A Happier Election (with Axios Today)The Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos
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- 6 Nov 2020
Elections can make us feel anxious, angry and mistrustful - emotions that are all detrimental to our happiness. Dr Laurie Santos talks to Niala Boodhoo from the news podcast Axios Today about the simple steps we can take to increase our wellbeing during stressful and uncertain times.
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Sign up and learn more at Curiosity Stream Dotcom. Hey, happiness, landlessness, this is Dr. Laura Santo's. If you're like me, you might have found the last week to be a bit more stressful than usual, especially if you live in the US and care about politics. This polarized election has left many of us feeling uncertain, frustrated and even anxious. But whenever I'm feeling bad, I recognize there are strategies from science that I can use in order to feel better.
And that's why I'm excited to share a recent interview I did. As part of Axios today's election coverage, I got a chance to chat with Niala Boodhoo about how we can use science to maintain our wellbeing even during these anxious times. So check out our episode here. And if you like what you hear, you should subscribe to Axios today wherever you get your podcasts. It's a great way to get all the news you need in just 10 minutes and without all the doom scrolling.
So this is such a crazy time, I'm really looking forward to just sitting down with you and talking about all of this. And I just want to start by asking, how are you doing? Like, how have you handled this week? I've been OK. I mean, it has really been a week that I have to practice what I preach. Right. You know, I'm literally looking at the lists I give to my students of, like, OK, meditating.
Oh, yeah. Exercise. Right, right. And I've been really trying to get all those good habits in.
I was listening to back to some of your older episodes, and I happened upon the New Year episode where you talked about our fresh start and our ability to feel like it's a fresh start because of the date.
Do you think that's what's happening now? Yeah, I think so. I think a lot of people are had in their mind, you know, pre-election and post-election. Right. What we would know when the new president got chosen. Right. And so I really think that's one of the things that's frustrating right now, is you and I are talking we still don't know the answer to who is going to be our new president. And I think that's one of the things that's making folks really uncertain is that we thought, you know, we'd wake up November 4th and, you know, fresh star, everything's new.
You know, we, like, know what's going on. But in practice, that hasn't really happened. And so I think we're kind of delaying this fresh start, which we really wanted. And so that can feel really frustrating.
I think the interesting thing is this, as a journalist, I was saying on the Axios Today podcast, we were having conversations in the Access NEWSROOM. This is probably not going to be determined on election night. And I will admit to you, I was saying that and kind of didn't totally believe it myself. And you're nodding like, did you look convincing yourself, like, you know, I'm going to go to bed and I'm not going to know the answer?
Right. You know, and I think that's one of the things we forget. Like our minds hate uncertainty, right? Even if you give people two really good options, but they don't know which really good option they're going to get our brains, like, activate in ways as though we're feeling afraid of something. Right. We're literally activating fear regions of our brain, even for two good things. It's just we're uncertain. And I think this is a case where, you know, most of our country thinks that, you know, one of the options is going to be really good and one of the options is going to be really bad.
And that activates our uncertainty and our fear and really extreme ways. And so just the not knowing, even if the outcome might be good, is is really frazzling and can really negatively affect our mental health. But I wonder if you could just speak to what happens to our brains, what happens to us when we are in this fear state, when we are in this extreme uncertainty, which to be honest, I think even when this is announced, we're still going to be in a period of uncertainty.
Yeah, I mean, I think there's no real question about what the transition of power will look like in this case. And I think this is a special election in lots of ways. Right. Like never have we had a U.S. election like this during a global pandemic. Right. You know, never probably have we been this polarized as as a country. Right. But it's worth noting that most elections make people really afraid and anxious. If you look at the 2016 last presidential election, about 50 percent of people reported feeling very afraid and very anxious.
And that was like bipartisan. Right? People on both sides were reporting that. And so I think that's something to realize is like elections in general are fear provoking. This one is especially fear provoking because there's lots of scary stuff out there and that has a hugely negative effect on our bodies. Right. You know, our bodies have fear evolutionarily so we can get away from predators. Right. You know, if there's a tiger about to jump out, our body is ready to kind of fight back or flee, both of which we do with kind of fear.
