Using Positive Psychology to Build Resilience, with Robert Biswas-Diener
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RHR: Using Positive Psychology to Build Resilience, with Robert Biswas-Diener

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The world is reeling from a number of intense events and, in these times of uncertainty, stress, and pain, it can seem gratuitous to talk about positive psychology. However, by recognizing the positive things that are happening in the face of great hardship, we can cultivate more resilience and joy. In this episode of Revolution Health Radio, I talk with Robert Biswas-Diener about why now is the right time to embrace positive psychology and how doing so can improve your well-being.

Revolution Health Radio podcast, Chris Kresser

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Why now is the right time for positive psychology
  • Preparing for life post-coronavirus
  • What well-being looks like in difficult situations
  • The impact of using tech to connect
  • Letting yourself (and others) off the hook

Show notes:

Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week, I’m excited to welcome Robert Biswas-Diener as my guest. Robert is the foremost authority on positive psychology coaching in the world, and has consulted with a wide range of international organizations on performance management and talent development.

He conducts training on coaching, strengths, positivity, courage, and appreciative inquiry with organizations and businesses around the world and through his own coaching school, Positive Acorn. Robert has trained professionals on nearly every continent, and he has a doctorate in social psychology, [has] a master’s degree in clinical psychology, and is an ICF [International Coaching Federation] professional certified coach. He’s the author of Practicing Positive Psychology Coaching, The Courage Quotient, and The Upside of Your Dark Side among other books. Robert is also a faculty member at Kresser Institute, and he teaches the positive psychology and some aspects of the core coaching curriculum in the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program.

I wanted to talk to Robert about positive psychology, break down some of the myths and misconceptions about it, and discuss how we can use it to build more resilience and cultivate more joy even in these difficult times. So I hope you enjoy this podcast as much as I did. Let’s dive in.

Chris Kresser:  Robert, it’s such a pleasure to have you back on the show. Thanks for joining us.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  As always, thank you, Chris.

Why Now Is the Right Time for Positive Psychology

Chris Kresser:  So I’m really excited to talk about some of these topics with you because it seems like they couldn’t be more relevant at this exact moment in time. The world is reeling right now from a number of different intense events that continue to unfold, any one of which would have been a major disruption at any time in our history. And yet, they’re all kind of cascading together.

So how do we. In times of great uncertainty, stress, pain, and suffering, it can seem almost gratuitous in some way to talk about positive psychology and cultivating happiness and joy when so many people are suffering. So maybe just from like a 30,000-foot view, we can start there. Is that even okay to hold that as an intention in times like this?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  It’s such a, I think it’s even better than a great question. I sort of think it’s the million-dollar question. If you would have looked a year ago, people would be asking themselves like, oh, how can I live a good life? How can I be happy? And now that’s sort of shifted as in the context that you just mentioned to, like, should I be happy? Can I be happy? Is it permissible to be happy? And certainly, we’ve all seen what people are calling toxic positivity, right? That just seems really tone deaf to the plight of people who are suffering injustice or wrestling with coronavirus complications.

But there’s some balance between the reality of the hardship and the fact that there are also really positive things happening. People are reaching out and helping one another. There’s some solidarity. There’s, for some people, a sense of optimism, there’s opportunity for some people, [and] there’s still the small joys of playing with your children or laughing at a funny television show. Whatever it is. And those might sound superficial, but those are also valid experiences of life. So I don’t think I have the answer, but I think there’s rather than should we or shouldn’t we, it’s sort of like, what’s the correct balance? And I think some of that will depend on your context.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, since this began, I’ve been talking a lot with guests on the show, and I’ve been writing about it. And, within our training programs, we’ve been talking a lot about cultivating realistic optimism. Which is, to me, the idea that, yes, we shouldn’t just put our head in the sand. We should pay attention to what’s happening. In terms of coronavirus, we should stay educated and informed about the risk that it presents and the possible worst-case scenarios there that could affect us both in terms of our health and our economic well-being if we risk losing our job or our livelihood.

