How to Achieve Happiness and Well-Being, with Kennon Sheldon
In this episode, we discuss:
- The definition of happiness, eudaimonia, and hedonism
- Whether happiness can be pursued
- Strategies to increase eudaimonic well-being
- How behaviorism has influenced the world we live in
- How activities are more impactful than circumstances
- The role of mindfulness and meditation on well-being
- Using free will to guide our goals and personal development
Hey, everybody, Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week, I’m really excited to welcome Dr. Kennon Sheldon as my guest.
He is a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri and one of the top experts in the world on happiness and well-being, motivation, and goals. We’re going to be discussing happiness and well-being in this episode, and this is a topic that I am fascinated by. So much of what we do in our lives is in the name of achieving happiness and well-being. But how often do we investigate what happiness is, what we mean by happiness and well-being? And even more important, how [can we] achieve more of [it], especially from an evidence-based perspective? A lot of the popular ideas about happiness and well-being that are floating around in the culture don’t hold up to scientific inquiry, which we’ll talk a little bit about in the show. And I think it’s important for all of us to know this.
In our ADAPT Health Coach Training Program, we talk a lot about how to help others achieve more happiness and well-being. That’s one of the main desirable outcomes of health coaching. So I’m always interested in gaining more insight into this process. And finally, I’ve been really intrigued by the relationship between health and happiness for many, many years, starting with my personal experience [of] living with complex chronic illness over a long period of time. And I talk about this with Ken in the episode, but I found that there’s actually a bi-directional relationship between health and happiness. We tend to think of it this way that if we’re sick, or we’re in chronic pain, or we have a lot of stress going on in our life, that will decrease our happiness. And the key to gaining more happiness is to eliminate or at least reduce our symptoms or our pain or get rid of the disease we’re suffering from. And there’s certainly some truth to that. But what I learned, in my own experience with chronic illness, and also in treating hundreds of patients with chronic illness and training hundreds of doctors who work with patients with chronic illness, and hundreds of health coaches now is that cultivating activities that lead to more happiness actually also improves our health. And that direction is less known and less typically explored by people who are dealing with chronic illness, pain, and stress. It’s a direction that I’m really interested in and something that I’ve already been talking more about, as you’ve probably noticed, and we’ll be talking more about in the future. Because I think it’s a powerful antidote to dealing with chronic illness, pain, and stress.
So, in this interview with Ken, we’re going to talk more about what exactly happiness and well-being are, [and] how we define these terms. How do we know them? And we’re going to answer the question of whether it’s actually even possible to work toward more happiness and well-being, or are they predominantly genetically determined? We’ll explore why striving for happiness for its own sake doesn’t work and may even make you more unhappy. We’ll talk about what Aristotle and the Greeks meant by the term “eudaimonia,” and why eudaimonia is so important to happiness and well-being. We’ll explore the two things that we should strive for that will bring us more happiness. And then, as I mentioned, we will discuss the relationship between health and happiness and whether health makes us happy, being happy makes us healthy, or both. I think the information in this episode should be taught in school to our children and be part of our basic human education later in life. After all, who doesn’t want more happiness and well-being? So I hope you enjoy this conversation with Ken Sheldon as much as I did and that you’re able to put this into practice in your own life.
Chris Kresser: Ken Sheldon, thank you so much for being here. I’ve really been looking forward to this.
Kennon Sheldon: My pleasure. Looking forward to it, as well.
Chris Kresser: I want to start with defining some terms because we use these words like happiness and well-being. They get used in a lot of different ways by a lot of different people. And I think there’s some confusion out there about what happiness really is. Is it just like the subjective feeling of joy? Is it something that’s more persistent? How is it different [from] well-being? How does the concept of eudaimonia come into this? So can we start by just defining some terms that we’re going to be using throughout the show?
Kennon Sheldon: Sure. Yeah, I have some definite opinions on those questions. It’s not just me; I’m in one particular school of thought on these confusions. So [for] the research that I do, I need a criterion variable to try to predict, like, if you pursue a certain set of goals, and do they help you in your pursuit of happiness, the Thomas Jefferson sense. So I’d need just a simple, straightforward criterion.
People in my school say that happiness is just feeling a lot of positive moods and emotions, not so many negative moods and emotions and being generally satisfied with your life. And that’s called subjective well-being. We try to keep conceptual ideas out of that measure, because we want it to be sort of objective, even though it’s subjective. You don’t just get it because it’s got the thing in it that you’re saying predicts happiness. So we want happiness to be just a good feeling, but that doesn’t mean we think that that’s the most important thing. It’s just a convenient side effect of when we manage to behave in eudaimonic ways.
