Postcard From London: Thrive, With a Distinctly British Accent
LONDON — “The English are not very spiritual people,” goes the quote, often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, “so they invented cricket to give them some idea of eternity.” Having recently arrived in London, I can happily say that, when it comes to matters of the soul, the British have evolved quite a bit since Shaw’s quip. I’m here for the UK publication of Thrive and for a meeting with all of our HuffPost international editors, and what I’ve found so far is that the renowned stiff upper lip is softening.
Of course, as in the United States, the picture is mixed. On the one hand, this country, known for its proud independence and zealous maintenance of very old traditions, is no stranger to all the ills and afflictions that come with our modern, tech-driven and decidedly broken definition of success. On the other hand, in many ways, Brits have surpassed their Yankee younger sibling both in terms of realizing the extent of the problems they face and in moving to institutionalize and scale up the obvious solutions. Perhaps this is no surprise, since many of these solutions are themselves products of ancient wisdom that have since been unambiguously validated and confirmed by science.
There is an abundance of evidence that this island — so much of whose history has been shaped by physical separation and isolation — has been ensnared by what Belgian philosopher Pascal Chabot called “civilization’s disease”: burnout.
- Stress is now the single biggest cause of illness in the U.K.
- There are over 100 million days lost to stress in the U.K. each year,costing businesses £1.24 billion.
- Anxiety and depression, the two biggest mental health conditions in the U.K., cost British business £26 billion per year in sick days.
- Of nearly 10,000 employees surveyed, 85 percent of workers had health risk profiles of someone four years older, and 20 percent had the same risks as someone eight years older.
- Human resource directors at leading British companies believe 30 percent of workers are suffering from burnout.
- From 2007 to 2012, prescriptions for anti-depressants went up from 33.8 million to 50.2 million, and since 1991 they’re up a staggering 495 percent.
- The cost of sleeping pills to the National Health Service is increasing every year, and is now at £50 million.
- Nearly a third of British women report feeling stressed all the time.
- British workers receive among the lowest number of paid holidays in Europe.
- Of 1,000-plus working parents surveyed, 83 percent felt guilty about how much they work, and half said it had a negative effect on their relationships with their children. “If we are slaves to work, our family life seems to suffer by default,” said Cary Cooper of Lancaster University. “Work smarter, not longer should be our mantra.”
One of those negative effects is that, as in the U.S., British children are spending more time looking at screens, which a report from Public Health England says is associated with “lower levels of well-being.” In fact, the Health Behaviour of School-Aged Children Survey found that 30 percent of British adolescents have emotional well-being levels that are considered “low grade.”
And, as is also the case in the U.S., the financial services sector here has become the poster child of burnout. Last year, a story captured the attention of the banking industry in the U.K. In August 2013, a Bank of America Merrill Lynch intern named Moritz Erhardt was found dead in his apartment after working for around 72 hours straight. He died of an epileptic seizure, and while coroner Mary Hassell said there was no way to be sure, she also said that “one of the triggers for epilepsy is exhaustion and it may be that because Moritz had been working so hard his fatigue was a trigger for the seizure that killed him.” Over those 72 hours, he got home at 5:00 a.m. each night, showered quickly, and returned to his desk, something apparently known in banking circles as “magic roundabout.” Of course, what would actually be magic is if this way of working didn’t have profoundly destructive effects.
Moritz’s tragic death widened a conversation that was already taking place about the need to change a destructive workplace culture in the U.K. Though there is still a long way to go, there’s also been a lot of progress. Earlier this month, theDaily Mail declared that “a so-called ‘quiet revolution’ is gripping the City of London,” with more and more finance workers realizing the benefits of mindfulness, and the Bank of England, KPMG, and Goldman Sachs, among others, instituting mindfulness, meditation, and well-being programs.
The National Health Service reports that record numbers are embracing meditation. “In years to come,” said Sally Boyle, head of Goldman Sachs’ human capital management, “we’ll be talking about mindfulness as we talk about exercise.” And at the Mindfulness Project, which teaches meditation, co-founder Alexandra Frey says they’ve been “overwhelmed by the response,” especially from the financial industry.
Just as important, awareness is spreading to those who make national policy as well. This month, an all-party group was formed to look into how mindfulness could be used in criminal justice, health, and education. Lord Andrew Stonerecounted at the meeting how he was able to use mindfulness to center himself when he was sent to Cairo to meet with Egyptian military leaders amidst the country’s recent turmoil. “I didn’t know how to cope,” he said. “But these practices made a massive difference.”
The group’s co-chair, MP Tracey Crouch, told how mindfulness not only allowed her to stop taking anti-depressants but also made her a better representative. “I have given much better speeches in the House since I started mindfulness,” she said. “We genuinely can turn the UK into a mindful nation.”
And in a speech in 2012, Chris Roane, the Opposition Whip, urged Parliament to make use of the benefits of mindfulness in health policy. “Giving young people antidepressants is not the cure,” he said. “We need a range of tools and I believe that mindfulness will be key.” Nor does it have to stop with mental health. “How can mindfulness help with unemployment?” he asked. In fact, a few weeks agoThe Guardian noted a program run by Gary Heads that’s already bringing the benefits of mindfulness to the unemployed.
