Mind & body, Research, Science & environment

Podcast: Giving up Twitter with Michael Pollan

Journalism professor and author Michael Pollan discusses how taking a break from Twitter changed his life and why he hasn't gone back yet

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Today, we share an episode of The Science of Happiness, a podcast produced by our colleagues at the Greater Good Science Center. Host and UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner talks with Berkeley Journalism professor and bestselling author Michael Pollan about what it was like for Pollan to give up Twitter — something that he found was becoming a somewhat unproductive compulsion.

Next week, we’ll be back with our final Berkeley Voices episode of the season. 

Read a transcript of episode 95 of The Science of Happiness: “How to enjoy life more with Michael Pollan.”

Dacher Keltner: What’s a daily indulgence that you’d have a hard time giving up?

Speaker 1: Chocolate

Speaker 2: Eating a spoonful of peanut butter.

Speaker 3: Coffee and cheese

Speaker 4: An evening stroll with a sneaky beer in a coffee cup.

Speaker 5: I like to indulge in beautiful smells.

Speaker 6: Reading a book. Or reading an article.

Speaker 7: That indulgence would be video gaming.

Speaker 8: A dram of a really good single malt scotch.

Dacher Keltner: For me, it’s no doubt coffee, and it’s hard to imagine life without it. I’m Dacher Keltner, welcome to The Science of Happiness.

Simple pleasures make life a little more joyful. They’re comforting. So what happens when we give up something we love, even for a short time?

Our guest today, Michael Pollan, did just that for our show.

Michael is the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism here at the University of California, Berkeley. He’s also the author, of course, of many bestselling books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and How to Change Your Mind. His latest book is called This is Your Mind on Plants, and it explores the sometimes arbitrary ways in which we define what our culture considers a drug.

Michael’s here to share what happened to his mind when he gave up something that hundreds of millions of people use worldwide.

We’ll also look at the science behind how giving something up temporarily can help us appreciate it more when we resume it.

But first of all, Michael, thanks for being on The Science of Happiness.

Michael Pollan: Good to be here. I think it’s kind of funny and ironic that I would be on a show about abstention since my recent history is all about indulgence. Or trying things.

Dacher Keltner: And the pleasures of life.

Michael Pollan: Yeah.

Dacher Keltner: So, Michael, you tried a practice for our show where you gave up something you enjoy for one week, so you can appreciate it more in your life when you resume using it. Kind of like what people do in many different spiritual traditions, like Lent and Ramadan. And I love this idea because it’s counterintuitive and it has richness.

But before we talk about what you gave up for our show, I want to ask you about what you gave up, then wrote about in This Is Your Mind on Plants.

Michael Pollan: Which is caffeine.

Dacher Keltner: Yeah.

Michael Pollan: Yeah. Taken either as coffee or tea or soda.

Dacher Keltner: Yeah.

Michael Pollan: Ninety percent of us are involved with caffeine on a daily basis, that’s quite extraordinary. That’s how our entire civilization, for all intents and purposes.

Dacher Keltner: This is the most widely used drug in the world. And you quit caffeine cold turkey. What compelled you to do that?

Michael Pollan: The reason I did it was for just the reason you were describing at the top of the show, which is, there’s no way to understand the role of any substance in your life or practice in your life until you take a break from it. And I always intended to get back on. Indeed, that was part of the motive. I wanted to see how powerful the drug was because as you get inured to a drug, you get tolerant and you don’t actually see its power. You know, initially, you just don’t know how central caffeine is to the knitting together of the ego every morning. It sort of frays overnight, you know, we’re in this dream world, we’re unconscious. And there is this character that we need to put back together that gets us out of bed.

And without caffeine, that just doesn’t happen very well.

Dacher Keltner: So, what was it like when you gave it up?

Michael Pollan: So, I just was not seeing clearly. I was in a fog. I didn’t have headaches, which many people are. And it’s very common. Some people report flu-like symptoms. It can get really serious. And my habit, I was drinking one half-caf a day, by the way, I wasn’t a big imbiber. But over time, it was the focus, the ability to think about one thing at a time. I felt like I had ADD and that all these peripheral thoughts I could not stop. And as a writer, I mean, you know, that is the skill you need is to block out everything and reduce the world to one word at a time.

Three months in and I had my first cup and it was transcendent. I mean, it was psychedelic, really. I don’t think we have any idea – I mean, most of us use caffeine to maintain a baseline of clear consciousness and focus. But when you first have it and you have none of it in your body and you’re not tolerant in any way, it is powerful. I remember having this first cup on a Saturday morning and feeling this wave of euphoria and clarity. I mean, the world was like filming. It was so sharp.

