Metta for the Media
I was a grad student in psychology in 2012 while I retrained after a career as a pilot in the New Zealand Air Force. It was such an enjoyable diversion for me, to indulge in the academics and science, the evidence for this way of describing the human condition and that. The whole thing had me captivated and I thought my new career course was pretty well set; Masters, then PhD, post-doc, and eventually lecturer. An academic psychologist for sure.
There were some things that didn't suit me though, as all mid-life career changers can attest to. The loss of a previously enjoyed but taken for granted status in my last job, not to mention the loss of discretionary income from my earlier life that the scholarships could never hope to match. Still, there was the wide open horizon of possibility, and the days spent exactly however I wanted. Where earlier in my life studying for my undergrad extramurally had been squeezed into corners of my life that work hadn't taken up, now I sprawled long afternoons in the library and allowed myself to scrutinise analyses when I thought I found some author drawing conclusions where they perhaps would have been best recommending more research.
The passion for the work led to an ambitious Masters project, which is not altogether unusual for me if I think about my work history. But I was passionate and interested and wanted to know if I could combine some techniques to answer a question about how happy we are during the day to day rhythm of our lives. The experience-sampling method (ESM) seemed like a great approach to me, as it largely cut-out the problem of memory bias when answering research questions. In ESM in the modern age you simply send study participants text-messages throughout the day, via a software programme that lets you set it all up automatically, and in return you get rich, rich data in the replies about what people were doing just as you messaged them and how happy they reported they were. I expected that people who could be happy via lots of different pathways would be happier overall than other people say, who only really wanted to pursue sense pleasures, the hedonists. Or those who only really wanted to immerse themselves in their work or hobbies, the deep engagers. Or those who eschewed pleasure for meaning, the calling to serve, maybe, but the pathway to a potentially bitter ride.
The replies I got did not disappoint. I could hardly believe it. There's something about being anonymous in a research study perhaps, or maybe I got lucky with my sample, but people just seemed to be as open and honest as I'd asked them to be about what they were doing in the moment I messaged them and how they were feeling. One participant I remember replied, that he'd just found out how his uncle will die in a few weeks time. Another, that they'd been gardening, or studying of course, being a largely student sample, or shopping for groceries, or drinking with their friends, or having sex. In fact, the entire panoply of human drama, all playing out, all of the time.
I wrote my thesis and it was highly regarded by the examiners, so under the publish-or-perish principle that I was intending to hitch my career success to, I dutifully set to writing up my first ever peer-reviewed journal article manuscript for submission to my favourite psychology periodical, The Journal of Positive Psychology. My dreams, it felt, were coming true. The meaning of the work. The pleasure of the simple grad-school life. The engagement in the long hours of analysis. The full life. The very thing that my first ever published article would go on to support, the call to balance your own wheel and find ways to ensure you don't become a one-trick-pony in the way you live. The finding in some small way, in a corner of a niche academic field, supported what some of the great Psychologists were saying, my idols, to live a life with eyes wide open to different experiences and different perspectives.
I got a bit of interest from around the university in my work. At the time the region where I lived and studied had been devasted by a series of earthquakes and things weren't looking good for the institution. Enrolment numbers were down. Way down. Why come to a ruined town for 3 years to earn a degree when you can have that same student experience in plenty of other functioning, intact, fully operational cities in New Zealand. My university decided to write a story on my research, and publish it in time to ride with the upturn of clicks due to the annual horse racing event in town that always drew a dressed up, champagne and high-heeled set of well-to-dos. Publicity in a time of a rather bleak outlook.
Excitedly, I prepared my summary and sent it off to the university's press officer. I had been to the international conference on positive psychology earlier in the year and presented some of my research, and my feeling was that I was getting out there now, networking, getting a roll on. I was diligent in my write up, as I tended to be, the university's PR guy wanting to spin my findings to be more sensationalist than what they actually were. I remember sitting in a cafe and over wifi bouncing emails back and forth with the guy the day before he submitted the piece: Can I say this, he would ask. No way, I would reply. This is actually what I found. Well can I say this, he would come back with. No way no way, this is what we'd need to research some more but this is where I think the field is heading.
The next morning, early, I was driving though a suburb not far from the university campus when the phone rings from an unknown number so I pull over. It's a journalist. I think he was from overseas. He wants to know about the research that says that sex and partying make people happy. I don't know what to say. Doesn't sound like me, are you sure you've got the right person? Yeah, and he reads me the first line of the press release he just got, about some university grad student who found that if you drink booze and sleep around it would make you a happier person. I stumble out a few words about not having written that, and the journalist hangs up.
I call the PR guy. The university's man. I'm a bit frantic now. What the hell did you change the press release to say? He said to me down the phone: "I thought it would attract a bit more attention, you know, during the cup week. A bit of sex, and rock'n'roll... you should be happy about this. This is good for you."
I finished my manuscript and sent it off to the journal and it got accepted for publication a few months later. I applied for a PhD scholarship, and got it, and set off down the long path to academia. But in my bones the fire had gone out for this, publish or perish. It wasn't long after that I got another phone call, this time from a journalist investigating the New Zealand Government's refugee policy regarding accepting Afghani interpreters who had worked as part of the NZ Defence Force's Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamiyan. I had been to that part of the world in my time in my previous career, and I had worked alongside those brave interpreters. One of them had messaged me, pleading for help. Everyone was scared the Taliban would be back to round up the families of the interpreters left behind by the militaries they had worked for, in some cases, for ten years. Everyone knew they had worked for the western militaries. Everyone knew what would happen.
That day, when the phone rang with an unknown number for the second time, I was sitting in a park, the botanical gardens, thinking about whether to chuck in the academic gig. I was wrestling with it. The journalist was brisk and asked me what I had done in Afghanistan and I told her that I would go into villages and see if we could help with the reconstruction of a Province ravaged by a decade of soviet invasion and then a civil war. I worked very closely with a few different local interpreters. They were invaluable. I always had the utmost respect for them. They showed me a world I would have been completely blind to without their patient guidance and support. And then, this question: "Compared to other Governments' quotas on accepting refugees who had worked for foreign PRTs, what do you think of the NZ Government's policy?" It's three in the afternoon. I'm thinking about quitting my PhD. I'm at a career crossroads. I might be applying for jobs soon. Maybe for some jobs in Government ministries.
"I'm sure the New Zealalnd Government has weighed up all the factors it needs to."
Yes, but what do you think about the policy. What do you think? Other countries are accepting hundreds, if not thousands of refugees. What do you think about that? The New Zealand Government is only accepting a fraction of other countries' quotas. What do you think about that Carsten, what do you think?
"I think it's complicated, and I'm sure the right people have considered all the options."
But what do you think. Come on. Tell me. What about it. How does it compare. What do you think. How does it compare?
"Compared to other quotas I guess it seems a little lean". And that was the end of the conversation.
Next day one of the local news headlines read: New Zealand Government Refugee Quota "Lean".
Eventually, those afghani interpreters and their families were relocated safely to New Zealand, and in my heart I'll always be happy for them.
But I quit my PhD.
*Metta means loving kindness. May all beings, as much as they can be, be happy, right now.