Tag Archives: Science

Other Options for Mental Health Care

The United States is experiencing a mental health crisis. The prevalence of mental illness and emotional symptoms of distress generally have been on the rise for many years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a surge. Emotional problems are particularly increasing among adolescents and young adults, especially among females and especially among individuals who identify under the LGBTQ umbrella.

For example, in the recently published Healthy Minds Study of over 350,000 college students representing 373 American colleges and universities, over 60% met criteria for one or more mental health problem. Since 2013, symptoms of depression have increased 135%, anxiety 110%, eating disorders 96%, and thoughts of suicide 64%. Overall flourishing also decreased in this timeframe by 33%.

Mental illness isn’t just about personal suffering, although it clearly includes this. Mental illness also impacts many kinds of relationships, the ability to work effectively, and the success of students. For instance, depression doubles the risk of a college student dropping out without graduating. To the extent that individuals are unable to fulfill their roles in these areas, our country and world will suffer as well.

Part of this mental health crisis stems from the lack of access to evidence-based help. Waiting lists have lengthened, hospital beds are short, and the ability to see a mental health professional regularly has been diminished. Expert help is hard to come by and practitioners are burned out. Organizations that could supply mental health support – such as business, colleges, and religious organizations – do not have the staffing or training to do so.

The lack of access to good mental health care also demonstrates a societal inequity. In the Healthy Minds Study mentioned above, students of color were the least likely to use mental health services. Although Arab American students had experienced a 22% increase in the prevalence of mental health problems, they were 18% less likely to access treatment, compared with 2013. This gap in mental health access across the races parallels the gap in achievement often demonstrated in work and school across the races, and may play a causal role.

Source: Healthy Minds Innovations

Although the availability of evidence-based psychotherapy and medicine needs to be improved, especially for individuals with serious illness, other options also may be increasingly needed. The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies provides a list of recommended self-help books based on evidence-based cognitive-behavioral principles at their website. Digital psychoeducation programs based on cognitive-behavioral principles (such as Learn to Live) are increasingly offered through partnerships with health plans, businesses, and colleges. Phone apps based on mindfulness techniques (such as the Healthy Minds Innovations app) are offered for free to anyone. In general, research on these options suggest they reduce symptoms as much as traditional psychotherapy and medication, perhaps especially for those who are mildly or moderately distressed.

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The Science and Practice of a Good Life

Two years ago today, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic. Now, after two years of living with various restrictions, many of us are entering a new phase, with some long-neglected life options returning. We may be asking ourselves: “how do I want to live now?” As we wrestle with this question – aided by the greater perspective and wisdom that comes from adversity – we may benefit from considering what constitutes, for us, a good life.  

Psychological scientists increasingly focus on three different visions of a good life.

First, a life of happiness tends to be characterized by pleasure, stability, and comfort. (On the flip side, a life of happiness seeks to minimize pain, instability, and discomfort.) Of course, we all find happiness in different ways, but research often shows how the experience of close relationships plays a vital role in this vision of a good life. For example, in a recent study, research participants rated having a party to be the daily activity most likely to make them happy. I’m also reminded of Elizabeth Gilbert’s quest for a good life in her bestselling book “Eat, Pray, Love,” and how her pursuit of pleasure translated for her to eating really good food in Italy. If we want to focus our lives on happiness, we might do well to habitually ask ourselves, “what would I most enjoy?”

A second vision for a good life involves the pursuit of meaning, characterized by purpose, coherence, and significance. (On the other hand, a life of meaning seeks to avoid aimlessness, fragmentation, and insignificance.) People living this kind of good life often feel like they are making the world somehow better. Religious and spiritual activities often play an important role. For instance, in “Eat, Pray, Love,” Elizabeth Gilbert sought a life of devotion through yoga and meditation in India. We can concentrate on this vision of a good life by consistently asking ourselves, “what would be most meaningful?”

