Not everyone has the luxury of typing a blog post during the corona virus outbreak. Thousands of people will breathe their last breath as a result of a hostile takeover of their respiratory systems — a result of cells that once served to maintain life, enslaved by a new viral master. Millions more will have their lives fundamentally altered by the fallout from the virus and will lose jobs, wealth, and loved ones.
I say this because I want to show that I’m taking this seriously. And yet, there’s a strange Zen-like koan embedded in what’s happening so far in the US: it feels a bit made up, make believe, inside our own minds. The raw numbers of people affected so far are easy to dismiss, and yet we’re told that we’re on the precipice of profound human suffering. Most distressing: we are facing this paradox that the best thing to do is to do nothing at all (and for God’s sake don’t touch your face!). And so when we feel we cannot reach the bottom of the pool of our anxiety, we swim for the nearest shallow end, the bare-minimum-activity of personal volition. There must be something we can do to feel in control — in this case our desire for control manifests in buying truckloads of toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
There is no value in saying things are fine when they are not, nor is it useful to implore people to “look on the bright side” without specific and realistic notions of what can be done. The value, however, is in seeing this moment, labeling our feelings, and developing purpose, gratitude, and optimism in response to things as they are.
First, consider our natural response to pain and anxiety: Deny, distribute, and denigrate. We hate so much the departure from what we think we are entitled to that we refuse to look it straight in the eye and ponder what comes next. Then, we distribute to other external sources what is keeping our internal selves so busy, blaming others, blaming ourselves, and marginalizing the deepest fears conjured by what we do and don’t know. Finally, we denigrate others and worst of all ourselves for the reaction we’re having to our own reaction.
By contrast, the cognitive approaches to purpose, gratitude, and optimism stem from a structured approach to understand our own thinking and feeling. What’s more, each of these approaches can be practiced and developed as mental “skills,” and we can start training them anytime.
I’m choosing to describe purpose, gratitude, and optimism because they are what I call the big three of mental health predictors. Each is independently correlated and likely causative of profound differences in mental health and well being. None of them require sitting for hours of meditation — though that certainly helps, and what’s more, each of them predicts better life outcomes independently of external life circumstances. In short, we have enough within our own mental capacities to deploy these skills without waiting for the easy time to begin practicing them.
This is important because we want deeply to just feel good all the time — and purpose, gratitude and optimism are often mistaken for general good feelings and happiness — they are not. The danger is in thinking that things have to be perfect before we can feel the wonders of these strengthening virtues, but this common misconception has the order of events backwards. In fact, purpose, optimism and gratitude predict much higher levels of resilience and improved outcomes during the most dire of situations. So, right now, this very crazy, upside down moment is indeed the best time to remind ourselves of the things that keep us going, the things we’re looking forward to, and the things that make life worth fighting for.
Purpose begins by asking the question — what is something that is bigger than myself, that can depend on me taking just one more step, one more minute through this difficult time? Victor Frankl, author of “Man’s Search for Meaning,” describes a process by which we consider our future self. We imagine ourselves at some distant point in the future, looking back at this exact moment, urging us to keep going. We can imagine our future self, three minutes, days, hours, or decades in the future. We see a version of our self that has endured and prevailed this moment, and the powers that our future self will have developed as a product of this exact timeline by simply being here, taking stock, and not giving up. If you need another reminder of your purpose, take one minute, close your eyes and think of someone that depends on you, believes in you, and needs you to keep fighting.
Gratitude, I think is probably the most difficult one to train but in my opinion the most profound. It is difficult to train gratitude because we often mistake gratitude for just general happiness associated with getting nice things. Rather, gratitude is a fundamental disposition to the present moment in which we focus on how the things we have fulfill the needs we had, or would have. We think that gratitude is like our own little prize that we can practice when we get something. So we wait until that moment and expect that when it happens we will know what to do, ride the upswell and enjoy all the great things we hear about when people talk about gratitude.
Fortunately, gratitude is independent of our external situations and is an available practice to focus on what tools we have and the things we have overcome in the past that will give us what we need to get through. To practice gratitude, take a moment right now, and focus on your five senses (sight, sounds, hearing, smelling, tasting, sensing). One by one, go through your senses and notice something that feels nice. We can be indeed feeling a lot of pain when we begin this process. The goal here is not to deny that we are feeling pain. Rather, the goal is to remind ourselves that we are not only feeling pain, but instead actually have at least one sense, or even one aspect of one sense, that feels good. Once we notice something nice about each of our senses, the painful stimulus can also be dealt with by thinking carefully about what it actually means, what things we have done in the past that we can bring to bear on the challenge, and constantly re-focusing and re-appraising ourselves of the reality that not everything is bad at any given time, even during the most dire of circumstance.
Of the big three, optimism may indeed be the most potent, and like the other two very much misunderstood. Optimism is not sitting in a room on fire and thinking things are fine. Optimism is looking around for what we have at hand that we can do to make the future a better place. Optimistic people recover faster from surgery, have lower levels of denial, and quite interestingly are faster to quit unsolvable challenges. Optimism is an orientation to understanding what we can do in a given moment to have some control and be effective. Optimists are ruthlessly strategic about getting the most out of a moment and seeing opportunity in the shadows. Note that a truly optimistic person does not buy a truckload of toilet paper, because that is fundamentally a mindless act, and does not represent a clear vision for doing something now that will help in the future.
We have a feeling of optimism when we start to see that indeed, we have more under our command than we think. We can control: how we treat others, what we say to people, our preparations for the future, and ultimately how we spend our time during this crisis. To some degree, magically, we can control how this crisis unfolds and how badly it spreads. We can control whether we use the time to connect with others — remember when the idea that we could have a live video of a person and talk to them was the material of science fiction? We totally have that! Remember when only the richest and most elite people had access to raw information? Wikipedia and podcasts baby! While these questions veer a bit toward gratitude, they likewise point to optimism that we can indeed use this time to heal, recover, and take care of ourselves, and if we are so fortunate to have our health, we can improve many aspects of our life without denying that things feel dire. And yes, if things get really bad, we’ll still have the ability to treat people well, be kind, and patient, and follow the directions to make the best out of whatever is.
MARK MY WORDS: Out of this crisis will emerge acts of profound human dignity, incredible virtuous acts of personal sacrifice, and awe-inspiring stories of human connection that will not be sacrificed at the alter of social distancing.
One of my favorite reggae songs of all time is by Max Romeo, called “Chase the Devil.” In the song’s hook, the lyrics say, “I’m going to put on an iron shirt, and chase the devil out of earth.” Although the video makes relatively clear that one’s ‘iron shirt’ is clearly a metaphor for smoking pot, for those of us here have the opportunity to embed the message in how we think about our pain and anxiety. Our iron shirt is indeed, the ability to focus on our own purpose, gratitude and optimism. Or in the case of the corona virus, our iron pajamas.