We’re Too Optimistic?

That’s AC Shilton’s sense in “Why You’re Probably Not So Great At Risk Assessment”.

Shilton closes this way:

“Our brains may sometimes be too optimistic. While that isn’t always bad (going through life thinking constantly about every bad thing that could happen isn’t healthy either), in a situation like this, your brain could expose you to unnecessary risk.”

AC Shilton’s bio* says she’s a two time Ironman finisher and a chicken farmer, so what’s not to like, but I think she gets this wrong. Most people’s challenge lies in the parenthetical note—constantly thinking about worse case scenarios.

Where’s that essay?

Coronavirus deserves attention and we should beat it back through proven mitigation strategies. But I’m not going to fool myself. I’m four months closer to dying than pre-pandemic. Could be skin cancer. Could be someone texting while driving who takes Blanca and me out this afternoon, could be heart disease, could be a tree during tomorrow’s run in Priest Point Park.

I use sunscreen, I wear a mask when inside or unable to maintain proper distance, I eat healthily and exercise regularly, I use seatbelts; but I’m not going to fool myself. I am going to die. The humble blog will be no more. Guessing whether ‘rona or one of the other myriad possibilities is gonna get me, it ain’t even close.

*Screen Shot 2020-07-02 at 10.23.36 AM.png

Being Twenty Something

A few months ago I wrote about all the challenges with “Being Twenty Right Now“. Fast forward to today, and I could add to the list.

Since writing that, I’ve heard lots of people talk about how miserable they were in their 20’s. So much so, it sounds as if people are writing off the decade. “If you can just hang on until 30,” their moto seems to be, “it gets much better.”

This idea is unfortunate. Life is way too short to write off any decade.

Being twenty something doesn’t have to be miserable. Why wait to make friends, do socially redeeming work, and build healthy habits?

The Lonely Majority

How loneliness could be changing your brain and body.

“A  2018 study. . . found that 54% of 20,000 Americans surveyed reported feeling lonely. In the span of a bit more than a year, the number rose to 61%. Generation Z adults 18-22 years old are supposedly the loneliest generation, outpacing Boomers, Gen X and Millennials, despite being more connected than ever.”

Wowza. The silent, underreported epidemic.

“Loneliness might conjure images of being apart from friends and family, but the feeling runs much deeper than not having plans on a Friday night or than going stag to a wedding. Evolutionarily, being part of a group has meant protection, sharing the workload and increased odds of survival. After all, humans take a long time to mature. We need our tribes.

‘It’s very distressing when we are not a part of a group,’ said Julianne Holt-Lundstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University. ‘We have to deal with our environment entirely on our own, without the help of others, which puts our brain in a state of alert, but that also signals the rest of our body to be in a state of alert.’

Staying in that state of alert, that high state of stress, means wear and tear on the body. Stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine can contribute to sleeplessness, weight gain and anxiety over extended periods of exposure, according to the Mayo Clinic.”

What to do? Doug Nemecek, chief medical officer at Cigna:

“‘We need to reach out to some friends and make sure we maintain those connections and have meaningful conversations. It’s important for all of us to be comfortable asking other people how they feel.”

And for the lonely majority to risk being vulnerable when asked.

Being Twenty Something Right Now

Empathy for our young adult friends and children is in order. Imagine being them and trying to:

  • cultivate a sense of purpose
  • find a job that contributes to the common good, pays a livable wage, and comes with medical benefits
  • find an affordable place of your own to live
  • afford a car or other forms of reliable transportation
  • get out of debt
  • save some money each month
  • develop the self discipline and knowledge to smartly invest for future expenses
  • find a caring, loving, compatible partner with whom to be intimate
  • decide whether to marry and have children
  • decide whether to commit to a faith community, if so, finding a compelling one
  • contend with friends and acquaintances inauthentic, curated selves on-line
  • create a close circle of friends who aren’t so overwhelmed with all above that they have the energy and desire to spend time together
  • worry about growing social inequities and the fate of the natural world
  • cultivate the discipline to eat well, exercise, and maintain decent physical health
  • manage your anxieties about all of the above and maintain good mental health

In the context of a global pandemic about which so much is unknown. How bad will it get? When will it end? How should we “reopen”? What exactly will the “new normal” be?

This pandemic presents unique challenges to many twenty somethings, whom for whatever reasons, already struggle with anxiety, depression, and related mental health challenges.

