Greetings -- it's good to be back. I've been away from blogging for a while, spending all of my free time in a remote land called Bookville -- a place with strange, ancient customs. For instance, writing something and not publishing it immediately!
But while I had my head down writing a book about meditation, mindfulness, sleep, stress, and the need to redefine success, there was an explosion of these same themes everywhere in the culture. Or maybe it's just that my antennae are tuned in to noticing them more. Management consultant Lee J. Colan calls it "the yellow car phenomenon" -- you buy, or even just notice, a yellow car and suddenly you find yourself seeing yellow cars all over the place. Or you learn a new word and then you keep hearing people use it.
But I don't think this is just the Third Metric version of the yellow car phenomenon -- every day there really are more and more conversations happening about the benefits of mindfulness and sleep and stress reduction. And not just in outlets that write about these topics on a regular basis, but in every part of the media landscape.
Let's start with yesterday's New York Times that featured on the cover of its Sunday Styles section a great article by Teddy Wayne on his "7-day digital diet." Then, there were several remarkable stories over the last couple of months about sleep and the many ways it affects not only our personal health but the health of our society. For example, researchers at Monash University in Melbourne found that poor sleep can be deadly -- particularly for men.
Exactly what goes on while we're asleep and why it's so important is an ever-evolving area of study. And while we don't know all of what the brain is doing while we sleep, we do know that it's very busy. As Maria Konnikova wrote last month in the New York Times, we've known for a while that sleep is involved in the formation and consolidation of memories. But a new study in Science shows that while we sleep our brain isn't just filing things away, but also clearing things out.
Just as we have a lymphatic system to clean out toxins in our bodies, sleep may function the same way for our brains. "Think about a fish tank," said Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, a biologist at the University of Rochester medical school. "If you have a tank and no filter, the fish will eventually die." In our case, Dr. Nedergaard and others have found, not cleaning out neurotoxins may allow for the acceleration of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
This connection is especially troubling given that we get, on average, one to two hours less sleep each night than we got 50 to 100 years ago, and that as many as 70 million Americans have some form of trouble with their sleep. "Recovery from sleep loss is slower than we'd thought," said Sigrid Veasey of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology. "We used to think that after a bit of recovery sleep, you should be fine. But this work shows you're not... We're really starting to realize that when we skip sleep, we may be doing irreparable damage to the brain."
Sendhil Mullainathan, writing in the New York Times last week, took a look at sleep from a different, but equally disturbing, angle. With nearly 30 percent of workers saying they've nodded off at work or felt very sleepy, and with our workplace culture of burnout only getting worse, it makes sense that our collective sleep deprivation would have major consequences for our collective economy. And it does: According to an Australian study, poor sleep could be shaving an estimated .8 percent off that country's GDP. If the same is true of the U.S., given that real GDP increased only 1.9 percent in 2013, that's a significant effect.
Mullainathan also notes that "cyberloafing" at work increases the day after we lose an hour of sleep for daylight saving time. Another study shows that the effect of getting only six hours of sleep every night for two weeks is the same as going one or two nights with no sleep at all. And from 1975 to 2006, the number of people clocking less than six hours a night went up over 20 percent.
When it comes to finding solutions that lead to economic growth, our leaders might be asleep at the wheel in Washington, but we could all give the economy a jump start by just hitting the sack. In fact, one way to start: turn on C-SPAN and listen to what passes for political debate these days and you should be well on your way to doing your part in a national sleep stimulus program.
Sometimes science surprises us, and sometimes it confirms what we already intuitively know. In the latter category was a study in the online journal PLOS One that analyzed 26 people who were walking while texting. Not surprisingly, those texting or reading something on their smartphone not only didn't walk a straight line, they didn't text very well either. "In short," writes Popular Science's Colin Lecher, "reading a text or typing one while walking makes you dumb" -- as any New Yorker unfortunate enough to be walking behind or toward someone buried in their phone knows all too well.
