July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
Sulyman Qardash: When I moved back to Afghanistan, when I was 17, I basically was looking for people to make a band and to play music with me. And I met Mojtaba our ex-drummer and Siddique our bass player and then we decided, what if we play a show on a street and maybe to play on the street that a lot of explosion happened? And then we decided to do a street concert. We decided to play on, there’s an area called called New City, it’s sort of downtown. And explosion happened frequently in that area. We were scared because you play on the street everybody can watch you. We went up there, we set up our music instruments on the street to play, just to give some kind of hope or positive energy to that part of the neighborhood. And people really liked it. People people like music. People are tired of what’s happening even then and now. Music in general art helps you go through a lot of things. And that was something that kept me very hopeful. Kabul is not an entertaining city. There is nothing in there but you have to make something out of it. You can either do drugs which is always available and accessible, or you can actually pick up something: photography, art, music.
Dacher Keltner: Sulyman Qardash is the lead singer of Kabul Dreams, which is really Afghanistan’s first post Taliban rock band. His music talks about growing up in Afghanistan. Displacement. The current political climate. He now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and has a new album out, Megalomaniacs. On each episode of our show, we have a Happiness Guinea Pig try a research-based practice to increase their happiness, reduce their stress and anxiety, and boost feelings like kindness and connection. Sulyman it’s really wonderful to have you on the science of happiness.
Sulyman Qardash: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Dacher Keltner: Sulyman, you grew up as a refugee in Uzbekistan and then moved back to Afghanistan when you were 17 years old, soon after the Taliban fell. What was it like to move back to home—to Kabul specifically—after all those years?
Sulyman Qardash: Going back to Afghanistan, that war torn country that I went back, I felt freedom.
Dacher Keltner: To do what to?
Sulyman Qardash: To express myself to some extent because, okay, this is it. This is how it is.
Dacher Keltner: It’s your culture.
Sulyman Qardash: Yeah, it is my culture and this is my city. This is my hometown. And I’d rather just pick up and carry on.
Dacher Keltner: When you moved back to Kabul you decided to start a rock band—Kabul Dreams. What was it like to perform rock music music in your home country, in the post-Taliban climate? What did people in Afghanistan make of your music?
Sulyman Qardash: I think it’s just it’s being different to be honest. Yeah. And nothing lyrically, nothing maybe musically in the beginning right. Just something new because it was a time that a lot of people came back after 9/11 and everybody came back from being a refugee you know like Siddiqui from Pakistan he was refugee there and most of all was in Iran. Yeah and everybody brought some portion of culture that they learned. So a lot of people said, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re doing something interesting.”
Dacher Keltner: Sulyman A lot of your music had social and strong political messages, let’s just let’s listen to a song, saturated hope, now.
Saturated Hope by Kabul Dreams: “Sometimes I feel I was born at the wrong time But looking back at history, there was never a right time I remember when my mama told me that I’m on my own I never made a friend or I would leave when I made one….[fade under] I gave up on life hundred million times I’m fed up with the saturated hope in my head.”
Dacher Keltner: What is Saturated Hope?
Sulyman Qardash: It’s that hope that we always have in our head, you know. You still keep hoping because that’s the only thing that keeps us alive and that’s the only thing that keeps anybody alive. I think especially in war, where I’m coming from. It’s also about the experience that I had in my childhood that you know I grew up in a different places. My mom always used to say that, don’t don’t get too attached to things because you know that—because she had to be very upfront about that—yeah, you know that we’re gonna leave. That’s something that I was like okay, nothing is permanent for me.
Dacher Keltner: As our happiness guinea pig, we asked you to choose a happiness practice to try out, and you chose one of my favorite practices—the Expressive Writing practice. This is where you write down your deep thoughts about an emotional challenge that has been affecting your life. You’re supposed to take about 20 minutes to really let go and explore how this event has affected you and made you feel. So why did you choose the expressive writing practice?
Sulyman Qardash: The reason I chose that I think it’s because I’ve never done one. I really had to go deep down into my feelings that, you know, what exactly I want to write. It doesn’t always happen to me when it comes to writing something about myself or about somebody that I really love. And it was a real encouraging process. Back in Kabul I used to write about my day sometimes, you know. On this day, this happened. Explosion happened, and then we didn’t go to work or school. But it was more of like, an informative of what happened throughout the day, not necessarily how I felt about it. Not necessarily, what was my reaction to it. It wasn’t about me. Growing up, nothing was really about about me because we’re not taught like that. You know, we always think about others and we never really think about ourselves. But if you don’t do so, I think you know, you’re probably missing some important aspect of your life.
Dacher Keltner: Sulyman really, what really struck me is in the expressive writing exercise you wrote about something people often don’t talk about or write about, which is a miscarriage with your wife. Walk us through that and what you learned?
Sulyman Qardash: When we had our first miscarriage, you know it was extremely hard for my wife. And it was hard for me too. But it’s just really hard to process the whole. Whole whole thing. [00:30:34]
Dacher Keltner: Was it hard to write about?
Sulyman Qardash: It was hard. It’s always hard. It’s like the Facebook, you’re always posting good things. You you never write something like this. One thing I learned about miscarriage is that it made us even closer to each other because you know. It made me realize that how miscarriage actually changes you as a person, as a woman as a man, as a wife and husband. And you know we I wish we never experienced, it but we did. So we have to now work on it and get through the process and I realize that my my wife is a lot more stronger than that I actually thought because of the process. You know I don’t think I can even handle something like that you know. But she did because there was always hope.