Eudaimonia is a tricky term. It goes back to Aristotle. People debate it in lots of different ways. But to me, it just means trying to grow and connect to be a good person. And so that’s a very broad description that could apply to a lot of different things that we might do. And how do we tell if things are eudaimonic or not? Well, we’ve come to the strategy of it’s eudaimonic if it makes you happier. If it increases your subjective well-being. And the reason we say that is that [for] almost every eudaimonic-type activity that we measure when people do it, it increases their subjective well-being. But again, we don’t think that’s the main thing. It’s just a side effect. But it’s also a very important side effect because if you start doing something eudaimonic, like you’re going to express gratitude, or you’re going to try to be a kinder person, it’s awesome if that behavior can be reinforced by good feelings.
And so we think of it as a coupled system where we evolved to be good. Dacher Keltner [has a] great book Born to Be Good. And we also evolved to get good feelings when we are good, when we are eudaimonic. And so that lets us tell what are the best ways to be?
Chris Kresser: So I was going to ask you about that. Because on this show, we talk a lot about the evolutionary influences on behavior—everything from diet, why we eat what we eat, to why we’re maybe predisposed to being lazy to conserve energy. And so it sounds like you’re saying that the happiness as a side effect of pursuing eudaimonic well-being may be an evolutionary influence or a reward, essentially, that was put there to help us to pursue eudaimonic well-being, is that right?
Kennon Sheldon: That’s what I’m saying. And one specific place to see it is in cooperation. From a game theory perspective, we do better as individuals and societies when we cooperate with each other. That’s kind of eudaimonic. Well, wouldn’t it be great if it felt good to cooperate? And so we think that’s part of why the tendency to cooperate evolved, although there [are] always threats to it and there [are] defectors, and we have to be able to tell who they are, and it gets complicated. But yeah, that is the way we think about it.
Chris Kresser: So let’s dive a little more deeply into eudaimonia, eudaimonic well-being, which, as you just distinguished, it’s distinct from subjective well-being, which is the subjective feeling of happiness. What are some of the key differences between the eudaimonic sense of well-being and the subjective well-being? You said before it’s not just a question of feeling good, which is subjective, but doing well, which is the more eudaimonic definition.
Kennon Sheldon: Yeah. So we think about eudaimonia as involving action. You’re pursuing a goal, you’ve got a strategy, you’re going to be grateful, [and] you’re going to be kind. So it’s intentional activity that can vary in its quality. And how do we know if we’re really pursuing high-quality activities and goals? Again, it’s because they bring the feeling as an outcome of the activity.
So a goal researcher, so I want to say, we’re going around in the world and making decisions about what to do, and that launches us into activity, and then we get feelings as a result that may or may not reinforce that activity.
Chris Kresser: So where does hedonism play into this? Let’s say, would hedonism be like an explicit pursuit of subjective well-being? Just looking for experiences that make you feel subjectively good but aren’t necessarily inherently contributing to anything else? Like there’s no working toward a goal, there’s no pursuing mastery, [and] there’s no contributing to society or some other purpose larger than yourself. It’s just purely seeking pleasurable, enjoyable experiences.
Kennon Sheldon: Yeah. Well, we have to distinguish between hedonism as feeling good and hedonism as a goal or activity where you’re trying to feel good.
Chris Kresser: Right.
Kennon Sheldon: Hedonism is actually pretty strongly related to subjective well-being, which I said is happiness. So some people don’t like that idea because they say, well, is that all it is, is just feeling good? What if you’re just a hedonist? You’re just trying to take drugs and party. And the way we would look at that as hedonic activity, or say materialistic goals and values don’t work very well for bringing us happiness. So [a] hedonistic lifestyle might not work. In fact, the data suggest it tends to backfire. You’re shallow; you’re not really trying to expand yourself. You’re just trying for pleasure. And so you’re probably not even getting it. Whereas if you were doing more eudaimonic-type things, you could get it.
But the irony is that, if you’re trying to get it directly, it doesn’t work. We did a study where we randomly assigned people hedonic goals of “make myself happier this semester,” or eudaimonic goals of “improve my values and my ethics.” And what we found is that the hedonic, the happiness goals didn’t predict actual changes in happiness at all. It just doesn’t work. You can’t go for it directly. You have to do the good stuff that brings it as a side effect. So I would agree that hedonism as a value system is not great, but I would disagree that subjective well-being is a poor criterion variable just because somebody can mistakenly try too hard to get it.
Chris Kresser: Right. Okay. So subjective well-being is a sort of natural consequence or outcome of pursuing eudaimonic well-being of doing good things, I think you’ve said for good reasons.
