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Off DeWall: When Social Connections Induce Fatigue

          I love feeling connected and writing about connections. And for good reason; my mental and physical health depend in large part on my social connections; my writing about social connections helps pay my bills. But can the benefits of social connection boomerang, leaving people worse off than when they were on their own?

          I started my day having meetings with my graduate students back at the University of Kentucky. We met over Skype, which enabled us to see each other and hear each other through the use of our web cameras. My first meeting was at 6am (2pm Eastern time), and the second meeting took place at 7am (3pm Eastern time). As usual, they meetings were stimulating, engaging, and inspiring. Next, I wrote for an hour, walked to school with Tom Denson, wrote for two more hours, and then went to lunch. After lunch, I emailed, called a couple of people back home, and did some more writing.

          By the time early afternoon rolled around, I was exhausted. I had been so connected to others the entire day that I had worn myself out. I went home with aspirations to go to the gym and cool off in the ocean. I took a nap instead.

Off DeWall: From Labs to Cabs

          When you of a scientist learning, where does that learning take place? In a sterile, laboratory environment? Or in the back of a taxi cab? Today I learned lessons in both places, but each lesson took a different flavor.

          If you’re like most people, you think of a scientific laboratory as a large room filled with beakers, Bunsen burners, and people with white lab coats not saying much. That might be true of some laboratories, but it doesn’t come close to grasping what most psychology laboratories look like. People occasionally traipse around in white lab coats (my research assistants do), but most of the time people simply wear slightly better than average looking clothes. There is usually a line of small rooms, in which individual participants are led and given instructions for what they’re going to do. Faculty members have their offices close by, often next door to other faculty who share their common interests. Even our faculty offices usually look the same.

Off DeWall: Wired in Australia

DeWall at Coogee Beach, Sydney, Australia (March 5, 2012)

Off DeWall: Wired in Australia

          That’s right, I’m off to Australia. This is the blog of my adventures. I will update it every day.  

Being a simple man, my first adventure takes place in the plane itself. That’s right, I’m currently at the tail end of my flight to Sydney. This leg of the journey is about 16 hours, depending on the headwind. Being an odd duck, I love the long plane ride! You always have time to do what you want. I can blog, watch movies, write, sleep, and read books – over and over again. Unlike the usual hour or two-hour jags you do flying State to State, international flights give you time to make a nest for yourself. But I didn’t fly all the way to Australia so that I could build my nest.

Off DeWall: What Relationship Do You Mean?

            Most of my posts and thoughts focus on relationships and, more broadly, social connections. I often treat social connections as these simplistic things that govern thought, emotion, and behavior. But social connections have many different flavors. Your relationship to your parents gives you something different than what you get from your best friend, your professors, or your local Starbucks barista. Each relationship partner also gets something different from you. In a keynote address by the eminent cultural psychology, Michael Harris Bond challenged me to think differently about how people relate to each other.

            Michael shoots out of any crowd in Asia. At a lean 6’5”, he towers over most people here. He has a bald, shiny head that emits a ray of light if the spotlight catches it at the correct angle. Just before he started speaking, he donned a white floppy hat (a la Gilligan’s Island). Maybe it’s his trademark.

Off DeWall: Are Narcissists Everywhere?

Have you ever known someone who loved himself? I’m not talking about the usual positive self-feelings people have. I’m talking about the guy who has a literal addiction to fame, constantly self-promotes, feels entitled to special treatment, and needs to have everyone gawk at how good looking he is. We all know people like this. They’re what we psychologists call narcissists. Narcissism is on the rise in the United States. American have never loved themselves more than they do now. But is this boost in narcissism isolated to Americans? Today, I learned that narcissism isn’t limited to Americans.

Off DeWall: A Tale of Two City Blocks

            Opulence and squalor usually seem worlds apart. Country clubs usually don’t border low-income housing, designer clothing stores purposefully keep access to their goods limited to only a certain clientele (if you haven’t seen the movie Pretty Woman, watch it and you’ll get the reference), and the checking accounts that most people take for granted are a privilege offered only to people who have quality credit. Yet, I just experienced an exception to this rule.

