Dr. Mylien Duong: “Nurture your relationships”

Nurture your relationships. Strong relationships with your partner or significant other and staying socially connected to family and friends can positively impact your mental health and boost well-being. My graduate school advisor used to say, “When you’re on your deathbed, you’re not gonna wish that you had written one more paper.” That was his own […]

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Nurture your relationships. Strong relationships with your partner or significant other and staying socially connected to family and friends can positively impact your mental health and boost well-being. My graduate school advisor used to say, “When you’re on your deathbed, you’re not gonna wish that you had written one more paper.” That was his own way of saying that work is not the most important thing in life. I think for a lot of people, including myself, this is easier said than done — but it’s something that I come back to all the time as one of the guiding principles of my life.

Often when we refer to wellness, we assume that we are talking about physical wellbeing. But one can be physically very healthy but still be unwell, emotionally or mentally. What are the steps we can take to cultivate optimal wellness in all areas of our life; to develop Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing?

As a part of our series about “How We Can Do To Cultivate Our Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewingDr. Mylien Duong.

Dr. Mylien Duong is a clinical psychologist and a licensed therapist specializing in preventing and treating depression, anxiety, and trauma. She serves as a senior research scientist at the global education nonprofit Committee for Children, where she researches teacher well-being and social-emotional learning for adults and children. Dr. Duong is also an affiliate assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital and has her own private therapy practice.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Of course. I was born and raised in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. My family and I came to the U.S. when I was 10 years old and moved to southern California. We grew up quite poor, and it’s taken me a long time to not be embarrassed about that but to be proud of where I come from. I remember we bought our first used car in the U.S. as a family — it was a 10-year-old Toyota Supra — and two days later, we were three blocks from our apartment after grocery shopping and it overheated. My parents had never owned a car before, and they had no idea what was happening as smoke came out from under the hood! It’s a funny story now that I think back on it, but it was devastating and overwhelming when it happened. I now have so much empathy and admiration for families living in poverty. And here’s a fun fact that is probably (or definitely) TMI: I didn’t use a flush toilet ’til I was 10.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

Neither of my parents are well-educated. My dad has a high school degree and my mom only finished the third grade. She grew up in rural Vietnam, where girls weren’t allowed to go to school and were expected to stay home and help with farm work. Growing up, I really believed in the power of education to lift families out of poverty, open doors, and give a person freedom to choose how they spend their life. And I still believe that. I truly believe that every child deserves the opportunity to excel and thrive, and that opportunity should not be determined at birth. That’s what’s driven me to dedicate my life to making education accessible for all kids.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve benefited from a lifetime of help and encouragement from many people. I totally agree with you that none of us can achieve success without help along the way. It’s so hard to pick just one, but honestly the first thing I think of when you ask me this question is this image I have of doing homework in our apartment when I was in elementary school. We didn’t have a ton of private space, but whenever I was doing schoolwork, my family would be quiet so I could concentrate. And every once in a while, my mom or my big sister would bring me a little snack — a cut-up apple or a glass of orange juice. We’re not super expressive emotionally as a family, but it was little things like this that made me feel loved and supported.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

Oh man, here’s a good one. When I was in my third year of graduate school at the University of Washington, I was working on a systematic review. It’s a summary of past research, and part of that meant emailing tons of reputable and well-known professors and researchers in my field to see if they could provide me with data from their published research projects. I finally worked up the courage to email a famous professor in my field with some questions about his publication — and in my email I addressed him by the WRONG name. It was a total copy-and-paste error since I had been emailing tons of others that day, too. He pointed it out in his reply, and I was mortified! I apologized profusely, I talked to my friends about it, and felt awful for days! And you know what, it wasn’t the last time I made that mistake either. It’s funny because now it happens to me. What I learned from it all is: even with the best of intentions, we all screw up. Let’s give ourselves and each other some grace, and just move on.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

One of my favorite books is Man’s Search for Meaning by Dr. Viktor Frankl. It’s about Viktor Frankl’s harrowing experiences in an Auschwitz concentration camp. After his release, Dr. Frankl spent the remainder of his career developing what’s called “existential psychology,” which is about how we, as humans, make sense of our roles in the world — particularly amid struggle, hardship, and crisis. I find this book particularly important and interesting right now as our country comes to terms with the string of traumatic events over the past year that have left many of us feeling anxious, lost, and confused. Man’s Search for Meaning has been particularly meaningful to me as I reflect on my own experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic and help my patients, and the educators and children I serve, make sense of trauma, and ultimately find meaning and purpose in their lives.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

I have a new motto every year. Right now, it’s a saying by a Vietnamese monk and spiritual leader, Thich Nhat Hanh: “What you are looking for is already in you.” I’m a very driven person by nature, and I’m constantly working towards the next product launch, the next promotion. My husband makes fun of me because while we were on our honeymoon in Tahiti, I was already planning our next trip to Costa Rica. The pandemic has been really hard, but one thing that’s come from it is that it’s reminded me to slow down and look inward. I had to find a way to be in the present moment, simply because I couldn’t go anywhere or plan anything! And now, I’m really fighting the urge to just “get through” 2021, and I’m returning to my mindfulness practice and trying to find the miracle in every moment.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

