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PoW: Make Hay while the rain falls

I’m writing this from the Hay-On-Wye book festival, where the rain is coming down piteously, maintaining a steady rhumba on the roofs of the marquees. There are actually two festivals here – the main one, sponsored by the Telegraph, which is rather blue-rinse; and How The Light Gets In, which is a philosophy festival. The main event is huge – a whole mini-city of walkways and pavilions. HTLGI feels more like a village fete, with the speakers and audience all mixed in together.

HTLGI started five years ago, and has done well to establish itself and to get media attention. The Guardian had an editorial this week, suggesting that it showed a ‘new confidence and expansiveness’ in British philosophy, and indicating that philosophy and ethics still had one or two interesting things to say to science. Amen to that. I think the festival could have more audience participation, and younger speakers – the youngest I’ve seen so far is in their mid-40s. I don’t see how you’re really going to have new and edgy ideas from people in the last third of their careers, which is the stage where most thinkers simply churn out the same stuff for bigger advances.

I spoke at the main festival on Tuesday – it was the biggest audience I’ve ever spoken to. I’m sure the majority had never heard of me and turned up on a whim (or because it was one of the few events not sold out in advance). Anyway, it went well, I think – the audience seemed warm and appreciative, except for one fellow who said he’d read the book and decided I was a charlatan! He obviously felt so strongly about this he was willing to come to Hay and sit through my talk just to tell me. The crowd booed him down, but personally I consider him a loyal reader.

The real discovery of the festival for me is Tobias Jones, a 40-something writer who was speaking here yesterday (that’s him on the right). I missed the talk but happened to pick up his book, Utopian Dreams, in the festival bookstore. It’s absolutely brilliant. He goes on a search, with his wife and child, for true alternative communities, and writes six chapters about his time in six religious communities – a Catholic village in Italy where there is no money; a Quaker retirement village, a New Age community in the Alps, and so on.

What makes the book so good is partly his intelligence and ability to weave together journalist accounts of his time in the communities with more philosophical reflection on what sustains and destroys communities. But above all it’s his voice, his sincerity. He’s really searching for community and for a good life, not just doing freaky tourism (which I think is an accusation that could be directed at Jon Ronson) or self-regarding self-parody (which could be directed at Geoff Dyer). Tobias Jones is genuinely searching, not just writing a book. It comes as no surprise to read on the internet that he’s since set up his own commune in the woods of Somerset, where people in crisis can go and stay for free. He finances it from his earnings writing murder-mysteries!

That impresses me – he actually sets up a community, rather than simply preaching community from the safety of the lecture-circuit (as do, say, Jonathan Haidt or Alain de Botton). There’s a giving up of ego there, a willingness to engage with the messy reality of human life.

If a writer puts so much effort into publicity, into marketing, into sales, then they’re probably seeking fame and status rather than real community (I write this to myself – as a person attracted to fame and status). But fame and status are the enemy of community – they turn you into an object to be applauded on the stage, a commodity, a reflection in a mirror, rather than helping you meet other humans and connect with them. De Botton said he wanted to set up the School of Life in the manner of Epicurus’ garden. But is he ever there? Does he make himself available to the people who come there looking for answers? Tobias Jones lives in the same house as the people who come looking for help – he actually pays for them to stay there. That’s making yourself available. That’s serving others.

Reading his book makes me feel a bit immature, to be honest, and makes me question my own values and goals, as a searcher for the good life. Are my own goals, in fact, very conventional and bourgeois: a job I enjoy and for which I get recognition and status, a happy family, a nice home? Should I be giving more of myself, as Jones does? Am I writing about the good life without really taking the risks to find it? But then, another part of me reads Jones’ account of the challenges of running a commune for the emotionally and spiritually broken, and thinks, God, that sounds hard.

Anyway, at the moment my plan is still to develop philosophy courses for the general public in the UK. Not very radical perhaps, but it’s a start. Hopefully I’ll be working with Tim LeBon, the cognitive therapist and philosophical counsellor, to develop a course that combines Positive Psychology with ethics and philosophy. Tim writes here on the need for this balance in this excellent piece.

