NIKKI SILVESTRI I think about being executive director of a local nonprofit and being 26 and just freaking out, and being overwhelmed. And I went to a friend of mine, a dear friend of mine, who I’d worked with at a previous job and said, ‘I need help. But I need ongoing, deep kind of help. Will you come on my board and be my board chair?’ And she said yes.
It felt very personal to me, ‘cause it was me as a young woman, coming to a woman who is a little farther in her career and saying, ‘I’m suffering. My relationship is suffering. I’m not sleeping.’ Like I was I was burned out and overwhelmed, and I needed some— frankly I needed someone who loved me on my board. And that meant weekly phone calls with her for half an hour. ‘How are you doing?’ And then when I ended up leaving the organization, she stayed as the chair of the organization because she has commitment. So there was a there was a sacrifice on her part to support me that way. The level of friendship and care that it took to make a decision that had years of impact on her life, was incredible.
DACHER KELTNER Nikki Silvestri is an advocate for social equity in food systems, climate solutions, and economic development. She’s the former Executive Director of People’s Grocery, a group running urban farms and programs aimed to increase access to local, healthy foods in West Oakland. Today, Nikki is the founder and CEO of Soil and Shadow, where she helps other organizations create more environmental and relationship-centered strategies.
On each episode of our show, we have a Happiness Guinea Pig try a research-based practice to boost feelings of kindness and connection, and reduce anxiety and stress. Nikki joins us today as our Happiness Guinea Pig. Nikki, thanks for joining us on the Science of Happiness.
NIKKI SILVESTRI Thank you. It’s great to be here.
DACHER KELTNER So out of this work you’ve done with food and climate, what gives you hope?
NIKKI SILVESTRI Soil, [laughter] and what it has to teach us. It’s why the name of my firm is Soil and Shadow. Soil was one of my biggest teachers, because looking at microbes, and looking at what it takes to build healthy soil, it requires a high degree of complexity of relationships. A high degree of conflict, a high degree of symbiosis, a high degree of death and decay, and things that we don’t like to look at. But from the death and decay comes the most rich, life-giving fertility. And so if we can look at that as a way to build relationships, and as a way to build society, those are the kind of principles that can actually have realness equate to thriving, instead of realness equating to fear.
DACHER KELTNER A lot of people in the science of happiness are really decrying our our the fragmented state of our communities, right? Forty-three percent of people over the age of 65 feeling really alone, lonely, you know, and longing for social connection and the, kind of the odd nature of our social ties; we spend a lot of time with people we don’t know, etc. How do we, in the many different extensions of our lives, build healthy communities? Like, what are some core principles you’ve taken from your work?
NIKKI SILVESTRI I feel like a first step in building community is, what do you start with from the inside, and how does that manifest itself outside, is the first place I would start. Because we build communities in our image. So if we’re constantly depleted, if we’re exhausted, if we’re a little hopeless. If we are not caring for ourselves, then we’re gonna build community that does not have a value of thriving inherent in it, no matter what we say. And so I feel like that, that gap is actually one of the biggest things I feel like our work focuses on, is just those of us who have some of the best values don’t practice those values in our day-to-day lives in a way that equates to overall thriving. And that gap is showing up in the way that we’re doing our work and building community.
DACHER KELTNER So, Nikki, it’s not random, then, that you chose the Feeling Supported practice as our Happiness Guinea Pig. It’s a really powerful practice because it ritualizes the kinds of connection and support that we want in our lives, and that the science shows help us with our stress and health. Why’d you choose the exercise?
NIKKI SILVESTRI I was really thinking about my family and this piece about you build communities in your image. It made me think about what’s my image right now? What does my life look like, and what does my family’s life look like?
So there’s there’s a few things happening right now, right? For my parents, they are in their sixties thinking about retirement having worked at non-profits their whole lives. And so there’s a tremendous amount of stress right now because I just had a baby. He turned one a couple of weeks ago.
DACHER KELTNER Congratulations.
NIKKI SILVESTRI Thank you very much, and as joyous as that is, the stress is high.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah. So tell us about the practice. What did you do and what innovations did you add to it?