And at the same time, we should pay attention to potential bright spots or upsides or opportunities that might come out of that. Because it seems to me, as you just, I think, alluded to, it certainly doesn’t help us, and I don’t think it helps anybody else, if we just spiral into a deep black hole. And we can’t function or live or be present with our family, friends, and show up to be able to make a contribution in whatever way that we’re able to do that moving forward.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, I love how you just put that and I like that you used the word “contribution,” right? And some of that has to do with sort of empathy and compassion for others. And sometimes that feels kind of distressing, right? Because if they’re in distress and we’re feeling empathy, then we’re in distress. And I think that can motivate contribution. But I also think taking care of yourself, being optimistic, and having some positivity sort of makes you more resilient and also equips you to contribute.

Chris Kresser:  I know I felt this way myself and we’ve had questions from people, in conversations, feelings of guilt that, for me personally, coronavirus has not impacted me in the same way that I know it’s impacted others. I’m healthy. I haven’t contracted the virus or developed COVID-19. I was already doing a lot of work from home, so that wasn’t a big shift for me. We already homeschooled our daughter, so that wasn’t a big shift for us. I’m white, male, privileged, so I’m not suffering as direct effects as other people.

And I’ve actually had many moments during [the] coronavirus [pandemic] where I’ve deeply appreciated some of the shifts like looking outside or being outside in my neighborhood and seeing kids and families, like, roller skating or skateboarding, riding bikes up and down the street, playing volleyball in their front yard, spending more time together, just a kind of general sense of life slowing down and me being able to spend more time with my family and travel less. And I’ve had lots of moments of bliss. And along with that, I’ve had usually fleeting, but moments of guilt. Like is it okay for me to be experiencing this when there’s so much suffering?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Well, I mean, that’s a great question. I’m sure one shared by many people. Again, I’m not coming down from the mountaintop with the wisest counsel for you. But I think that your station in your life is legitimate. And I don’t think that we should wish upon you that someone close to you dies from COVID-19 so that you can have more sort of street cred in terms of the hardship this is causing. I don’t want anyone to get COVID-19. So I think it’s fine both to say there are some positive things happening, so long as it’s not that tone-deaf, oh, everyone should just look on the bright side and it’s not as bad as people are making it out to be.

Chris Kresser:  Right. Right. Perhaps one example of that was the “Imagine” song sung by all the celebrities. That took a lot of heat, I think rightfully so. It was maybe a little bit tone-deaf.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, exactly. It’s just a, it’s a delicate time, right? And so public statements, I think, have to be sensitive and delicate.

Chris Kresser:  Right. There’s a Viktor Frankl quote that you’ve probably heard that I love, and I really come back to in these kinds of situations. If we can even say that there’s ever been this kind of situation that we’ve lived through exactly. He said,

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

And this was from a man who, I believe, was in a concentration camp, one of the worst possible circumstances that you could live through.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, absolutely. And you’re testing my knowledge since it’s been a long time since I read Man’s Search for Meaning. But I think that when they took him, he had the manuscript of his book he had been working on. And they, the, his guards …

Chris Kresser:  Burned in the pyre.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, they took it away from him. But in some ways, that gave him some sense of meaning, right? Like he felt compelled to survive so that he could recreate this manuscript.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, it’s an amazing testament to the resilience of humanity, I think. And on that note, you mentioned so many positive things that people are doing, the solidarity that’s come out of both [the] coronavirus [pandemic] and also, the reaction to the killing of George Floyd and what that has inspired. At some point, we’re going to get through at least the most intense phase of coronavirus. And I think we can all agree that we’re not going back to life as normal before coronavirus. Though I think it has forever altered certain aspects of life. But how can people start thinking about life post-corona[virus], if you will, understanding that post means that it’s still very much there and impacting our consciousness. But after this, the crisis that we’re in now, has passed.

Positive things are happening, even during these times of uncertainty, stress, and pain. Check out this episode of RHR to learn more about looking for the bright spots while paying attention to what’s happening in the world around us. #healthylifestyle #wellness #chriskresser

Preparing for Life Post-Coronavirus

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, well first, I love the way you think, right? Just like that distinction between after and post because, I think your instinct, probably like mine, is that a lot of people do think of it as after. Like, oh “society is going to open back up, the economy is going to be up and running, and we’re kind of done with the coronavirus thing.” That was a three-month blip.

