The mind is something of a vague concept that can be hard to comprehend. Even scientists disagree on the nature of the mind and matter. But you don’t need to understand everything. You just need to know enough to further yourself and understand how you actually operate, so you can get to where you need to be.
Strengthening the mind is largely viewed as an internal practice. Yet the outer environment also plays a large role in a healthy mindset. Minimalism is a relatively new phenomenon that can help to increase psychological strength in various ways.
Benefits of Minimalism
It is easy to understand the personality of an individual by simply seeing the state of their bedroom or workspace. In many instances, these places will be disorderly with significant clutter. This is an obvious sign that the mind of the person is cluttered and messy, not organized and clear. By making a habit of cleaning our rooms and workspaces, we will have a stronger psychology and more space to make decisions. One of the easiest techniques is to simply make our beds every morning or to make a habit of keeping a tidy workspace.
Minimalism can also increase revenue to a great degree. It involves cutting out what is unnecessary and focusing only on what works. This has massive implications for business and personal success. Too often, we allow thoughts, ideas, people, and materials into our space that just do not belong. By tidying the places where we most frequently visit, we get into the mindset of organization and clenliness. We then start to tidy up other aspects of our lives.
Minimalism for the Mind
Aside from material items, what people really need is information minimalism. All successful people reduce the information that they take in and only assimilate relevant data. People who are not so focused can spend all day online or on social media. Even the tips and tricks that they believe to be helpful on blog posts is wasted energy in most instances. Information that is not actively applied is wasted. Most of the material that people read is not actualized.
To offset this, it could be a good idea to go on a data diet or reduce the time spend using modern technology. Alternatively, information channels should be streamlined or a break could be taken from social media. People need to spend more time away from technology so their minds can assimilate all the data and act on the pieces of information that are most relevant.
Unsubscribe from all irrelevant emails that are cluttering up your various inboxes and undertake a digital cleanup. Online minimalism is now as important as keeping a tidy physical space.
Every now and then, things will go badly wrong. Someone will be injured, you will get lost, or you will find out that you’ve just lost a huge amount of money.
Your natural reaction now may be to panic. After all, why wouldn’t you get in a fluster? What will you do now that you’ve lost the money? What will happen to your friend or relative who just fainted and is now lying there looking very unwell?
But while panicking is natural, it’s also entirely unhelpful. If this is your response, then you will be likely to make matters worse not better and you will potentially cause more problems than you solve.
The best response is to stay calm and robotic. You may appear cold and emotionless, but this is the most efficient and useful way to react to such a situation. This is how you’re going to help everyone deal with the problem – you can panic, cry or mourn later.
The question though, is how you can overcome that initial emotional response. How can you keep cool when everything is going awry around you?
Breathe and Slow Down
The first thing to do is to step back and take a moment to breathe and to assess the situation.
That initial urge to rush in or to cry is caused by a flood of adrenaline – your fight or flight hormone. This can be immensely useful for fuelling your reaction speed, increasing muscular strength and more. Unfortunately, it also suppresses activity in the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that we use for future planning and reasoning.
So instead, you need to learn to control your breathing and to calm yourself down. This will reactivate your ‘rest and digest’ state via your parasympathetic nervous system. So breathe in through the stomach deeply and then let it fill your lungs.
You are not in a massive rush. If you rush, you will make matters worse. Even in time critical situations, remember the adage: less haste, more speed.
Look for the Answer
Now look for the best solution the problem at hand. Try to remove yourself emotionally from the situation by looking at it as an outsider. Think of this like an exercise and try to narrow down your actions to the most useful few options.
While in this scenario, you might be afraid to act. Each action you consider will likely have the risk of a negative outcome and might still make matters worse. But once you’ve considered carefully the options and efficiently weighed up the best course of action, the next step is simply to act. Even if you are uncertain, take positive and decisive action.
Doing this means accepting the possibility that things might go wrong and that it might be your fault. In other words, it means accepting your responsibility and being willing to shoulder that responsibility if necessary. It means being able and willing to put yourself out on a limb and to face the storm that might come.
Understanding your own psychology is something that can be difficult to do, but is something that is foundational to wellbeing and happiness. While it is in many ways a lifetime process, there are some well-trodden paths to help you to understand yourself better.
