How to be happier and have fewer regrets: Stop buying stuff and start doing things

Salon speaks to the psychologist co-author of "Brain Briefs" about the human brain, nostalgia and experience

Published October 18, 2016 10:58PM (EDT)

 (Reuters/Jim Urquhart)
(Reuters/Jim Urquhart)

For three years now, cognitive psychologist Art Markman has been broadcasting a show on the human mind, “Two Guys on Your Head,” with his fellow University of Texas at Austin professor Bob Duke. The show, on KUT, considers a wide range of subjects that nonspecialists wonder about: How can I be happy? Does multitasking really work? Does music like Mozart’s make us smarter? What’s the value of forgiveness?

Markman and Duke have brought some of these conversations together in a new book, “Brain Briefs: Answers to the Most (and Least) Pressing Questions About Your Mind.” Based on the breezy tone of the show, the book considers 40 topics for a few pages at a time.

Salon spoke to Markman who was in Los Angeles, where he was preparing for a television appearance. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

You've got a new book that looks at subjects members of the general public are concerned about regarding the brain. How informed are people these days about psychology? These days, we have magazines about psychology, blogs about psychology; we have popular doctors on television who talk about the brain and psychological matters. There's a lot of good information circulating right now about the way our minds work.

There's an increasing amount of information out there, which I think is fantastic. So 20 years ago I think psychology was a pretty closely guarded secret, and now there's a lot of people who are trying to get information out there. I think the first wave of people who did a lot of popularization of psychology either were on the clinical end of things and the focus was on what goes wrong with people or to the extent that psychology was being brought to the broader public. The first wave of people tended to be reporters, storytellers, which was a great introduction to the field.

What's happened more recently is more people who are involved in the practice of the science itself are actually getting involved and I think that that's been a great advance. What's interesting is a lot of the work that's out there has been focused primarily on “what can I do with this?”— about, you know, “tell me something quick that will change what I do.” Sort of in the self-help kind of way, which is also great.

But actually, I think, a lot of us walk around with questions about how the mind works that are just part of our human experience, just sitting back someday and saying “Why do I do that? What is a tongue twister?" Right? "Why am I so endlessly fascinated by kitten videos?"

It's not so clear that those have an immediate practical benefit that is going to make you richer or faster or more popular. But it's still stuff about your own experience you wanna know about, and there's been a little bit less of that focus in popular discussions about the mind.

Well I wonder with the explosion of discussion of the way the brain works — especially with TV, self-help, pop psychology — if there are significant and persistent misconceptions about the brain and human psychology. You nod to some of those in your book; I wonder what you think the most enduring of those are?

Yeah, I mean I think there are sort of two ways to answer that question.

One of which is I think there are lots of just myths out there that people hear about and tend to believe. Even things like the granddaddy of all myths: Do we only use 10 percent of our brain? Which gets popularized in movies, but at some level we throw that around all the time. Of course, we use all of our brain all the time. But yet that just kind of kicks around.

There's also lots of just popular myths about things like, you know, how can I tell somebody's lying to me? And that, you know, “I know they were laughing; they were smiling while they told me this story.” Or “they were looking up and to the left.” And those are also really not particularly good indicators that somebody's lying.

So, I think there's a lot of stuff out there that's — that just kind of persists even though there's no evidence for it. Then, I think there's another piece to it, which is, you know, in the current era of instant science — you could call it that — you know, TED talks and things like that.

There's this real premium on “Can I give you a finding that makes you go ‘holy cow; that's amazing.'” And honestly a lot of the best findings in psychology are the ones you weren't aware of, and then as soon as you hear about them you realize that they were deeply right.

There are very few phenomena in psychology — there are a couple — but there are very few where you go, “That just can't possibly be  true” and then it really is true. And most of the ones that are true like that are ones that are instantly verifiable, like the invisible gorilla experiment, where people watch people passing a ball around and are focusing on the ball, and this guy in a gorilla costume walks in the film and you never see it.

Well, you know, after that you go, “I can't  believe that happened but it really did happen.” But a lot of the stuff that gets thrown out there as “here's an experiment that shows this thing” — one experiment is usually not enough to demonstrate that something really is true. And if we publicize the results of "an experiment," it can get put there into the popular culture without actually necessarily being true. And that, I think, is another issue.

And so you know, in addition to telling people stuff about the mind, it's important for people to learn about how we get to that information, that there's a whole process to get here.

Right. I wonder if you think there's something superficial or misleading about the way psychological experiments, psychological discoveries are reported in the popular press and in popular books like Malcolm Gladwell's.

