7 dimensions of depression, explained
From baboon hierarchies to the mind-gut connection, the path to defeating depression starts with understanding its causes.
JOHANN HARI: When I feel depressed, like loads of people, I say I feel down, right? And as I was learning about the causes of depression and anxiety for my book, "Lost Connections," I started to realize, I don't think that's a metaphor. There is this amazing Professor at Stanford called Robert Sapolsky who in his early '20s went to live with a troop baboons in Kenya. And it was his job to figure out when are baboons most stressed out. So his job was to hit them with little tranquilizer darts and then take a blood test and measure something called cortisol, which is a hormone that baboons and us release when we're stressed. And baboons live in this hierarchy, so the females don't interestingly but the men live in a very strict hierarchy. So if there's 30 men, number one knows he's above number two, number two knows he's above number three, number 12 knows he's above number 13. And that really determines a lot. It determines who you get to have sex with, it determines what you get to eat, it determines whether you get to sit in the shade or you're pushed out into the heat. Yeah, it's a really, really significant where you are in the hierarchy.
And what Professor Sapolsky found is baboons are most stressed in two situations. One is when their status is insecure. So if you're the top guy and someone's circling which comes for you, you will be massively stressed. And the other situation is when you feel you're at the bottom of a hierarchy, you've been kind of humiliated. And what Professor Sapolsky found is when you feel you've been pushed to the bottom, what you do is you show something called submission gesture. Baboon will put its body down physically or put its head down, it will put its bottom in the air and it will cover its head. So it clearly seems to be communicating, "Just leave me alone, you've beaten me. Okay, you've beaten me." And what lots of scientists, people like Professor Paul Gilbert in Britain and Professor Kate Pickett and Professor Richard Wilkinson also in Britain have really developed is this idea that actually what human depression is in part, not entirely, but in part, is a form of a submission gesture. It's a way of saying, I can't cope with this anymore, right? Particularly people who feel they've been pushed to the bottom of hierarchies or who feel remember the other stressful situations when you feel your status is insecure it's a way of just going, "Okay, can I retreat?" "I don't want this fight anymore." "You've beaten me." It's a kind of very strong evolutionary impulse where you feel you're under attack to just submit in the hope that the stress and anxiety will then go away. The sources of the stress and anxiety will then go away.
And one thing that is so important, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson really developed this, is they've shown so as inequality grows, depression and anxiety grow. They've shown, this is very robust effect, right? This helps us to explain it. One in five Americans will take a psychiatric drug, one in four middle-aged women in the United States is taking a chemical antidepressant in any given year. And I began to think, could it really be that just so many people are just mysteriously lacking a specific chemical in their brain? Why does it seem to be rising so much if that's the cause? If you live in Norway, your status is relatively secure, right? No one's that high, no one's that low, movement between where you are is not so extreme. If you live in the United States, especially today which is we're now at the greatest levels of inequality since the 1920s, there's a few people at the very top, there's a kind of precarious middle, and there's a huge and swelling bottom, right? So you can see why in the United States, you've got more people who'd be showing a submission gesture. Who'd be like, "Oh, Jesus, I've been beaten," than there would be in Norway. World Health Organization has been trying to tell us for years, depression is a response to things going wrong deep in our lives and our environments, our pain makes sense. As the World Health Organization put it, mental health is produced socially. It's a social indicator, it requires social as well as individual solutions. It requires social change, right? Now that is a very different way of thinking about depression and anxiety, but it happens to fit with the best scientific evidence. And it really required me to reassess how I'd felt about my own pain and how I tried to deal with it, unsuccessfully, and open up a whole different way of responding to my depression and anxiety that worked for me. And I think as the World Health Organization says, and the UN says, if we talk less about chemical imbalances and more about power imbalances we will get more at the heart of depression and anxiety and we'll find better solutions.
JULIE HOLLAND: So there's quite a few things you can do that aren't prescription medicine. The first thing is to really look at how you're living your life. How much sleep are you getting? What is your diet like? Are you moving your body? Are you getting sunshine? Sort of the basic things that we as social primates should be doing. Which also includes being social, being interactive and not being isolated and withdrawn. My patients who have sort of gotten off their meds and left me for the most part, are people who have adopted regular cardio practice, where they're exercising regularly. I think that's really important.
EMERAN MAYER: There're some very intriguing observations, both clinically but also now more recently scientifically that make it highly plausible, that there's an intuit connection between serotonin in the gut, serotonin in our food, to depression and gut function. So on a clinical level, there's a connection because many patients with depression also complained of constipation, so a distinct dysfunction of the gut. And often the medications that people with depression take particularly serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, such as Prozac and all the other drugs in this category. They often cause transient gastrointestinal dysfunction, so that's on the clinical level. However, what makes it particularly interesting and still an open question really, more than 95% of all our serotonin we have in our organism is really produced and stored in the gut in specialized cells, so-called Enterochromaffin cells. So our major by far the largest store of that molecule that plays such a big role in modulating our mood and our wellbeing—also appetite, pain sensitivity—is stored in the gut. And a lot of very interesting discoveries have been made more recently that makes this even more intriguing, so this serotonin is synthesized in the gut from precursors that come from our food that we ingest and the microbes that live in the gut are actually able through chemicals that they produce to stimulate the production of serotonin.
