Stories of research, nutrition, and nature

Archive for the ‘mental well-being’ Category

Revive creativity

It’s a tough world for teachers and kids nowadays. Bombarded with information from all sorts of channels and media all the time, yet standardized testing is even more common than before, at least in the US.

What does that lead to? Well, my friend told that he watched her daughter gradually become more and more stupid during high school. It wasn’t until college that she started thinking with her own brains again. Thankfully, she was able to resist the dumbing-down attempt enough to recover from their effects.

I was a good kid at school. The kind of a kid who sits quietly, learns everything that she’s supposed to learn and remembers the right answers in exams. Too bad that I forgot most of the stuff after the exam, having just crammed everything into short-term memory the night before and puking it all out on the exam day. I knew how to conform to expectations. Still, I never really liked history or geography classes that much – I was more of a fan of math and languages. In retrospect, I guess I was too focused on trying to memorize the exact years for peace treaties between Sweden and Russia and the main export products of Bolivia, so I couldn’t see the bigger picture. As in, what was actually causing those wars between the countries, or what kind of a life Bolivians led. Nowadays I regret that my knowledge of world history is so sketchy, and that I missed the chances to devote time in immersing myself into those stories. Had they been taught in the form of stories, perhaps my understanding would be a tad more complete.

Then, entering the real world, I was afraid. There was no teacher to tell if my answer was right or not. Suddenly, I was expected to form my own opinions and express them, be daring enough to fail, drop that perfectionism. In the real world, nothing is perfect. And nothing is more effective killer of creativity than thinking there’s just one right answer. That’s even worse in research, where the goal is to figure out new answers.

 

It kind of makes sense that the goal of the education system is conformity. Obedient citizens don’t cause trouble and work well as cogs in the machine. Then again, finding the proper balance is hard. People should still have the basic skills in math, languages, workings of the universe, in order to comprehend and navigate the world around them. What’s more, people should get the taste of enjoyable physical activity, high-quality home-cooked food, and the appreciation of nature, culture and arts. Perhaps the most important thing would be to understand, appreciate and respect the diversity of people and the world.

As an aside, these animated talks are really excellent. Great way to grab attention.

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Guilt of a Consumer

I scribbled these paragraphs a couple of weeks ago when I was sitting in a plane and looking down to the vast blue ocean, mostly covered with clouds. I remember wondering what kinds of living beings swam under the glimmering waves, and whether pollutants in their environment were making them sick. I could try to rationalize my travelling, but I couldn’t deny being part of the problem.

What can change the nature of a man? Love or guilt, perhaps. This is about both of them.

I’m flying across Atlantic once more. My soul, which has trouble with keeping up with the speed, is growing weary of it. But I felt that the ties, some of them bound by blood and others by friendship, compelled me to visit Finland in the summer. And oh, the light skies, the clear lakes, and the sweet flavor of berries. Goose berries, blueberries, a couple of swims, walks and talks.

Still, those are sort of selfish reasons. I know I’m not practising what I preach in every domain of life. What if Facebook’s “Places I’ve visited” map also included the amounts of CO2 emissions produced by the journey? What if people, while telling about their vacation trips, would also recite the number of trees that would need to be planted to offset the harm done to the environment, or the volume of the arctic ice that melted as a result?

Most estimates state that a single trans-Atlantic  flight produces roughly an equal amount of CO2 emissions as driving an average car – non-stop – for a year. I’m really sorry, polar bears.

I can certainly explain away and rationalize my travels, but still – my sister only visited Finland once during her exchange year in France. And she survived. Afterwards I learned that she certainly wasn’t happy all the time, but she grew a lot during that year.

The person who I will miss the most during the rest of this year gave me a book to read on the journey. It’s Alissa Quart’s book about brands among youth, published ten years ago. I’m afraid it’s still an accurate portrayal of the lifestyle of a major part of youth in USA (perhaps not as much in Ithaca). In summary, the picture that Quart paints depicts teenagers and kids as willing slaves to the companies that happily exploit them to market their products more effectively.

In one chapter, she talks about Breakfast Club, a youth movie made in 1985 (I’ve actually seen it too when I was a teenager, and I admit that I liked it). It is similar to other youth movies in the 70s and 80s: it’s about loneliness and not fitting in, and ultimately about strengthening own personal identity. Being your own unique person.

In contrast, youth movies nowadays seem to be only about fitting in into the mainstream. People need to brand themselves with clothes, makeup, shopping, and gigantic parties. These movies promote herd mentality. Not to mention that the expensive brands usually originate from sweatshops in Asia where workers need to work around the clock to be able to feed themselves.

Why do we consume instead of creating or enjoying? Why do we seek our self-worth through possessions and self-enhancement through dressing up and modifying our bodies?

Again, it’s the environment that we live in. Advertisements, television, magazines, shops, other people’s Facebook status updates and vacation photos. They all shout that we should strive to not look natural or casual, and that we must travel (and especially take photos!) around the world so that we’re not considered boring.

Travel can certainly broaden the mind, but we need to take the time to truly understand the local people and nature. Every place has a history and life of its own. It should be given the appreciation it deserves.

Three Basic Needs

Lazy blogger, me. June has swiftly flown past like the hawk I saw above Taughannock Falls a couple of weeks ago. (Well, the hawk kind of lingered a while and circled around, but I would have still liked to observe it longer.) But I’m happy that I haven’t needed to travel in June. I’ve finally had enough time and relatively spry feet to explore nearby places by bike.

