To Get Out Of Your Head, Get Out Of Your House

Advises Arthur Brooks in the Atlantic.

“In one study from 2015, researchers assigned people to walk in either nature or an urban setting for 50 minutes. The nature walkers had lower anxiety, better mood, and better working memory. They were also much less likely to agree with statements such as ‘I often reflect on episodes of my life that I should no longer concern myself with.'”

This morning I went on a short run. I listened to Apple’s Barefoot Acoustic playlist and admired the light fog and dug the slightly cooler morning temp while realizing fall is coming. Still, by the end of the run, I worked up enough of a sweat to head down to the water, (mostly) disrobe, and slip into the Salish Sea. I sat perfectly still in the perfectly still water, up to my chin, admiring a couple birds. A few sculls materialized nearby. They no doubt were intimately familiar with the power of nature.

I felt lucky to be alive.

Half And Half

It’s come to my attention that half of humanity would benefit from being much more introspective. From pressing pause, stepping off the treadmill, turning off the screens, and carefully examining their life. Truly getting in touch with their feelings by breathing, journaling, talking to someone who is empathetic.

The other half, the “overthinkers” get more anxious the more they think about past problems and current challenges. Their thinking spirals. One anxious thought begetting another. They might benefit from doing more and thinking less. Such as being an empathetic listener for others, walking a dog, tending a garden, cycling*.

To flourish interpersonally and positively contribute to the common good one must routinely “work on” themself, but there’s a point of diminishing returns. Except for me, No one strikes the perfect balance, so extend grace to people in both buckets.

*extreme exercise can be a serious detriment to being introspective

Psychology Quiz

Name an emerging field of therapy.

Treating eco-anxiety.

“Her goal is not to be released from her fears about the warming planet, or paralyzed by them, but something in between: She compares it to someone with a fear of flying, who learns to manage their fear well enough to fly.

‘On a very personal level,’ she said, ‘the small victory is not thinking about this all the time.’”

Osaka Says ‘Au Revoir’ To The French Open

The gist of the story

“Osaka, 23, . . . revealed that she has experienced depression and anxiety since winning her first major at the 2018 US Open and explained that speaking to the media often makes her nervous. She apologized to any media members she had impacted with her decision.

‘I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media. I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try and engage and give [the media] the best answers I can.'”

This is bigger than the French Open. Osaka is emblematic of a generation that struggles with anxiety disorders and mental health more generally. The question is how are employers going to adapt to their young, often anxious employees? The best course of action will hinge on the type of work. But it starts, in each case, with heightened sensitivity to the issue. 

In Osaka’s case, tennis needs her WAY more than she needs tennis. In 2020, she earned $50 million from tournaments and endorsements*. Osaka preferring Instagram to post-match pressers makes perfect sense because she can control the message and her social anxiety. It was painful watching her squirm under intense questioning about a poor performance in a previous tournament. Professional tennis “powers that be” should start thinking about how athletes can leverage their social media to increase their and their sport’s popularity. The post match presser is analog, social media is digital. Osaka isn’t saying she doesn’t want to interact with fans, she’s saying she just doesn’t want to do it live right after matches. 

When professional tennis comes to ask me what they should do, I will be brief. Always accommodate. 

*I suspect Osaka’s mental health challenges and transparency about them make her an even more popular endorser of products. I also suspect she’d forego many millions for peace of mind.

Threading The ‘Time Needle’

In one sub-section of my first year writing course we read about contrasting parenting philosophies and some students write about how they were raised and whether they intend to parent similarly or differently.

When listening to them reflect on their childhoods, I’m always struck by the chasm between their family lives. About half describe their families as loving, supportive, and close. Another half describe some sordid version of explicit, unhealthy dysfunction. It seems there’s no middle ground.

Often I think the same thing about people and time. Half of people, having or choosing to work super long hours, don’t have nearly enough time. To be introspective. To think about the meaning of life. To live intentionally.

And unless they have compelling hobbies, another half or so who are unable to find work or choose not to for whatever reasons, may have too much time for optimal mental health. Because one of the most common mental health challenges today is dealing with anxiety about things like the ‘rona and the vaccine. More specifically, there’s a tendency to overthink whether one might get the ‘rona or whether one might suffer serious side effects as a result of the vaccine.

I am not a mental health professional so correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that having to work, or more generally, to have some sort of responsibilities for others’ well-being is a salve for overthinking things. If I’m listening to others, caring for them, helping them somehow, I am less susceptible to the anxiety-inducing thoughts that endlessly loop in my head when I don’t have any responsibilities for other living things, whether people, animals or plants.

