Gay dating and hookup apps and the hidden cost of ‘distraction capitalism’

Essy Knopf distraction capitalism
Reading time: 7 minutes

Gay dating and hookup apps dangle the promise of in-person interactions, yet no one wants to meet—because of distraction capitalism.

What I’m referring to here is an entire industry dedicated to keeping consumers distracted in the name of profit.

Those responsible for pulling our strings are called “the attention merchants”. And the bad news is, every time you and I get taken in, we lose. Here’s how.

The allure of distraction capitalism

Countless battles are waged daily for our attention by the attention merchants, and one of the first staging grounds is the living room. 

As a child, Saturday morning cartoons were my ambrosia, the accompanying advertisements always managing to instill in me a hunger for the latest tawdry Happy Meal toy.

Eventually, I outgrew these shows, graduating to watching soap operas instead. Specifically, the NBC series Passions

Checking in with the slow-churning serial every day after school, I’d reassure myself that I wasn’t there for the melodrama. No—I was watching ironically.

“Hate-watching” wasn’t common parlance at the time, but in hindsight, it describes this ritual perfectly.

Trysts with current affairs programs followed. Many of these shows trafficked shameless in scandal and outrage. 

Part of me lived for the exposés of crooks and ne’er-do-wells, as much as another part lived to denounce them.

I would watch victims tearfully recount how they had been mistreated, exploited, or abused. The viewers’ sympathy having been solicited, the reporter would then embark on a crusade for justice.

Clad in business attire and sporting a wireless microphone, this feisty individual would pursue the accused across parking lots, reciting laundry lists of misdemeanors while demanding answers and apologies. 

The alleged perpetrator would dart into a doorway or duck into a car, trying to make a quick escape. If we were lucky, the encounter would lead to a scuffle with the camera crew and maybe even an accidental injury.

These confrontations of course designed to appeal to the viewer’s emotions, and it was the contrived drama of it all that made watching them such a guilty pleasure. 

Yet my high school English curriculum had brought with it a certain awareness of the media’s manipulations. 

And so my adolescent self usually came away from these shows feeling glutted, maybe even a touch queasy, like I’d just eaten a whole bag of caramel popcorn in one sitting.

The effect was similar to that evoked by the gossip magazines I’d glimpse in racks while waiting in supermarket lines with my mother.

What drew my attention weren’t just the unflattering, doctored shots of celebrities looking either livid, sick, or sleep-deprived. Nor was it the chance to get a glimpse behind the showbiz curtain.

In my hard-nosed way, I was hoping to interrogate these publications’ very slippery relationship with the truth. The fact I engaged with them at all meant the victory, by default, went to said publications.

In the early ‘00s, the object of my fascinated disgust became reality TV, a medium that shamelessly massaged both the truth and viewer’s emotions for maximum effect. 

No surprise that when I finally moved out of my family’s home, I refused to buy a TV set. Who were these broadcasters to think they could determine what I watched and when?

What right did they think they had to expose me to shouty calls to action and appeals to open my wallet?

Often, walking into a room in which a TV was blaring, I’d catch myself shouting right back, offering a snarky retort for the benefit of those present.

Yet just as often as not, I’d surrender, plonking down on a couch, only to stir minutes—sometimes hours—later from a fugue state, stricken by the realization that for all my cynicism, I had succumbed.

Distraction capitalism at work

TV shows and advertisements, gossip magazines, and reality TV are just some of the cultural phenomena designed to capture our attention through constant intrusion, often without our consent.

But according to The Attention Merchants author Tim Wu,

the competition is fierce that the race will naturally run to the bottom; attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative, whatever stimulus may more likely engage what cognitive scientists call our “automatic” attention as opposed to our “controlled” attention, the kind we direct with intent.

This is probably why, for all my skepticism about Passions and current affair programs, I still found myself watching them, primal emotions somehow managing to bypass my intellectual defenses.

