Negative and Positive Emotions During Negative and Positive Conversations, by Felicia K. Zerwas et al., International Journal of Psychophysiology, 2022.
The Psychological Health Benefits of Accepting Negative Emotions and Thoughts: Laboratory, Diary, and Longitudinal Evidence, by Brett Q. Ford et al., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2018.
Culture Shapes Whether the Pursuit of Happiness Predicts Higher or Lower Well-Being, by Brett Q. Ford et al., Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 2015.
Regulation of Emotions Under Stress, by Amanda J. Shallcross, Allison Troy, and Iris B. Mauss, Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2015.
Desperately Seeking Happiness: Valuing Happiness is Associated with Symptoms and Diagnosis of Depression, by Brett Q. Ford et al., Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 2014.
The Paradoxical Effects of Pursuing Positive Emotion: When and Why Wanting to Feel Happy Backfires, by Brett Q. Ford and Iris B. Mauss, in Positive Emotion: Integrating the Light Sides and Dark Sides, Oxford University Press, 2014.
The Pursuit of Happiness can be Lonely, by Iris B. Mauss et al., Emotion, 2012.
Can Seeking Happiness Make People Unhappy? Paradoxical Effects of Valuing Happiness, Iris B. Mauss et al., Emotion, 2011.
Let It be: Accepting Negative Emotional Experiences Predicts Decreased Negative Affect and Depressive Symptoms, by Amanda J. Shallcross et al., Behaviour Research and Therapy, 2010.
The Pursuit and Assessment of Happiness can be Self-Defeating, by Jonathan W. Schooler, Dan Ariely, and George Loewenstein, in The Psychology of Economic Decisions, Oxford University Press, 2003.
The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.Shankar Vedantam:This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. In the summer of 1776, 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson drafted one of the most important documents in the history of the United States. The Declaration of Independence laid out a vision for a new country and said all men had God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Eighty-six changes to the draft were made by John Adams, Ben Franklin, and others. Like many writers, Thomas Jefferson is said to have been unhappy with the changes his editors recommended. But the line about how we are all entitled to the pursuit of happiness endured.In recent years, many elements of the Declaration of Independence have come under scrutiny, including its omission of women, the poor, and enslaved people from its vision of equality. We've examined some of these ideas in an earlier episode that looked at Thomas Jefferson's complicated life story. This week on Hidden Brain, we launch a new series we are calling Happiness 2.0. We start today by exploring Jefferson's psychological claim about what makes for a good life with research that examines what happens in our minds when we pursue happiness. When you ask people what they want in life nearly everyone will tell you they want to be happy. After all, that's the point of finding a great job, starting a family, or going on wonderful vacations. At the University of California Berkeley, psychologist, Iris Mauss, studies a paradox associated with our pursuit of happiness. Iris Mauss, welcome to Hidden Brain.Iris Mauss:Thank you so much for having me.Shankar Vedantam:Iris, about a decade ago you achieved a major milestone in the life of a scholar, you got tenure at a great university. How long had you dreamed of becoming a professor at a school like UC Berkeley?Iris Mauss:I think forever, so this was a really big deal for me. I'd been working toward this for a long time, and I'd been really looking forward to that moment, hoping I would get tenure. Getting tenure is a big deal, of course. I would get to be with the most lovely colleagues I could imagine and doing what I love in a beautiful area.Shankar Vedantam:Now, whenever I visit UC Berkeley, I'm struck by how beautiful it is. Berkeley really is absolutely gorgeous, so mission accomplished, Iris?Iris Mauss:Well, not quite. It wasn't quite the way that I had imagined. It's like the saying, wherever you go, there you are, so I was still the same person somehow and worries and stressful things still happened. Although at first, at least in the year after getting tenure, those small worries hit me almost more than before because they had this element of, "Wait a minute, shouldn't I be happy all the time? Is there something wrong with me that I have tenure now and yet I still have worries in my life?"Shankar Vedantam:I understand you had a similar experience more recently, Iris, when you took a trip to the Italian island of Sardinia. What was your state of anticipation before the trip?Iris Mauss:This was the first trip I took in a really long time. I was going to get together with my very oldest childhood friend. She lives in Germany, I hadn't seen her in two years, and we had this trip planned, and I thought this is just going to be amazing. I'm going to be relaxing, I'm going to be happy. I visualized it almost like one of those Tuscan Italian movies. We would be on the beach, we would be drinking wine, eating delicious food, we would go boating around the little island and just floating happily in those beautiful turquoise waters, so I had every expectation and so much anticipation that it would be just the perfect 10 days.Shankar Vedantam:What happened, Iris?Iris Mauss:Well, we had a lovely time, but little thoughts or moments snuck in where I would be thinking about work or I would worry about something going on at home. These little thoughts started to appear and I would think, "Wait a