CINDY WILSON: I was at an orphanage in Seoul Korea and was adopted by an African-American family that was in the army. And shortly after, maybe a year or so, we ended up moving back to America. At seven my parents got a divorce. And so my mother, my brother, and myself moved back to their hometown of Jackson, Mississippi and that’s pretty much where I grew up.
Before I moved to Jackson, yeah, I didn’t really think anything about my situation. And so when I went to school was when I realized that I was different, because a majority of the people as far as population there are mostly either black or white. And so growing up I only knew like two other Asian people that lived there. And so going to school you got these kids picking on you and they’re picking on you because of how you look. And you know your external appearance, things that you can’t control. And so you know shortly after that’s when I started developing identity issues and really trying to figure out who I was as a person.
It’s really made me question certain things about myself as far as having to prove myself. Like, I’m so driven and I’m so motivated. But is that because I feel like, I have something to prove because I’m an adoptee? Or do I feel the need to really do really well because I’m Asian?
So when I think about that I think: I’m a woman that pursues my purpose passionately. I know that I love growth and that includes embracing the good and the bad that I’ve experienced and I’m motivated by making an impact and always thinking about how I can help others. And although my story is unique many others could relate to people often putting you in a box and wanting you to be more so one dimensional based on your skin color. But what I’ve realized as humans and as individual people is that we’re more than that.
DACHER KELTNER: Cindy Wilson shares her journey of being a transracial adoptee in America in her new memoir, Too Much Soul: The Journey of an Asian Southern Belle. Today, Cindy joins us as our happiness guinea pig, trying out a science-backed practice to foster resilience, kindness, connection, and happiness. Cindy, thanks for joining us on the science of happiness.
CINDY WILSON: Thank you so much for having me. I’m super excited to be on today.
DACHER KELTNER: I have to say I think you’re our first Asian Southern belle.
CINDY WILSON: Yay! That makes me happy.
DACHER KELTNER: One of the things that developmental psychologists are really interested in, and you’ve got it going on in full bloom, is how does a young seven or eight year old make sense of having an ethnic identity and a regional identity? How do you make sense of it all?
CINDY WILSON: It just plays into the nature versus nurture. I was heavily influenced by the people that accepted me. At different points in my life I would hang out with white people or I would hang out with my Asian friends or I would hang out with my black friends. So I was exposed to a lot of different cultures, you know, just really figuring out like what was it that I connected to.
Like for example I had never met anyone that was fully Korean. But then since I wrote my book I’ve met other Korean adoptees which I never met before. So I would say that’s another cool thing too because I didn’t even realize that the Korean adoptee population was the largest international adoption population.
DACHER KELTNER: Is that right?
CINDY WILSON: Yes. And I did not know that. Even outside of that like other people that are embracing my story that are of like all races and nationalities has been amazing because, you know, people see the need of bringing people together instead of people feeling so divided.
DACHER KELTNER: Yeah, absolutely. So Cindy as our happiness guinea pig you chose a practice that really highlights your best character traits and called it the Use Your Strengths practice. What is the Use Your Strengths exercise?
CINDY WILSON: OK. So for using your strengths, you want to do it at least everyday for a week and the time required each day is going to vary depending on how you choose to exercise your strength. You take a moment to think about one of your personal strengths. For instance creativity perseverance and for myself I chose encouragement, and consider how you use this strength today in a new and different way. And for me that was more so mindfulness, being more mindful. And then describe in writing the personal strength you plan to use today and how you were going to use it. then go ahead and do it. And as frequently as possible throughout the day. Repeat these steps everyday for a week and you can use the same personal strength each day or try new ones. And then at the end of the week write about your personal strength that you focus on and how you use them and then write in detail about what you did how you felt and what you learned from the experience.
DACHER KELTNER: Pretty intensive.
CINDY WILSON: Yeah, it was.
DACHER KELTNER: Why did you choose the Use Your Strength practice?
CINDY WILSON: So I chose that exercise because lately in my journey of learning more about other Korean adoptees, it’s made me question what a lot of adoptees and also Asians kind of question about themselves and that’s always feeling that we have to prove ourselves to show that we’re good enough.
DACHER KELTNER: So what strength did you decide to focus?
CINDY WILSON: The strength that I chose for myself personally was my ability to encourage others because I feel like I’m always doing that. People already know that I get really invested in people and I want to see them win and be empowered to be their best selves. But I wanted to be more intentional with how I was doing it and being more mindful.
DACHER KELTNER: What are some ways you encouraged others during the week?
CINDY WILSON: One of my friends was selected on the board of a nonprofit and you know, of course, I congratulated her and let her know she was gonna be great and they were gonna be lucky to have her on their board. I had a friend that was applying for a job and gave him advice on how to leverage his strengths based on what they were looking for and how I knew he would be the perfect candidate. And then you know just with writing a book I’ve had people since I was doing this exercise that have reached out to me to ask me for advice so I walk them through my process, ask them about their project, and really encourage them that when you put your passion and your purpose out there it’s like the things that are supposed to come and happen from that will happen.
But I would probably I’d say my favorite one was when I had a young lady that sent me an email and she was explaining how my book really connected with her because she’s black but a majority of her friends are white. And so she’s often told she, you know, (air quotes) acts white but then she was also introduced to k pop and she was like I just like oh my gosh I love it. And but she was like but then sometimes I feel a sense of guilt. And so I told her, I was like, you know what? Honestly I see nothing wrong with liking what you like. And I think it’s OK. As long as you’re not a lot denying who you are racially or culturally then I don’t see a problem with it.
