Taking the Leap, Chapter 1: “Feeding the Right Wolf”
by Pema Chödrön
As human beings we have the potential to disentangle ourselves from old habits, and the potential to love and care about each other. We have the capacity to wake up and live consciously, but, you may have noticed, we also have a strong inclination to stay asleep. It’s as if we are always at a crossroad, continuously choosing which way to go. Moment by moment we can choose to go toward further clarity and happiness or toward confusion and pain.
In order to make this choice skillfully, many of us turn to spiritual practices of various kinds with the wish that our lives will lighten up and that we’ll find the strength to cope with our difficulties. Yet in these times it seems crucial that we also keep in mind the wider context in which we make choices about how to live: this is the context of our beloved earth and the rather rocky condition it’s in.
For many, spiritual practice represents a way to relax and a way to access peace of mind. We want to feel more calm, more focused; and with our frantic and stressful lives, who can blame us? Nevertheless, we have a responsibility to think bigger than that these days. If spiritual practice is relaxing, if it gives us some peace of mind, that’s great — but is this personal satisfaction helping us to address what’s happening in the world? The main question is, are we living in a way that adds further aggression and self-centeredness to the mix, or are we adding some much-needed sanity?
Many of us feel deeply concerned about the state of the world. I know how sincerely people wish for things to change and for beings everywhere to be free of suffering. But if we’re honest with ourselves, do we have any idea how to put this aspiration into practice when it comes to our own lives? Do we have any clarity about how our own words and actions may be causing suffering? And even if we do recognize that we’re making a mess of things, do we have a clue about how to stop? These have always been important questions, but they are especially so today. This is a time when disentangling ourselves is about more than our personal happiness. Working on ourselves and becoming more conscious about our own minds and emotions may be the only way for us to find solutions that address the welfare of all beings and the survival of the earth itself.
There was a story that was widely circulated a few days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, that illustrates our dilemma. A Native American grandfather was speaking to his grandson about violence and cruelty in the world and how it comes about. He said it was as if two wolves were fighting in his heart. One wolf was vengeful and angry, and the other wolf was understanding and kind. The young man asked his grandfather which wolf would win the fight in his heart. And the grandfather answered, “The one that wins will be the one I choose to feed.”
So this is our challenge, the challenge for our spiritual practice and the challenge for the world-how can we train right now, not later, in feeding the right wolf? How can we call on our innate intelligence to see what helps and what hurts, what escalates aggression and what uncovers our good-heartedness? With the global economy in chaos and the environment of the planet at risk, with war raging and suffering escalating, it is time for each of us in our own lives to take the leap and do whatever we can to help turn things around. Even the slightest gesture toward feeding the right wolf will help. Now more than ever, we are all in this together.
Taking the leap involves making a commitment to ourselves and to the earth itself-making a commitment to let go of old grudges, to not avoid people and situations and emotions that make us feel uneasy, to not cling to our fears, our closedmindedness, our hardheartedness, our hesitation. Now is the time to develop trust in our basic goodness and the basic goodness of our sisters and brothers on this earth; a time to develop confidence in our ability to drop our old ways of staying stuck and to choose wisely. We could do that right here and right now.
In our everyday encounters, we can live in a way that will help us learn to do this. When we talk to someone we don’t like and don’t agree with — maybe a family member or a person at work — we tend to spend a great amount of energy sending anger their way. Yet our resentments and self-centeredness, as familiar as they are, are not our basic nature. We all have the natural ability to interrupt old habits. All of us know how healing it is to be kind, how transformative it is to love, what a relief it is to have old grudges drop away. With just a slight shift in perspective, we can realize that people strike out and say mean things for the same reasons we do. With a sense of humor we can see that our sisters and brothers, our partners, our children, our coworkers are driving us crazy the same way we drive other people crazy.
The first step in this learning process is to be honest with ourselves. Most of us have gotten so good at empowering our negativity and insisting on our rightness that the angry wolf gets shinier and shinier, and the other wolf is just there with its pleading eyes. But we’re not stuck with this way of being. When we’re feeling resentment or any strong emotion, we can recognize that we are getting worked up, and realize that right now we can consciously make the choice to be aggressive or to cool off. It comes down to choosing which wolf we want to feed.
Of course, if we intend to test out this approach, we need some pointers. We need ways to train in this path of choosing wisely. This path entails uncovering three qualities of being human, three basic qualities that have always been with us but perhaps have gotten buried and been almost forgotten. These qualities are natural intelligence, natural warmth, and natural openness. When I say that the potential for goodness exists in all beings, that is acknowledging that everyone, everywhere, all over the globe, has these qualities and can call on them to help themselves and others.
Natural intelligence is always accessible to us. When we’re not caught in the trap of hope and fear, we intuitively know what’s the right thing to do. If we’re not obscuring our intelligence with anger, self-pity, or craving, we know what will help and what will make things worse. Our well-perfected emotional reactions cause us to do and say a lot of crazy things. We desire to be happy and at peace, but when our emotions are aroused, somehow the methods we use to achieve this happiness only make us more miserable. Our wishes and our actions are, all too frequently, not in synch. Nevertheless, we all have access to a fundamental intelligence that can help to solve our problems rather than making them worse.
Natural warmth is our shared capacity to love, to have empathy, to have a sense of humor. It is also our capacity to feel gratitude and appreciation and tenderness. It’s the whole gamut of what often are called the heart qualities, qualities that are a natural part of being human. Natural warmth has the power to heal all relationships-the relationship with ourselves as well as with people, animals, and all that we encounter every day of our lives.
