Laura Formentini I received a call from my older son and he told me that my younger son had taken his life.
I was in rural Ethiopia. My sons were both in the Western United States. So I had to drop everything that I was doing, and, you know, I had to fly from the rural areas to Addis Ababa, to Dublin, from Dublin to Boston. I was stranded in Boston. And then eventually I went to Denver.
I was like, I don’t know how I’m going to do this. I really have no idea how I’m going to do this because it was incredibly challenging. And I was by myself. Imagine something like that happening to you or to anybody, and then you’re by yourself. I was just shaking like a leaf.
Anyway, my tour guide, she said, Hey, I have a friend who could be with you for today.
And his name is Assefa and he is just like this amazing human and being, you know, sort of like an angel who materialized out of the blue.
Dacher Keltner It was through her connection with Assefa that Laura Foreman Teenie found the strength to make that difficult trip from Ethiopia to Denver that day.
I’m Dacher Keltner. And this is the science of happiness. Laura is a child welfare activist and mother, a photographer, and an animal conservationist who lives in Southern Italy.
She reached out to us to share her experience with Asseffa and we suggested a way that she could express her. Thanks to him. She joins us today to tell us how it went. Later in the show, we’ll explore how gratitude can help us cope with stress and anxiety. Laura, thank you for joining us.
Laura Formentini Thank you so much for having me.
Dacher Keltner I’m going to start by saying, I’m sorry about the loss of your son. I recently lost my younger brother and I know how painful loss like that can be.
Laura Formentini Thank you, Dacher.
Dacher Keltner So could you tell us how you ended up meeting Assefa?
Laura Formentini I found myself in Ethiopia and it was in 2019. And I was in the rural area of the North of Ethiopia.
So I was there for just about 10 days. And then what happened was I got, I received a call from my older son and he told me that my younger son had taken his life.
My tour guide, she said, “Hey, I have a friend who could be with you for today. And he was also a tour guide in the travel business.” And, uh, his name is, that was, his name is, Assefa.
He held my hand right away and he kept saying, “You are okay. Laura, you are okay. Your son is now. okay. Do not worry he’s with God. Don’t worry. He’s fine.”
And then he was smiling to me. It was just like, “I’ll be with you all day long. I’ll be up with you all day long.” And I knew that his wife, he told me his wife was pregnant.
She was due any time. And I said, “Your wife needs you at home.” And he said, “Are you joking? I’m staying with you until you leave.” And my flight wasn’t leaving until the evening So he stayed with me all day. He took me to lunch. He paid for lunch. He took me to the, um, to a couple of hours, archeological museums and knowing that I loved archeology.
And he was just with me all day long. And that helped me to, you know, to travel the way to the States by myself. I was like, it’s almost like he couldn’t come with me physically, but his energy had been so amazing and so good. And so sweet, that he just stayed with me.
Dacher KeltnerAnd that’s when you met him?
Laura Formentini Yeah.
Assefa And you recently wrote him a gratitude letter to thank him for his support?
Laura Formentini Yea.
Dacher Keltner For this activity, you write someone, a letter explaining how they’ve made a difference in your life and why you’re grateful to them. And then if possible you read it to them. It’s arguably one of the strongest happiness practices out in the scientific literature, it’s been linked to greater life satisfaction, reduced symptoms of depression, and you recorded yourself, reading your letter to a safer over a phone call.
If you don’t mind, we’d like to play a clip of it now.
Laura Formentini Sure.
Dacher Keltner Let’s listen.
Laura Formentini Dear brother, Assefa. I wanted to let you know that when I think about you, I think of a big red heart vibrating and shimmering on its edges. I remember your hand holding my hand, which was shaking that day. I remember your smile throughout the day.
It’s like I had known you forever. You reminded me of the joy of true connection. And to this day, I have not felt the incredible distance between us after I left. It’s like you have always been there for me, just like that day. How incredible that your wife delivered your baby just one week after my son had passed away.
