Earl Lee


Arthur Brooks on COVID-19

This morning, I joined a conference call hosted by the student association at HBS where Arthur Brooks and Len Schlesinger talked about how humans deal with disappointment and regret and the implications on COVID-19. Brooks has written a few books on happiness so it was very interesting to hear his perspective on how we process this pandemic and the social isolation measures in place. I wanted to share my notes from the call because I found it useful in analyzing and adapting mindset as we navigate these times. I'll summarize my key takeaways but also attach my full notes which largely mirror the slides they covered. Additionally, I'm including a few links that have helped me understand the implications of various strategies to combat COVID-19 and the human aspect of this crisis, specifically, accounts from people who have been afflicted by the virus and healthcare workers' perspectives on the front lines.

Disappointment and regret typically evoke counter-factual thinking: thinking about what could have been. This is a good reaction for regret because you learn from actions (or inactions) you regret. This is not good for disappointment which is caused by factors outside your control. COVID-19 creates disappointment, not regret. For the college senior, they are disappointed that they miss out on senior year spring semester or that they are graduating into a tough job market. There is no value in thinking about a world without COVID-19 or one where the U.S. was more effective at containing it. Such counter-factual thinking is dangerous and largely a waste of time. One should think only about what actions they plan to take to make best of the facts on the ground.

Uncertainty and risk are related but not the same. Uncertainty exists when there are bad outcomes that are not understood and unknown probabilities. Risk exists when there are bad outcomes that are understood and known probabilities. Uncertainty stimulates the amygdala—fear, anxiety, etc. COVID-19 largely creates uncertainty which turns into risk as we better understand its implications. The individual takeaway here is that the majority of us have limited ability to take uncertainty from latest news and turn that into controlled risk, so spending too much time consuming news and Twitter at this time simply increases our feelings of uncertainty.

Social distancing causes actual chemical changes in our bodies because social interaction produces oxytocin. While I'm not fully read on the science behind how the body reacts to oxytocin production, it a severe deprivation certainly throws the body out of normalcy, so the effects of social distancing are not just mental.

So what can you do? Limit social media, limit news consumption. Increase video chatting, create structure for your life (less uncertainty!), sleep more, and exercise.


Full Notes

  • Disappointment: the error we make

    • Disappointment resembles regret.
    • Both involve what might have been.
    • Cognitively, we process them similarly, but they are very different.
    • Difference: personal agency
    • Regret: I wish I had done something.
    • Disappointment: I wish something different happened.
    • Experience of regret: I should have known better, I made a mistake, I want a second chance.
    • Experience of disappointment: I feel powerless, I have missed out on something, I have no control.
  • Dangers of disappointment and what to do about it

    • Counter-factual thinking (CFT): Imagining alternatives to life events that have already occurred.
    • Rumination: "Chewing the cud"
    • CFT + rumination = Repetitive thinking about what might have been
    • This allows us to "practice for next time" in case of regret.
    • But it is almost completely unproductive for disappointment because there is no agency.
  • Neurobiology of Fear

    • Fear processed in amygdala.
    • Fear response to perceived danger or possible threat.
    • Amygdala reacts to threats in 74 ms much faster than prefrontal cortex.
    • Releases norepinephrine.
  • Uncertainty provokes primal fear.

    • Uncertainty not risk
    • Risk: bad outcomes are understood, probabilities known.
    • Uncertainty: bad outcomes not understood, probabilities unknowable.
    • Uncertainty might hide a mortal danger or threat, so it stimulates amygdala.
    • In clinical studies, intolerance of uncertainty (IU) is significantly correlated with eating disorders.
    • Theory: Sensitivity to uncertainty leads us to seek areas of greater control in our lives, which can be destructive.
    • Note for future use: Facing uncertainty, managers sometimes become despotic.
    • You think you can turn uncertainty into risk by spending time on social media and news trying to learn. In fact, you're not achieving uncertainty to risk transference. You're just stimulating amygdala.
  • Loneliness, oxytocin and social distancing

    • Oxytocin - love hormone
    • Social distancing causes actual chemical and physiological changes.
  • Disappointment: action steps

    • Acknowledge: I am disappointed, not regretful.
    • Recognize: I have done nothing wrong and cant change this.
    • If you catch yourself thinking what you could've done, stop.
    • Resolve: I choose to accept the current circumstances and move forward.
  • Ways to deal with fear of uncertainty

    • Avoid it: Try not to think about uncertainty.
    • Fear becomes vague and chronic, leading to anxiety and displacement behaviors.
    • Neutralize it: Try to turn uncertainty into risk with more facts and greater understanding.
    • All day on the Internet won't have this effect, though! It's a waste of time.
    • This technique not recommended in COVID-19.
    • Let go of it: Understand the problem and let go of the illusion of control
    • State aloud, each day: "I don't know what is going to happen today, tomorrow, or next week, but I am going to live my life today."
  • Oxytocin to-dos

    • Limit social media to 30 minutes per day and instead use FaceTime, Zoom, etc to interact with people—use these 1-2 hours per day.
    • Brain craves social media because it craves oxytocin under social isolation. Social media doesn't actually have the same effect though.
    • Studies show that beyond 30 minutes a day, under any circumstance including outside COVID-19, you actually feel lonelier. Less than 30 minutes a day is ok though and can be good. Social media should be a complement, not a substitute for social interaction.
    • Call lonely people today!
    • When co-located with other people: 20 seconds of hugging per person, every two hours.
    • You can max out oxytocin receptors with 20 second hug. 20 seconds is actually very long time for a hug.
    • Arthur Brooks does this with his family to max out oxytocin production during quarantine.
    • Same thing for eye contact. 3 second eye contact stimulates oxytocin production.
    • Make eye contact with quarantine partners, strangers, and even your dog.
    • One of the greatest secrets to happiness is giving other people happiness.
    • Keep a gratitude journal.
    • Create structure for your life. Write a list of todos for the day including things like exercise, meditation, and prayer.
  • Other

    • Ability to get out of game of social comparison by limited social media is profoundly positive on people's lives.
    • Unhappy HBS grads had non-diversified portfolio in life, i.e. only focused on career as opposed to family and friends.