July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
YUMI KENDALL I was with my boyfriend and we were listening. We found this little bench off of the main path, and it felt like just a great place to enjoy the silence, with the flowers around. But actually we were listening and it was actually like we call it our anthropoid orchestra.
But suddenly our ears, just everything turned to the crickets chirping, and even the leaves rustling in the gentle breeze, noticing the flowers and plants nearby, and even a few cars honking in the distance, and suddenly realizing like how awake my ears were even within what I thought was silence. And that sort of awakening was an unexpected moment. And it was just a moment, It was magical. And it felt like it is one of those things it sticks in my mind and my being because of how unexpectedly alive things are even in that silence.
DACHER KELTNER She made her musical debut at age 16 with the National Symphony Orchestra, and today Yumi Kendall is a world-renowned and award winning cellist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. On top of that, Yumi also has a Master’s degree in Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied the kinds of questions we explore here on our show, like what is it that gives people a sense of meaning in their lives and make them feel connected to something bigger than themselves? As our guest today, Yumi tried a practice to build those feelings of connection, and she’s here to tell us how it went. Yumi, thank you so much for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
YUMI KENDALL Thank you for having me.
DACHER KELTNER You know, I had the privilege of getting to see you right in the thick of it, perform in front of 2,000 people and when I think back there, I had one musical performance in my life. I played the clarinet. And in seventh grade where I was on this band, this stage and we were going to play a winter wonderland or something for the parents. And the first note I hit was off. And I laughed through the entire performance. So I can’t imagine what it’s like for to hold a cello next to your heart and to the play the sounds and have 2,000 people affected. I mean, what is it like to be in that context?
YUMI KENDALL I mean, it’s both personally like literally vibrating, but it’s also resonant with, you know, the 100 or so colleagues I have onstage with the Philadelphia Orchestra. And so all of those feelings that I’m experiencing are magnified by the people, the musicians around me. Sharing this experience, this collective experience, and then even more so, you sort of radiating that out into the concert hall. So I think the music, I mean, definitely resonates from the individual from within. But then that sharing that experience just becomes, it just magnifies that resonance, literally.
DACHER KELTNER You know, you got a lot going on in your life. You know, you’re this World-Class cellist. And then on top of it, you decided to get a master’s degree in positive psychology, where you covered a lot of the stuff that we talk about in the science of happiness, gratitude, contentment, grit, etc. What was the relationship between what you were learning about the science of happiness and then being a cellist? What struck you about the convergences?
YUMI KENDALL I think one of the most important things for me is the ways to connect inside, internally: I almost always choose a person in the audience who may be a familiar face, or who may just have caught my eye in some special way that day. And like they they receive my perform, they receive that my energy and my focus. And that also deepens the performance experience for me, because it’s also special to be sending that energy, that performance energy out to the 2000 people in the concert hall or wherever we might be playing. But it’s also so much deeper to think about that one person who’s receiving that music and it becomes so much more focused. And then I just saw that that for me is one of the most powerful experiences on stage. And there’s also the aspect of time and connecting to the composer and the person who wrote the piece to the musician as a messenger to the audience member.
DACHER KELTNER Wow. Amazing. It’s very fitting that you would choose the awe narrative practice from the Greater Good in Action website and we’ll talk about, you know, the practice itself, which is sort of writing about experiences of awe and reflecting on what it means. But I have to ask you, you know we know from the science of awe that one of the really striking properties of the emotion is that we find it in so many different places right in nature and being inspired by ordinary acts of courage. Life and death and music worldwide. What what’s your experience of awe like in your life of music? What are some of the striking moments or things that jump out at you?
YUMI KENDALL I think about awe in music in, gosh, there’s so many ways. I think there’s spontaneous realizations we were playing the Addams Sheherazade Point 2, with Layla letter several words. And. There are these expansive, expansive, soaring piano like very soft moments with non-traditional harmonies, and it felt like I was soaring. And then there are other times when I’m drawn to the physicality, like looking across the stage and seeing all the violins in unison, doing really strong, powerful downbows together. There’s like an almost militaristic unity very, very forceful. So the sense of ah can come from, onstage, from the actual sounds. But also those sources of awe can come from the feeling of that sense of space and time expanding.
