Episode 3 of the Science of Happiness Podcast by the Greater Good Science Center, featuring Kelly Corrigan and Rudy Mendoza Denton in conversation with Dacher Keltner.
Dacher Keltner: Can 36 questions really make two people fall in love? Can 36 questions help couples stay in love?
If the science of happiness has taught us anything, it’s that good relationships are essential to feeling satisfied with your life. And of course, romantic relationships might matter more than any other.
So how do you find lasting love? You’ll get all kinds of advice from magazines and talk shows, from your therapist and your best friends. But today we’re going to hear about a different technique, one that psychologists have developed in the lab. It takes about 45 minutes, requires asking 36 specific questions, and it has had almost unbelievable effects on couples who have tried it. It’s even been used to help break down barriers between groups and reduce prejudice.
I’m Dacher Keltner and this is The Science of Happiness. On each episode of our podcast, we have a happiness guinea pig try out a practice designed to boost happiness, resilience, kindness, or connection. Then we explore the science behind it.
Joining me today as our happiness guinea pig is Kelly Corrigan. Kelly is the author of New York Times best-sellers The Middle Place and Lift, and now has a new book out called Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning To Say. Thanks so much for being here, Kelly.
Kelly Corrigan: Oh, it’s a pleasure.
Dacher Keltner: So you did a practice that gives you 36 questions, and then you and a partner take turns asking these questions of each other. I know that the questions start out sort of more formal and then they get more personal and intimate as you move along. What struck you about doing it?
Kelly Corrigan: One thing that struck me is that you can be married to somebody for 16 or 17 years and still feel incredibly awkward around them, which means that you must be doing something new and right. So we were all goofy and weird with each other for a couple questions. Then the other thing is when you have a long conversation like that, where there’s a lot of listening and there’s no cause for debate—it’s not like, ‘What should we do about, should we let Georgia go to this party?’ and then we both have opinions—it was really just you share and I’ll absorb. That’s very unusual in the course of a normal everyday marriage.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah, I’d be interested to know how much couples really get to listen to each other each day.
Kelly Corrigan:I mean, you almost have to force it. You almost have to get into something more planned. I just don’t think it happens naturally.
Dacher Keltner: Like what was surprising? So what did you—what caught you off guard?
Kelly Corrigan: One of my most frustrating parts of my marriage is that Edward repeats himself so much. Like so many stories. It’s like, low-level insulting when someone tells you something they already told you. So it was funny because we have that thing where it’s like a real thing and we’ve talked about it a lot, I couldn’t believe how many of the 36 things I didn’t know! And I thought, ‘Edward, you have so much material that you have not shared.’
There was one question where we started talking about whose death would worry him the most. And that led us to talking about his dad and it was really moving.
Dacher Keltner: And we have a clip of that conversation.
Edward: I mean, I really worry about if my mom dies before my dad, like what that will do to him. You know.
Kelly: Yeah. I mean you obviously…
Edward: I think he’s going to be super lonely.
Kelly Corrigan: I just remember feeling like, say it. Whatever you want to say, you can say because how rare is it in a marriage to feel like you’re hearing someone say something they have not said before? Not only to you but to anyone like, to have that moment where you’re witnessing someone discover a feeling or a fear or a hope that they haven’t even articulated to themselves before. And that’s what was happening and it was like, well, this was worth the whole thing just this one moment where you’re finding something in front of me.
My whole thesis in life is that all people really care about is they just want to feel they’ve been felt. And then I think it’s rare even if they are being felt, that they feel they’ve been felt, like they don’t trust it. They don’t think you’re really tuned in the way that you might be. And so in that little moment of our 36 questions I thought, ‘You, for sure, you can feel me feeling you right now.’ And, you know, that’s like a salve.
In that little moment of our 36 questions I thought, ‘You, for sure, you can feel me feeling you right now.’ And, you know, that’s like a salve.
Dacher Keltner: It is. You know, and one thing we know from this science is in a way it defines our species that we have these feelings for other people’s feelings. And there are parts of the brain that pick up other people’s pain and we feel, literally, the pain centers of my brain light up if I see you have physical pain. And there’s a lot in busy life that takes us away from fellow feeling. Were there other deeper philosophical themes you picked up in the exercise?
