Positive Psychology starts as an individual pursuit. But what about promoting the strengths and virtues that enable more happiness for society in the aggregate? Can we all become happier together? Turns out that it may now be possible to answer this question.
The psychology of human well-being can now be surveyed comprehensively and quantitatively.
In the article “Time to leave GDP behind” Robert Costanza, et al, make the argument that it’s time for economists and policy makers to start measuring quality of life—including factors like social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality.
By focusing on GDP, First World economies can miss the negative effects of top-line economic growth. Today we have a fantastic income gap growing worldwide but GDP doesn’t surface the societal costs of increasing inequality. Prisons, wars, natural disasters all boost GDP but GDP doesn’t account for the associate social or environmental costs. Or as Costanza puts it:
The limits of GDP are now clear. Increased crime rates do not raise living standards, but they can lift GDP by raising expenditures on security systems. Despite the destruction wrought by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, both events boosted US GDP because they stimulated rebuilding
When developing economies focus on GDP as a measure of progress they have an additional global impact. By adopting GDP they tie themselves to a progress measure that was adopted in the post-WWII era. This can prevent developing countries from experimenting with more-sustainable models of development.
Among the alternatives to GDP is an adjusted economic measure called the Genuine Progress Indicator or GPI.
The GPI calculation starts by measuring personal consumption expenditures and then adds or subtracts more than 20 additional factors that fine-tune the measurement. In addition to measuring spending the GPI includes things like the value of volunteer work, the costs of crime or pollution, etc. GPI also considers income distribution:
A dollar’s worth of increased income to a poor person boosts welfare more than a dollar’s worth of increased income does for a rich person.
This graphic from a 2013 study compares per capita GPI to per capita GDP for 17 countries that contain just over half of the global population.
Note that GPI tracked closely to GDP up until around 1978. Then the two measures started to diverge dramatically and the gap continues to widen. Increased environmental and social costs began to outweigh the benefits of increased GDP. Interestingly, subjective measures of life satisfaction are highly correlated with GPI but not with GDP.
Basically, we spend more but we are worse off for it.
The video below emphasizes that the goal is to change the game. Instead of focusing on “more” let’s focus on “better”.
Also, see The Invention Of ‘The Economy’ from NPR for some simple GDP history.
Here’s the cold, hard data: The incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20s as for the generation that’s now 65 or older, according to the National Institutes of Health; 58% more college students scored higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than in 1982.
But I’m not convinced that those and other cited statistics actually indicate NPD. I think this “syndrome” is a rational reaction to shitty circumstances. The economy is broken. Politics are majorly broken. The environment is fucked. Social Security and healthcare? I’m a GenXer and, given these circumstances, I think it’s time to enjoy yourself ’cause it’s later than you think.
All these problems and media showing us more celebrity star power than ever? Why wouldn’t you want to be an assistant vs. being the person in charge? You get the VIP props without the heat of having to perform. Lazy? Sure. Or maybe just an option for the less talented to be involved with success?
The story goes on to quote Emory University’s Mark Bauerlein regarding how this generation lives in an echo chamber of peer influence:
“Peer pressure is anti-intellectual. It is anti-historical. It is anti-eloquence”
Anti-intellectual? It may be true that peer pressure is that indeed. But Republicans denial of Global Climate Change and the pervading influence of various and sundry gods provide an overflowing fountain of anti-intellectualism. Our Founding Father’s believed in the rebirth of The Enlightenment but that truth has been subjugated by modern-day anti-intellectual geniuses.
Other opinions vary. According to an article in Slate Magazine the factors are complex:
As an article at the Atlantic pointed out last week, many psychologists have disputed the study Stein cited about millennials being singularly narcissistic. And while the NIH study found incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is inversely related to age, its authors admit "NPD may be more prevalent among young adults due to developmental challenges in the transition from adolescence to adulthood."
There’s debate in psychology over whether narcissism should be considered a clinical disorder at all or whether it’s simply a stop on the continuum of natural human emotion.
There are also situational and environmental factors that change with time. While I have no data here it’s hard for me to imagine someone who grew up as a beet farmer in the 30’s scoring high on these tests in their 60’s or 70’s.
