These days, I prefer listening to looking. Staying at home means a lot of my work and social life happens on Zoom, and staring at a computer screen for so many hours each day feels draining. So when I want to give my eyes a rest and my emotions a boost, I go hunting for podcasts.
And in the era of Covid-19, there are a lot of great new podcasts to be had.
I’m not talking about the newsy or informational ones, which dig into the science and policy questions surrounding the pandemic. Those are useful, too, but we’re already taking in so much news and information — to the point that it may be adding to our emotional turmoil.
Instead, the podcasts I’ve hungered for are the ones that provide some much-needed perspective, whether by giving me a long view of history, or introducing me to some helpful philosophical or spiritual concept, or offering psychological advice on how to tend to relationships under lockdown.
Below are the nine I’ve found most helpful; maybe you’ll also find them helpful. Note that the first few are brand new, while the others feature new seasons devoted to figuring out how to live in this crazy pandemic world.
1) Staying In
If you liked the movie The Big Sick, this podcast is for you. The couple whose real-life romance inspired the 2017 film — Pakistani stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani and therapist-turned-writer Emily V. Gordon — are the co-hosts of this quarantine-themed pod.
I particularly recommend listening to this if you or a loved one has a chronic illness. Gordon has been dealing with chronic illness for years, so she’s got lots of experience living under quarantine-like conditions. That means she’s got protips on how to work from home, how to structure unstructured time, and more. Also, she used to be a couples therapist, so she has useful insights on how to get through lockdown without hating your partner.
This podcast is also great if you live alone or just feel lonely. The hosts talk super casually and joke around a lot, and Nanjiani, being a comedian, will make you laugh out loud. You’ll basically feel like funnier versions of your own friends are hanging out in your living room.
This one’s great if you’re a history nerd, especially if American history is your jam. The host is Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham, and the premise is that we can glean some helpful lessons — or at least some perspective — by looking back at trying times in US history and seeing how the nation made it through then.
Meacham walks you through crises like the 1918 flu pandemic, the Great Depression, and the polio epidemic, all of which parallel our current situation in some way. He shows how leaders such as FDR calmed public panic by, paradoxically, telling the hard, unvarnished truth. There are some lessons about risk communication in there that you’ll wish current leaders would internalize.
The podcast also shows how a crisis can create an opportunity for radical positive changes to take root, like how the Great Depression opened up the political space for Social Security to be instituted. It makes you wonder what Covid-19 could one day lead to.
3) Unlocking Us
Brené Brown, a researcher who studies courage, vulnerability, and shame, is the host of this podcast. It covers topics like anxiety and loneliness, and other emotional and relational terrain.
The strength of this pod is in the top-shelf guests it features. I recommend starting with the David Kessler interview. Together with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, he popularized the famous “five stages of grief,” and during the pandemic his insights about how that discomfort you’re feeling is grief have circulated widely online.
4) Mind & Life
This podcast is so new it’s only got two episodes so far, but I highly recommend listening. It’s produced by the Mind & Life Institute, which was created after the Dalai Lama met with some scientists and philosophers in 1987. Its goal is to explore the intersection of science and contemplative wisdom — like the places where neuroscience and meditation meet.
On the pod, you’ll hear former monks, religious studies scholars, and cognitive scientists discussing questions like: If the “self” is just an illusion, what implications does that have for our duties toward others? Are there concrete practices we can try right now to increase our capacity for compassion during the Covid-19 pandemic? Listening to these speakers somehow makes me feel calmer and more intellectually stimulated at the same time.
This one’s good for skeptics who are allergic to schmaltzy-sounding ideas. It’s hosted by ABC news anchor Dan Harris, who fits that description himself. After having 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 top meditation experts, asking them tough questions and eliciting concrete practices from them.
On the feed, you’ll find some hour-long episodes for when you want to dive deep, and some that 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 contemplating our own mortality; she’s 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 — and it’s the university’s most popular class ever, for good reason. In this pod, she distills her lessons on how we can increase our capacity for happiness (yes, even during a pandemic) into half-hour episodes.
She also brings in top psychologists and other experts to discuss the power of a made-up ritual, what to do with your quarantine loneliness, why helping others can improve your own well-being, and more.
The renowned therapist and relationships expert Esther Perel has been hosting this podcast since 2017, but the new season is all about the theme “couples under lockdown.” From New York City to Lagos, Nigeria, couples call in to talk to her about the relationship problems they’re facing in quarantine.
Along the way, Perel surfaces some useful insights, like the fact that many parents now feel powerless to shield their kids from the virus and give them a good life in a changing world. And the fact that parents who don’t normally stay home all day with the kids are suddenly having their parenting styles watched with intense scrutiny by their partner, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy.
If you’re quarantined with a partner, kid, or roommate, and you’re struggling to get along with them, this podcast will make you feel seen and less alone. It might also help you make sense of what you’re feeling so you can better work through it.
8) On Being
This is an oldie but a goodie. Krista Tippett hosts conversations about the big questions — What gives life meaning? How can we live gracefully? — with experts ranging from physicists to spiritual leaders.
If you’re struggling with isolation during the pandemic, try out Tippett’s recent interview with Stephen Batchelor, author of The Art of Solitude. He has some insights about how to be alone in a way that’ll leave you feeling better, not worse. Also recommended: two-minute standalone recordings 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 widely respected meditation teacher, has a uniquely soothing way of offering Buddhist discourses peppered with contemporary stories and poems. Her guided meditations are great for calming coronavirus anxiety — not just so you can feel better, but so you can better care for others.
In particular, check out her RAIN practice (an acronym for “recognize, allow, investigate, nurture”) if you want a straightforward way to identify and deal with difficult emotions. Brach encourages you to meet them with “radical acceptance” — indeed, to lean into them — because they just might have something important to teach you.