Emiliana Simon-Thomas on Happiness – Econlib

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Intro. [Recording date: March 17th, 2021.]

Russ Roberts: Today is March 17th, 2021, and my guest is neuroscientist Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, where she oversees its fellowship program, the Expanding Gratitude Project, and is a co-instructor of the center’s Science of Happiness online course. Emiliana, welcome to EconTalk.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Thank you, so glad to be here, Russ.


Russ Roberts: Tough question to start with. How could there be a science of happiness? You’re a real scientist. I’m a pretend one. I’m a social scientist. As a real scientist, how can there be one–a science of happiness?

Emiliana Simon-Thomas: I mean, an important question and one that I ask myself all the time: How can we know this ephemeral sort of quality of our lives that is really hard to pinpoint? How do we measure it? How do we capture the factors that contribute to it? Some might call these determinants or constituents. You’ll hear all these terms that are bandied around in the science of happiness.

And, how do we know what it is, right in the moment, or what it is in this more general sense? How can we understand the outcomes, or the advantages or benefits, or perhaps even, God forbid, the disadvantages of being a person who you might call very happy or who would score high on–the sort of more technical term for happiness in the sciences is well-being. Right? We call ourselves high in subjective well-being, really means the same thing as being high in happiness.

So, what are the benefits of that? What are the outcomes? What are the consequences? All of these are empirical questions that we can try to understand.

There are many different disciplines who are working on understanding the science of happiness and contributing meaningfully to it. We start with trying to conceptualize the idea itself, first. Like, what is it? What is happiness? Again, we call this subjective well-being in psychology circles. And then try to figure out what factors contribute to it most systematically and most reliably. And, what are the outcomes that are associated with it?

It’s an emerging field. I will honor that. I say that only speaking of the science: Humans have been interested in happiness, or well-being, or the good life, or thriving, or flourishing for centuries.

Russ Roberts: Millennia.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Philosophers and the humanities have been invested in trying to understand happiness and characterize it. Scientists are just a little bit late to the parade. But, the benefit of having a science is that it feels a little bit more universal and secular than some of the other disciplines or traditions that speak of happiness.

Russ Roberts: The risk, of course, is what Hayek called ‘scientism‘–the trappings of science without its reliability. Do you think there’s anything we’ve learned reliably about happiness from this large, interdisciplinary effort that you’re referring to?

Emiliana Simon-Thomas: I think that we know, with a lot of confidence, that being a happier person is associated with longevity, with more professional and academic success, with lesser vulnerability to cardiovascular disease, and any number of psychological challenges. It gives us a sort of the outcomes space: How can we measure somebody’s level of subjective well-being and then track them over a longitudinal window–so, over time–and then measure or examine what the consequences are? Like, what are the results of being somebody who is higher in happiness? Those that I listed, they’re found time and time again. People who are happier just do better in life.

Russ Roberts: As you say, those are associations. I noticed you’re careful to use that word. We don’t know which direction causation runs. It could be that successful people, people in good health, and so on, are happier; not that the happiness causes those things. There’s a correlation there. We don’t know where the causation is.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Well, you would be able to make that critique for what’s called a cross-sectional study. In a cross-sectional study, we ask people a question in a specific time. And then, we look at all the circumstances of their life at that same specific time. And we make those associations. Right? We run a correlation analysis, and we see, for example, that people who perhaps fall into a higher income bracket also score higher in happiness. And, what is it? Is it that more income makes you happy or that being happier puts you in a circumstance or into a position where you end up being more successful in a way that leads to higher income?

The reason that we have more confidence in that is that the studies are longitudinal. So, in other words, we can do a study–and there’s several who have used this approach–where we examine the yearbook photos of a sample of individuals. And so, we’ll just look, and we’ll analyze the expression that they’re showing on their face. And, believe it or not, that just moment, that snapshot, that thin slice of your expressive tendency is taken as a index of your overall happiness. Like, do you just spontaneously show a big, authentic, genuine, open-hearted smile, or is your smile a little bit more controlled, or are you showing even a serious expression?