minute. This isn't right. This isn't supposed to be here this thought. What's going on? Have I lost the ability to relax? Is there something wrong with me? Is there something wrong with the vacation? Why am I not happy every moment of every day?"Shankar Vedantam:You're on this trip with your childhood friend and her partner, did your restlessness affect your travel companions too?Iris Mauss:I think maybe I drove them a tiny little nutty because I started to suggest sort of all kinds of things to bring about the continuous happy state that I had anticipated. I would say, "Let's go to this other beach today," or, "Let's rent a boat and go around this little island," or, "Let's go to a different restaurant." Maybe that was a little bit much for them.Shankar Vedantam:I have a colleague who describes vacations like this as march or die. There's no sitting in one place, you either march or you die.Iris Mauss:A little bit like that.Shankar Vedantam:I want to ask you about another episode in your life, Iris, and I think this one reveals how our approach to pursuing happiness is something we do not only for ourselves, but something we encourage in other people, including our kids. Back home in the Bay Area, you got busy throwing a party for your son's 8th birthday. What were the preparations for the party like?Iris Mauss:I always try to make his birthday parties really nice, but this one in particular, I wanted it to be perfect. I had reserved a picnic spot at the local park. I got a coronavirus piñata where you bash a piñata that looks like a coronavirus, filled it with candy, lots of games that I had thought of and decorations, of course. My friend, who's an amazing baker, made this enormous stunning cake, and of course, we had pizza.Shankar Vedantam:When you visualize what this party would be like, I'm imagining you saw your son just basically being ecstatic the whole time and frolicking and playing with his friends.Iris Mauss:That's exactly right. Ecstatic the whole time, frolicking, bathed in golden rays of sunlight, exactly like that.Shankar Vedantam:I almost hesitate to ask you the question given the pattern that we are starting to see here, Iris, but how did the party turn out when you arrived on the big day?Iris Mauss:Well, the first thing that happened was that this was in June and it never rains in the Bay Area in June, never, except that one day. It was raining the morning of the party, so we had to switch gears. I texted everybody, "Come a little later", hoping, crossing my fingers, it would stop raining. We still went to the park to set up because my son was very impatient and intent on having us party. We go in the rain, we're setting everything up, we're getting drenched. Of course, people, I told them to come a little later, but my son had the start time of the party in his head, 11:00, and 11:00 comes, nobody is there yet. He starts to lose it. I still have that image in my head of him standing in the rain, getting drenched, bawling.Shankar Vedantam:You must have felt like your heart was breaking because you had put so much time and effort and thought into making this the perfect party.Iris Mauss:Yeah, I was really upset. But it did stop raining and we went ahead and other things went wrong, of course. The piñata had gotten drenched in rain, and so when the piñata bashing was supposed to happen, it took just one swing and the whole thing just sadly flopped down. Kids, they didn't want to play the games that I had planned for them. They did their own thing and it was a big disappointment and bordering on disaster. When my son was bawling, standing in the rain, I thought, "Wow, this is actually the worst birthday party ever."Shankar Vedantam:What Iris did is something we all do. We dream about what it would feel like to accomplish something, to get something or to be somewhere. We imagine how it would feel if we got into a great school or found a great job or fell in love with a perfect person who loved us back. Sometimes when those dreams don't work out, we are heartbroken. But even when they do work out, we often feel let down, cheated. We achieve this difficult thing, obtain this amazing relationship, accomplish our dreams. Why, we find ourselves asking, are we not happier? When we come back, the problem with our theory of happiness. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Iris Mauss has firsthand experience about what it feels like to chase a dream only to feel let down when she obtained it. In her research as a psychologist at UC Berkeley, she has run a number of experiments to try to understand the phenomenon. Iris, lots of our listeners are people who are used to working hard to accomplish difficult things. If happiness is the most important goal of all, we tell ourselves, "Okay, let's work at it. Let's accomplish it." You've studied people who chase after happiness in this way. What do studies reveal about their mental health and well-being?Iris Mauss:We found that people who are very intent on being happy, those same people, somewhat ironically, in general, have lower levels of well-being, higher levels of depressive symptoms, and paradoxically lower levels of overall happiness. It seems that the more, perhaps the more intent they are on being happy, the less they actually manage to be happy.Shankar Vedantam:Your research has identified several reasons for this. One has to do with the effects of high expectations, and perhaps we've heard some echoes of this in the stories you told us about becoming a tenured professor at UC Berkeley or the vacation in Italy. What is the role of high expectations in shaping our experience of happiness, Iris?Iris Mauss:High