Archive for December 28, 2010

Book Review: Authentic Happiness By Martin E.P. Seligman

You might have thought that being a psychotherapist I would have lots to say about being happy.  This isn’t strictly true though.  Therapists, if I were to be precise, know a lot about unhappiness.  Theories abound explaining our depressions, anxieties, and problems in living.  We don’t have a particularly good grasp of happiness, which is kind of strange since this is what most of our clients are searching for.

Martin Seligman is an unusual psychologist in that he has devoted his career to researching happiness.  His book, ‘Authentic Happiness’, promises to reveal what makes a person happy and is packed with interesting research to back up his point of view.

At heart, Seligman resuscitates the idea of ‘virtue’.  If this sounds a little old fashioned then it is.  The ancient Greeks were the first to suggest that virtue was the basis of a good life, and they go back over 2000 years!

The trouble with ‘virtue’ or ‘good character’, from a psychologist’s point of view, is in the ‘operational definition’.  That is to say how to define and measure it.  After all, if you can’t define and measure virtue, then you can’t conduct research to find out if it does indeed matter.

Seligman attempt to solve this problem was to first search for virtues that all societies have in common.  He came up with the following list:

– Wisdom and knowledge.

– Courage.

– Love and humanity.

– Justice.

– Temperance.

– Spirituality and transcendence.

As an act of scholarship this is an extremely valuable list.  What Seligman does next with the list of virtues is to further refine them into a list of 24 ‘signature strengths’.  The key to happiness, for Seligman, is to work out what your signature strengths are, and find work, play and family life that let you practice them often.  To help you do this, and rate your progress towards achieving happiness, Seligman offers the reader numerous questionnaires.  If you visit the Authentic Happiness Website you can even fill them in online.  Registration is free and offers you averaged information about other people’s scores too which is fun.

This book offers more than just this theory.  The book also provides a valuable analysis of how to find happiness in your past, present and future.  Perhaps sobering for a talking therapist, Seligman argues that understanding your past is not the key to being happy about it. Rather Seligman suggests we should cultivate gratitude for the people who have helped us, and forgive the people who have hurt us.  It is in the gratitude and the forgiving that we come to remember the past as happy.  For me, this was the most valuable lesson I learnt from the book.

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The Politics Of Julian Assange.

As we come to the end of another year, I was reflecting on which man has had the most significant impact on society.  I think history will show it will be Julian Assange, the slightly eccentric Australian journalist and founder of the web site Wikileaks.  He has, of course, hit the world’s headlines recently for publishing secret communications from the US State department and alleging a politically motivated extradition to Sweden on sex offence charges.

Assange’s impact will not be remembered by the legal battle he is currently fighting but by his philosophy of political activism that he espouses.  Of course the sensational journalism that reports his legal problems usually fails to draw our attention to this so here it is, albeit in a highly truncated form:

1. The political / economic system undermines the well-being of the majority of people by protecting the interests of a small minority of the elite.  Nothing unusual of course in this idea.

2. The elite maintain their power by hiding their motives from the majority of people so they cannot be held up to rational scrutiny.  Again, nothing unusual in this idea too.

3.  Assange then uses the term ‘conspiracy’ to describe the pattern of secret communications that pass between members of the elite.  These aren’t the grand conspiracy theories of 911 or covering up alien abductions, but the small ‘conspiracies’ of keeping the majority naïve to the motives and dealings of the elite.

4.  Assange then uses a computational / network inspired view of the combined activity of the ruling elite as behaving like an organism.  ‘Conspiracies’ are maintained by the elite through the patterns of communication of the individual members, rather than being ‘led’ by say a particular person.  An assassination may knock out a key member of the conspiracy, but the conspiracy, because it is distributed through a network, will remain intact.

5.  In order to function effectively, the members of the elite need to communicate freely and in secret.  If this ability is compromised, say by leaks of confidential ambassadorial correspondence, the ‘conspiring’ elite will be forced to retrench.  Individuals will not be able to communicate as effectively, and mistrust between members of the elite, say between ambassadors and leaders of countries, will grow.

6.  A retrenched ‘conspiring’ elite will be unable to gain timely and effective intelligence of the environment in which it is working.  Its ability to operate as a conspiracy will consequently be degraded.

7.  Repressive, authoritarian regimes need to be the most conspiratorial in order to function effectively, and are therefore the most vulnerable to attack by systematic leaks of confidential material.  Benign regimes, however, have the least to fear from transparency.

In a nutshell, Assange aims to bring about benign governance by making it increasingly difficult for repressive regimes to function.  The ‘leaks’ that have created headlines around the world, are not meant to cause damage in themselves (although they no doubt will) but to achieve the broader aim of causing the conspiratorial elite to retrench and degrade their effectiveness.

