Next Steps

by Jim Logan

Where do you go when every door feels like a trap? If your life feels like an unbroken series of disorienting surprises over the past two years, how do you find the space to stop and get your bearings?

We hardly need to explain why so many of us feel besieged. The pandemic, atrocities in Ukraine, climate change, zero-sum politics — the sensory and emotional overload have many of us awash in anxiety and despair.

So what is the way forward? How can we find our paths through the noise and establish some semblance of what we used to call “normal,” however we define it?

As in all difficulties, there is no magic pill to fix things. We’re going to have to learn how to process the chaos that bombards us, and how to reconnect with one another.

It’s a tall order, but Michael Mrazek would like a word. The director of research at UC Santa Barbara’s Center for Mindfulness & Human Potential, Mrazek has shown through his research that mindfulness — being present and in the moment — is uniquely relevant to our lives right now.

“One very tangible benefit is that in mindfulness you’re training your ability to focus,” he said, “and that’s a very valuable skill, especially these days in the era of unlimited distraction.”

Indeed it is, especially in a hyperconnected world that seems to prioritize projecting the worst of humanity. If all we see is terrible, Mrazek said, it’s hard to find peace or happiness. And it’s not a circumstance limited to the present. We’ve always thought the present was a cacophony of catastrophes. What we need is perspective. And a little mindfulness.

“The world has never been without crisis and tragedy,” he said, “and if it were necessary to solve all of the world’s most dire problems before individuals could find peace and happiness, then we would all be relegated to a life without peace and happiness. It’s really important to seek compatibility between our own happiness and our aspirations to address the world’s problems.”

Truth is, there are plenty of ways to find our balance.

David Cleveland, a research professor in UCSB’s Environmental Studies Program who studies (and practices) sustainable food production, says that growing some of your own food can offer surprising benefits and comfort. It’s not just about eating fresher, better food with a lighter environmental and climate footprint; it’s also about connecting with nature and each other.

When the present feels hopeless, growing food, either at home, in school or in community gardens, “opens up an avenue forward, a greater understanding and empathy with the natural world, which is what so many of us lack these days,” Cleveland said. “Gardeners grow to value being outside, learning about plants and soil, and working with other people.”

We could go on, but you get the point: So many of us are searching for calmer waters. The stories that follow explore how to find them and examine some of the ways we can pick ourselves up and step into a saner, healthier world.

It’s time, don’t you think?

Flip the Script

by Shelly Leachman

The sun rises every morning, beaming light and heat where it falls. Tides roll in and out, waves crashing onto sand then retreating to the sea. Birds chirp and sing and soar. Flowers grow, rivers flow. Leaves change color with the seasons.

Our planet is a place of incalculable beauty and wonder. Mostly all most of us can think about, though, is its impending destruction. The reality of climate change and unending barrage of bad news on the environment leaves us leaning glass-nearly-empty rather than cup-runneth-over.

 

What if we flip the script?

 

“It’s an unconventional way of looking at it, but start with lightness,” says Sarah Ray, author of the new book “A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety” (2022, UC Press). “Can you meditate today? Can you hear the birds around you? Start there. Most people aren’t even doing that. If we can remember our dependence on the natural world and on each other, then the work becomes pleasurable and natural and automatic, and then it’s not a slog and it’s not about stamina and sacrifice or deprivation or consumption and lack thereof.

“What is added to our lives when we do these things? What do we gain rather than lose?” posits Ray, a professor and chair of the environmental studies department at Cal Poly Humboldt. “What do we desire about a climate-changed future? What if climate action was framed around joy and abundance rather than scarcity?”

It’s not hard to see where the doom and gloom comes from. Insert the latest news clips on climate change here, or any number of research studies. The situation is stark. A largely scattershot, even impotent approach to climate change at the national level has left us in peril.

“Today’s predicament is due, in large part, to our inaction and misguided efforts over the last 30 years,” says industrial ecologist Roland Geyer, a professor in UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. “Thinking that it is enough to become a bit more efficient, buy ‘green’ products and put our recycling in the blue bin is what got us here in the first place.

