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REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA Hi, Dad.
JOE DECOLA Hi, darling.
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA When was the last thing you sang to yourself?
JOE DECOLA I was sitting on the couch, listening to a documentary, watching a documentary about Pavarotti, and I sang nessun dorma with him.
Luciano Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma
JOE DECOLA When did you last sing to yourself?
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA I sing to myself a lot. And I sang to Reuben just now when he passed out in the bed. And he said, “I really need a snuggle.”
JOE DECOLA Good, good, good, good.
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA Yeah. And I often try to sing Chattanooga Choo-Choo, but I can get about a quarter of the way through every verse.
So Chattanooga Choo Choo, won’t you choo choo me home. Chattanooga…
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA Okay. So: “Make three true “we” statements each.”
JOE DECOLA Yeah, we’re both stuck in the midst of this horrific, out of nowhere situation that came out of nowhere, came like an asteroid from outer space.
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA Yeah. zombie apocalypse. Yeah. Okay, my turn.
JOE DECOLA Yeah.
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA We are both laughing about things that are painful and sweet. And it feels so good to laugh with you. It’s something I really love about you. And I do it when I’m with you. And I really appreciate it.
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
JOE DECOLA My children.
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA And now I cry. It’s that kind of day, Dad.
DACHER KELTNER One of the greatest challenges of sheltering in place is our physical isolation from friends, family, people we love. And if those loved ones are older or have health problems, we need to be even more cautious.
That’s the case for our guest today, Rebecca Vitali-DeCola. She’s a teacher who has been staying at home with her husband and son in Brooklyn while her 82-year-old dad, Joe is all by himself in Manhattan, with stage 4 lung cancer.
When we asked Rebecca to try a science-backed practice to bring a little bit more happiness into her life, she chose one to help her connect more with Joe.
Rebecca, thanks so much for joining us on the Science of Happiness.
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA It’s a pleasure. Thank you for having me, Dacher.
DACHER KELTNER Before we delve into how the practice went, can you tell us a bit more about your dad?
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA My dad…he had had this whole life and career as an American sort of political dude, and was living in secret as a gay man and with a lot of shame around that and obviously fear around that. And so he came out when he was 53 years old and it was his second marriage and he had four kids. And, you know, that’ll really do a number on you and your ability to be close to people.
He said at one point, like, once you start lying, once you start deceiving, like you just have to keep shutting parts of yourself and your life down to protect, you know, protect your shame. And I think when he came out of the closet and got a therapist who said, “Yes, you are gay” instead of a therapist, who said, “No, you’re not gay,” that meant that he was able to begin a really like an adolescence at age 53 that he hadn’t been able to really have. Just like, “Who am I? What do I love? And what is, what is it like to be a person who feels, you know, vulnerable and present with people in this way?”
And it kind of kicked off this process of increasing closeness, like of actually trying to have real intimate relationships with the people in his life that he had been keeping some distance from because he felt so distant from himself. And that’s really changed. Like his relationships are not superficial. And he has fewer people in his life, but he has ongoing contact with them about things that matter to him.
DACHER KELTNER Quite a transformation.
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA Yeah. It’s a lot going on.
He’s so lonely right now. I mean, this man is a champion of social distancing and has been doing it for years because every time there’s a cold season, you know, he’s got to be careful because he’s immunocompromised and so he was like, “I’m all set.” You know, the first week of quarantine, he was like, “I got my dinner and I have this beautiful bouquet of flowers.” He just sounded, like, tucked in and content. And then this past week, he said, you know, “I’m feeling so lonely. I’m just really, really lonely.”
DACHER KELTNER What’s it like for you right now?
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA My dad is healthy, relatively speaking. We miss each other. All of that is very, very strange and re-organizing. But we’re doing all right.
DACHER KELTNER I want to ask, you know, it’s wonderful. You did, as the happiness practice, you chose the 36 Questions for Increasing Closeness. And, you know, one of the first nights that we were quarantined, I got my older daughter, Natalie, and my wife and I was like, “All right, let’s try this.” And we did it, you know, as a family.