With shorter work weeks, I suspect European countries are threading the ‘time needle’ in ways that are healthier, mentally and otherwise, than we are in the (dis)United States. Cue related discussions about the federal minimum wage and universal health care.

Pandemic Teaching

It’s resolved one of teaching’s greatest challenges—making wise choices about things like requests for extensions on assignment due dates in light of individual student’s different life challenges. Or even making educated guesses about whether absences are legit or not.

Now, when a student asks for an extension, I always respond, “That’s fine. How long do you need?” When they explain why they weren’t in class, “No problem. We missed you. Hope you feel better soon.”

I’ve morphed into an easy grader too.

My policy is best summed up thusly, “Socially isolated, uber-anxious, overwhelmed young adults get the benefit of the doubt. Every time in every way.”

How Long Will We Slight The Social-Emotional Costs Of On-Line Learning?

Thursday, First Year Writing, The Morken Building 131, the first in-person class of the academic year. Students take turns summarizing their first papers about whether one needs, as a Stoic philosopher we read argues, a coherent philosophy of life and a “grand goal of living” to avoid squandering one’s life. They’re smart, so they push back at the suggestion one can neatly plan their life. They talk about some things being outside of our control, like viruses.

If not a coherent philosophy of life, what about guiding principles I wonder. And if so, which ones? They’re not quite ready for subtly, nuance, ambiguity, complexity. That’s why college is four years long. For now at least, I keep those thoughts to myself and just listen.

One student says her mother died in February. Not expecting that, I loose track of what follows, wondering how she died and what would it be like to lose your mom at 17 or 18. She says doing well in school doesn’t matter as much as it did previously.

The students, many who say they struggle with anxiety, have never enjoyed going to class more. Not because of the doofus facilitating things, because they’re famished for friendship. Flat out famished. They linger afterwards, partly to disinfect the tables, but mostly to extend our shared sense of normalcy as long as possible.

The student whose mother died walks up to the front to talk to me. Through my mask I thank her for having the courage to share that news and gently inquire about her mother’s passing. She tells me her mother chose “Death With Dignity” after a lifetime of being severely disabled. And she wanted me to know the paper was really challenging to write, but my sense was, not in a bad way, in an important way. I think it caused her to grieve her mother in a way she hadn’t. She ended up writing her mother a letter and using parts of it to begin her paper.

For those few moments, as her classmates slowly filed out of the room in small groups, she and I shared a human connection that superseded our teacher-student identities. I saw her and heard her in a way that’s utterly impossible on-line.

I am all in on the scientific consensus regarding masks, social distancing, maximizing time outdoors, and washing hands. I am comfortable enough returning to the classroom because my university has done an excellent job preparing for as safe as possible a return to in-person classes. I will not help politicize this public health crisis.

What follows is a non-partisan question, my reference point is the social-emotional health of young people.

If we don’t begin implementing “blended” or “hybrid” teaching methods soon, with at least some in-person instruction, what are the social and emotional costs to friendless students who are not being seen or heard in any kind of meaningful way?

Thursday Required Reading

1. Owners and Election Day: A Chance to do the Right Thing. Two sociologists call for Congress to declare the first Tuesday in November, Election Day, a national holiday. Along the way, they destroy the “athletes should just shut up and dribble” argument.

“About a dozen states have declared Election Day a state holiday, including, in the last few months, both Virginia and Illinois, and many states give their workers time off to vote. A majority of Democrats (71%) and Republicans (59%) support having Election Day become a national holiday, but many Republicans clearly want fewer, not more, people to vote.”

2. Topless Beach Drone Scandal! Do the Golden Valley Police Department and the Minneapolis Park Police get any points for good intentions? Prob not.

“The Golden Valley Police Department’s well-intended but very wrong assumption about drone as deescalation tool is a familiar one among regular drone users. Because its people were comfortable with drones, they grossly overestimated how comfortable the average person actually is with the prospect of being looked at by a flying camera drone, much less one that’s zeroing in on their private bits.”

[Editor’s note—Major props to Ron for leading with the sociologists and not the second, click-bait reading. Role model.]

3. How Police Unions Fight Reform.

I believe The New Yorker pays its writers by the word. You would never know that by how fast Finnegan starts. Paragraphs 3-5.

