The Power of Pleasure and Joy

happy pleasure

Photo illustration by Mark Riechers. Original images by Mi Pham, Glodi Miessi, Zou Meng, Noah Sillman (CC0)

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Original Air Date: 
October 12, 2019

What if the most unselfish thing you could do was to pursue pleasure? To look for delight? To feel joy? We make the case for the transformative power of joy, pleasure and delight.

Ross Gay

In a dark world, poet Ross Gay recommends "stacking delights." Share what you love, he says — not what you hate.


Kathryn Bond Stockton is an English professor and queer theorist and a self-professed lover of kissing. She wrote a whole book just to make out what kissing means in our lives.

people on the horizon

Psychologist Laurie Santos created a college course to teach students how to use what scientific research has discovered about what makes us happy and why. It became the most popular class in the 300 year history of Yale.

sunny protest

Lynne Segal, the British feminist icon, has a theory about happiness: it's both personal and political. She advocates radical happiness — finding joy in collective action.


Social scientists are finding that generating happiness in your life may have less to do with an arbitrary number — like your bank account or how many Instagram followers you have — and more to do with how well you connect with the people around you.


Show Details 📻
October 12, 2019
July 11, 2020
April 17, 2021
December 25, 2021
September 10, 2022
June 17, 2023
Author and English Professor
Psychology Professor and Podcast Host
Author and Feminist Scholar
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:15):

This is To The Best Of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps. When was the last time you felt cheer, uncomplicated, authentic delight? Here's Poet Ross Gay.

Ross Gay (00:37):

I was at this writing residency working on this poem that I felt like I would never finish. And I was walking back from town, sort of walking in a path between two farms and back to this castle where I was... it was actually a castle that we were staying in. The tons of sunflower fields in that region, acres and acres of sunflowers leading toward the sky and the linden trees, they just get hovering with bees and they were singing to me and everything else was just heavenly. All these wild flowers also kind of humming with bees and I thought that, "This is delightful."

Ross Gay (01:28):

I realize, "Oh, I'm kind of theorizing what delight is in some kind of way," which is to say the edges of delight, why do I feel delight or how it occurs or what might be entailed in delight? And I thought, oh, I should write a little essay about how delightful this is and then I thought it'd be more interesting actually, to write an essay every day for a year about something that delighted me. And that was really the way that the book started. And it was clear as a bell that I ought to do it.

Anne Strainchamps (02:18):

I started to get the feeling at a certain point you felt like you were just drowning and delight, which seems wonderful.

Ross Gay (02:24):

Yeah, totally.

Anne Strainchamps (02:36):

Ross Gay is an award-winning poet. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana, and he just came out with, The Book of Delights. Those essays. He wrote them every day, over the course of a year from one birthday to the next. He gave himself a few rules, notice one delightful thing a day and write about it for 30 minutes by hand. So it became a kind of literary and spiritual practice. And the big takeaway for him was that cultivating joy and delight is not just a solitary pleasure, it actually brings people together. So this hour we're making the case for the pursuit of pleasure, for the transformative collective power of joy and delight. So Ross, you want to start us off? What is delighting you today?

Ross Gay (03:29):

Fall feels like it just came today and Bloomington, and there's a smell to that. Or like the way birds are interacting or the way like when you get close to the ground if you're gardening, the way the beetles do their thing or the flowers that you can't see until you see them do their thing or... It's just stacks of delights. The joy is actually the idea that I'm more interested in. The joy is not something that you do by yourself.

Anne Strainchamps (03:58):

You write about it a lot, about how joy is almost a force that brings people together.

Ross Gay (04:05):

That's something over the course of writing the book, as I was sort of thinking about delight and recognize it so often for me, delight is this experience that makes me want to like. If there's a gesture that the book has, the gesture is elbowing my neighbor. "Look at this beautiful thing."

Anne Strainchamps (04:21):

Hey, see that?

Ross Gay (04:22):

Which is right next to saying, elbowing your neighbor and saying, "Look at this thing that I love," which is right next to saying, "Share this thing I love with me." To do that as a practice. What happens if we sort of grow that as a practice? There's a pear tree at the end of the street where we live and they're the best pears from any tree I've ever eaten. And it never has disease. It's just incredibly abundant, beautiful, delicious fruit. And we were going to be making applesauce and pearsauce and so we were harvesting and using a big old apple picker, a pear picker. And shortly because it's a tree and it cast shade and it makes fruit, there are eight or nine people just hanging out under the tree, looking at the fruit, sharing the fruit.

Ross Gay (05:13):

And I thought, "That's it. That's actually the truth. That's the truth." I'm just so interested in the ways that we gather around what we love. I'm so interested in that.

Anne Strainchamps (05:23):

But at the same time, there's another kind of sharing we do a lot these days where we say, "Let me share this thing I hate with you."