It’s like the departure of one person and the arrival of another to remind us how the cycle of life is in constant motion. And we have just come to a full circle. I remember how kind you were to me as you held my hand and kept whispering to me. “Are you okay, sister? Everything is okay. Your son is now okay.”
And you kept me company all day until my flight back to the United States, knowing that your pregnant wife was waiting for you at home and you were out and about with me, a complete stranger that day. I still remember me asking you at the Addis Ababa airport just before my departure. “Why did you do all of this for me? You don’t even know me.”
And you answered I didn’t do anything special, Laura. It was my human responsibility. Thank you, dear brother. Although I know that we may never see each other again, although I really hope so know that you will always be with me because when I think about you, I think of a big red heart vibrating and shimmering on its edges.
Your sister, Laura.
Dacher Keltner Wow. And how did he respond?
Laura FormentiniHe said, wow, that’s incredible.
Assefa I don’t believe it’s. Yeah, I’d say everyday, this is the, the responsibility of human beings. We can feel the depth of each one. If you think as human beings, we can feel the pains. Thank you, Laura.
Laura Formentini I would have never made it without you that day. And, um, that’s why I think that it’s important to remind us that it’s, uh, you know, we are really all brothers and sisters, so thank you again. And I’m glad that I have you as a brother.
Assefa Yeah, you are my sister, too.
Dacher Keltner It’s striking to me how often shared suffering brings about this sense of responsibility and oneness and family like relations. And I remember I was lucky enough to be on a panel with his holiness, the Dalai Lama. And coming out of Tibetan Buddhism, and a lot of strains of Buddhas. And the idea that humans are compassionate is just soon they don’t debate it. They don’t think it’s weird. And he said that, and then I’m a scientist, and I was like, my God, you know, here’s this deep tradition saying we have this vain to human nature, that scientists overlook. And it seems like you had a very similar experience with Assefa, and in his talking about just., this instinctual human responsibility we have. Tell me about tha, like, how did that draw upon your own experience and then change your sense of responsibility in the world?
Laura Formentini He really expanded on the idea of being purposeful, but even in the little things. It’s basically about kindness. It’s being kind to each other and, um, you know, dropping whatever you’re doing, to help someone. And that’s, that’s what he did. It’s just so basic, you know, human responsibility is something so basic. It’s just being kind.
You might do something that for you is small for someone else, but for them it might be huge. It’s exactly what happened to me with him. He didn’t think it was doing anything special, but for me it was life-changing because number one, I would have never made it without him. And two, he really, it just changed my perspective on the world, in general, we are all good inside. There is good inside each one of us. It’s a matter of realizing that and then practicing that goodness, everyday little acts of kindness. You never knew it could be a domino effect because you know, you never know how much you are actually helping someone else. You might think, oh, I’m not doing anything special.
But to them it might mean the world. It’s exactly what happened to me.
Dacher Keltner James Fowler down at UC San Diego did a really nice job of like giving somebody the opportunity to give to a stranger then that stranger can give to another stranger and on down the line., and you find that just like you’re saying, like your gifts last several iterations beyond the person that you interact with. So it’s a, a web of gratitude in a way.
What was it like for you to really sort of practice this deep gratitude for Assefa, after losing your son?
Laura Formentini He was sort of like my own mirror because he was saying to me, you would do the same thing for me.
And I said, yeah, that’s true. I feel that it’s important when something like this happens to really realize that there are so many people out there going through exactly where you’re going through. And, you’re not alone. There are so many people who are grieving and everybody grieves differently. But I would say one way to really understand why you’re going through it is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, those who are going through the same thing.
Dacher Keltner In the scientific literature, we know that this kind of practicing gratitude helps you with stress and it helps you savor the moment, and, you sleep better or you get along better with the people you care about, but I feel like you’re talking about something deeper and it’s so interesting to think about in the hardest of experiences like losing a son, you practice this gratitude. What did it give you? What did it teach you in, in sharing this with Asseffa?