Chris Kresser:  If only.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, exactly. So I heard some commentator, and I wish I could recall the name, but sort of talking about society going through phases of opening and restricting, as various context demands. So you might live in a place where there’s a flare-up of infections, and you might find that you have to shelter at home for four more weeks. And that might not be true of somewhere else. Or you might find that your society is open, but only in a limited way and you never are going to go see a movie at the theater again. Whatever it’s going to be. One of the things that happened to all of us collectively, February, March, especially March, is this was put upon us. And I think we all sort of like recoiled and reacted, and we scrambled to be resilient in the face of it.

Of course, people were talking about all the symptoms of acute stress; they were having memory and concentration difficulties, they were sleeping poorly, they were irritable. I certainly know those symptoms described me, describe people I also know. And so that was, like, a reactive time that this thing happened to us. But I’m actually encouraged going forward to know that it could happen to us again, and I know that’s a funny thing to say. But what that allows me to do personally is plan for it. And that gives me a bigger sense of agency and a little bit more sense of control. And I don’t exactly know what I’m planning for. But I know, I’ll just give you a single example.

I know coming into March, I quit working out. And I don’t really have a home gym or a workout routine at home. So it was just a very difficult transition. But if I think wow, what happens if this happens again in October, November? What would I want a workout at home really to look like and how can I plan for it now? So that, should this happen again, I’m in better, sort of better conditions for it.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, I think that’s, let’s talk about that a little more. Because I agree with you. I think it’s certainly, no one has a crystal ball, and we can’t predict what’s going to happen. But it’s certainly within the realm of possibility that there could be further shutdowns. And most public health officials in most places have acknowledged that; there could be a second spike in the fall, there could be one already happening as we speak, actually, as many places have reopened, and we’re seeing increases in cases in some locations.

So let’s talk a little bit more about how people can prepare for that psychologically and even practically. You raised a great example of exercise and fitness, and just maybe having some equipment at home in case this happens again and you can’t get to the gym. But how else should people be thinking about well-being while they’re sheltering, if they have to shelter in place at home? Because certainly, that’s not the same question as just general well-being where they can do all the things that they would typically do to support their health and happiness.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, absolutely. Right? I mean, for some people, a trip to the Grand Canyon might be a lifelong ambition that’s full of well-being opportunities. But [over] the last three months, [they] saw that that wasn’t really a possibility.

Chris Kresser:  Right, or going to dinner with a group of friends once a week is a normal ritual. Right?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Exactly, exactly. So I think that there are a variety of elements of well-being that’s probably non-controversial. So I think opportunities for personal growth, opportunities for connection, opportunities for health broadly understood, sleep, diet, exercise, opportunities for meaningful work, those are all areas that I think about. And we don’t have 100 percent control over any of these areas. But we have some influence on all of them. Right?

So I think there was this idea for some people last March that oh, well, if you’re out of work and you’re stuck at home, this is a perfect time to learn French and take up oil painting. And then no one basically did that because they couldn’t concentrate. They were irritable. They don’t have oil painting supplies. But I think going forward you could think about that. If I had more time at home, are there courses I would like to take? How would I like to grow? How would I like to take care of myself? How would I pace my day so that I’m doing self-care along with meaningful work, assuming that I have meaningful work? How can I connect with people? And you mentioned it.

There was a bunch of sort of general connectors, like you see more people out in your neighborhood perhaps, or people are meeting by Zoom or they’re having birthday parties and weddings by Zoom. That’s something that’s kind of uncharted territory.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, and for me, just in my own personal experience and in the work we’ve been doing with patients and coaching clients, I’ve really encouraged small steps and just an invitation to consider that even small amounts of everything that you mentioned can make a big difference. I think there’s a tendency sometimes, and we saw this as you mentioned when, okay, now I’m going to master the guitar or I’m going to become a Michelin star chef by watching the Masterclass.

We set out with these great ambitions. And then, if we’re not able to accomplish those because of just the realities of day-to-day life, the kids are not at school, they’re at home, I’m trying to work from home and manage all that, then we might have a tendency to give up. And whereas even just 15 minutes [of] doing one of those activities can shift your inner landscape and bring more joy.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah. I absolutely love what you’re saying. I mean, in part, the message embedded in what you’re saying [is] kind of let yourself off the hook. Right? I mean, I think if you would have interviewed people in January and said, “Hey, are you in exactly the physical condition you want? Do you speak as many languages as you want? Are you an able guitar player?” People would be like, “Yeah, that’s stuff that I kind of value, but I just haven’t gotten around to it.”