Toes

Happy feet at Robert H. Treman state park

As a result of settling down in Ithaca again, I’ve also really started to feel the itch for volunteer work. I feel the need to do something concrete and purposeful where I can see the results quickly. Donating blood used to be my lifeline in Finland – every 3-4 months I’d go and watch the blood flow out of my vein with a fascination that some might call morbid. (As a scientist, I think it’s perfectly natural to be interested in bodily fluids.) Since I’m denied that pleasure here in United States, being from Europe where everyone’s tainted with Creutzfeld-Jacob, I’m feeling the need to find some other real way to help. Research, while valuable in long-term (I hope), just doesn’t deliver fast enough.

I’m by no means unique with my need for purpose. According to Deci and Ryan’s Self-determination theory, purpose (or relatedness) is one of the three basic needs. The other two are autonomy and competence, out of which I currently have plenty of the first and less of the second one. Drive by Daniel H. Pink explains the theory in layman’s terms and gives lots of good ideas for companies that want to increase productivity – give more freedom and flexibility to employers, because intrinsic motivation is much more powerful (in creative tasks) than extrinsic. That should be obvious, but requires a new kind of a mindset. Pink also mentions that the amount of volunteer work is increasing, which indicates that people want to contribute, do good things and feel they’re doing something worthwhile.

Everyone wants to feel they're doing something worthwhile

From the lovely despair.com

So, you ask, what am I doing to fulfil my need for purpose? Well, not awfully much yet. Decided to bike 100 miles around Cayuga Lake in September to raise funds for AIDS prevention and support. Also started volunteering a small sliver of my time to Ithaca Health Alliance’s outreach and education program. And I sign every darn petition that I find that is about protecting basic human rights or preventing pollution. Those who are my Facebook friends may have noticed…

I do believe that the research we do can change the world for the better. But I think the focus should be more heavily on communities, families, social ties and social support, as well as figuring out what people really want. Plus, starting small, remembering that people need to be able to say: “this is my decision”, “I’m able to do this” and “this is meaningful”.

Healthy mind in healthy body

I’ve been going to this improvisation class every Saturday for the last four weeks. It’s been a fun and liberating experience, and I’d recommend it to anyone who sometimes struggles with being too much inside their heads and not being present in this moment. Blurting out the first thing that comes to my mind isn’t something that I usually do, but it’s something that I should do more. Heck, if I reveal my stupidity that way, at least I’m being honest about it.

Another great thing with improv is its physicality – moving around, expressing yourself with your body, interacting with imaginary objects, being a puppet for a puppeteer. I chatted with this white-haired, wise, sarcastic man who’s a social worker in his other life and feels that improv is everything he needs in his work: listening, accepting, being there, having energy. He gave me a great piece of advice: “Any time you feel you’re not present in this moment, do something physical.”

One of the big problems with the work that most people do nowadays is that it is very far from physical. And the problem with exercising after work is that for many people it’s a chore instead of fun. (I sometimes feel that way too, but right now I’d give a whole lot to be able to just run outside and go as far as my body can carry me. Bloody stress fracture.)

So, the last thing I want to do is to develop applications that would encourage people to spend yet more time with their computers or mobile phones. I’d love to encourage people to take a moment to relax, go to spend time with other people, go out and enjoy nature, be aware of their surroundings, and do something good for the sake of doing good. And try not to destroy this beautiful planet.

The planet is really beautiful.

We often talk about saving time. We eat fast food and ready-made meals, drive cars instead of waiting for a bus, shorten words in emails, fly instead of taking a train, make up excuses to end conversations. But what are we saving that time for? Everyone’s still busier than ever – trying to make more money to keep up with the Joneses. Fargo, the excellent (albeit gory) film by Coen brothers is an extreme example of the horrid things people can end up doing just to get more money. Shallow Grave is another one, on a smaller scale.

But I digress. It’s becoming a bad habit. I was going to talk about mental well-being, which in a nutshell is composed of three things: feeling that you’re doing what you want to do (and knowing what that is), being supported by other people, and feeling confident and satisfied with yourself. (Some may recognize the similarities to the three basic needs in Self-Determination Theory – it’s not a coincidence.) I think that if people feel good about themselves, then it doesn’t matter if their physical health isn’t super-fantastic.

Mental health predicts physical health in teens, according to this study.

Depression and anxiety are starting to be as serious problems as obesity in terms of societal burden. Also, they are linked to obesity: depressed people are 60% more likely and anxious people 30% more likely to be obese than those without either of the disorders. Reasons? Common socioeconomic and perhaps hereditary risk factors, topped with physical inactivity and emotional eating triggered by loneliness and low mood.

Depression and anxiety are relatively easy to treat, I’ve heard. That’s why they should be screened out among obese people. Nutrition counselling and exercise programs won’t help if you don’t believe in your ability to achieve results, if you don’t see any reason to try, or if you don’t have anyone who cares.Online interventions for depression and anxiety could help enormously with this population, but I don’t know if they’re used in such a way yet. Anyway, some programs that are in real clinical use include:

  • FearFighter (anxiety, phobia, panic attacks). Used in UK since 2006, recently launched in Denmark and the Netherlands.
  • Beating the Blues (depression). UK since 2006.
  • CRUfADclinic (depression, anxiety). Australia.

And probably more, but can’t think of them right now. These require a clinician’s referral. In Australia (and in the whole world, actually) there’s also eCouch which is open for anyone. They have modules for depression, anxiety, social anxiety, relationship breakdown, and loss & grief. That’s a pretty good selection already.

So. I said I don’t want to encourage people to spend more time with their computers, but going through programs like these can be a great help and a good first step for people with depression or anxiety. Unwarping warped thinking requires some guidance and processing.

Now, why don’t we have programs like that in Finland yet?