Mindfulness, mental health, and attitudes to critical social justice: Interview with psychologist Dr Oskari Lahtinen

Preface by Oskari: I gave an interview to John Barry at Male Psychology magazine. I thought the questions were interesting and covered many topics I haven’t written much about recently so I asked for John’s permission to cross post.

This article was originally published in Male Psychology magazine.

Written By John Barry

Dr Oskari Lahtinen is a psychologist and Senior Researcher at the INVEST Research Flagship Centre in the University of Turku, which is one of the top universities in Finland. He is an early-years researcher, and specialises in designing and evaluating apps that teach mindfulness and similar skills.

However it’s the other branch of his work that caught my attention recently – social justice attitudes. His recent study of the attitudes of around 5000 adults to social justice (commonly known as ‘woke’) ideas found that – spoiler alert – 85% of men reject them. This result is at odds with how loud the voice of social justice is in the media, so I was very interested to find out more about this study from Dr Lahtinen, who very kindly made time for this while on paternity leave.

John Barry (JB): Congratulations on the birth of your child. Is it a boy or girl? Is it your first one?

Oskari Lahtinen (OL): Thank you, it actually happened a while ago already. Finland is very generous with parental leave for both mothers and fathers, and also generous on when you can take your leave.

JB: My son was born shortly before the UK covid lockdowns started. Although the lockdowns were a nightmare in many ways, I was really glad to be able to spend a lot of time with him in his early years. What is your experience of being a new dad?


OL: I’ve loved it. First days of parental leave felt like a 1.5x improvement on my quality of life coming from ten back-to-back years of university work.

JB: We get two weeks paternity leave in the UK. How much do you get in Finland?

OL: We get a lot. The minimum in the new model amounts to something like 4 months. There are additional months the parents can transfer to the parent who wants to do a longer leave.


JB: Do you have any advice for new dads?

OL: I’m partial to using mindfulness in daily life so I’d say it’s useful to develop the ability to be present with the child when you need to be. It’s not worth as much to say “be present”, more I’d say take time to develop a background level of mindfulness by meditation practice. It’s easier to lift heavy weights if you took the time to train at the gym and it’s easier to be present if you put in your hours of meditation. I find it makes connecting with your loved ones easier, as well as managing emotions that arise when you’re repeatedly woken up in the middle of the night for instance.

JB: With the lack of sleep etc, inevitably things can get stressful. When you get stressed, how do you unwind? Do you use your Tita mindfulness app?

OL: I’ve been practicing meditation for a long time. The app is to help beginners learn mindfulness and I don’t really use it myself, although I’ve done so much testing on it, that it has amounted to using it like I would another app at times. Things can get stressful. I have found though that mindfulness helps a lot. I often feel quite frustrated if I have to get up at the beginning of deep sleep, but have noticed I get calmer and calmer after the initial frustration, even if I don’t get the sleep. Apparently negative emotions and my own (very mild) suffering act as “mindfulness bells”. When I notice I am suffering I almost automatically start paying attention to my breath and being mindful of the experience. Then I relax and don’t mind so much if I don’t get what I want (sleep). Some situations definitely test the parent’s patience, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised how much help meditation has been.

“Mindfulness may have an image problem, which is unfortunate for men, since it’s a cognitive skill that helps you regulate yourself better and have better outcomes in all kinds of life and work situations.”


JB: Men don’t tend to seek talking therapies as much as women do. Have you found a sex difference in uptake of mental health apps, or sex differences in outcomes from using these apps?

OL: Yes, there was a 5:1 (female:male) ratio in who volunteered to use the Tita app. Mindfulness may have an image problem, which is unfortunate for men, since it’s a cognitive skill that helps you regulate yourself better and have better outcomes in all kinds of life and work situations. It really has nothing to do with your sex. Perhaps mindfulness’s brand has been tainted by association with yoga and new age ideas, though, again – I like yoga as well and find it useful for maintaining good health. And I’m very critical of many non-evidence based new age practices.