Kennon Sheldon: Yeah.
What are happiness and well-being? Can they be pursued, or are they predominantly genetically determined? In this episode of RHR, I talk with Kennon Sheldon about how to better understand and cultivate happiness in order to improve our overall health and eudaimonic well-being. #chriskresser
Chris Kresser: So this leads to the next natural question. This is perhaps a leading question based on what we’ve already talked about, which is, can happiness be pursued? I think there’s an idea out there that people are either naturally happy by default, or naturally tend toward being unhappy in the same way that someone is naturally an optimist or naturally a pessimist. So how much truth is there to that? I know there’s some genetic predisposition that plays a role, But what would you say are the varying factors or influences that contribute to eudaimonic well-being and subjective well-being?
Kennon Sheldon: Well, this is a different line of research that I’ve done. A lot of it with Sonja Lyubomirsky, where we asked the question, can happiness be increased, and then the increase maintain[ed]? Or do we always fall back to where we started? So this is the idea of a genetic setpoint. And there’s some truth to that, that people vary in their dispositions. Some people are more bubbly; some people are more gloomy. And that’s always going to be true for us. We each have our own genetic dispositions. But what Sonja and I have tried to show is that it’s not a setpoint that we have; it’s a set range. And we’re able to stay in the top part of our set range with the right kinds of activities.
So [for] somebody who’s naturally kind of gloomy, if they’re living in a good way, a eudaimonic way, they can become content. They’re never going to be ecstatic. But they can be pretty content. Where[as] somebody who’s kind of bubbly already can really have [an] ecstatic life if they’ve managed to live well.
Chris Kresser: It’s interesting; it’s a very similar concept in the neurobiology of weight regulation. There’s the body fat setpoint. And what happens, the theory goes, when people gain weight, it’s a little bit different because in that case, the setpoint increases. And then when they engage in certain behaviors to try to lose weight, the body will compensate in ways that try to go back to the setpoint. And likewise, if they are trying to gain weight, that can also be difficult because the body wants to maintain that setpoint. Can the setpoint itself be changed? Or is it just, there’s a range and you operate within that range based on your behavior?
Kennon Sheldon: Well, again, I think it’s more of a range where there’s a most likely, there’s the center of the range. So you’re likely to head back to that setpoint. But can the setpoint be changed? We don’t really know. There [are] different schools of thought on that. I have a genetic perspective, but I’m not a geneticist. So there may be things I don’t understand about this. It’s not unlikely or implausible that your setpoint could go up. And now you’re used to this new, like, you start living better, and now you’ve become used to that higher level of well-being, and that becomes your setpoint in some fashion. But I don’t think it would be a genetic setpoint. It would be more just staying in the top part of your range, because your life is constructed in a way that keeps you there.
Chris Kresser: This is a question. I don’t know if you have any professional interest or experience in this area. But [are] there any data that you’re aware of on how perhaps psychedelics, for example, might influence the setpoint in either a transitory or semi-permanent or permanent way? I know there’s some very interesting work being done right now on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for [post-traumatic stress disorder] (PTSD) that shows that it may be able to cause lasting changes due to neuroplasticity, that psilocybin has some interesting neuroplastic effects. And I’m just wondering if [you’ve] thought much about this, whether psychedelics could actually play some role in changing the happiness setpoint.
Kennon Sheldon: Yeah. Sonja has been doing very interesting research on that. And she sees MDMA as a potentially strong route to boosted happiness. But there’s not much research on that. There is more research, like you said, on using those kinds of psychedelics to deal with PTSD. The way I would look at that, from my point of view that I’ve been talking about, is that when you have PTSD, something terrible has happened to you that you couldn’t internalize, and it has lodged you below your setpoint. So you’re stuck in this place that’s, you’re not the relatively happy person you were before you went to the war or fought the fires. And so I think the psychedelics may be able to dissolve in a very intense way, or just sweep aside some of that entrenched mental pain that is keeping the person below where they would be if they didn’t have that baggage.
Chris Kresser: So it’s not so much a question of changing the setpoint. It’s perhaps removing obstacles to them living in the higher end of their natural set range from your perspective.
Kennon Sheldon: Yeah. If they could deal with the PTSD, then maybe they’d be back to the average for them, and then maybe they could start to live a new, a way of living that really causes them to thrive and then even gets them up into the high part of their range.
Chris Kresser: Right. So since it does seem that the answer to the question “can happiness be pursued” is yes, to some extent within the range of your happiness setpoint, what are the factors that have the biggest influence on creating both eudaimonic well-being and subjective well-being?
