Happiness 2.0: The Reset Button - Transcripts

February 27, 2023

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Many of us rush through our lives, chasing goals and just trying to get everything done. But that can blind us to a very simple source of joy that's all around us. This week, in the final installment of our Happiness 2.0 series, psychologist Dacher Keltner describes what happens when we stop to savor the beauty in nature, art, or simply the moral courage of those around us.


hidden brain, I'm Shankar Vedanta. In July 1798, an English poet visited the countryside on the banks of the river Wai. On seeing the natural beauty of the area, William Wordsworth composed a poem. It's titled Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tinton Abbey. At one point, he describes the effect of the landscape on his psychological state. He writes, And I have felt a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts, a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns and the round ocean and the living air and the blue sky and in the mind of man, a motion and a spirit that impels all thinking things, all objects of all thought, and rolls through all things. Now, the Romantic poets were sometimes given to literary excess. They felt things deeply, and they wrote effusively. But more than two centuries after Wordsworth composed his poem, some scientists today are asking an unusual question. Were the Romantics on to something? This week on Hidden Brain, in the final episode of our series, Happiness 2.0, we look at what happens when we stop, really stop, to smell the roses. For centuries, one of the central challenges in human behavior has been the problem of suffering.

We all have aches and ailments, setbacks at work, and conflicts in personal relationships. Many years ago, the psychologist Dakar Keltner found himself in a world of suffering. He was

in his early 30s and had just moved from California to Wisconsin. What happened to me, Shankar, is I lived a life largely in California, in the hills, in the mountains, in the oceans, in the culture, and so forth. And I went 2,000 miles away, and it was flat, and there were storms, and there was snow, and people rooted for the packers, and they ate bratwurst, and, you know, there was no Mexican food, and the weather, and the cold. The cold rattled me. I felt like Camus stranger, in a way. Like, I am in a strange land that I just physically, temperature-wise, climate-wise, people-wise, I felt like a fish out of water, even though

I look like somebody from Wisconsin. I'm, you know, Northern European heritage. Dakar, who was just starting his career as a professor, started to experience extreme bouts

of anxiety. I come from a family on my mom's side that has a lot of anxiety, and I started to have profound panic attacks, really beginning with the day that I departed to drive across the country to Wisconsin. I had probably, I would say 70 or 80 a year, really technicolor, full-blown panic attacks when I was teaching, when I would go see a movie to try to relax, when I would fly on an airplane to go to a conference, when I would hear from a colleague, and it really caught me off guard,

Shankar, like, wow, why am I feeling so estranged and anxious all the time? Everything around Dakar seemed to remind him of his isolation. Everywhere he went, he experienced vulnerability. He felt that his life was about to end.

My God, you know, for those people out in the audience who've had real panic attacks, they are spectacular, and they hit you, and you've literally, the brain says you're dying, and your body is telling you, you, Dakar Keltner, are dying, and you're about to die right here. It felt really solitary. And I remember there was this book about weird stories from Wisconsin about how anxious people ended up dying in Wisconsin, because they would go out and start tilling the earth on their farm at two in the morning, you know, and everything was frozen, and the guy froze to death, and I was like, this is going to happen to me. And it was happening to me.

Dakar had moved across the country to join the University of Wisconsin,

but his work provided no solace. I was getting rejected for grants. Papers were getting rejected. There was a conference on the social nature of emotion, which is what I was writing about and defined my career on. I got rejected from. I started to dream about people broadcasting all the rejections of my papers and ideas and the like. You know, I got a very mediocre to bad mid-career review. It was a real struggle, to be quite honest, and a lot of suffering.

So like many of us who've been through something similar, you try to do a number of things to make yourself feel better. At one point, you and some fellow academics banded together to form

a basketball team. Tell me about that. Why did you do that and how did it go? Tell me about that.

We formed this team that we named the Laughing Amygdala. Because the Amygdala was all the rage at the time. It was Joe Ladue, the Amygdala, the Threat Center, et cetera. And what was great about our team, Chunker, is we were all professors and three graduate students, and we had this really unlikely team, and we won championships on the campus. We beat the football team, the fraternities, and people were just stunned. And so it was this magical run. And you know, Chunker, from the solitary life of 3 a.m., I would go to the gym and play. And basketball is five people flowing in motion in a sense of, you know, just we're all connected doing things together. And when I'd walked to the gym, it felt like a sanctuary, that I would go there and leave behind the anxiety.

