1 Hour, 2 Minutes and 48 Seconds
Our innate desire for human connection has been impeded by COVID-19. What can we do, while under quarantine, to find purpose and happiness? What should our leaders do to calm our anxieties and point a way forward? Listen to this Wiener Conference Call with Arthur Brooks, professor of the practice of public leadership, to hear answers to these questions and more.
Wiener Conference Calls recognize Malcolm Wiener’s role in proposing and supporting this series as well as the Wiener Center for Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
Good day everyone. I am Mari Megias in the office of Alumni Relations and Resource Development at Harvard Kennedy School and I’m very pleased to welcome you to this Wiener Conference Call. As we all continue to navigate the new normal, we’re providing more opportunities for you to connect with Harvard Kennedy School faculty, so watch your email for future invitations. Also given that we’re all working remotely, we’re running these calls a bit differently, so apologies in advance for any issues that we may experience.
Today, we are joined by Arthur Brooks, who is professor of the practice of Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School and Arthur C. Patterson faculty fellow at Harvard Business School. Before joining the Harvard faculty in July of 2019, Arthur served for 10 years as president of the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C.
He is the author of 11 books, including Love Your Enemies, which came out in 2019. He’s a columnist for the Atlantic, host of the podcast, “The Art of Happiness with Arthur Brooks,” and the subject of the 2019 documentary film, The Pursuit.
We’re so fortunate that he has chosen to share his thoughts on happiness in the COVID era with the Kennedy School’s alumni and friends. Arthur.
Hi. Hi everybody. Thanks so much for that generous introduction and I’m delighted to be with all of you. Thanks for joining today from wherever you are. I understand that we have over 300 people on today’s call and from all different parts of the world. So if it’s a morning where you are, good morning, if it’s nighttime, good evening.
Thanks also for your continued support and interest in what we’re doing at the Kennedy School. We have so many people that are doing so many different kinds of work creating value right now for the school, for the nation and indeed for our world during this difficult time, and your interest and your support is really what makes that possible.
I couldn’t be more thrilled to be a member of the faculty, as you heard from the introduction, I’m new. I joined after 11 years as the president of a Washington, D.C. think tank, I joined last summer. I was thrilled to come to the Kennedy School, it’s the best policy school in the world. Also with a joint appointment at the Business School. What a wonderful opportunity.
What I wasn’t expecting of course is the way that this year was going to turn out. But then again, that’s what entrepreneurs are supposed to be able to do is, whatever field they find themselves in, whether it’s academia or business, is to find ways to create value, to see every challenge as an opportunity. And that’s what I want to talk about today.
I was trained as a public policy analyst, that’s what I got my PhD in. As I said, I ran a think tank. I’ve also been a professor of public policy for many years, but what I do most of my research on these days is happiness and wellbeing. I do a lot of work on how people can actually live better happier lives, and in point of fact, how that is important for leadership and how it’s important for public policy.
I know it sounds a little strange that happiness is an area of public policy, but in point of fact, I believe that all of us who do work in public and have leadership roles have an incredible opportunity. It’s a blessed opportunity as a matter of fact to manage not just our own happiness, but the environment that can create greater happiness for those whom we are privileged to lead.
That’s what I’ve been thinking about and talking about since I came to Harvard. I have a lot of new creative projects. I’m doing academic research on the subject, of course, but also I started a column called How to Build a Life in The Atlantic and a podcast. I’m writing a book right now about the happiness trajectory of successful people after the age of 50 and the particular challenges that they face. It’s a wonderful agenda.
And now I’m turning a lot of that attention, that energy toward how we can be better leaders and be happier people in the current environment, which is obviously characterized most saliently by the coronavirus epidemic.
What I want to do today is I want to tell you a little bit about the work that I’m doing in about 25 minutes, and then turn the time over to you to hear what’s on your mind, what questions are burning for you or just some thoughts that you have. And I’d be delighted to hear that and to interact with you on that.
I’m going to start by just to give you a flavor for what my research is working on in a space of happiness and wellbeing and the time of COVID-19 by just asking all of you on this call some questions.
Number one, is anybody feeling a little disappointed? I know it sounds ridiculous, right? But are you disappointed about what you’re missing? My son is graduating from Princeton University. I guess you could say he’s graduating sort of, Princeton has become a correspondence school. He’s home, he’s disappointed, he’s missing his graduation. You’re missing things too. Are you finding yourself spending a lot of time thinking about the things you’re missing?
Second question. How many people on this call today spend an hour or two at least listening to the news? The latest on the coronavirus epidemic, what’s it doing? What are the counts on the infection rates? What’s the latest on finding a cure? Any of you finding you’re frittering away a lot of time on the internet or watching the news, trying to get more certainty about the world, but finding frustration because you’re unable to get that certainty?
Question three. Is anybody on this call lonely? I know a lot of you are, even if you’re quarantining or sheltering in place with the people that you love, you don’t have that much contact with other people and it’s frustrating. It’s almost physically difficult.
I want to look at those three questions, and what I want to do is I want to take you into the world of the science of happiness to understand the problems behind those three questions, and then to provide some practical solutions. Not just that each of us can use as individuals, but that we can share with the people that we lead, after all every challenge, as I said before, is an entrepreneurial opportunity to lead people better, to help people lead better lives, which is what entrepreneurship is supposed to be all about. At least that’s how we see it at The Kennedy school.
So, let’s dig right in and let’s start with the first question I asked, which is disappointment. People are telling me all the time, when you’re a specialist in happiness you have this license to ask people if they’re happy. And sure enough, I ask people constantly, “How happy are you?” And people are amazingly frank with me as if I were a psychiatrist, which I’m not, I’m not that kind of doctor, but I’ll ask a lot what’s keeping people up at night and people will tell me a lot that they’re disappointed at the things that they’re missing.