Talking of Positive Psychology, here’s a piece from two American psychologists criticizing the US Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme (the resilience-training programme designed by Martin Seligman, the inventor of Positive Psychology). The authors say that the programme evaluation failed to test if it had managed to reduce incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression – which surely was the whole point of it.

I also discussed the rise of Positive Psychology, and the danger of an over-instrumentalised and over-automated attitude to the Good Life, in this long essay in American magazine The New Inquiry.

This piece from the Journal of Mental Health, by two academics from the School of Sociology at University of Nottingham, criticises the happiness / mental health initiatives of Lord Richard Layard. The paper argues:

firstly, that Layard’s approach does little to tackle the structural inequalities within society, which are known to be prime indicators of mental ill health. The second critique is that Layard’s proposals form a misguided attempt to use therapy as a way of compensating for a breakdown in community. The third and related critique is that Layard’s proposals suggest a medicalization of social issues in ways that individualize social problems.

Fair enough. As Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan recently noted, the best predictor of depression is poverty. But are the authors saying that people with depression / anxiety / panic attacks need to wait for the complete overhaul of capitalist society before they can hope to stop having panic attacks? They are, it seems to me, making the inner / outer fallacy – either overcoming mental health problems is entirely an inner process (as perhaps CBT seems to suggest) or it’s entirely an external and social process (as the authors seem to suggest). Surely it’s both – you need to do inner work to strengthen yourself and make your self more autonomous and less prey to each compulsion or fixation, in order that you can engage effectively with society and change it. To challenge society, you need an anchored self. When I was emotionally disturbed, I was a passive victim, stuck in a job I hated, precisely because I couldn’t govern myself. Only when I learnt to govern myself more was I able to begin pushing against the conventions I was stuck in.

Nonetheless, the politics of well-being can certainly become too focused on inner work, ignoring social conditions – like housing for example. Happiness gurus often say ‘money doesn’t make you happy’. Perhaps not – but a nice home surely does? A garden does, doesn’t it? A beautiful view from your bedroom window does, doesn’t it? These are things that money buys.  The link between housing and well-being needs to be much more researched, as this article argues – because I think it is, potentially, the really revolutionary part of the politics of well-being.

Ed Milliband has appointed Jon Cruddas MP as his head of policy. Cruddas (that’s him on the left) is a philosopher-MP, who’s very into Aristotle, Thomas Paine, and other thinkers, and who wants to revive a form of Leftist communitarianism. He spoke about the politics of the good life here, and apparently wrote Milliband’s recent speech about the need for a more English sense of national identity, as opposed to Blairite jet-set neo-liberal cosmopolitanism.

Here’s a decent piece in the NY Times’ excellent philosophy blog, on overcoming philosophy’s western bias. Talking of which – do any of you know anything about philosophy in Brazil? I am interested in finding out more, to write a piece on it. It seems to me a country where practical philosophy is really flourishing.

Here’s another piece I did this week, in Wired UK magazine, on why we need to stop automatically pathologising religious or revelatory experiences, and try to find a more pragmatic way of understanding them and helping people to integrate them and find meaning in them.

Finally, I’d like to hear more from you, to hear your stories of whether or how you’ve been helped by philosophy and / or psychotherapy. I’d like to write some of them up, so we can share ideas and strategies for leading good lives. Get in touch if you’d be willing to help with that- your stories can be anonymous or not, as you prefer.

See you next week,


PoW newsletter: philosophy festivals, army psy-ops, and other curious phenomena

The Roman philosopher Epictetus declared we should “enjoy the great festival of life”, and that’s exactly the direction philosophy is moving these days: back to its roots in outdoor events, street performance, multi-media mash-ups and, yes, festivals.

