Newsletter 5/3/11: Ghosts, guillotines, Charlie Sheen, and other curious phenomena

Ever seen a ghost? A quarter of Brits say they have, up from 7% in the 1950s. Our experience of the spooky is apparently on the rise. Yet modern psychology has typically pushed such experiences to the margins. The profession seems embarrassed, in its eagerness to establish itself as a respectable science, that some of its leading lights – Carl Jung, William James – also believed in wacky things like spirit mediums and synchronicity.
Which is a pity, because paranormal experiences – or experiences interpreted in a paranormal way – are, for better or worse, part of the human experience. And they’re interesting. That’s probably why professor Richard Wiseman, who studies such phenomena, is the most followed psychologist on Twitter. He has a new book out, called Paranormality, which examines whether any paranormal phenomena stand up to scientific scrutiny. Check out his website of freaky ghost photos.

Wiseman’s last book, 59 Seconds, debunked many myths of self-help while sharing useful self-improvement tips for which there was actual evidence. You can see Wiseman talking with Oliver Burkeman, Frank Furedi and Nic Marks of the New Economics Foundation in this clip from the School of Life’s self-help summit.

Nic’s colleague from the New Economics Foundation, Charles Seaford, came and talked to the London Philosophy Club this week (the LPC is just about to pass the 1,000-member mark! Hooray!) Charles told us how the British policy debate over how to define and measure well-being split into two camps: the Benthamites, who define well-being as ‘feeling good’; and the Aristotelians, who define it as eudaimonia, or optimal human functioning.

I have much more sympathy with the Aristotelian approach, but I wrote this piece on why I don’t think eudaimonia can be empirically measured. In brief, eudaimonia involves questions of virtue, the meaning of life, the function of man, and the existence (or non-existence) of God and the after-life. These questions can’t be answered empirically, because they are questions of moral belief, and also of faith. I argue that measuring well-being may be a technocratic solution to a spiritual question.

Lord Layard recently conducted a ‘Sunday Sermon’ on happiness at the School of Life. As I explore in this new report for the Franco-British Council, someone else once performed a ‘secular sermon on happiness’ – the Jacobin revolutionary, Joseph-Marie Lequino, in 1793. He told the people of Rochefort: “All, in a word, big or small, strong or weak, young or old, we all dream of happiness!”

Get happy! Or else, the guillotine. In other happy news, Cambridge University’s Well-Being Institute published interesting results from a 65-year longitudinal study in the Journal of Positive Psychology, which found that happy children were more likely to be happy adults…but also more likely to get divorced. This could be a problem for Lord Layard’s happiness agenda – his Good Childhood report found that children with step-parents or single parents were ’50% more likely to suffer emotional and behavioural problems’. So whose happiness comes first?

Philip Blond’s think-tank, ResPublica, is increasingly looking at well-being issues. This week, they hosted Professor John Helliwell of the University of British Columbia, who talked about the importance of trust to well-being. The more we trust the people around us, the happier we feel. This brushes against the ugly elephant in the well-being chat-room: does multiculturalism make us less trustful, and therefore less happy? Harvard professor Robert Putnam has argued it does. He studied the relationship between trust and diversity for a decade, and concluded the American city with the highest diversity, Los Angeles, also had the lowest levels of trust: “In the presence of [ethnic] diversity, we hunker down. We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us.”

Is that one of the reasons Scandinavian societies are happier (although minorities in Scandinavian countries are particularly unhappy)? How do we get different ethnicities within the same local community talking to each other? How can we talk about pluralism and multiculturalism in such a way as not to offend each other? These issues have been in my head this week – the London Philosophy Club is an example of a very diverse, vibrant group that shares a common love of ideas and debating. Someone posted a discussion thread on our website this week called ‘How do we protect ourselves from Islam?’ Some members complained, I deleted the thread, now other members are complaining about infringing their free speech. Doh…

Finally, we can’t go this week without mentioning the King of Winning, Charlie Sheen. The world has marveled at his series of media interviews this week, and the sheer scale of his Hollywood egomania: ‘tiger blood’, ‘fire-breathing hands’, ‘Adonis DNA’, ‘bitchin’ rock-star from Mars’. Wow. No wonder Scientology is so popular in Hollywood. Here’s a mash-up someone did of Sheen’s quotes with cartoons from the New Yorker.

See you next week,
Jules

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