Increasingly, psychologists of the good life discuss a third vision: a psychologically rich life. This kind of life comes with a variety of interesting experiences that produce changes in perspective. (The opposite of a psychologically rich life may be found in a lifestyle characterized by repetition, boredom, and stagnation.) Research shows how study abroad experiences in college, for example, tend to increase feelings of psychological richness. Live music, in-person art, and many other kinds of stimulating, mind-opening experiences may play a special role in nurturing a psychologically rich life as well. For those of us wanting to pursue this vision of a good life, we might do well to frequently ask ourselves, “what would be most interesting?”

Alesia Kozik | Pexels
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The Top 5 Posts for 2021

It’s been another year for the books. Somehow, in the midst of everything, more and more people seem to be following this blog.

As a way to review the year, below are my most-read articles that I wrote during 2021. If you haven’t had a chance to read these articles yet, you may be interested in checking them out.

5. Awe Decreases Political Polarization

In a time of great political polarization, this post explores new research on how experiences of awe may help bring people together.

4. Awe as a Resource for Coping with Stress

Based on new research, this post examines how awe experiences diminish the stress response.

3. Settling into Winter

Honestly, this is one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. It explores how I try to experience the coziness of Winter.

2. The Science of Motivating Others

This blog post briefly went viral on Psychology Today. It relates to an old and new interest I have in the science of motivation.

1. Six Skills We Need as Citizens Who Can’t Agree on Scientific Facts

This was an opinion piece I published with the Star Tribune this Summer. It was born out of my frustration with people who can’t seem to accept facts.

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When We Can’t Agree on Scientific Facts

The challenges of this time humble me as a science writer and educator. As I participate in discussions about many of the most serious and pressing problems now facing our country and world – problems ranging from vaccine hesitancy to racism, from race relations to climate change – one overarching meta-problem frequently recurs. Coming from different universes of information and social comparison, we don’t agree on the relevant facts.

Mika Baumeister | Unsplash

Theodore Parker once stated that facts are “true, independent of all human opinion.” That is, although we may have wishes for what’s true, previous beliefs about what’s true, and groups telling us what’s true, none of this compares with what’s actually true. Reality has a life of its own.

In the past, we could at least sometimes come together as a people, even if we disagreed on initial solutions to problems, because we agreed on relevant facts. This has largely changed. As a result, we are increasingly polarized and fractured, often incapable of consensus, compromise, civil discourse, and creative problem-solving.

One of the purposes of education is to prepare us to be able to separate fact from fiction. Since many of the problems noted above concern questions about how the world works, science education, in particular, seems at least partly to blame.

What do we need to be able to do to think critically, especially in the scientific realm, as we wrestle with the problems of this time? Below are six essential skills we need as citizens, at least as a start.

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Awe as a Resource for Coping with Stress

What do you do when you face a stressful life event? Strategies obviously vary, ranging from getting drunk to binging on Netflix to talking with a friend. Individuals differ in their habitual responses to stress, and these differences significantly impact well-being. 

I’ve realized as of late how I often deal with stress by seeking a source of awe, something vast that stretches the sense of what’s possible in the moment. The experience of awe seems so distinct from the experience of stress, but reflecting on the intersection between my life experience and some new research just published by the American Psychological Association, I’m realizing how this response contributes to the ability to successfully cope with difficult times.

For instance, a few weeks ago, while a loved one underwent a long and intense surgery at one of the Mayo Clinic hospitals in Rochester, Minnesota, my wife and I decided to go for a walk. Whereas our feeling inside the hospital involved fear, agony, and dread, the simple act of getting into the sunlight and seeing the nearby trees brought us some calm. We eventually came across signs pointing us to the Plummer House – former home of Mayo partner and founder Dr. Henry Stanley Plummer – so we walked in that direction, ultimately finding the breathtaking English Tudor mansion. We explored the grounds but came to a stop, transfixed, at one of the most unusual buildings we’d ever seen – actually the old water tower for the mansion – but which my wife and I referred to as “Rapunzel’s Tower.” The architecture of the tower truly “blew our minds” for what was possible with a building, and we were lifted out of our troubles for just a moment. When our attention came back to ourselves and the situation at hand, we returned with greater clarity, strength, and connection to face the difficulties to come. 