Dacher Keltner: Yeah. So I want to ask you about the practice you did for the Greater Good Science Center based on work by Jordi Quoidbach and Elizabeth Dunn, two of my favorite researchers in this field. And, you know, they had people give stuff up and then try it again. And you gave something up that you love, which is Twitter and…

Michael Pollan: Love. I don’t know.

Dacher Keltner: Okay.

Michael Pollan: But feel compelled to.

Dacher Keltner: Part of your emotional life. You’ve got 560,000 followers. What is social media, what does engaging it mean to you or what’s it give you?

Michael Pollan: Well, I use social media kind of as a broadcast medium. I don’t read comments that much because I find that really unhelpful psychologically. But I use different ones in different ways. Instagram, I use very occasionally to promote something, but usually just, “Hey, look at this cool thing I saw on my walk this morning. There’s tons of flowers.

Dacher Keltner: And cacti and bread.

Michael Pollan: And plants and cats and all sorts of stuff. Twitter I use because I feel like I’ve helped construct a community around the two issues I’ve worked on most in the last 20 years, and that is food and farming on the one hand and psychedelics on the other. And they’re both communities, and there’s an overlap, there’s a Venn diagram where they cross. So, I’m constantly putting out interesting things I find in that space.

And so I just sort of feel like I’m feeding this community information and they’re feeding me stuff, too. And, I found really cool stories that way. I see studies I might not see. I don’t have a I don’t have an RSS feed anymore. I don’t know if anybody does. And so I know that if I check Twitter on these accounts, I’ll hear about any important new study or any important piece of writing on the subjects I care about. I don’t think that that’s a destructive use of social media at all. But, you know, you get sucked into it.

Dacher Keltner: What did Twitter do to your identity or your landscape of feeling?

Michael Pollan: My sense is that social media strengthens your sense of ego. And I don’t mean strengthen in a good way, but I mean in terms of the ego builds walls. The ego is a defensive structure in large part. And we feel defensive because our ideas are being attacked or we’re being attacked. And so you immediately go into this, you know, hunch where you’re, you’re not open, you close, you close ranks with yourself. So I think it is precisely the opposite effect. And I think that’s one of the problems that it nourishes ego-consciousness in the worst sense. I mean, egos are very important tools. They get a lot done. We all rely on our egos, but they also are what cuts us off from other people, from nature, by building these walls. And I feel those walls rise when I’m in an angry Twitter exchange.

Dacher Keltner: What was that like for you to kind of have this way of relating to the world through Twitter, and then give it up for a week?

Michael Pollan: It was great. I just want to say for the eager beaver who goes to check my feed to see if I tweeted anything in this period.

I didn’t go on Twitter. I have a tool on my desktop where if I see something I want to tweet to other people, I can go to Amazon, press a link and it will tweet. But I didn’t not go on to Twitter.

I didn’t open up my Twitter feed. I didn’t read any tweets. And so I continued to use it in a broadcast medium. So, you know, it wasn’t a complete abstention, you know. Sue me.

Dacher Keltner: So there are lots of things you could give up in your life.

Michael Pollan: I considered others, too.

Dacher Keltner: Like what you consider?

Michael Pollan: I considered sugar and chocolate.

Dacher Keltner: How come?

Michael Pollan: Why did I consider them? Yeah, well, I don’t have a big issue with sugar. I wasn’t going to do anything hard. I didn’t see the point.

Dacher Keltner: Wait I thought this is like a contemplative spiritual practice where you do really have serious stuff.

Michael Pollan: You know, it was a serious thing. But sugar, we were going to be celebrating someone’s birthday in the, in the time period. And I felt like, you know, it would be antisocial to decline a cake for a Greater Good practice that I couldn’t even explain to the birthday girl. So that was out. Twitter is something I’ve been struggling with.

You know, it was a compulsion and, and not a very productive one. You’re exposed to a lot of dark stuff when you go on Twitter and a lot of anger. There’s a lot of things that happened there to make you pissed off.

Dacher Keltner: I know it’s funny.

Michael Pollan: It’s like, God, I’ve been you know you know, my phone tells me every day how much screen time I have. And, you know, it was getting ridiculous, especially during the last administration. I don’t remember. But it was several hours a day of screen time.

Yeah. And I don’t remember the actual numbers, but my screen time went down dramatically during this 10-day period, which is great. Yeah, I think I’m going to continue. I mean, I think I’ll do what I need to do on Twitter, but not do it casually. Not do it when I’m standing in line, you know, at the grocery store. I used it to fill a certain kind of time. I know, but it’s a certain kind of time that we used to daydream in.