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA You did. How old is your daughter?
DACHER KELTNER She’s 22.
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA OK. Wow.
DACHER KELTNER So you chose to do it with your 82 year old dad. What was it like for you to do the practice with him?
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA It was great. I was, like, so weepy and floppy, and it was really sweet. It was sweet to see his face on Facetime for so long. You know, we talk to each other a lot, but to, like, really dedicate time to doing it. It was sweet to see his face on FaceTime for so long. You know, we talk to each other a lot, but to like really dedicate time to doing it. And we broke all the rules. You’re supposed to do the three sets of questions and spend 15 minutes on each set and progress through them pretty quickly in order to get to the sort of intimacy of the last set of questions in this sort of progressive way. You know, and just he talks too much and I talk too much. And so we just ended up, you know, going into all of these other digressions and tangents. And, but, we really enjoyed talking to each other. And so it was we spent like, I think an hour and change on the first set, which is meant to be fifteen minutes. But that was a real pleasure and it was a real pleasure to just, to hear him talk about these moments that I heard a little bit about, but I hadn’t really heard about before, which would never have shaken out were it not for this very kind of structured protocol. So that felt really lucky. Yeah.
DACHER KELTNER What were some of the ones that really stuck out for you, that really struck you?
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA Some of the questions spoke to things that we have spent a lot of time recently talking about and being immersed in because my father got the stage for a lung cancer diagnosis, like, two weeks before my wedding five years ago. We all thought he was gonna die. So we started addressing life and mortality. And, you know, and our relationship really changed at that time. And I think it’s actually stayed in a totally different state than it otherwise would have or could have were he not to have responded to his own cancer diagnosis in the way that he did. And also, were we not to have imagined that we had this very limited amount of time together on planet Earth. And so, you know, some of the questions there was one, if you were able to live to the age of 90…
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA ...and were able to remain mind or body of a 30 year old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
JOE DECOLA Well, if I could keep my own mind and have the body of a 30-year-old, I’d love that one. That would be pretty great. I miss being able to be thoughtless about my body. Move without thinking, just move gracefully, flike. tying my shoes easily.
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA Yeah. Totally. Would you like to be famous, Dad?
JOE DECOLA No, not particularly. I feel like when I was younger, I thought I did want to be like, not that important.
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA….And then, you know, if you were going to die tonight, some of these questions are like kind of hokey and maudlin. But basically, I heard my father sort of say over and over again, like,” I wake up every morning and I think I can’t believe I’m still here. And I could die tonight. And I can’t believe I didn’t die last night.” And that was really special. It just kept kind of surfacing that theme, you know? He’s gotten so gooey and so sweet in his old age. I don’t know, I just feel like I’ve had all these different lives with him. And it’s all very lucky to really spend time kind of swimming around in this current life and like really listening to him talk about his worldview, which I’m learning a lot from, you know? He’s going out really well.
DACHER KELTNER You talk about how the structured questions and some of them feel a little bit hokey, but they get you to these other revelations or some of the things that you guys landed on through this conversation?
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA My father’s mother died in childbirth with him. And in our first set of questions, there was a question about, like, if you could change one thing about your childhood…
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA ...Anything about the way you were raised. What would it be?
JOE DECOLA My mom. Yeah. I really think she would have been really an interesting woman.
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA Yeah.
JOE DECOLA And a really good thing in my life.
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA Yeah.
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA My father has talked a lot about that loss over the course of my lifetime and will sometimes mention her as he talks about his father and his father’s alcoholism and his father’s abusive relationship with his stepmother, who was also an alcoholic. And what his early adolescent life was like, and where he spent his time at his neighbor’s house. And, you know, why he tried to get into college and got into college at age 16 and never went back to Ohio. She was so central in his narrative. There was a moment, and I think in set three, I think where it’s like, “If your apartment is burning and you can get all the people you love out and pets out of it, but you had to, like, go back for one material item, one possession. Like, what would you run back for in a fire?” And he said “This, you know, photograph I have of my mom.” And yeah, I mean, I just kept crying. I could not stop crying, listening to him talk. And I didn’t know that. I mean, and that’s very significant. So, yeah, that was a revelation. It was just really poignant. He’s you know, he’s 82 and he never met her. And she still occupies such an important part of his life and consciousness. And that was really deep.