I want to play a clip of music here, Dr. It's from Raw Power, the 1973 album by Iggy Pop and the

Stooges. Dr. What memories does this music hold for you? Chunker, I think one of the deepest mysteries in science right now, in the social sciences, is why does music speak to us? And why does it speak to our soul? And when I was in Madison, Wisconsin, I was really, you know, fighting and with anxiety and, you know, trying to find my way in life. And at that time, I'd probably seen Iggy Pop, kind of a godfather of punk rock, put about six to eight times. And he played, I think it was in Milwaukee, and I took some friends to the show. And it was just like basketball. Like, I was leaving behind the heat of anxiety of my academic life, my young career. And I go to the show and I get up close. And we're in this throbbing mosh pit that scientists now study. And he comes out and he sings all his great songs, you know, Raw Power, you know, Less for Life and Passenger.

I know them, I'm singing. You know, at one point, he dives out into the crowd and I'm right there and I hold him, you know, and he's a loft on all of our hands. And Shankar, I touch his skin and his skin feels like God. You know, I'm just like, I can't believe I'm holding Iggy Pop's bicep. So when I leave an Iggy Pop show, I'm drenched in sweat. I don't know who I am. I'm embracing strangers. And I feel alive and pure. So I go back to Wisconsin and I look at his CD and it says, if you feel like writing me, drop me a line. Here's my address. So I write him, you know, and I tell him about all my stories, you know, seeing him and how important he's been to me as a young professor handling my struggles. Six months later, I get a letter back in this little shaky scrawl.

And he's like, he says, thanks for all of your stories. I really appreciate them. Good luck getting access to the young skulls at UW. I dig teachers, Iggy Pop. And I'm like, I'm getting goosebumps talking about this now. I held the letter and I'm like, my life's okay. I have courage and strength. And when I'd bounce up on the stage and teach my 300 students, getting my mediocre reviews and making mistakes here and there,

I felt more strong and alive. You were touched by the hand of God here,

Dakar. The godfather of punk rock.

Another time, Dakar, you and your wife were outside watching a summer storm approach. Tornado warnings were going off. Describe for me what was happening and tell me what

you both did next. My wife, Molly, grew up in San Francisco. You know, we both were adapting to the weather and the climate and the landscape. And this storm starts rolling in and you could see it from afar and those clouds looked horrifying and they looked strong and dangerous. And then there was some kind of warning that said, get into your basement, a tornado warning. And I think tornadoes did land that day. And for whatever reason, we said, let's feel it. Let's get out in the storm. Let's see what the mystery is. And let's just, you know, we couldn't really explain it, but we sat out on our swing on our front porch as this wild storm ripped through, you know, Madison for half an hour or whatever it was and rain and lightning and massive winds. And again, it felt, I just felt so alive and free of the shackles of my anxiety

at the time. So it was a striking experience. So these all seem like very different experiences, enjoying teamwork in a basketball game, being part of a crowd at a music concert,

watching a storm approach. Is there a common thread that connects these experiences, Thacker? You know, it was really interesting, Shankar, because I was really struggling in these four years and I, you know, I was chronically anxious, tons of panic attacks, struggling career-wise, really feeling away from home. And I didn't know how to find happiness, which has been a life's puzzle for me in many ways. And I think what I was doing in these experiences is I was getting outside of myself on the basketball court. It's just the motion and the physicality and the you're playing with five people. I was losing myself and I lost myself right up front, like in a mosh pit near seeing Iggy Pop and feeling the music. And I lost myself in the storm. And I was just like, I was throwing myself into things where I could lose myself.

Like William Wordsworth two centuries ago, Thacker had begun to discover ways out of his narrow preoccupations. When we come back, the connections between these different experiences and the science behind a mind expanding emotion. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedanta. This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedanta. University of California Berkeley psychologist Thacker Keltner studies what he calls pro-social emotions, feelings like love, compassion, and gratitude. Earlier in his life, he tried to get himself through a difficult time by immersing himself in sports, in music, and in the beauties of the natural world. In time, he realized there was a common connection between these activities. They all activated a feeling of being awestruck. Now at the University of California Berkeley, Thacker has spent years studying the science of awe. Thacker, I want to talk about your scientific explorations of awe, but so much of your intellectual journey starts with your personal journey.

Both your parents were attuned to the world of art. Can you tell me about them?

