July 26, 2022

Brain Science of Mental Wellbeing in the Workplace with Founder & Chief Scientist at Sapien Labs Tara Thiagarajan | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker

Brain Science of Mental Wellbeing in the Workplace with Founder & Chief Scientist at Sapien Labs Tara Thiagarajan | Greater Washington DC DMV Changemaker

In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Tara Thiagarajan, Founder, and Chief Scientist at Sapien Labs. Tara Thiagarajan shares studies and insights on mental well-being, its key indicators, and how it influences people and communities. Tara Thiagarajan also highlighted the biggest factors contributing to mental well-being and its impact on economic outcomes. Finally, Tara Thiagarajan talked about Sapien Lab’s latest studies on the current state of the world’s psychological well-being, its driving factors, and how it impacts organizations. 


Some highlights:

-Tara Thiagarajan on the impact of growing up with a multicultural background

-On why she pursued a degree in Math and soon found her way to Business School

-How Tara Thiagarajan decided to pursue Neuroscience 

-The purpose behind Sapien Labs

-How cultural elements are correlated with mental well-being 

-The cognitive factors that challenge people 

-Sapien Labs’ report on the mental state of the world

-The components that are associated with higher mental health scores

-Younger generation’s mental well-being

-The importance of mental health in the workplace 

Connect with Tara Thiagarajan:

Sapien Labs Website

Tara Thiagarajan on Twitter

Tara Thiagarajan on LinkedIn

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:




More information and resources are available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 



Mahan Tavakoli: 

Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Tara Thiagarajan. Tara is the founder and chief scientist at Sapien Labs. They are research focused nonprofit with a mission to understand and enable the human mind. And this after Tara had gotten Doctorate in Neuroscience at Stanford, then becoming chairman and managing director of Madura Micro Finance, and eventually founding Sapien Labs.

I really enjoy this conversation both with respect to her own upbringing, and also the fascinating research that they're doing at Sapier Labs. I'm sure you will enjoy the conversation and learn a lot from her too. 

I also enjoy hearing from you. Keep your comments coming. mahan@mahantavakoli.com. There's a microphone icon on partneringleadership.com.

You can leave voice messages for me there. Don't forget to follow the podcast on your favorite platform. Tuesday conversations with magnificent change makers in a greater Washington DC DMV region like Tara and Thursday conversations with brilliant global thought leaders, primarily leadership book authors.

Now here is my conversation with Tara Thiagarajan.

Tara Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I am thrilled to have you in this conversation with me,

Tara Thiagarajan: 

Thanks Mahan. It's a pleasure to be here.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Tara. I love your story, what you are doing at Sapein Labs. But before we get to that would love to know about your upbringing and its impact on you 

What was your upbringing like, Tara?

Tara Thiagarajan: 

I'm half and half. My mother's American and my father's Indian. I grew up in India. I did my schooling in India and then came to the United States for college. And my life has been somewhat serendipitous and back and forth a lot between these two continents and two countries between the United States and India. 

As a child, the two worlds were quite separate and I would come to the United States in the summer and it was a completely different environment. Then, I was living in India. I was in school in India. And for the most part, these two worlds didn’t much intersect with one another until maybe I was around in college and after, when it became a lot more common, as globalization was growing, people started mixing and, so many of my friends from India came to the United States. People from the United States would travel more to India.

And that's when the confusion really started because there was a period in time where you just grew up a bit like a chameleon. You were one in this side and something else on the other side. 

They behave very differently and you fit into both. And then when they start to mix and mingle, then you have to start to think so which one should I be? Or which one am I? I think that's a sort of ongoing challenge that you always have to contend with.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

We try to put people in boxes and for people within multicultural background or background like yours, it's hard to know what box do I put myself in?

Tara Thiagarajan: 

Absolutely. And I felt like I've been in both boxes, because my kids will sound, which one is your real accent? And I said, I've had both since the day I was born. And my, name also my mother says it in one way and my father says it in another way.