Now, disappointment is a very interesting cognitive process. As an emotion, it most closely resembles regret. They’re both emotions that involve what might have been, something that we feel bad that we wish had turned out differently. They’re very similar cognitive processes, but there’s a key difference, which is called agency.
When I regret something, I wish I had done something differently in the past, when I’m disappointed, I simply wish that something different had happened in the past. For the longest time, these have been considered to be synonyms and indeed psychologists treated them as synonyms, but recently there’ve been three social psychologists at University of Amsterdam who started to do work on the difference between regret and disappointment. I realize I’m making kind of a tiny difference. Maybe it seems like a trivial difference to you, but it really isn’t. These psychologists have fielded surveys in which they ask people about their experience of regret and disappointment and they find that when people are regretful, they say, “I wish I’d known better. I made a mistake. I wish I had a second chance.”
When they’re disappointed, they say, “I feel powerless. I feel like I missed out on something. I feel like I have no control.” That’s an agency difference between the two. The problem is not that psychologists use them as synonyms, but we think of them as synonyms. We make a cognitive error when we’re disappointed. The danger of disappointment is that we treat it as if it were regret in the following way. When you’re regretful about something, you do two amazing human things. The first is something called counterfactual thinking. That’s where you imagine alternatives to life events that have already occurred. You imagine a different outcome to things that have already occurred. The second thing that you do is called rumination, which comes from the Latin for chewing the cud, like a cow where you turn something over and over and over in your mind.
When you feel regret, the human thing to do is to repetitively turn it over in your mind the thing that you regret, think about it again, and again, and again and imagine something different having happened. So here’s an example, you’re at work and you’re in a meeting and you say something that meets with your boss’ disapproval. Your boss gives you a look like, what are you talking about? You go back to your desk and you think about it and you think, what did I do wrong? You turn it over and over in your head. You imagine having said something different. Okay, that’s very productive. Why? Because that allows you to practice for next time. It allows you to make progress in the case of regret. Here’s the problem, if you do those things in the case of disappointment, there’s nothing productive that can come from that cognitive process. Why? Because you can’t learn from the disappointment. You can’t do something better next time because you’re not responsible. The coronavirus epidemic is tremendously disappointing, but it’s not your fault. You didn’t make a mistake, unless somebody on this call is patient zero. And even in that case, you didn’t do it on purpose.
The problem when we spent any time thinking about the sources of disappointment is that we wire in the unhappiness, we doubled down on the disappointment, we become unhappier. All rumination and counterfactual thinking is a mistake. Now, there’s a solution for that and I’m going to tell you what that solution is in a minute, but I want to move on to the next problem. See, this is my process. I identify a problem, and this is how I teach the class I teach at the Harvard Business School called leadership and happiness. I start with an everyday problem that leaders face. I move on to the science to understand it, and then I provide a practical solution. Okay, we’ll get to solutions in a minute. Let’s move on to the next problem, which is uncertainty.
A lot of people tell me, they’re spending tons of time, clicking on the Johns Hopkins coronavirus epidemic website just to see what’s up, what’s new, where’s it going? Are we seeing a downturn in the patient loads, in the cases, in infection rates? How close are we to therapeutic drugs? They’re on the internet all day long. They said they spend a lot of time.
Why is it that we do that with respect to uncertainty or in response to uncertainty? To understand this, we need to a 90 second little primer in the neurobiology of fear. Now, fear is a primary negative emotion and it’s a really great thing. I realized it’s not very much fun to feel fear, but you are alive, every single person on this call is alive because you have a little microcomputer in your brain called the amygdala to process fear. Part of the limbic system, it was evolved more than a million years ago, and it has really one single task, which is to make you involuntarily jump out of the way in front of a speeding car before you actually consciously realize it’s coming for you. It’s amazing. The amygdala, which is about the size of the end of your index finger, it processes threats to your safety at about 74 milliseconds, which is much faster than the part of your brain that processes conscious thought. That part of the brain is called the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is what makes you realize that the oncoming car was coming. The fact that when you realize that you’re already sweating and your heart is pounding is because your amygdala is faster. Uncertainty is something that is perceived as a threat.
Okay? Now let’s get back to the coronavirus epidemic. It is a huge source of uncertainty. You watch the president of United States, or the governor of your State, or anybody Dr. Anthony Fauci, public health officials, whatever country you’re in and they’re saying, “We don’t know. We don’t know what’s going to happen.” Your brain doesn’t like that.
Why? Because uncertainty means there could be a catastrophic outcome and that is perceived as a threat, and it stimulates your amygdala. Your amygdala sends a signal to your hypothalamus, to your pituitary glands onto your adrenal glands and gives you a constant little drip of adrenaline and cortisol. It’s no fun. You don’t like it. You want to fight against it. So what do you do?
Uncertainty is a problem, you want to turn it into something you can deal with and that’s called risk. Now, again, you look in the dictionary, uncertainty will be defined as risk. That’s not right. Uncertainty has uncertain outcomes and probabilities, risk has known possible outcomes and therefore has probabilities that we can assign to those outcomes. Risk doesn’t necessarily bring fear at all. As a matter of fact, there are whole industries that will take risks effectively out of our lives. They’re called the insurance industry. Risk does not attenuate your happiness. Uncertainty makes you unhappy because of the effect it has on stimulating constantly your amygdala. So what do we try to do? We want to turn uncertainty into risk by getting more information. And that’s what we’re doing.
The mistakes that we make in dealing with constant uncertainty because of the discomfort it brings, number one is avoidance. We simply try not to think about these things. The problem with that, it becomes chronic. It becomes vague. It becomes a phantasm; it starts to haunt us.