The attention industry is an almost omnipresent fact of daily life. Yet its merchants are constantly trying to outpace what Wu calls the “disenchantment effect”—that is, our becoming desensitized to their methods.

Merchants respond to our adaptation with adaptations of their own. They either “up the dosage”, going to even greater extremes, or they introduce a novel stimulus, “a distortion for the sake of spectacle, calibrated to harvest the most attention”.

Hence the soap opera’s endless stream of dramatic turns, the trotting out of fresh scandals, or social media’s endless stream of dopamine-triggering notifications.

Essy Knopf distraction capitalism

How distraction capitalism adapts

The shift towards an online world has seen viewers faced with more choices than ever, resulting in a mad scramble by attention merchants not just to find new revenue streams, but to keep us transfixed.

Many news publications for example now require paid subscriptions. And, in a bid to draw viewers, some have shifted away from traditional broadsheet style towards the kind of “gossipy, superficial, and click-driven” tone one might expect from a tabloid.

Working in digital news, I have glimpsed firsthand a kind of desperation that can sometimes indeed result in Wu’s deplored “race to the bottom”. 

Sometimes this may take the obvious form of clickbait. Other times it’s gratuitous “breaking” coverage that spills over into multiple news cycles, producing more anxiety-provoking commentary and speculation than concrete information.

This desperation is by no means new; as the old journalism expression goes, “if it bleeds, it leads”. The media attention merchants have long known that reportage on scandal, catastrophe, death, and disaster is sure to secure an audience. 

But the shift away from traditional media has certainly led to an intensification in tactics, such as the adoption of more intrusive methods like news apps using push notifications.

Under such conditions, public interest—traditionally the driving factor behind reportage—can become eclipsed by a desire for private profit.

Netflix: a case study in distraction capitalism

Where commercial broadcast television previously employed advertising, “over-the-top” media providers like Netflix have, as in the case of some news outlets, relied upon subscription services.

But Netflix has also adjusted to changing viewing habits by employing “bingeable” programming. They do this by releasing new seasons of TV shows all at once or acquiring old series en masse.

Where traditional TV may shape stories around ad breaks, streaming programming may eschew this structure in favor of one geared towards binge viewing, with one episode often bleeding seamlessly into another.

All of this seems designed to produce an effect New York Times journalist James Poniewozik calls “The Suck”, “that narcotic, tidal feeling of getting drawn into a show and letting it wash over you for hours”.

This style of bingeable programming is an ongoing experiment, backed by Netflix’s comprehensive access to viewer behavioral data

Operating behind a one-way mirror, the company’s data scientists observe trends and gather insights. This knowledge is then used to inform their programming model, and to keep viewers hooked.

This is not a development exclusive to Netflix, but one broadly employed by modern attention merchants in what Shoshana Zuboff has called The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. (My take on the risk surveillance capitalism poses in the context of dating apps here).

When distraction becomes the ultimate goal

Author Tim Wu warns that for all the means now at the attention merchants’ disposal, it can still be an imprecise game. 

Technologies that enable more control over our choices than ever also “open us up to a stream of instinctive selections, and tiny rewards, the sum of which may be no reward at all”, resulting in a state of “distracted wandering”. 

Dating apps are just one example of this. As with social media, we may find ourselves regularly checking in with no express goal beyond securing the reward of a notification, a “like”, or a message. 

In some cases, this reward-seeking behavior can even spill over into addiction (I’m thinking here of operant conditioning). 

The allure is intensified in the case of platforms like Instagram, which democratize fame and promote self-aggrandizement. The result? “A chaotic mutual admiration society, full of enterprising Narcissi” who reward and reinforce each other’s behavior.

However purposeless our use of the attention merchant’s platforms might be, our very presence there is nevertheless regarded as a victory. Our continued reliance is, after all, “far better than being ignored”. 

Any usage after all results in surplus behavioral data that can be used by the service provider, or sold to third parties in what Zuboff calls the behavioral futures market.