DACHER KELTNER: Did it reassure her?
CINDY WILSON: It did. She said that really made her feel better and you know it’s like I think that’s what people want with encouragement, they’re just kind of looking for that validation or that confirmation that it’s OK you know for them to be who who they are and to like what they like.
DACHER KELTNER: Even K-pop.
CINDY WILSON: Even K-pop!
DACHER KELTNER: One of the really interesting things in the science on this kind of topic is that when we give to others and when we encourage others to use your word empower other people you’ll feel joy. And there’s this contagious reaction. How did you find your experience of sort of pursuing the strength over the course of the week?
CINDY WILSON: I learned that when you’re intentional with adding some type of value to someone else’s life you can form a stronger connection with that person and then you’re also acknowledging that you hear all of the great things that they’re doing and that you’re supporting them and wanting them to do well that they’re going in the right direction, that it’s OK.
My aha moment was you know how I spoke about I’m driven and I really pushed myself. But it made me realize I do that because I want to be my best self also. Encouraging others is my strength. But it’s like I also encouraged myself. It made me feel like, “Well maybe it’s just more so a natural quality that I have: that I apply to myself as well as others.” And so instead of being like, “Well maybe I’m driven because you know of this like you know I need to go to therapy and figure this out!” It’s like I’m just naturally an encourager and even with myself you know to push myself to be the best self that I can be.
DACHER KELTNER: One of the things that I really like about these practices is that it gives you a little bit of opportunity to reflect on your tendencies and sometimes we pathologies them. But in fact they are healthy and and part of who we are so glad they’ve had that effect on you.
CINDY WILSON: I know. I was like, “Yeah.” Now I can prolong my therapy session for another couple of weeks!
DACHER KELTNER: Were there challenges that you found, Cindy, in doing this? Were there obstacles or grumpy people respond with inappropriate responses like, “Stop encouraging me!?”
CINDY WILSON: I would say probably the only challenge was like being very intentional and listening to what they’re saying and finding a way to encourage them and making that connection with them.
DACHER KELTNER: Yeah, well it takes a little work to really zero in on the things that people need to be encouraged on.
CINDY WILSON: You could easily bypass something somebody said and be like, “Oh, OK, well let’s talk about something else.” And then you’re like, “No, no stop right there!” And they just said this so you need to encourage them in this way.
DACHER KELTNER: Cindy you think you’re going to do the Use Your Strength practice again and encourage the people around you.
CINDY WILSON: Oh yeah absolutely.It’s very important to encourage others because you’re paying attention to what they’re saying and what they’re going through and that that either is gonna be okay or they’re gonna do great. Some people need it. Some people don’t. But even if they don’t. It just helps to form that connection even stronger.
DACHER KELTNER: Cindy, I wanted to thank you for being on the science of happiness and wish you the best. Wish you the best with your book Too Much Soul: The Journey of an Asian Southern Belle. I hope it keeps the conversation going about cultural acceptance and the things that you’ve talked about.
CINDY WILSON: Yes that’s my hope. And I even have discussion questions at the end of my book. So yeah absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. This was great.
DACHER KELTNER: Cindy Wilson focused on her ability to encourage others, and in so doing found herself taking delight in other people and feeling connected and happier. A lot of us tend to dwell on our weaknesses, but a growing body of research suggests when we shine a light on our strengths we actually derive a lot of benefits. In one study people first had to list of their strengths, ranking them from their biggest strengths to the ones that could still use a little work. Then they used their top ranking strengths in a new way, for one week. Participants reported being happier and showed fewer symptoms of depression, even six months after doing the practice. But what about those skills towards bottom of our personal list of strengths. The ones we’re not so great at. That we feel uncomfortable doing. Should we focus on those too? That’s the question Fabian Gander, a psychologist at the University of Zurich, sets out to answer. His study compared ‘signature strengths,’ character strengths that we think are most essential to who we are, and that vary from person to person to ‘lesser strengths,’ the ones that we’re not as good at.
We randomly assigned people to a condition that asked them to use their five signature strengths or their five lesser strengths in a new way for one week. And we assessed wellbeing and depressive symptoms at different time points so before intervention after the intervention as well after one month, three months, and six months, and the results were so far positive that the interventions were able to increase well-being and decrease depressive symptoms for up to three months. And surprisingly, there were no differences at all between the two conditions: Signature strength or the lesser strength.
The basic question is whether improving your strength in general improves your happiness. And based on the results of this study we would say yes.
Using your signature strengths in a new way can be a helpful way for people to grow to develop their character maybe also to get happier. But it’s also completely fine if you’re preferring to work on your lesser strengths. We try not to say weaknesses because these are still positive traits.
If people apply their strengths on a daily basis it gets to habits and the strengths itself may increase as well which can in turn also lead to other positive outcomes.
DACHER KELTNER: If you’d like to try the Use Your Strengths exercise, or other happiness practices, visit our Greater Good in Action website at GGIA.berkeley.edu. Then email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us how it went.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me on the Science of Happiness.
Our podcast is a coproduction 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 associate producer is Lee Mengistu, our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. Special thanks 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 Dacher and lots of other speakers at our first-ever, three-day Science of Happiness event, held in Northern California near Santa Cruz.