And I don’t know why in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of loss of work, in the middle of widespread worry, that would be a better time to make those changes than at an earlier time where you were even more resourceful. So I think just kind of cutting yourself some slack. Exactly. And just saying maybe I won’t be mastering the guitar, but maybe I can remind myself to play the guitar.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  I’ve noticed, just one other thing along with it that this reminded me of, one of the things that I can, I want to be careful how I say this, I don’t want to say that I liked it best about the shelter at home period. But I mean, one of the things that emerged from this really kind of tough, tense time as coronavirus was spreading and everything was shutting down, was my perception is [that] there was sort of this wider spread sense of forgiveness to others.

Kind of like, “Oh well, everyone’s under stress. Like, you can kind of let them off the hook.” And I just thought that that was kind of refreshing. And I even noticed it, my wife and I got into a little argument, because we’re a little crabby or something. And right in the middle of the argument, my wife just turned to me and she just said, “COVID.” And we were like, “Oh, right. Okay.” Like, we don’t need to be fighting like that. That sort of explained everything.

Chris Kresser:  That is so funny because I have an email I wrote a while back, or it was maybe a social post. It was because … COVID[-19]. It’s again, we don’t want COVID[-19] to just become the explanation for everything, where we evade personal responsibility for our actions because of COVID[-19]. But I think it’s a valid point. I’ve been saying all along that if you were, let’s say we are living in a simulation, as Elon Musk thinks and some others think. If you were a programmer of that simulation and you wanted to create a maximally stressful situation, it’s hard to imagine a better mix of circumstances than we’re in right now. Right?

Like, the things that are most stressful for humans, like, when we are not in control, when there’s great uncertainty, when we don’t have a lot of individual agency. We can’t fight or flee. And when things like our livelihood and our health are at stake, again, it’s difficult to imagine more stressful circumstances. So just even recognizing that both in your own life and in your relationships can be a powerful sense of relief that comes from that.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah. And I’ve seen some good examples of this. I work in the education sector quite a bit. And teachers were scrambling to shift all their teaching online, and students were sort of scrambling to pretend like they could learn when they couldn’t concentrate. And I spoke with a college student. This is not my own college student, but one of his friends, who literally forgot for a month that he was enrolled in a class. And then he was like, “Oh, I can’t believe it. Like, I totally forgot about that class. I just went on spring break and then never went back to school, and I forgot I was taking it.” And I just thought that was such an emblematic moment.

And if his teacher were to hear that, I would want his teacher to say like, “Oh, yeah, I get it. I’m also struggling.” And I think you see some of the types of policies like we’re not going to allow students to fail. Instead, we’ll give them an incomplete and they can come and make up the work later. And I actually think symbolically that that’s kind of a great idea that, like, I’m not going to, you’re not a failure for me. I’m giving you an incomplete; you can always make it up.

Chris Kresser:  Makes sense. I mean, no one has faced this before. And the flip side of that is parents who are all of a sudden thrust into the role of being educators and teachers. And I know several parents who were just pretty miserable trying to get their kids to do their homework and finish their school activities and things like that. And part of that time, I was thinking, man, maybe we should just loosen up a little bit around this idea. I mean, of course, it’s important for kids to learn. But learning happens all the time, even without homework and activities. So there’s just a lot of ways that we’ve been forced to adapt to these circumstances.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  In some ways, Chris, I think this goes back to your point about feeling occasional guilt that things might be going too well for you. Because it’s a continuum, of course, right? For some people, things are going just absolutely terribly and some people are probably actually doing better than ever in some ways. Some, very few people. But I really have noticed that everyone is just sort of wrestling with their own unique issue. For someone, it’s trouble concentrating at school; for another person, it’s a loss of a job.

