The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 184

Christine Carter

The Sweet Spot

This episode is a re-run.

Can we accomplish more by doing less? Dr. Christine Carter, Senior Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work says yes, we can all tap into effortless power. By relaxing without distractions, and allowing our brains to “space out,” we allow our minds to make deeper connections, thus encouraging creative insights. Discover Christine’s steps for “detoxing” the need to be constantly connected with our devices.

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Book: The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work
Bio: Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, an interdisciplinary research center that “translates” the study of happiness, resilience, and emotional intelligence for the public. The author of the bestselling Raising Happiness, Dr. Carter blogs regularly for Greater Good, The Huffington Post, and Psychology Today. She has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Dr. Oz Show, Rachael Ray, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Today, and NPR, and has helped thousands of people lead happier and more productive lives through her lectures and online classes. Her e-newsletters have more than fifty thousand subscribers. She lives with her husband, children, and stepchildren in Berkeley, California.


Peter: I’m here with Christine Carter. She’s a sociologist and senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center which is an interdisciplinary research center that translates the study of happiness, resilience and emotional intelligence for the public. I love that. It’s what she does so well in her new book, The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove At Home and Work. She’s a brilliant translator. She takes great research that’s thoughtful, that’s been done, that is sometimes hard to incorporate into our lives and she gives us a smooth path to incorporating it in our lives. It’s one of the most important pieces of work that we can do. I’m lucky enough to have Christine with us here today. Christine, thank you so much for being on the Bregman leadership podcast.

Christine: Well, thank you for having me. That was a very nice introduction.

Peter: Tell us a little bit about The Sweet Spot. Why you wrote it and what you hope it does?

Christine: Sure. I wrote The Sweet Spot because I was having a little bit of difficulty with implementation of some of the, all the research that I was translating. I was the executive director of the Greater Good Science Center and had a very vibrant coaching practice. I had just published Raising Happiness so I sort of gone public with my incredible ability to raise happy children, right. I was just out there speaking all the time about how to be happy and raise happy children and run a happy organization. There was just one little problem and that is that I was so tired. I was just exhausted and that meant that I got sick a lot, not like big life threatening illnesses but I did have strep throat for about 18 months, right. I was just one course of antibiotics after the next.

Peter: That’s a long bout of strep throat.

Christine: It is really. It did quite a number on me. One morning – it was a weekend morning – and I was suppose to on Monday get on a plane to Atlanta to give a talk to a very large organization and I woke up and my fever was a little higher than usual. My husband had just sort of had it, right. He said, “I’m calling the doctor,” and the doctor said, “Take her to the ER. Maybe they’ll scare some sense into her.” I went to the hospital and in my heart I kept thinking, this is so great. Maybe they’ll admit me. Maybe I’ll have a really good excuse not to go to Atlanta, right. It’s very hard as you well know to cancel on a speaking engagement. That’s like the … that was like the all time low point of my career in a way, right like it’s a very very difficult professional situation.

Peter: It’s terrifying in many ways.

Christine: It’s terrifying. It’s terrifying. I was very upfront with the doctor that was examining me. I sort of said I need you to admit me. I can’t go to Atlanta. He came back and he’s like, “Well I’ve got great news and I’ve got not so great news and the great news is that we don’t need to admit you but you can’t get on a plane Monday morning because you have a kidney infection.”

Peter: This is the professional equivalent of a doctors note and you can’t go to school.

Christine: Exactly! Exactly. Okay, well so the irony of all this absolutely was not lost on me. I mean, I have since learned that hospital fantasies, I was having hospital fantasies. These are a thing, right. I get more email about hospital fantasies, people who are like I know exactly what you meant because I get to have knee surgery next week and I’m going to be … I’m not even going to be expected to check my email for two weeks cause of the pain killers.

Peter: I love the language, “I get to”.

Christine: Right.

Peter:I “get to” have knee surgery.

Christine: Right. Right. Our culture is so pathetic in that we don’t even let ourselves rest unless we’re in excruciating medicated pain.

Peter: I experience the same stuff … a few weeks ago I was really really sick. Sick like to the point where had to cancel my meetings. I had a fever. I felt awful. I was speaking to my Head of Operations and I was saying I’m really, really sick. The only work I’m going to be able to do is writing and home stuff and we could Skype. She’s said: “how about you actually just stop working for a day.” I said, “Well, you know, I could do my sick work but I can’t do . . .”