Ross Gay (05:32):

It's a lot of that going on. Yeah. I mean, I don't know, like I have an answer to that, but I do feel like you labor to expand the good, you labor to expand the care you labor, to expand what we love.

Anne Strainchamps (05:48):

It's really interesting that you use the word labor too, because I think we have maybe this misperception, that joy and delight are easy. There's this whole focus on happiness. In America, every place you go, people are always saying, "Have a great day."

Ross Gay (06:04):


Anne Strainchamps (06:04):

It seems like you're saying joy and delight are something you actually have to work at.

Ross Gay (06:09):

It's rigorous. More rigorous, I think, than misery. But it also is not like, "Have a good day," and it's not like a happiness journal. To me joy is as much about being able to hold each other's sorrows as it is having a good day.

Anne Strainchamps (06:28):

Joy is connected to grief?

Ross Gay (06:30):

I don't think you have joy without grief. I don't think you have joy without sorrow, without our lives.

Anne Strainchamps (06:35):

Why don't we have joy without grief? Because we tend to think of those as complete opposites.

Ross Gay (06:39):

I know. And I think it's a sort of immature notion of actually a very adult and rigorous emotion. An emotion that understands that you and I are both going to die. At least one part of us of our connection is that because it feels like there's a kind of commercial or kind of American notion of joy, you know? "Yeah, joy, go buy a truck."

Anne Strainchamps (07:11):

And at the same time, the planet is burning, species are dying. There's gun violence and inequality and suffering everywhere. And it kind of feels like, "Well, how can we sit around and talk about how great joy is?"

Ross Gay (07:25):

I don't think one closes off the other, that's the thing. And in some way I feel like studying and attending to what you love and sharing what you love is one of the ways of responding to what is brutal and what is awful.

Anne Strainchamps (07:41):

Hmm. So we've been talking about delight and joy. We have not yet talked about sexual delight, erotic pleasure, the kind of delight that registers on the skin. That must also be part of your catalog of delights?

Ross Gay (07:59):

Yeah, sure. Totally.

Anne Strainchamps (08:00):

So like many, maybe even most women, I feel like learning to take authentic, joyful pleasure in my body has been something I had to find my way to, something I had to claim. And partly I think because as a woman I'm born into a culture that has a very long history of disapproving of women's bodies and women's sexuality. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, "Well, it's not just women."

Ross Gay (08:33):


Anne Strainchamps (08:34):

You're a Black man, at some level this must register for you almost every day in the same way it does for me.

Ross Gay (08:42):

It's funny, I'm thinking of this one little essay in the book called Cocoa Baby, in it. And I'm sort of talking about putting coconut oil on my body and I kind of have this whole process of thinking about it. It's sort of very vulnerable. It's really about taking delight in the very simple and tender pleasure of putting oil on my body, all of my body. And I read that once to a bunch of kids. I didn't realize just like, "It's a good delight. It's a good essay." And I read it and the kids were like... I got to a point where I mentioned parts of my body and they're like, "Nah."

Ross Gay (09:25):

And I was like, "Oh yeah, right. This is a kind of an adult delight, this is not like... But it is sort of like, I think the last line of it, I'm sort of witnessing that I'm sort of hugging myself in the process of putting oil on myself, trying to get it on my back and stuff. When you're doing that, it's easy to see yourself as a child and a child that you really love. This expression of like, "Care for this body that's not long for this earth." A body that I also spend a lot of time policing. And I also am not necessarily kind to.

Anne Strainchamps (10:02):


Ross Gay (10:02):


Anne Strainchamps (10:04):

One of my favorite essays and just this moment that stayed with me. You're on a plane, often you're on a plane.

Ross Gay (10:10):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Anne Strainchamps (10:12):

You're on a plane and a flight attendant hands you a glass of water and touches you.

Ross Gay (10:18):


Anne Strainchamps (10:19):

Would you mind reading it?

Ross Gay (10:19):

I'll read it. Yeah, sure. "Tap, tap. I take it as no small gesture of solidarity and more to the point love or even more to the point tenderness when the brother working as a flight attendant, maybe about 50, the beginning of gray and his fade, his American Airlines vest snug on a sturdily built torso, walking backward in front of the cart. After putting my seltzer on my tray table said, 'There you go, man.' And tap my arm twice, tap, tap. Oh, let me never cease extolling the virtues and my adoration of the warranted familiarity. You see family in that word, don't you family? Expressed by a look or tone of voice or today on this airplane between Indianapolis and Charlotte, those are real places less we forget. A tap, two, tap, tap on the triceps by which it's really a kind of miracle was expressed a social and bodily intimacy on this airplane at this moment in history, our particular bodies making the social contract of mostly not touching each other irrelevant. Or rather writing a brief addendum that acknowledges the official American policy, which is a kind of defacto and terrible touching of some of us. Or trying to always figure it out ways to keep touching us. And this flight attendant, tap, tap, reminding me like that, simply remember tap, tap how else we might be touched, and are, 'There you go, man."

