Contagious.

A dark mood gathering.
A dark mood gathering.

I ran across the idea of the Framingham, MA long term population study where scientists found that social connections could determine the likelihood of obesity in a population. Just being socially connected, you are apparently more at risk of gaining weight because a close social connection gains weight. This is apparently true of other things as well; including good things like exercise habits. Though I haven’t read it (yet), this comes from Kelly McGonigal’s book, ‘The Willpower Instinct’.

I was thinking about it in terms of depression and anxiety amongst postdocs and Ph.D.’s, where both of those things seem more prevalent than the general populace. Some of it is that the current reality of Ph.D.’s and postdocs is not the sunniest picture, though I realize we’re in a better position than most- we’re smart, after all, and if career advisors are to be believed, qualified for many potential career paths.

Getting hooked up with those career paths is another story of course, a black box that I’m trying to figure out as I really don’t think the straight academic path is for me any more; I can’t swear it off completely yet, but it just seems like it’s not where I want to be the more I think about it. Part of the problem is hitting upon a new path that I could be enthusiastic about- as enthusiasm is one of the things that shines through when you’re writing to someone at a place you might like to work (as opposed to just needing a job).

Being reminded of ‘social epidemics’ made me think that perhaps we could be spreading negative moods to each other in our social circles- and we do talk to one another a lot (even if it’s just locally). In thinking about my interactions with colleagues, I can’t say that I’ve always been overwhelmingly positive; it’s always being worried about career (never good news on that front it seems), or getting negative results, worrying about competitors, dealing with lab politics (luckily not too bad where I am), and other stresses that come with life in the lab.

During the worst of my depression, I hope I didn’t spread it to anyone else; I certainly tried not to, but I can’t help but wonder just how much the moods/temperaments of others affected me and I them- one reason I isolated myself so much was just that, not wanting to spread my mood to anyone else.

I know I’ve written quite a bit about social research in order to figure out how to rewire my brain to become less isolationist, more interactive, positive, risk-taking, pro-social, engaged, and getting to a place where I can dare greatly.

Basically getting to a place where I show up in the world as opposed to feeling invisible, as I do all too often. It has gotten a lot better this year, at least. I’m taking the slow steps to Ian3.0. That’s a large part of why I write here; to get my voice out into the world in some small way, and to learn what I think. 

These ‘social epidemics’ are undoubtedly complex and never the full story, but something I am becoming more aware of is just how I interact with the world and I am a lot more careful to put constructive things out rather than things that tear people down (even thinking hard about exactly how I am speaking to people and how I can do that better in the future).

I don’t think anyone who’s depressed intends to put negative vibes out into the world, but that can be the result. The frustrating thing is it’s not something you can ‘just snap out of’. It’s taken me at least two years to really feel like it’s a diminished presence in my life, but it’s still there. I can feel it kind of waiting in the wings waiting to pounce in a weak or isolated moment.

The good news is that individuals can help themselves and indeed, friends, family, colleagues, the internet (seeking out positive voices that resonate really helped a lot), therapists and anti-depressants have all played a role. That’s the upside of connection; good things can spread too. Even in a community like Ph.D.’s and postdocs that doesn’t see a lot of good news on our radar screens in terms of career advancement, continued funding, career alternatives, etc.

I’m sure most people are decent, but it doesn’t hurt to be mindful of how we’re interacting with the world and each other. To use the words of a movie from my childhood: ‘Be excellent to each other’.

Ever on and on.

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Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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