May 21, 2020
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BHI BHIMAN This terrible political violence happened in my parents’ native country of Sri Lanka aimed at at our people, the Tamil Sri Lankan people. But it’s been a long bloody civil war with violence coming from the Tamils, and violence coming from the other side, so there’s blame to go around. But in the end, a lot, lot, lot, tens of thousands of innocent people, women and children, just innocent people, were killed.
And so it’s incredibly hard to let go of anger that you have about that. I do have family members, and some of them have let go of that. And some family members, and some Tamil friends I know, are kind of consumed by it. They look worse for the wear, basically. You know, it’s it’s eating them. And it’s hard to tell somebody “you’ve got to let go of your anger,” because it’s so personal. But for the collective, you know, millions of people around the world who are Tamil Sri Lankans who have felt that issue, it’s a helpless feeling filled with hopelessness and anger. So you can’t do anything with the helplessness and hopelessness too much, but you can probably kind of curb your anger towards that person, and focus your energies on something maybe more productive.
DACHER KELTNER Folk-rock musician Bhi Bhiman sings songs covering issues like immigration, voter suppression, our general cultural condition, and even the Russian election interference. His new album ‘Peace of Mind’ was recently released I think this may have been the first time I’ve ever heard of this, as a podcast, which is really cool. On every episode of our show we have a happiness guinea pig try out research-based practices that help us boost kindness, resilience, connection, and handle a lot of the complexities of our social living. And we dive into the science behind why these practices work. Bhi, thanks so much for joining us on the science of happiness.
BHI BHIMAN No problem. It’s a pleasure to be here.
DACHER KELTNER You grew up in St. Louis as the son of Sri Lankan immigrants. What was that childhood like for you?
BHI BHIMAN I mean, up to a certain point you don’t really notice that maybe you’re different than other people. But I had a great childhood. St. Louis is a pretty good place to grow up as a kid and raise a family. It’s pretty quiet, and a lot of immigrants find quiet places. Maybe they’re tired of noise, whether it’s violence, or whatever it might be. I guess one thing that kind of was different about me than maybe some of my neighbors or something is that I had family all over the world. I had family in Toronto, which is close, but I had family in Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia, like literally almost all the continents, and I was lucky enough to visit most of them. And so the world was huge to me. My mind was was outside of my small world a lot of times.
DACHER KELTNER So you recently released a new album called ‘Peace of Mind.’ Tell us about releasing it as a podcast.
BHI BHIMAN It was a very political album. I talk about all kinds of things going on in this crazy political time of ours, and whether it’s voter suppression, the Trump-Russia stuff. Yeah, just mental health kind of in this psychotic time.
So basically the people in the podcast world were killing it, like in terms of politics, and the audience seems to be more there for this album. And at the same time I was like, it’s kind of punk rock to release an album as a podcast. Even though it’s a nerdy punk-rock, it’s still punk-rock.
DACHER KELTNER So each show, we have a guest try out a different happiness practice and you chose, I think you’re our first guest, the practice of letting go of anger. Tell us what you did.
BHI BHIMAN I started thinking about this person who I had an anger problem with and honestly I hadn’t resolved it. I just was like, F that guy basically, and that was my my dealing with it. “I’m not gonna think about them anymore,” that was my resolution to it.
So a friend of mine, a musician friend of mine, went out on tour with this other friend who is the person I’m talking about. Two musician friends drive their van out with their gear across the country to the east coast from the west coast, and meet up, and then they would do the tour. And my other friend refused to pay the money saying, “I wouldn’t have done this tour unless you were paying for the gas to drive my gear across the country.” Now I feel like, okay, now that you both are having this quarrel you should come to an understanding of figuring out what to do. Then I got involved and basically was like, “That’s not really fair, you should probably resolve this.” And he dug in further and basically had this blowout argument about it, and saying, “I wouldn’t have booked the tour had I not had somebody drive my gear out and pay for all the gas.” And I’m like, “Are you kidding me.” And he’s dead serious. And so anyway, I haven’t spoken to them since. So what’s hurtful is not this issue that happened. It was just like, they burned the bridge because of that.
DACHER KELTNER The glamorous side of rock and roll.
BHI BHIMAN Super glamorous. But doing this exercise was pretty cool because it literally turns off that switch of kind of anger and hate, and it takes a little time, but when you show compassion towards somebody else, and kind of wish them well, and think positive things about them, which I had not done, it turned off the switch of of anger I had towards them. I started thinking positive things about them. And that was so interesting because it’s almost impossible to hold those two things simultaneously, the negative and the positive. So the positive just eliminated the negative, at least for that time being, and I felt like I had gone halfway to the resolution of the problem which was pretty amazing.
It made me look at these these personal issues I have from a much less personal view. After showing these people who are a source of anger in my life some compassion and even wishing them well, I felt a lot different. Like a weight had been lifted that I didn’t actually understand that was there, which was a very interesting part of it, that you don’t understand what you’re walking around with. That kind of like, the frog in the boiling water, or whatever. You know, if you start boiling a frog from cold water, they don’t understand that the temperature has changed till it’s too late. So that was a really interesting thing where I had this kind of a weight on me, it’s something dragging an anchor I guess, you know something digging into me that I didn’t understand. And you know, the mind is an incredibly complex thing. So to kind of take some control over that was empowering for sure. I was like, “Oh my God.” I had realized that this was like working, and what it was doing to me. I realized I had a built in resistance to like my own wellbeing, which is messed up. Because of nature, if you let too many negative things like permeate your your mind and your your spirit, I guess it can accumulate. And there’s a saying like, cut out the negativity in your life. Cut out the negative people in your life. And that is true. And I’ve done that. But it doesn’t cut out that those things that still bother you.
