July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
YUYI MORALES: I had just had a baby with my boyfriend at the time, an American citizen. I was in Mexico. When my son was 2 months old my then-boyfriend got the news that his grandfather was very ill. My future mother-in-law, she was very concerned that Grandpa Ernie, wasn’t going to be able to meet his only grandchild.
It was so unexpected.The only person I say, “Goodbye” was to my mother, because everything was so fast. And suddenly I was here in the United States, where I was told it was my new home.
And I spoke no English, really. Just a few words.I had this new baby, and I couldn’t communicate. So for a long time, I remember crying every day. I was lost.I didn’t know what I was doing here.
We moved to San Francisco. And right there, I discovered by walking with my son in his stroller, just exactly four blocks from my house was the Western Addition library. And that’s the place that really changed my life.
DACHER KELTNER: That library set Yuyi Morales on a path to becoming an award-winning children’s book author and illustrator. Her work has received some of the biggest awards in children’s literature including the Caldecott Honor.
Yuyi joins us today as our happiness guinea pig.
On every episode we have a happiness guinea pig try out a practice designed to boost happiness, kindness, resilience or connection. Then we explore the science behind why it works.
Yuyi welcome to the Science of Happiness.
YUYI MORALES: Thank you. I’m really happy to be here having this conversation with you.
DACHER KELTNER: You know, Yuyi, it’s so interesting to hear people’s stories and how they get to their particular happiness practice. So your gratitude letter is to a librarian, Nancy. Tell us about it.
YUYI MORALES: Nancy was…I mean, she probably doesn’t know it, but how important she is in my life. So this is a time in which, I’m very very afraid that I’m probably going to be doing something wrong because I still don’t understand how things work there. So it was Nancy who eventually came to me and she tries to, in her very own way, make me understand that the library is much more than I had realized.
She allowed me to feel that what the library has to do, was for me too. It wasn’t only for the people who was born here in the United States. It wasn’t only for the people who spoke English. It was also for someone, who like me, who didn’t understand, who had a little boy who was curious about everything, and someone who still feared that a place like that wasn’t for someone like me. And she, like many librarians I’ve gotten to meet, who are really my heroes, the way that they do their job is to let you know that the library is for everybody.
DACHER KELTNER: Yeah, that’s incredible. And books become your friends.
YUYI MORALES: They become my everything. My everything.
Here in the United States they make books that for me, will have been images that you will only see maybe at the museum. Or a gallery? And here they are, inside of books for children, that actual children can come and grab from the shelves.
DACHER KELTNER: No, it’s a sacred thing, just and I haven’t thought so much about how beautiful the artistry is. When did you, in this experience, when did you start to think about drawing and writing yourself?
YUYI MORALES: I guess it was shortly about that because the books amazed me. Every time I open a picture book, I could recognize a few words from there. But I could not understand the story. But, this is the magic of picture books. Then you look at the illustrations, and suddenly, you know what’s going on. And because that was kind of some of my first moments of understanding something, something, it was like finding a…I don’t know, a something or someone that you really fall in love with. That finally you have a connection with.
And I realized that I had a lot to say. That I had so many stories and so many things that I miss from my family, my country, that I wanted to share. And so what I did pretty much was that I copied. I tried to emulate. And I made handmade paper and used it to create covers for the books that I started making myself. And I just put them together with ribbons or with anything I found, and suddenly I had my books.
DACHER KELTNER: We’d love to hear your letter, Yuyi. Would you read it for us?
YUYI MORALES: I would love to read the letter for you.
Do you remember me? I could never forget you. True, at first I might have been scared of you, guardian at your desk, and too close to the basket of baby books that my son always walked towards when we entered this unbelievable place. The children’s book section of the Western Addition public library.
I remember years later, when I was already working towards publishing my first picture book, I came to visit you. You told me that my expression had changed. “How so?” I asked. “In those days, in those first days, when you and Kelly came to look at books,” you said, “You always look sad.” Nancy, I was very sad. I was heartbroken. Feeling the weight of having to raise my son in a country where I didn’t know the language. And I could not make myself understood. A place where I felt very alone.
At first I might have been afraid of you. What if I made a mistake? Or broke the library rules? would you tell us to leave the library because we didn’t belong? Instead one day, you talk to me, in English I didn’t quite understand, and before we knew, you were giving Kelly a library card. I was puzzled. Kelly was barely two years old. How could he have anything?
Today, Kelly is a 24-year-old lover of books. He also writes. And he often helps me review and correct my still imperfect English when I write the children’s books I create. Books like the ones you put in my hands. Nancy, ever since the library became my home, and books became my path for growth, you have been an amazing guardian. Thank you.
DACHER KELTNER: I mean, it’s so incredible Yuyi, that the best moments that you find in these gratitude letters, kind of bring the mind to what’s sacred, and what I feel has been a real privilege to hear how this letter has been part of this amazing narrative of your life.
I just wanted to get your thoughts on what it was like to read your gratitude letter, and to use your voice to thank Nancy.
