Newsletter 5/2/2011

Incredible scenes in North Africa and the Middle East, as populations take to the streets to oust their governments. What's it like, to be in a revolution? Dan Gardner, journalist with the Ottowa Citizen and author of the book Risk interviews the sociologist Charles Kurzman, of the University of North Carolina, who talks interestingly about the collapse during revolutions of the distinction between public and private selves. Suddenly - everything is public, civic, political. The atomised population of private individuals is transfigured, suddenly and briefly, into The People. Must be quite a rush - no wonder there's always a come-down afterwards.

The Twittersphere has, of course, been all excited about #egypt, and the role that social media has played in fomenting change. Malcolm Gladwell was less impressed, controversially pooh-poohing the idea that Twitter played a big role. Perhaps the huge rise in mobile phone usage across Africa has been more influential in connecting people. Either way, foreign policy analysts could have predicted a revolution was coming, if they had just studied the wellbeing indices of the countries involved.

Maybe that's why western governments have become so enthusiastic about well-being indices - they give advance notice for the riot police. Here in the UK, I attended an interesting conference about the French and British government initiatives to move beyond GDP towards measuring GWB - or General Well-Being. Here's a short video I made of the conference, featuring footage of Alain De Botton, Lord Layard, David Willets and others.

The first speaker at the conference was David Willetts, the very clever British minister for universities and sciences. You know how I'm always banging on about 'the rise of the Neo-Aristotelians' - well, Willetts is another name to add to the list. Listen to him wax lyrical about the Philosopher, in the last minute of this video.

But if we are moving towards an Aristotelian vision of politics, in which the government tries to guide us towards eudaimonia (or flourishing), isn't that moving beyond liberalism towards a sort of paternalism or, even worse, a 'nanny state'? So what, says Alain De Botton. A little bit of paternalism never hurt anyone.

Also speaking at the wellbeing conference was Lord Richard Layard, the founder of the Action for Happiness movement, about which I am somewhat sceptical. But one thing I do applaud Layard for is his success in securing British government funding for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). He persuaded the last government to give £180 million to train 3,500 new CBT therapists. And, this Wednesday, the Coalition government announced a further £400 million for therapists. Bravo.

Last week I was at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference in San Antonio. One of the big debates in psychology over the last 20 years has focused on the role of consciousness in human psychology. On one side, the psychologist John Bargh has championed the idea that most human thought and behaviour is unconscious and automatic, and that consciousness is just a bystander. On the other side, the psychologist Roy Baumeister has insisted that human consciousness does play a role, and that we are capable of free, moral choices. The two sparring partners seemed to come to a consensus last weekend about how the conscious and unconscious minds actually support and complement each other.
If you feel insecure seeing how fabulous and glamorous your friends' lives appear on Facebook, don't worry, they're probably just as lonely and messed up as you. A new study from Stanford University finds college students consistently over-estimate how much fun other students are having, and under-estimate the extent to which other people have the same emotional problems as we do.

Yes, we're all fucked up! That was the message on Twitter this week, as people lined up to bravely share their own experience of mental illness, followed by the hashtag #whatstigma? The confessional frenzy was begun by the actress Rebecca Front, from the TV show The Thick of It, who bravely told the world she's occasionally suffered from panic attacks. Is there a celebrity out there who hasn't had a panic attack? Peter Andre, Goldie Hawn, Tony Soprano, Nicole Kidman, Kim Basinger, Jemima Kidd, Carrie Underwood, Anne Hathaway, Madonna...Panic attacks are, like, the new Kabbalah.

Finally, imagine suddenly realizing that you are standing in a street, in a foreign land, without any memory of who you are or how you got there. That's what happened to one man, who had a psychotic reaction to an anti-malarial drug, and found himself standing on a railway station in India, with no memory of his identity. Listen to his story on this week's episode of the excellent radio show, This American Life. It's 36 minutes into the show.

See you next week,