There’s an interesting thing I remember from when my kids were little. My kids are pretty grown up at this point. My middle son, he’s 20. Now, this kid can really deal with uncertainty and risk pretty well. He’s a U.S. Marine, he’s in the infantry, active duty. But when he was a little kid, I remember he was six years old, he came home from school and something was different about his behavior. He became suddenly overnight a fussy eater. He would only eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or something ridiculous. This is not how we raised our kids and we didn’t like it. I was telling a colleague of mine, he said, “Well, did he just get something new at school like a new teacher or something?” And I said, “Well, actually he did. How did you know?” He said, “Because when they lose control of certainty in one area of their life, they displace it to get more certainty and control in other areas of their lives.” And sure enough, there’s a whole body of research on this.
There’s a body of research that shows that when people are dealing with a lot of uncertainty, that they’re more exposed to problems of eating disorders. People are more likely to become anorexic or bulimic when they have too much uncertainty in their lives and they’re sensitive to that uncertainty. Their amygdala is going crazy. So that’s the first thing that people do is they avoid it, and as such, they displace it to other areas of their life. That’s a mistake, never avoid uncertainty.
The second big problem is trying to neutralize uncertainty by trying to turn it into risk, especially when the facts are not attainable to turn uncertainty into risk, not available. Now, that’s important right now and that’s what leads to what I talked about earlier on the call, which is if you’re spending hours and hours a day looking for information, that’s what you are unwittingly trying to do is to turn the uncomfortable uncertainty into comfortable risk, all day watching news, it won’t work. But that’s what you’re doing.
Okay. Now, again, that’s an explanation. I haven’t gotten to the solutions yet, but I promise I’m coming to explanations or to solutions in a minute.
Third problem, loneliness and isolation. People will say, despite the fact that they have contact with the people they’re sheltering in place, they’re lonely still. And that’s because they don’t see people they are accustomed to seeing or not seeing as many people as they’re accustomed to seeing and it’s really uncomfortable. Some people will say, it’s almost physically painful. Why is that? There’s a simple explanation for that, which is a neurotransmitter in the brain that functions as a hormone and it’s called oxytocin. Oxytocin is a miraculous substance produced by the human brain in response to contact, most specifically with eye contact and touch. It’s what bonds us together as people. It’s a very beautiful thing.
There’s a lot of stories about how this has changed people’s lives. For example, there’s a well-documented case in which the Nixon administration in the early 1970s was deeply worried about the rampant heroin addiction among active duty U.S. troops in Vietnam. When they came back, it turned out that 95% of the heroin addicted troops stopped using heroin spontaneously on their first day home.
Why? Because it turns out that opiates, they mimic the effects of oxytocin in the brain, and when they were re-established with their bonds of love, with their family, with their wives, with their children, with their parents, with their friends, they didn’t need the fake oxytocin that actually comes from opiates. Funny, they would ask them, “What does heroin feel like?” And they would say over and over again, “It feels like pure love. It turns out that real love is better.” Oxytocin explodes in your brain when you first lay eyes on your newborn child for the first time, when you see an old friend, when you see anybody that you love. Right now, we have an oxytocin deficit. Most people do, and it’s bothering us, it’s lowering our quality of life.
Now, there’s a common error that we make. Now, remember, I’ve started in each one of these cases with the errors that we make. In the case of disappointment, we treat it like regret and we ruminate, it’s an error. In the case of uncertainty, we treat it like risk and we binge on news. That’s an error. In the case of the oxytocin deficit, the biggest mistakes that people are making today is that they’re spending too much time on social media.
Social media is basically social junk food. One of the most interesting breakthroughs that nutritionists have made in recent years is actually finding out that the ratio of calories to nutrients is one of the key reasons that people tend to overeat and they tend to get too high a body mass. How does it work? Well, your body will remain hungry until it gets its nutrient needs. And when you eat food that’s really high in calories, but not high enough in nutrients, you’ll get hungry again very quickly.
The single best way to lose weight is simple, eat nutrient dense food. Unfortunately, hamburgers, and French fries, and milkshakes, candy, and cake, cookies, these are not nutrient dense food. They’re calorie heavy food. And so that’s one of the problems that we have with nutrition in the United States and many other countries around the world. Now, I’m not here to talk to you about nutrition. I’m here to talk to you about loneliness, and it turns out that social media is the burgers and fries of social life. Why? Because it gives you lots, and lots, and lots of exposure without enough oxytocin. You don’t meet your oxytocin needs by using social media.
Now, remember, oxytocin is stimulated in the human brain with eye contact and touch, neither of which you get through social media. Plus most social media is you broadcasting to large numbers of people, also bad.
However, that hunger leads us to binge on social media. I talk to people all the time who are spending five, six, seven hours a day on social media. They’re trying to get their fix. What’s happening is they’re getting the opposite. They’re getting lonelier. There’s a colleague of mine at San Diego State University who studies social media use, and she finds that less than an hour a day, you actually get less lonely because you’re making contact with your real life friends. It’s a compliment to your friendships. More than an hour a day of social media, it’s a substitute for your actual friendships. That makes you lonelier. Social media is a mistake during the coronavirus epidemic.
Okay. Now, you know the problems, you know the science, and you know the errors that we make. What are the solutions? Simpler than you think, I dare say. Let’s start with disappointment. Knowledge is power. The reason I got into the happiness game is because I wanted more of it. And one of the most amazing things about being a behavioral social scientist is that the more you understand about this field, the more you change your own life. My life is so much better since I started just learning the facts, looking at the data, and disappointment is no exception to this. The action steps when you’re feeling disappointment and spending time ruminating on the things that you’re missing are threefold. You start by acknowledging, I’m disappointed, I’m not feeling regret right now, It’s different. Why? Because step two is to recognize, I’ve done nothing wrong and I can’t change the situation.