None of this would be possible of course were it not for our always-connected culture, itself the product of technologies such as the smartphone, which renders social media check-ins, sharing, and selfies a mere reflex.

The attention economies as a result are now deeply embedded in daily life; normalized to the point that we often aren’t aware when merchants “nudge, coax, tune, and herd” us, to use Zuboff’s terms.

It is in the absence of such self-awareness, Wu says, that we inevitably find ourselves “in thrall to our various media and devices”.

Reclaiming peace of mind

Attention merchants profit from our involuntary behavior; from distraction and addiction, from funneling our desire for connection, validation, and information, into hypervigilant checking, comparing, competing, and performing for a horde of fellow digital voyeurs.

Involuntary behavior is the opposite of mindfulness, a quality widely accepted as being conducive to wellbeing. The degree to which the merchants exert influence over us can thus prove proportional to our health. 

Yet the media and technologies described here as noted are an inescapable part of modern life. 

Extricating ourselves from their hold requires fighting years worth of conditioning by the ever-hungry attention merchants, which more often than not feels like a fool’s errand.

We can begin by regularly “unplugging” and holding a “digital Sabbath”: a window of time such as a weekend in which to put down our devices and resist the urge to engage in checking emails, social media, Netflix, and the news.

It is only through such abstinence from the stimulation to which we have become so accustomed that we can achieve self-awareness about unhealthy attentional habits.  

We don’t need to suffer “fragmentary awareness” and the incessant interruptions of attention merchants. 

Rather, we should work to reclaim the concentration and focus that’s key not just to our productivity—but our happiness as well.

Takeaways

  • Recognize the attention industry at work.
  • Avoid involuntary distraction and addiction.
  • Reclaim mindfulness by “unplugging”.

Surviving in the social work field boils down to this single habit

Essy Knopf social work habit self care
Reading time: 4 minutes

What is your number one priority as a social worker? If self-care is not the answer, we need to have a chat.

Most Master of Social Work (MSW) programs will emphasize the importance of self-care upfront. It doesn’t take long, however, for this call-to-arms to butt up against reality. 

We as social workers must navigate many competing and conflicting priorities daily. This begins as early as school.

With so much to do during our relatively brief degree, our days are often dominated by assignments and course readings. 

Setting aside an extra hour for “you” time can come to resemble an unnecessary luxury. You may find yourself asking, “How can I afford to stop and relax when I have so much work left to do?” 

It’s a question I promise will continue to challenge you over the course of your career. For this reason, self-care is a habit you would be best served by building right now.

Here are some ways you can get started.

1. Make a commitment to self-care

If you can exercise enough discipline to study for multiple hours every day, you can certainly commit a minimum of one hour to self-care.

In strict cost-benefit analysis terms, your brain may try to argue with you about the necessity of relaxing.

It may feel good to have dedicated downtime. But time away from your desk may also put you behind in your work and feed your anxiety.

This can become a vicious circle: time anxiety persuades there is never enough, and while this might certainly feel like it’s the case, it’s not true.

The issue is not whether you have enough time to take care of your personal wellbeing. Rather, it’s your willingness to re-prioritize it. 

Let’s suppose you do. If you have time anxiety, this may worsen. But rest assured that over time, its death-grip on your psyche will weaken.

2. Block out downtime

Personally, I’ve found there are usually three windows each day in which most people can block out self-care time: 

  1. First thing, straight after waking up
  2. Midway during the day, such as during a lunch break
  3. Before bed, when one typically unwinds

The morning window works best for me (that is, supposing I get to bed early).

This period seems to afford me enough time to do a self-care activity such as meditation before my brain jumps aboard the “work ‘til you drop” train.

Another option is to dedicate a single day of the week such as Sunday to “you” time.

3. Permit yourself a personal life

Work is a hungry beast, and if we continue to encourage it, it will inevitably consume our personal lives. 

We may suspend social outings and quality time activities with our loved ones. Or we may sacrifice a hobby that previously enriched our lives.

Diligence and dedication in professional settings are admirable traits. But when taken to excess, they can lead to workaholism.

