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SAMUEL GETACHEW So I am a high school student, I’m a senior in high school, and right now is like college application crunch time. And so, with that also comes like a lot of tests, and essay deadlines, and everything trying to get crammed in before we all leave school. And amidst all that, there was one phone call that I just completely missed, like completely slipped my mind. I was working on something else. My phone was on silent. I didn’t see it ring, and I didn’t realize until about an hour later, and it was too late. And there is just nothing I could do. And I was, I felt super helpless because, like, I can’t go back in time now. And I also felt really, really guilty. Because I’ve always been somebody that, like, prides themselves on reliability. And also, I really hate getting canceled on. And so, I felt like this kind of guilt for hypothetically having, you know, ruined someone’s day, or like messed up someone else’s schedule; like sweat tingling in my back and just like physically, like this intense discomfort, and like this kind of nervousness that kind of went into the rest of my day; this feeling that whatever else I can do right in this day, I still, you know, messed up this one thing. And there’s like nothing I can do that will undo that.
DACHER KELTNER He’s in the thick of college applications, feeling a lot of pressure, and he’s not alone. Samuel Getachew is a 17 year old high school student, and the 2019 Youth Poet Laureate of Oakland, California. We know from important survey work that stress is on the rise for all Americans. And his generation, which is working harder than past generations, reports experiencing more anxiety and depression than any other age group. There are the heightened academic demands, getting into college these days is harder. When we asked Samuel to choose from one of our practices to bring more happiness into his life, he chose one that would help him reduce his stress load by being kinder to himself. And as many of you probably know that can be tricky from young people with high expectations for themselves who have a lot going on. Samuel, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
SAMUEL GETACHEW Thank you for having me.
DACHER KELTNER So, before we get into the happiness practice you chose, I have to know, what in the world do you do as the 17 year old poet laureate in your city?
SAMUEL GETACHEW So the way I kind of like to think of it is that I’m kind of like the representative of Oakland poetry. And so that can mean a lot of different things. That can mean like, for example, like I just applied for national youth poet laureate. I’ve gotten a few invitations to visit some elementary school students, and like perform for them, and then talk to them and answer all their questions. And so that’s been super fun.
For me, the really rewarding part of doing those visits is to show them that poetry can be this like living, breathing relevant thing.
DACHER KELTNER So Samuel, the poem, “Lake,” that won you the 2019 Oakland Youth Laureate award is very relevant to our times, where there is increased mass incarceration, and police brutality. Part of the poem is about a 911 call that went viral, of a white woman calling police on a black family using a charcoal grill at park in Oakland. Can you read part of that poem that you wrote in response to that police call?
SAMUEL GETACHEW Sure. It is May of 2018. And I watch from my phone screen as a white woman tries to 9-1-1, call a black body into ghost where he stands, knowing how a badge and a gun will protect her from the consequences of her own tongue. Knowing how a siren will strike familiar fear into black heart and calls not in spite of but because of this. Knowing the city was too used to swallowing our bones into the pavement. knowing that these gutters are fiends for black blood, and calls upon what she believes to be the blue angel of death. Feed the lake. Yet another black corpse is still. There’ll be more to take after the funeral. And she knows this, too. White tears stream out her eyes like an offering to the crows temptation before she calls out the feeding cry yells out harassment like the wolf who cried sheep because she knew the rest of the pack was right behind her. Waiting closes her eyes and waits for the vultures to come.
DACHER KELTNER We posted you reciting the entire poem on our website. It’s really moving. And I urge our listeners to check it out.
SAMUEL GETACHEW Thank you.
DACHER KELTNER Thank you for sharing, Samuel. I’d like to turn now to the happiness practice you chose, which is called, “How Would You Treat a Friend?” It was developed by psychologist Kristin Neff, who we’ll hear from later in the show. Why did you choose this exercise?
SAMUEL GETACHEW I feel like sometimes I don’t afford myself, like, nearly as much sympathy as I do for other people, and I think a lot of people who are just hard workers in general, or are like perfectionists, tend to be really, really hypercritical of themselves. I think in a way it’s like driven me to be able to, like, accomplish a lot because I’m always kind of like trying to compete with myself and trying to be better. But right along with that, I sometimes forget to be kind to myself, or to congratulate myself.
DACHER KELTNER Can you walk us through the practice?