“Even seasoned environmental sustainability professionals are starting to feel overwhelmed by how bad things have gotten due to our collective feet dragging over the last decades,” says Geyer, whose book “The Business of Less” challenges prevailing corporate strategies for sustainability and introduces a “net-green” approach.

“Individual action is often framed in terms of consumption choices,” Geyer adds, “but I think it is important to remember that we are lucky enough to live in a democracy and therefore are all part of the political process. I believe that, at this point, our collective public decisions are more important than our individual consumer and lifestyle choices. One possible impactful action is therefore to get more involved in climate change and other environmental politics, as an individual, through an organization, or maybe even as an elected official.”

 

Action Begets Impact

Ken Hiltner, director of UCSB’s Environmental Humanities Initiative, couldn’t agree more. A professor of English, he teaches multiple large lectures that consider the climate crisis from social and cultural perspectives.

“If you only have one hour per year to do something about the climate crisis, you’re in luck,” says Hiltner, an early pioneer of “nearly carbon-free” virtual academic conferences, “because that thing is the most influential thing of all — and that is to vote.

“Vote, get other people to vote, get involved collectively and think about personal things you do,” he adds. “We are approaching nearly 8 billion people on the planet so it’s true that whatever you do alone won’t make much difference. Some people turn that into an argument for why they shouldn’t do anything: ‘I wasn’t going to fly but the plane will take off without me anyhow, and what difference does one empty seat make?’ That’s the argument we’re facing.”

Hiltner sees a better way to view it: “Sure, one person not getting on the plane makes no significant difference,” he says, “but if 300 people don’t get on the plane, that’s one less plane that takes off. If 3,000 people don’t get on, that’s 10 planes that don’t take off. And if 3 million people don’t get on the plane, that’s 10,000 planes that don’t take off. We really need to think in terms of big, collective action.”

If action begets action begets impact, individual efforts that catch on could be the gateway to collective endeavors and, therefore, to real change. At the very least, they make us feel better. So goes the case for recommitting to lifestyle changes, experts say – to ease our minds and build positive momentum.

It doesn’t have to be complicated, says Matt O’Carroll ’13, UC Santa Barbara’s assistant director of grounds and landscaping services. For him, it starts at home — buying less stuff, repurposing everything possible, educating his kids about plants and empathy.

“There was this patch in our front yard and I was the only person that ever touched it, so we turned it into a native landscape where native pollinators come by,” O’Carroll says.

“We teach our kids and that’s meaningful for us,” he says. “We’re mindful of how we’re buying things: Can we find it in different packaging or buy it in bulk? Do we need it at all?”

Ultimately, he says, “I think we have to be optimistic. Each individual action is incredibly important when we’re facing something where there are a lot of unknowns.

“Different communities will be impacted in different ways,” he concludes. “Being empathetic to another person’s situation will make a lasting impression, and, collectively, we’ll have a better understanding. Being open-minded to change and making sure your individual efforts are environmentally friendIy is a great foundation to build upon.”

 

The Good News

There are some good Earth stories to be found. Renewable energy production is at an all-time high worldwide. The ozone layer, albeit slowly, is healing. In China, giant panda bears are no longer officially endangered. In Costa Rica’s La Ceiba rainforest, the Jaguar Rescue Center has started to rescue and rehabilitate orphaned sloth cubs and ready them for release back into the forest.

“Things are moving in the right direction,” says Geyer. “Environmental views and positions that were fringe only three decades ago are firmly mainstream now. Sustainable technologies that were immature and expensive, such as wind, solar, battery electric vehicles and heat pumps, are cost-competitive and ready to unseat the incumbents (coal, gas, ICVs, furnaces).”

Growing that momentum is imperative. At the personal level, embracing plant-based diets, battery electric vehicles, e-bikes, heat pumps and rooftop solar are all great ideas. But it’s going to take more than that to move the needle, says Geyer, noting that “bold policy” and “courageous legislation” will be required.

Which brings us back to the notion of collective efforts to get it done. Collective meaning together, in unison. In harmony? Is it possible that healing our relationships to one another, as well as to the planet, could be just as essential to slowing the clock on climate change?

 

Absolutely it is, stresses Ray.

