Even when you cast back far enough, it can sometimes be hard, given the year the world has had, to remember what ‘normal life’ once looked and felt like. We know we used to hug, but the act still feels awkward; images of crowds in films and TV still look a bit alien; and the idea of tapas, or any kind of food-sharing, will feel verboten for a while. But as the world returns to a routine, it’s time to start honing those old skills again.
Here, we asked a few Penguin authors to weigh in on ways to help ease the transition back to normality.
Tom Templeton: Practice empathy
Many people’s empathy muscles have sagged in the last 18 months. Spending less time with strangers, less face to face time in general and more time online risks us being siloed with like-minded people and becoming more intolerant. This is good for no one, especially ourselves. Empathy – the ability to appreciate and share the feelings of others – reduces frustration, anxiety and anger. People with greater empathy tend towards lower levels of stress and burnout.
As doctors, we are often confronted by complete strangers venting their anger at us. We learn to realise that behind every ‘difficult’ person is a difficult story. Whether it be a literal psychopath acting up in prison, someone having a violent psychotic episode on the street, someone suffering inconsolable pain despite nothing seeming ‘wrong’ with them in A&E, there’s always a backstory to explain it, and accessing it gives us the empathy to allow us to do our jobs.
It’s not enough just to intuit, or indeed ask, the other person why they are acting as they are. You also have to understand your own emotions well enough to have the mental space to inhabit the other person’s point of view. It helps to challenge yourself generally by reading newspapers or blogs you disagree with; watch films about people from different cultures; spend time with people from other parts of society (a great privilege of being a doctor is that we spend time with people from all walks of life). Finally, reading widely and deeply makes us inhabit the emotional worlds of a vast range of complicated characters and has been shown to improve empathy.
Empathy is a muscle; it needs exercising, and you will be happier for it.
Dr Tom Templeton is a GP and the author of 34 Patients.
Katy Milkman: Curb your undesirable habits
Most of us have formed some new habits, good and bad, over the last year. Maybe you take morning walks now; or maybe you’re drinking more than you’d like. As we enter a new era, we’ll want to take good habits with us and kick the bad. But kicking undesirable habits isn’t easy. How can you fight your cravings and win? One effective tool I recommend in my new book is called a “cash commitment device”. We’re used to the threat of fines discouraging bad behaviour like speeding and littering – but what if we imposed those fines on ourselves?
Research shows that giving people access to systems that let them forfeit money if they fail to achieve a goal can encourage people resist temptation – in one study, 30 percent more smokers were able to quit with access to a cash commitment device. Happily, many websites will let you name a price for your vice (like StickK and Beeminder). These websites usually donate the money you commit to a charity of your choice if you fail to reach your goal – some even let you choose an ‘anti-charity’ to increase your motivation, like a political charity you hate. If you want to kick a habit, making it expensive to keep it up might be a good tactic to try.
Katy Milkman is a behavioural scientist and the author of How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.
Ian Robertson: Train your confidence for the return to work
Working at home for many months has been a prison and a torture for some of us, but a balm and relief from the pressures of the workplace for others. For the latter, the prospect of adjusting back to the workplace might kindle tingling nerves and a sense of heaviness – maybe even slight dread – at the prospect of adjusting to what is essentially a new environment.
To face this new world, you need to channel that tingling into a sense of challenge, maybe even excitement – and that requires confidence.
Fortunately, though, confidence is something you can learn. With so long out of the office, the chances are that many if not all of the old group dynamics will be in a state of flux, meaning you have a chance of shaping your workplace anew to make it somewhere that you can a) enjoy working in and b) be more productive. That takes the self-belief to reshape an environment that may not have been entirely to your taste pre-Covid.
One thing you can implement is to choose something you would like to change in the new working arrangement. It could be as simple as where you sit when you are in work, or some other aspect of the job. You have a short time when things are in flux where it will be easier to make that change. Make a plan, broken into small steps how to change it. Tick off each step and reward yourself for any small achievement, particularly when you did something in spite of feeling anxious about it. Taking action in spite of anxiety is one of the best sources of confidence, and confidence is the best source of wellbeing.
Ian Robertson is a clinical psychologist and neuroscientist, and the author of How Confidence Works.
Lucy Jones: Stay connected with nature
How to stay connected to the natural world as the lockdown starts to ease? Stroke moss. Tickle sporophytes. Look up to see the swifts. Look down to find beetles. Smell pine sap rubbed between fingers. Keep an eye out for smeuses. Listen for skylarks. Huff petrichor, the smell of the earth after it’s rained. Stare at a tree moving in the breeze. Blow a dandelion clock. Leave your lawn unmown. Make elderflower delight. Let a bee walk across your hand. Watch a spider weave a web. Go on a bat safari. Paddle in rivers. Notice the fractals in cow parsley. Stick sticky weed on your buddy’s back. Run your hand over bark. Roll logs over to find insects. Grow things. Climb trees. Feed birds. Dig your hands deep in soil. Nap under a tree. Walk at dusk, as the stars emerge, and listen out for the cockchafer, the Spang beetle, the Billy witch, the snartlegog, the oak-wib, the doodlebug. Watch how a worm moves. Consider the multitudes within. Go outside, knowing that there is now a robust evidence base confirming what many of us intuitively know: that we need connection and relationship with trees, rivers, other-than-human creatures and the rest of nature for our sanity.
Lucy Jones is a journalist and nature writer, and the author of Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild.
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