July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
WAJAHAT ALI In Miss Peterson’s fifth grade homeroom class was the first time that I unlocked my superpower. I was so sick in fifth grade that I had missed 34 days of school and they were going to kick me out. Miss Peterson never really kind of respected me and the kids thought I was just like this loser weakling.
And so Miss Peterson said everyone has to write a one page fictional story. And this was the time Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves came out, where Kevin Costner with an American accent played Robin Hood. And Morgan Freeman played his sidekick, Azeem. Like the first time you’ll ever see a Muslim and we’re like, ‘Oh, my god, Morgan Freeman’s badass!’ And he’s like, noble but he prays in a way no Muslim has ever prayed. And we’re like, ‘We’ve never prayed like that but we’ll take it.’
And so I did the Wajahat rendition of Robin Hood and wrote a ten-page story. I took it to class, she read it, gave me an A plus plus plus plus. And then she said, ‘All right, Waj. You have to recite this Robin Hood story in front of the homeroom.’ And I said, ‘Miss Peterson, please don’t make me.’ She goes, ‘Do it!’ I got up and did it and my class for the first time ever, gave me respect.
I went home and I gave the story to my father, who was drinking chai, and my mom was in the kitchen. My father finished it, and he goes, ‘Beta, son, you should think about becoming a writer.’ And my mom ran from the kitchen and said, ‘But first become a doctor.’ For all immigrant parents, you know, the créme de la créme, the person who gets first into heaven, is a doctor. No one ever says writer. By the end of that fifth grade, that same class that didn’t know me, that just, you know, didn’t see me, right, because I was sick? I finished that grade and I won my first award as the best writer, as awarded to me by my fifth grade class. So that was the superhero origin story.
DACHER KELTNER Spurred on from his successful re-telling of Robin Hood, Wajahat Ali continues to tell stories. He wrote the critically acclaimed play, Domestic Crusaders, and is a New York Times contributing op-ed writer. Wajahat joins us today as our happiness guinea pig. In each episode of our show, we have a guest try a research-based practice that promotes happiness, resilience, kindness, or connection. And then we explore the science behind why it works. Wajahat, thanks for joining us on the Science of Happiness.
WAJAHAT ALI Thank you, man. Thank you for inviting me.
DACHER KELTNER You know, you have this identity, which is right at the heart of your writing for The New York Times. This play that you wrote, The Domestic Crusaders, your ventures into Hollywood and you grew up with Pakistani parents in Fremont, California.
WAJAHAT ALI Yeah. You know, nothing says popularity like growing up the son of Pakistani immigrants and being a Muslim. And then your parents deciding to name you Wajahat.
DACHER KELTNER So I wanted to ask you, you know, you chose affirming values, and there’s such an interesting scientific literature around this happiness practice. And it’s this really powerful notion, and really documented in the lab, that when you just take a moment, and you kind of remind yourself, what are your core values really at stake here?
Just reminding yourself of those values, and the studies show, you know, it helps people handle stress, it helps with certain kinds of health outcomes. One of my favorite studies is where, very relevant to today’s political climate, was work by Jeff Cohen and others that getting Latino kids in middle class schools, ten, fifteen years ago to just remind themselves of their values, right? In spite of the discrimination, they do better in school. So why’d you choose this practice?
WAJAHAT ALI You know, all these happiness exercises always talk about taking a few moments of your life, being present, and really affirming to yourself your values, what makes you happy, what you’re grateful for, right? And I think what values do, it’s a good reminder. It gives you your North Star, if you will, it gives you direction. But it also gives you an anchor, especially with the volatility of life, both in our personal life and the challenges and tribulations, right? And I think it just gives you that stake in the ground to keep you centered amidst the chaos.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah, walk us through it.
WAJAHAT ALI Yeah, it was time required: 15 minutes a day. So they gave you a list of six values. And you first started by ranking them from one to six, in order of their importance to you. So the values they gave were business, art /music/ theater, social life relationships, science/pursuit of knowledge, religion/morality, government and politics. This exercise asked us to rank values whenever we feel defensive or threatened. I feel this every day. First as a neurotic human being, I ask myself every day, ‘How will I provide? Will I be a good father? A good husband? A good son? Did I fail? Am I failing? Am I messing up my kids? How much will their therapy cost me?’
