The New York Times reported in a front page article that white Americans without a college degree are dying at an accelerated rate due to suicide, fast and slow.
The rising annual death rates among this group are being driven not by the big killers like heart disease and diabetes but by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.
In a recent interview Mr. Deaton suggested that middle-aged whites have “lost the narrative of their lives.” That is, their economic setbacks have hit hard because they expected better. Or to put it a bit differently, we’re looking at people who were raised to believe in the American Dream, and are coping badly with its failure to come true.
About a year ago, two of my brothers drank themselves to death on opposite sides on the country. Dave (on the right in the picture below) died on Oct. 5 in Virginia and Greg died on Nov. 17 in Oregon. Both were in their 50’s, both had retired a few years earlier, neither retirement was completely voluntary, neither had finished college. Neither had a strong plan for retirement, both slipped in to spending a lot of time with their best friend, beer. This photo was taken one year prior, on a vacation in Florida.
In the days following the publication of this alarming data, there was some pushback over methodologies, so Angus Deaton released this drill-down info.
My brothers, who grew up in the 1950’s, rode the post-WWII juggernaut where men were men and drank to prove it. They lived their lives as if everything was going to take care of itself, which was the prevailing assumption in the days of Ozzie & Harriett and Leave It To Beaver. What was different about these two, however, is that they were musicians who became stalled at the “talented amateur” stage. They didn’t pursue enough training to focus their minds or to hone their talent. They never developed a commitment to their art.They never even learned to read music. But their artistic temperaments were difficult to live with, and they numbed themselves. To death.
Sarah Hepola, author of “Blackout: Remembering the things I drank to forget” attributed alcohol addiction to heredity and culture. My brothers did not live in a culture that encouraged thinking in healthy ways. They did not see their father, another talented piano player, take an active part in creating healthier emotions, minimizing emotional suffering and maximizing joy. According to Debbie Joffee Ellis in a letter to the NYTimes, “To create healthy [emotions] requires willingness to think in realistic… ways and to recognize when we are catastrohizing, and then to dispute such thoughts. Don’t worry, think wisely, be healthier and happier.”
The New York Times review of her book says:
Ms. Hepola’s electric prose … has direct access to the midnight gods of torch songs, neon signs, tap beer at a reasonable price, cigarettes and untrammeled longing.
She may have squandered her early carreer
and now is back in Texas, finally publishing her first novel at age 40. I enjoyed the book and I think she is going to beat the odds in the charts above because she finished college, and knew she was a good writer. She made a living at it while she used alcohol as “the gasoline of all adventure.” Now she has sobered up and found her path. I’m so glad.
People who feel that they control the events in their lives and believe that they can learn fast and perform well end up doing better on nearly every important measure of work performance, according to the team led by University of Florida psychologist Tim Judge.
When you can persuade yourself that you are in control, and you are confident in your ability to adapt quickly to life changes, you can be a top performer.
Ever noticed how you wait until the last minute to start a creative project? Our brains are hard-wired to need anxiety to get started. The chart they developed show that performance peaks and “flow” conditions are created with moderate, managed levels of anxiety.
Convert Anxiety into Excitement
The better you get at managing the anxiety, the better you will perform when facing uncertain or challengine situations. Some techniques”
What are the foreseeable pitfalls? Plan the action you will take.
Focus on positive actions you can take, turnout the fears of failure.
Re-write your script. We live our lives according to what we believe.
Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D tells us in this TED Talk that people who view stress as an opportunity for courage or a chance at joy bypass the damaging cardiovascular effects caused by a flood of cortisol.
So, what can you do to regain your center and make stress your friend? How do you turn nervousness into excitement?
“Yield to the Present” was the sign near the door when Dan Harris, the ambitious ABC reporter, arrived at Spirit Rock in Marin for his 10 day silent retreat in an effort to become “less of a jerk.” The book was a dishy read of behind-the-scenes at ABC news, which I loved, and had a lot of good information on his walk toward Buddhism
Dan’s teachers suggest using our native curiosity to train our Default Mode Network to move from Aversion to Compassion. To move from being a jerk, in his parlance, to a mensch. He shows the brain chemistry and meditation techniques to do it, including asking yourself, when you are ruminating on the same thought for the nineteenth time, “is this useful?”
