A three-person panel speaking in late June to a modest audience at Kepler's bookstore in Menlo Park presented some simple-sounding but challenging approaches to Palo Alto's nagging fear of being a "suicide contagion" capital.
The panel focused not on suicide but on "positive contagions" that are as (or more) powerful than negative contagions — including a "contagion of hope" that leads people to personal happiness, positive relationships and redefining "success," long a driving force in Palo Alto and the broader Silicon Valley region.
The "suicide" label was applied to Palo Alto nationally after several Gunn High School students died by suicide on the train tracks over a several-year period. There had been two earlier train suicides of Palo Alto High School students and others dating back decades. Suicides from other causes were not publicly known.
But the relatively tight cluster of Gunn students grabbed attention nationally and triggered a deep level of soul-searching among students, parents, teachers, school officials and citizens. The immediate responses were to create a Project Safety Net group and install "track watchers" at the rail crossings, specifically the East Meadow crossing. Deeper responses included programs at Gunn to encourage students and teachers to be more concerned about and caring toward each other.
The Kepler's panel launched a new book by Palo Alto resident Lee Daniel Kravetz, titled: "Strange Contagion: Inside the surprising science of infectious behaviors and viral emotions and what they tell us about ourselves." It was his first presentation of what will be a national book tour for the book. Kravetz had a career as a freelance science writer and has a master's degree in psychology on top of a bachelor's degree in journalism. An earlier book, published in 2014, is "Supersurvivors: The surprising link between suffering and success," which he co-authored.
Kravetz moved to Palo Alto in 2009. At Kepler's he led off by reading from the beginning of his new book: an account of how he and his wife, expecting their first child, were unpacking in their new second-story apartment when a commotion of sirens and jammed traffic outside caught their attention. It was the first of the Gunn suicides, they discovered when they later checked an online news story.
The other Kepler's panelists were Palo Altan Julie Lythcott-Haims, who had children in Palo Alto schools and served as the panel's moderator; and Ronen "Roni" Habib, who teaches social studies and technology at Gunn. Following several suicides, Habib created a new "positive psychology" class — an approach that now is spreading nationally with teens, teachers and parents through an organization he also founded, EQ Schools, featured in 2015 in a TED Talk.
Lythcott-Haims, a former dean of freshmen at Stanford University, is widely known for her book, "How to Raise an Adult: Break free of the overparenting trap and prepare your kid for success." She opened with recalling the reaction in Palo Alto to the suicides, noting that while "no one was trying to be sensational about the tragedies, everyone was hungry to try to figure out what we can do" about the then-pervasive "feeling of hopelessness and helplessness" that swept through the community.
Kravetz said the suicides hit him hard, and his science-writer curiosity kicked in. He met Habib, who also was expecting a new baby, and they connected with a shared desire to do something effective to combat the hopelessness/helplessness root of self-destruction.
As he looked into the research underlying the psychology of contagious beliefs and patterns, he discovered the highly contagious nature of negative beliefs that grow into self-fulfilling prophecies. And he delved into how those could be countered, discovering research that showed positive perceptions and beliefs once implemented in a social setting can be as or more contagious than the destructive negative beliefs.
Habib, who said he taught economics at Gunn for nearly a decade, created the positive-psychology class as an elective with that hope that perhaps 25 students might sign up for it. Instead, 107 students responded eagerly.
The class, he said, focuses on encouraging students to openly share with others their inner feelings about their character generally and about their personal struggles about themselves, self-perceptions, bodies and life.
Others in the circle "feel honored" by the sharing "and they begin to open up and share," he said.
"This is the most important thing I've ever done as an educator," he said. And the follow-up with teachers nationally and internationally is essential, as teachers need to learn to be open, sharing and vulnerable to connect effectively with their students.
The panelists agreed that "emotional intelligence" should be considered as important as academic performance and that "success" should be redefined as being more than financial.
People need to learn how to create a "contagion of happiness," they agreed.
Citing research by psychologist Martin Seligman, considered the father of positive psychology and the theory of "learned helplessness," Habib listed the five things needed for someone to achieve balance in life, under the acronym of PERMA: Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishments. "The most important by far is relationships, which unfortunately are becoming more and more elusive in our busy, tech-heavy lives."
"We can feel helpless today in the face of certain stressors, in the face of pressure, certain definitions of success," Lythcott-Haims summed up in "takeaway" comments.
"We can feel stressed out and helpless because the robots are coming to take our jobs, and artificial intelligence and all. ... There's a lot that we can be afraid of, and it can make us feel helpless in our own lives. But we are not. We all need to know that we matter: We need to matter to ourself. We need to know that we matter to one another.
"And when we can show someone else that they matter, that we literally see them and give a darn about them, we can be the interrupters that you're talking about — we can be the solution we're looking for."
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.