DREW RAMSEY: When you eat poorly, your risk of depression and illnesses like depression, just go up 70, 80%. And when you eat a more traditional diet, like a Mediterranean diet or Japanese diet, your risk of an illness like depression can go down by as much as 50%. So that's now led to the first clinical trial that is just being reported, showing that a Mediterranean diet augmented with some red meat actually can treat clinical depression, major depressive disorder. And it's a very exciting moment for nutritional psychiatry, it's a time when we have more science that tells us food should really be part of the conversation when it comes to our mental health. The most science is about the Mediterranean diet. Mediterranean diet is a plant-based diet, you're gonna see lots and lots of nuts and seeds whole grains, gonna see seafood. You're gonna see meat and dairy treated differently. I mean, it's interesting that all Mediterranean diets you know, Greek yogurt, for example, right? They have some dairy and fermented dairy products and meat, but they're used more as flavorings. You don't see what we see in a Western diet of, a giant steak and a baked potato. You see a lot more spices in the Mediterranean diet, and fresh herbs.
These are very, very powerful medicines that have always been used to treat human illness. And so one of my favorite interventions is helping people do like even a little herb pot on their fire escape or in their front yard. Cause you can just walk out in the morning grab some chives, grab some basil, chop it up, have it with your scrambled eggs. You've just increased the nutrient density of that meal. And you've made it a little bit more like the Mediterranean diet. So what you're gonna see is in the Mediterranean diets mainly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. You're going to see, again, a lot of crunchy vegetables, a lot of rainbows on those plates, and lots and lots of seafood that again we know have these molecules that are so important for brain health. And that's really one of the main differences, if you look at a Spanish diet, right? All those Tapas with little anchovies and a little bit of squid, and a little bit of octopus.
We are facing an incredible mental health epidemic. I've been in New York as a psychiatrist now for 16 years and the amount of distress and the amount of mortality that we're seeing is just like levels we've never seen before. And we need as many tools in our toolbox and food is very much there, both from just common sense, right? We all know that to feel right we need to eat right. But then also backed up by now an incredible amount of science showing a course that our nutrients actually have very clear data that can help in the prevention and the treatment of illnesses, again, like depression and dementia. So we wanna encourage people to eat those foods that have the most of these nutrients and then help them do that, is really part of a mental health care plan. We think about a lot of illnesses when we eat heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and it's always struck me that really the illness you should be worried about or the organ you should be worried about when you're eating is your brain. Because that is by far your biggest asset. It consumes more of your energy in your food than any other organ you have. And so focusing on the nutrients your brain needs guides you to a slightly different set of foods than if you focus on just things like calories, or saturated fat, or preventing something like cancer. And so it's an exciting moment as the data begins to catch up with common sense.
PETE HOLMES: I wanna be careful here when we're talking about depression because I had a friend who was very depressed. And I remember talking to him, out of love trying to explain some of these ideas, some of these ways that we can think and interpret our suffering. And sometimes when someone is suffering, the last thing they want is for you to go, "Hey, there's another way to look at this." Maybe that's later. None of this is to be imposed on anybody and I don't wanna belittle or just say like, "You know, your brain is, that's really it's your attachment to your desire to not be depressed, that's causing you..." No, none of that. That is not what I'm saying at all. We can give space to someone's depression, we can love them, we can honor them, we can just eat some noodles, we can watch some movies, whatever it is we can just sit and not talk. That's that's real stuff. It's a real, I don't know if you'd call it a disorder or disease, but it's happening and we don't need to coach people through with ideologies, right?
That being said, if you're in a place to talk about this, usually when you're not depressed, I found it helpful to step inside what I call the witness. And other traditions call that your soul. I believe science might just call it, the phenomenon of your base consciousness. If you think about when you were born, I have a baby girl now, she's not thinking in ideas yet. She doesn't know she's American, she doesn't know she lives in California. Just like a ladybug doesn't know it's Italian, know what I mean? It's just awareness. So she's just there. And, but slowly over time, we build up what Young and others called the false self, right? So we have the story of who we are, and I'm a man, and I'm a comedian, and I'm a tall man, and I have big teeth and all these things. And I like the first two Batman movies and I don't drink coffee, or whatever it is. So you build up this identity. And oftentimes in that identity is where things like suffering are occurring, sometimes. I can't speak for everybody, but I will say that for me, when I've been depressed and I get depressed, I have irrational bouts of anxiety, I have random like FedEx deliveries of despondency just like, "I didn't order this." Oh, well, keep the PJ's on, cancel everything you're doing today, it's time to take a sad shower, like that happens to me, right?