They were both different accents. I was both. It's certainly a challenge to find a single box and to meld boxes, even.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

You have that cognitive and also emotional ability to fit in a lot of different boxes, which I think contributes to some of what Sapien Labs is all about now. What is it growing up? You wanted to become Jane of the jungle. Where did that come from?

Tara Thiagarajan: 

Yeah. When I was young, I went through a phase of fascination with reptiles where I lived, there was this crocodile bank. And then we had these tribes in India, these snake catching tribes and some friends of mine.

And I had coopted one of these tribes meant to teach us about how to catch all the snakes in the area, which there are many. So, we did all these sorts of things. Later on, when I was around 19, I spent nine months in East Africa working on conservation projects, out in the Masai Mara so I always had this fascination with what it must be like to survive out in the wild and all of that.

But it has since faded.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I have to first find out about these snakes. Were these venomous snakes that you were catching?

Tara Thiagarajan: 

Oh, not all of them, really. So, most snakes are not venomous. There are, of course, South India where I grew up has cobras, but most of the snakes they're quite harmless. Like the rat snakes that look a lot like cobras, but they're also these snakes. I don’t know if you've seen these Indiana Jones movies where people fall into whole pits of snakes. So, you get these clumps of snakes that you can pull out from between Patty fields, they live there in clumps. They're called keel backs and they're the most harmless snakes. You can just pull them out in clumps and they won't do anything. So, it's always very fun because people are scared of them and, they're so harmless.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I'll take your word for it, Tara. I'm not sure I want to experience that. What did your parents think of your desire to find and catch snakes and then spend time at the African Savannah? 

Tara Thiagarajan: 

My parents were quite open-minded people. The fact that they, first of all married each other at the time that they did. They're both fairly adventurous themselves. And, because we were such a multicultural, multi everything family, and for my mother also to have made the transition to move from the United States to India. It was more talked about in extended family and others who thought I was a little bit crazy, but I don’t know, my parents never founded all that bizarre

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So, now you came to us at Brandeis to study. Why pursue a degree in math?

Tara Thiagarajan: 

Ah. The answer to that is not one I'm terribly proud of. I was good at math when I was in high school. And at the time the ethos in India is, if you were good at math, you went into science or something in that area.

I think a lot of education at that time and certainly my perspective at that age was that it was a means to an end. It was not something you did for its own sake in any way. It was not for the education itself. It was, so you got a degree for something or, you check the box in a sense.

So, when I came to the United States for my undergrad, math had the least number of course requirements so I could finish the degree fastest. And I soon learned why that was the case because the classes themselves were quite a bit more difficult than many of the other majors, but that was the reason I did it.

It's not the right reason to do a math major and not that I was terrible, but I was certainly not on a path to being a mathematician. And I always thought, perhaps in retrospect, if I had done physics or something like that, it would've actually served me better with the interest that I was developing as I was there.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So, you studied math. Why then go to business school after that?

Tara Thiagarajan: 

My path has been very serendipitous/ I think a lot of my trajectory has been the intersection of, the expectation of what everybody does in the community that I grew up in India and my own inclinations, which were quite different from that.

So, it was always a bit of a tussle. My family in India is a very business-oriented family. It's a multiple generation business family. And the expectation was always that you joined the family business. You go and do some sort of science degree, or then you do an MBA.

You come back to the business and that was like the implicit expectation, no one assumed you would try to do anything different from that. And I think as an undergrad, for me, that was the first time that I was seeing a new environment and people who were doing other things, because the community I grew up in was I think largely need dimensional in that way. 

For instance, I didn't know a single scientist as a child, pretty much most of the people I knew were in some form of business or another. Coming to the United States, as an undergraduate, you start to see so many different fields and suddenly you realize wow, there's a much bigger world out there. 

There's so many different things that you can do. I think there were, two factors. One was that I didn't know, what was available and by the time I figured out I was already in my junior year.

And, my last year, my father was unwell and had a heart attack and was quite was bedridden. So, I went back to India after my undergrad I had to figure out where do I go from here? I had gone back to the family business. I spent some years running a textile manufacturing unit while my father was unwell. Then he recovered and I really felt at that point that, I've just been exposed to this whole world in the United States.