Having healthy boundaries quite simply means saying “yes” to all that is conducive to our welfare, and “no” to things that aren’t. And workaholism is definitely something that qualifies as the latter.

Don’t neglect your personal relationships for the sake of your calling. Refuse to become a martyr for your chosen social work cause. 

Instead, strive for a work-life balance. Schedule at least one social meetup a week. Revive that cherished hobby. 

Rather than constantly drawing from your well, take time out to replenish it.

Essy Knopf self-care social worker

4. Don’t go at it alone

Further to the last point, healthy relationships are like armored vans that can carry us through a warzone of difficult times. 

These relationships are thus crucial to our mental health and serve as an invaluable buffer during difficult times.

But they are only as helpful as we allow them to be. In times of need, don’t hesitate to reach out to coworkers, supervisors, partners, friends, and family members.

5. Self-care through the support of a therapist

None of us come to the social work field a clean slate. Each of us has a history, and the work we do can cause parts of it to resurface, both good and bad.

A therapist can help us with processing our experiences, as well as professional challenges like countertransference.

The insights of another professional can go a long way to supporting us in becoming better practitioners. 

6. Start meditating

Mindfulness-based strategies are an effective way to support mental resilience and ward off overwhelm and anxiety.

The most commonly known strategy is meditation.

Guided meditations can be found in person or online. UCLA Health for example has many recordings on its website, and there are subscription-based meditation apps such as Calm and Headspace.

An example of a self-guided meditation I use daily is breath counting. This is very simple to practice.

First, get into a meditation posture. A common one is sitting upright, with your feet planted on the floor, your hands resting on your lap, and your eyes either open or closed.

Next, count one, inhale, two exhale, three inhale, four exhale… Go right up to 10, before resetting to one. 

Every time your mind wanders or you become distracted, bring your attention back to the sensation of your breath and resume counting.

The breath counting meditation has the most beneficial effect for me when performed one to two times a day for 20 minutes at a time. 

If you are new to this kind of meditation, I would recommend beginning with a three-minute meditation, slowly work your way up to a longer session.

Whatever method you choose, know that finding your meditation groove can, at least, initially, be a struggle—especially if you’ve had no prior experience with mindfulness. 

For that reason, I would recommend starting with guided meditations or exploring free resources such as these five mindfulness-oriented phone apps.

7. Explore yoga or prayer as self-care

Another mindfulness-based strategy is yoga. If you can’t make it to a studio, try a virtual class. Many are available free to watch on YouTube.

Another mindfulness practice worth mentioning mention is prayer, which has been found to offer similar benefits to other forms of mindfulness. 

For these reasons, if you are spiritual or practice a religion, it may be worth incorporating a prayer practice into your daily self-care regimen.

Wrap up

If you’ve ever caught yourself saying “There is no way I can humanly do all of this,” know that you by far are not the first social worker to feel this way.

Feeling overwhelmed as we so often do in these instances is an opportunity to pause and check in with ourselves.

Are you getting enough time to recharge your batteries each day? If not, maybe it is time you carved out a slot in your daily schedule for a self-care activity.

Sure, it may not always seem practical. But let me ask you this: how much more practical is the alternative…professional burnout?

You can read more social work-related posts here.

10 must-read books for gay men seeking growth, healing, and an escape from the struggle mindset

growth and healing Essy Knopf
Reading time: 8 minutes

The coronavirus lockdowns gave us time aplenty to stew and fret. Some of us however took it that time to play “life catch up” or even to undertake personal growth and healing.

As a gay man, I know that it’s precisely when life begins to slow down that I find both the time and the mental bandwidth to seek out the personal insights necessary to said growth.

At the time, I proposed the following reading list to help jumpstart the journey for anyone walking a similar path.

While the worst of the pandemic is largely behind us, the lifelong quest for self-knowledge continues. The following 10 self-help books I consider mandatory reading for this quest. Here’s why.

