As part of my experimentation with Positive Psychology I am always keen to go along to events and to listen to new ideas. I have just booked to attend the next Action For Happiness event with Oliver Burkeman which is detailed below. There are still tickets available so do join me.
If you would like a sneak preview of Oliver Burkeman take a look at this video of his RSA talk on “How to become slightly happier” which was the topic of his previous book.
I look forward to seeing you at the event.
ACTION FOR HAPPINESS PRESENTS…
The Antidote with Oliver Burkeman
Join us for a unique and thought-provoking evening as author and columnist Oliver Burkeman brings his refreshing perspective on how to lead a happy life without the need for constant positive thinking.
Oliver will share the insights from his new book The Antidote, which explains why embracing the negative aspects of life may in fact be essential for our happiness. It’s a fascinating and counter-intuitive message that turns self-help advice on its head and forces us to rethink our attitudes towards failure, uncertainty and death.
About Oliver Burkeman
Oliver writes This Column Will Change Your Life in The Guardian, where he regularly investigates social psychology, self-help culture and the science of happiness. His new book The Antidote will be in the shops from 21 June, but exclusive advance copies will be available at this event.
“On practically every page, Oliver Burkeman manages to be both hilarious and thought-provoking – a combination sure to make any reader very happy.” — Gretchen Rubin, author, The Happiness Project
“Addictive, wise and very funny. Burkeman never takes himself too seriously, but the rest of us should.” — Tim Harford, author of The Undercover Economist
“Burkeman proves an excellent guide, separating all the schmaltzy hokum on achieving inner bliss on your lunch break from the modest, but genuinely enlightening research on human happiness” — The Big Issue
Location and Timings
This event will take place at Conway Hall in central London on Thursday 14 June 2012. Doors will open at 18:45 and the event will start at 19:00.
This event is raising funds to support the work of Action for Happiness. We want to make it accessible to as many people as possible, so rather than charging a fixed fee we’re instead asking you to make a donation. It would be great if you could donate£15, but if you can spare more, or feel unable to give that much, then please give what you feel is appropriate.
All funds raised (beyond the costs of putting on the event) will contribute directly to Action for Happiness’ work relating to growing the movement, enabling local action groups and supporting activities relating to happiness and well-being in schools. Action for Happiness is part of the Young Foundation, which is a Registered Charity (274345) in England and Wales.
Any questions about the event please contact email@example.com.
It’s the last day of May and today marks the day of the first Happiness Experiment – yay!
We are going to start with something easy which anyone can try: Smile more!
Take a look at this short BBC video by Michael Mosley to see how a pencil can get your started. Have fun, smile more at both friends and strangers or just for the sake of it and let me know how you get on.
Anyone who is interested in increasing their happiness levels will inevitably be introducing some level of change in their lives. The last thirty days, during which I have taken part in the 30 Day Challenge programme with the Screw Work Let’s Play team, John Williams and Selina Barker, have brought about a significant change in my life with the launch of my new positive psychology blog – The Happiness Experiment. My first step towards encouraging other people to find ways to increase their happiness was to focus on creating my own forum for sharing ideas and experiments. I have been been amazed how far I have come in the last 30 days, with a new blog set up and functioning and new Twitter and Facebook accounts in place to spread the word. I have an exciting 3 month plan of blog posts which I am really looking forward to share and although the design and layout of the blog is far from perfect I have acheived something in 30 days which it would otherwise have taken me months to get off the ground. Needless to say I am now a fan of 30 Day challenges.
I think 30 days is the perfect amount of time to focus on something new and I intend introducing new 30 day challenges in to my life on a regular basis. I am the first to admit that after 30 days of doing something new you are still very much a beginner, but if you are willing to be a beginner on a regular basis there is nothing to stop you acheiving anything you want. The 30 day challenge was all about buddying up and lending support and encouragement to other members of the challenge. This is an important lesson to learn for any change you wish to make in your life – it is much easier to see something through if someone else is working along side you and holding you accountable.
I hope the ideas and experiments which I will be sharing in this happiness blog will encourage you to make positive changes in your life. I would like to say a huge thank you to the 30 Day challenge team who have inspired many people to try out some fantastic and inspiring challenges. I have been blown away by the energy, courage and enthusiasm which so many have shown – it’s very humbling so see what people are capable of. The official 30 Day challenge has now come to an end, but the idea of 30 day challenges has firmly taken root in my mindset. I can’t wait to start my next personal 30 day challenge so watch this space. Take a look at this simple but inspiring video to see what new challenge you could try out over the next 30 days. Go on you know you want to……………..
This interesting article by Jeremy McCarthy looks at a number of formulas which have been put forward by positive psychology researchers as a solution to finding happiness. Jeremy argues that although the equations may appear over-simplified they do succeed in making a very valid point which is easy to understand. It is important to realise that much more of our personal happiness is under our own control than you might think. Read on to find out why. What would your happiness equation consist of? It’s worth thinking about….
In Martin Seligman’s book, Authentic Happiness, he uses a simple equation to describe where happiness comes from:
H = S + C + V
Where “H is your enduring level of happiness, S is your set range, C is the circumstances of your life, and V represents factors under your voluntary control.”
I hear Seligman take a lot of flack for this equation in scientific circles. There are those who think this is an oversimplification of how happiness works, and that describing it as a simple sum is faulty math in calculating the complex relationships between the variables.
Here’s Barbara Ehrenreich, bashing Seligman in her anti-positivity opus, Bright-Sided:
I move on to one of the most irritatingly pseudo-scientific things in his book, the “happiness equation,” which he had introduced with the coy promise that it “is the only equation I ask you to consider,” as if positive psychology rests on whole thickets of equations from which the reader will mercifully be spared . . . Now I understand what he is trying to say: that a person’s happiness is determined in some way by their innate disposition (S), their immediate circumstances (a recent job loss or bereavement, for example), and by the efforts (V) that they make to improve their outlook. This could be stated unobjectionably as:
H = f(S, C, V)
Or, in words: H is a function of S, C, V, where the exact nature of that function is yet to be determined. But to express it as an equation is to invite ridicule. I ask the question that would occur to any first year physics student, “What are the units of measurement?”
