There’s More to Happiness Than Bliss: A Conversation with Parker Posey and Emma Seppälä

“We can build our sense of connection to others from within. It doesn’t matter if you have tons of friends or not.”

Actor Parker Posey and happiness researcher Emma Seppälä recently collaborated on a talk at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York as part of the Brainwave 2016 Series. Parker and Emma explored the topic of happiness, considering how presence, empathy, and connectivity shape our experiences.

Parker is known for her roles in major films, including You’ve Got Mail, Best in Show, the recent Woody Allen films Irrational Man and Cafe Society. She has also appeared in several off-Broadway productions and has made recent television appearances on Portlandia, Granite Flats, and Inside Amy Schumer, among others. Emma is the Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Her most recent book, The Happiness Track, examines how to apply the science of happiness to everyday life.

Emma Seppälä: What brings you the greatest fulfillment? What really makes you feel fulfilled?

Parker Posey: Fulfillment for me is through what I do in making and uplifting stories, characters, or ideas. If I’m not having that harmony and exchange with others, I get depressed. That said, I think that harmony is happening all the time.

Emma: Yeah, research shows that we always think we’re going to get happy from the next fulfillment, the next accomplishment, the next achievement, or perhaps from that house we’re going to buy, or that perfect partner we’re going to meet. If you look at the research, even when you get those things, there may be a little burst of happiness but then you go right back to where you were. It’s very short-lived.

The greatest levels of fulfillment that we can feel come from positive connection with other people, nurtured by feelings like empathy, compassion, and uplifting other people. In particular, as an actress, empathy is something that you have to feel for your character, and for characters that you interact with. How do you?

Parker: I wonder what’s happening with empathy in acting. I feel like we’re in a different time, in a different mood and culture. There’s so much procedural stuff. I’ve talked to actors who were like, “Oh God, I tried to be more human in the show.” The director’s like, “Just be really blank.” We all laugh about this because we’re seeing something slip away, a style of real characters. When you do get to play a real person and the director creates that space for you, it’s an incredibly generous experience of give and take. Really, it is about forgetting yourself to be with the other person.

Our body’s built for empathy. It’s the reason we cringe when we see someone tripping and falling.

Emma: What you’re saying is that that real pleasure in acting comes from authenticity. Also in our everyday life when we meet someone who’s trying to put on an air of some sort, we can immediately feel it. The reason is because our body’s built for empathy. It’s the reason we cringe when we see someone tripping and falling. It’s the reason we can have tears come when we see someone with tears in their eyes, whether it’s onscreen or in person. When we’re with someone authentic, it’s when we really feel like we can be ourselves.

Even if you have a small infant, that’s like 1 or 2 years old and you drop a pen or something. You say, “Oh, I can’t reach it. Can you please help?”  They’ll try. I’ve done this with my own 1-year-old recently. I thought, “Let’s see if he does what they do in the study.” He was climbing all over his toys and trying to help me reach.

If you give adults in a study $100 and say, “Here’s $100. You can do whatever you want with it. You can share it amongst everyone in this small group, or you can keep it,” and I give you just a couple of seconds to make a decision, chances are your first instinct is to be fair.

For a lot of people, if you give them a little more time to think about it, they’ll decide, “Maybe I could use that $100.” But what’s so interesting is the first instinct is to be fair. We often think everyone’s selfish. It’s dog-eat-dog. Everyone’s out for number one, but that’s not our natural instinct. Our first instinct is to help.

We see this also in the street. When someone trips and falls, you might want to go and help them. Research studies show that this is our first instinct but we stop ourselves because of the norm of self-interest. This idea that we’re all selfish. We stop ourselves because we think, “Oh if I go and help that person, maybe they’ll think I want to get something from them.”

Parker: I have these shoes that are hard to walk around in. I enjoy them but I’ve fallen in them, of course. People have come up to me and helped me. That makes me really happy when people reach out to me.

Emma: We think we’re going to be happy when we have all these achievements, but our greatest source of happiness is from helping. It’s like the best kept secret to happiness because marketers out there don’t want us to know that. They want us to purchase, achieve, whatever.

What’s also interesting is research shows that when you fall, someone helps you, they feel better, you feel better, and if somebody on the street saw that person approach you and help you, that person feels elevated. That’s the term that psychologists use. Elevation is that feeling you get when you see someone helping someone else, and you feel moved. You falling generated this whole cycle.

Parker: I can’t wait to do it again.

Emma: You can make it your daily active kindness. I wonder though if that’s the same in movies — if you watch someone helping someone else in the movie, whether that generates that same cycle of compassion?

