Dacher Keltner Hi, I’m Dacher Keltner. One thing we love at the Science of Happiness is hearing from our listeners. So whether you’re a longtime fan or listening for the first time, please share your feedback. You can use the hashtag #HappinessPod on social or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aaron Harvey So, you know, my first police stop, I think I was, like, 11, or younger than that. I fit the description. [They] cuffed me, sat me on the sidewalk, like, for 30 minutes, and then just let me go. And that was, like, my introduction to law enforcement. And then it just never stops. It just keeps getting worse and worse and happening more and more often as time goes on.
News Clips Aaron Harvey was living in Las Vegas when U.S. Marshall came for him … They were arrested on charges related to an unjust California gang conspiracy law which cited rap lyrics and social media postings.
Aaron Harvey So it was me and 32 other individuals, the first time ever they used this law, Penal Code 182.5. They said that they had me documented as a gang-member because of multiple police stops in my community. And because I was documented, therefore, I could be held liable for any crimes committed by that gang, whether I had knowledge of it or not. They charged us with conspiracy to commit some shootings. They weren’t even trying to prove that I had anything to do with the shootings
News Clips Detectives testified his social media accounts … included pictures of him with other gang members.
Aaron Harvey I spent eight months in county jail, on a $1.1 million bail, looking at 56 years-to-life.
Dacher Keltner After he was released because of lack of evidence. Aaron Harvey’s first task was to help dismantle the law that put him there. And he did.
Aaron’s an activist and a student at UC Berkeley, where he mentors formerly incarcerated students through an initiative called Underground Scholars. He’s also our guest today.
Aaron, it’s great to have you on our show.
Aaron Harvey Oh, yeah. Thank you for having me. Appreciate it.
Dacher Keltner So when we asked you to try a science tested practice to bring more happiness in your life, you chose, “Random Acts of Kindness,” where you perform five acts of kindness—all in one day. Why did you choose this practice?
Aaron Harvey I was like, “Oh, well I just do this anyway.”
My father wasn’t really the type to be explaining himself often, like his word was law. So, I rebelled a lot. 3:20 One thing that I did latch on to was, you know, his lessons on providing and taking care of others who may be less fortunate. My father was always the type of individual that was like, “It’s not necessarily about what you’re kind of doing for yourself, but why are you doing it? You were put on this planet to be like a blessing to other people. And how other people are going to benefit from your sacrifice or from, like, your god-given abilities?
Aaron Harvey I remember when I was incarcerated, I was about to sign a deal for 19 years. I was telling him I was just tired. I’m tired of going back to court and tired of, you know, if I sign now for 19 years, I’ll be out and I’ll be 47 years old. He said I’ve always told you, “Stand up for your rights.” And he was like, you know, Malcolm and Martin and many others, like, stood up for their rights and they died because of it. But, because of their sacrifices, like, look at how many people were able to benefit from their sacrifice. And I’m not by no means comparing myself to them or others, but it’s the same mentality of you have to pick up that time and you have to continue to just push the needle forward.
Dacher Keltner Wow. So for this Random acts of kindness practice, you did five kind acts in one day and then wrote about it. How did it go?
Aaron Harvey It definitely felt weird in the beginning. So, I really just started off with, like, calling my mom, saying, “Hey, do you want some breakfast?” I was like “This is stupid,” right? “What am I doing?” And I never made it to my mom to get her breakfast because I went to Starbucks and it was, like, this guy hanging outside of Starbucks. And I was like, “Oh, that one,” Right? And I was like, “Hey brother. You want something from Starbucks?” And he was like, “I actually I do.” There you go.
I ended up buying him the Starbucks, and as I was handing him, he got, like, a meal or whatnot and a coffee. I was walking away and then something dawned on me. Like, no, we’re not doing it this way. You’re not going to do it this way.
So, I went back, right? And, I was like “Hey, my name is Aaron. I’m sorry. You’re not just some charity case.” You know, me just seeing you and me giving you things and walking off like. “What’s your name?”
He told me his name was Ronald. I’m like, “Alright, brother.” You know, “You live around here?” And he’s like, “Actually, I’m trying to move into my apartment today.” And I was like, “Oh, for sure, I’ll help you.”
Dacher Keltner What about your mom?
Aaron Harvey Exactly. That’s what I’m saying, I never made it to my mom, right.
Aaron Harvey So I ended up helping this guy moving to his apartment in his truck. So we’re talking and talking and talking.
Aaron Harvey3 And from leaving from him, I get a phone call from one of my good friends and now he’s on the freeway, tire busted. And I’m like, “Bro, c’mon man, call AAA. I’m tired. I just moved this dude’s whole house.” But then again, I’m like, oh, this is like three. It’s got to be like three or four.
Dacher Keltner Definitely you’re in bonus points right now!
Aaron Harvey I go up to the freeway, you know, help him change his tire, whatever the case may be. And then I was like, “And let me fill up your gas tank.”
Dacher Keltner Oh, man.
Aaron Harvey We went, we fill up the gas tank and then me and him, we’re actually talking about like the five acts of kindness and one thing we were, like, kind of sharing with each other … He was like, “Man, to be honest with you, as long as I’ve known you, like, you go through things, but you always seem to come out of things. And I believe it’s because you’re always doing it for people. You’re always taken care of because you’re always taking care of people.”
