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ANNELISSA MHLOLI The first time I was on a surfboard and I tried standing, I didn’t even go up to the knees. I tried pushing myself up and I fell back on the board. I was like, ‘No this isn’t for me. No. My body is not in the right way,’ because I felt like I was too heavy for the surfboard. I was like, ‘No, I’m not going to do anything that has to do with surfing.’
But when I actually started being comfortable in my body, and started accepting myself for who I am. This is me. I’m plus-sized and I can do whatever I want to do. No one and nothing can tell me that you can’t do a particular thing. When I stood up for the first time I couldn’t control my screaming. I was screamingthe whole time. ‘Wooo, wooo!’ I was screaming my lungs out.
It’s a going-nuts feeling. Like, it’s too much. The adrenaline in your body when you actually stand up, and I was even shaking because I thought it would never happen for me.
DACHER KELTNER Twenty-three-year-old Annelissa Mhloli learned to surf and is now a surf instructor and mentor for youths in an organization called Waves for Change in Cape Town, South Africa.
On every episode we have a guest try out a research-based practice designed to boost happiness, resilience, kindness or connection. Today we’re talking to Annelissa, who has her own happiness practice which involves working with kids in the water, something that science is showing has incredible benefits for our well-being.
KIDS If you’re happy and you know it, then you really want to show it, if you’re happy and you know it, turn around!
COACHES Turn around!
DACHER KELTNER Annelissa, thanks for being with us today.
ANNELISSA MHLOLI Thanks for having me.
DACHER KELTNER So you do a lot of work in the ocean with kids and I wanted to ask you about that but I’m curious, did you grow up near the ocean?
ANNELISSA MHLOLI So growing up, the beach wasn’t like a place where you’d go like on a regular basis. Black people didn’t go to beaches. Black people to this day sometimes are still scared of the water because they were never given the chance of going to the ocean and going for swimming lessons and all of that. So that was like, the old South Africa. But now, yes, we get the opportunity, but it’s still limited.
DACHER KELTNER Tell us about Waves for Change. How did you get involved?
ANNELISSA MHLOLI So I came across Waves for Change and I was a bit skeptical. I’m like, ‘Heh, waves, surfing. No, not me.’ Because I watched a lot of videos about surfing and all the people were like physique, like they were fit, they were like well-built. And I was like, ‘Eh, I don’t think I’m going to fit in here. But let me give it a try. ‘When I wrote out the application it asked, can you swim, and I said no. And how comfortable are you in the water? And I said I’m very comfortable in the water. So I think because Waves for Change wasn’t just looking for coaches who can swim, they were looking for people who are passionate about working with kids. I think that’s the main thing they hired me. And then within Waves for Change I grew and I can swim now.
DACHER KELTNER What do you do at Waves for Change?
ANNELISSA MHLOLI I work with the kids where we implement sessions about coping skills. How to cope with stress because we work with kids who come from vulnerable backgrounds. The kids are kids from communities around Khayelitsha, where they’re growing up at higher risk of being involved either in drugs or gangsterism and all of that. So we try and equip them with skills that will help them when they come across situations where they get stressed, or they feel like that things are too much for them. And use the sea as well as a coping skill because when you’re in the water you get time to breathe, you get time to calm down, you get time to think about stuff where there’s no one who’s distracting you.
DACHER KELTNER You know, there’s really neat research that’s coming out about the benefits for young kids in terms of being out in nature. Even their new studies of, you know, the benefits of people when they get a chance to surf and ride the waves and they feel less anxious and they sleep better. What do you notice when you help the kids float in the water and sort of deal with the feeling in the waves or things like that? What do you notice in the kids?
ANNELISSA MHLOLI Excitement. When you teach a kid to float. Because what we do is we give them the opportunity to float together as pairs. But sometimes it’s a bit of trust issues somewhere in there because some of them
DACHER KELTNER You know, one of the really interesting areas of research is the empathic connection between a teacher and a student. And there are neat studies showing, you know, if a teacher just feels what the students feel and their bodies are lined up with them and they have this great rhythm to their interaction that things go better. How would you describe the feelings you feel when you see that excitement in your kids?