And so, if we measure this at time one–say, when you’re 18, 19, whenever this yearbook photo is occurring–and then follow you throughout the course of your life–20, 30, 40, 50, 60 years–and show that, over time, the people who consistently show this pattern of behavior and expressiveness and responses to surveys about happiness also show these advantages that I listed, it doesn’t necessarily fall into the class of just a correlation where we can’t determine–make–any causal inferences anymore. We know that the relationship, over time, holds and that there is some extent to which the context at time A is predictive of an outcome that is many, many decades later.


Russ Roberts: Well, I’m a little bit skeptical about that. But, I’m going to express my skepticism in a different way maybe than usual, which is: you and I have never met. We chatted briefly before we started the recording. And, I have to say, Emiliana, you strike me as a happy person. You have a nice smile. And there–you smiled. When I said that, you didn’t cringe, or brood, or think, ‘I wonder what he means by that.’ So, it’s interesting. I’m using the yearbook thing there, a little bit. You strike me as a happy person.

And I think there are a lot of people who believe that you’re either happy or you’re not. It’s all well and good that there’s this, let’s say, empirical relationship–let’s be agnostic for a moment about the causation–but there’s this empirical relationship. But, you’re just lucky. You got a good draw to the gene pool. You’re the happy person because of your parents, maybe the way you grew up, maybe there’s some cultural factors there, as well. But, ‘You’re happy. Hey, look, you’re at Berkeley, of course, yeah.’

But, maybe that’s just spurious because you just happen to be a happy person.

So, is happiness–this is another way to attack this question of whether it’s a science of happiness–can you really get happier? I mean, if you’re just an unhappy person, or you see yourself–worse–if you see yourself as an unhappy person, are there things one would learn in a course called the Science of Happiness to be happier in theory, at least, given your view–I’m going to, again, be agnostic–get healthier, be more successful financially, and so on?

Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Well, yeah. I mean, that’s the point of most of my work, is to really provide that kind of insight and actionable strategies that people might use to improve upon their own happiness level. Thank you for characterizing me, by the way, as a happy person. I’m glad it comes across that way.

I want to start, though, with maybe coming to some agreement about what happiness means–

Russ Roberts: Excellent idea–

Emiliana Simon-Thomas: because I think some of the confusion around who is eligible or whether it’s malleable and how it works comes from the heterogeneity in how people think about and define happiness.

So, for us, in the sciences–and one of my other backgrounds is studying emotion, and so this comes into play as I describe how I define and how most of my colleagues, who I work within the Science of Happiness, define it: happiness is not the same as a momentary positive emotional state.

I did just describe a study where we looked at the expression of a positive emotion as one kind of measurement of happiness, is by no means the standard, consensus way of measuring happiness. There are real limitations to measuring happiness as a specific emotional experience, because, what we know is that happiness is broader and more general in terms of how a person experiences their life. Positive emotions are brief, adaptive processes that help us relate to opportunities in the environment. They are no more important than what we think of as negative emotions, which are also brief, adaptive, multi-system processes that, instead of helping us manage opportunities and access to resources, help us manage threats–right?–and danger, and loss.

All of these emotions are crucial to a healthy, mental human experience. And all of them are part of being a happy person.

So, the mistake that often gets made is that happiness means trying to feel enjoyment all the time. Means that if I’m a happy person, you would expect me to be smiling, to be cheerful, to be enthusiastic, to be proud, to be amused, to be any number of a long list of terms that describe those heartwarming, sort of chest-expanding, warm, and pleasurable states.

Russ Roberts: Fun. Pleasure–

Emiliana Simon-Thomas: That isn’t necessarily what happiness is.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. So, what is it?

Emiliana Simon-Thomas: So, happiness, again, is this broader quality of life. And, it gets defined as being able, readily able to experience those positive states when things are going well.

So, consider for a minute, somebody for whom a wonderful context is presented to them–maybe a surprise party, and all of their friends are there. Somebody walks in the door and their eyes light up. They feel that just sense of wonder, awe, and pleasure, and connection, and warmth, and trust, and surprise, and delight.

Another person might walk into that situation and sort of sour, and tense up, and wonder if it’s as good as they had wanted it to be or as good as another person’s party that they might’ve gone to three days earlier.

Those two characteristics are part of what it means to be a happy person. Do you experience positive emotions when you’re surrounded by advantages, or privilege, or just delight–delightful circumstances?