Studying ’till the Sun Goes Down by Jekert Gwapo
I’m sure mathematically, Ehrenreich is correct, but she’s missing the point. The equation is not intended to be filled in with actual numbers, as if you could calculate your happiness with the ease of pressing buttons on a calculator. It’s simply a way to describe a complex subject in a way that is easier to understand.
The point of the equation is pretty simple:
Some of our happiness is fixed (genetically programmed, perhaps), some is influenced by the conditions we find ourselves in (where we live,health, wealth and marital status, political and cultural factors, etc.), and some is subject to change through voluntary control. Because the V can be influenced, this is the area where, according to Seligman, positive psychology should focus.
Sonja Lyubomirsky also has taken some heat for attaching some percentages to this equation and showing that about 50% of the variance in happiness can be explained by genetics (the set-point or S above), only about 10% by our circumstances (C), and that leaves a whopping 40% that is subject to voluntary influence (V).
The criticism here is somewhat better founded. These percentages are based on variances across large populations and don’t tell us much about individuals (your personal mileage may vary.) And there’s a bit of a leap here to assume that you can truly manipulate whatever falls outside of what’s been found in genetics and circumstance.
But these criticisms still miss the point. Lyubomirsky is using a simple pie chart to communicate three important facts about human happiness:
A lot of it is set (maybe about half).
Some (a lot less than we think) is dependent on our circumstances.
And, there is a chunk left over that is within our power to change.
I find this not only useful, but a powerful message to share with those who may be assuming that their happiness in life is determined completely by factors outside of their control
Happiness = Wanting What You Have / Having What You Want
Emotional Equations by Chip Conley
Here, the equation brings to mind Buddhist principles of acceptance and how a shift in mindset can increase happiness more than merely attaining or accomplishing more. Again, the math is flawed because the equation suggests that having more would cause your happiness to plummet, but once again, that’s not the point.
Conley uses equations to explore relationships. There is a relationship between wanting and having that is described here. Most people focus on having more, but Conley’s equation asks us to think about wanting less (or better yet, wanting and appreciating what we already have.) His book is filled with simple equations to help readers come to terms with the factors that allow certain emotions to rise and fall through life.
For me, all of these equations are useful. They force us to use an analytical part of our brain to consider the forces at play between variables that are unquantifiable. To the critics of these equations, I’d like to share the same advice that Conley gives to his readers . . . “try not to let the math distract you from the bigger message.”
p.s. What would your happiness equation be? I think mine would be something like this:
Happiness = (Meaningful Work + Joyful Play + Loving People) * Time to Appreciate It
Following on from yesterday’s blog post about whether it is best to be an introvert or an extrovert here are 10 myths about each personality type. Do you agree with these myths and have you decided which personality type best describes you? Maybe you are like me and are bang in the middle of the introvert/extrovert spectrum or maybe you recognise that you are definitely more like one type than the other. Either way it doesn’t matter where in the spectrum your personality lies as each is equally valid and can contribute to society in equal amounts. The important lesson to learn from this debate is that your happiness will be influenced by recognising where you feel your own strengths lie. Trying to fit a square peg in a round hole because you feel your personality type is not a desirable one is not a route to happiness. Your strengths are just as strong as someone else’s strengths – it is really important to remember this. The debate continues………………..
Myth #1 – Introverts don’t like to talk.
This is not true. Introverts just don’t talk unless they have something to say. They hate small talk. Get an introvert talking about something they are interested in, and they won’t shut up for days.
Myth #2 – Introverts are shy.
Shyness has nothing to do with being an Introvert. Introverts are not necessarily afraid of people. What they need is a reason to interact. They don’t interact for the sake of interacting. If you want to talk to an Introvert, just start talking. Don’t worry about being polite.
Myth #3 – Introverts are rude.
Introverts often don’t see a reason for beating around the bush with social pleasantries. They want everyone to just be real and honest. Unfortunately, this is not acceptable in most settings, so Introverts can feel a lot of pressure to fit in, which they find exhausting.
Myth #4 – Introverts don’t like people.
On the contrary, Introverts intensely value the few friends they have. They can count their close friends on one hand. If you are lucky enough for an introvert to consider you a friend, you probably have a loyal ally for life. Once you have earned their respect as being a person of substance, you’re in.
Myth #5 – Introverts don’t like to go out in public.
Nonsense. Introverts just don’t like to go out in public FOR AS LONG. They also like to avoid the complications that are involved in public activities. They take in data and experiences very quickly, and as a result, don’t need to be there for long to “get it.” They’re ready to go home, recharge, and process it all. In fact, recharging is absolutely crucial for Introverts.
Myth #6 – Introverts always want to be alone.
Introverts are perfectly comfortable with their own thoughts. They think a lot. They daydream. They like to have problems to work on, puzzles to solve. But they can also get incredibly lonely if they don’t have anyone to share their discoveries with. They crave an authentic and sincere connection with ONE PERSON at a time.
Myth #7 – Introverts are weird.
Introverts are often individualists. They don’t follow the crowd. They’d prefer to be valued for their novel ways of living. They think for themselves and because of that, they often challenge the norm. They don’t make most decisions based on what is popular or trendy.
Myth #8 – Introverts are aloof nerds.
Introverts are people who primarily look inward, paying close attention to their thoughts and emotions. It’s not that they are incapable of paying attention to what is going on around them, it’s just that their inner world is much more stimulating and rewarding to them.
Myth #9 – Introverts don’t know how to relax and have fun.
Introverts typically relax at home or in nature, not in busy public places. Introverts are not thrill seekers and adrenaline junkies. If there is too much talking and noise going on, they shut down. Their brains are too sensitive to the neurotransmitter called Dopamine. Introverts and Extroverts have different dominant neuro-pathways. Just look it up.
Myth #10 – Introverts can fix themselves and become Extroverts.
Introverts cannot “fix themselves” and deserve respect for their natural temperament and contributions to the human race. In fact, one study (Silverman, 1986) showed that the percentage of Introverts increases with IQ.
In response to the recent article “10 Myths about Introverts” floating about Facebook lately, I felt the irrepressible need to explain the extroverts of the world.Read with enjoyment - and an open heart! :)
Myth #1 – Extroverts like to talk and can’t be silent.
It’s not so much that we LIKE to talk – but what we DON’T like. Which is awkward silence. This is what occurs when you put a bunch of introverts in a room who don’t like making small talk! We like to “break the ice” and talk about anything and everything we can think of, just to avoid the awkwardness of everyone pretending not to be listening or looking at anyone else in the room. If others are talking and there’s no awkwardness – we embrace the opportunity to stop brainstorming random and totally unnecessary subjects!
Myth #2 – Extroverts need to be the center of attention.
Need? No. We simply ARE, due to introverts not talking….er….excuse me…I believe it’s refusing to “beat(ing) around the bush with social pleasantries”.There we go. Or liking to spend an abundant amount of time in public. We end up being the center of attention by default!
Myth #3 – Extroverts enjoy public speaking.
Just because we are comfortable talking to YOU and the person standing next to you (and the next person that comes along), does NOT mean that we have any desire to talk to a room full of people at once. Our level of comfort in verbally communicating with others stops when they actually all stop to listen and do not respond. Must I use the word “awkward” again?
Myth #4 – Extroverts love meeting people.
Though we get our energy from being around others, do not mistake this for wanting to be the designated “new person” greeter. Being shoved towards a person that no one in the room knows is just as uncomfortable for us, as it is for introverts. However – unlike introverts – we don’t know how it is possible to make friends WITHOUT first going through the inevitable “small talk” phase that introverts hate so much. So we push through the hesitation and discomfort and just do it. (Think about it, introverts – your closest friends are extroverts who did exactly what you think is unnecessary to do in public, aren’t they?? AREN’T they?!)
Myth #5 – Extroverts don’t want to be alone.
How would you know? You only see us when we’re around you.
Myth #6 – Extroverts have a lot of energy.
Trust me on this one. We. do. not. exert. any. energy. at. home. YOU give us energy! Isn’t that the biggest compliment in the world? We are ONLY energetic when we are around you! We love getting to know you, and finding out more about you, and spending time with you! Woo-hoo….I’m getting more energy just thinking about thinking about you! It doesn’t have to be in big groups, either. Extroverts just enjoy spending time with someone other than themselves.
Myth #7 – Extroverts don’t need time to recharge.
Our recharge is faster than your recharge. Not to sound arrogant or anything. Nothing to brag about, really. Well…it kinda is. Do you remember the last time an extrovert excused themselves to the potty? Yep – that’s all it takes. Really. We excuse ourselves, head on down to the john, and let everything that’s going on sink in. Then we’re ready for round 2!
Myth #8 – Extroverts are not shy.
We can be. *buries face in jacket*
Myth #9 – Extroverts don’t have close friends, but a lot of acquaintances.
Here’s the thing. We are capable of being interested in more than 5 people at one time on a deeper level. However – we still invest the majority of our emotional baggage in a few lucky individuals – just like you introverts do. I just think we prepare ourselves with back-ups in case our emotions get smashed by close friends we shared them with! Who wants to be left all alone when a close friend moves on or away???? Oh. That’s right. Introverts do.
Myth #10 – Extroverts don’t care what others think.
The biggest myth of them all! Extroverts have self-confidence issues just as you do! When people look at us across the room, we wonder if they’re approving our newest clothing ensemble or simply checking out the fresh pimple beside our nose. The difference is – we typically just ask them! I mean, don’t introverts “want everyone to just be real and honest”? What better way than to verbally confirm their suspicion??
I am currently reading a very interesting book by Susan Cain called “Quiet” which eloquently argues the case for the introvert. We live in a society in which extroverts are portrayed as some sort of ideal which we should all somehow strive to become. A celebrity-focused culture gives little legitimacy to the introvert whose quiet but successful endeavours can go unnoticed amidst the noise and heat surrounding the extrovert. This well-argued review of Susan Cain’s book, by positive psychologist Dr Christopher Petersen, illustrates that we do not need to be extrovert to be happy. In fact striving to be an extrovert if this goes against one’s own nature can be the cause of great unhappiness. Read this excellent article from Pysychology Today magazine and watch Susan Cain’s Ted talk in which she tells her own story of an introvert who was forced to become an extrovert to succeed.
“If I could I would always work in silence and obscurity, and let my efforts be known by their results.” Emily Bronte
A Quiet Positive Psychology
A quiet positive psychology would be a scientifically reasonable one.
I just finished reading a terrific book written by Susan Cain (2012), who also writes blog entries for Psychology Today. Her book Quiet is a best-seller, deservedly so, and many of you readers are no doubt familiar with its content. Her focus is on the 1/3 to 1/2 of all people who are introverted. Introversion is not to be confused with shyness. Rather, the introverted person is reflective and thoughtful and often prefers to be alone and to work alone. Too much social interaction leaves the introvert depleted and overwhelmed. Introverts have friends and social skills, just in different ways than their extroverted counterparts.
Introverts also have a bad reputation, at least in the modern Western World, and Cain argues that in such domains as business, school, and even religion, extroversion is idealized. That said, introverts have many virtues, and some of the world’s most important accomplishments have been made by introverted individuals.
I will not repeat her further arguments here — see her book or her blog entries — but I will observe that she is a very good writer and a very good thinker. And by her own report, she is an introvert, proof positive of her book’s thesis.
Rather, the point of this essay is to consider positive psychology vis-à-vis the ideas put forth so powerfully in Quiet. What Cain calls the Extroverted Ideal is not explicit in positive psychology’s vision of the good life, but it often lurks there.
When positive psychologists focus on positive emotions, we privilege activated feelings like happiness and shoulder aside more quiet feelings like contentment. When positive psychologists — like me in particular — proclaim that “other people matter,” it is easy to hear this slogan as implying that the most meaningful life is one abuzz nonstop with lots of other folks. When positive psychologists discuss achievement, we point to the role played by teams and workgroups, never mind the fact that many accomplishments result from long hours of solitary work.
Positive psychology holds that the good life can take different forms, and we should take this pronouncement seriously. There is a noisy and extroverted view of what it means to live well, but there is also a quiet and introverted view. Both deserve our scientific attention. One size does not fit all, and introverts should not be measured against extroverts (or vice versa, although no one seems to be doing much of that these days).
My apologies to all who invite me, but I dislike positive psychology conferences, at least after the first day, because they are attended by people who seem extremely extroverted: happy and humorous, boisterous and bouncy, hugging strangers and hollering out to any and all. My persona is that of an extrovert, but that is just a way of behaving that I have adopted over the years in my roles as a teacher and a speaker**. Deep down, at the level of my nervous system if not my overt actions, I am an introvert.
So too are many if not most of the leaders in the field of positive psychology, which of course is ironic. Perhaps when positive psychology began, its earliest proponents were careful not to prescribe their own personality styles as a way to lead a good life. This is regrettable, in retrospect, because a quiet positive psychology would not only be an appealing complement to the noisy one that exists but also a scientifically reasonable one. So, the character strength of curiosity can be shown in a loudly inquisitive way (“I am always asking other people questions”) or in a quietly observant way (“I am always sitting on the sidelines and paying attention to what is happening”). Mixing these together obscures what are likely important differences in what it means to be curious.
Thoughtfully, I call for a quiet positive psychology.
* I will follow the lead of Quiet and use extroversion rather than extraversion to describe people who are outgoing, gregarious, and energized by social encounters.
** When I first began my career as a teacher, I was absolutely terrible … way too abstract and way too serious. So, I studied — and I really mean studied — joke books as well as the common culture to create skills at glibness, meaning humor and small talk. I even subscribed to The National Enquirer and deducted the cost on my federal tax form as an unreimbursed business expense. I became to all outward appearances a funny guy and a chatty guy, and there were professional and even some personal benefits to doing so. But I remained an introvert, and I thank Susan Cain for reminding me that the person I really am is as okay as the person I appear to be.
Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.New York: Crown.
Article published in Psychology Today, 25th May 2012
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Yesterday’s blog post looked at the theory of the optimism bias. In today’s blog post we look at the book “Smile or Die” by Barbara Ehrenreich which argues the case against aiming for a perpetual state of positivity. Jenni Murray, who like Barbara Ehrenreich has also been diagnosed with breast cancer, is in favour of Ehrenreich’s quest for realism rather than the pursuit of a permanent state of happiness. This video featuring Barbara Ehrenreich explains the logic behind her views. By watching the video and reading Jenni Murray’s article you will be better equipped to decide which viewpoint you agree with. Should we aim to be optimistic, pessimistic or realistic or a combination of all three? The decision is yours.
Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World by Barbara Ehrenreich
Jenni Murray salutes a long-overdue demolition of the suggestion that positive thinking is the answer to all our problems.
Some of the 15,000 participants in the 2005 Playtex Moonwalk around Hyde Park, London, to raise money for the breast cancer charity Walk the Walk. Photograph: onEdition
Every so often a book appears that so chimes with your own thinking, yet flies so spectacularly in the face of fashionable philosophy, that it comes as a profoundly reassuring relief. After reading Barbara Ehrenreich’sSmile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, I feel as if I can wallow in grief, gloom, disappointment or whatever negative emotion comes naturally without worrying that I’ve become that frightful stereotype, the curmudgeonly, grumpy old woman. Instead, I can be merely human: someone who doesn’t have to convince herself that every rejection or disaster is a golden opportunity to “move on” in an upbeat manner.
Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World by Barbara Ehrenreich
Ehrenreich came to her critique of the multi-billion-dollar positive-thinking industry – a swamp of books, DVDs, life coaches, executive coaches and motivational speakers – in similar misery-making circumstances to those I experienced. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and, like me, found herself increasingly disturbed by the martial parlance and “pink” culture that has come to surround the disease. My response when confronted with the “positive attitude will help you battle and survive this experience” brigade was to rail against the use of militaristic vocabulary and ask how miserable the optimism of the “survivor” would make the poor woman who was dying from her breast cancer. It seemed to me that an “invasion” of cancer cells was a pure lottery. No one knows the cause. As Ehrenreich says: “I had no known risk factors, there was no breast cancer in the family, I’d had my babies relatively young and nursed them both. I ate right, drank sparingly, worked out, and, besides, my breasts were so small that I figured a lump or two would improve my figure.” (Mercifully, she hasn’t lost her sense of humour.)
I had long suspected that improved survival rates for women who had breast cancer had absolutely nothing to do with the “power” of positive thinking. For women diagnosed between 2001 and 2006, 82% were expected to survive for five years, compared with only 52% diagnosed 30 years earlier. The figures can be directly related to improved detection, better surgical techniques, a greater understanding of the different types of breast cancer and the development of targeted treatments. Ehrenreich presents the evidence of numerous studies demonstrating that positive thinking has no effect on survival rates and she provides the sad testimonies of women who have been devastated by what one researcher has called “an additional burden to an already devastated patient”.
Pity, for example, the woman who wrote to the mind/body medical guru Deepak Chopra ”Even though I follow the treatments, have come a long way in unburdening myself of toxic feelings, have forgiven everyone, changed my lifestyle to include meditation, prayer, proper diet, exercise and supplements, the cancer keeps coming back. Am I missing a lesson here that it keeps re-occurring? I am positive I am going to beat it, yet it does get harder with each diagnosis to keep a positive attitude.”
As Ehrenreich goes on to explain, exhortations to think positively – to see the glass as half-full even when it lies shattered on the floor – are not restricted to the pink-ribbon culture of breast cancer. She roots America’s susceptibility to the philosophy of positive thinking in the country’s Calvinist past and demonstrates how, in its early days, a puritanical “demand for perpetual effort and self-examination to the point of self-loathing” terrified small children and reduced “formerly healthy adults to a condition of morbid withdrawal, usually marked by physical maladies as well as inner terror”.
It was only in the early 19th century that the clouds of Calvinist gloom began to break and a new movement began to grow that would take as fervent a hold as the old one had. It was the joining of two thinkers,Phineas Parkhurst Quimby and Mary Baker Eddy, in the 1860s that brought about the formalisation of a post-Calvinist world-view, known as the New Thought Movement. A new type of God was envisaged who was no longer hostile and indifferent, but an all-powerful spirit whom humans had merely to access to take control of the physical world.
Middle-class women found this new style of thinking, which came to be known as the “laws of attraction”, particularly beneficial. They had spent their days shut out from any role other than reclining on a chaise longue, denied any opportunity to strive in the world, but the New Thought approach and its “talking therapy” developed by Quimby opened up exciting new possibilities. Mary Baker Eddy, a beneficiary of the cure, went on to found Christian Science. Ehrenreich notes that although this new style of positive thinking did apparently help invalidism or neurasthenia, it had no effect whatsoever on diseases such as diphtheria, scarlet fever, typhus, tuberculosis and cholera – just as, today, it will not cure cancer.
Thus it was that positive thinking, the assumption that one only has to think a thing or desire it to make it happen, began its rapid rise to influence. Today, as Ehrenreich shows, it has a massive impact on business, religion and the world’s economy. She describes visits to motivational speaker conferences where workers who have recently been made redundant and forced to join the short-term contract culture are taught that a “good team player” is by definition “a positive person” who “smiles frequently, does not complain, is not overly critical and gratefully submits to whatever the boss demands”. These are people who have less and less power to chart their own futures, but who are given, thanks to positive thinking, “a world-view – a belief system, almost a religion – that claimed they were, in fact, infinitely powerful, if only they could master their own minds.”
And none was more susceptible to the lure of this philosophy than those self-styled “masters of the universe”, the Wall Street bankers. Those of us raised to believe that saving up, having a deposit and living within one’s means were the way to proceed and who wondered how on earth the credit crunch and the subprime disasters could have happened need look no further than the culture that argued that positive thinking would enable anyone to realise their desires. (Or as one of Ehrenreich’s chapter headings has it, “God wants you to be rich”.)
Ehrenreich’s work explains where the cult of individualism began and what a devastating impact it has had on the need for collective responsibility. We must, she says, shake off our capacity for self-absorption and take action against the threats that face us, whether climate change, conflict, feeding the hungry, funding scientific inquiry or education that fosters critical thinking. She is anxious to emphasise that she does “not write in a spirit of sourness or personal disappointment, nor do I have any romantic attachment to suffering as a source of insight or virtue. On the contrary, I would like to see more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness… and the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking”. Her book, it seems to me, is a call for the return of common sense and, I’m afraid, in what purports to be a work of criticism, I can find only positive things to say about it. Damn!
Article written by Jenni Murray in The Observer on
I discovered Tali Sharot at this year’s TEDx Observer event in London and was struck by the importance of her fascinating studies. I immediately purchased her book “The Optimism Bias” which I highly recommend. If you do not have time to read the whole book and would like to read an extract take a look at this article from TIME magazine. You can also watch Tali Sharot’s TED talk in this video. Enjoy!
We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures. We watch our backs, weigh the odds, pack an umbrella. But both neuroscience and social science suggest that we are more optimistic than realistic. On average, we expect things to turn out better than they wind up being. People hugely underestimate their chances of getting divorced, losing their job or being diagnosed with cancer; expect their children to be extraordinarily gifted; envision themselves achieving more than their peers; and overestimate their likely life span (sometimes by 20 years or more).
The belief that the future will be much better than the past and present is known as the optimism bias. It abides in every race, region and socioeconomic bracket. Schoolchildren playing when-I-grow-up are rampant optimists, but so are grownups: a 2005 study found that adults over 60 are just as likely to see the glass half full as young adults.
You might expect optimism to erode under the tide of news about violent conflicts, high unemployment, tornadoes and floods and all the threats and failures that shape human life. Collectively we can grow pessimistic — about the direction of our country or the ability of our leaders to improve education and reduce crime. But private optimism, about our personal future, remains incredibly resilient. A survey conducted in 2007 found that while 70% thought families in general were less successful than in their parents’ day, 76% of respondents were optimistic about the future of their own family.
Overly positive assumptions can lead to disastrous miscalculations — make us less likely to get health checkups, apply sunscreen or open a savings account, and more likely to bet the farm on a bad investment. But the bias also protects and inspires us: it keeps us moving forward rather than to the nearest high-rise ledge. Without optimism, our ancestors might never have ventured far from their tribes and we might all be cave dwellers, still huddled together and dreaming of light and heat.
To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities — better ones — and we need to believe that we can achieve them. Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals. Optimists in general work longer hours and tend to earn more. Economists at Duke University found that optimists even save more. And although they are not less likely to divorce, they are more likely to remarry — an act that is, as Samuel Johnson wrote, the triumph of hope over experience.
Even if that better future is often an illusion, optimism has clear benefits in the present. Hope keeps our minds at ease, lowers stress and improves physical health. Researchers studying heart-disease patients found that optimists were more likely than nonoptimistic patients to take vitamins, eat low-fat diets and exercise, thereby reducing their overall coronary risk. A study of cancer patients revealed that pessimistic patients under the age of 60 were more likely to die within eight months than nonpessimistic patients of the same initial health, status and age.
In fact, a growing body of scientific evidence points to the conclusion that optimism may be hardwired by evolution into the human brain. The science of optimism, once scorned as an intellectually suspect province of pep rallies and smiley faces, is opening a new window on the workings of human consciousness. What it shows could fuel a revolution in psychology, as the field comes to grips with accumulating evidence that our brains aren’t just stamped by the past. They are constantly being shaped by the future.
Hardwired for Hope?
I would have liked to tell you that my work on optimism grew out of a keen interest in the positive side of human nature. The reality is that I stumbled onto the brain’s innate optimism by accident. After living through Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City, I had set out to investigate people’s memories of the terrorist attacks. I was intrigued by the fact that people felt their memories were as accurate as a videotape, while often they were filled with errors. A survey conducted around the country showed that 11 months after the attacks, individuals’ recollections of their experience that day were consistent with their initial accounts (given in September 2011) only 63% of the time. They were also poor at remembering details of the event, such as the names of the airline carriers. Where did these mistakes in memory come from?
Scientists who study memory proposed an intriguing answer: memories are susceptible to inaccuracies partly because the neural system responsible for remembering episodes from our past might not have evolved for memory alone. Rather, the core function of the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future — to enable us to prepare for what has yet to come. The system is not designed to perfectly replay past events, the researchers claimed. It is designed to flexibly construct future scenarios in our minds. As a result, memory also ends up being a reconstructive process, and occasionally, details are deleted and others inserted.
To test this, I decided to record the brain activity of volunteers while they imagined future events — not events on the scale of 9/11, but events in their everyday lives — and compare those results with the pattern I observed when the same individuals recalled past events. But something unexpected occurred. Once people started imagining the future, even the most banal life events seemed to take a dramatic turn for the better. Mundane scenes brightened with upbeat details as if polished by a Hollywood script doctor. You might think that imagining a future haircut would be pretty dull. Not at all. Here is what one of my participants pictured: “I was getting my hair cut to donate to Locks of Love [a charity that fashions wigs for young cancer patients]. It had taken me years to grow it out, and my friends were all there to help celebrate. We went to my favorite hair place in Brooklyn and then went to lunch at our favorite restaurant.”
I asked another participant to imagine a plane ride. “I imagined the takeoff — my favorite! — and then the eight-hour-long nap in between and then finally landing in Krakow and clapping for the pilot for providing the safe voyage,” she responded. No tarmac delays, no screaming babies. The world, only a year or two into the future, was a wonderful place to live in.
If all our participants insisted on thinking positively when it came to what lay in store for them personally, what does that tell us about how our brains are wired? Is the human tendency for optimism a consequence of the architecture of our brains?
The Human Time Machine
To think positively about our prospects, we must first be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel, the ability to move back and forth through time and space in one’s mind. Although most of us take this ability for granted, our capacity to envision a different time and place is in fact critical to our survival.
It is easy to see why cognitive time travel was naturally selected for over the course of evolution. It allows us to plan ahead, to save food and resources for times of scarcity and to endure hard work in anticipation of a future reward. It also lets us forecast how our current behavior may influence future generations. If we were not able to picture the world in a hundred years or more, would we be concerned with global warming? Would we attempt to live healthily? Would we have children?
While mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price — the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits. Ajit Varki, a biologist at the University of California, San Diego, argues that the awareness of mortality on its own would have led evolution to a dead end. The despair would have interfered with our daily function, bringing the activities needed for survival to a stop. The only way conscious mental time travel could have arisen over the course of evolution is if it emerged together with irrational optimism. Knowledge of death had to emerge side by side with the persistent ability to picture a bright future.
The capacity to envision the future relies partly on the hippocampus, a brain structure that is crucial to memory. Patients with damage to their hippocampus are unable to recollect the past, but they are also unable to construct detailed images of future scenarios. They appear to be stuck in time. The rest of us constantly move back and forth in time; we might think of a conversation we had with our spouse yesterday and then immediately of our dinner plans for later tonight.
But the brain doesn’t travel in time in a random fashion. It tends to engage in specific types of thoughts. We consider how well our kids will do in life, how we will obtain that sought-after job, afford that house on the hill and find perfect love. We imagine our team winning the crucial game, look forward to an enjoyable night on the town or picture a winning streak at the blackjack table. We also worry about losing loved ones, failing at our job or dying in a terrible plane crash — but research shows that most of us spend less time mulling over negative outcomes than we do over positive ones. When we do contemplate defeat and heartache, we tend to focus on how these can be avoided.
Findings from a study I conducted a few years ago with prominent neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps suggest that directing our thoughts of the future toward the positive is a result of our frontal cortex’s communicating with subcortical regions deep in our brain. The frontal cortex, a large area behind the forehead, is the most recently evolved part of the brain. It is larger in humans than in other primates and is critical for many complex human functions such as language and goal setting.
Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, we recorded brain activity in volunteers as they imagined specific events that might occur to them in the future. Some of the events that I asked them to imagine were desirable (a great date or winning a large sum of money), and some were undesirable (losing a wallet, ending a romantic relationship). The volunteers reported that their images of sought-after events were richer and more vivid than those of unwanted events.
This matched the enhanced activity we observed in two critical regions of the brain: the amygdala, a small structure deep in the brain that is central to the processing of emotion, and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC), an area of the frontal cortex that modulates emotion and motivation. The rACC acts like a traffic conductor, enhancing the flow of positive emotions and associations. The more optimistic a person was, the higher the activity in these regions was while imagining positive future events (relative to negative ones) and the stronger the connectivity between the two structures.
The findings were particularly fascinating because these precise regions — the amygdala and the rACC — show abnormal activity in depressed individuals. While healthy people expect the future to be slightly better than it ends up being, people with severe depression tend to be pessimistically biased: they expect things to be worse than they end up being. People with mild depression are relatively accurate when predicting future events. They see the world as it is. In other words, in the absence of a neural mechanism that generates unrealistic optimism, it is possible all humans would be mildly depressed.
Can Optimism Change Reality?
The problem with pessimistic expectations, such as those of the clinically depressed, is that they have the power to alter the future; negative expectations shape outcomes in a negative way. How do expectations change reality?
To answer this question, my colleague, cognitive neuroscientist Sara Bengtsson, devised an experiment in which she manipulated positive and negative expectations of students while their brains were scanned and tested their performance on cognitive tasks. To induce expectations of success, she primed college students with words such as smart, intelligent andclever just before asking them to perform a test. To induce expectations of failure, she primed them with words like stupid and ignorant. The students performed better after being primed with an affirmative message.
Examining the brain-imaging data, Bengtsson found that the students’ brains responded differently to the mistakes they made depending on whether they were primed with the word clever or the word stupid. When the mistake followed positive words, she observed enhanced activity in the anterior medial part of the prefrontal cortex (a region that is involved in self-reflection and recollection). However, when the participants were primed with the word stupid, there was no heightened activity after a wrong answer. It appears that after being primed with the word stupid, the brain expected to do poorly and did not show signs of surprise or conflict when it made an error.
A brain that doesn’t expect good results lacks a signal telling it, “Take notice — wrong answer!” These brains will fail to learn from their mistakes and are less likely to improve over time. Expectations become self-fulfilling by altering our performance and actions, which ultimately affects what happens in the future. Often, however, expectations simply transform the way we perceive the world without altering reality itself. Let me give you an example. While writing these lines, my friend calls. He is at Heathrow Airport waiting to get on a plane to Austria for a skiing holiday. His plane has been delayed for three hours already, because of snowstorms at his destination. “I guess this is both a good and bad thing,” he says. Waiting at the airport is not pleasant, but he quickly concludes that snow today means better skiing conditions tomorrow. His brain works to match the unexpected misfortune of being stuck at the airport to its eager anticipation of a fun getaway.
A canceled flight is hardly tragic, but even when the incidents that befall us are the type of horrific events we never expected to encounter, we automatically seek evidence confirming that our misfortune is a blessing in disguise. No, we did not anticipate losing our job, being ill or getting a divorce, but when these incidents occur, we search for the upside. These experiences mature us, we think. They may lead to more fulfilling jobs and stable relationships in the future. Interpreting a misfortune in this way allows us to conclude that our sunny expectations were correct after all — things did work out for the best.
How do we find the silver lining in storm clouds? To answer that, my colleagues — renowned neuroscientist Ray Dolan and neurologist Tamara Shiner — and I instructed volunteers in the fMRI scanner to visualize a range of medical conditions, from broken bones to Alzheimer’s, and rate how bad they imagined these conditions to be. Then we asked them: If you had to endure one of the following, which would you rather have — a broken leg or a broken arm? Heartburn or asthma? Finally, they rated all the conditions again. Minutes after choosing one particular illness out of many, the volunteers suddenly found that the chosen illness was less intimidating. A broken leg, for example, may have been thought of as “terrible” before choosing it over some other malady. However, after choosing it, the subject would find a silver lining: “With a broken leg, I will be able to lie in bed watching TV, guilt-free.”
In our study, we also found that people perceived adverse events more positively if they had experienced them in the past. Recording brain activity while these reappraisals took place revealed that highlighting the positive within the negative involves, once again, a tête-à-tête between the frontal cortex and subcortical regions processing emotional value. While contemplating a mishap, like a broken leg, activity in the rACC modulated signals in a region called the striatum that conveyed the good and bad of the event in question — biasing activity in a positive direction.
It seems that our brain possesses the philosopher’s stone that enables us to turn lead into gold and helps us bounce back to normal levels of well-being. It is wired to place high value on the events we encounter and put faith in its own decisions. This is true not only when forced to choose between two adverse options (such as selecting between two courses of medical treatment) but also when we are selecting between desirable alternatives. Imagine you need to pick between two equally attractive job offers. Making a decision may be a tiring, difficult ordeal, but once you make up your mind, something miraculous happens. Suddenly — if you are like most people — you view the chosen offer as better than you did before and conclude that the other option was not that great after all. According to social psychologist Leon Festinger, we re-evaluate the options postchoice to reduce the tension that arises from making a difficult decision between equally desirable options.
In a brain-imaging study I conducted with Ray Dolan and Benedetto De Martino in 2009, we asked subjects to imagine going on vacation to 80 different destinations and rate how happy they thought they would be in each place. We then asked them to select one destination from two choices that they had rated exactly the same. Would you choose Paris over Brazil? Finally, we asked them to imagine and rate all the destinations again. Seconds after picking between two destinations, people rated their selected destination higher than before and rated the discarded choice lower than before.
The brain-imaging data revealed that these changes were happening in the caudate nucleus, a cluster of nerve cells that is part of the striatum. The caudate has been shown to process rewards and signal their expectation. If we believe we are about to be given a paycheck or eat a scrumptious chocolate cake, the caudate acts as an announcer broadcasting to other parts of the brain, “Be ready for something good.” After we receive the reward, the value is quickly updated. If there is a bonus in the paycheck, this higher value will be reflected in striatal activity. If the cake is disappointing, the decreased value will be tracked so that next time our expectations will be lower.
In our experiment, after a decision was made between two destinations, the caudate nucleus rapidly updated its signal. Before choosing, it might signal “thinking of something great” while imagining both Greece and Thailand. But after choosing Greece, it now broadcast “thinking of something remarkable!” for Greece and merely “thinking of something good” for Thailand.
True, sometimes we regret our decisions; our choices can turn out to be disappointing. But on balance, when you make a decision — even if it is a hypothetical choice — you will value it more and expect it to bring you pleasure.
This affirmation of our decisions helps us derive heightened pleasure from choices that might actually be neutral. Without this, our lives might well be filled with second-guessing. Have we done the right thing? Should we change our mind? We would find ourselves stuck, overcome by indecision and unable to move forward.
The Puzzle of Optimism
While the past few years have seen important advances in the neuroscience of optimism, one enduring puzzle remained. How is it that people maintain this rosy bias even when information challenging our upbeat forecasts is so readily available? Only recently have we been able to decipher this mystery, by scanning the brains of people as they process both positive and negative information about the future. The findings are striking: when people learn, their neurons faithfully encode desirable information that can enhance optimism but fail at incorporating unexpectedly undesirable information. When we hear a success story like Mark Zuckerberg’s, our brains take note of the possibility that we too may become immensely rich one day. But hearing that the odds of divorce are almost 1 in 2 tends not to make us think that our own marriages may be destined to fail.
Why would our brains be wired in this way? It is tempting to speculate that optimism was selected by evolution precisely because, on balance, positive expectations enhance the odds of survival. Research findings that optimists live longer and are healthier, plus the fact that most humans display optimistic biases — and emerging data that optimism is linked to specific genes — all strongly support this hypothesis. Yet optimism is also irrational and can lead to unwanted outcomes. The question then is, How can we remain hopeful — benefiting from the fruits of optimism — while at the same time guarding ourselves from its pitfalls?
I believe knowledge is key. We are not born with an innate understanding of our biases. The brain’s illusions have to be identified by careful scientific observation and controlled experiments and then communicated to the rest of us. Once we are made aware of our optimistic illusions, we can act to protect ourselves. The good news is that awareness rarely shatters the illusion. The glass remains half full. It is possible, then, to strike a balance, to believe we will stay healthy, but get medical insurance anyway; to be certain the sun will shine, but grab an umbrella on our way out — just in case.
I am a big fan of world music and I am always on the look out for new groups to try out. This article in the Sunday Times caught my eye not only because it is such a good news story but also having travelled to the beautiful country of Malawi it is great to see an emerging music scene there. It is always inspiring to hear stories of people who make the most of their opportunities and the Malawi Mice Boys are poster boys for positivity. They have not allowed limited resources stop them from getting involved in writing, playing and singing music and they sing from the heart. Who would think that a small group of subsistence farmers, with a sideline in selling tasty cooked mice on a stick, could have the possibility of becoming the next big thing on the African music scene? Watch this space.