Right. And that system, which which is called the sympathetic nervous system in our body, it's not meant to be running long term. It's meant to like a tiger is going to pop out. You run away or you fight. Fifteen minutes later. It's all good, right? It wasn't built for the 24/7 news cycle. You know, it wasn't built for months and months of a pandemic. And that means that a lot of us have been running this fight or flight system much to the detriment of our physical bodies for a really long time.
And so I wonder if you can give us a couple of tips. What's on your list? What have you been doing this week to kind of dial that back? Right. And I think there are obvious things right. Well, this is why I say listen to Axios today, because you can listen for ten minutes and you don't have to have sort of a constant news cycle. But what else what are other practical, important things we should be doing to take care of ourselves right now?
Yeah, well, one really obvious hack is just to shut off that sympathetic nervous system, which it is. I mean, the best way to do it is to shut off the threat, right? We can't do that in the case of the election. We can't do that in the case of covid. But there's a way you can cause your body to shut off that system. And that's through your breath that sometimes when people are really upset, someone might tell you, take a deep breath.
I think that's something a lot of people have heard over the election cycle in the last week, which can sound annoying. But actually people who are saying they're are tapping into something important because the act of taking a really deep breath activates your vagus nerve, which convinces your body there's no tiger, you're not running away right now. You must kick in the opposite system in our sympathetic nervous system, which is the rest and digest system. You know, the thing we need to sleep, the thing we need for our immune function, our digestion, we can turn that on simply by taking a few deep breaths.
And so that's something I've had to like rationally remind myself through the week. You know, if I find myself, you know, accidentally on Twitter and seeing things that are really scary, it's like, wait a minute, stop that for a second and take a few. Deep breaths and then take a moment to notice how you feel, and I bet you'll feel better and you do because you've biologically changed whether your body thinks there's a threat right now.
So that one for me has been really powerful. A second thing is just remembering what you have control over. You know, this kind of election can feel like everything's out of control. You know, I'm from Connecticut. It's not even a state that really is participating very much in the recounts and all these things like it can feel like I don't have a say. And what you do have a say in is how you react to things. And that can be really powerful.
Right. You can control whether or not your doom scrolling all the time and you're constantly on Twitter, you know, you can control whether you take a moment to breathe. Like these are all things that are under your control and simply just remembering that there's stuff that you have agency and can be incredibly powerful right now. Another thing that happens, you are really stressed, is that we sometimes forget that we have things that make us feel better. Right.
When times feel really tough, we almost avoid those things. It feels like, you know, how should I get in a great yoga class when I don't know who the next president is? Like, no, like go to the things that make you feel good and embrace those. Now it is OK. In fact, you're going to be thinking better about the sorts of things that are happening if you can be in a joyful state. I mean, there's evidence that people think more creatively.
They problem solve better if they're experiencing some positivity and some joy. So it's almost your duty. You're like a civic duty to put yourself in a good state. And that requires going back to the basics, you know, things like exercise, you know, call a friend, right. You know, get some sleep. Those basics become even more important in a tough time. The whole idea of this pandemic and this election, it's very interesting that normally when there is a natural disaster, people come together and people help each other.
And maybe maybe we have seen that during the pandemic. But I feel like as a country, this is not like the pandemic should have been a unifying event for this country, which really I don't think has happened. Yeah, and I think that's part of why we're all feeling so kind of fearful and uncertain right now. Right. It's not fun to distrust people on the other side. Right. It's not fun to feel frustrated by the actions of other people.
And I think, you know, as we watch, you know, the covid-19 statistics go up and up and up, it can be easy to be in the blame cycle, right? It can be easy to say, oh, those people aren't doing what they're supposed to do or those people are demanding too much regulation. Right. We can get in this cycle of blaming and that really doesn't feel good. One thing we know from all the work in positive psychology is that human connection is what feels good.
