This week’s highlights from philosophy, psychology and the politics of well-being

Earlier this week I went to see a talk by Tony Hsieh, CEO of the billion-dollar shoe company Zappos. I’m not particularly interested in shoes, but Zappos is no ordinary shoe-seller. Hsieh has built a unique corporate culture, which puts a big emphasis on shared values such as positivity and creativity. He’s an evangelist for Positive Psychology and the science of happiness, and sees it as his mission not just to sell shoes but rather to ‘deliver happiness’ to the human race. He travels the world giving talks on the Way of Zappos, and his life-story has even been turned into a comic book.

I suggested, in this blog-post, that Tony has pioneered the corporation as spiritual commune – or what I call the dot.commune. He told us how, at his first start-up, he initially only employed his friends, and they all worked together and even slept together at the office as one big happy family. Then the company got bigger, people who weren’t his friends started working there, and Tony started to hate coming to work.

So when he became CEO of Zappos, Tony decided to concentrate on creating the right culture, so that everyone in the company was joined together by the same values, the same emotions – sort of like at a rave (Tony used to hold raves in his loft). The corporation as tribal ecstatic experience, basically. This is a pretty weird idea, but it’s not unprecedented – it reminds me of Robert Owen’s attempts in the mid-19th century to create ‘happy factories’ where the workers and their families are joined together in work, arts, music and spirituality. It also reminds me somewhat of Quaker corporations like Rowntree’s – the Quakers also tried to create corporations as ‘societies of friends’.

The liberal individualist in me would probably find working at such a company a bit too collectivist and culty. Tony said the key to creating a strong corporate culture is to get rid of the 10% who don’t share its values. But aren’t the awkward 10% the grit in the oyster, as it were, and the sand in the wheels if the company starts going in the wrong direction? The awkward 10% are, hopefully, the ones at Enron who blew the whistle (OK thats enough mixed metaphors).

I’m also not so sure Tony’s model of happiness is as enlightened or unconventional as all that. One of Zappos’ core values is humility, but judging by his comic book, he doesn’t seem that humble a guy: he tells us all his many achievements, setting up his first company at school, getting into Harvard, making $250 million before he’s 30, running a billion-dollar company, having really cool and beautiful friends who organize raves etc. Success has come so easily to him, that he veers into a typical Silicon Vally, TED-utopian, Messiah complex – anything is possible! I can create the universe around my thoughts!

Well, sure, if you’re young, good-looking, come from an affluent and loving family, have been to Harvard, and happen to be a young computer entrepreneur on the West Coast during the 90s dot.com boom, it may seem that the universe is at your beck-and-call. Life isn’t quite so easy for the rest of the world, including for conventional businesses struggling against brash dot.com companies like Zappos, Amazon or Google.

Still, the idea that corporations should care about the well-being of their employees, and provide support, day-care, and learning opportunities, is surely to be welcomed. I just think any values culture – in schools, corporations or elsewhere – needs to build in spaces and opportunities for creative dissent, criticism, and independence. Otherwise they can easily go culty, and go wrong.

Hsieh is a good example, it seems to me, of the TED narrative of superhuman entrepreneurs who can save the world (and make a billion dollars) through their personal creativity, positivity and charisma. It’s the gospel according to Steve Jobs. It’s an ideologically biased narrative – it emphasizes the idea of the individual CEO genius who deserves the mega-profits he or she makes, while ignoring socio-economic and environmental reasons why some people succeed and others fail. In particular, it ignores the fact that highly successful entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or Hsieh tend to go to elite schools and universities like Harvard. It’s interesting, in this respect, that a recent TED talk on inequality was not put onto the TED website, apparently because it was deemed too politically controversial.

This raises a key question in adult education (and TED is very much a form of adult education). Should it promote one particular political or economic ideology? The classic liberal response is: no, it should educate people to think for themselves and make up their own minds rather than drilling them in propaganda. It should be a forum for intelligent conversation and the free exchange of ideas, like an 18th century coffeehouse. But what if some ideas are ruled off-limits right from the get-go? What if some topics are banned in the coffeehouse? As Roger Fieldhouse, the great historian of adult education, writes: “if the discussion is open to the extent only of those ideological stances which are agreed in fundamental assumptions, and therefore conform to the prevailing consensus, the liberal tradition becomes somewhat empty, and merely rhetorical.” Exactly.

