Berkeley Talks transcript: Comedian Maz Jobrani on noticing the good in his life

Maz Jobrani: The first TV role I got in Hollywood, there was a show called Chicago Hope , and I actually auditioned to play a security guard in a hospital. And there’s a disease going around. And so the doctors want me to lock the doors of the hospital so nobody can get in. And I had this really good scene with Hector Elizondo where I tell him as a security guard that even though he’s the main doctor or whatever of the hospital, I’m not going to lock the doors and keep people out of the hospital. And then they also had quick little establishing shots of me ending up locking the door and I got this part just before my 10-year high school reunion. So when I went to my high school reunion people said, “Hey what have you been up to?” I said “Well listen, I’m working in an office, but I’m also starting to pursue my dream. And I just got this part on a TV show. And if you give me your email address, I’ll let you know when it’s out, you can watch it.”

When the show was getting ready to air I sent out this mass email going, “Watch for me Thursday night.” The bad news is, that when the episode ran they kept the little snippets of me locking the hospital doors without saying any words. And they cut the real scene. And so it seemed like to everyone else that I told about my great acting debut that I was one of these delusional background actors. So people started calling me the next day going, “Dude, I watched the show. The way you locked that door was amazing. Listen, I have a Christmas party coming up. Maybe you can be the security guard at the Christmas party?” So that was my debut into acting.

Dacher Keltner: His debut into acting might have been a bit of an embarrassment, but today Maz Jobrani is an actor, comedian and the star of his own Netflix comedy special called, Immigrant.

On every episode of our show, we have a Happiness Guinea Pig try a research-based practice designed to boost happiness, resilience, compassion or connection. We’re delighted to have Maz on the show as our Happiness Guinea Pig. Maz, thanks so much for joining us today.

Maz Jobrani: Thank you for having me.

Dacher Keltner: So you’re an actor and a comedian — what made you get into comedy? Did you a have a favorite comedian growing up?

Maz Jobrani: When I was around 10 or so I think I discovered Eddie Murphy and I wanted to be like Eddie Murphy. But growing up in an immigrant family, my parents wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor, maybe an engineer.

I think when I decided to be a comedian, the whole community was sad for the family. They were like, “Did you hear about Jobrani’s son? Yeah. It’s a shame. He’s almost a drug dealer.”

Dacher Keltner: [laughter] So what do your parents think about this crazy son of theirs?

Maz Jobrani: You know, my parents came around. I think I became very well known in the Persian community pretty fast because there weren’t any other stand-ups of Iranian descent doing stand-up. So as my friend likes to say he goes, “You’re like the Persian Elvis, otherwise known as Pelvis.” And so my mom, I think, saw that, that like the community was kind of embracing me and I think that kind of put her at ease.

Dacher Keltner: I know you have a couple of kids and I loved one of your routines about naming your son. You know, how you were going to name him so that you would kind of avoid the perils of discrimination.

[ Sound clip: Excerpt from a stand-up routine by Jobrani: We’ve got an Iranian-Indian kid in America. How cool is that, right? The key is you gotta give him a good name so that he doesn’t get into trouble in America. And that’s what we did, we gave him a good name, we named him Mujaba Mohammed Abdullah Rahim Osama bin Laden Jobrani. Because I need the material, you know what I’m sayin? It’s like, “Son, how was your day at school? You were deported? Fantastic! I’ll work that into my act.”]

Dacher Keltner: What do you tell your kids about their ethnic identity in a time like today?

Maz Jobrani: It’s really hard, and I don’t think we should hide anything from them. They would hear the news, and they would hear what’s going on and as a matter of fact when Trump won my girl, who at the time was six years old, she said, “Daddy, am I going to be deported?” I said, “No, baby. Where’d you hear that?” And she thought that, you know, Trump wants to deport all brown people, basically. So I’m Iranian, and my wife is Indian. And they look ethnic. They’re, you know, they actually look more Indian they did do Iranian. But I look around, they have a lot of friends that are biracial friends and that gives me hope for the future.

Dacher Keltner: Tell me about it. When I teach human happiness theory at UC Berkeley I have a whole section on satire and comedy and laughter, and dating back to Jonathan Swift, how profoundly important those forms of commentary and experience and perspective that we get out of levity in the absurd. What are you really after in getting Americans to think about the immigrant experience? What’s most essential?

Maz Jobrani: The reason I called my recent special Immigrant was because “immigrant” under Trump had turned into a bad word. It was a derogatory term. And really, people that grasped onto that xenophobia, it broke my heart because I look around — first of all, I’m an immigrant. And then I look around and I know a lot of really good people that are immigrants, and then I’m looking at people like the Syrian refugees who are trying to come to America and flee hardship or the people come from Central America and I go, ‘These people are leaving a really bad situation. No one’s in a great situation going, “Oh we know the economy is great there’s no violence in our country — let’s go somewhere where we don’t speak the language and we’re not wanted and see how it will go.”’ No.