Essy Knopf growth and healing The Velvet Rage

Understanding the gay struggle – the first step towards growth and healing

“Something about growing up gay forced us to learn how to hide ugly realities behind a finely crafted façade. Why is this so? We hid because we learned that hiding is a means to survival.”
– Alan Downs, The Velvet Rage

Even as an out and proud gay man, I felt like I was still living a life of subterfuge. Only now it wasn’t my sexuality that I was hiding but my vulnerability

My dating experiences revealed I wasn’t the only one struggling with an entrenched sense of self-loathing and shame. More than a few of us had been left emotionally crippled by our experiences.

Not only were we incapable of building robust relationships—we were also prone to seeking relief through substance and process (behavior) addictions.

The Velvet Rage argues however that there is cause for hope. Author Alan Downs charts the journey gay men must take from self-loathing to self-acceptance before concluding with a raft of invaluable suggestions for how we can live happier and healthier lives.

growth and healing Daring Greatly Essy Knopf

Transforming your life through vulnerability

“Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose.”
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

When I came out as gay, I was searching for connection and a sense of belonging. I was, in a way, looking for a replacement family for the one from which I had become alienated.

Initially, I looked for it at gay venues, like bars and clubs. I quickly learned that it was sex, not vulnerability, that many of the men I met were looking for.

These individuals might claim to have achieved self-acceptance, and yet their aversion to vulnerability was so total, the denial of shame so complete, that our relationships remained mired in superficiality.

Any invitation to be emotionally authentic was met with bewilderment, resistance, and even scorn. To those I encountered, being vulnerable was at best weak, at worst dangerous.

Daring Greatly author Brené Brown argues that this need not be our fate. “Shame,” she writes, “derives its power from being unspeakable. Shame keeps us small, resentful, and afraid”.

Her solution? Recognize it for what it is, understand its triggers, strive for critical awareness, and be willing to reach out to others and speak out about our shared experience of shame.

You can watch Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability here.

growth and healing The Body Keeps the Score Essy Knopf

Recognizing the influence of trauma

“Traumatized people are terrified to feel deeply. They are afraid to experience their emotions, because emotions lead to loss of control… Being traumatized is not just an issue of being stuck in the past; it is just as much a problem of not being fully alive in the present.”
– Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

I was 12 when my family began to fall apart. My older brother’s daily battles with my parents, his drug use, and random acts of violence, lying, and thievery reduced our household to a warzone.

My parents eventually buckled under the strain of it all, withdrawing emotionally and giving my brother free rein to bully me. 

The experience left me stricken with an unrelenting sense of loneliness and worthlessness.

Trauma was a word I exclusively associated with veterans or victims of extreme abuse. But as I came to later learn, trauma can be entirely passive, like emotional neglect.

Trauma for gay children is an all too common experience. We face it when we are rejected, assaulted and even cast out for our sexuality.

Bessel van der Kolk’s comprehensive The Body Keeps the Score is a deep dive into the manifestations and mechanics of trauma.

Readers will come away from it with new insights not only into their own experiences with trauma but possible treatments as well.

growth and healing Learned optimism Essy Knopf

Adopting optimistic thinking

“An optimistic explanatory style stops helplessness, whereas a pessimistic explanatory style spreads helplessness. Your way of explaining events to yourself determines how helpless you can become, or how energized, when you encounter the everyday setbacks as well as momentous defeats.”
– Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism

While my family was disintegrating, I was also being bullied at school due to a then-undiagnosed disability, Asperger syndrome.

My resulting depression and anxiety led to what Learned Optimism author Martin Seligman calls a “pessimistic explanatory style”. 

In moments of difficulty, I would resort to self-blame, telling myself I was unlovable and entirely deserving of my misfortune. These explanations came at a great cost to my mental wellbeing.

Learned Optimism argues that we can correct this chain of thinking by identifying the adversity we’ve experienced, the existing beliefs they trigger, and their consequences. By disputing these beliefs, we can alter the impact they have on us.