So I'm speaking for me with full respect to other people's processes and their experience. When I'm depressed, if I can get into that quiet space, it's the space that's noticing the thoughts. So if you think "I'm hungry," we always just think that I'm hungry is the thought in the animal and then we eat and then it goes, "Thank you." Who's talking to who, really? I would say that the thought is talking to your awareness, your base awareness, your witness. So that's what's watching your thoughts. And if you can get into that, you see how impartial and unswayed by your life circumstance this witness really is. It's just there, it's neutral. It's just is-ness, it's just this, and it's just watching. It's compassionate, it's involved, it's invested, but it's not really as connected and tied to the events of your life story as you are, as your false self is. So, when those depressions happen, I found it helpful—and this is something Ram Dass taught me—is instead of identifying with the depression and saying, "I am depressed," although that is how I might say it to somebody. What I'm thinking is there is depression. I am noticing—it's gonna make me cry—I'm seeing depression. And you can almost, it's not denial, it's real and it's valid, but you're a little bit less in the quicksand and you go, "Wow." This is Ram Dass, he's like "I don't know if people get out of depressions like this one. Look at this one. This is too much." But who is noticing it? And Ram Dass asks, "Is the part of you that's noticing the depression, depressed?" Now I asked my friend that who was depressed and he said, "Yes." So not everybody is there, not everybody can get there. Later he did by the way, we talked about it later. In my experience I've had success in getting into the place that goes, "There is an impartial part of me, that's witnessing whatever the feeling is and I can rest in that." Ram Dass talks about it being like a candle that's inside that isn't swayed or flickered by the wind. It's in a quiet place, and when you go in there, you don't resist the depression, you give it space. You observe it, you don't identify with it, you honor it. Sometimes you medicate it, sometimes you go to therapy. I'm not saying we need to sit in a cave and heal ourselves. But I am saying that there is some relief to be had in not identifying as "I'm this, I'm sad." I do it all the time, there is sadness. I'm anxious. There is anxiety. Look at Pete, he's anxious. And this is every great spiritual mystic through all time, they've all been doing this. St. Francis called his body his corpse. He was like, "I drag my corpse around. My corpse wants to eat." You know what I mean, I don't like it because it kind of puts it down. But I just go like, I say to Valerie all the time I go, "Pete's frustrated." You know what I mean? Not "I'm frustrated, this is real. My parents should, they should listen more. My dad still wants me to be a baseball player." Oh, look at Pete go. Oh, and then you're there and you're just like you're not being flickered by the wind because that's always gonna be there. And with practice, with meditation, with mindfulness and with contemplation and study, literally like reading about it, talking about it like this, when we're in it in real time not necessarily later. At the beginning it goes like this, you're depressed and then later you look back and go, "Oh, I think I was still this watching me." And then with practice when it's happening you can go, I can witness this in real time. I can go, that's happening, it's a phenomenon, it's real, it's to be honored, I understand, but it's not who I really am.
DANIEL GOLEMAN: It turns out that meditation generally makes people feel more positively, it helps diminish anxiety. But it becomes particularly powerful when it's combined with a psychotherapy. The way this is usually done is with mindfulness on the one hand, and what's called cognitive therapy on the other. Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience. Instead of getting sucked into our emotions, our thoughts which is what happens when we're depressed or anxious. We see them as those thoughts again or those feelings again, and that disempowers them. There's actually research at UCLA that shows when you can name that feeling, "Oh, I'm feeling depressed again." You have shifted the activity levels neurologically in the part of the brain which is depressed to the part of the brain which notices, which is aware, the prefrontal cortex and that diminishes the depression and enhances your ability to be able to understand it or to see it as just a feeling. So if you combine that ability with cognitive therapy, cognitive therapy helps you talk back to your thoughts. The basic realization in cognitive therapy is "I don't have to believe my thoughts." This is extremely important in people with chronic anxiety or chronic depression, because it's our thoughts that trigger the anxiety, that trigger the depression. You know, the depressive thoughts are classic. I'm no good, my life is worthless, whatever it is. Those thoughts actually make us depressed. So if you use mindfulness based cognitive therapy on the one hand you can see, "Oh, there's that thought again!" On the other hand, cognitive therapy lets you talk back to that thought, "Oh, I'm not so worthless, "I've done some pretty good things in my life." "There are people who love me." Whatever it may be, you can develop a habit of not letting those thoughts take you over but countering them with actual evidence from your life that says, "Oh, they're not true. I don't have to believe them." The impact is palpable and it turns out that mindfulness and other meditations particularly combined with cognitive therapy worked just as well for anxiety or depression as the medications do, but they don't have those side effects.
RUBY WAX: I had a depression, it doesn't define my life. Seven years ago, I had a really bad one. I ended up on a kind of a chair for a few months. Let me just say, people think, I'm just going sideways, that depression is about having a bad hair day or your cat left out. It isn't sad, nothing to do with sadness. It's like your old personality slowly leaves town and you're left with a block of cement, which is you. I mean, it's like being in hibernation, but you can't wake up. And so I ended up on a chair, to take a shower was unimaginable. I didn't tell anybody, I didn't tell my friends. Because you know what comes with this disease is a real sense of shame, because everybody thinks, "We'll look at you, you have everything. You're not in a township, you're not being carpet bombed." So I always say you get these abusive voices. But not one voice—but a hundred thousand voices. Like if the devil had Tourette's, that's what it would sound like. So I was sick, I never told anybody. I got a few phone calls from a few friends saying, "Perk up." Yeah, perk up because I never thought of that. So then I was really interested in how the brain works because I thought well, every other organ in your body can get sick and you get sympathy except your brain, so I thought let's learn about the brain. So I gave up my career, kissed that one bye-bye and decided I would do research as to how this baby works because we know so much about technology but we know nothing about the mind. You know, it's running us, we're not running it. So I decided okay let's do research and find out how I can maybe control my chemicals. You know how I could cool the engine. So I researched it in mindfulness based cognitive therapy had the best results. Otherwise I would have gone in a workshop for how to hug your inner elf. You know, I'm not into the fluffy stuff. So because of the empirical evidence, I studied. So I found the founder, one of the founders, he was a professor at Oxford. So I have the drive of a Rottweiler, so I drove to Oxford. It was at the time I was sick. I think I smashed into some trees on the way. When I got to him, I was crazy. And I said to him, "Just tell me in a nutshell what happens in the brain when you do this mindfulness? 'Because I don't want to waive crystals." He said, "You'd have to get into Oxford and get your masters if you want to know about the brain." So I did. And I graduated in September and I got the bat wings and the Hogwarts hat. And so it made my life so much easier because of this thing called neuroplasticity, which I don't understand why it's not shouted from rooftops. That you can change the wiring in your brain by changing how you think. Basically, we used to think we were at the mercy of our genes, but you know, like how you come into the world is how you go out. Look, the length of your leg and the color of your eyes, those you inherit, there's no question. Because I'll never forgive my parents for giving me the legs of a dachshund. Because I wanted to go down that catwalk, and now I've come to terms it ain't gonna happen. But the genes that develop your brain they keep changing because they're dependent on experience. So it's like they hand you a blueprint and a deck of cards, but how you play them is up to you. So you can look in a brain with a brain scanner and see those neurons wire and unwire and that corresponds to how you think. And every time they wire together you're laying down memory. But the good news is you can unwire them and create new habits and give yourself a more flexible or happier life, whatever that means. I mean, you're the architect of your own brain. It's known as neuroplasticity, which was so hopeful to me. So I always say Gloria Gaynor was wrong when she sang that song, "I Am What I Am", you're not, you have many possibilities.
