2020 is the year I decided to cut back on empty brain calories. That’s right, I swore off the mindless junk from social media. Because we are all likely to conduct more and more doomscrolling as the election nears and 2020 continues its infamy, I urge you to stop ingesting digital junk, and start reading a book.
To say that this has been a stressful year is a gross understatement. Much has been written about how ill-prepared we were to confront the pandemic and cope with the change and stress it has brought to our lives. Many of us are settling into our eighth month of quarantine even as our social and political worlds change. I believe our focus in navigating the pandemic may have caused us to miss an opportunity to wrest control back over our mental health.
There has been a lot of discussion about how technology—for all its benefits including keeping us connected amid a time of social distancing—played its part in contributing to our confusion with cognitive overload and misinformation. Starved for time and with limited mental energy, we are endlessly scrolling, constantly searching for ways to fill the micro-moments in our busy lives or distract ourselves from things unfolding outside our doors.
I know for my part this constant sense of tethering has been destructive. There are days when mindless scrolling on social media caused me more anxiety than I would care to admit. Perpetual connectivity has led to a plethora of early social media apps that are designed to addict and distract us. It’s no wonder that Marc Benioff, the chair, CEO, and founder of Salesforce, has gone as far as saying that “Facebook is the new cigarettes for society.” Fatigued by the cantankerous digital town-hall model where the loudest voices win, people are craving deeper, more private, human connections online—but we struggle to find it there. Over-scheduled and under-rested, the mandate for mental wellness has never been more important.
Now more than ever, we must make mental wellness a priority and make the time for it. According to the CDC, mental and physical health are equal components of our overall health. Our mental health affects how we think, feel, and act and therefore plays a role in how we handle stress, make decisions and interact with others. Mental wellness and mental illness are not the same thing, just like physical fitness and physical health are different.
I’ve found the antidote for stress to be surprisingly simple: Reading fiction. Stories have been shown promote empathy, social perception, emotional intelligence and other cognitive abilities that can lead to better mental health. Reading has also been shown to alleviate common mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, phobias and eating disorders. Luminaries like Bill Gates and Melinda Gates, co-chairs of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are avid readers and publish their book recommendations for all of us to enjoy. Bill and Melinda shared with me in an email, “Every time you read a book, it teaches you something new or helps you see things differently.”
Reading isn’t the only key to mental wellness, of course. In the past few months, we all had to learn new coping skills for managing stress and unlearn a few old habits. Here are some tips from my personal experience.
- Set a daily routine as much as possible with plenty of micro-breaks (lasting 10-15 minutes) so that the days don’t blur into one giant video call
- Mix the day up a bit with short walks, reading and games
- Make healthy eating choices and get enough sleep
- Call friends and connect with people with an intent
- Don’t be too hard on yourself; it’s normal to feel overwhelmed occasionally
Maybe you are swayed by the research on the benefits of reading or maybe you are skeptical. However, reading a great story does help leave behind the stress of the moment. Surely, we can permit ourselves a daily allowance of digital nutrition by reading a great story, and free our minds from the rabbit holes in social media!
Padmasree Warrior is the founder and CEO of Fable, a platform for reading books with friends. She currently serves on the boards of Microsoft and Spotify. She is the former CEO of NIO U.S, an electric car company, and former chief technology and strategy officer of Cisco.
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