In observance of Mental Health Month, I’ve been writing on the lessons I’ve learned about mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic. (You can read about Lessons 1 to 3 here and Lessons 4 to 7 here.) The seventh and final lesson to living in the “new normal” following the easing of lockdown restrictions is in the tools and disciplines of positive psychology.
So now, on the last weekday of Mental Health Month, let me share four additional lessons I’ve learned over the past fifteen years that will help me live well in the “new normal.”
The story of a carrot, an egg, and a cup of coffee
I live in Connecticut, and we began our phased emergence from Covid-19 lockdown on May 20. Under the Phase 1 re-opening guidelines, restaurants can provide sit-down service (for the previous two months, they were limited to takeout), but the tables have to be outdoors, table size is restricted, there has to be a minimum six-foot separation between tables, servers have to wear masks (and so do patrons– except, of course, when they’re actually eating or drinking), and a rigorous regimen of cleaning and sanitizing has to be followed. This has the practical effect that food and drinks are served in disposable takeout containers. Phew! That’s a lot of special considerations.
Last Saturday afternoon, I enjoyed my first meal out under the post-lockdown rules. It was interesting to see the creative ways the restaurant adapted its operations to the new reality. I commented to my lunch companions how this was a good illustration of resilience.
About fifteen years ago, I read a special report by the Wellness Council of America (WELCOA) that pushed my thinking down a different path. “Hard Times, Tough People: Is Resilience in Your Future?” was the title. It made the case for why resilience needed to be incorporated into corporate wellness programming and highlighted the Motorola Corporation’s experiences in this area. Here’s what Motorola had to say:
Resilience Definition. Resilience is currently defined as “strength in the midst of change and stressful life events.” Besides providing strength in the form of coping behaviors, resilient individuals also perceive change as a challenge rather than a threat. They perceive a higher level of supervisor support, co-worker cohesion and overall social support. These perceptions can lead to some significant health benefits. If a person can learn resilient behaviors, studies show that one’s immune system function is enhanced, thereby creating not just psychological but physiological benefits as well.
Hmm, I thought. The expression “what does not kill me makes me stronger” might have some validity to it, after all.
So, I did some additional research and found a series of resilience-education modules, offered by the University of Texas at Austin, that was developed by the same person who consulted with Motorola on their program.
Along with the modules, you can access a series of inspiring stories at the University of Texas resilience education site, including one where a mother teaches her daughter an object lesson in responding to adversity. She sets up three pots of boiling water. Into one she puts a bunch of carrots, into another several eggs, and into the last one some ground coffee beans. After twenty minutes, she has her daughter inspect the contents of each pot. Each object faced the same adversity (boiling water), but each responded differently, with the carrots getting soft and the eggs hard, while the coffee beans turned into coffee.
“Which are you?” she asked her daughter. “When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond? Are you a carrot, an egg or a coffee bean?”
It’s pretty clear the person who the mother wants her daughter to be:
The bean actually changes the hot water, the very circumstance that brings the pain. When the water gets hot, it releases the fragrance and flavor. If you are like the bean, when things are at their worst, you get better and change the situation around you.
“For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”
In Act 2, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the protagonist tells his childhood friend Rosencrantz how Denmark, the realm of which he is a prince, feels like a prison to him. Rosencrantz begs to differ (“We think not so, my lord”), to which Hamlet retorts “Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.”
This exchange gets at the heart of what cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is all about, namely that psychological problems often are the result of distorted ways of thinking and unhelpful patterns of behavior that flow from them. And the solution to those problems is found in a process of identifying, challenging, and replacing the distorted thinking patterns. A popular example of this approach is the ABCDE Model popularized by Albert Ellis.
And it’s this ABCDE Model that forms the basis for the “Focusing on Empowering Interpretations” module of the University of Texas resilience course. You can try your hand at it by using the worksheet Professor Steinhardt created for that module.
The digital resilience coaching platform meQuilibrium incorporates this CBT model and makes it widely accessible. I don’t have any experience with their computer-based tools, but I read the book that originally laid out their process for becoming “cooler, calmer and happier.” In the book, the authors talk about two concepts that derive from the ABCDE Model: thinking traps and iceberg beliefs.
Thinking traps are the result of faulty mental shortcuts that “confuse the situation and get in the way of our seeing the world accurately” (p. 49). There are seven traps, explained in this short video by Dr. Andrew Shatté, meQuilibrium’s chief scientist. The one that I identify with the most is magnifying the bad and minimizing the good– a very unhelpful way of thinking in these times.
One of the ways of escaping the Maximizing and Minimizing thinking trap is through the Three Good Things exercise. This is an evidence-based practice that involves writing down, every day for at least a week, three things that went well for you today and providing an explanation for why they went well. I’ve tried it numerous times over the years and have to say it’s worked really well.
Iceberg beliefs, the second of meQuilibrium’s CBT-based concepts that I’ve found helpful, are “big beliefs we have about ourselves, our world, and our future; they usually show up as rules about how we believe things should be and how we, and others, should behave.” (p. 94) As this piece points out, they fall into three categories, having to do with achievement (at work, in school, in the community), relationships, and control (“how you deal with an erratic world, gain mastery over your life, keep to a regimen and a schedule, have things turn out the way you want them to, or feel safe and secure”).