The third quality of basic goodness is natural openness, the spaciousness of our skylike minds. Fundamentally, our minds are expansive, flexible, and curious; they are pre-prejudice, so to speak. This is the condition of mind before we narrow down into a fear-based view where everyone is either an enemy or a friend, a threat or an ally, someone to like, dislike, or ignore. Fundamentally, this mind that we have, that you and I each have, is open.
We can connect with that openness at any time. For instance, right now, for three seconds, just stop reading and pause.
If you were able to stop briefly like that, perhaps you experienced a thought-free moment.
Another way to appreciate natural openness is to think of a time when you were angry, when someone said or did something that you didn’t like, a time when you wanted to get even or you wanted to vent. Now, what if you had been able to stop, breathe deeply, and slow the process down? Right on the spot you could connect with natural openness. You could stop, give space, and empower the wolf of patience and courage instead of the wolf of aggression and violence. In that moment when we pause, our natural intelligence often comes to our rescue. We have time to reflect: why do we want to make that nasty phone call, say that mean word, or for that matter, drink the drink or smoke the substance or whatever it might be?
It’s undeniable that we want to do these things because in that heated state we believe it will bring us some relief. Some kind of satisfaction or resolution or comfort will result: we think we’ll feel better at the end. But what if we paused, and asked ourselves, “Will I feel better when this is over?” Allowing that openness, that space, gives our natural intelligence a chance to tell us what we already know: that we won’t feel better at the end. And how do we know this? Because, believe it or not, this is not the first time we’ve gotten caught in the same impulse, the same automatic-pilot strategy. If we were to do a poll, probably most people would say that in their personal lives aggression breeds aggression. It escalates anger and ill will rather than bringing peace.
If right now our emotional reaction to seeing a certain person or hearing certain news is to fly into a rage or to get despondent or something equally extreme, it’s because we have been cultivating that particular habit for a very long time. But as my teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche used to say, we can approach our lives as an experiment. In the next moment, in the next hour, we could choose to stop, to slow down, to be still for a few seconds. We could experiment with interrupting the usual chain reaction, and not spin off in the usual way. We don’t need to blame someone else, and we don’t need to blame ourselves. When we’re in a tight spot, we can experiment with not strengthening the aggression habit and see what happens.
Pausing is very helpful in this process. It creates a momentary contrast between being completely self-absorbed and being awake and present. You just stop for a few seconds, breathe deeply, and move on. You don’t want to make it into a project. Chögyam Trungpa used to refer to this as the gap. You pause and allow there to be a gap in whatever you’re doing. The Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches this as a mindfulness practice. At his monastery and retreat centers, at intervals someone rings a bell, and at the sound everyone stops briefly to breathe deeply and mindfully. In the middle of just living, which is usually a pretty caught-up experience characterized by a lot of internal discussion with yourself, you just pause.
Throughout the day, you could choose to do this. It may be hard to remember at first, but once you start doing it, pausing becomes something that nurtures you; you begin to prefer it to being all caught up.
People who have found this helpful create ways of interjecting pausing into their busy lives. For instance, they’ll put a sign on their computer. It could be a word, or a face, an image, a symbol — anything that reminds them. Or they’ll decide, “Every time the phone rings, I’m going to pause.” Or “When I go to open my computer, I’m going to pause.” Or “When I open the refrigerator, or wait in line, or brush my teeth . . . .” You can come up with anything that happens often during your day. You’ll just be doing whatever you’re doing, and then, for a few seconds, you pause and take three conscious breaths.
Some people have told me that they find it unnerving to pause. One man said if he pauses it feels like death to him. This speaks to the power of habit. We associate acting habitually with security, ground, and comfort. It gives us the feeling of something to hold on to. Our habit is just to keep moving, speeding, talking to ourselves, and filling up the space. But habits are like clothes. We can put them on and we can take them off. Yet, as we well know, when we get very attached to wearing clothes, we don’t want to take them off. We feel as if we’ll be too exposed, naked in front of everyone; we’ll feel groundless and insecure and we won’t know what’s going on.
We think it’s natural, even sane, to run away from those kinds of uncomfortable feelings. If you decide, quite enthusiastically, that every time you open your computer, you’re going to pause, then when you actually open your computer, you may have an objection: “Well, now I can’t pause because I’m in a rush and there are forty million things to do.” We think this inability or this reluctance to slow down has something to do with our outer circumstances, because we live such busy lives. But I can tell you that I discovered otherwise when I was on a three-year retreat. I would be sitting in my small room looking out at the ocean, with all the time in the world. I would be silently meditating, and this queasy feeling would come over me; I’d feel that I just had to rush through my session so I could do something more important. When I experienced that, I realized that for all of us this is a very entrenched habit. The feeling is, quite simply, not wanting to be fully present.
In highly charged situations, or anytime at all, we could shake up our ancient fear-based habits by simply pausing. When we do that, we allow some space to contact the natural openness of our mind and let our natural intelligence emerge. Natural intelligence knows intuitively what will soothe and what will get us more churned up; this can be lifesaving information.
When we pause, we also give ourselves the chance to touch in to our natural warmth. When the heart qualities are awakened, they cut through our negativity in a way that nothing else can. A serviceman in Iraq told this story: He said it happened on a pretty typical day, when he had once again witnessed his fellow soldiers, people he loved, being blown up. And once again he and all the others in his division wanted revenge. When they located some Iraqi men who were possibly responsible for killing their friends, they went into the men’s darkened house, and because of their anger and being in such a claustrophobic situation where violence was the atmosphere they breathed, the soldiers acted out their frustration by beating up the men.
