PoW: Friday round-up of philosophy, psychology and politics of well-being

I’ve been busy the last couple of weeks, moving house, and working on a new AHRC-funded project, The Philosophy Hub, which will launch in May. It will be a network and map of philosophy groups around the world. I need your help with it: if you come across philosophy groups around the world, get in touch and I’ll add them to the map. This will be the first global survey of the grassroots philosophy movement, so it’s a fun project to be working on, and hopefully will help the movement grow.

Here’s a couple of stories to show how international the politics of well-being is becoming. First, in South Korea, a piece looking at how all the main candidates in the presidential election have pledged to improve the happiness and well-being of the country’s citizens. As the journalist notes, however, 68% of South Koreans said in a recent poll that the main cause of misfortune in the country is…politicians.

Meanwhile, over in the US, Rick Santorum, the back-to-basics Republican candidate, shows how much of the politics of well-being depends on your definition of happiness. In a recent speech, he discussed the Declaration of Independence’s famous phrase about the right to ‘the pursuit of happiness’. He suggests that happiness actually had a different definition “way back at the time of our founders…Go back and look it up. You’ll see one of the principle definitions of happiness is ‘to do the morally right thing.’ God gave us rights to life and to freedom to pursue His will. That’s what the moral foundation of our country is.” Um…wasn’t Thomas Jefferson, the author of that phrase, an Epicurean? Not sure he would have defined happiness as the freedom to do God’s will – although other Founding Fathers may have.

While politicians may make more and more grand speeches about improving our well-being and happiness, the fact is, western governments are broke, and that’s playing out in mental health services.

Here are two stories about that: the first from the US, where a military psychiatry unit is being investigated for allegedly urging Army doctors to think of the cost to the tax-payer before diagnosing soldiers with PTSD. Such a diagnosis apparently means $1.5 million in benefit payments over a soldier’s lifetime. With 20% of soldiers coming back from Afghanistan with PTSD, no wonder the Army is spending big on its preventative resilience-training course.

Secondly, here is a story from the UK, looking at how the British government is protecting funding for its new Cognitive Behavioural Therapy service, while cutting funding for longer-term psychotherapy services. What that means is patients with serious mental health problems are being passed to CBT units who aren’t trained to treat them. I spoke to one cognitive therapist recently who was handed over a patient with manic depression, who then killed herself. It’s not fair on anyone to expect cognitive therapists to shoulder the nation’s entire mental health problems.

Another way governments are trying to improve mental well-being without spending too much, by the by, is using new technology and apps, like this new ‘Buddy app‘ which the NHS is using to connect patients with online therapists.

Jonah Lehrer, the Wired and WSJ columnist, is one of my heroes. He has a book out on creativity in April, which I think is going to be excellent. Here’s a recent New Yorker piece he wrote, based on the book, on why brainstorming often doesn’t work, why the expression ‘there’s no such thing as a bad idea’ is wrong, and why groups whose members criticise each other are more creative.

Two pieces on my blog that have been getting a lot of hits. The first looks at an interview by BBC documentary maker Adam Curtis, another of my heroes, on why he left academia and why cultural trash is important to the history of ideas. The second is something I wrote on self-help, and how it uses techniques from ancient philosophy in the service not of God but of capitalism (financial success, corporate promotion, closing the deal etc), making it something akin to a ‘religion for capitalists‘.

Two good pieces on the history of emotions and behaviour, which show how a historical perspective can add value to discussions on well-being. The first, from the BBC’s website, challenges the idea that we must have eight hours consecutive sleep, by looking at different sleeping patterns through history, when it was accepted to sleep for a bit, wake up and do stuff in the middle of the night, then have another sleep. That’s pretty much how I sleep now. The second article, by a historian from George Mason University, looks at the history of happiness.

Here’s a documentary / interview from 1988 that Ernst Gombrich did with Sir Karl Popper, one of the most important post-war philosophers.

The New Statesman has a new issue packed full of philosophy, including an interview with Charles Taylor, a review of Simon Critchley’s new book on the religion of political ideology, and a piece by Alain de Botton reviewing James Miller’s new book on philosophy outside of academia.

The Economist has a piece on an interesting debate going on now on whether dolphins and whales are ‘persons’, and therefore have rights.

Finally, I’ve been loving the American TV show Friday Night Lights, about a football coach and a high-school football team. Coach Taylor is a great example of the figure of the sports coach as a moral leader or ‘moulder of men’. The show, despite or perhaps because of its old school morality, has proved a hit with liberals, including this lesbian feminist academic, who imagines Coach Taylor as her PhD supervisor. Here’s one of her creations, to celebrate the birthday of feminist philosopher Judith Butler.

See you next week,

Jules

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