“The Animal Version of Happy Boils Down to Two Things: Safety and Discovery.”

Interview: Kathryn Bowers

I got to know Kathryn because we're both in a writers' group, the Invisible Institute. I love this group because although we're all non-fiction writers, we cover an extremely wide range of subjects. When else would I hang out in a professional group with someone like Kathryn—who's an applied animal behaviorist and science writer?

Her first book, Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health, was a New York Times bestseller and was recently featured at the Nobel Conference 2019, in Stockholm, Sweden.

Now she has a new book: Wildhood: The Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood in Humans and Other Animals. It turns out that adolescence isn't just a human phenomenon. We can learn a great deal about human adolescence (a subject of great interest to me) by examining patterns across the animal world.

I couldn't wait to talk to Kathryn about happiness, habits, and productivity.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Kathryn: Waking at four a.m. to write, while my internal editor is still asleep.

What is something you know now about happiness that you didn’t when you were 18?

I love this question, because coming off my five-year study of wild animal adolescents all over the world, I have an entirely new way of understanding modern human teenagers. The period of life I call “wildhood” comes between childhood and adulthood. I’ve thought a lot about what my own wildhood was like, and how it shaped the adult I am today.

The main thing I’ve learned is this: happiness, like love, is a single word tasked with expressing a multitude of emotions. “Happy” tries valiantly, but unsuccessfully, to cover the soft, warm feeling of being safe and snug. The zing of winning a game or award. The satisfaction of discovering a new word, idea, or place. The overwhelming emotions of reuniting with a loved one. How can one word do all that?

I was just a little older than 18 when I read a novel by Laurie Colwin called Happy All the Time. I remember recommending it to my sister. [Gretchen: I love this novel! I love all Laurie Colwin!]

“You’ve got to read this book, Happy All the Time!” I shouted, pushing it into her hands.

“Does it work?” she replied.

There’s wisdom in her question that I’ve thought about ever since. You really can’t be happy all the time. The concept of “this too shall pass” applies to happy moments as well as non-happy moments. I would not have understood that at 18.

Is happiness uniquely human? Because my work, for so many years, has been a close examination of our similarities with other animals—across species and evolutionary time—I’ve thought deeply about this question. My research has led me to the idea that the animal version of happy boils down to two things: safety and discovery.

Here’s what I mean by that: Animals—including, of course, us mammals—have evolved brain systems that reward us for behaviors that promote survival. Safety is rewarded by one system of chemicals and sensations. Discovery, by another. These systems work in tandem, but they reward very different activities. You really can’t do both at the same time. You can’t be safe in your nest and also out hunting or foraging for food, new territory, or mates. But skip either activity, and you won’t survive. What I think this means for people is that happiness is essentially cut in two. You can feel one kind or the other but never (or at least very, very rarely) experience both at the same time.

This gave me a lens for understanding and dealing with my moods—and appreciating each kind of happy when it comes. It also gave me a sense of power to “create” my own happiness, to notice, “Feeling safe makes me feel happy,” or “Learning something new makes me feel happy.”

Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?

For a brief instant in my early twenties, I was a grad student in English literature at NYU. I did not complete the degree, but I did take a course on Emily Dickinson. My thinking and writing were never the same after that. I keep her collected poems near my desk and sometimes write one out in longhand when I’m stuck or needing inspiration.

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)

I can’t think of anything better than “Be Gretchen.” With your permission, I’m adopting “Be Kathryn” right this instant!

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?

Animals who experience social ranking, judging, and especially social comparison have higher anxiety. The more they’re exposed to it, the more anxious they get. This relationship between social judgment and anxiety is even more intense during adolescence, when each individual’s social brain network is just starting to form. And after a certain amount of this anxiety over being compared and judged, animals that are frequently sorted to the bottom stop competing at all. They start acting listless, and what in humans we would call “depressed.” Biologists actually have a word for this helplessness and hopelessness. They call it the “loser effect,” and they’re referring to social competition.

This was huge for me to know personally, but even more important as the mother of a teenager…because what is social media but a literal, endlessly scrolling, permanent social ranking tournament?! Knowing this helped me understand the grip of social media, and why it is often associated with lowered mood.

Modern teenagers are being rated and ranked in real life more than ever before. It’s always been so, but teens used to get breaks from it. Now it never stops. In Wildhood, we named this negative feedback loop, “Assessment Overload Disorder.”

What to do with this knowledge? As the parent of a teen, it gave me a way to open conversations with my daughter and husband about our use of social media. And what we decided was to do three simple(ish) things. They don’t make the problem go away, but they can make it better.

  1. Limit exposure. Don’t cut off social media use altogether, but you don’t let your whole life happen online.
  2. If you or your teen has a sudden mood swing, think to yourself: “what just happened socially?”—instead of, “what’s wrong with you?”  or“what’s wrong with my child?” Remember, mood is an evolved signal of social status; mood swings reflect perceived status ascents and descents. By the way, this works for tracking adult moods too!
  3. Help adolescents create what we call “Status Sanctuaries.” These are moments, locations, and groups of people completely free of judgment and ranking. This too, works for yourself.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)

There’s a lot to like about social media, but it predictably and consistently lowers my mood (see above). If I even just glance at it first thing in the morning, my whole day can be thrown off. Another issue I have with how it can flatten every issue into a single frequency. When a post about a terror, horror, or injustice floats up next to one about someone’s fancy dessert, it makes me feel angry, or sad, or often just helpless. Anger, sorrow, and helplessness all interfere with my ability to keep healthy habits.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

To my great surprise, I’m a Rebel! Until I read your framework, Gretchen, I didn’t understand the kinds of stumbling blocks that trait can present—or how to work around them to feel better.