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.

 

 

 

 

The Deleterious Health Effects of Sedentary Work Cultures

One aspect of my privilege is my education which has enabled me to make a living without sacrificing my body. Roofers, welders, plumbers, farmers, house painters, construction workers, tree cutters, often aren’t as fortunate.

But I’ve noticed a pattern even among my fellow white collar egghead professors. A majority routinely sacrifice their health for the sake of their work because of a deep-seated intellectual bias that prioritizes the mind at the expense of the body. 

Simply put, most of my colleagues have been sedentary for decades. On top of that, generous people take turns providing unhealthy office snacks*. Most professors don’t make time to walk, hike, run, play tennis, swim, cycle, or lift weights because there’s always another lecture to plan, or syllabus or grant to write, or set of papers to mark, or conference presentation to prepare, or faculty workshop to attend.

I like my work and my university, but not nearly enough to sacrifice my health for it. One colleague of mine retired in May and died in July. I didn’t know him so I don’t even want to pretend his lifestyle played any part, but I fear too many of my colleagues will not get to enjoy as many post work years if they do not prioritize their health more than is the norm.

Today marks the end of the world’s longest academic sabbatical, mine. I normally work summers, but I took the summers of 18 and 19 off, the book-ends to my 2018-2019 academic year sabbatical. 15 months, huzzah! Someone call the Guinness Book of World Records**. I won’t be telling any of my colleagues what I’m going to tell you in the next paragraph because the sedentary nature of faculty life is so pervasive my athletic self lives deep in the closet***.

Besides the traditional, publishing a couple of articles, reading a bunch, and updating my syllabi, I also turned the knob up a bit on my regular swimming, cycling, and running volume. Por exemplar, I joined a Masters swim team and so far this year have already swam about the same distance as last calendar year. And SO WHAT if I did stretch and chill in the jacuzzi after some practices! Also, I’m on pace to cycle 5,000 miles this year and maintain my 1,000 mile a year running streak. I was fit when I began my record breaking sabbatical, today I’m a little more fit****.

Am I overcompensating? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I’m under no illusions that my active lifestyle will guarantee any kind of post-work longevity because life is fragile. That driver on their cell phone could wipe me out on tomorrow’s ride.

But as long as I work as an egghead professor, I will dare to be different by making time to swim, cycle, and run. In particular, I will not sacrifice the quality of my life to the pervasive work culture of which I’m apart. Please, just don’t out me to any of my colleagues.

*Decent chance I have my first donut in a long time today. #glazed

**Could an educator-reader please tell me if teaching is like riding a bike, I’m afraid I may have forgotten how. Any tips?

***Except for one colleague-friend who follows my workouts on Strava. I should probably get him to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

****No, I haven’t just opted to not write about racing triathlons, I have in fact sold my time trial bike and stopped competing for reasons I’m not entirely sure. As I age, given the attrition of my peers, and my consistent training, I would do quite well. But when I envision best case scenarios, like winning races, I’m still not sufficiently motivated to toe the line. Is there a sports psychologist in the house?

bike

 

How To Transform Sports Television

Some tech savvy person in sports television is going to make millions as a result of reading the following few paragraphs. My decision not to apply for the patents myself is just one more example of my amazing selflessness.

Here’s the problem with televised running, swimming, and cycling races. Let’s take running as our primary example, but remember the same phenomenon applies to swimming and cycling.

The camera zooms in on ten East Africans mid-marathon and their 4:45 per mile pace looks almost effortless. What’s needed is some sort of computer generated avatar of a recreational runner superimposed on the same course to begin appreciating how insanely fast the elite runners are going. With smart televisions of the near future, we should be able to program personal avatars, whether we’re watching running, swimming, or cycling. I’d program my runner to hold 8 minute miles; my swimmer, 1:30 per 100 yards; and my cyclist, 20mph. Once programmed, we can sit back and marvel at how quickly and often we get overtaken.

Case in point. Last week a 22-year-old Ethiopian star, Yomif Kejelcha, broke a 22-year-old indoor world record in the mile, running 3:47:01 at a meet in Boston.

When I’m rested and running with purpose I can hold 7:40 miles for an hour or two. If I set my avatar for a 7:35-7:40/mile pace on the same 400 meter track at the same time as Keljecha, in just four laps, he would pass me for the second time just before crossing the finish line. Twice as fast. I’m no burner, but probably less slow than 85-90% of recreational runners.

Long story short, if you watched Kejelcha run four laps in the time it takes me to run two, you’d have a much, much better appreciation for his freakish speed.

I Hear You

Tongue firmly planted in cheek, I think, a loyal PressingPauser chided me for being too political in recent posts. Given the state of our disunited union, and the angry nature of our national dialogue, political burnout is totally understandable. He implored me to write more about other things. More personal ones.

I do not get as much feedback on the humble blog as I would like, so I’m prone to heed any I get. Please consider following my friend’s lead in letting me know what you do and don’t like. The reader is always right.

So let’s get personal.

