Whether we’re listening deeply or keeping them on in the background for “company”, podcasts have been a great way for us to dig into some of the big topics 2020 has brought with it while also providing some awesome and eye-opening entertainment. This year, our top picks focus on a range of informative subjects, from engaging with racial inequality through your mindfulness practice to managing the emotions that come up in a pandemic. You’ll also find some lighthearted episodes on the list about optimism, happiness, and an interesting story where therapy meets AI.
We hope you enjoy this roundup of podcasts we’ve loved in 2020.
The Best Mindfulness Podcast Episodes of 2020
1. The Cut
Optimism? In 2020, the word has seemed fluffy and unreal. To investigate the true nature of optimism, host Avery Trufelman turns to the docuseries Cheer. For competitive cheerleaders, she says, it’s “the cognitive equivalent of spinning 360 degrees in the air and landing on one hand. They train like hell for it.” Constantly at physical risk in their training, and gaining little if any recognition, they’re still the epitome of positivity. Emily Esfahani Smith, author of The Power of Meaning, defines this rigorous optimism as “the narrative you tell that allows you to move forward.” It means actively seeking opportunities for meaning, relationship, and joy, and believing that the pain along the way is worth it.
2. The Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos
Does the “chameleon effect” have something to do with vanishing into one’s surroundings? Well, sort of: It’s the fact that we unconsciously mimic the physical posture, mannerisms, even the moods, of those around us. As Dr. Laurie details, there are lots of ways this gets exploited—from TV’s canned laughter to the manipulative algorithms of our Facebook feeds. But you can create a positive mood spiral instead by noting how a situation affects you (Ah, I have Twitter-argument jitters) and regulating your emotions.
3. Ten Percent Happier
For anyone who feels doubt or discomfort in engaging with racial inequality through the lens of their meditation practice, this interview is the place to begin: So much insight is shared in this open, reflective conversation between host Dan Harris and meditation teacher Sebene Selassie. “We’re so often tending to our inner world,” says Selassie, “but when we start talking about this stuff, the outer world, we really need to also include history, context, understanding how we got here.” And looking honestly at bias is an ideal time to use the skills of acceptance and compassion, both for ourselves and others, that we hone in our practice. It’s painful to see bias in ourselves, says Harris, “but if you can see shame clearly, then you can navigate it and deal with it.”
4. Emotional Badass
Managing Our Feelings through the Coronavirus Crisis
As much as the world of podcasts offers entertainment, education, and news, it also provides valuable tools for mental and emotional support, in the very real and human moments when we need reassurance. In this episode of Emotional Badass, psychotherapist Nicki Eisenhauer calls on the life lessons she learned through surviving Hurricane Katrina. With both confidence and compassion, she voices the quiet inner truths we need to be reminded of: That our basic needs of food, shelter, and rest are top priority, even (especially) during a crisis. That having safe boundaries is a strength we can and must practice: “Sometimes, saying no when we want to say yes is the most loving thing that we can do.” That financial worry is valid, and yet it isn’t bigger than our ability to find a way. And that bearing witness to our storm of emotions creates space for loving-kindness, rather than blowing us over. Dr. Eisenhauer ends with a 10-minute guided meditation that powerfully affirms our own capability, strength, and resilience. Particularly worth remembering is her note that “Fear is not equal to how much you care.”
This episode explores the results of “raising” a therapy chatbot: an artificial intelligence that talks to users via text message, and can deliver therapies like CBT. Yes, treating a chatbot like your therapist—or like a real-life friend—is unconventional, to say the least. It may sound like a very bad idea. After all, we’re more online than ever, and also leery (for good reason) about the ways our personal data may be used and misused. But researcher Shaila Chavarria wondered what kind of relationship could develop if she communicated with Devendra, her therapy bot, as she would with her son: through daily exchanges, asking it lots of probing questions, and watching it become more sophisticated through their “talks.” Her experiment probes the edges of what we understand about AI learning, companionship, and unconditional love. It’s reminiscent of Black Mirror, but far more optimistic.
6. Mindful Men Talk
Steve—Anxiety and Beyond
Taking an interest in your own emotional wellness is, for many men, greatly discouraged by societal expectations to be tough, invulnerable, self-sufficient. “We don’t let people know we may be searching,” explains Steve, who’s a mindfulness coach in Surrey, UK. In this early episode of the podcast, Steve discusses his own experiences with mental illness. Topics like stress, grief, sexuality, and overcoming stigma are the lens through which he and James approach Mindful Men Talk. “The fact you are taking notice” and addressing a mental health struggle, says Steve, isn’t a weakness, but rather “It shows great strength.” Their podcast aims to expand the space for men to be open about their mental health.