For the state and big business, this is its ‘Napster moment’.  Once internet users found a way to share perfect copies of music, the old business model of the record companies was over and there was nothing they could do about it.  After Assange, the same is true of the workings of the state.  Like the record companies before it, the ruling elite must adapt or die.

Assange offers us an ingenious theory of political progress in the internet age, and right or wrong, I can perfectly understand why he has upset so many powerful people.  After Assange, however, the way people conceive of political activism has been changed forever.


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Male: The Gender Of Extremes.

Men have produced some of the most spiritually transcendent philosophies the world has ever seen. Christ, Buddha and Mohammed all lived at the dawn of history yet still remain revered by many. These were not just great thinkers, but great human beings.  But not all men are like this. The male gender has also produced some of the worst rogues on record. Two of them, in the shape of Hitler and Stalin, in the 20th century alone.

One theory is that whilst women converge to the mean on the spread of the population, men tend to have a broader spread across the population. The “average” man and woman may be the same, but the differences in spread accounts for why more men are to be found at the extremes.

Take intelligence as well documented example. On average, men and women are equivalent when it comes to IQ. Because women tend to converge to the mean, this means that in the “super intelligent” section of IQ, there is four times as many men as women. It also means that in the “super unintelligent” sector of IQ, there are also four times as many men as women. As a consequence, more men are either super intelligent or super unintelligent compared to women.

This difference in spread of IQ may help to account for why there are so many Nobel laureates who are men, but also why there are so many men in prison. Indeed illiteracy is phenomenally high in the prison population, which is, of course, a population of mainly men. Arguably you need a degree of literacy in order to participate and succeed in modern society, and indeed, defend oneself against the state. As a result there are more men who are ill equipped to succeed and prosper in society than women.

These patterns have not just been found in IQ but in other measures of personality. This does not restrict itself to psychological scores but can be seen in other areas of experience.  Take education as an example.  Girls are more likely than boys to be good all-rounder’s.  Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to be good in certain provinces of learning but bum out completely in other areas of learning.

Men, so it seems, are more likely to be found at the extremes of behaviour. As a gender, we seem to have evolved to be specialists rather than generalists.  Why this might be so, however, is an open question.  My best guess is that much of behaviour evolved as a ‘sexual ornament’ to attract a mate.  The selection pressures to develop unique talents were therefore higher for men than women.  But because you can’t be extremely good at everything, this means that men are consequently extremely bad at other things.  This might create a pressure in sexual selection toward the extremes of ability/inability in men.  But it’s just a thought.

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Is Botox Manly?

I remember being in the office of my therapist when I was in my late twenties. I was agitated and distressed by the advancement of age and shouted “I’m being dragged kicking and screaming into middle age … and I don’t like it!” I can laugh about it now. After all, I would give a lot to look as good as I did then.

I’m a bit more relaxed about the aging process these days. I have, after all, had a lot more time to get used to it. For a while though, it did stress me out. I was particularly upset by the frown lines and the wrinkles around my eyes when I smiled. I invested in Botox.

At the time I found Botox amazing. Botox is a toxin that stops the muscles in your face from working effectively. The procedure is very straight forward. A syringe containing the Botox is literally injected into the muscles of your face. It takes about a week for the Botox to become fully effective. By relaxing the muscles of your face, the skin relaxes too, giving you the younger look.

But is Botox manly? One thing to bear in mind is that this simple procedure literally affects the way you smile. Psychologically there are two kinds of smile. The first kind is called a Duchenne smile. This smile is a genuine smile and involves the corners of your mouth turning up and the skin around the corners of your eyes crinkling up too. Non Duchenne smiles are false smiles, and from an evolutionary perspective, are more closely associated with a variety of fear response.

The difference is very subtle, and likely to be imperceptible to the untrained eye. What is interesting is that Duchenne smilers are more likely to have happy romantic and social lives. So even though the effect is imperceptible, it is picked up by other people’s brains. We instinctively know real smilers from fake fearful smilers.

What has this to do with Botox? Well one of the characteristics of a genuine smile is the skin around the corners of your eyes crinkling up. If you’ve had Botox, this isn’t going to happen as effectively. The result is that you are permanently stuck with a non Duchenne smile. Subtly, people will think you’re a fake and possibly even scared. That can’t be manly!

For me, the scariest thing about Botox was when it started to wear off. It felt like suddenly I aged five to ten years in about two weeks. The first couple of times this happened it sent me straight back to the clinic for more injections. When I realised I would have to spend over £1000 a year to maintain the youthful look, I decided to just deal with it. My vanity was costing me a fortune.

Looking back at this period in my life I learnt that age happens. It is neither good nor bad in itself. In fact I think the advantages of age, on balance, outweigh the disadvantages. Responding to aging gracefully, and with courage, is perhaps the manliest strategy to take. Besides, having tried both, it’s definitely cheaper than the alternative!

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