What’s the question?

I’ve finally finished all my Japanese exams. I’ll have to pause Japan studies, since I’ve struggled these past weeks to focus on both things on account of pure lack of brain memory. In the words of the great Ron Swanson, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.” So with a clear new mind, after a weekend of hiking, I decided to catch Supervisor C—– next time I saw him (in person, cause it’s nicer that way) and just do what I hate doing: showing concepts that are unfinished and presenting ideas that seem unclear.

As always, it turned out to be unbelievably helpful and gave me a motivational boost. Why do I always fight it so?

So I grabbed poor Supervisor C——- on his way to the printer and put forward my plans for a challenge (that’s what the lecture I’ll be involved with as an assistant calls the weekly submissions students are required to hand-in and peer-review), and he gave me the go, which, on account of Professor P——- having already expressed interest, I didn’t need – but did need.

He thought the challenge was a good idea even apart from my data-gathering and just being an interesting piece o’ homework, since it provides first semester students with an immediate awareness of mental health issues – all the more relevant for what we can assume is a very different first-year student experience in a pandemic. He was less sure of my idea to frame the speculative design project as located, digitally mediated hybrid space, but possibly, that was just owing to the vagueness of my formulation – I’ll have to make sure to give students the appropriate reference papers and projects.

More importantly though, he made me realize I had no question, which was fun. Because I really felt like I did. Why did I not realize I’d never formulated my goal? I used to teach this to people, and draw the Minoan labyrinth on the blackboard and tell the story of the original red thread! But no: all this time, I hadn’t been really working towards anything properly framed, but just sort of dancing around within guiding parameters. Which is generally not uncommon and undoubtedly has its place in the process, but definitely was not what I thought I was doing. So there you have it again, me: always communicate everything. There are things you just don’t see yourself.

Anyway. For want of a better introduction, here’s my three main questions – for now.

  • What would a social network for promotion of mental well-being require?
  • How can we design located social media services for peer groups of university students (e.g. attending the same courses) to support each other?
  • Which difficulties exist in the current local structures for well-being?

Of course, that drew my attention to another huge gap I have to fill soon-ish: what’s my working definition of Mental Health for my research? Where do I situate myself, which perspectives and theories do I use, and why?

What do I need in order to answer these questions?

The first one begs for a literary review of social networks and an analysis of the mechanisms and features (and resulting behaviours) that are detrimental to well-being, so maybe I should start out with that in the background, to accompany my building the challenge, which will cover review for the second and third question. While I still feel like they are far too… big-picture, I feel better for having formulated them anyway. I mean what do I even want, it’s only my second month.

Supervisor C—– also reminded me to keep my strengths and knowledge in mind as I delved into literature, since he knows I’m prone to wanting to know things beyond my field and trying to stick my nose into disciplines that I’m not really supposed to be in. “Don’t forget you’re a design researcher, and that’s your strength, your difference in generating knowledge and approaching these things. What are your advantages? What insights can you gain, what data can you gather that others can’t?” Leave the behavioural analyses to the behavioural analysts.

Normally, I would’ve been all “gee, Supervisor C, that ain’t no news!”
But after forgetting to formulate a question… well, I felt the need to write it down.

The Science of Well-Being I

I completed half the course in an onset of curiosity paired with impatience (my most horrifying yet fruitful personality traits), so between doing the accompanying millions of rewirings a day and studying for Theory of Japanese finals, here’s the summary so far:

Week 1

Santos created the course out of concern over rising stress and mental health issues in higher education, tailored towards Yale students, with a focus on productivity and well-being/happiness as the solid foundation on which careers are built.
She likens the “annoying features of the mind” addressed in the course to optical illusions as false realities we perceive although our brains “know better”, which she calls the G.I. Joe Fallacy (huge fan of allegories, metaphors and parables in teaching – mind-images just stick better), and finishes the introduction with us taking the PERMA, Authentic Happiness and VIA Character Strengths surveys.

Week 2

Our minds usually misjudge how bad we will feel if something negative happens in our lives – interestingly enough, we exaggerate the intensity of expected negative emotions more than expected positive emotions – overall however, we recover from both: peaks and lows cannot last because our brain is adaptive and operates from references, not absolutes. This week’s lecture criticized our conscious or subconscious material mindset, with studies presenting how money can only make us happy until we reach a certain level of affluence (also some fun studies about which cars and drinks are mentioned in hip hop). It ends with Sonya Lyubomirsky’s finding that 40% of our hapiness is in our own hands.

Week 3

Focuses around hedonic adaptation and a word coined by Tim Wilson and Dan Gilbert, miswanting. The starting point: our tendency to judge ourselves by the reference points of a) our current situation and b) others around us (social comparison) – examples of medal winners, harvard students, watching TV and looking at models, or comparing ourselves to others on social media. The main weaknesses leading to this are, according to Gilbert, a) focalism (forgetting everything else around the good/bad event/thing) and b) immune neglect (we are more resilient than we think).

