The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Positive Psychologist Who Believes in Associating With Those Who Challenge You

We canvassed the world of the social and behavioral sciences, looking for rising stars whose careers promise to make a lasting mark. We'll be profiling the top 30 throughout the month of April.
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ERIC KIM, 27, PSYCHOLOGY

(Photo: Eric Kim)

(Photo: Eric Kim)

The academic area examining the overlap of positive psychology and physical health has handed down some fascinating conclusions over the past few years: Having strong connections to people in your neighborhood protects you against heart disease and stroke. People who’ve been exposed to traumatic events spend more time in the hospital. The hearts of optimistic people are less likely to fail.

Actually, all of those findings are Eric Kim’s. “I want my research to help people re-conceptualize how psychology impacts their physical health,” he says. At the core of the things he studies are two questions: “What if behavioral scientists could develop simple, low-cost interventions that enhance health and reduce health care costs?” and “What if these interventions also increased psychological well-being and were inherently enjoyable for people to perform?”

So far, his quest for answers has netted him more than a dozen awards, including a research grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a fellowship for having written one of University of Michigan’s top dissertation proposals.*

Kim grew up in New York, the son of very poor immigrants from South Korea who worked 16-hour days, seven days a week, at a dry cleaning store. They never took a single vacation or sick day—they couldn’t afford to.

"Optimists are neither in denial nor naïve about challenges and difficulties in life. They simply attend to and acknowledge the positive."

“As a result of their dedication,” Kim says, “we were eventually able to climb the socioeconomic ladder.” His parents saved up enough to be able to buy their own dry-cleaning store, which he also worked in during his teenage years.

“To this day,” he says, “I admire their work ethic. I saw my parents demonstrate discipline, perseverance, and problem solving to overcome obstacles every day. Those are characteristics that really made a lasting impression on my psychological and motivational DNA.”

When he was young, Kim observed that even people who grew up in the same house often have mightily different reactions when something goes wrong. “Whether it was a death in the family or financial troubles,” he says, “I noticed that sometimes one sibling would remain resilient while the other would struggle immensely. I wanted to learn what psychological ingredients put people on different trajectories.”

All of his psychology degrees, including the Ph.D. he’ll get in May, are from the University of Michigan, where Kim has been lucky to find meaningful mentorship. For eight years, he worked with Chris Peterson, one of the founders of positive psychology, and one of the most productive and highly cited psychologists ever.

Kim was a discussion leader three times for Peterson’s popular “Positive Psychology” class. When Peterson suddenly died of heart failure in 2012, Kim was part of a team who stepped in to run the remaining lectures.*

“It was a very sad time in my life,” Kim says. “After his passing, people not only celebrated his incredible intellectual contributions but also his incredible kindness and generosity.” This left a strong impression on Kim, who now spends a lot of time guiding and mentoring psychology students. “I hope people will remember me for helping others,” he says.

In general, Kim believes in associating with people who challenge him. He lives in the University of Michigan’s Telluride House, a living-learning community that the student newspaper dubbed “Genius House.” Some 30 intellectual standouts are picked to live here and accept a five-year room-and-board fellowship. Kim says the experience has changed how he thinks.

“We come from all different disciplines—genetics, computer science, history, philosophy, public health. During meals we talk about a broad array of topics from all kinds of academic lenses and lived experiences,” Kim says. “Living here has inspired some of my projects and also taught me how to carry out effective interdisciplinary research.”

In addition to the findings mentioned above, Kim’s research has shown that if you have a higher purpose in life, you’re more likely to take advantage of resources that keep you healthy. And also that if you’re married to an optimist, you’re much more likely to be in better health. (Here’s a quote from that paper: “Optimists are neither in denial nor naïve about challenges and difficulties in life. They simply attend to and acknowledge the positive.”)

A lot of Kim’s work focuses on older adults because he knows that the number of Americans aged 65 and older will double by 2050. “This will have a huge impact on our society,” he says. “Our grandparents and parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, siblings, and friends will be affected. I think about all these people who I care about and hope that they can have a way to not only live longer lives, but happier, healthier lives.”

*UPDATE — April 13, 2015: This post has been updated to reflect the fact that Kim was part of a larger team who stepped in to run Chris Peterson's lectures. This post has also been clarified to reflect the fact that Kim's fellowship was in recognition of a dissertation proposal. 

We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.

A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).

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