Kelly Corrigan: Well, for sure we were doing things. We were operating in a way that we don’t typically operate. And I think for us to feel the difference was significant because I think in the absence of doing that, we would have self-rated high on the connection and conversation spectrum. But the truth is that the kinds of conversations we typically have are a little more intellectual and a little less personal. Nothing to do with you and your deepest feelings and what you’re feeling afraid of. And so that’s the other thing about creating space like this where it’s in the right context to say something really lovely.
Without feeling…I mean, we’re a kind of a jokey couple so I just feel like if I were to say some of these things in the normal flow of the day, my gut is that Edward would be like, you know, ‘What is wrong? Are you sick? What is wrong with you? Why aren’t you pissed off that I left all that crap on the counter?’ So when he said some nice things about me in our 36 questions and I thought like, ‘You do? I can’t believe you. That’s so great.’ Like…
Dacher Keltner: It’s just like parlor games too, you know, you get these, it’s these frames where you say, ‘All right—you get to be goofy. You get to wear a costume.’ And this is a kind of a frame or an arena in which you can say some nice things.
Kelly Corrigan: My strongest reaction to the whole experience was, boy, this is an unusual way to relate. And isn’t that weird? That’s really weird. That we’re married, like, this is the most important relationship in our lives. It’s like the cornerstone to everything which we often acknowledge to one another. Like it all starts and ends here. But that doesn’t mean that we’re actually like, talking to each other and listening to each other and on this second level.
I mean, it totally brings back all the super juicy, romantic intense feelings that you have in the beginning. Because you’re actually doing what you did in the beginning, which is getting to know someone, and you think you know them, and so then you think that there’s no discovery left. And how sad is that?
I mean, it totally brings back all the super juicy, romantic intense feelings that you have in the beginning.
Dacher Keltner: I’m really curious. It’s so interesting how, you know, the structure of your book, Tell Me More, and then this exercise, 36 questions. You know, there’s this almost parallel structure to it. And what would be the three or four questions out of this that that you thought are the most dynamic for couples our age to ask each other?
Kelly Corrigan: Well, I do think it’s a good thing to tell each other what you admire about one another. I just don’t think we do it enough, unfortunately. And—but I wouldn’t ask it first ‘cause I think you’ll get like the—I mean, I think there’s some level of like falling into a less self-conscious space with one another, where you might be able to say something you admire that you haven’t said before. I think like, intimacy is predicated on telling somebody something that you wouldn’t tell anyone else, or that you haven’t told anyone else. And so any questions that get at that. Like, it never occurred to me to ask Edward if he thought about death. His own death.
And if someone had said, ‘What do you think he would say?’ I would say, ‘No, I don’t think he thinks like that. I think I’m the one who’s, you know, who traffics in those spaces.’ And you know, he said, ‘Of course I do, I think about it a lot.’ And it was like, ‘Wow, man, tell me more.’ Like, ‘I can’t wait to—you could talk for ten minutes now, get me in and show me something.’ And there’s so much intimacy in that. Like, it’s like knowing a secret. Even though it’s not a—there’s nothing salacious about it, but it’s just like a thing that the world would never ask you and never care to listen long enough. But I do. I’m your special person. Like, tell me.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah, and then great questions in relationships point to that space. And I love your use of the word space. I think a lot of relational life is about creating the right spaces.
Well, Kelly Corrigan, thank you so much for being our happiness guinea pig.
Kelly Corrigan: Oh, sure. I’m happy being your happiness guinea pig.
Dacher Keltner: If you want to try the 36 Questions, and similar practices, you can find them on our Greater Good in Action website – that’s G-G-I-A dot Berkeley dot edu.
They might seem goofy, but believe it or not, there’s actually some science behind these 36 questions that Kelly asked her husband and answered. And in fact, studies have found that those questions can do more than just help your love life. They can actually help us overcome prejudices and racism. So here to help me unpack this idea is UC Berkeley psychology colleague and my dear friend, Rudy Mendoza Denton. Rudy, it’s great to have you here.
Rudy Mendoza Denton: Thanks Dacher, it’s good to be here.
Dacher Keltner: So how has this 36 questions practice, or I think in the scientific literature, it goes by “fast friends.” How’s that been used in studies?
Rudy Mendoza Denton: Well, let me first begin by acknowledging that you said that it might sound goofy. Because, you know, especially when UC Berkeley tends to be associated with love and flowers and hippies and you put friendship and happiness in there and it just makes for this, makes that, you know—
Dacher Keltner: Berkeley original.