This awareness among policy makers, health officials, and industry leaders about the destructive consequences of stress has begun to have a large-scale effect. For instance, the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has created standards for employers to deal with workplace stress, and mechanisms for ensuring compliance. And, according to estimates by The Mental Health Foundation, up to 30 percent of GP doctors now suggest mindfulness training for their patients.
According to the BBC, in April 2004 there were two mentions of mindfulness in British newspapers, while in April 2014 the number was 150. So it’s no surprise that it seems like every time you open a newspaper here, there is yet another testimonial of a new convert. Anthony Gordon, CEO of a communications agency, wrote in The Daily Telegraph of how just five days of meditation gave him a new perspective. At the start, he had no idea what mindfulness was, and had only heard about it from friends. “By the end of the five days,” he writes, “I came away feeling that I had begun a process that had the potential to be as truly significant as I had been led to believe.” He concludes:
“My five days on this course renders me a total novice but it has awakened me to a means or a process through which people from all walks of life, through the most simple of techniques, can find a sense of stillness and calm reflection that, to my very cluttered mind, could be invaluable.”
And I was even happier to discover that Poorna Bell, the Lifestyle editor of HuffPost UK, is among the newly converted. “I kept finding,” she writes, “excuses to do work when I should be resting, and at night, my brain kept fizzing when it should have been calm and mellow.” She started using the Headspace mindfulness app. By day 8, she realized it was really kicking in: “This is the day I realise how my meditation is affecting the rest of my demeanor. There are moments on the Underground — specifically when my face is in someone’s sweaty armpit — that I recall the clear, calm space that meditation created within me.” And by day 10, she felt newly grounded while attending what could have been a stressful wedding: “My mother suspiciously squints at me. ‘Have you already started hitting the wine?’ she asks. ‘No,’ I reply, ‘it’s something much, much better.’”
The U.K. is also home to some of my favorite Third Metric icons. Like Mark Williams, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre at the University of Oxford. He’s also the co-author, along with Danny Penman, ofMindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World, and he’s been at the forefront of using mindfulness-based therapy to treat depression
Then there is the writer Alain de Botton, who is a cross between a philosopher, a poet, a life coach, and a travel guide. His latest book is The News: A User’s Manual, which explores how news has supplanted religion as the dominant common force in our society and what that means in our daily lives.
One of my favorite of his books is Art as Therapy, co-written with art historian John Armstrong, which is a guide to the ways in which great art can bring balance to our lives. “Art is one resource,” he writes, “that can lead us back to a more accurate assessment of what is valuable by working against habit and inviting us to recalibrate what we admire or love.” And in his 2005 book, Status Anxiety, he offered an amazing and prescient diagnosis of the building blocks of our broken definition of success. Though thousands of years of civilization have brought us great wealth, better health and scientific advances, he writes, we are also seeing “a rise in levels of status anxiety among ordinary Western citizens, by which is meant a rise in levels of concern about importance, achievement and income.”
And so we seem perpetually perplexed that along with traditional success we don’t necessarily see increases in happiness:
“We are tempted to believe that certain achievements and possessions will give us enduring satisfaction. We are invited to imagine ourselves scaling the steep cliff face of happiness in order to reach a wide, high plateau on which we will live out the rest of our lives; we are not reminded that soon after gaining the summit, we will be called down again into fresh lowlands of anxiety and desire.”
In January, he launched The Philosopher’s Mail, a website dedicated to bringing a larger perspective to our daily information diet. In one post, he talks about an image, taken by the Hubble telescope, of a cluster of stars:
“The image of the globular cluster is sombre, rather than sad; calming, but not despair inducing. And in that condition of mind — that state of soul, to put it more romantically — we are left, as so often when we look at the stars, better equipped to deal with the intense, intractable and particular problems and griefs we have to deal with. The tensions in my marriage, the frustrations of my work, the madness of my society, they are all part of the structure of the universe. We have to accept them as we have to accept the explosion of gasses a billion light years away.”
What a beautiful description of a pathway (at least on clear nights) to a greater sense of calm, perspective, and well-being. It’s what I love about his writing — how he brings a sense of the timeless, the poetic, and the spiritual and shows us how to combine and integrate them into our daily lives. And with his latest venture, he’s taking that one step further. In 2008 he co-founded the School of Life, “devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture.” Through classes, books, films, and talks, the school aims to show people “how to find fulfilling work, how to master the art of relationships, how to understand one’s past, how to achieve calm and how better to understand, and where necessary, change the world.” Now that’s a school I’d love to see more branches of. And I’m happy to say I’ll be speaking there on June 4th.
Then there’s Alan Rusbridger, who’s been the editor of The Guardian since 1995. Rusbridger’s interests and passions have always extended past the next day’s screaming headlines. He’s written children’s books, film scripts, and a play about Beethoven. While juggling stories about WikiLeaks and the U.K. phone hacking saga, he set himself the challenging task of learning to play Chopin’s famously difficult Ballade №1 in G minor. “What it was — DNA, psychology, a mundane need to have moments off the hamster wheel of editing — in my mid-40s, my ‘afternoon,’ I felt this… instinct to wall off a small part of my life for creative expression,” he wrote in the introduction to his book, Play It Again: An Amateur Against The Impossible. I look forward to attending The Guardian’s morning conference next Thursday.