Dr. Carter takes “the pursuit of happiness” to a whole new level. In our gratitude film series, it only made sense to connect with the “Happiness Expert” for our film on the same subject. Happiness – it turns out – is hard work… with incredible rewards. We were excited, therefore, to have the chance once again to discuss the topic in this intimate interview and to share the conversation here with you. We hope you will discover great joy from this conversation – as well as meaningful insight and suggestion.
Q&A with Dr. Christine Carter
GR: First of all, thank you so much for being a part of our project Gratitude Revealed. Getting to speak with you today is such a great opportunity to really dig into happiness. So many of us look at happiness as an end product. “If I do this or get this then I will be happy…”
I wanted to hear your thoughts on where there is a place for happiness in the midst of grief, challenge, adversity?
Dr. Carter: Well, that’s a tricky question because actually I might reverse the order. I would say that grief, misery and difficulty, and even moderate “negative” emotions , like boredom for example, have a distinct role in happiness.
Life is often really difficult. Our beloved pets and our people pass away, for example, and the loss can be unbearable. But it is because of that loss that we know our love so much better.
We gain a deep understanding of how much something meant to us through loss. When we let ourselves feel the deep grief that comes from loss or frustration, or anger or whatever, we open up the possibility that we will feel deeply at the other end of the spectrum, that we’ll feel a really profound joy or a deep connection with the next pet or the next person.
GR: It feels like such a tremendous responsibility. It’s like walking into a haunted house, knowing the ghost is going to jump out at you.
Dr. Carter: Yes. And the society that we live in today does not lend itself to letting us really feel difficult things, but instead offers us a multitude of ways to numb our emotions — by checking email for the 5000th time, or by pretending on Facebook that we’re okay and that everything is awesome, or by eating the whole pan of brownies.
We have lots of easy and powerful ways to not feel how we feel. Which then begs the question: why should I let myself feel what I feel when I know I’m going to feel bad sometimes?
GR: Right. What is your answer to that?
Dr. Carter: Because you can only feel joy and the things that you so yearn for if you let yourself feel everything. You can’t selectively numb your emotions. So when you numb your grief, or your anger, you also numb emotions like happiness and peace and gratitude.
Moreover, our positive emotions tend to come from a sense of authenticity, from an integrity to who we are. Anytime we decide not to feel how we’re really feeling, we’re lying to ourselves.
Any suppression of emotion is physiologically in the body like a lie. Any lack of truth causes our body stress. But here we are living a society in which it is possible to lie all the time everyday. Anytime we’re performing or numbing, we are lying a little bit which puts us in a chronic state of stress. All this is obviously very bad for our health. Performing and numbing and lying creates tons of anxiety and can lead to depression…[pause]… So, that’s why. [laughs gently]
GR: It’s interesting because I think people seek happiness in order to feel good. But, ironically, there is an agreement that in order to feel good, you are agreeing to feel everything else as well, and so one is left to bargain their own capacity for acceptance of the depth of emotion. “How deeply are you willing to feel everything?”
I loved the part of the film where you were talking about the powerful distraction technology can cause, the numbing of our emotion. Since we don’t see any signs of decreasing progress in technology or our addiction to it, do you see the possibility of transforming technology into a tool that could in fact cultivate happiness? Can we transform it into a power for good?
Dr. Carter: Sure, absolutely. I feel very optimistic about this. It’s not the technology that needs to transform, it’s the way that we use the technology. Right now we don’t use it like a tool.
If it were a tool, like a hammer, everything would be dented. We’re just hammering the heck out of everything! We use it all the time for everything and instead, we need to learn to use it as a tool to accomplish our highest goals.
Right now I’m in the midst of creating an entire online course which aims to teach people how to feel their feelings. A huge part of this is digital detox… and it’s hard!
It’s very frustrating for people when I only check email for an hour a day and I break that up into 15 minutes and 45 minutes. But it frees me up to do work that is meaningful to me and to produce content as a creative person. I like to sit and think for hours at a time uninterrupted.