Catch them if you can
The Malawi Mouse Boys sound extraordinary, and do a roaring trade from their kind of pest control
Garth Cartwright Published: 13 May 2012
Brother of invention: Nelson Muligo on a scrap-metal guitar (Marilena Delli)
I n 1859, Dr David Livingstone heard the xylophone music of southern Malawi and, with typical Scottish understatement, described it as “wild and not unpleasant”. Since then, few have championed music — or anything else — from this southeast African nation. When the landlocked former British colony does get western attention, it tends to focus on infant mortality and HIV rates, so the arrival of a Malawian gospel group provides a chance to celebrate this ethnically diverse (and peaceful) nation.
The Malawi Mouse Boys’ debut album, He Is #1, captures a joy and inventiveness rarely experienced in contemporary western music. Like the Buena Vista Social Club, from Cuba, or Ladysmith Black Mambazo, from South Africa, the Malawi Mouse Boys possess a distinctive sound and a fascinating story. Both the other acts had an American musical connection (Ry Cooder and Paul Simon respectively) that helped to launch them internationally, and so do the Malawi Mouse Boys: Ian Brennan, a leading producer, came across the band while driving through rural Malawi.
“My wife’s father had done missionary work in Malawi,” he says, “so she had experienced the nation. As almost nothing by Malawian musicians had ever been released in the West I was interested to see what we could find.”
Brennan’s previous African sojourns include producing Tinariwen, the celebrated Saharan nomads, and the Rwandan vocal trio the Good Ones. “They were the first Rwandan group to have an album released internationally in their native language. For me, to hear these genocide survivors singing these remarkable love songs was incredibly moving,” says the Californian producer, who began his career working with the likes of the Bay Area punks Green Day before connecting with Americana veterans such as Merle Haggard and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Long interested in Africa, Brennan produced Tinariwen’s album Tassili, which won the 2012 Grammy for world music.
“My goal is to help give voice to points of view that have not been expressed. You look at, say, Mali or Ethiopia, and these nations are celebrated internationally for their music, but Malawi appeared invisible in this sense. I believe all countries have music. There are no non-musical cultures. When a world-music expert told me there was no good music from Malawi, I took that as a personal challenge.”
Arriving in the country, Brennan found it had several popular singers whose tapes were sold in markets. Yet none of them represented the kind of music-making he was looking for. “R&B, rap, reggae and country music are loved across Africa, but I wanted something more distinctive. One evening, we were driving through farmland and I saw a young guy on the side of the road, playing a guitar. I stopped and listened to him, and was immediately struck by his voice. His name was Alfred, and he stood there and shyly sang. The sun was going down, cars were whizzing around and by the time he reached the chorus, we were surrounded by local kids. They all started singing along in harmony — it was obviously a local hit — and it was one of the most musical moments of my life. Just wonderful.”
Brennan asked Alfred if he could return to record him. The youth agreed and, when the producer arrived, he found Alfred accompanied by his band. “I was surprised at first, as I hadn’t expected to record a group, but once they started playing and singing, I realised I had stumbled on gold.”
Living in villages that lack electricity and running water, the Mouse Boys use instruments that are either home-made — a drum constructed out of animal skin and bicycle spokes, a guitar built out of scrap metal — or discarded. The acoustic guitar had a huge hole in its side and only four strings.
“Necessity is the mother of invention. And it’s incredible the sounds that they can get from their instruments. It proves that what really matters is the soul and imagination you put into it. You can have a $10,000 drum kit and still sound awful.”
The band’s music is all in the gospel tradition, yet Brennan notes: “Their best songs often express doubt and longing, rather than celebrations of certainty.” Most of the eight Mouse Boys have been singing together since childhood. “Zondiwe is an incredibly soulful lead vocalist. Nelson is also a lead vocalist and a lead guitarist, and he probably has the most poignant voice. He’s their secret weapon.”
Their vocal harmonies recall Sam Cooke or the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, and Brennan makes a comparison with “a lot of pre-TV era American Southern gospel. But they have never heard any American gospel records — just as Tinariwen had never heard American blues when they began making music. Africa is the source of all these American music styles, and with both bands, you hear how the music never left.”
None of the Mouse Boys is a professional musician (all work in subsistence farming) and Brennan decided to record the band playing barefoot outdoors. While this wasn’t without its problems — tiny spiders would invade the portable eight-track recording system and crash the hard drive — it allowed for lots of village interaction. “Every one of these recordings has dogs on it. Also a lot of chickens and children. The great thing about animals and children is that they are always on time, so musical and intuitive. So they are just another instrument, and it’s something to be embraced. I did some editing in the studio, but no overdubs. A lot of what gets called ‘world music’ got ruined by producers trying to make it sound like pop music, adding keyboards and such.”
The resulting album is, to quote Dr Livingstone, “wild and not unpleasant”. Actually, it’s a gem, one of the best, freshest releases of the year. Brennan admits he is ecstatic about both the album and the enthusiastic response it has generated. He then jokes that, with CD sales in steep decline, the monies he paid the band are likely to be the only wages anybody makes out of He Is #1. While hopeful that the Mouse Boys can tour America and Europe, Brennan states that he did not go to Malawi “looking for a new Tinariwen”. Instead, he emphasises that the most important quality of He Is #1 is how it “legitimises what they do. Never before has a record been released in Chichewa [the band’s language] outside Malawi. It’s one of the most musical languages in the world, comparable to Italian — lots of vowel [sounds]”.
How, I wonder, did the band become known as the Malawi Mouse Boys? Brennan chuckles and describes how band members earn extra income: they stand at the roadside offering a local delicacy, roast mouse. “They sell the mice on a stick. Minibuses stop and their passengers leap out to buy a stick. They’re better known locally as mouse salesmen than for their music. See, the mice infest the huts’ thatched roofs, and the boys prepare a big pot of boiling water, then whack the roof, and this makes the mice fall into the water. They clean and cook the mice, then sell them. This goes on daily. Naturally, I suggested that they call their group the Malawi Mouse Boys.”
Naturally, I had to ask: did Brennan ever sample the mice? “I’m a vegetarian,” he replies, “so no. But those who did said what you always hear: ‘They taste like chicken.’”
He Is #1 is released on May 28
Article published in The Sunday Times, 13th May 2012