One Surefire Way to Improve Mental Health

Jean M. Twenge, a San Diego State University psychology professor, argues that smart phones are contributing to Millennial’s worsening mental health. The data is concerning.

Here’s her Atlantic essay (hyperbolically) titled “Have Smartphones Ruined a Generation” and here’s an interview with her from yesterday’s PBS NewsHour.

In summary, the less tethered young people are to their phones, the better their mental health.

Haim is Contributing to the Greater Good

I lent my iPod to Alison once.

She ended up sharing its contents with my sissy who got a big kick out of my fondness for female artists of a folky/pop/R&B persuasion. I’m secure enough in my maleness to say I dig me some Karen Carpenter, Jill Scott, Abigail Washburn, Emmylou Harris, Stevie Nicks, Tracy Chapman, Sade. I pity the faux-macho who are too insecure to embrace the beauty of female voices.

Which brings us to Haim, who I just learned about as a result of this lengthy review of their second album, Something to Tell You. Learning of my discovery on her visit home last week, Alison has been helping me catch up. Their voices are excellent, but I’m even more enamored by their stage presence.

Carl Wilson, Slate’s music reviewer, follows the music scene much, much more closely than me. As a result, I had to read Wilson’s review a couple of times to make sense of it. From the odd opening reference to Haim as “the smart set’s favorite white pop band”, I alternately really liked and disliked his analysis.

I liked his description of their newest vid.

“This emphasis on musicianship rebukes the stubborn stereotype of the “girl band” as an artificially assembled group of sexy singers. Haim (pronounced “Hi-um”)* doesn’t have to dress up and do choreographed dance routines. The sisters are not ornaments—they’re the music makers. (Of course, it’s the music business, so they’re still conventionally attractive. Though that also reinforces that they’re making a choice.) So, in the video, they move only when they feel the music, sing only when it seems expressive. Got it.”

I disliked his thesis.

“Every pop moment is embedded in history, and history is embedded in every pop moment. Thinking through Something to Tell You, I’m puzzled by how Haim has gotten better but seems worse than in 2013–14. The reason has to be that in the late Obama era, when pop-chart populism still seemed democratizing and progress was on the upswing, Haim’s sisterhood variation on the theme felt liberating. That populism now feels double-edged, so the songs don’t quite stick. At the tail of the “Want You Back” video, the dance routine falls apart, and the trio wanders off laughing as the camera pulls away. The cathartic feeling dwindles back to mere charm, a shrugging amiability. It works as a reclamation of the band’s autonomy from pop imperatives, but it’s also like what happened here didn’t matter. It’s just another perfect day in carefree, privileged L.A.”

Mere charm, a shrugging amiability, what happened here didn’t matter, it’s just another perfect day in carefree, privileged L.A. That last phrase strikes me as especially odd. What makes L.A. carefree and privileged, the fact that they closed Van Nuys Boulevard for the shoot? And why is Haim responsible for, or even complicit in, L.A.’s supposed carefree, privilege?

Maybe Wilson is too deep for me, but the way I interpret his “mere charm, a shrugging amiability, what happened here didn’t matter” sentence is that art must be political today. Meaning Haim has to take some sort of a stand on pressing issues of the day. I beg to differ because I interact regularly with a lot of young women who are extremely self conscious, sometimes to the point of being intensely anxious and/or clinically depressed.

When I watch the “Want You Back” vid and this one,

the Haim sisters come across as joyfully unencumbered. Carefree is absolutely right. Given some young women’s mental health challenges today, that is gift enough.

Every one of us struggles, to varying degrees, with being self-conscious. The less self conscious among us inspire us to be more authentic, to make art, to dress, to write, to live, however we feel.

I’ll take more unencumbered joy with my art than policy pronouncements any day.

* I LOVE hate it when I am right and Alison is wrong. DIG the hypen Al, two syllables!** Let your friends down easily.

** Exclamation point = Millennial flourish.

But How Will It Look On My Resume?

Statistics show people don’t tend to read any particular blog for very long. I’m not jumping from blog to blog, I’m reading fewer, which begs the question, why read this or any other blog? One common thread in the few blogs I read regularly is the authors link to interesting and insightful writing that I wouldn’t otherwise come across.

The best bloggers are connoisseurs of some specialized content and curators who provide an invaluable service in the Age of Information Overload—they help focus people’s attention.I try to do that, but my statistics reveal that few readers follow my links meaning posts like this probably don’t work that well. If I knew how to change that I would.

