September 10, 2020
A tree next to a bus stop, a flower poking through the sidewalk. Our guest, an Iraq War…
DANIEL CHONG One Christmas when I was young, my mom got me a hand vacuum cleaner for a gift. I remember when I opened it everyone was so confused. It looked like a joke. You know, I was a kid, so why would you get a vacuum cleaner for a kid? But when I saw it, I knew exactly why she got it for me. Around this time, I was drawing a lot on the living room table and I would draw with the pencil, making all these mistakes and erasing them, and all the eraser debris would go everywhere. And annoyingly I would continue to work, but it would always be in my way. So my mom paid attention to that, and she bought me a vacuum cleaner so I could suck up all that debris and be able to work more comfortably.
And I think my mom, you know, she was like that with everyone. She paid attention to details. She found a way to see what you needed, and what would help you live a better life. And she would do that for you. And I think that’s kind of one example of what created this close connection I had with my mom.
DACHER KELTNER Daniel Chong went from a kid drawing at his living room table to an animator who’s worked for Disney, Nickelodeon and Pixar. Daniel’s also the creator of the Cartoon Network show We Bare Bears. It’s about three bears, Grizz, Panda and Ice Bear, who move to San Francisco and navigate the complexities of modern human society. Daniel’s our happiness guinea pig today. He tried one of the research-based practices from our Greater Good in Action website, designed to increase kindness and connection. And he’s here to tell us how it went. Daniel, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
DANIEL CHONG Thanks for having me.
DACHER KELTNER So you started We Bare Bears, Cartoon Network, 2015, you know, and I got to watch some episodes. They’re still with me in these really interesting deep lasting ways. Tell us about the show.
DANIEL CHONG The show started off as a webcomic, and it was just a goofy little thing. We Bare Bears as a show is about three brothers: Griz, Panda and Ice Bear. And they call themselves brothers but they don’t look alike. They basically move into the city, and they’re just try to fit in among humans. So people aren’t scared of them like they’re bears, but they kind of accept them, but don’t. They’re kind of just tolerated in a way. And I think the bears are just trying to navigate kind of existing among humans.
DACHER KELTNER One thing that has really struck me about We Bare Bears is this underlying message about friendship, love and acceptance. And you do it in a really fun and engaging way. You had the rapper T-Pain on an episode, and you got the actor Leslie Odom Jr., who won a Tony for Hamilton, to sing on another episode.
DANIEL CHONG So we have this amazing talented artist named Louis Zong and he just saw Hamilton. And he was like, I want to do this. And I was like, go for it. And he did.
DACHER KELTNER And Leslie Odom Jr. plays a scientist who is doing research on the three bears.
DANIEL CHONG He’s studying them, and he starts being very scientific about who they are. The bears want to embellish all those things and say like, “Hey, you know we’re like super buff, too; and jump super high, and we get tons of girls.”
PANDA I can’t speak for grizzlies, but pandas, we got style. Whiling away our time while all the ladies dial. Neverending hearts, and likes on all my latest posts. Extremely cool and popular, though I don’t mean to boast…
DANIEL CHONG But you know, Leslie Odom Jr.’s character basically just says no, no, no, you guys are bears and should be happy with that.
LESLIE ODOM JR Well funny you should mention your prowess with the ladies. Um, pandas have some issues, there aren’t enough babies. What’s true is true. What’s fact is fact. Don’t need to embellish on the traits that you lack. You three are bears. Top of the food chain. As perfect as the setting sun. As natural as rain.
DANIEL CHONG And I think this is an ongoing thing that we talk about on the show, especially in the first episode where the bears are trying to make a viral video, you know, be stars, and they do all these fake things to try to become famous, and they just try to not be themselves because they’re trying to navigate their way in the world. So it’s like they don’t know how to do that, so sometimes they do it wrong.
DACHER KELTNER And not that humans do that.
DANIEL CHONG Oh no, humans are perfect.
DACHER KELTNER You know, one of the things I love about We Bare Bears is the themes of hyperconnection, and bears calling each other “brothers,” and the tenderness that’s often there. But I have to ask you: one of my favorite episodes is “Burrito.” Can you tell us about that one?
DANIEL CHONG Yeah, it was a pivotal episode. Grizz was at the center of it.
The whole story was about him having this crazy obsession with this burrito, which is just goofy and ridiculous.
PANDA You doing ok there Grizz?
GRIZZ Yeah it’s just this burrito is comforting. Nice and warm. Safe. Safe burrito.
WAITER Well, eat it.
GRIZZ No it’s too perfect to eat!
WAITER I’ll eat it.