 

“What ails us is the same thing that’s ailing the planet — severed relationships, disconnection between humans and the natural world, from each other and within our communities from generations past and hence,” she says. “Lack of connection is the root cause of the climate crisis. It’s also the root cause of our despair.

“If we think about climate change as affecting our physical and mental health, then inversely it is also true that taking care of our physical and mental health is a necessary resource to combat climate change,” Ray adds. “So yeah, start a garden, but also sleep, hydrate, control your inflammation. What you need is as much pleasure and beauty and joy and community and social and kinship ties as possible.”

She sums it up: “The climate needs us to be our most skillful selves. We can’t on our own fix the problems at huge scale, but we sure as hell can reduce the harm that we’re doing to ourselves and our relationships and our own species. We’re walking around making impacts every day; let’s do it more deliberately.”

 

It’s an unconventional way of looking at it, but start with lightness... Can you meditate today? Can you hear the birds around you? If we can remember our dependence on the natural world and on each other, then the work becomes pleasurable and natural and automatic...

Get Well Soon

by Sonia Fernandez

The Tsimané could be onto something:

This Indigenous forager-farmer group in the Bolivian Amazon has the lowest reported levels of coronary disease of any population in the world, and they rarely suffer from chronic conditions associated with aging – including stress.

“They experience loss of children, loss of relatives, floods, domestic violence, you name it,” said Michael Gurven, a UC Santa Barbara anthropology professor and one of the leaders of the multi-institution Tsimane Health and Life History Project. “[Yet] the people are very jokey. They’re relatively happy and less worried about the past or the future. They focus on the here and now.”

Not only does living in groups provide security and alleviate the anxiety of finding food, Gurven said, but it also has the benefit of protecting against social isolation and loneliness, which are associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

“Even though there’s a lot of unpredictability, there’s also a lot of confidence,” Gurven said.

Imagine.

Meanwhile, here at home, the American Psychology Association’s annual Stress in America poll found that U.S. adults “appear to be emotionally overwhelmed and showing signs of fatigue.” That comes as no surprise. After two harrowing years of COVID-19, compounded with economic and social woes, Americans were hoping for a reprieve. And then Russia invaded Ukraine, sparking new fears and anxieties for the future.

Show of hands. Who here has recently a) woken up in the middle of the night with your heart racing; b) doomscrolled through social media like it was your job; c) felt paralyzed with even the simplest of choices; d) failed to enjoy things that normally give you great pleasure.

If any or all of this sounds like you, welcome to the club.

 

Agency and Tools

It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of such adversity, whipsawed by doubt, frustration and unspent grief. But we have more agency than we might think and, like the Tsimané, tools that can not only effect immediate results but help navigate uncertainties about the future.

“We do know there is a mental health crisis, and even globally speaking, the last few years have been a collective event that has really shaken everybody up,” said clinical psychologist Maryam

Kia-Keating, a professor in the Department of Counseling, Clinical, and School Psychology at The Gevirtz School.

At first, everybody used the term “unprecedented” to describe the situation, Kia-Keating said. “But it seems like at this point, it’s just a continuation of everything being unprecedented, and it feels like it’s never going to end.”

She’s referring to the state of hypervigilance into which the world was catapulted in the first months of 2020, when COVID-19 evolved from a concerning though fairly distant event into a disease on everyone’s doorstep. Our threat detection systems went into overdrive and, overnight, we had to change how we lived our lives. We became alert to every bit of news. We hoarded things.

Fun fact: All that anxiety, those feelings of high stakes and the sense of impending doom are actually good things, ancient mechanisms in the body that have kept humans alive from our time on the prehistoric savannahs scanning for threats in the landscape all the way to today — as we scan for threats on social media.

“The quickest response is from epinephrine and norepinephrine — what we usually call adrenaline,” said Dr. Jay Winner, a family practice physician with Sansum Clinic and Cottage Health in Santa Barbara, who for decades has been teaching stress management. The heart races and blood pressure increases, Winner explained. Cortisol, meanwhile, increases glucose in the bloodstream for the shot of energy our muscles and brains need to fight or flee, while also reducing inflammation. Unfortunately, long-term elevations in cortisol also reduce our immunity and increase belly fat.

