How Purpose Can Be Your Protector

Almost a year after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, many of us are still experiencing stress and uncertainty. The idea of what purpose means during this stressful time was explained in a well-attended, virtual lecture on Friday, February 19th, by Dr. Anthony Burrow, Associate Professor in the Department of Human Development at Cornell University.

Studying purpose, he argues, has revealed “both ancient and nascent ideas”.

Purpose is associated with greater levels of happiness, personal growth, and learning engagement. Research has even shown that purpose has physical health benefits as well—including lower risk of stroke, lower risk of Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline, and even better sleep. Dr. Burrow work also demonstrated that individuals with a sense of purpose are less likely to feel uncomfortable with different outgroups and their self-esteem is less likely to be affected social media engagement. A sense of purpose he argues, gives people a sense of “stability”. In essence, it serves as compass that directs their life, and protects them from life’s up and downs.

It doesn’t seem to matter what the purpose is, just having a sense of purpose appears to be an asset for those who possess it. One question from the audience was how we can cultivate purpose in our day-to-day lives. Dr. Burrow answered that the idea of “finding purpose” does not have a lot of evidence correlated with it; rather, it is cultivation of purpose that tends to be more achievable. Dr. Burrow continued by explaining that there are three main pathways towards purpose: proactive (building purpose through gradual engagement), reactive (building purpose as a result of a positive/negative experience), and social learning (building purpose through observing other purposeful individuals).

Attendees learned a tremendous amount from Dr. Burrow on this important and timely issue, and were thankful for this opportunity. This event was co-sponsored by the Empower Center and the Berger Institute. Follow @bergerinstitute on Facebook and Instagram for future updates on events!

From Diversity to Inclusion: Research & Practice

Despite being Friday the 13th, there was a large crowd of students, alumni, staff, and faculty that virtually joined an engaging panel discussion on diversity and inclusion this past week. Dr. Jennifer Feitosa, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Director of the Metrics Lab at Claremont McKenna College, spoke about the numbers behind D&I initiatives and why they’re important. Stacie Yee, CMC alum, class of ‘99, gave a presentation on how principles of inclusion can be applied. She focused on her personal experience as Partner and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. Sharing a quote from Verna Myers, Yee described how “diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.”

After enlightening presentations, host and Berger programming assistant Elsie Dank (Scripps ’23) engaged the panelists in a conversation about how students can start thinking about diversity initiatives even before they enter the workforce, how the panelists have met challenges in practicing inclusion, and how everyone, regardless of whether you’re in a management position, can help make everyone feel included. Dr. Feitosa shared that everyone is important in creating change and the importance of holding leaders accountable. Yee added that sometimes these changes take time, but if you see that someone is hurt due to underrepresentation, then you should take more immediate action. “Everyone has a huge role,” agreed Yee.

An active audience question and answer session brought more conversation around affirmative action programs and how we should think about them, how transparent we should be with pay, and how to convince companies to move from just diversity to more active inclusion. Attendees shared they “really learned a lot” and were thankful for the chance to hear from some experts on this important and timely issue. This event was co-sponsored by the Berger Institute, Roberts Environmental Center, the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights, and Scripps Communities for Resources and Empowerment (SCORE). Follow @bergerinstitute on facebook and Instagram for future updates on events!

Experts and Alumni Shed Light on Building Social Networks in the Age of COVID-19

Claremont Colleges alumni, faculty, and students came together virtually on October 9th, 2020, to discuss something that we’re all thinking about during this time of isolation – how do we build and maintain our connections with others, especially if we’re never together? What are the key components to relationships, personal and professional, regardless of the mode of communication? Sponsored by the Berger Institute and CMC Career Services, this event featured four panelists: Dr. Saida Heshmati, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Claremont Graduate University and expert in positive relationships, Erikan Obotetukudo, networking and community building consultant and strategic advisor, Faye Sahai, Co-Founder and Partner at Mirai SV Global and Managing Director at Vinaj Ventures, and Stacie Yee, Partner in Los Angeles at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. Panel topics included why positive relationships matter for resilience, important strategies for cultivating mentorship, friendship, and professional peer relationships, and even how we can leverage social media to build and maintain our networks right now. Both Erikan and Faye emphasized, for example, that you should “google yourself. . .take control of your digital brand” to proactively build your network online and show who you are. This is true for mentorship as well, according to Stacie, where being proactive and making sure you get what you want out of the relationship can help both sides. Saida explained the importance of all these connections to both our mental and physical health and how focusing on high-quality relationships is linked to longer lifespans. Attendees were able to absorb these pieces of advice over the lunch hour and come away with strategies and confidence for building their own networks in the coming months. One attendee notes, “As a young professional early in my career, I found a lot of their advice to be sound, and a lot of the problems they encountered early in their careers resonate with my current fears and issues. Their wisdom has appropriately shown me the ways to interact with people in different hierarchical positions.” Follow us on social media or on our website for future events!