- According to the World Health Organization, more than 264 million people suffer from depression. It is the leading cause of disability and, at its worst, can lead to suicide. Unfortunately, depression is often misunderstood or ignored until it is too late.
- Psychologist Daniel Goleman, comedian Pete Holmes, neuroscientist Emeran Mayer, psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, and more outline several of the social, chemical, and neurological factors that may contribute to the complex disorder and explain why there is not a singular solution or universal "cure" that can alleviate the symptoms.
- From gaining insight into how the brain-gut connection works and adopting a more Mediterranean diet, to seeking help from medical or spiritual practitioners, depression is a personal battle that requires a personalized strategy to keep it at bay, as well as more research and understanding.
- New antidepressants can lift depression and suicidal thoughts fast ... ›
- How the chemical imbalance theory of depression damages patients ... ›
- Depression linked to disrupted circadian rhythms, UK scientists find ›
- A world map of depression - Big Think ›
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A new study suggests that reports of the impending infertility of the human male are greatly exaggerated.
- A new review of a famous study on declining sperm counts finds several flaws.
- The old report makes unfounded assumptions, has faulty data, and tends toward panic.
- The new report does not rule out that sperm counts are going down, only that this could be quite normal.
Several years ago, a meta-analysis of studies on human fertility came out warning us about the declining sperm counts of Western men. It was widely shared, and its findings were featured on the covers of popular magazines. Indeed, its findings were alarming: a nearly 60 percent decline in sperm per milliliter since 1973 with no end in sight. It was only a matter of time, the authors argued, until men were firing blanks, literally.
Well… never mind.
It turns out that the impending demise of humanity was greatly exaggerated. As the predicted infertility wave crashed upon us, there was neither a great rush of men to fertility clinics nor a sudden dearth of new babies. The only discussions about population decline focus on urbanization and the fact that people choose not to have kids rather than not being able to have them.
Now, a new analysis of the 2017 study says that lower sperm counts is nothing to be surprised by. Published in Human Fertility, its authors point to flaws in the original paper's data and interpretation. They suggest a better and smarter reanalysis.
Counting tiny things is difficult
The original 2017 report analyzed 185 studies on 43,000 men and their reproductive health. Its findings were clear: "a significant decline in sperm counts… between 1973 and 2011, driven by a 50-60 percent decline among men unselected by fertility from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand."
However, the new analysis points out flaws in the data. As many as a third of the men in the studies were of unknown age, an important factor in reproductive health. In 45 percent of cases, the year of the sample collection was unknown- a big detail to miss in a study measuring change over time. The quality controls and conditions for sample collection and analysis vary widely from study to study, which likely influenced the measured sperm counts in the samples.
Another study from 2013 also points out that the methods for determining sperm count were only standardized in the 1980s, which occurred after some of the data points were collected for the original study. It is entirely possible that the early studies gave inaccurately high sperm counts.
This is not to say that the 2017 paper is entirely useless; it had a much more rigorous methodology than previous studies on the subject, which also claimed to identify a decline in sperm counts. However, the original study had more problems.
Garbage in, garbage out
Predictable as always, the media went crazy. Discussions of the decline of masculinity took off, both in mainstream and less-than-reputable forums; concerns about the imagined feminizing traits of soy products continued to increase; and the authors of the original study were called upon to discuss the findings themselves in a number of articles.
However, as this new review points out, some of the findings of that meta-analysis are debatable at best. For example, the 2017 report suggests that "declining mean [sperm count] implies that an increasing proportion of men have sperm counts below any given threshold for sub-fertility or infertility," despite little empirical evidence that this is the case.
The WHO offers a large range for what it considers to be a healthy sperm count, from 15 to 250 million sperm per milliliter. The benefits to fertility above a count of 40 million are seen as minimal, and the original study found a mean sperm concentration of 47 million sperm per milliliter.
Healthy sperm, healthy man?
The claim that sperm count is evidence of larger health problems is also scrutinized in this new article. While it is true that many major health problems can impact reproductive health, there is little evidence that it is the "canary in the coal mine" for overall well-being. A number of studies suggest that any relation between lifestyle choices and this part of reproductive health is limited at best.
Lastly, ideas that environmental factors could be at play have been debunked since 2017. While the original paper considered the idea that pollutants, especially from plastics, could be at fault, it is now known that this kind of pollution is worse in the parts of the world that the original paper observed higher sperm counts in (i.e., non-Western nations).