Right now, I’m working on a team that’s developing a teacher well-being program around social-emotional learning. Teacher stress and burnout is a huge problem in this country, and I think most people outside of the education industry aren’t aware of how teacher wellness impacts students’ educational experiences and how much it’s costing us as a society. We have a teaching force where almost half leave within five years. We really think this new program can help. It’s not the first time I’ve done work on teacher well-being, but it’s the first time that I’m doing it on this scale. This program will be available to all K–12 schools in the U.S. later this spring. That’s the primary reason why I left academia to work with an ed tech organization — to use their technology platform and global footprint to bring good science to more people.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. In this interview series we’d like to discuss cultivating wellness habits in four areas of our lives, Mental wellness, Physical wellness, Emotional wellness, & Spiritual wellness. Let’s dive deeper into these together. Based on your research or experience, can you share with our readers three good habits that can lead to optimum mental wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

Definitely. Now, I know the habits I’m about to share are not super new and splashy, but they are foundational to optimum mental wellness.

  1. Get quality sleep. You ever notice how, after a poor night’s sleep, your mood changes and you’re cranky with everyone? Yeah, me too. Sleep is so important that every species does it, even if they have to sleep half a brain at a time! If you’re not getting enough quality sleep, it’s impossible to be on your mental A-game.
  2. Nurture your relationships. Strong relationships with your partner or significant other and staying socially connected to family and friends can positively impact your mental health and boost well-being. My graduate school advisor used to say, “When you’re on your deathbed, you’re not gonna wish that you had written one more paper.” That was his own way of saying that work is not the most important thing in life. I think for a lot of people, including myself, this is easier said than done — but it’s something that I come back to all the time as one of the guiding principles of my life.
  3. Do you. The thing about getting plopped into an entirely different country when you’re 10 is that you spend much of your adolescence feeling like a weirdo. You don’t QUITE fit in anywhere — not at home, not with your friends. For a long time, I tried to hide what a weirdo I was. And then, eventually, I realized — everybody’s a weirdo! Nobody’s the same. And it’s really this freedom to just be ME, and get to know what works for ME, that has made a real difference in my life. In the world of social-emotional learning, we talk about “self-awareness” being foundational to all other social and emotional skills. There is so much wellness advice out there. With all of that, and with everything that I’m about to tell you, just remember to do you. Try things out, pay attention to how you feel. Not everything works for everybody. Take what works for you and leave the rest.

Do you have a specific type of meditation practice or Yoga practice that you have found helpful? We’d love to hear about it.

If you can find a way, I highly recommend going to a meditation retreat. I had practiced (and taught!) mindfulness for years before I finally attended a 5-day silent retreat. And on the third day, I felt like I finally got it. Of course, they say mindfulness is a practice, and you don’t practice mindfulness just to reach nirvana; that’s not the point. But what this experience did for me is show me the power of mindfulness. I finally understood — not just on an intellectual level, but at my core — that the approach I’d been taking to life was misguided: happiness didn’t come with achievements or possessions or even experiences, but it was there all the time, to be accessed at any moment, if only I’d pay attention.

Thank you for that. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum physical wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Sweat it out. Not only is aerobic exercise good for your heart, lungs, and longevity, but aerobic exercise is also an antidepressant. Running during the winter is the only reason I’ve stayed in Seattle rather than fleeing back to southern California.
  2. Make healthy eating easy. People who research habits call this “friction” — you want to reduce the friction to healthy behaviors and increase friction to unhealthy behaviors. Wash and cut up your vegetables during the weekend to snack on during the week. Don’t keep junk food in the house.
  3. Stop feeling guilty for sleeping. We have a funny narrative in our society that sleep equals laziness. Scientifically, that’s bunk. Own your sleep! I don’t take early morning meetings (I’m a night owl, not a lark). Once every couple of years, a colleague will sleep past their alarm and feel just so embarrassed by it. I say, “Your body needed it.”

Do you have any particular thoughts about healthy eating? We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?

