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Archive for the 'Psychology' Category

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

How Expectations and Uncertainty Affect the Economy — An Interview with Eric Barthalon

Uncertainty, Expectations, and Financial Instability

The following is an interview with Eric Barthalon, author of Uncertainty, Expectations, and Financial Instability: Reviving Allais’s Lost Theory of Psychological Time.

Question: What is your book about?

Eric Barthalon: Uncertainty, Expectations and Financial Instability is about what we call “expectations” and the pro-cyclical responses they trigger. I argue that, under uncertainty, we infer the future largely from our experience of the past, and I show how Allais’s lost theory of psychological time gives an operational and testable content to this intuition or hypothesis.

Q: What exactly do you mean by uncertainty?

EB: When we throw four dices repeatedly, we cannot tell the outcome of each throw, but experience as well as mathematics tell us very precisely what we should expect: there will not be many instances where the sum of the four dices is either 4 or 24; most of the throws will yield a result close to 14. This is a situation of “known unknowns” or risk, in which it would be insane to expect a throw to yield either a 2 or a 30, and—even if the first throws are not close to 14—it would be equally insane not to expect the average of the throws to converge toward 14. In such risky situations, our expectations should be identical to the model’s forecasts. This is the very definition of rational expectations. (more…)

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

National Security Above Mental Health — Neil Aggarwal

Mental Health in the War of Terror

“We need novel solutions for hierarchical organizations such as the CIA and the armed forces that erect institutional safeguards for psychiatrists, psychologists, and whistleblowers warning of misuses in mental health knowledge and practice.”—Neil Krishnan Aggarwal

The following post is by Neil Krishnan Aggarwal, the author of the forthcoming Mental Health in the War on Terror: Culture, Science, and Statecraft:

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s release of the report Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program marks a signature moment for government accountability in the War on Terror. The report acknowledges that “the CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees” and “the CIA’s justification for the use of its enhanced interrogation techniques rested on inaccurate claims of their effectiveness.”

Politicians have debated release of the report. Former Vice-President Dick Cheney has claimed that enhanced interrogation techniques were “absolutely, totally justified” and were the “right thing to do, and if I had to do it over again, I would do it.” In contrast, Senator Dianne Feinstein, committee chairwoman, defended the release: “Releasing this report is an important step to restoring our values and showing the world that we are a just society.” Similarly, President Barack Obama declared: “The report documents a troubling program involving enhanced interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects in secret facilities outside the United States.”

In Mental Health in the War on Terror: Culture, Science, and Statecraft, I investigate how the government uses mental health professionals to advance national security interests and how mental health professionals serve such ends. I examine bioethical debates on whether mental health professionals should do no harm or participate in interrogations. I examine debates among prosecution and defense teams on the meanings of detainee mental health symptoms in Guantanamo tribunals. I conclude that the War on Terror has pushed American government officials to treat terrorism as a military problem requiring new forms of mental health knowledge, practice, and institutions rather than a law enforcement problem handled through extant institutions.

The Senate committee’s report reinforces this conclusion. After capture of militant Abu Zubaydah, a psychologist-contractor proposed in July 2002 that SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) techniques from the American military could be “novel interrogation methods” for the CIA. These techniques include walling, facial holding and slapping, cramped confinement, stress positions, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and mock burial. One CIA official clarified that “personnel will make every effort possible to insure [sic] that subject is not permanently physically or mentally harmed but we should not say at the outset of this process that there is no risk.” The psychologist-contractors normalized these techniques, responding, “The safety of any technique lies primarily in how it is applied and monitored.”

(more…)

Friday, November 14th, 2014

Francisco Varela and Waking, Dreaming, Being

Waking, Dreaming, Being

This week our featured book is Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, by Evan Thompson, with a foreword by Stephen Batchelor. In today’s post on the final day of our feature, we are happy to post an excerpt from a fascinating interview of Thompson conducted by Joy Stocke at the Wild River Review. In the interview, Stocke and Thompson discuss the importance of his upbringing to his work, the influence of Francisco Varela, and the Dalai Lama, among many other topics, though we’ve chosen to focus on the discussion of Francisco Varela for this excerpt.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Waking, Dreaming, Being!