And then there’s WWII. Not a time to be self-centered when trying to save the world.
It also seems true that technology’s impacts on society has never been more pronounced and that could be a major influence. The car and the airplane increased freedom of movement and autonomy. The lightbulb added hours and shifted time. But smartphones with cameras + the Internet + social media? Seriously unprecedented and primarily self centered.
Anyway, the Time magazine cover parodies are funny and somewhat accurate. Check those out, too.
The global demand for energy isn’t slowing down. On the contrary. Emerging economies increase the use of fossil fuels while population growth and deforestation continue to exacerbate the problems.
Conservation alone isn’t a solution. All options should be on the table when tackling global climate change. This includes nuclear power.
Nature’s piece Nuclear energy: Radical reactors explores some alternatives to the traditional light-water reactor nuclear power plants.
Light-water reactors achieved their dominance not because they were best, but because they were first. Originally developed in the late 1940s as a compact power source for nuclear ships and submarines, the light-water design was adapted and scaled up during the 1950s, when the United States sought to put a peaceful face on atomic energy by creating a commercial nuclear-power industry.
If world governments can pour billions into a project like the LHC then where is the will to work together and re-engineer a power source that can move us away from climate catastrophe?
Walking in to Whaler’s Village yesterday I saw a 3 year old little boy lying face down on the sidewalk–sobbing. I immediately moved towards him and was ready to help but I stopped short when I saw the boy’s father standing about 4 feet away…just looking at him.
The boy’s face was pressed against the cement. He was wailing. Did he fall? Why wasn’t he being helped? Was he having a melt down?
I scanned the crowded scene. Other people had also stopped. We were all trying to figure out what the f*ck was going on. The mother was sitting in the adjacent restaurant looking down from her balcony…just watching.
No one interfered. I could barely hold myself back though. I couldn’t comprehend how any parent could think this was good for their child.
I’d recently watched NOVA’s Mind of a Rampage Killer where I was introduced to Karlen Lyons-Ruth’s work using the Strange Situation Procedure (SSP). Lyons-Ruth finds that children of parents who were apprehensive and unable to comfort their children during the SSP are more likley to have behavioral problems, including hostile and aggressive behavior, when they reach school age. Moreover, these children are twice as likley to be antisocial or suicidal as adults.
One disturbing video segment from Lyons-Ruth showed an infant comforting themselves with head on the rug while the parent’s natural reaction was detachment. Now it seemed like I was witnessing the same situation with that poor little boy on the sidewalk.
The incident was probably nothing in the grand scheme of things. Still, in the NOVA video Lyons-Ruth talks about the "pattern of emptiness" that emerges when parents fail to create attachments. Why would anyone want their child to feel that? Why not love and closeness? Why not spend the energy to actually parent?
Lakoff’s basic argument:
I’ve always been interested in politics since I was a little kid. I got into linguistics and eventually discovered that you could use the linguistics that’s been done to explain a lot about politics, so I couldn’t not do it.
The part of linguistics I do is to study how words link up with the conceptual system and with the way we think in terms of frames and metaphors and moral systems.
I happened to be studying that back in 1994 when the Republicans took over Congress. I said to myself, I don’t understand these conservatives. Why is it that the same people who are against abortion are for the flat tax and against environmental laws and so on.
I didn’t get it, but I made a list of the things they were for, and I said gee, I’m against every single one of these. What generalization is there about these lists? I didn’t understand what it was, but I said this is a problem in my field, so I started studying it.
What I discovered was that there is an answer, and the answer has to do with the fact that we are first governed in our families and we have two very different family models that come out of two different moral systems.
One moral system is about authority and obedience to authority. The other moral system is about nurturance and caring about people. Those define two very different models of what family life is.
Then because we’re first governed in our family, we learn that governing institutions can be understood in terms of families, so that churches and teams and classrooms and governments and the market itself can be understood in those terms.
When you understand that you work out the details, what you see is that conservatives and progressives have entirely different moral systems.
