Tricked into mindfulness by Twitter

Source: The Week

A flurry of urgency

It goes without saying that there is a lot going on these days that feels both urgent and important. In the times of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter, time feels more scarce, yet there is more to absorb, digest, and take action on.

As I increased my news and Twitter intake, I realized the social media siren was calling me not just to engage, but to be mindful of how I engage. I needed to reinstate my mindfulness practice. This raised a question of seeming contradictions: Could Twitter train my mindfulness muscle?

The original engagement engine

Your brain is the original engagement engines. It hunts for things to keep your interest, presenting thoughts until it hits the jackpot of something you’re willing to latch onto. Just like a Twitter feed.

Unfortunately, our brains seem to think engagement is an end unto itself. Optimizing only for engagement crowds out so many other important mental qualities and states, like peace, self-control, and clarity. Yet this seems to be the center of gravity for our brains. If left unchecked, our brains can habituate negative engagement like anxiety, anger, or other counter-productive emotions.

What Twitter has in common with mindfulness

If you have ever tried mindfulness, you may have had the experience of thoughts passing you by without you feeling attached to them. Without you *engaging* with them. Scrolling through, without clicking anything, does not count as engagement in the Twitter algorithm. You need to click, like, retweet to register engagement.

But what about when you read a toxic comment thread? Is there a way to engage mindfully even when it sets you off?

Mindful engagement

A strong mindfulness practice does not mean you will be shielded from things you consider unpleasant. The important thing in Twitter and mindfulness is that you actively choose when and how to engage. Developing a mindfulness habit means even when you engage, you do not latch on indefinitely to a thought. You can release the thought when you choose, before your brain escalates into a grappling match. You can keep scrolling for the next idea, thoughtfully integrate the good ones, and move on at will.

Embracing new possibilities

There is a way to be proactive without being over-reactive. Sometimes you can let go of the struggle. Letting go will help you, whether you want to observe what is useful and move on, or take notes and artfully act.

In this moment we can’t let the world pass us by. Neither can we let it consume us. We can and must carve a path forward on our terms. Because a mind is a terrible thing to waste — especially on negative engagement.

The Zoom serenity prayer

In the new normal of remote work, we are still adapting to the intense amount of screen time that has replaced our in-person interactions. Perhaps you don’t feel like happy hours are as happy when you’re sitting an extra hour at your computer. Or you miss the simple phone calls that have suddenly turned video. For those who empathize, I offer the Zoom serenity prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the Zoom calls I cannot change;
courage to cancel the video calls I do not need;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Boundaries are harder than ever to set in these crazy times, but also more important than ever for our mental health and productivity. Take CGP Grey’s word for it.

Have your own remote work serenity prayer? Please share on Twitter @mbainthecity!

The Index Card Summary of “The Upside of Stress”

In the era of COVID-19, emotional, physical, and financial stress have become inescapable for the foreseeable future. And with every time of hardship, we have a choice about how to respond to it. At least that is the premise of The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It by Kelly McGonigal, PhD. Her research-based advice can be summed up in 3 simple points:

  1. There are three types of stress responses:
    • Fight or flight response
    • Challenge response
    • Tend and befriend response
  2. You can influence which stress response you experience
  3. Choosing a more helpful response is beneficial in virtually all circumstances

Below is a brief dive into the findings and advice behind each point above.

1. There are three types of stress responses

Stress responses come in three flavors: fight or flight, challenge response, and tend and befriend.

Fight or flight is the best known but most maladaptive, because it primes you to either fight or run — neither of which is appropriate if triggered in most modern settings. (Fist fights with people not observing social distancing is not advisable).

By contrast, the challenge response is a physiological reaction to stress that increases self-confidence, motivates action, and helps you learn from your experience. A challenge response makes you feel focused, not fearful, and creates a sense of flow that allows you to rise to the occasion.

And finally, the tend and befriend response releases stress hormones that increase courage, motivate care-giving, and enhance empathy, leading to strengthened social relationships.

While fight or flight is a self-protective response, the challenge response and tend and befriend response produce more pro-social outcomes.

2. You can influence which stress response you experience

How you think about stress can directly determine how your body processes it. If you perceive stress as a threat, you are more likely to have a fight or flight response, which negatively impacts both your psyche and physiology. Alternatively, if you have an optimistic framing of stress, invoking the challenge response or tend and befriend response, your body will release the types of stress hormones that help you recover and learn.