Yeah, it's funny. I really lived a life that really is in some sense from my first moments of being born in Mexico, a life as an experiment in awe. Formative years in Laurel Canyon, California in the late 60s, so much music going on, Joni Mitchell the Doors. My dad was a painter and he loved awe-inspiring, horrifying work. Goya, Velasquez, Francis Bacon, and others, just as a kid. I was just seeing images all the time. Then my mom loved awe in literature and was getting her PhD, eventually taught at Cal State Sacramento, and loved Virginia Wolf and her awesome portrayals of the mind and the romanticism and Wordsworth and Blake. I would hear quotes of Blake and she told me about the prelude of Wordsworth and then also D.H. Lawrence and others. And so my parents were pointing me at an early age from like five and six, like, here are quotes about awe, here's our paintings of awe, here is music. You know, I remember listening to Sgt. Pepper's when it came out, The Beatles, together as a family.

Like, life's about

awe. Go do it. Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head. From the way downstairs

and drank a cup. I understand that your family moved to a rural community in the foothills of

the Sierras and you and your brother, Rolf, spent many days roaming outside in nature. You know, it was incredible. My parents, you know, it was 1970. My mom had just gotten this job at Cal State Sacramento as an English professor teaching romanticism and the like. And they did what a lot of people did in that era. They moved to the country where it was cheaper and we got an old beat up Victorian, five acres. And there were streams and creeks and ponds and railroad tracks we could follow, you know, and we just wandered after school. We didn't do any homework. And then as we got older, what we started to do, Shankar, is go to the rivers, you know, rafting, and then in particular to the Yuba River, which is this wild river and jump into it. And so I had this incredible childhood of biking and walking out in the country. We lived on a dirt road where when I'd go walk home from the school dance, it was pitch black, and I'd see this giant

sky of stars, shooting stars. We slept outside, you know, so it was about wild all. So that brings me to a question that I've been pondering for a bit in this conversation, which is that awe in general seems like an ineffable emotion. It feels like it's very hard to wrap your arms around what exactly it is. And if you're going to study it scientifically, you have to know what it is that you're studying. So about 20 years ago, I understand that you and

a collaborator came up with a working definition of awe. Can you tell me how that came about? Awe presents paradoxes, right? It seems ineffable and beyond words, but yet people really want to talk about it. It's mysterious and numinous, and we probably can measure it. And that's one of the tasks of science. So Jonathan Haidt, who is an early collaborator in my career and brilliant mind, we got invited to write a paper for a special issue on pleasure. And John and I had been talking about awe. And we said awe, the key elements are when we encounter vast mysteries that we can't understand with our current knowledge. Or what we said was awe requires what we called the need for accommodation. You have to rearrange your knowledge structures just to make sense of what you've encountered. But I think for our conversation today, it's really awe is encountering vast

mysteries that we don't understand. So nature is very often a common source of awe for many people. I want to play for you an audio clip. This is from a video made by a man named Paul Vasquez. His nickname is Bear. He saw something outside his home in Yosemite. So, Dakar, you've seen this video, I believe. Yes. As a scientist, would you care to hazard a guess at what's happening

inside Paul Vasquez's mind at that moment? Paul Vasquez's mind? This video is really what mystical experiences are like for people. They laugh. They use language that is expansive and beyond the usual kinds of terms we use. It's full on. It's, oh my God, we cry. We are moved

outside of ourselves. You know, I want to play you a clip from the end of the same video, Dakar, because it brings up something that I want to ask you about. To watch. I doubt what it means. You know, it's interesting. Paul is almost uncomfortable by the intensity of the experience. He's struggling to understand what it means. And I think when most people think about awe, they think about, okay, I'm seeing something beautiful. I see a beautiful sight. But I think we're getting into deeper

waters here where awe can actually make us uncomfortable. Yeah. You know, awe destabilizes. It introduces profound uncertainty about our understanding of the world. It can be filled with threat. You know, when I sat amidst a storm, you know, I felt threatened. Just recently, I was backpacking with my daughter, Natalie, high Sierra's, and we got caught in a lightning storm. And it was awe-inspiring and threatening. And that is true, I believe, with Vasquez's experience, the double rainbow experience. It, you know, when we no longer can make sense of reality, which is a theme of awe, it's that mystery, it's the need for finding new understandings of the

world. Often we feel adrift, we feel anxious, we feel threatened, and we feel destabilized. You found that another realm of experience that tends to inspire awe involves other people who do amazing things. Tell me about the idea of moral beauty, Decker.