First off, I’ve long suspected I’m on the cutting edge of societal evolution, but now I have hard and fast proof. Context. My “friends” like to tease me about my $14 Kirkland jeans. Prolly because I look so good in them #jealousy. Get a load of what WBuffett had to say about Costco in his just released annual letter:

“Here they are, 100 years plus, tons of advertising, built into people’s habits and everything else,” Buffett said of Kraft Heinz’s brands. “And now, Kirkland, a private-label brand, comes along and with only 750 or so outlets, does 50% more business than all the Kraft Heinz brands.”

And:

“Customers see the brand as a blend of quality and value, and it gives shoppers a unique reason to go to Costco that other retailers can’t match — online or off.”

Taking names and kicking ass, one pair of jeans at a time. Once this post goes viral, I expect Costco to call and ask me to participate in an advertising campaign. Maybe a “famous bloggers in Kirkland jeans” expose. Oh wait, they don’t have to advertise because you can already find their label on my backside most of the time.

Not personal enough? Okay, brace yourself for the next level.

One time my sissy borrowed my iPod, remember those, and had a good laugh at my expense. “You’re iPod is filled with female folk singers!” Yeah, what of it! Just more hard and fast evidence that I’m secure in my non-toxic masculinity. When it comes to groovy new female folk singers, the 23 and 26 year old prove helpful. Here are three worth checking out, that is, if you’re not beholden to some antiquated notion of gender.

• Billie Eilish, When the Party’s Over. Not even old enough to vote yet. Video is weird, but that’s to be expected from a teen. I’m sharing it because 162 million people have watched it and I don’t want you to feel left out. Grooved to this track while running yesterday afternoon. Started out in a light rain and ended in glorious sunshine reflecting off the Salish Sea. 7 miles, 54:30.

• Sigrid,  Strangers. Only 44 million views, so please help her close the gap with Billie by watching. 22 years old, Ålesund, Norway.

• Maggie Rogers, Light On. 24 years old. Career launched after Pharrell Williams listened to a tape of hers in a masterclass.

Alaska is her most listened to track, but I like this below the radar vid even more:

Two predictions. Olivia Colman will win Best Actress and my running posse will give me endless shit for highlighting three young women singers. The R-17 jokes will fly fast and furious. In my defense, one of the things I like most about these young women is their rejection of the pop music dynamic of the past, where young female singers felt compelled to sell their sensuality. These women, in their Kirkland jeans and t-shirts are saying f$%k that. Accept me as I am. Or not.

Still not personal enough? Jeez, maybe I should just write about the President tweeting back at Spike Lee for reminding people that there’s an election in 2020 and to choose love over hate.

2018 fitness report? 276 kilometers swimming. 4,868 miles cycling. 1,050 miles running, thus keeping my 20 year 1k+ miles running streak alive. . . barely due to an end-of-year calf strain. Now that’s some personal snizzle fo shizzle. For the record, “snizzle” is an actual weather term meaning a “mixture of snow and freezing rain” but my hip use of it means “shit for sure”. Feel free to come up with your own meaning.

And, of course, to weigh in on your blog.

 

 

 

 

Cautiousness Is Costly

After spending Saturday morning exercising, I rallied when the family proposed a hike in Olympia’s Watershed Park, a beautiful 1.4 mile trail in the heart of a dense, fern-filled Pacific Northwest forest.

By the time we began, daylight was fading into dusk. In a steady rainfall we began our clockwise loop. A few minutes later, a young athletic woman materialized in front of us, maybe 18 to 20 years young, hair wet, holding her phone, listening to music. Her warm smile suggested this was a better than average run. Fifteen minutes later, she reappeared. Impressed, I said, “Man, you are really getting after it.” “Yeah,” she acknowledged, smiling even more exuberantly.

The Good Wife, Eldest, Youngest, her, and I all got to our parked cars at the same time. She split before I could thank her.

I would’ve liked to thank her for daring to be different. Or more simply for being daring. A lot of people, scratch that, nearly everyone, would say she was crazy to be running alone, near dusk, in the rain, in a park where a person or two have been accosted previously. By focusing on the one or two tragic episodes over the last 10-20 years, people would forget that in between, thousands of runners have joyously run the 1.4 mile loop unscathed.

Our semi-dark, rain drenched hike was great fun, but based on her radiant smile, I bet her run was even more exhilarating. One she’ll remember fondly.

Close in age to my daughters, I thought to myself, what would I think if I was her dad or if my daughters chose to run alone in Watershed at dusk in a steady rain. I would’ve felt better if she had a friend or dog with her and told me her plan, but I’d much rather her (and them) error on the side of running alone in the elements, than not.

Why? Because when we try eliminating risk from our lives, we’re not really living. We’re most safe when sitting on our sofas, but if we spend too much time on our sofas out of fear of what could go wrong if we venture outside, we forego adventures, new friendships, and positive memories of having successfully taken calculated risks alone or with others.

