Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Healing Divisions: Empathy, Filter Bubbles, and Free Speech

There is a lot of conflict and division in the world.  The recent U.S. election is just one of many examples of this.

What can be done to mend the conflicts?  

I found a relevant TED talk a few days ago, featuring a social psychologist named Jonathan Haidt.  He discusses the psychology of political difference, and also some ideas of what we can all do to help mend the divisions.  

One of the simple challenges he poses to us all, is to practice empathy.  It is easier to empathize with a person who has suffered in a way that we can understand or relate to.  He points out that it may be much harder for any of us to empathize with someone whom we strongly disagree with.  This lack of empathy with our intellectual or political opponents consolidates division, dislike, disrespect, and even hatred.  

A very important obstacle to empathy in the modern world is a technical one:  people who espouse a particular viewpoint may, through social media, or through other information sources, only expose themselves to those who already share the same views or opinions or backgrounds.  Some services, such as Facebook, may deliberately filter information to be attuned to your interests and opinions.  This "filter bubble" phenomenon leads to a reduction in empathy between opposing groups, and therefore magnifies division.  

I encourage all of us to have a practice of learning why people feel or believe the way they do, even if they have very different opinions, feelings, or backgrounds.  You may still strongly disagree at the end of this exploration, but at least there will hopefully be less enmity, and more understanding.  You may discover that despite many differences, that there are unexpected areas of common ground.  Such common ground can lead to peace instead of war.  

A foundation required for this process to work is freedom of speech...I am very troubled by processes in which communication is suppressed.    Even in the seemingly warm-hearted area of mental health care reform, I have seen processes of change in which dissenting voices were not welcome...the human tendency to suppress opposition in the name of efficiency or progress is universal.  We must always take steps to protect our freedoms.  This requires a certain bravery to express ourselves, even when your voice is a lone voice of dissent in a crowd...but it also requires a deliberate commitment to empathize, to strive to understand the feelings, thoughts, and motivations of those who disagree with you.  Such empathy must be practiced as a basic discipline of life.  

Another recommendation I have is to be aware of the "filter bubble"and to step out of it regularly.  Read widely, from as many different sources as you can.  This doesn't mean you need to agree with positions you find objectionable, but at the very least it does require you to be more aware of personal stories that you might not have been aware of before.

Addendum (in response to a message about this post):    I am not meaning to suggest some form of passivity or tacit acceptance of situations which are alarming or wrong -- in fact, I strongly encourage using your voice!  And there may often be a need for voices of protest or anger...but I also believe that strong leadership is needed to mend conflicts, which includes a voice that can speak to all.  In large-scale human dynamics, people have a tendency to veer gradually towards extreme positions...for those who are drifting towards extremism of any kind, I think that an empathic voice can be much more effective to reverse an extremist trend, compared to an angry one.   I think of some of the great voices in history, such as Martin Luther King's.  

Monday, November 14, 2016

Grit in Psychological Health and Illness

I've recently finished reading a book called Grit, by Angela Duckworth.  The author is a research psychologist who is part of the faculty at Harvard University.  She also has a background and interest in childhood education, which is very relevant to her other work.

It is a good overview of the research that has been done about the factors that lead to success and achievement in various domains of life, such as in a profession, in athletics, and in the performing arts.

The author's thesis, in a nutshell, is that "grit", which she defines as perseverance over a long period of time, the practice of being undeterred by failures or disappointments, and the maintenance of long-term purposeful goals, is a much stronger factor leading to success, compared to hereditary factors or "talent."

While this may seem like an obvious truth, it is important to realize that the educational system, and the culture as a whole, tends to value the idea of "talent" more strongly than the idea of "persistent hard work."   In one interesting study, an identical performance was judged more highly if the observers were told that the performer was "talented" compared to being told that the performer had "worked really hard."

How is this relevant to mental health?

Here are some of Duckworth's ideas, applied to mental health management:

1) if you are working on mental health, consider that it is necessary to work on this for years.  Duckworth's research shows that successful endeavours in almost all spheres of life require a commitment of at least 2 years' time.  During this time, it is necessary to have diligent, daily practice.  This is not unlike the routines needed by a musician or athlete.  This work needs to be guided by a long-term meaningful vision.  The work may at times be difficult or even painful, and the work may be interrupted by periodic failures.  The disappointing times must be accepted without allowing them to interrupt the work.  In fact, it is necessary to learn from the disappointments rather than be derailed by them.

2) Duckworth ponders the unresolved question of whether the daily disciplined work needed for success must be "enjoyable."  A lot of the work, in athletes for example, shows that the workouts needed for excellence are not, or cannot be, truly "enjoyable."  The required work must challenge the status quo of your body's physiology and reflexes, and this is never easy to do.   In this sense, a recipe for excellence is a tolerance for discomfort, which could be nurtured through practice.  But I think this view could be reframed:  the hard work needed may in the moment be uncomfortable, but provided there is an overarching sense of meaning and joy which guides the process, the periods of intense work would then fit into a paradigm of balanced health.    I also believe that a good therapist, teacher, or coach, should always strive to make hard work as enjoyable as possible.  Therapy itself may sometimes be quite joyful, and need not always be emotionally taxing.

3) In order to facilitate the years of work and discipline needed for growth and change, it is usually necessary to be part of a culture or community of change.  Athletes are usually part of a team, whose members motivate each other.  Musicians and academics hopefully are part of communities whose actions challenge and maintain growth and practice.   It can make a huge difference to have a dedicated teacher or coach who believes in you, who sees your potential, and who challenges you to work hard.   In mental health, I think a good therapist can have a "coach-like" or "teacher-like" role in this way.  I think a good therapist should strive to be inspiring, motivating, but also challenging.

4) As Duckworth shows, it is necessary to have a sense of purpose in order to be able to commit to years of hard work.  In depression, it is often the case that a sense of purpose is weakened or lost.  It is of the utmost importance in therapy to address the issue of meaning.  Without meaning, the hard work required for change could feel like a terribly draining, pointless chore.   But how can we recapture meaning which has been lost?  Maybe sometimes it is not so easy, but we can start by at least addressing it in conversation, and exploring possibilities.  Often, in depression, meaning can be rekindled through behavioural exploration, in conjunction with relief of symptoms.   In other cases, meaning can be recaptured even when other symptoms are at their worst.

5) One of the connotations of this type of work is that short-term models of mental health care are unlikely to lead to mental health "excellence," unless they serve merely as preliminary introductions to new ways of being.    Just like in a successful classroom, sports team, or company, the atmosphere of change must allow for a sustained, long-term commitment.    But it is an important critique of some longer-term therapy, that it can become too passive, just like the situation in which a teacher or coach becomes resigned to a class or a team which is not thriving.  A good therapist, just like a good teacher or coach, must always strive for growth and change, while also helping the process to be as joyful and meaningful as possible.