And now I'm back here and this is not what I'm meant to be doing. But I had to figure out what was I then meant to be doing. So, I didn't have that answer at that point. And I couldn't apply to PhD programs because I didn't have the prerequisites. So, I went to business school like everybody else.

While I was there, I played around, I took some classes in different areas of science and then, ended up working in a neuroscience lab and doing some neuroscience classes, which led me down that path.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I bet in your class, you were the only person and you're probably one of the only people to go to a top business school. And while you are at the business school, you are taking undergrad classes in something that really interests you.

Tara Thiagarajan: 

Exactly. And that was part of the plan I thought. As long as I just get into a university one way or another, then I can do what I want to.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So, you discovered your love and passion while at Kellogg. But MBA is also not a setup for a PhD program. How were you able to get into Stanford?

Tara Thiagarajan: 

I knew when I went to business school that I was not on the path to business. It was not my intention. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

People at Kelloggs must not have been very happy with you.

Tara Thiagarajan: 

I did get a job, actually. I worked in the pharma industry after that. So I was, part of the employment statistic and everything. It was not terrible. But when I was there, I was exploring different classes in physics and neuroscience, looking through the undergraduate catalog.

And I thought, why not take this neuroscience class? So, I took an intro to neuroscience class. 

So, the professor, since I was a business school student to enroll in the class, I had to get his signature. I went looking for him in his office his office was inside the lab and I'd never been in this kind of lab before. So, I walked into the lab and I was looking at stuff there. So, when I went to get the signature, I said, if you don't mind my asking, what is it you're doing over here?

So, he showed me around the lab and, they were working with slices of brain tissue that have been taken out of a rat. This brain tissue would stay alive in a dish for, up to 16 hours. And they would record electrical activity from the neurons in those brain slices.

So, I'd never had thought such a thing was possible until I had walked in there and really raised so many different questions on what is the nature of life. If part of the brain can exist and function outside of the organism. What does this mean? So that got me really quite interested And I got to know the professor quite well, he was very new, so he was much older than me.

He had just started at Northwestern. So, I asked him once, can I try how does this work? And he said, okay, let me think about for a minute. He's okay, fine, if you want to come and try learn something in my lab, go ahead.

So, I would come at night, I had to share equipment with the PhD students, who got priority, and they'd teach me stuff. And I had my own research project and I think that's really how I ended up going to graduate school because at the end he said if you want to apply for a PhD, I'll write your recommendation.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It is fascinating studying brain science and the questions that it raises about life I did some graduate work before going to business school in human nutrition. And my professor was a neuroscientist, looking at the psychophysiological basis of eating behavior and a lot of it through manipulation of some aspects of the brain physiology and then introduction of the different hormones.

So, it raises a lot of questions when you understand the brain. What it is to actually be a human being. So, in the PhD program studying neuroscience, what did you specialize there Tara?

Tara Thiagarajan: So, I started out in cell physiology. One part of my work at that point was looking at, and this is all in a dish, how the changing external environment impacted how the cells behaved and responded. I think you learn how, the building blocks of life behave, that you could take these things out and you can grow them in different ways and they're gonna start behaving in different ways that these cells from the brain are just prime to connect with each other. And no matter where you put them, they will do certain things. Grow out these connections to inform connections with one another and start communicating with one another. 

I think those are some of the very interesting things, but at the end of my PhD, what I realized, and I think this was really the fundamental insight for me was that, they will respond with something different to every change in the environment, which means that these cells, what they do in the native organism, that's a very different environment as well, that you cannot possibly replicate in a lab, in a dish. So, they're probably behaving quite differently. 

So, from there, I really moved into trying to understand the behavior of the system and the intact form. Saying that, this system and the intact form is going to do very different things then when you break it apart and grow it in separate pieces.

That was really understanding complex system behavior in general. At different levels, whether it's atoms interacting to cells, interacting to ultimately, human beings interacting and what kind of behavior it produces.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

That is a really powerful insight Tara in that whether it is with respect to the human systems, organizational systems, communities’ systems, as you say are much greater than some of the parts. And it's a lot harder studying systems. 