expectations in other life domains can be a good thing. We might strive toward doing really well in school and then we work hard toward getting a good grade. We might fall short of it, feel disappointed, and that might motivate us to work harder. But in the domain of happiness, there's a paradox there, in that if we're disappointed when falling short of our goal that we're striving for, the high standard, that disappointment in itself contradicts the very goal. The more we strive toward the goal of happiness, the more we undermine our ability to actually get there.Shankar Vedantam:Of course, once you actually get there, even if the experience is very good but not perfect, it might still fall short of the very high expectations we had.Iris Mauss:Yeah, that's exactly right.Shankar Vedantam:You've cited a study carried out by the psychologist, Jonathan Schooler, and his colleagues. They studied people getting ready to celebrate the start of a new year. Tell me what the study found, Iris?Iris Mauss:Yeah. This was actually for New Year's Eve 2000, so it was a particularly big one. A lot of people had really high expectations for what the big millennial New Year's Eve celebration would bring. They asked people ahead of time how happy they expected to be and how much time they spent planning for the New Year's Eve celebration. First off, they found that 83% of people were actually disappointed with the celebration.Shankar Vedantam:Wow.Iris Mauss:Then, the second really interesting thing that they found is that the more enjoyment participants expected having, the more disappointed they actually ended up being. It's not like greater expectation and working more toward enjoying the party would pay off with greater enjoyment. Actually, the exact opposite happened. More expectation, less enjoyment.Shankar Vedantam:I'm assuming this means that people who planned bigger parties might paradoxically have been less happy than people with smaller gatherings.Iris Mauss:That's exactly what they found.Shankar Vedantam:There's another reason that chasing happiness can have the inadvertent effect of chasing it away. What is the effect of checking to see if we are happy on our experience of happiness?Iris Mauss:Checking how happy we are is very much so bound up with thinking that happiness is an important thing. It's also something that we do, I think, very automatically. In all of the examples, I think, that I gave from my own life. It's very much so that the moment I checked in on how happy am I, how is this going, that's when I realized actually I'm not quite as happy as I hope to be. Various studies allude to that, or have examined, that relationship between what's called hedonic experiences and meta-consciousness. That overlay of being self-consciously aware of how we are feeling.One domain of research where this has been examined is in the research of flow. This is research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He and colleagues have shown that when people are in a state of flow, they report later on being incredibly happy. It's a state of deep happiness, but what's important is that it's also characterized by being completely unaware of the self. It means that the self almost feels like it's dissolved during these states of flow, and in fact, it's interrupted and destroyed when you check in with yourself and ask, "How am I feeling now?"Shankar Vedantam:I'm reminded of something that the 19th-century philosopher, John Stuart Mill, once noticed. He said, "Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so." That's saying exactly what you are suggesting, Iris, which is that the act of turning that spotlight inward and asking, "Am I happy", even when you are happy, it tends to have the effect of diminishing the experience of happiness.Iris Mauss:Yes. Those ideas have been around for a long time. John Stuart Mill thought about hedonic experiences, of course, a lot. And there's another quote that I really like and that gets to the heart of another problem with striving too much to be happy. He said, "Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness. On the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way." I really like that quote because it gets at another problem with overvaluing happiness or valuing it in the wrong way. That's the idea that if we strive for our own happiness at the expense of what's going on around us, that's when things can go wrong and backfire.Shankar Vedantam:In many ways, Iris, this gets to another idea I wanted to talk with you about, which is, is it possible that one reason pursuing happiness is an ineffective strategy is that we often don't know what it is that's going to make us happy, and so by pursuing things that we think will make us happy, we sometimes take our eye off the ball of the things that actually will make us happy?Iris Mauss:I think that's really right. Dan Gilbert and others have found that humans are actually pretty lousy at knowing what will make them happy. One of the things that makes people most happy is spending time with others and being connected and close to other people. And this overly intense pursuit of one's own happiness, that can come at the expense of connecting with other people. We did a study that gets at that question, asking whether if we don't pursue happiness in a way that sacrifices connection with other people, maybe we can get around the paradoxical effects of overvaluing happiness. We took advantage of the fact that cultures differ with respect to what happiness tends to mean to people. We sampled participants from cultures that are more socially-oriented, East Asian cultures, Japan and Taiwan, all the