Anne Strainchamps (11:57):

Oh, that's so beautiful.

Ross Gay (12:01):

Thank you.

Anne Strainchamps (12:02):

Is there a practice you could leave us with? For those of us listening who are thinking, "I want to build my joy in muscles?"

Ross Gay (12:15):

I don't know if it's a practice but I would say, let's figure out the way that we could reach out and share what we love. Something like that.

Anne Strainchamps (12:21):

As opposed to reaching out and share what we hate?

Ross Gay (12:23):


Anne Strainchamps (12:25):

Which has put us all in a very bad place.

Ross Gay (12:29):


Anne Strainchamps (12:29):

Yeah. Thank you very, very much.

Ross Gay (12:31):

You're very welcome.

Anne Strainchamps (12:39):

Ross Gay is a poet and he teaches at Indiana University in Bloomington. He won the National Book Critics Circle Award for his catalog of unabashed gratitude. And we were talking about his brand new collection of essays called The Book of Delights. If you could sum up joy pleasure and delight into a single act, it would be a kiss. We do it every day, but ever wonder why?

Kathryn Bond Stockton (13:13):

It's not clear to me why we kiss or why that's even pleasurable, mouth to mouth. In fact, I think sometimes when you're a kid, some kids might think that that doesn't sound too good.

Anne Strainchamps (13:26):

How can the pressing of lips together be so mundane and yet so powerful? We will investigate kissing. Next on To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. We're talking about the power of joy and pleasure in this hour. And I want you to take a second and think back. Do you remember your first kiss? I do. Without going into details, it's public radio. I can tell you that it was in high school, we were in a car and it was pretty awkward. So that's one kind, but then there are first kisses that are life changing.

Kathryn Bond Stockton (14:13):

So I'm with a woman, she's been chasing this gay guy who was very popular at divinity school. I didn't get it. I was sort of immune to his charms and I was just kind of quietly trying to chase her.

Anne Strainchamps (14:27):

This is Kathryn Bond Stockton.

Kathryn Bond Stockton (14:33):

And so when we finally got to know each other things started sort of building and getting tense in interesting ways, but the whole thing comes to a head during a haircut. I don't know, maybe that's classic. It was just having this woman who I was totally knocked out by who I thought was so beautiful, who had a type of cynical sweetness that just drew me so close to my face. She's just giving me a haircut, so who knows what's going on in her mind, but she's getting close to me as one does, when somebody is cutting one's hair. Something getting like near a crocodile face is all I can say.

Kathryn Bond Stockton (15:25):

And we end up kissing. This moment that literally I had been waiting all this tremendous time for. Here it is, 1982 and I'm born in '58. Waited a long time for this moment. And there I am sort of like blinking little hairs for my eyes. Wow. What is this sensation? It really just did feel physically different. It felt like tumbling out a window into this vast expanse of feathers. And I just did feel like I was crossing into a territory that you could not uncross in that time. The sensation of the kissing, this wrecking or this lover and the sign of her body being a woman are all kind of flooding my body. And it was almost like I was being flooded, but also pierced by these liquid feathers. I'm not sure any moment in my life had ever been that ecstatic, but surrounding it is my understanding that I have entered this word, gay. And there won't be a going back.

Anne Strainchamps (17:06):

When you think about it long enough, kissing is such a weird dance we do. Putting your face up against somebody else's and pressing your mouths together. But when we get it right, there's nothing like it. Kathryn Bond Stockton is an English Professor and Queer theorist and a self-professed lover of kissing. She wrote a whole book just to make out what kissing means in our lives. It's called, Making Out. It's about kissing and reading and sex with ideas. So naturally we had to talk with her. Here's Angelo Bautista.

Angelo Bautista (17:45):

So I think you have thought about kissing more than anyone else or more deeply or more often than I knew one else. When did you start to think about kissing and when did this become important to you?

Kathryn Bond Stockton (17:59):

Well, I have to say, I think I've been a fan of kissing for a very long time because I spent such a long time in my life yearning for the kiss I would wish to have. So I think there was quite a buildup in my life waiting for that first kiss, having to do with queer life and things on a very long delay that I think it gave me a lot of time to anticipate that kiss and also think about it in deep seated ways. So I'd say this really goes back to childhood that's when the question of kissing started percolating. And then of course being an academic and working in sexuality studies, one thing I noticed was particularly in queer theory, every type of sexual act gets a lot of love, a lot of attention, a lot of discourse, but I felt like kissing was not being focused on anywhere near to the same extent if at all. So I tried to rush into that void lovingly, imaginatively.

Angelo Bautista (18:59):

I think you're right. I think we do tend to skip that bit of foreplay beforehand and we'd like to rush into it more.