ANNELISSA MHLOLI I’m excited as if it’s me under surfboard. Because when they’re excited or when they’re happy like I said, it it makes me happy as well. ‘Cause I feel like, ‘OK, Lissa. Not you’ve done your work but you’ve actually gave your time and did something good for someone else,’ which makes me feel good about myself as well. Because making them feel a sense of belonging, because that’s like one of the areas that we’ve noticed within our kids, that they lack a sense of belonging. So making them feel as if they belong to this family, and to this Waves for Change family is something great for them. Therefore for you as well as Annelissa, or as the coach, you feel good about making someone else feeling good about themselves.
DACHER KELTNER Do you think there’s something very special about being in the ocean? Just sort of floating there and learning to be supported by somebody like you. Is there something unique to that that’s special?
ANNELISSA MHLOLI There is. Because when you’re in the water and floating, it can either be in the pool or the ocean, if you close your eyes and lay on your back and be like floating and floating, you can think, you can imagine anything. You can imagine your future. You can imagine doing things that you never thought you’d do. So getting that time to yourself and thinking about all those things.
DACHER KELTNER It’s just such an inspiring story of somebody who can’t swim, and now teaching kids how to swerve tough waves in South Africa. That’s pretty pretty incredible.
ANNELISSA MHLOLI I felt like my job didn’t actually expect me to know how to surf but just know the basics of knowing how to surf that I can teach the kids. But the question I asked myself was, ‘What if new kids that are recruited, there’s a kid who will feel the same way I feel?’
DACHER KELTNER Exactly.
ANNELISSA MHLOLI How am I going to motivate and encourage that child to continue trying to surf when me as a coach, who feels as if I can’t surf, have failed or like have given up on learning how to surf? That was my biggest motivation, that question that I asked myself ,and that’s why I went back onto the surfboard and got a bigger board that now Lissa can stand on.
DACHER KELTNER You know, you have this relationship to swimming and surfing. What is it do you think about surfing itself that is has these special powers?
ANNELISSA MHLOLI When you say, ‘I can surf,’ like that’s something to boast about because it’s not something that’s very common in like our community. And especially when you’re like a black child. It’s something you become proud of because I can see it with the a bit older kids that we work with. When they teach the younger ones they tell them, ‘Learn now and be committed to what you’re doing so that you can surf with us in the back line. You don’t want to surf in the front line forever.’ It doesn’t just build their surfing, but it builds them as well. Their confidence. There’s like this, the scaredness they are in when they have to go to the back. Surfing gives you the platform to grow.
DACHER KELTNER No, absolutely. Annelissa, one of the things—you know, I teach students in college and a lot of young people—and one of the things that I think is the deepest struggle not only of that age group, but especially today for young people is just to find purpose in life. You know, like, ‘This is what I’m supposed to be doing?’ How would you describe your purpose in this work that you’re doing?
ANNELISSA MHLOLI It’s a matter of me trying to ensure that kids don’t continue with the cycle of living under poverty. So I want to show kids that you can live under the worst conditions, but don’t let your past or your previous conditions determine who you become in the future. I feel like me doing whatever possible that I can to make sure that these kids feel loved. These kids want to live another day. So if I do that, then I’m at peace, or my purpose in life is fulfilled, I believe.
DACHER KELTNER Wow, that’s amazing. Is this the kind of work you dreamed about doing as a kid?
ANNELISSA MHLOLI I dreamt about—I’m not going lie and say I was happy in the community I was in. I dreamt that I want to go to school, study something that’s going to give me a lot of money so I can leave the community I am living in because it’s too much. I was like, ‘OK, chemical engineering, that’s probably going to give me a lot of money so that I can leave Khayelitsha in a flash and never look back.’ But now thinking about it, Khayelitsha is the reason I talk the way I talk. I feel the things I feel because of Khayelitsha. I’m passionate about working with kids and changing kids’ lives because of Khayelitsha. So yes, I can feel a certain way about Khayelitsha, but I can never forget the fact that it’s the reason I am who I am today.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah. How do you find happiness today?
