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Gene Luen Yang:
I was kind of like Superman.
I had two names.
I had an American name that I used at school, a Chinese name that I used at home.
He has these two different cultures that he has to navigate — Kryptonian culture and American culture.
I also had American culture and Chinese culture.
A lot of people don’t realize this but most of the major superheroes, the most popular superheroes that we all know and love were created by children of immigrants.
Batman, Superman, Spiderman, the Hulk, Captain America…they were all the products of these sons of Jewish immigrants from Europe. And I think that’s where that dual identity dynamic comes from. That’s at the heart of the superhero genre and that really is a daily reality for the children of immigrants.
American Superhero comics were a presentation of human ideals about these people who often under really trying circumstances… like
Spiderman… Peter Parker has a really terrible life. But even despite his
terrible life, even despite the fact that he has to scrounge through his couch
for quarters to do laundry, he’s still able to pursue something noble. So it
was both the ideal of the physical and the ideal of the heart.
Dacher Keltner: It is a real delight to welcome Gene Luen Yang to our show today. Gene is a cartoonist, a
graphic novelist, a MacArthur Award Winner and was elected as the National
Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and is doing a lot of work nationwide
to promote reading in young kids. Gene, thank you so much for being with us today.
Gene Luen Yang: Thank you. Thank you for having me here, Dacher. I’m excited to be here.
Dacher Kelter: You know one of the really interesting things when we think about happiness is
just to think about core passions that emerge really early in life. And your
mom says that you started drawing when you’re 2 years old.
Gene Luen Yang: Yeah I actually don’t think that all that unusual. I think most of us start drawing
around that age. It’s just that some of us don’t stop. And I think for me and
my fellow cartoonists we just kept going, all the way into adulthood.
Dacher Keltner: Gene, you make a real case for why
comics belong in the classroom. Why do you feel this way?
Gene Luen Yang: I
mean for a really long time I lived two separate lives. I was a classroom
teacher. I taught high school computer science for 17 years in Oakland, and
then I was the cartoonist. I never, like I tried to keep those two worlds
separate but they eventually did come together.
I taught an Algebra 2 class and for a few particularly
difficult topics, I actually drew out comics to explain them and they seemed to
work really well. I think a lot of it is the fact that comics are a visual
medium that is static. You know most visual storytelling media that we
encounter, animation or film, the passage of time is actually in control of the
creator. The Director decides how fast or slow they can go. But comics, the
passage of time is in control of the reader. So for education purposes, that
can be really powerful. If a kid needs to read something more slowly, they can,
and they can return to the same passage in a comic book or graphic novel over
and over again until it really gets in their heads.
And as you said I did get to travel all over the country to
talk to kids in different communities. First what I was struck by was kids read
a lot, you know they read a ton. You know I would argue that more kids are
reading comic books than when I was a kid. They’re not reading the same sort of
comics that we were reading. They tend towards more naturalistic fiction which
I think is amazing.
I do think that something that’s timeless is that people,
including young people, turn to stories to make sense of the world. And I think
that’s why they’re reading so much, I think that’s why they’re gravitating
towards graphic novels. They’re trying to use stories to make sense of the
world. And that’ll just never change.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah.
I agree. And it’s so heartening, and you’re right at the forefront of this
movement, to think about all the different you know cultural perspectives on
the human condition that are that kids are being exposed to and immersing
Gene Luen Yang: Yeah,
absolutely. I mean our world is becoming smaller in so many ways and more
colorful, more diverse. And we need stories to reflect that diversity in order
for us to understand it.
As an Asian American kid who grew up in the 80s and 90s it
was just almost impossible to find books about characters who look like me. Both
in books that I was reading and in the shows and the movies that I was
Every kid needs mirror books and every kid needs window
books. A mirror book is a book that reflects your own experience back to you. And
by doing that it tells you that you the emotional realities you’re going
through are important. And that you’re not alone. I think of mirror books as
books that teach you to love yourself.