DACHER KELTNER A lot.
WAJAHAT ALI Yeah, a lot. Did I miss or mess up my opportunities and privileges in life? The demons of my mind never lounge take a day off. But specifically, my values helped me when I was 21. I was about to graduate UC Berkeley. And I have a privileged life, right? You know, suburban kid, brown, California, Bay Area people like, you know, started eating kale and quinoa there before it became mainstream.
But right after 9/11 I had to go to North Carolina for a wedding. As we’re entering the plane, after I’ve gone through security, as I’m at the gate, they take only
two people out
to do a random inspection. I was, yours truly, one of them. And as a result, now I’m like one of the last people to enter the plane, after everyone has been seated. I remember it was
like walking through a gauntlet because everybody, everybody’s terrified of me. The looks that they gave me were, ‘Please don’t kill me. Who are you? Oh, my god.’
I could feel their fear. I could feel their suspicion, and my immediate response was not anger. I wanted to mollify their fear. I wanted to be like, ‘Hey, I’m a pretty cool guy.’ Like, you know, ‘Hey, I’ll tell you a story.’ And I was trying to smile and, you know, trying to like, you know, you kind of end up policing yourself and your own behavior. And that made it worse. I think I was doing like, these facial reactions that made them feel like, ‘Oh, my god, he’s like a crazy terrorist who contorts his face all the time.’ And, of course, my seat was all the way in the back. And so you could see the palpable fear of your fellow Americans. And at that moment, I was like, wow. I am not a human being, a fellow passenger. I am a potential threat or a suspect by virtue of simply my ethnicity and skin color.
I say all this because this exercise asked us to rank values whenever we feel defensive or threatened. And you know, I would think that most people nowadays especially in 2018 America feel defensive or threatened every day. Some people more than others. People of color, people who are poor. So I was really like, intrigued by the list too, right? Because I would never have thought business would be of value. But when you think about it, you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah—’
DACHER KELTNER Right at the top?
WAJAHAT ALI Yeah, so much of your life is about how do you make money? How do you make a living? What are the ethical ways of making a living, right? And I like the fact you put art/music/theater there. Sadly, many people forget that the human being is a creative human being who seeks inspiration every day in innovation and art, all the time. But you know, people
who say, work in sales, or work in business, oftentimes that’s not on the forefront. And so those skills that we all have, are ignored. And so I think you guys did a pretty good job. I thought it was very interesting, and it made me really think about it, right? First and foremost, the ranking was very difficult.
DACHER KELTNER So what was your ranking?
WAJAHAT ALI OK, my ranking was—and now I feel I will be judged for my ranking.
DACHER KELTNER You’re ranked for your rankings.
WAJAHAT ALI Yeah. I’m literally going to be ranked for my ranking. So the first thing I put was religion/morality. The second one was social life/relationships. I’m sorry, my wife, if you’re listening to this, I love you very much. My kids, I love you too. The third was science. But you guys put science/pursuit of knowledge. Pursuit of knowledge I put as number three.
DACHER KELTNER OK, and you excised science. I won’t take offense.
WAJAHAT ALI I didn’t excise it, I just put it right after. I said pursuit of knowledge-slash-science. OK, four, art/music/theater. When it comes to art/music/theatre, the Domestic Crusaders at that moment in time in my life, that act of creation, literally as I was going through hell in my life, both in my personal life and what America was going through. That act of creation really lifted me from tremendous darkness in my personal life, right? Like as everything was falling apart—I was losing money, we lost our home. My family was in a lot of pain at that time, I was trying to figure out what to do.