On Monday I went to see an interesting new experiment in adult education: The School of Life’s live tour. Six speakers, including Alain de Botton, Roman Krznaric, Philippa Perry and others, gave ten minute talks on everything from How To Stay Sane to How To Think More About Sex. It reminded me of the old Chautauqua movement in the US, where lecturers would tour from town to town, putting up a big tent and educating / entertaining the locals. I gave a talk at the School of Life myself on Tuesday – it was the first workshop / talk I’ve done based on my book, and a good first step in finding a workable format for the teaching of philosophy / CBT (what the hell should I call it…psycho-philosophy? Sounds a bit Patrick Bateman. Experimental ethics? Eudaimonics? That’s what Umair Haque and  Owen Flanagan have called their work)

Talking of community eudaimonics, check out this interesting organisation: The Well-Being Project, which is a Community Interest Company (CIC), that supports community well-being in Merseyside for people experiencing ‘mild to moderate mental distress’. It provides CBT courses and also links people up to other types of self-help and community activities, like reading groups, cookery courses, local sports etc. CICs were launched by New Labour in 2005 as a way for social enterprises to register themselves as philanthropic companies without some of the restrictions and onerous reporting requirements of charities (here’s Will Davies of the Young Foundation writing about them). I think CICs could be a good way of running philosophy / adult education organisations in local communities.The Well-Being Project attracted £150,000 in its first year of working, and seems to be doing well. It’s an interesting example of the sort of independent care provider that the government wants to play a much bigger role in local community healthcare.

The government also wants to start a voucher free market for private providers of parenting classes. All parents would get vouchers from Boots that enable them to choose an independent provider of parenting classes. Sounds interesting – though how does the government  make sure all these private providers are actually teaching good parenting? Who decides what is good?

The first independent survey for the government’s national citizen service scheme came back with positive results, so the government looks set to expand the scheme so that 90,000 young people a year are given a week of outdoor adventuring then two weeks experience of volunteer work. Critics of the scheme say it’s too expensive, costing £1,300 for three weeks, when Germany spends the same amount funding a whole year of volunteering.

Canada launched its first national mental health strategy, and called for £2.4 billion more to be spent on improving the country’s mental health. Here’s a news clip about it. Looks good.

The Big Lottery Fund has given £25 million to a consortia of youth organisations including The Young Foundation and the Dartington Social Research Unit to work to help 8-14-year olds from deprived backgrounds who are at risk of joining gangs and committing crimes. Radio 4′s All In The Mind show, meanwhile, covered a project to provide psychotherapy to young kids in gangs. It’s called Street Therapy, and is run by a young former pupil of Cheltenham Ladies.

The percentage of adults taking adult education classes is at all-time low in the UK, as companies slash training courses and libraries close. Adult education for working class people has been particularly hit.

This blog made me laugh: what the great philosophers would write if they were forced to teach in modern universities and prove their ‘impact’ via endless REF forms.

Bhutan, the first country in the world to start measuring national happiness and to make it a national policy priority, is suffering from the impact of economic over-heating. The government is worried too many people are leaving their villages to go and live in shanty-towns outside the capital, drawn by the prospect of higher salaries. Meanwhile the new affluent keep on buying foreign cars, driving the cost of fuel up. We need to rediscover our traditional sources of happiness, says the prime minister.

Here’s an interesting profile of Daniel Bem, the controversial social psychologist who claims to have evidence for pre-cognition.

A new study in Science magazine suggests PTSD among US troops is about a quarter as prevalent as the Army thought – only around 5% of deployed troops get it, as opposed to the 20% the Army thought. ‘Are we winning the war against PTSD?’ asks the special edition (behind pay-wall alas). Hope so.

I’ve launched an author page on Facebook, which you can like here. If any of you have now finished my book and enjoyed it, do please write a review on Amazon as media reviewers have showed a glorious lack of interest in it.Finally, in tribute to Donna Summer, who sadly died this week, here is the video for her great song, State of Independence, released 30 years ago, written by Vangelis, produced by Quincy Jones, with Michael Jackson, Dionne Warwick, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder and others doing the backing singing. Awesome!

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