Window books give you a glimpse into the lives of people who
at least on the surface, seem very different from you. And by doing that this
shows you the common you get between you and these people are different. So I
think of window books that teach you to love other people. So those are the two
halves I think, of a just society. Being able to love other people the way we
love ourselves. That’s the foundation.
Dacher Keltner: Amazing.
So I wanted to ask you about the practice that you chose as our guinea pig
today. You chose Mental Subtraction of Positive Events. What drew you to that?
Gene Luen Yang: To
be honest when I told my wife she was like, they’re going to ask you? Because I
would say that happiness is something that I’ve had trouble with lately. The
past few years have been a mix of really amazing things and also really
difficult things. My mom is going through some health issues and she’s
incredibly important to me. So to see her go
through what she’s going through has been hard. It’s been hard for me
So this is something that I’ve struggled with. It just
seemed like this particular exercise would be a great way of looking at what’s
good in my life, because there’s so much good in my life. But I have the
tendency, maybe it’s a human tendency to put more focus on the bad. I even
notice this with reviews. My fellow authors and I talk about this all the time.
You know you can get 100 good reviews but the one you’ll remember is that one
bad review. And I think same thing happens with life events.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah,
it’s a regularity of the human mind regrettably. It’s very finely tuned to the
tough stuff in life and a real deep theme in this new science is how do we kind
of find the wisdom in those tougher dimensions to life? So what you do with the
mental subtraction of positive events? What is the practice?
Gene Luen Yang: So
the practice is, you think of one good thing that’s happened to you and then
you think about all of the different circumstances that led to that good thing
happening. And then you imagine your life without that good thing. Imagine that
some of those circumstances hadn’t fallen into place. Imagine your life, what your
life might have been like if that good thing hadn’t have happened. And finally
you bring your mind back to the present where that good thing has happened.
Dacher Keltner: What did you focus on in your practice?
Gene Luen Yang: I
focused on meeting my wife. Her name is Teresa. She is pretty awesome. And I
think her awesomeness has been accentuated in my head with the hard stuff
that’s happening with my mom. She’s been just incredibly helpful and supportive
you know. And I just feel so very grateful for her presence in my life.
Dacher Keltner: How did you guys meet?
Gene Luen Yang: We
actually ...so this was part of the exercise right?. I had to think through the
circumstances of our meeting. We actually went to the same high school but I did
not know her in high school because she was a freshman and I was a senior. So I
didn’t know her at all.
Dacher Keltner: Plus you were this celebrity. You were a cartoonist
drawing these cartoons?
Gene Luen Yang: I
think you’re overestimating the celebrity power of cartoonists.
She did remember me. But she only remembers me because she
actually had a crush on my best friend. So when we met later, when we met later,
she was like oh yeah, that’s that guy who used to hang out with my old crush.
And then we met, like we met for reals through a youth group. And you know like
there’s so many things that had to click into place for us to meet.
So she’s Korean American. And she actually grew up in a
similar circumstance on the other side of town. She grew up in a Korean
American church community. The reason why she came over to the Chinese church
youth group was because the youth group at her church kind of collapsed and she
was just, she wanted to hang out with other kids on Friday night, right.? The
reason why her youth group collapsed is because her youth group leader had
fallen in love with somebody in L.A. So every weekend instead of leading Youth
Group, he would drive down to LA to try to woo this woman. And then eventually it
worked out. Eventually they got married. And the crazy thing is now, their
youngest and our oldest are friends. So life is just really weird. But I think
about that all the time. If the young woman in LA had rejected this youth group
leader and he had dealt with the sadness by continuing the youth group at the
Korean Church, I might not have ever met Teresa.
Dacher Keltner: What
mental state did that produce as you sort of went through this contemplative
exercise of like wow, imagine the various circumstances that combined.
Gene Luen Yang: I think it made me realize that that good things are often not in my control. They
are gifts in the truest sense of the word. I didn’t earn the right to meet her.
I didn’t…just had no hand no hand in her walking through that door to the youth group meeting.
Dacher Keltner: It’s humbling, isn’t it?
Gene Luen Yang: It really is.