Parker: Yeah, I’m sure. The good ones.

Emma: Scientifically we know that we’re built for that empathic response, and that we resonate with each other. When I look at you and I can see some emotion in your face, it reverberates within me. What’s interesting about being an actress is that you’re empathizing with your character, and at the same time you’re empathizing with another character who you’re interacting with.

Parker: Yes. When you have actors that don’t have crazy egos, the director has a lot to do with casting the right people who can be open in a certain way. Saying that, there can be an actor that’s difficult, and closed, and competitive. That is the work of acting, the psychology of the people around and your empathy, and your relatedness to them. Hopefully, you’re in a dialogue. You could be in a silent dialogue. Sometimes a director that you’ve worked with before can just give you a look and you know. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

Emma: In addition to your relationship with the other actors and the director, there’s a second layer of your character. It’s so multidimensional.

Parker: It can be a trip and it’s exhausting. Then it’s hard to relate your experience to other people, even to your friends, because what you’ve just been through feels like your life times a hundred. I still want to know more about neuroscience.

Emma: There’s been a lot of research on meditation and some findings that have been very surprising. For example, research on neuroscience with monks found some extreme things that their brains were particularly adept at. Matthieu Ricard is a monk who is called the happiest man in the world because his brain was off the charts when it came to positive emotions. We don’t yet know the limits of human potential for happiness or for attention.

In terms of happiness, we are at our happiest when we are in the present moment even if we’re doing something that we’re not enjoying.

Research has shown that after meditation retreat, our attention is sharpened. There’s this cool study that looked at attentional blink. If we’re shown a series of pictures or numbers in very fast sequence, we’ll miss every second or third image. We register maybe every third image. After a meditation retreat, people seem to register all of the images that they see. Somehow our attention is deepened, or maybe our attention becomes more normal. We’re usually so distracted; in fact 50% of the time our mind wanders.

In terms of happiness, we are at our happiest when we are in the present moment even if we’re doing something that we’re not enjoying. That’s interesting when you think about the Buddhist and Vedic views of happiness is in the present moment.

Parker: That’s in movies too. When you’re on camera with someone. There’s just the happiness that we’re here in the moment right now talking and connecting. At the very basic level, that’s what the acting world gives. It’s a heightened experience of that exchange. It can be so amazing.

Emma: It’s like a complete immersion with that present moment?

Parker: Yeah.

Emma: Psychologists call that flow. It’s just like that state of being so immersed in the activity that you forget time and space. That’s a fantastic experience.

Parker: I’m lucky. I’m blessed. I do get depressed though. I get very sad a lot. I just wanted to counteract all the happiness with letting everyone know that. Periods of suffering, that’s necessary. I wanted to ask you about frustration and what the mind is doing when it’s frustrated and distracted. <

Emma: Some people use the word frustration when they mean anger. I think you’re meaning it in a different way.

Parker: I just think that being an artist right now is not very nurturing. The culture is not nurturing.

Emma: You were talking about distraction too as something that’s frustrating?

Parker: I think distraction is good. Distraction and denial have worked in my favor.

Emma: In terms of an artist, when we look at creativity and what generates that, one of the things is the ability to diversify your experiences and your interests. The most creative people are those who aren’t just narrowly focused on their field. They also have outside interests that are totally different. It allows them to come back to their field and have these breakthrough moments because there’s connections that happen in their minds that wouldn’t otherwise.

In lot of ways it makes sense that you call it distraction but maybe you’re engaging with very different kinds of activities that can help make you feel more nurtured when you go back to your profession.

Parker: You’re right.

Emma: From what we hear, the world of Hollywood and acting can be quite a harsh one. It’s work to be at your maximum potential as an artist within that culture. I think many people struggle with our work places where the culture’s aggressive, or competitive, or just negative. It’s something we all have to contend with. For some people, they volunteer for an organization they’re passionate about. Yet, non-profit has all these negative issues too. We all contend with that and we all have a desire to contribute to the best of our ability. What do you do to nurture yourself, to make yourself strong in those environments?

If I were to boil down the science of happiness, it lies in our positive relationships with other people.

Parker: How do I deal with that? It’s constant connecting and reaching.

Emma: Fundamentally, that’s what the research shows. If I were to boil down the science of happiness, it lies in our positive relationships with other people, and very much nurtured by that spirit of empathy, and kindness, and reaching out to others. Many people feel like, “I’ll be happy if people love me, if people admire me.” In the end, that makes you focus on yourself. I’m sure you’ve seen that in some actors. Yet, even when you get all of that, you won’t be happy because happiness really comes from extending a hand towards someone else.

