2011 is upon us, and the New Year will find painful mornings at the gym, empty shelves in the diet section of booksellers, and a renewed commitment to activities that bring purpose and happiness. At least, for a while.
What are your New Year’s Resolutions—save money, quit smoking? People are trying to cash in by helping you keep them. There are even new apps for your phone designed to keep you on the path to self improvement: NikeCouch to 5k (C25K), Mint (you guessed it—save cash!), and lastly—LeadMyGoals.
The motto “there’s an app for that” aside, how does one successfully accomplish and keep New Year’s Resolutions? Is it worth it?
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal makes a startling claim: forget willpower, reaching a goal means retraining the brain to form new habits.
Really? Sounds like a direct contradiction to conventional wisdom. But here’s the argument:
Parents in the Flagstaff, Arizona, school district were shocked to find their elementary school children coming home with letters from the district announcing that they were overweight.
The children had been given a Body Mass Index test during gym, and the results – along with district commentary about how the children stacked up to the rest of the population and a demand that something be done – were sent to parents.
“They didn’t mail it home, they didn’t even bother putting it in an envelope,” parent Deborah Dela-Bruer told ABC News. “It was stapled with a cover letter for her and her friends to see.”
The program doesn’t include improved nutrition (school lunches are notoriously unhealthy) or opportunities to exercise. It also doesn’t test for actual health issues like high cholesterol or high blood pressure that are correlated with obesity but not limited to it (some people who are overweight don’t have these issues, while some people who aren’t overweight do).
Doing such things would be harder than publicly sending a “fat note” home to parents, and more expensive. The takeaway, then, is that childhood obesity is a crisis of epic proportions ... but not enough to inconvenience adults over.
The magazine reports that recent studies - based on MRI scans - have concluded that teenage brains are in a crucial developmental phase, and what happens to you as a teenager will in large part determine the rest of your life.
“This emerging research,” wrote Russ Juskalian, “sheds light not only on why teenagers act the way they do, but how the experiences of adolescence—from rejection to binge drinking—can affect who we become as adults, how we handle stress, and the way we bond with others.”
Naturally we’re all very impressed. This research telling us that teenage years are crucial to development is surely the most important research on personality since the research telling us that the years from 0-3 are a crucial to development and determine what happens to you for the rest of your life.
And – let’s not forget – the research telling us that the brains of senior citizens are still developing and that seniors can change fundamentally ... affecting who they are for the rest of their lives.
So ... if I get the research right ... the years when you are a child, an adolescent, an adult, and senior are all crucial developmental phases that explain who you are for the rest of your life. Is that it?
This week, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour forgot what it was like to live through the civil rights era.
In comments that are fast becoming as infamous as “Houston, we have a problem,” Barbour said that he recalled growing up in Mississippi during the civil rights era, and that “I just don’t remember (the conflict over integration) as being that bad.” He also claimed that secret segregationist groups called Citizen Councils were in fact protecting law, order, and black people.
These are the kinds of claims that it takes someone with an internet connection maybe 10 minutes to debunk – if they use dial-up. Yet Barbour, a major Republican figure and potential presidential candidate, somehow didn’t realize he was painting a bulls-eye on his political future when he made them.
That’s a lot worse than losing your keys. How did this happen?
Conventional wisdom is saying that this is pure cynical politics … a deliberate extension of the infamous Republican “southern strategy” that plays off racial divisions to capture public office. And sure – okay: anyone who says “politicians are being cynical and manipulative!” gets an easy A. But is there more going on?
The numbers of college students seeking mental health services has increased over the years. More students are reporting that they’re not coping with college, and pleas for help are showing up on Facebook posts and from classmates who see their friends struggling hard just to keep going.
We’re not just talking about reports of stress or anxiety, we’re talking about suicide attempts and nervous breakdowns. According to a report by the American College Health Association (ACHA), in 2008, 1 in 3 college students reported that they felt so depressed that they were not able to function. About 1 in 10 reported they had thoughts of suicide. One out of 100 students attempted to commit suicide, 133 students were successful. These numbers are bleak.
The most painful stories are about the students who shatter to such a devastating degree that in their grief and rage they take other students with them.
Is this a sign of the times or has this been a constant presence in the lives of young college students?
Research has shown that there is little to no relationship between “mental illness” and violent behavior.
But try telling the public that.
Stereotypes are powerful, and not only is this one a thousand of years old, but it’s reinforced every night on prime time when cop shows and procedural dramas portray schizophrenic or psychotic killers.
This fear has serious consequences: the General Social Survey (GSS) showed that as of 2006 the majority of people were not willing to work closely or socialize with the person in the vignette who was schizophrenic or alcohol dependent. They even indicatd that they are unwilling to have them as neighbors, marry into their families and even perceived them as being potentially violent. Major depression was not seen as being dangerous, but the stigma related to this was still unchanged.
Given that the link between mental illness and violent behavior is illusory, it sounds like this is just the kind of damaging stereotype that needs to be corrected by a public awareness campaign. The trouble is it’s been tried, several times, and it’s not working.
In fact, the GSS shows that American attitudes towards mental illness have changed very little from 1996 – 2006.
A University of Georgia study (PDF) of more than 10,000 fifth-graders in 71 elementary schools showed that students who could see gardens, mountains and other natural elements from their classrooms scored significantly higher on tests in vocabulary and math than students whose classrooms had views of roads and parking lots.
We just don’t know why.
According to a different study (PDF), students who have access to classrooms with more natural light advance 20 percent faster in math, and score 7 to 18 percent higher, than students with little daylight in their classes.
We’re just not sure why.
The nature of the places we work, live, and play have a significant impact on the way we go about our lives and what we want to accomplish. So much so that international negotiator William Ury (author of Getting to Yes) deliberately chooses places that have histories of successful peace negotiations as the settings for mediations he leads. He says it helps.
In fact, there are many different occupations that work with “place” and “settings”: architects, urban planners, farmers, eco-psychologists, to name just a few, and all of them have sets of evolving “best practices” about how to make places come alive for the people who live and work there.
As Saybrook alumna Renee Levi discovered, each professional and academic field knows a great deal about the relationship between people and place, but they rarely have opportunities to share what they know and learn from each other.
If they were coming to him with trouble sleeping, or an eating disorder, or a drug habit, they’d have no trouble saying “I have a problem, how do I solve it?” But in the case of an unfulfilling sex life, or a low libido, he says, they’re much more likely to ask “how do I come to terms with it?”
Writing the lead article in the Fall issue of the journal Parabola, Hollis calls this a “disorder of desire,” and points out that our ability to express and experience desire is a key element of mental health. To be cut off from one’s own desire is to be cut off from one’s own life.
“While levels of desire vary from person to person,” he writes, “the absence or diminution of desire is psychologically and spiritually significant for it is desire which most expresses the life force.”
This is not a casual problem, or something to shrug off with a resigned “oh well.”
All Saybrook students, faculty, staff,trustees, and alumni are invited to the inaugural ceremony, the luncheon immediately following, and the academic colloquium. .
Please let us know as soon as possible if you plan to join us with your RSVP here.
In the last decade James Gordon, MD, has helped train thousands of healthcare providers from around the world to tend to the psychological damage of war and conflict. He’s trained healthcare practiciones in Kosovo, Israel, and Palestine.
In December Gordon, who directs The Center for Mind-Body Medicine and serves as Dean of Saybrook’s Graduate College of Mind-Body Medicine, led an international delegation with representatives from all of those places to Haiti.
Together they are laying the foundation for Haiti’s first-ever nationwide program of primary mental healthcare.