DACHER KELTNER This 36 questions exercise is often used in the lab to get strangers, to become friends. And look at what the process of friendship is like. Rudy Mendoza Denton here at Berkeley used it with people of different ethnic backgrounds and they start to discover, “Wow, we have these commonalities. We’re both humans,” whatever. Was there that kind of discovery in your conversation with your dad? He’s had this multifaceted life, sometimes remote from you. Did you start to discover a common core to you and him?
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA There were a number of questions, yes. That were…felt like they were sort of leading to that moment of the encounter becoming more intimate. And I think we were a different set in that way because we have a close relationship. And… that’s currently challenged by the structure and reality of our lives. And by everything. You know, having a three year old and having a full time job and living in a different borough and whatever. But it was, really brought us closer. I took it literally like this, this was about increasing closeness. And I did feel like we’re pretty close. And we have a lot in common, and I feel pretty acquainted with those parts of him and myself that we share. But I don’t necessarily get to spend time just kind of like, indulging that feeling. And that was powerful. It felt like a practice. Like, this is good practice. And no matter how close you might feel to someone, just to be able to set aside time to talk with them in this way, you know as candidly and as openly as you can. It’s just a privilege. It’s very lucky to be able to do that. To be able to kind of name acknowledge and just appreciate where we are and where we’ve been. Yeah.
DACHER KELTNER I know a lot of you know, with the pandemic right now, one of the things that’s catching them off guard in a sort of uplifting sense is they’re having slightly longer conversations with the people they’re sheltering with. You know, it’s been really profound. It’s one of the powers of this practice, is it gets you to start going back and forth, talking about, you know, what person you’d want to have over for dinner. When did you last cry in front of somebody. Did you find yourself exchanging stuff and showing vulnerabilities?
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA Yeah, it’s embarrassing. And I can’t believe that I’m giving you a recorded audio file with these moments. I think the moment of revelation actually that we both had, I think the deepest moment for me in our conversation was this moment in which we had been talking about how like one thing you have in common is…
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA So name three things that you and I appear to have in common.
JOE DECOLA I think our smile.
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA Yeah.
JOE DECOLA I think our eyes.
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA Yeah.
JOE DECOLA And I sort of think our joie de vivre.
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA We both really just enjoy enjoying life and feeling, like, connected to people and just enjoying our lives. And my dad just, like, giggles, he just so say something sometimes, you know, that’s very painful. And then he’ll just chuckle about it. But he doesn’t necessarily talk about these more painful parts of his life or of himself or of his day. I think that we’ve connected around some of the pleasure of life which has been really lucky. But actually, I think the most powerful moment of this whole exchange was I think I haven’t said that to my father as an adult. Like, “I want to tell you more about what’s going on for me that’s a challenge,” and like, yeah, “Because I know you want to know. And I think I protect myself from sharing that with you and in some ways protect you. Like I don’t want you to have to deal with it because you got plenty going on. But it actually is important.”
DACHER KELTNER You know, one of the things that the practice has built into it is the kind of the reciprocity of conversation, where you take turns asking each other questions. What was it like to have this reciprocal exchange of sort of personal stuff?
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA I think it’s great. I mean, I think there is something just the ritual experience of turn taking I think can be really powerful. And I think, you know, asking a question and, like, noticing the different way that my father would phrase the same questions actually was at some moments, like really poignant.
JOE DECOLA Do you ever rehearse what you’re going to say?
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA Do you ever rehearse what you’re going to say?
JOE DECOLA For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA So I think it just changes the texture of talking in. I spend a lot of time with my dad, like listening and asking him questions and then enjoying his responses. But I don’t always talk as much to my dad about myself and my own life. And I think this kind of forced that in a way a little bit uncomfortable for me. And I felt grateful for.
DACHER KELTNER His life took up a lot of space, it seems.