Feeling good when circumstances are good are part of what it means to be a happy person. We call this the hedonic or affective dimension of happiness. It’s only part of the story.

The second part of this story is how you think about your life. Do you consider your life worthwhile? Do you think that you matter in the world, and are you connected to what’s most meaningful or what brings you a sense of purpose in life? We call this the evaluative dimension or component of happiness.

And then, the third one, which is a little bit overlapping with the evaluative and is a little bit newer in the space of trying to understand and characterize subjective well-being and harkens back to Aristotle’s philosophical perspective on happiness. And it’s really about virtue and feeling like what you do, again, contributes to, or builds your sense of meaningful contribution to humanity. Right? That you belong; that you’ve done something that matters in the world.

So, these get asked, like: How do you feel?–is the hedonic or affective happiness. What do you think about your life? Are you satisfied with your life? That’s the quintessential way of capturing the evaluative dimension of happiness. And then: Do you have a sense of purpose, or do you feel like your life is worthwhile? That is a eudaimonic dimension of happiness.

And right now, the biggest global surveys that attempt to capture happiness or subjective well-being for policy purposes or for tracking progress over time–to do something beyond GDP [Gross Domestic Product] as a measure of social progress–those are the questions that they’re using to capture happiness.

Again, it’s not about a specific emotion. It’s not that you feel good all the time. It’s that you can feel good, that you have a sense of looking backward and forward in your life and seeing it as something that’s good, and that it’s connected to what matters to you, what feels important and valuable.


Russ Roberts: That’s a fabulous summary.

Let’s go back to the question we were talking about a minute ago, which is the genetic versus the adjustability of those things. So, let’s say I’m a brooding person who struggles. I might be an introvert, by the way. So, ‘That party,’ is not just, ‘Oh, it’s not as good as the one I went to last week.’ It’s just that, ‘I don’t like parties.’ Might not be a positive thing for me at all.

Or I’m, let’s say, insecure. On that second dimension, I’m constantly beating myself up that I’m not contributing.

And on the third dimension of using my gifts, say, to flourish, which we recently talked about in the program with Leon Kass, and the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle–and I like to say that just so I can try to pronounce it the way Leon does because I’ve been mispronouncing it all my life; I’m assuming Leon gets it right.

And that third one, I’ve never even heard of that. ‘I don’t have a conscience. I don’t have any virtue aspirations. I just want to go out in my life and enjoy it.’ ‘I’m not good at it.’ ‘I struggle to be happy on that first dimension. In that second one, I’m so insecure,’ or ‘I’ve got a bad career. It’s just not satisfying to me. I don’t feel like I’m doing much.’ You know, what can you do for that person? What can anyone do for that person?

We have many ways of helping people like that. Our families chip in to try to boost folks like that. We have therapy, and psychiatry, and psychology. We might have meditation and religious instruction to help give people a sense of purpose or to make them more aware of their reaction to certain things.

Do those work? Can we really take someone who has, let’s say, a genetic predisposition to being challenged in, at least, those first two areas–can we help them?

Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Yeah. I mean, one of the most important findings that came out, about in 2010, that was by Sonja Lyubomirsky, was from a study looking at the heritability of happiness, of well-being. Like, how can understand how much do genetics contribute to the variance in happiness levels?

And so, let’s just take you and I, for example. Let’s imagine that I’m a seven on a scale of one to nine, and that’s arbitrary, and you’re a five. Okay? And this is not true: this is just our hypothetical.

Russ Roberts: This is self-assessed, though. Correct?

Emiliana Simon-Thomas: What did you say?

Russ Roberts: This is self-assessed? When you say you’re–

Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: When you’re asked about your well-being, you say a seven, and when I’m asked, I say a five.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas: That’s right. Exactly. We’re self-reporting our degree of happiness to a question something along the lines of, ‘In general, how would you characterize your life on a scale of,’ again, ‘one to nine’–arbitrary–‘with 1 being not at all happy and 9 being very happy?’

So, this research team examined those kinds of assessments in what’s called a twin study. So, they’ll look at identical twins, and compare them to fraternal twins, and compare them to siblings, and compare them to people who are unrelated, and look at how tightly linked or similar our happiness score is based on this changing degree of genetic similarity.