Then as I thought about it I realized that all politics is fundamentally moral. That anybody who gets up there and says do what I say, here’s my proposal, they assume it’s because it’s right. Not because it’s wrong or doesn’t matter, but they just have different ideas about what’s right.
What I’ve been doing is looking at the details of how this plays out in every day politics and it’s all over the place. It has to do with language.
My colleague, Charles Fillmore, one of the world’s greatest linguists, figured out back in the 1970s that every word is defined with respect to a metal structure called a frame. He’s been studying those in detail for many years and so have I.
What I worked out was how the frames work in politics, and I discovered that the system of frames grounds out in the moral system; that every frame in the political life of anybody grounds out in what they think is right.
Then the most remarkable discovery was that there are a lot of people who are progressive about some things and conservative about others. They’re what I call bi-conceptuals. They have both moral systems about different things, in all kinds of things. There is no single ideology of the center or the moderate. What you get is different combinations of the progressive and conservative systems.
When you see that you learn something very important, because when you use words, words hook on to the brain. These things are all in your brain. The more that you hear the words that fit one frame, that is a brain circuit frame, the more you hear that the stronger the frame gets, the more of the brain circuit is strengthened and the other is weakened because they are mutually inhibitory. The strengthening of one weakens the other.
What you need to do if you want to talk to somebody who is partly progressive and partly conservative, you use the progressive frames, the progressive part of their brains, not the conservative part.
Lakoff on poverty as an example:
If you start looking at the conceptual system what you find is that there is a reason why wealth is seen as a very good thing in itself, whether you need it or not. And poverty as lowly and why you blame the poor for their poverty and you think the wealthy are wonderful in general and they become celebrities. This has to do with our very conceptual system.
Then there’s the question, why is it that somebody who starts in poverty and rises out of it doesn’t remember. This is something around the world. There are Chinese proverbs about this.
There’s a reason for it. It’s explained by Danny Conaman. Conaman observed that when you do something and you gain something, let’s suppose you are gambling and you make more money, and first you make a lot more money, then you go back to where you were you feel bad. But if you lose money then you go back to where you were you feel good.
What happens is that when you have a gain you raise the stakes, your raise the baseline. That’s what happens when people work their way out of poverty. They get into the middle class, the upper middle class, and all of a sudden the baseline is different. The issues they care about are different, and they cease to identify with poverty.
Progressives see democracy as fundamentally about people caring about each other. That is, using the government to provide general protection and general empowerment for everybody, to give public provisions so that everybody can have a decent life and have freedom to do what they need to do to pursue happiness. That includes not only the roads and bridges and buildings, but public education and public health and public safety and research and on and on. All the things that the public provides through the government.
Then after you have those, then you can start a business, you can start a company, you can become an artist or get an education if you have those things. You can’t if you don’t. If you’re living in the middle of Bangladesh you probably can’t do that because those things aren’t there.
That’s a crucial thing about this. And that has to do with the idea that you care.
Conservatives don’t have this world view. In fact, they don’t even recognize that the public does so much for them and enables them to have any kind of freedom. They see democracy as giving them what they call liberty. That is, the liberty to seek their own self-interest and their own wellbeing without any responsibility for the interests of anybody else or anybody else being responsible for them.
That leads to the idea that everybody should be self-sufficient; that there is only personal responsibility, not social responsibility, and therefore, if you’re poor you’re responsible. You are the person who made yourself poor and didn’t become an entrepreneur and didn’t make it in this free market. Therefore, you’re to blame.
If you’re suffering you’re to blame. That’s how it is.
Lakoff on the Conservative mindset:
The other part of this is that when you have… think about the conservative conceptual system. In it the highest value is preserving and extending the system itself, preserving the values. That comes above anything else there. That’s why they will propose something and then if the president proposes the same thing they’ll vote against it because it could go against their values to help the president.
That is a very important thing to just simply understand about the system. The highest value is preserving that system itself in there. Therefore, the highest value in, let’s say, government is to try to change the country to get rid of this idea of public provisions and to get rid of it all together.
That’s part of the conservative agenda and how that works.
