July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
SHAILI JAIN So in 2007, my parents were visiting from England. And I was at that time in private practice in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was a psychiatrist there. And we took a road trip, celebrate my dad’s 70th birthday. And then one morning, early, we were leaving New York and heading back to the Midwest towards home. And on this journey, he started telling me a story about his life in India growing up as a young boy.
SHAILI JAIN So essentially what happened in 1947 was as the British were getting ready to quit India after hundreds of years of colonial rule, they made the decision to to split British India into India and Pakistan. And their plan unfortunately was really negligently orchestrated, really haphazardly executed. Millions and millions of people were murdered. Millions were forced to flee. And in that violence, my paternal grandfather was murdered and my dad was 10 at the time. So as a result of his murder, it really threw the destiny of my family to the winds.
SHAILI JAIN And, you know, truth be told, the nuts and bolts of the story I knew. You know, I knew my dad was orphaned in the violence that accompanied partition in 1947. I knew he was a refugee. I knew he had spent a couple years financially destitute as a child laborer. What was different about this narration was that, he kind of told me the full story. He talked about his parents, his siblings, people who I’d never really gotten a chance to know. As a kid, when I used to hear about this story, his narration was really different. You know, often in trauma survivors, the narration was really kind of chaotic, can pop out in these really strange moments, and often accompanied by his anger or his bitterness or his resentment. But by this time, he was older. The narration was really smooth. And what really hit home to me is that he was the sole surviving member of his family of origin by this point. And what I recognized was that while he was giving his testimony, you know, a very intentional narration where the person who’s narrating wants to leave something with the listener. And that, I couldn’t shake that, you know. And I felt like there was something really important in story. And if I didn’t pause and recognize the importance of it, my journey forward would probably be futile. I think he was at that point where he was a lot more peace and kind of ready to tell this story. And I think I was ready to listen.
SERENA CHEN I’m Serena Chen, a psychology professor and director of the Self Identity and Relationships Lab at UC Berkeley. I’m filling in for my dear colleague and friend Dacher this week. Joining me today is Shaili Jain. She’s a psychiatrist working with veterans and other survivors of trauma. Her recent book, ‘The Unspeakable Mind,” explores the frontlines of trauma and PTSD. When we asked Shaili to try one of the positive practices on our Greater Good in Action website, she chose an exercise that helps us reduce stress by identifying what we value in life — and why. And she’s here today to tell us how it went. Shaili, thanks so much for joining us on the Science of Happiness.
SHAILI JAIN Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
SERENA CHEN In your book, The Unspeakable Mind, you explain the significance of that road trip we just heard about, where your father told you about becoming an orphan and refugee as a kid. You wrote it was really a springboard to your extensive research on PTSD. What happened after that road trip?
SHAILI JAIN So, after the road trip, my parents went home to England. I went back to my private practice. But I really couldn’t shake this story. And I started to become quite obsessed with trauma and PTSD. Obviously, I was a psychiatrist, so I missed something about PTSD. But I kind of felt this really strong desire to know more and more about it, because there was this feeling that, you know, all along I had kind of been from these people who had been traumatized. But because I was born and raised in England, and I was separated in time and space from that event, I just think it took this time for me to recognize that, oh, these are my people, and I have these skills, I have this platform, I have this knowledge. What am I going to do with it? What am I going to do with the rest of my career? And so that really marked this, what at that time was a massive decision for me, which was to leave private practice.
SERENA CHEN Right, wow.
SHAILI JAIN And go back, take a voluntary demotion, and become a trainee again, and learn how to do science, and learn how to be a PTSD specialist, and a trauma scientist. And it was quite a move. Yeah. And eventually that led to this book.
SERENA CHEN What does your dad think about the book and his role? Does he grasp the role that he plays?