You can choose to think or act in ways that are known to trigger positive stress responses. Learning a new point of view has been shown to transform the stress response. For example, journalling for five minutes about the hardest experience of your life and what you learned from it that later improved your life can lead to a lasting improvement to life satisfaction and resilience. Specific actions, like volunteering for a charity, can invoke a positive stress response by shifting from self-focus to larger-than-self-focus.

3. Choosing a more helpful response is beneficial in virtually all circumstances

If you harness your stress response to help you engage and grow, over time you can experience “stress inoculation”: your brain will become conditioned to seeing stress as an opportunity to learn. McGonigal has found measurable benefits across social circumstances and psychological states. Adversity creates resilience and correlates with higher satisfaction.

What you can do today

Consider what your narrative about stress is, your behaviors around stress, and how those make you feel. What beliefs can you trade up for ones that give you hope, bravery, resilience, or a sense of connection? Such small shifts in mindset can lead to a cascade of effects. So rather than changing a million things in your life, change your mindset, and the rest will flow.

Keeping social media from steeling your vacation

Unhashtag your vacation

I noticed a bold ad campaign at 14th St. for a city not a lot of people talk about. It’s a city I’ve been to, the home of Mozart, with airy music chambers graced by string quartets and delicious chocolate deserts. Things that are engage the senses beyond sight. Their ad campaign slogan is “unhashtag your vacation”. Their campaign images use a hashtag like a strike-through. They suggest to the viewers that they should engage with experiences personally rather than positioning them for personal branding on social media.

These ads are a bold statement – speaking to America, the birthplace of Mad Men, in our own language – marketing. Because social media has literally become dangerous.

Death by selfie

The viral photo of the queue of mountaineers waiting to take their selfies at the summit of Mt. Everest, and also struggling for oxygen, has shocked the world into a moment of reflection.

Eleven deaths resulted from the excess of wealthy adventurers. Have vacations been reduced to photo ops for bragging rights?

In the same moment, Vienna is challenging us to think about the purpose of vacations and the role of photography – big questions in a world with a growing middle-class and a camera on every personal device. To answer these big questions, it’s worth walking back to the land before digital photography and the world before social media, which I grew up in.

My journey from photography to social media

My first experiences traveling were on middle school trips. My parents let me borrow their film-based camera, and I took as many as 3 roles of film for a 3 day trip to places like Salem, Massachusetts and Washington, DC. With film, you never knew how a photo would come out until it was processed, so I erred on the side of volume. I assumed everything was interesting, worth capturing and documenting, from store fronts to tourist attractions to friends. Eventually I realized that my documentary style photography was a little extreme, and only ~10% of the photos had strong visual interest – I wasn’t even looking at most of the photos! In high school, I had fewer field trips and was more selective about what I photographed. My photography became anthropocentric, capturing natural moments that I valued and events that were firsts or celebratory. I made my favorite photos into little gifts, which friends loved. They were personal moments made special, for private consumption.

When digital photography arose in my college years, I had opportunities to travel again and work in other countries in the summers. My first digital camera was quickly stolen, and when I finally acquired a new one, I was more sparse and selective about what I photographed. Only the most beautiful sites that I would not want to forget. The misted mountains of Machu Picchu. The colorful sands of the Atacama Desert. Enchanting sights that I had never imagined existed, let alone having the chance to visit.

As I was starting to travel, social media was on the rise. This meant, for the first time, large scale external feedback, for better or for worse. I joined the fray of “look how awesome a time I’m having” posts for a while, but found myself naturally limiting my Facebook consumption to one hour a week. Yet I found that hour to be mostly an unhappy one. I told myself I was keeping up with friends, but increasingly just felt left out of all the fun people were having without me. But business school amplified my use and, thus, the detrimental effects of social media, which have now become well documented.

I now sit in the in-between. Sometimes I feel like I should participate in social media because my peers do, yet it doesn’t fully make sense to me. I see lots of photos of food with hundreds of likes, yet when I take similar photos they feel uncompelling, and I never post them. It feels strange, creating content that has become part of our typical virtual communication, but it feeling entirely forced and artificial. Increasingly, I try to eat my chocolate cake without photographing it, too.

Vacation for vacation’s sake

It goes without saying, vacations are more than just selfie opportunities. They are about your being present in a refreshing setting, not about the social media story you tell about it. I used to take a ton of photos and go through roles of film. Then I realized I was neither stopping to look at the photos nor stopping to really soak in the sites I was visiting. Vacations should not be about the external feedback that social media provides. What is most important is the internal moments of reflection, observation, and appreciation that they offer. And the same is true of our weekends, our moments with family and close friends, and every joie de vivre.