There’s a lot of power in visualizing and expressing– either in writing or out loud to another person– the absolute worst outcome of a particularly troublesome situation.
I can tell you that, in recent months, I’ve had to confront a lot of iceberg beliefs in that third category (control). The way I’ve dealt with them– and will continue to do so going forward into the “new normal”– is by “melting” them, using a technique I learned about from reading Oliver Burkeman’s 2012 book The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. It’s a technique grounded in the work of Albert Ellis, one of the pioneers of CBT, and also in principles of ancient Stoic philosophy.
That would be the “Worst Case Scenario.” There’s a lot of power in visualizing and expressing– either in writing or out loud to another person– the absolute worst outcome of a particularly troublesome situation. It clears your mind out, and it can help you prepare for actual trouble. And besides, it’s good enough for uber control freak Randall Pearson.
Your most valuable resource is your attention
Did I just say: “it clears your mind out”? That’s a challenge these days, because our mind is a very cluttered place.
In a 2010 study, Harvard researchers used an iPhone app that contacted over 2,000 volunteers at random intervals to ask what they were doing, what they were thinking about, and how happy they were– all at that particular moment. The headline finding? Almost half (46.9%) of the time, respondents reported their minds were wandering, i.e., they were thinking about something other than what they were doing at the time.
That’s a lot of noise to contend with if you’re trying to focus on identifying and defeating your thinking traps and iceberg beliefs.
“Your most valuable resource isn’t time,” says Santa Clara University Professor Shauna Shapiro, “it’s your attention.” And attention is at the core of the increasingly-widespread practice of mindfulness.
Dr. Shapiro was one of the guest lecturers in the Science of Happiness MOOC that I attended in the fall of 2014 and wrote about in my last post. Earlier this month, she did a succinct presentation on her Mindfulness Model and its relevance to these current times. You can watch the half-hour-long session here.
Here’s my personal summary:
- Mindfulness means seeing clearly (seeing what’s true) so you can respond effectively (to whatever situation you’re facing.
- It has three elements:
- Intention: Why am I paying attention? What’s the most important thing here?
- Attention: The goal is to stabilize our attention in the present moment, so we can see clearly. Focusing is difficult. Our mind does wander. But the important thing is to learn how to bring it back.
- Attitude: This is the most overlooked element. How are we paying attention? Is it with kindness and curiosity? Or is it with harsh judgement (shaming ourselves and others)? Shame doesn’t work; it shuts down the learning centers of the brain
- There’s a distinction between mindfulness and meditation: Mindfulness is a way of being; meditation is a practice to cultivate mindfulness.
This last item got me interested. It turns out there are a variety of practices, some of them very active, to help you cultivate mindfulness. For example, there’s mindful walking, mindful eating, mindful cycling, and even mindful driving (although I have to say, having driven that same stretch of highway myself, it’s definitely not one you want to drive “mindlessly”).
Back to the Mindfulness Model: I was also struck by the importance of Intention, the “why” factor in the model. Which brings me to my final lesson.
“One who has a ‘why’ to live can bear most any ‘how'”
That’s a quote from the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. It was highlighted in an unusual and fascinating book I purchased in 2015. But before I go further, let me give you some back-story details.
Five years ago, I was working with a large insurance carrier and was on the leadership team of their employee resource group for remote workers. We were partnering with one of the other ERG’s to deliver a series of virtual seminars on the five elements of wellbeing. The focus for the summer of 2015 was career wellbeing – also known as “purpose” wellbeing. One of the people in the other ERG said she had a contact at the University of Michigan who recently published a book on the topic of purpose. So, we contacted Vic Strecher to work with us on a webinar, and my job was to learn more about his work so we could ask him good questions during the event.
As I mentioned earlier, Dr. Strecher’s book was unusual. That’s because it took the form of a graphic novel (and an exquisitely beautiful one at that). You can get a good flavor of its style and content by visiting the associated website. And if the website is a bit puzzling to you– for example, if you’re wondering why he features a talking dung beetle– you should check out his 2014 University of Michigan TEDx talk.
The book goes into quite a bit of detail on the importance of having a life purpose. It gets into philosophy (hence the Nietzsche quote I’ve used as the heading for this section) and also health-outcomes research. The bottom line is– well, instead of me telling you, why don’t I give you a “quote” from the book:
So, circling back to my starting point: The final lesson I’ve learned about mental health in the time of the coronavirus is that we’ll do best in navigating the complex maze of the “new normal” if we deploy the tools of positive psychology, in particular:
- Developing resilience so we can grow and thrive in the face of adversity
- Understanding how our thoughts and beliefs influence our behaviors, and replacing unhelpful ones with helpful ones
- Practicing mindfulness so we can see things clearly and respond appropriately
- Having a self-transcending purpose in life that gives us meaning and helps us keep going, even in the face of adversity
Let’s close out Mental Health Month 2020 by resolving to live this way every month!