Dacher Keltner: So Gene, what
are some things you thought about that wouldn’t be in your life, had this good
thing—meeting Teresa—not have happened?
Gene Luen Yang: Well
we have four kids. None of them would exist. They are a huge source of joy for
me. I mean they’re a source of frustration too. But even the frustration is
like a joyful sort of frustration. I wouldn’t have a partner, you know, to
support me through what’s happening with my mom’s health right now.
I felt like before I met Teresa, and especially before we
got married, my life just felt unsettled. For whatever reason. And she’s, she’s
a much more calm person than me. She doesn’t struggle with anxiety as much. And
some of that calmness does bleed off into me which I’m very grateful for.
Dacher Keltner: It’s
nice to have those insights isn’t it, especially when you’re raising four kids,
in a loud household, and chaos is reigning.
Gene Luen Yang: Yeah.
She’s much more like a rock than I am. And
I’ve always been incredibly grateful for that.
In a lot of ways, I think what I write, part of me does
write to try to impress her. Because she’s not like a quote unquote native
comic book fan, I sometimes think man, if I can get her to like it, I can get
anybody to like it. And so that’s been helpful
Dacher Keltner: Collaboration
Gene Luen Yang: Yeah,
Dacher Keltner: Yeah,
and what kind of feelings did a trigger after this sort of mental exercise that
you went through?
Gene Luen Yang: I
think you know I had I don’t remember where I heard this….Maybe it was on
your podcast, but I’ve heard that the opposite of anxiety is often gratefulness.
Gratitude will often conquer anxiety. And I have been dealing with a lot of
anxiety in my life. And for a few moments at least, after doing exercise my
anxiety seemed to have subsided.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah.
Nice. One of the things that’s really striking about getting older, and I hope
you take this as something hopeful, is we get happier up until about age 75.
Many different countries, this is a finding. And one of the
things I find is we do a lot more of this kind of mental exercise that you just
described Gene, of like god it just takes so many incredible forces to raise a
child or to have a career or to give something to society or to fall in love.
And it just gets richer in really interesting ways. You talked about the
momentary feelings of gratitude, did it kind of sort of stay with you for a
Gene Luen Yang: I
mean it stayed with me on and off throughout the day but I do think the secret
is to make it a habit, right? Yeah, so that it becomes a part of me.
Dacher Keltner: That’s
the challenge. Well Gene, we here at UC Berkeley are so deeply proud of you. I
can’t say enough for how much we take delight in all the things that you’re
doing in the world. And thank you so much for being on the Science of Happiness.
Gene Luen Yang: Thank
you. Thank you for having me. Thank you for caring so much about the state of
well-being not just of me but of everyone.
Dacher Keltner: As
Gene realized, and as he described in the effects of doing this mental
subtraction practice, it’s a very human tendency to take things for
And one of my favorite findings on how to counter this
tendency to take things for granted and foster more gratitude, is found in the
research by Sara Algoe and her colleagues.
Sara Algoe: So we
had people tell us how satisfied they were in their relationships and then some
of them wrote that really classic story of how they met their partner and got
together. People love to tell that story.
But the other group, actually wrote about how they might never
have met their partner, how they might never have started dating and how they
might not have gotten together.
And then immediately after they wrote those stories, they
told us how satisfied in their relationships. So what we found was that
compared to two weeks before the people who were in who subtracted, and who
thought about how they might never have met their partner actually were more
satisfied in their relationships compared to the people who told us the classic
story of how they met and got together with their partners.
An interesting finding is that if you ask people which one of
those tasks they’d rather do, they definitely don’t want to think about how
they might never have met their partner which is probably kind of speaks to
this idea, wait a second. This is a really great thing I don’t want to, I don’t
want to think about how that might never have been.
One of the big takeaways is that in in our lives and in the
research, there’s been kind of a push to think about just counting your
blessings. Just thinking about the presence of the good things and especially
if it’s something that we’ve had around for a while, we may have adapted to
really just how great that thing is. And so just taking a minute to think about
it in a little bit of a different way than normal which is just taking it away
reminds you of how good you really have it.