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6 ways to stay positive during troubling times
Cultivating optimism is a daily practice.
- Levels of anxiety and depression in America are nearly quadruple 2019 levels.
- While no single method can reduce these conditions, implementing small changes can be helpful.
- Below are six pieces of advice for rising above the mire in quest of optimal well-being.
As of July, 44 percent of adults in California exhibited levels of mental health duress typically associated with clinical definitions of generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder. That's only three points above the U.S. average this year. Research from early 2019 pinned that number at 11 percent—a quadrupling of distress.
There's no single answer for dealing with the gravity of this moment. Every little bit helps. As noted yesterday, training yourself to be more playful has been shown to increase well-being. Below are six other means for cultivating optimism during troubling times.
No one method will change everything, yet perhaps deconstructing 2020 piece by piece, and implementing small changes, will have a holistic effect on your emotional and mental health.
Drain the Shallows
In his book, "Deep Work," Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport writes that knowledge workers spend an average of 60 percent of their work week communicating electronically, with up to 30 percent of their time devoted to answering email. Spending this much time in "frenetic shallowness" permanently reduces your ability to perform deep work and enter flow states.
Quick email and social media checks negatively influence attentional capacities, leading to poorer work performance, job enjoyment, and life satisfaction. Newport's advice? Learn to focus and segment your time better. For example, he only checks email once daily, and only during an assigned period.
"If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you'll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing."
Kelly McGonigal doesn't focus on the negative impact of stress. The Stanford health psychologist understands the dangers of excess anxiety, but she's also aware that treating stress as a physiological phenomenon allows you to tap into an abundance of energy. Stress is a response, as is how you respond to stress. Reframing is therapeutic.
In "The Upside of Stress," McGonigal asks you to reframe your stress response—make it a challenge response. Use your body's chemical surge as a catalyst for transformation instead of getting weighed down by the content that triggered the reaction.
"Stress can create a state of concentrated attention, one that gives you access to more information about your physical environment … One of the effects of the biological stress response is to make you more open to your experience. You feel things more, and your ability to notice expands. You are more sensitive to other people and to your environment."
Embrace Your Inner Feline
In "Tao: The Watercourse Way," the philosopher Alan Watts asks if a long life is worthwhile if you spend every day in constant dread of a tomorrow that never arrives. Constantly yearning for satisfaction guarantees you'll never feel sated. Watts was a master of paradox. He knew what we chase always eludes our grasp.
His solution? Stop chasing it. You can be ambitious. Eastern philosophies don't recommend inaction. Enduring dissatisfaction is dangerous, however. Treat every moment for what it is and suffering dissipates.
"Those who understand the Tao delight, like cats, in just sitting and watching without any goal or result in mind. But when a cat gets tired of sitting, it gets up and goes for a walk or hunts for mice. It doesn't punish itself or compete with other cats in an endurance test as to how long it can remain immovable—unless there is some real reason for being still, such as catching a bird."
Photo: fran_kies / Shutterstock
Don't Be Afraid to Hope
Our brains perform an interesting trick, writes cognitive neuroscience professor Tali Sharot. We tend to remain optimistic about our own life while simultaneously expressing pessimism about the fate of others. Amazingly, even during a global recession, we tend to believe we'll come out the other side in far better shape than our peers. Worrying is for someone else.
Optimism bestows a competitive advantage. We're biologically designed to believe tomorrow will be better than today. How else would a relatively slow and feeble ape rise to the top of the animal kingdom? In "The Optimism Bias," Sharot writes that we overestimate potential windfalls while underestimating negative consequences. Sure, we might be wrong sometimes, but this mindset is actually healthy.
"Optimistic people are not necessarily those with a positively biased view of the past; neither are they the ones holding a positively biased view of the present. They are the ones who see the future through rose-tinted glasses despite all the disappointing experiences they have had."
Meaning, not Happiness
Emily Esfahani Smith writes that Kant would push back on the modern notion to "do what you love." Life is not about chasing every passion, but understanding how to best contribute to the world. That begins with you assigning meaning to your life.
Sadly, that's not the case for many Americans. In "The Power of Meaning," the writer points out that 40 percent of adults cannot express a satisfying life purpose. Roughly 100 million Americans live without a strong sense of meaning. Perhaps part of the problem is the relentless chasing after passion. Thankfully, meaning is something we can strive for and implement whenever we desire.
"Most of our goals are mundane and immediate, like getting to work on time, going to the gym, or doing the dishes. Purpose, by contrast, is a goal toward which we are always working. It is the forward-pointing arrow that motivates our behavior and serves as the organizing principle of our lives."
Share a Good Meal
Americans spend more time driving around in cars than sharing a meal together, writes neuroscientist Peter Whybrow in "The Well-Tuned Brain." Sheltering at home has offered us a chance to return to the kitchen, yet for many being trapped indoors has resulted in the consumption of more processed foods and takeout meals.