For those unable to resist the lure of hyperconnectivity, perhaps a digital detox is in order. That's what Ryan Holmes, the CEO of HootSuite, did for 14 days. "For a while I'd felt the urge to try fully disconnecting to free myself from the neverending obligations and the constant stimuli," he wrote. "I wanted to take a break from it all for a couple of weeks at least to see what happened."
So what did he learn? First, that technology isn't evil (which is good for a CEO of a social media company). "I found myself reflecting on how living and breathing tech over the last few years has let me experience some of the most rewarding and eventful moments of my life," he wrote. But he also learned that while "snacking is fun," we need to "consume long, nourishing content from time to time."
Another takeaway is that "you don't have to wait until you break down to take some time out to re-energize and revitalize." In other words, your break from technology doesn't have to be for two weeks or even two days. Start with a few hours, an afternoon, a lunch. Or just try to ease off the cyber-gas pedal occasionally.
For help with that, we can look to our friends in Scandinavia, who, as the Atlantic reports, are bringing us something called "Slow TV." It started in 2009 (the trend has been building with appropriate speed), when a Norwegian network aired a picturesque 7-hour train trip live. Twenty percent of the country -- over 1 million people -- tuned in. Two years later, over half the country followed a cruise ship's voyage for 134 hours as it crept along the Norwegian coast. Other installments: salmon swimming upstream for 18 hours, and a knitting program showing the full "sheep to sweater" cycle (the fashion equivalent of farm to table). And, my favorite, 12 hours of logs being split and put in the fire. "I was so excited," one viewer wrote. "When will they add new logs?" The only problem, of course, is you might run out of room on your DVR hard drive -- because you definitely should not stay up all night to watch it live.
But Slow TV would serve as a good antidote to a phenomenon Heidi Hanna, author of Stressaholic: 5 Steps to Transform Your Relationship with Stress, described to Fast Company: stress addiction. There are occasions when meeting the challenge of a stressful situation, like a tight deadline, can give us a sense of exhilaration. And in that way, says Hanna, "stress is a drug." But the problem is that we increasingly spend our lives inside that cycle of stress, pushing ourselves harder and harder for the adrenaline spike that stress can bring. And that can be deadly. "Everything about the human system has some sort of beat, rhythm, or pulse," says Hanna. We can't go cold turkey with this addiction -- we'll always have stress in our lives -- but we need to regularly give ourselves time to recharge and heal the damage that stress can have on us before starting the cycle again.
One way to do that is with meditation and mindfulness, the subject of several fascinating recent articles. The first is about a study that concluded that the effects of meditation on depression were essentially equal to anti-depressants -- without all the unpleasant side effects. Lead researcher Dr. Madhav Goyal, of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, says that it's time to start putting meditation in the mix when dealing with depression and anxiety. "Clinicians should be prepared to talk with their patients about the role that a meditation program could have in addressing psychological stress," he said.
Meditation and mindfulness, as we now know, literally rewire our brains for the better. So if that's true, why not use them for those whose brains are just developing? As Amanda Machado reports in the Atlantic, that's exactly what a growing number of educators are doing. At a school in New Haven, meditation and yoga classes three times a week reduced stress hormone levels. In San Francisco, meditation led to higher English scores, fewer suspensions, increased attendance rates, higher GPA and increased happiness levels.
Machado writes about a program called Headstand, founded by a former teacher to "empower at-risk students to combat toxic stress through yoga, mindfulness, and character education." With nearly half of all public school students coming from low-income -- and thus more highly-stressed -- families, there's a lot of need for the stress reduction. "This is a matter of education reform and public health," says Headstand's founder Katherine Priore Ghannam. "Our students desperately need a way to cope with the everyday adversity of living in the conditions that they do."
And fully 98 percent of students who have gone through the program say they feel "less stressed" and more "ready to learn" afterward. "Their minds are busy just like ours," says Headstand teacher Emily Tsay. "But you can see physically how their mood changes when we practice."