SHAILI JAIN Yeah, I mean, you know, when you have a father who has that kind of history and who is by definition a survivor, he’s quite a demanding father. And I feel like when he knew I was writing the book, and luckily he got a chance to read it all before it was even published, I think he and I kind of came finally to this understanding that I had done everything I could possibly do. I’d made the most out of the opportunity he had worked hard to give me and that we’d kind of come full circle in a way, I think, as father and daughter. So that was a really gratifying parallel journey to go through with him.
SERENA CHEN Yeah, amazing. Let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about the practice that you chose, which was the Affirming Important Values Practice. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about the practice? Walk us through it.
SHAILI JAIN Sure. Absolutely. So the instructions were that, you know, when your self-image takes a hit to reflect on what matters. And so it was like a 15 minute exercise. And the instructions were to practice it whenever you feel defensive or threatened. And essentially, there was this list of different values. And the instruction was to rank them in order of importance from one to six. And the values were: business, art/music/theater, social life/relationships, science/pursuit of knowledge, religion/morality, and then government/politics. And so you had to rank them and then write a brief account of why you chose your number one value and its importance to you. And then talk about a time when it played an important role in your life.
SERENA CHEN And so what drew you to this particular practice?
SHAILI JAIN It caught my eye out of the options available because I think in the last decade since I made that decision to leave private practice and pursue an academic career, I think I had informally been doing this because I was such a tough decision and caused such turmoil in my life that I found myself informally needing to remind myself on an almost a daily basis why I was doing what I was doing. So I was really curious what a formal practice or an exercise would look like.
SERENA CHEN Yeah, OK. So you had to rank order these six sort of really big values that a lot of people talk about and think about. What was your number one ranked value? And let’s hear a little bit about why.
SHAILI JAIN So I picked science/pursuit of knowledge.
SERENA CHEN Maybe not shocking, given your life story here!
SHAILI JAIN And I picked it because I think it’s always been important in my life.
You know, like at some point in your life, when you decide you want to go to medical school and being a doctor, like, you know, I made that decision really early, age 14, I think. And then the whole next 20 years is about achieving this goal and acquiring this knowledge. And I think it must have been important to me, even though I maybe wasn’t consciously aware of it, because otherwise how would I have got through all that requirement of focus and dedication, and this delaying of gratification? So I think it must have been important to me all my life. But definitely in this last decade, I think this value has really defined and shaped my life in a way that turned out to be really important and meaningful and fulfilling. But my commitment to this value caused a lot of discomfort and distress. So it’s a really mixed journey this last decade, but it was still important to affirm that that was why I was doing what I was doing.
SERENA CHEN Discomfort and distress because of the sacrifices it required?
SHAILI JAIN Yeah. And not knowing if that was the right decision. I was not naive. Women don’t do as well in academic medicine as their male counterparts. I mean, there’s a very well-documented gender gap. There’s whole reports written on this. And I knew that going into it. And I think there’s a lot of intrinsic barriers as extrinsic barriers. But I didn’t think the odds were in my favor, you know. And so why am I making the sacrifices, when I might have nothing to show for it? But again, I think reaffirming why I was doing it and especially this connection to my family story, this connection to who I am, that this was kind of beyond me. It transcended me in my journey and it was really, really important. Yeah, that’s kind of what steadied me, I think.
SERENA CHEN Neat. In addition to science and pursuit of knowledge, you rank social life and relationships pretty highly as well as number two, and your number two ranked value. Why?
SHAILI JAIN Yeah. So obviously, I mean, this is where the exercise, if I could say that it had a limitation, was that I think there’s a lot of correlation. I mean, relationships and pursuit of knowledge and science, they could almost be one. I mean, I had to rank it for the purpose of the exercise. But especially the line of work I’m in, as a behavioral scientist, as a clinician, they go hand in hand. Even if you look at the way we pursue knowledge, we do it as teams. You know, they’re multidisciplinary teams. The relationships are integral to that. They’re integral to the quality of what you produce. You know, it’s all related.