There never was a male fertility crisis
The authors of the new review do not deny that some measurements are showing lower sperm counts, but they do question the claim that this is catastrophic or part of a larger pathological issue. They propose a new interpretation of the data. Dubbed the "Sperm Count Biovariability hypothesis," it is summarized as:
"Sperm count varies within a wide range, much of which can be considered non-pathological and species-typical. Above a critical threshold, more is not necessarily an indicator of better health or higher probability of fertility relative to less. Sperm count varies across bodies, ecologies, and time periods. Knowledge about the relationship between individual and population sperm count and life-historical and ecological factors is critical to interpreting trends in average sperm counts and their relationships to human health and fertility."
Still, the authors note that lower sperm counts "could decline due to negative environmental exposures, or that this may carry implications for men's health and fertility."
However, they disagree that the decline in absolute sperm count is necessarily a bad sign for men's health and fertility. We aren't at civilization ending catastrophe just yet.
A year of disruptions to work has contributed to mass burnout.
- Junior members of the workforce, including Generation Z, are facing digital burnout.
- 41 percent of workers globally are thinking about handing in their notice, according to a new Microsoft survey.
- A hybrid blend of in-person and remote work could help maintain a sense of balance – but bosses need to do more.
More than half of 18 to 25 year-olds in the workforce are considering quitting their job. And they're not the only ones.
In a report called The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work – Are We Ready?, Microsoft found that as well as 54% of Generation Z workers, 41% of the entire global workforce could be considering handing in their resignation.
Similarly, a UK and Ireland survey found that 38% of employees were planning to leave their jobs in the next six months to a year, while a US survey reported that 42% of employees would quit if their company didn't offer remote working options long term.
New work trends
Based on surveys with over 30,000 workers in 31 countries, the Microsoft report – which is the latest in the company's annual Work Trend Index series – pulled in data from applications including Teams, Outlook and Office 365, to gauge productivity and activity levels. It highlighted seven major trends, which show the world of work has been profoundly reshaped by the pandemic:
- Flexible work is here to stay
- Leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call
- High productivity is masking an exhausted workforce
- Gen Z is at risk and will need to be re-energized
- Shrinking networks are endangering innovation
- Authenticity will spur productivity and wellbeing
- Talent is everywhere in a hybrid world
"Over the past year, no area has undergone more rapid transformation than the way we work," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says in the report. "Employee expectations are changing, and we will need to define productivity much more broadly – inclusive of collaboration, learning and wellbeing to drive career advancement for every worker, including frontline and knowledge workers, as well as for new graduates and those who are in the workforce today. All this needs to be done with flexibility in, when, where and how people work."
Organizations have become more siloed
While the report highlights the opportunities created by increased flexible and remote working patterns, it warns that some people are experiencing digital exhaustion and that remote working could foster siloed thinking. With the shift to remote working, much of the spontaneous sharing of ideas that can take place within a workplace was lost. In its place are scheduled calls, regular catch-ups and virtual hangouts. The loss of in-person interaction means individual team members are more likely to only interact with their closest coworkers.
"At the onset of the pandemic, our analysis shows interactions with our close networks at work increased while interactions with our distant network diminished," the report says. "This suggests that as we shifted into lockdown, we clung to our immediate teams for support and let our broader network fall to the wayside. Simply put, companies became more siloed than they were pre-pandemic."
Burnout or drop out
One of the other consequences of the shift to remote and the reliance on tech-based communications has been the phenomenon of digital burnout. And for those who have most recently joined the workforce, this has been a significant challenge.
The excitement of joining a new employer, maybe even securing a job for the first time, usually comes with meeting lots of new people, becoming familiar with a new environment and adapting to new situations. But for many, the pandemic turned that into a daily routine of working from home while isolated from co-workers.
"Our findings have shown that for Gen Z and people just starting in their careers, this has been a very disruptive time," says LinkedIn Senior Editor-at-Large, George Anders, quoted in the report. "It's very hard to find their footing since they're not experiencing the in-person onboarding, networking and training that they would have expected in a normal year."
But it is perhaps the data around quitting that is one of the starkest indications that change is now the new normal. Being able to work remotely has opened up new possibilities for many workers, the report found. If you no longer need to be physically present in an office, your employer could, theoretically, be located anywhere. Perhaps that's why the research found that "41% of employees are considering leaving their current employer this year".
In addition to that, 46% of the people surveyed for the Microsoft report said they might relocate their home because of the flexibility of remote working.
A hybrid future
In looking for ways to navigate their way through all this change, employers should hold fast to one word, the report says – hybrid. An inflexible, location-centred approach to work is likely to encourage those 41% of people to leave and find somewhere more to their tastes. Those who are thinking of going to live somewhere else, while maintaining their current job, might also find themselves thinking of quitting if their plans are scuppered.
But remote working is not a panacea for all workforce ills. "We can no longer rely solely on offices to collaborate, connect, and build social capital. But physical space will still be important," the report says. "We're social animals and we want to get together, bounce ideas off one another, and experience the energy of in-person events. Moving forward, office space needs to bridge the physical and digital worlds to meet the unique needs of every team – and even specific roles."
Bosses must meet challenges head on
Although the majority of business leaders have indicated they will incorporate elements of the hybrid working model, the report also found many are out of touch with workforce concerns more widely.
For, while many workers say they are struggling (Gen Z – 60%; new starters – 64%), and 54% of the general workforce feels overworked, business leaders are having a much better experience. Some 61% said they were 'thriving', which is in stark contrast to employees who are further down the chain of command.