And that and that right there, I’ve kind of almost had those thoughts, but I’ve never really sat with that thought, tight, because I’ve never even looked at it that way. Like, I’m not doing this so I can be this. I’m doing this because it’s the right thing to do. But we kind of sat and we talked about that and that made me, kind of, look at the look at my life more of a glass-half-full and not like all these things are just constantly happening to me? And, like, why am I constantly going through struggles and things like that? But it’s like, Well, you always are coming out of them. It’s not a lot of people [who can] come out of certain things.
Dacher Keltner Did you do the part of the exercise where you write about what it was like and how you reflected on it?
Aaron Harvey So my reflections came at the end of the day when I was sitting and talking with my friend.
Dacher Keltner And what ran through your mind?
Aaron Harvey When Ronald and I went and I bought him the Starbucks — Like, I can’t go into a grocery store, a food place, and if there’s somebody outside that’s hungry, like, I can’t just walk in. I have to buy a meal. But I never take the time to actually get to know that person or to, like, talk to them. Or, you know, I’m just more like, “Hey bro, you need something?” And if they say, no, I’m like, “You sure?” “No.” “OK,” and then I’m gone. Or if they do want something, I like “Go on and order whatever you want. I got you.”
But I never take the time to actually get to know that is a whole person. That’s not just some charity case, right? And by getting to know a person, even if it’s just for like two minutes, right, there’s a lot more impact that you can have on their life to where you might be able to put them in a position to where they don’t have to stand outside their door and ask for money or food anymore. So I was almost, again, I was like doing my “good,” quote-unquote. I also felt like I was still doing people a disservice by not getting to know their names, getting to hear their stories and things like that. And I understand that not every time I’ll even have time to do that. But if you have the time, I think you should take the time to do that.
And now I got his number. He lives around the corner from my mom. I’ve already connected him with the organization that I’m a part of. You know, so like now he’s even connected to a larger community. And I feel like that was the act of kindness, not the actual buying of the Starbucks.
Dacher Keltner You know, the studies on this, Sonja Lyubomirsky has done work, and that’s why we have this practice is, if you can do five of these things in one day, you do feel happier or less depressed. You function better at work. There’s a lot of other work on just, you know, when you practice kindness, it’s good for your body. You feel stronger. What did you notice in your own experience?
Aaron Harvey I think—I just, kind of, might define happiness a little different than just the the general kind of understanding of happiness.
Dacher Keltner How do you define it?
Aaron Harvey Doing these things almost kind of pains me, and I think that’s probably why I never really got to know people, right. That I would be doing things, to see people in need to see people hurting actually kind of hurts me. The fact that people are even having to ask for basic — what I feel like are, like, human rights, necessities, food, water, housing. It just shows that we’re, like, in a failed state.
That doesn’t bring me happiness, right? But what does bring me happiness was the fact of, like, I helped him move into his apartment. But he just moved into this apartment. And the look on his face and how excited he was about this apartment, and let me know or I’m just assuming this was the first time he has something of his own right? Or just like a bed of his own. That made me happy because that brought him some type of peace, that brought him some type of joy, of accomplishment, of that he was, kind of, like, moving up in the ladder of life. Those are the types of things that bring me happiness.
Dacher Keltner You know, one of the things in this conversation brings into focus is it’s kind of a definitional problem that the science of happiness is grappling with, which is, you know, one way to think about happiness is, oh, I feel good about my life, right? But there’s something else that I think you’re talking about, about, you know, getting to know somebody or giving resources to the unhoused or going into a store and buying something for somebody. Psychologists have started to call it meaning or purpose. How would you describe what you felt and what you feel when you’re dealing with injustice or people who are really suffering and trying to make their lives better? What would you call that?
Aaron Harvey So I think the conflict is, you know, giving a person a meal doesn’t make me happy.
Dacher Keltner Yeah.
Aaron Harvey Because they’re going to need a meal tomorrow, right? Putting a person in the position to where they can go get their own meals. That’s what makes me happy. Because now individuals have become so self-sufficient. Now, they could be an example, you know, to their families and to people around them. Now, they can also be a giver and not just a receive. So it’s almost kind of like give a man a fish, teach a man how to fish kind of thing. So I’m giving people fishes, that kind of like hurts me. It’s necessary and you should do it. But if you also have the ability to teach a person how to fish or put them in a position to learn how to fish, that brings me happiness because that’s something that will continue on.
Dacher Keltner I have to ask you, Aaron, you know, you are cuffed at 11. Fifteen years later, you’re wrongfully convicted and you spend eight months in jail and you grew up in a culture of a certain kind of kindness. You want to pursue kindness. How does this experience with so much brutality and lack of kindness frame how you think about practicing kindness?
Aaron Harvey I feel like I have every right to, like, hate people or even hate white people. But I would have these conversations with my dad of, like, you know, “I hate them or I hate, you know, white men. And he’d be like, “Ok, I understand that. But what you don’t understand, or even what they don’t understand, is it’s a system that is being perpetuated. An individual might be good in nature, but let’s just say their job may require them to do things that are immoral. So is it that person or is it the system that we need to focus on? Because you could easily change that person, but that system is still there. So what do you hate more or who should you hate, right?”