GRIZZ You stay away. You stay away from burrito! Run!!!
DANIEL CHONG So the big reveal at the end of the episode is that Grizz was actually connecting the look of this burrito with the visual of this fireman that rescued him from a tree when he was a baby.
FIREMAN He’s holding my arm so tight. Cute little guy. I hope he doesn’t get too attached.
DANIEL CHONG For me, one of the other really strong aspects of the episode is that we don’t actually show that the bears are privy to any of that information. It just happens at the end as a bookend for the audience.
DACHER KELTNER One of the things I found really appealing is just all these social issues and dynamics with bears. So why bears?
DANIEL CHONG I didn’t want it to be specific to any race. I wanted it to be, I really wanted people to be able to see that you know, we’re all the same. And any person could put themselves in this position where they’re trying to fit in and finding their place.
DACHER KELTNER What do you think you’re after with We Bare Bears?
DANIEL CHONG I think the most important thing is the relationship between the brothers, and I think the fact that they aren’t really brothers but they keep calling each other brothers. I think that’s kind of an important thing. It’s like they made their own family and it didn’t matter that they looked different. They just kind of chose to be a unit. They were orphans, and at some point they figured out hey, we’re all alone. Why don’t we just band together. And I think this could be a little better.
DACHER KELTNER So it comes as no surprise then, you chose to do a practice about people banding together. You chose the ‘Feeling Connected’ practice.
DANIEL CHONG It felt appropriate because I feel like a lot of the show is about trying to fit in, trying to find your place within humanity. I always believe that even though we have a lot of differences with each other, we all kind of want the same thing. Everybody wants to find a way to fit in or be accepted.
DACHER KELTNER Can you describe the ‘Feeling Connected’ practice for us?
DANIEL CHONG Sure. Yeah. So the first part of it is to think of the time when you felt a strong bond with someone in your life, and then to choose a special example of an experience that you had with this person where you felt especially closely connected to him or her. And then the second half is to, once that you’ve thought of that example, to spend a few minutes writing about that experience and how it made you feel close with that person.
DACHER KELTNER Who did you think of?
DANIEL CHONG The first person I thought of was my mom, because she passed away last November.
DACHER KELTNER I’m sorry.
DANIEL CHONG Oh thank you. And she was up for the bout of cancer she had for a couple years. Brain cancer. You know, I’d just been thinking a lot about the impact she had on my life and in a funny way, a lot of Ice Bear is based on her. My mom used to speak in the third person sometimes. She used to say like, “Mom wants to know when you’re coming home,” or something like that.
ICE BEAR Ice Bear wants to start cooking ASAP.
ICE BEAR Ice Bear Got this.
ICE BEAR Ice Bear appreciates that they didn’t force romantic subplot.
DANIEL CHONG So there definitely are aspects of my mom in Ice Bear.
She really wasn’t a person that would stop and really have a long discussion with you. Really, she preferred to do things. So I think I always wondered what was it that connected me to her. Obviously she was my mom, but what else was there?
Especially with this being probably a very common thing with immigrant children and their parents. You know there’s this cultural gap, and communication isn’t always the easiest I think. I was trying to figure out like, what was the way in which my mom was able to connect with me even though maybe our experiences were completely opposite and she didn’t quite understand what it was like for me being Asian-American and my experiences.
DACHER KELTNER One of the prompts of the feeling connected practice is to write about specific moment of connection. Can you share with us a bit of what you wrote about your mom?
DANIEL CHONG Sure. So, I wrote, most of my life my mom was always a bit of a mystery to me. She was adopted when she was young in Singapore and for reasons our family have only been able to piece together ourselves. She never wanted to talk about her past much. On top of that my mom never really could sit with you and have a longer discussion or conversation. She was always much more of a person who would prefer to be busy and do things.
And there was always this cultural gap, and me feeling understood. But what was great about my mom is that she always showed her support to me by paying attention to the details. For example, one Christmas when I was young my mom got me a hand vacuum cleaner for a gift.
I would draw with a pencil and all this eraser debris would be everywhere and it would make it hard to work. And so my mom put all this together and was like, I’m gonna get you a vacuum so you can work more comfortably.
Maybe like she didn’t really understand everything that I was thinking and what I was doing, but she knew what I needed, and she saw the details of what I needed. At her funeral people were telling endless stories about that, because she was like that with everybody. Yeah. So I think that’s why everyone felt close with her including myself.
DACHER KELTNER Loving pragmatism.