The best known philosophy festival in the UK is How The Light Gets In, run by the Institute of Art and Ideas at the Hay Festival in the UK in late May, but How The Light Gets In runs other events, including one at the Roundhouse in Camden next month, which will mix Mary Warnock with rock music and stand up comedy. HTLGI co-hosts events with the School of Life, another pioneer in mixing philosophy with performance and music. The School has run events at the Port Eliot festival in September, and at the Latitude festival in July. Then there’s the Modena Philosophy Festival in Italy; the Philosophy in the City festival in Liverpool in October; the Bristol Festival of Ideas, which runs throughout the year; the Battle of Ideas in October; the public talks throughout the year at the RSA and Intelligence Squared; the Thomas Hobbes festival at Malmesbury, which recently declared itself a ‘Philosophy Town‘; and my favourite of the bunch, the David Hume festival at Chirnside village in April, which includes an event at the local pub where you can buy a pint of the new beer, ‘Enlightenment’. Who said Britain was an anti-intellectual society?

So where is philosophy going next? Well, it’s increasingly moving into theatre – Nigel Warburton of Philosophy Bites put on a show at the Oxford Playhouse this month, and there’s also a theatre company, Living Philosophy, that enacts 18th century Enlightenment texts. Philosophy is also becoming increasingly animated – think of the excellent RSAnimate videos, or of graphic books like Logicomix, Couch Fiction, or the Philosophy for Beginners comics.

And perhaps the movement towards ‘philosophy-as-event’ will begin to create tailor-made philosophy holidays. Some holiday companies already do ‘culture tours‘ of the Mediterranean and beyond, where the meaning-hungry are taken round ruins in the company of an impecunious academic; the Philosophy Shop runs weekend courses on the Good Life in the Cotswolds, the School of Life recently signed a partnership with Morgans Hotel Group; and Alain De Botton also launched a series of designer homes you can rent for the weekend. I’m going to launch Stoic-Cynic weekends – for £250 a night, you can wear rags and sleep in a designer barrel.

One of the big psychology stories this week is Rolling Stone‘s revelation that the US Army has been deploying its ‘psy-ops’ unit on its own people, demanding that they use all their Jedi mind powers on visiting dignitaries to try and get them to support the Afghan war. It doesn’t actually say what the ‘psy-ops’ involve, I suspect because it sounds much more sinister and nefarious if you leave it to the imagination, when in fact, ‘psy-ops’ is probably just the latest fancy new word for the 2,000-year-old art of rhetoric. You want to learn Psy-Ops? Read some Cicero.

Another debate in the psychology media this week is over ‘mind wandering’. Is it good for us, or bad for us, or good for us sometimes and bad for us at others? Psychology can’t seem to make up its mind. Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling Upon Happiness, brought out a study at the end of last year which suggested that day-dreaming is bad for our happiness. But now a new study, highlighted by Jonah Lehrer in the WSJ , discovers that people in college with ADHD are more successful than those with better powers of attention. My own two-pence-worth? Good to have both capacities – the ability to open your mind up to all kinds of stimuli, and also the ability to narrow your mind into a laser-like focus when you’re turning all that raw data into art.

The Royal Society’s excellent series on the policy implications of new research in neuroscience continued with a brief report on the implications for education. It highlighted the growing body of research supporting the efficacy of cognitive training in improving young people’s working memory and capacities for self-control and self-regulation. The best new research on emotional self-regulation explicitly draws on Stoic philosophy, by the way. The ancients have a lot to teach us on education and training. Plus they wrote well.

A big week for the ‘well-being agenda’. Here in the UK, the Office of National Statistics announced which questions it would use to assess the nation’s subjective well-being. The news led to a lot of media coverage – my favourite was the blog by BBC Home Affairs editor Mark Easton, a long-time supporter of well-being measurements, who noted the strong negative correlation between well-being and commuting. One reason that ‘work-from-home Fridays’ is a good idea that a lot of corporations are introducing.

And the well-being agenda is spreading beyond the West. The think-tank China Dialogue has devoted this week to studying the state of happiness in China, noting that the Chinese government recently declared the province of Guangdong ‘Happy Guandong’. Perhaps we could twin it with Chirnside. The well-being movement is also taking root, very slowly, in Russia where the government named its $32 billion sovereign wealth fund the ‘fund for national well-being’. And the OECD is doing a lot to drive it forward in other parts of the world, including co-organizing a conference on the topic in Mexico City in May.

Well, it’s Friday, Spring is in the air – to start you up for the weekend, here is a spotify playlist I have put together, called ‘Push here for subjective well-being‘. Enjoy.