Quotes of the Week

Steve Kerr on being singled out by the President of the (dis)United States:

“I realize the horse was out of the barn a long time on this. But for me personally, this was my experience with, wow, has the office sunken low. My hope is that we can find a mature unifier from either party to sit in that chair and try to restore some dignity to the Oval Office again, and I think it will happen.”

Randi Mayem Singer on Twitter where she has changed her name to Randi Great and Unmatched Wisdom Singer:

“BREAKING: The president is refusing to be impeached on grounds that if he were impeached, then he would be impeached.”

Ruth Whippman in a New York Times essay, “Enough Leaning In. Let’s Tell Men to Lean Out.”

“So perhaps instead of nagging women to scramble to meet the male standard, we should instead be training men and boys to aspire to women’s cultural norms, and selling those norms to men as both default and desirable. To be more deferential. To reflect and listen and apologize where an apology is due (and if unsure, to err on the side of a superfluous sorry than an absent one). To aim for modesty and humility and cooperation rather than blowhard arrogance.”

The backlash in the comments from Whippman’s male readers speaks volumes about the validity and importance of her insight.

I Was Wrong

No, not about how to properly load the dishwasher, I’m very right about that.

I was wrong about the merits of Positive Psychology, a newish subfield of psychology dedicated to the study of happiness or “subjective well-being”. When I read the literature, I believed it was based upon solid social science. Ruth Whippman taught me otherwise.

As referenced in Michael Schien’s subtly titled Forbes piece, “Positive Psychology is Garbage”, Barbara Ehrenreich does the same in her book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.

Writing in Forbes, Schien explains Seligman’s success, the pseudo-intellectual founder of the movement:

“When describing his concepts, Seligman uses big words about statistics, mathematical equations, and empirical data. For most of us, this serves as the equivalent of a doctor’s white coat—it seems authoritative, so we don’t question it.”

Guilty as charged. Later, he adds:

“It’s a lesson you would do well to follow. When trying to get people to pay you for your ideas, present them in terms that have the whiff of science whenever possible. Equations. Data. Statistical analysis. Remember, it’s not that the science itself actually matters, it’s the appearance of science that counts.”

I’m left believing happiness is partly the result of being born to happy parents. Other things that tip the balance from despair to joy include a good night’s sleep, a few close friends, healthy food, sunshine, art, physical activity, and socially redeeming work.

But without equations, data, and statistical analysis, I don’t expect anyone to pay my list any attention.

My Fav 2017 Books

A longtime reader of the Humble Blog has a brief respite from reading his high schoolers’ French and German exercises. Consequently, he wants some book recommendations. PressingPausers take note, you too can make suggestions and requests of your benevolent dictator.

My fav books of 2017:

1. America the Anxious by Ruth Whippman. Subtitle: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks. An endearing Brit deconstructs the commercial happiness industry. I’m looking forward to teaching it in January.

2. Janesville by Amy Goldstein. Since I’m an economically privileged, tenured university professor, a friend sometimes laments that I’m clueless about the “real world”. He underestimates the power of the pen and the imagination. Goldstein provides readers an intimate look at what it is like to build a middle class life through an assembly line job and then lose it.

3. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann. A group of Indians strike it rich when oil is found on their tiny, hard scrabble corner of Oklahoma. Whites purposely marry into the tribe and the proceed to kill them. So much for American Exceptionalism.

If your name is Alison and you’re allergic to non-fiction, consider fast forwarding to my first book of 2018, The Invisibility Cloak by Ge Fei. A “slim comic novel which follows the travails of a likable loser trying to stay afloat—financially and emotionally—in contemporary Beijing.” My literary sources are raving about it.

Studies Show That Religious People Are Happier Than The Nonreligious

From Ruth Whippman in America the Anxious:

“Almost all the studies show that religious people tend to have a greater number of social ties and stronger and more supportive communities. When the studies control for the increased levels of social connection, the link between religion and happiness almost always disappears.”

