PoW newsletter: Deadheads, flexible pronouns, and other curious phenemona
According to the Tao Te Ching, the universe is ruled by two principles: an active principle (Yang) and a passive principle (Yin). I wondered this morning, as I attempted to meditate, if there are two forms of well-being: active and passive. The active form of well-being lies in the happiness of pursuit, striving after a goal, having a mission. Its great champion is Aristotle, who defined happiness as a vital activity of the soul: making things happen, creating things, bringing things together.
The other form of well-being is passive. It finds happiness in the renunciation of the will - not in making things happen, but in accepting things happening as they do. It consists not in activity, but in finding rest from the ceaseless demands of the will. This is the approach of the Stoics and Epicureans, both of whom define happiness as freedom from desire, and also of the Buddhists and Taoists.
I'm in my early 30s, more of a striving than a restful time. When I wake up, I immediately think of the various things I've been working on. Even when I try to meditate, my mind is still racing, like a small bird fluttering from branch to branch. I sometimes wish I was better at the second form of well-being - that I could give up the will and rest in the moment. Are the two approaches compatible, or must you choose one or the other? Aristotle thought the end of all striving was coming to rest in the contemplation of God. Wonder if he ever got there.
This week, I read a speech by David Willetts MP, the minister for universities and culture (himself an Aristotelian, by the way), in which he defended the Coalition government's record on supporting the Humanities. One thing he mentioned was a new research facility at Bath University, that's dedicated to the study of Death. Wow, a Centre for Death! Are they all Goths? The DeadHeads have a conference coming up in June, looking at Dying in the Digital Age. It asks: 'How do digital communications change the experience of dying?' An interesting question, one which every blogger should consider, along with: 'How does dying affect your hit count? Is it better to die on Blogspot, or Word Press? And the Big Question: Is there an after-life...and does it have Wi-Fi?
The think-tank doing the most interesting thinking on Death, for my money, is Demos. They're helping the Coalition government with its Inquiry Into Assisted Dying, which I hope decides to legalize it in the UK. They also produced an excellent report at the end of last year, written by Charles Leadbetter and Jake Garber, called Dying for Change, which argues that the NHS should expand its hospice network. Leadbetter has spoken movingly of the stark difference between his father's death in an NHS ward, and his mother's death in a hospice. He asks how we can empower people to be the authors of the 'script' of their dying - a very Stoic idea.
Going back to Willetts' speech - it's interesting that the government has to reassure people that it doesn't favour the sciences over the humanities. Half a century ago, the scientist and author CP Snow warned that western governments gave far too much emphasis to the humanities, and not enough to the sciences. How times have changed. Snow also warned that the 'two cultures' of the sciences and humanities have grown ever further apart, and now find each other 'mutually incomprehensible'. On this point, sadly, little has changed - the two cultures seem to find each other as incomprehensible and threatening as ever, and attempts at 'consilience' often seem more like hostile raids on each others' territory.
One thinker trying to bring the two cultures closer together is Jonah Lehrer, neuroscientist and columnist for Wired Magazine. His book, Proust Was A Neuroscientist, has just come out in the UK, and is an excellent read. Lehrer looks at eight different artists, including Whitman, Woolf, George Eliot, Stravinsky and Proust, and how their artistic visions anticipated the latest research in neuroscience. What impressed me was how well Lehrer, who wrote the book when he was just 24, understood artists' lives and visions. I also admired his warnings against crude scientific reductionism - his chapter on the 19th century cult of Positivism reminded me of the modern cult of Positive Psychology.
Talking of which, the New York Times used the new science of happiness measurements to track down the happiest man in America: a tall, Asian-American, observant Jew, over 65, married, with kids, and living in Hawaii. His name is Alvin Wong. 'This is a practical joke, right?' asked Mr Wong. Yes indeed. Meanwhile, in the UK, we discovered that our prime minister is significantly less happy than the British average. He rates himself a mere 6 out of 10, poor chap, compared to the national average of 7.3.
This week, I have been writing about self-writing, and the use of the journal as a spiritual exercise in ancient philosophy. This has led me to some fascinating research by James W. Pennebaker, of the University of Texas, who has been researching the therapeutic effects of self-writing for over 20 years. Pennebaker has found that writing about an episode of 'emotional upheaval' for 20 minutes, for four consecutive days, leads to a whole range of benefits: feeling better, healthier, more productive, socializing better, sleeping better, even dreaming better.
Why such impressive results from such a small intervention? Pennebaker initially thought the benefits came from the cathartic release of getting a terrible secret off your chest. But in recent years, he's used computerized linguistic analysis to look not just at what people write about, but how they write about it. He's found that the people who get the most benefit from the self-writing exercise tend to use a lot of causal words, like 'because', 'why', 'therefore' and 'how', and insight words, like 'I realized' or 'I now see'. So they seem to be not just getting things off their chest, but shaping their raw experience into a coherent, meaningful narrative. He also noticed that their use of pronouns change: they move, over the course of the exercise, from mainly using first person pronouns to greater 'pronoun flexibility' - using 'I', 'you', 'we', 'they', 'your' and so on, as if they attain the ability to see an emotional crisis from a broader range of perspectives.
I wonder if eventually we'll all have access to computerized linguistic analysers, which we can use to analyse all our writing to provide us with therapeutic insights - like a therapist version of the Microsoft Office Assistant.
Finally, a warning: ladies, beware gravelly-voiced men. Men with deep voices make reckless choices. They're likely to have high testosterone counts, but are also more likely to cheat on their wives, according to this new study. If you're looking for a man who don't run around town, try my favourite high-pitched comedian, Ropert Popper - here discussing the meaning of life.
See you next week,