You can discover your own explanatory style with the help of this quiz devised by Seligman.

growth and healing Self-Compassion Essy Knopf

Being kinder to yourself

“Self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgment so that we can finally stop asking, ‘Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?’”
– Kristin Neff, Self-Compassion

Previously I’ve discussed the burden of “grandiosity”, a defense used by gay men against feelings of inferiority or covert depression.

The one thing I’ve found key to my recovery as a workaholic perfectionist is the very thing I’ve denied myself: self-compassion.

When our attachment as children to our primary caregivers is disrupted (more on this below), we fail to develop critical self-soothing skills.

This may cause us to neglect our own needs during times of stress or suffering. We may even seek distraction in grandiose or self-destructive behaviors, like addiction.

Self-Compassion author Kristin Neff offers a third alternative: practicing self-soothing through mindfulness, being aware of our emotional states, and responding appropriately to them with words and acts of compassion.

growth and healing Mindset Essy Knopf

Adopting a ‘growth’ mindset

“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over… Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?”
– Carol S. Dweck, Mindset

Those fixed in their thinking, like grandiose gay men, are stricken by a fear of failure and imperfection. 

As such, they seek success in the place of growth, superiority rather than self-acceptance.

But, as in the words of Mindset author Carol S. Dweck: “If you’re somebody when you’re successful, what are you when you’re unsuccessful?” The fall from such heights can be devastating. 

The opposite of a fixed mindset is the growth mindset, which calls for us to suspend constant judgment of ourselves and others. A growth mindset makes us more likely to seek out personal change and development.

The good news is we don’t have to be born with a growth mindset to enjoy the benefits. We learn to adopt one through practice.

growth and healing Boundaries Essy Knopf

Setting clear boundaries

“Setting boundaries inevitably involves taking responsibility for your choices. You are the one who makes them. You are the one who must live with their consequences.”
– Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Boundaries

Boundaries are crucial for all gay men because our right to choose how we live is one that often comes under the scrutiny and judgment of others, especially our own families.

As a gay man who enjoys a close relationship with my mother, I can safely say that it was one arrived at through continual negotiation, and a willingness to defend my personal boundaries. 

My transition to independent adulthood was predictably rough. My mother, for reasons that were perfectly logical to her at the time, would insist on trying to control or judge aspects of my life even after I left home. 

My decision to get a mini-mohawk, for example, would result in the silent treatment. Piercing my ears resulted in her nagging for me to “take them out”.

In moments of weakness, I would kowtow to her will, at the cost of mutual respect.

Renegotiating boundaries with our parents can be a particularly thorny process, yet it is critical to the longevity of your relationship as well as those that follow.

While the non-religious may struggle with Boundaries’ numerous Biblical references, Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s classic remains a vital guide to establishing better relations with our loved ones.

growth and healing Attached Essy Knopf

Understanding your relationship needs better 

“People have very different capacities for intimacy. And when one person’s need for closeness is met with another person’s need for independence and distance, a lot of unhappiness ensues.”  
– Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, Attached

Dating for me has historically been an uneven game of push-pull; a mismatch of varying needs and expectations.

It was only when a friend introduced to me the concept of attachment styles that the cause was at last brought into focus.

Our relationships with our primary caregivers from our childhood onward serve as a template for how secure we feel in the world. It also forms the basis for how we “attach” to others. 

Attachment falls into three categories: secure, anxious, or avoidant. Anxious people seek closeness and affirmation, avoidants seek distance and independence. 

Secures typically have no difficulty bonding with either type and thus serve as an ideal partner for anxious and avoidants.

While this all sounds rather formulaic, being able to recognize your own needs as well as that of your romantic partner is a guaranteed way to save both of you a lot of difficulty—and heartache—down the road.