DACHER KELTNER You know, it’s so interesting how what you’re describing is echoed by a major finding from the awe research, which is that awe involves this sense of vastness and of feeling like you’re just one small part of this much bigger whole. And that experience is linked to lower stress, greater well-being—really powerful stuff. Let’s turn now to the “Awe Narrative” that you chose to do. Can you walk us through the steps of the practice? / can you walk us through it?
YUMI KENDALL Sure. This practice takes about fifteen minutes or more, if you wish. Think back to a time when you felt a sense of order for something you said you saw or experienced or being something that makes you see the world differently, it may overwhelm you. Like when you go hiking and then you get to the top of the mountain. And there is this both sense of accomplishment and humility. And then try to think about a most recent time when you’ve experienced or witnessed. That feeling of awe. And then write about that experience in as much detail as you can. So that’s what I did! A version of that.
DACHER KELTNER What did you write about?
YUMI KENDALL In our final concert at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, it was August 17th of 2019. And I’m not sure how this plays into the research, but I actually before I play a piece, I do think about the last time I played it to think about. And it’s not even conscious. It’s just like it just happens. And when I. When I was performing this piece, it was Mozart’s Requiem and we’d played at last in the spring of 2019 with a guest conductor. But the time that I really that really hit me was January 2011 and The week my grandfather died, The week grandfather died, the grandfather who this the reason I play the cello, and I remember at that time thinking, “Gosh, should I take the week off from work to honor him or to help the family? And I actually decided I’m going to play that because it’s the Mozart Requiem. Requiem is a mass for the dead. And I’m not religious, but that’s still a spiritual experience. And so I chose to honor grandfather that way. And and then so when I. And then Yannick was conduct Yannick necessary again is our fabulous music director. And he was conducting that performance in January of 2011. nd he was also conducting this August 17th performance,. The final concert of our season, my 16th season in this orchestra. And it felt really powerful to be playing that because actually in the movement, Konforti it’s one of the middle movements and it starts with this.
These angry, angry, accented fortissimo notes, all the string players in unison, angry and the beric bases, the baritones in the chorus or singing. And it’s very deep, it’s very powerful. And I actually started to feel like tears brewing and I wasn’t sure why.
But then it suddenly changes like 20 seconds in to this angelic, like, bright white light, like the heavens opened and is super peaceful soprano singing angels, angel voices kind of feeling. And I got goose bumps. I felt like grandfather was listening. And I only realized after the fact that I was crying. And I was like suddenly self-conscious. And then I went through the mind the thing of like, no, no, this is a safe place. It’s fine. I’m just deeply feeling what we’re playing. And all of the crying that I never did when grandfather actually died, it happened on stage on August 17th, like the faucets were on.
And then the concert ended with ave verum with his beautiful peaceful choral piece. And it’s transcendent. I got text from several of my colleagues like, oh, I noticed her crying. And I hope you’re OK, right? Another one said, I really actually seeing your emotional connection with the music helped me connect with it, too, which I found heartwarming and reassuring because that’s I don’t usually cry on stage, but that connection, I think to my grandfather, really sort of turned the emotional faucets on and that bright white light really just helped make me feel like, oh, Grammy and grandfather are listening.
DACHER KELTNER That’s amazing, thank you. What you’re describing is being in the presence of something transcendent, and that’s really what awe is all about. And what did it feel like to not just remember that experience but also write about it?
YUMI KENDALL Ah, writing about it made me… I was revisited with those emotions from that concert. And actually, in a lesser way, like a less extreme dramatic way, I felt those emotions again. It really helped me solidify that moment in time in that thinking about grandfather and that that experience of the concert, it just helped heighten those memories and also reconnected me to all of them and to grandfather. So then in the awe narrative practice, you’re supposed to think about your most recent experience of awe, and then write about it.
DACHER KELTNER You wrote about the “anthropoid orchestra,” as you called it. When you and your boyfriend were sitting on a park bench listening to crickets chirping at dusk.
YUMI KENDALL Yes.
DACHER KELTNER What was it like for you to write about that?
YUMI KENDALL So writing about it sort of is a savoring experience itself. And it also was like an exercise because it helped me realize how open to other moments of I can be. And it was like a practice. I guess that’s why we call it a practice, right? Ding ding ding ding! But yeah, those kinds of activities really helped open up myself to other awe-some experiences.