Rudy Mendoza Denton: It’s a Berkeley original. But it turns out that it’s not a Berkeley original. It originated actually in Stonybrook, in the lab of Professor Art Aaron. Essentially, they created a kind of format or task that could facilitate the formation of closeness. So, it’s a methodology that scientists have used to create friendship or closeness in the lab.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah, no and we’re always a little bit leery to, you know, to scientifically create intimacy or closeness or trust or the like, but—
Rudy Mendoza Denton: Oh, people really sort of, ‘What do you mean you created friendship in the lab, bla bla bla. It sounds Frankenstein-y.’
Dacher Keltner:So, you’ve got these 36 questions, you bring a couple of partners together, or friends. And then what do they do?
Rudy Mendoza Denton: The key feature is that the questions go from something that two people might say to each other, you know, when they are just meeting or not very close acquaintances even.
Dacher Keltner: Right, sitting next to each other on a train, or—
Rudy Mendoza Denton: Right so, you know, ‘Hey, you know, what’s your name? What’s your favorite color?’ The key is that the questions become more and more, not intimate in any kind of sexual or romantic way, but a little, just a little more about you and about things that your inner life and thoughts and attitudes and processes, that you then, you know, think, oh, I don’t know that I would, share that with a stranger. Again, the key is that you’re sort of gradually guided into that place of human closeness.
Dacher Keltner: So Rudy, this practice has been associated with romantic closeness, and we had author Kelly Corrigan on talking about the really interesting emotional closeness and the kindness and complexity it brought with her husband. You’ve kind of developed a different way to use these 36 questions exercise in your research.
Rudy Mendoza Denton: I was a graduate student when I became interested in ways to think about combating prejudice and inter-group negativity, basically. And because I was in a lab that also studied romantic relationships, I had come across the research on the, what we were then calling then the ‘fast friends’ procedure.
And I also noticed that the literature on cross-race friendship and prejudice reduction. It was impossible to say which direction that relationship went. Was it that less prejudice people were more able to develop cross-race friendships, or is it that cross-race friendships, as that literature would suggest, should allow for a greater openness and a greater ability to see beyond the other person’s skin color or racial or ethnic background and more into the person underneath. So I thought, “Hey! Why not have people, you know, across groups do this, and let’s see what happens. Let’s see if people become friends.”
Dacher Keltner: So you’re building friendships between different ethnic and racial backgrounds, class backgrounds?
Rudy Mendoza Denton: We were specifically interested at the time in cross-race friendship as a way to reduce racial prejudice. I think the findings are generalizable, but yes, we were specifically interested in whether the fast friends procedure would quite simply work.
Dacher Keltner: So what’d you find in this research?
Rudy Mendoza Denton: So we found, first of all, that the friendship manipulation worked. And people very quickly and very strongly, both across and within racial diads, experienced feelings of friendship and commonality. And by diads, Dacher, I just mean couples. Two people together. That was the first finding.
The second finding relates to this issue of causality. Is it the case that people who are less prejudiced are more prone to have cross-race friendship? Or is there something specifically about cross-race friendships that leads people to become less prejudiced? And we were able to use the fast friends paradigm to be able to specifically address this question—that is, create friendship in the lab and see whether afterwards people were in fact less prejudiced. And that’s exactly what we showed in the study. So that was a really nice confirmation of that relationship that goes from friendship to prejudice reduction.
I think this is a really significant finding because instead of saying, ‘Oh you just have to be less prejudiced and then therefore you’re more likely to develop these cross-race friendships,’ instead of putting it at the level of the person, it puts it at the level of the relationship, so that if you develop better relationships with someone from another group, then you’re more likely to have better attitudes towards that group and this is something that had been hypothesized or written about in the literature, but it had never been really experimentally tested and we were able to do that.
You know, it makes a lot of sense because once you develop a friendship, your conception about not just that person, but about the entire group changes, because it changes your stereotypes. It changes your expectations. It changes basically what you think about the other group.
Once you develop a friendship, your conception about not just that person, but about the entire group changes, because it changes your stereotypes.