It's a lot easier taking individual parts of those systems, trying to understand, and then drawing conclusions, oftentimes incorrect conclusions on how those individual elements would impact the larger system. After that though, you ended up going back to India to run Maduro Microfinance. What happened and what was that experience like Tara?

Tara Thiagarajan: 

So, that was, a twist in the path that I would never have predicted. I lost my father. He had a stroke and he was paralyzed for a couple of years before he died. But right before, he had the stroke, he was working with a small nonprofit called the micro credit foundation of India that he had set up and he had been unwell for a year or two before that. He had been working with this nonprofit on a scale that he could do given his health situation. And he had signed an agreement actually with a major bank right before his stroke.

So, I went back one to care for my father, but also to try to sort out some of his financial and other issues. And it was at that time that we discovered that he had signed this agreement to take on quite a large microfinance portfolio from this bank.

And given that he was unwell, the whole thing had unraveled I stepped in to try and solve that issue and then started this for poor-profit organization, mother of microfinance, as a way for us to run this operation sustainably and to be able to make good on some of the commitments that nonprofit had made.

And then after he passed away, I realized that we wouldn't easily be able to either shut down that company or because it's a financial services company, you have micro loans, outstanding. They have to be collected. You need to have staff in order to pay them. You have to continue to generate more revenue, which means you have to continue to grow. So, it's a very difficult business to just close up, like you could a store or a restaurant. 

What I realized is that, there was really no choice. We had to actually grow the company or build it. There was really no other option for that entity that didn't result in some sort of major financial catastrophe. 

So, I raised venture capital and after I finished my postdoc, I went back to India. I spent a few years there to build a company and build a team. I learned a lot. It was a new industry, and I'm working in India culturally very different, but also one of the reasons it's culturally very different is because we were serving the grassroots heartland of the country. So, we're serving some of the poorest people, the least educated people. And for me, that was really a view into, the two extremes of the world. 

On one hand, I have all these people that I was working with who were, PhDs at, from Stanford, from Harvard, from MIT, then on the other end where, people are most of them are not literate. You're working in locations that have very little infrastructure and resources and the poorest in the world. 

So, I think that was certainly a learning experience on many different dimensions. One was I had to at one point say, okay, I have to take the bull by the horns and build this company. And, I hadn't done that before. It was an industry that I didn't know when I first came into it and I had to learn the whole finance industry. Learn how to build teams, learn how to scale across the country, work in multiple cultures and languages.

And also, really understand the different ends of the world and really struggle to think how does it all fit together as one system or one whole humanity when these are so fundamentally different from one another.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Those are important questions that you get to at Sapier Labs, so what is Sapien Labs, and what is the purpose behind this nonprofit organization that you found it?

Tara Thiagarajan: 

Sapien Labs came about somewhat serendipitously. I would say if there is a common thread for me, it has been, a quest to really make sense of the world and understand what it means and how it works. And that can be from so many, multiple different perspectives.

I strongly believe that you get greater understanding from actually doing and not just purely as an observer. There's a great deal that you learn when you're actually building an organization or when you're inside a system trying to reconfigure it in some way. But part of that, quest has always, come back in some way to understanding the nature of mind because ultimately all that we do is filtered through the human mind. So, we really need to figure out what the nature of mind is that really drives all of these things that we do as human beings and in human systems.

One of the things that we did do at Madura which I think was extremely interesting, the kind of ecosystems we worked in were all very data dark.

And these are people who don't have a digital footprint. They don't have a resume because they've not maybe been to school. And so, one of the big questions that comes up, and this is even very specific to that kind of business, is how do you evaluate a person when there's nothing on paper? And you don't have time. You don't have time to get to know them and their families and their, all of that stuff. What are ways in which you can assess? Should we give this amount of credit in this village or to this particular person in this village?