Lakoff on media and bias:
Now let’s turn to the media. I happen to be sitting in the journalism school at Berkeley and I occasionally give lectures to first year graduate students. What I tell them is that language is not neutral. Language fits frames. And that conservatives have been very, very good in setting up a communication system that progressives don’t have and getting their language out there as being the normal language, like tax relief, for example, which says that taxes are an affliction.
When you have that system out there and you believe that language is neutral you’ve got a problem. That’s what people in journalism school and the media are taught, that language is useful, yet it is neutral, therefore you should have, they use the normal language, the most common language, which is often conservative language.
Using that language activates conservative brains and conservative moral systems. And in people who are partly conservative and partly progressive, it makes their conservatism stronger.
Honest journalists not knowing that will go around who might be even progressive, will go around helping conservatives all the time using the conservative language, like the deficit.
Lakoff on why the Conservatives are ahead here:
Okay, here it is. They went to college. And when they go to college they studied some business. When you study business you study marketing. In marketing the professors study cognitive science. They study how the brain really works. They learn that the brain works by frames and metaphors and emotions and images. They learn that very well and they learn what a communication system is like and how to set one up. They have done that extremely well. Not just Fox News, but there’s a huge system that I and other people have looked at that most progressives don’t know is there.
Why haven’t the progressives done that? They went to college, too, but they didn’t study marketing. What they studied was political science, law, public policy and economics. There they learned the enlightenment reason. All you have to do is tell people the fact and they’ll reason logically to the right conclusion.
False. They learn language is neutral, it will just fit the world. False.
In short, what we’ve learned in the cognitive and brain sciences is that enlightenment reason and the rational actor model are not true. So what you have is the democrats who went to college and did very well and then went into public policy because they’re really good at the rational actor model and enlightenment reason, assume all they have to do is tell people the facts and everyone will reason to the right conclusion.
Assuming that their own moral system, which is largely unconscious and taken for granted, is something that’s universal, when it is not, when conservatives have a different moral system and when they know how to do communication better.
Lakoff on “the deep truths”:
We noticed that even though you have two different moral systems, they’re not equal. It’s not just the choice we like this one or we like that one. The reason is that there are deep truths that fit one moral system but don’t fit the other.
In fact, the other moral system, the conservative system, might not even allow you to see those deep truths.
The first deep truth is that the private depends on the public. In order to have a private life and private enterprise you need all those public provisions. If you don’t have sewers, you don’t have electricity and you don’t have even a market or a stock market that works you’re not going to make money in business.
The second one is, let’s take something like pensions. Pensions are payments for work already done. If you cut out someone’s pensions you’re stealing. You’re violating their contract. That’s not seen. The conservatives see that as getting paid for not working, which is the reverse. They think people on Social Security are on the take when they’ve been contributing all their lives and so on.
There are other things that are true. Any work that you do, whatever it is, no matter how so-called menial work, contributes to our country. It contributes to all people. It contributes to the profit of corporations. Workers are profit creators. It’s not just that they are job creators, we’re profit creators if you’re working in a company.
That’s a truth. It’s not said. There are a lot of things like that.
While watching Rise of the Drones I fell into my traditional thought patterns that this specific technology—aerial drones with the ability to spy and kill—was the inevitable outcome of technological advances and the social responses to the capabilities these advances made real.
In college I’d learned about Technological Determinism while studying engineering. I’d also learned about a subset of determinism—Media Determinism—while studying communications. I’ll always treasure my textbooks even though the exact prognostications or specific nuances of their theories seem outdated.
To me, the Medium is still The Message. In Rise of the Drones trained Air Force pilots use Xbox controllers to instruct non-pilots on how to fly drones and kill targets. Thus the kill controllers now control the kill. And while specific Limits to Growth might have been inexact it’s clear that population increases tied to limited natural resources combined with global climate change are, in fact…limiting.
Did determinism resonate innately with me or did it shape me? Tough to say which is cause vs. effect. Once exposed I groked McLunah immediately and was sure that homo sapiens had sincerely and certainly extended ourselves in every way possible through technology:
- Flint & fire & fur
- Canoes & carriages & cars
- Symbols & semiotics & social media
- Spears & spyglasses & predator drones
I wonder why these theories have been sidelined? After all, eras were named initially by geologic periods (e.g., Paleozoic, Mesozoic, etc.) but once the Precambrian explosion occurred it’s possible to tie eras to biology. Human eras are, of course, defined by technology. The dawn of man produces eras named after technological advancements yielding the Stone Age, the Copper, Bronze &Iron ages, the Industrial Age, the Space Age, etc.
