A Case for Optimism on the Health of American Society

This post, from The New Yorker’s Maria Konnikova, provides some hopeful news for those who feel constantly stressed by all of life’s distractions and challenges. It shares the results of a study undertaken by the University of Miami that show with only three 20-minute meditation sessions per week, students became much less stressed and did better on memory and focus tests that were administered throughout the semester. Getting less stressed as a semester of college progresses and professors unload mounds of homework on you seems impossible – yet apparently a bit of meditation does the trick. It gets better too: not only does practicing meditation affect these improvements, but it also prevents your levels of stress and memory from worsening. While the group who undertook the mindfulness sessions showed less stress, and a greater ability to focus and use working memory, the control group who did not receive any mindfulness instruction worsened on the tests as the semester progressed.

Finally, you come to the last sentence of the article – “It’s a cultural shift.” This sentence refers to the growing recognition that, just as exercise does wonderful things for your physical health, mental exercise improves your mental health. I love this sentence because it gives hope to people (like me) who worry that the prosperity we enjoy in modern societies have made dulled our senses and left us stagnant, both individually and culturally. It shows that while our lifestyles in wealthy democracies may have unleashed a torrent of perils on our health, our societies, and our world, we still have the power to listen to the evidence, and shift our behavior and opinions for the better.

This might seem like a lot to takeaway from one research study on the mental health benefits of regular meditation, but I feel my conviction strengthened by another hopeful trend: the shift of public opinion towards marijuana legalization, and the accompanying debate around the merits or flaws of this approach. I personally think the legalization of marijuana would lead to a more just society, by funneling money away from cartels and ending racially biased penalties for using a comparatively harmless drug. Yet just because more people are starting to agree with my opinion doesn’t automatically mean that society is progressing – my ego isn’t that big. No, what makes me optimistic is that people are looking at the evidence on how successful the war on drugs has been, and they’re looking at their own experience with drugs, and deciding that we need to start considering different approaches. This new willingness to discuss issues about drugs isn’t just about legalization though, it’s also opening up important debates about addiction and drug abuse, not only for weed but for alcohol and other drugs as well. The opening of this national debate is epitomized by the President’s recent assertion that pot is less harmful than alcohol or cigarettes, and then re-affirming that message in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. In the interview, he also signaled his willingness for decriminalization of marijuana, and called on legalization advocates to ask themselves tough questions about the unintended consequences legalization could have (e.g., the potential for more drug abuse). It’s refreshing to have our president finally speak to us like reasonable adults – even if in other areas, he seems to think public opinion is just misguided and needs a good ole’ government public relations campaign to change their minds (read: NSA leaks). If we really can have a national debate around these issues, it would show a maturity and honesty that would make me more hopeful about the health of our body public.

Put simply, the message these trends deliver is powerful: progress towards a better society is never certain, but we can make it happen if we strive towards it in our personal lives, and in our participation in self-governance. 

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