For another person, that’s going crazy trying to work while you have your three kids at home in your tiny apartment. For someone else, it’s [that] their loved one died of COVID[-19]. And I don’t necessarily think that we should say, “Oh, well, this one’s a legitimate suffering and that one’s not a legitimate suffering.” But sort of this understanding that everyone is sort of grappling with something. Some people’s are larger and more pressing than others. But we’re all contending.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, well, that’s an interesting point to consider. The other side of that, too, or maybe the connected, how that’s connected to the idea of well-being in difficult times. Like, we’ve already talked about is it okay to even have that as a goal? To feel happy and search for happiness in these kinds of times. But what is the research? Does the research say that this is possible? Has this been studied? What do we know about what’s possible during really challenging times?

What Does Well-Being Look like in Difficult Situations?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, good question and a little bit of a complicated answer. So, first of all, we would expect during difficult times for people to experience distress. And I think that people have sort of this standoffish relationship with the so-called negative emotions, the unpleasant emotions. So if you’re apprehensive or afraid, if [you] have moral outrage or anger, some people kind of get it in their heads like, “I shouldn’t be feeling so angry or depressed or sad or guilty” or whatever it is. But I think you can kind of accept that that’s actually a very legitimate reaction to your circumstances.

Your emotions tend to be functional. We don’t want anyone to experience anger over the course of an entire year. But if you’re angry over the course of an afternoon, that’s perfectly fine and useful, in fact. So I think acknowledging the distress and even listening to it, sort of saying, “What’s this anger telling me? Oh, that there’s injustice. What’s my apprehension or fear telling me? That I can be infected.” I mean, those are useful sorts of channels of information. But they’re also not everything.

So the acceptance is sort of one side of it. But then I also think that you try [to] build the things that are important to you. Try and live according to your values. You try [to] connect with other people; having supportive social relationships is important. And I don’t think that just because times are hard means you can’t do that. It just means that sometimes it’s harder to do that.

Chris Kresser:  So Robert, I’ve mentioned a little bit about what life’s been like for me during these past few months. We connected via email back in March, and things were seeming pretty sketchy for you for a little while there from what you said. So what has it been like for you?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  I mean, things were initially pretty, pretty tough. I knew a couple people who got COVID[-19] and had pretty severe cases. [The father of] one of my colleagues died from it. I lost a huge amount of my income, maybe about 90 percent of it. Because a lot of my income comes from traveling overseas and doing work overseas, which was no longer possible. I knew someone who, in my extended family, who lost her husband at 50 years and was essentially stuck at home alone grieving. A very difficult time to grieve.

And so all of it felt very, very impactful and urgent and close. It didn’t feel like statistics I was reading about in my news feed. It really felt really, really close. And it took me about a month to sort of adapt to that. I had a pretty tough month. But people, I think, are extraordinarily resilient, even people living in dire circumstances. And I got my feet under me and kind of fell into the cycle of this new lifestyle. And it started feeling basically all right again. I got some of my income back; I was connecting with people via Zoom. You had mentioned people going crazy having their kids at home. Some of my friends were in that circumstance, and every night I would Zoom with them at eight o’clock and read the kids a story.

So just little ways to find that I could feel like I was contributing or helping others. And so then I think mostly I’ve bounced back up until the recent protests, which have been a new source of stress.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, it’s, I mean, I’ve talked to a lot of people in a lot of different walks of life since this happened, and it’s, I think this is one of the things that makes this experience so tricky. Is the really varied ways in which people have been affected ranging from not at all, perhaps somebody in rural Montana who’s living a pretty secluded life and has not a lot of contact with the wider world. [They], of course, [are] aware of what’s going on and may even know people who’ve been impacted, but their own life has changed very little.