Christine: That’s going to be high quality for you.

Peter: Yeah, exactly.

Christine: That’s going to be your best writing ever.

Peter: Right. Right. Exactly.

Christine: Well so here I am, right, I’ve studied elite performance and productivity and now happiness for well over a decade at this point. This is 5 or 6 years ago and so I decided that’s the moment that the Sweet Spot was born. I thought, you know what, I got to road test this stuff better.

Peter: Right.

Christine: Right. If anyone can be an elite performer, clearly it’s me. I just need to know how to do it without giving up the thing that matters most which is my health. Like I don’t need to be taking years off my life with this.

Peter: You know I wrote 18 Minutes and I’ve written books on productivity, Well, there’s a book that I fantasize about writing titled some derivative of “How To Be Unproductive.” I push myself to be as productive as I can and do a lot. But I think there’s some virtue in the usefulness of being unproductive. – a virtue that a certain element of our society, including me, misses to some degree.

Christine: Yes! Yeah.

Peter: I don’t exactly know how I would write about it yet but I think there’s something important there.

Christine: Oh, there is absolutely something important there. There’s something very subtle too. There’s kind of two concepts here and the first is that some of the virtue in being unproductive comes from this idea that we don’t always have to make such a powerful effort, that we can come to rely on our own effortless power. That’s not exactly unproductive but it has the same sort of association. It’s the sort of how to accomplish more by doing less. Right.

Peter: Yeah, it removes the driver-pushy-managing-struggling part of us.

Christine: Right. Can I still be an elite performer and drop the struggle?

Peter: Beautiful.

Christine: That’s the key question.

Peter: Great.

Christine: The answer is yes by the way.

Peter: Great.

Christine: That’s the whole aim of this last project for me and everything I’m doing now. I just created an online class called the The Science of Flow, that’s about being able to tap into that effortless power. People like you and I are really good at making a powerful effort all the time. It’s almost easier to do that in many respects.

Peter: Right.

Christine: It’s certainly more familiar.

Peter: It’s familiar. We feel like we’re in control. We feel like we can make things happen.

Christine: Right but then you end up like me and like having your tonsils out and kidney infections and just ridiculous. I mean, it just was absurd. I haven’t been sick since though so …

Peter: That’s great.

Christine: I’ve gotten it together. Rest assured, I’ve gotten it together.

Peter: Share some of what you discovered in this project that can help because I’m sure you and I on the phone, on this interview are not the only ones and that many people listening are facing the same challenges.

Christine: Yes. Yes, absolutely. Well, this sort of virtue of being unproductive is kind of an interesting thing because there is another piece of this. There is incredible virtue in just “doing nothing.” By that I mean letting our minds wander, day dreaming, staring into space. We assume that nothing is happening in this brain of ours if we aren’t focused and checking things off a list, just getting things done. Actually, when you are sick laying in bed, if you’d just let yourself stare into space and I had taken a brain scan of you, what we would see is that your brain was actually much more active then if you were focused on a particular problem. Active in the sense that more brain regions were active, both left and right parts of your brain, both those sort of primitive parts of your brain, the emotional centers – we just think that it’s one particular thing and that all that brain activity is connected.

What’s happening when we’re just day dreaming or staring into space when we assume nothing is going on is that our brain is making connections between things that it previously didn’t see as connected. Now it’s related to all the data that’s come in in the previous days. It is related to what you’ve done beforehand but for the most part that is the birthplace of all creative insight and nothing is easier or more powerful than a creative insight. If you had some writing to do for example, the best thing you could do probably is stare into space and do nothing and then when you feel better get up and do the writing because you would be able to draw on that, the power and the ease – to me those two things are the Sweet Spot.

Peter: It makes total sense and it coincides with my experience. I remember an article I wrote that received the most immediate popular attention, was about why I returned my iPad. The iPad had just come out. And I returned mine because I no longer had any moments of boredom. I remember – I think it was on AOL – their news headline was “Man Returns iPad in Favor of Boredom.”

Christine: I love it.

Peter: I just didn’t have a moment anymore. I feel like even without the iPad – with my phone even – we don’t have moments. I can’t tell you the number of times I go to a men’s room and see people with at least one hand holding a phone at the urinal. I mean, there’s not a moment that we give ourselves to just do nothing.