There are times when — it's a complicated field, right? If psychology were really easy, we would actually be done already as a science. We would have figured everything out, and so, it's actually remarkably difficult to tell a simple story about things that are going on in the mind.

When a complex issue ends up having to be boiled down to a single news article, there's clearly going to be something missing in that. So I think that that's one piece of it. But I'm thrilled that this is a field that's getting this much attention these days because I do believe that the more that people understand about their own minds and the minds of the people around them, the better they live their lives. So I think it's great in general.

Your book’s first question is about happiness. I wonder if that's the subject when you deal with members of the general public: “How can I be happier?”

That question is least implicit in a huge amount of what people are asking, even if they don't ask it overtly. There's sort of happiness on the one side, its cousin stress on the other. They want to be happier. And what's been fascinating for us is that the field of psychology for so long was focused on what goes wrong with people, and what's fascinating now [is] an increased attention to what is it that goes right? You know, what is it that actually makes people happy with their lives that — and what are the things you can do to make yourself a little bit happier.

And the data now suggests there are several things you can do that are a little bit surprising, in the sense that we don't do them. For example, we tend to buy stuff, and the reason you buy stuff is in that moment when you get that new thing, you get a little jolt of happiness. “Ooh, I've got these new shoes or I got this new car; that's awesome.”

The problem is we adapt to that really quickly, and so the stuff we have doesn't make us happy for very long, whereas the experiences we have make us happy for a long time. And I think sometimes much of our happiness comes from the expectation, the experience and then remembering it later.

Sometimes, oddly enough, not the experience itself. If I've gone on a trip, for example, a foreign vacation, the planning is exciting, and the memories are exciting, and the trip itself is actually kind of stressful because you know in the moment you're dealing with “Where's my luggage?” and “I don't actually speak this language” and “Can we find a place to change foreign money?”

But you forget all that stuff later. I mean, thankfully, the human brain is designed, more than anything else, to forget things. And so in the end, when you look back on the trip, it's all sweetness and light.

One of the things you talked about in the book is — that ties in with happiness — the issue of regret. What do we know about regret that's kind of counterintuitive?

Yeah, I love the research on regret in part because the early research got done on college sophomores who are, as I always say, the fruit flies of psychology research. They're cheap and plentiful; they're all on college campuses. And you ask college sophomores, “What do you regret?” It's almost exclusively dumb things they did. You know, getting drunk at a party and yelling at somebody or whatever.

If you go to old-age homes and you ask people what they regret, it's actually almost exclusively the things you never did. So now it's “I never learned to salsa dance; I never went to a foreign country,” whatever it is.

And somehow what's fascinating about that is we really need to think about that when you're young enough to still do things, to prepare yourself to go and have those experiences before you regret not doing them. And human beings have that remarkable capacity to project themselves into the future, and you can actually look back. You can actually pretend to look back on your life and ask yourself, “What will I regret not having done?”

Well, speaking of looking back: You close the book, and we'll close this interview, with the issue of nostalgia. How does it work and how does it distort the way we see our lives?

Yeah, nostalgia's fascinating, right? When you look back on the past, you almost always look back on it fondly. And there's several reasons for that, one of which is that when you look back on the past, you're focused on the big-picture items.

Whereas a lot of the things that annoy you day to day are the specific things that are happening: “Oh, I forgot to get the milk! What a pain!" But, you know, 20 years later you're not thinking about the day you forgot the milk: you're just thinking about this great thing that happened.

So, you think about it more generally. When you look back on your life, you know how things came out. When you're in high school, everything is angst. “Am I going to get into college? Am I going to meet a romantic partner?” You know, all of these things.

And when you look back on it, you sort of know what the narrative is. You can look back on it, figure all that out, and so it feels better when you look back on it because you know how the story came out, and there's no anxiety about how things are going to happen. And so the past, generally speaking, feels better than the future does.

Now that can be good in some ways because if you look back on the past and feel really good about it, it may actually make you feel more connected to the people around you in ways that might actually enhance even the present for you.

But it can be dangerous to be too nostalgic about the past, as well, because it can make you think, Well, we must be going in the wrong direction now if things were so much better before. And they weren't better before; you just aren't really evaluating the past in the same way that you're evaluating the present, so we shouldn't necessarily try to go back to the future.

In fact, we have to recognize that there's an awful lot about what's happening right now that's actually really good, and if you're able to look back on that 10 years from now or 20 years from now, you'll realize that you'll also see some of the wonderful things about what's going on right now.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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Art Markman Books Cognitive Psychology Happiness Psychology Two Guys On Your Head