Laura Formentini It replenished me. It made me feel so happy to read it to him, but also I was doing it for myself. Because I realized that, you know, it was, it was a beautiful thing to give to him because he had given to me, so I was giving it to him, but I was, I was also doing it for myself to really express everything that I had inside.
And it came out, and once, once you write a gratitude letter, it’s just like, you feel so much lighter and so much better. And, instead of keeping all your feelings inside and so much better to just write it and read it to the person you’re doing it for yourself, as well. It’s just an incredible experience.
Dacher Keltner Well, Laura, I wanted to thank you for your remarkable work in the world. I want to thank you for taking the time to do the gratitude practice. And I really want to thank you for reflecting upon loss. Uh, we so often turn away from it or snuff it or whatever the case may be and I think that your thoughts about it are lasting and full of wisdom for us all to appreciate.
So thank you for being on our show.
Laura Formentini Thank you, Dacher. Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Dacher Keltner A lot of people assume that gratitude is just for the good times in our lives, but researchers have been exploring how it might be helpful in tough times as well. For example, when people are seeking therapy because of stress or anxiety.
Joel Wong We were trying to see if the addition of a gratitude writing intervention would boost the effects of psychotherapy.
Dacher Keltner More on the science of gratitude up next.
Gratitude has been shown to be good for everything from the condition of our heart, to how well we sleep.
Joel Wong But that’s not something that’s ever been tested in a psychotherapy setting. And so that’s basically what we set out to do, which is to test the benefits of a gratitude letter-writing intervention for clients who were seeking therapy.
Dacher Keltner Joel Wong is a professor of counseling psychology at Indiana University. His team recruited people seeking support for stress and anxiety and divided them into three groups. The first one just did therapy only. The second group also did an expressive writing practice.
Joel Wong Expressive writing is basically writing about your deepest thoughts and feelings about stressful experiences, which should not be difficult for people seeking therapy because you know, it’s, you’re stressed out. Of course, you have things to write about, right?
Dacher Keltner The third group wrote one gratitude letter a week for three weeks. Joel and his colleagues measured everyone’s mental health states before, during, and after this study.
Joel Wong We were trying to see if the addition of a gratitude writing intervention would boost the effects of psychotherapy on mental health. And that’s exactly what we found.
Dacher Keltner The people who wrote weekly gratitude letters, reported feeling less stressed than the other groups. And that continued for both one month and three months down the line. To find out why, the researchers use special software to analyze the letters, tracking the percentage of words that evoke positive or negative emotions.
Joel was surprised to find that it was the percentage of negative emotions written down rather than the positive ones that explained the outcome.
Joel Wong In other words, why did the gratitude writers have better mental health at the end of one month and three months? The reason is not because of, the use a positive emotion words. The reason was because they were using a no or a percentage of negative emotion, words, and down letters.
This suggests that gratitude turns our attention away from the negative, by displacing it with positive thoughts.
When you’re focused on what you’re grateful for your mind, doesn’t have enough capacity to be dwelling and ruminating on negative stuff.
So there’s a very important lesson to learn from this, which is that, at least for the therapy clients, simply writing in itself did not produce any additional benefits. If you wrote about stressful things, it didn’t really help you much. It’s when you write a letter of gratitude that made it helpful.
Dacher Keltner Gratitude, isn’t a panacea or a cure-all.
If you’re really struggling, feeling depressed or anxious, please talk with someone about seeking purpose, additional help.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining us on the Science of Happiness. If you would like to try the gratitude letter practice, visit our greater good inaction firstname.lastname@example.org. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s greater good science center and PRX, our senior producers is Shuka Kalantari. Production assistance from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our associate producer is Haley Gray. Our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor in chief is Jason Marsh.
We’ve got a new book out on the science of gratitude, featuring many of our past guests like comedian W. Kamau Bell and psychologist, Sara Algoe. Learn more at greater good.berkeley.edu/gratitudeproject.