SAMUEL GETACHEW Yeah. So first you should start to think about times when a really close friend of yours is struggling in some way, or feels bad about themselves. And think about the way that if you are at your best, you would respond to that friend. And maybe write down what you typically would do or say, and make sure to note the tone in which you would say these things.
DACHER KELTNER Did a specific instance come to mind?
SAMUEL GETACHEW For me, I mean, I’m in school. And I’m in like a lot of competitive classes. And so I am constantly around a lot of kids who are like maybe not so used to not getting all A’s all the time.
DACHER KELTNER Having nervous breakdowns.
SAMUEL GETACHEW Yeah. I think my generation is like exceptionally stressed out.
DACHER KELTNER Yes.
SAMUEL GETACHEW So. A lot of my friends and stuff feel like beat themselves up about bad grades, or even good grades that just aren’t perfect. Which I think is a difference in language that’s important that we need to start noting more. But I think for me, like I’m constantly around that kind of like self-criticism, and when it comes to my friends going through that or or feeling bad about themselves because of like school related things, I tend to be really good at like tearing it apart and being like, “This is an arbitrary number!” Like, “It doesn’t matter. You’re so much more.” Like, I’m very good at that with my friends. Not so great about it with myself.
DACHER KELTNER Then what happens in the practice?
SAMUEL GETACHEW So now think about times when you feel bad about yourself, or are struggling, and think about the ways that you respond to yourself in those situations. And again, maybe write down what you typically do or say and pay a little more attention to the tone in which you talk to yourself. And so for me, there’s like a perfect example for this. Last week I got like a 67 percent on a calculus test and instantly got it back, took one look at it and was like, “OK, I guess I’m just never gonna learn again. I guess, I guess I’m worthless. Bad at school. It just doesn’t matter.”
And so for me, like just that was the moment when I had to, like, stop and be like, OK. Like, I mean, noticed the ways that I’m I’m treating myself right now. And this brings us into the next step. Do you notice a difference between the way that you respond to your friend versus the way that you respond to yourself? And ask yourself why, and what factors or fears come into play that would lead you to treat yourself versus others so differently. And so for me, the way that I would respond to my friend getting a bad calculus grade is just like so totally like nonchalant, like “It’s okay, like it doesn’t matter. It’s just one of many tests. Like it’s gonna be fine. Like your grade will be fine. Your life will be fine.” You know, you’re gonna have like my one of my teachers, Ms. Joe, always tells us when we’re particularly stressed out about like college, or school, or homework or a test or something, she always says, “Don’t worry, you’re gonna have beautiful children.” In the grand scheme of things, like everything will be okay. Like this test is not the end of your life. But I get this test back and my immediate reaction is like…
DACHER KELTNER It’s over!
SAMUEL GETACHEW Is like, “It’s over. I’m stupid. I just, you know, I shouldn’t be in this class. I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle like multiple AP classes. Like, I shouldn’t have done this.”
DACHER KELTNER I mean, that’s the striking thing about this exercise is like you kind of get a sense of how you comfort a friend. Yeah. And then you hear the voice of how you treat yourself, what you notice about that difference?
SAMUEL GETACHEW The voice that I shoot myself with is so much less patient that that was one thing that struck me as like so much less patient even for the emotion of frustration. Because like the way that I reacted to my own negative emotions was like first, like, you know, all of the self-criticism of like, “Oh my God, I’m stupid. I shouldn’t be in this class like I should’ve studied. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” But then there is like the second reaction, which was like a response to the first one, which was kind of like, “You’re making such a big deal out of this, like, shut up. Like, it’s fine. You don’t need to be like that.”
DACHER KELTNER Right.
SAMUEL GETACHEW Which is, in a way, minimizing the way that I felt to begin with, and that’s super different from how I would treat my friends because like, yeah, the one thing that I’m always super conscious of not wanting to do when I’m comforting one of my friends is like, yes. You know, what you’re feeling might be a little bit too hypercritical or it might be somewhat of an overreaction, but that doesn’t mean that your feelings are invalid. Like, I don’t.
DACHER KELTNER It’s human.
SAMUEL GETACHEW You know, it’s human. Exactly. And I don’t want to come in and be like, you have no right to feel this way because that’s never comforting for anyone to hear. And so I thought that difference is like super interesting where I was like, I had so much less patients even for like the validity of my own emotions that I that I don’t seem to have like a problem with when it comes to my friends.
DACHER KELTNER And then what do you do?