Those interested in identifying their’s or other’s attachment styles can try this brief quiz by authors Amir Levine and Rachel Heller.

growth and healing Full Catastrophe Living Essy Knopf

Learning to meditate

“Mindfulness is moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness. It is cultivated by purposefully paying attention to things we ordinarily never give a moment’s thought to. It is a systematic approach to developing new kinds of agency, control, and wisdom in our lives, based on our inner capacity for paying attention and on the awareness, insight, and compassion that naturally arise from paying attention in specific ways.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living

In Full Catastrophe Living, author Jon Kabat-Zinn explains that while stress may be an unavoidable feature of life, how to deal with it or not deal with it is ultimately our choice.

For example, the trauma I experienced growing up was hardcoded into the behavioral circuitry of my brain. I found that later conflicts would invariably trigger them.

The resulting fight-or-flight response was often destructive to my relationships.

It was possible however to reprogram my brain to judge and react to every stimulus. This is the essence of self-awareness.

By practicing exercises like diaphragmatic breathing and meditation, we can learn to be present with our experience. Through mindfulness, we can learn to be aware of our feelings, rather than controlled by them.

Improving emotional intelligence

“People with well-developed emotional skills are also more likely to be content and effective in their lives, mastering the habits of mind that foster their own productivity; people who cannot marshal some control over their emotional life fight inner battles that sabotage their ability for focused work and clear thought.”
– Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence

The skills described above – self-awareness (knowing one’s own emotions) and self-compassion (managing those emotions), as well as self-motivation, empathy, and relationship management – are all critical to what Daniel Goleman calls “emotional intelligence”.

Emotional intelligence is a meta-ability that governs how successful we are in all aspects of our lives, from relationships to our wellbeing, to personal effectiveness and productivity.

My discovery of Daniel Goleman’s seminal work served in this sense as a catalyst for confronting my own trauma and seeking a fresh perspective on my struggles.

I accomplished this with the help of therapy, reading self-help and psychology books, opening up dialogues with others, and yes, undertaking meditation.

While some sections and theoretical discussions may not be relevant to all readers, Emotional Intelligence is an essential read for all gay men on the path of self-improvement.

How to keep mentally well during the coronavirus pandemic

Essy Knopf coronavirus pandemic
Reading time: 5 minutes

The coronavirus pandemic reached new and chilling heights shortly after I arrived in Australia to visit family.

Friends and the media had told me to expect the worst – sprawling supermarket queues, panic buying, fights over toilet paper – but upon my return to Los Angeles, I found calm and order. 

Lockdown had brought a range of unexpected benefits, the reduced traffic being one of them. There were the smog-free skies also, and the appearance of new public works projects.

But after a few days of self-imposed quarantine, my initially positive attitude began to fade.

I normally work from home and tend to mix up my daily routine with a range of physical and social activities. Twice a week I’ll go for a run down at the local park, explore a new hiking trail, or catch up with a friend.

Social distancing however now made these impractical, if not impossible.

As my motivation ebbed, I began sleeping in and stopped exercising. And gradually my mood took a turn for the worse.

Connect with loved ones

With many public areas now closed and regions under coronavirus pandemic lockdown, a collective retreat indoors has resulted in social isolation seemingly overnight. 

But the coronavirus crisis is not one that must be endured in solitude. For this reason, we should reach out to family members and friends. Chances are they’ll be equally grateful for our conversation and company.

If texting, calling, instant messaging, social media, or online multiplayer gaming aren’t doing it for you, consider throwing a virtual party over Zoom or Google Hangouts.

You can even screen-share a party game collection like Jack Box.

Manage your mental health

Modern hyperconnectivity right now cuts both ways. It means we can communicate with a tap of the thumb, but it also means we are bombarded around the clock with the latest coronavirus-related development.

The unprecedented nature of the global pandemic and the changes it has already wrought is likely to leave even the hardiest among us shaken. 

Left to ruminate on these extraordinary circumstances, our minds will naturally tend towards anxious and depressive thinking. 

“What if I catch coronavirus?” we wonder. “What do I do if shortages continue?” “Am I going to lose my job?” “Will things ever go back to being normal?”

