Finding Peace in the Midst of Chaos

Dr. Brian Herman, Professor, Biomedical Engineering Department, UMN
Dr. Claudia Neuhauser, Emeritus Professor, Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, UMN

To say that we live in exciting times would be an understatement. As Steve Pinker recently pointed out (1), “over the past seven decades, humans have become (on-average) longer-lived, healthier, safer, richer, freer, fairer, happier and smarter, not just in the west, but worldwide.” Despite these advances, many people in the U.S., in particular the younger generation, feel significant fear and anxiety about their future.

Increasingly, we have adopted increased identity and populist philosophies that we think provide us with a moral purpose but leads many of us to question what is real, what is “the truth” and psychologically anxious, overwhelmed, harassed and feeling discriminated against. This has led to significant increases in the reported incidence of mental health issues.

The American College Health Association reported that a staggering 87% of college students who “felt overwhelmed by all [they] had to do,” and nearly half of the students (45.1%) “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function. (2)” The feelings of despair are not limited to college students. 40% of PhD students now report mental health concerns (3) and the rate of treatment of students for mental health issues increased from 19% in 2007 to 34% by 2017, while the percentage of students with lifetime diagnoses increased from 22% to 36% (4). Twenty percent of adults have anxiety disorder (5) and suicide rates have increased 33% between 1999 and 2017 (6). And we see this in our own students at the University of Minnesota; each year, more of them struggle with anxiety and academic performance issues and are availing themselves of Boyton’s Mental Health Clinic UM support systems (7).

Why in the face of data that many aspects of our lives are improving are we feeling such despair? And what can we do about it?

Most of our country’s assets are concentrated in a very small portion of the population, leaving the majority of the population wanting what they can never obtain, yet constantly struggling, anxious and fearful about their existence. Social media, our hypercompetitive culture and populist philosophies are contributing to increased social isolation and mental health issues.

In short, we have forgotten how to care for each other. Ethics of Care (8) is a moral position that asserts the “interconnection and interdependence of all beings and things, and with it a responsibility to appreciate the impact of action on others. (9)” Buddhism teaches us that all living things are sentient beings, deserving of utmost respect and that no harm should befall them. Both Buddhism and Ethics of Care incorporate meditative and mindfulness practices to allow an individual to develop compassion and kindness as the path to ultimate happiness and enlightenment. Scientific studies have shown that these practices are key to bringing together our conscious mind with our core-values and experience of self and emotional reactions that ultimately allow us to make a morally correct decisions8. Such practices are now being introduced into schools (10,11) and suggest that such approaches have a generally positive effect on decreasing anxiety and increasing cognitive performance. Perhaps incorporating such practices into college curriculum’s would help alleviate some of the increasing mental health concerns we are seeing and make many of us happier and reinvigorate our human community.

  8. Walker, M. U. (2008). Moral understandings: A feminist study in ethics. Oxford, UK and New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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