Feeling like you're doing something nice for other people. That's what feels nice. You know, this polarization just feels awful. It feels like, you know, our whole country is this kind of mean family where nobody gets along and everybody's infighting. It's like, oh, what happen? But again, this is a spot where you have some control, not over the whole country, but over your own reactions. Right. You can be empathic to people who you're a little bit frustrated by.
You can try to do some perspective taking on why someone might see something a different way and that might not probably won't change your political views. But I can give you a little bit of patience and compassion for people on the other side. You know, we often think that's impossible, but the research shows that putting in a little bit of effort can allow you to see eye to eye with someone that you have really different beliefs from.
And you talk a lot about empathy. And I want to ask you about empathy, particularly when we think about the role of technology. How can I mean, how can we cultivate that now? How can we use technology to increase our empathy? Yeah, well, one thing to realize is that many of the ways we use technology right now, especially during the election, aren't the kind of things that naturally promote empathy. Right. Like empathy comes from, you know, in real time connection, you know, talking.
You know, you and I are talking over Zoom right now and I'm seeing your your facial expressions, you know, you're watching me smile and things like that. Like that's what builds up a connection that's really hard to do over most of the technology we're using to communicate about the election. Things like Facebook and Twitter don't just allow for that sort of thing. A second thing is that technology often is really short, but shortness isn't the best way to get a deep connection with someone.
You know, sometimes you really have to talk about, like, you know, really rich things, really personal things. And that, you know, sometimes takes time. It takes some intention and some effort. And so I worry a little bit about how much technology is being used in these cases, because I feel like it's a real mechanism that, psychologically speaking, can be driving us apart, not together. So we really have to think about how we can use technology to deepen connections, is what you're saying.
And I think there are lots of ways to do that. Right. You know, I could pick up the phone and call a relative who has political beliefs that are a little bit different than me, you know, rather than just seeing their post on Facebook that I'm like, oh, I hit that. And, you know, like scroll past or delete or something. Like, I could really try to connect. And one of the ways that science shows that that connection is possible is to really do some narrative sharing.
You know, again, people don't change their political beliefs very easily. But some work by researcher Josh Colla here at Yale shows that one way you can get people to to change their minds is to have them share times in their life that they were affected by things. You know, what's a time that you were discriminated against or what's the time that you were kind of frustrate? Sided with the government or frustrated with regulation, right, like as you share these kinds of things, people can connect with you and say, well, you know, that thing that you just shared?
Well, I feel discriminated against in this other case. You know, that's why I vote the way I do. Right. And so the idea is like hearing people's stories, sharing people's stories and realizing that you have common ground on emotional matters that really affect people. Those can be ways that people are not going to change their mind on everything, but can see eye to eye in a way that we typically don't when we're just, you know, writing 140 characters on Twitter.
Well, and maybe also the goal isn't to change people's minds, right? Maybe the goal is just to reconnect with someone that you want to connect with. And I think that's so important. You know, one of the things that happens as we kind of feel disconnected morally from other people or in terms of our beliefs is we can stop seeing them as real humans. You know, we can stop seeing them as people with emotions, people that, you know, our normal instincts not to harm someone.
We don't have those anymore. And and that's the real danger of what could be happening. The progress of what could happen in our country. Right. Is that there's a possibility that we so don't like the other side, that we're willing to harm them. And one of our podcast episodes, I talked to psychologist Mina Chikara. She's a professor at Harvard and she really studies these cases of schadenfreude at cases where, you know, even people within families who have different political beliefs will actually, you know, assault, kill one another, like really be OK with harming one another.
And she's interested in, like, how do you how do you shut off your normal human instinct to be, like, not to be horribly mean to someone? And she finds it, you know, with the wrong political moves. It's actually quite possible. And so the hope is that we need to bring empathy back. We need to bring those kinds of personal connections back so we don't wind up down that awful path. One of the other things you've talked about in your podcast is the concept of temporal distancing.