So, the third is to choose to resolve that I choose to accept the current circumstances and move forward. Now, that affirmative process, that simple affirmative process is enough to change your thinking. And in point of fact, to change your attitude, acknowledge, this is disappointment, not regret. Recognize I’ve done nothing wrong and can’t change it. Resolve to accept the current circumstances and to move forward. Try it. You’ll be amazed at how well it works.
Second, uncertainty. This is the same process with slightly different words. The action steps are basically to understand and acknowledge, I’m experiencing fear from uncertainty. Second is to recognize, I can’t convert this uncertainty into risk by binging on information. It can’t be done so resolve, I won’t do that today.
Now, here’s a very practical resolution, limit your news consumption to 30 minutes a day or less. I know it’s going to be hard, you’re going to get the shakes at the beginning. You’re not going to be sorry because you will not learn anything new after the first half hour per day. Here’s the better resolution. I was talking to a doctor who specializes in treating cancer patients, and this doctor said that one of the biggest problems that he has with his cancer patients is that they’ll binge on information, trying to figure out information that can’t be gotten.
In other words, they’re very uncertainty about their future, but they’re trying to get enough information by looking at journal articles and Googling the word prognosis so they can turn it into risk. He says, “You can’t do it.” So here’s what he tells them to say every morning, a little meditation, saying, “I don’t know what’s going to happen this week, or next week, or next month, and as sure as heck don’t know what’s going to happen six months from now, but I can tell you one thing I do know for honest, for sure, and that is I’m alive and well today. I will not waste this day. I will not squander the gifts that is this day.” And so my friends, this is a resolution that I’m making quite frankly, every day I wake up and I say, “I don’t know what’s going to happen today with the coronavirus, or tomorrow, or next week, but I will not waste the gift of this day.” And it’s changing my life.
Okay? Finally, oxytocin. We need some action steps. I know we can turn this into something more useful, something more productive. To begin with, you need to limit your social media consumption. This follows directly on what I talked about before. My colleague, Jean Twenge says 60 minutes a day, I say 30. Limit your social media consumption across all platforms to 30 minutes per day.
Now I’m not a Luddite. I’m not saying no technologies, get on the visual technologies that we’re all using more, Zoom, FaceTime, Skype. You get the idea. Why? Because those technologies allow you to connect with people and make eye contact. No touch, but you can make eye contact and that goes a long way. It’s astonishing, when you start actually setting aside, and this is what I recommend therapeutically, one to two hours a day of non-work-related visual contact with other people through these technologies. Make a list of the people you’re going to contact. You’re going to start within a day or two contacting and spending time looking into the eyes of people you haven’t talked to in years. Call somebody who’s lonely today, by the way, because that person needs oxytocin and you have the ability to give that person the gift of oxytocin.
Second, more touch. When touch is allowed, we’re mostly co located with touchable people. They’re quarantining with us after all, but we’re living like we always have with the same level of physical contact and touch, which isn’t enough. Look, if you’re not having enough contact with others, you have to make disproportionately high contact with the people in your quarantine zone.
So, here’s one of the interesting things, findings from the literature. I have a guy that I’ve interviewed on my podcast his name is Paul Zak, who’s a professor of psychology and economics at Claremont Graduate University in California. He’s measured blood oxytocin levels for years, and what he finds is that blood oxytocin peaks when you hug somebody for 22 seconds. That’s a long hug.
I have a 17-year-old daughter who still lives at home is like, “There’s no way I’m getting a 22 second hug, get away from me.” But there are people around, and my wife and I have actually taken to doing a 22 second hug, every two hours therapeutically. You need that. You need more hugging than you think. You got to set it up, make it into a routine. You’ll love it actually.
And finally, eye contact. We live like ships passing in the night. Somebody asks you something at home, you don’t look up from your phone, you don’t look up from your book. You need eye contact, make more eye contact. In your odd forays out of the supermarket, make eye contact with fellow shoppers and the cashier. You won’t be sorry. Now don’t stare. You’ll look like a weirdo if you do that, but you get my point.
By the way, there’s a wonderful study that even shows that you get oxytocin if you make eye contact with your dog, and your dog gets oxytocin too. It’s interesting, canines and humans, they evolved in parallel. And this guy I talked about a second ago, Paul Zak, he’s actually measured blood oxytocin levels in dogs and shows that when you make eye contact and touch your dog, your dog has a 56% increase in blood oxytocin, which is like the level you get when you stare into the eyes of the person with whom you are madly, romantically in love. Your dog just loves you so much. Give your dog that gift. He also, by the way, measured blood oxytocin level increases in cats, they get a 12% increase. Your cat tolerates you, your dog loves you. Bottom line, there’s tons of ways to get this, but you have to be serious about doing it. Oxytocin matters.
Okay, now you have information here, but I’d like to ask you to think about these things, to adopt these things over the next three days. To start with the algorithm of regret and disappointment, to think through the three steps of uncertainty and risk, and to increase your levels of oxytocin, and to write down your results. And then I’d like to ask you to share these things.
leadership responsibility, you wouldn’t be in this community. Find a way to share this. For those of you who are actually running companies, find a way to actually share this with large groups of people. You can improve people’s lives. And here’s the best part my friends; remember, I started talking about entrepreneurship? Here’s what entrepreneurs know, there’s no challenge that isn’t an opportunity. And we’re talking here not about the startup businesses as entrepreneurs, we’re talking about startup lives here. What can we do for personal growth during the coronavirus lockdown? It’s not good enough to say, “I got to get through this.” No, no. You should be saying, I should be saying, we should all be saying, “What can we do? So we come out of this better than we went in?” And imagine if we do. Imagine if we understand disappointment more clearly. Imagine if we were able to apprehend uncertainty without trying unproductively to turn it into risk. And imagine if we come out, make an eye contact, hugging each other with abandon, showing our love more. That’s a better life.