You know, just everything was falling apart and that act of creation, of storytelling, something so pure that I used to do for fun, ended up being a vehicle which not only gave me something tangible, a play, but then it really helped me jumpstart my career. Fifth one—government politics, I oddly thought Twitter. I just thought was so funny because Twitter, which perhaps is the bane of the existence of many people and an outlet for our id—nonetheless also gives you a platform to share your voice and gives everyone with an opposable thumb and an Internet connection, a global seat at the table, for better and worse. And sixth one, business, I put my entire career as a freelancer. I make my money through words and stories and with great power comes great responsibility. And maybe not all of it is about the money or about the bling. But it’s about what you put out in the world. You know, I’m very lucky to be able to pay my mortgage by telling stories, which is, I think a blessing.
DACHER KELTNER What’d that feel like, subjectively, just to bring life to these kind of abstract values?
WAJAHAT ALI I’m glad you said that. you know, it’s bringing life, right? Because in all these exercises, and all these experts, what they keep saying is, get stuff outside of your head. And the best way to get stuff outside of your head is to verbalize it, or to write it down. It forces a clarity of thought, but also forces intentional purposeful evaluation, right? It forces you to take that thought bubble that was in your head and to communicate it, to yourself and others, what’s important. That simple exercise of transferring a thought bubble from your head into the quote, real world, allows you really, I think, to consciously make a decision of what’s important to you.
Then the second part of the exercise—well, why did I choose that among all the other choices I could have made? And then it made me, with each step, to really investigate like why did I put wife and kids? And I thought to myself, ‘Well, it’s because if all things everything leaves me, the money, the wealth, the health. If I have my spiritual values and my wife and kids, I have everything. To me.’
DACHER KELTNER Yeah. Would you be willing to read a piece of what you wrote about this first value of spirituality/religion, and sort of capture what the exercise was like for you?
WAJAHAT ALI Sure. So you guys asked me to spend 15 minutes every day and every day after ranking it, write what comes to your mind. The first one religion/morality. I decided to stream-of-consciousness sit down and crank something out in 15 minutes. So this is what I came up with. Here you go, I’m just going to read it
DACHER KELTNER All right.
WAJAHAT ALI I am a rational person who believes in a god I have not seen, met, WhatsApp’d or direct messaged; although I hear he sounds like Morgan Freeman. And I’ve still retained my faith as a Muslim despite having a critical mind, going to an all-boys Jesuit Catholic High School, UC Berkeley and law school. Many friends mock me. They call this a grift, a delusion, an antiquated crutch made of fairy dust. All good. I am totally not offended. I totally get where they’re coming from. But we all need crutches. Humans use them all the time. All of us. And if Islam helps me get up on my feet after failures and defeat and hobble my way through life, hopefully without being a total tool or making a total jackass out of myself, well, then to me mine and to you yours.
What religion or faith often does provide is hope. And Islam commands hope and optimism, even in the bleakest of moments. A famous saying of the Prophet Mohammed is, ‘Plant a seed, even if you see the day of judgment around the corner.’ And to many of us in America—especially women, people of color, immigrants, Muslims—the four horsemen of the apocalypse are lounging in the
White House right now, binge-drinking Diet Coke and watching Fox News. But my religion teaches me nonetheless to have hope and plant a seed. Delusional? Maybe. But I’ve lived long enough to know that cynicism is cheap and lazy. It requires zero investment or sacrifice. It means being a spectator sitting in the bleachers yelling, ‘Boo!’ Hiding from life, protecting ourselves. Hope is painful. It requires work. It means throwing down in the ring of life. In fact, it demands a daily work ethic because it means exposing yourself daily to pain and disappointment.
DACHER KELTNER That’s just amazing, Wajahat, thank you. I love to gather and hear the qualitative, and the stream-of-consciousness, like you say, and how the themes that you pick up in that of how hard work hope is in and just the power of these happiness practices often have to do with really handling the fire in life. And that’s just amazing. Would you recommend this practice to other people?
WAJAHAT ALI You know, I would. And the reason is because I used to be, and I am, I think, slightly cynical, you know. And I think it’s easy to get jaded. And it’s easy to get easy to be snarky in life
and be like, ‘Oh, these UC Berkeley liberal lefty hippies who eat quinoa and kale, right?’ But like you said, the science. The science goes back like, hundreds of years, right? Like, regardless of what you think about religion, spirituality. Like, men and women have been doing this for thousands of years. Like, maybe there’s something to it, taking a few moments in your life. Meditating, being mindful, being thoughtful and articulating out loud, you know, these values.