way to cultures that tend to be more individualistically-oriented, less socially-oriented, the US. Then, we had two cultures in between, Russia and Germany. In each of those samples, we asked participants how much they valued happiness, but also what happiness means to them. Then, we looked at their overall levels of well-being.What we found was really interesting because it suggests a way to get around that paradox that we've been talking about. In the US, we found that valuing happiness was very much bound up with a more individualistic, less social pursuit of happiness. Here, we found that exact link that we've been talking about. The more people valued happiness, the less happy they were. But then, as we went in the social direction on that gradient to Germany, to Russia, to East Asia, we found that pursuit of happiness was more and more connected with helping other people and being close with other people. What we found is that the more socially people interpret the value of happiness, the more that valuing happiness was associated with higher levels of well-being.Shankar Vedantam:We've looked at several ways in which pursuing happiness in a very individualistic fashion can paradoxically make us less happy, it ramps up our expectations, which diminishes our satisfactions, it causes us to ask ourselves if we are happy, which is often not a good way to actually experience happiness, and it makes it more likely that we will turn away from others and experience loneliness. I want to talk about one other really important idea, Iris. Besides chasing happiness, many of us also spend a great deal of time trying to escape unhappiness. I want to take you back to your days as a graduate student and have you tell us about the negative emotions you experienced whenever you had to make public presentations about your work.Iris Mauss:Like many people, I used to have anxiety about speaking in front of audiences. As a psychology graduate student, when I first started to have to give research presentations, this anxiety was actually pretty intense, almost overwhelming at the time. I remember particularly clearly, I think this was the first talk I had to give as a graduate student to faculty and other students in the area I was part of, so maybe a group of 30 people. For weeks before that talk and any talk, I would have all these worries circling through my head about all the incredibly foolish things I would definitely say, how I would freeze, sinking feeling of doom really, and lots of sleepless nights, which doesn't particularly help. My approach was to think, "Well, wait a minute, I need to get rid of this anxiety, telling myself, 'it's just a speech. Come on, get it together, try to ignore it.'" But, and I think this is pretty common, the anxiety would always return. And maybe even stronger than before because it would then return along with the feeling that it confirms there's something wrong about me.Shankar Vedantam:This is so revealing, Iris, because what was happening here was not just that you were distressed, but that you were distressed about being distressed.Iris Mauss:Yes. These were what's called negative meta-emotions, so feelings about my feelings. Those were almost worse maybe than the initial round of feelings, because there's a saying that goes, "Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional." These meta-emotions, that's the suffering that we layer on top of negative emotions.Shankar Vedantam:Iris, I'm wondering, did these concerns, and I guess these concerns about these concerns, were they serious enough that you started to think that maybe you were not cut out for this kind of career?Iris Mauss:Yeah, absolutely, because giving research presentations is a really big part of the job, and so it just became so bad that I consider dropping out of grad school.Shankar Vedantam:One of the things you just told me you did when you had these negative thoughts was to try and find ways to suppress them, to make them go away, and I think many of us do this. You've reviewed research that finds that ignoring or pushing away negative feelings can negatively affect how we relate to other people. Tell me about this research, Iris.Iris Mauss:Yeah. There's quite a bit of research on this, how suppressing our own emotions can be bad for ourselves, but also especially bad for interpersonal context. In a recent study, we brought dating couples into the lab and we had them carry out two conversations. The first one, we wanted them to talk about something that is a problem in the relationship. Things like how often do you visit each other's families, disagreements about finances, disagreements about housework, and so the couples had basically a fight in the lab. Then, we had them carry out a positive conversation where we told them to tell each other how much they appreciated one another and what they loved about one another, and those were lovely conversations.Now, after each conversation, we asked them how much they had suppressed their feelings while they had talked with their romantic partner. We also asked them how well they thought the conversation went and how connected they felt to one another. What we found is that no matter whether we were looking at a fight or at the loving conversations, when people said that they had suppressed their emotions, and that was true for positive and for negative emotions, the more they suppressed them, the less they share them with their partner, the less well the conversations went and the less connected they felt to one another. That suggests that holding back emotions, even if it's negative emotions, seems to disturb social connection.Shankar