Skip to content

well-being technology

PoW: Friday round-up of philosophy, psychology and politics of well-being

On Tuesday I went to talk by Brigadier-General Rhonda Cornum (pictured right), who used to be in charge of the US Army’s $125 million resilience-training programme. The event was also the launch of the Young Foundation’s Resilience project. It was held at Macquarie Bank in the City, in a penthouse office-room full of funders, NGOs and policy wonks. A huge amount of interest in resilience, clearly.

I’ve long had an interest in the Army’s resilience programme – I interviewed Cornum back in 2009, and the interview is in the second chapter of my book. The programme was designed by Martin Seligman and his colleagues at University of Pennsylvania, based on techniques from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Positive Psychology.

It was rolled out by the US Army in rather a hurry, in an attempt to cope with the epidemic of post-conflict suicides among the troops. According to this useful report from the Centre for the New American Security, 18 American veterans kill themselves every day – that includes veterans who served decades ago, but still, it’s an awful statistic. The US Army lost 164 active duty soldiers to suicide in 2011, and a Freedom of Information act recently obtained by a US newspaper found that 2,200 soldiers died within two years of leaving the military – half of whom were being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Army, to its credit, is taking this problem seriously and trying to do something about it, by rolling out a CBT / Positive Psychology resilience programme which has been shown to reduce the incidence of depression in school children.

I got over PTSD myself through CBT, so I support the idea of making it more available in the Army, but there are aspects of the Comprehensive Solider Fitness programme (as it is called) that I don’t support. First of all, Seligman added the idea of teaching ‘optimistic thinking’, one of the features of which is to learn to take credit for things when they go well, but to blame your external circumstances when they go badly. I’m generalising – but not much. I think that’s a terrible thing to teach young people. It’s teaching them irresponsibility. Sometimes things go badly because you screwed up, and you need to be able to recognise that.

Secondly, I don’t like the programme’s claim to have discovered a scientific model for emotional and spiritual flourishing, which everyone must fit into, and which can be measured by a computer questionnaire. That’s a crude, vulgar and narrow-minded idea. By all means, help people avoid depression and PTSD, but don’t tell them you can measure a person’s ‘spiritual fitness’ with five questions in a computer questionnaire. This isn’t Cosmopolitan magazine, this is life!

Anyway, perhaps it is worth accepting these really dumb bits of the programme in order to get CBT out to the troops. The proof will be in the evidence. There wasn’t a pilot programme done (which is strange when you think how expensive the programme is), but the initial results are in, and they show that soldiers who took the course are about 1% more ’emotionally fit’ than soldiers who didn’t take the course (I’ll post the slides that show this once the Young Foundation makes them available). That’s a pretty tiny impact for such an expensive intervention. Suicides, meanwhile, continue to rise among active troops: they were higher in 2011, two years after the introduction of this course, than they were in 2010 and 2009.

I hope the results of the programme improve – but I would be wary of defining resilience as strength and PTSD as weakness, as Cornum repeatedly did. So Cornum didn’t get PTSD after she was shot and captured. Good for her. But some people go through awful experiences and do get PTSD. That’s not necessarily because they’re weak. It could be because the US Army puts its soldiers through tours that are, on average, twice as long as the tours of British soldiers, which in turn might explain why PTSD is apparently so much rarer in UK troops. It could be because they experienced some awful, awful things. It could be because war is an ugly and corrupting experience that leaves scars, real and hidden, on all who are immersed in it. We are not going to make it a perfectly hygenic and healthy experience with a bit of CBT.

As for teaching resilience in schools, well, we tried that here in the UK, in a government sponsored pilot programme designed by Seligman, the results of which were also disappointing: no long-term impact on children’s well-being or academic achievements. And I have even more ethical concerns about how technocratic, automated, rigid and prescriptive the Penn resilience course is if we start to teach it to children in schools. We shouldn’t claim there is only one scientific answer to the question ‘how to flourish’ – there are many answers to that question, and children should learn to be sceptical of experts who appear before them claiming to have all the answers. They should be trained to see the flaws in people’s arguments and to find their own response.

We need to find the right balance between the sciences and the humanities, between the wisdom of the ancients and our freedom to choose our own path. I personally think we should develop ‘art of living’ classes that combine the cognitive techniques of CBT with open discussion about the ethics and philosophies from which those techniques came.

