CU Boulder researcher June Gruber kicks off a new season of “The Ampersand” podcast in a conversation about all the feelings, not just the positive ones
When June Gruber was tackled by two grown men on the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil, her fear and shock stood in stark relief to her gratitude as strangers stepped forward to offer help and to catch the assailants.
As overwhelming and scary as the experience was, it offered Gruber, a University of Colorado Boulder associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, opportunities to be curious.
Gruber studies and looks for the best in humanity, even in its darkest parts, and brings to light the complexity of the human brain and all the stories it has to offer. Her research has shown that a range of emotion, from bittersweet melancholy to nostalgic joy, is better for the human body than a “toxic positivity” insistence on a singular feeling of happiness.
She recently joined host Erika Randall, associate dean for student success in the CU College of Arts and Sciences, to kick off a new season of "The Ampersand,” the College of Arts and Sciences podcast. Randall—who also is a dancer, professor, mother, filmmaker and writer—joins guests in exploring stories about “ANDing” as a “full sensory verb” that describes experience and possibility.
In a broad-ranging discussion, excerpted below, Gruber and Randall talked about the full palette of emotions and how there’s connection to be found even in the worst moments. Click the link above to hear the entire conversation.
Gruber: A lot of the way we hear about happiness and positivity, especially in more westernized or individualistic context, is very self-centered. It's, "How can I feel better, and in particular, how can I feel these kind of exuberant emotions–joy, excitement, enthusiasm?"
Although those are certainly important feelings to have in part of the human experience, sometimes we push them too far or experience them in ways that put other feelings to the wayside. And so, when I think about that sweet spot of happiness, I think about a few different pieces. One is balancing the kinds of emotions you have so that you balance both the emotions that bring you pleasure, but also, you're experiencing those kinds of feelings that really orient you outwards towards other people.
So, we think of these as other-oriented feelings. This could be love, this could be compassion. We've even found … that a sense of awe and wonder, the science is telling us that gets us out of ourselves, that gets us into the great beyond and actually makes us really connect with others in the greater world. So, I think it's about also experiencing those emotions that engage us with the world and engage us with other people.
I also have found that happiness isn't about just feeling positive. And in fact, we've done some work looking at the diverse … menu of feelings you can have as a human being. We're built with all kinds of feelings, including sadness and frustration, at times embarrassment.
Randall: Melancholy is my favorite.
Gruber: Melancholy, yeah.
Randall: It's my fave, and my kid at 2 years old: “Mama, my favorite word is melancholy.”
Gruber: Such a good word.
Randall: Yeah, I'm like, okay, I'm done parenting. I've arrived. But yeah, these other feelings that connect us to a sense of ourselves and outward.
Gruber: And the world as it is. So, that means if experiencing what we call emotional diversity. There are times when it's completely appropriate to feel angry at social injustice, at the world, you know, not going the way it could or optimally ought to be. And anger can motivate us to sort of push towards social change or, you know, behavioral change. There's times when embarrassment, we find that it actually can be completely all right. Although it can feel painful. When you feel embarrassed, other people like you more, they trust you more. They laugh.
Randall: Yeah, they see your humility, humanity.
Gruber: So, happiness is about experiencing all the different … The palette of emotions we find.
Randall: What brought you to this work? I think, for myself, I spend so much time as an artist and as a writer being with, and I wonder what it's like to be with on a neurological level, on a scientific level. What brought you to be with happiness so deeply?
Gruber: Part of it's … I always wanted to be a writer when I was in high school. I loved English literature. I loved reading about human experience. And all of them, you know, whether I was reading, you know, 1984 or Lord of the Flies, or you know, it was just learning about the human mind. And I knew that I wanted to try to study it more deeply in a way that I could also bring in math and I could also bring in running experiments, like to do all the things to be able to understand happiness.
But what got me interested in this in particular, actually, was not a class, but I actually was an undergraduate and I was shadowing a psychiatrist through an inpatient unit in the psychiatry unit. And I was following her around as she went on her rounds from patient to patient. And I remember one patient that we stopped and visited, and it was a woman in sort of the acute throes of mania. And I had never seen anything like that before.
Randall: And it was probably terrifying.
Gruber: It was terrifying, and it was also absorbing because here she was in this very fragile part of her life, and at the same time she was laughing, she was exuberant. And I wanted to understand what that was about, because all I knew at that time from my classes was in the positive psychology movement where we were trying to foster happiness, we were trying to think positive thoughts. And this didn't fit with that, and I wondered what could it tell us?