Kathryn Bond Stockton (19:05):


Angelo Bautista (19:05):

You think of kissing in such a different way, kissing as kind of this way of perception, way of looking at the world while also looking inward. Kissing is not just our lips touching.

Kathryn Bond Stockton (19:16):


Angelo Bautista (19:17):

Can you talk more about that?

Kathryn Bond Stockton (19:18):

Absolutely. So one of the things that I wanted to get to is what really counts as a kiss. As I thought more about kissing, I thought it's one of the most routine things you could say that people do because so many different people kiss. So one of the things I wanted to reflect on is just the utter strangeness of it. After we've done it once, why do we want to do it again? And if it's not instrumental... Going back to your word foreplay, if it's not leading on to this sort of climax in the world of sexuality, then what's our commitment to it. And one of the strange things that I loved as I thought about kissing is it's not hetero or homo or trans or cis and children do it too. Sometimes with adults, even asexuals and celibates might participate in kissing.

Kathryn Bond Stockton (20:06):

So it seems like kissing had a very sort of broad appeal and could be exceedingly routine in your day, or it could have a very sort of deep sexual valence. "Why do we do it? What role does it play in our lives? What types of stories accumulate around kissing? Could I tell the story of my life through a series of kisses?"

Angelo Bautista (20:28):

Mm-hmm (affirmative), you're right. It does become so routine. And we love kissing, but I don't think that we really talk about it or think as much about it. What is your thought on that?

Kathryn Bond Stockton (20:41):

Here's the thing with kissing, it matters intensely or not at all. And I began see that the kissing broke down for people in various ways. Some people really just saw kissing as completely instrumental in getting to orgasm. And then there was a whole group of people, I would also put myself in this category who love the idea of just making out. We sort of have that phrase, "We could just make out," but I wanted to really interrogate that just. Like, "Just? No, this could be the whole thing. That kind of delightful spreading sideways in time." And in fact it kind of flipped things on their head to think that in some cases, orgasm might be what we do to get to kiss. And I think sometimes it plays that role in a relationship.

Angelo Bautista (21:30):

Hmm. So where does pleasure fit into kissing?

Kathryn Bond Stockton (21:35):

Well, pleasure of course would seem like right at the heart of the matter, because you might ask yourself why in the world would you kiss if you're not anticipating pleasure? But you can imagine different tonalities surrounding kissing. And I think most people, if they were asked to think of their life through a series of kisses might discover that. And in my case, there's a little section in my book called, the double bully kiss. And one of the bullies that I'm talking about was this boy that I called Devin. I'm in sixth grade, and out of nowhere, this kid is just tackling me and kissing me. And the first time it happens because again, I considered myself quite the boy, even though I had to wear dresses to school on recess, I played all boy games in my little dress and so forth.

Kathryn Bond Stockton (22:24):

And so it was deeply shocking to have this kid kind of out of nowhere, just tackle me. I sort of described as like a linebacker, kissing a running back into the ground. And that it was so strange to actually be hit while being kissed. And on the one hand you could say, "Well, okay, a little tackle, I played tackle football. So what's that?" What was so terrorizing to me was it felt like an outing of my girl captivity. I felt like I was being outed as a girl to the world, which of course, most people would find kind of laughable since I actually was having to identify as a girl. And there I am in girl clothes and being called a girl and being seen as a girl. But it really felt like a revelation to me that this is my future. I'll be crushed by kisses.

Angelo Bautista (23:19):

Yeah. So you've had to kiss your way through understanding your own gender and sexuality.

Kathryn Bond Stockton (23:27):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Angelo Bautista (23:28):

How do straight cis people do that or do they do that? I imagine it must be easier for them.

Kathryn Bond Stockton (23:36):

Yeah, I do imagine that it must be, but not really having lived that life, I don't really know. What was interesting too, talking people just about kissing, I would just sort of say at a dinner, "So what role does kissing play in your life?" To see what people would say and then trying to find out, did people even remember the first kiss? Was it memorable? Did it do anything for them? And for many sort of heterosexual, cis folks, lots of times they could not remember that first kiss. Whereas as I talked to queer folks over and over, I found stories of that first kiss, the first kiss that they preferred to have in life gendered in the way they wanted to be gendered, kissing the body they wanted to be kissing was pretty freighted with emotion and memory and significance as it very much was in my own life.

Angelo Bautista (24:34):

Yeah. For how routine kissing can be in our lives, do you think kissing is a radical act?

Kathryn Bond Stockton (24:43):

I do. Because again, I think what's fascinating about it is it's not clear. I mean, I'm sure an evolutionary scientists maybe could talk about why we have evolved in certain ways, but it's not clear to me why we kiss or why that's even pleasurable, mouth to mouth. In fact, I think sometimes when you're a kid, some kids might think that that doesn't sound too good. I thought the act of kissing, what I thought of as a Hollywood kiss, two faces pressed up very close to each other, that seemed pleasurable. When I first heard about the thing we call French kissing, I had the reaction that maybe many children might have, which is, "What! That just sounds completely gross." So it's not clear to me on the surface of the matter, why kissing is such an interesting part of our physical lives.