This is my fav positive psychology book. The one I’d recommend to someone brand new to the subject. I dig Whippman’s skepticism, insights, journalistic bent, and British wit. Only complaint, she could use some working class friends.

The Great National Happiness Rat Race

Just one of many money phrases, sentences, and paragraphs from a recent NYTimes blog post by Ruth Whippman, a Brit living in California. Whippman beautifully articulates what I’ve long thought. She leads with an Eric Hoffer quote, “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.”

Notable nuggets:

Despite being the richest nation on earth, the United States is, according to the World Health Organization, by a wide margin, also the most anxious, with nearly a third of Americans likely to suffer from an anxiety problem in their lifetime. America’s precocious levels of anxiety are not just happening in spite of the great national happiness rat race, but also perhaps, because of it.

Thomas Jefferson knew what he was doing when he wrote that “pursuit of happiness” line, a perfectly delivered slap in the face to his joy-shunning oppressors across the pond. The British are generally uncomfortable around the subject, and as a rule, don’t subscribe to the happy-ever-after. It’s not that we don’t want to be happy, it just seems somehow embarrassing to discuss it, and demeaning to chase it, like calling someone moments after a first date to ask them if they like you.

Evidence of this distinction is everywhere. Blindfold me and read out the Facebook statuses of my friends, without their names, and I will tell you which are American and which are British. Americans post links to inspirational stories, and parenting blogs packed with life lessons. (British parenting blogs tend to be packed with despair and feces.) My American friends post heartwarming messages of support to one another, and often themselves, while my British cohort’s updates are usually some variation on “This is rubbish.”

Even the recent grand spectacle of the London 2012 Olympic Games told this tale. The opening ceremony, traditionally a sparklefest of perkiness, was, with its suffragist and trade unionists, mainly a celebration of dissent, or put less grandly, complaint. Still, this back door approach to national pride propelled the English into a brief and unprecedented stint of joyous positivity — lasting for the exact duration of the Games. For three weeks I was unable to distinguish my British friends’ Facebook statuses from those of my American ones.

The transformation wasn’t absolute of course. . . . Our queen, despite the repeated presence of a stadium full of her subjects urging in song that she be both happy and glorious, could barely muster a smile, staring grimly through her eyeglasses and clutching her purse on her lap as if she might be mugged.

Cynicism is the British shtick. . . . By contrast, in America, happiness is work. Intense, nail-biting work, slogged out in motivational seminars and therapy sessions, meditation retreats and airport bookstores. For the left there’s yoga, for the right, there’s Jesus. For no one is there respite.

While the British way can be drainingly negative, the American approach to happiness can spur a debilitating anxiety. The initial sense of promise and hope is seductive, but it soon gives way to a nagging slow-burn feeling of inadequacy. Am I happy? Happy enough? As happy as everyone else? Could I be doing more about it? Even basic contentment feels like failure when pitched against capital-H Happiness. The goal is so elusive and hard to define, it’s impossible to pinpoint when it’s even been achieved — a recipe for neurosis.

Happiness should be serendipitous, a by-product of a life well lived, and pursuing it in a vacuum doesn’t really work. This is borne out by a series of slightly depressing statistics. The most likely customer of a self-help book is a person who has bought another self-help book in the last 18 months. . . . Every year, with remarkable consistency, around 33 percent of Americans report that they are “very happy.” It’s a fair chunk, but a figure that remains surprisingly constant, untouched by the uptick in Eastern meditation or evangelical Christianity, by Tony Robbins or Gretchen Rubin or attachment parenting. For all the effort Americans are putting into happiness, they are not getting any happier. It is not surprising, then, that the search itself has become a source of anxiety.

So here’s a bumper sticker: despite the glorious weather and spectacular landscape, the people of California are probably less happy and more anxious than the people of Grimsby. So they may as well stop trying so hard.