Kennon Sheldon: One way to talk about this is in terms of positive psychology intervention research where you give people some new life practice to try out. And then you see how that affects their subjective well-being or other outcomes, health outcomes maybe. And there’s a lot of them that can work pretty well, especially if they fit with your personality dispositions. If they complement what your strengths are perhaps, or your interests. Some of the good ones are thinking about your best possible self, like imagining a future [in] which everything has turned out well, and that you can start to see how you might get from here to there, and it both bolsters you and maybe inspires you and gives you confidence.
Random acts of kindness is another one that works pretty well that we evolve to want to connect with others. Being kind to others reinforces us and makes us feel good. So there’s a lot of different things that people can try. I focus on goals. And the most important thing from my point of view is pursuing life goals that correctly represent your growth potential. We call these self-concordant goals. And we see that as a route to getting up to the high part of your set range, and perhaps staying there.
Chris Kresser: I love that. I’m a big believer in that myself. And I think this ties in to what you said before, doing good things for good reasons. Can you talk a little bit more about the impact of goals and whether what we know about the quality of those goals, like you said that they’re concordant with your vision and your growth potential. But is there a hierarchy of goals?
For example, if I set a goal that involves service to the world or other people, is that going to have a different effect on my eudaimonic well-being than setting a goal to become a better skier myself? What do we know about that?
Kennon Sheldon: I can talk about that. But I would first say that you don’t set these goals to improve your eudaimonic well-being. Pursuing the goals is your eudaimonic well-being.
Chris Kresser: Right. Good distinction.
Kennon Sheldon: So, in our goal research, we make a distinction between the what and the why of the goal. What are you pursuing and why are you pursuing it? And we find that both of those characteristics have eudaimonic aspects and can affect our well-being. So the why of goals is why am I doing it? Because I really want to, it’s interesting, it’s valuable, or I feel like I have to, or I feel guilty or bad about myself if I didn’t. So good reasons or not so good reasons.
The self-concordance measure is you subtract the bad reasons from the good reasons, and you end up with, to what extent are these goals pursued with real, high-quality reasons, and not low-quality reasons. And that makes a difference for all kinds of things. If you’ve managed to choose self-concordant goals, you try harder, you succeed better, and when you succeed, your success makes you even happier. So it feels good to succeed, but it feels even better to succeed if they were these self-concordant, deeply expressive goals. So that’s the why. And one piece of advice is if you’re about to start some new goals or some new life course or program, ask yourself why. And if the reason isn’t because I can hardly not do it, it’s fascinating, I really think this is cool and important. If that’s not the reason, watch out.
If it’s because oh man, I’ve got to make some more money. Or I’ve got to get my parents off my back and do something they tell me to.
Chris Kresser: Right.
Kennon Sheldon: Those aren’t the right reasons. So then the what of goals is the content, like what is the goal actually pointing to? And we make a distinction between intrinsic, which we can think of as eudaimonic contents, and extrinsic, which we can think of as egocentric or even hedonistic goal contents. And that matters, too.
So the more your goals orient toward intrinsic values of growth and connection and contribution, and they’re not oriented toward your money and looking good and status and popularity, the more well-being you get from those goals. So if you’re going to advise a friend, what goals should they pursue? You should try to get them to think about these intrinsic values. You can read work by Tim Kasser if you want to find out more about those. They should pursue goals with intrinsic, not extrinsic goal targets. And they should, hopefully, pursue them for autonomous instead of controlled reasons. That comes out of self-determination theory, but we don’t have to go into that.
Chris Kresser: Right. That’s really interesting to me, too. But I just want to highlight something here, because there’s a definite parallel in the work that we do in the healthcare field that I’m sure you’re aware of, motivational interviewing. One of the reasons it’s so successful is if I have a patient that has type 2 diabetes and I just assume that I know what their motivation is, or what their why is, I say, “Hey, you should lose weight because it’s good for you and because it’s going to increase your lifespan, or because you just should,” it’s usually not very successful.
Whereas if I or somebody else, a health coach, that’s a big part of our health coach training, teaching people motivational interviewing, they talk to them, they find out what’s most important to them. Maybe they have a grandchild that they want to see grow up, and they want to be able to play with them and feel healthy and vital when they do that. If they can really connect to that why, then the outcome is going to be so much more likely to happen in that situation.
Kennon Sheldon: Yeah, motivational interviewing (MI) is really quite consistent with what self-determination theory says about how to motivate others. It basically says, don’t try to control them. Support their autonomy to make their own choices, to think things through in their own way. So motivational interviewing is doing that. It’s supporting the autonomy of the client; it’s not telling them what to do. And the goal of MI is to have the goal come out of the client’s mouth without you having put it there, right?
Chris Kresser: Right.