So that’s my proposition to all of you, my friends, and an example of the work we’re doing here, not just foreign policy, and economics, and politics, and public health. We’re also doing the work of happiness and wellbeing. And I dare say that that’s something that we could all use a little bit more of. Let’s do it together.
And with that, I turn my time back over so we can do a little bit of discussion and Q&A.
Q: It is now becoming clear that the COVID-19 virus may be a part of our lives for many years. How do we still endeavor to meet new challenges, seek new opportunities and explore outside our own comfort zones and still be hopeful and courageous?”
Thank you for that. It’s always a challenge anytime something is systematically irritating you or systematically actually bringing you down, but it’s interesting. I’ve been thinking an awful lot about the importance of these particular challenges. I’ve talked about some of them today, but let me expand on that just a little bit more. One of the things that we know is that... I think that we all know on this call is one of the great mistakes that we have a tendency to make, the opposite of what was going on in the ‘60s. I remember I was just a little kid as a lot of you were on the call when Woodstock happened. The only thing that literally I remember about Woodstock was there was a guy on TV saying, the motto of Woodstock was, “if it feels good, do it.” Now, we all grew up and we realized that that’s not a good life philosophy for success and happiness in life. There’s a lot that goes on in life that would preclude that, but I think that we’re kind of living these days, companies and campuses, I think we’re leading an opposite philosophy, which is, if it feels bad, make it stop.
Now, that’s not a good way to live either, and the reason is because as we all know, as every single one of us knows on this call, negative experiences are very important for growth. So one of the things I’m asking people in the coronavirus epidemic is not just what’s bothering you, but what are you learning about yourself? What kind of personal growth are you getting?
For people who run companies, one of the things I’m saying is, be very practical. What efficiencies are you uncovering that you’re going to continue after the epidemic? Look, this is how entrepreneurs think. Look, I don’t like it, but something good’s going to come from this, I’m going to learn. And when things get back to relative normal, things are going to be better. Same thing is true for us in our personal lives. What attachments are you actually uncovering?
People are finding all the time that they miss these things the most that were just unseen attachments in their lives. Are those healthy attachments? Are those things that you really should be reconsidering? What are you doing to actually grow spiritually as a person? It’s funny, if I were to tell anybody on this call, 12 months from now, there’s going to be eight weeks of involuntary lockdown.
Let’s just be honest. I bet a bunch of people on this call, not everybody, but a bunch of people in this call would say, “Wow, I’m actually looking forward to that because I’m going to make plans to use it. What would you do? You’d have a stack of books. You’d be thinking about your prayer life or your meditation practice. You’d think about bolstering relationships in new and creative ways. Well, ask yourself, are you using your time right now to do that?
So these are different ways that we can think about it in terms of personal growth, in terms of opportunities, in terms of efficiencies and areas of improvement in our lives that we can actually get to make note of these things and make plans to actually use them when the coronavirus epidemic has... Maybe it won’t have gone away entirely, but it won’t be doing what it is currently. I think that we can actually be leading better lives because of what we learn now.
Q: I was so happy to hear you talk about neuroscience and amygdala. I’m just curious if you could just share some thoughts on what you think about some of the new practices that are coming into the field that some people used to maybe call wowee, but they’re starting to do research on them. Practices like EFT tapping, self-compassion with Kristin Neff, loving kindness and meditation, the HeartMath Institute, deep breathing, yoga, those kinds of things.
Thank you, I appreciate that very much. I’m really interested in new ways of trying to actually understand the heart, brain, mind connection in people. And the reason is because there’s a lot of new knowledge, there’s a lot of new research that suggests that there’s more there than it ever been considered to meet the eye. It has a good deal to do with the fact that we have didn’t understand much of this connection before. There’s a tendency to assume that we really understand the brain better than we do. It’s still a little bit of a black box. And so we can continually be surprised. The key area where we know that there’s all kinds of advances that we have made recently, we will be able to make in the future, and that are worthy of our own exploration as individuals is in the areas of mindfulness, and actually what happens from meditation, and what can happen to us in our personal lives, in our outlook on life.
And there’s a big reason for this. It’s interesting that one of my friends, his name is Martin Seligman. He’s probably the world’s leading expert in positive psychology. He’s done work with fMRI machines in which he’ll ask his subject to think about nothing. It’s a weird thing to do. You get put in an fMRI machine and all you have to do is think about nothing. Well, you can’t do it unless you’re a Buddhist master. Maybe the Dalai Lama can do it, but most of us can’t. And so the result of that is that he looks at the part of the brain that’s illuminated when we think we’re doing nothing, and the answer is we’re thinking about the future, and that can be exhausting.
He finds that mindfulness training is really useful. In other words, simply being present in the current moment for enjoying our lives and actually being less exhausted, less tired. The whole idea of finding a level of fatigue in your life, and that can be lifted. Now, again, this isn’t some sort of black magic. This is just understanding how the mind and the brain interact with each other in a much better way. So my own opinion about this as a social scientist is, is one of total openness. It’s changed my life. I have teachers that I visit with and study with every year when I travel in India. I have a seven year long collaboration with the Dalai Lama.
Now, I’m not a Tibetan Buddhist, I’m a Roman Catholic, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have an awful lot to learn and an awful lot to experiment with. Remember, entrepreneurs are experimenters. If you’re an entrepreneur in the startup of your life, you should experiment on your own life. And this is a good way to start.
Q: I have a son in college working remotely. He and his friends are not happy at all, especially as the college has said it may not bring people back to campus in the fall. You’ve offered some great ideas for individuals. I’m curious if you were advising the Academic Deans at the college, what would you say, what ideas do you have for how colleges and universities in a remote learning environment can promote student engagement and happiness?