On the philosophy side of that equation, here are some videos from an excellent sounding course in the Art of Living which Stanford University recently launched. And here is an article in the Telegraph, of all places, calling for compulsory philosophy in schools. That’s a decent idea – but, again, I think it could be very usefully combined with insights from the social sciences, and with an introduction to some of the basic techniques of well-being, like meditation or Socratic self-examination. Philosophy isn’t just about conceptual discussion, it’s also about learning really useful techniques and practices for living, some of which have now been tested out by science.

While we’re wondering whether CBT can be automated, here is Aaron Beck, one of the two inventors of CBT, discussing that very question recently at the Beck Institute. His answer is, yes, maybe.

Here in the UK, it looks like the government’s NHS bill is in trouble. Even Tory journalists are now calling for it to be dropped. Meanwhile, a new report from the King’s Fund says that the NHS needs to do more to recognise and treat mental illnesses among the severely ill. Meanwhile, Labour’s shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, gave a fascinating speech calling for mental health to become the core focus of the NHS, and even perhaps of government as a whole.

Talking of the King’s Fund, I was at their offices in Cavendish Square last night to talk at a Psychologies Magazine event called ‘Make It Happen’. It was the first sort of self-help talk I’d given. It was really fun: I basically approached it like a London Philosophy Club event and tried to get people to offer solutions to other people’s problems. The attendees were really good at it. Kind of crowd-sourced therapy. I met a lot of people there who were trying to write a novel or get published. I can’t recommend The Literary Consultancy enough – they were a huge help to me in getting published.

Here’s a good article in the New York Review of Books, which suggests something I also have thought: that the Occupy movement is as much a spiritual movement as a political one. It reminds me rather of some sort of pre-modern cult, which expects a new Age of Love to arrive.

Here’s a funny article in the NYT about how young life-coaches are becoming.

Taiwan has become the latest country to measure national well-being.

Here is an eyebrow-raising video of one parent’s reaction to finding an anti-parent rant on his daughter’s Facebook page.

Finally, just to put all this well-being stuff in context, here is a news story about the people of Homs in Syria, saying goodbye to each other as they prepare for the ground assault on their town. I hope they can stay safe, and that Assad and his security advisors have to answer for their actions.

See you next week,
Jules

Aldous Huxley on the politics of well-being

The most important Manhattan Projects of the future will be vast government-sponsored enquiries into what the politicians and the participating scientists will call “the problem of happiness” — in other words, the problem of making people love their servitude.’


From his 1947 foreword to the second edition of Brave New World

The architect of the future will be a therapist as much as a designer…

There was an almost-good programme on Channel 4 this week, called The Secret Life of Buildings, which looked at how architecture affects our emotions. The presenter, Tom Dyckhoff, arrived at the revelation that buildings should not just look good, they should also enhance our well-being. Revolutionary stuff.