You know, moral beauty is the idea that other people's kindness, and courage, and overcoming obstacles, and their virtuosity, and their discipline can inspire us morally, where we see in them what we want to be as good human beings. And it astonished us, Shankar, at the Berkeley Lab, that, you know, we sent out these requests, 26 countries, all these stories of awe come rolling in, and the most universal, and the most common, was the goodness or moral beauty of other people right around them. And I'm not talking about Mahatmas Gandhi or Mother Teresa, it is like neighbors, and strangers, and grandmothers, and the like, and roommates that, almost on a weekly basis, are triggering us to feel like, God, people are good, and I could

be inspired by that. I understand that you once had a powerful experience with a spiritual leader that also inspired a feeling of awe. Tell me about your encounter with the Dalai Lama.

Hmm, it makes me humble to talk about it. You know, I've been on two panels with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, and I'm like, man, I'm on a stage with the Dalai Lama, and there are 2,500 people out in the audience. Before we go on, I greet His Holiness, it's a profound moment. When he looks you in the eye, man, you feel like he is really looking me in the eye, and we hugged, and he kind of tickled me. And I was, and I literally, I was one giant goose bump, you know. I was like, wow, I've just hugged and been tickled by the Dalai Lama. Then we go on stage, and you know, and I'm asking him these dumb questions, and you know, this narrow scientist, and he's so engaged and interested and curious, you know, because he's training his mind in a way, he's working harder on his mind than I've ever worked on anything. And at one moment in this conversation, I'm asking him about compassion, and he says, compassion is the natural state of the mind. And I, you know, coming out of my Western scientific homo-economicist mindset, I was just, it was, it was an epiphany. And epiphanies are a very subtle source of awe where suddenly we grasp that they're big ideas that really make sense of a lot of things in reality. You might find epiphanies in the idea of free markets, or evolution, or that capitalism is bad for the planet, or big data, or the idea of quantum physics, right? And it's surprisingly common around the world, and has this structure to seeing suddenly being revealed to big ideas that help you make sense of the mysteries that concern you.

And it was an awe moment, right? I was like, wait a minute, compassion is the deepest structure in the human mind, down in the midbrain, all these structures that have been part of mammalian evolution. And that animated a lot of research I did on compassion, and change how I teach, and it changed how I thought about humanity, you know, that there is this deep goodness in us that's part of our evolutionary story, that's one of the most interesting parts of our evolutionary story, how good we are. And it blew my mind.

You talked about going to see Iggy Pop and then feeling like you could go on stage and talk to 300 students with newfound confidence. Did you find the same thing happened after meeting the Dalai Lama?

Did your life feel different in the days and weeks that followed? After that experience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I felt like I had a deeper sense of purpose and meaning. And so, you know, I'm on an airplane and I had profound flight anxiety. Every little bump felt like the end of my life. I'd have images of losing my life and my children and so forth. And I noticed that I wasn't anxious on the flight. I didn't need to power down a whiskey to make it home, you know. And then I got there and I was at the carousel and of course my luggage was lost. And I literally laughed it off. And I think I said, good, you know, time to shed all that stuff. I truly felt, and this is true of the science of awe, which is the mundane things don't get to you as much.

And I felt above them and strong. So I think, you know, all of us have had these experiences where we have that warm glow we get from, you know, an encounter with an awe-inspiring person or an experience. Is there any risk, Thacker, that this can act, you know, like a kind of drug that we get a high from feeling awestruck and inspired and then this can lead us to be complacent

or even oblivious to the sorrows or horrors of the world? Yeah, I think there are many risks of awe, right? This is a destabilizing emotion. It leads you to look for new knowledge to make sense of the world. It leads you to abandon past knowledge structures, perhaps, or assumptions. And you know, a parent might think of, well, that's what happened to my daughter when she joined a cult, is this cult leader suddenly persuaded her to abandon life and follow this new awe-inspiring figure. You know, there's a new concern in the psychedelic movement for certain people who find too much, you know, destabilizing search for new meaning in psychedelic experiences that can get them into trouble. You could go on. P.R. Carlo Valdezolo has, you know, nice studies showing that certain kinds of awe make us see kind of patterns where there aren't patterns. And so we can believe things, you know, maybe a cue a non-supporter, feels goosebumps and awe at these stories that are absolute nonsense. They don't have a sense of boundaries.