JB: Do you think there are any downsides of over-reliance on apps and chatbots for therapy rather than seeing a person? I am a clinical hypnotherapist, but take the pragmatic view that if men can’t find a (human) therapist who they feel comfortable talking to (e.g. not feel judged about patriarchy or white privilege or other CSJA views), then therapists can’t complain if men turn to AI.

OL: Yes I do. I think one function of therapy is to offer some kind of “healing” relating to what in psychology have been called attachment relations. I think these relationships are imbued with all kinds of qualities that can’t be expressed in text: nonverbal expressions, intonations, possibly touch, and even smells and the totality of the visual experience and reciprocal interaction of being in the same room. Chatbots can probably replace some percentage of what takes place in face to face therapy, but what is the percentage – 20%, 40%? I don’t think it’s much above 50% at least.

Regarding the second part of your question about strongly ideological therapists, I don’t think that situation is currently very bad in Finland – that is I don’t think our overall therapist population is radicalized in that sense.

JB: You have researched school and university students and the stress they experience. It is very popular these days to say that smartphones are to blame for a lot of their mental health issues. Do you think this suggestion is true? Phones can be good after all, and have apps for educational purposes, mindfulness etc. Does the situation vary by country, perhaps?

OL: I follow our downward slide in the PISA results somewhat closely. Finland was the top country in 2006 and has slid way down since then. Our top 25% in math for instance now scores lower than the average student in 2006. This slide has largely coincided with the arrival and dissemination of smart phones. When I use one, I waste hours per day on stuff that takes me away from my important goals. I don’t know exactly what is causation and correlation in this one, but have solved the problem by swapping the smart phone for a 19 euro Nokia that only takes calls and sends texts. I’ve had it for 2+ years and have not looked back. I find the laptop and a wifi pad (if you need one) are more than enough internet. I don’t use social media at all, unless I absolutely have to. PISA results are not the same as mental health, but both have worsened in the same time span. I do think the new phones offer useful benefits and they would be great tools if they were not designed to prey on the worse parts of human nature and get everyone addicted. But that’s what they (i.e. social media, Youtube, TikTok, etc.) do at the moment and we have to adjust accordingly.

Image: New research regarding critical social justice attitudes.

JB: It’s been suggested that critical social justice attitudes (CSJA), campaigns and regulations can cause a lot of stress. Do you think this might be true? Do you know of any research into this issue? In Perspectives in Male Psychology we speculated that gender quotas in employment might cause stress to men.

OL: Again, things are probably better in Finland than they are on let’s say American campuses. If you are a moderate or even a centre-right academic working in the American Ivy League and your job applications go through DEI vetting and you’re required to present your own antiracism action plans, judged through the lens of a particular ideology, I’m sure that can be stressful. After publishing the CSJA study I don’t know for instance whether I’m still employable by some top universities with the worst FIRE rankings for instance. If I was competing for those jobs, I would find it stressful. Overall though, I would discourage a victim mentality and just focusing on working around obstacles and directing energy in changing the world for the better. Mindfulness is good for stress too, as is family life, doing sports, the outdoors, etc.

JB: Your new research has received a lot of interest. Can you say why you did it and what you found? I am very interested in the sex differences in support for CSJA attitudes, and also the mental health findings.


OL: There was a lot of talk about “woke” in Finland in 2020-2021 but no data on how much of it there was and where in the society we could find it. I wanted to operationalize it and measure it. I did one study at my university where I found out that yes, there was “wokeness” at the university, but it manifested more in certain fields (social sciences for instance) and was definitely more of a female than male phenomenon.

“Evolutionarily speaking, most women are attracted to masculinity and most men to femininity. Therefore moderate masculinity for men and moderate femininity for women are probably qualities that help you to have better close relationships with the opposite sex.”


JB: My research last year found that negative attitudes to masculinity are correlated with worse mental wellbeing. Do you think CSJA attitudes cause mental health issues, or that people with mental health issues are attracted to CSJA attitudes? Or is the relationship more complex than either of those characterisations?

