Living It

The stress of life's ontological experiment

Making It Count — Learn to Contribute

Many reasons to complain, one reason to stop: what is really going to help?

Recently, I was explaining over coffee to an acquaintance how good psychology advice often helps people at the unspectacular-yet-useful level. “Have a shower and get dressed in the morning”, “Eat nutritiously”, “Call a friend”, “Walk the dog”. This person was criticizing a religious organization for hypocrisy. Well, ok. Great religions have messages that are hard to live out. My answer to this interlocutor was: Well, what are you doing about it? Disenchantment, disaffectation, and “dissing” generally are easy to do. My point is not to hitch on to this tenor of thinking, nor to complain about it (too much) but rather to say: however small a thing you do, if you do it in a spirit of making a good kind of difference, that thing can grow and you will find that so will you.

An initiative at my school in the last several years has been focused on “bringing psychology to the community”. I have participated in it, and been a glad contributor. As a group of clinical psychology graduate students, we organized yearly public lectures at the local downtown library. Talks such as "Finding Happiness", "Healthy Relationships", "Beating Procrastination", and "Getting Kids to Sleep" have been presented. Presentations are vetted by qualified supervisors. The series also aims to get community members in contact with reliable resources: local agencies, national mental health websites, and a scientifically-screened selection of mental health books at the library. The best part of it, for me, was to have seen what some good old fashioned pro bono can do for program spirit, for community goodwill, and for individual students to get a certain pro-social bent “in utero” as it were, for their nascent careers. Too often, becoming cynical and jaded is the way harried students survive graduate school. The other option is: reach out and give.

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Getting to know audiences, the community, advertising venues and making our niche material accessible to the general public is an exercise in the intense democratization of higher learning. The discipline required in conveying advanced concepts in a responsible yet accessible way is a dependably valuable skill. Ask Leon Festinger, the founder of cognitive dissonance theory: Why are college athletics so often more appealing than professional sports? Perhaps for the same reason students get a thrill from being a volunteer crew: “If it can’t be for the money, then it’s something I must really love to do!

Matthew Shanahan, M.Sc., is a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the University of Western Ontario.

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