Christine: Then that really starts to impact obvious our habits but then that starts to impact how we feel when we have those moments. A decade ago you could be fine going to the bathroom and only going to the bathroom, not also reading your text. Now we step into an elevator to maybe use a less gross example.

Peter: Sorry.

Christine: No. People actually feel anxious not checking. Right.

Peter: That’s the definition of an addiction. Right?

Christine: Yes. Yeah. It’s an addiction. Our brain without all these devices anyways, is terrifically novelty seeking. It’s always going to be. The human’s brain drive for novelty is as strong as it’s drive for food. We don’t realize that and of course there is like a genetic component to it but for the most part it’s a huge thing. If you have a source of novelty with you all the time, your brain is going to reward you constantly for doing that. Then you’re going to end up in this place where you can’t get any real work done because there’s always something shinier right there.

Peter: If you put these two things together, what you’re saying is deeply profound which is that ultimately our brain is novelty seeking and if we don’t have the device in front of us, if we don’t have the candy in front of us, then the novelty seeking brain will look for solutions to difficult problems, will look for new ideas, will look to make connections between what we’re experiencing and solutions. They’re going to look because the brain’s looking for novelty.

Christine: It will innovate.

Peter: If I’m playing a video game which might be novelty seeking then my brain is satisfied in the novelty seeking and it won’t actually go for thinking. In the end I’ll be less happy and ultimately anxious and unsatisfied.

Christine: Right. I think that that is the thing. The effect that we’re seeing the most is that people’s overall tension levels go up, their stress levels go up. Even though it’s very rewarding to the brain to basically be under this form of stress, it’s terrible for our health and our happiness and we end up in this perpetual cycle of overwhelm. We just feel like we have more to do then we have time to do it in. It just creates this AHHH feeling that is obviously not helping us fulfill our potential for joy or helping us enjoy the lives that we’re working so hard to create. It’s also short circuiting our potential for creativity and innovation. It’s short circuiting the most intelligent part of our brain, the part of our brain which is intuitive and wise. We really value the conscious focused effort so much but the reality is the more powerful part of our brain operates at a more subconscious intuitive level and that all this stimulation of devices numbs us to that part of our brain.

The part of our brain that operates intuitively, the source of wisdom and creativity and innovation, it’s wonderful. It speaks to us all the time, it just doesn’t speak to us in words. Right.

Peter: Right.

Christine: It speaks to us in images and emotions and in body sensations. When you take those three things out of your repertoire to listen to your intelligence. You’re basically making yourself dumb.

Peter: It’s so interesting and I think we don’t value those intelligence’s in the same way that we value the intelligence’s that can articulate findings in words. I might have a feeling but I can’t describe the feeling so I discount the feeling and I go play on my iPad and then that removes the feeling.

Christine: Right.

Peter: But it doesn’t remove the feeling, it repress it, covers it up. It reduces the sensation in a way that may make me feel happier in the moment but it’s ultimately vacuous.

Christine: Yeah. I would actually argue to that it’s probably not making you feel happier in the moment. It’s probably making you more tense in the moment. We really conflate a sense of gratification in the activation of the reward system in our brain with an actual positive emotion. Happiness, technically, is an actual positive emotion that goes with gratitude or awe or inspiration or love or whatever, all those positive emotions. Right. That’s a very different physiological process in our brains and in our bodies. When we are reward seeking or doing these things that feel gratifying in the moment we think we’re becoming happier and we’re not.

The primary … I mean there’s a lot of differences between these two processes. The interesting one to me is that you do something that is pleasurable or gratifying in the moment and it doesn’t last and it will actually leave you with a sense of craving or desire for more. That’s one of the primary functions of dopamine which gives you that pleasure hit but then it leaves you wanting more, craving. A positive emotion you get a little burst of profound gratitude for something that will leave you feeling happier over the course of a day.

Peter: Satisfied.

Christine: Right. Yeah. It will actually change your physiology in such a way that you will feel less craving, less desire.

Peter: So how do I shift from the tempting momentary gratifying-seeking but under nourished experience to the one that takes more effort because you have to be more present to it but is far more satisfying and actually creates those emotions of happiness and gratitude and awe?

Christine: Well, you know, I’m tempted to quote you which I often do. I open The Sweet Spot with a quote from you. I think one of the things that this requires is re-accessing our intuitive wisdom and all these things that we’re talking about is emotional courage. Right.

Peter: Right.