As Whybrow writes, food production is more about "profit rather than palate." We know more than ever about micronutrients and health yet spend less time enjoying the benefits of a great home-cooked meal. Science is useful provided it doesn't usurp ritual. Get your hands dirty and your mind occupied with the greatest transformation humans have ever conducted: a meal designed from the raw ingredients of nature.
"Medicine and cookery evolved from the same body of wisdom, where pleasure and health were considered mutually reinforcing around the consumption of good food."
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Northwell Health is using insights from website traffic to forecast COVID-19 hospitalizations two weeks in the future.
- The machine-learning algorithm works by analyzing the online behavior of visitors to the Northwell Health website and comparing that data to future COVID-19 hospitalizations.
- The tool, which uses anonymized data, has so far predicted hospitalizations with an accuracy rate of 80 percent.
- Machine-learning tools are helping health-care professionals worldwide better constrain and treat COVID-19.
The value of forecasting<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTA0Njk2OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMzM2NDQzOH0.rid9regiDaKczCCKBsu7wrHkNQ64Vz_XcOEZIzAhzgM/img.jpg?width=980" id="2bb93" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="31345afbdf2bd408fd3e9f31520c445a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1546" data-height="1056" />
Northwell emergency departments use the dashboard to monitor in real time.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>One unique benefit of forecasting COVID-19 hospitalizations is that it allows health systems to better prepare, manage and allocate resources. For example, if the tool forecasted a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations in two weeks, Northwell Health could begin:</p><ul><li>Making space for an influx of patients</li><li>Moving personal protective equipment to where it's most needed</li><li>Strategically allocating staff during the predicted surge</li><li>Increasing the number of tests offered to asymptomatic patients</li></ul><p>The health-care field is increasingly using machine learning. It's already helping doctors develop <a href="https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/early/2020/06/09/dc19-1870" target="_blank">personalized care plans for diabetes patients</a>, improving cancer screening techniques, and enabling mental health professionals to better predict which patients are at <a href="https://healthitanalytics.com/news/ehr-data-fuels-accurate-predictive-analytics-for-suicide-risk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevated risk of suicide</a>, to name a few applications.</p><p>Health systems around the world have already begun exploring how <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7315944/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">machine learning can help battle the pandemic</a>, including better COVID-19 screening, diagnosis, contact tracing, and drug and vaccine development.</p><p>Cruzen said these kinds of tools represent a shift in how health systems can tackle a wide variety of problems.</p><p>"Health care has always used the past to predict the future, but not in this mathematical way," Cruzen said. "I think [Northwell Health's new predictive tool] really is a great first example of how we should be attacking a lot of things as we go forward."</p>
Making machine-learning tools openly accessible<p>Northwell Health has made its predictive tool <a href="https://github.com/northwell-health/covid-web-data-predictor" target="_blank">available for free</a> to any health system that wishes to utilize it.</p><p>"COVID is everybody's problem, and I think developing tools that can be used to help others is sort of why people go into health care," Dr. Cruzen said. "It was really consistent with our mission."</p><p>Open collaboration is something the world's governments and health systems should be striving for during the pandemic, said Michael Dowling, Northwell Health's president and CEO.</p><p>"Whenever you develop anything and somebody else gets it, they improve it and they continue to make it better," Dowling said. "As a country, we lack data. I believe very, very strongly that we should have been and should be now working with other countries, including China, including the European Union, including England and others to figure out how to develop a health surveillance system so you can anticipate way in advance when these things are going to occur."</p><p>In all, Northwell Health has treated more than 112,000 COVID patients. During the pandemic, Dowling said he's seen an outpouring of goodwill, collaboration, and sacrifice from the community and the tens of thousands of staff who work across Northwell.</p><p>"COVID has changed our perspective on everything—and not just those of us in health care, because it has disrupted everybody's life," Dowling said. "It has demonstrated the value of community, how we help one another."</p>
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"</p><p>Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02724634.2010.483632" target="_blank">8.2 feet long</a>.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a <em>Triceratops prorsus, </em>one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.</p>
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College<p>The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the T<em>yrannosaurus rex</em>. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/26/science/triceratops-skull-65-million-years-old.html" target="_blank">headlines</a> after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.</p><p>Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/26/science/triceratops-skull-65-million-years-old.html" target="_blank">New York Times</a>.</p>
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
Archaeologists discover a cave painting of a wild pig that is now the world's oldest dated work of representational art.
- Archaeologists find a cave painting of a wild pig that is at least 45,500 years old.
- The painting is the earliest known work of representational art.
- The discovery was made in a remote valley on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
Oldest Cave Art Found in Sulawesi<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a9734e306f0914bfdcbe79a1e317a7f0"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/b-wAYtBxn7E?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Persian polymath and philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age teaches us about self-awareness.