Optimized for short-term challenges and not for years of global existential threats, the stress response becomes a problem if left on for prolonged periods of time. The constant state of high alert leaves us feeling agitated and irritable.

“It’s a very reactive system,” Kia-Keating said, and this reactivity can often be seen in the form of short tempers and public meltdowns, as people navigate a world of high prices, COVID-related traumas and countless other challenges. “It’s good in the moment of survival, but in most other circumstances, you want to be proactive, calm and steady.”

 

Relax and Reconnect

With all the uncertainty still clouding the outcomes of the pandemic, the economy and so much else, it’s unlikely the stress is going to let up anytime soon. But we can control its effects on our minds and bodies.

“It’s important to reduce your stress for your health and your sense of well-being,” said Winner, who in his book “Relaxation on the Run” (Blue Fountain Press, 2015) links chronic stress to the worsening of a variety of physical conditions, from accelerated aging to heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome and diabetes.

Several times a day, and especially when unwarranted anxiety rears its ugly head, one powerful tool to counter the situation is to slow things down, just for a few seconds.

“You can take one diaphragmatic breath, in which you feel the abdomen expand, and then relax your neck on the exhalation,” Winner said. Doing so is thought to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, decreasing the stress response. The pause also offers an opportunity to assess the situation and check in with ourselves, a present-awareness practice that allows us to let go of the noise in our heads. It may be a challenge at first, Winner said, but with practice and a gentle approach, the deep breathing can become a habit.

We’ve heard this before and it can’t be overstated: There’s also no time like the present to foster quality social connections. It’s one of humanity’s best strategies for surviving uncertainty.

Among the Tsimané, strong social ties serve to buffer the strain of lives that by our standards contain high amounts of stress. Close friends and associates chat and share a laugh in the good times and buoy each other through hard times in a mixture of goodwill, trust and pragmatism.

Again, lessons for us all.

“We’re primates,” said Gurven. “We’re very social and we don’t like to be isolated.”

“We actually get sick more and die sooner if we feel isolated and lonely,” said Kia-Keating. “But the good news is that if you can surround yourself with happiness, that’s contagious too. When our support network feels happy, and lives geographically close by, our happiness increases. So, finding family and friends and being intentional about incorporating fun into your diet is a good recipe to try.”

Come Together

by Harrison Tasoff

We can do this.

 

Through active listening, open debate and one-on-one discourse, we can move past the moral darkness enshrouding many of us these days and step into a lighter state of being — and of being together.

A lot of us are struggling, to be sure, but experts agree that we can — and probably eventually will — find our way. It’s not like we haven’t had the practice.

Conflict is as old as humanity itself, likely older. And as a matter of course and history, it does end, but sometimes issues align in a way that can greatly exacerbate existing friction. That is where we find ourselves today amid economic and environmental woes made worse by a pandemic. A 2021 poll by Pew Research Center found that people in most advanced economies believe their society is more divided than before the pandemic. That feeling seemed most pronounced in Europe and North America. A whopping 88% of respondents from the United States held this view.

It doesn’t help that politics today are so frequently linked with other facets of society, like race, class and religion, to name a few. “Problems arise when suddenly all the us-them divides fall along the same line,” said Marilynn Brewer, an emeritus psychology professor at The Ohio State University and former psychology department chair at UC Santa Barbara.

What’s more, issues have increasingly taken on moral overtones, leading people to adopt heated, emotional viewpoints. “When people disagree with each other today, not only do they hold different opinions but they also feel that the other person’s opinion is morally wrong,” said Professor Heejung Kim, a social psychologist at UCSB.

Take healthcare, for example. Conservatives stress competition and personal choice and are often wary of government involvement, pointing to Medicaid and the Veterans Affairs health service as evidence of inefficiency. Meanwhile, liberals tend to value equality, compassion and the utilitarian aspects of healthcare, viewing it as a right that the government ought to ensure.

Both perspectives are reasonable enough, but conversation breaks down once morality creeps in. Remember the 2009 congressional debates? Republican former Alaska governor Sarah Palin warned constituents of “Obama's ‘death panel,’” while former congressman Alan Grayson (D-Florida) claimed that “Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick.” And that was more than a decade before the pandemic brought public opinion on healthcare to a fever pitch.

