July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI I love my job. I love what I do. Sometimes I make it everything in my life, which I’m realizing is very unhealthy.
And I’m Shereen Marisol Meraji and today we’re asking this question: why is it so hard to talk about Israel?
I am the co-host and senior producer of NPR’s Code Switch podcast, and we talk about race, identity and culture on the podcast. And actually, the podcast has become one of the most popular things that we make and lots and lots of young people of color download it and listen. Which is a wonderful thing. And it’s also a lot of pressure because when you’re doing this kind of work, when you’re talking about race, when you’re talking about something that people feel like that you’re implicating them in what’s wrong or what’s going wrong and people take things that you say very personally and to heart and maybe lash back out at you, whether that’s over social media or like emails about your work, because they don’t like it, because they feel uncomfortable about it, because it makes them feel bad. That happens a lot.
And I always get really sensitive about that. And I get even more sensitive when they’re so hungry to see themselves reflected at all. And you’ll get those emails that are like, you’ve got this wrong or, you know, you forgot to say this thing or that thing about my experience. I spent a lot of outsize time worrying about everything involving my job. I mean, to the point where, like my therapy session, 40 minutes of the 50 minutes is involved with me talking about work. Right. And not me talking about my life outside of work.
It’s like this sick thing where it makes me feel like I have to be better, I have to do better. I always have to be better. What did I do wrong that I can make better? And that’s what keeps me up at night. It’s like that anxiety over, “Okay, I messed it up again. Here’s proof tweets, emails, people at work telling me whatever it is I did wasn’t the best.” And it’s just like that fuel that keeps me ambitious but also keeps me unhappy.
DACHER KELTNER I’m Dacher Keltner, the host of The Science of Happiness. We all receive criticism, and it often stings and it can feel overwhelming. Like when it’s about our work performance.
SHUKA KALANTARI Or our parenting.
DACHER KELTNER That’s Shuka Kalantari, our Senior Producer. Hey Shuka.
SHUKA KALANTARI Hey Dacher, I’ve been thinking a lot about criticism while working on this episode and how if someone even insinuates that I’m a bad mother, I kind of freak out, and stay up all night thinking about it.
DACHER KELTNER I know there’s a lot of pressure on moms these days. And You have a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old?
SHUKA KALANTARI That’s right. And the six-year-old has joined in on the parenting criticism these days. Here’s what he said to me the other day:
CHILD Mama, parents like you tell everybody what to do. And that breaks my heart.
DACHER KELTNER Ouch. Wait till they’re teenagers but it starts early, doesn’t it?
SHUKA KALANTARI I guess so. But even when people I don’t care about criticize my parenting, I feel super panicked and can’t stop thinking about it. Exactly like what Shereen describes happens to her when she gets criticism about her podcast, Code Switch.
DACHER KELTNER And in fact that’s one of my daughter’s favorite podcasts these days because of how it covers race.
SHUKA KALANTARI I love it, too. So tell me Dacher, what’s going on when we hear criticism—from a scientific perspective?
DACHER KELTNER Well you know Shuka we’ve learned a lot about the flight or fight response that causes you to feel panic, what happens in your body. And you know, Cortisol, the stress hormone is released and it activates your heart. And we’re also learning that two regions of the brain, the amygdala and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex are really involved in panic. So the amygdala picks up information about very basic threats to our survival. And then Naomi Eisenberger down at UCLA is finding the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex detects more social threats, right, like somebody’s criticism or a snarky remark from a teenager or rejection on the playground.
SHUKA KALANTARI So these regions tend to work overtime when we’re processing criticism?
DACHER KELTNER Yeah and that’s what’s unnerving about this is that when we feel perpetually threatened or criticized or rejected those regions of the brain are always active and humming and getting our stress-related regions of our body activated.
SHUKA KALANTARI OK, so how can we stop our brains from responding this way?
