Last year in a journalism workshop I attended, the lecturer said that the best thing a master can give us is access to academic papers for free. As a non-student of journalism, I didn’t even consider these as potential sources for feature articles. But also, I never considered that academic papers could prove to be quite as useful at helping people go through their issues just as they help journalists backing-up their stories.

I had seen that before when reading my friend Amy’s book ‘Reclaiming Control’, in which she writes about her journey before and after quitting, her high-paying job in New York to travel the world. She shares about her experiences with burn-out and perfectionism, alluding to research and data from experts on these topics. At the time, I thought that she was, in the same way, investigative journalists do, zooming in and out to give the reader some context on the impacts of burn-out worldwide. 

But it turns out that citing data can do more than that, as one smart girl in that journalism workshop kept suggesting every time she mentioned ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ by Joan Didion, as a perfect example of balancing data with storytelling. She spoke so fondly of that book that I ended-up buying it on an “Artist Date” (a date only with yourself, coined by creative-guru Julia Cameron) a few months ago in Copenhagen.

In this book, Didion makes use of data with no intention of giving readers an overall context, or to back-up her narrative. Instead, she does it to make sense of her feelings after her husband’s death. She cites research papers, firstly hoping to understand the sickness of her dead husband, and then, by reading about grief, to understand what was happening inside her – she goes as far as comparing her reactions to those of dolphins and geese when they lose their mates. She writes: 

“In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information is control.”

Perhaps, my friend Amy had done something quite similar during her writing process. And with it, I thought that I could approach my own pains in the same way Didion had been advised to.

Research shows… you’ve been studied before

I can imagine someone like my psychiatrist dismissing Didion’s blind faith in academic research – he’s the kind of guy that doesn’t want patients to go around in circles. For the time being, I’ll be writing about my mental health just vaguely because I wouldn’t want the internet to know – or, anyone around me – about which medicines I’m taking for what as, more often than not, I’ve been misdiagnosed. 

But without the certainty of a diagnosis to use as a token, the questions in my head seem to pile up, so, it’s no surprise that Didion’s book inspired me to get into my school’s online library to search for some answers myself. This time, I wasn’t there to search for “the influence of flextime in job satisfaction” but for stuff like “what’s the meaning of life” or “overdiagnosis mental illnesses”. 

To this, a friend asked me: “So, is this just a blog post about using Google Scholar?” In a way, yes – but, as I read on a research paper, the average person doesn’t need an academic to explain to them that everyday worries are ordinary. What I’m saying is that, for some, there’s a middle point, a grey area that needs to be explored, and, as Didion figured, there’s no better way to it than by piggybacking on the work of academics who dedicated hours to it.

For example, that’s how I found that for a very specific problem that I have, what I’m doing might never be enough – because research has shown, that when you isolate certain variables such as eating well and talk-therapy (like I wrote in this blog post), that’s still not enough to be mentally healthy for people in my situation. As I learned at uni, the p-value needs to be below 0.05 to be statistically significant and, when isolating all variables, only one, very specific pain point stood-out. According to the researchers, that’s the one factor I should be spending my time on. 

But other academic papers weren’t that conclusive. In fact, in many of the research papers that I found, there was no solution-focused conclusion, and some papers even started by naming academics that came up with opposite conclusions, cancelling each other out. So, if this happens in academia, we have all the right to take each final answer from a doctor about a certain diagnosis with a pinch of salt.

Besides this, going through academic papers is also a good way to understand that your personal issues aren’t unique – they might belong to statistics already, and probably, hypotheses on how to overcome them have been designed before. So, by reading academic papers, you might not get a final answer, but at least you know where to press.

Concerning this, I can’t help but mention psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl’s book “Man’s search for meaning”. Through his experiences as a Jew in Nazi camps, he concluded that every man’s ultimate goal is to find meaning in life. He wrote: “It did not matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us”. I didn’t resonate with this, but I used it for research: so, what is it? What have you been expecting from life? What has been bugging you? Write it down because that might have been the research question of some academic somewhere in time. 


PS: For the ones that want to start a blog, pay the bills with their art, or just simply move forward with their creative side-projects, I created a group program called The Next Step Sessions. These are weekly accountability sessions to help you figure out what the next step is by talking with other creatives about your life-long projects, moving-needle tasks for the week ahead, and by delving into the blocks that prevent you from doing the work. Learn more here.

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