This time of year is notable for many things; holidays and office parties, end of year lists and figuring out what to do with your kids now that school is out, it’s a special time of year.
It is also, of course, the time when we figure out what we would like to do/be better at than we are, aka the season of new year resolutions .
For most of us, these resolutions relate to our bodies. One website compiled statistics on resolutions and found that well over 50% of people were interested in improving their physical health, whether it be through healthier eating, sound dieting, or exercise.
While these are noble goals, and I always encourage my patients to think about those things, I think that there may be another kind of goal to consider, especially at this time.
I’m referring to a health that doesn’t show up on an Instagram post, or fit into a pair of jeans. It is the unseen cognitive, emotional and (between us) relational states that are so important to our lives.
It is our individual and collective mental health.
The looming dread of 2024
Usually new years are met with optimism, where “in with the new” is the operational phrase of choice.
This does not appear to be the case with the impending arrival of 2024.
What is the source of this dread? For some, it’s the continuation of ongoing crises at home and around the world that show no evidence of ending soon. For others, it might be things like the upcoming presidential election and what it might mean for the nation, our families, and our selves.
While there are a number of tangible potential outcomes to dread, I think that a fair bit of it relates to what we expect our experience to be; where we will be unable to escape the dark headlines, tribal polemicists, and doom-scrolling that has become a part of the way we now experience the world through the digital world whose window now lives in our pockets at all times.
What can we do to help us take steps to reduce the burden of this informational overload that so often makes us unhappy, angry, and less tolerant of others?
The answer lies in the same set of ideas that we seek to apply to having healthier bodies; changing our (informational) diet and emotional (cognitive) exercise.
Managing the dual worlds our minds now live in
For the vast majority of human history our minds took in the world around us IRL (in real life). We evolved to utilize all of our senses to observe and understand the world, and communicated with others in close physical proximity to each other. With the advent of the written word, we could learn and communicate remotely, albeit one book (or letter) at a time. Even with the rise of communication tools like the telephone or mass media like radio and television, our minds were limited by the number of channels we could access or people we could have on the line, with any trip outside usually meaning disconnection (or respite?) from those activities.
Over the past 25 years or so, a number of different technological advances have created an entirely new world that our minds operate in. This digital realm, where most of humanity and information can be accessed through massive software platforms that run on ever more powerful (and portable) devices have created a separate place for our minds and attention. This realm, the largest shock to human cognition in the history of humanity is neither entirely bad or good, but does create a world that our minds did not evolve for and has clearly impacted the IRL world that was once the main, if not only, place for our minds to live.
The past provides clues to how we can adapt
The 20th century provided many shocks that had a profound effect on our bodies. The rise of processed, high calorie foods, concentrated nicotine delivery devices (cigarettes), and the decline in occupations requiring significant manual labor all contributed towards a number of public health crises that include obesity, diabetes, and lung cancer.
The solutions for these trends included many integrated steps that included education such as learning about a balanced diet taken from the “four food groups” and developing skills and habits related to increasing physical activity through exercise. By consciously adjusting our habits to a world that was changing faster than our biology would allow, many of us have been able to adapt to that new world without any of its potential downsides
How to have a balanced informational diet in 2024
Step 1: Cutting back on calories (time) and carbs (swipes)
There is compelling evidence to suggest that in some populations, being on certain platforms for more than 3 hours a day is associated with higher risk for mental health problems in at risk and other populations. Fortunately, it is easy to track your total use of devices and the apps on them. Furthermore, “swiping” can interrupt your attentional train of thought and has been shown to be associated with lower measures of happiness, similar to how carbohydrate consumption can interrupt ongoing fat metabolism.
Activioties to try:
1) Guess your daily average of time on your smartphone and swipes to access content (this is easy to do on both iOS and Android devices).
2) Set goals about when (to swipe) and how much (to use digital devices) on an ongoing basis, while keeping track of your goals through data your device collects
3) Create a list of IRL things to do with the free time you have
Step: 2 Having a balanced diet of different kinds of content on-line
Information we consume can impact the pleasure centers of the brain just like the foods we eat can. Most of us realize that some foods might provide us short term pleasure like chocolate and ice cream, but if consumed exclusively can have negative long term health outcomes.
This is true for on-line content as well. Most of us don’t differentiate between consuming online content through e-readers and news sites like the Boston Globe and other sites such as Tik-Tok and Instagram where content is consumed quickly in micro doses that might appeal to our instincts for rapid rewards but may have less value than sites which require slower digestion but have more long-term rewards.
Even among sites that provide news in article or “micro-blog” format, “X” formerly known as Twitter being an example of the latter), there is a wide variation in how stories and ideas can be framed positioned, from “dryer” sites to ones where content creators seek to arouse emotions, both positive and negative (“hate watching” being one example), to drive consumption. For many of us, sites that speak to our tribal inclinations and arouse anger or mock those of what are referred to a “out-group” tribes may be enjoyable because of the emotional rewards but can also contribute to us losing empathy for others.
Activities to try:
1) Guess your daily average of time on different applications, and think about what this mix provides in terms of positive and negative effects.
2) Identify specific (and ideally, diverse) sources of news and information that are informative but not “tribal” in how they present stories and arguments
3) For those who are worried that being more offline would mean they would be missing out on important fights/causes, make a pre-commitment with money and our time/work to causes they believe in for the year in exchange for getting off the doom-scrolling train. Not only can this reduction in “junk content” improve one’s mental health, but also would result in additional tangible contributions to causes you believe in