Extra patience and kindness with our young adult friends and children are in order.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Coronavirus Double Whammy

1. It’s a reminder that we’re not in control. Normally, we convince ourselves that we mostly are.

2. It’s a reminder that some day we’re going to die. Normally, we are very good at not thinking about that.

These are not normal times. What can you do? Be especially patient and kind to those who may feel a loss of control and fear dying. Even if you do not feel or fear either one.

On New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s resolutions are a weird example of social contagion because the refreshing of the calendar is an odd catalyst for self-improvement. If anyone’s serious about self-improvement, why wait until such an arbitrary starting point? You shoulda got started yesterday.

Despite that cynicism, I’m all-in on alternative types of resolutions—ones grounded in greater self-acceptance. Maybe people should resolve the following types of things:

  • To accept that I will not eat as healthily as I probably should.
  • To be okay with the fact that I will not exercise as much as I probably should.
  • To not beat myself up for not saving as much money as I probably should.

The Slate staff has taken this one step further by advising that you mark the New Year by embracing vices instead of resolutions—whether sleeping in on weekends, driving when you can walk, or having a cigarette.

Count me in on Slate’s contrarian, probably tongue-in-check thinking, as another viable alternative to most people’s constant striving for some sort of idealized perfection.

Wouldn’t our mental health be better if this year we dedicated ourselves to trying to accept our limits, our insecurities, our imperfections?

I’ll lead the way with this overarching resolution—I resolve to expect less from myself this year. “Friends” will wonder how that’s possible, but they no doubt mean well.

If you think I’ve finally totally lost it, knock yourself out trying this.

Postscript: Via email, a PressingPause loyalist replied thusly:

“I agree the goal of embracing ones imperfections is one of the most valuable, but how does having a goal in general mean someone is striving for idealized perfection?  Also, I like having society wide markers like holidays. I think it makes us feel more like a community.  And some people may stress over breaking their resolutions, but not everyone.  I just think it’s just the idea of new beginnings. Like baptism or new growth in Spring.”

 

 

Is There a Loneliness Epidemic?

Sporadic small signs rim the perimeter of our our local high school with the message, “You are not alone.”

Are high schoolers and people more generally lonelier today than than in the past?

From “Is there a loneliness epidemic?”

“Surveys from rich countries do not suggest there has been an increase in loneliness over time. Today’s adolescents in the US do not seem to be more likely to report feeling lonely than adolescents from a couple of decades ago; and similarly, today’s older adults in the US do not report higher loneliness than did adults of their age in the past.

That’s of course not to say we should not pay attention to these topics.

It’s important to provide support to people who suffer from loneliness, just as it is important to pay attention to the policy challenges that come from large societal changes such as the rise of living alone. However, inaccurate, over-simplified narratives are unhelpful to really understand these complex challenges.”

Unless we improve math education, we’ll continue to be susceptible to “inaccurate, over-simplified narratives” of this nature.

“I Could Probably Go On”

The first year writing seminar is just past mid-semester. And somehow, despite the professor they were assigned, my first year writers have GOT IT. In place of the typical first year writer’s repeated use of the word “things” and other vague words and phrases, their third papers were peppered with specific details. That switch is almost universally positive. The exception? When they’re detailing their inner lives, like this student of mine, who gave me permission to share this with you.

“I can give a list of the things that are currently making me anxious in this moment: the anatomy test that I should be studying for (I got a 60% on it), if I’m going to pass my classes this semester, what classes I’m going to take next semester, if my friends really like me or just put up with me, the weight that I’m going to gain from the binge that I just had, if this essay is going to be any good, if I even want to go into nursing, what am I going to do with my life once I get out of college. I could probably go on but that was a long sentence as it is.”

My students seem fine on the surface, but as they get honest with themselves and me, I’m learning many are suffering in silence. Their willingness to share their stories with me is humbling.

All that I know to do is to assure them their feelings matter, a lot of their peers feel similarly, and I’m glad they’re in my seminar. Also, I encourage them to take advantage of the counseling available to them.

I don’t know if that’s enough.

Some Things I’m Learning About College Students’ Mental Health

  • Many are super stressed by their parents’ financial sacrifices.
  • Some parents from developing countries “don’t believe” in mental health challenges like anxiety and depression, so they discount its importance. They believe their young adult children can “will themselves” to feel better.
  • College is not as easy a time and place to make friends as is commonly thought. Loneliness is real.

Setting customary anxiety about academic performance aside, imagine worrying incessantly about your family’s finances and not having many friends to confide in. And then, not being able to talk to your parents about anything of substance.

 

What Can We Do To Improve Young Adult Mental Health?