Kennon Sheldon: In that case, it’s really expressing them, and they can really connect their sense of self to it, and they’re more likely to follow through with it.
Chris Kresser: Absolutely. And this is like the big aha moment that so many people who come into our coaching program have, is before that, they often think coaching is about telling people what to do. Eat this, sleep more, exercise more, whatever. But we know from so much research that that is just bound to fail. Most people are not going to respond well to that type of intervention. And what you’re saying, it’s so cool how this all lines up with eudaimonic research and motivational interviewing, is helping people to discover their own motivation for change is a much more powerful approach.
Kennon Sheldon: That’s right.
Chris Kresser: You touched on self-determination theory, and I’d love to visit that briefly. What did that add or what did that challenge initially? I think it was Ryan and Deci that primarily introduced that. And what was this prevailing theory about happiness prior to that? What contribution did that self-determination theory make? And how does that line up with what we’ve been talking about so far?
Kennon Sheldon: Well, those are some big questions.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, I know, and probably controversial and lots of different opinions. But maybe do your best to summarize just from your perspective, and your work and where you’re sitting.
Kennon Sheldon: Well, [Deci’s] dissertation research back in 1969 was pushing back against behaviorism, pushing back against drive theory. These are all mechanistic explanations of motivation and behavior. And from those perspectives, for example, if somebody gives you money for doing behavior X, you should be positively reinforced and want to do more of that behavior.
Chris Kresser: Right.
Kennon Sheldon: And Deci’s research created two situations. One, hey, play with these cool puzzles; see if you like them. Situation two, hey, I’ll give you a dollar for every puzzle you solve correctly. So the participants in these two conditions fool around for a few minutes, and then the researcher leaves and says, “Hey, I need to make some copies; do whatever you want.” And then the researcher watches them during the five minutes. That’s the free choice period. And the finding was that people didn’t want to play with the puzzles anymore if they had been doing them for money.
So what would have happened was their intrinsic motivation to do the puzzles had been undermined by the money. In fact, the way you would say that in behaviorism, it had been punished by the money.
Chris Kresser: Right.
Kennon Sheldon: So if I smile at you and you frown, and I stop smiling, then your frown punished me and I’m not smiling anymore.
Chris Kresser: Right.
Kennon Sheldon: He found that money punished the enjoyment of the behavior and made it go away. So this is really important in showing that our experience matters. You can’t just reduce things to conditioning or brain processes or molecules or anything else. Instead, it matters how it feels to be us in the world. And our intrinsic motivation is hugely important. But it’s also fragile. If people start trying to control us and push us around and coerce us, we could say, “I’m not doing that.”
Chris Kresser: I want to interject here because I think a lot of people aren’t aware of the extent to which behaviorism and this Skinner approach has influenced the world that we live in. So just a couple of examples. In the workplace, the idea that we need to incentivize high performance, like rewarding salespeople with higher commission the more that they perform, came out of this behaviorist approach. And even I would argue, compulsory schooling and the way that traditional education is set up to reward certain behaviors extrinsically with grades. And you should do this because you’re supposed to, and you’re supposed to follow this curriculum is really deeply ingrained in our culture, and often not even questioned or challenged. It’s only been recently, through some, Adam Grant and other people in the business community who’ve been saying, and I think the research, Deci and others did in this field that directly contradicts that. That shows that if you extrinsically reward certain behaviors in the workplace, either they’re not going to increase, or if they do increase, it can often have toxic side effects, creating a bad culture to live in.
And if you force a kid, for example, to learn to read at a time where they’re not yet ready to read, because that’s what the curriculum says should be happening, those kids can sometimes have a lifelong aversion to reading later on. So this is really important stuff that affects our life on a daily basis.
Kennon Sheldon: Yeah, and I go more with the toxic side effect. Really, there’s nothing wrong with extrinsic incentives, performance standards. We need the goals and targets, and it’s nice to have more money. From the self-determination theory perspective, what matters is that they be presented and administered in an autonomy-supportive way so that people can identify with the meaning of what they’re doing, and not just think, “Oh, I’m doing it for the money.” And that’s a little tricky. That’s a much more psychological thing to try to do.
Chris Kresser: So how would that work? How would that work in a workplace environment as a way of fleshing this out? Compare just purely monetary reward or commission versus what you’re suggesting, where autonomy is emphasized. How would that look different?
Kennon Sheldon: Well, it might involve establishing a sort of company atmosphere where it’s not everybody for themselves trying to make as much money as they can. We’re all working for the team. We’re working for a company, actually, and we believe in the company’s goals, the company’s marketing of product[s] that’s doing good in the world. So you want to try to make it seem meaningful and help with people’s relatedness need, we call it, of connecting with others in the work environment, not competing with them. So there’s nothing wrong with incentives. It’s more how they’re administered that can be the problem.
