A Psychiatrist Writes: Advice for 2020 – and Beyond

By Eva Ritvo, M.D. 

My best advice for 2020 is very simple. Use your mirror neurons. Let me explain.

We are about to leave a decade that historians, I am fairly certain, will look back on and declare it to be one of the most transformative in human history. We are deep into the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the shifts that have occurred are tectonic and have been incredibly rapid. The Fourth Industrial Revolution describes the radical changes in the way we live brought about by the Internet and Digitalization.

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The First Industrial Revolution was brought about by mechanization which allowed industry to replace agriculture, the Second Industrial Revolution by electrification and the production line, and the Third Industrial Revolution by nuclear energy and the rise of electronics.

The Revolution we are in is massive and is impacting every aspect of our lives. As we leave this decade, I suggest we pause and reflect on the way we are living and decide how to make the most of the process.

For a quick overview of some of the changes in the last decade, let’s give thought to the following;

For the first time, more adults in our county are single than ever before.

The 2017 U.S. census reported 110.6 million unmarried people over the age of 18 which is 45.2% of the American adult population. Many are happily carrying out their lives to a new set of societal norms. To previous generations, the vast array of options was most likely unimaginable. In 1960, 72% of adults were married. Among today’s growing single population, 63% have never been married, 23% are divorced, and 13% are widowed. Of that staggering single population, the majority are living independently of their own accord, 53% of singles are women.

One study found that, on average, 23% of Millennials live at home, up from 13.5% of young adults in 2005.

Hardly anyone smiles on the street and no one holds a door open, not because we are ruder but our attention is elsewhere. Many people are walking the streets in their own world in isolation with ear buds being the only clue that they have not completely lost their mind and are talking to themselves.

Worse still, drivers are also in their own world and checked out of their surroundings. Car accidents are up due to texting while driving. One out of every five car accidents in the US is attributed to distraction. Texting while driving is six times more likely to cause an accident than driving drunk. Answering a text takes your attention away for about five-seconds. Traveling at 55 mph, that’s enough time to travel the length of a football field.

Sixteen year olds are no longer rushing to get their driver’s license. What was formerly an eagerly awaited step towards independence is now being postponed. Lyft, Uber and other ride-sharing services allow us to continue texting for more of our day.

Self-reported rates of life satisfaction have decreased by 6% in the US from 2007 to 2018. Rates of mental illness have skyrocketed especially in our digital natives with one out of five college students suffering from anxiety or depression. Deaths by opiate overdose have more than doubled in the last decade.

Globally, politics have become more divisive. I believe this phenomenon is also attributable to the influence of technology. As our brains are on information overload, we look for simple answers. Since we have bathed them in a constant stream of cortisol (our stress hormone), our responses are often paranoid. It becomes an Us vs. Them universe. Moreover, as so much information is transmitted in writing not in person, it is much easier to say and believe derogatory remarks on Twitter and other social media outlets. Bullying is up in schools with one report showing that almost half of student reported being a victim of at least one incident with one in four reporting that they had been a victim of Cyberbullying.

So before you plummet into a depression by reading this article, let me flip the coin. There are many upsides to the Fourth Industrial Revolution:

  • Many people are living more active and productive lives into their 80s and 90s due to their increased ability to stay connected and to obtain better medical information.
  • Mindfulness is one the rise and more people are meditating with one study showing that over 14% of Americans have meditated in the last year.
  • The number of Americans doing yoga has approximately doubled this decade with 15% saying they had done yoga within the last 6 months.
  • Astrology is more popular as we use technology to understand ancient wisdom.
  • Charitable giving which has increased almost every year since 1977 and continues to rise.
  • Social Media has given voice to individuals or organizations which focus on specific social issues, such as #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #TimesUp
  • Entrance exam scores to colleges and universities have increased as we truly are becoming more knowledgeable as a nation. The number of perfect ACT scores is an astounding six times higher than is was eight years ago.
  • Online college and university education enrollment is growing by leaps and bounds. Online Learning and degrees are more acceptable in the workplace giving accesses to knowledge to unprecedented number of college and high school students, people over 55, and those who may not be physically able to attend a brick and mortar institution now have greater access to education. Additionally, some of the most prestigious colleges in the world, including Brown, Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Yale, Columbia, and the University of California offer free courses online.

As we turn the page on this decade, my hope is that we can gain a bit of perspective and make sure that these massive changes proceed in the best way possible with the fewest casualties.

As technology entices us into a new world, we must be mindful of all the pluses and minuses. We were designed to interact face to face. Our brains have mirror neurons. These neurons are designed to fire when we SEE someone doing or feeling something. Our brains naturally synchronize with one another. These mirror neurons allow us to imitate and empathize which leads to learning, compassion and care.

Scientists believe it was a massive expansion in the number of mirror neurons in our brain around 40,000 years ago that allowed the development of civilizations. We learned to cooperate with one another and from there language, tool use, and art began to flourish. As we could feel one another’s feelings, it became natural to want to help one another. Man became kind.

If we remove mirror neurons from our interactions, we are losing our essence. My best advice for obtaining “perfect vision” in 2020, is look up! Make eye contact and smile. Think about the lyrics sung by greats from Louis Armstrong to Rufus Wainwright. “When you’re smilin’…the whole world smiles with you.” Thanks to our mirror neurons.

So what can we all do to turn the page on this decade? Be kind to those around us and be kind to yourself.. Be mindful about phone time and your digital etiquette. Be kind to our planet as it desperately needs us. We are developing and being given incredible tools to radically reshape how we live. We must use them wisely. Let’s remember our origins and fill your lives with kindness. My wish for you and all of us is that the next year and decade brings a deeper sense of purpose and connection as we learn to integrate all that is new with all that makes humanKIND.

© 2019 Eva Ritvo, MD

The Editors
The Stewardship Report on Connecting Goodness is the communications platform of The James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation (www.lucefoundation.org). There are now more than 100 contributors around the world to this publication.