And, from their analysis, the genetic contribution to explaining the variance between two peoples’ happiness was about 50%. So, about half of the reason why you have a 6 and I have a 9 is our genes.

There is no clear genetic signature that we can tie directly to happiness or subjective well-being. There are neurotransmitters that are involved in signaling reward. There are neurotransmitters that are important for stabilizing our mood, for signaling affection and affiliation or feelings of closeness to others. All of these matter; they all interact with one another; and they all play a role.

But, there’s no, like, one [inaudible 00:19:52 sounds like “melio”] of genetic kind of quality that can, right now, tell us how easy or difficult that will be for a single person to be more happy or less happy than the another person around them.

So, knowing that, they wanted to know, well, what else? What are the other big predictors? What else explains the variants and happiness scores?

And they looked at, sort of, life circumstances, and they looked at daily activities. And, life circumstances–I think we do often make a mistake of believing or perceiving our life circumstances: Do we live in Berkeley? Are we the middle sibling or the oldest sibling? What is our income level? We tend to think that those circumstances play a big role. Right? I mean, ‘I’m unhappy because my parents did XYZ when I was little.’

In fact, those life circumstance factors explain about 10% of the variance between one person and the person next to them or the historic, lived experience. And the other 40% of the variance in happiness is explained by daily activities. Right? How you spend your time, what you do with your time, how you are engaging with the world around you.

And you alluded to that really nicely when you talked about some of the ways that we quickly think about what we might do if we are feeling less happy than we would like to feel. Maybe we would take on a practice of meditation.

There is a really strong case to be made for the benefits of increasing your awareness of the kinds of thoughts and habits, that reflexive[? reflective?] judgments that we might carry around day-to-day in order to evaluate whether they’re actually contributing or detracting from our capacity to experience a positive emotion in a given moment.

I do want to speak to the introvert question. I didn’t mean my example to be universally pleasurable to every person who could possibly encounter it. You’re absolutely right, that there are these personality, culture, particular context issues that can contribute to any situation in a complex way so that maybe you would experience that surprise party as something unpleasant.

The question is, is: do you have an option in those moments to reflect and interpret and judge yourself and the situation around you in a way that allows that more wonderful experience to happen? Or, are you accentuating, highlighting, and exaggerating the more unpleasant, pessimistic, and negative interpretations of the situation in a way that really doesn’t allow for you to experience the warmth of that moment?


Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think it’s a fascinating question. Listeners know that I’ve been on a number of silent meditation retreats. That I credit–perhaps inaccurately; I may be fooling myself in a number of dimensions, I’ll mention both of them, if I remember it–that I credit with reducing stress in my life, feeling more aware of those kinds of emotions, and being able to be less impulsive. Right? I think–you know, I could be fooling myself. I could be both, really unchanged, and, two, it could have nothing to do with the meditation retreat, could just be getting older, having different life experiences.

But, I think that’s not the case. I actually think I grew from those experiences in interesting ways.

But, one of the things I’ve also spoken about that I’d love your reaction to is how hard it is for me to maintain my meditation practice. I’ll give you an example that I think I’ve used before. I apologize to listeners who are tired of it. But, when I’m on retreat, we eat mindfully. I take a plate of food. I observe it before I put it in my mouth. I look at it. I think about where it came from; and, being an economist, something about the division of labor that contributes to our food. And so, I find that wondrous and that puts me in a good mood. And, then I put some in my mouth and I sense its texture and its taste. And, the first lunch of the retreat, that’s hard. I can’t talk to any of the people around me. I can’t ask her to pass the salt. I have to get up and go get it.

But, by the last day of the retreat, I so look forward to lunch, and the food part of it is so small. I’m not eating impulsively or uncontrollably. It’s so rich and it takes a very small amount of food. In fact, I don’t take much food because it takes a while to eat it, because I’m chewing it mindfully. And so, I usually lose weight on retreat.

And, when I’m experiencing that, I say to myself, ‘You know, when I go back, I’m going to eat lunch like this every day.’ I mean, why wouldn’t you? And, yet when I go back, I don’t. I read the sports section while I’m eating. I don’t notice what I’m eating. I eat compulsively. I eat more than I, quote, “want.”

