Assistant Professor of Psychology Leah Dickens is an expert in social and positive psychology and the functions of emotions in everyday life — so who better to offer advice to Kenyon seniors on the precipice of life beyond college? The Class of 2022 voted for Dickens to deliver the faculty address at this year’s Baccalaureate ceremony, where Dickens will speak about how “Being Human Means Being Emotional.”
One of this year’s soon-to-be-graduates, international studies major Raul Romero ’22, sat down with Dickens to talk about community, gratitude and David Foster Wallace. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
I’ve only heard great comments about your classes. How have you been able to create such an impact? What has been the secret to your success?
I can’t say for certain. But we’re all human beings living in a social world, so a lot of the concepts we talk about in social psychology, students find very relevant to their own lives. It’s the same with positive psychology, like how we live a good life. I tell students I’m not a life coach and that this is not a prescriptive course or anything, but they can’t help but see certain personal benefits from the things that we’re learning about.
You’ve also done work related to gratitude and positive psychology. How have you been able to create gratitude?
I have my students try to engage in what are called positive psychology interventions, which are these practices that research suggests might be beneficial to people’s well being and happiness. Things like writing gratitude letters to people who they’re really grateful for, but whom they perhaps haven’t thanked directly in the past, performing random acts of kindness for other people, things like that. So I like to think that my students are bringing some of what we’re learning about in the class into the community directly. The more gratitude and the more kindness that goes into the community, the better I feel about the impact my courses might be having on students and their relationships.
That’s very sweet. And you referred to the Kenyon community — how would you describe that community?
The Kenyon community is definitely a very special one. Before coming here, I taught at a couple of other small schools, and they were also great, but the community at Kenyon just feels more cohesive: perhaps the fact that we’re isolated on this hill together draws us closer. We find a lot of our activity or entertainment, our day-to-day on this hill, with one another. And what I personally really love is that the size of this campus means you’re constantly running into people you know. During the pandemic, when it was happening a lot less, I realized I was feeling really, really lonely. And now that I’ve been running into people on Middle Path again, and seeing all of the campus dogs again, it just feels really nice.
How would you summarize the Kenyon community in one sentence or in one word?
It’s a community that’s there for one another. So, “supportive”? Yeah, let’s go with that. Perhaps imperfect.
What’s your advice for the senior class? We’re going to be in totally different and new places.
I think this world needs good people who are doing good things for themselves and for others. I think my advice would be to always remember that you’re experiencing your reality from your own perspective, but there are other people sharing this reality, and that the world works best when we work together and support one another. So maybe trying to embrace that: trying to be good citizens who think beyond themselves and cultivate empathy for other people.
Have you listened to or read David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” speech?
I did listen to it. When I was prepping, trying to find inspiration for my own Baccalaureate speech. Yes, it was a very good speech.
I think your words connect a lot to that sense of always understanding and acknowledging the hardwired individual consciousness that you cannot escape from.
Yes, his point about how you direct your thinking, how that makes such a difference. I’m often telling my students that our perception of reality is our interpretation of reality, and it might not be the same as someone right next to us, their interpretation of reality. So yeah, he definitely got a lot right in his speech.
What is something you think people should remember regardless of what stage they’re at in their lives?
One activity I have my Positive Psychology students do every semester is interview a number of people about their perspectives on what makes a meaningful life. And every year, consistent with the psych literature, people discover that there are two really big things, two themes that come out when you think about a meaningful life.
The first is good relationships, and nurturing good relationships. And the second is having a purpose. Both of those things remind me of how this life is not just about our own self and our own happiness. It's about how our lives impact other people’s lives and how we can perhaps bring happiness or comfort or support to other people. We can do that in our relationships across the board, and we can do that in the jobs that we hold and in the volunteer positions we have, we can find a purpose in our lives that makes it feel meaningful to us.
So much of college is about figuring out your identity and it’s very self-driven and self-focused, as it should be, but also remember your place in this wider world. Maybe there’s a lot that’s out of your control, but there is also a lot you can do, even small things on a daily basis, that can have an impact on other people and help you feel a purpose.
Is there anything else you want to add that you think is important?
As every professor says to their graduating seniors, just because you’re leaving Kenyon doesn’t mean that you aren’t still connected to this place forever. And it doesn’t mean that you can’t keep learning outside of our classrooms. So I encourage people to feel that Kenyon support, even off the hill, and to encourage people to keep learning and growing and developing as positive human beings.