Randall: You said a sentence earlier on ... about what really is. How do we be with what is and still find pleasure, wonder and not just happiness at that edge?
Gruber: As a mom with two little boys, I think all the time about like, we have this opportunity, we can teach children and teach them these things young so it becomes part of the foundation of who they are and what they think about their own feelings. I think about that, especially as a mom of two young boys, where we need to foster greater awareness of feelings and all of them in a world that hasn't always supported men experiencing all their feelings.
Randall: So, I want to get back to the story about the bystander experience.
June: What's so interesting about it is it's one of these things you learn early on, and that when we're in a group and something happens, especially someone, you know, maybe they're being robbed on the street, that people, if they don't have to be involved, they just turn an eye and walk away. And that's what we're told to understand and believe humans are about. And it always made me sad. It always made me feel sort of cynical about humanity. And I think this experience showed me that that doesn't have to be the case. Like, there's hope for humanity, especially in these times when it can feel so challenging … There’s still like, inherent human goodness.
Randall: Yes, especially when you feel danger in your body. So, you were traveling?
Gruber: I was traveling. I was in Sao Paulo (Brazil) with my friend Sabrina. We were teaching a course to students there on creativity and happiness. So, like where art and psychology meet. It was a dream.
And one night, we were leaving dinner, just she and I, and we were walking up the street. And out of just ... literally, it was the blink of an eye. I couldn't have even described having an opportunity to react right away because it happened so fast. Two men just pushed my friend to the side and pushed me to the ground.
Two men, out of nowhere, you know, middle aged, like solid. Solid people. They had pushed me to the ground. So, I was on the ground and I had been holding my phone. I shouldn't have been holding it out. And as I was just gripped to it. I don't even think in that moment I quite knew it was happening. But yeah, they were sort of both ... One was like pushing, pinning me down to the ground, and the other was just like striking me with his arms. And I was just in the moment, in a blur like, what is happening? How much worse is this going to get? I believed it was going to be a lot worse. And when is this going to end? That's all I could think.
And my friend Sabrina, who is a very kind, very gentle, not physically aggressive person at all. She was standing back and watching these two men over me. I'm on the ground. And just, just in a moment, I don't think she even thought twice. She went and just like whacked him. She kicked him hard. She does play soccer, so we think that helped. But she whacked him with a foot.
Randall: Wow, she put herself in.
Gruber: She did.
Randall: Into the mix.
Gruber: She put her own safety at risk. And I asked her about this: “Why did you do that? Thank you, but why did you do that?” And she said, “What else could I have done? You were in a dire situation and no one else was reacting. No one else was there in that moment.”
And she said, “I honestly didn't think twice.” And the man she kicked kind of lost his balance and stumbled back. And then they both just took off. I think they didn't want to mess with my friend or us anymore.
Randall: I don't want to mess with her either. I love it.
Gruber: Yeah. We were floored what happened after that because we thought that was sort of the end of the situation … We then, like, were standing there and suddenly a man down the street yelled, "They've got him, they've got him!" And we walked down the street and one of the men was there, and suddenly there was a whole barrage of police there.
Someone else came up to us asking how we were doing. Another guy drives by on a motorcycle, “I'm going to catch the second guy.”
Randall: Whoa, just the world sprang into action.
Gruber: We were sort of in a little bit of shock, but, you know, everyone kept coming up to check with us. Another person called our friend Paolo, who had been our host for this workshop. And he asked if he could come get us. Everyone in that moment checked in on how we were doing.
They ended up catching both of them… and then they tended to us. We went to the police station, and they took care of us. They checked in on us and they took us back to our hotel later that night at 2 in the morning.
Randall: And I bet every single human who was in that situation with you, and for you, didn't leave feeling happy, but they left feeling something.
Gruber: And that's exactly it. No one felt happy in that moment. To feel happy in that moment, I would think would have been toxic positivity, right? Like, it wouldn't have made sense in that moment. It would've meant someone was really out of touch or insensitive, in fact. No one felt happy but I think everyone felt connected and got a sense of what we talk about as purposeful.
Randall: I love that so much. A sense of connected and purposeful.
Listen to The Ampersand here, on Spotify, Amazon Music or wherever you get your podcasts. Episode: Studying the best of humanity, even our darkest parts