Kathryn Bond Stockton (25:40):

And that's part of what gets me into my own meditation on not just as a child wanting the boy word, which I couldn't get and wanting to kiss girl bodies, which I couldn't get, but this sort of love of what I'm going to call boy surface. "What was that about?" It's a great mystery in my life why I wanted that thing. So I think in some ways, surface is one of the deepest things we know. And I think that kind of bends back to this extraordinary intimacy we may feel when we're up against another human face. What is that moment? What does it mean to fathom the face that you are kissing? Becomes another aspect of radical joy, radical act, some sort of subversive power of pleasure in our lives.

Angelo Bautista (26:32):

Absolutely. I imagine after having talked with you and having read your book, I imagine that you like to imagine people kissing.

Kathryn Bond Stockton (26:38):

I do.

Angelo Bautista (26:39):

I feel like it would be awkward to sit across from you on the subway if I knew how much he thought about kissing.

Kathryn Bond Stockton (26:45):

Right? Lewd that I'm kind of looking at people and think like, "I wonder how they kiss. What is kissing you in their life?" Yeah, it's so true.

Anne Strainchamps (26:56):

Kathryn Bond Stockton is a Professor of English at the University of Utah. Her new book is called Making Out and that was Angelo Bautista talking with her.

Anne Strainchamps (27:17):


Anne Strainchamps (27:22):

Coming up next, can we use science to hack into joy and happiness? One out of every four Yale students says, "Yes." Meet the woman behind the most popular course in the university's history, which is now available to you. It is to the best of our knowledge. From Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Psychologist Laurie Santos was teaching at Yale when she started noticing that her students seemed awfully anxious and depressed. And then we all started hearing about rising rates of anxiety and depression among teens and Laurie decided she should do something to help. So she created a college course, Psychology and the Good Life to teach students how to use what scientific research has discovered about what makes us happy and why. Well, it became the most popular class in the 300 plus year history of Yale. And it's now a podcast called, The Happiness Lab, hosted by Laurie Santos herself. Steve Paulson caught up with her.

Steve Paulson (28:23):

So what is it that we don't know about happiness or what is it that we think we know, but we actually are mistaken about? Are there common misperceptions of what makes people happy?

Laurie Santos (28:34):

There are so many common misconceptions. I think that's the biggest thing that I teach my students in this class. We have this idea that our minds lie to us about the kinds of things that make us happy. We often think, "It's money, it's changing my circumstances. It's moving to a beach house. It's buying lots of awesome material, possessions like cars and clothes and so on." My students think it's their grades and their financial prospects when they leave college. All those things contribute to happiness a tiny bit, but not nearly as much as we think. And we often seek out those kinds of things at an opportunity cost of the stuff science shows really does matter for happiness. Things like taking time for social connection, like merely having some time off, healthy practices like exercise and sleep. Those are the things that really impact our wellbeing. And we don't really notice them. And that means we don't really seek them out as much as we should be.

Steve Paulson (29:23):

Let's drill down into some of these. Money, I've heard it both ways. "Money doesn't make you happier," or "Yeah, actually happiness keeps getting a little more noticeable the more money you have." What can we say about the link between money and happiness?

Laurie Santos (29:40):

Well, science shows a funny way that both of those are true. If you're right now living below the poverty line, if you can't put a roof over your head or food on the table, it is true that getting more money is going to increase your wellbeing. That's what all the research suggests. However, for many of us who have our material goods taken care of, more money isn't really going to increase our happiness. One famous study by Danny Kahneman and his colleagues found that in the US right now, if you earn over $75,000, then increasing your salary is not going to improve your wellbeing. It won't reduce your stress, it won't increase your positive emotion. And not just increasing it, even if you quadruple your salary levels, if you're currently earning $75K, it probably won't make a difference.

Steve Paulson (30:21):

So why are we so wrong about money?

Laurie Santos (30:24):

I think that's also a big puzzle. Most of the time when we think about what we can do to be happier, we're focusing on things that are easily measurable. If I have a salary of $50K right now and I make $100K, that feels like it should be a noticeable difference. I can measure that. But if I have some amount of social connection right now, and I increase that, but it's hard to measure. I don't notice it as well. And I think that we just kind of don't go for it. Another problem is that we don't realize how little our circumstances affect us, because we just get used to things. We have this bias that psychologists call, hedonic adaptation, which means all the good things in life and all the bad things we tend to get used to more quickly than we think, but we're kind of blind to that fact. We're blind to how resilient we are.

Steve Paulson (31:09):

This is really fascinating. I mean, as you're talking about circumstances don't actually make that much difference. So in other words, I could get another job, maybe I would think it would be a better job, but that might not actually make me happier. I could be in a different relationship, but maybe that wouldn't make me happier.