To people who have become seriously ill or died or had family members who’ve become seriously ill and died. To people who’ve lost their income and livelihood to people now being affected by what’s happening in this country related to the killing of George Floyd and all the similar events that have happened in our past. It’s a really, kind of, I think it would have been hard, for me at least, to imagine a crisis so severe that would have such differential effects across all different areas of the population. And I think that’s part of what has made the response to it so varied and challenging.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I’m laughing almost out of exasperation. And just around the coronavirus, it’s sort of like, “Well, your symptoms could be anything or nothing.” And I’m like, “Wow, it’s really difficult to diagnose and treat that.” And just in a broader sense that if everyone is so diverse in our attitudes and circumstances and privileges and whatnot, that it really does almost seem like it could be divisive. But I’m encouraged by the fact that we seem to, like, this seems to be pulling us together in many ways. Obviously, not entirely, but I see a lot of reaching out and a lot of desire to help and desire to connect.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, and that’s, again, I think, one of the silver linings or bright spots, hopefully, of this. And also, with the action that we’re seeing around police violence, there’s already a number of positive developments that have come out of that, as well. And my hope is that these bright spots persist, because one thing that I think any student of history might make note of is that humans tend to have pretty short-term memories. When an immediate crisis passes, things often get back to business as usual. What’s your take on this? Again, I don’t assume that you have a crystal ball. But I’m just curious, what’s your sense of, is it going to be different this time as we talked in the beginning about how coronavirus might lead to kind of lasting changes in our society? So what’s your take?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  I personally always like to cultivate that sense of realistic optimism that you mentioned before. And not naive optimism; I don’t want to be Pollyanna. I don’t want to say, “Well, gosh, everyone’s protesting. And so, of course, we’re just going to dismantle all systemic racism and it will be fixed.” I don’t believe that that will happen certainly overnight. But I am encouraged that as a society, I believe we make a number of baby steps forward. I was reading a statistic that just shocked me. In the year that I was born, even though I was born after Brown v. Board of Education, 10 percent of schools in the South were still segregated. That’s in my lifetime.

And I just, it’s not, we think about something like slavery was this, that was a long time ago. It feels distant. Or the Civil War was a long time ago. But school segregation was in my lifetime, even though it was not legal at that point. And although there [are] still loads and loads of problems, we have moved, in some ways, passed the law of segregated schools. So I see progress happening, but obviously, there’s a hunger for more rapid progress and wider spread progress. And I think that’s what we’re seeing in the streets.

The Impact of Using Tech to Connect

Chris Kresser:  So I think one of the biggest challenges, I mean, we can be grateful for social media and all the new technologies that allow us to stay connected during this time. Because they’ve been lifelines, right? They’re how people are staying informed about what’s going on with coronavirus or how people are gathering and coming together to fight injustice and inequity. They’re how we’re staying connected with our parents and family members and friends that we’re not able to see in person.

And yet these digital technologies, the connection, the sense of connection that happens through these technologies is not necessarily the same as it is when it happens in person. And I think we’ve all seen articles and posts now about Zoom fatigue and the interest, the ways that Zoom affects our brain that can lead to that fatigue. So what do you know about the research on this and how digital technologies either enhance or detract from, or maybe both, the sense of connection that humans so clearly need?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  I have a lot to say about it. I’d like to start with just a tiny story, if you don’t mind. Which is, I asked my grandmother when she was still alive what the best birthday present she ever got was. And she said a pony, which is surprising to me because I don’t know a lot of people that have gotten ponies. And I said, “well, tell me about that. That seems like such an unusual gift.” And she said, “Oh, well I lived in Los Angeles, and everything was closed for the flu.” This was 100 years ago, the earlier flu epidemic. And she said, “My school was closed. And once a week, I had to take my pony to school and pick up my week’s worth of work. Essentially, we had changed to, like, correspondence courses.” And teachers also in Los Angeles at that time were worried about using this new technology, this distance technology called the telephone that they might use to teach their students. I just don’t know that it could work. My students are going to recite things or read a paper and I give them feedback, but it’s going to be through this telephone. And I just don’t think it can work.

But fast forward to the last 50 years anytime, for people who grew up talking on the telephone, I think you as a teenager, you would stay up late talking to your friends and you felt a very real sense of connection through that. So it’s interesting, some of the research emerging suggests that whenever communication is synchronous, that is, it’s real-time interaction, that can definitely lead to feelings of connection. And anytime it’s asynchronous, there’s not real-time interaction. So that would be like texting or email. That’s not very connecting. One of the additional problems with texting is you could be talking in person to someone, and then the text comes up and it derails you from that intimate conversation toward the text. That is because the person texting you doesn’t have all the visual cues. They don’t know that you’re in the middle of a great conversation; they don’t know in essence that they’re interrupting.