Why is it that we are drawn away from the contemplation of mindfulness?

And, another way to think about it is I love it when my mind is stilled on retreat and I’m aware of everything in an almost hypersensitive way. But, when I get back, I love monkey mind. I love just letting my thoughts run around and take me wherever they’re going to go and check my email too often.

And, what’s going on there, in your view? I mean, not just my personal problems, but in general?

Emiliana Simon-Thomas: I definitely don’t think it’s your own personal problem. I think it’s–what you’re characterizing is the importance of context. When you’re on a silent retreat, everybody’s doing the mindful eating. You have some kind of guide or leading figure who is explaining in a very inspirational and moving way, inviting way, why and how to do this.

And, frankly, you’re not inundated with all of the other demands and sources of information. You don’t have the sports page right there. You don’t have the email notifications dinging away at you. And you don’t have all the other people living in that same kind of hyper-engaged with-information way that you normally do, or that most of us normally do in our day-to-day lives.

The context really matters.

I also think that there’s a story to be told about the human nervous system. The brain is kind of agnostic to, like, how we are going to feel in terms of some kind of greater virtue. It really just wants to make us efficient. And, what’s really efficient is automating repeated experiences.

So, if you over and over again through choice, and maybe just observation of what’s normative, read the newspaper while you eat and check your phone while you’re reading the newspaper while you’re eating, your brain just begins to make that the most simple, automated, automatic go-to experience to support. Your nervous system just goes, ‘Oh, okay: this is what’s happening over and over again.’

And, while that might be sort of disconcerting or make it seem hopeless, it’s also equally promising because what it tells us is the story of neuroplasticity in any direction. And, it really gives credence to this idea that you can change something about your experience in the world–how you think about yourself, how you think about other people, how you interpret and relate to the context that you find yourself in–through deliberate practice. Through engaging in activities, hard as they may be.

I can’t think of very many people who would say, ‘Hey, you know what? I exercised really hard yesterday and I can’t wait to go exercise really hard again today, just because I want to get started on that.’ It’s always the after: it’s the, ‘Oh, I know it feels so good. I know it’s so good for my health.’ It’s not that I really enjoy that moment, in-the-moment feeling of pain in the muscles, insecurity about whether I’m fast enough or as fast as I should be, I’m imagining, going for a run. It’s that I know it’s going to be good for me, and so I do it because I know it will have this positive effect on me.

And, we really have embraced the theory of exercise and health as a society. And so, it’s not questionable anymore, right? It’s not questionable that it’s a good idea. Nobody’s going to say, ‘No, no. Rest. Don’t exercise. It’s not worth it. You’re genetically predisposed to have the body that you have and to get whatever diseases you’re going to get. Forget about it.’

The same sort of eligibility is there for happiness, for subjective wellbeing in life. If we choose, if we’re deliberate, if we apply the same intention and discipline to behaving in ways that serve key drivers of wellbeing, our wellbeing will change.

And, there’s a fair amount of research to support that claim.

I think it’s still a young science and we have a lot more work to do on that front–trying to understand the opportunity for what we might call an intervention, a happiness or a wellbeing intervention, to actually change in a measurable and enduring or sustained way a person’s happiness in life.

But, it sounds like mindfulness worked pretty well for you, Russ.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, and yet I’m struck–it did. It was fabulous. And, when I’m there, by the way, my–I don’t know how to say it, the lingo–but my affect is very good when I’m on that retreat. It’s just interesting to me how hard it is for me to maintain a practice. And, of course, maintaining a practice while feeling guilty about how mediocre your meditation is–is kind of against the rules, because it’s not necessarily so goal-centered and you shouldn’t be trying to think about whether you’re a good meditator or not. Yet, of course, we struggle with that from years of conditioning and all the other things we do.


Russ Roberts: Let me shift gears a little bit and let’s talk about virtue, referencing both the recent episode I mentioned with Leon Kass and also a recent episode with Michael Munger. I don’t think I’ve ever called him Michael Munger like that at the middle of an episode–Mike Munger. Sorry, Mike. He’s probably listening. Not right now, but he will be.

