ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH My mom wore hijab the headscarf in the 1980s in case you don’t know what a hijab is. It is one more piece of clothing for people to comment on about a woman. And we would get questions from lovely people like, “Why do you hate America!?”
I went to a different elementary school for every year. One year, I was eight years old in Fremont, California. And my mom was going to meet us at the bus stop. That was our first time taking the school bus there, and she told me, “Get off at the third stop.” And I got off at the wrong stop. And I was in charge of my little sister, I was 8. She was 6. And the bus driver left, and all the houses look the same, just like white houses, gray roofs, gray doors, white picket fences. All the street signs were the same. And we were totally lost. And I felt responsible. I was in charge, and I screwed up, and I told my sister like, “Just be quiet, let’s just wait,” and meanwhile my mom was waiting for us six blocks down. The bus came, dropped off kids. And then left. Just started leaving, and my mom ran after the bus with my brother in a stroller, pounded on the back of the bus, pounded on the side of the bus, pounded on the bus door. “Open the door, open the door!” And finally, the bus driver opened the door, and my mom says, “My girls my girls! I can’t find my girls. You didn’t see them? You didn’t drop them off?” And the bus driver said, “Lady, I don’t know where your kids are, but if there were less of you in the world, we’d all be better off, anyways.” And then she laughed. And shut the door on my mom’s face. And drove off.
DACHER KELTNER I’m Dacher Keltner. Thank you for joining me on our first-ever live taping of The Science of Happiness podcast as part of a Science of Happiness event at the 1440 Multiversity City in Scotts Valley, California. I am delighted today to welcome the bold and brilliant Zahra Noorbakhsh as our guest. Zahra is an Iranian American comedian and a writer who is the co-host of the acclaimed podcast, #GoodMuslimBadMuslim, which has been deemed a must-listen by Oprah Magazine. And she’s working on another comedy show right now set to tour this year called, On behalf of all Muslims: A Comedy Special. On each episode of our show we have a Happiness Guinea Pig that tries out a happiness practice, and then we just explore the science behind it, and the personal experiences that it leads and kind of the deep cultural background of where this comes. So Zahra, it’s really a thrill to welcome you to our show tonight.
ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH Thank you for having me. Hello! Hello! Multiversity! Listen to this beautiful crowd!
DACHER KELTNER What drove you to go to stand-up, and kind of enter into the complicated world of…
ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH Standard self-loathing, misery. That makes a comedian. My dad is perfect fodder for stand-up because he was my bully growing up. And you know, he was always picking on me, and he was always pushing me. I remember the first time I brought home an A minus. Oh my God. He was so excited that we were finally getting letter grades and he looks and he goes… Wait. Can I swear?
DACHER KELTNER Sure.
ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH He looks and he says, “What the shit the hell is this Zahra!? A minus?” And with immigrant telepathy, I could hear him say, “We did not escape a revolution, and swim the Atlantic Ocean, and kiss the feet of the Statue of Liberty for you to get an A minus in Algebra! Algebra! Our people invented algebra! You infidel!” So I brought home the A. “What the shit the hell is this Zahra? An A? Why not an A plus?” So I went and I brought home the A plus and he said, “What the shit, the hell is this Zahra? A plus? Why’d you take such easy class?”
DACHER KELTNER So what do your parents think about the work that you do, and do they come to your shows?
ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH They do!
DACHER KELTNER Do they?
ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH They do! It’s so gorgeous to be able to have them as a part of this life where I perform. And I told these stories. And it’s healing for them, and it’s healing for me. And they love, like, everything I do. I mean even the one show I bombed: I opened for Maz Jobrani one time, and I had a joke about my clit. It didn’t go over well. The Persian women in the crowd. My sister was like, “It was uncomfortable to hear that word in the audience.” And afterwards my mom said, “I think your clit is beautiful, honey.” They’re amazing.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah! Well I want to move to the practice and you chose to do the Shared Identity practice, and it’s about what a lot of the contemplative religious traditions cultivate, which is a sense of common humanity. One of my favorite articulations of it is Peter Singer, the ethicist, just writing about just finding your commonalities in your circle of care with other people around us. And it certainly seems to be in short supply. Can you walk us through how you, Zahra, did the practice?
ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH In the practice, you think of a person in your life who seems to be very different from you in every way that you can imagine. Different interests. Different religious or political beliefs, or different life experiences or… they’re a zombie. And you make a list of all the things that you most likely share in common with this person. Maybe you work for the same company, or you go to the same school. Maybe you both have children, or a significant other. Maybe, at the very least, you belong to the human species.
And then in the next step you review the list of commonalities. How did they make you see this person in a new light? And that was the toughest part.