Parker: Yes, that’s so true. It’s so weird when people don’t think that that’s cool. It’s kind of shocking. Some people in my business like to intimidate others with their own power. It can be lots of ego battles. It’s hard to connect with them. That can be really challenging and alienating.

Emma: At the end of the day, perhaps those kind of people are trying to project an image to get attention because they actually want to connect, but they think they’re going to connect by asking for attention. Then in the end they feel isolated and lonely. That actually is linked to feelings of unhappiness.

We can build our sense of connection to others from within. It doesn’t matter if you have tons of friends or not.

Parker: Deep unhappiness, right?

Emma: Yeah. A lot of people think, “Oh my gosh! I don’t have friends. I’m introverted. I’m shy. I’m a working mom, and I just don’t have time to connect.” However, it doesn’t have anything to do with how many friends you have. It has to do with your subjective feeling of connection. You seem like someone who from the inside feels connected to others, and that’s the nurturance. We can build our sense of connection to others from within. It doesn’t matter if you have tons of friends or not. You can feel that connection. You see it in a child. They’ll be like, “Will you play with me?” They don’t care if they know your name. It doesn’t matter. Who cares, right? That is that spirit of connection from within.

Parker: It’s a shame when we lose that. Someone asked me, “What was your happiest moment?” I remember being 8 years old and outside of the house in Louisiana. I had one of those zip up pajama onesies. I was just sitting outside waiting for spring to come. My dad took a picture and came up to me. He’s like, “What are you doing?” Just waiting for the spring to come. Whenever I feel kind of sad, I like to go back to that.  

Emma: The beauty of that is that when we do feel those joyful moments, that contrast allows those moments to be so much more vibrant. There’s beauty in opposites. And a sense of gratitude can come. When you feel gratitude, it amplifies your happiness. Your physical and psychological health improves. For example, I just had a baby about 13 months ago. He didn’t sleep at night for a whole year. My sleep had always been protected my whole life. I love sleep and it was awesome. Here, I just experienced no sleep.

Recently he started sleeping until 4:00 in the morning. I’ve just been like, “Sleep is so amazing. Does everybody realize that sleep is so amazing? Are you sleeping through the night tonight? Are you going to sleep the whole 7 hours? Do you know how lucky you are?”

We work so hard and we work too hard. Everything is like a hamster wheel of speediness.

Parker: That’s so great. I think so many of us have really stressful jobs. We work so hard and we work too hard. Everything is like a hamster wheel of speediness. You can’t get off.

Emma: Exactly right.

Parker: It’s hard to trust the universe. I’ve seen my friends go through really dire things like, “I don’t know how it’s all going to come together. I have to move out of my apartment.” You see that things do shift. They shift in a better direction. 

But I’ve been knocked out by stress. Exhaustion and shutdown.

Emma: Stress is pervasive.

Parker: Don’t you feel like there’s a lot more in our work life? Obviously, the gadgets have put a demand on us. That is where our experience is. We don’t quite know how to stay human.

Emma: We don’t. And we’re seeing 50% or more burnout across industries. Look at email. In the past you might have had a couple experiences during the day that make you emotionally upset. Maybe your landlord is pissed off, or your mom calls. Now you open your inbox and you have 30 new emails. Each one can generate a different emotion. Within 10 minutes, you’ve gone through the whole spectrum. That’s enough, you can go back to bed right there.

Nowadays, people sleep with their cellphones. You wake up and you don’t even look at your partner or your child’s eyes first. First you look at your screen.

Parker: Yes. You’ve lived like a week with the email that you just read.

Emma: We didn’t have this in our lives 20 years ago. We haven’t learned to manage it. Not only is the technology interrupting us, but we are interrupting ourselves too. One of the reasons is that we get this little high whenever we get novelties. “Oh, I got a text message,” or a notification. We start to get addicted to that. I don’t think we’ve gained consciousness of what it’s actually doing to our nervous system. The other thing is that we don’t have those moments anymore for daydreaming. Creativity comes in those moments.

Nowadays, people sleep with their cellphones. You wake up and you don’t even look at your partner or your child’s eyes first. First you look at your screen.

Questions from Audience

Audience: How does sense of humor work into long term happiness? What do we know about the neurobiology of the sense of humor’s release of neurotransmitters?

Parker: You know the term, “When blue, wear red?” You would be surprised at sourpuss funny people. Some of the funniest people can be very serious and intense.

