I Can’t Get No Satisfaction: Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Christopher Palmer Of On Why So Many Of Us Are Feeling Unsatisfied & What We Can Do About It

An Interview With Drew Gerber

Drew Gerber, CEO of Wasabi Publicity
Authority Magazine

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… Listen to someone you care about. One thing that people crave is authentic attention from others. If you take the time to listen to someone else talk about themselves, their struggles, or their successes, they will be much more likely to reciprocate and spend more time with you. This is one way to build relationships in your life, which will confer happiness to YOU.

From an objective standpoint, we are living in an unprecedented era of abundance. Yet so many of us are feeling unsatisfied. Why are we seemingly so insatiable? What is going on inside of us that is making us feel unsatisfied? What is the brain chemistry that makes us feel this way? Is our brain wired for endless insatiable consumption? What can we do about it? In this interview series, we are talking to credentialed experts such as psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, brain science experts, as well as spiritual and religious leaders, and mind-body-spirit coaches, to address why so many of us are feeling unsatisfied & what we can do about it.

As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dr. Chris Palmer.

Christopher Palmer, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the Director of the Department of Postgraduate and Continuing Education at McLean Hospital. For the past 27 years, he has been an academic physician with administrative, research, educational, and clinical roles. His new book, BRAIN ENERGY, provides a paradigm shift in our understanding of mental health. Mental disorders are metabolic disorders of the brain.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to know how you got from “there to here.” Inspire us with your backstory!

I grew up in a large, middle-class family in Indiana with 7 siblings. I suppose my childhood is the primary reason I became a psychiatrist. I had my own personal struggles with mental illness, but what hit me hard was when my mother developed a serious, chronic mental illness at the age of 42. It destroyed her life and robbed her of everything she had worked for. At one point, it was just the two of us living together and we were homeless for a while. I was furious with the mental health system for not being able to help her, and I largely saw psychiatrists as incompetent snobs. Fast forward to today, I have now been a Harvard psychiatrist for the past 27 years.

What lessons would you share with yourself if you had the opportunity to meet your younger self?

Diet and exercise play a much bigger role in your mental health than you know. They aren’t just about looking good or being an athlete. They can help your brain function better, too, so that you feel and think better.

None of us are able to experience success without support along the way. Is there a particular person for whom you are grateful because of the support they gave you to grow you from “there to here?” Can you share that story and why you are grateful for them?

I left home before finishing high school and was supported by a friend from work, Patty Becker. She and her husband allowed me to live with them so that I could finish high school. We’ve remained friends to this day. Their generosity and faith in me helped me to ultimately learn to have faith in myself.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think it might help people?

Yes, I’m about to publish a book, Brain Energy, that presents a new theory of what causes mental illness. Integrating decades of clinical, neuroscience, psychosocial, and metabolic research into one coherent theory, I argue that mental disorders are metabolic disorders of the brain. This new theory not only provides long-elusive answers to questions that have plagued the mental health field, but it provides new solutions, ones that offer the hope of long-term healing as opposed to just symptom reduction. I’m hopeful that it might end the suffering of millions of people who are not getting better using current mental health treatments.

Ok, thank you for sharing your inspired life. Let’s now talk about feeling “unsatisfied”. In the Western world, humans typically have their shelter, food, and survival needs met. What has led to us feeling we aren’t enough and don’t have enough? What is the wiring? Or in other words, how has nature and nurture played into how humans (in an otherwise “safe and secure” environment) experience feeling less than, or a need to have more than what is needed for basic survival?

Many animal species have social hierarchies in which some individual animals take leadership roles or receive preferential treatment over others, which often includes access to resources. Humans are no different. This is hardwired into our brains (reference). These social hierarchies lead to differences in status, money, power, fame, and the ability to attract sexual and romantic partners. We humans can become obsessed with these hierarchies, and if we feel that we aren’t measuring up in some way, it can lead us to feeling unsatisfied, insecure, or downright depressed.

How are societies different? For example, capitalistic societies trade differently than communists. Developed nations trade differently than developing nations. In your opinion, how does society shape a human’s experience and feelings of satisfaction?

Society plays a powerful role in people’s feelings of satisfaction. We compare ourselves and our lives to others. Everything is relative. There are many metrics by which we measure our success and our satisfaction in life: money, power, and fame are often the first ones people think of, but longitudinal studies suggest that relationships confer the greatest happiness over the long-run. In many ways, once people have their health and basic needs met, having loving and supportive relationships confers the greatest increase in happiness. People crave recognition from others. We all want people to love, admire, and respect us. These are the ultimate goals of achieving status in society. Unfortunately, money, power, and fame don’t necessarily deliver these results.

With a specific focus on brain function, how has the brain and its dominion over the body and beliefs been impacted by the societal construct?