WRR: Your book, ultimately, is a meditation on consciousness. Is consciousness wholly dependent on the brain or does it transcend the brain

Thompson: That’s the fundamental question of the book. I felt compelled to write about it because it kept coming up for me in different ways, some of which were personal and some intellectual. On a personal level I thought about the question a lot when I was working intensely with my friend and mentor, Chilean neuroscientist, Francisco Varela, just before he died. He was terminally ill and we knew that at some point soon he was going to die.

I write about the last real conversation I had with him, how it centered on consciousness and the question of its transcendence. It was fall of 2000 and Cisco and I were in my dad’s apartment in New York on the Upper West Side, writing a scientific article about consciousness and the brain. We weren’t raising that question at all in the article but we were talking about it a lot when we weren’t working. Cisco was a Buddhist, and knew that he was going to die soon, so transcendence was something he was contemplating. From a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, consciousness is the most fundamental luminous nature of awareness, underlying more ordinary cognitive forms of the mind, and it’s not considered to be brain dependent. Cisco took this perspective very seriously, but he was a neuroscientist, so he was also skeptical and doubtful.

The experience of talking to Cisco about this and watching him die and feel the loss intensified the question for me. It was a question that I had always thought about, having studied Asian and Western philosophy, but also having grown up in the New Age and yoga world where it was just taken for granted that people had multiple lives and that consciousness carried on after physical death. (more…)

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

Waking, Dreaming, Being

Waking, Dreaming, Being

This week our featured book is Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, by Evan Thompson, with a foreword by Stephen Batchelor. Dreaming is one of the key parts of the human experience that Thompson examines in his book (it’s right there in the title, after all), and in today’s post, crossposted from the Huffington Post Blog, Thompson discusses the importance of dreaming to his work as a scholar, and to understanding what the concept of a “self” actually means.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Waking, Dreaming, Being!

Waking, Dreaming, Being
Evan Thompson

Dreaming and waking up have puzzled and fascinated humanity since prehistoric times. Paleolithic cave paintings, according to some art historians, depict mental images from dreams and the borderland between sleep and wakefulness. The ancient Indian texts called the Upanishads describe three states of the self — waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep. The early Chinese Daoist philosopher, Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu, 369-298 B.C.E.), wrote that only after one is “greatly awakened” does one realize that it was all a “great dream,” while the fool thinks that he is awake. The word “Buddha” means “Awakened One.”

Lucid dreaming — being aware of dreaming while you’re dreaming — is a vivid way to experience waking up and dreaming at the same time. You wake up within the dream without waking up from the dream. In the 1980s scientists showed that lucid dreaming is a real and unique state of consciousness in sleep. In the past four years, brain-imaging experiments have been done with lucid dreamers. Instead of cave art depicting the dream world, we now have images of the dreaming brain. (more…)

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

Evan Thompson talks to Tricycle Magazine

Waking, Dreaming, Being

This week our featured book is Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, by Evan Thompson, with a foreword by Stephen Batchelor. Recently, Thompson spoke to Tricycle Magazine about his book, his view of the mind, and mindfulness as an object of scientific scrutiny. We’ve excerpted parts of this interview below.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Waking, Dreaming, Being!

Almost two and a half decades ago, in The Embodied Mind, you critiqued a notion of mind that was already prevalent then and that continues to frame much of the current neuroscience research on meditation. What is that view, and what is wrong with it?
We criticized the view that the mind is made up of representations inside the head. The cognitive science version says that the mind is a computer—the representations are the software, and the brain is the hardware. Although cognitive scientists today don’t think the brain works the way a digital computer does, many of them, especially if they’re neuroscientists, still think the mind is something in the head or the brain. And this idea shows up in the neuroscience of meditation. But this idea is confused. It’s like saying that flight is inside the wings of a bird. The mind is relational. It’s a way of being in relation to the world. You need a brain, just as the bird needs wings, but the mind exists at a different level—the level of embodied being in the world.