Thank you. I feel for you because I have a son in college, actually, a son who just finished college and it was frustrating and it’s a tricky time for sure. And in point of fact, I actually have been working with a lot of administrators, not just here at Harvard, but at other universities who... Everybody wants more advice on how they can enhance the wellbeing of the people that they lead, which is great. It’s a great moment to be in the leadership and happiness business, quite frankly. By business, I don’t mean compensated because that’s actually one thing that everybody’s suffering from is... But that doesn’t matter. We are creating value and that’s a beautiful thing.
So, what am I telling them? More to the point. To begin with, I am talking to them about helping to attenuate the uncertainty. One of the things that people are really suffering with is just not knowing. We did the best we could in the spring. It’s a Harvard Business School. I teach in the Kennedy School in the fall and the Business School in the spring, and in the spring, we were all teaching remotely by Zoom and everybody had a good attitude about it. There were very few people like, “Yeah, I want my money back.” We understand that everybody’s trying to get by as best they can, but tempers are going to fray here. And we’re just not going to be very patient unless we start to get more uncertainty about what the future may hold.
So, one of the things that I’m recommending is that administrators start trying to turn uncertainty into risk for the people they lead. This is by the way, a core competency of leaders. Leaders always have more information about the future than the people that they lead. It’s just by nature of the positionality of leadership. And one of the things that will drive people crazy and lower morale in any organization, including the university is too much uncertainty. And so always working to turn the uncertainty into the risk and the way that we do it is a very simple technique that I learned when I was working at the RAND Corporation at the very beginning of my career. I was working as an analyst for Project AIR FORCE at the RAND Corporation. I was working for Pentagon officials on war-fighting situations, tremendously uncertain.
My job was running large scale computer simulations using mathematical modeling to find out what risk there was as opposed to a completely uncertain palette. And so what I would wind up doing is I would go to the Pentagon, I would talk to an action officer in the Air Force. I would say, “Sir.” They would say, “What about X country in X year?” Totally uncertain as far as they were concerned. I would say, “According to the best models and analysis, there’s a best case, a worst case, and a most likely case. The best case is fill in the blanks. The worst case is bad and it’s this, and the most likely case is this. And here are the probabilities, according to my models of those three situations.” And it was tremendously helpful for these action officers in the U.S. Air Force. The same thing is true for any constituents that we have.
I’m recommending that administration officials at universities, they say to students and their families, “Look, we don’t know what’s going to happen because it’s a tremendously uncertain public health environment, but based on all the information at our disposal, here’s the best case scenario, here’s the worst case scenario, here’s the most likely scenario, and here are the odds as best I can see them right now. And when these odds and the information changes, you’re going to be the first one to know.”
Based on that, I think that most universities are saying that the best case is that we come back normal and that’s five or 10%. The worst case is more like 40%, which means that the fall semester is going to be conducted like the spring semester. Next spring will be much, much better. And the most likely case about 50% is one where we have a hybrid where some of the students will be back on campus, some won’t.
We’ll have social distancing, so the lectures will be partly in person and partly on Zoom, and students will be able to meet with their professors in person. And then it will slowly get better such that by January or so, we’ll be back to a much more normal status quo. That turns out to be more helpful for students and helping them to understand that because they will be progressively getting more into a more normal learning environment that we’ve seen in the past.
It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than what we’re currently seeing.
Q: I have two questions, and so if you have time to address those or whichever you think is most appropriate for the context of the call. What I’ve noticed, I’m in a global community of other women, some for the Kennedy School, and at the beginning of the Corona... The beginning of everyone realizing the severity of it, there was this incredible sense of mobilization, and the doing good, and the effecting public policy, and mobilizing as a community towards ventures. And then what I’ve noticed is over the weeks that this has becoming the new reality and the new uncertainty is kind of Corona lethargy because I think partly trying to sustain that sense of mobilization. And the other piece is just, you mentioned data at the beginning of your presentation and with the tremendous amount of fake news and uncertainty even in the data that scientists who are in themselves dealing with so much uncertainty, that’s a pretty difficult thing to mind. So, I just wondered if you had thoughts about those two issues.
Yeah, sure. No, absolutely. To begin with, the coronavirus fatigue is a real thing, but believe it or not, it’s an actual neuroscientific phenomenon. It’s called homeostasis. What happens is in any crisis or for that matter, any thrilling and wonderful event, we’re stimulated in our primary emotions. I talked about fear, fear is a primary emotion. The other primary negative emotions are anger, disgust, and sadness.
The primary positive emotions are joy, love and interest, believe it or not is a primary positive emotion. Now, the good thing about that is that they stimulate us to act with tremendous amounts of positive emotion or negative emotion as is appropriate, but you can’t keep them up. You can’t keep those primary emotions going because of a process called homeostasis, which once again is very important.
If you were able to keep up a level of fear, or anger, or discussed, or joy, or interest in something forever, you’d be distracted from the serious business of moving on from one thing to another. Now, external circumstances don’t change very fast, but primary emotions do. So it’s not necessarily a measure of our bad character that we have this coronavirus fatigue, it’s a natural process of homeostasis. We’ve settled in, we’ve hunkered down.
You notice that the level of fear is not nearly as high as it used to be most likely, by the way, this is how we’re going to manage this crisis. There will be better therapeutic treatments for the coronavirus. We will find out almost certainly as time moves on that it’s very contagious, but not as dangerous as we thought it was particularly for groups of people that are not in the highest risk circumstances.
And the result of that is that we will find better ways through social distancing and masking even before there is a vaccine for us to go about our lives, albeit in a slightly altered way that doesn’t dramatically keep us isolated from one another. We’re not going to be sheltering in place for the long haul, probably for not that much longer.