So, we started looking a lot at, what kind of factors will predict economic outcomes in these kinds of small towns and villages, and then what factors predict individual outcomes. So, we did a lot of data collection and analysis. And we, had some data scientists working on that.

And during that process, as we were trying to evaluate individuals who had nothing on paper, we did some cognitive batteries and we found some very unexpected results that people think very differently in these kinds of ecosystems than we expect or than we would think.

And how do we understand that? At the time I had a data scientist that was working with us. She said, I wonder what their brain activity is like. So, we were, really curious. Is there a difference in brain activity? Because in neuroscience there's been this perspective from which people have worked, that there is the human brain, and you'll see this a lot in the literature, the human brain, the human connectome, and this idea that, there's something prototypical about the brain that's common to all individuals. 

Which is not unreasonable in the sense that every other organ behaves the same way, the heart beats the same for every human and so on. So, we're really curious and I wanted to also measure the brain activity and we weren't in a position as a financial services company to do such a thing clearly.

Danya, who is my graduate student and who was working with me, she found this device that was easily portable. We could take it out of the villages and it wasn't too expensive. So, I said, all right, I will buy one personally. And you and I are gonna go, and we're gonna find out the answer to this question.

This is just because we have to satisfy this curiosity one way or another. So, we just went out one weekend and we recorded brain activity from a whole bunch of people in this remote village, which was like, you had to, wasn't on the main road or anything you had to walk off and, a few kilometers from the road, they didn't have electricity much and all of that. 

Then when, we looked at a lot of different aspects of that physiology and we compared it to, people, we knew like friends and family and colleagues. We found fundamental differences between these two groups and they were small groups,10, 12 people on both sides. But the differences were huge, just profound. Typically, in science when you're working with cells, a lot of people look for 15% difference. Is it a statistically significant difference? And here we're seeing, distributions that are barely overlapping.

And my first reaction was okay, if this is true, it's absolutely profound because it's saying that the brain physiology of individuals can be fundamentally different. And the question is why? And what's causing it? But of course, the other side of it could be very much that, we thought people use hair oil in India. Coconut oil in their hair in South India.

So, we thought in mostly in the villages. So, we thought maybe, it's the coconut oil disrupting the sensors. So, what we're recording over there is completely different because of the coconut oil. And it could be either. But we said, okay, but we need to know which one it is. So, let's do this, as a proper experiment. And we needed a home. So, that's how Sapien Labs was founded as a place and a home in which we could as a nonprofit do this kind of research.

So, we did the first research study there. Where we looked across, very remote villages in India, all the way up to the city. And looked at what we call the stimulus environment, your access to technology and really to look at, is this journey from this pre-modern kind of ways of living without any of these technologies, does that have anything to do with the big differences that we're seeing? And the answer was yes. 

And so, when we, what we were able to see is that brain physiology itself changes fundamentally as your stimulus environment changes. And there are certain things, for example, that when you transition to smartphones, certain features appear in your brain, very strongly that don't exist or are not detectable in people who don't use smartphones. So clearly there's a big impact of how our world is changing us. And the question is what does that mean? In some ways maybe some of these are beneficial. Cognitively in other ways, perhaps we are seeing challenges.

I think that's exactly what we're seeing that, at some point on the curve, there are cognitive benefits. And then beyond a certain point, we're starting to see a lot of emotional challenges. So, that's been the journey. Then, from there we've started looking more broadly at how is the environment changing human beings? It's an important question that we need to be on top of, because we haven't recognized how profoundly we are being changed and the magnitude of some of the negative ways in which we're being changed.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

What incredible insights and findings Tara. I look forward at some point having a conversation just on the brain science. But there are a couple of parts that I would love to touch on.

Now, in that in many instances we assume, behaviors are a function of cultural differences. Some of what you were isolating with respect to the differences were physiological differences in the brain, which had come about as a result of the stimuli in the environment.

Tara Thiagarajan: 

Exactly. One of the things that really has been a recurring theme in the results that we're finding is how much that culture and environment is really playing a role. And it has profound influences and we're seeing it in multiple ways. 