They enter into dangerous situations. So yeah, there are risks here that we should be attentive to, as there are, Shankar, with

every human passion. So you've become increasingly interested in the evolutionary origins of awe. Yeah. Why is it that we would have an emotion like this? You know, it's possible that other species also experience awe, but of course, you know, we don't typically see a line of cats sitting and watching the sunset together, right? It just doesn't happen. So is there something that might explain our predisposition to awe from an evolutionary

perspective? Yeah.

Watching the sunset together, right? We just... You know, this is where the science of awe gets really interesting, which is how far back in our primate mammalian evolution can we trace this, right, if it is a basic emotion. And we have a lot of data that suggests awe is as basic to humanity and the human species is anger or fear. And we have a lot of data on the expression of awe and what it does to our social behavior and sense of self that awe is this pretty deep human universal emotion. And I think that it does two things that are vital to our evolution. And the first is it connects the individual to collectives. And time and time again, when people experience awe, they see things like I felt small and I felt like I was part of something larger than myself. And this is fundamental to our survival. And then the other thing that I think is really important, Chunker, is that awe helps us see the systems around us and understand them. One of these sets of operations of our mind is to be very narrow and focus on the self and individual actions and cause and effect relationships. The other is to look at the world holistically and systemically.

That's an ecosystem. This is a social hierarchy. That is a musical structure. And awe pops those systems out to our awareness. So it really is the animator of a systems view of life. And that's really important for scientific understanding, for social understanding, for knowing where to find resources in my environment to understand my ecology.

And awe is the great engine of a systems view of the world. So much of it begins with the feeling that awe can produce in us of making us feel small. I remember visiting Alaska once and feeling like I was a very small creature on a very, very big planet. And you've done studies looking at the same idea. You ran an interesting study in Yosemite exploring this idea that awe changes our sense of our own scale.

You know, the self takes up a lot of area in the brain and our consciousness. We're always thinking, especially in this modern world, about my goals, my status, my aspirations, what I'm doing. It's my desires, my interests. And evolutionists have really talked about the problem of self-interest. How do we get people to orient to other people, to societies and collectives? And we started to have this idea that awe does that by creating the small self. In a lot of writings about awe, right, religious writings from centuries ago, nature writings, Ralph Waldo Emerson, his big epiphany, I am nothing, right, psychedelic writings. All these writings are speaking to this, but we had to get it empirically. So my collaborator Yang Bai from China went to Yosemite, stopped travelers from 42 countries at this particular outlook on a road where you first get to see Yosemite Valley and El Capitan and the great granite slabs and this incredible valley that's just awe-inspiring. And what Yang Bai did is she did a really simple task. She had people at that moment draw themselves and write me. And in that context, those drawings of the self were really small, they wrote their sense of me really small compared to the right kind of control conditions.

And we have other data and really different kinds of data, even neuroscientific data showing awe quiets this egoistic, self-focused sense of personal identity and opens you up to the

big things that you're connected to. You and your collaborator Lani Shioda also once had people stand in front of an enormous T-Rex skeleton.

Tell me about that experiment, Dacher. On the Berkeley campus, we have this incredible replica of a T-Rex skeleton and it's in our Museum of Paleontology and you stand next to it. And we did the pilot testing, people say, I feel awe, man, this is amazing, it's huge. Imagine being chased by that thing, wow, those things existed 70 million years ago. It's awesome. So Lani and our team stood Berkeley undergraduates by this T-Rex or they stood in the opposite direction looking down a hallway. And there's this classic measure of your own self or identity, which is you are given the stem, I am, and next to it is a blank line and you just fill it in 20 different times. And typically people living in the West will say things like, I am extroverted and I am ambitious and I am interested in this and when they stood next to that T-Rex and took it in and felt awe, their sense of self expanded and themes of common humanity emerged. I am a human, I am a mammal, I am a part of California, I am of this ethnic variety. And so this collective communal self emerged and that's the power of awe. A little moment, 30 seconds of it, you shift from self-focus, very narrow to, wow, I'm

part of something really large. And some of this translates not just to how we think about ourselves in our own minds, but how we're acting towards other people. You also ran another experiment on the Berkeley campus, this time involving a grow of eucalyptus trees. Tell me about that study.