YUYI MORALES: I always felt very emotional about the role that the library had played in my life. But because I’m back in Mexico, I also feel like that’s part of my history now. Yes, it’s someone I was, but I felt like, maybe I could have left that emotion behind already? And then I had to write this letter and realized that the emotion is still there. The feelings and the gratitude and how this amazing thing happened … it is still there. So writing this letter made me feel that this is not only a history for me. This is an essential part of how I even live now, and the things I am doing nowadays. This is still very alive.
DACHER KELTNER: A space far away, but it’s still in you.
YUYI MORALES: Yeah. Exactly.
DACHER KELTNER: Why do you feel it’s so important to express gratitude?
YUYI MORALES: Wow. Because one of the things that I know more and more is that we can hardly do things alone. Most of the time, we need to hold hands with someone. And also, most of the time, the results of holding hands with someone is not going to be just for me. It’s going to be bigger than whatever I can get from joining somebody.
Every time I’m making my books, even though I might not be super conscious at the moment, once I’m done, I realize that what I’ve done is usually a celebration. I like the word celebration. And this celebration is part of recognizing how, not by myself, but with all these people on my side, far away sometimes, close by, we are all able to create something. These books really aren’t made just by me.
DACHER KELTNER: I know. Well I just feel so often, in some of the Science of Happiness, we make the mistake of looking in. And your wisdom about gratitude tells us it’s a very rich part of a whole story of community that creates things.
YUYI MORALES: Yeah. I wish that Nancy knew how much impact she had on me. And at the same time that Nancy embodies the presence of some other librarians that I don’t remember their names. I guess what I’m trying to say is Nancy is the embodiment of all this hard work…
DACHER KELTNER: These gracious hands.
YUYI MORALES: …yes, that librarians do.
And I guess that’s where, this process of also thanking all the people that extended their hand to me. This is the moment in which I come to reflect of everybody who was a part of me finally feeling like I had arrived to where I was supposed to be.
I’ve been working on a picture book that talks about this process. It’s called Dreamers. And this book, it’s kind of like a letter of gratitude to Nancy. I don’t mention her by name, but I depict her in a way I remember her. Always with her glasses here, ready to be used, on her forehead.
Dreamers is about these dreams we all, immigrants, have. And there is this belief that when we come to a country like the United States, we are coming here because we lack things. And I remember feeling like I had nothing. What am I bringing here? What am I offering?
And it took me awhile to realize that in fact I had brought so many things. And in Dreamers, I think that’s what my voice is trying to say. That we immigrants carry so many things with us That we bring our stories. We bring our voices. We bring our memories. We bring our colors. And once I arrive here, like many immigrants, we do put that in the table. We bring our arms, we bring our strength, we bring our work, we bring our creativity.
Although my son was not a Dreamer in the sense of Dreamers who are these kids who are brought as infants, as children to this country, and know no other country but the United States as their own country. But we are the kind of dreamers, like all the parents and all the people who come to a country, hoping that we bring the best that we can, to create a better life. Not only for us. For our children, and for the rest of the world.
DACHER KELTNER: Yuyi, your books are beautiful and sublime and changing the world. It shouldn’t surprise us that your books have won just about every award. You received the Caldecott Honor Award. What was that like?
YUYI MORALES: It was amazing! And it just really validated that our voices are important. That even a voice as imperfect as mine, you know this voice that still needs correction and help and patience and everything, that it has a place where it is heard. And I want to give a shout also to the Pura Belpre award, because a lot of people get to know about the Caldecotts. But not a lot of people get to know about all the other authors and illustrators who are doing amazing jobs. And they are not in the mainstream. They are not as visible to the rest of the readers of the country. And awards as the Pura Belpre, the Coretta Scott King award, many of these awards, what they are saying is, there are many more voices that we don’t hear. And here are they. Let’s listen.
DACHER KELTNER: You know in the scientific literature, we define gratitude as the reverence for things that are given. And I revere the words, and the voice, and the stories and the images in your books, and everything that you are giving people. We’re very lucky to have had you on our show. Thank you for teaching us so much about gratitude.
YUYI MORALES: It has been a lesson for me too. Thank you for this opportunity.
If you want to try writing a gratitude letter or other practices like it, find simple instructions on our website Greater Good in Action, that’s G-G-I-A dot Berkeley dot edu. Then email us and let us know how it went!
DACHER KELTNER: The gratitude letter had a powerful effect on Yuyi, and she’s not alone. Studies have found that writing a gratitude letter, and reading it aloud, can give a significant boost to your levels of happiness, even for several months.
Here to talk about the science and the research behind the gratitude letter practice is Sarah Algoe, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina and a longtime friend and dear collaborator. Thanks for joining us Sarah, it’s really nice to have you on the science of happiness.
SARA ALGOE: Yeah thanks so much for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
DACHER KELTNER: How do you define gratitude?
SARA ALGOE: Well I really define it as an emotion that can happen when someone else does something nice for us. So people think about ingratitude a lot and they notice that when someone does something nice and people don’t say thank you. But in my work we’ve really come to realize empirically that moments of gratitude are these positive moments where we really notice that somebody else has gone out of their way on our behalf and it feels good and it’s kind of inspiring.