Christine: We need to be willing to feel whatever comes up for us and, you’re right, at first it’s a lot less comfortable. We need to be bring some willingness to feel uncomfortable or some comfort with that discomfort. There really is a detox period. In my coaching practice, I’ve been taking a lot of people through this very uncomfortable detox when your brain is like, “NO!Boredom will kill you! You’re not being productive enough! People are looking at you terribly!” All this fear and anxiety and guilt comes up so the first step is let yourself feel whatever comes up. Actually the first step, let’s back up, is that you’re willing to take some breaks, you’re willing to take some weekends off, you’re willing to wait in line at the grocery store without checking your email, willing to go to the bathroom without texting somebody.

Peter: You know what, now you’re just pushing it. We’ll do the shopping. We’ll do the grocery line. But go to the bathroom without texting? You’re asking too much. No, okay, that’s great. That’s really right, you have to be willing to do all those things.

Christine: Don’t rely on your will power because it won’t work. It’s not … I know that you probably have the strength of 10 human beings but even 10 human beings cannot resist the little device.

Peter: If we’re not leveraging willpower, what is it that we’re leveraging?

Christine: Leverage your decision making power ahead of time so decide on some times and places … I mean I could take you through a full detox but a simple way of starting it is decide on some times and places in which you will not check your phone. Then make it impossible to do so. This is called the “hide the bowl of candy” technique. If you were trying to eat less candy you wouldn’t put it on your bed side table and reach into the bowl of candy first thing in the morning and then bring it with you to the bathroom and then sit it down next to you at breakfast. Then put it on your car dashboard.

Peter: That’s great. I love it.

Christine: I was just speaking to the executive producer of a magazine in New York. She’s a very busy woman who’s very wedded to all of her devices and all the communication. This is like … it’s very hard to hide the bowl of candy. She could decide that she was going to give herself 10 minutes here and there but commuting we had to, we actually had to put the phone in the trunk. It’s not enough to turn it off and put it in the purse.

Peter: I think that’s exactly right. I’m a proponent of that. I think putting, using your trunk that way … the problem with mini vans is you can lunge in the back while you’re still in the car and get it.

Christine: Yeah. Right so hide the bowl of candy. Decide when you’re going to do it, hide the bowl of candy so that it’s actually not accessible to you so you don’t have to rely on your willpower because it will be too tempting.

Peter: When you’re using your will power it means that you’re in a conversation with yourself. Part of you is saying “I should do this” and the other part of you is saying “No, I won’t do this.” Almost invariably if you’re in the conversation with yourself, you’re going to lose.

What you’re saying is: make the decision ahead of time, so that when the conversation comes up and the part of you that wants to look at your phone says “Should we look at our phone now?” The other part of you says, “I’m not even engaging in this conversation with you. I had that conversation with you already, and we decided not to use the phone. So I’m not even talking to you about this.”

Christine: Yeah. Right. I’m not even going to talk to the addict.

Peter: “I talked to you about this two hours ago and the answers is no.”

Christine: Yeah. Yeah. That’s exactly right.

Peter: That’s a profound difference too.

Christine: I mean the other thing you can leverage is other people around you. It’s really important to say, I am making a commitment to never check my phone or my computer during dinner time and whether we’re at home or whether we’re out, that is my commitment. I have four teenagers, they hold me to that commitment.

Peter: I’m sure they do.

Christine: Because I’m always holding them to it. Then the third piece is kind of where we started which is be willing to feel what comes up for you. It’s ugly at first. It just is but eventually it gives way to this unbelievable relief and relaxation. You will feel your shoulders drop back down again to just be able to drive in silence or to just be able to go to the bathroom … I’m sorry. I just can’t get away from it because it’s the perfect example.

Peter: Right.

Christine: Right because it’s so absurd.

Peter: Right it’s so absurd. Thirty seconds we can’t stand and do only one thing. I’m glad you brought up the emotional courage piece because I’ve actually spent the whole morning here working on that proposal for my next book which is on emotional courage.

Christine: So cool.

Peter: There’s a challenge I want to ask you about. Eventually, when I’m no longer using my phone in every crack and crevice of my life, I’ll feel happy, joyful, and have a sense of quiet joy and peace that I’m looking for. But there’s a period of time that I find myself in sometimes where I’m letting my phone go but people around me aren’t and I’m getting annoyed.

Christine: Yes.

