Newsletter 28/1/2011

It’s been a week full of Happiness TM. On Oprah, Goldie Hawn has been telling America the secrets of happiness, from her new Oprah-funded documentary about Positive Psychology. The Guardian has been keeping us happy, particularly with some Headspace meditation podcasts. And on the BBC News, every morning this week, Action for Happiness, the UK movement set up by Lord Layard, Anthony Seldon and Geoff Mulgan, has been giving viewers advice on how to maximize their happiness. Generally useful techniques from Positive Psychology – keep a gratitude journal, do kind acts, meditate…

…although Lord Layard does tend to demand we all sign up to his utilitarian vision, in which Bentham replaces Jesus. It’s worth remembering that Martin Seligman, the inventor of Positive Psychology, rejects utilitarianism in favour of a more Aristotelian vision of happiness (just like John Stuart Mill did). Seligman told me in an interview: ‘There’s too much emphasis on happiness, I think. I’m interested in the meaningful or virtuous life, what the Greeks called eudaimonia.”

But whose eudaimonia do you want – Aristotle’s or the Stoics’? Here’s a piece I did, looking at the competing ideas of eudaimonia in Aristotle and the Stoics, which suggests the best life might involve a combination of the two.

One of the problems you encounter, when governments back Positive Psychology programmes, is the issue: are liberal governments going beyond pluralism and advocating a form of spirituality? Does that infringe the First Amendment? This is one of the problems that the Martin Seligman-designed Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme is getting into. It tries to teach every US soldier emotional and spiritual fitness. It’s the ‘spiritual’ bit that has got some atheist soldiers worried, as you can read here.

Helping others and serving a higher purpose makes us happier, doesn’t it? Not necessarily. The greater your responsibility over others’ lives, the more your mistakes can cause suffering and lead to guilt and stress. Here’s evidence showing that surgeons suffer from higher than average thoughts of suicide.

But if the meaning of life isn’t ‘feeling good’, what is it? Nietzsche would probably say ‘power! domination! mastery!’ And babies might agree with him. Interesting evidence that babies understand power and social hierarchies after just a few months.

Here’s a startling discovery: 13% of psychologists say a patient has revealed they have murdered someone. Too much information dude!

If only they had learned to practice self-control. A major new study has just been published, called the Dunedin Study, which tracked 1,000 people from birth to the age of 32. It found that self-control was the best predictor of health, income and career success, as well as the stability of marriages. I’ll be writing more on self-control in the coming days.

Finally, as we approach the Oscars, here’s an interesting piece by Jonah Lehrer, who used to suffer from stuttering, on how the King’s Speech mis-characterizes the condition.

Next week I’ll share some highlights from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference in San Antonio, where I am at the moment. Including an interview with the big chief of self-control theory, Roy Baumeister.

Thanks for reading,

Jules

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