SAMUEL GETACHEW And then you write down how you think things might change if you responded to yourself the way that you typically respond to a friend when you’re suffering. And I think giving myself especially that patience, which is what I tried to do in this situation, I kind of had to like stop a second time and be like, okay, like it’s fine that you feel this way. What are we going to do? Like that’s like another thing that I always try to do with my friends is I always try to be like, okay. Like, yes, this is frustrating. Yes, this is hard. What can we do? And so I was kind of like, okay, so what can I do? And that was so much more productive because I didn’t realize how much time I actually waste. Yeah. On like that, that that first step of frustration and then again on that second step of like, oh, you have no right to feel this way. I’d be a lot more productive and a lot more happy. Yeah. Because I think it also like kind of forced me to contextualize this situation. It’s like I’ve gotten A’s on almost every test so far this year. Like that’s something to celebrate. But it wasn’t something that I was particularly proud of until I, like, stopped to think about it. And so like giving myself the space to like both validate my emotions, and then also be a little bit more proactive about how I looked at it, and then put it in the context of the rest of the situation like, I started to be like a little bit happier about like myself as a student, which without this process might seem like a strange reaction to have to a D on a test. But, I think I it made me like realize that I had a lot more to be grateful for than I did to be frustrated about.
DACHER KELTNER You’ve talked about how this kind of self-compassion practice you know, maybe makes you more productive in your life and you care a lot about that right now and it makes you kind of your friends and family. How do you think that works? How is it that just kind of turning this voice you give to your friends upon yourself has these benefits?
SAMUEL GETACHEW I think we all work better when we’re not frustrated about something. And so, if I’m so busy thinking about a mistake that I made an hour ago or a week ago or a month ago, it’s really hard to focus on what’s actually still going on and what I can do. And so I think in general, you know, allowing yourself to forgive yourself for your mistakes helps you to be more present in general, and then in regards to being kind to family and friends and just being a better friend and a better son. I think, when I’m frustrated with myself, it shows. And I just tend to be less patient with everyone around me because I’m already, you know, stuck in this impatience with myself. And then that also goes back to being present and and being able to actually spend time with people and being able to actually enjoy someone’s company in a way that I can’t necessarily do if I’m so busy thinking about what I’ve done wrong.
DACHER KELTNER Your observations so align with the science. The science shows, you know, you practice a little self-compassion like you did, Samuel, and you feel calmer or a little bit of oxytocin flowed through your blood. But really, interestingly, and most connected to what you’re saying is you ruminate less, you know, you kind of see like, “This one test. Half the world’s gotten a sixty seven on a calculus test. I’ve got all these other things going on.” And so powerful a benefit. So what’s the final step in the practice?
SAMUEL GETACHEW The final step is to the next time that you’re struggling with something to try treating yourself like a good friend and just seeing what happens. And I have found since that day that I got that test back, I found like more than one opportunity to do that. It took a little longer because I wasn’t, you know, in the mindset of like, “Let me treat myself like I’d treat a friend.” But it’s a little bit more habitual the more that you do it.
DACHER KELTNER What was the situation that came up?
SAMUEL GETACHEW There was like one call that I had scheduled that I just completely forgot about. It was scheduled for 4:00 p.m., 4:00 p.m. came and went. I was working on something else. I did not see my phone. And it was just it was just too late. Like, there was literally nothing I could do.
DACHER KELTNER So just walk us through like, what would you say to a friend who might’ve missed that call, and then how you would sort of take that language and apply it to yourself?
SAMUEL GETACHEW I think the first thing I would ask is really simple is just like, why did you miss the call? And the answer to that would have been because I was working on something else. And so I think, first and foremost, just like establishing that, it wasn’t like I intentionally ignored this thing, or this commitment that I’d made. And then from there I would say, you know. Look, how long had you been working for? And for me, the answer was like since school got out that day and by extension, if I count schools like 9:00 a.m. that morning and so, I think, I’m very much thinking of it as myself talking to a particular friend right now, um, and like the next thing that I would say to that friend in particular is like, OK. Think about how many things you’ve done this week, because like a lot of my friends have a lot of commitments, and we’re all like really hard workers, and we have a lot on our plate, and sometimes we have to be that reminder for each other of like, okay, look at all the things you do, like it’s OK. And so I think that that would be my next response is like, okay. We’ll look at how much you’ve done this week. And look how much you’re still doing and look how much you still have left to do. That you’re a human being, and it’s OK that all of it didn’t get done exactly perfectly the way that you wanted it to.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah. Cool. You know, I just want in the last few minutes, I wanted to return to something you said earlier and just get your wisdom. You know, you talked about. You know, your generation being, you know, pretty stressed and yeah, and the data bear that out, you know, stress has risen. You guys are working harder than I worked when I was your age doing harder work than what I did at your age. Well, coming out of your life of poetry and the self-compassion exercise and your engagement in it, what do you think your generation needs to build?