DACHER KELTNER Yeah this one of the central pathways to happiness is the things we can do that really help us countervail stress and these bodily responses. And that’s what Shereen Marisol Meraji, our guest today, tried to do. Shereen tried a practice to empower her to deal with the kind of criticism she often faces in her job, known as Affirming Important Values practice. She started out by sharing the steps on how to do it:
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI OK. So this is how you do it. It says that it requires 15 minutes. I found that it took longer. But that’s maybe just for me. So there’s a list of values that you’re given. There’s eleven. And what it says in the practice is that you should start ranking the eleven values in order of their importance to you.
DACHER KELTNER OK.
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI So that was the first thing I did. And then it says that you should write an account of, you know, why your number one value, the one that you chose to be number one, is important to you. And then included a time when it played an important role in your life. It said in the description that it was good if you were feeling like if your ego was taking a little bruising. If something happens to make you feel bad about yourself, this would be a really good practice to help remind you what’s important in your life.
DACHER KELTNER I mean, when you’re reporting on diversity and race and identity, you’re in tough territory, I can imagine. You know, well, you chose well, because. The science by people like Dave Sherman down at UC Santa Barbara finds like this simple practice of affirming your personal important values, help you with stress and calm your body down and help you with actual criticism and negative feedback. So it’s a good choice. Was it hard to rank these 11 values? They’re tricky.
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI Yes, it was!
DACHER KELTNER Like creativity and athletics, social skills. What’d you choose?
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI My number one value was relations with friends and family.
DACHER KELTNER What came in number two?
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI Well, I put romantic values, but the way that I thought of it was like my relationship with my partner, my husband. So basically, number one, relations with friends and family. I mean, it was kind of like together. I didn’t know what to do. That’s like, all the same. And with my partner. So that’s all number one. And then it was creativity, social skills, sense of humor, spontaneity/living life in the moment, artistic/aesthetic appreciation, business managerial skills, athletic, musical ability, and physical attractiveness. And these are based on the ones that were given.
DACHER KELTNER And I’m really curious, you know, just thinking so much about culture and coming from a bicultural background, did you feel the kind of the influences of your different cultures and your background shaping how you look at these values?
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI Are you kidding? Do you know how many times my dad would say, and I can’t do his accent and is also not cool to do people’s accents anymore. But I used to, like, try and do my dad’s accent, he’s Iranian. He would say all the time, “Family first.” I mean, family specifically. I mean like the idea that we had friends was so, it was like breaking his brain. The fact that friends were a thing that we thought was important. So I definitely feel like when I was ranking this, to write it out, it would be family and then friends, well, family and then, husband. Oh my God, my husband is going to kill me. Family and husband. But he is my family. So I feel like those are the same.
DACHER KELTNER Yes!
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI And then friends. And I think that is really definitely cultural. And it’s something that was from both sides, really important to make family number one and make family and closeness with your family and real connection, deep connection, and to devote time to making those connections strong. And I feel like I actually haven’t been doing a really good job at that. And this helped me pinpoint that. And I, I want to change that.
DACHER KELTNER That’s great. So you’re supposed to write about a time that you had a positive experience with your number one value. What did you write about?
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI I had a conversation with a senior manager at work that just made me feel weird and odd and insignificant, incredibly. And so I was like, “Oh, this is the perfect time to try this practice.” And so I did that. And the day before I had this conversation, I was out in my street and I was hanging out with my neighbor, whose kid is my godson. She’s dear friends with me. And so I wrote about, like, how amazing I felt being together and how kicking the ball back and forth across the street, even in this social distancing situation that we’re in. And it’s like yelling back and forth across the street was just so wonderful and how wonderful it made me feel and how her asking me to be her child’s godparent. And what that has brought to my life and the kind of joy that has brought to my life is so much more important and fills me with so much more—I don’t know it makes me feel significant, makes them feel like I matter in a way that this conversation with my boss felt so insignificant. Rather than making me feel insignificant, it made me realize that that conversation was insignificant.