What’s your alternative view of the mind?
The alternative view we put forward is that cognition is a form of embodied action. “Embodied” means that the rest of the body, not just the brain, is crucial; “action” means that agency—the capacity to act in the world—is central. Cognition is an expression of our bodily agency. We inhabit a meaningful world because we bring forth or enact meaning. We called this view “enaction” or the “enactive approach.”

In the enactive approach, being human is a matter of inhabiting the human world of culture and shared bodily practices. Of course we need our brain to do this, but we also need that world to be in place in order for the human brain to develop properly. The brain is what philosophers call a necessary “enabling condition” for mind and meaning, while enculturation is a necessary enabling condition for the brain. What’s important is not just what is inside the brain but what the brain is inside of—the larger space of the body and culture. That is where we find mind and meaning. (more…)

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

The Dalai Lama’s Conjecture

Waking, Dreaming, Being

This week our featured book is Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, by Evan Thompson, with a foreword by Stephen Batchelor. Thompson’s prologue was recently excerpted at the Mind & Life institute, and we are happy to present the final section of that excerpt here.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Waking, Dreaming, Being!

Staying with the Open Question
Evan Thompson

Shortly before his death, Francisco Varela talked about the Tibetan Buddhist notion of “subtle consciousness” in an interview with Swiss filmmaker Franz Reichle (see Reichle’s film, Montegrande: What Is Life?, and also the Mind & Life Institute). Subtle consciousness isn’t an individual consciousness; it’s not an ordinary “me” or “I” consciousness. It’s sheer luminous and knowing awareness beyond any sensory or mental content. It’s rarely seen by the ordinary mind, except occasionally in special dreams, intense meditation, and at the very moment of death, when one’s ordinary “I” or “me” consciousness falls apart. It’s the foundation for every other type of consciousness, and it’s believed to be independent of the brain. Neuroscience can’t conceive of this possibility, while for Tibetan Buddhists it’s unthinkable to dismiss their accumulated experience testifying to the reality of this primary consciousness.

Varela’s position is to suspend judgment. Don’t neglect the Buddhist observations and don’t dismiss what we know from science. Instead of trying to seek a resolution or an answer, contemplate the question and let it sit there. Have the patience and forbearance to stay with the open question. (more…)

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

Stephen Batchelor’s Foreword to Waking, Dreaming, Being

Waking, Dreaming, Being

This week our featured book is Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, by Evan Thompson, with a foreword by Stephen Batchelor that we are proud to present below as the first post of the feature.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Waking, Dreaming, Being!

Monday, November 10th, 2014

Book Giveaway! Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, by Evan Thompson

Waking, Dreaming, Being

This week our featured book is Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, by Evan Thompson, with a foreword by Stephen Batchelor. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Waking, Dreaming, Being. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, November 14th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Friday, October 31st, 2014

Preface to Losing Tim: How Our Health and Education Systems Failed My Son with Schizophrenia

Losing Tim, Paul Gionfriddo

“But I think [Tim] under­stood that if his story could help change the way we think and move us to action, it was worth telling. Plus, he loves me, and I love him.”—Paul Gionfriddo

We conclude our week-long feature on Losing Tim: How Our Health and Education Systems Failed My Son with Schizophrenia, with an excerpt from the book’s preface in which Paul Gionfriddo discusses why he decided to write about his son. For more of the book you can also read the book’s first chapter, Tim Brings a Gun to School.

When my son Tim was a very young boy, he knew that I was an elected official, and he understood that elected officials made many of the “rules” by which people live. “My dad is important,” he used to volunteer to people when we were introduced to them. The prob­lem was that he pronounced the word as “impotent,” which typically elicited a giggle that puzzled Tim. Giggles aside, he had no idea how apt a description that would become when it came to my helping to make his own life more tolerable.

This book is in part a reflection on public policy and the way public policy decisions I made in good faith affected Tim’s life….