Knowledge and behavior are only weakly correlated. There’s so much more to changing our habits than just knowing what we need to do — otherwise we’d all exercise five days a week and eat salads for lunch every day. In general, we as a society rely way too much on willpower. We have this implicit assumption that, if we just tell ourselves we should do something, that we’ll end up doing it. But we don’t think enough about understanding — and creating — the environmental conditions that make doing the healthy thing easy. And I think a lot of that can happen at the individual level, like what we choose to bring into the house, but some of it has to also happen at the organizational or policy level, like what we order for staff lunches and feed kids at school.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum emotional wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Intentionally practice focusing on the positive. Human brains notice when things go wrong more quickly versus when they go right; we pay more attention to the negative and get stuck on that for longer. Our brains evolved that way, because if you think about it, if you’re a caveman or cavewoman and you don’t spot a threat when it’s there (like a tiger stalking you) you could be toast. But these days, our concerns are not tigers (which are extreme but short-term). Modern-day worries are more likely to be about the email you received, that awkward conversation you had, or the things you need to do tomorrow. These stressors are not life-threatening, and more importantly, they are constant and everywhere. So, the over-attention to the negative, which used to be helpful, is now harmful. I’m not saying, ‘look on the bright side.’ What I mean is, notice — and celebrate — the dozens of things that go right every day that we all take for granted. One way you can do this is to keep a gratitude journal and write down three specific things you’re grateful for every day.
  2. Make friends with your negative emotions. Maybe ‘friends’ is too strong. Instead, be cordial to your negative emotions. Treat them like they’re messengers trying to tell you something you don’t want to hear but that may be really important. Rather than trying to get rid of them as soon as possible, slow down and ask yourself, “What am I feeling? Why am I feeling this way?”
  3. Focus on your purpose, not your happiness. This is something I struggle with. I say to my close friends that I have high standards for happiness. If there’s something not right in my relationships, I gotta fix it. If work isn’t going optimally, well, I gotta change that. But I have to be careful to not be chasing happiness so much that I end up making things worse. The first fundamental truth of Buddhism translates as “life is suffering.” I used to think that was depressing, but now I think it’s liberating. It says to me: “It’s okay to not be happy all the time.” Now, I find that when I focus on the why — who I want to be in my relationships, the difference I’m trying to make in the world with my work — the happiness follows.

Do you have any particular thoughts about the power of smiling to improve emotional wellness? We’d love to hear it.

[The power of] smiling is actually research-based. There’s this classic psychological study where they had people hold a pencil in between their teeth in a way that naturally makes someone smile, and people actually rated their mood as better while having the pencil in their mouth! It’s pretty intuitive that our emotions influence what we do, but what we do also influences our emotions. But be careful with this one! If you fake-smile, it won’t make you happier — this is called ‘masking’ and it puts you at risk for burnout. There’s a subtle but very important difference between faking a smile to get by, and genuinely finding things to smile about.

Finally, can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum spiritual wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Be present. I’m sure you hear this often, especially with mindfulness becoming as popular as it is. But I’m saying this again because I really believe it’s important. We live in a world so full of constant stimulation. When was the last time you weren’t multitasking? There’s this saying: there’s doing the dishes to get the dishes done, and then there’s doing the dishes to do the dishes. I know for myself, 95% of what I do is about getting it done. Once a day, I try to remember to fully focus on something I’m doing, whether that’s eating, mindfully walking, or fully listening in a meeting.
  2. Be thankful for everyday things. In Marie Kondo’s method, when you discard a piece of clothing, you thank it first for all the ways in which it’s served you. I love that mentality. What if we take that approach to more things in our lives? “Thank you, computer, for helping me do work way faster than I could without you.” “Thank you, shoes, for keeping my feet protected.”
  3. Practice loving kindness. It’s a specific meditation. You can find a guided practice here. For years, I practiced this meditation every night before going to bed. During difficult periods — including now — I come back to it.

Do you have any particular thoughts about how being “in nature” can help us to cultivate spiritual wellness?

I don’t just have thoughts, I have facts! This study showed that, in a survey of almost 20,000 people, those who spent 120 minutes a week in nature had better physical and mental health. One of the most common spiritual experiences that people have is a feeling of awe, when we remember that the world is vast and wonderful. For a lot of people, those experiences come in nature — when they look up at a clear sky bursting with stars, or when they see a spectacular sunset.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’d start a reality TV series called “ViewSwap” — where staunch Republicans and staunch Democrats have to switch lives for a month. They work each other’s jobs, eat dinner with each other’s families, hang out with each other’s friends, and even do the other’s hobbies. The political divide in this country is worrisome and we all need to turn our attention to understanding opposing viewpoints. And by that, I don’t mean “we need to turn our attention to convincing the other party we’re right” — but that we need to turn our attention to empathy, taking perspectives, and listening. In social psychology, there’s a foundational concept called “the fundamental attribution error.” In short, you’re more likely to attribute your own behavior to circumstances but attribute someone else’s behavior to their traits. For example, if you cut someone off in traffic, it’s because you’re in a hurry. But if someone else cuts you off in traffic, it’s because they’re a jerk. I want to remind all of us that we’re shaped by our circumstance, and yes, that includes the people we disagree with. But ideally, we’d get this reminder in a format that’s super funny, very relatable, not-at-all-preachy, and consumable while wearing sweatpants.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

You know, I’d really love to talk to Bill Gates. He’s done so many impressive things. Not only do I actively use his software day after day (don’t we all?), but I truly admire his philanthropic work, his determination, and his courage. I want to ask him what it’s like spending your days and weeks, months, and years, trying to do good for people by innovating against climate change and trying to eradicate polio — and then to see yourself be vilified by some. And then most importantly, how do you keep going? Has it always been easy for you to tune out the negative attention, or did you learn to do that over time? That takes courage.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

If you’re interested in the intersection between social-emotional well-being and mental health, I encourage you to check one of the recent video projects the team and I released this winter. It’s a series of short, research-based self-care videos to encourage parents to focus on their own mental health. And, if you’re a scientist, or just have a lot of interest (and tolerance) for psychological science, you can follow my latest work on my ResearchGate profile.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

Thank you so much for the opportunity!

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