DACHER KELTNER I just lost my younger brother, and you know what’s striking though and I really appreciate you going bold and thinking about your mom in this connected practice. What I found is like a lot of these exercises, like even as my brother is really getting sick, it was like thinking about what I appreciate about him, and it was this way of keeping him in me, right. And keeping him in my mind, and keeping his contributions and wisdom alive.
DANIEL CHONG Absolutely, yeah. One of the really interesting things in the science of connection is that…when you do these practices, just thinking about someone you’re connected to, you kind of get this surge of good feeling and it makes you wanna promote kindness. Did that happen in any way with you, Daniel?
I think to me this show got me very busy and I think a lot of reflection kind of fell to the wayside in favor of just focusing on making this show which just took crazy amounts of time and hours and headspace. I think the nice thing about doing this practice a couple of times is it brought back some reflectiveness to the people I value, the people who’ve done things for me. The people I care about and why, and to articulate them, and writing them down, it definitely helps you see the full shape of what it is. Instead of this vague kind of idea. And it definitely makes me look at the people that I wrote about; It makes me think about them in a very different way.
DACHER KELTNER How did doing the ‘Feeling Connected’ practice make you think about your relationship with your mother differently?
DANIEL CHONG It kind of opened my eyes to the idea that being connected with someone can mean a lot of different things, and it can be accomplished in a lot different of ways. When I think of my relationship with her just because she might not have known every like intimate detail of what I was interested in or like even being a person who was creative. Maybe she didn’t even really understand all the things that I was doing.
You know, there were just a lot of different things that I think at face value could have made it very difficult for me to be close with her. But there was something about her that she was able to find ways to hack that system and find a way to connect with me.
DACHER KELTNER Well Daniel, you know, first of all I want to congratulate you on all your successes. Thanks for We Bear Bears. It’s a really powerful piece of art.
DANIEL CHONG Thank you. Thanks so much.
DACHER KELTNER And thanks for being on our show. Feeling a deep sense of connection and support from people in our lives has countless benefits. It’s associated with better mental health, less anxiety, better physical health and longevity. Omri Gillath, a psychology professor at The University of Kansas, wanted to see if feeling this sense of security and connection would also make people more likely to help others.
So he did an experiment. He got 90 people in the U.S. and 90 in Israel to write three lists. The first was a list of people who they were really close to and could always to turn to for support, the second was a list of the names of family and friends, people you may be close to but not necessarily feel a deep connection with. The third list was just acquaintances.
Then they were broken up into three groups. All the groups did a series of tasks on a computer, like seeing a picture of a sofa and a chair and a lamp and choosing which one doesn’t fit.
But all the while, people’s names from one of their lists were also quickly flashing on the screen, in milliseconds, unnoticed. For one group, it was the names of the people they were closest to, the second group saw the names of people they were kind of close to, and the third group saw names of acquaintances. Then, they all viewed a video of a woman doing very scary tasks in a different room.
OMRI GILLATH Like Fear Factor, right? So you need to look at gory pictures or you need to you know hold the eyes of a dead sheep or you need to put your hand in icy water, a bucket with icy water. And at some point she’s going to be freaking out and saying, I can’t do it anymore.
And after we say, okay, you know what. We cannot complete the study with her because she’s not willing to go on. Would you be willing to take her place and help us and help her out with that? And there are a bunch of other tasks you will have to do. You know one of them is to put your hand in this aquarium and let cockroaches crawl in your hand. Another one is to put your hand in it in this black sack which you don’t know what’s in there.
So what we find is that, if they were exposed to names of people who are providing them attachment security, they were much more likely to say yes, I would get out there and help her and to feel empathy toward her and so on, as opposed to someone who just saw the names of you know their acquaintance, or a close other who is not providing this sense of security.
What our studies show is that if we can make people believe both in themselves of being worthy of love and in others, that will be there for them, that can change dramatically how they behave in relationships, and more broadly in society.
So it we want to make people more trusting and more helpful and more prosocial and altruistic, a way to do it is by you know increasing the love. It is by making them see all the relationships that they have or they can have, and all the support that they can get. And so this sense of security is a very powerful method that can have many positive benefits in people’s lives.
DACHER KELTNER If you’d like to try the ‘Feeling Connected’ practice, or other practices to help you feel closer to the people in your life, visit our greater good in action website at ggia.berkeley.edu.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me on the Science of Happiness. We’ve moved to a biweekly schedule and look forward to sharing all new episodes with you in two weeks, and every two weeks after that, without interruption.
Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRI/PRX, with production assistance from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our producer is Shuka Kalantari, 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.
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. And shoot us an email, tell us what you think about what you heard. Send it to greater at berkeley dot edu.