What I’m Reading Online: 31 May: We All Need — or Don’t Need — to Improve!

>> at Zen Habits, 12 Practical Steps for Learning to Go With the Flow. A simple list. I like the quotes, especially this one: ‘Flow with whatever is happening and let your mind be free. Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate.’ – Chuang Tzu. I wonder whether the idea of accepting whatever I’m doing is consistent with Christianity, with prayers of confession, etc.

>>  from Life 2.0, Follow Your Bliss. The central idea, similar to the quote above, is ‘no need for self improvement.’

“The central premise behind all the self improvement stuff (although often unseen as it can be oh so subtle) is that there is something wrong with us, something flawed that needs to be improved, something we need to do in order to be happy, healthy, successful and fulfilled.  It is this unexamined assumption, that we can be improved and therefore must be less than perfect, that keeps us in chains … that reinforces this illusion of brokenness, powerlessness and being a victim-of-circumstances-beyond-our-control, which we see reflected back to us in the world we perceive around us.”

Instead, this weblog counsels “an alternative to self-improvement, a spiritual path or another kind of seeking…. Vow to do what makes you happy right now and see where that takes you.” Ah, but “anything we think we want, we have been conditioned to want,” so it’s not as easy as it might seem to do what makes us happy.

What I can’t help thinking is that this plan to “be happy” is self-improvement by another name, with its implication that we’re not happy enough already, and that we need to do something about this lack.

>> “Jesus Made Me Puke” by Matt Tabbi in Rolling Stone, about a 3-day “Encounter Weekend” retreat with John Hagee’s Cornerstone Church:

“The program revolved around a theory that [pastor Philip] Fortenberry quickly introduced us to called ‘the wound.’ The wound theory was a piece of schlock biblical Freudianism in which everyone had one traumatic event from their childhood that had left a wound. The wound necessarily had been inflicted by another person, and bitterness toward that person had corrupted our spirits and alienated us from God. Here at the retreat we would identify this wound and learn to confront and forgive our transgressors, a process that would leave us cleansed of bitterness and hatred and free to receive the full benefits of Christ.

“In the context of the wound theory, Fortenberry’s tale suddenly made more sense. Being taken on that eighteen-hole golf trip with the barmaid, and watching his family ditched by Dad, had been his wound. It was a wound, Fortenberry explained, because his father’s abandonment had crushed his ‘normal.’

“‘And I was wounded,’ he whispered dramatically. ‘My dad had ruined my normal!’

“The crowd murmured affirmatively, apparently knowing what it was to have a crushed normal.”

>> at Marginal Revolution, How To Choose An Apartment. How much does the actual living space matter, and how much does the location matter? Do we under- or over-invest in one or the other? Interesting anaylsis via comments.  I now live in a house I don’t really like, in a location I love. Before this, I lived in a house (including extensive grounds) that I loved in a location I didn’t like. I still don’t know which is better.

>> provacateur PJ O’Rourke’s “Fairness, Idealism and Other Atrocities,” commencement advice. His advice: make money, don’t be an idealist (they’re bullies), get politically uninvolved (politics is anathema to truth), forget about fairness, be a religious extremist (that is, realise that “using politics to create fairness is a sin”).

About fairness:

“Well, I am here to advocate for unfairness. I’ve got a 10-year-old at home. She’s always saying, ‘That’s not fair.’ When she says this, I say, ‘Honey, you’re cute. That’s not fair. Your family is pretty well off. That’s not fair. You were born in America. That’s not fair. Darling, you had better pray to God that things don’t start getting fair for you.'”

>> 25 Things All Women Should Learn to Do Already by the women at Jezebel. Ranges from manual and practical skills like rapid vegetable chopping, masturbation, financial investing, and assembling furniture, to the more abstract realm of truth-telling, and social skills like withholding information, getting angry without being passive-aggressive, and not taking things personally. And of course, there are comments.

>>  “Total Recall … Or At Least the Gist” at Miller-McCune, on the differences between gist and verbatim memory. What interests me here is the hypothesis called ‘fuzzy trace theory,’  which “explains how we can ‘remember’ things that never really happened:”

“When an event occurs, verbatim memory records an accurate representation. But even as it is doing so, gist memory begins processing the information and determining how it fits into our existing storehouse of knowledge. Verbatim memories generally die away within a day or two, leaving only the gist memory, which records the event as we interpreted it.  Under certain circumstances, this can produce a phenomenon Reyna and her colleagues refer to as ‘phantom recollection.’ She calls this ‘a powerful form of false alarm’ in which gist memory — designed to look for patterns and fill in perceived gaps — creates a vivid but illusory image in our mind.”  …

“Gist memory allows us to make snap decisions. But life does not always follow familiar patterns, and harm can result when we discard evidence that doesn’t fit our assumptions.”

They note that this ‘misremembering’ is a very common, ordinary occurence.

>> “The Candidate, the Preacher and the Unconscious Mind” by Shankar Vedantam in the WaPo. Central idea: We are biased against people who are in proximity to people we are already biased against. Second idea: We believe that people “from other ethnic, cultural and political groups are quite similar to one another, whereas they know that people from [our] own groups are quite varied.”