Dacher Keltner: It was the best time.

Michael Pollan: And we’re not daydreaming.

Dacher Keltner: Waiting for the bus or–

Michael Pollan: Yeah. Or noticing your environment. Or looking at the people around you. It’s such a stupid way to fill that time. And so, you know, I learn something that will make it easier, I think for me to stop looking at the phone during those moments.

Dacher Keltner: Yeah.

Michael Pollan: And that felt great. So, I’m planning, I have to use Twitter because it’s a tool for my work in many ways. But I’m planning to cut way back and do more broadcasting and less reception of stuff.

Dacher Keltner: Well, and that’s why I love this practice because, you know, a lot of the empirical data, you know, it’s a story that’s still in need of being told well., but the data show that a lot of use, mindless use of the new social media makes you lower in self esteem and a little more depressed. And it doesn’t boost happiness in significant ways. You know, when you get out into the discourse about the social media, which you gave up, it’s just a reflex now for pundits and people to say like it’s a drug, you know? And I bristle at that. Yeah. You know, you see somebody who’s hooked on heroin. You’re like, no.

Michael Pollan: It’s a little different.

Dacher Keltner: It is a little different. How do you draw that analogy?

Michael Pollan: You know this I mean, we say this about food, too, that it’s addictive and we use that word in kind of a sloppy way, I think, and that we should refine our use of it. Yeah, but. You know, it is a habit and drugs are a habit, too, and addiction is not just a property of chemistry. And we know that. I mean, less than 10 percent of people who use hard drugs become addicted. So, it’s possible to use them without getting addicted. Ditto social media. Some people can use them. It’s an adaptation, I think, to what’s going on in your life. Whether you’re using social media in an addictive way or using drugs in an addictive way, it’s serving some need, filling some hole.

And, you know, I think all habits need to be re-examined from time to time. I think it’s very valuable to give them up and then see, take stock. It’s like driving in a car unless you stop and get out. You really don’t know much about that car. And so, but I do think social media, you know, it could be different, but the way it’s being used and in the past that it’s gone down have tended to, yeah, make people feel bad. It’s rare you spend a half-hour or an hour on social media and end up feeling good. Yeah, but I also feel as a writer and as a person that contact with real things, contact with nature is so important to me and anything that mediates my relationship to nature, which is always mediated to some extent, I don’t think it’s good for me.

Dacher Keltner: I agree. And I would say the same thing about social life, like, you know,

Michael Pollan: Real social life. Yeah. And, you know, we’re all having the experience now of meeting people that we knew only on Zoom, and it’s really different. Some of them turn out to be taller than you thought or shorter, but different in many ways.

It just feels so much better. Yeah. First of all, you know, real eye contact. Yeah. That’s a powerful thing.

Dacher Keltner: Oxytocin.

Michael Pollan: Yeah. We’ve been missing something. We’ve been missing a lot and I’m kind of giddy with its restoration right now.

Dacher Keltner: Yeah. So, after a week you could get back on Twitter and see other people’s tweets. What was that like?

Michael Pollan: You know I haven’t gotten back on, so I’m going to have to report in to headquarters on that one.

Dacher Keltner: What do you think it will feel like in comparison to quitting coffee?

Michael Pollan: I don’t think I’ll have the same sense of pleasure getting back on Twitter. It’s just a guess. I mean, and that has to do partly with Twitter and partly with the fact that getting back on caffeine was so fantastic. You know, it’s one of the big experiences of the last year. It was like that first cup. I don’t think I’m going to feel that way about Twitter.

I’ve just been happy the way it’s been. I’m sure I will, but I’m in no rush. So but I do know in the case of coffee what that was like that getting back on. And I’m sure this would have been true for chocolate, too, that it has a savor. It has an intensity, you know, we’re creatures designed to kind of. Novelty gets very quickly turned into habit and in the background and something we take for granted and one of the beauties of giving something up is you once again have that sense of first sight or wonder or power of the experience that you’ve lost. And that’s an argument for, you know, doing it as a rhythm of life, that you get off these things because we forget what they’re like, we forget what they give us. The more rare something is, the more special it is. So, I mean, I do think there’s an enormous value in that.

Dacher Keltner: Well, Michael Pollan, congratulations on your new book, This is Your Mind on Plants. It was such a delight to read. And thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness.

Michael Pollan: Thank you, Dacher. Always a pleasure.

Dacher Keltner: Up next: what happens when university students are instructed to give up chocolate for one week?

Elizabeth Dunn: I think it’s pretty fascinating to consider what could we take away, what could we subtract that might actually make us happy or might make us appreciate what we already had?