            I just landed in Kunming, which is a town in southwestern China. My hosts Xinyue Zhou, Ding-guo Gua, and I flew here to attend the biennial Asian Association of Social Psychology conference. (We’re usually in a town called Guangzhou, which is located in south central China.)

            Kunming is simply gorgeous. I’m staying at a beautiful resort called the “Crystal Place.” It has a huge pool, waterfalls, and the biggest koi pond (and koi fish) I’ve ever seen. They call Kunming the “Spring City” because the weather is like spring all year. It’s about 26 degrees Celsius, which is about 78 degrees back home. That’s quite a difference from the 36 degree (97 degrees Fahrenheit!) days I had back in Guangzhou.

Off DeWall: Nothing Lost in Translation

DeWall speakingYesterday I gave a speech at the Department of Psychology that covered my social exclusion research. It lasted about 90 minutes, which included time for me to field questions from the audience. I had a terrific time! But this isn’t a post about how great the talk went. That’s not up to me, and it’s none of my business. What struck me, from the second it started to when I floated up to my office afterwards, was that the talk made sense because it focused on something that’s true for most people—the need for close relationships, and the pain that ensues when those relationships crumble.

Off DeWall: School’s Out for Summer

     Whew! Class is over. We met for five hours a day for a week, which would have been grueling had we not had our two-hour lunch breaks. I love, love, love the students here. They’re smart, hard-working, polite, and a pleasure to be around. We also had a ton of laughs. For example, one of my students (named Yalu) knew how much I like the noodles here. I would often mention them in my lectures whenever I wanted to contrast something awesome with something not so great. Yalu is interested in applying to the graduate program in social psychology at the University of Kentucky. To tell me how much she loves psychology, she told me “psychology is my noodles.” Priceless!

Off DeWall: Happiness Across Cultures

On my way to class this morning, I saw one of my students gazing at the beautiful scenery surrounding the classroom building. His English name is Garden (he’s next to me in the attached photo). We talked for a bit and then Garden asked me a question I had never been asked, “Are all Americans happy?”

I didn’t know how to answer. I told Garden that his question intrigued me, and I asked him what led him to ask me whether all Americans are happy. He told me that I seemed quite happy, even happier than most people he sees every day. Because I’m the first American he’s ever met, he wondered if most Americans were like me. Garden said that he believes Chinese people don’t wear a smile on their faces that much, possibly because they have a lot to worry about.

There are cultural differences in happiness. People from France are happier than people from America, whereas Americans are happier than people from Finland. But what I think is more important is how similar people are in what makes them happy. Whether you live in China or America, having positive and lasting relationships – the sort of strong social connections that Wired seeks to cultivate – is a key to happiness.

Off DeWall: Research the Day Away, but with a Long Lunch

            We had a full day of learning today, with a long break sprinkled in for fun. Although it would be unheard of to have class on Sundays in America, it’s somewhat normal in China. We met from 9:50am-12:25pm and 2:25-5:00pm. We covered a lot of material, from how and why social psychologists do their research using the scientific method to how social psychologists formulate and test their theories. It was a ton of fun!

            Between the two class sessions, we had a two-hour break for lunch. This is quite common at Chinese universities. Students and faculty have a long lunch and then usually take a nap for about 30min-1hour. I couldn’t believe it! When my teaching assistants told me that I would be able to change the schedule, my first thought was that we needed to shorten the two-hour lunch to about 30 minutes. After all, that’s what I do at home in Kentucky. (In reality, I usually eat my lunch during a meeting, so I effectively don’t take lunch breaks.)

            This idea did not go over well at all with the students. “We’ll get tired in the afternoon, making it hard to concentrate,” they told me. I agreed and we kept the two hour lunch break.

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