Vedantam:As we've heard, chasing happiness in a highly individualistic manner does not work. Trying to elude unhappiness doesn't work either. When we come back, what does work? You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. The conventional way most of us go about accomplishing anything is to work hard at it. When it comes to happiness, many of us say, "If this is something I really want, I need to go out and get it." This might be especially true in the United States where the Declaration of Independence celebrates the pursuit of happiness. The problem is pursuing happiness can have the paradoxical effect of chasing happiness away. Trying to elude unhappiness can be similarly counterproductive. Psychologist, Iris Mauss, has spent many years asking herself what does work when it comes to living a happier life? A crucial moment of insight came from her own life.Iris Mauss:Yeah. When my son was a really little, baby, I'd say between six months and maybe it went all the way till three years, he would have what is sometimes called witching hour, which is exactly what it sounds like. It's long hours of crying and fussiness. He would cry, it's time to go to sleep, I needed to rest, I would rock him back to sleep and really, really gingerly put him in his crib and he would instantly wake back up, and it would start over repeating itself up to two hours, maybe even more at a time. I remember being really distressed about it just because it's exhausting, unpleasant, but really thinking, "Here's my poor baby, he ought to sleep peacefully. What am I doing wrong?" Just asking, "What's wrong with me? What's wrong with him? Why can't I get him to be peaceful, comforted? Why isn't he happy?" Really, the more frantically I'm trying to comfort him, the more upset he and I would become, like a vicious cycle really.Shankar Vedantam:There came a moment when you changed your approach to his distress. Tell me what happened, Iris?Iris Mauss:Yeah. It came to a head because I read one too many sleep advice books. They all tell different advice, keep a schedule, go with the flow, hold the baby, rock the baby, bounce the baby, blow a hair dryer on the baby, keep it quiet, get the baby used to the noise, that kind of thing. As a new parent, it really can drive you a little nutty. I think it just came to a point where I was reading all that and I'm like, "I can't do this." I realized, in a way, it was really not in my control, because trying all these things hadn't yielded the expected, hoped for, effects. In a way, I hit a wall and I had to accept what was.Shankar Vedantam:What did you do differently once you had this realization?Iris Mauss:I didn't do anything differently, but my perspective on it changed. I let go of the, "Ought to control it, he ought to be peaceful, he ought to go to sleep, he ought to be happy." That perspective change was almost like a little magic because the moment I changed my perspective, that very moment, a lot of the tension just left. He still cried, so it didn't change anything about the crying per se, but the moments or the times of crying almost became pleasant. It's weird to say that, but it was almost pleasant because it wasn't something that I had to make go away that I was layering all this judgment on, but rather it was something that we shared, and I thought, "Well, he's comfortable showing his distress to me," and it was an experience that we shared together, and part of the richness of our relationship, in a way, rather than something to try and avoid.Shankar Vedantam:You went out to conduct research on the effects of practicing emotional acceptance. Can you tell me what effect this has on our moods when we do it, Iris?Iris Mauss:Yeah. People differ in the degree to which they tend to accept their negative emotions. Some people naturally do something that I had a hard time doing. They encounter negative emotions and they don't judge them as good or bad. Other people have a tendency to do what I did, which is tell themselves, "I shouldn't be feeling the way I'm feeling. This is wrong." What we found is that the less people accept their negative emotions, the more depressive symptoms, the more anxiety symptoms they experience and the less well-being they have. And this, by the way, tends to be true for men and for women across different ethnic groups. In that same study, we also wanted to find out why that is. We tackled that question in two ways. In one study, we brought people into the lab and we had them, ironically, give a impromptu speech that people tend to find stressful. It's a really common anxiety.We measured how much negative and how much positive emotions they felt. People who tend to have an accepting mindset responded to the stressful speech with less negative emotion. They, on the whole, felt a little bit less anxious, a little bit less distraught. There was another part of the study where we gave people daily diaries. Every day for two weeks, we ask them, what was the most stressful thing that happened to you today? What were your emotional responses to that? How much sadness, how much distress did you feel? But also positive emotions. How much strength, how much hope, how much joy did you feel during your day's most stressful event? What we found was that people who have a accepting mindset, in their daily diaries, reported feeling less negative emotions in response to the day's most stressful events. In turn, that emotional response explained why six months later those same people had better mental health. These daily emotions in response to daily adversity seem to be a really important active ingredient in that link.Shankar Vedantam:As I'm