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This week’s highlights from the philosophy, psychology and politics of well-being

Welcome to new subscribers – lots of you have subscribed in the last week. Hope you enjoy the newsletter, it typically veers between interesting links on the philosophy, psychology and politics of well-being, and the occasional brief essay about something that’s caught my eye. This week will be mainly links (phew!)

On Wednesday we had our biggest-ever meeting of the London Philosophy Club, in the main hall at Conway Hall.We discussed the relationship between ancient philosophy and modern cognitive therapy (which I also discussed in this article in The Times this week) and more generally the tricky relationship between science and ethics. It was great – you can read a brief write-up here. There will be a brief segment about it on the BBC World Service on Saturday, on the World Today Weekend show (I’ll post the link on the blog). LPC also got a write-up in a Spanish paper this week.

The Skeptic movement had a major policy success this week, when they managed to get libel reform into the British government’s legislation programme. This means Skeptic journalists like Ben Goldacre or Simon Singh can say that a bogus health remedy is bogus without getting sued. Congrats to the Skeptics – that’s a great result and shows what an organised and committed movement can do. I had the pleasure of meeting Sid Rodrigues at Conway Hall, who runs Skeptics In the Pub, and has just started working at Conway Hall. I also got to meet Neil Denny, host of the Skeptic podcast Little Atoms, when I was on his show last week. Two people who have helped the Skeptic movement grow in the UK.

Conway Hall has a festival coming up on philosophy and film by the way, at the end of June, at which London Philosophy Club is doing some events. Details here.

Facebook has got into social engineering – it’s launched a feature where people can announce they have agreed to organ donation, as a sort of online organ donor card and also as a way to encourage other people. Networked empathy, it has been dubbed, or ‘easy virtue’. Meanwhile, the Atlantic covered an academic conference that brought together some stars of viral YouTube videos, including that anesthetized kid after the dentist and Two Rainbows Guy. Love that guy! One of the topics the conference explored was how internet memes can spread racial prejudices, or challenge them – like ‘shit white girls say about black girls‘, which I enjoyed.

Some education stories: Michael Gove, UK education minister, gave a speech warning our society was becoming more and more unequal because the 7% who are privately-educated get all the best jobs – even the radicals are posh, like George Monbiot (who reacted with wonderful indignation and a call to close all private schools). One could, at least, take away their charity status.

Private schools like Wellington are trying to spread the success of the private school model by setting up chains of academies, which is more than some other independent schools are doing. But the success of such schools is not just a question of ethos or teacher skill. It’s a question of wealth, of how much money is spent per pupil, and the inequality of the social and economic environments in which British children grow up. I don’t think you can dodge the inequality problem by focusing entirely on character and values (as David Cameron has tried to do).

The New York Review of Books has an interesting review of a new book on the problems facing US universities at the moment (not enough money for public universities and community colleges, while wealthy private colleges perpetuate social inequalities through their admission policy).

Meanwhile, I recently discovered the brilliant 1980s BBC TV comedy, A Very Peculiar Practice, thanks to a Guardian article about the best TV shows ever, which puts it at number 5. It’s about a medical practice at a British university during the Thatcher era (inspired by the writer’s time at Warwick University), and is so funny and intelligent about campus life, eccentric academics and the various competing philosophies of higher education and well-being. The doctors in the campus practice include a drunk Scottish disciple of RD Laing who wrote a book called Sexual Anxiety and the Common Cold and who finds a psycho-sexual cause for any health complaint (even appendicitis); a bisexual feminist doctor who attacks the phallocentrism of the patriarchal university system (‘illness is something men do to women’); a neoliberal doctor who takes consultancy fees from Big Pharma to prescribe students tranquillizers; and a bleeding heart liberal who isn’t sure what he believes. It’s so good! There’s an episode on YouTube, but I’d go ahead and order the DVD, it’s such an intelligent and funny take on higher education.

The importance of a balanced diet

Time magazine caused a big kerfuffle with its cover photo this week of a mom breast-feeding her four-year-old son – the story is about ‘attachment parenting’ ie letting your children breastfeed and sleep with you until they’re six or so. Sounds like something from Martin Amis’s London Fields. It’s a pretty funny cover (not sure the child will thank his mother for the publicity in later years) although mothers complained it has sensationalised an important and sensitive issue.

The Occupy movement has published is May manifesto – less work, more benefits, higher taxes. How will we pay for it? Tax the 1%, Jeffrey Sachs tells the US government in his new book, The Price of Civilisation, and stop spending $900 billion a year on the military – six times what it spends on education.

In the UK, government education spending is being cut to cover the deficit, particularly on higher education (tuition fees) but also on youth services and early care services, where there is not private money to step in. The City needs to do more to pay its social debt or it can expect more protests. One bit of good news is a new youth academy being set up in Hackney by Plan B – why are twenty-year-old rappers leading the way and not rich British businesspeople?

Maurice Sendak, the author of Where the Wild Things Are, sadly passed away this week. Here’s an article considering his work from a psychoanalytic viewpoint.

