Thomas Plante: Doing the Right Thing
Dr. Thomas Plante is one of the most incredible people I have ever met. Dr. Plante’s many titles include Augustin Cardinal Bea S.J. University Professor at Santa Clara, adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, Licensed Psychologist and owner of his own family vineyard. He has written 22 books, well over 200 journal articles and hundreds of blog posts about heath, spirituality, ethics, psychology for Psychology Today and the SCU Illuminate blog. Dr. Plante has been interviewed by nearly every major national news outlet for his research and involvement with the wave of sexual misconduct by Catholic priests.
In this episode we cover Dr. Plante’s incredible career, how to get more happiness (and whether that’s a goal worth shooting for), how he thinks of topics to write about, what factors lead to greater compassion in students and much more.
Selected Interview Highlights
Gavin Cosgrave: How did you get involved in the reporting on sexual misconduct in the Catholic church?
Thomas Plante: That was interesting because I didn’t go looking for it, it came to me. Back in the 80’s before I came to Santa Clara as a professor, I was running a small private practice, and I had a priest friend who referred one of his clerics who had committed sexual misconduct. After I saw this person and did an evaluation, I got a call from the same person saying, “I think we have another one.”
Before you know it, one leads to two leads to three, and finally in the early 90’s I started gathering research data and connecting with other people doing this type of work. In 1998, we held a conference here at Santa Clara, and we were doing a book project. We had a press conference about how many clerics are abusing children, and only one person from the press came.
We were so embarrassed that no one came that we were filling up the room with students and administrative assistants just to make the room look full.
Then all of a sudden, Boston happened in 2002 and everyone was interested (the Boston Globe reported the story about the sexual misconduct of several Catholic priests). We said, “what took you so long?”
To tell you the truth, in the first six months of 2002, other than teach my classes, I did nothing but media. CNN, World News Tonight, PBS… that’s all I did. I felt like I was getting shot out of a cannon in 2002.
GC: You’ve written over 20 books, 200 journal articles and hundreds of blog posts—How do you decide what to write about?
TP: Earlier in my career, I had to be practical to get my doctoral dissertation done and get a job. Much of the research I was doing was about health psychology and the aerobic benefits of exercise. It bought me a doctoral dissertation, an internship post-doc and a tenure track at Santa Clara. I was always a runner for health and fitness; my wife and I ran a 10-K for our first date.
Once I got tenure, I could do more things that I wanted. I’ve always been so involved in the Catholic church, and religion in general.
Secondly, I’ve always been interested in ethics. Back in the early 90’s when my grandfather encouraged me to go into education, he was a grocer. When he was in his 90’s on his deathbed, and my last visit to him, he said “Do three things for me. One, take care of his wife. Two, pray to the Virgin Mary. And three, always do the right thing.”
From that point on, I was very interested in ethics. I published a book called “Do the Right Thing,” which I dedicated to him. Finally, I do a lot on the health benefits of engagement with faith.
One project leads to another, and next thing you know, you’re rocking and rolling. When you get excited about a topic or theme, it’s easy to crank a lot of projects. I just handed in my 22nd book project last week, and I never thought that would happen.
GC: How do you decide whether a topic would make for a good book topic, journal article or blog post?
TP: You want to ask yourself, “Where is your impact?” I’ve had so many experiences where the impact today seems to be more on the blog side. For example, you can work really hard on a book project, you get a publisher, you’re all happy about it, then you get a royalty check in the mail and realize, “Wow, not too many people bought this thing.”
I’ve been blogging for Psychology Today for eight years, and I’ve had the experience where I spend 90 minutes [on a blog post], I go to bed, then wake up and there’s a call from CNN who wants to do an interview. Before the day’s out, I had a quarter or half million hits, and I thought, “Wow, that’s impact!”
I did a blog a few weeks ago, and without me knowing, it became an op-ed in a Dubai newspaper. If you can impact the world and it only takes you 90 minutes to do it, why not?
GC: What steps can students take to live a happier life or get more compassion?
TP: The more that people can give to others and be there for others, it lowers depression. Immersion trips, community-based learning and volunteering are good for you as well as for the community. If people feel needed and wanted, that really lifts them up.
Have a community of support. Know risk factors for depression and try to address them. We also have to be careful with social media. The research shows that the more time people spend on social media, they feel like crap because it looks like the whole world is happy and they’re not.
GC: What is the biggest misconception that students have about ethics or happiness?
TP: There’s all these books out there focused on looking at the self. How can I do more self-improvement for happiness? I think that’s a rabbit-hole. The research doesn’t ultimately support that. What we know is that it’s not about you, it’s about us, it’s about others.
Happiness is not found by the big prestigious job or fame and fortune, but rather it has something to do with being part of something greater than yourself, being part of a community, helping other people, having reasonable expectations. So often Americans and young people are trying to capture happiness and they’re going down the wrong path.
One book that does help is called “America the Anxious” by Ruth Whippman. I think it’s a terrific, easy-to-read book that can give you a feel about how America has gone nutty for happiness.