He tells The Telegraph: ““The Gherkin [a famous building in London] may look fabulous from the outside, but inside it’s completely banal – and it’s not functioning very well in terms of workplace culture. Slowly but surely we got some people to speak out with their complaints – for instance, the complete lack of social mixing between the bosses and the workers, or between the different tenants of the building.”
What ruined the programme somewhat were the foolish experiments Dyckhoff put himself through to ‘prove’ some scientific studies related to architecture. To prove how important sunlight is to our well-being, he covered up his windows and shut himself in his flat for a week, bravely documenting his emotional degeneration. What does this prove apart from the silliness of modern television? He also tested how long he could stay in a freezing bath in beautiful versus ugly surroundings. Again, very silly stuff.
Despite this, the programme had some redeeming features, namely the buildings, some of which were beautiful; and some of the ideas as well, such as the Platonic or Pythagorean idea of the importance of the Golden Mean to our inner sense of harmony and beauty. I hadn’t come across the idea of the Golden Mean in architecture, or realized so many famously beautiful buildings follow its specifications.
I think Dyckhoff is on to something in his contention that architecture and housing planning will be increasingly driven by the rhetoric of well-being, which could well mean major structures – or even whole cities! – designed on the basis of their emotional impact – on how they feel to live in. The architect of the future will perhaps be as much therapist as designer.
Alain De Botton has probably played a key role in this trend, with his book The Architecture of Happiness, which I haven’t read, but which argues, I believe, that buildings should not merely look grand, they should make us happy. This idea was hotly debated at the Battle of Ideas, if you fancy listening to the debate.
Academics are now leaping to research the link between design and well-being. For example, Warwick University set up a new research group, Well-Being In Sustainable Environments, in 2004. Professor Elizabeth Burton, who runs it, said: “When I trained as an architect, I was astonished to be told I had to stop thinking about people. My idea is ambitious, but I want to provide an alternative to traditional architecture, which is design for people, design for wellbeing—informed design.”
Another example of architects getting in touch with their and our feelings, from a few years back, was the famous ‘old suit’ which hospital architects wore to discover what it would feel like for an old person to move around in one of their buildings. Another trend worth following is the design of ‘intelligent buildings‘, which will use technologies to monitor inhabitants’ mood and biostates in order to bring the home into harmony with our needs (that particular line of research could, of course, go very wrong – imagine a malfunctioning Hal in charge of your home!)
All of this is interesting and groovy. I’m not totally sure how new it is. Architects have always considered the emotional impact of their work, surely. They just didn’t always aim at fostering personal happiness, which is a rather 21st century aim. They might aim to provoke a sense of religious awe, or civic pride, or Platonic harmony. Plato’s ideal city, for example, was designed from top to bottom to affect and steer the emotions of its inhabitants, as were some of the ideal cities designed during the Renaissance. So the connection between architecture and feelings is not new.
Explicitly making well-being the goal of architecture is fine, as it goes. But, as always with the politics of well-being, you’d need to think what you mean by well-being – the well-being of the individual, or the collective; of the middle class, or the whole of society; emotional well-being, or the good and virtuous life.
Personally, I would like an architecture that raises our aspirations and our sense of the beautiful. I remember the first time I saw the skyline of Florence, when I was 12. Suddenly, almost violently, my sense of beauty expanded. My sense of what it was possible for humans to achieve expanded. It was not merely the Duomo or any other individual building. It was the harmony and beauty of the whole. I got the same sense when I visited Venice and Dubrovnik – the beauty of the whole rather than of individual parts. But modern architecture seems to assert the individual, the particular, rather than striving to harmonise with the whole…
…Am I beginning to sound like Prince Charles?

The political science of well-being

This week, Laura Stoll of the New Economics Foundation’s Centre for Well-Being wrote: “As I sat listening to Professor Martin Seligman, the founding father of the Positive Psychology movement, talk about ‘well-being and public policy’ at our All-Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics meeting, I was struck by how now is maybe one of those rare times that politics and science are aligned in their visions for the future of society. This makes it absolutely essential that we step up political pressure on the government to make sure well-being continues to become a serious feature of improvements in policy-making across both central and local government.”

In fact, I would argue that politics and science have often been aligned over the last two hundred years, through the theory of positivism, which has been around at least since Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. Positivism argues that social sciences can discover the facts of a situation, and politics can be guided by this science to find the most effective policies to manage a situation. And ethics, morals and values don’t need to come into it – so positivism argues, anyway. This belief is, in fact, the great white hope of modern technocratic politics – and Martin Seligman’s positive psychology is really this positivism re-engineered.

And the critique of positivism, argued by modern philosophers like Martha Nussbaum, Alasdair MacIntyre, Allan Bloom and Leo Strauss, begins by attacking this distinction between facts and values. It argues that you cannot create a value-free political science, because every technology has to have an end, which it says is worthwhile and good. So you can’t create a value-free political science, as Seligman claims you can.

Have a listen, if you want, to this 1966 lecture by Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago, which talks about political philosophy and the fact / value distinction which positivist social science introduced. Strauss’ thinking is an important part of the discussion about the politics of well-being.

PoW: On the glorious re-education of the people, and other curious phenomena

I remember one slightly heated debate with my grandmother after a family dinner. I was defending immigration or gay rights or cannabis or some such issue. I made a rather obtuse point and my grandmother, throwing her hands up in exasperation, declared: ‘You know what you are? You’re just a Johnny Intellectual!’ Naturally I was devastated.

‘Intellectual’ is a dirty word in Britain, and not just here. Ever since philosophy was invented, people have accused it of being impractical, unworldly, and slightly effete. Plato complained that his fellow Athenians laughed at him for being pale and over-sensitive. He dreamt of the day when intellectuals would seize power and force the people to take them seriously. ‘When I am king you will be first against the wall’, as another pale intellectual put it.