As a very stark example, what I can tell you is, if you look at individual outcomes in villages, in small villages in India, an individual's potential from an economic success point of view is constrained entirely by the system.

So basically, whether someone is successful or not, can be predicted with very high accuracy and precision based on the infrastructure of the ecosystem he lives in. How far his village is to the road? How frequent the bus is? Whether they have continuous electricity? If he has cell phone connectivity? All of those things will set the parameters for how successful someone can be.

And I give the example to people, say it's all about the individual and say, if you take someone, whether they have a Harvard MBA and you put them in that ecosystem and you say you have no phone, no electricity, no transport. Are you going to be as successful as if we dropped you in Boston or in Silicon Valley? No, you can't. The environment is fundamentally going to constrain what input you get and what output you're able to put out there. And that's the extreme version of it, but that takes place in, everyone's micro environment, wherever they are. 

What we're seeing today now in this other project that we are doing, that's very global called the mental state of the world. We track mental wellbeing across multiple countries and we look at different factors that are driving changes across time and differences between countries. 

One of the things that we see is that cultural factors are, highly correlated with the mental well-being of countries. So, countries that are more individualistic, more performance-oriented, and have a weaker what they call family collectivism. These are indicators developed by other groups that are creating cultural indicators for countries that these countries actually have poorer mental well-being than countries that are lower on individualism and higher on that in family collectivism.

So, that's a mental outcome and mental well-being relates to many aspects of the human being from their mood and outlook to what we call social self, like how you view yourself and how you form relationships with others. A number of factors like this play into mental well-being as a whole, but it really tells you that the cultural environment has a big impact on how you feel and how you see yourself. Therefore, how you also going to behave. Because how you see yourself and feel dictates a lot of your behavior. 

So, the challenge is understanding what kind of environments from social environment to stimulus environment really drives the best kind of human outcomes and how do we then take and translate it into policies and interventions that can shift these outcomes towards the better.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It's incredible on so many different levels, Tara, including the fact that your findings challenge some of the traditional things people have said with respect to you, take a successful person and drop them anywhere without any support they're going to become the same successful person they were before. What some of your findings show is the impact of those environmental factors, including even on the physiology. 

So, it's not that there isn't agency, but a lot of times we attribute way too much when we see people who have succeeded to their agency, rather than understanding the impact. All these different factors, ring to bear, including on the physiology of the brain.

One of the things that I've been very fascinated with Tara is the fact that until about a hundred years ago, Danes were some of the shortest people in the world. And due to different factors, most, especially due to nutrition, there are some of the tallest people in the world. The same way that visually we can see that what I'm hearing from some of your studies and research is that not only with respect to nutrition, but with respect to stimulus and cultural elements. There's a lot of impact on the brain, including the physiology 

Tara Thiagarajan: 

The way I think about it now is that you can't say anything about an individual, an absolute, without the perspective of a context. It's always, what is the outcome of the individual, given the context that they're in and without the given the context that they're in you only have one half of the equation. Without that other side, you can't really make a good prediction. 

But I would say, the individual factor, may be greater as the size of the ecosystem starts to grow because there are just more degrees of freedom, essentially that a person has to explore and understand a larger ecosystem. But in smaller ecosystems, in the smaller villages, more than 80% of a person's outcome were really factors of context.And I think, it decreases, but it's still very substantial even in large ecosystems where you have, quite different micro environments.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

In addition to that as you mentioned, you have been doing this mental state of the world report. I would highly encourage for the listeners to go to the sapeinlabs.org website, read the full report that you have accessible would love to touch on a couple of elements that came out in your latest report Tara. One of them is the fact that education and employment were associated with higher mental health scores.

So, can you talk briefly about that and the impact it has on communities and society at large?

Tara Thiagarajan: 

One of the things is education and employment are also related to so many different things. So, first of all, the more educated you are, the more likely you are to have higher income. There are other factors at play that are embedded in those relationships that we haven't untangled in this particular report.

But certainly, the more education, the more income, maybe the more different types of opportunities that you have. Having higher education may also be reflective of your early childhood experience. 