I also, I wrote about two things in this journal entry. My best friend, Rena, I wrote about how there was a time when I had my first broken heart and she I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t sleep. And she was there to help me nurse my broken heart. And she took really good care of me. And she encouraged me to keep living. And, you know, doing things that mattered to me. And I had signed up for this trip through San Francisco State at the time to go to Cuba, And I didn’t want to go because I was so upset. Like I was just like, “Oh, my gosh, this is so devastating. My, my heart is so broken. I don’t want to go on this trip.” And she was like, “I think this is the best thing for you. This is something you’ve been wanting to do. You should do this.” And she encouraged me to take this trip, which really changed my life.
DACHER KELTNER How so?
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI Because, first of all, it really helped me understand, “oh,” when I was there, I was like, “these are the kinds of stories that I want to tell. I want to tell the stories of the people that I meet in my travels and in my experiences.” And also I felt like coming out of that trip, I was definitely the best self like, I am my best self and I’m putting myself out into the world and I’m trying new things and I’m challenging myself. And I can only do that if I know that I have a strong support network and that support network who encourages me to be my very best self. People like Rena. People like my husband. People like my mom and my dad and my grandparents and my tios and titis. And like my cousins, because we’re a tight family and there’s a lot of us. They’re the people who help me be the best person that I can be. And that’s what matters to me in my life is showing up for them. And they in turn, show it for me and we show up for each other. And I don’t think that I could even be in a place where I can obsess over criticism from work if I didn’t have this really, really strong support network that has always been like, “You can do it.” and has encouraged me and it’s been there for me. And so, that is why—it’s so important to remember that, because that’s who matters. And that’s what matters.
DACHER KELTNER You know, as you like, rank order these values and you put, you know, your relationships and romantic values up, up top and so many other values come at the bottom, did you learn things about yourself in this present moment in history?
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI Oh, yes. I mean, you know what I learned? Which was very…well, it didn’t make me happy. But it was that I’d ranked them in this order, and I don’t actually live my life in that way. I don’t actually spend the majority of my time doing what is my number one value, which is relations with friends and family, and my husband. And that, that is not what I’m spending my time doing. I’m spending my time working. And I think my work is really important. I want to do work that helps people and helps the world, but if my number one value is relations with friends, family, loved ones, I’m not doing what I need to be doing to make that the most important value in my life if that makes sense.
DACHER KELTNER Do you notice that you were better able to handle criticism since doing this practice?
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI Actually, I just received a direct message on Twitter from somebody who I worked with about more than 15 years ago, we haven’t heard from in a really long time, who decided to reach out to give me some thoughts about a podcast episode that I edited. And also, by the way, when somebody reaches out to tell you they have “thoughts” about something that you made and they don’t just say, “Hey, that was awesome,” you pretty much know criticism is coming. I handled it so much better than I would have handled it before doing this. I do think what this exercise has done has helped me understand this person who I haven’t spoken to in many, many, many years wanting to give me unsolicited criticism? No. It’s my mother, my father, the people who I love in my life. Those are the people whose opinions I value. So I think it actually really helped me. I didn’t spiral out of control. I would have. That type of thing and this is a very successful person in the industry, and I would have taken that and kind of spiraled out of control. But I had a moment where I was like, “No, this is not, this is not that important to me. Like, OK? Yes, interesting, I hear what you’re saying. That’s an interesting point. I’ll think about that. Not all night, keeping me up all night.” So I definitely think that this exercise has helped in that way, put things into perspective.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah. You know, one of the things I like about these practices is they, you know, we kind of know this like, you have to live according to your values. Values matter. They organize your lives, et cetera. And these practices often, you know, they get us to do things that we haven’t done for a while. Like just think about what matters. What do you think your biggest takeaway is from doing the Affirming Important Values practice?