I wonder if you can explain that and if that's a really important thing is we think about the uncertainty around not just the election, but the pandemic. Yeah, I think, you know, so temporal distancing is just a strategy to sort of remove yourself a little bit from the urgency of the situation. Right. You know, if it feels like I need to know the answer to this election tonight, that is really anxiety provoking. It feels like I need the answer right now.
It feels like it matters to me so much right now. But if I were to think, you know, what is like next year, Laury going to think about this stuff, you know, what is 20, 22? Are you going to think about the pandemic, this election and so on? Then I get some psychological distance, right. Nothing feels so urgent and my goals shift. I don't want to just, like, know the information or be right.
I want everything to work out right. Like, I want broader, more meta goals in that case, you know, and same thing with the pandemic. You know, if I think about how I want to be talking to my grandkids about the pandemic, I don't want to say, you know, I dooms God every night and just like, you know, couldn't function and everything I get off Twitter. Could I get off Twitter? You know, I want to say, like, I helped write, like, you know, I try I tried to do something good, like, you know, I found joy with my family.
You want your future story to kind of be noble and that psychological distancing you can get just by reframing things, you know? So think about how you're going to think about this election in April of twenty twenty one, like you're going to feel totally different and it's going to feel a lot calmer. And the great thing about being a human with a mind that can just simulate the future is we can just do that whenever. Right. You can plop yourself into future you whenever you need to.
And you know, that's a strategy I've really been using a little bit. You know, how is this going to feel a month from now? It's just not going to be as urgent as I think or another strategy is to to take away the focus from the election. Sometimes if you really care about politics, you might be like in April. I'm just going to care as much as I do right now. But then remind yourself, hey, what else is going to be gone in April?
Like, oh, you know, it's going to be spring. You know, we, you know, clear in the house. I can be doing X, Y and Z. You can kind of take the focus out of this thing that feels really big and really central right now. It might not feel that way all the time. And in the future, how important do you think our languages and all we frame this? You know, and I always think about this obviously as a journalist, I think about the language in which I'm framing something that's something we kind of obsess over.
But I also wonder how much that affects, you know, how much our language affects how we're framing the situation. Yeah, there's lots of evidence to suggest that language has a lot of power. And one of the spots where it has a lot of power is actually to divide us. Right. You know, if I refer to, you know, someone as a Red Sox fan or a Yankees fan, that's different than a person who happens to like the Yankees.
Right. Like in one case, I'd really categorize people like we're two separate groups. And in another it's like, oh, it just happens to be a thing about you. I mean, that's just one example. But the point is that the words that we use really have power and they have power to marshal parts of our brain that are really old school, those emotional parts of our brain. You know, like if you talk about someone stealing the election or doing something unfair, like these terms activate things in our brain that are going to be really emotional and not in our everyday language is kind of an interesting thing to think about just in our everyday conversations, how we're categorizing and framing people.
Yeah, and I think one thing to notice is that, you know, more so than in any other election, you know. We on social media can almost be like journalists, right, like we are broadcasting information, and so I think that that means that we need to be very careful about what we're putting out there, both in terms of the language we use, but also in terms of the content we use. You know, we all think that the other side is sharing fake news and how dare they?
But the evidence suggests that fake news is a bipartisan thing. You know, Democrats are just as likely to share a fake news as Republicans, you know, and vice versa. And so I think we need to be really careful recognizing that we have a role in what we're putting out into the world. And we could make that positive. We could make that grateful. We could make that looking on the bright side or we could contribute to the doom that's out there to scroll through.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. I really appreciate it. Thanks so much for having me. If you'd like to hear more of Nilus work, do check out Axios today. She'll bring you a ten minute burst of news every weekday morning. So subscribe to Axios today wherever you get your podcasts. Dapena. Will be back with two bonus holiday episodes in December. Until then, stay safe and stay.