Meditation is the best way to observe what you are thinking and at the same time transform how you think. In meditation, the practitioner gains the ability to separate himself or herself from personal thought processes. When the observer does not identify with these thoughts, they lack energy and dissipate over time. Then the practitioner can focus on positive thoughts as desired and watch them materialize in the outside world. While it takes a long time to attain levels of mastery over personal psychology, meditation alone has many benefits. The act of simply sitting and breathing for 20 minutes a day can do much to alleviate built up stress levels.
2 – Practice Habit Formation
Habits are what makes for a good quality of life. Our experiences are really just a collection of habits, and this includes mental habits of thought. Take a habit and make sure that you stick with it for at least 3 weeks, the verified minimum time it takes to establish a habit. Ultimately, you want to establish a habit of identifying negative thought patterns as they emerge. In this way, you stop their momentum before they become too powerful. A habit can be something as easy as making your bed every morning or something difficult like visualizing your goal for 20 minutes every day. It is best to pick something simple and stick with it initially. You can build on these habits and the results compound over time. Another habit could be writing a 1000 word blog post every day for 60 days.
3 – Concentration
While meditation can largely be defined as the art of non-focus, there are also many concentration techniques available that can serve to sharpen the mind. One practice consists of gazing at the tip of your nose for 5 minutes. This is a short and intense technique that works well for those with the discipline to stick with it. This focus can then be carried over to other areas of study. You will be able to apply your focus to different tasks. The skill of concentration is more important than ever before. Social media and other technological advances really serve to distract us, and the population is largely disassociated with little ability to focus on basic tasks.
The positive psychology movement has endured its fair share of criticism, especially from those who believe in shadow work and the integration of negative emotions. Yet there is much research on the proven benefits of positive psychology.
1 – Stronger Personal Relationships
People who are happier have deeper ties with their family and friends. Positive psychology also has a number of benefits in the workplace and can help to increase productivity and return on investment, as well as increasing employee satisfaction levels. Companies such as Google place a massive emphasis on employee happiness.
2 – Benefits the Wider Environment
Having a positive outlook actually rubs off on others who you come into contact with. In other words, it’s contagious. Those who spend time with happy people are more likely to be happier in the future as opposed to spending time with those of a negative orientation.
3 – Happier in General
People involved in positive psychology are less likely to have depression or mental illness. While having a positive mindset does not stop bad things from happening, it helps to get over them. People stuck in negative thought patterns let negative events haunt them for years.
4 – Healthier
People who engage in positive psychology practices tend to have lower blood pressure. They have lower stress levels and people who are optimistic about their circumstances are more likely to recover from illness such as cancer at a faster rate. Studies have shown a direct link between positive psychology and the immune system.
5 – More Successful
While success does make people happier, having a positive psychology is also a factor in attaining success. It is not really possible, or at least much more difficult, to be extremely successful while having a negative outlook on life.
6 – Snowball Effect
Those who engage in positive thinking are more likely to be happier in the future. Happy thoughts lead to more happy thoughts as the momentum takes off. Those who fail to correct their behavior will continue to engage in self-destruction patterns.
7 – Confidence and Vitality
People who engage in positive thinking have more self esteem and are more confident in their day to day activities. They also have more energy ad exuberance. This makes sense, as they will be more optimistic about the future and they also care more about what they do in the moment. People of a negative mindset are more likely to look at their jobs as a means to an end and see life in general as pointless.
Selfish. Stupid. Dangerous. Evil. These are the words being used to describe people who are still going about their lives as if nothing has changed.
These past weeks we have seen rising death tolls, unprecedented government responses to COVID-19, and daily life being radically altered for much of the world.Many of us have adapted to a life of staying at home. However, confusingly and alarmingly, we are also still seeing photos of full beaches and busy streets.
Given the now thoroughly saturated news cycle, it seems impossible that people don’t know that they should stay home. So, why are some people still behaving dangerously?
In 2009 Danielle Ofri1 wrote about a phenomenon she observed in her patients. She found that there was a psychological contagion of myth and suspicion that put people and their families in danger during the H1N1 (‘Swine’) flu outbreak. She wrote:
“Just as there are patterns of infection, there seem to be patterns of emotional reaction (emotional epidemiology) associated with new illnesses”
Diseases, especially ones like COVID-19 (and at the time, H1N1) that can lurk asymptomatic within anyone we meet, capture bothour imagination and our fears. We become scared and uncertain.
