Berkeley Talks: Thirty-six questions to help us connect when we’re apart

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graphic of a dad and daughter talking over FaceTime on their smartphones

A daughter and her 82-year-old dad with stage 4 lung cancer connect from afar using 36 questions on an episode of the Science of Happiness, a podcast by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. (Artwork by Whitney Anderson)

For the first week of quarantine during the global COVID-19 pandemic, Rebecca Vitali-DeCola’s 82-year-old dad, Joe DeCola, seemed upbeat.

“He was like, ‘I got my dinner and I have this beautiful bouquet of flowers.’ He just sounded, like, tucked-in and content.”

DeCola has stage 4 lung cancer. He’s become accustomed to isolating himself from time to time, especially during flu season. But after a few months sheltering in place this time around, his daughter said it started to get harder for him. “…He said, ‘I’m feeling so lonely. I’m just really, really lonely.’”

That’s why Vitali-DeCola, a teacher who has been staying at home with her husband and son in Brooklyn, while her dad is all by himself in Manhattan, decided to do a happiness practice by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center called “36 Questions for Increasing Closeness.” She recently joined host Dacher Keltner on the Science of Happiness podcast to discuss her experience.

“Some of the questions spoke to things that we have spent a lot of time recently talking about and being immersed in because my father got the stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis, like, two weeks before my wedding five years ago,” Vitali-DeCola told Keltner, a psychology professor at Berkeley and co-director of the Greater Good Science Center. “We all thought he was gonna die. So, we started addressing life and mortality. And, you know, our relationship really changed at that time.”

During their discussion, Vitali-DeCola said a theme in her father’s answers emerged that helped her understand him and how he’s feeling on a deeper level.

“…I heard my father sort of say over and over again, like, ‘I wake up every morning and I think, “I can’t believe I’m still here. And I could die tonight. And I can’t believe I didn’t die last night.”‘ And that was really special. It just kept kind of surfacing, that theme, you know? He’s gotten so gooey and so sweet in his old age. I don’t know, I just feel like I’ve had all these different lives with him. And it’s all very lucky to really spend time kind of swimming around in this current life and really listening to him talk about his worldview, which I’m learning a lot from, you know? He’s going out really well.”

Listen to the full interview on Berkeley Talks episode #82: “Thirty-six questions to help us connect when we’re apart.”

Listen to more episodes of the Science of Happiness.