Chris Kresser: So I won’t hold you to this as [an] official professional opinion. Here’s how we do it in our company. We have incentives [that are] tied to the overall performance of the company. So if the performance of the company improves, everybody participates in that and is rewarded by that. Rather than saying, “Okay, you as an individual, if you meet this individual goal, you get this individual reward.” Would you say that’s more consistent with this approach? Or is there still also room for individual rewards as long as that connection is explicitly made between the work the individual is doing and the greater good, so to speak, both within the company and then the outside world, the work the company’s doing?
Kennon Sheldon: Yeah. I might come down on the side of doing both, but you have to be really careful because one can undermine the other. It’s much more difficult. The disadvantage of having it be purely a company-based reward is from a game theory perspective, you might be doing a lot to help the company, but there [are] other people who are corrupt or they’re screwing off. The free rider problems, social loafing, and you might end up feeling pretty pissed off about your situation if you’re … So it’s cooperation versus defection in the game theory perspective.
Chris Kresser: Right, yeah. So I’m a big fan of models; I think you might be, as well. You’ve created several of them in your professional work. Back in 2005, you proposed the sustainable happiness model. And this had three overlapping influences that all contribute to happiness.
One was genetic predisposition, which we’ve talked a little bit about. The other two were life circumstances and intentional activities. And I know you’re thinking it’s changed since then. So can you tell us a little bit just, I think models really help people to broadly understand something and then put the potential things they could do into categories and just conceptually remember those things a little bit more easily.
Kennon Sheldon: Yeah, that was a very influential model. And we’ve backed away from it a little bit because of what we’ve learned about how genetics interact with environmental factors and a lot of complexities. What we stand by now is the idea that activities are more impactful than circumstances. And by circumstances, we mean static factors, like where you live, how much money you make, [and] your gender. They’re just facts. And surprising findings of early happiness research was that these facts didn’t make much of a difference, not as much as you would think. Income only correlates to about 0.15 with well-being. Just not a big correlation.
Chris Kresser: No.
Kennon Sheldon: And so what we say is well, the thing about facts is you can adapt to them very easily. Hedonic adaptation. You get used to them; they’re not doing anything for you, [and] you don’t think about them. The advantage of an activity, which it’s a broad category, and a goal is just one example, pursuing a goal, is that you’re doing something that involves intentional. And so you can get into that eudaimonic category if you make good choices where you’re doing activities that bring you satisfaction and well-being.
In that original model, we didn’t distinguish the quality of the activity. We just said activities are better than circumstances. Now, I would add to that and say eudaimonic activities are better than hedonistic or self-centered activities.
Chris Kresser: Right. So I know from reading some of your work, and what you just said, of course, that activity is more important than circumstance. And the reason for that is our circumstances just tend to become the new normal. There’s no longer any activity that’s related to that circumstance. But if that’s true, does it follow that if I do create some kind of ongoing activity or relationship with that circumstance, can I extract or gain more well-being from that circumstance?
Kennon Sheldon: Yeah. And this is one of the reasons we’ve backed away from the activity circumstance distinction is that it’s very hard to separate them cleanly. And so you’re a circumstance of having, you make a pretty good income. That’s not a circumstance if you’re using that money to do a lot of satisfying things.
Chris Kresser: Right.
Kennon Sheldon: A lot less satisfying activities. The same thing with marriage. In one sense, it’s a status, a demographic status. But in another sense, it’s a context for you to do a lot of cool stuff. My wife and I would travel around; we like to hang out and just talk about stuff. So I use my marriage as a source of satisfying activity. And that’s the main thing to keep in mind.
Chris Kresser: Would even just gratitude play that role? Or does it have to be more of an activity like, I’m going on a trip, I’m using the income I make to create this new life experience, which leads to more well-being? Could even the act of just appreciating or being grateful for a circumstance in your life, like, “wow, I walk outside of my house, I’m so grateful to be living in this place that I live because it nourishes me in all these different ways,” does that have an impact?
Kennon Sheldon: Yes. Another tricky thing between experience and activity, I guess I would say that when you walk in your house and say that to yourself, it’s because you’ve adopted some intention to live life in a joyous way and that makes you more likely to do the activity of noticing, “Wow, [it’s] a beautiful morning. I’m going to sit and express to myself how good it makes me feel.” So I’m going to turn that into an activity. But it is true that mental events can have positive effects like mindfulness meditation. You’re not doing a thing, except noticing what comes across your view screen. But even there, you sat yourself down and said, “I’m not doing anything but watching.”