DACHER KELTNER It’s so interesting to think about the science because you know, we know anger and stress elevates heart rate and cortisol and blood pressure, and just these little moments of turning that switch like you say shifts us to this different place if you will of, “Well I’m more accepting and I feel a little kinder,” and maybe even understand why they acted as they did.
What was it like for you, you know, when you thought and you directed kindness and compassion toward this person who had angered you in the music industry? Did you really forgive them? Do you feel like there is this kind of shift in your stance toward them?
BHI BHIMAN I didn’t forgive them. I feel like it helps me kind of just like let go of it a bit. I think forgiveness would take some time. I think forgiveness for this friend, ex-friend whatever you want to call him is definitely within reach. I do think that had I just bumped into them without doing this practice, I would probably just let my anger kind of do the talking. It would have not been very productive, it would have been something messy. It wouldn’t be very focused. But doing this practice, and then I bumped into them again, it would be so much different. It would be a much more productive confrontation. I mean it would still be a confrontation of some sort. But it would be from a much more, on my end, resolved place. Not fully resolved at all, but those raw, pointy, sharp feelings that I would have had would be much more smoothed over, and I would be able to come at it from a much more humane place. So I think it would be incredibly helpful to do this exercise before dealing with this person in person about the issue you had with them. It would be more productive ultimately.
DACHER KELTNER Would you recommend the practice to other people?
BHI BHIMAN Absolutely. Like, a thousand percent. It’s way more powerful than I imagined. I’ll be honest, I chose it because I don’t have a lot of time and it was one of the shorter exercises that I could do and I immediately thought, “Oh, this this can apply to me.” But part of it was that it was short, but I was amazed by within four or five minutes I felt the difference. It’s not like, “Oh I am solved. I’ve been hypnotized out of my anger” or something. It’s like anything else, you’ll have to keep doing it and all that.
DACHER KELTNER Well it certainly is an exercise for our times, and Bhi, I wanted to thank you for being our guinea pig and being on the show, and thank you for your incredible music. Thanks for being on our show, Bhi.
BHI BHIMAN No problem. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much.
DACHER KELTNER When we hold a grudge, we tend to relive the hurtful events from our pasts, bringing them right into the present. Research suggests that in the long run, holding onto anger takes a heavy toll on our minds and bodies, even putting us at greater risk for heart problems. While we can’t avoid being wronged by others, we can learn to let go of our anger toward them, and enjoy greater well-being as a result. That’s according to years of research by Charlotte vanOyen-Witvliet, a psychology professor at Hope College in Michigan. In one study, she invited people to ruminate on a time in their lives where someone had really hurt them. Then she asked one group to suppress the emotions they felt about that hurt, while she asked another group to try to think about that person with compassion.
CHARLOTTE VANOYEN-WITVLIET So they started with a relaxation task. People simply think the word “one” every time they exhale. It helps them regulate and clear their mind. And they went on to ruminate for two minutes. Following that, they would make ratings, and write about that experience. But the whole time we were measuring their bodily responses millisecond by millisecond, or heartbeat by heartbeat. We found that rumination activated negative, more intense emotions. And in the process it disregulated the heart.
It also prompted tension under the eye suggesting intensity and at the brow which corresponds to negative emotions. By contrast both compassion and suppression decrease negative emotions. But then there are really different effects that compassion and suppression have. And so what we find is that while suppression simply quiets negative emotion reports, and eases tension under the eye and of the brow and slows down heartbeats, it doesn’t do much to generate positive change. Instead compassion is what not only subdues the negative experiences and expressions, but compassion also activates positive emotion, activates smile muscle activity. And what’s fascinating is that in a second study where people have an opportunity to practice compassion, this effectively elevated people’s empathy for their offender the very first try. And that predicted people’s empathy for their offender later in the study, when they were ruminating about the bad experience.
And when we look at the many studies in the forgiveness literature that examine empathy, we find that it is the most powerful predictor we have of whether people will forgive a particular offender. Remembering this is a human whose wrongdoing is proof that good change is needed in their life, it can give us a clue for how we can desire genuinely good change for that person. And every time we do that, we’re moving in the direction of forgiveness. And it’s really crucial that we not confuse forgiveness with anything like minimizing or excusing wrongdoing, because that would be utterly unjust.
Only certain things are within our control. But a lot is, and we find that empathic perspective-taking and compassion elevates people’s perceptions of control, and shifts their emotions from negative toward positive, from being alone in their pain toward being more social. It makes them more generous. It makes them more giving of forgiveness.
DACHER KELTNER If you’d like to try the “Letting Go of Anger Through Compassion” practice, or other happiness exercises, visit our greater good in action website at ggia.berkeley.edu. And then email us at email@example.com and tell us how it went.
Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRI/PRX, with production assistance from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our producer is Shuka Kalantari, our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. Special thanks goes to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Join us for a live recording of an episode of the Science of Happiness, and hear from Jack Kornfield and me and lots of other speakers at our first-ever, three-day Science of Happiness event, held in northern California near Santa Cruz. Learn more at ggsc.berkeley.edu.