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To the grads of 2021 – spend this summer driving with music: and other lessons from Lisa Damour

Hi All,

It should probably comes as no surprise by now that I am a big fan of Lisa Damour’s writing and work. I recently had the good fortune of watching her speak to our grads at Lakefield College School School; Lucky us! Whenever I interact with Lisa and her work, I feel inspired to write about it and this instance was no different. I also couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that this time last year, I was writing a teary letter to our class of 2020, naively believing this would be our only class to endure such bizarre circumstances in their graduating year.

This is why I was so grateful and emotional when Lisa began her talk by simply saying “I’m sorry” to our grads; sorry that this pandemic was happening in one of the milestone years of their lives – again. For us adults, this year could be like any other; we could put off applying to that new job, writing that book or buying that house until next year.For our grads, however, this will be the only time that they graduate from high school and move onto their next big chapter. This apology from Lisa was authentic and moving; I found myself emotional and could tell our grads were as well.

Lisa guided our students through a talk about what mental health means to her and, as always, it was refreshing because it took the pressure off feeling great all the time as the anecdote to being ‘well.’ To Damour, mental health means ‘having the right feelings at the right times’ – and this year, the right feelings were often that of sadness and anxiety, as we all grappled with the state of the world and what that meant for our everyday lives. It is how we manage these emotions that dictates our mental health; do we have the tools to cope when we feel these adverse emotions? THAT, is mental health.

Damour also mentioned her qualms with the commercialization of wellbeing; something I have thought and written about a great deal as well. We should all be weary of an industry that preys upon a definition of wellbeing that demands perfection and misses the messiness of real mental health – much like the weight loss industry misses the real meaning of holistic health and wellbeing. We should teach our young people to be critical consumers of any industry that promises the gift of wellbeing as wellbeing is mostly discovered within. So then, what does that look like for us and for our young people today?

Weightlifting & the Pandemic – Unrelated you may think, but Damour’s analogy to this pandemic is pretty similar to spending 365+ days at the gym without a rest, and that can take a toll on the body. We build resilience, though, in these trying times, and Damour believes this generation will be one of the toughest in recent memory because of this fact. But resilience needs to be balanced with rest to really sink in and be sustainable, much like the body needs recovery days to build muscle at the gym. She reminded our grads that this summer they were ‘off the hook’ and could get ‘out of the gym’ and take that time to really recover. What does this recovery look like? It represents different things to different people; Lisa recalls the JOY she experienced as a teenager driving with music; one of those visceral experiences you can almost palpate 20 years after the fact.

Soft Fascination – These activities such as driving with music, gardening or walking/running tend to take up only a small slice of our ‘bandwidth’ or mental capacity unlike a ‘hard fascination’ activity such as getting lost in a book or your work. This psychological term really stayed with me; this idea of doing an activity that helps us to begin to ‘close tabs in our mental browser.’ I do all my best thinking on runs or when I garden and I love to be able to make sense of it in a more concrete way; maybe you will as well. My hope for our grads is that they locate these soft fascinations in their lives and continue to create and connect as they have been though this bizarre time.

University is NOT the best 4 years of one’s life – Lisa concluded by sharing that she really doesn’t love when adults tell young people that university will be the ‘best 4 years of their lives.’ How awful to think that the best years of your life are over at 22; and it’s just not true. She shared that she actually finds her current life to be the best; she found the partner, the job and continues to thrive in her passions. I couldn’t agree more – being a university student is a special and fun time, but I wouldn’t go back; I love my life too much now. University is, however, a good time to have a blast and, more importantly, it is a mental and emotional exercise in gaining capacity – capacity to take out into your life and thrive as an adult. There shouldn’t be so much pressure on it though.

Lisa, thank you for this talk – you connected with our grads and with us adults. As always, I felt as though I could have been sitting in a living room having a cup of tea with you; this is how accessible you are. To our grads, take this advice and take those rides with music this summer – you deserve it!

Dr. E 🙂

Rethinking Joy & Happiness in our daily lives – An introduction to the world of positive psychology in a post-pandemic world

Hi Everyone,

It has been some time since I have written a blog post – my writing time has been wholly focused on writing a draft of my first book – a historical non-fiction number that takes up current wellbeing practices through the instructional life of famous writer and pioneer, Catharine Parr Traill. This has been a fascinating process that brings together a lot of the work and research that I have completed in the past. I can’t wait to share it with you.