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA Yeah, man!
DACHER KELTNER Sometimes it’s like that.
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA Yes sometimes it’s like that. Exactly.
DACHER KELTNER You know, and I want to ask you and you know, you’re in this poignant moment with your dad only augmented by the pandemic. And he has stage four cancer. How do you think that this practice will shape going forward with your dad and your relationship?
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA It sort of reminded me of ways that I want to be with him. And I think, I think, he felt the same, like, I think we were able to, to sort of settle on a few agreements about how we want to relate a little bit more intentionally sometimes to feel close. So I think it reminded us, him, you know, as all of this does, that we want to be a little more committed to the practice of, like, checking in. So, that’s lucky.
DACHER KELTNER Do you think you’d try these questions again with someone else?
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA I actually think I am going to do this again with my husband, Daniel, who I was thinking about because, you marry someone and you have a child with them and have a house with them and, you know, get into…you can have a lot of time spent talking to each other about logistical day to day, you know, banal stuff. And I was thinking we should do this. Like this could be good. Yeah. So I, I think we probably will. As awkward and stilted and formulaic as it might feel in certain moments, I think it yields a pretty incredible conversation.
DACHER KELTNER Well Rebecca, I want to thank you for taking time out in a really complicated time to share your wisdom with us. It’s been amazing.
REBECCA VITALI-DECOLA Thanks, Dacher, not wisdom, but thank you.
DACHER KELTNER More on why 36 questions can increase closeness, up next.
ARTHUR ARON You get close to someone by sharing personal information, but not too much too fast. And both ways.
DACHER KELTNER Arthur Aron is a psychology professor at Stony Brook University in New York. He developed the 36 Questions practice.
ARTHUR ARON So we set up a thing where at the beginning you share things that are not very difficult to talk about or not very personal. Both people do it. But over time, the questions become more and more personal. And as you’ve gotten used to them, then you’re able to go deeper.
We have some items like, “Name some things you’ve noticed that you have in common with your partner.” Another huge factor in getting close is thinking the other person likes you. And so we have some questions after a little while where each of them is asked to say, “Name some things you like about your partner.”
DACHER KELTNER In one study, Art’s team brought in complete strangers and paired them off to answer the 36 questions, and then compared that to a group answering mundane questions like, “What time do you get up in the morning?” Or, “What’s the name of the street you live on?”
ARTHUR ARON Those who were in the experimental group at the end reported a very high degree of closeness. Other studies have shown that the hormones change, that you’re more comfortable with the person afterwards, that the hormones that are associated with sort of connectedness become more active. We see it in the brain scanner. We see it in their behavior, all sorts of things.
DACHER KELTNER Art has studied the effects of the 36 questions on strangers, romantic partners, and people of different ethnic groups.
ARTHUR ARON One of the things we were able to do is to randomly assign people to get close or not close to someone of another group and then to measure their attitudes towards that group in some other context. And we’ve gotten very good results consistently. There’s certain stress hormones that come up when you meet someone of another group, but you show less of that if you’ve just interacted with someone else of that group.
DACHER KELTNER Across the different types of studies, researchers have found that it’s key to have people take turns asking and answering the questions.
ARTHUR ARON In fact, there’s been studies comparing situations where one answer is this whole set of them and then the other answer is a whole set of them. You don’t get the same effect as if you go back and forth.
DACHER KELTNER These 36 questions were originally designed for university students, so some may not feel right for older people. If that’s the case, Arthur says make up your own questions.
ARTHUR ARON The principle is to get closer, start talking about something. And each of you talk about something that’s somewhat personal, and then more personal, and then more personal. That idea works really well.
DACHER KELTNER I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining me on The Science of Happiness.
And if you like our show, check out our new Greater Good Toolkit. It’s a beautifully designed, printed set of 30 science-based practices to bring more happiness into your life. You can order your own Toolkit at holstee.com/greatergood. That’s H-O-L-S-T-E-E dot com slash greatergood.
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. Special thanks to our Associate Producer, Brett Simpson, from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. And our science director is Emiliana Simon-Thomas.
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