PoW: Moths, SEALS, grit, and other curious phenomena
Let's begin with two gems that I've unearthed. First of all, when you have a free evening, sit back with a glass of retsina, and watch this wonderful documentary by Imperial College scientist Armand Leroi, on Aristotle the biologist. Leroi recently declared Aristotle the greatest ever biologist, and in this documentary, he explains why.
The documentary is sublime partly because of the wonderful shots of the Isle of Lesbos, where Aristotle spent some happy months studying the local wildlife, after he was exiled from Athens. Watching it, you see Aristotle, suddenly, not as The Great Philosopher, but simply as an endlessly curious student, pottering around in his sandals, leaning over the side of boats to examine crabs, picking up tortoises, dissecting cuttlefish. The programme also taught me that the Greek word for the soul - psyche - is also the word for butterfly. Interesting. And apparently eudaemonia (the Greek word for happiness) is also a type of moth! We have a lot of eudaemonia in our house at the moment. Eudaemonia ate my jumper.
Another gem - here's the intro of a book produced by the Royal Institute of Philosophy, called Philosophy as Therapy, edited by Clare Carlisle and Jonardon Ganeri. The book is fascinating in its comparison of Eastern and Western philosophical therapies. I particularly enjoyed the essay by Stephen Clark of Liverpool University, who taught me that when the Greeks talk of philosophy teaching the therapeia of the psyche, they don't mean it teaches us how to 'take care of the self', as Michel Foucault translated it. In fact, therapeia means 'serve' and psyche means 'the god within'. So psychotherapy didn't originally mean 'self-help'. It meant 'serving the god within'.
One of the ways therapy is changing is that it's becoming part of corporate culture. Employee well-being at my first employer, Euromoney magazine, meant a few dying plants and a free lager at Christmas. But some companies are taking it a bit more seriously. Here is a fascinating article by Tony Hsieh, CEO of the online shoe retailer Zappos, about why he sold Zappos to Amazon for around $1bn last year. He says he did so to retain control of the company, so that he could continue with his 'social experiments' into employee happiness (he's a big evangelist for Positive Psychology).
Hsieh talks of the moment he became convinced it would be OK to sell the company to Amazon: "In April, I flew to Seattle for an hour-long meeting with Jeff Bezos. I gave him my standard presentation on Zappos. Toward the end of the presentation, I started talking about the science of happiness - and how we try to use it to serve our customers and employees better. Out of nowhere, Jeff said, 'Did you know that people are very bad at predicting what will make them happy?' Those were the exact words on my next slide. After that moment, things got comfortable." Hsieh has now gone on a bus tour to promote Positive Psychology, and was apparently a big hit at this week's SXSW festival in Austin. Talking of which, Austin was recently declared one of the happiest cities in the US by Gallup.
Here's two other people on a mission, two of my heroes in fact - David Lynch and Russell Brand - who joined forces earlier this year to try and promote transcendental meditation in schools and other domains. Check out this amusing clip of Russell Brand, talking at a meditation conference about mindfulness and porn, and doing a very good impression of David Lynch. And, just because I saw it recently and marveled at it, here's perhaps my favourite scene in TV. It's the opening scene of Series 2 of Twin Peaks. The series opens with FBI agent Dale Cooper having just been shot, at a moment of high tension, with millions of viewers around the world glued to their TV screens. And yet Lynch opens the series with this incredibly surreal and offbeat scene. Genius.
BBC Radio 4's had a good week. Here's the first episode in a new series on economics, which looks at how it has tried to divorce itself from its roots in moral philosophy and turn itself into a proper objective science. The presenter, Michael Blastland, thinks moral assumptions lurk beneath many economic theories, which is certainly true. He goes a bit easy on Adam Smith though. If anyone divorced economics from morality it was Smith: he declared that it was all to the Good if we spent our miserable lives desperately pursuing status and luxuries, because it would create and redistribute the wealth. So he put the wealth of nations ahead of our own emotional and moral well-being.
And another great Radio 4 show, from last Sunday, which looked at the UK subject, Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) - a subject which New Labour introduced in 2002, and which is now taught in 70% of UK primary schools and 90% of UK secondary schools. The subject was inspired by a work of pop psychology - Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence - yet was ushered into the national curriculum with many assurances that it was based on rigorous science. Well, the government just got round to publishing the first independent study of the subject, which found it had no quantifiable benefit to young people's emotional well-being. The government has now said that no more time and money should be spent on it. The Radio 4 programme suggested SEAL could be replaced by Martin Seligman's Emotional Resilience classes, which are being tested under a three-year pilot programme at the moment. I write here why we should be careful not to repeat the mistakes of SEAL.
Finally, one of the buzz-words kicking around in psychology these days is 'grit'. Here, Jonah Lehrer discusses some recent studies which suggest the difference between those who succeed and those who don't is not necessarily talent or intelligence, but that indefinable quality that makes people tough it out when things get rough. Lehrer suggests this 'grit' is a non-cognitive quality, which doesn't really make sense to me - surely everything we're learning about resilience suggests it is a cognitive capability. And I don't really see how you can have a discussion of grit without at least mentioning Stoicism, a philosophy that trained people in grit. Talking of which, here's Alain De Botton talking about the Japanese earthquake in the light of Seneca's pessimism; here's George Takei talking about the Japanese idea of gaman, which means 'to endure with fortitude, dignity and self-restraint'; and here's a story of true grit, about the rescue workers giving their lives at Fukushima to try and save northern Japan from a nuclear disaster.
See you next week,