As we make our way through the gloomy days of November – not quite Christmas and fully ‘blah,’ I wanted to share a modified excerpt from my recent work that seems timely and needed – it’s been a tough transition for many adults and young people as we all ventured back into the classrooms and offices after 2 years of isolation. I think we expected this year to be invigorating and to represent a rebirth as the world (or at least the North American world) began to return to some form of normalcy – and while it has in many ways, in other ways, we’re still just dog tired after months of living in a perpetual state of flight or fight.

Looking back, I am not sure what would have convinced us that we would recover so quickly, both psychologically and physically, from the s*#t storm that was 2020 and 2021 just because we had vaccines – I wish it worked that way. While the amazing Jennifer Gonzelez offered a really timely and important call to action and some tangible ways for school leaders to support teachers this year, I wanted to focus on some psychological strategies that we can use at the individual level to recover more quickly – all grounded in the fabulous field of positive psychology. To be crystal clear – both individual and systemic strategies are needed for this journey.

Positive psychology is an important area of wellbeing research that takes up the fundamentals of flourishing, or that opposite state of ‘languishing.’ You might remember the NYT’s article in which Adam Grant unearthed the psychology surrounding that ‘blah’ feeling we all had, and continue to have (ugh), when we are functioning fine in our day to day, but aren’t really thriving – the ‘neglected middle child of mental health.’ This post offers some background and some hands-on exercises to help you, in some small way, move from languishing to flourishing. I do these exercises with my student in careers class (thank you to the Ontario government for including mental health in the new curriculum!) and it always resonates. I hope it does for you as well.

In his book, Flourish, the founding father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman coined the term PERMA-V – it is an acronym that really succinctly gets at the vast amount of academic research that has been collected about wellbeing and thriving in the past 10 years. Below is what it stands for and some questions you can ponder to think about this in your own life – I always like to ask myself these good questions when I start to feel as though my wellbeing is slipping in tense or stressful times: aka – the past two years.

Note: None of these areas of researched wellbeing practices are associated with ‘stuff’ – they are all derived from our inner worlds and the people around us who make us feel good. Think of all the best times in your life, and I can almost guarantee they involved others, as opposed to ‘things’ – a plug before that Christmas shopping commences in the face of a supply shortage!

  • Positive Emotion – what makes you feel good? 
  •  Engagement – What are the things that help you lose track of time?
  •  Relationships – Who brings you peace and joy? Who supports you? 
  • Meaning – What things are most meaningful to you? 
  • Achievement – what is important for you to achieve? 
  • Vitality – what physical habits make your body feel best?

Psychologists believe that if you ask yourself these questions, embedded in the PERMA-V framework, and seriously ponder if you are fulfilling these areas, you are on track to develop lifelong wellbeing – easy, right!? Just kidding, this is a lifelong process that ebbs and flows based on life circumstances and it’s important to know when you need to shift into ‘survival mode’ to get through your days, or if you are feeling in a place to dive into this work.

In survival mode, it is important to focus on just a few things that can get you through the day, and they are often physical – go for a walk, breathe deeply, hug a loved one – anything to remove your system from flight or fight. I always think back to my time just after having babies, when I was a hormonal puddle of equal parts love and overwhelm – doing soul searching in that time would have felt impossible – a walk or shower and a hug from my partner, doable. You get the picture!

If you’re feeling up to it, though, you can try this simple exercise below as a first step towards self-awareness;

Map your Happy – use this chart to plot out your positive source of emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. What areas are strongest? Where could you add more to contribute to flourishing? 

POSITIVE EMOTIONS – What brings you positive emotions?

ENGAGEMENT – What activities do you get completely absorbed in? 

POSITIVE RELATIONSHIPS – What relationships bring you joy and support? What do you do to nurture them?

MEANING – What larger purpose or cause do you feel drawn or connected to? 


ACCOMPLISHMENTS – What would you like to accomplish in the next year/week/month?

TAKEAWAYS – in what areas are you strongest? Where could you give more attention to really flourish? What’s your biggest takeaway from this exercise? 

Have a restful Sunday and week ahead,

L.

Anonymous Hate in our online worlds

Hi Everyone,

I recently wrote an op-ed for the Toronto Star about using gratitude as a wellbeing strategy in schools this year – it was completely torn apart on Twitter, as was I. Insults included having Covid wished upon my entire family, assumptions that I must be a ‘blond yoga instructor married to a political leader,’ and someone telling me to simply f@#k off. Poetic. Sadly, the trolling of writers is extremely common, especially for women.