We talked about the following scenario, Mike and I did, where you find a wallet in the street and it has no identification–it has identification, it’s full of cash and no one is around. Again, these kinds of hypotheticals are a little bit silly because in some sense, besides, a religious person might worry that God is around. A person with conscience might wonder that they’re around. They’ll see themselves keeping the wallet. And, there’s always some uncertainty, really, whether no one, literally, is watching. But, let’s try to imagine it. There’s no external human being who sees you with this challenge.

And, in fact, let’s think about our children. You mentioned before we recorded, you have children. I have children. Would you want your child to return that wallet or keep it?

Would you want your child, more importantly I think, to feel good about returning the wallet? Or would you want to inculcate in your child a lack of conscience so they could enjoy keeping the wallet?

And, when you say something like that, I know all us go, ‘Oh, that would be a horrible thing to do.’ But, in a certain dimension, that would be a good thing to give your–‘Don’t burden your children with a conscience. Then they can–.’ Think about it. If you don’t have a conscience you can keep the wallet, all the cash, get all kinds of good stuff for it. When you’re traveling, no need to tip because you’ll never see that waiter or waitress again. Just enjoy it. Stiff them. Don’t tip at all.

We can think of some other horrible examples. These all–I just want to make it clear: They repel me. I think they’re appalling. But, what’s the argument for why you would want to inculcate, on secular grounds–not religious grounds now but on secular grounds–why would you inculcate a conscience in someone? Won’t they be happier without a conscience?

Emiliana Simon-Thomas: Great question, and two answers.

One, I want to share with you research by Elizabeth Dunn, who does a similar paradigm to what you just described, except that there is no wallet in the story. Instead, she brings people into a laboratory study and she gives them money, and she gives half of them the instruction after getting–well, she measures their wellbeing. She says, ‘How are you doing? What’s going on? How happy are you?’

And, then she gives them the money, and let’s just say it’s $50 bucks. And she tells half of the people, ‘Listen, you’ve got the whole day; go do whatever you do; spend this $50 on something for someone else.’ And, then the other half, she says, ‘Hey, you got this $50, go spend it. You know? Do something for yourself, enjoy it.’ Right? This is the parent who tells their child not to have a conscience and just take the money and then figure it out.

And, then at the end of the day, they come back and she, you know, ensures that they’ve followed the instructions. And then she measures their wellbeing at the end of the day.

And, you might be anticipating what the finding is, but time and time again, and Elizabeth Dunn and Lara Aknin have done this research around the world. When people give–spend–their money on other people, their happiness level increases more, significantly more, than when they go out and spend that money on themselves.

So, the myth that, like, spending all of our resources on ourselves and that, again, pleasure and consumerism and materialism are actually routes to sustainable happiness is just wrong. It doesn’t bear out in the research.

People who are more materialistic are less happy than people who are less materialistic. We can measure this and derive those relationships.

So, that’s the first part of the story.

The second part of the story is related, and it’s that when we behave generously, when we interact with one another in cooperative ways, when we build social bonds, we’re serving a core need that humans as an ultra-social species have.

So, humans, as a mammalian species, rely on one another for our adaptive success. We’re not the largest, hairiest, sharp-clawed aggressive species on the planet. Our success is emergent from our capacity to fold into complex and coordinated social groups. That’s what makes us successful.

And, so, our nervous systems have evolved to motivate that, –to motivate that and to reward that experience of having these long-term social bonds. Of feeling pleasure in a cooperatively arrived-upon success. More so than we would at arriving at an individual success.

This is all also captured in neuroscience studies that put people into a big scanner and they have them play a game where they, you know, have to hit a button really fast to win money; and they either win that money themselves just by doing it on their own, or they win that money as part of a team where together they’re earning the same prize, but they’ve done it together. And there’s a bigger pleasure response in these dopamine reward pathways when people earn those rewards as part of a team–when they’re collaborating or cooperating.

So, we’re built to be social. This is part of our evolutionary heritage. And our bodies–we’ve been able to measure both psychological experiences and physical responses that indicate the specific reward that we experience in association with, again, a cooperative endeavor, as opposed to an individualistic endeavor.


Russ Roberts: Well, I’m sympathetic to that research, although I’m skeptical about whether that actually is a reliable finding. Let me give you my skepticism and an alternative way to think about it and see what you think. [More to come, 37:57]

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