My senior year of high school, a psychologist contacted my family. She was studying relationships between Asian-American children and their parents, and asked if we wanted to be one of the case studies. I was wary. Back then, all I knew about psychology came from Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” (My dad had bought it when he came to America, and insisted that we read it and unlock the mysteries of social interaction.)
But then the psychologist told us that she would administer an emotional intelligence test — which costs over $200 commercially — for free. I was sold.
My interview in her cramped, turquoise office went smoothly, and the test wasn’t memorable. A month later, I received the results. Turns out I was extremely deficient in happiness — but also above average in optimism. This perplexed me. The psychologist didn’t offer any interpretations, and as a result, I spent the rest of senior year wondering if I was intrinsically an unhappy person — and how much of the score was self-fulfilling.
When I arrived at Yale, I picked up the Psychology major. I told everyone it was for personal reasons: I wanted to find out what type of personality I had, what antecedents influenced my actions, why other people acted the way they did around me, how I could become a better person — a happier one, at that.
So I embarked on four years of courses, and now, having turned in my senior essay three days ago and taken my last test yesterday, my journey of self-revelation has officially — in an academic sense — ended. I wouldn’t be able to synthesize my experience into a set of manageable aphorisms. But what I can tell you is that the information I’ve learned is used daily in my interactions at Yale.
When I meet someone, I remember to act warm, because first impressions are coded on a warm-cold spectrum. I know that physical warmth promotes interpersonal warmth — so if I have an important meeting, I’ll make sure that we’re both holding hot tea or coffee. When I’m in a conversation, I’ll mimic my partner’s postures, mannerisms, and facial expressions, because the chameleon effect tells us that mimicry increases mutual liking. Moreover, I automatically look for micro-emotions — split-second, uncontrollable facial tics — to pick up a person’s true feelings.
When I start writing a paper, I try to make myself happy — simply by smiling, according to the facial feedback hypothesis — because broaden-and-build theory has taught me that positivity naturally increases creative, flexible, and integrative thinking. When I finish a draft and start to edit, I’ll watch something sad to induce negative emotion, which helps narrow my attention. And for tests, I’ll think about my professor, or even Albert Einstein, in order to prime the intelligent side in me.
When I run a meeting, I’ll insist we all stand up, because it goes faster and the decision quality is just as good. For snacks, I’ll buy unhealthy foods that are labeled healthily, as it causes the food to taste better. I’ll try to come up with a memorable event to cap everything, because peak-end preferences suggest that memories of happiness are heavily influenced by how we felt in an event’s last five minutes. When I’m not getting along with a member, I’ll ask them to help me with a small task, hoping the cognitive dissonance between action and thought resolves itself positively.
When I want to change someone’s behavior (say, helping a friend lose weight), I won’t send him a link to a New York Times article. Instead, I’ll prompt him using gentle requests (“Will you do me a favor and come to the gym with me?”), start off small (“Just 15 minutes on the elliptical, please”), and try hard to initiate the first few steps. Because we live in a society quasi-deprived of praise, I’ll give him high-fives and compliments for every accomplishment — even if it’s just putting on his shoes.
Three years ago in “Introduction to Psychology,” I couldn’t even see the gorilla. Since then, I’ve studied how to change behavior, treat personality disorders, plan out a drug-free therapy to combat anxiety and depression. I came into Psychology focused on trying to help myself; I’m graduating realizing that its power comes from helping others.
Peter Lu is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on Thursday.