Thursday, October 22, 2009

Overheard on Oprah: "You might think of it as socialism, we think of it as being civilized."

A Global Projection of Subjective Well-Being by University of Leicester social psychologist Adrian White.

Imagine my surprise when Wednesday's Oprah Winfrey Show featuring a profile of "the world's happiest people" became an impromptu public service announcement for many values I hold dear: universal health care, free public education, paid maternity leave, robust supports for the unemployed and disabled, and progressive taxation.

Winfrey reported on the show and at her website that "for the past 30 years, scientific researchers and survey results have all reached the same conclusion—Danes are consistently happier than the rest of the world. On the "world map of happiness"—a map created by a social psychologist in England—Switzerland, Austria and Iceland rank just below Denmark on the happiness scale. Canada comes in at number 10, while the United States is a distant 23rd."

Meeting some Danish women in their homes, Winfrey learned that they had simple uncluttered living spaces—"less stuff, more life"—and that they had lots of time with their families, high levels of education, universal access to health care, paid maternity leaves, and, astonishing to Oprah, an up-to-60% tax rate and an almost a universal agnosticism.

Winfrey invited two of the Danish women to Skype into her program live on Tuesday. Nanna Norup, one of them, is my new hero for her brilliant interview responses:

When Winfrey said "I know your county is a democratic country, but it's a democratic country with a lot of socialist views, correct?" Norup replied:

"Yes, you might think so, we don't necessarily think of it as that [socialist] . . . we more think of it as being civilized: that you take care of your old and your sick and you make sure that people get well educated—we think of it more as being civilized."

So this is where the new emphasis on positive psychology and happiness research gets interesting: although the focus on individual happiness can look venal in the competitive North American context, an international perspective reveals that the happiest people in the world are those for whom the desperate angst that Americans (and much of the rest of the world) experience over health care, childcare, livelihoods, and education for their children is alleviated by good governance and an equitable distribution of resources.

So perhaps there are positive outcomes from the new emphasis on happiness—among them a public conversation about the conditions that are necessary for human flourishing.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

What Doesn't Kill You . . .

Here at Self-Help, Inc. we normally think of the dangers of self-improvement culture as being those of over-promising and under-delivering. Self-help literature promises its takers the world, and when it doesn't deliver, lays the blame at their feet.

Sadly, self-help guru and Secret co-author James Arthur Ray's "Spiritual Warrior" program delivered: It promised that participants, many of whom paid more than $9,000 to attend, would have their lives changed forever. Indeed. Two are dead, one is in critical condition, and eighteen others are hospitalized after a "sweat lodge" ritual went awry.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once quipped that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. The problem: some things simply kill you.

Our thoughts are with the families of the deceased, 38-year-old Kirby Brown of Westtown, New York, and 40-year-old James Shore of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and with the other eighteen victims.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Bright-Sided, or The Perils of Positive Thinking

Patricia Cohen at The New York Times does a terrific feature on Barbara Ehrenreich's new book Bright-Sided, which looks at the role of positive thinking in the most recent economic debacle of boom and bust.

Irrational enthusiasms (some say "exuberance") is something that goes back at least to the dawn of global market economies — I'm thinking here of the 17th-century Dutch speculative trade in tulips, sometimes referred to as tulipomania.

But seldom has a boom-bust cycle has such a well-articulated ideology—captured in texts such as Rhonda Brynes' The Secret, or Esther and Jerry Hick's Ask and It Is Given—as has our recent run-up in uncollateralized derivatives and credit default swaps.

Ehrenreich unpacks the ideology of positive-thinking-lemons-to-lemonade-department-of-silver-linings in this important new book. And Patricia Cohen has shown a bright light on it.

(Full disclosure: Ehrenreich and I are part of an informal working group involved in the critique of improbable thinking.)