And there was actually a third finding that I find really interesting, which was non-intuitive and that is people, after the first meeting, some actually experienced greater levels of stress than you would anticipate. And I think that that’s because it’s very difficult to, and very scary, to suddenly be faced in this situation where many people don’t have a lot of experience. But the wonderful thing was that by sessions 2 and 3, because we did expand the procedure, people were experiencing much less stress. And this is, we assess this through saliva, through people’s hormones.
And I have to share in the podcast if I may, the absolute research highlight of my career. And, you know, this is not an exaggeration, but at the end of the study, after the three sessions of the fast friends procedure, we had people play a game of Jenga, which is simply a collaborative, cooperative game. And as the tower would fall, you would see these cross-race diads that, you know, a few weeks ago had been complete strangers, just laughing their heads off and being so, you know, clearly and joyfully engaged with each other. And that was really, you know, it was true cross-race friendship. And really, as I said, the highlight of my career.
Dacher Keltner: Nice. Yeah, I mean in the literature it’s often you find when you bring people of different ethnic or racial backgrounds together there’s actual anxiety and tension and potential misunderstandings, so it seems like this question format is really useful.
Rudy Mendoza Denton: That is precisely why so many people avoid having inter-group contact in the first place, because they’re afraid they’re either going to be the targets of prejudice or they’re going to be themselves labeled as prejudiced. That they’re going to say something wrong, stick their foot in their mouth, that it’s just kind of not going to go well. So people, you know, default back to their known networks, which tend to be fairly homogenous.
So that’s a key insight there and gets back to what I was saying earlier about the key feature of the 36 questions, that it helps break barriers. And that’s the simple fact that it’s a structured task. In other words, what your job is is not just sort of saying, “Hey, how about those Yankees?” or something, right? But rather, to read the question, and to listen to the person’s answer. People are at the start, very reliant and very timid about their answers.
Dacher Keltner: Right, a little guarded.
Rudy Mendoza Denton: Exactly, a little guarded. And then as the questions begin to evolve into more intimate-type questions, people really begin to let loose and little smiles or little shyness signals that you get, and then people are laughing and sharing in that, instead of being uncomfortable together, when you say something goofy or uncomfortable, both laugh.
Dacher Keltner: That’s fascinating. You know, you’ve highlighted for us a lot of reasons, like just stepping back and thinking about why does this simple exchange of answers and questions work so much? And part of it’s trust, and part of it is laughter, and part of it is getting to know someone, and breaking the tensions, but I never thought about this idea, that this exercise that embodies this basic insight in the happiness literature which doesn’t come easily, which is like, it’s between people, right? That’s where the action is.
Rudy Mendoza Denton: That’s right. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention why the closeness between people works in the way that it does. And it’s a very specific phenomenon that’s known as “expansion of the self.” Which is that the closer that you feel to each other, either through the 36 questions, or because of a long-term relationship, the more likely you are to misidentify your partner’s attribute as your own. So it takes you a little bit longer to say, ‘No, no, no…oh, that. Great musician? That’s not me. Right. That’s my partner.’ So there’s a little bit of—and it’s not confusion, but rather, it’s an expansion of the other into the self. That’s what explains why I sweat when my partner is giving a presentation. Or why my partner feels good when something good happens to me as well.
Dacher Keltner: You know, you’ve really surfaced the central theme or one of I think the most underappreciated but critical themes in the science of happiness is we are these hyper-social relational beings, right? It has all these emotions supporting it. That’s where we find happiness and health. And I love how you’ve brought into focus today, how this 36 question exercise is also a nice structured way to break down some barriers and feel close to people that seem a little different from us, came out of a different neighborhood, you know, have a different religious tradition and so forth. What’s the deep lesson from the 36 question exercise?
Rudy Mendoza Denton: That’s a great question Dacher, and I think one of the deep insights that we can get from this literature, is that, you have to be very deliberate and effortful to reach out across the—you know we’re talking here about racial divides—but it can also be like, a religious divide, a class divide. Those are effortful self-interventions that are a little bit like social engineering. Very small. But they do change the world.
Dacher Keltner: Rudy, I want to thank you for being on the Science of Happiness podcast. This has been an amazing conversation about friendship and hope to have you back.
Rudy Mendoza Denton: I hope to be back, Dacher. Thanks.
Dacher Keltner: So Rudy Mendoza Denton is the Richard and Rhoda Goldman distinguished professor in social sciences here at UC Berkeley.