ANNELISSA MHLOLI Today I was in the water with my kids. And today I learned how to dive actually, because I never really learned how to dive. So they were laughing at me the whole time. So because each time I tried I would splash the water and they were laughing. So happiness for me is being with the kids and having a great time with them.
DACHER KELTNER That’s about the very foundation of what we know about happiness. Annelissa Mhloli, I wanted to thank you with from the bottom of my heart for being on the Science of Happiness. So much wisdom you’re providing us. We’re so grateful you were here. So thank you so much.
ANNELISSA MHLOLI Thank you so much for the opportunity.
ANNELISSA & KIDS Back to back, hands to hands, [clapping] I’ll see you later!
DACHER KELTNER Being on the water isn’t just good for Annelissa Mhloli’s happiness and the happiness of her students. New research is suggesting that it might be good for all of us. It’s all about getting into a mental state that author and researcher Wallace J Nichols calls “Blue Mind,” which is the name of his book.
WALLACE J NICHOLS Blue Mind is as much about what it takes away as what it gives you. And when you begin to move to the water, you start to leave some things behind. Notably, other people, screens, voices, noise, your to-do list. All the things that may be distracting you. And so that gives your brain a little break. Physiologically, we naturally respond to being in the water, or even looking at water. Our heart rate slow, our breathing rate slow, our skin temperature cools a little bit. Some of the best studies in terms of a controlled environment are happening at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research and they’re putting people with high levels of anxiety into float tanks and Justin Feinstein has been leading that.
JUSTIN FEINSTEIN For many years I was working with patients who had pretty severe anxiety. I was at the VA hospital working with veterans who had PTSD, for example. And I would try to teach them mindfulness; I would try to teach them how to focus on the present moment. And for whatever reason, their nervous systems just seemed totally incompatible with these present moment awareness states. And there was something about the float environment that seemed very naturally conducive to enhancing those present moment sensations and really fostering that awareness. And so I thought this could be a very nice bridge to help patients who would otherwise find these states inaccessible.
We started with a sample that sort of spanned the whole spectrum of anxiety disorders. We had about 30 patients in that first study. And what we’re seeing is within about five to 10 minutes of floating, a 10 to 15 point drop in diastolic blood pressure. One of the things we’re really intrigued by is what’s happening in the brain as people are entering into these relaxation states.
We do have an MRI scan, or literally 100 meters away from our float pool. And so we’re starting to put the patients into the scanner before and after their float, and one of the fascinating things I’ve really been taken by is after you complete a float session there is this residue where the nervous system doesn’t just bounce back to its normal state, but it sort of stays in this relaxed state, and it seems to last about 24 hours. If you’re not able to access any float center, other forms of water immersion can sort of produce this state. And one book, Wallace Nichols’ Blue Mind, really talks about the idea that anywhere there’s water there is the potential for gaining some sort of positive benefit.
WALLACE J NICHOLS I wrote this book Blue Mind to say this one simple thing: Get in the water. And whatever that means to you, do it as often as you can. That may mean your bathtub, or a mindful shower, or a lake or a river, but get near the water, get in it if you can. And it will it will help boost your creativity, it’ll boost your happiness. You see that over and over across studies that look at, you know, people’s spending time on rivers, and people spending time on the ocean. You get your wellness boosted. You want to help others, and you want to help our planet.
DACHER KELTNER I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining me for the Science of Happiness.
Our podcast is a coproduction of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRI, with production assistance from Jennies Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our executive producer is Jane Park, production assistant is Lee Mengistu. Editor-in-chief of the Greater Good Science Center is Jason Marsh. Special thanks to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. You can learn more about the Science of Happiness and find related articles, videos, quizzes—all kinds of stuff—on our website, greatergood.berkeley.edu. And shoot us an email, tell us what you think about what you heard. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.