Chris Kresser: I’m a longtime meditator. One of the greatest gifts my father gave me was taking me to meditation class when I was 17, so coming up on almost 30 years. And I could talk a lot about that, but I want to talk about it from the perspective of happiness and well-being. What does the research say about the impact or role of mindfulness meditation or other types of meditation on well-being?
Kennon Sheldon: First of all, it is a positive psychology intervention that works. That tends to boost people’s well-being on average, but not for everybody, especially if it’s something you really take to, it’s meaningful for you. How does it work? Well, it could be that it gets you to notice and savor and appreciate things that you would take for granted. But the other side of it, and this is the Kabat-Zinn perspective, PTSD, [is] that it gets you to notice these negative thoughts and feelings that may be hanging you up and let them flow through you and thereby release them. So mindfulness meditation may work as a weaker version of psychedelic therapy.
Chris Kresser: So it’s allowing you to return more to your natural setpoint by disidentifying with the constant stream of thoughts or a habitual stream of thought loop. Or a habitual loop of (crosstalk).
Kennon Sheldon: That keeps showing up and taking charge and dragging you down.
Chris Kresser: Right. [It] helps you to actually see that those things are just transitory. It’s sensations or firing of neurons in the brain that they’re not necessarily you, or they don’t mean anything about you.
Chris Kresser: I want to step back a little bit since we’re on this broader topic. And there’s been a lot of discussion. Sam Harris talks a lot about this, and physicists will talk about this idea of free will. We’re talking about this big question of can we pursue happiness, which implies that we have the free will to be able to do that. Whereas, many physicists and prominent thinkers today are arguing that we live in a deterministic universe where free will is an illusion. I know that you’ve thought about this. It was mentioned in your bio, and we were chatting before the show about a book that you’re writing that might be somewhat related. So what are your thoughts on this? Another huge topic. We could talk for hours. But yeah, just maybe some highlights of how you’re thinking about this right now?
Kennon Sheldon: I’ll just give you the thumbnail sketch of what I’m saying in my book, which should come out in 2022 with Basic Books. The idea is that free will is real. It’s actually inescapable. Somebody has to make choices for our brain, and that somebody is us. The symbolic self, the story, the life story that we live in as the major character within that story. And that’s all I’m saying is that free will involves just three related capacities.
You can think up some alternatives. I could do X, Y, or Z. You can make a choice, Z. I’m going to do Z. And then you can start taking action to pursue Z. And this is the model of free will that philosopher Christian List proposed in his 2019 book called [Why] Free Will Is Real. And I looked at that, and I said, “Whoa,” because I’d been studying that my whole career.
Chris Kresser: Yeah.
Kennon Sheldon: And here’s a philosopher saying this, and the problem in philosophy, as you may know, is that it’s a tremendously complex debate over there, and it’s totally bogged down. And Christian List stepped out of the philosophy and said, “Hey, it’s a psychological question.” And then I said, “Hey, I’ve been studying this my whole career.”
So the idea is, we’re making choices. We don’t know about everything that’s going on in our brain. We don’t cause the alternatives to show up in front of our view screen, but we do ask for them. We say, “What can I do here?” to ourselves. And then our non-conscious mind provides alternatives. And then we say, “Which one do I want?” And then we pick one, and that this is a, we might even be collapsing the quantum wave function with these choices that we make in life. I don’t want to get into that.
Chris Kresser: That’s another fascinating topic that could go on and on. So we’re creating another world in the many worlds hypothesis with a choice. Yeah.
Kennon Sheldon: A being some weird way. But so the upshot of the book is [that] free will is real. We might try to escape it, because we don’t want responsibility. We don’t want to screw up our lives, but it’s real. And the real thing we need to do is accept it and learn to use it more wisely. So that brings us around to self-concordant goal choice. Using our free will in a way that satisfies us and also helps the broader world around us.
Chris Kresser: So on that subject, you’ve said, the what and the why both matter in terms of goal selection. The content of the goal, what are we striving toward, and why is it important to us. But even within that, is there still yet another hierarchy? You said, I’m going to quote you here. I can’t remember the exact paper, but “The best happiness-boosting behaviors tend to be the ones that focus on long-term self-improvement, and on deepening connections with others.”
So does that represent another hierarchy within a hierarchy, so to speak? It seems like the most important thing is having a clear why and choosing goals that are maybe generally doing good. But within that is connection to others and growth, and self-discovery and self-actualization, are those even more powerful in terms of goal setting?