Dacher Keltner: More, after this break.

Dacher Keltner: We’re always trying to figure out how to get more enjoyment out of life. And when we think about how to get happier, our natural inclination is to think about adding more of those pleasures to our lives.

Elizabeth Dunn: But, I think it’s pretty fascinating to consider what could we take away, what could we subtract that might actually make us happy or might make us appreciate what we already had?

Dacher Keltner: Elizabeth Dunn is a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia. She and her team wanted to see if abstinence could maybe make the heart grow fonder.

Elizabeth Dunn: So, we brought students, 55 students, into the lab. And we asked them to eat a little bit of chocolate.

Dacher Keltner: They measured how much the students enjoyed and savored that chocolate by having them answer questionnaires about their experiences eating it.

Elizabeth Dunn: For example, how much they mindfully paid attention to the taste and texture of the chocolate. And we also had a research assistant sort of surreptitiously observing them and watching how much they really seemed to savor and enjoy the chocolate. So were they, like, just throwing into their mouths and not seeming to pay any attention or like really kind of smiling, licking their lips, really, like really pausing to appreciate this small pleasure.

Dacher Keltner: Liz’s team told one group of the students to completely refrain from eating any chocolate for the ensuing week.

Elizabeth Dunn: Meanwhile, we sent another group of students home with a big bag of chocolate and asked them to eat as much as they comfortably could over the following week. We give them about two pounds worth of chocolate. And finally, there was a third group, we didn’t give any chocolate-related instructions.

Dacher Keltner: Then they brought everybody back into the lab and asked them, once again, to eat some chocolate.

Elizabeth Dunn: And once again, we measured how much they savor the chocolate and how much they enjoyed it.

Dacher Keltner: The students who were asked to indulge in the two pounds of chocolate reported enjoying it less than they had at the start of the experiment.

Elizabeth Dunn: They were less likely to savor the chocolate and to really derive a little mood boost from it than they had been the first week. And, you know, this wasn’t necessarily due to the abundant chocolate. It’s not like they all came in bloated from excessive chocolate consumption.

Dacher Keltner: The students who weren’t given any special chocolate-related instructions showed a pretty similar pattern: They tended to enjoy the chocolate less from one week to the next.

Elizabeth Dunn: This is just the sad reality of the human experience, kind of encapsulated in a single study. That is, the more we repeat an experience, the less likely we are to enjoy it.

Dacher Keltner: People who were asked not to eat any chocolate during the week between lab visits both savored and enjoyed it just as much the second week as they had the first.

Elizabeth Dunn: We saw that we could interrupt this process of declining enjoyment by having people give up chocolate during that intervening week.

It’s perhaps worth noting that their enjoyment and their savoring didn’t increase. It’s not like it went up from week one to week two, but they were just able to maintain that same level of enjoyment that they’d had with this first experience, the second time by kind of taking a break from that positive stimulus in between.

This is kind of like an initial proof of concept and initial demonstration that, “Hey, this might be an effective strategy and then at least it’s perhaps worth giving it a try.” And so, I’d really encourage people to think about using this strategy as a kind of exploratory tool for themselves to just find out whether maybe it might be effective for a particular pleasure in their life that they’ve perhaps begun to take for granted.

Dacher Keltner: Liz notes these findings apply to stimuli that provide immediate pleasure. Chocolate, coffee, wine…so it makes sense that when Michael Pollan tried this practice earlier by abstaining from Twitter, he wasn’t as eager to get back on as he was when he quit coffee.

Elizabeth Dunn I would say that giving up Twitter might make somebody happier, but not because it enables them to give more of their attention or savor the experience of Twitter more, but rather because Twitter just might not be the happiest use of time.

Dacher Keltner: If I were to ask you to look up the word “anger” online, what images do you think you would see?

Soraya Chemaly: You get a bunch of pictures, not kidding of men, mainly white guys, yelling at computers, breaking things, you know, wielding sledgehammers. That’s what we have in our heads, this idea of this rage and destruction. But in fact, we’re quietly, constantly managing our anger all the time. So much so that we don’t have compassion for ourselves.

Dacher Keltner: On our next episode of The Science of Happiness we explore how to harness anger into acts of self-compassion.

I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness. We have instructions for the Give It Up practice online. Just visit GGIA.berkeley.edu.

What did playing look like for you as a child? And as an adult, how do you play now? Share with us by emailing [email protected] or using the hashtag #happinesspod. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX. Our senior producer is Shuka Kalantari. Sound design by Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our associate producer is Haley Gray. Our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh.