Category Archives: Abstract and Philosophy

What college can’t do

What a beautiful piece from the New Yorker  In the thick of exam preparations, swim-or-sink instincts, unspeakable ennui (or deep uncertainty), it is worth remembering that the college years are the years of ‘dawning realization’. What have you learnt this year? 

What College Can’t Do

The New Yorker · by Joshua Rothman · August 6, 2014

A pair of Harvard alumni on campus for commencement, in 1977.

There’s a special joy in giving someone advice that’s sure not to be followed—“Wake up at the same time every morning”; “Don’t check your e-mail while on vacation”—and William Deresiewicz must have felt it when writing his recent cover story for The New Republic, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.” Hypercompetitive colleges, Deresiewicz wrote, are the replicators of the ruling class, recruiting and training “young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” Better to go to a state school, where the student body is more socioeconomically diverse, or to a “second-tier” liberal-arts college, where “real educational values” persist, than to submit yourself or your child to the careerist “machine” of élite higher education. This is a slightly fantastical way of looking at college—is there really any reason to think that students at Reed are more intellectually curious than students at Columbia?—and its real-life applicability is hard to gauge. But Deresiewicz’s article resonated because it echoed broader cultural concerns about busyness and overwork. It’s now widely accepted that adult Americans as a whole act pretty much the way Deresiewicz thinks Ivy League kids act. Americans work too much, think too much about work, and cultivate an air of competent yet maniacal busyness.

In recent years, essays lamenting the culture of overwork—and the superficial, self-centered, self-destructive busyness that develops from it—have become a genre unto themselves. Ostensibly, these essays are about manageable subjects, subjects about which it’s possible to have a single opinion, like higher education, parenting, or “mindfulness.” But they are also about another, larger subject, which, in its glacial, impersonal force, seems to transcend opinion. That subject, more or less, is modernity. In the background of an essay like “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League”—and of essays like “No Time to Think” or “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” both published in the Times—is the looming presence of the arrhythmic, unreassuring modern world, which seems always to be speeding things up in a senseless way. Modernity is the sort of problem that’s both very old and very new. Baudelaire coined the term, in 1860, and the first great literary treatments of modernité, such as “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” date from the nineteenth century. And yet to read “Ivan Ilyich,” a story about a workaholic lawyer and his atrophied inner life, is to see how much our contemporary busyness problem owes to a process that’s been going on for centuries.

To think about busyness in terms of modernity is to think about its deep roots. In part, busyness is a matter of economics: it has to do with bosses driving workers harder (or admissions committees asking more of applicants), and with the forces of meritocracy making life more competitive. But it also has a spiritual dimension: careers mean more to us because the traditional sources of meaning, like religion, mean less; increasingly, work is the field upon which we seek to prove our value.

Because of modernity’s dual nature, it’s hard to figure out what role it plays in your life. If you’re feeling anxious, overworked, and uncertain about what the point of all your work is, is your boss to blame, or is it just modern life? If you’re unhappy at Yale—which, one student tells Deresiewicz, is “stifling to the parts of yourself that you’d call a soul”—then why are you unhappy? It could be that the practical circumstances at Yale are soul-crushing. (There are a lot of extracurriculars.) It could be that you’re cut off from other sources of meaning. (Deresiewicz thinks that Ivy League students live in a “bubble of privilege,” with a “narrow conception of what constitutes a valid life: affluence, credentials, prestige.”) Or it could be that modern life makes thoughtful people feel, as Deresiewicz puts it, “emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.”

It would be comforting, in a way, if the Ivy League were a particularly soulless place. But is that really a plausible thing to say about a place like Yale, with its playing fields and courtyards, its libraries and theatres, and—most importantly—its population of energetic, intelligent, optimistic young people? I tend to draw the opposite conclusion from Deresiewicz’s data: the fact that you can feel soulless in such an intellectual paradise suggests that the problem is bigger than college.

* * * Continue reading

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Modern day anxiety and the busy trap

Anxiety: We worry. A gallery of contributors count the ways.

If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this; it’s something we collectively force one another to do.

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs  who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. They schedule in time with friends the way students with 4.0 G.P.A.’s  make sure to sign up for community service because it looks good on their college applications. I recently wrote a friend to ask if he wanted to do something this week, and he answered that he didn’t have a lot of time but if something was going on to let him know and maybe he could ditch work for a few hours. I wanted to clarify that my question had not been a preliminary heads-up to some future invitation; this was the invitation. But his busyness was like some vast churning noise through which he was shouting out at me, and I gave up trying to shout back over it.

Brecht Vandenbroucke

Even children are busy now, scheduled down to the half-hour with classes and extracurricular activities. They come home at the end of the day as tired as grown-ups. I was a member of the latchkey generation and had three hours of totally unstructured, largely unsupervised time every afternoon, time I used to do everything from surfing the World Book Encyclopedia to making animated films to getting together with friends in the woods to chuck dirt clods directly into one another’s eyes, all of which provided me with important skills and insights that remain valuable to this day. Those free hours became the model for how I wanted to live the rest of my life.

The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it. Not long ago I  Skyped with a friend who was driven out of the city by high rent and now has an artist’s residency in a small town in the south of France. She described herself as happy and relaxed for the first time in years. She still gets her work done, but it doesn’t consume her entire day and brain. She says it feels like college — she has a big circle of friends who all go out to the cafe together every night. She has a boyfriend again. (She once ruefully summarized dating in New York: “Everyone’s too busy and everyone thinks they can do better.”) What she had mistakenly assumed was her personality — driven, cranky, anxious and sad — turned out to be a deformative effect of her environment. It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do. Our frantic days are really just a hedge against emptiness.

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. I once knew a woman who interned at a magazine where she wasn’t allowed to take lunch hours out, lest she be urgently needed for some reason. This was an entertainment magazine whose raison d’être was obviated when “menu” buttons appeared on remotes, so it’s hard to see this pretense of indispensability as anything other than a form of institutional self-delusion. More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.

I am not busy. I am the laziest ambitious person I know. Like most writers, I feel like a reprobate who does not deserve to live on any day that I do not write, but I also feel that four or five hours is enough to earn my stay on the planet for one more day. On the best ordinary days of my life, I write in the morning, go for a long bike ride and run errands in the afternoon, and in the evening I see friends, read or watch a movie. This, it seems to me, is a sane and pleasant pace for a day. And if you call me up and ask whether I won’t maybe blow off work and check out the new American Wing at the Met or ogle girls in Central Park or just drink chilled pink minty cocktails all day long, I will say, what time?

But just in the last few months, I’ve insidiously started, because of professional obligations, to become busy. For the first time I was able to tell people, with a straight face, that I was “too busy” to do this or that thing they wanted me to do. I could see why people enjoy this complaint; it makes you feel important, sought-after and put-upon. Except that I hate actually being busy. Every morning my in-box was full of e-mails asking me to do things I did not want to do or presenting me with problems that I now had to solve. It got more and more intolerable until finally I fled town to the Undisclosed Location from which I’m writing this.

Here I am largely unmolested by obligations. There is no TV. To check e-mail I have to drive to the library. I go a week at a time without seeing anyone I know. I’ve remembered about buttercups, stink bugs and the stars. I read. And I’m finally getting some real writing done for the first time in months. It’s hard to find anything to say about life without immersing yourself in the world, but it’s also just about impossible to figure out what it might be, or how best to say it, without getting the hell out of it again.

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done. “Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do,” wrote Thomas Pynchon in his essay on sloth. Archimedes’ “Eureka” in the bath, Newton’s apple, Jekyll & Hyde and the benzene ring: history is full of stories of inspirations that come in idle moments and dreams. It almost makes you wonder whether loafers, goldbricks and no-accounts aren’t responsible for more of the world’s great ideas, inventions and masterpieces than the hardworking.

“The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play. That’s why we have to destroy the present politico-economic system.” This may sound like the pronouncement of some bong-smoking anarchist, but it was actually Arthur C. Clarke, who found time between scuba diving and pinball games to write “Childhood’s End” and think up communications satellites. My old colleague Ted Rall recently wrote a column proposing that we divorce income from work and give each citizen a guaranteed paycheck, which sounds like the kind of lunatic notion that’ll be considered a basic human right in about a century, like abolition, universal suffrage and eight-hour workdays. The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.

Perhaps the world would soon slide to ruin if everyone behaved as I do. But I would suggest that an ideal human life lies somewhere between my own defiant indolence and the rest of the world’s endless frenetic hustle. My role is just to be a bad influence, the kid standing outside the classroom window making faces at you at your desk, urging you to just this once make some excuse and get out of there, come outside and play. My own resolute idleness has mostly been a luxury rather than a virtue, but I did make a conscious decision, a long time ago, to choose time over money, since I’ve always understood that the best investment of my limited time on earth was to spend it with people I love. I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder and say everything I had to say, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more beer with Chris, another long talk with Megan, one last good hard laugh with Boyd. Life is too short to be busy.

(Anxiety welcomes submissions at anxiety@nytimes.com.)

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No Time To Think

A collection of articles recently on the cult of busyness, overparenting, a maniacally busy lifestyle – all of which are emblematic of modernity.

No Time to Think | New York Times 25 Jul

ONE of the biggest complaints in modern society is being overscheduled, overcommitted and overextended. Ask people at a social gathering how they are and the stock answer is “super busy,” “crazy busy” or “insanely busy.” Nobody is just “fine” anymore.

When people aren’t super busy at work, they are crazy busy exercising, entertaining or taking their kids to Chinese lessons. Or maybe they are insanely busy playing fantasy football, tracing their genealogy or churning their own butter.

And if there is ever a still moment for reflective thought — say, while waiting in line at the grocery store or sitting in traffic — out comes the mobile device. So it’s worth noting a study published last month in the journal Science, which shows how far people will go to avoid introspection.

“We had noted how wedded to our devices we all seem to be and that people seem to find any excuse they can to keep busy,” said Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and lead author of the study. “No one had done a simple study letting people go off on their own and think.”

The results surprised him and have created a stir in the psychology and neuroscience communities. In 11 experiments involving more than 700 people, the majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.

Moreover, in one experiment, 64 percent of men and 15 percent of women began self-administering electric shocks when left alone to think. These same people, by the way, had previously said they would pay money to avoid receiving the painful jolt.

It didn’t matter if the subjects engaged in the contemplative exercise at home or in the laboratory, or if they were given suggestions of what to think about, like a coming vacation; they just didn’t like being in their own heads.

It could be because human beings, when left alone, tend to dwell on what’s wrong in their lives. We have evolved to become problem solvers and meaning makers. What preys on our minds, when we aren’t updating our Facebook page or in spinning class, are the things we haven’t figured out — difficult relationships, personal and professional failures, money trouble, health concerns and so on. And until there is resolution, or at least some kind of understanding or acceptance, these thoughts reverberate in our heads. Hello rumination. Hello insomnia.

“One explanation why people keep themselves so busy and would rather shock themselves is that they are trying to avoid that kind of negative stuff,” said Ethan Kross, director of the Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan. “It doesn’t feel good if you’re not intrinsically good at reflecting.”

The comedian Louis C.K. has a riff that’s been watched nearly eight million times on YouTube in which he describes that not-good feeling. “Sometimes when things clear away and you’re not watching anything and you’re in your car and you start going, oh no, here it comes, that I’m alone, and it starts to visit on you, just this sadness,” he said. “And that’s why we text and drive. People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard.”

But you can’t solve or let go of problems if you don’t allow yourself time to think about them. It’s an imperative ignored by our culture, which values doing more than thinking and believes answers are in the palm of your hand rather than in your own head.

“It’s like we’re all in this addicted family where all this busyness seems normal when it’s really harmful,” said Stephanie Brown, a psychologist in Silicon Valley and the author of “Speed: Facing Our Addiction to Fast and Faster — and Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down.” “There’s this widespread belief that thinking and feeling will only slow you down and get in your way, but it’s the opposite.”

Suppressing negative feelings only gives them more power, she said, leading to intrusive thoughts, which makes people get even busier to keep them at bay. The constant cognitive strain of evading emotions underlies a range of psychological troubles such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression and panic attacks, not to mention a range of addictions. It is also associated with various somatic problems like eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, inflammation, impaired immunity and headaches.

Studies further suggest that not giving yourself time to reflect impairs your ability to empathize with others. “The more in touch with my own feelings and experiences, the richer and more accurate are my guesses of what passes through another person’s mind,” said Giancarlo Dimaggio, a psychiatrist with the Center for Metacognitive Interpersonal Therapy in Rome, who studies the interplay of self-reflection and empathy. “Feeling what you feel is an ability that atrophies if you don’t use it.”

Researchers have also found that an idle mind is a crucible of creativity. A number of studies have shown that people tend to come up with more novel uses for objects if they are first given an easy task that allows their minds to wander, rather than a more demanding one.

“Idle mental processing encourages creativity and solutions because imagining your problem when you aren’t in it is not the same as reality,” said Jonathan Smallwood, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of York, in England. “Using your imagination means you are in fact rethinking the problem in a novel way.”

Perhaps that’s why Google offers its employees courses called “Search Inside Yourself” and “Neural Self-Hacking,” which include instruction on mindfulness meditation, where the goal is to recognize and accept inner thoughts and feelings rather than ignore or repress them. It’s in the company’s interest because it frees up employees’ otherwise embattled brain space to intuit end users’ desires and create products to satisfy them.

“I have a lot of people who come in and want to learn meditation to shut out thoughts that come up in those quiet moments,” said Sarah Griesemer, a psychologist in Austin, Tex., who incorporates mindfulness meditation into her practice. “But allowing and tolerating the drifting in of thoughts is part of the process.” Her patients, mostly hard-charging professionals, report being more productive at work and more energetic and engaged parents.

To get rid of the emotional static, experts advise not using first-person pronouns when thinking about troubling events in your life. Instead, use third-person pronouns or your own name when thinking about yourself. “If a friend comes to you with a problem it’s easy to coach them through it, but if the problem is happening to us we have real difficulty, in part because we have all these egocentric biases making it hard to reason rationally,” said Dr. Kross of Michigan. “The data clearly shows that you can use language to almost trick yourself into thinking your problems are happening to someone else.”

Hard as they sometimes are, negative feelings are a part of everyone’s life, arguably more so if you are crazy busy. But it’s those same deep and troubling feelings, and how you deal with them, that make you the person you are. While busyness may stanch welling sadness, it may also limit your ability to be overcome with joy.

 

Why we travel

Beautiful – Pico Iyer’s Why We Travel  in line with the 2014 MYE question on whether travel broadens the mind.

So travel, at heart, is just a quick way to keeping our minds mobile and awake. As Santayana, the heir to Emerson and Thoreau with whom I began, wrote, “There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar; it keeps the mind nimble; it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor.” Romantic poets inaugurated an era of travel because they were the great apostles of open eyes. Buddhist monks are often vagabonds, in part because they believe in wakefulness. And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.” 

Here is Alain de Botton’s documentary on The Art of Travel (one of my favourite books) – completely enjoyable (and lyrical) exploration of the impulse to travel, and the paradoxes, attitudes and treasures surrounding it.

What suffering does

On a more contemplative note this weekend – is there any point to the ‘hard stuff’ in life? I resonate with Brooks when he writes about how when we look back, pain, suffering and failure have become particularly formative, even ennobling.  

David Brooks for the New York Times 

Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself in a bunch of conversations in which the unspoken assumption was that the main goal of life is to maximize happiness. That’s normal. When people plan for the future, they often talk about all the good times and good experiences they hope to have. We live in a culture awash in talk about happiness. In one three-month period last year, more than 1,000 books were released on Amazon on that subject.

But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.

Now, of course, it should be said that there is nothing intrinsically ennobling about suffering. Just as failure is sometimes just failure (and not your path to becoming the next Steve Jobs) suffering is sometimes just destructive, to be exited as quickly as possible.

But some people are clearly ennobled by it. Think of the way Franklin Roosevelt came back deeper and more empathetic after being struck with polio. Often, physical or social suffering can give people an outsider’s perspective, an attuned awareness of what other outsiders are enduring.

But the big thing that suffering does is it takes you outside of precisely that logic that the happiness mentality encourages. Happiness wants you to think about maximizing your benefits. Difficulty and suffering sends you on a different course.

First, suffering drags you deeper into yourself. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routines of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be. The agony involved in, say, composing a great piece of music or the grief of having lost a loved one smashes through what they thought was the bottom floor of their personality, revealing an area below, and then it smashes through that floor revealing another area.

Then, suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control. When people are thrust down into these deeper zones, they are forced to confront the fact they can’t determine what goes on there. Try as they might, they just can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone. And even when tranquillity begins to come back, or in those moments when grief eases, it is not clear where the relief comes from. The healing process, too, feels as though it’s part of some natural or divine process beyond individual control.

People in this circumstance often have the sense that they are swept up in some larger providence. Abraham Lincoln suffered through the pain of conducting a civil war, and he came out of that with the Second Inaugural. He emerged with this sense that there were deep currents of agony and redemption sweeping not just through him but through the nation as a whole, and that he was just an instrument for transcendent tasks.

It’s at this point that people in the midst of difficulty begin to feel a call. They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless. They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it. They often feel an overwhelming moral responsibility to respond well to it. People who seek this proper rejoinder to ordeal sense that they are at a deeper level than the level of happiness and individual utility. They don’t say, “Well, I’m feeling a lot of pain over the loss of my child. I should try to balance my hedonic account by going to a lot of parties and whooping it up.”

The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t even mean that in a purely religious sense. It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred. Parents who’ve lost a child start foundations. Lincoln sacrificed himself for the Union. Prisoners in the concentration camp with psychologist Viktor Frankl rededicated themselves to living up to the hopes and expectations of their loved ones, even though those loved ones might themselves already be dead.

Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that almost always involve suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability. They hurl themselves deeper and gratefully into their art, loved ones and commitments.

The suffering involved in their tasks becomes a fearful gift and very different than that equal and other gift, happiness, conventionally defined

Why we like watching rich people

INTRODUCTION

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”Mary Cybulski/Paramount Pictures, via Associated Press

Several Academy Award contenders like “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “American Hustle” glorify white-collar criminals and scammers, and many reality TV shows embrace the wealthy, too. A new series, “#RichKids of Beverly Hills,” is the latest example of our enthusiasm for “ogling the filthy rich.”

Why are we so obsessed with watching the antics of the 1 percent?

NY Times, Feb 2014 | Alyssa Roseberg | Read more here 

America’s fascination with the ill-behaved rich, expressed in both reality television and this year in many movies that are contending for major awards, isn’t limited to the current recession. But the particular incarnation of our fascination seems intended to do something very specific: help us manage our covetousness, at a time when even basic financial security feels out of reach for many people.

It’s been fascinating to watch Bravo, which more than any other network drove the idea that programming should be “aspirational,” shift its brand from shows like “Project Runway” and “Top Chef,” which taught viewers about fashion and food, toward reality programming about the rich.

In “Blue Jasmine,” Cate Blanchett plays a wealthy socialite who falls on hard times.Jessica Miglio/Sony Pictures Classics

The purchasing power of the people who appear on the “Real Housewives” franchise may be enviable. But part of the appeal of those shows is the opportunity to judge their casts’ consumption choices and their conduct. If we had their money, we think, we wouldn’t spend it on hideous hotel suites and closets full of wigs. And when it turns out that Teresa Giudice, a star on “The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” is financing her lifestyle on debt and fraud, we can congratulate ourselves for not sharing her desperation to appear wealthy.

When rich people we actually envy turn out to be criminals, the idea that wealth is inherently corrupting helps take the sting out of our envy. Gordon Gekko may have declared that “greed is good” in the movie “Wall Street,” but by chasing his example, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen’s character in the film) contributes to his father’s heart attack and earns himself a prison sentence, examples that help us map the limits of what we’d do for more money. We tell ourselves that we’d never be as pathetic or myopic as the heroine of “Blue Jasmine,” who ruins her own life by marrying a scammer. And we’d never be so foolish, as the titular hero of “The Great Gatsby,” remade again this summer by Baz Luhrmann, to think that wealth, no matter how it’s acquired, can purchase class, or ease, or revise personal history.

We may never stop wanting money, the worries it eliminates and the ease it can bring. But pop culture can issue very effective reminders that we value things like our freedom and our self-respect just as much.

the self-help enterprise is a lonely one

Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Google, and the author of a book forwomen juggling their professional and family lives, "Lean In." NADINE RUPP / GETTY IMAGES

Feel Free to Help Yourself

Sarah L. Courteau

There is a booming market for self-improvement guides among Americans eager to redeem themselves from the sins of sloth, gluttony, or general discontent. But what qualifies one person to tell another how best to live?

Several years ago, I was living in Washington with one of my brothers, who had come to stay with me while he pulled himself out of a rough patch. Eventually, he got a gig selling memberships at a gym, part of a well-known national franchise. No one in our family is a natural salesperson, but it was a job, and at least the gym is one place where my brother is in his element.

He had the closing shift, and he’d get home in his regulation polo shirt and raid the fridge just as I was going to bed. Pulling in a paycheck straightened his shoulders, as it does for anyone. Some of his wry humor returned, and so it was that one night he came in and, standing at the kitchen counter, recited “The Affirmation,” the creed that new gym employees had to learn by heart:

 

I will win. Why? I’ll tell you why—because I have faith, courage, and enthusiasm!

Today, I’ll meet the right people in the right place at the right time for the betterment of all.

I see opportunity in every challenge.

I am terrific at remembering names.

When I fail, I look at what I did right, not what I did wrong.

I have clearly defined goals.

I never take advice from anyone more messed up than I am.

I never let a negative thought enter my head.

I am a winner, a contributor, an achiever. I believe in me.

 

We laughed until there were tears on our cheeks, in part because of the mock enthusiasm with which my brother belted out that last line, but mostly at the idea that such earnest propaganda could ever be received—much less adopted—with a straight face. What kind of chump did these corporate types think he was?

But really, what was so ludicrous about a company that makes its money burnishing the temple of the body applying that same approach to the mind? Sure, it isn’t exactly a tune you can dance to. Still, “The Affirmation,” crude as it is, echoes some of the time-tested ideas of the self-improvement canon, old and new. Back in 1936, in How to Win Friends and Influence People, a folksy businessman’s bible that is really just a useful guide to not being a jerk, Dale Carnegie admonished his readers to “remember that a man’s name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” And in the 2006 blockbuster The Secret, various “experts” unrelentingly advocate using positive thinking to mobilize the “law of attraction” in your favor. “Your life is a mirror of the dominant thoughts you think,” but the law of attraction doesn’t register “words of negation,” says one of these authorities. (In other words, if you’re thinking “I don’t want the restaurant to give away our table,” what the universe hears is “I want restaurants to give away our tables.”) The Secretreminds me of another megaseller, The Da Vinci Code, with its pseudo-historical references and simplistic explanations peddled as deep insights. The law of attraction is bunk. But there really are some benefits to thinking positively.

The truth is, my brother could have done worse than take “The Affirmation” to heart. And at that point in my life, dating a string of men whom Dale Carnegie would have kicked to the curb, I could have, too. The main trouble with “The Affirmation” was the source—a company that wanted its workers to bristle with enthusiasm so they’d sell more memberships. That didn’t invalidate the message.

There’s a fundamental contradiction in our attitudes about self-help—a term that describes the broad category of products and ideas that are supposed to make us thinner, happier, smarter, and more efficient. We Americans accept protein powders, extreme diets, personal trainers, expensive gym memberships, and the Rube Goldberg exercise contraptions that litter our basements and garages as the necessary paraphernalia for the pursuit of physical perfection. We openly admire gym rats and envy their fit bodies. But anyone who dabbles in the improvement of the mind—even taking yoga that hasn’t had its spiritual roots bleached out completely—invites a raised eyebrow among those of us who consider ourselves serious people. We are above such lockstep platitudes, empty positivity, and pop psychology. Continue reading

Where we are shapes who we are

Very interesting!

nytimes.com  | by ADAM ALTER on June 14, 2013

IN the early 1970s, a team of researchers dropped hundreds of stamped, addressed letters near college dorms along the East Coast and recorded how many lost letters found their way to a mailbox. The researchers counted each posted letter as a small act of charity and discovered that students in some of the dorms were more generous than others.