The coronavirus pandemic, however, is an unprecedented development for which no individual can possibly be fully prepared. 

A more proactive approach involves striving to be aware of, and responsible for, our own mental wellbeing. We can do this by taking the following steps.

essy knopf coronavirus pandemic mental wellbeing

Keep exercising

Exercise improves the brain’s resilience to stress while combating anxiety and depression

If you don’t have a treadmill, exercise bike, or weights bench at home, don’t despair. The sun may be setting on TV aerobics, but intrepid YouTubers have already stepped in to fill the workout void.

There are countless free-to-view exercise channels and subscription-based apps offering access to exercise classes.

If high-energy aerobics or low-intensity Pilates isn’t your thing, you can always take a brisk walk, jog or run around the neighborhood.

Sunlight is a primary source of Vitamin D and getting your daily dose will help guard against depression.

Whatever you choose, set a schedule and stick to it. With most of us now homebound, establishing an exercise habit is more crucial to our well-being than ever.

Try yoga and meditation

Yoga and meditation are the kinds of practices most of us find ourselves putting off indefinitely. 

“Not today,” we say. “Tomorrow.” But when tomorrow rolls around, we become caught up again in the other distractions of daily life and continue to postpone indefinitely.

With productivity in Western society often treated as the only measure of success, slowing down – especially for the grandiose among us – is often equated to personal failure.

The coronavirus pandemic has placed a moratorium upon many activities, suspending out memberships with the cult of busy

Having more time than ever on our hands, combined with the stressors of a global pandemic, can result in a perfect storm for catastrophizing.

Meditation and yoga offer guaranteed relief from this kind of thinking. Not only do they support mental wellbeing – they strengthen our capacity for withstanding the travails of life and allow us to “cognitively reframe” life situations.

Those keen to explore meditation, yoga, and mindfulness can find a handy list of resources at the bottom of this article.

Practice gratitude

Gratitude is a form of emotional intelligence that doesn’t merely shift our thinking towards optimistic thinking. Rather, it counters what scientists call “hedonic adaptation” – our tendency to take things for granted – while improving mental fortitude.

A daily gratitude practice may involve something as simple as writing down five things that you’re grateful for, or free-flow writing for a period of time or specific length (e.g. five minutes or three pages). 

A phone call with a friend, a nice cup of coffee, enjoying perfect health – anything and everything goes. 

Practicing gratitude may feel difficult or “fake” at first, but remember you are learning to use a mental muscle. And like all muscles, gratitude atrophies from disuse, so maintaining the habit is crucial.

As The Upward Spiral author Alex Korb reminds us:

You can’t always find something to be grateful for, but just because you can’t find it doesn’t mean it’s useless to look. It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place… With gratitude, it is often the searching, the looking, the fishing for gratitude that activates the circuitry. You can’t control what you see, but you can control what you’re looking for.

essy knopf coronavirus crisis tips anxiety coping

Remember to laugh

If there is an antidote to the pervasive atmosphere of grim paranoia the coronavirus pandemic has brought, it’s humor. 

All the more reason to indulge in a golden oldie sitcom, browse YouTube’s many funny vid compilations, sample top joke tweets, catch up on a comedic podcast, or dust off a copy of your favorite comedian’s memoir.

For more ideas, check out these suggestions by blogger Marelisa Fabrega.

Enrich your life

A coronavirus lockdown is as much an opportunity to safeguard your wellbeing as it is a chance to enrich yourself.

That self-help book you were always planning to get to? Now’s the time. The environmental documentary your friend recommended? Well, what are you waiting for?

The new career path you wanted to explore? You’ve got no excuse now. 

Time to get cracking.

Takeaways

  • The coronavirus pandemic has changed the pace of daily living – embrace it.
  • Treat this as a chance to bond with those not-so-near but still dear.
  • Maintain mental health with exercise, yoga, meditation, gratitude, and laughter.
  • Now is the time to pursue the interests and activities you’ve been putting off.

Resources for the coronavirus pandemic