As i imagine is the case for most parents of children with serious chronic illnesses, in the course of over two decades I amassed hundreds of hard-copy and electronic documents relating to tim. they traveled with me from Connecticut to Texas and then to Florida. I saved all that I could, although there were plenty of times I wanted to burn the whole pile of paper or smash the computer in frustration. but after twenty years of storing them I decided it was time to make sense of them. So I began to do what I had been wanting to do for a long time— piece them into a narrative. I had no idea what the ending would be. I just wanted to understand better what had happened to Tim and me as we traveled his path of serious mental illness.

This book is the result. At first, it was all about Tim and not at all about me. But then i realized that I needed to describe better how iI felt about what was happening to Tim. When I started to do this, it dawned on me that I also needed to write more about the role I played as a policy maker in determining what happened to him….

Tim did something i found to be very courageous. He graciously gave his permission in writ­ing for his story to be told. when he did so, I don’t think that he ad­mired policy makers as he once had or had much respect for the rules they’ve created that affected him most directly. But I think he under­stood that if his story could help change the way we think and move us to action, it was worth telling. Plus, he loves me, and I love him.

(more…)

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

Paul Gionfriddo — “The Dangers of Stage 4 Thinking about Serious Mental Illnesses”

Losing Tim

“Until we take a different approach and move upstream in the disease process, we’re going to continue to put our resources in all the wrong places, and we’re going to continue to fight about all the wrong things. And people will still cycle between homelessness and hospitalization, outpatient treatment and incarceration, and crisis and stability.”—Paul Gionfriddo

The following is a post by Paul Gionfriddo, President/CEO of Mental Health America and the author of Losing Tim: How Our Health and Education Systems Failed My Son with Schizophrenia, originally published on Mental Health America. In the post, Gionfriddo argues for the importance of early detection and treatment of mental illness:

During my first hundred days at Mental Health America, I have frequently made the case that mental health policymakers and practitioners are too often mired in “Stage 4” thinking when they think about serious mental illnesses.

Here’s what I mean—they use an “imminent danger to self or others” as a standard for determining who gets care. That near-death time typically only comes during the latest stages of a chronic disease process, or Stage 4.

There are several dangers in using such a standard. The first is that it furthers the myth that mental illness causes violence. The second is that it leads to the over-incarceration of people with mental illnesses. The third – and perhaps most dangerous – is that it deflects our attention away from intervening early in the disease process, when we can do the most good and get the best results.

We don’t treat any other chronic diseases this way. Imagine the outcry if we waited until Stage 4 to treat cancers, cardiovascular diseases, or diabetes!

I haven’t come across anyone who thinks there’s a clinical basis for using the “imminent danger to self or others standard” to determine eligibility for care. But this hasn’t stopped us from using it for decades.

Until we take a different approach and move upstream in the disease process, we’re going to continue to put our resources in all the wrong places, and we’re going to continue to fight about all the wrong things. And people will still cycle between homelessness and hospitalization, outpatient treatment and incarceration, and crisis and stability.

At Mental Health America, we believe that it is past time for investing heavily in early identification and intervention. That’s one of the reasons we launched a new mental health screening program this year, with screening tools available on our website or at www.mhascreening.org.

And we’re pretty sure that people agree with us. After all, in just four months, the first 100,000 screens will have been taken, typically by people who are experiencing early symptoms of what may become over time severe depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.

They’re concerned about their mental health now, and so are we.

And they don’t want to wait ten years or more, and be forced to progress to Stage 4, for everyone else to take notice.

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

Losing Tim, Losing Time — Paul Gionfriddo

Losing Tim, Paul Gionfriddo

“We created a system that neglected our children when we could have made a difference and inevitably led them to homelessness, hospitalization, and incarceration.”—Paul Gionfriddo

The following post is by Paul Gionfriddo, author of Losing Tim: How Our Health and Education Systems Failed My Son with Schizophrenia. For more on the book, you can also read an interview with Paul Gionfriddo.

I’d like to travel back in time. Just twenty-five years would do. Because if I knew then what I know now, I don’t think I would ever have to have written Losing Tim.

Because public policy matters in the lives of people like Tim.