Jared Spataro, corporate vice president at Microsoft 365, writes in the report: "Those impromptu encounters at the office help keep leaders honest. With remote work, there are fewer chances to ask employees, 'Hey, how are you?' and then pick up on important cues as they respond. But the data is clear: our people are struggling. And we need to find new ways to help them."
A cartogram makes it easy to compare regional and national GDPs at a glance.
- On these maps, each hexagon represents one-thousandth of the world's economy.
- That makes it easy to compare the GDP of regions and nations across the globe.
- There are versions for nominal GDP and GDP adjusted for purchasing power.
Shanghai's skyline at night. According to the GDP (PPP) map, China is the world's largest economy. But that oft-cited statistic says more about the problems of PPP as a yardstick than about the economic prominence of China per se.Credit: Adi Constantin, CC0 1.0
If you want to rank the regions and countries of the world, area and population are but crude predictors of their importance. A better yardstick is GDP, or gross domestic product, defined as the economic value produced in a given region or country over a year.
Who's hot and who's not
And these two maps are possibly the best instruments to show who's hot and who's not, economically speaking. They are in fact cartograms, meaning they abandon geographic accuracy in order to represent the values of another dataset, in this case GDP: the larger a region or country is shown relative to its actual size, the greater its GDP, and vice versa.
So far, so familiar. What's unique about these maps is how this is done. Both are composed of hexagons, exactly 1,000 each. And each of those hexagons represents 0.1 percent of global GDP. That makes it fascinatingly easy to assess and compare the economic weight of various regions and countries throughout the world.
Did we say easy? Scratch that. GDP comes in two main flavors: nominal and PPP-adjusted, with each map showing one.
Nominal GDP does not take into account differences in standard of living. It simply converts local GDP values into U.S. dollars based on foreign exchange rates. GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP) takes into account living standards. $100 buys more stuff in poor countries than it does in rich countries. If you get more bang for your buck in country A, its PPP-adjusted GDP will be relatively higher than in country B.
Nominal GDP is a good way of comparing the crude economic size of various countries and regions, while GDP (PPP) is an attempt to measure the relative living standards between countries and regions. But this is also just an approximation, since it does not measure the distribution of personal income. For that, we have the Gini index, which measures the relative (in)equality of income distribution.
In other words, PPP factors in the high cost of living in mature markets as an economic disadvantage, while giving slightly more room to low-cost economies elsewhere. Think of it as the Peters projection of GDP models.
Who's number one: the U.S. or China?
The economy of the world, divided into a thousand hexagons.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
The difference is important, though, since the versions produce significantly different outcomes. The most salient one: on the nominal GDP map, the United States remains the world's largest economy. But on the PPP-adjusted GDP map, China takes the top spot. However, it is wrong to assume on this basis that China is the world's biggest economy.
As this article explains in some detail, PPP-adjusted GDP is not a good yardstick for comparing the size of economies – nominal GPD is the obvious measure for that. GDP (PPP) is an attempt to compare living standards; but even in that respect, it has its limitations. For example, $100 might buy you more in country B, but you might not be able to buy the stuff you can get in country A.
Both maps, shown below, are based on data from the IMF published in the first quarter of 2021. For the sake of brevity, we will have a closer look at the nominal GDP map and leave comparisons with the PPP map to you.
For the nominal map, global GDP is just over U.S. $93.86 trillion. That means each of the hexagons represents about U.S. $93.86 billion.
The worldwide overview clearly shows which three regions are the world's economic powerhouses. Despite the rise of East Asia (265 hexagons), North America (282) is still number one, with Europe (250) placing a close third. Added up, that's just three hexagons shy of 80 percent of the world's GDP. The remaining one-fifth of the world's economy is spread — rather thinly, by necessity — across Southeast Asia & Oceania (56), South Asia (41), the Middle East (38), South America (32), Africa (27), and North & Central Asia (9).
California über alles
California's economy is bigger than that of all of South America or Africa.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
Thanks to the hexagons, the maps get more interesting the closer you zoom in on them.
In North America, the United States (242) overshadows Canada (20) and Mexico (13); and within the U.S., California (37) outperforms not just all other states, but also most other countries — and a few continents — worldwide. To be fair, Texas (21), New York (20), Florida (13), and Illinois (10) also do better than many individual nations.
Interestingly, states that look the same on a "regular" map are way out of each others' leagues on this one. Missouri is four hexagons but Nebraska only one. Alabama has three but Mississippi only one.
The granularity of the map goes beyond the state level, showing (in red) the economic heft of certain Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs), within or across state lines. The New York City-Newark-Jersey City one is 20 hexagons, that is, 2 percent of the world's GDP. The Greater Toronto Area is five hexagons, a quarter of all of Canada. And Greater Mexico City is three hexagons. That's the same as the entire state of Oregon.
By comparison, South America (32) and Africa (27) are small fry on the GDP world map. But each little pond has its own big fish. In the former, it's Brazil (16), in particular, the state of São Paulo (5), which on its own is bigger than any other country in South America. In Africa, there is one regional leader each in the north, center, and south: Egypt (4), Nigeria (5), and South Africa (3), respectively.
Economically, Italy is bigger than Russia
Europe's "Big Five" represent three-fifths of the continent's GDP. The Asian part of the former Soviet Union is an economic afterthought.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
Europe is bewilderingly diverse, so it helps to focus on the "Big Five" economies: Germany (46), UK (33), France (31), Italy (22), and Spain (16). They comprise three-fifths of Europe's GDP.
Each of these five has one or more regional economic engines. In Germany, it's the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and in France, it's Île de France (both 10). In the UK, it's obviously London (8), in Italy Lombardy (5), and in Spain, it's a photo-finish between Madrid and Catalonia (both 3).
