20/20: Conversation about how our environment affects our emotional well being — and what we can do.
Welcome to another episode of Wild and Precious Conversations. This week it’s just me talking about how our environment affects our emotional well being…and stuff we can do to get stronger. As I researched this episode, lots of familiar favorite people ventured into my consciousness. A man named Dr. Bruce K Alexander, who famously led the “Rat Park” experiments at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby British Columbia. A priest named Father Greg Boyle, who run the largest gang rehabilitation and r
Sep 10, 2020
(reading time: 4 min.)

Welcome to another episode of Wild and Precious Conversations. This week it’s just me talking about how our environment affects our emotional well being…and stuff we can do to get stronger.

As I researched this episode, lots of familiar favorite people ventured into my consciousness. A man named Dr. Bruce K Alexander, who famously led the “Rat Park” experiments at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby British Columbia. A priest named Father Greg Boyle, who run the largest gang rehabilitation and reentry program in the world. Joseph Henrich, who wrote a book called “The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous”. And Roy Baumeister, whose research into self control and willpower I find fascinating.

The story I want to tell about our culture, the breakdown of our culture and what that means for us required me to lean on a few (all white male) researchers and activists who I feel have done the important work in this area. So be it this time.

This year began, if you will remember, with wildfires in Australia and the imminent extinction of the koala bear.

At the time, I remember the uncertainty. The tiptoeing into 2020. Our local community suffered from overdose deaths in our small town that forced us to realize that our first responders (firefighters and one doctor, especially) work too hard in an uphill battle against an out of control problem.

We then entered a pandemic. From there, like a bandaid being ripped off too quickly and too soon, we collectively confronted police brutality and racism. I remember the episode I did with my dear friend and mentor Dr. Stacee Reicherzer the week that Ahmed Aubrey’s murderers were arrested. We all, I feel, looked up and around us in a collective “What the heck?” moment. You can be shot dead while out for a jog in 2020?

George Floyd’s murder awoke in us a conversation that is still going on. A loud, emotional conversation with family, friends, friends of friends. One of those conversations that we probably should have settled a long time ago, but since we didn’t, it’s going to be loud, chaotic, and more tense. But at least the conversation is happening. I think it’s ultimately positive and leading to a healthier culture.

And then, the west coast of the United States caught fire.

Have I left anything out?

Against that backdrop, I tell about Bruce K Alexander’s research starting with Rat Park, and giving his rats an enriched environment.

In this enriched environment, he was able to show that none of them overdosed on drugs. Some dabbled a bit, sure. As he says, “For all we know, maybe some rats like to party.” But none — zero — overdosed. When given an environment full of the things rats need and love: other rats, toys, good food, healthy places to play and live…they did not choose the drugs. They did not choose addiction.

It’s safe to say (and yes, there’s mounds of research to this effect) that humans, too, in an “enriched environment” — a healthy culture full of the things humans need — do not overdose.

Father Greg Boyle asks

“How do we obliterate once and for all the illusion that there is an Us and a Them?”

In his work, since 1992, he’s brought his parish together as kin. He’s taken what they already craved and already had — kinship — and strengthened those bonds. Creating an “enriched environment” where there wasn’t one, so that the people in his parish could (and do) thrive.

So it’s possible. If it’s possible for one guy to start something in the poorest parish in Los Angeles and grow it into the largest gang rehabilitation and reentry organization in the world, then it is possible for us.

It is possible for us to take what we’ve got, the hand we’ve been dealt, and create an enriched environment.

Many of us have most likely been using “maladaptive coping mechanisms” for the time being. As placeholders until we learn how to get stronger, healthier, more adaptive so that we can make small changes in our environments — so that, actually, we don’t need to cope — we can thrive.

If you have been using shopping, gambling, drinking another beer each night, wine o’clock, or whatever to cope, make sure  and give yourself a huge hug. Way to survive. Way to keep going. Way to stay here, in the world, even when things look bleak.

At the same time, if you’d like, might I throw you a life vest? A rope?

Here are the pillars you can use to create healthy coping skills so you can actually thrive even when times are tough:

  1. Mental Flexibility
  2. Mindfulness
  3. Resillience

What I talked about:

  • First,  2020 — Yikes.
  • Second,  Bruce K Alexander’s research.
  • Third,  Father Greg Boyle’s success.
  • Fourth,  Ways you can get stronger so that you can thrive in any environment and eventually make changes to your environment so you don’t have to cope.

Notes:

Onward. Next week we continue this series on Connectedness (see, it’s all connected :)) We’ll focus on Mental Flexibility and learn about how you can get some.

The  Underbelly Project: A weekly workout for your  emotional strength and             flexibility. If  you’re not afraid to  get dusty and maybe shed a  few tears together, join  me and let’s get  emotionally strong!

And please, if you know anyone who might like to share this journey, share this project. Excited to stay in the arena with you.

Photo by Om Malik on Unsplash

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