Yeah, you know, one of the beauties of awe and to understand it, it brings out the best of our imagination, you know, and my lab started to get interested in awe and we were throwing around all these ideas and doing these crazy studies. And the very imaginative Paul Piff, now a professor at UC Irvine, did a study in which he took undergrads to a eucalyptus grove and their blue gum eucalyptus trees, they're some of the tallest in North America. When you look up into them, their light and the colors and the leaves and their fragrances are just astonishing. That grove, when you stand in the middle of them, embraces you. It makes you feel like you're part of them. And in the control condition, people were in the same place, but they looked at this science building and lo and behold, you know, Shankar, this is a minute or two of just for no reason looking up into these trees. In one to two minutes, our students reported feeling less narcissistic, less entitled. They needed less money to do the study when we offered to pay them. And then Paul staged this accident where a student was walking by and they dropped some pens and the people feeling awe picked up more pens, right? And we replicated that in tightly controlled laboratory studies. You just share more when you're feeling awe, you cooperate more, you give more, just with

a minute or two of looking it up at some trees. You know, very much like you described about your own experiences in Wisconsin, you and Jonathan Haidt have said that an experience of awe can press a reset button in the mind.

What do you mean by that, Decker? Yeah, reset buttons are really interesting. And actually, you know, Sylvan Tompkins wrote about when you're startled by a loud clap of thunder or the appearance of an old friend or bumping into a friend in the street, it kind of restarts your mind. It resets it to look at things anew and fresh and contemplative people might say with a beginner's mind.

And that's what awe does for a Shankar. When we come back, how to bring more awe into our lives. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedanta. This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedanta. At UC Berkeley, psychologist Decker Keltner studies the benevolent emotions, including the emotion of awe. He's the author of the book, awe, the new signs of everyday wonder and how it can transform your life. Decker, you recently studied the effects of awe on disadvantaged students and military veterans. Neither felt much awe in their regular lives. What did you do?

What did the study involve? Yeah, you know, there's a growing interest in our culture and scientifically about how the institutional structural traumas of life, if you're impoverished and you don't have parks nearby and the like, or you have a career like veterans who go see combat and see people die. Their profiles look traumatized. They are depressed and vigilant, anxious very often, twice the rates of American citizens, elevated levels of cortisol and inflammation and the like. And I became friends with Stacey Bear, who's a veteran, and we started talking about this and he leads veterans into outdoors programs. And so what we decided to do in this study is we got veterans and high school students who were in really tough, impoverished schools in parts of the East Bay in California. And it's, you know, where there are bars and police cars and no gardens, et cetera. And these kids hadn't, you know, been outside in parks. They hadn't gone camping. Many of them had not really seen a night sky of stars. So we took them rafting, our veterans and then our high schoolers down the American River on a stretch and it's beautiful and you wind through these rapids and you look at the water and you see fish and it's amazing. And what we found, we measured their emotions and stress and trauma and sense of connection at the start of the study a week later.

And as the study unfolded, we measured their sense of wonder and awe and connection to their peers and cortisol and emotions. And what we found is our high schoolers a week later felt less stress, more happiness, they felt more connected to their community and family. And our veterans felt 30% less PTSD. One high schooler said, I'm so struck by the rolling hills and the smoke, and it was smoky at the time because of wildfires, and the water. And then a veteran said, and I love this quote where, you know, the star splatted sky made me realize that my worries are not as important as I thought they are, but what I could do in the world is more important. And so it was this nice study, and there's a lot of science on this of different varieties that nature immersion and finding all gardening, walking, getting out into the woods, standing

near a tree is good for your nervous system and your mind.

Is there any evidence that awe has physiological effects on us? Yeah, there are, you know, there's this thing called the vagus nerve, largest bundle of nerves in your body. It slows heart rate, deepens breathing, regulates digestion, helps with your gut and the microbiome. In general, people have a nice functioning vagus nerve that is responsive and has elevated levels do better in life. And we found, thanks to Amy Gordon and Jenny Steller, you know, that little brief experiences of awe, seeing an inspiring image, hearing about moral beauty, elevates your vagus nerve activation. And then just as impressively, you know, when your immune system, the cytokine system more specifically cranks out these proteins that attack pathogens, and that's the inflammation response that makes you feel feverish and sluggish and overheated. It's good when you're fighting a virus, it's not good if you're chronically inflamed. And it's one of the central threats to health in the United States. And Jenny Steller and Nihah John Henderson went out and found in our lab that feeling a lot of awe, of all the positive emotions, quiets down the inflammation response. So it tells us, you know, Emerson, when he had this big epiphany of awe out on a cold day in Massachusetts, he said, there is nothing that nature cannot repair. And I think he was feeling these changes in the body of vagal tone and inflammation,

reduced inflammation, that awe gives us. So Dr., you've described many ways in which awe is good for us, but you've also said that our society is becoming awe-deprived.