Interesting about Europe's economies are the small countries that punch well above their geographic and/or demographic weight, such as the Netherlands (11) and Switzerland (9).
Slide across to Eastern Europe and things get pretty mono-hexagonal. Poland (7) stands out positively and Russia (18) negatively. The former superpower, spread out over two continents, has an economy smaller than Italy's. Three individual German states have a GDP larger than that of the Moscow Metropolitan Area (5), the seat and bulk of Russia's economic power.
China, the biggest fish in a big pond
Australia and South Korea's GDPs are about equal, and each is about a third of Japan's. But even put together, these three add up to barely half of China's economic weight.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
In the 1980s, the United States was wary of Japan's rise to global prominence. But as this map shows, that fear was misguided — or rather, slightly misdirected. It's China (177) that now dominates the region economically, putting even the land of the Rising Sun (57) in the shade. South Korea (19) and Taiwan (8) look a lot larger than on a "regular" map, but it's clear who rules the roost here.
Interestingly, China's hubs are mainly but not exclusively coastal. Yes, there's Guangdong (19), Jiangsu (18), and Shandong (13), plus a few other provinces with access to the sea. But the inland provinces of Henan (10), Sichuan (9), and Hubei (8) are economically as important as any mid-sized European country. Tibet (1) and Xinjiang (2), huge on the "regular" map, are almost invisible here.
In the ASEAN countries (36), Thailand (6), Singapore (4), and the Indonesian island of Java (7) stand out. Economically, Oceania is virtually synonymous with Australia (17) — sorry, New Zealand (3).
As for South Asia and the Middle East, India (32) is clearly the dominant player, outperforming near neighbors Bangladesh (4) and Pakistan (3), as well as more distant ones like Saudi Arabia (9), Turkey (8), and Iran (7). But that's cold comfort for a country that sees itself as a challenger to China's dominance.
The PPP-adjusted GDP world map looks slightly different from the nominal GDP one. China is the #1 country and East Asia the #1 region.Credit: BerryBlue_BlueBerry, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps #1089
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Buildings don't have to be permanent — modular construction can make them modifiable and relocatable.
- Modular construction involves building the components of a habitable structure in a factory, and then assembling those components on-site.
- The history of modular construction stretches back centuries, and it became briefly popular in the U.S. after World War II, but it's never quite caught on.
- Construction firms like iMod Structures, which constructs buildings that can be modified and relocated, may soon change that.
Modular construction is on the rise. Once a marginal sector focused on building affordable homes, modular construction is now building an increasing share of structures used for commerce, healthcare, and education. By 2028, the modular construction market is projected to be worth $114 billion.
What is modular construction? It's like building with Legos but on an industrial scale: standardized block-shaped modules are constructed in a factory, transported to a building site, and assembled together to form a habitable structure.
What's most striking about modular buildings isn't appearance but the speed of construction. In 2015, for example, a Chinese construction company built a 57-story glass-and-concrete skyscraper made of 2,736 rectangular modules in a record-breaking 19 days. That's three stories per day.
In addition to speed, modular construction promises to be more modifiable, more transportable, and less wasteful than traditional construction methods. The method could transform construction, which, despite being one of the world's biggest sectors, is one of the slowest growing in terms of labor productivity and digitization.
One modular construction firm aiming to bring the sector into the 21st century is iMod Structures, which builds shipping container-sized modules that can be assembled into buildings. The modules can then be disassembled to modify the existing structure or transported to a different site to build a new one.
Freethink recently visited iMod Structures to get an up-close look at its unique spin on modular construction.
Do buildings have to be permanent? | Hard Reset by Freethink www.youtube.com
Techniques like this could help bring construction into the 21st century. But despite its futuristic and transformative appeal, modular construction is far from a new idea. In fact, the history of prefabrication — the broader category of construction to which modular belongs — goes back centuries.
Prefabrication: From 17th-century cottages to diners to skyscrapers
One of the earliest examples of prefabrication came in 1624, when a colonial American fisherman commissioned an English construction company to fabricate components of a building and ship them overseas to the fishing village of Cap Anne.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, English firms also shipped prefabricated structures — storehouses, cottages, and hospitals — to Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand. In the U.S., prefabricated homes became popular during the Gold Rush when California towns had too many people but too few houses.
In the early 20th century, mass-production made modular construction more practical and, sometimes, more popular. From 1908 to 1940, Sears sold about 70,000 kit homes across the country; some of the cheapest models started around $160. (Kit homes were like IKEA products: the manufacturer builds and precuts the parts, and the buyer assembles them.)
Still, prefabricated homes weren't particularly popular in the first half of the 20th century; homebuyers generally viewed the structures — especially the metal and experimental ones — as strange and undesirable.
Pre fabricated house shipped via boxcarThe Aladdin Company via Wikipedia
But appearance wasn't a major concern during World War II. Facing huge demand for cheap and simple housing for soldiers in the early 1940s, the U.S. produced hundreds of thousands of Quonset huts — prefabricated, semi-cylindrical structures made of corrugated galvanized steel — which about six unskilled laborers could construct in a day.
A Quonset hut being put in place at the 598th Engineer Base Depot in Japan, post-World War IIUS Army Corps of Engineers via Wikipedia
After the war, millions of U.S. soldiers returned home, and the nation faced a housing shortage crisis. Hundreds of companies entered the prefabricated housing market, with several receiving support from the federal government. One of the most iconic models was the enameled-steel Lustron house, which cost $7,000 to $10,000, took two weeks to assemble, and promised to "defy weather, wear, and time."