And, scared and uncertain people often do two things:
- Assume the worst in others
- Act irrationally
Let’s discuss both of these.
Fundamental attribution bias and COVID-19
Because we cannot see what people are thinking, we need to try to deduce it from how they behave. A core aspect of what psychologists call theory of mind is the ability to attribute things like intent, emotions, or knowledge, to others. But most of the time, this just means that we are guessing why people do what they do.
In the current pandemic, this also leads us to automatically make ethical assessments of other people. It can lead to us thinking that people are intentionally doing or saying things that will increase the spread of this disease, even though we have little way of knowing their actual intentions.
Theory of mind is fallible and can quickly lead to fundamental attribution errors. According to Paul Andrews2:
The “fundamental attribution error” (FAE) is the tendency to assume that an actor’s behavior and mental state correspond to a degree that is logically unwarranted by the situation.
In other words, just because someone is acting in a way that may lead to the death of others who become infected by COVID-19 does not mean they don’t care if their actions cause people to die. But our brains naturally jump to that conclusion. We assume that people who act badly, are bad, even in uncertain and complicated situations like a global pandemic.
Andrews frames this within an evolutionary argument: That our brains are programmed to err on the side of caution to survive. Caution in the context of a pandemic is assuming that people are dangerous and selfish, because if we accidentally trust a person who is ill we play with death.
But this conclusion is not based on rational decision-making. It undervalues the importance of community and support to make it through a crisis. Instead, it is based on a bias that we jump to because we are scared, and we default to automatic and simplified thinking.
Why we act irrationally during a pandemic
Let’s set aside our fundamental attribution error, and consider other options. While the odd person might be acting out of selfishness or malice, some other reasons why we may not heed advice to socially distance include that:
- We can’t grasp it. Humans struggle to grasp big, complex, problems. It feels like we are in a dystopian movie, rather than real life. The almost impossibility of grasping this pandemic can lead to ignoring or denying the scale and reality of it altogether.
- We engage in wishful thinking. In the digital age, it doesn’t take long to find an article that tells you what you want to hear. Wishful thinking can lead to cherry-picking statements that minimize or catastrophic the severity of the situation. If you have the misconception that the world is ending, you may stockpile to excess and deplete resources for those in need. If you have the misconception that it’s no worse than the flu you put others at risk by socializing as you normally would.
- We don’t believe it. Our news feeds have long been filled with sensationalised stories. If we are constantly told that our world is in crisis, we may not take the news seriously when it tries to convince us that this crisis is different. We may have become desensitized by the news that cries wolf.
- We are confused. We don’t know what we should do. What we did yesterday whilst following Government guidance may today be seen as a faux pas. This leads to a learned helplessness where we may just give up trying to figure out how to behave correctly and instead use our intuition as our guide.
Knowing about these biases can help us to overcome them. The safest way to proceed during the COVID-19 epidemic is to heed the advice given by our governments’ epidemiology experts. They have far more knowledge and data than we can hope to gain by trying to figure out the appropriate response ourselves. They may not always get it right, but they will get it more right than any one of us can on our own. This is the time to crush those intuitions that are telling us that we are cleverer than international experts. We aren’t.
There is something else that has a tremendous impact on our likelihood to stay home: behaviour contagion.
According to Christy Duan and colleagues in the book Psychiatry of Pandemics3, we need to study behaviour contagion to understand our psychological and behavioural response to pandemics. According to their research:
“Behavior contagion can herald, mirror, and match the actual physical contagion of an infectious illness in an outbreak.”
In other words, just like one person having COVID-19 is likely to spread the disease to two or three other people, the same is true for behaviour. One person refusing to socially distance may influence two or three others to do the same.
This can lead to literal transmission of the disease between those who are not socially distancing, and it can lead to a wider ‘transmission’ of the psychological error that it’s fine to go on with life as usual. This behavior contagion is particularly relevant in highly stressful situations and can create a vicious cycle.
But this is not all bad news, because the reverse is also true. Adhering to advice given by epidemiologists is also contagious. If we stay home we are likely to motivate 2-3 others to also stay home. This is how every one of us can make a difference not just by preventing the virus from spreading locally, but by potentially influencing people around the world to stay home.
In conclusion: Stay home. Don’t let your brain trick you into assuming that people who aren’t socially distancing are necessarilyselfish. And to convince others to stay home, the best thing you can do is… stay home.