One of his mentors, Mark Epstein, explains on page 164 discussion Dan could become 10% happier because of mitigation of misery, not alleviation. The waterfall of drama is still there, you gain the ability to step behind the waterfall, creating a space to witness what is going on. Instead of the kneejerk stimulus —> reaction, you have walked behind the waterfall of emotion and created enough space to move to stimulus —> response because you are less caught up in the melodrama that is unfolding. You are less attached to the outcome. You have space for a little insight because you are not clinging to success so desperately. Here the metta prayer he learned at Spirit Rock:
May you be happy
May you be safe and protected from harm
May you be healthy and strong
May you live with ease
My favorite part was in the appendix where Dan Harris mentions the research of Jud Brewer, MD, PhD, addiction psychiatrist at Yale. Here’s Jud’s TED talk shows how to calm the posterior cingulate — get it to “turn blue” in the fMRI.
My friend Beth loved the “Divergent” trilogy of Young Adult dystopian-future science-fiction novels with a 15-year-old heroine. They are being made into movies and the second installment, “Insurgent,” is due out on March 20, so I read the first book, “Divergent” and watched the movie on HBO.
I am fascinated how our mythology teaches young adults how to act in the face of danger, and how to be courageous and to take charge of their own lives and safety. Beatrice grows up in the Abnegation faction, which is like a clan, where selflessness is paramount.
At 15, everyone in her society chooses the clan where they will spend the rest of their lives. Beatrice truncates her name to Tris and leaps into the Dauntless clan, where bravery is prized. Tris must fight for her own life and the lives of those she loves.
The message of Divergent is similar to the indoctrination I received:
I am on my own, no one will help me
Trust no one
Be selfless (like Abnegation)
Be brave (like Dauntless)
“I have a theory that selflessness and bravery aren’t all that different.”
— Tris in Divergent by Veronica Roth
Tris starts to realize that the differences between the clan of her birth and the clan of her choice may vanishingly small, and that treachery may lie beneath the efforts of others to pit the two clans against each other. Now that I have lived so many years trying to be a hero and a savior, I am starting to realize that this loyalty/bravery/sacrifice indoctrination may serve others who do not have my best interests at heart. It may actually serve those in power, at my expense. What would REALLY benefit women and children is working together. But in this book, ambitious and resourceful youngsters are pitted against other, with the top performers being destroyed by the second best.
Maybe we could evolve into something that works better. Let’s find out What Self-Loving People Do Differently. Could this strategy lead to young people working together instead of ruthlessly competing against each other?
They welcome all their emotions, including the difficult ones
They learn to be self-responsible rather than blaming others
They feed their inner hunger for novelty with creative pursuits rather than drugs
They embrace mistakes as an important way to learn, and refuse to be shamed for trying
I don’t think I will read the second book, even though my friend Beth said it was her favorite of the three. I understand the philosophy. I look forward to watching the Insurgent movie when it comes out.
Barbara Hayes lent me her copy of Playing Pygmalion: How People Create One Another by Ruthellen Josselson. I finally finished it the weekend I went camping by myself. It was hard to read because the writing was terrible (see excerpt below) and because the copy I had was heavily marked up in black pen with underlines, circles and stars by the previous owner of the book, not by Barbara. This excerpt from page 137 is footnoted (12) which indicates that this theory is also found in Dicks (1962) Scharff (1991) and Sander (2004).
People are bonded through their mutual creations, each carrying a part of the other that the other either can’t recognize (in terms of positive aspects) or can’t bear (negative ones) in the self.
To me, this meant that I could consider taking back the parts of myself that I have been projecting onto another. For example, I used to believe that I could not go camping by myself. That is was unsafe and that if anything went wrong, I would be blamed for it (“she was asking for it”). How interesting that I was camping by myself, successfully, when I finished the book.
The copy on the back cover was much better written. “Psychoanalytic theory offers a wealth of understanding of how people unconsciously create what they both need and dread. Too often, therapists join their patients in overlooking their own role in creating the relationship in their lives, such that it seems that the patients were simply unfortunate to “have” an ungiving mother or to “find” an unloving spouse.” [image: Pygmalion and Galatea by Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, Vésoul 1824–1904 Paris) Metropolitan Museum of Art, used with permission]
Why do negative comments and conversations stick with us so much longer than positive ones?
Chemistry plays a big role in this phenomenon. When we face criticism, rejection or fear, when we feel marginalized or minimized, our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that shuts down the thinking center of our brains and activates conflict aversion and protection behaviors. We become more reactive and sensitive. We often perceive even greater judgment and negativity than actually exists. And these effects can last for 26 hours or more, imprinting the interaction on our memories and magnifying the impact it has on our future behavior. Cortisol functions like a sustained-release tablet – the more we ruminate about our fear, the longer the impact.
Positive comments and conversations produce a chemical reaction too. They spur the production of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that elevates our ability to communicate, collaborate and trust others by activating networks in our prefrontal cortex. But oxytocin metabolizes more quickly than cortisol, so its effects are less dramatic and long-lasting.