By 1958, roughly 10 percent of all homes in the U.S. were prefabricated. In addition to homes, the prefabrication industry also built thousands of diners throughout the 20th century, especially after World War II when owning a prefabricated diner was a decent small-business opportunity. Popular in New Jersey, the narrow diners could easily be shipped to buyers by rail.
Interior of a 1938 Sterling manufactured diner, with curved ceiling, in Wellsboro, PennsylvaniaI, Ruhrfisch via Wikipedia
Despite the post-war boom, modular construction never really caught on in most parts of the world, though many architects and builders have long been attracted to the method. Some of the reasons include consumer perception that modular homes are unattractive, technological constraints, and the high costs of researching and developing new building techniques.
These challenges can be prohibitive, especially for large-scale projects.
"Building anything over 10 stories in modular is something no one has wanted to do because you have to invest in research and development," Susi Yu, executive vice president of residential development for the Forest City Ratner Corporation, told Fast Company. "There's science behind it that you need to figure out."
But attitudes on modular buildings may be shifting.
"Today, modular construction is experiencing a new wave of attention and investment, and several factors suggest it may have renewed staying power," noted a 2019 report from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. "The maturing of digital tools has radically changed the modular-construction proposition — for instance, by facilitating the design of modules and optimizing delivery logistics. Consumer perceptions of prefab housing are beginning to change, particularly as new, more varied material choices improve the visual appeal of prefab buildings."
The report goes on: "Perhaps most important, we see a change in mind-set among construction-sector CEOs, as many leaders see technology-based disruptors entering the scene — and realizing it may be time to reposition themselves."
In recent decades, construction firms around the world have built all kinds of modular buildings, including modular skyscrapers in the U.K., U.S., and China; containerized homes in Mexico; and classrooms in rural South Africa.
"In many countries, modular construction is still very much an outlier," McKinsey noted. "But there are strong signs of what could be a genuine broad-scale disruption in the making. It is already drawing in new competitors — and it will most likely create new winners and losers across the entire construction ecosystem."
The benefits of modular construction
Modular construction has the potential to deliver $22 billion in annual savings to U.S. and European markets, mainly because of the inherent benefits of building components in a controlled factory setting. The Modular Building Institute lists a few examples:
- Shorter construction schedule. Because construction of modular buildings can occur simultaneously with the site and foundation work, projects can be completed 30 percent to 50 percent sooner than traditional construction.
- Elimination of weather delays. 60 to 90 percent of the construction is completed inside a factory, which mitigates the risk of weather delays. Buildings are occupied sooner, creating a faster return on investment.
- Improved air quality. Because the modular structure is substantially completed in a factory controlled setting using dry materials, there's virtually no potential for high levels of moisture (which can cause mold growth) to get trapped in the new construction.
- Less material waste. When building in a factory, waste is eliminated by recycling materials, controlling inventory, and protecting building materials.
- Safer construction. The indoor construction environment reduces the risks of accidents and related liabilities for workers.
But perhaps the biggest benefit of modular construction is relocatability and modifiability.
Future-proofing buildings and cities
Buildings are hard to modify and practically impossible to move. That's a problem for many organizations, including the Los Angeles Unified School District. The district currently maintains thousands of decades-old trailers it built to accommodate a fast-growing student population.
Seeking to replace those trailers with structures, the district partnered with iMod Structures to build "future proof" modular classrooms that can be reconfigured and relocated, depending on fluctuating enrollment levels.
"If you have one of our classrooms in a particular location and 5, 10, or 20 years later, you need them across town at another campus within the school district, you simply disassemble, relocate, and reassemble them where they are needed," Craig Severance, Principal with iMod Structures, said in a statement. "And it can be done within a few days, minimizing school [downtime] and disruption of our children's education."
iMod Structures classroomiMod Structures
Founded in 2009 by former real estate investors John Diserens and Craig Severance, iMod Structures takes a hyper-efficient approach to modular construction. Instead of making many types of prefabricated components, the firm makes only one standardized block-shaped frame, each roughly the size of a shipping container. The firm builds the frames in factories and then outfits them with walls, windows, and other custom features the client wants.
Because the frames have the dimensions of a standard shipping container, they can be easily transported to the building site by truck or rail. On site, the frames are connected together or stacked on top of each other. Once the structure is intact, workers finish the job by adding plumbing, electricity, and other final touches.
The process saves a lot of time.
"Typically, it would take nine to 15 months to manufacture a classroom out in the field," said Mike McKibbin, the head of operations for iMod. "We're doing that in twelve days."
Today, iMod Structures is focusing on future-proofing classrooms in California. But it's not hard to imagine how this kind of modular construction could transform not only the ways we build buildings but also organize cities. For example, if a company wants to set up offices in a new part of town, it could build an office park out of iMod Structures frames.
But what if the company needs to expand? It could attach more modules to its existing structure. If it needs to shut down? Instead of demolishing the office park, the structure could be modified and converted into, say, a hospital or apartment building. Alternatively, the modules could be removed from the site, and reused elsewhere, so the city could construct a park.
Under this kind of framework, cities could become far more flexible and dynamic, able to quickly adapt to changing needs. And with no need to demolish buildings, modular construction could prove far more sustainable than any method the industry uses today.
"We don't want our buildings to ever end up in a landfill. Ever," said Reed Walker, head of production and design at iMod Structures. "We want to take that system and use it again and again and again."