What do you mean by that? The deeper structural conditions of our lives are in some ways, especially for young people today, working against awe, and I really sense this teaching thousands of students a year at a big university like Berkeley. They are awe-deprived because too much is structured, and they are not allowed to wander like I did as a kid, wandering around the neighborhoods and out in the foothills. They are awe-deprived because of the new technologies, which frankly just get us too focused on the self. The more we're focused on the self, the narrow parts of the self, the less awe we feel. They're awe-deprived because of all the competitive self-comparisons that have arisen today. So are people getting enough of it? No. We need more awe right now. You know, Lancet publication recently showed that the pandemic has led to rises in depression and anxiety by 20% to 30%. We've all felt this, our young people in particular, but there is everyday awe, and if we just take

a little moment to get out and look for it, it's there to find. So Dr. In one recent study, you had volunteers take an awe walk.

What is an awe walk? One of the easiest ways to find awe is to, in an unbounded way, go out and walk. We have been doing this as humans for a long time in the spiritual contemplative traditions. Getting out into nature and doing awe walks is just part of those traditions. And what we decided to do is test its benefits scientifically. And so I wrote up these instructions for an awe walk. And what you do is you take your ordinary walk that a lot of people do. And in fact, during the pandemic, there were historic levels of walking. And you not only go out to do it vigorously and to help your heart, but you go with a childlike sense of wonder and you just stop and reflect on what is really interesting in the small things around you, the flowers and patterns of shadows and like, and also look up past the horizon and look up to the vast things, right? And do it in a way where you go places that you're curious about. And in this study, what we did is our participants were all 75 years old or older. That is an age where because we have a sense that death is coming and we see people die, we're a little bit more anxious at that stage of life.

And so one group of our participants did an awe walk once a week for eight weeks. The other group of participants, tight control, did a vigorous walk once a week. Each time they did a walk, they took a picture of themselves. And then we gathered a bunch of self reports like how are they doing on a daily basis? How is their levels of anxiety and so forth? And we found just a couple of things. One, the more you do the awe walk, the more awe inspiring it becomes. Awe doesn't diminish with experience, it gets richer and deeper. By the end of the eight weeks our awe walk participants were feeling a lot of awe. Two, more changes in the self. There are pictures of themselves and I love this finding. The self gets smaller over time and it starts to drift off to the side and they're including the rocks and sunsets of their awe walk.

And then third, really importantly on a daily basis, they just felt less distress.

They felt less anxiety about life. In many ways in this conversation, Dakar, we've spent a lot of time talking about awe in the beautiful and the majestic, but you've written that so much of life is awesome, including the parts that are not great. Tell me about your relationship with your brother Rolf.

You were very close to him, right? Yeah, just hearing you say his name brings goosebumps and tears to me. He was born one year after me, so he was younger and we did everything together. We played little league together, we played basketball teams together, wandered together, went to Mexico together, were best men in each other's weddings. We both became social science teacher types. And frankly, he taught me how to be kinder and how to be courageous. I don't think I was endowed with those tendencies early. He taught me. He was my example in many ways of moral beauty. So I was profoundly close to him through the ebbs and flows of brotherhood, but he was

my core. So I understand a few years ago, he was diagnosed with colon cancer.

Tell me about that, Dakar. I went out listening, you know, who's been close to colon cancer, it's a horror show. And for my brother, for two years, I watched him, you know, go from being a 210-pound, very strong man, 147 pounds, bone thin, passing out. There's a lot of pain, but there are certain kinds of pain that just wipe out consciousness, breakthrough pain. And abdominal pain is like that. He got it all, chemotherapy, and I was just there all the time. And then he decided to take a cocktail when he knew the cancer had returned and headed into his gut. And we all went up there in January, and we watched him, you know, slowly leave this world. And Shankar, I had gone through the most horrifying two years of my life watching my companion in awe, my brother Rolfe, fade physically, but in that moment of seeing him calmer, heading into where he was going after losing his body, we were all around him. We touched him, the light felt different, we were quiet, we bowed our heads, and we were all in reverence of my brother Rolfe and what he meant.