DACHER KELTNER The science has this really interesting lesson about these experiences of awe, you know, from watching a musical performance on YouTube or or watching an incredible piece of art or nature show. It tends to last for a little while. It gives you a sense of time. You have more perspective. The nagging voice of the ego, which is always criticizing ourselves seems to be quieter. What’s it like for you when you come out of these experiences of awe? Does it kind of weave into ordinary sense of the world or consciousness?
YUMI KENDALL I think for me, those experiences of awe from the small everyday anthropoid orchestra in Longwood Gardens to the more dramatic orchestral experiences of awe. I feel like when, from the small to the large, I feel like I feel more serene and calm and actually after that, that Mozart Requiem. I felt like I was kind of glowing. I probably literally was because of the tears. I felt more calm and peaceful, I mixed with sadness because of that particular experience. But there’s kind of a serenity that comes. And I felt that through the rest of that, definitely the rest of that evening. In more everyday experiences, I think it it’s like a pause. And it just it helps me, even if I’m not experiencing awe in every single moment. It’s just like a, It’s just that pause button. It’s that meditative, ‘ah, ah.”
DACHER KELTNER You nailed the voice! We study that, that’s pretty good. Well, it’s fascinating to think of it as a pause button because part of awe is, how I look at the world right now in this moment. There are other ways to look at the world. And the pause button allows another lens
YUMI KENDALL Yeah. And I think that’s the for me, the biggest one of the biggest takeaways was that that pause button that we can and it’s the littlest things. It doesn’t have to be these big dramatic moments.
DACHER KELTNER Well put. Well ,Yumi, Thank you so much for joining us on the science of happiness.
YUMI KENDALL Thank you for having me.
DACHER KELTNER The science of awe is still young, but already scientists are documenting how awe is transforming our minds and our bodies.
MELANIE RUDD What we wanted to do was see whether we could get the experience of awe to expand people’s perception of time and make them feel that time was more rich and plentiful.
DACHER KELTNER More on the science of awe, up next. When Yumi Kendall talked about her experience of awe like it was time standing still.
YUMI KENDALL It’s just that pause button. It’s that meditative, “ah.”
DACHER KELTNER Research shows feeling awe actually can change your perception of time, making you feel like you have more of it. Melanie Rudd, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Houston, found that people who were induced to feel awe later felt less pressed for time and more patient.
She then sought to understand what this expanded sense of time does for people.
MELANIE RUDD In particular, we were very interested in looking at the downstream consequence of people’s willingness to volunteer time, because there’s kind of an inherent connection between how plentiful time feels, we thought, and how likely people are to volunteer their time.
DACHER KELTNER In the experiment, she had half of the people write about an awe-inspiring moment in their lives, just like Yumi Kendall did with the “Awe Narrative” practice.
MELANIE RUDD They wrote about a past personal experience in which they had felt awe in vivid detail.
DACHER KELTNER The other half were instructed to write about a time they felt contentment or joy.
MELANIE RUDD So they wrote about a time when they had felt happy.
DACHER KELTNER Then Melanie and her team measured people’s willingness to volunteer their time or donate money to a worthy cause or charity.
MELANIE RUDD What we found is that people in the awe condition reported that they were more willing to volunteer their time to help others. So we saw that significant difference between the awe and happiness conditions.
DACHER KELTNER But they didn’t see any difference in people’s willingness to donate money. That’s probably because money isn’t as directly related to time in our minds as something like volunteering at a local shelter.
MELANIE RUDD So it’s not just that awe is boosting everything or enhancing everything or necessarily making you more pro-social across the board. It’s specific to time. It’s very present oriented, you experience this expanded perception of time. You really start to notice all the little changes in the environment and your emotions and your physiological sensations. And what happens when you notice these changes as your mind encodes them into your experience.
DACHER KELTNER And when that happens, your moment-by-moment experiences become richer and fuller. You’re in the present.
MELANIE RUDD You cannot really experience awe when your mind is like kind of wandering to the past or the future. It’s it’s your. When experiencing awe, you’re very focused on what is happening in the now.
DACHER KELTNER If you’d like to try the ‘Awe Narrative’ practice, or other practices to help you feel more connected to the world around you, visit our greater good in action website at ggia.berkeley.edu. Tell us how it went by emailing us at greater at berkeley.edu or using the hashtag, “Happiness Pod.”
DACHER KELTNER I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me on the Science of Happiness.
Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX. Our producer is Shuka Kalantari. Production assistance from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our associate producer is Annie Berman, our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. Special thanks goes to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.