Barfing rainbows & power of positive thinking.

Science Careers published a story this week about a study of 200 postdocs that concluded that postdocs who think positive thoughts handle stress better.

The study in question: Relationship Among Positive Emotions, Coping, Resilience and Mental Health. 2014. Gloria CT, Steinhardt MA. Stress and Health. DOI: 10.1002/smi.2589

I kind of made fun of it when I read the article and sent out a tweet about it:

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@SciTriGrrl made me aware of @doc_becca’s post on it, which explains better what I was going for in my tweet. Postivity is one of those things I just can’t stand a lot of times; it rings very false to me.

I had a discussions about it on Twitter with several people, including Jim Austin, the editor of Science Careers. I also took the time to go look at the study; I’m not  a social scientist and so am not really qualified to review their data/results in any detail (the figures kind of enraged and confused me though). So if anyone qualified wants to enlighten me as to how to read these results, feel free.

I’ll give the authors credit in a few places:

1. This is a study of a postdoc population which is not very common and in the introduction, they do seem to understand the problems postdocs face and that it’s a good population to study stressful/depressive/anxious responses in. I hope for more (and hopefully Science Careers will doa  better job writing them up; I think the headline really was what rubbed me the wrong way earlier today).

2. The conclusions are nothing revolutionary or Earth shattering: having positive coping strategies is probably a better way to live/deal with life. And that’s what they conclude. So good job confirming past research. Being resilient is a good trait to have. Positive coping strategies: planning, exercise/hobbies, family/friends/support, these are all good things.

3. They gave out prizes for postdocs who filled out the survey: $5 Starbucks gift cards and “inspirational quote cards” (this detail just made me laugh- sorry to bury the lead).

Now, here’s the thing. I was a highly depressed postdoc. I still have vestiges of it. More often than I like to admit, I mutter to myself something like “just kill yourself” or “You’re worth nothing” or “I hate my life”. I can dismiss this more now, but I don’t think well-adjusted humans content in their lives say stuff like that to themselves on a regular basis.

And while I think building resilience is a good thing, the Science Careers piece read more as “Just think happy thoughts and everything will be fine, or at least you’ll be good at dealing with it”! I don’t buy that. And the other thing is that I was that messages to ‘think positive’ and ‘be resilient’ aren’t messages that are helpful with a depressed person. I know because friends and therapists tried giving me that message and it always rang false; all positivity did was make me feel worse, especially the false positivity peddled by things like ‘The Secret’, etc.

I had to find a different way of thinking, a more positive way, but it took YEARS to find them. It wasn’t a simple switch. And look, all the planning and positive coping strategies in the world aren’t helpful in the current job environment, the level of uncertainty alone is higher than it’s ever been. I’m not sure how to plan into it.

Positive thinking (or at least not outright depressive/negative all the time) is necessary for success in science, I think, but not sufficient in a lot of ways (maybe you’ll have a better life, which I guess is good too).

So what is it that ended up helping me? (self-help is often said to not work; I don’t fully agree- yes, there’s a lot of garbage out there, but part of it is finding the quality stuff from a voice that resonates with you):

1. The Nerdist Way– A book by Chris Hardwick (Nerdist podcast host) was one of the early books that started to turn my mind around. And podcasts of many types also have helped me a lot to realize I’m not alone, but also help me laugh and sometimes cry at other people’s stories.

2. Lifehacker.com– a website I read to this day. So much good stuff like this today on going to graduate school (seems solid to me; probably too late for me to make much use of :-/). Easy to go overboard and overdose, so be mindful, but it’s a fantastic resource.

3. itstartswith.com– Sarah’s an entrepreneur, trying to figure out how best to get things done; her voice really worked for me. Yes, she’s very positive/upbeat and all about positive thinking, but is also well grounded.

4. Twitter & starting my blog: I had nothing else in life, so I decided to start a blog. About depression and the fight against my own brain. It’s been a good journey and is actually providing me with some opportunities I am truly grateful for (thanks for reading anything I’ve written!). And twitter is an amazing networking tool.

5. Quiet- by Susan Cain. This book helped me identify my nature better than any other…I’m an introvert and that’s OK (as opposed to how I thought of it before- there was something truly, fundamentally wrong with me).

6. Brene Brown. This was another one where I had to say ‘really’? But then I saw her TED talk, it dove tailed well with research I’d been hearing about from Carol Dweck about Growth Mindset and Kristen Neff on self-compassion. ‘Wholeheartedness’ (I do kind of barf at this term; but it does have real meaning) is not easy, it’s hard work, but it’s also a better way to live in my mind.

7. And more. Go find things that work for you if you’re depressed. But also do things that challenge you regularly, talk to people out in the world. Listen, then see if you can assist. Growth mindset, exercise, meditation, compete (but celebrate other’s successes when they have them), and get out of the comfort zone/capacity zone more (I wish I did this better than I do).

There is a way to do positivity that works well and it’s much better than being an isolated negative person (which I was; and still can be at times, which I still find tragic…).

Go read other posts in my blog if you want to know more: this is what I write about a lot. Not positivity per se (‘Winter is coming’ is an apt way to put how I feel a lot of the time), but how to be productive in the face of uncertainties of the academic (postdoc) life. If I were better at networking, I’d gather other postdoc’s stories here too. Better we postdocs try to figure our way out together as opposed to tearing each other down. I don’t have all the answers, but I hope my writing helps a few people out there.

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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.

2 thoughts on “Barfing rainbows & power of positive thinking.”

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