And what is what’s happening there? We’ve gotten better at dealing with the risk, but we’ve also, we’ve become less fearful of the risk. And that happens all the time. If we were driving cars happily along our way and suddenly we all found out how dangerous it is driving cars, I can imagine that we’d all stopped driving cars entirely for a little, until we were able to manage that risk a little bit better.
So that’s what’s going on, and what we’re responsible to do as leaders, and certainly I feel this way, is to keep a little bit of energy up about this. To remind people that, look, you’re not as afraid as you were and you’re a little bit tired of this whole thing, but there really are a lot of people in need, and that includes ordinary people. I’m not just talking about people who are getting sick or people who are losing their jobs, there’s ordinary people who their lifestyle is being disrupted by this.
That’s one of the reasons that I continue to write and talk about this. It will become less popular necessarily, but I will try to keep the energy up on that, and I think leaders can do that. That’s one of the things that we do. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that that’s not a normal process that we’re actually seeing along the way.
Now, the second problem that you correctly point out is this problem of who’s got the data? The answer is, nobody. It’s not just because of a malign intent. The truth is that when you have something like the coronavirus that’s not very well understood, people in their desperate attempt to turn uncertainty into risks are grasping at data even when it’s poor quality. So, we heard early on that 10% of coronavirus patients were going to get sick and die. And of course, that’s stimulated, the amygdalas were on high alert all over the world from that. Well, that’s not the case, just because we didn’t know what percentage of the population is relatively asymptomatic, and we still don’t. We certainly have a fake news problem, but it’s much bigger than the fake news problem. It’s a bad data problem and that’s going to be the case for a pretty long time.
That’s one of the reasons that a solution to the uncertainty problem is not to give me the best perfect possible data right now, it is actually to ration the amount of exposure that we have to the best information possible, which is not very good under the circumstances. So we all need to take with a measure of reality, what information is actually there and the accuracy of that information, and then try to protect ourselves accordingly.
Q: Professor, thank you very much. Hopefully a lot of us has already been practicing what your solutions have been and if not, will begin to. And I understand now why my dog is staring at me. I didn’t think much about it [crosstalk 00:49:20], but now I will. I have a question about guilt. I’m so happy to be home with my husband. We’re working remotely together. We work in the medical field. We live in a beautiful place. What about feeling guilt because we feel so happy compared to what the suffering is in the rest of the world?
That’s a really interesting question and I appreciate that. And to begin with, I’m really glad you’re happy and you deserve to be happy. There’s nothing wrong with being happy, but it can provoke guilt when you actually see people that are suffering a lot. It makes it feel like you’re somehow profiting from the misfortune of others, but recognize that that in and of itself is a mistake in the cognitive process, not unlike when we mistake our disappointment for regret or uncertainty for risk.
When we basically think that because I’m happy and somebody else’s sad, there must be a causal connection between the two. The truth of the matter is that what you’re doing is that you’re finding a bunch of things that maybe you should’ve done all along and that I should have done a lot too. My wife, Ester and I, we’ve been married for almost 30 years. The biggest problem in our relationship is that I work all the time.
I was a CEO until last summer and I was working 80 hours a week. I’m just super into my work. I travel a lot for my work, I give out about 175 speeches a year. I travel all the time. I love it. I’m just so interested in doing it, but there’s a cost, and one of the costs is I don’t get to spend enough time with my family. And I got to tell you, I don’t like missing all my speeches, and I don’t like not seeing the open road, but I really like seeing my wife for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. It’s really great.
And what this is doing, Nancy for me and you and a bunch of other people is it’s showing us the part life that we were missing. And what that’s doing of course is that’s exposing some unhealthy attachments in our lives. What’s the unhealthy attachment? To my professional fame and success by getting out on the road and speaking to thousands of people and shaking hands. It’s almost as if I was more attached to the admiration of strangers than I was to the satisfaction that comes from the person who loves me the most in the world. What a crazy attachment. Look, I’m a happiness expert, it’s completely crazy that I’d be making that mistake and yet I am, and a lot of us were. The happiness that you’re feeling is because you’ve been forcibly detached from certain attachments that were holding you back from your bliss.
Okay, fine. The world is going to get back to the way that it was. Let’s concentrate on alleviating the suffering of our brothers and sisters. That’s a real privilege that we have, but let’s also make a resolution, to not have the happiness that you’re feeling right now taken away. There’s no reason that it should and there’s nothing wrong with having it. And let’s all of us on this call right now resolve to learn about the attachments that we had that are being stripped away, that were holding us back from our own bliss and not going back to our status quo to the extent that we possibly can avoid it.
Thanks for that beautiful and honest question.
Q: I chair a government department, a UK government department. We’ve been working entirely remotely for several months next month and while we’re moving in . . . and I think the oxytocin’s are draining out. Getting media calls . . . many, many of them. I would like some . . . from you on how . . . better because some of our employees are really becoming . . . . And our big call centers . . . get back together in our . . . for a very long time.
Thanks. I didn’t get a lot of that because it was breaking up. I think the cell signal wasn’t super good, so before you leave the call, let me make sure I understood that you’ve got a lot of people who are working remotely and you’re finding, I think that you said that you’re finding drops in levels of morale and people getting frustrated. What is the best mode of actually interacting with each other to keep morale up vis-a-vis loneliness down in oxytocin levels high. Is that a fair description of your question?
Well, I think we lost contact. But I’m assuming that that’s more or less along the lines that we’re talking about.