This gratitude piece (a topic also covered by the New York Times and the Washington Post during the pandemic) quickly became analyzed through a political lens; the result was dark, because the political climate surrounding education is dark right now. Ironic, really – the article was meant to offer a well-researched tool for reprieve from the utter chaos surrounding us as we head into a new school year. Escapism? No. Political docility? Absolutely not. An offering of a wellbeing strategy to divert negative thoughts 24/7? Yes!

I have had some great debates in the past, but the majority of these nasty comments didn’t call for response, and no one used their real names anyways. I reflected on a handful of comments about privledge that were thoughtful and I wish I could have engaged to say I would do better, but that move didn’t feel safe. I also got a ton of support from educators I respect – thank you.

As an educator, perhaps my most meaningful takeaway was thinking of ways I might utilize this personal experience to instruct young people on social media literacy and online resiliency. Anonymous online hate was not something I experienced growing up in the time that I did, but after this firsthand experience, I can confirm – it is brutal. I couldn’t help but ruminate on how many of the teenagers we know experience these kinds of debilitating comments in any given day? What if this relatively mild opinion piece had been written by a teenager? What if the content were more hard hitting or reflected a piece of a young person’s identity that was considered outside of societal norms? Would it end as mundanely as it had for me, with a bad week, a cocktail (or 3), and a deactivated Twitter account? The answer is no.

7/10 young people experience online trolling or cyberbullying by the time they turn 18, and the rates are astronomical for LGTBQ+ kids. This abuse is widespread and has devastating effects on teenagers; one-third of young people who are trolled online report symptoms of depression. Young people are impressionable and their sense of self is still forming, so experiences like this can be downright dangerous for their mental health. I am reminded of how imperative it is to educate our young people about online hate, how to avoid it, and to definitely not take part in it themselves – a future employer or university could find out, plus, it’s just cruel and won’t make them feel any happier.

Teenagers follow our accounts and see what we post online, they learn how to behave based on the ways they see us interact. Perhaps others didn’t connect with this content, but some of our kids were reading those comments, and this is another reason I chose not to engage. The world is a scary and unpredictable place right now and the last thing any of our kids need is more controversy and hate; they are trying to survive their 3rd year of pandemic school, and it’s not easy to find the joy in that – I’ll keep supporting them as they try to, though.

Finally, here comes the gratitude – I have never been more inspired to continue, what I now know in my guts, is the imperative work of social media literacy and online resiliency skills with our young people this school year. I also won’t stop writing about it.

Here is a useful guide from MediaSmarts on helping our kids navigate cyberbullying.

I hope you all have a restful labour day weekend. Good luck with the school start up!

L.

The summer of Gratitude – some reflections

Please note that a version of this article appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, August 22nd, 2022.

Hello to all,

I have taken the summer to unplug and unwind after a challenging year; I hope you have gotten some time to yourselves as well. As the world cautiously dances around this pandemic and attempts to open back up, many will have mixed emotions. For us educators, I can confidently say that our work and motivation fair better when we are physically with our students. Kids are the best – they have tons of energy, zest, complexity and smarts – that are much harder to tap into from behind a screen. It goes both ways – we know all too well how our students have struggled this past year.

With all the unrest, sadness and uncertainty in the world, it is very easy to default to doom and gloom – at least it has been for me and for many of my students. I am not one you would say is naturally grateful for the small things in my life. I tend to look beyond the horizon and wonder what else I can achieve, and how the world might be different if not for this pandemic. But these thought processes weren’t serving me over these past 1.5 years and I wanted to explore some other possibilities. One of my strategies for change was to tap into a daily gratitude practice over the summer. I bought a notebook and every morning I write 3 things I am grateful for and I end the day reflecting on what went well and what I could have changed. It looks like this, if you want to give it a go;

I am grateful for …

What would make today great …

Daily affirmations. I am …

3 amazing things that happened today…

How could I have made today even better…

This summer experiment has been life changing for me and altered my perspective in profound ways – I just feel happier thinking about all the blessings in my life on a daily basis. My kids, my partner, good friends and neighbours, meaningful work, etc. Perhaps it sounds corny, but just try it, because this thought process sounds a lot different than, ‘are these closures ever going to end?’ Ugh, Delta’. It’s amazing to see these thought processes side by side and realize how I could feel downright miserable spewing the latter all day long.

The transformative nature of a daily gratitude practice checks out with psychology. An article in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology concluded that gratitude may have the highest connection to happiness and mental health of any other personality trait studied. They concluded that a full “18.5% of individual differences in people’s happiness could be predicted by the amount of gratitude they feel.” 18.5% – that is much more happiness in a person’s life!

