Reflections on my Social Baseline: Keeping up the Energy to Go it Alone

The prognosis for single middle-aged men like me is not good. The overwhelming evidence is that I am part of a demographic with higher rates of physical and mental illness and lower life expectancy. In my private Lake Wobegon effect, I like to believe that I could be an exception to that trend. My improved diet and exercise regimens over the past 5 years have certainly fostered that beneficent delusion, but so has the content of my research – how people regulate their own emotions and the emotions of others. Trying to understand the human condition more broadly has provided at the very least a narrative framework for my own personal growth. As I am currently working on a grant on Social Baseline Theory, these ideas have infiltrated my most recent contemplative strivings for eudaemonia.

Today, while reading Sapiens in the tub during my morning coffee, I reflected on my past 2 days, and the low energy state that persisted, in light of my ability to self-regulate and relative dearth of immediate social support....



The first 4 months of 2017 have been intense. Only this week have I begun to make the transition to summer mode – sustained effort on research projects, writing regularly, and working on the garden and yard. Every year, this transition is a bit of a challenge.

On the one hand is the glorious exhale and release of the stress from a relentless schedule. Thoughts are more expansive and contemplative. I have time to read. “Need to” shifts to “want to” as choice of what to do today blossoms overnight.

On the other hand is the confrontation of the many, many things that were put on the back burner - everything from the things I planned to do when I bought the house to getting the hardware to hang my new hammock to drafting up a job description for a new position in my lab. They pile up on the “should do” list. It is a long list.

At times like these, the shoulds and the wants battle it out to the point that I shut down a little, take stock, and work on my acceptance through temporary avoidance. Everything will get done, or at least all of the shoulds and most of the wants, and I will be happy and satisfied with steady and sometimes fitful progress. Apparently, if I allow myself a few days of relative indolence, indulging a TV series binge or a game of Civilization 2 or reading my current book, the overwhelm turns to whelm and I am back to advance my various causes.

This used to be a source of depression for me as I beat myself up for taking the phone off the hook and disappearing for a while. Over the past 5 years or so, however, depression has ceased its insipid pull. I have stopped shoulding all over myself. This feat of self-regulation is a source of pride but also mystery, as I know I have not slain the dragon but merely banished it to a remote cave. Now, as my research shifts to understanding “co-regulation”, I am working through how to make sense of my life through that lens.

I have written about Social Baseline Theory online as well as in scientific journals, so I won’t go too deep into it here. The gist is that our brains and bodies expect to share burdens and resources with others, going it alone is evolutionarily and functionally anomalous. These burdens and resources can be material, like food and safety, as well as psychological, like emotions and stress.

This may not seem like a big insight as many a poet (No Man Is an Island), song (Lean on Me), and movie (Groundhog Day) grind this into our collective consciousness. But both science and American culture get this backwards. The assumed story is that the presence and support of others enhances individual functioning. Both the isolated scientific study participant and the idealized pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps American ideal begin with the individual and then extol the benefits of adding lover, spouse, family, and friend. That is, the baseline is the individual. Thus, people live longer and better because they have added significant support. Biology and neuroscience now indicate that the opposite is true, our baseline is social. Going it alone is a deficit, the burdens of life are not shared and therefore a solitary individual must effortfully and inefficiently expend a great deal of energy toward self-regulation.

For many aspects of my life, I have built a foundation of self-reliance. Although I continue to have some intimacy in friendships and work well in teams of researchers, I have tended to go it alone. To the point that now I have constructed a satisfying and meaningful life living single and working on what I find interesting. Still, as with probably many or even most people, challenges occur, whelm becomes overwhelm, the shoulds loom large. These (now very) short-lived low energy states that I get into, like the past couple of days, may be a metabolic balancing act, a replenishing of my self-regulatory stores, recovery from having all the burdens on my shoulders alone. Because I have the luxury of making a living that allows me flexible scheduling and working from home, I can periodically indulge this need to replenish. Accepting this need has kept me buoyant. I no longer confuse low energy with a failure and thus evoke depressive appraisals; instead, like just simple fatigue inspiring an early bedtime, I clear the decks for a day or two to recharge the battery.

Maybe that will be the trick to improve my prognosis…



What if?

I once saw the Cirque de Soleil Imax movie Journey of Man. It was exquisite. Unlike the theater shows in which the observer, me, is in a fixed position, with film the viewer’s perspective is under creative control as well. Sweeping aerial shots combined with detailed close-ups across various ecosystems, at the scale of evolution and individual development from birth to death. It was transcendent. As I left the theater, I had an epiphanous feeling that if humans could make something so beautiful and moving, then we as a species are going to be ok. We will figure it out, whatever “it” threatens us.

We will figure it out because of the driving force of “what if?”

This question propelled mammals and ultimately humanity forward through millennia. What if we let the dense and bitter root soften in the fire before we eat it? It is the backbone of modern scientific and technological development. What if DNA is shaped like a double helix? Our most lucrative entertainment franchises are an exploration of the possible, the improbable, or the unbelievable. What if there were genetic mutations that gave a select number of people superhuman powers?

The modern mantra, especially in the US, is that you can become anything you want. Freedom means freedom to choose, choose your favorite fate or mate. Millions have died to secure opportunities of possibilities for future generations. Now that this ideological abstraction has become the reality for more and more people, humanity should be thriving, awash in actualized possibilities.

We are. But then why are modern people so anxious? It is estimated that approximately 1 in 5 people (in North America at least) experience severe anxiety symptoms and this proportion can double if you include those who have elevated but not clinically diagnosable levels of anxiety.

Soren Kierkegaard argued that anxiety is the engine of creativity. It is how we face the “yawning abyss” of freedom, the possibilities before us. But it is the engine of shame as well. Freedom begets choice, choice can result in success or failure, failure can fuel guilt or shame. Like many characteristics of the human experience, anxiety is neither good nor evil. It is a source of energy that can be harnessed, bottled, or left unfettered.

In the age of profit from diagnoses (and anxiety is one of the most profitable diagnoses out there) it is imperative to understand anxiety in all of its forms. There is anxiety the cognition, anxiety the emotion, anxiety the mood, and anxiety the pathology. This is why one of the core themes of this blog is Anxiety Runs the World.

For this blog theme, I will consider answers to many questions, including: What is anxiety? How is anxiety different from fear? How and why did anxiety evolve? Are there people who do not experience anxiety? How do you create an anxious kid? Are people more anxious today than they were in the past? How does play relate to anxiety? What is the difference between anxiety and stress? How has religion been the primary means for managing anxiety? How does anxiety relate to aggression? How does anxiety influence public policy, legislation, and politics? Could the 24/7 news machine survive without anxiety? Is there a downside to freedom of choice?