Since the Athenians executed Socrates, the relationship between the intellectual and the masses has been a little tense. There’s always been the sense of a gap there, and the question of how to bridge that gap.

This was especially the case in Russia in the 19th century, where the gap between the intellectual elite and the peasant masses was enormous. The Russian ‘intelligentsia’, as they were known, defined themselves as a class by their relationship to the people. To be a member of the intelligentsia, it was not enough just to be clever. You have to serve the people, build a bridge to the people, become one with the people.

Hence Tolstoy dressing like a serf and going to help his peasants with the harvest. There was even a movement, called the Narodniki (it means ‘populists’), made up of intellectuals who abandoned the city to go and live among the rural peasants, teaching them the necessity of radical political reform. The peasants didn’t like these posh students much, and tended to beat them up.

So the Narodnik movement transformed and became a revolutionary vanguard, Narodnya Volya (‘the will of the people’), who eventually assassinated Alexander II. Ironic they should call themselves the will of the people, when really, of course, it was a small handful of intellectuals telling the people how to live. And they in turn were replaced by another misnamed cadre of intellectuals, the Bolsheviks, who succeeded in imposing their philosophy of Marxism-Leninism on an entire country…for their own good of course.

Here in the UK, our intellectuals were more modest in their ambitions, thank God. Perhaps they never took themselves as seriously – or were taken as seriously – as their Russian counterparts. But we still ask ourselves: what’s the point of intellectuals? What good are they? How do they help the people?

Three of Britain’s leading intellectuals have just presented an answer: ‘We are here to make you happy’. They are Geoff Mulgan, the superbrain of Britain’s think-tanks; Anthony Seldon, the most famous headmaster of his generation; and Lord Richard Layard, the thinking-man’s Oprah, and this week they set up Action for Happiness, a mass movement to bring about a happy revolution in Britain…and the world!

This is the intellectual re-connecting with the masses – through hugs. The intellectual doesn’t want to change the masses. They just want to hug the masses…and change them a little bit. If you dig a little deeper, the philosophy behind AfH appears to be utilitarianism, the brain-child of the ‘genius’ Jeremy Bentham (as the website puts it).

Action for Happiness only has 10,000 people signed up as of yet, but hopes to become a genuinely revolutionary movement, which will teach the science of happiness to the people: how to meditate, how to keep a gratitude journal, how to be kind, how to have friends. At the moment, the people don’t know how to be happy. That’s the basic problem. But eventually, an army of psychologists, sociologists, economists and NGOs will help to make the people happy, by teaching them the techniques.

There’s so much to applaud in this initiative. Many of the people around me are completely ignorant of how to be properly happy, and I can’t wait for the day when Action for Happiness rings on their door and shows them the error of their ways. In fact, I think AfH should set up some sort of phone line where we can inform on neighbours or colleagues who we suspect of not accepting the principles of Benthamite-utilitarianism. I’m pretty sure Mrs Jenkins next door is a Kantian.

But I think we need to go further. We need to take Jeremy Bentham’s embalmed body from the University of London, and put it in some kind of mausoleum in Trafalgar Square, so the happy faithful can go and pay their respects to the great visionary. Secondly, the research suggests that depression is contagious – depressed people tend to make the people around them less happy. Clearly, this emotional underclass are the greatest threat to our happy society. Some of them even insist on their ‘right’ to be unhappy.

The solution, it seems to me, is to identify the least happy people in Britain, and place them in some kind of camp (perhaps near Liverpool?), where their contagious depression can be contained, and they can be subjected to a more intense course of Benthamite-utilitarian re-education.

Yours with hugs and happiness,

Comrade Jules

PS – Here’s some subversive non-Benthamite samizdat I have discovered, which I faithfully submit for investigation and destruction:

Here’s a piece by me in this week’s Spectator on the US Army’s $125 million resilience training course, the biggest and most expensive pilot study in the history of psychology.

Here’s
a BBC radio documentary about a parasite that has infected 40-60% of the human race, and which scientists think may control our minds.

Here’s an MIT research centre, dedicated to the field of ‘affective computing’. They design machines and devices that can read your emotions and respond intelligently, including a little Tigger toy, whose ears perk up when its owner is happy, and who feels sad when we feel sad. Awwww.

Finally, here are some philosophy self-help posters I have designed, to spread our leader’s glorious message of happiness. All power to the Benthamites! Death to the Aristotelian revanchistes!