SERENA CHEN There were four other values that you ranked. Can you tell our listeners about how you rank them and maybe why in that order, and why maybe the last one got put in the last place?
SHAILI JAIN So I ranked number three was religion/morality. Number four was government/politics. Number five was art/music/theater. And number six was business. So maybe business is the easiest one. Poor business, just got dumped at the end! Just because that I think out of all those areas, that’s probably the one that least applies to my life. You know what I mean? I’m not, in my mind, business is about finance and, you know—
SERENA CHEN Making money.
SHAILI JAIN Yeah. Right. Which just just seems probably the most removed. But at the same time, I got to say, my only conflict I had with leaving poor business at the end is that financial security is really important to me. And I think now, again, given that I’m an immigrant and I’m the daughter of immigrants and my dad was a refugee, there’s a very reason important reason why financial security is really important. So I don’t mean to minimize business or leave it out in the cold, but for me as a person, I think that’s probably the thing I least identify with.
SERENA CHEN One of the things that research shows that this exercise of writing about your values, or just sitting and mindfully thinking about them, is it can increase empathy you have for others and also gratitude as well as a host of other positive emotions. What are some of the big emotions that, you know, you’ve experienced as a function of engaging in this exercise, either spontaneously or in getting ready to do this practice?
SHAILI JAIN To actually doing it. What it does for me most is it reminds me that I chose to do this. You know, when you’re under a lot of stress, when your life is pulling in different directions, I think you can start to feel disempowered, you know, and that, I think, leads to a lot of feelings of helplessness and anxiety and whatnot. And I think by doing the exercise informally and formally doing it, and reminding me I chose this path. It wasn’t thrust upon me. It wasn’t forced upon me. Ultimately, I chose it. And I I have to take ownership of that. And so in that way, I think it makes you feel bit more empowered. That this is a journey you have elected to take.
SERENA CHEN Right, more self determining. You’re in the driver’s seat.
SHAILI JAIN Yes. Yeah, absolutely. And I think it reminded me of the discomfort that, you know, when you affirm your values, you have to make tough choices. You can’t be all things to all people. Right. You have to start stripping your life of some things, introducing other things. And that caused a lot of discomfort, not just for me, but for the people around me, too.
SERENA CHEN Well, you’re taking a stand in some way.
SHAILI JAIN Yes. Yeah. So the active nature. Yeah. That the emotions are not always great!
SERENA CHEN Right. So that I mean, I was going to ask what sorts of challenges you might have felt in doing this. And it sounds like that’s part of it. I mean, you’re putting yourself out there. “This matters to me.” And yes, you have to take everything that that then implies.
SHAILI JAIN Yes.
SERENA CHEN So you mentioned that that has implications for your relationships; people around you. And interestingly, you know, one of the things that this exercise has been shown to do, in addition to all the things that are good for the self, internally, positive emotions, you know, quelling doubts about the self and so forth. It also builds connection or shows evidence that people feel more connected to others in engaging this exercise. “Okay, what matters to me?” Did you experience that?
SHAILI JAIN You know, the thing with the kind of life that I have and I’m sure that life that a lot of people lead is you kind of wearing many hats and you have different relationships and sometimes that can be a conflict. So, you know, if you want to be a cutting edge researcher, if you want to, you know, be playing at the highest level in an academic career, there can be conflicts with your personal relationship. So for me, the biggest thing was the conflict with, you know, motherhood. And having young children who definitely needed me in very concrete ways. I think what the affirming values did is it helped me get rid of the conflict, right. And what it helped me affirm was my deep belief and I really believe in this, that, being a mother makes me to be a better doctor. Being a doctor makes me a better mother. It makes me, you know, being a mother makes me a better writer. Being a writer makes me a better mother. I had to get rid of this sense that there was a conflict between all these roles. There’s actually a lot of synergy. The fundamentals are not in conflict. The fundamentals of being a good parent. Look, the fundamentals of being a good doctor, or a good writer, there’s not that much conflict. So I think honing in on what was really fundamentally important and what was common to all those things that were really important to me, it helps keep things cohesive, so I just didn’t lose my…
SERENA CHEN ...mind.