Congratulations to the School of Life on its new series of self-help books which launched this week. I’m speaking at the School of Life this coming Tuesday about ancient philosophy, cognitive therapy and the politics of well-being. Come along!

Here’s a good example of citizen journalism: one girl at primary school has started to photo-blog her school’s lunches (see right). Shocking stuff. Jamie Oliver has already tweeted his support for her fearless campaign.

No more newspaper reviews of the book so far this week, hopefully one in Observer on Sunday, although Richard Layard did say something nice about it, which is very kind of him considering I take a few jabs at his Utilitarianism in the book.

Finally, something for the weekend: lovers of dance music might enjoy this archive of radio mixes from DFA (the label set up by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem and Tim Goldsworthy of UNKLE). Some wonderful mixes for you to bop to.

Right, that’s enough for this week. Usually it’s more about philosophy and psychology, there was just more good stuff on education this week.

See you next week,


Newsletter 5/3/11: Ghosts, guillotines, Charlie Sheen, and other curious phenomena

Ever seen a ghost? A quarter of Brits say they have, up from 7% in the 1950s. Our experience of the spooky is apparently on the rise. Yet modern psychology has typically pushed such experiences to the margins. The profession seems embarrassed, in its eagerness to establish itself as a respectable science, that some of its leading lights – Carl Jung, William James – also believed in wacky things like spirit mediums and synchronicity.
Which is a pity, because paranormal experiences – or experiences interpreted in a paranormal way – are, for better or worse, part of the human experience. And they’re interesting. That’s probably why professor Richard Wiseman, who studies such phenomena, is the most followed psychologist on Twitter. He has a new book out, called Paranormality, which examines whether any paranormal phenomena stand up to scientific scrutiny. Check out his website of freaky ghost photos.

Wiseman’s last book, 59 Seconds, debunked many myths of self-help while sharing useful self-improvement tips for which there was actual evidence. You can see Wiseman talking with Oliver Burkeman, Frank Furedi and Nic Marks of the New Economics Foundation in this clip from the School of Life’s self-help summit.

Nic’s colleague from the New Economics Foundation, Charles Seaford, came and talked to the London Philosophy Club this week (the LPC is just about to pass the 1,000-member mark! Hooray!) Charles told us how the British policy debate over how to define and measure well-being split into two camps: the Benthamites, who define well-being as ‘feeling good’; and the Aristotelians, who define it as eudaimonia, or optimal human functioning.

I have much more sympathy with the Aristotelian approach, but I wrote this piece on why I don’t think eudaimonia can be empirically measured. In brief, eudaimonia involves questions of virtue, the meaning of life, the function of man, and the existence (or non-existence) of God and the after-life. These questions can’t be answered empirically, because they are questions of moral belief, and also of faith. I argue that measuring well-being may be a technocratic solution to a spiritual question.

Lord Layard recently conducted a ‘Sunday Sermon’ on happiness at the School of Life. As I explore in this new report for the Franco-British Council, someone else once performed a ‘secular sermon on happiness’ – the Jacobin revolutionary, Joseph-Marie Lequino, in 1793. He told the people of Rochefort: “All, in a word, big or small, strong or weak, young or old, we all dream of happiness!”

Get happy! Or else, the guillotine. In other happy news, Cambridge University’s Well-Being Institute published interesting results from a 65-year longitudinal study in the Journal of Positive Psychology, which found that happy children were more likely to be happy adults…but also more likely to get divorced. This could be a problem for Lord Layard’s happiness agenda – his Good Childhood report found that children with step-parents or single parents were ‘50% more likely to suffer emotional and behavioural problems’. So whose happiness comes first?

Philip Blond’s think-tank, ResPublica, is increasingly looking at well-being issues. This week, they hosted Professor John Helliwell of the University of British Columbia, who talked about the importance of trust to well-being. The more we trust the people around us, the happier we feel. This brushes against the ugly elephant in the well-being chat-room: does multiculturalism make us less trustful, and therefore less happy? Harvard professor Robert Putnam has argued it does. He studied the relationship between trust and diversity for a decade, and concluded the American city with the highest diversity, Los Angeles, also had the lowest levels of trust: “In the presence of [ethnic] diversity, we hunker down. We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us.”

Is that one of the reasons Scandinavian societies are happier (although minorities in Scandinavian countries are particularly unhappy)? How do we get different ethnicities within the same local community talking to each other? How can we talk about pluralism and multiculturalism in such a way as not to offend each other? These issues have been in my head this week – the London Philosophy Club is an example of a very diverse, vibrant group that shares a common love of ideas and debating. Someone posted a discussion thread on our website this week called ‘How do we protect ourselves from Islam?’ Some members complained, I deleted the thread, now other members are complaining about infringing their free speech. Doh…

Finally, we can’t go this week without mentioning the King of Winning, Charlie Sheen. The world has marveled at his series of media interviews this week, and the sheer scale of his Hollywood egomania: ‘tiger blood’, ‘fire-breathing hands’, ‘Adonis DNA’, ‘bitchin’ rock-star from Mars’. Wow. No wonder Scientology is so popular in Hollywood. Here’s a mash-up someone did of Sheen’s quotes with cartoons from the New Yorker.

See you next week,