Watertower at Plummer House, Rochester, Minnesota

In a recent article, six studies demonstrated how awe experiences diminish feelings of stress. For instance, in one study, participants were brought to the top of a 200-foot clock tower on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. Half were randomly assigned to the awe condition, which involved gazing out the tower upon the Bay, San Francisco, and the Golden Gate Bridge; the other half were randomly assigned to a control condition, which involved gazing upon the inside of the tower. Although both groups experienced less stress associated with the hassles they reported having than before being brought to the tower (consistent with research showing the stress benefits of taking a walk outside), individuals in the awe condition, in particular, experienced greater reductions in stress, compared with individuals in the control condition. In part because of this, participants in the awe condition also reported higher satisfaction with their lives.

Why does awe decrease stress? Based on their results, the researchers suggested that:

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The Emotional Benefits of Sacred Moments

“The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

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The year 2020 will go down in history as a year of public health, economic, and societal crisis. Much less acknowledged, however, is the profound emotional and spiritual malaise* many people feel. In fact, in the United States, emotional distress is three times higher than previous years and happiness is at a near 50-year low.

For many of us, something seems “off.” Perhaps this feels like a sense that something is vaguely “missing,” or maybe we “long” for something more or different. Probably many of us have grown “numb” to these feelings over the past several months – without fully realizing it. We may not understand why we’re feeling the way we do or appreciate how much our inner lives really have changed.

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It’s with all this in mind that I’ve been reflecting on some new research published this week in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

In this study, 2,889 participants were asked about the frequency with which they generally experience “sacred moments” in their everyday lives. Specifically, individuals were instructed to rate, on a scale of 1 (never / not at all) to 5 (very often), how often they experience:

  • “a moment that felt set apart from everyday life,”
  • “a moment… that was really real,”
  • “a moment in which all distractions seemed to melt away,”
  • “a deep sense of connection with someone or something,”
  • “a sense of uplift,” and
  • “a sacred moment.”

Results from this research show that individuals’ experiences of sacred moments predicted “higher levels of positive emotions and greater presence of meaning, as well as lower levels of perceived stress, depressed distress, and anxious distress.”  

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What is it about “sacred moments,” as defined and measured in the above study, that might be most essential, that might be most involved in predicting higher well-being? When I consider the scale items mentioned above, the one that stands out most focuses on moments of deep “connection with someone or something.” I imagine that deep experiences of connection drive the sense that moments feel “set apart from everyday life” and “really real,” for instance.

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The Science of Happiness during COVID-19

Yesterday, I participated in a webinar on “The Science of Happiness During Covid-19” (the discussion begins at 16:14 below). In this program, Marina Tolou-Shams (Director of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at San Francisco General Hospital) interviews my first Psychology mentor, Dacher Keltner (Professor of Psychology at the University of California – Berkeley and founder of the Greater Good Science Center) about happiness during this time of pandemic.

Dr. Keltner summarizes much of the literature on the science of happiness by discussing three important areas of individual practice: (1) coping, (2) gratitude, and (3) awe. Each of these may play a critical role in helping individuals through the various stresses we encounter during this pandemic.

Recently, I’ve written several posts about coping with this difficult time, including one the discusses much of the stress and coping literature, one that deals with self-worth, and another that discusses the theology of Christian suffering, in particular. Given this – and reflecting more of the emphasis of yesterday’s discussion – I’ll focus a bit more here on the importance of self-transcendent experience during this time.

As Dr. Keltner notes, there is an impressive research literature on the benefits of gratitude, some of which I discussed in this post about thanksgiving. Practicing gratitude during a pandemic is not meant to be pollyanna, but rather an acknowledgement that, even though the world is in crisis and we may be experiencing many difficult emotions, there also are aspects of life for which we can be thankful. Taking a moment everyday to talk or write about these good things can help shift us toward better emotional balance. For example, my family and I are taking a moment at every dinner together every night to discuss our “highs” and “lows.” The “lows” help us to express times of struggle or dissatisfaction, but the “highs” help us to be more aware of what is good, and also to look for patterns of behaviors that might be helpful for us to be intentional about implementing in the days, weeks, and months ahead. For instance, last night, all four of us had a “high” of exercising in one way or another, and this says something about how important exercise is for our well-being now.