Starting for real now. An email arrives from an ace college roommate, a successful psychotherapist specializing in adolescent development. His 12th grade daughter has been admitted to two highly selective colleges and is conflicted about which will look better on her resume. Dad’s equally torn about where she should go. What does the college professor think?

The college professor can’t get past the fact that the daughter is worried about her resume. I wrote back that the schools’ respective prestige was within the margin of error and that the only thing that matters is whether she builds lasting relationships and develops interpersonal and intellectual skills that cannot be easily automated.

Her family enjoys far greater economic security than 90-95% of people. I don’t understand her thinking, but I know that if she is pre-occupied with her economic future, it’s no surprise that anxiety disorders among adolescents are at an all-time high.

I suspect something deeper is at work in this college decision-making case study. Something spiritual. Cue David Brooks, who wrote this essay in Sunday’s New York Times. It’s Brooks at his best. Lots of self-righteous readers savage him, for in essence, not being a Democrat. How dare a Republican reflect on what’s most meaningful in life. I wonder what it’s like to have one’s politics and daily life in permanent, perfect alignment.

Brooks is scheduled to discuss his new book, The Road to Character, on the Diane Rehm show Thursday, April 16th at 11et.

A Better Way To Treat Anxiety

The title of a recent Wall Street Journal article about exposure therapy. 1.8 million young people, or nearly 10% in the U.S., experience anxiety disorders of some sort. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic, Virginia Tech and other institutions are finding that slowly exposing children to the things they are anxious about, at an early point in treatment, can be highly effective in helping them overcome anxiety.

Stephen Whiteside, a  Mayo pediatric psychologist, in the article:

When parents help children to escape from feared situations, anxiety symptoms may worsen and children frequently become more impaired.

Exposure therapy explained. Also verbatim from the article:

1) Children are gradually exposed early in treatment to things and situations they fear, and parents receive training as ‘exposure coaches’. Instead of avoiding things, the child begins to learn new ways to behave.

2) Don’t overreact. If your child is complaining or distressed about an upcoming situation—say a math test—tell him you understand how upsetting it is but you are going to be very proud of him for trying.

3) Save the praise. Praise the child only after she actually takes a step toward dealing with her fear, such as germs (‘You did a great job of riding the bus on the field trip.’)

4) One step at a time. Encourage your child to take small steps toward a goal, such as visiting an airport in advance of a scheduled flight.

5) Encourage decision making. Let your child make some choices on his own, such as whether to walk past a dog or visit a house where there is a dog.

6) Grin and bear it. Encourage your child in situations that might involve her fears, such as conversing with strangers—even if you think she might become upset or make a scene.

7) Positive reinforcement. Communicate that you are confident that your child can accomplish the goal, such as separating from the family for a camping trip. Tell her it will get easier every time she does something new.

Number five reminds me that when I was young, I was deathly afraid of dogs. In the sixties, with three older sibs, I was left to my own to work it out. Less intelligent than the dogs that scared the sh*t out of me, I tried to outrun a few. Which of course only made things much, much worse. Now, I’m happy to report, the family sometimes worries I may be too close to one particular doggie.

IMG_0386

Spare me the “guess marijuana really is legal in Washington” jokes. It’s early.

photo

The Great National Happiness Rat Race

Just one of many money phrases, sentences, and paragraphs from a recent NYTimes blog post by Ruth Whippman, a Brit living in California. Whippman beautifully articulates what I’ve long thought. She leads with an Eric Hoffer quote, “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.”

Notable nuggets:

Despite being the richest nation on earth, the United States is, according to the World Health Organization, by a wide margin, also the most anxious, with nearly a third of Americans likely to suffer from an anxiety problem in their lifetime. America’s precocious levels of anxiety are not just happening in spite of the great national happiness rat race, but also perhaps, because of it.

Thomas Jefferson knew what he was doing when he wrote that “pursuit of happiness” line, a perfectly delivered slap in the face to his joy-shunning oppressors across the pond. The British are generally uncomfortable around the subject, and as a rule, don’t subscribe to the happy-ever-after. It’s not that we don’t want to be happy, it just seems somehow embarrassing to discuss it, and demeaning to chase it, like calling someone moments after a first date to ask them if they like you.