Our brains are hardwired for society. Humans are designed to live in groups of people: families, communities, towns, cities, states, and countries. It is these different groups of people that form an individual’s “society.” There are many variations in standards and expectations depending upon where and with whom you live and interact. When humans feel ostracized by society or feel that they don’t measure up in some way, they develop a chronic stress response, which can impact both mental and physical health.

Do you think the way our society markets and advertises goods and services, has affected people’s feelings of satisfaction? Can you explain what you mean?

Absolutely! Marketing and advertising are attempting to set standards for people to live up to. Successful campaigns are ones that achieve this goal. People will then want, or feel they even “need,” the goods and services. They will feel a degree of stress, or even shame, if they don’t get it.

How is the wiring of the brain, body, and beliefs shaped by marketing, language, and how humans trade?

Humans begin storing information in their brains even prior to birth. As soon as we are exposed to marketing and language, we internalize these messages, as they teach us how to survive and thrive in the world. We learn about what we should believe, how we should act, what we should have, and how we should treat others through these messages. We develop ingrained, automatic beliefs about how the world works and how we measure up, and these beliefs are influenced by marketing, society, and how economies work.

I work in marketing so I’m very cognizant of this question. In your opinion, how do you think marketing professionals can be more responsible for how their advertising shapes humans’ health and experience of happiness overall?

I think companies and marketing professionals have many opportunities to do their work in ways that support and enhance human health. Offering messages of connection, hope, improving health, and making the world a better place can all resonate with audiences and build brand loyalty. Some goods and services are going to be used by most people anyway, such as a cell phone, so these types of positive messages can inspire people to live better lives and at the same time inspire brand loyalty with a specific company. Other goods and services can inspire people to improve their health for a relatively small investment, such as healthy food options or athletic goods and services.

For you personally, if you have all your basic needs met, do you feel you have enough in life?

The honest answer is that I have more than just my basic needs in life right now. If this were to change, I imagine I would go through an adjustment period during which I would be unhappy about it. But if I had friends and family that continued to love and accept me and were available to spend time with me, I think I would get to a place in which I felt that it was enough. As I mentioned earlier, I had some economically challenging times in my life, and quite honestly, some of those times were among the best in my life because of the people and relationships that I had.

Okay, fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview: Can you share with our readers your “5 things we can each do to address the feeling of not having enough.” Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Listen to someone you care about. One thing that people crave is authentic attention from others. If you take the time to listen to someone else talk about themselves, their struggles, or their successes, they will be much more likely to reciprocate and spend more time with you. This is one way to build relationships in your life, which will confer happiness to YOU.
  2. Three good things worksheet (link here). Many studies have found that writing down three good things that happened to you AND what you did to make them happen can have beneficial effects on your mood and outlook in life.
  3. Mentally connect with yourself, such as using mindfulness or meditation. Numerous studies have found benefits to physical and mental health with mindfulness or meditation. These practices help you disconnect from the stress of the world and simply reflect upon your existence.
  4. Physically connect with yourself using exercise, yoga, or stretching. I personally love exercising. It’s a great way to reduce stress. And it’s important to point out that I wasn’t always like this. I used to be an “unathletic nerd.” So if I can learn to love exercise, you can, too.
  5. Change your diet. One strategy that I have used to improve my mental and physical health is through a low carb diet. High carbohydrate foods can be inflammatory and cause mood changes, at least in some people.

Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have inspired you to live with more joy in life?

The TED talk, “What Makes a Good Life” by Robert Waldinger: Link Here The overall message is that relationships are the most important ingredient to a happy life.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

As a matter of fact, I’m organizing a grassroots movement for mental health! As many people know, mental disorders are a growing crisis and are now the leading cause of disability on the planet. Our current treatments fail to work for far too many people. I argue that mental disorders are metabolic disorders of the brain, and this new understanding leads to entirely new ways to treat mental disorders.

What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?

Please visit www.brainenergy.com to help us transform the mental health field. Millions of people are desperate for better solutions than they are currently being offered.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.

About The Interviewer: For 30 years, Drew Gerber has been inspiring those who want to change the world. Drew is the CEO of Wasabi Publicity, Inc., a full-service PR agency lauded by PR Week and Good Morning America. Wasabi Publicity, Inc. is a global marketing company that supports industry leaders, change agents, unconventional thinkers, companies and organizations that strive to make a difference. Whether it’s branding, traditional PR or social media marketing, every campaign is instilled with passion, creativity and brilliance to powerfully tell their clients’ story and amplify their intentions in the world.

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Drew Gerber, CEO of Wasabi Publicity
Authority Magazine

For 30 years, Drew Gerber has been inspiring those who want to change the world