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The Experience of Being Emotionally Moved

At its best, science sheds light on what was previously unknown or unappreciated. For example, many of us probably have fantasized about what it would be like to be the first person to identify a new plant or animal or even fungus or insect.

This kind of discovery process also occurs in psychological science.

Recently, an international team published new research that goes a long way toward establishing a little known and unappreciated experience as a universal emotion. They call it “kama muta,” after a Sanskrit term. In several studies across 19 different countries, 5 continents, and 15 languages, this new research shows  kama muta is a distinct emotion – different from awe, amusement, and sadness – and generally expressed similarly across cultures.

There isn’t a good way to refer to this emotion simply, which says something about how undeveloped and unappreciated it might be. In English, however, people most commonly refer to this emotion when they say they feel profoundly “moved” or “touched” in a positive manner. When experiencing this emotion, individuals often become tearful or cry; experience “goosebumps,” chills, or shivers; feel “choked up” or a “lump in the throat;” have a difficult time speaking; and often leave inspired to be more devoted or morally committed. People often connect this with a “warm” feeling in the center of the chest, which is probably why so often there are reports of experiences being “heartwarming” or, as we wrote recently, related to something “soulfelt.” Depending on the intensity, situation, and person, some of these elements may be present or absent.

The experience of being moved often seems to be most elicited when individuals increase in closeness or intimacy with what is perceived as sacred (highly meaningful, poignant, or precious). As the international team states:

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The Psychology of Religion

One of my first memories happened at church. We always seemed to arrive early enough to say the rosery, but this one particular Sunday morning, my mom, brother, and I were late. We double-timed it up the concrete stairs to heave open the austere metal doors of the traditional red brick Catholic church only to find the sanctuary doors to be closed. It seemed we were not allowed entry because of our tardiness, so we were confined to a small, cold foyer filled with nothing to look at but posted advertisements for local businesses and two holy water stations. Being only 4 at the time, I quickly became bored. A hymn had started, and I snuck a peak through the closed passageway. The congregation was being led in song: “Here I am, Lord! Is it I, Lord? I have heard You calling in the night! I will go, Lord, if You lead me!…” Powerful words, I thought, and yet I observed no sign of emotion among anyone in the church. Much of the congregation didn’t even sing along.

The fact that I so clearly remember this incident reveals something about my strong religious and spiritual inclination. But the incident also raised a question for me that has become the focal point for much of my professional life: What explains why some people are more religious than others?

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What is “Awe?”

The emotion of awe fascinates as much as it confounds. Scientific and popular attention in awe is surging, yet awe remains one of the most commonly misunderstood psychological concepts in our culture. What exactly is “awe?”

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Confessions of Trump Skeptic

I confess: I have been overly obsessed with American politics for the past 6 months.

This started innocently enough when, last fall, I tried to more deeply engage my Psychology of Personality in social and political issues by having them do case analyses of the two presidential candidates. Although I tried to balance the focus, most media and student attention was focused on Donald Trump, including this outstanding psychological profile of Mr. Trump by my favorite contemporary personality psychologist, Dan McAdams. Through lively discussions with my unusually informed students, I was sucked in.

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Improving the Experience of Online Education

Despite their surge in popularity, many harbor deep reservations about the quality of online courses. There are several possible reasons for this, but perhaps most fundamentally are serious concerns about the experience of online students. In particular, many ask: can online courses provide the kind of experience crucial for students to develop critical thinking, curiosity, and creativity, consistent with the highest ideals of liberal arts education?

I have taught online for several years, and I have struggled with this question as well. However, new thinking and research convinces me that all courses – including those online – have the potential to elicit powerful emotions that can inspire long-term knowledge creation.

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