UCL Health of the Public


Spotlight on Dr Jo Cook

This month we speak to Dr Jo Cook to find out how her research on mindfulness, mental health and preventative healthcare is improving the health of the public.

Dr Jo Cook

Social and Medical Anthropologist

Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences

Jo Cook

What is your role and what does it involve?

I am a social and medical anthropologist. Anthropology is historically characterised by in-depth long-term participant observation, spending a long time involved in ‘deep hanging out’, as Clifford Geertz put it. In my earlier work on meditation as a monastic practice in Thailand, I ordained as a Buddhist nun and committed myself to the practices at the heart of a monastic community. I’ve recently completed a long-term project on mindfulness, mental health and preventative healthcare in the UK, during which I acted as a ‘critical friend’ to an All-party Parliamentary Group (APPG) inquiry in Westminster investigating the policy potential for mindfulness and trained as a mindfulness-based cognitive therapist.

How are you improving the health of the public?

My research showed that the development of preventative mental healthcare has radically transformed the category of ‘mental health’ itself. In Britain, mental health is increasingly thought of as a transversal issue, as important for psychologists as for patients, probation workers as for prisoners, and politicians as for constituents. The policy advisory paper that we developed following the APPG inquiry, ‘Mindful Nation UK’ (2015), has been downloaded over thirty-thousand times and a series of its policy recommendations have been acted on. My research on the role of embodiment in therapeutic practice is now used as an educational tool in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapist Training at Bangor University and the University of Oxford, two of the largest training centres in the UK. 

What do you find most interesting or enjoyable about your work?

Fieldwork! I’m not completely over the pandemic and am still delighted to leave my house; talking to people at bus stops still feels like a novelty. So, the chance to spend time with people and learn about how they see the world and what matters to them is like catnip for me. One of the most exciting components of my last research project was meditating in the Palace of Westminster with parliamentarians and parliamentary advisors. Given that a decade ago parliamentarians would not have considered meditation or preventative mental healthcare as personally relevant, it was a thrilling illustration of the novelty of the cultural moment. 

How have cross-disciplinary collaborations shaped your work?

Working collaboratively with colleagues in cognitive psychology and philosophy has been central to my work and has made me think about mental health and the practices that support it in radically different ways. 

What advice would you offer to others interested in developing cross-disciplinary work?

I’m a firm believer in a ‘yes, and …’ approach to scholarship. That is, in asking what we can learn from each other’s disciplinary specialisms to develop perspectives and interventions that are greater than the sum of their parts. But cross-disciplinary work is hard: it’s difficult to translate the insights of one discipline into another, in part, because of the epistemological paradigms and timescales that we routinely take for granted. ‘Yes, and…’ implies an openness to collaboration, willingness to learn, and excitement about what comes next. 

What's next on the research horizon for you?

I am developing a large research project on joy in cross-cultural perspectives. Psychological studies of joy have consistently found that experiencing joy is linked to positive outcomes, such as better physical health, enhanced psychological resilience, improved social relationships, and higher life satisfaction. Despite this, there is no qualitative cross-cultural comparative research on joy. I think that focusing on joy has important implications for how we think about mental health. By taking seriously those joyous experiences that affirm people’s place in the world and connection to others, we can reframe our conception of mental health from the alleviation of pathology to the cultivation of health and flourishing, reflecting the turn towards preventative healthcare more broadly. 

If you could make one change in the world today, what would it be?

I think humans are extraordinary, but scholarship on the challenges that we face at multiple scales often reproduces narratives of disenfranchisement and despair. Spending more time thinking about the efforts that people make to live well, even in circumstances that are stacked against them, might positively enhance the real-world consequences of academic interventions.