NIKKI SILVESTRI I sat there and I actually listed out the people that were supportive in my life. Something that was interesting that came up as an insight is looking at that list of people, who has access to me when I am feeling vulnerable, and when I do need support? And that list didn’t look like I thought it would have looked. It doesn’t matter if you’re blood-related to me, it doesn’t matter if you’re married to me. Like everyone in my inner circle has to earn it by acting right, basically. So then after that there was the, what are the common themes between all these people. And a big common theme is that they witness me instead of offering advice, unless I’m directly asking for advice. And I very rarely ask for advice.
One of the things that came up for me is when I’m triggered, I need to be able to call people that are in my close circle, and not have them be like, ‘Yeah, girl, he trippin.’ Like I need people who are like, ‘OK, what does that mean about you? Take this back to your own work ‘cause it’s not about the other person, it’s about you. You’re triggered and you wouldn’t be triggered if there wasn’t something true about what’s happening right now.’ And I have people in my life now who can just be like, ‘Throw up the mirror, girl, what’s going on?’ And I feel like that is, that’s what support really feels like. ‘Cause it’s empowering. That’s incredible to me. It means I never have to abdicate my power. And as a black woman, non-negotiable. That’s phenomenal.
DACHER KELTNER I love your reflections on social support. I mean, it’s so interesting as an exercise to think of the inner circle. What are the things that they’re doing, right? And I think that a lot of people will really resonate with the idea that it’s not about advice per se, it’s just about observation or witnessing. And so you are the first person, the first guinea pig, to actually bring in other people to do this practice and we’re really grateful; it was really an interesting exercise, so was Thanksgiving. And you did this social support exercise with your parents.
NIKKI SILVESTRI I did. I did.
DACHER KELTNER How’d that go?
NIKKI SILVESTRI: That was beautiful.
DACHER KELTNER So let’s hear what your dad had to say for his social support exercise.
NIKKI SILVESTRI Who are the people in your life that you get the most comfort and security from?
NIKKI’S DAD Your mother, my wife. My children. And then Ramses and Ishmael.
NIKKI SILVESTRI Is there anything that you feel that Ramses and Ishmael and Mom and us have in common?
NIKKI’S DAD Oh, yeah. Easy, emotional connectivity. I mean, for me, I’m an emotional guy. And they all have a deep emotional connectivity in my life. And they all understand that within each other.
NIKKI SILVESTRI So then what’s a situation where you were in need of comfort or security, and one of these four people supported you?
NIKKI’S DAD You know, being an entrepreneur and self-employed, there’s a lot of stress associated with that process. And in taking those questions to your mother, it took me a long time to share some of these things because my role as a father and provider had me wanting to shield things from her just so she wouldn’t stress out. But her thinking was, ‘Damn it, I’m in this as a partner. And I’m a strong partner. Share it with me; I can handle it.’ It took me a lot of years to get there, but when it finally started to happen she was just a calming influence, a directed influence, and her talents showed.
NIKKI SILVESTRI And how did it feel to be supported like that?
NIKKI’S DAD Spectacular. For me it gave me a sense that the family’s gonna be fine because, not because of me, but because of the both of us.
DACHER KELTNER What kind of runs through your mind when you hear these stories and think about your own sort of reflections on social support?
NIKKI SILVESTRI The first thing that came up, especially, is how profound it is for a black family to do this exercise. And for you to come to me as an African-American woman and for me to say, ‘I’m gonna get my parents, who are still together, who raised me together, to talk about support from their friends and family.’ I mean, just thinking about the black family and how core that is for our people and what happens to us. That’s, it feels beautiful to be able to then publicly show us as a unit and as a strong family.
DACHER KELTNER What would you say is the essence of social support in your family?
NIKKI SILVESTRI The willingness to be broken in someone’s presence. And the ability to be transparent with that brokenness with people that we love is what then helps us put those pieces together in new and different configurations, so that then when they break again we can put them together in new configurations and it’s this spiraling upward that is the cycle of broken to new to broken to new, and that people of color especially just—I think we have a clearer and more direct access to our brokenness. And so when it comes to my family witnessing us be willing to be broken in front of each other when it’s terrifying sometimes, that’s key to my family.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah, wow. How do you think about like, just practical, actionable pieces of wisdom you would convey to people about like, ‘Man, if you really are hungering for support, here are some things to do’?
NIKKI SILVESTRI One of my biggest takeaways from this exercise when it comes to feeling supportive is actually in your journal or diary, writing out a list of the people that most support you. And finding the common themes. ‘Cause it’s the common themes between them that actually lift up who you are right now, and what it is you actually most need to feel supported. Which may not be something you knew before.