I’m sure this won’t come as a shock to anyone, but policymaking isn’t a perfect science. As I write in Losing Tim, a very wise Connecticut legislator—a college professor by trade—once remarked that when she arrived in the state legislature, she assumed that the best proposals coupled with the best-reasoned arguments would lead to good public policy. Then the legislative session began, and she learned that gut feelings and emotion often carried the day, and the policy that resulted was as much a reflection of these as it was of logic and reason.

Imagine what this did in the area of mental health. We were faced with a huge challenge in the 1980s. We were closing the doors of expensive and ineffective institutions, and were returning thousands of people to their families and communities.

But their families and communities weren’t ready to receive them. This was in part because they were afraid of the way they looked and acted, and in part because they didn’t really know what to do for them. Still, I write, we believed that anything that happened to people in the community would be preferable to what had happened to them behind the locked doors of those large psychiatric facilities.

Except that it wasn’t, because we just moved folks from behind one set of locked doors—state psychiatric hospitals—to another—county jails and state and federal prisons.

This was not our intention, but we didn’t know any better.

(more…)

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

An Interview with Paul Gionfriddo, author of “Losing Tim”

Losing Tim, Paul GionfriddoThe following is an interview with Paul Gionfriddo, author of Losing Tim: How Our Health and Education Systems Failed My Son with Schizophrenia:

Question: Losing Tim is a policy memoir, a reflection on your life as much as Tim’s. Can you talk about that?

Paul Gionfriddo: I was a state legislator in the 1980s, and helped build the failed community-based mental health system that we have today. Then I adopted an infant son who developed a serious mental illness when he was very young and had to live within the system I helped to build. And so over more than two decades, I experienced the effect of our policy decisions from the other side. And through writing the book, I’ve had the opportunity to make some sense of what we went through, and to say how we could do things differently to fix the problems we policymakers unintentionally created—and perhaps save some lives.

Q: But aren’t our options pretty limited when it comes to treating people with serious mental illnesses?

PG: Some people think so, but that’s usually because they only see serious mental illnesses in their later stages and think they are synonymous with violent tendencies. This is a myth that has led us to making jails our 21st century mental health institutions. The truth is that ten years typically pass from the time there are early symptoms of mental illnesses to the time we begin to treat them effectively. Those are ten years of lost opportunities to intervene early with the right diagnosis, the right drugs, the right therapies, and the right individual, family, and social supports—all of which can lead to recovery.

(more…)

Monday, October 27th, 2014

Book Giveaway: Losing Tim: How Our Health and Education Systems Failed My Son with Schizophrenia

This week our featured book is Losing Tim: How Our Health and Education Systems Failed My Son with Schizophrenia by Paul Gionfriddo.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Losing Tim to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, October 31 at 1:00 pm.

Paul Gionfriddo’s son Tim is one of the “6 percent”—an American with serious mental illness. He is also one of the half million homeless people with serious mental illnesses in desperate need of help yet underserved or ignored by our health and social-service systems.

In this moving, detailed, clear-eyed exposé, Gionfriddo describes how Tim and others like him come to live on the street. Gionfriddo takes stock of the numerous injustices that kept his son from realizing his potential from the time Tim first began to show symptoms of schizophrenia to the inadequate educational supports he received growing up, his isolation from family and friends, and his frequent encounters with the juvenile justice system and, later, the adult criminal-justice system and its substandard mental health care.

You can also read the chapter “Tim Brings a Gun to School”:

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

A Conversation With Leslie Pratch, Author of LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER?

Leslie Pratch

“Effective leaders are likely to act with consistently high integrity and to demonstrate sound, timely judgement when they occupy positions of power…. But every executive is unique … the most striking differences … are in their underlying motivations and their coping tendencies.”–Leslie Pratch

The following is an interview with Leslie Pratch, author of Looks Good on Paper: Using In-Depth Personality Assessment to Predict Leadership Performance

Q: How did you first become involved in the role you play for companies now—evaluating candidates for leadership positions?

A: I have been evaluating candidates for leadership positions for more than 15 years. But I didn’t get to this spot by accident; creating the tools and building the capability to do this was something I pursued for many years across multiple universities and graduate degrees.