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI I think that what it helped me do was take a step back and say, “OK, this is my number one value, if my number one value is family. Why am I obsessing so much about work?” It just, it helped me think, “What is important in my life?” The fact that I’ve spoken to my father this week who has Parkinson’s, who may not be with me for very much longer. Like to have called up my grandparents who don’t have much more time left on this planet and to think those are the people that I should be connecting with. And I’m not connecting with them. And they are upset with me. They are probably like, “Where has she been?” And that’s the kind of criticism that I should be more worried about than the kind of criticism that I’ve been getting from the public from may not have liked the way I told a story or my boss, who, you know, may want me to work in a different way or whatever it is, or a boss who didn’t listen to my last story and I’m very upset because they didn’t hear this great thing that I made.
And so I think that what this has done is really make me stop and think about what’s really important to me and how I’m going to strengthen the relationship and bonds with the people that are truly, truly, truly the people that are important to me. And if my value is family and friends, then I need to change my life to bring them up to the top of the list, because the way I’m living my life right now, it’s, they’re at the bottom of the list.
DACHER KELTNER I hear you Well, Shereen, I know you’re working very hard on your show Code Switch, and I know so many people who are empowered by that show. And I know you’re handling all the complexities of covering race and diversity and culture in today’s climate. So I want to thank you so much for taking some time out of your day to be on our show.
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI Thank you. This was great. This really did help me.
DACHER KELTNER So how does the Affirming Important Values practice work? More up next.
DACHER KELTNER Writing about her core value helped Shereen Marisol Meraji to take a step back so she could put criticism into perspective.
CHRIS CASCIO Affirmations allow me to have a higher sense of self-worth or a broader sense of self-worth so that incoming information is something I can deal with.
DACHER KELTNER Chris Cascio is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He says when we reflect on top values, it activates a ‘reward’ region of our brains—the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. That’s the part that helps regulate emotions, make decisions, and it’s involved in the experience the feeling of reward.
CHRIS CASCIO When I expose you to information you might not necessarily want to hear, but I’m trying to persuade you, I really want the most activity I can get in a reward region. Right. Because then it suggests that you find value in the information that I’m telling you. So the whole idea is, can we use an affirmation to essentially boost the signal in these reward regions during message exposure? And then hopefully that will get people more likely to change their behavior, or more likely to think about the message in an optimal sort of way.
DACHER KELTNER In one study, Chris and his team had people who weren’t that physically active choose their top value from a list given to them. Afterwards they were put into fMRI brain scanners and prompted to think about a time they had experienced that core value.
CHRIS CASCIO So that’s remembering something you did last week or a month ago or last year.
DACHER KELTNER Then came a threatening, critical message.
CHRIS CASCIO It was something that said, “Hey, you know, you’re sedentary. This is really bad for you in the future. You know, you could develop heart disease. You need to become more active,” something of that nature.
DACHER KELTNER Chris and his colleagues had a different group of people in the study write about values that weren’t very important to them. At the end of five weeks, they found those who reflected on their top value not only felt less threatened by the health warnings, they were also more likely than the other group to be physically active after the study ended. In a similar study, people were instructed to think about experiencing a core value in the future. And, interestingly enough, it activated the ‘reward’ region of the brain even more than when thinking about it from the past. Essentially, thinking about experiencing core values in the past or future helps us regulate our emotions so we can deal with stress a lot better.
CHRIS CASCIO So it allows you to basically regulate your emotions, calm down, not get defensive, and then think through how you want to deal with that information. Right? Do I want to change my behavior? Maybe I don’t. But I’m still engaging with the information. So I think that’s how affirmations allow you to have a broader sort of network of how you want to deal with the information, a larger toolbox if you will.
I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining me on The Science of Happiness.
If you’d like to try the Affirming Important Values practice visit us at greatergood.berkeley.edu/podcasts.
Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX. Our senior producer is Shuka Kalantari. Production assistance is from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our associate producer is Nina Sparling.
Our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. Our science director is Emiliana Simon-Thomas.
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