Fiona Doyle: Considering wellness, happiness and success as the semester ends

students crowd around a llama

One of the many ways Berkeley students can release stress during finals time is by visiting with the llamas brought to campus at the end of each semester. The llamas will return on December 3. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

I know the final weeks of the semester can be a stressful time for students rushing to complete final papers and projects and to catch up on unfinished reading. It’s a busy time for staff and faculty, as well, that’s exacerbated by holiday stress and the tumultuous, partisan and sometimes horrific world we live in.

That’s why I want to share what I’ve learned about wellness and its impact on happiness and success, during my career in academia and as vice provost for graduate studies and dean of the Graduate Division, where I work with my dedicated staff and campus partners on programs designed to alleviate stress.

‘On My Mind’

‘On My Mind’ is a space for senior campus leaders to communicate with the Berkeley community. Read more here.

What is the most important piece of advice you’ve ignored, but wish you’d taken? For me, it was the advice given by my director of studies when I started college as an undergraduate:  “Get enough sleep.” I remember puzzling over problem sets into the early hours of the morning, unsure of what I was expected to do or how to tackle it, but too stubborn to just get some sleep. Then I’d get up early the next morning to attend lectures, and my sleep deficit grew. Unsurprisingly, this did not help my academics. In contrast, when I was a graduate student I did get enough sleep, and it was a whole lot easier to do much better academically, with significantly less effort. And when babies deprived me of sleep later in life, it again was really difficult to stay on top of my work obligations.

I recognize that everyone is different, but Berkeley’s very own Matthew Walker and his researchers have done extensive work that shows that my experience isn’t unique — sleep is really important for thinking, learning, memory, social engagement and more. This really shouldn’t be a surprise, if one thinks about human evolution.

But sleep isn’t the only area where modern life ignores how we evolved. What about diet, exercise, social interactions and stress? Do these affect how we feel, and our efficacy? The short answer is yes, although the longer answer is that there’s a huge amount of uncertainty and individual variation about what’s optimal.

Fiona Doyle

Fiona Doyle is the vice provost for graduate studies and dean of the graduate division.

As a science geek, I look forward each Tuesday to The New York Times’ “Science Times,” particularly the articles on topics outside my own area of expertise. I’ve been astonished over the years at the changing consensus on what constitutes a good diet and appropriate exercise. Overall, there are vast differences in tastes, cultures and microbiomes, but most people find that eating some sort of a balanced diet makes them feel a whole lot better and more productive.

I consider it a personal triumph to have eschewed the advice being given for decades to eat margarine instead of butter, on the grounds that I can’t stand margarine and didn’t think that a longer life without butter was worth it. Now it turns out that I probably did myself a favor by avoiding all of the trans fats in margarine. Again, what works for me may not work for you. However, I think that one cannot go wrong with professor of journalism Michael Pollan’s advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Or, as I have advised new students for years now: “Eat your vegetables.”

I truly detested physical education as a child, largely because my inability to throw, catch or hit a ball — any kind of a ball — was extremely limiting, if not downright humiliating.  My former teachers — one of whom once wrote in a school report that “Fiona tries hard, but…” — would be surprised to see me advocating exercise. But it really is the “magical pill” that makes us healthier, happier and helps us think more clearly. At Berkeley, we are spoiled with exercise options. The University Health Services Active@Work site has some great programs and events for anyone wanting to be more active. You don’t have to be a student to have a Berkeley Rec Sports membership or to participate in some of the Cal Adventures activities. I love walking, including on campus, and on weekends, I appreciate the incredible variety of East Bay Regional Parks. The spectacular scenery helps me unwind and regain a sense of perspective after a busy week. For longer trips, there are amazing outdoor activities in the Sierra Nevada.

But this is an overwhelming time of year. The days are shorter. Finals loom. Many in the campus community are dealing with personal or political tensions, or the recent loss of a loved one. I’m thinking in particular about those among us affected by the recent wildfires or horrific mass shootings.

It’s so important for our well-being to keep a sense of perspective, to appreciate the wonderful things in life, even when confronted with the terrible, and to reach out to those who are less fortunate.”

This is where perhaps the most important principles of well-being can be helpful. It’s so important for our well-being to keep a sense of perspective, to appreciate the wonderful things in life, even when confronted with the terrible, and to reach out to those who are less fortunate. There are countless ways to do this, but as a start, you might look at the website for Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

And I’d urge everyone to check out the new recalibrate website, which includes a host of specific resources for situations including feeling unsafe, experiencing emotional distress, worrying about a friend, lacking money for healthy food and needing career advice.

The final thing that’s on my mind is how Berkeley reminds me of my undergraduate self, stubbornly reluctant to follow good advice. The links in this column have been mainly to Berkeley websites. We have incredible scholars who have shown us how to be well, happy and productive. We have extensive resources to help us. But we have a pervasive culture of overachievement that makes it really difficult to follow these obvious pointers to well-being and happiness. We pride ourselves on working ridiculously hard, on insufficient sleep, with far too few breaks. I must admit that we do pretty well with all these things working against us.

Let’s challenge ourselves, as we finish out this semester, and look to a new year to do better,o follow excellent, data-driven advice and to take time to care for ourselves, each other and those beyond our community who need help. Let’s see how much of an impact Berkeley can have when we all get enough sleep, stress less, exercise more and eat our vegetables!