Because of this moralization, people don’t just disagree anymore but actually feel hatred toward each other, researchers say. This allows emotions to take over our reactions and reasoning, turning every interaction into a fight for survival. “When you approach things out of distrust and hatred, rational communication isn’t possible,” Brewer said.

To quote Master Yoda: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

 

Sharing Space

One thing most of us agree on is that we don’t want to talk to people on the other side. Nearly three in five (59%) U.S. adults reported these conversations were “stressful and frustrating” — with similar proportions among liberals and conservatives — when polled by the Pew Research Center in September 2021. That’s up from 50% in May 2019, when political discourse was by no means friendly.

Kim suspects people try to manage stress by avoiding individuals who don’t share their world view. But, she counters, interacting with different people is in fact crucial to bridging the forces that divide us. “Shared, hopefully positive emotional interactions serve as a very important glue in building and maintaining relationships,” she explained. Among neighbors and other casual acquaintances, she noted, these interactions only occur when people choose to talk to each other.

Neutral settings and mutual interests are helpful. Talk to people while engaging in a shared hobby, attending children’s after-school activities or watching a favorite sports team. These settings highlight shared identities and provide a less threatening context for addressing the issues that divide us. But don’t think you need to tackle them directly, Brewer advised. In fact, it’s maybe better if you don’t.

“A lot of people feel that one way to stop the problem is to get two sides talking to each other,” she said, chuckling. “I’ve seen some of those attempts; it almost always goes badly.”

Interaction and reconciliation must come indirectly, with the focus on something aside from the source of conflict. This helps people learn about each other and see each other as complex individuals.

“When you see another person who has very different perspectives and behavioral patterns, it’s very easy for us to think that they are irrational,” said Kim. “However, there is a reason why someone acts a certain way, or holds a particular belief, even if you don’t completely understand why.”

And you don’t have to. But getting a sense of someone’s experiences and background, and how they came to their beliefs, is far more productive than dismissing them outright.

Doing so doesn’t mean condoning behaviors or opinions you disagree with. As goes the popular aphorism (commonly misattributed to Aristotle): “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

students at campus point

Listen and Learn

What is it you want from these interactions? To connect with family or friends that hold opposing views? Perhaps it’s a general desire to heal the divide. Maybe you want to convince someone you disagree with to reconsider their stance.

“It turns out that no matter which of those goals you have, the thing that is going to move you toward that goal is a conversation that promotes connection and understanding,” said Professor Tania Israel, author of “Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide,” (American Psychological Association, 2020) which advocates for active listening skills as crucial to those conversations.

“Listen” is an anagram of “silent,” she noted. Rephrasing and repeating what the other person said, for example, enables you to verify that you’ve understood them properly and allows them to correct, clarify and elaborate. “And keep in mind that we probably have misperceptions of people who disagree with us,” she added.

Israel also emphasizes the importance of keeping our cool. Hearing something you disagree with — even if it wasn’t meant to be aggressive or provocative — can elicit an emotional response. Slow, deep breaths are helpful, as is physically grounding your body: Focus on the sensation of contact with a chair you’re sitting in. And remind yourself that you aren’t in physical danger. (Of course, if you are, get out of the situation.)

Ultimately, the way to finding common ground is in trying to understand the other person’s background, values, motivations and reasoning. “What is really important to remember is not that we are different but that we are different for a reason,” said Kim.

Israel agreed, recalling a time she brought together people who were pro-choice with others who were pro-life, and all of whom were willing to engage with each other. “It was honestly a transformational experience for me,” she said, “because while it didn’t change anything about how I felt about reproductive rights, it changed so much about how I felt about people who disagreed with me. It humanized them.

 

“That’s part of the power of dialogue,” Israel concluded.

“If we’re curious about where people are coming from and what values and experiences inform their conclusions, rather than simply arguing over those conclusions, then we can get somewhere.”

-Tania Israel

Additional Stories

Spring / Summer 2022

Additional Features


sports comic-book-style illustration

Gauchos Gone Pro

book with blacked out words

For Real?

painter's palette and microscope icon

Art of Science