Then when they put a flashlight on their captives’ faces, they saw that one of them was only a young boy who had Down’s syndrome.
This American serviceman had a son with Down’s syndrome. When he saw the boy, it broke his heart, and suddenly he viewed the situation differently. He felt the boy’s fear, and he saw that the Iraqis were human beings just like himself. His good heart was strong enough to cut through his pent-up rage, and he couldn’t continue to brutalize them anymore. In a moment of natural compassion, his view of the war and what he’d been doing just shifted.
Currently, the majority of the world’s population is far from being able to acknowledge when they’re about to explode or even to think it’s important to slow the process down. In most cases, that churned-up energy translates quickly into aggressive reactions and speech. Yet, for each and every one of us, intelligence, warmth, and openness are always accessible. If we can be conscious enough to realize what’s happening, we can pause and uncover these basic human qualities. The wish for revenge, the prejudiced mind — all of that is temporary and removable. It’s not the permanent state. As Chögyam Trungpa put it, “Sanity is permanent, neurosis is temporary.”
To honestly face the pain in our lives and the problems in the world, let’s start by looking compassionately and honestly at our own minds. We can become intimate with the mind of hatred, the mind that polarizes, the mind that makes somebody “other” and bad and wrong. We come to know, unflinchingly, and with great kindness, the angry, unforgiving, hostile wolf. Over time, that part of ourselves becomes very familiar, but we no longer feed it. Instead, we can make the choice to nurture openness, intelligence, and warmth. This choice, and the attitudes and actions that follow from it, are like a medicine that has the potential to cure all suffering.
Want more Pema? Well, you’re in luck — the Shambhala Sun has the finest collection of her writings and teachings available on the web. Just click here.
Friday, August 07, 2009
Shambhala Sun Space - A first look at Pema Chodron’s new book, “Taking the Leap” — Read Chapter 1 here
The spatial unity between self and body can be disrupted by employing conflicting visual-somatosensory bodily input, thereby bringing neurological observations on bodily self-consciousness under scientific scrutiny. Here we designed a novel paradigm linking the study of bodily self-consciousness to the spatial representation of visuo-tactile stimuli by measuring crossmodal congruency effects (CCEs) for the full body.
We measured full body CCEs by attaching four vibrator-light pairs to the trunks (backs) of subjects who viewed their bodies from behind via a camera and a head mounted display (HMD). Subjects made speeded elevation (up/down) judgments of the tactile stimuli while ignoring light stimuli. To modulate self-identification for the seen body subjects were stroked on their backs with a stick and the felt stroking was either synchronous or asynchronous with the stroking that could be seen via the HMD.
We found that (1) tactile stimuli were mislocalized towards the seen body (2) CCEs were modulated systematically during visual-somatosensory conflict when subjects viewed their body but not when they viewed a body-sized object, i.e. CCEs were larger during synchronous than during asynchronous stroking of the body and (3) these changes in the mapping of tactile stimuli were induced in the same experimental condition in which predictable changes in bodily self-consciousness occurred.
These data reveal that systematic alterations in the mapping of tactile stimuli occur in a full body illusion and thus establish CCE magnitude as an online performance proxy for subjective changes in global bodily self-consciousness.
Citation: Aspell JE, Lenggenhager B, Blanke O (2009) Keeping in Touch with One's Self: Multisensory Mechanisms of Self-Consciousness. PLoS ONE 4(8): e6488. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006488
Editor: Mark A. Williams, Macquarie University, Australia
Received: April 1, 2009; Accepted: June 27, 2009; Published: August 5, 2009
Copyright: © 2009 Aspell et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Funding: This work was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (#3100-067874.02). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
* E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The most basic foundations of the self arguably lie in those complex brain systems that represent the body –. This has been explored in research investigating multisensory and sensorimotor bodily mechanisms and their relevance for conscious aspects of processing related to body and self (or bodily self-consciousness: –). An important line of research has studied bodily self-consciousness by investigating the sense of ownership for one's hand , , , –. These experiments manipulated the sense of hand ownership by altering the congruence between multimodal sources of hand-related signals. For example, in the ‘rubber hand illusion’ (RHI), a subject looks at a fake hand that is being stroked by a paintbrush in synchrony with stroking applied to his own (occluded) corresponding hand, positioned a small distance away from the fake hand. Synchronous stroking of the seen fake hand and one's own unseen (real) hand can induce the illusion that the fake hand ‘feels like it's my hand’ (illusory ownership or self-attribution , , ). In the RHI there is also a mislocalization (or drift) of the subject's hand towards the fake hand. Importantly, illusory ownership and drift are much reduced when the stroking is asynchronous , , , .
Investigations of the RHI and related studies of the conscious experience of hands and other body parts are very important, but in addition, some authors argue that to achieve a full understanding of bodily self-consciousness we must also investigate its global character , –. A fundamental aspect of bodily self-consciousness is that the bodily self is experienced as a single and coherent representation of the entire, spatially situated body, not as a collection of several different body parts , , . This is also apparent in neurological observations. Although illusory ownership in the RHI and somatoparaphrenia (when neurological patients claim either that their arm belongs to another person or that another person's arm belongs to them , ) exemplify deviant forms of bodily self-consciousness, they affect body part ownership, or the attribution and localization of a hand with respect to the bodily self, i.e. they are characterised by part-to-whole relationships. This can be contrasted with neurological patients who have illusory perceptions of their full bodies such as in out-of-body experiences and heautoscopy. These states are characterized by abnormal experience with respect to the global bodily self, e.g. a mislocalization and a misidentification of the entire body –.
Recent studies , , – have further demonstrated that global aspects of self-consciousness (self-location and self-identification for the full body) - which are disturbed in neurological patients with autoscopic phenomena - can also be manipulated in healthy individuals by generating multisensory conflicts. In one study  subjects viewed their own body from behind via a head-mounted display while their backs were stroked. When the ‘felt stroking’ on the back of the body was congruent with the ‘seen stroking’ on the ‘virtual’ body, subjects showed higher degrees of ownership (or self-identification) for the virtual body, and mislocalized their self to a position outside their bodily borders. The studies on global bodily self-consciousness quantified ownership by verbal or physiological responses , , , or behavioural proxies such as perceived spatial ‘drift’ , based on drift measures in the RHI . However these measures do not reveal whether modifications in global bodily self-consciousness are associated with changes in tactile spatial representations. Investigating this aspect is important, as it will reveal whether basic sensory processing of bodily signals is involved in the representation of the bodily self. What is more, the supposed primacy of the tactile sense in self-consciousness ,  generates the prediction that whenever self-location is displaced, an associated change in the mapping of tactile sensations should also occur.
Here we linked the study of global bodily self-consciousness with the measurement of the spatial representation of visuo-tactile stimuli by using the crossmodal congruency task . We hypothesized that this task could function - during the ‘full body illusion’ described above - as an effective measure for probing global aspects of bodily self-consciousness (global ownership and self-location) because the crossmodal congruency effect (CCE) can function as a behavioural index of whether visual and tactile stimuli are functionally perceived to be at the same spatial location. In previous studies of the CCE , – the visual and tactile stimuli were presented on the hands (a very recent study tested CCEs with stimuli on feet ). Subjects performed worse when a distracting visual stimulus occurred at an incongruent elevation with respect to the tactile (target) stimulus. Importantly, the CCE (difference between performance in incongruent and congruent conditions) was larger when the visual and tactile stimuli occurred closer to each other in space . The CCE has previously been used as a measure of the tactile mislocalisation of touch towards a rubber hand when a fake hand was either aligned or misaligned with subjects' own hands (, see also ). This measure has a number of advantages: its magnitude is relatively large and it is less susceptible to experimenter expectancy effects than previous behavioural proxies of bodily self-consciousness. Moreover, the congruency task enables the collection of repeated, ‘online’ measurements during manipulations of self-consciousness: this has not previously been done in studies of partial or global bodily self-consciousness.
In the present study we tested whether CCEs – studied so far only for hands – would also be found when viewing one's own body from an external perspective, from two metres behind. Firstly, we studied whether CCEs were modulated by the visual presence or absence of the subject's own body. Secondly, to investigate whether these ‘full body CCEs’ could be associated in a predictable way with changes in bodily self-consciousness, we kept the visual stimulus constant and manipulated self-identification with the virtual body and self-location by employing either synchronous or asynchronous stroking of the back.
Go read the whole article.
I agree with the author's distaste for the term bisexual - I think the reality is that many bisexuals simply fall in love with who they love, and gender is not an issue in that.
I don’t like the term bisexual; I prefer to think of myself as a person of no fixed sexual orientation. It better suits the amorphous world I inhabit.
“How do you identify?”
“Oh, I’m a PoNFSO.”
Okay; it’s a little unwieldy, and abbreviated, it hardly rolls off the tongue. So, neither fish nor fowl, I content myself with being the bacon in the LGBT sandwich.
I didn’t come of age as a free-spirited bisexual. I always knew it was what I was, at least from the point at which I knew what the term meant. As a child, I had crushes on both boys and girls. When my best friend in high school lost her virginity, I was beside myself. But how was I to tell her I was in love with her -- especially after I had spent the previous year utterly smitten with a boy?
I remember being very little, maybe four, watching the Ed Sullivan Show, mesmerized by the siren on the screen, Miss Peggy Lee. In my memory, she is wearing a satin evening gown and a feather boa. I’m laying on my belly, looking up at the television. I can still feel the scratchy texture of the fake-braided rug on my elbows as I propped up my head with my arms. I didn’t know whether I wanted to be Peggy Lee, or just wanted to touch her.
But I was equally magnetized by Frank Sinatra -- the brash insouciance, the jacket slung over the shoulder, the cock of the fedora. I didn’t know whether I wanted to touch Frank Sinatra, or be Frank Sinatra.
Splitting the difference
When I was 19 or so, I told my mother that I was bisexual. She did what a good Catholic mother should -- the functional equivalent of sticking her fingers in her ears and singling the la-la song. It was a non-response born of kindness, and she had reason to hope I was just going through a phase. I hadn’t had an encounter with a woman yet; that would have to wait another 23 years.
For most of my adult life, and across all sectors of my life, I had tried to split the difference between the acceptable and the unacceptable. I had wanted to be an actress and a musician, a career path not condoned by the world of the newly-minted middle class from which I sprang. So, I opted to be a writer, thinking this was somehow more respectable.
I was rarely drawn to lovers who fulfilled anybody’s dream of respectability. I liked hippies and artists and working-class men with big brains. I never really saw myself as marriage material, but when the man I was in love with asked me to marry him, I said yes. I didn’t want to lose him.
And somewhere, deep inside me, I Iiked the patina of respectability that came with having a husband. Never mind that I was a lefty writer and he was a hippie carpenter, or that we were penniless, apparently by choice. The operative terms were that I was a wife and he was my husband. I could pretend to be almost normal.
I treated my bisexuality in a similar way, as if my marriage rendered it moot. I figured that if I just didn’t go there, I wouldn’t have to go there. It might have even turned out that way, if my marriage hadn’t busted up.