Pandemic Stress: Expert Advice on How to Help You and Your Kids Cope

Individuals and families from every sector are feeling the effects of the current COVID-19 pandemic. From loss of jobs and finances to taking care of kids while trying to work at home to existential stress and worry about the health of loved ones, higher than average stress is now a daily companion for nearly everyone. Even simple tasks like getting groceries can be a significant source of anxiety. Some stress is not always bad; It can help to push us toward a goal or help us flee from danger. Chronic stress, though, is what we have to watch out for – the type of ongoing stress that comes from events like enduring pandemics. Chronic stress builds over time in our body and leaves wear and tear, called allostatic load, that can affect our cognition, our metabolic functioning, and even our immune systems. The good news is, there are strategies we can use to help control our stress and the stress our children face.

The growing science of emotion regulation, which includes a lot of the work we do here at the institute, has found answers to questions like, “Which emotions are okay to express? And how much?” or “How do I control my anxiety?” How we regulate our emotions can often influence how much stress we face. Recently, Dr. Stacey Doan published new research with colleagues showing that having a high amount of negative emotion can contribute to high blood pressure just as much as the absence of negative emotions (aka being stoic). That means you don’t want to completely suppress your negative emotions, even if you’re trying to hide it for others. That kind of suppression will contribute to more stress.

If you feel you’ve got a lot bottling up, one strategy is to use writing or art, such as starting a journal or creating a collage. If you’re more toward the other end of the spectrum and you want a strategy to control too much anxiety or negative emotions, one science-backed strategy is meditation. Meditation is often a tool for mindfulness, such as bringing your awareness to the present moment, helping you to focus on something simple like your breath. Neurological and behavioral studies have shown frequent mindfulness meditation to contribute significantly to better self-regulation, less negative emotion, less stress, greater health, more positive emotions, and even higher achievement.

Emotion regulation isn’t just about focusing on negative emotions, however. Sometimes we want to increase positive emotions, especially since they can work alongside the control of negative emotions to contribute to resilience. While positive and negative emotions influence each other, they are actually separate processes. Controlling negative emotions doesn’t always automatically boost happiness, so it’s good to focus on boosting those positive emotions separately.

One way is to focus on savoring the good moments. Any positive emotions you’re already feeling can be amplified by simply turning your attention to the moment – letting yourself be free briefly from distractors and other worries and aware of how the moment makes you feel. You can even reflect on a past moment: “I really enjoyed laughing with them earlier today – it was like a weight was lifted and I got to connect more with them” or savor a moment along with others.

As an added bonus, if you take time to regulate your emotions, your kids will benefit, too. Recent research by Doan and colleagues found that children’s distress tolerance and depressive symptoms were tied to parents’ own emotion regulation, especially the mothers’. “Like on a plane, parents need to put their oxygen mask on first. It’s truly important that we need to take care of ourselves, our emotions. If we do that well, it would be easier for us to provide the responsive care that we need,” advises Doan.

But how do we help our kids directly with their emotions? Some of the strategies mentioned above for you are ones you can help your kids with as well. Proper expression of negative emotions, for example, is just as important for kids. The wear and tear of stress can affect youth just as much as it can affect adults. Art is a great way for kids to not only express their emotions, but for parents to have fun connecting with their kids. Helping children to savor good moments, asking them how it made them feel and telling them it’s okay to express those emotions, is also a great strategy. Kids that have support in savoring and emotion regulation have been shown to have better adaptive skill. If your kids are very young, such as preschool age, it may be a better strategy to model emotion regulation. Young children tend to replicate emotional behavior, regardless of what is being said.

Soon our research lab will know even more about how to help families through pandemic-specific stress. Having received a recent grant from the National Science Foundation, Doan and colleagues are currently studying the effects of chronic stress and factors contributing to resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic. “The pandemic is a stressor that is unlike anything that has happened in recent times. We know it has wide-ranging effects . . . Being able to understand its impacts now is crucial for informing future prevention and intervention efforts,” states Doan. In the meantime, existing research gives us helpful knowledge and tools to cope with this unprecedented stress we all face. Some of those strategies for both you and your child are:

To keep track of research news coming out of the Berger Institute, check our homepage or follow our social media.

How the Science of Well-Being Can Help Fight Stress

5C students, staff, and parents attended a talk on the science of well-being on Feb 13th, Family Weekend. The talk was led by Berger Institute Director Dr. Stacey Doan. Attendees listened to Dr. Doan discuss the impacts of stress in modern life, as well as evidence-based methods for reducing stress and increasing positive emotions. Dr. Doan explained how our stress responses–fight, flight, or freeze–may have served us in the evolutionary past, but in today’s modern world, our bodies can’t tell the difference between a tiger and a test. “Your body will still react the same way – your muscles will tense, your system will be flooded with adrenaline, and your mind will still feel like you are under a threat, despite being safe in bed,” she stated. Chronic, repeated stress responses can cause internal wear and tear and lead to a host of health problems.

To provide a counter against the negative effects of stress, Dr. Doan also described some actions we can take to reduce our stress, or at least temper the potential for long-term physical harm. She explained that exercise can help relieve stress by releasing the physical tension that gets stored in the body as it prepares to fight or flee. Mindfulness exercises, such as yoga or breathing, can help train the mind to focus on the present moment and let go of distractions or stressful thoughts. Even displaying kindness, a way to bring about positive emotion in yourself and others, can undo some of the physical effects of negative emotions.

Keep track of future events.