Last week, I wrote about some basic things that we are all supposed to know about (but not that many of us do anything about) regarding our health. This week, I’d like to continue the theme with some stuff that’s equally important to your physical and psychological health, but that most of us either don’t know about, or don’t think are important to health.
Let’s start with other people. Yup, the other human beings who share our world and that, too often, we see an annoying inconveniences (of course you do this, think back to the last time you drove or took public transport and you’ll get what I mean). We generally have two types of interactions with other people, meaningful and meaningless. Obviously, it’s the meaningful ones that are good for our health, but the meaningless ones can also be harmful. Allow me to explain…
Humans evolved as social animals, and we require social interaction with other human beings for a whole raft of reasons. We learn from other people, we take emotional comfort from them, we bond with them and receive neurological reward from being around them, we create individual and social meaning through interaction, we explore and develop ideas, and so on. Take away the social contact and most people fall in a heap. Social isolation (whether forced as punishment, or accidental) is one of the cruelest experiences for normal people. In fact, in the absence of regular social interaction, our sense of self begins to decay. So, it should go without saying that forming and maintaining regular, healthy, meaningful relationships is a number one priority for our health and wellbeing. But hang on, what happens when the majority of your interactions with other people are stress-inducing rather than beneficial? Ah, yes, turns out there’s another side to the social interaction thing – it’s called living in the crowded, modern world.
Once upon a time, we lived in smaller communities. Life wasn’t peachy – you were lucky to survive childbirth, and then to live past your teens. Unless you were wealthy, life was pretty shit (and even wealth couldn’t save you from disease and infection). But social bonds were paramount; they defined who we were, how we lived, and gave us purpose. In fact, left to their own devices, these communities seldom grew larger than about 150 people. Apparently, that’s the maximum number (give or take a few dozen) of social relationships the human brain can process. It takes an enormous amount of processing power to form accurate mental models that predict the behaviour of others in order to determine how we should act around them, and our ability to process these relationships tops out at about 150, a phenomenon known as Dunbar’s number (eponymously named for the anthropologist Robin Dunbar). Unfortunately, in the modern world, we are forced to interact with substantially more than 150 people. Most of us find this inherently stressful, and so we’ve developed a rather unpleasant cognitive hack to limit our requirement for excessive mental processing: ignoring other people or, worse, treating them as inconsequential inconveniences. Mostly, people we don’t know become colourful blobs that impede our progress. Occasionally, we notice them for long enough to take out our frustrations in ways that are simply frightening (ranging from swearing at someone because he or she cut you off in traffic, to actual violence).
So here’s what you should know about social relationships: cultivate meaningful relationships where you can and, for the sake of your brain, try to expose yourself to meaningful (i.e., you both get something out of the experience) interactions on daily basis. But here’s the more important bit (I’m going to expand on this in a lot more depth next time): you can do this a lot more effectively by working on your compassion.
Compassion is the ability to accept and empathise with another human being, whether or not you know or care for them. Put most simply, it’s recognising that other people are human beings, just like you, who have the same needs for love, for safety and for meaning as you do. Compassion is about recognising the cognitive biases that we carry around (chief of which is the fundamental attribution bias that most of us use to gauge other people – we assume that other people are motivated by different things to us, and treat them accordingly) and acting to override these blocks. Compassion is about forgiving other people. Note that I said forgiveness of the person, not his or her actions. This means that everyone deserves our compassion and understanding, because every human being has similar needs. Forgiving people is a lot easier than forgiving their actions – we do and say stupid things, and these actions can sometimes be destructive, hurtful, or scary. We can be held be accountable for our actions (because how we act is one of the few things we’re capable of controlling), but the person behind those actions can be forgiven because it’s within his or her capacity to act differently.
Why am I going on about this? Simply because the act of thinking and behaving compassionately is immensely good for you. When you learn a little compassion, instead of being constantly offended and pissed off by the people around you, you find yourself understanding that those other people are just as confused and fucked-up as you are, and don’t really need your scorn or condescension. Recently researchers studying compassion have determined that maintaining a compassionate viewpoint acts as an extremely effective buffer against stress, increases the subjective feeling of happiness substantially, and provides a deep-seated sense of meaning and purpose. In other words, we can overcome the limitations of Dunbar’s number in large communities if we stop seeing other people as sources of annoyance and, instead, recognise them as human beings worthy of our acknowledgement and empathy. This isn’t to say that you need to form complex bonds with everyone on your morning commute. Your brain simply can’t handle this. Instead, recognise that everyone on the train, or in the cars around you, is in a similar state to you – with similar needs and desires, and thoughts and feelings. Instead of sources of stress, they are your compatriots – trivial interactions take on meaning because you’ve interacted with another human being (you just don’t need to exchange phone numbers of have a coffee together).
Interestingly, dealing effectively with stress, having fun, and feeling a sense of meaning are the other three things should you know about your health. Seems that compassion is a pretty good place to start (stay tuned next week for some can do info).
So what else should you know? One more thing that will make a big difference. I’ve gone on and on about mindfulness in my various blog posts. So let me try to explain, as succinctly as possible, what you should know about mindfulness. First a very quick tour of your brain.
Your brain is an amazing piece of hardware, but the product of evolution. Unfortunately, a large portion of our evolutionary history involved trying not to be eaten, so we developed some very effective neural architecture to prevent that from happening. It’s the midbrain, and it’s the seat of most emotion. In fact, a lot of what we call emotions are simply warning signals from this part of the brain. Anxiety, anger, disgust, and fear are all warning alarms that evolved to get us away from something (or when that wasn’t possible, to fight), and it’s why these emotions are so hard to ignore. Think of smoke alarms, which have generate a piercing noise that is very difficult to sleep through. They’re deliberately annoying because otherwise we’d burn to death in our sleep during a fire. Midbrain-generated emotions are like smoke alarms: they get our attention because, for a long time, paying attention to them was a matter of life or death – quite literally.
The biggest problem with evolved neural architecture is that when things change it takes a long time to adapt. We no longer live in a world of constant threat and, as such, many of our emotions have become superfluous. It doesn’t stop them from constantly going off though. And the biggest problem with being bombarded by irrelevant emotions that have the ability to grab our attention, is that they do just that, so we attend to them and then (here’s the kicker) we act in ways that are contrary to our best interests. We are effectively responding in ways that are 10,000 years out of date.
Back to mindfulness. It’s nothing more than being able to voluntarily focus your attention on the present moment. Sounds easy? Try doing it next time you’re angry. Most of us get so distracted by feelings of anger and other aversion-based emotions (we pay attention to them and assume that the feelings are important because we’ve evolved to do that) that we are incapable of choosing our actions. Sadly, too often our actions are hijacked by our emotional response. And it’s pretty hard to act compassionately when you’re threatening to rip someone’s head off.
One of the very best things you can do for your wellbeing is to learn to recognise that most of your emotions (particularly the loud one)s are nothing more than irrelevant warning signals from an outmoded part of your brain (your inner monkey). Recognise what’s going on and label the experience properly (“my midbrain is freaking out because it thinks I’m in danger”). Take a deep breath and focus your attention on the present moment. Choose how you want to act, rather than having the action chosen for you by your inner monkey.
And when you do act, recognise that just about everyone else has the same needs and desires as you do. None of us are the special, unique snowflake (to quote Tyler Durden) that we like to believe we are. Cut the people around you some slack. They might be behaving like morons, but that doesn’t make them any less human or less important than you. In doing so, hack yourself some rapid evolution by using your cognitive software to understand the limitations of your hardware, and then choose to act differently.