(Here I’m afraid I must disappoint you, reader; my marriage did not fall apart because of some torrid affair with a woman, on either my or my husband’s part. No, it came apart for the usual reasons that marriages do: disputes over money, career goals and whether to have a child.)
A geographical cure was in order, I thought. I moved from the New York area to Washington, D.C. There, on my new job, I met a handsome young woman who happened to be a lesbian. She was brilliant, a writer, and had great taste in music. I no longer had a reason not to go there, so I went. The sex was as natural as any I'd ever had. I was 42.
Playing lesbian house
At last, my bisexuality was fulfilled. I was a full-fledged member of the LGBT community, right?
Well, a funny thing happened when I told my lover’s friends that I was bisexual. They looked at me askance. One took me aside to tell me that she didn’t have any patience for straight girls who were “playing lesbian house.”
Time went on, the affair ran its course. But even though I had become a presence in the LGBT community, whenever I identified myself as bi, it seemed I met with resistance. For many of my new friends, it seemed, calling yourself bisexual was just a reluctance to admitting being gay.
I began to believe them. After all, I had no idea who I was anymore. I was as close to being a broken person as you could be and still hold a job. Just about every shred of my former identity was gone. I was no longer a wife and no longer a journalist. (I had given up my career in an attempt to save my marriage.)
Until my affair with the woman I’ll call Willa, I had clung to my Catholic identity, even though I railed against the church in my writings. Now that I was practicing something that the pope called “intrinsically evil,” there didn’t seem to be much point in that. I had even abandoned the Great State of New Jersey, from which I, as a lifelong resident thereof, had derived much yahoo pride. And I was no longer a heterosexual -- not that I ever really was.
I was little more than a quivering exposed nerve, and a nerve knows not what it is, just that it feels things. I was almost grateful to let someone else define me.
So I became a lesbian for a year or two. I bought a fedora.
When I told two of my brothers, each separately, that I was gay, they both seemed skeptical, saying the same thing: “Don’t put a label on yourself.” I told myself they weren’t ready for the truth. When I told an old flame, he replied, “Addie, you’re not a lesbian. You’re a bisexual. Get over it.” It was the truest thing he ever said to me.
Slowly, it began to dawn on me that calling yourself bisexual was not some kind of a cop-out; it was, in fact, to claim an identity that no one really wanted. Then I fell into bed with an old friend -- a man -- and had a perfectly wonderful time. Want it or not, that identity was mine.
One from Column A, one from Column B
There’s not much percentage in being an “out” bisexual. Many gay men and lesbians question the legitimacy of that identity, and many straight people either feel profoundly threatened by it, or take too prurient an interest in it. The truth is, bisexuals, by the fact of our existence, screw with everybody’s perception of how sexuality works.
The LGBT community, some years ago, became dangerously invested in proving that gay men and lesbians are born gay and lesbian. That may or may not be true -- no one’s come up with definitive proof either for or against that proposition -- but the political imperative to prove the gay-at-birth theory is defensive, emanating from a conservative frame that implies if you’re not born that way, then what you’re doing with that other consulting adult in your life is wrong.
While it could be argued (and I’m sure someone has data they think proves this) that bisexuals are born that way, the ease with which we choose partners of one or another gender complicates the whole “born gay” narrative. I don’t know if I was born this way, and I really don’t care. It’s who I am; what more do you need?
Nobody seems to know how many of us there are, because nobody can quantify how many actual bisexual people live as heterosexuals, having sex with only members of the opposite sex. A 2005 survey by the Centers for Disease Control found that 1 percent of men and 3 percent of women 15–44 years of age had both male and female sexual partners in the 12 months before the survey was taken. But figures among younger people suggested that many people with more adaptable sexual orientations change their behavior as they age, perhaps in order to live more acceptably.
“Among females,” the CDC authors write, “5.8 percent of teens and 4.8 percent of females 20–24 years of age had had both male and female partners in the last 12 months; percentages were lower at ages 25–44. Among men, about 1 percent had had both male and female partners in the last 12 months at each age.”
Some 10 percent of women in the 18-44 age group, said they were attracted “mostly to males”. (A similar question put to men yielded a much smaller percentage: 3.9 percent said they were attracted “mostly” to females.)
These results seem to bear out the idea of the Kinsey scale, in which sexual orientation is seen as a mix of gender attractions in most people. Despite these findings, people tend to wear their sexual orientation like a suit of armor, and that leaves bisexuals largely outside society’s categorical systems.
Straight people, in my experience, tend to regard bisexuals as sexually insatiable wife- and/or husband-stealers, people who need at least one from Column A and one from Column B just to make through the day. However titillating a thought that might be, it just doesn’t work that way. To me, a person’s gender is just another attribute, like the color of his eyes, or the texture of her hair. Sometimes you fall in love, rendering monogamy the likely outcome -- just like regular folks.
Perhaps most disconcerting to both heterosexuals and members of the gay and lesbian communities is the way bisexuals float between worlds. We are society’s shape-shifters. Partnered with a member of the opposite sex, we appear straight. Partnering with a member of our own sex renders us gay, at least in the eyes of the world. We can choose the degree of freedom and oppression we choose to accept. Hence, we are not to be trusted.
I’ve known the perils of gay-bashing and taunting, as I kissed my girlfriend on the street or, in the former case, was just dressed a little too butch while walking through a gay neighborhood being cased by thugs. But I’ve also experienced the pleasure, pain and societal legitimacy of legal marriage. Neither choice was born of any falseness to my sexual orientation.
