Global health expert Alanna Shaikh gave an unexpected and moving talk at TEDGlobal 2012, called “How I’m preparing to get Alzheimer’s.” In it, she told the story of her father’s struggle with the disease, and outlined some strategies she’d devised in case dementia struck her later in life, too. The TED Blog was curious: How is her experiment going?
While most of Shaikh’s goals haven’t exactly gone as planned, in the process, she’s had a lightbulb moment about how to think about dementia—and learned to be a better person, to boot. Here, a conversation about the relationship between kindness and health, and living an enjoyable life in the present while planning for the future.
What have you been up to since your talk went live two years ago?
I talked about three things I was trying to do to prepare for Alzheimer’s: physically preparing by becoming stronger and more flexible, cultivating hobbies that would stick with me through the illness and trying to change who I am to be better and nicer. What really succeeded, weirdly enough, is I honestly think I am a better person. By deliberately choosing to be kind over and over again, it seems to now come naturally to me.
What were you like before?
Very judgmental and critical. I was committed to being a good person, but I wasn’t particularly worried about being a nice person. One of my friends in college told me that his favorite thing about me was I always had something bitchy to say about someone. This is someone who loves me—he meant it as a positive. I don’t think anybody who’s known me in the last couple of years would say that now. Dealing with my dad made me realize how much nice actually matters. And kindness. I had never really thought about what kindness and niceness have to do with each other.
I’ve never thought about that. What is the difference between nice and kind?
Being nice is not making a fuss and letting things happen to you. Not protesting. Whereas kindness is about deliberately giving the best of yourself, and deliberately looking for ways to find the positive in things. The example I give sometimes is this: the office building I used to work in didn’t have enough elevators. So if you wanted to leave the building at any time between 5 and 6pm, it was just packed—the elevator would stop on every floor, it would take forever and it was all sweaty. There were these people on the third floor, and they were always laughing and flirting and holding the elevator for each other, and you’d end up crammed in the corner for five minutes while you waited for them to stop saying goodbye to each other and hugging and whatever.
At the beginning, I was like, “Those damned idiots on the third floor—why can’t they just take the stairs?” And then I started deliberately thinking, “No, these are young people enjoying life.” And so I started to think of them as the happy people on the third floor, and then realized that they are just thinking about their lives, not necessarily thinking too much about what it meant to be crammed into the elevator while they said goodbye. I started to try to take that approach to everything, to really look for the positive perspective.
Sounds like generosity of spirit, in a way.
I guess so. Because I’m an expat, I move a lot. So each new place you live is a chance to be the person you are right then. I realized that people who know me where I’m living now in Kyrgyzstan think of me as this very funny, positive, kind person. I love that. It doesn’t feel fake. I think I really am that person now, and I love that I was able to do that. It was the hardest thing for me, thinking, “I can pretend that I’m nice, but can I really become nice?”
Have you thought about kindness and its role in healing and health? Do you think it’s better for us to be kind?
I’ve never thought about that before, but I’m sure it is. For one thing, I think it takes a lot less emotional energy to be kind. Think of me getting off that elevator thinking about the happy people around me, versus me getting off that elevator being all, “Grrrr.” It has to be better for my heart. It has to be better not to get all that cortisol revved up inside of me.
There’s also the question of kindness in the healing professions — the idea that patients are more likely to respond well to compassionate doctors and healers who touch their patients.
I think that’s probably true. In my day job, I’ve been part of a lot of different trainings for physicians, and one of the amazing things we’ve discovered is that the part physicians really love is the interpersonal skills, learning how to talk to their patients gently and kindly. We started including that in basically everything we teach, whether we’re teaching infection control or HIV care or breastfeeding support or whatever. The first component is always, “How do you talk to patients so they’ll listen?” The doctors absolutely love that, because it turns out they’ve been yearning to connect kindly; they just didn’t have the tools. That is the first thing they see results from: talking to their patients differently brings them different results as medical professionals. It seems to bring better outcomes. Often, doctors are afraid that if they are kind they’ll lose their authority, or patients won’t take them seriously, so it’s valuable to have an outsider validate the idea that you can be a respected professional and still be kind and generous to people, and that you don’t have to be stern and harsh to be an authority figure.
To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>