Peter: It’s like there’s a jealousy, there’s an envy, there’s a questioning of myself … everyone else is on their phone, maybe I should be on my phone too. It’s like being an alcoholic and giving up alcohol and then being in a bar and everybody else is drinking and it makes it a little harder to not drink.

Christine: It makes it a lot harder. It makes it a lot harder. That’s a part of where that emotional courage comes in like feeling … so we call that “you spot it you got it.” When I feel frustrated with other people because they’re on their phone and I’m not, it’s only because I actually would really like to check. My brain is going “see everybody else is doing it, what’s wrong with you? You could just check because they’re not talking to you anyway.”

Peter: Right.

Christine: It’s bringing up something in yourself for you to look at but I actually think I got stuck in that stage for many many years just around email before we even had email on every device. I used to get frustrated with my family when they would work in my presence on the weekend when I was trying not to work. It triggered feelings of guilt for me.

Peter: Right. That’s exactly right. That’s exactly what it does for me.

Christine: Right. My suggestion is to work with the feelings of guilt. Just notice, instead of resisting it and sort of displacing your anger about the whole thing, going from just noticing that you feel guilty about not working and then being able to have a conversation with yourself about that. We know that it’s actually going to benefit your work overall and anything you need to do.

Peter: I love that and I actually think it gives you something to do. Rather than convincing yourself you’re doing the right thing, or telling yourself “here’s why I’m doing this and it’s a good idea,” your suggestion is to watch what goes on, to meditate, to ask yourself “what’s the conversations going in my head? Am I uncomfortable? Where am I feeling it? Why am I feeling it? What is this feeling of discomfort?”

Christine: Yes. Yes.

Peter: When everyone else is on their phones, that gives me something to do and the thing that I have to do is actually quite productive which is let me see what’s going on with me and my reaction to all of this and understand myself better. I can use this opportunity and when they get off their phone, I will have learned something. To those of us who` want to be productive in those moments that’s a really usefully productive thing to do.

Christine: It is and it’s just a very high functioning thing to do as well in the the sense that if you resist an emotion that you’re having it will tend to get bigger, from a physiological stand point it will cause you more stress. Our emotions don’t go away just because we turn on somebody else and start instructing them. It’s a phenomenal practice to just look inside and say where in my body am I felling this. Get back in touch with that intuitive knowledge system. Use that as the moment. Now what you will find is that it starts to dissipate more quickly but you have to be careful in that … a lot of my clients will do this, they’ll say, oh I did it. I surrendered resistance to how I was feeling and I had just looked at it with acceptance and curiosity and I didn’t feel so guilty and anxious and then it happened again and it didn’t work. Here’s the distinction, if you’re truly looking at how you’re feeling with acceptance and curiosity that’s a true surrender, your not resisting.

If you are telling yourself you’re looking with curiosity and acceptance because you want the feeling to go away that’s a rejection of it.

Peter: That’s subtle and important.

Christine: It’s subtle and it is important. We’re just going to welcome all these difficult emotions because they’re just such great teaching moments for us.

Peter: I thought you were going to go somewhere else with it which is, “look I’VE got this. I was able to not pick up my phone while everyone else did and I was fine with it. Next time when they pick up their phone I’m going to pick up my phone to because NOW I’m in control.”

Christine: Yeah.

Peter: It loops you back in. It’s a trick.

Christine: Yeah, that’s a kin to what researchers sometimes call the “what the hell effect”. We actually know that this is a common thing. If researchers give people vitamin c pills or they think that they’re taking vitamin to c pills like to smokers, smokers will smoke more. If you give somebody environmentally friendly cleaning products and then they become more likely to steal and lie to the researchers later when given the opportunity to. Well actually I’m conflating two different streams of research. The “what the hell effect” is we do one thing and then we just keep doing it. What I’m actually talking about is moral licensing. We do a good thing once and we use it to then justify bad behavior.

Peter: Right.

Christine: It’s just something to be aware of. Always take yourself back to what do you value? If you value innovation and happiness then we give ourselves these moments of peace.

Peter: Christine it’s such a pleasure to talk to you.Her book is The Sweet Spot: How to find your groove at home and work. I’m sure you found her as brilliant as I do and a lot of her brilliance is in this book The Sweet Spot. It’s it’s very practical and really worth the read. If you struggle with any of the issues that we’re talking about she address them beautifully in the book. Christine, thank you so much for being on the Bregman leadership podcast.

Christine: Thank you for having me. It’s been a ton of fun.