Nebulous by nature, bisexuals don’t really have much of an organized community of their very own -- at least not one that I’ve stumbled across or am particularly interested in finding. (Unlike transgender people, our survival simply doesn’t depend on knowing others who are just like us.) Consequently, we often partner with straight or gay people, rather than other bisexuals. This is not without its dilemmas.
For a couple of years, I dated a lesbian musician, until such time as we moved our relationship to the platonic plane. Not long afterward, a gorgeous, smart, funny man, also a musician, asked me out. The only problem was that a member of his band was close to the woman I call my ex-non-girlfriend, and he was unaware of our relationship. So what would ordinarily be a third-date conversation about my peculiar condition became an extremely awkward first-date conversation; I felt the need to give him the back story before he got it from somebody else. He really wanted to be above it all, but he just couldn’t get past it. “You think that’s natural?” he asked me. Two dates later, we were kaput.
Then there was the young man who recently wooed me. I was perplexed why he was pursuing me, some 15 years his senior, until his eyes lit up a bit too lustfully when we discussed my sexual orientation. (I’m a blogger in the LGBT community, and he had Googled me.) I’m not eager to be anybody’s fetish.
Queering the deal
I’m old enough to remember a time when there was no “B” or “T” listed in the titles of gay and lesbian organizations. There is some irony in the fact that bisexuals and transgender people occupy a similar place in the greater LGBT community, transgender people arguably being the most oppressed of the lot, and bisexuals arguably being the least (depending on who we‘re partnered with).
Although I don’t always feel entirely accepted in the LGBT community, I have been the recipient of great good will there. And so, I will always be “out”. Any man I may meet who can’t deal with that is just not my man.
When my life fell apart and I took up with Willa, it was the gay and lesbian community that saw me through. Eventually, I took my place in the LGBT arts community, and when I lost my health insurance, got my health care gratis at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, a wonderful organization born of the AIDS crisis. The LGBT community has supported my work as a writer, and I have experienced great generosity from my friends, who largely hail from the community.
Every now and then, I hear some bisexual person grousing that we are kept to the back of the LGBT bus. I just can’t work up the dudgeon; a lot of gay and lesbian people struggled and even died so that I might have the freedom to be true to myself. That’s why, in the end, I prefer to identify as “queer”; that puts us all in the same boat, our identifying characteristic being not who we sleep with or what mix of genitalia and gender identity we possess, but the simple fact that we are not the majority, and face obstacles because of it.
It took a long time, but I’ve learned to be grateful for my bisexuality. Because of it, I like to think I have a more nuanced understanding of gender and sex than do many others. After all, I have both a satin evening gown and a fedora, and I wear them equally well.
Thursday, August 06, 2009
These changes are subtle, and there is no doubt the GOP will jump all over Obama for being weak on terror, or some such crap, but this is exactly the approach we should have taken eight tears ago.
Thursday 06 August 2009
John Brennan, former senior CIA official. (Photo: Lawrence Jackson / AP)
New approach to focus on root economic and social causes.
John Brennan picked a deeply symbolic day to end the "war on terrorism."
On August 6, 2001, Brennan, then a senior CIA official and now President Obama's assistant for counterterrorism and homeland security, "read warnings that Osama bin Laden was determined to strike inside the U.S., but our government was unable to prevent the worst terrorist attack in American history," he recalled to an audience Thursday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. It was a reference to a CIA analysis, called a President's Daily Brief, that the 9/11 Commission uncovered as a key warning that an attack by al-Qaeda was likely.
Eight years later, in his first speech since joining the Obama administration, Brennan annulled several key aspects of the so-called war on terrorism - starting with both the name and the idea that the U.S. was involved in any sort of "global war." Brennan said Obama will subordinate counterterrorism to "its right and proper place" as a "vital part" of the administration's national security and foreign policies, but not the lion's share of them. Saying he was careful not to elevate al-Qaeda to a greater position of importance than it deserved, Brennan linked the rise in support for extremists to problems of global governance, economic crisis and social stratification and said the administration would make a concerted effort to address what he considers those extremist root causes.
Above all, Brennan emphasized that the U.S. was not locked in a struggle with the world's billion Muslims. He derided al-Qaeda's self-presentation as a "highly organized, global entity capable of replacing sovereign nations with a global caliphate," and said that the administration would abandon the use of the word "jihad" in reference to al-Qaeda, since the term carries "religious legitimacy" in the Muslim world that al-Qaeda's "murderers ... desperately seek but in no way deserve." David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency expert and former adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia, has recently argued in an influential book that the U.S. has insufficiently distinguished between implacable enemies and those who fight out of opportunism, desperation or other, non-eschatological reasons.
Brennan used that insight to explain the basis for the Obama administration's approach to global governance, stability and development assistance. "Any comprehensive approach has to also address the upstream factors - the conditions that help fuel violent extremism," Brennan said. Military, intelligence or law-enforcement actions are unable to confront those conditions, which he said include the "basic needs and legitimate grievances of ordinary people" for prosperity, education, "dignity and worth," and security. "If we fail to confront the broader political, economic, and social conditions in which extremists thrive, then there will always be another recruit in the pipeline, another attack coming downstream," Brennan said.
While Brennan said it would ultimately be up to governments and civil-society institutions in the Muslim world to "isolate" al-Qaeda, he said the role of the U.S. was to help strengthen "the capacity of foreign militaries and security forces" and judiciaries; to make "substantial" increases in foreign aid to fight poverty and promote global health and food security; and to demonstrate the ability of "diplomacy, dialogue, and the democratic process" to solve "seemingly intractable problems."