What's needed is to bring that practice to a wider segment of our society. Right now, as Machado notes, over 85 percent of those practicing yoga are white. A former teacher herself, Machada found out a few of her former students had gone through the program and spoke to them about it. One, named Tracy, is a student of color from a low-income background. Though cautious at first, Tracy gradually found herself loving yoga and wrote her college admission essay on how it had affected her life. "All students could benefit from learning these things early," writes Machado, "but with students whose backgrounds at times already place them at a disadvantage, these kinds of programs become even more justified."
Yet another angle on the performance enhancement benefits of mindfulness came from an unlikely source last week: The Super Bowl. Lost amid the analysis and game breakdowns (I've been able to glean that Seattle's defense did a laudable job) and hoopla over the commercials (puppies and horses!), was the fact that Seattle coach Pete Carroll's game prep included yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. "Happy players make for better players," as ESPN put it last year. "The overall idea," writes Elise Curtin on GoodTherapy.org, "is to promote the mindset that physical and mental health and well-being should be nurtured and valued in the players, along with their exceptional athletic abilities, of course." The results speak for themselves quite loudly (along with, apparently, Seattle's Richard Sherman).
In a much longer simmering (and much less entertaining) battle, there was a report from the Congressional Budget Office last week that estimated that the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) could result in 2.5 million fewer workers in the workforce. Some jumped on the news to claim that the ACA was going to cost the country jobs. But that's not what the report said. What might well happen is that, because the ACA weakens the connection between working full-time and having health insurance (what is known as "job lock"), some people might, gasp, end up working less. They might actually choose to do things like spend time with their families, retire instead of working themselves into the grave, work part-time jobs and pursue their passions. "People are going to see their quality of life improve," writes the Atlantic's Jordan Weissmann, "and even if it comes at a small economic cost, that's a completely legitimate goal for public policy."
I've devoted a chapter in my upcoming book to the fact that there are other measures to a country's well-being besides GDP. We certainly need jobs and growth -- more than we're getting -- but limiting people's choices about how and where to work isn't the way to increase our GDP or our happiness.
In fact, one of the best ways to find happiness is to stop looking for it. So writes my sister Agapi on HuffPost (I promise, there was no favoritism in the selection of the pieces I'm highlighting): "The longing for happiness seems to increase the more we search for it. We are all searching for the fairytale 'happily ever after.'" But, she asks, "what is happiness?" How and where we find it depends on how we define it. Agapi says we need to "reframe our concept of happiness." She notes that the Greek word for the state of happiness is "euphoria," and that the noun "euphoros" means bearer of goodness. So "one of the fundamental elements to finding euphoria," she writes, "is to be that euphoros -- bearer of goodness -- for yourself and for others."
And to do that, we need to break the patterns that get in our way, like discouragement, guilt, comparing ourselves to others, and making other people responsible for our happiness. "So, let's take a sabbatical from being happy or unhappy," Agapi writes. "You will attract good things into your life and you will most likely land into happiness without thinking about it." And, of course, we should always listen to the wisdom of our sisters.
And finally, David Brooks wrote a piece in the New York Times on the difference between, as he put it, "the way many believers experience faith and the way that faith is presented to the world." A key part of our need to redefine success is to do what we can to nurture our sense of wonder. Brooks quotes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who, in his book God in Search of Man, describes faith this way: "Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement... get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal... To be spiritual is to be amazed."
What a lovely description, and one that is open to anybody from any religious tradition. Heschel goes on to warn against letting our spiritual life become one in which "faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit."
In our modern world, it's easy to allow that to happen. It can creep up on us without us even noticing it. It's hard to wake up in a state of radical amazement when we're locked in a perpetual, stressed out state of flight-or-fight panic and hurry. I know that feeling very well -- another word for it (two words, actually) is "book deadline." I'm so glad that mine has been met, and that I'm back to writing things I publish right away.
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