DACHER KELTNER Why’d you pick shared identity? What got you to that practice?
ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH So I’m working on a segment in my show of a person who I really am struggling to understand who is in my comedy special.
DACHER KELTNER You’re talking about the bus driver from your childhood, who slammed the door in your mom’s face when you were a kid.
ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH Yeah. Right now I have this bit about zombies. And I really don’t want her to be a zombie…I don’t want to villainize her, and I don’t know if that’s right. I don’t know if that’s accurate. And I was, I’ve been wrestling with it. So when you guys gave me the option I was like “I think this is the one.”
DACHER KELTNER And walk us through what that was like for you inside of your mind. What you did.
ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH Yeah. I mean, at first I wondered Is this like even the right thing to pick because I don’t know her. Yeah you know I only know about her. And then I wondered what utility it had because like, why? You know, why do I need to humanize this woman? Why is that my task?
DACHER KELTNER It’s an interesting question isn’t it. Is that the right person to choose? Or should we just let them go?
ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH Yeah. And then my mother was terrified. She found us. We found her mom and my dad made sure that that bus driver was fired. [clapping]. Thank you, yes. But I understand the hesitation to applaud. I understand the hesitation to applaud that because she can’t be a zombie? You’re right. In my comedy show like I… It’s nestled in this story about zombies, and that I feel like I met a real-life zombie. Who does that? But as a kid, I always felt like, if I had had the opportunity to introduce her to my mom first, then she would be nicer to my mom. Because that was always my task. Every new neighborhood we moved to. I went and met all the neighbors before my mom. I told them our whole life story. You know, and I played with that comedic tension.
ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH I usually say my career in comedy began when I was 5 years old, protecting my mom from hate crimes. And as a kid, you know, I was already like, diffusing tension. And one time I remember a lot between my mom and Santa-looking man. And said, “She is an immigrant! She is not from here! Will you please tell her to buy Lucky Charms!? She doesn’t know that all the kids have them! It’s magically delicious!” And he said, “You do not need more sugar. Listen to your mother.” And I actually heard one of your podcast episodes where you talk about the power of comedy. As a kid, that really cemented for me. You know this man changed in an instant, and so then it was like this constant game for me to see how I could play with tension.
DACHER KELTNER And just navigating these complexities.
ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH And this time I wasn’t able to do that. And it always sat with me that way. I wrestled with it, and something about the tension in me around it, that grip in your body, the muscular grip, told me that there was something unsettled. And so I kept trying to think about shared identity, you know. And that was like really trippy to think about, like, it was hard, because it’s a traumatic story, and I have these traumatic stories, you know and events in my life, where I feel myself disassociate.
So I sat down, and I thought about like, What is it that is similar? What is our shared identity? And I was like, Well we’re both on the bus. We were both listening to loud kids, watching them get off the bus. And we’re both tired, and we both once been really mean to my mom. And then that levity started to make me really angry. I didn’t want to bring that levity to this story. It didn’t feel right. And then I kept wrestling with it and I thought, I said, “What’s the point of this practice?”
And then I just I just started crying. I just felt this ease, because one of the things that I had realized was how much pressure I had put on myself to be in charge of that moment. And to be in charge of this story, and to be in charge of this woman. And some people sometimes are zombies. It just is. And it’s not my fault. And that was so hard. But it was so gorgeous. You know to find in this story about a woman who was so horrible to us, these moments where, like it or not, you have to surrender. And I didn’t expect that.
DACHER KELTNER How is this working into your show right now?
ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH Oh it’s gonna be hilarious. [laughter]
DACHER KELTNER And I’m really curious. You know, you talk about almost like a deeper insight that you didn’t expect to have with this practice that you got to. Did that stay with you? And how would you describe that in terms of what you carry with you. Like, “Wow, that bus driver taught me this.”
ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH What I had done was, since she had existed in my mind as this supernatural villain, then I hadn’t assigned her any responsibility. All the responsibility was mine, because she wasn’t available. And when I saw her as my fellow human. And I started to re-contextualize her as this really tired bus driver who was sick of kids, sick of their parents, and was really flippant in a moment that was very dire, then it that that re-contextualization actually really helped me.
I mean, I landed at the last step of the practice actually, where instead of seeing this person as someone unfamiliar, or as a member of an outgroup, you see them as an individual who has tastes and experiences that might overlap with yours, you know? And I mean, I didn’t want to give her, you know, the ability to say to my mom basically, “There should be less of you in the world, bye. I don’t care if your kids are dead.” To go without responsibility. I didn’t want to carry that. But in actuality seeing her as a person with shared experiences with me, it made me realize the ways that I was carrying a lot of that responsibility.