By contrast, the Bush administration dismissed the idea that poverty and social injustice contributed to terrorism, and contended that a more fundamental root cause was political tyranny in the Middle East. While it pushed autocratic allies like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to take certain liberalizing steps, it focused more on building the outlines of democratic states in countries it sent the U.S. military to occupy, Iraq and Afghanistan. "This nation is at war with Islamic fascists," Bush said in 2006, and several steps he took - such as authorizing the CIA to perform "enhanced interrogation" and approving indefinite detention without trial at places like Guantanamo Bay - led Muslim democracy activists to view U.S. material or even rhetorical support as counterproductive.
Brennan did not renounce a variety of military, intelligence, financial and law enforcement measures to combat al-Qaeda and unspecified "other terrorist groups." He said vaguely that Obama had encouraged his foreign-policy and security team to "be even more aggressive, even more proactive, and even more innovative" at going after terrorists, and Brennan added, with "certainty," that the U.S. would defeat al-Qaeda. Brennan did not spend much time discussing Afghanistan, the war theater where Obama has recently ordered 21,000 new troops and may soon face a request to order the deployment of more. He said U.S. forces were "pushing the Taliban out of key population areas in Afghanistan so we can prevent the return of al-Qaeda to that country," although Obama announced the troop increase as a measure to confront al-Qaeda directly.
Asked by TWI whether measures like CIA drone strikes in Pakistan overemphasized killing al-Qaeda members at the expense of alienating a population vulnerable to exploitation by extremists, Brennan said that the Obama administration debated those issues intensely. Interagency meetings feature the questions, "What are the implications, if we take this [counterterrorism] step, what's it going to do on the political front, on the economic front, on the social front?" Brennan said. "What we don't want to do is just have a bunch of CT [counterterrorism] people in a room saying, 'OK, what can we do here.'" Kilcullen and Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security have argued that the drone strikes, which have intensified this year, represent a greater long-term cost to national security than counterterrorist benefit.
Brennan would have been Obama's CIA director had concerns in the blogosphere over statements he made in support of rendition - the extrajudicial transfer of detainees from one country to another - led him in November to pull his name from consideration. In the speech, Brennan took pains to denounce waterboarding and unspecified interrogation "practices" that "have been rightly terminated and should not, and will not, happen again." He did not use the word "torture," and ducked a question from Eli Lake of The Washington Times about whether he supported a classified annex to a forthcoming government-wide interrogation field manual that might contain harsher interrogation recommendations than allowed under the Geneva Conventions - rules Obama has insisted apply to interrogations policy.
He also dodged a question from TWI about the part a recent report from several government inspectors general suggested he may have played in the Bush administration's domestic surveillance programs, saying "I'm not going to go into sort of what my role was in that instance because a lot of those activities are still considered classified and not in the public domain."
An Intellectual Movement for the Masses
10 years after its founding, positive psychology struggles with its own success
By Jennifer Ruark
Many scholars labor in obscurity, but the researchers presenting their work this summer at a meeting of the International Positive Psychology Association had no such problem: More than 1,500 people from 52 countries came to listen. They packed the ballroom of the Philadelphia Sheraton for the keynote speakers, Martin E.P. Seligman and Philip G. Zimbardo, whose talks were projected onto four giant video screens. They filled the aisles for a lecture by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, until hotel security arrived to dislodge them. Between panel sessions, they lined up to ask scholars like Barbara L. Fredrickson to sign books and pose for photos.
"To see this number of people here 10 years after Marty [Seligman] founded positive psychology is a remarkable achievement," Ed Diener, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and president of the association, told the enthusiastic crowd. "We've made huge inroads."
No question about that. In the past decade, positive-psychology research has drawn hundreds of millions of dollars in grants. Studies of emotional well-being and its many facets, once next to impossible to find, are now routinely presented at meetings of the Association for Psychological Science and published in the discipline's leading journals. Dozens of colleges offer courses in positive psychology, and in 2007, Csikszentmihalyi founded a Ph.D. program in the specialty at Claremont Graduate University.
But the success of positive psychology has a flip side. The research has advanced alongside the mushrooming of a hungry popular market for guidance on what "happiness" really is and the tools—called "happiness interventions" in the lingo—that help people achieve it. Guides to happiness, many of them written by scholars, fill bookstore shelves. Membership in the International Coach Federation, one of several organizations that certifies life coaches (as well as career and executive coaches), has grown from just over 2,000 in 1999 to more than 13,000 this year.
Academic psychologists are ambivalent about this market, but it is a market that they helped create: The IPPA was formed in 2007 explicitly to share the science of positive psychology with a broad audience, and the bulk of attendees at the Philadelphia meeting were corporate consultants, coaches, and other people hoping to apply researchers' findings in their own professions.
The world of positive psychology is vast and varied. The term is not trademarked, after all. Google it and you can find links not only to Seligman's Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania but also to self-styled gurus describing their own "path of self-discovery" and to sites like Enlightenment Central, advertising neurofeedback and "consciousness exploration." A segment about positive psychology on National Public Radio in 2007 still makes researchers cringe: Its prime example of the field was the best seller The Secret, in which the television producer Rhonda Byrne argues that everything in the universe vibrates on a particular frequency; if people attune their thoughts to the same frequency as, say, money, they will attract wealth; ditto love, health, and unlimited happiness.
Researchers in positive psychology are constantly fighting its image as a New Agey, self-help movement, a reputation that has plagued it from its inception and that persists not only in the news media but also among many in the broader discipline. "The curse of working in this area is having to distinguish it from Chicken Soup for the Soul," Fredrickson told me.
