5 critical life skills everyone should have, according to WHO

Some basic areas we could all use some improvement in.

Life Skills
The WHO's 5 critical life skills
  • The World Health Organization identified 5 basic life skills that are crucial to cultivate and learn in order to have a better and more productive life.
  • Ranging from creative thinking to learning to cope with stress, these skills should be instilled in youth during their education and nurtured over a lifetime.
  • Although the best time to develop these skills is during one's youth, the second best time is right now.

It's no secret that our education system isn't ideal. Many of the life skills we need aren't being taught; instead, we focus on programming youth with industry-specific skills to prepare them for the workforce. Too often, this means that kids are graduating from high school and college ill-equipped to handle the broader challenges found in life. Though important, learning the structure of a cell won't teach you how to de-escalate conflict before it goes too far, and learning how to find the value of x won't teach you how not to crumble under pressure. Not only do life skills improve one's quality of life, they are also attractive to employers, who need workers that are mentally stable and well equipped to handle challenges and responsibilities that aren't listed on the job description.

That's why the World Health Organization (WHO) identified five fundamental life skills that are relevant for everybody, regardless of culture, education, or background. Specifically, the WHO focused on psychosocial skills rather than skills like, say, financial management or learning to cook. These are broad abilities that one can improve over time through conscious effort that deal with one's sense of self, sense of others, and cognitive abilities.

1. Decision-making and problem-solving

Everybody, even trust-fund babies, are faced with challenges and difficulties in their lives. Not all of us are talented at overcoming these challenges, however. Some misinterpret the premise of a problem, others work themselves in circles and get caught up in analysis paralysis. One way to make decisions and solve problems effectively is to follow Kristina Guo's DECIDE system, which she initially developed for health care managers:

  1. Define the problem
  2. Establish the criteria and constraints
  3. Consider all the alternatives
  4. Identify the best alternative
  5. Develop and implement a plan of action
  6. Evaluate and monitor the solution and feedback when necessary

If this seems far too clinical to you, another option is to follow Benjamin Franklin's method of decision-making, which he called "Prudential Algebra." When his friend Joseph Priestly wrote Franklin for advice on a problem, Franklin instead gave him a framework for making decisions. His method involves dividing a sheet into a pro and con column and listing out all of the reasons pro and con to a given decision. Then, Franklin would assign a weight to each pro and con according to their importance. Going down the list, if a pro and a con were of equal weight, he would cross them out. If a con were worth the weight of two pros, he would cross the three out. In this way, Franklin would wind up with a final list leaning towards either pro or con and make his decision accordingly. He would do this over the course of several days, so that his mind was always fresh when tackling the problem.

2. Creative thinking and critical thinking

We all know that there are few domains that don't rely heavily on creative and critical thinking. Defining critical thinking, though is a very slippery task. "At one level we all know what 'critical thinking' means — it means good thinking, almost the opposite of illogical, irrational, thinking," wrote Dr. Peter Facione in his essay "Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts." But there's more to it than that vague definition, of course. Facione asserts that "Critical thinking [is] purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based." Put simply, it's a self-aware, focused, analytical way of looking at things.

As it turns out, one of the best ways to improve one's critical thinking skills is to study the humanities. The trend has been to think of the humanities as some kind of vestigial tail trailing behind the rest of the more cutting-edge fields of study, a holdover from a time when poets were actually celebrities. However, the humanities has always been about teaching people to think well. Regrettably, humans have peculiar, bias-prone, and heuristics-reliant brains in place of more efficient and purpose-built computers, but we have to learn to work with what we've got.

There's research that backs this assertion up as well. One study from North Carolina State University, for instance, found that students enrolled in humanities courses became more skeptical of pseudoscience compared to those enrolled in a course on scientific research methods.

3. Communication and interpersonal skills

The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, "The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place." Without becoming gifted, or at least competent, in communication, you're at risk for experiencing constant misunderstandings and needless fights and arguments.

Good communicators make more money, have higher self-esteem, have better marriages, and are sought out more by employers. Although social anxiety can make it challenging to get out there, seeking out metacognitive therapy has been shown to be very effective. If it's feasible, just stepping out of one's comfort zone and intentionally practicing communication is perhaps the most effective method at improving this crucial life skill.

4. Self-awareness and empathy

Self-awareness and empathy are two sides of the same coin. Together, they constitute an understanding of the experiences, emotions, and thinking that take place both within oneself and in others. Researcher Phillipe Rochat described self-awareness as "the most fundamental issue in psychology" and for good reason. Little in life would not be improved by a thorough understanding of ones' own motivations. Research has shown that practicing mindfulness can promote self-awareness and empathy, critical skills that can combat drug addiction, reduce stress, and promote a stronger understanding of others. Many of the life skills mentioned in this list overlap, but none are quite as influential as self-awareness and empathy.

5. Coping with emotions and coping with stress

One of the few certainties in life is that things will go wrong. Learning how to handle these inevitable challenges with grace and resilience is essential. According to the American Psychological Association, there are ten methods for learning to promote resilience and bounce back from life's challenges:

  • Make connections with friends and family members.
  • Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems.
  • Accept that change is a part of living.
  • Develop realistic goals and work towards them regularly.
  • Take decisive actions.
  • Look for opportunities for self-discovery, especially when faced with hardship.
  • Nurture a positive view of yourself.
  • Keep things in perspective. When face-to-face with a significant challenge, it can be easy to lose the big picture.
  • Maintain a hopeful outlook.
  • Take care of yourself by paying attention to your needs and feelings and by staying in good shape.

These life skills are far-reaching and deeply impactful. Perhaps the best thing about improving any one of these skills is that they all feed into each other. Becoming a better communicator will both reduce the instances of stress and improve your ability to combat stress, critical thinking skills will help you with decision-making, cultivating empathy can make you a better communicator, and so on. With some intentional effort and focus, these five capabilities can be improved, improving your life in the process.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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