First, I was a graduate student in psychology. As a graduate student, I had the chance to help set up a talent program for high potential professionals at Arthur Andersen. For my Ph.D. dissertation, I researched if it were possible to predict the emergence of leaders in a high performing group, using a psychological approach I was developing. It turned out that it was possible. After graduate school, I worked with State Farm on the development of a competency framework for their whole organization. That led me to the development of my own competency framework, which I use in my work today with my clients. I also got an MBA, after I had begun evaluating executives, to give me better tools to understand the issues my clients and their candidates face.

Q: How does holding an MBA help you in your work?

A: Having a strong understanding of business allows me to understand at a sophisticated level what my clients are trying to do with their companies and investments. I can understand and think critically about the investment thesis, understand the strategy of the firm, and see the implications of all of that for the job that will be ahead for the candidates I’m evaluating. Having a strong understanding of business lets me be a business discussion partner as well as a skilled psychologist.

Q: Why do you continue to track candidates for months and years after they have secured the position they were being considered for?

A: These are long-term jobs. The usual investment horizon for my clients is three-to-five years, and most public company boards give top managers some time before deciding whether a new CEO is a success (with rare, glaring exceptions when someone is clearly failing). Since I am not predicting how a candidate will perform on a specific task, but rather how the candidate will handle the complex job of leading an organization over time, we have to let time pass to see what happens. (more…)

Friday, January 31st, 2014

Happiness and Its Discontents, Part III

The Call of Character

This week our featured book is The Call of Character: Living a Life Worth Living by Mari Ruti. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page. Today, we have the third part of an excerpt from Mari Ruti’s recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Happiness and Its Discontents.”

Enter our book giveaway to win a free copy of The Call of Character!

Happiness and Its Discontents
Mari Ruti

I recently attended a presentation given by the daughter of a prominent man who, during his life, wrote several books that have had a tremendous impact on how we understand human psychology. During her talk, the daughter faulted her father for not having been a stable “family man,” for having let his passion for his work overshadow the rest of his life, and for having never been completely at ease with everyday social interactions. She made it sound as if her father had been a failure as a person because he had not been able to appreciate the rewards of a well-adjusted life.

As I listened to her, I kept thinking that she was judging her father by a very conventional standard. As far as I’m concerned, there are situations in which the ability to show up at the dinner table is less important than the capacity to produce works of great genius that enrich the rest of society.
(more…)

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

Happiness and Its Discontents, Part II

The Call of Character

This week our featured book is The Call of Character: Living a Life Worth Living by Mari Ruti. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page. Today, we have the second part of an excerpt from Mari Ruti’s recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Happiness and Its Discontents.”

Enter our book giveaway to win a free copy of The Call of Character!

Happiness and Its Discontents
Mari Ruti

Needless to say, our fixation on the ideal of happiness diverts our attention from collective social ills, such as socioeconomic disparities. As Barbara Ehrenreich has shown, when we believe that our happiness is a matter of thinking the right kinds of (positive) thoughts, we become blind to the ways in which some of our unhappiness might be generated by collective forces, such as racism or sexism. Worst of all, we become callous to the lot of others, assuming that if they aren’t doing well, if they aren’t perfectly happy, it’s not because they’re poor, oppressed, or unemployed but because they’re not trying hard enough.

If all of that isn’t enough to make you suspicious of the cultural injunction to be happy, consider this basic psychoanalytic insight: Human beings may not be designed for happy, balanced lives. The irony of happiness is that it’s precisely when we manage to feel happy that we are also most keenly aware that the feeling might not last. Insofar as each passing moment of happiness brings us closer to its imminent collapse, happiness is merely a way of anticipating unhappiness; it’s a deviously roundabout means of producing anxiety.

Take the notion that happiness entails a healthy lifestyle. Our society is hugely enthusiastic about the idea that we can keep illness at bay through a meticulous management of our bodies. The avoidance of risk factors such as smoking, drinking, and sexual promiscuity, along with a balanced diet and regular exercise, is supposed to guarantee our longevity. To a degree, that is obviously true. But the insistence on healthy habits is also a way to moralize illness, to cast judgment on those who fail to adhere to the right regimen. Ultimately, as the queer theorist Tim Dean has illustrated, we are dealing with a regulation of pleasure—a process of medicalization that tells us which kinds of pleasures are acceptable and which are not.
(more…)

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Happiness and Its Discontents, Part I

The Call of Character

This week our featured book is The Call of Character: Living a Life Worth Living by Mari Ruti. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page. Today, we have the first part of an excerpt from Mari Ruti’s recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Happiness and Its Discontents.”

