A friend recently shared an episode of the 10% Happier podcast with me, in which the podcast host, Dan Harris, interviews Johann Hari about his new book, Lost Connections. When listening to it, I kept being struck by the connections to academia. One of the first connections occurs right at the beginning, when he notes that, when it comes to understanding the reasons for the rise in mental health conditions, we need to focus not just on chemical imbalances but also power imbalances. Indeed!
But the main thing I wanted to focus on in this blog post is about another part of the podcast, where Hari talks about how our society is set up in a way that is basically like ego itching powder—we are constantly encouraged to think about ourselves and whether we’re getting ahead and getting enough attention and stuff. About 25 minutes into the episode, Hari talks about:
go[ing] through the day in this ego-itching-powder mode, which the environment sets us up to do, which is: your gain is my loss, we’re in a race for scarce resources and it’s like we’re rushing out of a burning building and I’ve got to clamber over you, I’ve got to fight for every moment of what I get, and if you get ahead of me that places me in danger.
He’s talking about society in general but, of course, this applies to academia, too—academia definitely pours ego itching powder on us regularly.
Hari also talks about research that was done asking whether people can set out to make themselves happier if they try. (This is about 30 minutes into the episode.) The answer is: not if they live in the US, but yes in several other countries where this has been studied. The reason for the difference is that, in the US, we try to make ourselves happier by doing something for ourselves—maybe we buy ourselves a new pair of shoes or some chocolate or something like that—or worse, as the podcast host Dan Harris suggested: we try to crush our enemies at work. Hari compares this to trying to get your legs out of quicksand by reaching your arms and trying to grab your legs—it just makes things worse.
In contrast, in the other countries that were studied (Russia, Japan, and Taiwan), people were able to make themselves happier. That’s because in those countries, people try to make themselves happier by doing something for someone else—a friend, a family member, their community. Doing things for other people ends up making you feel happier.
Right after listening to this, I had a day where someone seagulled something research-related that I had worked on for years and was proud of—he swooped in, shit all over it, and then flew off to leave me to deal with the mess.* It made me feel bad for the rest of the day. I slept terribly, and I still felt bad the next day.
It turns out, though, that my schedule that day was filled with projects related to graduate student mental health. I was working on two different but related projects that are aimed at better supporting graduate student mental health. I spent the day working hard on them, and, at the end of the day, realized I was feeling good and hadn’t devoted any mental energy to Mr. Seagull since I had started working on the mental health projects. It doesn’t mean that what he did was okay—it wasn’t—but it was interesting to me how little it was bothering me after I’d focused on these other projects.
As I’ve been reflecting on this, I’ve been thinking about Brian’s old post on whether deans are making the same error as hen breeders. We have largely set up a culture in academia where we not only pour ego itching powder all over everyone all the time, but we also often inadvertently select against working collaboratively and trying to boost each other.
I know that I am incredibly fortunate to be in a position where I have a lot of flexibility in terms of what I work on—where I have the flexibility to choose to devote a substantial amount of time to working on projects such as the ones on student mental health. But I think this general idea can apply differently to different people at different career stages.
A year or so ago, I was on a panel with a graduate student, Leslie Decker, who said she wished someone had told her right at the start of grad school that others’ success would not prevent her own. She noted that success is not finite, and the ability of those around you to succeed does not detract from your own progress. She suggested that we should take heart in that fact and support one another.
* For the birders, yes, I am aware that “seagull” is not a technical term and that some of you will argue with this characterization of gulls. For folks in Britain who are aware of another meaning of the term “seagull”, yes, I am aware of it, too. I do not care about either of these objections to the term.