Putting a pen to paper and committing these thoughts into a tangible artifact is key – simply thinking about the things in your life you are grateful for is a great start, but the transformation happens when you can see it, look back on it and think about your next steps moving forward. You have to journal and it’s worth it as gratitude solves a lot of issues that many of us struggle with including;

  • Habituation – or this idea of simply getting used to all the things in our lives, like marriages, houses and jobs, to the point where they don’t thrill us in the ways they used to. It’s so important to stop and remember all of the ways our people and experiences serve and nurture us, because it is all too easy to forget in the chaos of everyday life. Gratitude can help with this.
  • Comparison (the ‘thief of joy’) – In a graduation address to USC grads in 2018, Oprah Winfrey stated that, “your life journey is about learning to become more of who you are and fulfilling the highest, truest expression of yourself as a human being. That’s why you’re here.” True and wise words, but so hard to live by if one is constantly looking to the person beside them and their different (not better) accomplishments. The logic really makes no sense, but we are wired as humans to compare and have to actively work to continue on our own life path and not veer out of our lane as we look to others. Gratitude practices are how we can do this.
  • Stressful life events – Stress is inevitable, as is conflict with others at home and at work. Instead of ‘why is this happening to me?’ though, we can ask “I don’t know why, but I am glad this is here so I can learn something about myself.” This works well with conflict at work especially well.

I wrote this post now because I think it may be useful for our students and children in schools this year. If you are a teacher or administrator you might consider an initiative in your school that asks your community to commit to this practice and share. This year won’t be an easy one, and we will need to utilize wellbeing strategies to get through.

L.

The Mental Health Pandemic & Ontario’s Recent Lockdown

Hello Again,

I am under no illusion that the current state of Ontario is dismal, at best; I think about our doctors and nurses every day and I think about loved ones, intubated and alone in Ontario’s ICUs. I trust our public health officials and I will abide by their commands, but I am also a school teacher, parent and wellbeing researcher.  From this perspective I can tell you, the government should not ignore the mental health pandemic that is existing alongside of COVID-19 here in Ontario. I have major concerns with the most recent series of shut downs, and like many, I can’t help but wonder if there is another way forward.

As many public health experts have noted, just 0.01% of B.1.1.7 variants originate during outdoor play and small gatherings; these outdoor meetups are desperately needed by our students and children as they move back into their online learning worlds and contemplate a distant future where this may continue to be a reality for them. 

Let me paint a picture for you in Ontario schools; in a recent class where we were discussing mental health, I asked my students to jot down in a shared document how they are coping with the shut downs and time spent at home – the resounding answer, they weren’t. I was shocked and almost brought to tears over the many words filling the page; lonely, depressed, isolated, helpless, and the list went on and on. I promptly invited our social worker into class to speak with the group. This was just one class. Now they can no longer take a walk with a friend or shoot hoops while masked after hours of online instruction? This is not the way forward if we are to avoid a mental health epidemic for our young people; the scientific research doesn’t support it and our students are suffering.

Research tells us that human connection and time spent outdoors in nature is exponentially beneficial for one’s health. This past weekend, I have felt as though the infringement on my civic liberties were so stringent that I should rethink going outside for fear of running into someone I knew. I went for a run anyways, and ran into someone I knew. We felt strange about catching up in that moment and I was reminded of how controlled the movement of our bodies are under this current stay-at-home order; this individual loss of control is leading to real despair and physical symptoms of stress in our adult population as well.

Most importantly, I also thought about our essential workers without paid sick leave, avoiding a COVID test when they feel unwell for fear they may not be able to go into work and, therefore, not able to pay rent and provide for their family. When they do go into work, they are wedged in between their co-workers in a poorly ventilated warehouse. Which interaction is spreading COVID this morning? This answer is glaringly obvious, and in my perspective, inhumane for those forced into a dangerous situation without a vaccine to ensure a paycheque. Doctor’s are telling us, these are the interactions that are spreading COVID and these are the people that are getting very sick. 

We find ourselves in yet another social justice battle during this pandemic. Please provide the funds and infrastructure to allow our essential workers to take a paid day off when they are ill. Vaccinate the individuals who live in neighbourhoods that are driving the vectors of this recent outbreak and temporarily halt providing them to the affluent individuals who have the luxury to work from home. Let the kids go outside and see a friend, they are not driving these numbers; this is a sociodemographic issue and it must be treated as such by those in charge.

Thanks for reading and keep well,

L.