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We explore how contemplating our heritage can make us feel more belonging, gratitude, and confidence in what we’re capable of achieving.
Link to episode transcript: https://tinyurl.com/5djerhbj
Oral historian Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz knows the profound impact the past can have on the present. For our show, Mi’Jan tried a lab-tested writing practice that took the historical facts she knew about her own family further – by way of her imagination. She journaled about her great-great grandmother Emma, the last enslaved person in her family, and her late father, Njoroge , imagining what they might say to her today.We also hear from psychologist Susan Moore about how learning about your ancestors can help you feel a sense of self-knowledge, gratitude and belonging.
- Imagine an ancestor in your family lineage. It can be someone you have known or someone from centuries ago.
- Spend the next 5-15 minutes writing about them. If you don’t know the details, imagine how their life would have been. Write down anything that comes to mind such as their way of life, their profession or what they looked like.
- Next imagine what they would tell you if they were alive today. What specific insights, advice or feedback would they give you? Write down your reflections.
Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz is an artist, documentarian and oral historian.
Learn more about Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz’s work: http://tinyurl.com/5e8t9ha7
Follow Mi’Jan on Instagram: http://tinyurl.com/mr3yp3kz
Susan Moore is a psychology professor at the Swinburne University of Technology.
Follow Susan on Twitter:http://tinyurl.com/mr3vsr2k
Resources from The Greater Good Science Center:
How Teens Today Are Different from Past Generations: http://tinyurl.com/y5ffwavr
Don’t Be So Quick to Stereotype Generations: http://tinyurl.com/mrxx7xfj
How Collective Trauma Can Hurt the Next Generation: http://tinyurl.com/2vunsm2z
Find Purpose by Connecting Across Generations: http://tinyurl.com/h4yyjesh
More Resources on Connecting with Ancestors:
NPR- 8 listeners share the powerful ways they keep in touch with their ancestors: http://tinyurl.com/48kjmenk
Harvard - How Family History Can Inspire Accountable Reparations and Foster Ancestral Healing: http://tinyurl.com/ta24x773
TED - How to be a good ancestor: http://tinyurl.com/54zvkzsv
How do you connect with your family history? Email us at email@example.com or use the hashtag #happinesspod.
Help us share The Science of Happiness!
Rate us on Spotify and share this link with someone who might like the show: http://tinyurl.com/yv69erdh
Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz: My great-great-grandmother, Emma was the last slave in our family and she also was the first free person on these lands and our family. And I know the story of her that she knew how to write because it was a dangerous proposition for a slave to be able to read and write and especially as a child. The slave master tried to hammer off all of her fingers but she still could write until she passed away. And I know the story of how great-great granddad Bradford earned his freedom in Alabama, and walked to Mississippi, and purchased the freedom of great-great grandma Emma, and they walked back to Alabama.
They didn’t wait for emancipation. And I also know their story of emancipation is also a love story. I understand how they fell in love and married.
But we have no intimate details about her life and so I think about that walk. I think about who must have helped them. I wonder what was their intimate family and love life like? The first woman in my line who could write, I wonder if she wrote love letters to her husband.
Was there a sight that she saw, that made her heart jump? Was it like a kid coming home from school? If there was a schoolhouse that they went to? Those were some of the questions that I had. AndI found myself able for the first time to imagine her life.
Shuka Kalantari: Welcome to The Science of Happiness. I’m Shuka Kalantari, executive producer of the podcast, filling in for Dacher Keltner.
On each episode The Science of Happiness, we explore research behind ways to live a happier, more meaningful life and today we’re gonna look at how our ancestors can help.
We’re focusing on a lab-tested practice that involves writing about our heritage—Exploring our curiosity around the details of their lives.
We hear from Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz an artist and documentarian who tried this writing practice.
And later, psychologist Susan Moore shares how researching our ancestry affects our well-being.
Susan Moore: We need to tell a story about ourselves. And I think putting yourself not just in the context of your own life, but in that longer context of the lives of your ancestors. It gives us more than just an individual story, doesn’t it? It gives us a family story and a cultural story too.
Shuka Kalantari: We’ll start with my conversation with Mi’Jan, after these messages from our sponsors.
Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Shuka Kalantari, filling in this week for Dacher Keltner.
Today we’re exploring how connecting with our ancestors can support us.
Our guest is Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz. She’s a documentarian who produces cultural projects that honor the past.
She tried a practice where she wrote about her ancestors.
This particular exercise is based on a study from Austria that found that spending just 5 minutes writing about an ancestor—even an imagined one—can make us feel like we’re more able to succeed and have more control over our lives.
Here’s part of my conversation with Mi’Jan. Mi’ Jan, welcome to The Science of Happiness.
Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz: Oh, thank you so much for having Shuka.
Shuka Kalantari: For our show you did a practice and we’ll get into the details in a moment. Where you wrote about your own ancestors. What made you want to do a reflective writing practice about your own ancestors?
Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz: So many things. One, because my dad just passed away three months ago and he had had dementia and he was ill for many years.
And in that last in-person conversation right before he passed, I just said, “You know, there’s some things I really need you to know that you taught me that were so important in my life that I learned, and there’s some things that I think I want to hear from you, did you learn in a relationship with me that were significant to you?” And it was like one of the most moving conversations of our whole life together.
But I didn’t ask him about love, like what he most, would want or hope that I learn in my lifetime about love.
That’s my only last question. I guess that doesn’t get to be answered. So then when this practice came of talking to him and making that a daily practice and writing, I was like, “I wanna just see what would happen. I’m curious.”
Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz: If there would be some new understanding that would come through that maybe was already there, but just hadn’t landed.
Shuka Kalantari: The practice is for five minutes or more, you imagine your ancestors like your great grandparents, great aunts and uncles, and you can even imagine family from the 15th century.
You can also imagine a parent or an aunt or uncle, you know, really anyone who came before you and then, you write down everything that comes to mind about them. This could be what they looked like, how they lived what their job was, their thoughts and feelings.
Shuka Kalantari: So you did this practice thinking about your dad?
Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz: Yeah. I focused on my dad and also my great-great-grandmother, Emma who is the last slave in our family, who we have history, you know, that we understand and know and stories that were passed down.
She was born and I think partially raised in Alabama, and then she was sold off to a plantation in Mississippi. And that’s where I have no details. I have no idea how. My great-great-grandfather could’ve figured out, like, how to walk to her. I mean that’s all just like so bananas to me. That dudes now like, just show up for a cup of coffee for a date. But I’m like, my great-great-grandfather literally walked, you know, across state lines and um, yeah.
Shuka Kalantari: Was there a sense of imagination there where you kind of filled in the blanks with tentatives?
Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz: Huge. I mean, again, ‘cause I was, like trying to imagine their romantic life. As well as her as a mom because she had 15 children and I was like, “How tired was this woman? Was she too tired where she couldn’t even, like, make dolls maybe for her daughters,” or whatever that might have been at that time late 18 hundreds, early 19 hundreds. Yeah. I found myself able for the first time to imagine. That’s my point with writing versus speaking or I think because for me, every time before this practice, when I would speak to my ancestors, it was always with a reverential prayer like, please come join me. Give me guidance. But this was like, or I should say, and this was, this was like, “Hey, I wonder how you kicked it. I wonder what date night was like.”
Shuka Kalantari: And then the next step is my favorite, is to think about and write about what they would say to you if they were alive and with you today. This could be whatever comes to mind, right? This could be insights, advice, reflections.
So your great-great-grandmother, Emma, what did you write about and imagine that she said to you?
Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz: I asked about this upcoming year because I’m doing a month walking pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago and I think I felt guilty. I definitely have absorbed, unfortunately, societal narratives around what a free single woman can do and how that might repel future partners. You know, sort of this notion that if you’re a wanderer, no one will be attracted to you. There’s no way you can have partnership. So I was looking for not just, like, guidance, but her thoughts about that. Like what would someone who had literally been a slave and received earned freedom from her future husband, and then married and had a family, I’m like, “What would she make of my life?”
Shuka Kalantari: So what did great-great grandmother Emma say?
The surprise was that how happy she was, how happy she was for me. To be able to create and also to receive a life of abundance and freedom.
What I received back in the writing from great-great grandma Emma was just the pure joy and happiness that she had that her. I mean just constantly, that was the dialogue. Like can you honestly imagine someone who in their lifetime was a slave, tasted freedom, and then here is this person in their lineage who literally gets to be pursuing yes, great projects and joy. There are no stories in our family of her traveling. There are no stories in our family about her pursuing her dreams beyond freedom and love.
Shuka Kalantari: What was the main kind of takeaway you got from writing about your father and asking him that question?
Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz: The joy. That was the biggest — because even though he was such a joyful, happy person, with me though, with his teachings about how to be in life, it never really was this pursuit of joy and whimsy. It really was about — live a dignified, you know, life that we can be proud of. So, I don’t know if it was something that maybe I needed to hear more of or would’ve liked more in our last conversation and didn’t know how to, as the oral historian, how to ask the right story prompt question for, but I was happy that I did receive that in the journaling. Joy. And just this writing practice was an invitation to the curiosity of whimsy and joy and levity of their lives.