And watching him go, I was filled with astonishment and awe. I understand that you took a trip to honor your brother's memory after he died.

Where did you go, Dakar? After he died, and then I returned to my life in Berkeley and was blown off the map. And it's really the state that Joan Didion describes, you know, in her writing about grief, I couldn't sleep, and anxious, and confused, and was just really struggling. And this voice came to me and it was find awe. And my brother and I, we always went to the mountains, you know, we grew up in the mountains near the Sierras. And I went up into the high Sierras and Ducks Lake where he and I had hiked, and Mammoth in the east side of the Sierras, when I saw the ridge line that he and I had seen, I felt him there. I heard his voice. I saw the trees that he and I had seen, these trees flicker in the wind, the aspen trees. And I just felt him there, Shankar, I was like, in these mountains, my brother is with

me. Dakar Keltner is a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. He's the author of awe, the new science of everyday wonder, and how it can transform your life.

Dakar, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Break. Shankar, it is a privilege to be in conversation with you.

Thank you. Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Bridget McCarthy, Annie Murphy-Paul, Kristin Wong, Laura Correll, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. As many of you know, we recently started a new show called My Unsung Hero. It's designed to show you that the world is filled with everyday acts of kindness and courage. As I've listened to stories of unsung heroes, I've often found myself moved to tears. But it wasn't until I talked to Dakar that I realized, these are really stories about moral beauty. The reason these stories make me want to be a better person, they're giving me a feeling of awe. Please subscribe to the My Unsung Hero podcast. Here's a taste of what it's like.

This story comes from Allie Ward. In 2013, Allie's life felt like it was collapsing. Her relationship with her partner fell apart, her new job wasn't working out, and her father

was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Meanwhile, my dad's brother had the same kind of cancer and died. And there was a lot going on. I remember days when I would think I only cried four times today. That was a good day for me. It was just really tough.

It was a lot of things that I just couldn't help. When she needed a distraction, Allie liked to go on Facebook and post pictures of her unconventional obsession. Bugs. Worms. Spiders. Brightly colored beetles. Her close friends found it enduring, but in Los Angeles where she lived, not everyone

got it. There's a little bit of artifice in LA and you don't find a lot of people that get excited

about a spider web. One day, she got a Facebook message from a friend of a friend, a woman she had never met named Leela Higgins. Leela was an entomologist at the local Natural History Museum, and she had noticed Allie's quirky bug pictures.

So she reached out. And she said, I heard you like bugs. If you want to come check, there's this insectary in the middle of the catacombs, the inner workings of the museum. Just come and check out some bugs. Leela had no idea what I was going through in my life at that time. I think she probably didn't expect someone jittery and tear stained to meet her at the back door of this museum, but this is my jam. I have loved bugs since I was a little kid. There is nothing I wanted more than to see some scorpions and some larvae. I was like, I would love this. And I went and was just delighted by it. I got to put on a lab coat. I got to go through some secret doors, some employee-only areas.

And I remember she opened up this freezer, like, come check this out. And then just freezer opening like a coffin. And it was full of dead bugs, dead tarantulas, some stick insects, I mean, big scorpions, I mean, all kinds of things that have passed away, but they were saving them for the entomology department or just for posterity. And I just remember just how excited she was about everything was such a pass for me to get excited about this in her company and really rediscover what excited me in life. You know, at the end, she said, you should volunteer here. And I remember, I mean, I was like in between crying jags that day. And I was like, how could my life get a lot worse? I can afford three hours a week. So I started volunteering and I just would really light up. It gave me this like sense of purpose. It helped me reconnect with my love of science and nature that I'd always had. You know, Leila Higgins just in one instant changed my whole life.

And I think that she's impacted a lot of lives that she probably doesn't understand. You know, I think that it's just in a day's work for her to point out snails and slugs and butterflies and, you know, mosey on keep doing her job. And I don't think that she understands the ripple effect that she has. She has caused like such an exponential effect, I think, in my life.

I felt like I came home to myself because of the way that she can be herself. Ali Ward lives in Los Angeles. Since she quit that job she didn't like, she has started her own science podcast. It's called Ologies. If you found our Happiness 2.0 series useful and inspiring, please take a moment and tell a friend or colleague about our show. Think of one person who might enjoy our program and tell them about it. Another way you can support us is by supporting us. Help us build more shows like this by going to support.hiddenbrain.org. Again, that's support.hiddenbrain.org. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you soon.