So one of the things that texting and mobile phones do is they sometimes create more feelings of jealousy, less recall for conversation, less feelings of connection. But phone and Zoom or Zoom-like platforms do give people a sense of connection. But it’s just a platform, right? Whether it’s the telephone or your computer. And so it depends on how you use it. If all you’re having is business meetings that have no spontaneity, no informality, well then, of course, you won’t feel as connected as if you get on with all of your friends from grade school and you catch up with them, and you can really be yourself and be authentic, and you guys are kind of talking over each other and it’s like, messy and real. I think that can be quite connecting. So I’m a little bit skeptical to say just because it’s digital it’s inferior. But it’s certainly different. It’s qualitatively different. You obviously can’t give someone a hug or pat someone or do a number of things through digital communication.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, I mean, I have a lot of personal experience with this, as I imagine you do. I already, as I said, did a fair amount of my work from home. Outside of seeing patients in person, most of my work is using a computer from a home office or a different place. And now, since COVID[-19], even my patient meetings have moved online with Zoom. I’ve definitely experienced both sides of it. I feel like I’m grateful for the ability to continue to help my patients and we can have our visits by Zoom. And I’m grateful that I can connect with my family and friends, and that’s, again, the main way that I’ve been interacting with other people in the company. And we even deliver the training, the health coach training program, which you’re a faculty member of, and the practitioner training program.

But I also have experienced at the end of the day when I’ve just done nothing but Zoom meetings, pretty significant fatigue and exhaustion, both mentally and physically. To the point where I’ve been actively exploring ways to mitigate that. And I wrote an email about this a while back, but things like taking more meetings on the phone instead of on Zoom, especially if I already know that person and it’s not, like, emotionally charged conversation, I’ll prefer to take it on the phone. Looking away from the screen even when I’m having a Zoom meeting, which is probably, again, I don’t do that with someone I’m just meeting for the first time or if we’re talking about something significant.

But if it’s just kind of a procedural business meeting, then I told everyone, my staff, that no, I’m not ignoring you when I turn away. I’m just protecting my brain at periods of time. Sitting farther away from the screen, dimming down the brightness of the screen, having a candle lit next to the computer is somewhat helpful for me. Making sure I take plenty of breaks. Look away from the screen. Go outside and things like that. And all that’s helped me quite a bit to deal with some of the side effects, if you will, of too much Zoom and too much digital connection.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, I love it. And I love the list you just gave. The thing that stands out to me most about the list is that you sometimes try and go to the phone. Because I really do think that voice-to-voice contact is a casualty of the video age. And I think people just assume how well we’re going to get all these visual cues or facial expressions, and so the default is we have to do it via videos, face-to-face. But I just think that’s false. I come in part out of the world of coaching.

And when I train coaches in person or go to conferences, sometimes I’ll do a coaching session back to back. Just to demonstrate that you can, you can get loads out of voice cues. And there’s something about just listening that kind of forces you to be a better listener. And I certainly know in group meetings when, on a Zoom-like platform where you have all these tiles with 10 different people. One’s eating cereal and another’s petting [their] cat or whatever. The visual information is actually more distracting than it is helpful.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, and I’m so glad you brought that up, because I think that’s another downside or at least potential downside of Zoom for things like that. Because most of the time, when people are using Zoom, they’re using their computer, right, or their iPad. If it’s the iPad or the phone, it’s maybe less of an issue because the screen is so small that you can’t really have other stuff going on.

But I think when people are using Zoom on their computer and they have a big screen, it’s all too easy to have a bunch of other windows open. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, email, Slack, whatever it is that you use, and you can have these notifications coming in. And then your eyes are kind of bouncing around, you’re distracted, and you’re not really even looking at the person or listening to them in that situation. Whereas on the phone, that’s far less likely to happen.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Exactly. It’s like when you have dinner with someone in a restaurant, but the restaurant has a bunch of TVs on, and it’s just so difficult to concentrate.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, yeah. Especially if you have a kid with you, because good luck with the kid not just looking at that the entire time.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  Especially our daughter who doesn’t really get access to screens very much at all.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Right.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, yeah, it’s really, it’s interesting because there’s so many unintended, this is to me like we’re having this conversation about unintended consequences, right, or unanticipated consequences of all these new technologies, which have many benefits. But sometimes [they] have impacts that we didn’t really predict. And it’s not a reason not to use them, of course, but maybe just something to be aware of and to pay attention to as you go through your day.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, and not to get too meta, but obviously people listening to this won’t know it, but right now you and I are voice-to-voice. We don’t have video on.