That’s what brings me joy, but I could not do that without being able to focus and use my technology as a tool.
Technology as a tool enables me to live a really rich life and have a team of people who are based all over the country. I love my job. I love coaching, and my clients live all over the country, all over the world. This is because of the technology. The distinction is using technology to better my life rather than distract myself from it.
GR: That is a great distinction. I love your emphasis on the practice required in the pursuit of happiness. You talk about it like it’s a skill, it’s not just something that befalls upon us but is byproduct of the conscious attention we spend towards it.
In the film you really eloquently describe gratitude as one of the emotions that can lead us towards a happy life. Can you give a small example of how one might practice happiness?
Dr. Carter: Sure! Here is a very simple gratitude practice that works really well for me.
In the morning I wake up and I decide what I will say when somebody asks, “How are you?” … This seems so simple, but here’s the thing about it- our brains operate like a big filter and they are always looking for patterns. They’re looking for relevant information and they filter virtually everything else out.
In the morning, by waking up and deciding what am I excited about, what I really appreciate, what’s going well for me right now, what I feel grateful for — and then planning to tell somebody that, it trains my brain to see and experience the positive.
It creates a wonderful ripple effect. I am able to look for positive things in my life, and then I am able to recognize them when they happen, and I am prepared to share this positivity with others.
I’ll give you an example. One thing that I really appreciate in my life is the team I’m working with to create the online class. I am really having a fun time. In my morning practice today I decided, when asked how I am, I would respond, “I’m loving creating this class and I’m actually really loving this team that I’m working with.”
When a member of my team then called me and asked me how I was doing, I was able to say, “I love working with you. I think you’re a great project manager. I really appreciate working with you.” This, in turn, made this person feel wonderful. Do you see the ripple effect preparing for gratitude can have?
GR: What a joyful experience. You’re creating the habit, a record in your mind and just reinforcing it into your brain folds.
Dr. Carter: Exactly. You’re just sort of hardwiring it. Now there is a trick, which is that you need to come up with something different every single day because the brain really works on novelty too. If I just say the same thing everyday, like, “I really appreciate my adorable children,” then that’s wonderful the first time but I have to come up with something more specific. Fortunately, my children are very adorable and it’s not hard. [laughing]
GR: I love considering happiness as a practice, and to remember to be gentle with oneself because it is not something that just comes easily without work.
Well, I cannot thank you enough, Dr. Carter. Thank you so much for taking this time to talk about happiness to all of our community.
Dr. Carter: You are so very welcome.
About Dr. Christine Carter
A sociologist and senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, Christine Carter, Ph.D., is the author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work (January 2015) and Raising Happiness (2011).
After receiving her B.A. from Dartmouth College, where she was a Senior Fellow, Dr. Carter worked in marketing management and school administration, going on to receive her Ph.D. in sociology from UC Berkeley.
Dr. Carter has been quoted or featured in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, the Boston Globe, as well as Good Housekeeping, Parenting, Martha Stewart’s Whole Living, Fitness, Redbook, and dozens of other publications. She has appeared on the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” the “Dr. Oz Show”, the “TODAY” show, the “Rachael Ray Show,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “CBS Sunday Morning,” “ABC World News with Diane Sawyer”, PBS, as well as NPR and BBC Radio.
A sought-after keynote speaker, Dr. Carter loves to share her work with new audiences. Combining scientific research and practical application, Dr. Carter offers audiences not just a way to cope with modern pressures, but a way to truly thrive. Speaking to executives, general audiences, and working parents, Dr. Carter looks at living life from our “sweet spot”—that place of both power and ease.
Dr. Carter also writes an award-winning blog, which is frequently syndicated on the HuffingtonPost, PsychologyToday.com, PositivelyPositive.com, Medium.com, and several other websites. She has been nominated twice for an award from the American Sociological Association for public sociology.
She lives with her husband, four kids, and dog Buster in Marin County, California.