It’s funny, I see in the news every day more and more people who are complaining about Zoom. Imagine if you were an executive at Zoom. It’s a pretty good little platform for doing conference calls and conference calls where you can see each other. It was three or four months ago that we were like, “Argh, a Zoom call. I hate those things.” And now we’re like, “Thank God for this thing.” Because the inadequate substitute becomes the status quo and it’s much better. It’s much better than most other technologies that we’ve got right now. And so I recommend any technology for the interaction between employees where you have as much eye contact as possible. That’s number one. But here’s the second point; group calls are not as good as one-on-one interaction. And so what I recommend is that even in a work environment, again, I prescribe one to two hours a day of eyeball to eyeball technology used in a private familiar setting with your friends basically because that’s where you can get the most oxytocin.
Second most in the confines of work or in the environment of work, I recommend that we have as many of the one-to-one calls as we can get, as opposed to one-to-many or many-to-many calls. It’s just more anonymous and it doesn’t give you as much oxytocin, but talking to another human and you can actually see their eyes, that’s what actually winds up being really satisfying.
So I recommend the people, the bosses who are supervising large workforces, they find excuses to get people to talk to each other using Zoom, or Skype, or FaceTime, and make sure that there’s plenty of one-to-one activity as well. That’s key. And then quite frankly, any more, there’s nothing embarrassing when you’re the boss of a lot of people to be talking about wellbeing.
Back in the day, you’d never say, “Here’s how you could be happier.” You look like a lunatic if you said that in 1971. Well, in 2020, you’re just basically being a smart boss, is actually imparting some of the things that we’ve talked about on this call. Are you making enough eye contact with the people in your environment? Make sure that touch is maximized.
And actually just say, it like, “Look, I just was on a conference call with my alma mater and we were talking about the science of oxytocin and I want to tell you two or three things that I learned that you might actually find useful.” I would impart the things that you learned along these lines as well.
Q: I’m a member of the HKS alumni board. We’ve recently had the opportunity to reach out to alumni and provide alumni insights on revisions for the MPP core curriculum and personal resiliency training was one of the recommendations that we forwarded to Dean Elmendorf. So I’m curious, in addition to individual classes like yours that some students will get to take, do you have any thoughts on how to integrate resiliency tools and practices into classes and curriculum more broadly at HKS and other universities so all students can graduate with those capabilities and be better equipped as future leaders?
Thanks. I appreciate that a lot and thanks for your really kind words. I do think about this quite a lot because one of the things that I saw as a chief executive, and again, some of you are running really huge companies, I was running a think tank in D.C. and I had 300 employees, which is enough to make your life miserable if things aren’t going well.
One of the things that I noticed among young employees in particular, those were right out of college is that number one, they’re better trained than we were. Number two they’re incredibly adroit at lots of skills that we didn’t have. But number three, they’re less resilient. They’re less emotionally resilient than people are. One of the things it became almost a joke is that young people, those who were in their 20s, you can’t criticize them without having a grief counselor present.
Of course, it’s not that bad, but you have to ask yourself what’s going into that. And I think that there is increasingly a culture, like I talked about earlier on in this call, that’s the opposite of if it feels good, do it. There is a little bit of a tendency to think that bad feelings are bad. Now, look, anybody who’s over 40 knows that bad feelings are uncomfortable, bad feelings are unpleasant, but bad feelings are not bad. On the contrary, they keep you alive, they help you to grow, they make you more creative. They infuse meaning and purpose in many parts of life. And to that extent, we actually need the discomfort that comes along with tough experiences, with challenges, even with anxiety, as long as it doesn’t get to a clinical level.
So, I think that we have a responsibility with young people today to try to bring them back to the levels of resiliency that we took for granted in our own lives. And so I’ve been thinking about that in the curriculum of the Kennedy School and at the Business School and other schools as well.
I think that in any management curriculum, and I teach in the MBA program and in the MPP program, so two terminal master’s degrees that are management, and they both have management in their title. I think that the number one skill of management is self-management. People ask me that all the time. I was an academic before I became a CEO and I had literally never had one employee, I had never raised $1. It was a very foolish decision on the point of the board of the American Enterprises to hire me quite frankly. Thank God it went well. But the people will ask, “So what did you learn?” So the number one thing I learned was how to lead myself. Number one thing I learned is how to manage myself. And so I think that bringing self-management into the curriculum is very, very practical thing to do.
That’s a secret of what I do when I teach leadership and happiness, that’s basically how to manage yourself such that you can manage other people and to be quite frank about the fact that bad feelings are part of an ordinary full life, to be quite open about that such that we’re not offended all the time, that we can listen to each other, that we can hear things that are difficult. This is another big problem on campuses, of course, is we don’t have a healthy and robust competition of ideas where people are... There’s a tendency at a lot of universities too, if you’re offended by speech to demand less speech, to de-platform speakers, to get bad ideas out of the classroom. That’s a huge mistake because that’s actually not a leadership skill, shutting people down. It should be actually how we can understand other people and persuade other people, and that requires a level of emotional resiliency to hear things with which you disagree or strongly disagree, even ideas that you find really, really objectionable.
So this is a combination of overt self-management techniques, number one, and number two, creating an environment that’s more challenging than it currently is to students, which I think is very important, not just at Harvard, but at universities all over the United States such that we can serve young people better to come out, and to go forward, and be successful in their lives as adults.
Thank you for that, and for that matter, thanks to all of you. What a joy, what a pleasure, what a privilege it is to be at the Harvard Kennedy School to be with all of you. And one more quick thanks to people on this call, you are supporting us financially with your ideas, with your time, and your talent, and your treasure. And we just can’t do our work if it’s not for that, so a real thank you on behalf of the staff, and faculty, and students at the Kennedy School for your generous support. It really means the world to us.
Yes. Thank you very much. And thank you to everyone who called in to listen, ask questions, and special thanks to Arthur Brooks for joining us today.
Thank you very much, and everyone, have a great day