SAMUEL GETACHEW I think we need to be easier on ourselves. I think right now a lot of what stresses me out and a lot of what I think stresses my peers out is this idea that like there’s only one life track to success. And there’s only this one definition of success. And that is like a prestigious university and then an immediate job outside of that. And that’s it. And like, one of the things that I’ve learned this year, I’ve gotten to meet like so many incredible people that work in so many different industries who all just have such untraditional life paths, but are so happy and are doing like these jobs that they love, that aren’t jobs that necessarily have like clear cut descriptions or aren’t necessarily things that you’d see like a career day and that that has been like a super important perspective for me to have. Yeah, but I think a lot of high school students don’t get that. And so I just wish like a lot of kids my age would realize, like you can be successful and so many more ways that just like this one, this one life track that’s decided by this application that you submit when you’re like 17 years old.
DACHER KELTNER Here, here, I hope my students are listening right now. So powerful. Wow. Samuel, I want to thank you for your wisdom. I want to thank you for your extraordinary writing. And I want to thank you for being on our show today. Thanks for being here.
SAMUEL GETACHEW Thank you so much for having me.
DACHER KELTNER Teenagers today may be even more stressed out than other generations, but they’re not the only ones who could use some self-compassion.
KRISTEN NEFF You can apply self-compassion to any realm of life where there’s suffering or challenge, which means it’s almost limitless.
DACHER KELTNER More on the science of self-compassion, up next.
When a close friend is really struggling, it’s natural to support them and give them a broader perspective upon their lives. What’s great about the How Would You Treat a Friend? practice is that we don’t need to learn a new skill. We just have to be willing to use that skill we’ve already developed - compassion for others - and then apply it to ourselves.
KRISTEN NEFF People, I think, do kind of get a sense that they treat themselves and others differently. But when you really look at it with actual examples of what did I say to myself when this happened and what did I say to my good friend when that happened to him or her? People are really surprised.
DACHER KELTNER Kristin Neff is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a pioneer in self-compassion research. In her studies, she’s had a number of people try a number of self-compassion practices, including the How Would You Treat a Friend? practice.
KRISTEN NEFF The reason we use the friend context is because most people, certainly by adulthood, they’ve learned how to be a good friend. They’ve learned how to be supportive toward their friends. They’ve learned how to be present, to listen, but also to be encouraging and kind and warm and unconditionally accepting.
DACHER KELTNER Kristin’s studies found that people who did these self-compassion practices felt a 43 percent increase in self-compassion. They felt more motivated to achieve their goals and less self-centered. Rather than being self-indulgent, they actually improved their coping skills, and were better able to be resilient to stress.
KRISTEN NEFF We also got increases in well-being, for instance, with reductions in depression and anxiety and stress, increases in happiness and life satisfaction and the tendency to avoid difficult emotions. And the really cool thing I thought was we measured them right after completing the program two weeks afterward. And then again at six months. And then again one year after completion of the program. And all gains were maintained, no skills were lost.
DACHER KELTNER There are a few different ways to help ourselves be more self-compassionate, which is great, because it often doesn’t come naturally. In addition to thinking about how we’d treat a close friend, we can also think about how a friend, or someone we’d really admire, would treat us. The outcome is the same.
KRISTEN NEFF People have this resource of compassion in their back pocket, ready to pull at it anytime a friend needs it. And so they just have to really remember that, “Ah can pull out this resource and I need it as well. I just have to remember to do so.”
DACHER KELTNER If you’d like to try the ‘How Would You Treat a Friend’ practice, or other practices like it, visit our greater good in action website at ggia.berkeley.edu. Tell us how it went by emailing us at greater at berkeley.edu or using the hashtag, “Happiness Pod.” I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me on the Science of Happiness. Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX. Our producer is Shuka Kalantari. Production assistance 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 goes to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.