Dacher Keltner: That’s so true, Maz. You know, what really strikes me about the immigrants who I am friends with and who I work with is not only their perseverance, but their ability to stay focused on the brighter side of human nature in spite of the rise of white supremacy and xenophobia in our country today. You know, each week we ask our guest to try out an activity to boost happiness and you chose practice that focused on positivity — writing about three good things.

Maz Jobrani: Yes. It’s very simple. Just end of the day, you sit down and you write for 10 minutes three good things that happen that day and they could be as trivial as, “I had my favorite coffee,” to as big as saying, “I won the lottery.” It could run the gamut.

You write the title of one of the good things and then you write about that good thing and you talk about why it was a good thing, how it made you feel then, how it makes you feel now at the end of the night, and you just elaborate on it. And then once you’re done with that one, you go to the second one and then the third one. And you don’t have to worry about spelling, you’re not going to be corrected. There’s no T.A.s coming to check your paper. It’s just to think about the good things that happened that day.

Dacher Keltner: So tell us what you did.

Maz Jobrani: Well, you know, so I happened to get the assignment when I was in Japan with my family on vacation. And it’s the first time I went to Japan. And it was amazing and everything. I’m constantly going out during the day and being impressed by whatever I’m seeing. I told my kids and wife, I said, “Listen, there’s this thing I’m doing, do you guys wanna do it?” They said, “Sure!” So I would set my timer on my phone, 10 minutes, and we just started writing three good things. And then afterwards we decide we’re going to read it to each other, so we would read them to each other. And it was actually very nice because it kind of was a way to share your appreciation. Because a lot of the times the thing that you enjoyed, since we were on this vacation together, included them. You know, so, “Whatever we’re doing I did this this this is it was great because we all did it together blah blah blah.” So it was nice to hear that, it’s almost like it’s assumed that we love each other, but you don’t take the time to elaborate on the specific reason or thing that you did that made you feel the way it did that day.

So it was nice. It’s a diary entry, basically, but as opposed to telling your diary, “I broke up with my girlfriend or whatever.” You know, this is just, “Stay positive. Here are three good positive things.” And what it would make you do is then the next day I would tell the kids, “Guys, don’t forget we’ve gotta find three positive things.” So it makes you look for positive things throughout your day.

Dacher Keltner: What were some of the things that you wrote about?

Maz Jobrani: In Kyoto we went to see this, what’s called the Bamboo Forest, which is this amazing magical forest of just bamboo trees and it’s just heavenly. I lost my sister to breast cancer in 2017. But it was an interesting thing because being at this bamboo forest really kind of made me feel closer to her. So I’ll just read this quickly for you. “Bamboo Forest — I’m not religious but I believe in nature. When we got there I was truly moved and overwhelmed at its beauty. It also made for some great pictures.” It really does. If you go there you take selfies with the bamboo trees in the back. It’s amazing. “It made me think of my sister whom I miss a lot but it made me feel closer to her. It was just a very peaceful place. And it was especially nice to experience it with my family. It was very cool in the evening, but a nice cool. I kept saying it felt like one of the wonders of the world.” That’s mine.

Dacher Keltner: Thanks so much for sharing, Maz. That really captures the essence of the three good things practice — reflecting on why the visit to the Bamboo Forest in Japan was good and just enjoying the benefits and insights that produces. You did this practice with your family — what were their good things?

Maz Jobrani: So my son is 10 years old, this is my son’s. And it’s funny because for them a lot of this stuff was food-related. First of all, he called it, “OJ.” Then he writes, “O o h h h h h. That OJ was so good! It tasted like it had a lot more stuff in it than oranges! Anyways, the combination was like dream juice to me.” [laughter] So that’s his. He had dream juice and then my daughter.

Dacher Keltner: How old is she?

Maz Jobrani: She will be 8 soon, so she was 7 at the time of the writing of this, she decided to get creative with it. She would write a little bit and then she would draw a picture that related to it and then she did a poem about it. So hers, sticking to the food motif, hers is called, “The Pudding.”

Jobrani’s daughter [reading]: “Pudding, pudding so delicious. Pudding, pudding, but not nutritious. Pudding, pudding, feels good in your belly. It wants to make me hug Auntie Kelly.”

Maz Jobrani: That’s her poem.

Dacher Keltner: Aww, that’s amazing. Did you notice that it changed any of the family dynamics on the trip or after? Or did it sort of stay in the DNA of your family?

Maz Jobrani: I think it helped. Definitely I think it also helped my wife because my wife, when we were on the trip, she was the driving force of the places we went and where we would eat and there was a lot of really nice places to eat and anyone who has kids knows when you go to a nice place to eat with kids, they have a hard time sitting still and they can drive you nuts. So there was many moments where my wife would orchestrated this beautiful dinner would get frustrated seeing the kids, you know, whatever stick their finger in the beautiful dish, or whatever it was. She wrote things about appreciating this trip and being with the family and loving the fact that her kids are experiencing these things. So I think it really helped focus her into that positive place.