Calculated risks like running in Watershed in a steady rain, in the almost dark. Negotiating the rolling hills, the wet footing. Celebrating being of healthy mind and spirit. Of overcoming fear. Of being alive.

Thank you for reading some of what I wrote this year. My hope for 2019 is that we live a little (or a lot) less cautiously. Happy New Year or is it New Years?

 

Three Paths Diverge in the Woods

I know a lot about communication as it relates to interpersonal conflict. Problem is, I don’t always apply it. Which begs the question, what good does head knowledge do if it doesn’t make its way to the heart?

Case in point, last SatRun. Most every Saturday morning you can find a few of my ideologically diverse friends and me running 10 miles up, down, and around Olympia, WA. I’m the guy with the dorky calf sleeves.

While running, we share eventful stories from the work week, debate political hot potatoes, talk sports, and tell family stories*. The only thing all of us agree on is how fortunate our wives are to be married to us.

Last Saturday, I blew it. Despite just blogging about the futility of imposing one’s views on others, I entered into an unwinnable argument about the relative merits of our last president versus our current one. No argument is winnable when one or both participants’ contrasting viewpoints are based almost exclusively on emotion. No amount of reasoning; no matter how dispassionate, empirical, and persuasive; is any match for strongly held emotions. I forgot that I cannot alter my friend’s fundamentally negative feelings towards our previous president, just as there’s nothing he can say that will assuage my negative feelings towards our current one.

And so the “exchange” spiraled downwards so much so that one teammate purposely gapped us. The two us ended up much, much more irritated, than enlightened, about our differences.

So the first path in the interpersonal conflict woods, emotion-laden arguing, is not recommended. The second path, curiosity-based conversations, is a much preferred alternative.

Had I demonstrated just a touch of interpersonal intelligence, I would’ve asked questions to try to better understand my friend’s warped political perspective. Among others, WHY do you feel that way? Had I done that, two positive things may have resulted. First, he probably would have moderated his most outlandish claims, thus lowering the temperature of the entire convo. When agitated, it’s human nature to assert things much more intensely than necessary. In those situations, we in essence, surrender to negative emotions. Second, had I listened patiently enough; eventually, he probably would’ve asked me some questions in a similar effort to better understand me.

If I had gone full Socrates and focused on understanding my friend’s thinking, I probably would’ve kept my emotions in check. Meaning it could’ve ended up being a worthwhile conversation instead of the pointless argument paralleling the one playing out nightly on opposing cable news stations.

The third path in the interpersonal conflict woods is knowing the limits of one’s capacity for curiosity-based conversation. For example, I cannot practice curiosity-based conversation with anyone who looks passively at the continuous stream of mass shootings in the U.S., and repeatedly concludes, “We’d be better off if more “good people” had guns.” Just. Can’t. Go. There. Of course, there’s nothing requiring me to.

How much time do you spend on the three paths? Depending upon how centered I am, I see-saw between pointless arguing and enriching, curiosity-based conversations. A tiny fraction of the time, I opt out altogether. I hope to eliminate pointless arguing from my life by continuing to learn from my mistakes and living a long, long time.

Before next Saturday’s 10-miler, I commit to not just warming up my bod, but also my heart.

*or they bully the guy on sabbatical, the one with the humble blog

 

 

 

Daniela Ryf’s Secret Weapon

No one can beat Daniela Ryf, Switzerland’s long distance triathlon queen.

Once again, many tried on Sunday in Kona, Hawaii. The race consists of three legs, a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run. Or for my metric friends—4k, 180k, 42k.

Ryf, winner of the 2015, 2016, and 2017 editions of the championship, was the indisputable favorite. Last year’s runner up, 25 year old Lucy Charles from Britain, was promising to hang with Ryf.

Never mind the 5-6 months of dedicated training for race day, a few minutes after dawn and minutes before the race start, Ryf was stung by jelly fish in both arms while warming up near Kailua Pier. Which brings to mind Mike Tyson’s quote, “Everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the mouth.” Ryf had a plan until stung in both arms.

In considerable pain, Ryf decided to try swimming. An athletic marvel, in the following interview, at the 2+ minute mark, Ryf reveals her true secret power—extreme mental toughness. “Maybe in five hours,” she says, “I’ll be feeling fine.” Most of us are doing well when we walk for 30 minutes, run for 45, swim for 60, or cycle for 90. Imagine thinking, “Maybe in five hours I’ll be fine.”

Although a few male pros were hospitalized after being stung pre-race, Ryf knew there was a chance the pain would dissipate. Her mental toughness coupled with her confidence in her training was more than enough.

Long story short, she finished the swim 9 minutes behind Charles, which many thought was an insurmountable gap. Four hours later, and five into the race, she passed Charles near the end of the bike and crossed the finish line 10 minutes ahead of her in a course record 8:26:16, 20 minutes faster than her 2016 course record.

Like Ryf, when we’re in pain—whether physical, mental, or emotional, how can we envision a brighter future? How can we learn to think that “Maybe in five days, weeks, months, or years, we’ll be fine?”