“In many cities, including New York, the unions are a political force, their endorsements and campaign donations coveted by both Republicans and Democrats. The legislation they support tends to get passed, their candidates elected. They insist on public displays of respect and may humiliate mayors who displease them. They defy reformers, including police chiefs, who struggle to fire even the worst-performing officers. In an era when other labor unions are steadily declining in membership and influence, police unions have kept their numbers up, their coffers full. In Wisconsin, the Republican governor, Scott Walker, led a successful campaign to eliminate union rights for most of the state’s public employees. The exceptions were firefighters and police.

Police unions enjoy a political paradox. Conservatives traditionally abhor labor unions but support the police. The left is critical of aggressive policing, yet has often muted its criticism of police unions—which are, after all, public-sector unions, an endangered and mostly progressive species.

In their interstitial safe zone, police unions can offer their members extraordinary protections. Officers accused of misconduct may be given legal representation paid for by the city, and ample time to review evidence before speaking to investigators. In many cases, suspended officers have their pay guaranteed, and disciplinary recommendations of oversight boards are ignored. Complaints submitted too late are disqualified. Records of misconduct may be kept secret, and permanently destroyed after as little as sixty days.”

4. Discovery in Mexican Cave May Drastically Change the Known Timeline of Humans’ Arrival to the Americas. Archeologists can’t agree on when humans arrived in the Americas. It may have been twice as long ago.

5. How to Handle Anxiety Over Back-to-School Decisions.

“It’s helpful to remember that in times of chaos, the dogged search for certainty can itself lead to distress. . . . the goal is not to guarantee that your child will never be exposed to a virus particle. That is impossible. The goal is to make a realistic plan that will holistically keep teachers, families and children as safe as possible.”

One excellent insight after another.

“When your mind starts moving into the slippery slope of unproductive worries, try naming them: ‘There goes my mind again.’ This highlights the difference between ‘having a thought’ and ‘burying a thought.’ When unproductive worries strike, you don’t have to go down that rabbit hole of trying to disprove them or reassure yourself, you can just let them be. It’s not bad feelings or thoughts that are the problem. It’s what we do with them that causes more suffering.”

The author, Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, M.D.  is working on a book about the tyranny of self-care. I predict that is going to be a very good read.

Over Parenting

Parents, grandparents, and guardians of infants and young children cannot dedicate themselves enough to children’s well-being. Especially during the first ten years of life, every hour spent conversing with children; playing with them; helping them learn to enjoy sports, arts, and school tends to pay positive dividends later when they blossom into respectful, thoughtful, kind, independent, self-confident young adults.

But I’m not sure how to square that hypothesis with the fact that an increasing number of adolescents are suffering in silence with not just anxiety disorders and depression, but suicide, because many loving parents, grandparents, and guardians invest time and energy in those same silent sufferers.

As many are quick to point out, one thing that’s different these days is the pervasive influence of social media. The most shocking related statistic I learned lately is that 40 percent of teens say they use a device within five minutes of going to sleep, 36 percent admit to waking up to check a device, and 32 percent say they use a device within five minutes of waking up.

For parents the numbers are 26, 23, and 23.

If tonight Steve Kerr tweets that I’m needed in Golden State’s backcourt, or the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences tweets that I’ve won the Nobel Peace Prize, I’m sorry, I’m not waking up. I know, sleeping straight through the night, how old fashion can I get?

To point to social media as the single most important variable is too simplistic. When it comes to something as complex as parenting and adolescent development, differences over time have to be multi-causal. So what else might explain what’s different today? Or to ask the same question differently, when it comes to raising relatively happy and mentally healthy young adults, what did my parents’ generation tend to get more correct?

I think the answer lies in one thing I notice about parenting today. Many super involved parents of young children seem wholly unable to disengage from their children’s lives as they move through adolescence into adulthood. More simply, compared to their parents, they stay way too involved, way too long. Having dedicated themselves so much early on, it’s as if they can’t help themselves. But somewhere between ages ten and twenty, parent involvement reaches a point of diminishing returns.

Many modern parents don’t realize that too much involvement can convey a lack of trust in young people’s abilities to learn from their mistakes and gradually become independent. Just yesterday, after some unsolicited advice, Youngest, who is building a photography business said to me, “And dad, I’m going to make mistakes because I’m new at this.”

I believe over parenting is contributing to an unhealthy, prolonged, co-dependence between parents and children. I have no idea how to restore some semblance of balance.

How about you?