SHAILI JAIN My mind! My sanity. I think it just helped me have the stamina that you need. To see these things through.
SERENA CHEN So do you think you’d recommend the Affirming Important Values practice to a friend or to patient of yours?
SHAILI JAIN Yeah, absolutely. I think if anyone’s about to embark on a journey and it could be anything, anything that’s going to be challenging for you, you know, you’re going to hit bumps and you’re going to want to turn back. I definitely feel this is a really important exercise. I don’t think you should wait until you feel defensive or threatened. I think you should do a prophylactic preventative measure. It should almost be like a daily mantra to remind you of what you’re doing. So it’s just kind of there in your subconscious or your conscious as you’re going about your daily life. And also, I feel like the ranking itself, the way I would see is, is I think the ranking should be fluid and dynamic. I think what’s important that I could change on any given day and that’s okay. And I think there’s areas where those rankings overlap. So I think maybe not being rigid in it was helpful to me, but. But yeah, absolutely, doing it, and doing it in a preventative way I think is useful. And, you know, can help you stay the course.
SERENA CHEN Thank you so much, Shaili, for being here today on The Science of happiness. Sharing your experiences with the practice and telling us about your life and your work.
SHAILI JAIN Thanks so much for having me. It’s been my pleasure.
SERENA CHEN A core assumption underlying the Affirming Important Values practice is that most of us view ourselves as being, for the most part, capable, moral and good people.
DAVID SHERMAN The question is how do people maintain this self-integrity in a world where it’s constantly under threat?
SERENA CHEN More on the science behind the affirming important values practice, up next. Research shows we often tend to dismiss or rationalize away evidence that we’re doing something that could put our health or safety at risk. David Sherman, he’s a psychology professor at UC Santa Barbara, researches how affirming our most important values before being exposed to threat can affect how we perceive that threat. Now what David and others doing this kind of work, what they mean by ‘affirming’ is we get the chance, pause for a minute, to think about what values matter the most to us in life and why that’s the case. In one study, David’s team looked at sexually active students and how they would react to information suggesting that they could be at risk for STDs.
DAVID SHERMAN So we had college students write an essay about important values in another part of their life, like social relationships or religion. And they were more open to the threatening health information about their unsafe sexual practices when they had the opportunity to reflect on important values that they held in a different part of their lives. Another study done by Peter Harris and his colleagues in the U.K., they showed smokers graphic images that were being tested to put on cigarette packs.
SERENA CHEN The smokers who did the exercise affirming their values were less defensive, and rated the graphic images as more relevant to their personal health than those who didn’t do the practice.
DAVID SHERMAN They also perceived that they had higher levels of control and self-efficacy and intentions to reduce their smoking.
SERENA CHEN In yet another study, David’s team asked students about an upcoming exam they were stressed about. Then, he had half the students write about values that were really important to them.
DAVID SHERMAN And what we found was that on the morning of that most stressful exam, the physiological stress system was less taxed, less activated among those who completed the self-affirmation. An affirmation reminds them to take the bigger picture that they’re good people regardless of this particular threat. And that gives them a different perspective on the threat. The threat becomes less self-defining.
SERENA CHEN If you’d like to try the Affirming Important Values practice yourself, or other happiness exercises, visit our Greater Good in Action website at ggia.berkeley.edu. Tell us how it went, or share other thoughts, by emailing us at greater at berkeley dot edu, or using the hashtag “Happiness Pod.”
I’m Serena Chen, filling in for Dacher Kelnter this week. Thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX. Our producer is Shuka Kalantari. Production assistance is from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our associate producer is Annie Berman, our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. Special thanks to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.