OL: I’m fully open to the causation being either way, both ways, or that both are caused by a third variable. I would guess the causation goes both ways. Mental health problems correlate with having leftist views overall and even people on the left who don’t have much CSJA report worse mental health than people on the right in my data. I haven’t seen your research but I do find it a plausible proposition that viewing masculinity negatively would correlate with worse mental wellbeing. For my own wellbeing, I have found that basic evolutionary tendencies seem to be tightly connected to my wellbeing and I ignore them at my peril. This means sleep, proper nutrition, moving a lot, and taking care of close relationships and my family. Evolutionarily speaking, most women are attracted to masculinity and most men to femininity. Therefore moderate masculinity for men and moderate femininity for women are probably qualities that help you to have better close relationships with the opposite sex. Both can go overboard and you can have toxic masculinity and toxic femininity. I think a critical attitude towards those is probably adaptive. But disliking masculinity in itself will make for a hard life, as 50-80% of our tendencies come from genes and in males those genes heavily direct towards behaviors and preferences that are deemed masculine.

JB: The findings of your paper was based on a sample recruited from universities and readers of Helsingin Sanomat, which is Finland’s largest circulation newspaper. Do you think this had an impact on your findings?

OL: Probably and I discussed it as a limitation in the paper. The paper’s readership is likely to be better educated than rest of the population, as would be for the readership of the New York Times for instance. However, education was not a big factor in the results. The study findings were basically the same in all educational classes. It still might skew the results a little bit, as even the not as educated participants were still readers of Helsingin Sanomat.

“The finding that 60% of women view CSJA [critical social justice attitude] propositions positively, and 85% of men reject CSJA propositions, was an interesting result to see.”


JB: What is the main thing you have learned from your study, or indeed your research overall?

OL: The gender imbalance in “woke”. The finding that 60% of women view CSJA propositions positively, and 85% of men reject CSJA propositions, was an interesting result to see.

Image: New book on mindfulness

JB: It makes you wonder how harmonious a society can be when men and women have such starkly opposing views…?

 

OL: I guess I look at this as an aspect of political polarization. The 85% of men who reject CSJ includes many moderates but also an illiberal fringe of its own, when one moves further and further to the right. In the US this group seems to be larger than in Finland (and perhaps the UK). So on both sides one finds illiberalism of different kinds. The composition of those groups vary from country to country, but it seems the illiberal left includes many more women and the illiberal right many more men. I don’t encounter either group much in real life, but they are all over X and Reddit. To me it seems that commonsensical people who have rich lives outside of online political debates and subscribe to basic western or liberal values can work together, form relationships and start families just fine. In Finland this is still a very large group. The situation may be more dire elsewhere and I would be interested to know how the numbers vary between countries.

JB: Would you like to see your study replicated in other countries? I would be interested in running a replication in the UK

OL: I would love to and please do. I have been contacted by researchers from other countries and I think at least two groups have translated or are translating the scale for their language.

JB: Do you have any new projects coming up that you would like to tell us about?

OL: I have a book on mindfulness coming out in June. If you have readers who speak Finnish or who want to help me out and buy a copy so they can use it to learn Finnish, you can find it here.

Thank you for the interview.
 

Final thoughts
Dr Oskari Lahtinen is undoubtedly a humanitarian and egalitarian who takes a balanced view on issues such as masculinity, education, and mental health. What better person then to highlight for us how unbalanced views about CSJ (woke) attitudes are. It makes you wonder how harmonious a society can be when men and women have such starkly opposing views on popular issues of the day. It also makes you wonder who the media, academia, and most institutions and organisations are representing when they promote woke views. If this is a man’s world then it’s not the average man’s world, that’s for sure.

 

The full text of Dr Lahtinen’s research paper on social justice attitudes can be accessed here for free https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/CSJAop.13018   His new book on mindfulness will be available soon here https://basambooks.fi/sivu/tuote/onko-mindfulnessista-mihinkaan-/4981115

 

Biography
Oskari Lahtinen is a psychologist (DPsych) from Turku, Finland and works at the INVEST Flagship at the University of Turku. He developed the Tita mindfulness course for schools and his new book on mindfulness is out on June 7th. His research has been featured in the media e.g. The New York Times. When Oskari had free time (before parenthood), he was involved in improvisational theatre and hosted the Mielestämme podcast

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