The study he cites is fascinating:

Volunteers in a research experiment see an applicant sitting in a waiting room next to an overweight person, while others see the applicant sitting next to someone of average weight. … “A variety of experiments have shown that overweight people suffer from discrimination; what [researcher Michelle] Hebl wanted to find out was whether strangers in the vicinity of overweight people would share in such approbation.

“Remarkably, Hebl found that volunteers rated job applicants more negatively when they had been seen seated next to an overweight person than when they were seen seated next to an average weight person. The volunteers had no idea that they were showing not only a prejudice against fat people but also a bias against people who were merely in proximity to overweight people.

“The experiment tells us something about the Obama-Wright controversy. The presidential candidate may have made it clear that the minister does not speak for him, but every time Wright’s words are replayed on talk radio and cable TV, they automatically retrieve mental associations in many voters’ minds with Obama. Hebl similarly found her volunteers unconsciously made associations even after being explicitly told there was no connection between the job applicants in the waiting room.”

Similarly, “men and women seen in the company of beautiful partners are perceived as being more attractive than when they are seen in plainer company.” But — “there is some evidence our minds are especially attuned to negative associations.”

>> “The Gospel of Consumption And the better future we left behind” by Jeffrey Kaplan in Orion. The article, with a focused accounting of Kellogg company work-hour policy over the years, is primarily a vision of Americans working and spending less while living comfortably.

“Machines can save labor, but only if they go idle when we possess enough of what they can produce. In other words, the machinery offers us an opportunity to work less, an opportunity that as a society we have chosen not to take. Instead, we have allowed the owners of those machines to define their purpose: not reduction of labor, but ‘higher productivity’ — and with it the imperative to consume virtually everything that the machinery can possibly produce. …

“By 1991 the amount of goods and services produced for each hour of labor was double what it had been in 1948. By 2006 that figure had risen another 30 percent. In other words, if as a society we made a collective decision to get by on the amount we produ€ced and consumed seventeen years ago, we could cut back from the standard forty-hour week to 5.3 hours per day — or 2.7 hours if we were willing to return to the 1948 level.

“But we cannot do it as individuals.” The marketplace doesn’t offer “a choice to work less and consume less. The reason is simple: that choice is at odds with the foundations of the marketplace itself — at least as it is currently constructed. The men and women who masterminded the creation of the consumerist society understood that theirs was a political undertaking, and it will take a powerful political movement to change course today.”

In a sort of rebuttal to PJ O’Rourke’s suggestion (above) that democracy might mean having our clothing choices, e.g., determined by the majority (of shoppers, i.e., teen girls), Kaplan notes that Edward Bernays, “one of the founders of the field of public relations and a principal architect of the American Way,” decreed that “the choices available in the polling booth are akin to those at the department store; both should consist of a limited set of offerings that are carefully determined by what Bernays called an ‘invisible government’ of public-relations experts and advertisers working on behalf of business leaders. Bernays claimed that in a ‘democratic society’ we are and should be ‘governed, our minds …  molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.'”

>>  “Engines of Emotional Pollution” (continues here) by Steven Stosny, Ph.D., in Psychology Today, posits four mechanisms that “govern most human interactions:” contagion, attunement, negative bias, and reactivity.

Contagion for Stosny is “what makes you feel what the rest of the group feels.”

Attunement is a type of contagion, or a response to it; it’s when we match “the intensity and tone of [our] emotions with those of someone else.” It’s honouring the boundaries of social convention. Interestingly, “[a]lthough our unconscious sensitivity to others is almost always active when we’re not alone, it is not always accurate, i.e., we sometimes misconstrue what other people are feeling. However, we are far more accurate in sensing what others feel than in knowing what they think. This disproportionate accuracy between sensing another’s feelings and judging their thinking leads to most of our misunderstandings of one another.” We’re pretty accurate in knowing another person’s feelings but in trying to account for what’s behind them, we make wrong assumptions.

Negative bias is related to attunement: Our ‘negative’ emotions influence us more than our positive ones, and we ‘tune in’ to negative emotions more than we do to positive ones: “So if you come home from work in a fairly good mood and find that your spouse is brooding or upset, attunement will bring him or her up a little and you down a lot. To keep from being ‘brought down’ by the other’s negative mood, many couples attempt to dull their sensitivity to the other’s emotional world.”

Reactivity: is “learned resistance to the unconscious pull of contagion and attunement.” It can be obvious — ‘I’m not putting up with your attitude!’ or passive, ignoring another’s bad mood.

From a Girardian perspective, I found this paragraph, which speaks of interdividualism (as opposed to individualism) without naming it, enlightening:

“The aspect of reactivity that makes it difficult to see, let alone change, is its illusion of free will and ego independence, even ‘authenticity.’ You think that you are acting of your own volition and in your best interest, when you are merely reacting to someone else. We’ve all uttered (or at least thought) the most ironic of all statements, ‘You’re not going to bring me down!’ As long as you’re in this reactive mode, you are down — reacting to negativity with negativity.”

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