And I don’t think you should hate people and I don’t think you have to like them, right. But I don’t think you should hate anybody. What you should hate is systems that continue to exploit and kill off people.
So that was like a restructuring of how I was viewing the world. So it’s easy to hate a person and then, ok, all right. Like, ok, you hate a person because they’re doing something. Now that person is taken out of the picture, however. But these things are still occurring. So what did you solve?
And now, so, I’m thinking on the broader spectrum of, if you really are tired of these things, then you should be focused on the things that are allowing it to continue and try to dismantle those and not people.
Dacher Keltner Yeah. It’s interesting, there’s a whole social psychology research showing that, you know, Western Europeans don’t think in terms of systems, you know, especially in the United States. They think in terms of individuals, and that misleads us. So really insightful. What sort of wisdom would you give to us to be thinking about how to cultivate kindness?
Aaron Harvey You got to really be intentional about stepping out of yourself for a second. You spoke on it earlier about Western Europeans and just like really America, right? Well, the United States of America, should I say. It just has this real individualistic, kind of like culture or mindset. “As long as I’m doing OK, then everything’s OK.”
I always challenge my friends, or when I’m speaking to people like, you know ... You should never go 24 hours without doing something for someone who can’t repay you. We walk by things every day, like we step over unhoused people every day, right? And it’s, kind of, just become normalized. And you should never go a day. There’s going to be something that’s going to come across you every day, if not multiple things that are going to come across you every day, and you should lend a hand. And if you’re not, you’re kind of like not just doing that individual a disservice, but you’re ultimately doing yourself a disservice as well.
Dacher Keltner Well, I am really grateful for your time Aaron, so thanks so much for joining us on the show.
Aaron Harvey Appreciate it. Thank you for having me.
Oliver Scott Curry It’s relatively straightforward to explain why people are kind to their family members and why they’re kind to their friends. It’s a bit more puzzling to explain why they’re kind to strangers, but we have some explanations for that, too.
Dacher Keltner More on the science, up next.
Oliver Scott Curry Once upon a time it was difficult for evolution to explain why people were kind. Now the opposite is the case. We have a whole range of theories that explain why people are kind in different ways to different people.
Dacher Keltner Oliver Scott Curry is the research director at Kindness.org, a group that uses scientific studies to inspire kindness.
Oliver Scott Curry We’d found a couple of dozen experiments where people have been either assigned to a ‘help yourself’ condition or a ‘help other people’ condition. We found sure enough that helping did indeed make you happy. People in the helping-other-conditions [group] reported having greater life satisfaction and positive emotions than people in the ‘help yourself’ condition.
Dacher Keltner Oliver’s team noted that none of these studies specified the recipient of these acts.
Oliver Scott Curry So, we wanted to see if people were happier to help some types of people rather than others. So we had a study where we had people either help someone close to them like a family or a family member or friend or someone distant like a stranger.
Dacher Keltner They also had a group do kind acts for themselves. And a last [group] just observed kindness in others.
Oliver Scott Curry And what we found somewhat to our surprise was although helping, in general, made people happier than not helping, it didn’t seem to make a difference who it was that you helped.
Dacher Keltner Oliver believes there’s an evolutionary reason for that.
Oliver Scott Curry Humans are a social species, we’ve lived together in social groups for 50 million years, and during that time we’ve relied on one another to survive and thrive. And cooperative behavior has really been one of the humans distinguishing features and has been responsible for our remarkable success.
Helping a stranger might be a way of making a new friend, for example, kick-starting a new social relationship. Helping strangers can also raise your profile and raise your status, can earn the respect and admiration of your peers and lead them to choose you in the future.
Dacher Keltner Other people are our life support systems. We’re generally happy when we’re plugged into that system and generally unhappy when not. Kindness helps strengthen our connections to others. It’s also associated with all kinds of benefits: less stress less anxiety, better cardiovascular health — even a longer life expectancy.
Oliver Scott Curry I think overall, people underestimate the benefits of kindness for themselves and for others and that they should give it a whirl because they will probably like it. And that doesn’t mean that they have to jump straight in and, you know, donate a kidney or sell all their worldly possessions. They can start small by saying hello to people on their commute or holding doors open. They don’t have to jump from zero to 100 immediately. They’re probably already at 50 percent. So just try out 51 percent. And if you like that, try out 52 percent and then keep going until you find your equilibrium.
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining me on The Science of Happiness.
Check out the Random Acts of Kindness practice by visiting www.greatergood.berkeley.edu/podcasts, and clicking on this episode.
We’ve got a new book out now on the science of gratitude, featuring many of our past guests like comedian W. Kamau Bell and psychologist Sara Algoe. Learn more at www.greatergood.berkeley.edu/gratitudeproject.
Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX. Our senior producer is Shuka Kalantari. Production assistance is from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our associate producers are Nina Sparling and Haley Gray.
Our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. Our science director is Emiliana Simon-Thomas.