So, for example, if someone had a very rough childhood where there was not money to go to college or had to take care of an ailing parent, so didn't go to college. All of those factors are embedded in who's has education and who doesn't. It's so I think you can't say its education per se, but the fact that you could get to a certain level of education reflects many things. It reflects your whole life trajectory, the environment you're in the possibilities that have been available to you and so on and so forth.

But that said, I think the less education you have, perhaps the more difficult it is to make sense of the world and the fewer opportunities and degrees of freedom available to you in terms of what you can do. So, all of those would tie into or dictate your mental wellbeing profile. 

In terms of employment, there's something a little bit more interesting. First of all, it's clear that, being employed has mental health benefits, someone being unemployed, losing a job, losing income, livelihood, ways to make ends meet.

So, on also, the sort of stigma of losing a job, all of those things are play into that. So certainly, being employed has tremendous benefits relative to being unemployed. 

But what's very interesting is that the difference between unemployed and employed is much higher in English speaking countries, what we call the Core-Anglosphere like the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, compared to other countries, even Europe or Latin America. 

The way I interpret that is that in the United States, much more of a person's sense of self is tied up in that employment and in that job. Relative to other countries, which are more collectivist where, you're belonging to society, your sense of who you are has other dimensions and therefore being unemployed doesn't cause you perhaps to plummet as much as in countries where that occupies a much larger part of your sense of self.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

In addition to that, one other area I would love to touch on Tara is, the alarming decline in mental wellbeing of younger generations and that as a global phenomenon, not just something that people are experiencing in the US. So, I would love to get your thoughts on what you believe has contributed to that and what can communities, family societies do about that? 

Tara Thiagarajan: 

Just so that people understand exactly what we are seeing. So we see, for example, in older generations, in all regions of the world that we have looked at, from Latin America, Middle East, North Africa, west Africa Europe, United States, and so on America, everywhere, that older people, maybe about, seven, 8% of people have challenges with their mental wellbeing at a level that would impact their functioning and could be considered clinical in some way. Whereas when you get to young people, 18 to 24, it's 44% and each successive generation it's lower. 

Now, one of the things that you might think is that, okay, it, maybe young people are just more depressed and as you get older, you see the world in a more positive way. But that doesn't appear to be what's going on simply because when we look at studies of happiness and wellbeing 10 years ago from the early 2000s that young people always in all cultures, countries had the highest wellbeing, highest happiness.

While there were different patterns in different parts of the world, what was consistent was young people always were best off. And today they are in a really poor state of mental well-being. So, it really looks like it's a generational decline that has taken place starting probably sometime after 2010.

I should point out that the mental state of the world report focuses on internet-enabled populations. So not the offline, low-income communities, that we've looked at in other contexts. But among this group, the one thing that is common across all these countries is the advent of the internet and the smartphone, the mobile phone particularly.

And what we see is that the 18 to 24-year old are probably the first generation that grew up almost entirely on the internet. From middle school onwards probably had their own cell phone, smartphone and continuous internet access.

The question is, what has that done? In what way or how could that have played a role? There's been quite a bit of research out there where people have tried to say, okay, if reduce screen time or you take time off from your mobile phone, does it improve your mental wellbeing? Does it not improve your mental well-being? 

The results have been mixed. It hasn't had resoundingly positive conclusions. Now, one of the things is that with the internet, statistics show that people spend seven to 10 hours online a day. What that means is that's taking away from all the other things that we used to do.

Say my generation if I, think back and, if you talk to folks who grew up without the internet, we spent at least a few hours every day engaged in some kind of in person social interaction, where we are, without the digital medium in the middle, in any way. Or even today you see a lot of young people sitting together, but all on their phone and maybe even texting each other right there, but not engaging face to face.

My generation, I would estimate that people from the low end to the high end would've spent 10,000 to 25,000 hours engaged in social interaction with their peer groups by the time they come to college. Whereas those who grew up on the internet with a smartphone probably spend between 1500 and 5,000 hours by the time they come to college.