Laurie Santos (31:24):

Again, within reason. Right? If you were in a domestic violence situation then a new relationship might help, if your job was tormenting you or you really were in acute like psychological crisis because of the job, yes, new circumstances would be better. But for most of the people listening to this, if you're kind of in a healthy-ish relationship and your job is fine, changing those things is simply not going to impact our happiness and the way we think.

Steve Paulson (31:48):

So we've been using this word happiness to encompass all kinds of different things. And I'm wondering if we need to kind of break that down a little bit. I mean, there's pleasure. There is general wellbeing and there's joy. Are they all kind of the same thing or are there differences here?

Laurie Santos (32:05):

Yeah, I think there are some important differences. So often when social scientists who study happiness use the term happiness, they mean happiness in two ways. One, is that they're thinking about the emotional components of happiness. So they're thinking about positive emotion. So taking time to feel calm or laughing or feeling tranquil, or even feeling joy, it's kind of how it feels like to be you at that time. Does it feel happy? But there's a second component, which is a more kind of cognitive component, is what you think of your life. Do you think your life is going well? So it's your answer to the question, all things considered, "Am I satisfied with my life right now?" If you say, "Yeah, I'm pretty satisfied," that means you're sort of happy in terms of how you think of your life. The psychologist, Sonja Lyubomirsky, who's written many books on happiness is fond of saying, "Happiness is how you feel in your life and how you think your life is going."

Steve Paulson (32:55):

Yeah. Do you think people have more intense experiences of joy when they're part of a group? I don't know whether it's eating a great piece of chocolate or drinking beer, watching a football game, going to a movie or those more intense experiences when you share them?

Laurie Santos (33:13):

Yeah. Well, one of the things that new work in happiness is showing is that happiness gets boosted when you're around other people, bad moods get boosted when you're around other people too. But joy can be magnified if we're around others. And I guess we all know that intuitively, if you're watching a really funny movie by yourself, that's pretty good. But if you're watching a really funny movie with your best friend, and you have looking over and sharing the laughter together, that kind of feels a lot better. There's some cool work by the psychologist, Erica Boothby showing that the mere act of having some enjoyment while you're around someone else, even if you're not talking to someone else, if you're sharing in the same activity, when you're doing a really fun activity or a really joyous activity, it can make you experience more pleasure.

Laurie Santos (33:57):

She does these wonderful studies where she has subjects eating a piece of chocolate while another subject that they don't know that they haven't spoken with is eating a piece of chocolate at the same time. And so you're both engaging in this positive activity together. And what she finds is that in that case, the chocolate that you're eating actually tastes more delicious when you're enjoying it at the same time as another person is enjoying that chocolate too.

Steve Paulson (34:21):


Laurie Santos (34:21):

That's it just, we have these automatic mechanisms to register the positive emotions that other people feel, and it kind of makes our emotions even more intense. They feel even more good.

Steve Paulson (34:32):

So one of my takeaways from this conversation so far is that a lot of our emotional life is kind of viral.

Laurie Santos (34:39):

And I think this is so critical because we often think our emotions are just ours, but that's not true in two important senses. One is that you're going to virally catch the emotions of the other people around you. All of us have had a situation where in our workplace environment say that there's one of the kind of Debbie Downers, the one person in the office who's kind of just not in a great mood. And a lot of us find that when we're around that person, we can kind of catch that, not so good mood. And it's not an illusion we're literally catching other people's emotions, almost like the common cold. But that comes to a different point, which is really even more important, which is that other people are catching our moods too. The psychologist, Sigal Barsade at Wharton has a wonderful term that she calls, "Affective spirals."

Laurie Santos (35:21):

One, Debbie Downer's bad mood will get caught by the rest of the people in the team, and then their bad mood is going to transmit to other people. And so it can set up these spirals in these small collective groups where emotions get bigger and bigger and more intense. The good news is that we can start our own effective spiral. You can do that in your teams at work. You can do that in your families. You can even do that on social media. One wholesome happy posts that you post about your joy can spread to other people too.

Steve Paulson (35:48):

Does everyone have a set point of happiness? They're just sort of naturally going to be roughly this amount of happy? Putting aside the terrible circumstances you're in a abusive relationship, for instance.

Laurie Santos (36:01):

Yeah. There definitely seems to be a heritable component to happiness. And we know this from lots of studies on twins. We know that identical twins have more similar happiness levels than say fraternal twins who are less closely related. So there seems to be a component that's kind of built in, but that said all of us while we can't change our set point, all of us can change our behaviors. And that's really the spot where we see the most movement, scientifically speaking. People who tend to engage in habits that tend to promote happiness, can move their happiness around often a lot more than we expect.

Steve Paulson (36:36):

What are some of those behaviors that you can change?