It’s true and it’s interesting, because you’re deeply affected by things. Things make you upset. Then you have to get out of that. Hopefully you have a funny friend that reminds you and you’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s right. I’m funny again.” Sometimes there are periods as we get older and more aware of life passing, and all of that. It gets more interesting and delicate. I think I’m happier as I get older.

Emma: Research shows that too. The more aware we are of the finiteness of time, the more we start to live in the moment, and the more we start to appreciate what we have.

I worked a lot with veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan and the main thing that keeps them together, both when they’re in a war zone, but also when they’re in training, is their sense of humor. It bonds people because we share this positive emotion. In the military especially, where you’re going through these really rough experiences, humor helps connect you.

There’s this military Facebook humor page called Shit My Drill Sergeant Said. They post military humor, which can be crass, but it makes them laugh. One day one of the guys who manages the page got a message that said, “My friend has disappeared. He has a gun and his cell phone is off. We’re really scared he’s going to commit suicide.” The leader of that page posted it on Facebook and said, “All jokes are off right now. This is what’s going on.” All night long, there were over 100 comments. People got in their cars, start driving to find him. By 4:30 in the morning, they had located this person, saved his life. He called the people managing that page and left a voicemail. I heard it and I just want to cry because he was saying, “Thanks for caring, because of you I’m alive today.”

It’s such a vibrant example of this playfulness and this humor that connects yet it’s so linked to this deep humanity, and love, and connection to one another.

Audience: Can happiness be a choice? Do you choose to be happy or not?

Emma: If you ask people in the United States what does happiness mean, they’ll define it as high intensity, positive emotions. They say, “Excitement, enthusiasm, elation, thrill.”

Then you go to China, or Japan, or Korea, you say, “What is happiness?” They’ll say, “Contentment, peacefulness, calm.” It really depends on how we define it. Can you create it as a habit? One thing we know is that we have a negativity bias. We have 3 times more positive things that happen to us on a daily basis than negative. Yet if one negative thing happens to us, all of a sudden our entire day is ruined. Yet we live in this first world country. We probably had 3 or 4 meals. We sleep in a warm bed. There are so many things that are going right, and yet it was raining and your new shoes got wet. All of a sudden, the whole day is just terrible. That’s the negativity bias.

Parker: It makes me think of self-criticism, and how awful and hard it is to have empathy for ourselves when we start to self-criticize. I just got stuck there. We don’t talk about that. We need more expression of it in the arts.

Emma: It’s interesting you bring up self-criticism because it’s so prevalent. What it does is basically self-sabotage. There’s all this research coming out on self-compassion that shows that that makes you more resilient, more happy. It makes you more likely to learn and grow from your mistakes. Yet so often we get caught up in self-criticism. I was just thinking of an analogy the other day. Let’s say you’re training for a marathon. And then, “Oh my God! This is the big day.” You’re running the New York City Marathon. You trip and fall because you’re wearing cute shoes.

Parker: That was me you’re talking about.

Emma: There’s someone on the sideline there and that person says, “You’re a failure. You can’t run. Why are you even doing this?” How you would feel versus someone saying, “Everybody falls. You can totally do this. Get right back up. I know you can do it. You can make it.” We viscerally can feel how that different it would feel. Yet we are that person on the sideline. We don’t realize it. Self-compassion is treating yourself like you would a friend.

Audience: How useful is failure in finding happiness?

Parker: A few weeks before I started working with Woody Allen, I broke my wrist. I had wrist surgery. I thought I was going to be fired. Then I thought I was going to be cut from the film. When I took my splint off even to hold my purse, it was painful. When you look at that, it’s like failure. My body failed me in a creative situation where I needed to have everything together.

But it gave me a lot of strength, having to hold on to this injury. If you’re asking about failures that are beyond your control or stuff like that from the outside, someone once said the only rejection is self-rejection. I like that a lot.

Emma: On a personal level, failure has led me to a state of surrender. I’ve made a mistake and all that I can do right now is let go. You could say, “I’m so terrible. I’m so terrible,” or you can say, “That person is so terrible. That person is responsible for my failure.” Neither of those will take you anywhere. When you really come to that low point, the only thing you can do is put your forehead on the floor and say, “Surrender because there’s nothing I could do. I have no answers.” That’s just been a blessing to be able to do that.

Parker: Those moments of feeling like a failure are common to me and my friends. Surrender and there’s strength in vulnerability. There’s strength in sharing your brokenness, and your unsureness of your situation. It’s a very human thing.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.