Dacher Keltner: Would you mind, Sulyman, reading from this expressive writing about the miscarriage that you and your wife went through?
Sulyman Qardash: Yeah absolutely.
Dacher Keltner: Thank you.
Sulyman Qardash: For me and my wife our miscarriage made us even closer to each other. Yes it’s our miscarriage, not hers only. I can’t isolate her and just say she had a miscarriage as if she was responsible for that, you know? Trying to have a baby is not like trying to buy a car or a music instrument of your choice. It’s like driving on an endless highway you will drive and drive and you don’t know where the end is. Deep down you want to get there but you know there is a chance that you may not get there. But there is always hope. That’s what we live. In the end and we realize that at the end of the day it’s only the two of us sitting in the living room of our small apartment caring for each other loving and trying to make ourselves happy by making each other happy.
Dacher Keltner: That’s really really nice. I do this exercise in different groups and in my class and one of the striking things and you really brought it into focus is you know we part of being a human is to have these common experiences of suffering, miscarriages. It’s always striking how humanizing it is to share suffering. What do you take from this experience with your wife in writing about it?
Sulyman Qardash: It was hard for me to share my feelings because you don’t like to prioritize yourself when somebody is actually going through something a hundred times more than you. ]I think it’s good to talk about. Because there are a lot of people out there that also going through this, because when this happens you know we instantly go on Google and try to read some blogs and stuff when people share. At least it makes you safe or feel good about that you’re not alone. I hope somebody, it will give to somebody else hope too. Because in the end that’s what we live for.
Dacher Keltner: What do you think the takeaway message is for when you tell your friends about this, about the power of expressive writing and just expressing all the complex experiences you’ve had from being a refugee to being here in the United States. What do you think is the take away?
Sulyman Qardash: I think one of them is just majority of men that I know we don’t talk about things; maybe it’s a cultural thing. We keep it ourselves. We don’t reach out for help and we don’t even tell our friends sometimes. This took me a really long time to do that. Take me 20 something years to actually write expressive, you know, writing. But in the end you should do it I think, because you need to get over that barrier that you have. And once you do, I think everything is OK.
Dacher Keltner: Well Sulyman Qardash I wanted to thank you for being our guinea pig. I want to thank your band Kabul Dreams for the incredible music you’re putting out. And I want to thank you for sharing your story with us.
Sulyman Qardash: Thank you.
Dacher Keltner: We’ll take a closer look at the science behind Expressive Writing, after this short break.
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Dacher Keltner: For many, writing about our deepest thoughts and emotions is a challenge. ot all of us are used to writing about ourselves in a reflective way. Decades of research show a vast range of the benefits Expressive Writing. Psychologist James W. Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin is a pioneer in Expressive Writing research. His work began in the 1980s, when Dr. Pennebaker asked students to come into a lab—and flip a coin…
James W. Pennebaker: ...and by a flip of the coin, they were either asked to write about a traumatic experience that they had not talked to others about much, or to write about something superficial. Things like describing their room, or the shoes they were wearing, or things like that.And we had them write for four days 15 minutes a day. And what we discovered was that those who were given this opportunity to write about traumas, actually wrote about really upsetting traumas.We found that those who wrote about traumas ended up going to the student health center at about half the rate as people who wrote about superficial topics. And it was a profound experience for me. In the weeks and months afterwards people would come up to me they say Dr. Pennebaker you don’t remember me but I was in your study and I was asked right up about a trauma. And that really changed my life. So it was really a real eye opener for me.
Since those first two two or three studies there now have been well over a thousand expressive writing studies done by people all over the world. We know that expressive writing has been effective in improving physical health things like colds and flus. Chronic pain or asthma or arthritis or days in hospital after surgery. Those who’ve written about traumas ultimately end up talking more to others, they laugh more, they’re more socially engaged. It’s associated with people sleeping better. It’s associated with people doing better in college. It goes on and on and on. And part of this as I stand back now and look at this remarkable number of studies that have been done it seems as though writing works for a lot of reasons. One is is that it helps people to just to acknowledge something bad has happened or something upsetting is occurring. It also helps to translate that experience into language, putting in to words somehow changes the way it’s organized in our mind. it’s associated with coming to some kind of understanding of what happened. So this the ability to make a story of this seems to be important and it also helps to clear the mind.
What’s interesting is his, expressive writing is free. You don’t need a therapist, if you want to try it, just do it. And what works for one person might not work for another. Some people for example find that they benefit more if they write longhand. Others say they feel better if they type. What I would urge people who are listening to this is try it for a few days. If it doesn’t work, try a different way. Write with your right hand. Maybe next time try writing with your left hand. There’s no rules here.
If you’d like to try the Expressive Writing practice, or want to check out others like it, visit our website at GGIA dot Berkeley dot edu. Then give us a call at 510-519-4903 and let us know how it went.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me on the Science of Happiness.
Our podcast is a coproduction 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 Shuka Kalantari, our associate producer is Lee Mengistu, our executive producer is Jane Park. The editor-in-chief of the Greater Good Science Center is Jason Marsh. Special thanks to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. You can learn more about the Science of Happiness and find related articles, videos, quizzes—all kinds of stuff—on our website, greatergood.berkeley.edu.