Week 4

There are different ways to effortfully and intentionally change 40% of our happiness we have within our control: rethink “treatin’ yo’self” by spending on experiences rather than stuff, and re-wire our brains by focusing on the good bits and thwarting hedonic adaptation by savouring, negative visualisation, making the day your last, and gratitude. A fun experiment with chips and chocolate/sardines: how references influence our contentment. Studies on social media and photography reveal that the motivation with which you engage it defines the influence it has on your happiness.

Week 5

How do we reframe our miswants to want right parts of our wants, or want for the right reasons? How do we find out which wants we might be missing?  Here some familiar concepts come in, such as Csikszentmihalyi’s flow, which I’ve already used for design storytelling lectures.
I liked this study, which shows that extrinsic motivators undermine intrinsic motivation, the concept of a growth mindset, and Seligman’s list of strengths which lead to job/life fulfillment (using more than 4 usually makes a job a calling). This is particularly interesting to me with the whole student focus, so I’ll jot it down here (note taken from a course slide) –

  • ubiquitous (widely recognized across cultures)
  • fulfilling (leading to fulfillment, satisfaction)
  • morally valued in most cultures
  • not able to diminish others around you
  • the opposite of a negative trait
  • trait-like (stable individual difference)
  • measurable
  • distinctive (not redundant with other strengths)
  • paragons (some people really have them)
  • prodigies (some people precociously have them)
  • selective absence (some people don’t have them)
  • institutionalized (society values them)

Kindness, social connection, time affluence, mind control (mindfulness, meditation) exercise, sleep. I am concerned that nutrition was left out, and while we’re doing criticizing here, I hated the approach of the social connection bit as well. Am I the only person who doesn’t think random acts of kindness are a good way to hone compassion, or holds the opinion that chatting with a stranger will not make me feel any social connection that is worth a damn?


Although mental health in students is being addressed, the system around them hasn’t really adapted towards this new awareness or changed at all in terms of “treatment” as opposed to promotion of well-being, as G—— noted. Maybe I should take a look at the TU’s local infrastructure for mental health. It could provide a chance for change or valuable insights towards pursuing the community aspect.

How much can we really control and gamify? I found many faults with the book “Reality is Broken” because in my experiecence – and this may be a cultural difference – a real emotional connection cannot be gamified, and to some extent shouldn’t. I’m not sure that chatting up strangers on a subway or doing random acts of kindness, especially if not heartfelt, is the right way to go. Is this because the studies are located in the US?

I am stricken by how many aspects of “good practice” such as gratitude, meditation, taking breaks etc. are a core part of many religions – an interesting side note.

speaking of religion, I also disagree with the approach of science-is-an-absolute generalisations in the course – or in any case, the way certain things are presented as absolutes, such as cosmetic surgery or weight loss as having no impact on overall happiness, which from personal experience I can say does hugely – am I the exception to prove the norm? I think the non-corellation is due to hedonic adaptation, personality type with tendencies towards weight gain/perfection/unhappiness with body image/etc. – but I was slightly unnerved by the way this was presented seemingly uncritically. Even though the rest of the lectures later address these topics (hedonic adaptation, miswanting, poor self-assestment, resilience), I would still have liked short “keep in mind though…”s.

Remember, Remember

I’m after a call with The Most Supportive Person In Academia, G—– (not her actual title) (should be though if you ask me) and found out, after more than one year of sitting around the same lunch table, that she was personally interested in positive psychology and well-being. This was of course shocking, since I apparently never bothered to ask her where she came from and what she did. I’ll probably sneakily google her because at this point I’m too ashamed to ask.

The whole episode once again prompts my inner Hannibal Lecter to consider keeping files on my friends and co-workers (how am I supposed to remember everything???) – anyway, the talk proved insanely helpful and motivating.

In addition to helpful resources, I was advised to document my research process, a helpful tip that perfectly coincides with yesterday’s moment of realizing my so-called “notes” on the couple of HCI for Mental Health papers F—– had given me as starting points turned out to be the ramblings of a madman – I’ve forgotten absolutely everything I read last month even though I thought I was being all cute taking notes. Turns out there’s the right and the wrong kind of notes. Probably has something to do with not having a question, plan or direction.

I’ve decided to fix that next week, but first: this week is dedicated to gaining a foothold on the whole mental health bit. This is my current position:

Of course, these are now just boxes, because I have yet to find out which one of these components will be my frame, which my lens, which my focus, or, or, or. So what I will do now is read into the first “column” my research will be built on, and by read I mean do Laurie Santos’ Yale online course “The Science of Well-being” because if studying at two universities has taught me anything, it’s that courses are my guides when I begin any journey.

So here we are: A research blog is begun. Let’s see if I can keep it up.