When we feel grateful toward people and notice them, our gratitude helps to make us feel more connected and actually behave in ways that actually make us more connected with the people who are good for us.
DACHER KELTNER: So it’s almost as if it makes you aware of this network of kind people that you’re connected to or people you’re collaborating with and situates you within that.
SARA ALGOE: Yeah of course we need to kind of exchange favors with people to navigate social life. But those are really kind of practical things you… somebody does this thing for you and of course you’ll do something in return.
But gratitude is this really nice connector in a different way and it’s really about caring and concern for other people and actually about the other people. So really noticing, wow, that’s a really thoughtful person. And it really inspires people to be thoughtful and kind and caring in return.
DACHER KELTNER: You know one of the really interesting things to track the science of happiness over the years is to see the different practices that emerge in this science. So now there are all these forms of gratitude that are actionable things you can do. And then there’s this gratitude letter. What is it. How does it work?
SARA ALGOE: The gratitude letter was one of the first successful I would say of ways that were documented to really make people happier. So the researchers recruited people who wanted to become happier and they randomly assigned them to one of a series of activities. And some of the people were randomly assigned to write a gratitude letter. And they were supposed to write a letter to someone who had been especially kind but was never properly thanked. And so it’s kind of nice it’s like think about all the people in your life who who have gotten you to where you’re going. I mean I can think of so many people. How do you choose?
SARA ALGOE: Other people wrote about early childhood memories over the course of the week. So what they found was that the people in the gratitude condition have actually had greater happiness and fewer depressive symptoms, one week and also a month later. Pretty cool.
DACHER KELTNER: Yeah really cool. I mean you know you’ve been studying gratitude you know in couples and in individual lives for a long time. What do you think the magic is of the gratitude letter? How do you think about how that works.
SARA ALGOE: Just writing the letter alone should make you kind of recall your own moments of feelings of gratitude. So you got something good and that feels good. You feel valued and loved by the person, you remind yourself that you were actually worthy of them taking the time, going out of their way to do this for you.
But then the other part of it is that you’re reminded about that person. That they were doing this inspiring thing. They were going out of their way, when they didn’t have to do that for you. But for some reason, probably because they care about you, they were doing this and so it kind of might help people think you know I want to rise to the occasion and be a better person myself and then also they might feel really motivated to let the other person know.
So even just writing the letter alone could bring up all of these different layers of positivity and warmth just from that action.
And then as you mentioned some of my work has been focused on actually having expressions of gratitude between two people live and in person. So I have hundreds of videos of people actually expressing gratitude to somebody that they care about.
DACHER KELTNER: What are you finding?
SARA ALGOE: So the findings of that particular study I think are really interesting because it shows the person who feels grateful has lower levels of depression and greater levels of happiness. But in our studies what we find is that the effect of thanking the other person can actually have downstream consequences for the person who is thanked.
We ask people after the conversation so let’s say gosh, Jack and Diane are my favorite fake couple name. So you got Jack and Diane and let’s say Jack thinks thanks Diane for something. After the conversation what we do in our studies as we say, Hey Diane how did that go. How cared for and validated and understood did you feel by Jack from Jack in that interaction.
And so we were able to find out that that feeling that Diane had after walking away from that conversation that feeling that Jack was responsive actually forecasted her greater feelings of satisfaction in the relationship you know six months later. Even more satisfied than she was before he even said thank you to her in the lab.
DACHER KELTNER: What you’re telling us is you know you have this wonderful benefit from just thinking about the deep sources of why you’re living the life that you’re living today. You think about how generous people can be. We always have to remember these social benefits that just going and reading the gratitude letter becomes this poignant moment for the recipient that you’re showing benefits couples. That’s pretty amazing.
DACHER KELTNER: One of the things that really struck me about Yuyi’s letter…she writes this gratitude letter you know to somebody who 20 years ago was an instrumental part of her life. Why. Why do you think it benefits us to write about the past like that?
SARA ALGOE: I do think there’s something with being reminded of where we came from. You know and kind of the people who have helped us out along the way that might be just kind of grounding. And I know, you know that from research that people start to kind of get self-focused a little bit as they move on and become more and more successful. And so I think having an opportunity to take a step back and look at that bigger picture might be one of the reasons why it’s so powerful.
DACHER KELTNER: You know Sara, I’m grateful we have young scholars like you who are showing us the wisdom of these old practices like gratitude so thanks for doing that.
SARA ALGOE: Well I really appreciate it and it’s been a fun time talking to you.
Thanks for listening to Season 1 of The Science of Happiness. We’re taking a short break, but we’ll be back soon with more science and stories for a meaningful life. Be sure to subscribe so you get our next episodes as soon as they come out.
Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRI, with
production assistance from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio..
Our producer is Jane Bahk.
Production assistant is Lee Mengistu.
Executive producer is Jason Marsh.
Special thanks to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Funding for The Science of Happiness comes from donors to the Greater Good Science
Center and PRI, including Javier Escobedo and Bego Lozano.
During our short break, you can learn more about the science of happiness by checking out our website greater good dot Berkeley dot edu. And send us an email to let us know how you’ve been enjoying the show. Send it to Greater at Berkeley dot edu.