DACHER KELTNER Thank you so much; that was amazing. And we’re really grateful for you taking the time.
NIKKI SILVESTRI Thank you.
DACHER KELTNER When we feel stressed, a lot of science suggests that when we really call to mind support that other people provide to us, it helps us feel warmer and happier and stronger and reduces the physiology of stress, and then it helps us be more likely to be able to support other people in return.
Other research has found that cultivating a broader feeling of belonging in a community can have great benefits to students facing threat and stress. Stanford University’s Gregory Walton found that even briefly nurturing a sense of belonging in African-American college students has lasting benefits.
GREGORY WALTON We were interested in, when people had bad days, when people had more difficult days, did they correspondingly feel like they didn’t belong on campus that night and the next afternoon? And we’re not talking about epically bad days. We’re just talking about like, the worst day that you might have in a week.
So the study exposed students to stories from older students who described ways that they had felt like they didn’t belong and how that got better over time. And then they went through an extended kind of reflection process, so they were first asked to write about how that process of change has been true for them in their own experience in the transition to college.
And they were told that the writings that they produced could be shared with future students at their college to help them in their transition. So in this way they’re not just receiving these stories, they’re articulating that narrative to an audience that they care about, future students at their school.
And what we found was that for white students, when they had a good day or a bad day, that didn’t translate to their sense of belonging. But for black students in the control condition, when they’d had a worse day, they correspondingly reported lower levels of belonging that night and the next afternoon. And the effect of the intervention was to eliminate that pattern.
So when African-American students who had received the intervention, then when they had those bad days when they were excluded from something, when they did get a bad grade, when they had a negative experience on campus, they didn’t infer that they didn’t belong that night or the next afternoon. They reported sending more emails to professors. They reported going to office hours more. They reported studying more.
When we looked at the end of college, we found that African-American students in the control condition, when we looked at their GPA over the course of college, they didn’t show a positive growth over time. They showed a more or less a kind of flatline. And that lack of growth is concerning. But in the treatment condition, there was that kind of step by step improvement over time; there was a positive trajectory in students’ term-by-term GPA over the course of college.
In total, that change in trajectory corresponded to a 50 percent reduction in the black-white achievement gap in college from sophomore through senior year. And because we’re talking about something as important to people as their sense of belonging in their college community, we also see black students reported being happier at the end of college and they reported being healthier and going to the doctor less. I think a really important takeaway is that how people think about their belonging matters a lot.
DACHER KELTNER If you’d like to try the Feeling Supported practice, or want to check out others like it, visit our website at GGIA dot Berkeley dot edu. And then give us a call at 510-519-4903 and let us know how it went!
COURTNEY CAIN Hi Greater Good podcast! My name is Courtney Cain, and I’m a high school humanities teacher in South Central Los Angeles. I work at a new high school called Odyssey STEM Academy. Every Wednesday, we do something called an X Block. It’s kind of an extra class that they can go to and explore something they’re interested in. I decided that the X Block that I was going to run would be called Destination: Happiness, where we would delve into the science of happiness and explore ways that young people, especially young people that deal with copious amounts of stress, can be happy in the face of all of that. And not only be happy, but find sustainable happiness. And so I was really thrilled when I found your podcast because it was kind of exactly the scientific message that I was hoping to bring to them. Some of our favorites have been writing a letter to yourself, telling yourself to not to be so hard on yourself and kind of writing compassionately as if you were talking to a friend; the kids really liked that one. And we just did the body scan one, and they really liked hearing from the perspective of a martial arts actor, and then taking that practice and doing it in our classroom. And it’s really been a wonderful experience to get to see them take on these practices really thoughtfully and mindfully, and think about, talk about, write about the implications that these practices have had on their lives. It’s been, I think, really important for them, and I just wanted to say thank you for all of the work that your podcast has done to give us this information and give us these activities and this guidance. So thank you!
DACHER KELTNER To learn more about the Feeling Supported practice and other exercises from the science of happiness, please visit our website Greater Good in Action—that’s ggia dot berkeley dot edu.
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 producer is Shuka Kalantari, our associate producer is Lee Mengistu, our executive producer is Jane Park. The 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 great at berkeley dot edu.