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.

 

 

 

 

I Was Wrong

No, not about how to properly load the dishwasher, I’m very right about that.

I was wrong about the merits of Positive Psychology, a newish subfield of psychology dedicated to the study of happiness or “subjective well-being”. When I read the literature, I believed it was based upon solid social science. Ruth Whippman taught me otherwise.

As referenced in Michael Schien’s subtly titled Forbes piece, “Positive Psychology is Garbage”, Barbara Ehrenreich does the same in her book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.

Writing in Forbes, Schien explains Seligman’s success, the pseudo-intellectual founder of the movement:

“When describing his concepts, Seligman uses big words about statistics, mathematical equations, and empirical data. For most of us, this serves as the equivalent of a doctor’s white coat—it seems authoritative, so we don’t question it.”

Guilty as charged. Later, he adds:

“It’s a lesson you would do well to follow. When trying to get people to pay you for your ideas, present them in terms that have the whiff of science whenever possible. Equations. Data. Statistical analysis. Remember, it’s not that the science itself actually matters, it’s the appearance of science that counts.”

I’m left believing happiness is partly the result of being born to happy parents. Other things that tip the balance from despair to joy include a good night’s sleep, a few close friends, healthy food, sunshine, art, physical activity, and socially redeeming work.

But without equations, data, and statistical analysis, I don’t expect anyone to pay my list any attention.

Who Are You Drafting Off Of?

Like a lot of introverts, my need for solitude sometimes seems insatiable. Yet, I’m keenly aware we are social beings and that we need others to accomplish much of anything and to have any meaningful shot at genuine happiness.

Even though you won’t find me in the Nisqually Delta with binocs, DSLR camera, and ginormous lens dangling from my neck, or listening to bird calls on my iPad, I enjoy watching the birds we share our new spot with. Yesterday’s airshow was especially good. Two bald eagles took turns nipping each other (foreplay?) while a cormorant glided by obliviously . I also can’t get enough of watching geese and other migratory birds fly by in small, medium, and large “V’s”.

Migratory birds draft off of one other for the same reason cyclists do, to save about 25% of their energy. I wouldn’t be surprised if they also also benefit somehow from the social aspect of flying together.

Are you an investor, if so, are you “flying solo” or are you drafting off of someone more experienced, knowledgeable, and successful? Like this person. What about as a person, are you drafting off anyone to be a better human being? Or maybe, like me, as an educator, parent, and older person, you’re doing your best to, like Nairo Quintana in the picture below, “lead out” others in need of a positive example.

20175944-355979-800x531.jpgPhoto: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

Postscript: I love this pic because even though Quintana is working at least 25% harder than Contador and company, he’s totally in control, meanwhile, everyone else is struggling mightily to hold his wheel. If only I had grown up Boyacense.

Read This If. . .

You enjoy iconoclasts, craft beer, and independent businesses—Dick Cantwell’s Beer is Immortal (Allecia Vermillion).

You think we’ve ruined kindergarten. The Joyful, Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland (Tim Walker).

You wonder what makes dogs happy. Hint: The answer is in their tails. The secret lives of dogs: Emotional sensor helps owners understand their pup’s feelings (Michael Walsh).

Retrain Your Brain to Be Grateful Part Two

Ledgerwood’s and the others research applies most poignantly to teaching. Consider this hypothetical. A teacher has 25 students, four whom really like her, 19 who don’t have strong feelings one way or the other, and two who really dislike her class. The two act out regularly and are highly skilled at getting under her skin. Even though they represent 8% of the classroom total, they occupy 80% of the teacher’s thinking. Consequently, they teacher wrongly concludes that most of the students are unhappy and thinks negatively about their work more generally.

This phenomenon, which Ledgerwood describes as “getting stuck in the loss frame” applies to school administrators too. More often than not, administrators’ thinking is disproportionately influenced by a few especially adversarial faculty.

Maybe the same applies to doctors working with lots of patients or ministers interacting with numerous parishioners. Or anyone whose work is characterized by continuous personal interactions.

Ledgerwood ends her talk by sharing the personal example of being pressed by her husband to “think of the good things” that happened during her day. And she’s quick to describe two positive memories. But what if you’re work or life situation is so difficult that when it comes to cultivating gratitude, you can’t gain any traction or develop positive momentum?

If I was to take the baton from Ledgerwood at the end of her talk, I’d pivot from psychology to sociology. Meaning you greatly increase your odds of being more positive if you consciously surround yourself with “gain framers”. The inverse of this, you greatly increase your odds of being more grateful if you assiduously avoid people who are “stuck in the loss frame”.

Ledgerwood contends we have to work really hard at retraining our brains. The sociological corollary is we have to be more intentional about who we seek out to partner with—whether in our work lives or our personal lives.

Once a Week Write Down What You’re Most Thankful For

We tend to take the most positive aspects of our lives for granted—good health; family; friends; a roof over our heads; freedoms; or warm, sunny, weekend days in October. It’s especially important that family and friends feel truly appreciated, because when they feel unvalued, those all important relationships suffer.

If you don’t stop to count your blessings on occasion, you’ll probably succumb to negativity. My friend is right when he says, “It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” Curse the darkness with any regularity and people will avoid you. When that happens, negativity usually spirals downward.

University of California, Riverside psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky studies “happiness interventions”. Her research team asks, what if, with just a few behavioral adjustments, we could maintain a high level of happiness throughout our days, our years, or even our entire lives?

Here’s an interesting experiment of theirs. One set of volunteers was asked to keep a gratitude journal once a week, while another was asked to do so three times a week. Those who counted their blessings once a week exhibited a marked increase in happiness–but those who did so three times a week displayed no such uptick. Lyubomirsky speculates that for the latter group, gratitude became a chore, or worse, they ran out of things to be grateful for. The initial burst of happiness was thus deflated by monotony and irritation.*

While pondering this research, and writing this, I’ve been thinking about my mom. As is true for all octogenarians, her health isn’t what it used to be and my dad’s sudden death almost two decades ago was an understandable blow to her happiness. I can’t truly walk in her shoes, or understand why this author wants to die at age 75, but I’m confident even she would benefit from starting a gratitude journal.

Scratch that. Especially she. The more challenging one’s life, the more important it is to account for every last blessing. Starting a gratitude journal is an admission. An admission that gratitude doesn’t come naturally, it requires intentionality.

As always, I appreciate your reading.

* as described by Mark Joseph Stern

The Mathematics of Happiness

Recent research in psychology suggests that 50% of happiness is determined by genetics. What positive psychologists refer to as a “happiness set point”. That’s why some people are almost always happier than others. You can thank or blame your parents and their parents for your particular happiness set point.

The same research suggests that 10% of our happiness is the result of life circumstances like marital status, occupation, and income. Most of the time, good or bad events, like getting a dream job or losing a pet affect our well-being, but only temporarily. Eventually, we adapt to the good and bad and our level of happiness returns to where it was before.

The remaining 40% results from “intentional activity” or our daily decision making. The conventional wisdom here is to 1) engage in positive self reflection; 2) avoid social comparison; 3) be optimistic; 4) pursue meaningful goals; and 5) practice gratitude.

Social scientists routinely privilege the mind over the body; consequently, three things are almost always missing from the conventional wisdom—physical activity, fruits and vegetables, and adequate sleep. I’m no Dr. Oz, but my hunch is those are every bit as important as the previous five. In fact, I suspect they account for half of my “non-genetically-determined” happiness, or half of half of my total well-being.

And I’m not unique in this regard. The more people make exercise, nutritious food, and sleep building blocks of their daily lives, the happier they will be.