Enter our book giveaway to win a free copy of The Call of Character!

Happiness and Its Discontents
Mari Ruti

As a critical theorist working at the intersection of Continental philosophy, psychoanalysis, and feminist and queer theory, I make observations about human life that are speculative rather than empirical. That may explain why my definition of character pertains to what is least tangible, least intelligible about our being, including the inchoate frequencies of desire that sometimes cause us to behave in ways that work against our rational understanding of how our lives are supposed to turn out.

If identity captures something about the relatively polished social persona we present to the world, then character—in my view—captures something about the wholly idiosyncratic and potentially rebellious energies that, every so often, break the facade of that persona. From this perspective, our character leaps forth whenever we do something “crazy,” such as suddenly dissolving a committed relationship or leaving a promising career path. At such moments, what is fierce and unapologetic about us undermines our attempts to lead a “reasonable” life, causing us to follow an inner directive that may be as enigmatic as it is compelling. We may not know why we feel called to a new destiny, but we sense that not heeding that call will stifle what is most alive within us.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture that finds such insurrections threatening, not least because they make us less predictable and therefore harder to control. This is one reason we’re constantly reminded of the importance of leading a happy, balanced life—the kind of life that “makes sense” from the viewpoint of the dominant social order. Many of us have, in fact, internalized the ideal of a happy, balanced life to such an extent that we find it hard to imagine alternatives. As Freud has already claimed, there is little doubt about what most people want out of life: “They want to become happy and to remain so.”

A quick survey of our culture—particularly our self-help culture—confirms Freud’s observation. One could even say that, in our era, the idea that we should lead happy, balanced lives carries the force of an obligation: We are supposed to push aside our anxieties in order to enjoy our lives, attain peace of mind, and maximize our productivity. The cult of “positive thinking” even assures us that we can bring good things into our lives just by thinking about them.
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Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Read the first chapter of The Call of Character, by Mari Ruti!

The Call of Character

This week our featured book is The Call of Character: Living a Life Worth Living by Mari Ruti. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Enter our book giveaway to win a free copy of The Call of Character!

Monday, January 27th, 2014

Book Giveaway! The Call of Character: Living a Life Worth Living, by Mari Ruti

The Call of Character

This week our featured book is The Call of Character: Living a Life Worth Living by Mari Ruti. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Call of Character. To enter our Book Giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select one winner on Friday, January 31th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Friday, September 20th, 2013

Rossano: Fear of Death, Joy of Life and the Origins of God

Mortal Rituals

This week our featured book is Mortal Rituals: What the Story of the Andes Survivors Tells Us About Human Evolution, by Matt J. Rossano. (And don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a FREE copy of the book!)

In a November 2010 Huffington Post blog, Rossano writes on the interesting themes of death, life and God with the ideas of fear and happiness intersecting into those themes.

He begins by describing two images. “Two juxtaposed images of religion: A priest in ancient Egypt moaning out an elaborately ritualized incantation over the mummified body of a dead pharaoh, and Tevye and his friends from Fiddler on the Roof drunkenly dancing and shouting l’chaim(“to life”).” Rossano states that these images demonstrate that human mortality and the fear of death serve as sound origins for religious figures and holy texts to appease our expectation of life after death.

Rossano then proceeds to discuss the paradox that while religion may appease the fear of death, it also heightens it. “For example, Ah Puch, the Mayan god of the dead, was a gruesome character whose putrid, decomposing, skeletal form offered little in the way consolation to new arrivals. The ancient Greeks had a similarly disheartening view of the afterlife. In book XI of The Odyssey, the dead Achilles laments to Odysseus: Say not a word in death’s favor; I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house … than king of kings among the dead.”

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