Laurie Santos (36:37):

Well, one of the most simple ones that we often forget can be so powerful is just the sheer act of social connection. Hanging out with a good friend or a family member that you haven't seen in a long time, or just striking up a conversation with a stranger on the street. Research shows that happy people are different from the not so happy people in part because they just spend more time with other people. So we can kind of bump up our happiness quotient simply by just talking to other people, rather than staring at your phone. The next time you're in a line strike up a conversation with someone. It feels awkward at first, but again, it's another case where it's going to boost up your wellbeing more than you expect.

Steve Paulson (37:12):

And this is true for introverts as well, or naturally shy people?

Laurie Santos (37:17):

That's right. There's some work by folks like the Professor, Nick Epley and his colleagues suggesting that what makes introverts different isn't that they won't get the benefit out of social connection, it's that their prediction is even more wrong than those of extroverts. In other words, introverts, when they predict, "How would I feel if I strike up a conversation with a stranger?" They predict not just, it's going to be meh, they predict it's going to be actively terrible. However, his research suggests that once introverts actually start that conversation, they get as much of a well-being boost as the extroverts get.

Steve Paulson (37:47):

So you have spent a lot of time studying the science of happiness. So I have to ask, are you happier now because of what you've learned?

Laurie Santos (37:56):

Yes. And in fact, I have evidence on this. Because I'm a nerd, right? So I take these standard well-being measures all the time. Since I've started teaching about this, I'm about a whole point to a point and a half happier on most standard 10 point measures. And the reason isn't that I figured out the secret, the reason is now I know what you're supposed to do and I have the social pressure. My students are going to ask me, "Did you talk to someone on the plane when you got off professor Santo?" Is like, "Have you done your gratitude journal? Have you taken time to exercise?"

Laurie Santos (38:25):

I think once you know the work, you realize that happiness is a skill. It comes from putting the effort in. You can improve your happiness levels by a long shot simply your activities. By taking time to be more social, by taking time to be mindful and experience gratitude. Those are the things that move our happiness around. it's not a new car, it's not a new house, it's not a new job. It's just taking simple times to execute these habits. These skills, as it were that really can make us feel better.

Anne Strainchamps (38:59):

Psychologist Laurie Santos, host of the new podcast, The Happiness Lab. And that was Steve Paulson talking with her.

Anne Strainchamps (39:17):


Lynne Segal (39:34):

I arrived in London from Sydney in 1970, a single mother and life was quite difficult.

Anne Strainchamps (39:47):

This is a feminist theorist, Lynne Segal.

Anne Strainchamps (39:50):


Lynne Segal (39:57):

I lived with three mothers and our children. So it was a collective household and this was a time of radical community politics. I saw a pamphlet about it. I seem to be reading about it in the bath and thinking, "The women's liberation movement, that is so exciting." And then I just kept meeting other women.

Speaker 9 (40:23):

I think I should be allowed to do what I want when I want to do it.

Lynne Segal (40:28):

We established community papers, trying to reclaim our local communities to set up nurseries, to set up playgroups. We were busy, full of hope.

Speaker 10 (40:42):

[inaudible 00:40:42] Some sort of progress towards a concerted political movement for women.

Lynne Segal (40:49):

No, I think we have no sense of any cheerful subjectivity, unless we have a sense of belonging. That's significant.

Speaker 11 (41:02):

[inaudible 00:41:02] so many people here, [inaudible 00:41:04].

Anne Strainchamps (41:13):

I think anybody who's ever taken part in any kind of public protest would agree, there can be a lot of joy and collective action. So we've been talking this hour about the power of pursuing daily delight and the psychology of individual happiness, but I keep the mantra of second wave feminism, "The personal is political." So for a political theory of joy, we turned to Lynne Segal, the British feminist activist and academic. She's got a new book out called Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy. And she told Shannon Henry Kleiber, "The science of understanding happiness does not really get happiness."

Lynne Segal (41:56):

I think what the science of happiness gets wrong, which interestingly and oddly, but very much in fitting with our times has been very much produced by economists is that it's seen as some sort of individual attribute. And actually the whole interest in happiness weirdly begins at a time when we're more and more aware how unhappy most people are.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (42:23):

Then can you give me some examples of collective joy? And when you talk about it, I'm picturing choir's, sports teammates cheering each other on, protesters, street fairs. Even just thinking about those things, I do kind of smile a little bit thinking about people getting together and having either a cause together, having fun together. What are some examples that you think of?

Lynne Segal (42:48):

That's right. Well one of your compatriots, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book called, Dancing in the Streets in which she talked about the fact that there used to be many more public festivals. Often it was associated with religion or just after Easter, when everybody was on holidays and would take to the street and there would be dancing and singing, and laughter and often the mocking of authority and so on. And these were outlets for everyone to be able to enjoy themselves. And what we have today is far fewer of those. I mean, Barbara Ehrenreich actually traces out how both the State and the church came together to oppose such public festivities.