Regardless of formal definition we all know intuitively that we’ve been touched by the digital age. Let’s look back using a non-strict deterministic lens: As soon as digital audio was possible it quickly replaced analog. Digital was lossy and cold but it was easier to produce and it’s way more portable. So we’ve revised our listening experiences to embrace this newness. We don’t have record parties. We don’t care if songs that move us can actually be performed. Socially, we changed.
MP3 audio technology existed before the iPod. But the iPod click-wheel interface was the break-through. It was an extension of the way that we used to flip through record bins. It turned what we did into what we do via technology. Now there’s literally no turning back because you can’t find a record store.
Moving further, we’re now in the mobile digital age. Reading, learning and social interaction are augmented by web-based technologies and in many cases replace their predecessors.
It’s OK that these theories are imperfect. Newton’s theories don’t mesh with special relativity or quantum mechanics but classical dynamics can land a man on the moon. I’m sure that life is so complex that determinism isn’t a theory that can predict much.
Still, human ambition drives innovation forward. In Rise of the Drones the technological advances have social & political impacts for all of society—even those who don’t know or care about drones.
I think it’s clear that Determinism resonates as a framework to understand that we advance our technologies and then our technologies advance us.
Update: Obama won. Here’s Neil deGrasse Tyson’s take on how government funding of science can “guarantee your economic future”…
Nature has an interesting article that outlines the differences between these two presidential candidates.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Republican’s mantra that “government doesn’t create jobs”. In their last debate the candidates finally mentioned the government’s role in research. Romney talked as if he’s pro-research investment but that’s hard to believe. Just ask David Victor, a public-policy expert at the UCSD:
It certainly does not appear that a Romney administration is going to put spending on research and development and education at the centre of their priorities, whereas Obama has made science and education an important part of his agenda.
The private sector can’t fund big science. Without major funding by world governments we wouldn’t have advancements like the sequencing of the human genome, the LHC, stem cell research, fMRI, neuroscience, cancer research, etc.
Individual research opportunities may hit or miss. There’s no guarantee of a break-through. That means that some money is at risk and there’s limited-to-no rewards. However, the money that gets spent does indeed go back into the economy and it does have an impact on the private sector.
Yesterday, Microsoft announced that it’s taking a $6.2B USD write-off for the aQuantive acquisition.
Time for a does of reality from someone who got super, super rich from that deal:
When the American middle class defends a tax system in which the lion’s share of benefits accrues to the richest, all in the name of job creation, all that happens is that the rich get richer.
…people are selectively worse at incorporating information about a worse-than-expected future
There are aspects of my life where I’m optimistic but probably less so than most people. I’m not a pessimist; I’m a self-decribed pragmatist: I see wonder and beauty all around but I also see problems coming a mile away.
In my work as a software architect I consistently encounter a propensity for optimism from folks who dream things—as opposed to those who build things. The dreamers are “The Business” and they are “bully”. To varying degrees, anything short of “can do” is nay-saying.
Strangely, it’s the dreamers who tend to label the do-ers (as pessimistic) but not the other way ’round. In professional life it’s taboo for someone to tell an optimist that they just don’t know enough to understand the real risks involved in X, Y or Z.
Those conversations do happen rarely and don’t often result in much change. Why?
One answer could come from applying evolutionary psychology to the SDLC. It’s a topic I’m interested in considering further.
As a start, I’ve looked at The brains rose-colored glasses : Nature Neuroscience.
The best way to think about the problem from The Business’s expectation is:
optimists’ brains fail to generate a learning signal when confronted with the evidence that negative events are more likely to occur than predicted
The foundation of Agile Methods—XP—took this into consideration. XP focused on measuring “velocity” and included rules that used past velocity to govern / temper the optimism of a future iteration.
More details can be found here: optimism
When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. …
This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.