listening to these ideas in this research, I can't help but reflect on the fact that there have been philosophical and religious and spiritual traditions going back probably many centuries around the world that have talked about the same ideas, the ideas that you should actually accept your emotions for what they are, you shouldn't get overly caught up in those emotions. Do you sometimes reflect on the fact that your work as a psychologist in the 21st century in some ways is mirroring the work of ancient scholars and sages?Iris Mauss:Yes, absolutely. Many of those ideas have precursors in world religions and philosophies. One of the biggest representation of that idea is Buddhism, of course. Buddhism is the precursor to mindfulness and acceptance is a really big part of the larger philosophy of mindfulness. There's a huge intellectual debt owed to Buddhist scholars, as well as Buddhist practitioners and researchers on mindfulness.Shankar Vedantam:I'm wondering whether this idea of emotional acceptance might be especially hard to accept for Americans. Many Americans I think might associate acceptance with ideas like resignation or defeat. I'm wondering whether your participants in your studies ever report that Iris?Iris Mauss:That's a great question that we are really concerned about, because we wouldn't want people to accept bad unjust situations even if it helps them feel better. In the research, we also asked participants about their tendency to accept bad situations in addition to their tendency to accept their own emotions and their own negative thoughts. This is really important because these beneficial effects of accepting your own emotions and thoughts were connected with better mental health while accepting bad situations was not. It's a separate thing and accepting how you feel does not mean accepting and resigning yourself to bad situations.Shankar Vedantam:In other words, I might feel badly about something and I can accept that I'm feeling badly about something, but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm turning a blind eye to the thing that's actually making me feel bad.Iris Mauss:Yes, exactly. I think actually it might help people in a way to address bad things in their lives, because if you look your negative feelings in the eye and don't get overwhelmed by them, that might help you more effectively deal with addressing bad, unjust, stressful situations.Shankar Vedantam:Do people ever share the worry with you that accepting negative emotions means that those negative emotions are now going to stick around forever?Iris Mauss:I think it's a really common worry and it explains something that's a little bit of a mystery, which is acceptance sounds really easy. You literally don't do anything. You have your emotions, they're there, you don't try to control them, you don't spring into action. It sounds incredibly easy, and yet we have a really, really hard time doing that. Even I myself, I've seen the benefits so often, I still, my first instinct as often to, "Oh bad, make it go away quick," and I think the underlying belief is that I'm going to get overwhelmed by it, and so I need to clamp down on it quickly. I think it's a really deeply ingrained belief that many of us have, and it explains why we don't naturally embrace acceptance. We don't do it all the time.Shankar Vedantam:We've been talking about the importance of accepting feelings of unhappiness, negative emotions, but we started this conversation talking about the problem with chasing happiness. You mentioned earlier that having high expectations for happiness can be a prescription for disappointment. What should we do instead, Iris?Iris Mauss:I think one overall recommendation is to have an accepting mindset for both our negative and our positive emotions. Don't monitor as much, don't try to avoid, don't try to strive too much for something else. One way to think about this is that it replaces a mindset of "I need to be" with a mindset of "I prefer". I think we can still have preferences. The problems come in where we tell ourselves, "I must feel a certain way or else I can't have a good life." That's, I think, what we need to avoid. Preferences with a light touch are good for our mental health and well-being. It's the need and the concern that we want to get away from.Shankar Vedantam:If you could take this insight back to when you were setting up that birthday party for your son in a park as it's raining, what would you tell yourself in that moment, Iris? What would you advise that Iris today?Iris Mauss:I would tell myself that it's okay to prefer to have a wonderful birthday party, but that I don't need it to be the perfect birthday party where all the kids are completely happy 100% of the time, and that my son and my life and all the important things are going to be okay even if it's not.Shankar Vedantam:I'm thinking about the fact, Iris, there are so many books and podcasts and blogs about how to be happier and in some ways, they constitute something of a happiness industrial complex. This industry tells us that we need to work hard at being happy, and in so many ways, it sounds like you are saying we need to do exactly the opposite.Iris Mauss:Yes. I would say that feeling joy, feeling happiness is a universal human preference. I'm not saying we should get rid of all of those books and all of the advice, but I do think we need to fine-tune a little bit just how single-mindedly we go about the pursuit, as well as how we go about that pursuit. Connecting with other people, engaging in experiences over material goods, those are things that tend to work.Shankar Vedantam:I'm wondering, Iris, after studying