Saturday, October 15, 2005

Don't Worry. Be Happy.

"Happiness is not having what you want. It's wanting what you have."

That's the old saw. And now it's proven. Sort of.

Esteemed psychologist Martin Seligman has spearheaded an effort to study the science of happiness. The bad news is that we're not wired to be happy. The good news is that we can do something about it.

Dorothy Wade writes: "By trick of nature, our brains are designed to crave but never really achieve lasting happiness."

The ability to feel negative emotions derives from an ancient danger-recognition system formed early in the brain's evolution. The pre-frontalcortex, which registers happiness, is the part used for higher thinking, an area that evolved later in human history . . .

Modern humans, stuck with an ancient brain, are like rats on a wheel. We can't stop running, because we're always looking over our shoulders and comparing our achievements with our neighbours. At 20, we think we'd be happy with a house and a car. But if we get them, we start dreaming of a second home in Italy and a turbo-charged four-wheel-drive.

This is called the "hedonic treadmill" by happiness scholars. It causes us to rapidly and inevitably adapt to good things by taking them for granted. The more possessions and accomplishments we have, the more we need to boost our level of happiness. It makes sense that the brain of a species that has dominated others would evolve to strive to be best.

Our difficulty, according to Daniel Nettle, is that the brain systems for liking and wanting are separate. Wanting involves two ancient regions — the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens — that communicate using the chemical dopamine to form the brain's reward system. They are involved in anticipating the pleasure of eating and in addiction to drugs. A rat will press a bar repeatedly, ignoring sexually available partners, to receive electrical stimulation of the "wanting" parts of the brain. But having received brain stimulation, the rat eats more but shows no sign of enjoying the food it craved. In humans, a drug like nicotine produces much craving but little pleasure.

At the Royal Institution, Nettle explained how brain chemistry foils our pursuit of happiness in the modern world: "The things that you desire are not the things that you end up liking. The mechanisms of desire are insatiable. There are things that we really like and tire of less quickly — having good friends, the beauty of the natural world, spirituality. But our economic system plays into the psychology of wanting, and the psychology of liking gets drowned out."

What to do about it? Don't cry over spilt milk.

Since the days of Freud, the emphasis in consulting rooms has been on talk about negative effects of the past and how they damage people in the present. Seligman names this approach "victimology" and says research shows it to be worthless: "It is difficult to find even small effects of childhood events on adult personality, and there is no evidence at all of large effects."

The tragic legacy of Freud is that many are "unduly embittered about their past, and unduly passive about their future", says Seligman. His colleague Aaron Beck developed cognitive therapy after becoming disillusioned with his Freudian training in the 1950s. Beck found that as depressed patients talked "cathartically" about past wounds and losses, some people began to unravel. Occasionally this led to suicide attempts, some of which were fatal. There was very little evidence that psychoanalysis worked.

Cognitive therapy places less emphasis on the past. It works by challenging a person's thinking about the present and setting goals for the future . . . The focus of most psychotherapy is on decreasing negative emotion. The aim of Seligman's therapy is to increase positive emotion.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Too Close to Call

Eugene Volokh reports on a recent survey of black people. I mean African-Americans. I mean blacks.
Of the 2,382 respondents to whom the question was asked, 1,146 (48.1 percent) voiced a preference for "black," 1,173 (49.2 percent) said they preferred "African-American," and 63 (2.7 percent) declined to express an opinion.

Do I have to go through orientation?

Last week, the Oakland A's fired manager Ken Macha.

This week, they replaced him with . . . Ken Macha.

I hope he does better than that last bum.

I Know You Are, But What Am I?

Some say critics of Harriet Miers are sexist. Some say critics of Harriet Miers are elitist. I say: Who cares?

In the assessment of Miers as a potential Supreme Court candidate, the personal characteristics of those involved in the debate are irrelevant. For example, there might exist a Miers supporter who takes pleasure in fricasseeing kittens. On the other hand, there might be a Miers critic who founded the Society for the Advancement of Scratching Chalkboards. Does it really need to be said that these facts would have nothing to do with the soundness of nominating Miers as a Justice on the Supreme Court?

Sexist, racist, elitist, "anything"-ist. It doesn't matter. Debating the characteristics of the debaters is a time-waster that diverts intellectual energy from the real debate: Would Harriet Miers make a good Supreme Court justice?