What this means really is that, we have withered the skill of understanding and integrating ourselves into the social fabric. What we do in person interaction is, you learn to read facial expressions, you learn to read body language. You also learn so many different things like how to resolve conflicts. You get in trouble with your friends, you figure out how to get out of trouble with your friends. All of these different things, and you also start to form friendships that can become these very long relationships in your life. Those have all withered in young people. 

So, your own sense of self has really diminished. I'm sure there are aspects of social media that have a negative impact. But more so, the fact that we have allowed to, with our ability to integrate with others, I think that's behind this big challenge that we're seeing.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Incredible, Tara, from my perspective, from trying to understand certain impacts. I reflect back on the fact that in the early 20th century to mid-20th century cigarette smoking was something that was not seen as being unhealthy for many reasons. Even doctors would find themselves recommending cigarette smoking until we started studying it more and seeing the impact of it on health.

It seems like technology is having a negative impact, most especially, on the younger generation. How and why maybe we don't know the specifics of it yet the same way early on. They didn't know the specifics of how the smoke or the smoking caused lung cancer, but there is the correlation with respect to that wellbeing.

So, this is an outstanding report again I encourage everyone to read it, try to understand it whether with respect to the community, with respect to organizations, our loved ones, lots of different insights in there. 

Tara you are a woman on a quest, and I know as Sapien Labs has many years and many great things ahead of it. So, if we are to reconnect dozen years from now, and Sapien Labs from your perspective has been able to make a substantial difference. What would that difference be?

Tara Thiagarajan: 

I see two different dimensions that we can make a big difference. One is by tracking and showing the world where these challenges are, and what's driving them and being able to work with stakeholders to develop recommendations for policies, for interventions and enable that. If we can bring that awareness and really then move the needle on this decline that we're seeing so that we start to reverse it, and we start to see the direction go up instead of down. That is a big hope. 

Similarly, to add to that, I think it's really about trying to get to understand some of the challenges and the different factors that are leading to these declines and being able to provide more concrete evidence that provides greater impetus for action. 

One aspect that I think will play a very significant role is the social systems that we build. Whether it's in schools how we, as people, as parents think about what our kids are doing. 

I think in our generation, we reached a point where we thought, that anytime kids are not studying or doing something productive, it's a waste of time, but we don't realize that building our social self is fundamental to what humans do, which is we are able to resolve conflict and cooperate, and that's how we've built great things so we can't neglect that.

But there certainly could be environmental factors, potentially at play that we don't understand. So, we're really looking at also on the ground kind of research that's to understand are there new environmental toxins?

For example, there are a lot of different things from pharmaceuticals, from cosmetics that are endocrine disruptors that can have an impact because when they enter our water and food sources. So, there are a number of different potential risk factors and drivers to explore.

And I hope that we'll be able to provide a global perspective on that, that becomes widely known and can move the needle.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I love the work you're doing Tara, and from two separate perspectives. One is that there are negative stimuli in our environment technology and use of it in some instances can be one of those, some of the well-intentioned channeling of efforts. For example, in education, focusing kids only on science technology in math. It can have negative consequences. So, being aware of the impact of those stimuli. And also, the fact that the better we understand the contributors to the brain development and decision making. The more we can make sure we have a more equitable society and opportunities for more people in our communities.

So, I believe your research can help us get there for the audience to find out more Tara about you about Sapien Labs, where should they go? And what resources would you recommend?

Tara Thiagarajan: 

I would say go to our website, sapienlabs.org. And you can explore our programs. We also, have our publications out there we have blogs on our website, so I think there's a lot of content there that talks about a lot of the different things we're doing.

And we'd love for people to visit and get to know us.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

I would highly recommend to start out first with your mental state of world report. I think it's an outstanding read for all leaders for themselves, for their organizations, for the impact on the community. 

And I look forward to understanding more from you, what we can do as leaders to be a positive force in the lives of people around us.

Thank you for sharing your own story and the purpose of Sapien Labs. Thank you so much, Tara.

Tara Thiagarajan: 

Thank you Mahan. My pleasure.