Nowadays I prefer to listen to watching. Staying at home means a lot of my work and social life happens on Zoom, and staring at a computer screen for hours every day feels tiring. So if I rest my eyes and want to boost my emotions, I will hunt for podcasts.
And in the era of Covid-19, there are a lot of great new podcasts out there.
I am not talking about the new or informative ones, which address the scientific and policy questions surrounding the pandemic. They are also useful, but we are already incorporating so much news and information – to the point that it may contribute to our emotional turmoil.
Instead, the podcasts I longed for are those that provide a much-needed perspective, either by giving me a long view of history, or by introducing me to a useful philosophical or spiritual concept, or by providing psychological advice on how to tend to relationships under lockdown.
Below are the nine I found most useful; you may also find them useful. Note that the first few are brand new, while the others have new seasons devoted to figuring out how to live in this crazy pandemic world.
1) Stay inside
If you liked the movie The Big Sick, this podcast is for you. The couple whose true romance inspired the 2017 film – Pakistani stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani and the therapist turned writer Emily V. Gordon – are the co-hosts of this quarantine-themed pod.
I especially recommend listening to this if you or a loved one has a chronic illness. Gordon has had chronic illnesses for years, so she has a lot of experience under quarantine-like conditions. That means she has tips on how to work at home, how to structure unstructured time, and more. She was also a relationship therapist, so she has helpful insights on how to get through lockdown without hating your partner.
This podcast is also great if you live alone or feel lonely. The hosts talk super casually and make a lot of jokes, and Nanjiani, as a comedian, will make you laugh out loud. In fact, you feel like there are funnier versions of your own friends hanging out in your living room.
This one is great if you’re a history geek, especially if American history is your jam. Hosted by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham, the premise is that we can gain some useful lessons – or at least a perspective – by looking back at troubled times in American history and seeing how the nation then endured.
Meacham guides you through crises such as the 1918 flu pandemic, the Great Depression and the polio epidemic, all of which somehow parallel our current situation. He shows how leaders like FDR calmed public panic by, paradoxically, telling the harsh, straightforward truth. There are some lessons about risk communication that you would like current leaders to internalize.
The podcast also shows how a crisis can create an opportunity for radical positive changes to take root, such as how the Great Depression opened up the political space for social security. You wonder where Covid-19 could one day lead.
3) Unlock us
Brené Brown, a researcher who studies courage, vulnerability and shame, is the host of this podcast. It covers topics such as fear and loneliness and other emotional and relational terrain.
The strength of this pod is in the top shelf guests it contains. I recommend starting with the Interview with David Kessler. Together with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross he popularized the famous “five stages of grief” and during the pandemic his insights into how that discomfort you feel is sadness have been widely distributed online.
4) Mind & Life
This podcast is so new that it only has two episodes so far, but I highly recommend listening. It is produced by the Mind & Life Institute, which originated after the Dalai Lama met a number of scientists and philosophers in 1987. The goal is to explore the intersection of science and contemplative wisdom – like the places where neuroscience and meditation meet.
On the pod you will hear former monks, scholars of religious studies and cognitive scientists discuss questions such as: If the ‘self’ is only an illusion, what implications does this have for our duties to others? Are there concrete practices that we can now try to increase our compassion during the Covid-19 pandemic? Listening to these speakers somehow makes me feel calmer and more intellectually stimulated at the same time.
This is good for skeptics allergic to schmaltzy-sounding ideas. It is hosted by ABC news anchor Dan Harris, who himself lives up to that description. After a panic attack while reading the news on live TV, he felt the need to make some changes and discovered meditation. On this pod, he talks to some of the world’s best meditation experts, asks them tough questions, and evokes concrete practices.
On the feed, you’ll find some hour-long episodes for when you want to dive deep, and some are just 10 minutes for when you need to calm down but don’t have much time to spare. For pandemic times, I recommend the in-depth interview with Nikki Mirghafori on the benefits of considering our own mortality; she is both an artificial intelligence scientist and a Buddhist meditation teacher, and her perspective is fascinating.
Laurie Santos is a psychologist who teaches a Yale course on happiness – which is from university most popular class ever, for good reason. In this pod, she distills her lessons on how to increase our capacity for happiness (yes, even during a pandemic) to half-hour episodes.
She also catches up with top psychologists and other experts to discuss the power of a made-up ritual, what to do with your quarantined loneliness, why helping others can improve your own well-being, and more.
Renowned therapist and relationship expert Esther Perel has been organizing this podcast since 2017, but the new season is all about the theme ‘couples under lockdown’. From New York City to Lagos, Nigeria, they set about talking to her about the relationship issues they face in quarantine.
Along the way, Perel comes up with useful insights, such as the fact that many parents now feel powerless to protect their children from the virus and give them a good life in a changing world. And the fact that parents who are not normally around the house with the kids all of a sudden have their parenting styles watched intensively by their partner, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy.
If you are quarantined with a partner, child, or roommate and are struggling to interact with them, this podcast will make you feel seen and less alone. It can also help you understand what you are feeling so that you can work through it better.
8) To be over
This is an oldie but a goodie. Krista Tippett organizes conversations about the big questions: what makes life meaningful? How can we live gracefully? – with experts ranging from physicists to spiritual leaders.
If you’re struggling with isolation during the pandemic, try Tippett’s recent interview with Stephen Batchelor, author of The art of loneliness. He has some insights on how to be alone in a way that will make you feel better, not worse. Also recommended: two minute standalone footage of Wendell Berry’s poems, read by the prolific environmentalist himself!
9) Tara Brach
This is a go-to for me. Tara Brach, an American psychologist and a widely respected meditation teacher, has a unique, soothing way of providing Buddhist treatises laced with contemporary stories and poems. Her guided meditations are great for calming fear of the coronavirus – not only so you can feel better, but also take better care of others.
In particular, check out her RAIN practice (an acronym for ‘recognize, allow, investigate, nurture’) if you want an easy way to identify and deal with difficult emotions. Brach encourages you to meet them with “radical acceptance” – indeed, to lean on them – because they may be able to teach you something important.