Of course, the Miers nomination is not the only public debate poisoned by ad hominem attacks. They are everywhere. The Nation seems particularly fond of them. In an article currently on The Nation website fearlessly titled The Young Chickenhawks, Clarisse Profilet exposes the not-so-shocking lack of military experience among the leadership of the Young Americans for Freedom and the College Republicans. She concludes:
Conservative campus groups like YAF and College Republicans are growing in strength and numbers. And since the start of the Iraq War, these outfits have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Bush to support the war, but they have not stood alongside the soldiers doing the actual fighting and dying. They want someone else to do the hard work.

If the proponents of these arguments merely intend to denigrate their opponents, they may in some cases be successful, but are always petty. If, on other hand, the proponents of the arguments sincerely mean to address the underlying debate, the arguments are not merely unsuccessful, but prototypes of logical fallacies.

Some Miers critics are elitist.
Therefore Miers would be an excellent Supreme Court Justice.

Some supporters of the war have not joined the military.
Therefore, the war in Iraq is unjust.


It's All Religion's Fault

Is religion to blame for America's societal distress?

Greogry S. Paul says: Yes.

(And, in his closing sentence, pats himself on the back: "It is the responsibility of the research community to address controversial issues and provide the information that the citizens of democracies need to chart their future courses.")

Theodore Dalrymple says: Uh . . . no.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The End of Gay Culture

More than cats hate water, Andrew Sullivan despises George Bush. Ever since President Bush endorsed a Constitutional Amendment protecting marriage, Sullivan's rage at President Bush has so infected Sullivan's writing that little of it has merited serious consideration. Sullivan's anger has been so deep that Sullivan, a one-time small-government conservative, even endorsed John Kerry, a socialist.

Oddly, during the last several years, one topic has remained comparatively immune to the poisonous effects of Sullivan's rage: the gay community. Sullivan, a homosexual with HIV, is remarkably insightful on the gay community. His latest article, an optimistic New Republic piece called The End of Gay Culture, is no exception.
Slowly but unmistakably, gay culture is ending. You see it beyond the poignant transformation of Provincetown, MA: on the streets of the big cities, on university campuses, in the suburbs where gay couples have settled, and in the entrails of the Internet. In fact, it is beginning to dawn on many that the very concept of gay culture may one day disappear altogether. By that, I do not mean that homosexual men and lesbians will not exist--or that they won't create a community of sorts and a culture that sets them in some ways apart. I mean simply that what encompasses gay culture itself will expand into such a diverse set of subcultures that "gayness" alone will cease to tell you very much about any individual. The distinction between gay and straight culture will become so blurred, so fractured, and so intermingled that it may become more helpful not to examine them separately at all.

For many in the gay world, this is both a triumph and a threat. It is a triumph because it is what we always dreamed of: a world in which being gay is a nonissue among our families, friends, and neighbors. But it is a threat in the way that all loss is a threat. For many of us who grew up fighting a world of now-inconceivable silence and shame, distinctive gayness became an integral part of who we are. It helped define us not only to the world but also to ourselves. Letting that go is as hard as it is liberating, as saddening as it is invigorating. And, while social advance allows many of us to contemplate this gift of a problem, we are also aware that in other parts of the country and the world, the reverse may be happening. With the growth of fundamentalism across the religious world--from Pope Benedict XVI's Vatican to Islamic fatwas and American evangelicalism--gayness is under attack in many places, even as it wrests free from repression in others. In fact, the two phenomena are related. The new anti-gay fervor is a response to the growing probability that the world will one day treat gay and straight as interchangeable humans and citizens rather than as estranged others. It is the end of gay culture--not its endurance--that threatens the old order. It is the fact that, across the state of Massachusetts, "gay marriage" has just been abolished. The marriage licenses gay couples receive are indistinguishable from those given to straight couples. On paper, the difference is now history. In the real world, the consequences of that are still unfolding . . . .

. . . .

The tiny, rich space that gay men and women once created for themselves was, after all, the best they could do. In a metaphor coined by the philosopher Michael Walzer, they gilded a cage of exclusion with magnificent ornaments; they spoke to its isolation and pain; they described and maintained it with dignity and considerable beauty. But it was still a cage. And the thing that kept gay people together, that unified them into one homogeneous unit, and that defined the parameters of their culture and the limits of their dreams, were the bars on that cage. Past the ashes of thousands and through the courage of those who came before the plague and those who survived it, those bars are now slowly but inexorably being pried apart. The next generation may well be as free of that cage as any minority ever can be; and they will redefine gayness on its own terms and not on the terms of hostile outsiders. Nothing will stop this, since it is occurring in the psyches and souls of a new generation: a new consciousness that is immune to any law and propelled by the momentum of human freedom itself. While we should treasure the past, there is no recovering it. The futures--and they will be multiple--are just beginning.

Whether you are gay, straight, both, or undecided, I recommend reading the whole thing.