Harvard and Humility (Department Of: What Makes A Life Meaningful)

Harvard Business School alumni have been passing around an article via email. David Brooks referenced it on the Times Op-Ed page. The article was written by Professor Clayton Christensen, one of the most celebrated of the Ivy’s starry faculty. The piece is called “How Will You Measure Your Life?” and whether or not you ascribe to Christensen’s personal ideology, or whether or not you ascribe to the broader proposition that a life can be “made” meaningful via practice and choice (and will), this piece poses provocative questions.


On the importance of practicing humility, Christensen writes:

"I got this insight when I was asked to teach a class on humility at Harvard College. I asked all the students to describe the most humble person they knew. One characteristic of these humble people stood out: They had a high level of self-esteem. They knew who they were, and they felt good about whom they were. We also decided that humility was defined not by self- deprecating behavior or attitudes but by the esteem with which you regard others. Good behavior flows naturally from that kind of humility. For example, you would never steal from someone, because you respect that person too much. You’d never lie to someone, either. It’s crucial to take a sense of humility into the world . . . Generally, you can be humble only if you feel really good about yourself—and you want to help those around you feel really good about themselves, too. When we see people acting in an abusive, arrogant, or demeaning manner toward others, their behavior almost always is a symptom of their lack of self-esteem. They need to put someone else down to feel good about themselves."

You can be humble only if you feel good about yourself. This is the proprietary—or rather, disruptive—line in the essay. It is the line that, while not necessarily new or "game-changing" (as the MBAs say), still states a clear, practicable principle, one that the reader can back out of into a set of rules, and analysis. Like presenting a graduate economics student with a cash flow to discount, Christensen’s Good Life Laws allow for analysis of the UnHumble among us today, and perhaps it is particularly interesting to consider, via this lens, the UnHumble among us who are also graduates of the school where he works.

If humility is axiomatically predicated on self-esteem, can we assume that an absence of humility belies an absence of self-esteem? If so, we might say that one path to true meaning (Christensen says as much as this in the rest of his piece) is paved well in advance, and well outside of, any IPO, any Nobel Prize, any sea-side mansion or election to office. Christensen continues:

"I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched. I think that’s the way it will work for us all. Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people. This is my final recommendation: Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success."

So the path is to find the path. The path is to find the right metric to measure the path. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.