Kennon Sheldon: Well, that was a very interesting question, because it gets into a different major argument I’m making in the book, which is that the symbolic self, the person that we feel ourselves to be who is driving our own minds and making choices, has two basic responsibilities. A, running its body. Deciding where the body goes, taking care of the body. And also the body’s development and growth and an increase in complexity. We can talk about [it] from an information theory perspective. But at the same time, that symbolic self also is responsible for meshing ourselves with other selves out in the social world.
So our own self is like at the waist of an hourglass with the body below and society above. And again, we evolved to want to grow, develop, [and] become the best versions of ourselves. And a big part of that is by helping our social surroundings become their best versions. So really, we’re trying to evolve. Not just in the natural selection sense, but in the personal sense, in the social sense. And so those tend to be the most satisfying things that we can do.
Chris Kresser: I love that. And again, you can’t escape the tie-in with health coaching as just like, that’s really what we say we’re doing in helping people to become the best possible versions of themselves.
And I want to, as the last question, ask you, on that note, a little more about what we know about the relationship between health and happiness. It seems to me, there’s a bi-directional relationship here where having good health contributes in some way to feelings of subjective well-being. Certainly, not sure, it’s not as clear to me how that contributes to eudaimonic well-being. But there’s also a lot of research that suggests that happiness contributes to health, that it works the other way around.
And my listeners know [that] I struggled with a really complex chronic illness for many, many years. And what I discovered in that process was that if I only focused on improving my health, and I define that as eliminating symptoms or disease, I missed out on life. And that it was actually by also focusing on intentionally cultivating happiness that not only increased my happiness, but it actually circled back and improved my health in ways that I wouldn’t have anticipated prior to having that experience. So I’m just curious if you, I don’t know how much you’ve looked into this, if this is your area, but what is that relationship between happiness and what we would typically refer to as health? Physiological health?
Kennon Sheldon: Yeah. So I don’t study health so much. But the way I would tend to think about it is that if you have poor health, that gets in the way of eudaimonic striving.
Chris Kresser: Right.
Kennon Sheldon: It’s kind of like, if your machine is damaged, you can’t drive it as well.
Chris Kresser: If you’re bedridden, the ways that you can pursue happiness are going to be limited.
Kennon Sheldon: Again, I don’t want to say pursue happiness.
Chris Kresser: Yeah. Okay.
Kennon Sheldon: I mean that that’s the way Thomas Jefferson put it. But it doesn’t work, if that’s what you think about it. Yeah, so it helps to not to have at least an okay functioning body. And, of course, again, we’re responsible for trying to make that happen. But if that’s all we care about, like you said, we’re also responsible for having rich things happen out in the social and cultural world.
And the nice thing about that is, even if you’re bedridden, you can become the leader of some organization or cause that brings you many fulfilling experiences. And then that can feed back to affect your health because we know [about] this connection between emotions and immune functioning and physical functioning.
Chris Kresser: Right. So I have to decondition my language myself. It’s interesting how deeply ingrained some of this stuff is. Like pursuing happiness, it’s in the Constitution of our country. So how would you say that? You wouldn’t say cultivating happiness or pursuing happiness, because happiness is the side effect or the byproduct of what it is that we’re doing? The eudaimonic striving. So how would you phrase that? Like, cultivating eudaimonia, which is a term that[’s] right over people’s head[s].
Kennon Sheldon: I would say cultivating growth and connection. There’s a lot of ways to expand those two words. But one of them is a personality process, [and] one is a social process. But they influence each other. And if we can do them both together, we’ll thrive to the maximal extent.
Chris Kresser: Right. So that goes right back to the quote that I read, where we’re cultivating growth and we’re cultivating connection, and that’s what leads to an increase in our happiness and well-being. Perfect. I love that.
So, thank you so much, Ken. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you, and [I] would love to have you back on the show when your book comes out if you’re open to it so we can dive a little bit more deeply into those topics of free will. I’m fascinated by it. I know a lot of the listeners are, as well. And it’s a pretty juicy controversial subject right now, too. So I’d love to (crosstalk).
Kennon Sheldon: Yeah. Well, I’m still going back and forth with my editor on how strongly to argue the free will.
Chris Kresser: Yeah.
Kennon Sheldon: Maybe all I’m saying is, “Oh, it’s possible that there’s free will.” And what would that look like? But I’d be happy to come back and talk about that.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, such important topics. So thanks again. Do you have a website or anywhere people can find out about your work and stay in touch with you?
Kennon Sheldon: If you type my name, Kennon Sheldon, [in a search engine,] you’ll find my Missouri website, which has some information about me.
Chris Kresser: Great. Okay, everybody, thanks for listening. Keep sending your questions in to ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion. We’ll see you next time.
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