Shuka Kalantari: The psychologists who did this study, they compared people writing about either their ancestors, or a close friend or their last trip to the grocery store, and what they found is that people who wrote about their ancestors reported feeling like they had more control over their lives. And I wonder does that ring true to you? Did this practice kind of give you a sense of agency?
Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz: Yes, because One of the things that I was feeling a lot of strong tension and disorientation after my dad’s passing, like that first month was large of a question and as cliche as it is, I just kept asking myself, “Who am I? My dad just died. Who am I?”
I didn’t realize how much of my self-identity was anchored into being Njoroge’s daughter, being the daughter who makes the father proud. I just kept spinning around with that question and I was like, girl, “What is going on?” And luckily I’m in therapy and I have great friends and all that, and I just was like, okay, I’m in fresh feral grief. Like that’s who I am. I’m a person in fresh feral grief. Not the happiest of times.
However, on the other side of that fresh grief to more of the, I don’t know, milieu of mediocre grief. I just anchored into this writing and talking practice with my dad and I don’t even know. It was like a magical gift moment where I realized, “Okay. Maybe that is how I identified all of my life as Njoroge’s daughter and this person who needs to make their dad proud, and who does make their dad proud.” But I tiptoed in the writing to being able to understand and to hear so clearly that my life can be mine. And so the agency came there and I was like, “Well, what exactly do I wanna choose now? Not just making my family members proud and not just being in service to my communities and world, but between me and me. Mi’Jan. Privately, pen with paper. Who do I wanna be? What do I wanna be doing? Is the dance I’ve been dancing, is that the dance that feels the best for me that I choose for my happiness?”
Shuka Kalantari: Beautiful. Thank you for being a guest on the Science of Happiness. It’s been a pleasure to have you.
Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz: Oh, thank you for giving me like a jewelry treasure box of a practice to put some of the, like I said, like feral feelings that have been swirling around. Thank you so much.
Shuka Kalantari: Up next, we’ll hear the research on what happens when we start investigating the lives our ancestors.
Welcome back to The Science of Happiness. I’m Shuka Kalantari. We’ve been talking about how writing about our ancestors, real or imagined, can strengthen our sense of self and build confidence in our ability to succeed.
The research is relatively new, but of course the practice of connecting with and honoring the people who came before us, is ancient.
Susan Moore: Most cultures do that in some way. We have funerals, we have burial rites, we have memorials. And I guess doing the family history is another way of honoring the ancestors.
Shuka Kalantari: That’s Susan Moore. a psychology professor at Swinburne University in Australia. She’s an avid family historian.
Moore surveyed 775 Australians who were studying their ancestral history, as a hobby. She wanted to know what motivated them, and what they actually got out of doing this family research.
Well, 90 percent of them said that they were motivated to gain self knowledge and 70 percent of them said that they did actually, increase their understanding of themselves.
So that finding out who I am, finding out where I fit in history, what my family were like, what shaped me you know, that search for the story of yourself, your self narrative is partly the story of your family.
Shuka Kalantari: They also reported feeling more grateful for their lives.
Susan Moore: That gratitude is huge. Looking back at what their ancestors were able to do in very difficult circumstances. Cholera, typhoid, all of those things, smallpox, things that have now been mastered, they were killing off our ancestors, but we are the descendants of the lucky ones who’ve survived. And I think we feel very grateful to them.
And it gives us more than just an individual story, doesn’t it? It gives us a family story and a cultural story too. I think that sense of belonging increases your social world, the people that you relate to. You’ve got something in common.
I think everybody looks for a sense of meaning. What are we here for? What’s our life worth? And I think putting yourself not just in the context of your own life, but in that longer context of the lives of your ancestors does help you because when you’re thinking, “Oh, you know, the world’s terrible or I feel miserable, whatever, you can think,” I can see that I have a good life. I’m very lucky, and a lot of that is because of what my ancestors have done.” So, I think you can feel proud of that, you can feel you’re part of it, and that helps give people a sense of meaning.
Shuka Kalantari: Next time on The Science of Happiness, we’re exploring The Science of Habits with tips to help you make your new year’s resolution stick.
Katy Milkman: We can grow almost any capacity through some failure and learning from those failures. If you have a growth mindset you can interpret it and say, huh, well. I guess I can learn from that and I can grow.
Shuka Kalantari: And, if you’d like to get some more support this year, we’re launching a free, limited newsletter with science-backed tips every week to help you stay on track or get back on track, which we all need sometimes.
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I’m Shuka Kalantari, executive producer of The Science of Happiness. Our host is usually Dacher Keltner. Our producer is Haley Gray. Sound design is from Jennie Cataldo of Accompany Studios. Our associate producer is Maarya Zafar. And our executive director is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.
Thanks for joining us and have a wonderful day or night.