And I would strongly recommend it, ‘cause I kept up with exercise and every day I’m spending those 15 minutes and it really grounds you in a hopeful way. It made me feel better about myself and it gave me that North Star and made me realize, ‘Oh, you know, I went through things in life, and I survived. What gave me the tools to survive? Oh, you know, I have that muscle memory. Oh, you know, I’ve honed those skills.’
Things can get better. And there’s things to be hopeful about. And there’s things worth fighting for. And I find that type of mindset, right? Because you’ve done episodes on this. It’s a lot about the mindset, and changing and reframing your mindset allows you to live a much more fulfilled life, and gives you that type of humble swagger and resilience that I think is needed for many of us as we move forward in the 21st century.
DACHER KELTNER And I love how this simple practice goes deep back into parent values and the urge to tell stories, and I hope that other people and our listeners think about the deeper stories underlying the values and how values are part of that narrative of their lives. Wajahat Ali, thank you so much for being our happiness guinea pig and all the incredible writing you do in the fiction and nonfiction world. And we look forward to reading about what you do next. So thank you so much for being on our show.
WAJAHAT ALI As your Muslim guest, I love being the halal guinea pig.
DACHER KELTNER To more halal guinea pigs in the future.
WAJAHAT ALI Inshallah, God willing.
DACHER KELTNER When we encounter threats to ourselves—from receiving negative feedback at work or being excluded in social situations, or even gender or racial bias, it’s difficult to stay clear-headed and in control.We may get defensive or act out, and even harm our relationships with others. Jennifer Crocker’s a professor of psychology at the Ohio State University. But she found that when we feel threatened in various ways, writing about our important values can help us feel more connected to others and gain a sense of control and agency.
JENNIFER CROCKER We brought participants into the lab and these were all college students who wanted to eat healthy. They introduced themselves to each other and talked a little bit about themselves. Some of the participants were told that since the number of the participants was an odd number, they did the task alone. And then in the other condition they were told that actually nobody picked you to be a partner on the task. So you’re going to do the next thing alone.
So the idea is that being socially excluded is a huge threat to people’s self-esteem, their sense of self-worth, their sense that they belong and are valued by other people. So after people learned that they had been socially excluded or not, we had them do a values-affirmation task. And some of the participants saw a list of what we called self-transcendent values—these are things like love and compassion, empathy—that they bring their thoughts to something beyond themselves. What they care about outside of themselves.
And another group of participants saw a list of what we called self-enhancement values which is things like, how you appear to others, achieving status and prestige, the, you know, material possessions. Things that are self-enhancing. And then another group of participants didn’t think about any values at all.
And then we had everybody do a taste test of some grocery store little cookies. Nothing special, nothing delicious. And the idea was that when people feel threatened, they will forget about their goal to eat healthy. And so people who had been socially excluded, we thought would eat more cookies than people who had not been excluded. And that definitely turned out to be the case. So participants who had been excluded ate as many as eight of these cookies.
What we found is that affirming important values, especially affirming values that are self-transcendent, that make people think about what they care about beyond themselves, often the relationships they care about, that that seemed to down-regulate the threat of being socially excluded and enable people to kind of regulate their behavior and eat in a way that was healthier for them and more consistent with what they really wanted.
The thing that’s key is you’ve got to really identify what you care about that’s more important to you than that threat. It’s very powerful.
DACHER KELTNER If you would like to try the affirming important values practice, or others like it, visit our website at GGIA dot Berkeley dot edu. Then call us at 510-519-4903 and let us know how it went! I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me for the Science of Happiness.
Our podcast is a coproduction of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRI, with production assistance from Jennies Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our executive producer is Jane Park, production assistant is Lee Mengistu. Editor-in-chief of the Greater Good Science Center is Jason Marsh. Special thanks to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. You can learn more about the Science of Happiness and find related articles, videos, quizzes—all kinds of stuff—on our website, greatergood.berkeley.edu. And shoot us an email, tell us what you think about what you heard. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.