Chris Kresser:  That’s right.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  And I think that’s noteworthy and it’s actually forcing me to shut up and listen when you talk, to pay attention, to think about what you’re saying and not get distracted by your haircut or what kind of shirt you’re wearing, or whatever it is.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, yeah, that’s a good point. And I hadn’t thought about it that way. We mostly do this to preserve bandwidth because Zoom can be kind of persnickety. Especially now that however many million people are using it all the time. But yeah, it is true that without the video, we really are more focused, I think, on the conversation, which I appreciate. So Robert, anything else that this conversation has triggered that we haven’t touched on yet related to how people can cultivate and build more resilience and happiness in these challenging times?

Letting Yourself (And Others) off the Hook

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Maybe just to underscore the point, and I don’t even know if forgiveness is the right word. I know that that can be kind of politically charged for some people, or emotionally charged. But just the idea of letting yourself off the hook, sort of forgiving yourself. For a long time, I said, I’m basically working at 85 percent of my capacity and that’s good enough. If I have an 85 percent productive day, yeah, I can pat myself on the back and be proud of myself.

And then, in turn, if other people are sort of showing up [at] 85 percent, I can be wholly accepting of that and sort of let people off the hook. And I don’t mean let people off the hook for moral wrongdoing. I just mean, let the people off the hook for a minor misstep in their wording or some other small problem.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, I’ve definitely tried to keep that in mind myself and to, I know you have children that are grown. I still have one who’s almost nine years old. And a child that young is typically not going to be able to even conceptualize herself much less articulate, “Hey, Mom and Dad, I’m really affected, deeply affected by coronavirus and the shutdown and even the stress that I’m feeling around everything else that’s going on in the world. And that’s why I’m acting out more.” It would be wonderful if a five-year-old or an eight-year-old could do that. But generally, developmentally, they’re not there yet. And to be fair, a lot of adults don’t even ever get there.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah exactly. It’s hard for me to articulate, but the reason I forgot about our meeting was because of all those same reasons.

Chris Kresser:  Right, exactly. Or the reason I’m nagging you right now, or the reason I’m just reacting with such anger to what you’re saying has nothing to do with what you said, but actually with the fact that I’m stressed because I’m worried about my life. We get the point. That actually requires a pretty, pretty developed level of emotional awareness and ability to witness what’s happening. Your feelings and your sensations and not just immediately react from that place. And so, again, not many adults, many of us are still not capable of that, and certainly not all the time.

So I’ve just tried to keep that in mind as a parent, where our kids are definitely suffering. And kids tend to be very sensitive; even if they can’t intellectually articulate to others or to themselves what’s going on, they’re feeling it. They’re feeling our stress. They’re particularly sensitive to our stress, and what we’re going through. And so I’ve just tried to keep that in mind as a parent to cut our daughter extra slack during these times and not expect her to not be affected and impacted by this just because she’s a kid.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, absolutely. And I think one of the difficult things for parenting is not keeping your kids on an amazingly tight leash just because you want to, by rights, feel so protective of them during these times. But still realizing that a little bit of risk and spontaneity and even occasional little failure and stuff is all pretty good character-building for children.

Chris Kresser:  Yes, absolutely. And for us to be able to let go of the reins a little bit and allow them some autonomy and independence, even when that’s threatening and scary. So Robert, I really appreciate this. I think it’s going to be a helpful conversation for many people. Where can folks learn more about what you do and your work?

Robert Biswas-Diener:  They can learn about me at PositiveAcorn.com. That’s a website where I offer courses on everything from happiness to coaching. And then, of course, if they just Google me, I’m all over the internet. And they can find me there, too, and access my research, as well.

Chris Kresser:  Awesome. Well, I hope you stay healthy and sane in these crazy times we’re living in. I appreciate you coming on the show again, and I look forward to next time.

Robert Biswas-Diener:  Yeah, likewise, thank you so much.

Chris Kresser:  Thanks for listening, everyone. Remember to send in your questions at ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion. Though we’re mostly doing an interview format now, as you know, I do look at your questions and they inform which guests we invite and topics that we cover on the show. So please do continue to send in your feedback. Thanks for listening. See you next time.