DACHER KELTNER What do you think about this practice, just thinking about more generally for people who are navigating the complexities as people from different ethnic backgrounds, how would you advise them to kind of turn to this practice from time to time?
ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH It really gave me a lot of ease in a time where it feels like you have to be vigilant all the time. I didn’t expect that takeaway where I realize not everything is under my control, actually gave me more of a sense of agency.
DACHER KELTNER Wow. Have you just thought about trying it in different ways with other people you encounter just…
ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH Oh my God!
DACHER KELTNER ...Using some of his techniques?
ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH Just saying the words ‘shared identity’ is usually enough. I will be in an email argument, and I’ll say, “Shared identity. Oh…” It’s amazing how it just kind of your shoulders open up. And as soon as you say, ‘shared,’ the word, ‘shared,’ you know, it immediately expands you. And it just shifts my thinking.
DACHER KELTNER Well, Zahra, I want to thank you for your humor, and your brilliance, and your commentary, and what you’re doing for our world. It is dearly needed and we are really grateful that you are part of The Science of Happiness. So thanks for being here.
ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH What an honor to be here. Thank you so much. Congratulations on your first live show!
DACHER KELTNER We recorded this interview with Zahra Noorbakhsh live at the 1440 Multiversity in Scotts Valley, California, in May of 2019. We have more live shows coming up, and will be sharing details about them soon. Up next: how discovering what we have in common with other people can make us more kind and generous.
MONICA WHITHAM What I wanted to find out is how different forms of shared identity might impact helping others who won’t necessarily be in a position to help you back.
DACHER KELTNER More on the science of shared identities, coming right up. Decades of studies convergence on this ideas: that we’re more generous, and cooperate with people more, when we feel that we share some identity with them.
MONICA WHITHAM You can have a shared social identity based on, maybe you both wear eyeglasses, or you both like country music. Or you went to the same university.
DACHER KELTNER Monica Whitham, an assistant professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University, brought people into her lab to test their generosity towards strangers. She had them interact with other participants through a computer game.
MONICA WHITHAM Sort of like an online game with anonymous strangers.
DACHER KELTNER Monica created three different test groups. The first group had no shared identity. They had never interacted. The second group was given a series of fake band names, and together they had to choose the best name.
MONICA WHITHAM So I made up all these band names. Like, The Unibrows versus The Unstoppable Unicorns.
DACHER KELTNER But for the third group, Whitham tried to foster a greater sense of shared identity. She gave them the chance to choose a band name too, but they came up with that name themselves, collectively, working as a group.
MONICA WHITHAM So they went through this, you know, quick chat about, “Hey, what might be a good name to call our our group that we’re interacting in today?”
DACHER KELTNER Next, every person in the three groups were given a set of points, and the chance to give away, or recieve points, from other people in their group.
MONICA WHITHAM And these points were worth money. So at the individual level, people were motivated to earn a lot of points for themselves. However, when points were given to others, they were doubled, which means that at the group level, the more points that were given away, the more that could be collectively earned through these generous behaviors. Basically, it’s a classic social dilemma.
DACHER KELTNER The group that had no shared identity, that just showed up with no interaction— they shared their points about 50 percent of the time. The second group, the ones who chose a random band name that Monica had made up—they shared their points 57 percent of the time. Not a really big difference.
MONICA WHITHAM But then there was this huge increase when people had this group based social identity where they interacted with someone else and they, they’d come up with a name and collectively voted on what their group was going to be called.
DACHER KELTNER People in this third group gave away their points 67 percent of the time.
MONICA WHITHAM Shared identity is indeed a powerful motivator of helping out others, even when these others are strangers who might not be in a position to help you back. So it really humanizes them.
DACHER KELTNER It humanizes them. That’s an idea we also heard from our happiness guinea pig, comedian Zahra Noorbakhsh, when she talked about the bus driver who had been so cruel to her mom.
ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH When I saw her as my fellow human. Seeing her as a person with shared experiences with me, that re-contextualized, that actually really helped me.
DACHER KELTNER If you’d like to try the Shared Identity practice, or want to check out other happiness practices, visit ggia.berkeley.edu. Then tell us how it went by using #happinesspod’ or emailing us at greater.berkeley.edu.
Our work on the Science of Happiness is made possible through the incredibly generous support of listeners like you. That’s true for all the resources we produce here at the Greater Good Science Center. If you’re a fan of the Science of Happiness and you want to help us bring more kindness, connection, and happiness to the world, please visit GGSC.Berkeley.edu/donate. We’re grateful for every gift. That’s GGSC.Berkeley.edu/donate. Thank you.
Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRI/PRX. Our producer is Shuka Kalantari. Production assistance is 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 to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for listening to The Science of Happiness.