Lynne Segal (43:34):

Although we still find them, we still find them in different types of public festivals as distinct from those ones where you have to pay a lot of money to be there enjoying music or places like Glastonbury, where I'm sure people are having fun and enjoying themselves, but that excludes a lot of people who don't have the money to go to them. So I want to see a lot more public festivals. I want to see more open spaces that people can just go into that are not privatized. It's opening up spaces where we can come together.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (44:15):

So we do have all this focus on self care these days, on introspection and meditation, which all of those things sound like a good idea too. So why does collective joy really matter and why is it so important?

Lynne Segal (44:31):

I have nothing against solitudes or people wanting to be alone. We all need to tell stories about ourselves to feel good about ourselves, but there are pressures for us to actually steer us away from that into always the individual working on their own marketable selves. Presenting ourselves in the world where we'll get some high rating. There's endless rating of people, isn't there? Where we always feel that people are looking at us and wondering exactly how good we are as though we're sort of a marketable commodity. So why we need a sense of collectivity is that I think we easily become isolated.

Lynne Segal (45:17):

And for heaven sake, I think millions of people in the States are busy taking antidepressants aren't they?

Shannon Henry Kleiber (45:25):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lynne Segal (45:25):

The States has the highest level of antidepressants actually, even though they also have the highest emphasis on individual happiness. So somehow it's not working just people trying to make themselves happier. I think that we have to see that what does work, what's more likely to work is being able to share both our miseries and our interests and whatever we enjoy doing with other people. Because a lot of the time, I think we do feel where sort of nobody and nobody's taking any notice of us or paying any interest to us. And it's not that we should want to be just somebody ourselves, but we want to feel that at least our lives matter to other people and other people's lives matter to us.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (46:16):

So does collective joy have to do with democracy?

Lynne Segal (46:22):

Well, I think it very much has to do with democracy if it's going to be open to everyone because everybody has to be able to participate in them. And that's where democracy comes in because our problem today is that only certain people feel able to be significant in the world at large, to be able to stop worrying about where the next paycheck's going to come, whether they're going to be thrown out of their houses and so on. So a truly democratic society, as I see it, is a society with much greater equality so that everyone can actually play a role in that democracy. And everyone can't play a role in a democracy that has the absolutely quite obscene levels of inequality that we have.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (47:17):

It's interesting what you're saying about money and happiness, because I think some researchers have said, "Money can give happiness." Some people have said, "Money does not give happiness," but it sounds like you're saying the inequality of the wealth is what causes the unhappiness.

Lynne Segal (47:34):

That's right. I think that it's a very silly argument. This argument about whether money brings happiness, because the people who've been wanting to tell us that money doesn't bring happiness on the whole, those conservative and more reactionary voices who say, "Look, the very rich are not really happy." Well, the very rich may not be really happy, but that's only because what they hope for expands every minute is that they are entitled to more and more. We have to have a certain level of resources, both personal and also public resources to be able to enjoy the world that we're in. So maybe the super rich at times don't feel that they have the public resources that they want to create a joyful world around them. But in general, they can build up their walls and hide away from others. And I suppose try with ever smaller groups of people to get their own sense of collective joy.

Lynne Segal (48:44):

But that's something that to me is just of course, quite anathema because to me, one can't be truly happy unless those around one also have a possibility of sharing in that happiness. Obviously that is a type of ethical code. It's a politics, a sense that we're all in this world together. And to the extent that we don't see that we're creating worlds where both people and the resources of the world are seen as disposable. And it seems to me that when I talk about joy, I talk about moments of joy and moments of collective happiness. Because of course it's never permanent and of course we'll always face defeats both personally and socially, but, but together with others, we can still have the hope that, "Yeah, we can get up again and try against the odds perhaps for something different." It's always having a sense that, "Of course life has to be worth living and of course we have to think of how to make sure that it's worth living for everybody."

Shannon Henry Kleiber (50:00):

And that's hope.

Lynne Segal (50:02):

That's hope.

Anne Strainchamps (50:04):

That's feminist activist and academic Lynne Segal talking with Shannon Henry Kleiber. Her new book is called, Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy. This hour was produced by Angelo Bautista. And after spending an entire week laboring over an hour on joy, Angelo, what are you doing tonight?

Angelo Bautista (50:26):

Well, I'm actually going to go see Lizzo in concert tonight and I'm so excited. I think she's the one artist that totally embodies all of these feel good emotions.

Angelo Bautista (50:46):


Anne Strainchamps (50:54):

Angelo had helped this week from Charles Monroe-Kane, Mark Riechers and Shannon Henry Kleiber. Joe Hardtke is our Technical Director and Sound Designer, Steve Paulson is our Executive Producer and I'm Anne Strainchamps. Thanks for listening. Go do something fun.

Automated (51:07):


Last modified: 
June 15, 2023