Nearly all of the letters dropped near uncrowded dorms — residences where comparatively few students lived on each floor — reached their intended recipients. In contrast, only about 6 in 10 of the letters dropped near crowded dorms completed the journey.

Apparently, the students in high-density housing, where everyone was packed close together, felt less connected to their college mates and this apparently dampened their generosity.

Later, when the researchers asked a different collection of students to imagine how they might have responded had they come across a lost letter, 95 percent of them said they would have posted it regardless of where they were living.

Most people, in fact, think of themselves as generous. In self-assessment studies, people generally see themselves as kind, friendly and honest, too. We imagine that these traits are a set of enduring attributes that sum up who we really are. But in truth, we’re more like chameleons who instinctively and unintentionally change how we behave based on our surroundings. Continue reading

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Should art really be for its own sake alone?

The Guardian  | by Alain de Botton on January 20, 2012

Descent into limbo andrea mantegna

A detail of Descent into Limbo by Andrea Mantegna. Photograph: Sotheby’s/AP

You often hear it said that “museums of art are our new churches”: in other words, in a secularising world, art has replaced religion as a touchstone of our reverence and devotion. It’s an intriguing idea, part of the broader ambition that culture should replace scripture, but in practice art museums often abdicate much of their potential to function as new churches (places of consolation, meaning, sanctuary, redemption) through the way they handle the collections entrusted to them. While exposing us to objects of genuine importance, they nevertheless seem unable to frame them in a way that links them powerfully to our inner needs.

The problem is that modern museums of art fail to tell people directly why art matters, because modernist aesthetics (in which curators are trained) is so deeply suspicious of any hint of an instrumental approach to culture. To have an answer anyone could grasp as to the question of why art matters is too quickly viewed as “reductive”. We have too easily swallowed the modernist idea that art that aims to change or help or console its audience must by definition be “bad art” – Soviet art is routinely trotted out here as an example – and that only art that wants nothing of us can be good. Hence the all-too-frequent question with which we leave the modern museum of art: what did that mean? Continue reading

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A call for moral courage among artists

Salman Rushdie for New York Times | 27 Apr 2013

WE find it easier, in these confused times, to admire physical bravery than moral courage — the courage of the life of the mind, or of public figures. A man in a cowboy hat vaults a fence to help Boston bomb victims while others flee the scene: we salute his bravery, as we do that of servicemen returning from the battlefront, or men and women struggling to overcome debilitating illnesses or injuries.

Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Police officers carried off an Occupy D.C. demonstrator in Washington, October 2011.

It’s harder for us to see politicians, with the exception of Nelson Mandela and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as courageous these days. Perhaps we have seen too much, grown too cynical about the inevitable compromises of power. There are no Gandhis, no Lincolns anymore. One man’s hero (Hugo Chávez, Fidel Castro) is another’s villain. We no longer easily agree on what it means to be good, or principled, or brave. When political leaders do take courageous steps — as France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, then president, did in Libya by intervening militarily to support the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi — there are as many who doubt as approve. Political courage, nowadays, is almost always ambiguous.

Even more strangely, we have become suspicious of those who take a stand against the abuses of power or dogma.

It was not always so. The writers and intellectuals who opposed Communism, Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov and the rest, were widely esteemed for their stand. The poet Osip Mandelstam was much admired for his “Stalin Epigram” of 1933, in which he described the fearsome leader in fearless terms — “the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip” — not least because the poem led to his arrest and eventual death in a Soviet labor camp.

As recently as 1989, the image of a man carrying two shopping bags and defying the tanks of Tiananmen Square became, almost at once, a global symbol of courage. Continue reading