My first year writing students are 18-19 years-old. Here’s the prompt for their first paper:

     Irvine argues that people often lack a “grand goal of living” and a coherent philosophy of life because our culture doesn’t encourage thinking about specific reasons for living; instead it provides them with an endless stream of distractions. He contends you’ll most likely squander your life without a guiding philosophy. He adds that even if you have a “grand goal in living” and can explain its importance, it’s unlikely you will attain those things in life you take to be of greatest value if you lack an effective strategy that specifies what you must do as you go about your daily activities. Explain why you agree or disagree with Irvine’s assertions. Also, explain a few things you want out of life and why.

Irvine proposes an updated version of Stoicism as a guiding philosophy. Most of my writers find meaning in some stoic concepts, like the trichotomy of control, but generally aren’t down with Irvine’s thesis that they need a “grand goal of living”. Most argue they’re too young to have formulated very specific life goals, let alone one “grand” one. Often, they thoughtfully point out that a highly detailed roadmap doesn’t make sense given life’s unpredictability.

When it comes to what they want out of life, an increasing number want improved mental health. It’s difficult to overstate the extent of young adults’ anxiety today. When I listen to them describe their anxiety and depression in class and read about it in their papers I have two reactions. Overwhelming empathy and curiosity as to what the hell is going on.

The third episode of the Happiness Lab podcast with Laurie Santos, “The Silver Lining”, might provide a clue. It’s about our tendency to compare ourselves to others who we perceive to be the most well liked, the most social, the most wealthy, the most together, the seemingly most happy. The episode’s title comes from research into Olympic athletes that suggests bronze medal winners are much happier with their medals than silver medal winners because silver medal winners are focused on not having won gold while bronze medal winners are focused on everyone that didn’t medal at all. This concept, “point of reference”, partially explains why happiness can be so illusive.

A Cornell psychologist in the episode contends social media compounds this problem because everyone carefully curates their online image to appear artificially happy. Among other remedies, Stoics advocate for internal goals to counter our self-sabotaging “point of reference” tendencies.

The gravity of the situation has me convinced that there’s no one explanation to “what’s going on”. Another factor could be the pressure my (admittedly selective) students feel to have their adult lives figured out just as they’re beginning them—whether to go to college, how selective a one, how to pay for it, what to study, what internships and other resume building activities to pursue, whether to go to graduate school, which career path, which grand goal for shits sake.

Parents, intensely worried about the vagaries of the economy, and desperate for a return on their considerable college investment, think that if their young adult children just pick the right thing to study—nursing, engineering, and other pre-professional fields—and develop a detailed plan, their college graduate sons and daughters won’t end up living in their basements.

This was what I was thinking about when struck by a related idea during a recent run. This time of the year, in North Olympia, Washington, it’s pitch black when running before work. Most of the streets are not lit, sometimes there’s fog. My uber-headlamp provides about 20-25 yards of visibility.

North Oly roads roll with a constantly changing mix of gentle ups and downs. Picture ocean swells, the Palouse in Eastern Washington, or the Norwegian countryside. Normally, I realized during the run, seeing roads ahead tilt upwards plays with my mind. At least a little. “Here it comes,” I think, “this is gonna take a little more effort.” And then, “Okay, almost topping out, hang in.”

But on this pitch black, foggy, autumn run, there was no such internal dialogue because I COULDN’T SEE AHEAD. The only way I knew I was starting a climb was my breathing became more labored. “Oh, okay, climbing now.” Because I couldn’t see the road tilting upwards ahead of time, my mind was free of that small, subtle nagging dread of having to work harder. As someone whose prone to look too far down the road of life, I was digging running in the moment. Don’t tell me what’s ahead, let me just be present.

Freed of anticipatory dread, my mind turned to my students. They lament how their teachers, beginning in middle school, ask about their life plans. And how it continues through high school. And how their parents too often pressure them to have a plan.

Some of them end up crafting faux-plans just to stop the insanity. As a placeholder of sorts. Some, like a previous writing student, declare nursing upon entering college only to realize in the middle of our first semester seminar that they didn’t really like science.

Maybe we should give our high school graduates headlamps and encourage them to focus at most on the year ahead especially since life is fragile and no one is guaranteed a long life.

What if our message was this.

In the next year, while working, traveling, or going to college; focus on improving your health; nourishing your spirit; investing in new friendships; finding one way to make others’ lives better. Don’t worry unnecessarily about the mountains and valleys that lie ahead in the distant future. You’ll be okay. And if not, let me know how I can help.

Young adults’ mental health might improve.