the power of acceptance, both when it comes to dealing with unhappiness, as well as when it comes to dealing with happiness, has this changed your own life? Do you find yourself in moments being able to tell yourself not to judge your negative or positive emotions, but just to accept them?Iris Mauss:It's actually pretty difficult to do, at least for me, because the way we encounter happiness, the way we encounter positive and negative emotions is really deeply ingrained in our upbringing and in our culture. These are deeply ingrained habits of the mind. Even though it's literally doing nothing, not judging, not trying to control, it can be really difficult for people to do it, but I absolutely try to do it.One example where I'd feel like I succeeded is when I reconnected with my childhood friend after a really long time. She actually had gone through cancer and had surgery and chemotherapy. She was in recovery, but still seeing her physically, it was difficult and there were many feelings of sadness and grief for seeing what she had to go through, the toll it had taken on her body. I think I managed to stay with those feelings because I was able to see how the journey of going through cancer, it's a normal reaction, that's part of life and what it feels like is almost like watching clouds in the sky or watching a peaceful river go by where you don't try to control the clouds, you don't try to control the water, you don't judge the clouds or the water. By doing that, viewing your own emotions as well like a river that is just flowing by or through you, we're able to accept what it is and let it go and let it flow on.Shankar Vedantam:Iris Mauss is a psychologist at the University of California Berkeley. Iris, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.Iris Mauss:It was so lovely to talk with you. Thank you so much.Shankar Vedantam:Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Annie Murphy Paul, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. For today's Unsung Hero, we bring you a story from our sister show, My Unsung Hero. Chewey Clinton grew up on a ranch in Idaho. As a teenager, he was a typical small town kid working at a hardware store and going hunting with his friends. But he was also holding onto a secret that he felt made him different from everyone else. He was gay. He hadn't told anyone the truth, even his closest friend, a classmate named Spencer.Chewey Clinton:He was my best friend in high school for a number of years, and he was just fun. We liked to go to punk rock together, play video games, and he was good to talk to. He was fun to talk to. Yeah, he was a really wonderful guy. Spencer is my unsung hero because he is the first person I ever came out to. It was wholly unexpected. My parents were away and it was the one and only time I ever had a party out at my place. Just tons of people, had a great time, and Spencer and I were hanging out and he was drinking and having problems with his girlfriend at the time. He was just frustrated and upset and he wanted to go home. Well, I wouldn't let anybody go home in their cars that night who had done any drinking whatsoever, and then I was like, "No, no, no. Let's just go walk around and talk."We were walking and talking and he was unloading to me his frustrations with his relationship and there was just a lull in the conversation after a couple of miles. It was nothing that I would ever expect and planned to tell him and planned to say it even as we started walking, because it was something I never thought I could say to anybody who I'd grown up with because it was really dangerous. It broke in me, it broke in me, and I just said it. I said, "Spencer, I'm gay."There was a momentary silence. Without anything else, he just put his arm around me as we were walking and he said, "That's okay. You're still my best friend. I still love you." For him to respond that way, for somebody to tell me they loved me when I told them that was unlike anything I could have ever asked for. It was like a relief valve. I still couldn't tell most people, but it was like this constant weight that had been building on me suddenly lifted a little bit. For as long as our friendship went on, he just asked questions and nobody had and I'd never had anybody that I could tell things to. I'd never wanted to tell anybody anything. I'd never expected anybody to ask me questions. I could never have known what it would feel like for that to have that kind of friendship.Shankar Vedantam:Chewey went off to college. He and Spencer slowly drifted apart as high school friends often do. But he says he'll always remember the compassion that Spencer showed him.Chewey Clinton:I've come out to hundreds of people since that time. In fact, I live my life in a way in which visually and personality, I would be offended if somebody didn't know I was gay. I'm never afraid. I'm never afraid anymore to say that to anyone because I love who I am so much. I have thought about it enough times to know that he's a part of the reason for that.Shankar Vedantam:Chewey Clinton now lives in Washington DC. If you like this episode, if you found it timely and valuable, please take a moment and tell a friend or colleague about Hidden Brain. Right after the episode is over, please think of one person who might enjoy our program and tell them about it. If your friend is new to podcasting, please show them how to subscribe to our show. Another way you can help us build more shows like this is to support our work. Please visit support.hiddenbrain.org to learn more. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.
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