It helped me individually just keep my eye out for all the positive things. I mean we were all experiencing the positive things when we were all commenting on the positive things. But when you make it a focus and say, “I need to, almost as an assignment, I got to think about or write about three positive things tonight,” then it makes you hone in even more. And I think it makes you appreciate what you’re doing even more.

Dacher Keltner: Yeah, I mean, that’s one of the things they find in the science is it just, you know, just the simple act of every night writing a few good things. It just sharpens your lense on to what’s good in life as you move through the day.

Maz Jobrani: It makes you also think about, it makes you reflect upon even something as simple as like, one of my favorite coffee places is down here in L.A. It’s called Kings Road and I love the coffee and so when I got back that first day I was zonked from the jet lag but I went in and got my coffee from there and I just wrote in that night as you know just having my coffee and a little bit of time to just read the news and stuff was, was a great thing.

Dacher Keltner: What were some of the challenges of writing down three good things every night?

Maz Jobrani: The only difficulty for me became, because I was trying to do it every night. And then there were some nights where we were just tired from being out in the streets running around or the other one was we flew all the way back to L.A. and we were super jet lagged. And then I had a busy schedule and I kind of fell off doing some of the days and I would still think about like, “Oh yeah, there was a good thing, there was that good thing,” but I wouldn’t sit down and write it so that — I guess my laziness came in a little bit and time management. And then the other thing that was interesting was I realized I’m not used to writing with a pen anymore. [laughter] So there was times where I’d be writing I’d be like, “Oh my God my … ”

Dacher Keltner: What’s that say?

Maz Jobrani: Yeah, my hands are getting tired and I can’t even read my own handwriting. You know, so there was there was some of that stuff that I ran into but overall it really is a good way, if you can continue to do it. It’s kind of like jogging, I guess, it’ll be good for you in the long run.

Dacher Keltner: Well, Maz Jobrani, I wanted to thank you for your humor and your wisdom and for being on the Science of Happiness .

Maz Jobrani: Thank you. This felt really good being a guinea pig. I highly advise it to other people: be guinea pigs. It’s fun.

Dacher Keltner: There we go.

When we first launched the Science of Happiness over a year ago, our very first happiness guinea pig also did the three good things practice. I remember one of her three good things was throwing pebbles into the San Francisco Bay with her toddler.

[Sound clip: Excerpt from Science of Happiness, e pisode 1: Let’s get a handful of rocks. Now let’s throw them in the water. Ready? [splash] good job! [baby coos]

Dacher Keltner: Since then I’ve spoken with authors, teachers, MDs, actors, high school students and former felons — people who have explored different science based practices to foster empathy, kindness, and connection in their own lives.

Three good things is one of my own favorite happiness exercises because it’s so simple. You can do it in the morning, at night, when you’re enjoying a meal with your family and even when you’re going through hard times. It gives you a chance to pay closer attention to the positive things in your life, in the moment and then later on.

And it also enables you to reflect on why those good things are happening — which often points you to the positive forces in your life. Nansook Park is a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. She has been studying the benefits behind writing down three good things every day for quite some time. In one study, she had participants write about their early memories every night for one week. And in another condition, Park assigned another group of participants to write about three good things every night for one week. And for each good thing, they always had to explain why they thought that good thing had happened.

Nansoon Park: What we found from our study was that writing about three good things that happen each day and why they happen made people happier and less depressed, even six months later. Compared to these finding for the control group, there was no lasting effect.

I think the three good things exercise helps us to build the psychological resources that can be useful for especially challenging days.

So it increases positive feelings, hope, optimism and vitality. Most of all, writing about good things in our life can help us to have a better perspective on life. This exercise is not about ignoring or avoiding our problems, but rather giving us more balanced perspective on life. On days when we feel down and feel like nothing is going right, we are reminded that things are not as bad as we might think. Even in the worst days, there are good things in our life if we pay attention to those. So it helps us to build or restore hope and energy to go on. This exercise also helps people sleep better. It is a better way to end the day with a positive note. I mean, you do not have to go to bed with problems, your problems will be waiting for you when you wake up next morning whether you like it or not. But you can face them with a renewed energy. Also, people told us that after they started this exercise they tend to create more positive things in their daily life. Simply knowing that they are going to write about three good things at the end of the day somehow encourage them to do good things more during the day.

So I think that when we are reminded of the good things in our life, it helps us to feel the love around us and regain or sustain hope about life and humanity.

Dacher Keltner: If you’d like to try the Three Good Things practice, or want to check out others like it, visit our website at .

I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me on the Science of Happiness.

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 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, . And shoot us an email, tell us what you think about what you heard. Send it to