Evidence of this distinction is everywhere. Blindfold me and read out the Facebook statuses of my friends, without their names, and I will tell you which are American and which are British. Americans post links to inspirational stories, and parenting blogs packed with life lessons. (British parenting blogs tend to be packed with despair and feces.) My American friends post heartwarming messages of support to one another, and often themselves, while my British cohort’s updates are usually some variation on “This is rubbish.”

Even the recent grand spectacle of the London 2012 Olympic Games told this tale. The opening ceremony, traditionally a sparklefest of perkiness, was, with its suffragist and trade unionists, mainly a celebration of dissent, or put less grandly, complaint. Still, this back door approach to national pride propelled the English into a brief and unprecedented stint of joyous positivity — lasting for the exact duration of the Games. For three weeks I was unable to distinguish my British friends’ Facebook statuses from those of my American ones.

The transformation wasn’t absolute of course. . . . Our queen, despite the repeated presence of a stadium full of her subjects urging in song that she be both happy and glorious, could barely muster a smile, staring grimly through her eyeglasses and clutching her purse on her lap as if she might be mugged.

Cynicism is the British shtick. . . . By contrast, in America, happiness is work. Intense, nail-biting work, slogged out in motivational seminars and therapy sessions, meditation retreats and airport bookstores. For the left there’s yoga, for the right, there’s Jesus. For no one is there respite.

While the British way can be drainingly negative, the American approach to happiness can spur a debilitating anxiety. The initial sense of promise and hope is seductive, but it soon gives way to a nagging slow-burn feeling of inadequacy. Am I happy? Happy enough? As happy as everyone else? Could I be doing more about it? Even basic contentment feels like failure when pitched against capital-H Happiness. The goal is so elusive and hard to define, it’s impossible to pinpoint when it’s even been achieved — a recipe for neurosis.

Happiness should be serendipitous, a by-product of a life well lived, and pursuing it in a vacuum doesn’t really work. This is borne out by a series of slightly depressing statistics. The most likely customer of a self-help book is a person who has bought another self-help book in the last 18 months. . . . Every year, with remarkable consistency, around 33 percent of Americans report that they are “very happy.” It’s a fair chunk, but a figure that remains surprisingly constant, untouched by the uptick in Eastern meditation or evangelical Christianity, by Tony Robbins or Gretchen Rubin or attachment parenting. For all the effort Americans are putting into happiness, they are not getting any happier. It is not surprising, then, that the search itself has become a source of anxiety.

So here’s a bumper sticker: despite the glorious weather and spectacular landscape, the people of California are probably less happy and more anxious than the people of Grimsby. So they may as well stop trying so hard.

 

Back to School Anxiety

New students at the start of school—whether elementary, secondary, or university—are unaware that everyone else is as self conscious as them. Each student sits in class thinking everyone else is probably smarter, more articulate, more skilled. And so they fret, “How am I being perceived?” The especially anxious don’t say anything to reduce the risk of possible embarrassment.

I met with my first year writing students after a faculty panel discussion of the University’s first year reading book, Into the Beautiful North. One Spanish professor on the panel did an excellent job of deconstructing the text for the students. I thought she was too critical of the author, but she’s probably smarter than me. Afterwards, the 500 students were encouraged to ask questions. A young woman with strikingly blonde hair asked a thoughtful question which ended with “you-all”. Some students chuckled softly.

I told my students that was too bad because that phrasing probably had less to do with her intelligence than what part of the country she’s from. And no doubt, while asking the question in front everyone, she was wondering, “How am I being perceived?” I used that negative example to talk about how in our class we’ll laugh together at times, but never at anyone. No one, I explained, has to have their questions, thoughts, or comments perfectly formed before participating. Class discussions are where we practice becoming more articulate.

Then, I suggested we deconstruct the faculty panel that deconstructed the text. I told them that what’s true for students is equally true for faculty—they’re self conscious. Consequently, when there are four Ph.Ds on a panel, odds are they will subconsciously compete to be the most insightful and to sound the most professorial. In especially egregious cases, the ensuing pseudo-intellectualism can be comical. I pointed out to my students that the faculty on the panel would not talk the same way with friends later that night when at a pub or at halftime of a high school football game. That’s because they sat on the stage wondering, “Are my insights as cogent as the others’? Is my vocabulary as impressive? How am I being perceived?”

Everyone is insecure in different ways and in varying degrees. The best schools are those where a majority of teachers create supportive and encouraging classrooms where students are inspired to participate fully before they’ve fully arrived.