Four For Friday (42)

The health pandemic and the economic crisis together were bound to unleash a mental wellbeing crisis sooner than later. It was not unexpected but it still saddens to see our friends and colleagues buckling under pressure.

The future cannot be designed by cynics who peddle stories of human selfishness and paint pictures of calamities. Hope, you will remember, was the last thing to come out of Pandora’s Box of ills. That hope will shape us. Here are some uplifting readings.

Writing about how to breathe in these breathless times, Paul Bennett of IDEO reminds us of the canaries in the coal mine and how they were a vital part of the mining process, and how we are all canaries now.

Canaries are part of a group of animals and plants referred to as sentinel species, organisms that are used as precursors of an environmental threat. The metaphor of course holds more truth in it now than ever, with the toxicity of our immediate surroundings under total environmental and now biological, threat. In many ways, we are all miners and we are all canaries — each one of us is a miner, watching the people around us and our countries for signs of COVID-19 and hoping that their behavior will save us, and each one of us and our country is a canary, breathing through the toxicity of our surroundings and hoping that what is held in the air will not kill us and our families.

He writes about three human stories from China and concludes with:

This is the China I know and want us to think about when we find ourselves in the emotional mineshaft of COVID-19. Not as a faceless country but as sentinels — canaries with names, people who have sacrificed their own safety, profit and life savings to help us all learn the value of doing so ourselves. I hope we all do learn from this. It is our collective duty right now to be wardens for each other, to put names to stories, to breathe together, and I can only hope that more of us are chirping in solidarity and less of us Tweeting in judgement.

In the past few days, we in the UK have read about police being heavy-handed with people breaking lockdown and social distancing rules. That was newsworthy because policing in the UK is by consent of the community and this overbearing manner is not in line with the culturally accepted practices and reeked of an overreach. Police chiefs were cited as predicting coronavirus will bring out the worst of humanity. But then there is Captain Tom Moore, a 99 year old war veteran, who is walking for the NHS and has raised, at the time of writing, £21 Million for the NHS. Yes, £21 Million in a time when people are strapped for cash and worried about their jobs.

Which makes Tim Hartford’s writing about how we are in a time of crisis – that we keep calm and are kinder than ever – timely and relevant.

This pandemic has no exact precedents, but the evidence from past disasters suggests that we should expect more of each other. Many people and businesses took voluntary action on social distancing while both the British and US governments dithered; the UK administration was also surprised by how many people quickly volunteered to help with transport and supplies for vulnerable people.

We can be both nimble and altruistic, and perhaps the authorities should start taking that into account in their future policies. Given clear guidance as to the best thing to do, most of us try to do it.

Rebecca Solnit wrote in A Paradise Made In Hell: “What you believe shapes how you act.” Let’s start by believing in each other; kind acts will follow. 

How to think straight through these times though, is the question. I am noticing teenagers and adults alike struggling to parse the uncertainty surrounding us. Founders I have formally and informally advised over the years have been reaching out for support, succour and sometimes just a good old cry.

This is, as we know, not just an economic or physical health crisis. Surely our “solutions” need to take that into account too.

Mindfulness meditation (Nature article) has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, and stress, and improve emotion regulation, though caution is advised for those who have had trauma. The Nature article says:

Clinical evidence suggests that mindfulness meditation reduces anxiety, depression, and stress, and improves emotion regulation due to modulation of activity in neural substrates linked to the regulation of emotions and social preferences. However, less was known about whether mindfulness meditation might alter pro-social behavior. Here we examined whether mindfulness meditation activates human altruism, a component of social cooperation. Using a simple donation game, which is a real-world version of the Dictator’s Game, we randomly assigned 326 subjects to a mindfulness meditation online session or control and measured their willingness to donate a portion of their payment for participation as a charitable donation. Subjects who underwent the meditation treatment donated at a 2.61 times higher rate than the control (p = 0.005), after controlling for socio-demographics. We also found a larger treatment effect of meditation among those who did not go to college (p < 0.001) and those who were under 25 years of age (p < 0.001), with both subject groups contributing virtually nothing in the control condition. Our results imply high context modularity of human altruism and the development of intervention approaches including mindfulness meditation to increase social cooperation, especially among subjects with low baseline willingness to contribute.

Yoga is another helpful way of keeping centred in these challenging times.

Useful stuff to discover while you are here: When coronavirus was labelled a pandemic, Hannah Presence, with whom I practise yoga, was swift in going online with her very popular and hard-to-get-into Yoga classes. She has considerable experience working with Royal College Of Physicians as well as several prisons where inmates send her lovely notes after and where working with her has helped many get calm. I was ironically the last of her clients to “go virtual” but now that I have found my practice becoming even stronger, I can heartily recommend her classes for various levels from beginner to advanced. You can book here!