Critics, and even some within positive psychology, are also concerned that the practices and policies developed in its name may not always be supported by the research, particularly as some of its leaders press psychologists to do more to shape the institutions—be they schools or government agencies—that help whole societies flourish.
"The mission of this congress," Diener announced at the Philadelphia meeting, "is to change the world." But when positive psychologists talk to the world, nuances tend to get lost in translation. At a time when university-based researchers are under increasing pressure to show why their work matters to everyday people, positive psychology offers a telling case study of the potential and pitfalls of "public scholarship."
Though some psychologists, including, notably, Ed Diener, had studied happiness beginning in the early 1980s, it was Seligman who adopted the term "positive psychology" and made it his platform as president of the American Psychological Association, in 1998. His early work on the "learned helplessness" that characterizes depression had led him to posit that optimism could also be learned, and he had data to prove it. In his presidential address, he argued that psychology had become one-sided, and urged his colleagues to give as much attention to human strengths—such as optimism, courage, and perseverance—as to mental illnesses and disorders. He was interested not just in helping people enjoy their lives but in fostering "authentic happiness," rooted in social and civic well-being.
"We can articulate a vision of the good life that is empirically sound and, at the same time, understandable and attractive," he said in his address. "We can show the world what actions lead to well-being, to positive individuals, to flourishing communities, and to a just society."
Critics said Seligman's proposal was too radical: He was overstepping the bounds of social science and trying to be a philosopher, telling people how to live their lives. Others said Seligman's proposal wasn't radical at all, just a rehashing of Abraham Maslow's notions of "self actualization" and "peak experiences." Maslow is probably best known for his "hierarchy of needs"—the idea that people seek fulfillment, for example, only after they have satisfied their basic physical requirements. Maslow's "humanistic psychology" was very influential on parts of the discipline, particularly clinical psychology, but many had written him off for the lack of quantitative data supporting his theories.
Seligman insisted that positive psychology be based on empirical research, and that psychologists' job would be to use that research to describe, not prescribe, what contributes to human flourishing—a distinction he often insists on today.
With financing from the Gallup Organization and working closely with Csikszentmihalyi—known for his concept of "flow," the deeply satisfying, unself-conscious state a person experiences when engaged in a challenging activity—Seligman established a network of promising young scholars who were studying positive emotions, and he nurtured the field with conferences and workshops.
The researchers asked questions like, What are the elements of well-being? Why do we feel good when we see people helping others? Does having a happy life mean experiencing more pleasure than pain, or does it require exercising one's talents and having a purpose? What is the role of community in our well-being? And what are the physical and communal benefits of feeling happy?
People credit a large part of positive psychology's success to the solid reputations of the field's leaders—and Seligman's ability to get science-supporting agencies interested.
"Marty knew that if he had money the smart scientists would come," Phil Zimbardo told those gathered at the IPPA meeting. Zimbardo, a Stanford University psychologist famous for his 1971 prison experiment in which undergraduates playing "guard" quickly began to abuse others playing "prisoner," has recently turned his attention from what makes good people do bad things to what makes ordinary people act like heroes. By changing his evil ways, he joked at the conference, he hoped to get the kind of research money Seligman and other positive psychologists had.
The figures are impressive. The National Institute of Mental Health has given more than $226-million in grants to positive-psychology researchers in the past 10 years, beginning with just under $4-million in 1999 and reaching more than nine times that amount in 2008. The John Templeton Foundation has long supported the work, and recently awarded Seligman a grant of nearly $6-million to encourage collaborations between positive psychologists and neuroscientists. Backing has also come from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, among others.
The bulk of the resulting research has shown that happy people form stronger social relationships, enjoy better health, are more creative and effective at work, and are more involved as citizens. And the effects flow in the opposite direction, too: Though studies done in the 1970s found that people adjusted to changing circumstances—like winning a lottery—and returned to being pretty much as happy or as unhappy as they had always been, new research supports the more-intuitive idea that people's circumstances do affect their sense of well-being. But what seems to matter more than wealth—the benefits of which Diener's work has shown decrease the more a person earns—is "psychosocial prosperity," characterized by the social support, public trust, safety, and tolerance in a society combined with individual feelings of being competent, learning new things, and being satisfied with one's job and health.
Such studies have been the basis for recent work in other social sciences, especially economics, where researchers have developed indexes of well-being meant to represent national prosperity better than gross national product does.
One of the most widely respected scholars in the field is Barbara Fredrickson, who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Tapped 10 years ago by Seligman, Fredrickson (then at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor) was asking, If negative emotions like anger and fear evolved to focus our attention, so we could defend ourselves against threats, what evolutionary purpose was served by feelings like contentment and joy? She hypothesized that they allow us to broaden our attention and prompt us to think in new ways, over time building our skills. This "broaden and build" theory has since been borne out by research. Fredrickson and other scientists have shown that inducing positive emotions in subjects widens the scope of their visual attention, makes them more "mindful" or open to different interpretations of their experiences, and even improves their ability to distinguish faces among people of another race.
More recently, Fredrickson and her colleagues tested the "build" part of the hypothesis. They found that subjects who meditated daily reported more experiences of love, joy, gratitude, and a wide range of other positive emotions and—most interestingly—showed benefits over time: Three months later, the meditators reported greater self-acceptance, better relations with other people, and less illness. In a one-year follow-up, she writes in a paper now under review, the people for whom those gains lasted longest were those who had reported the biggest increase in positive emotions following the meditation practice.
Fredrickson says happiness works something like this: It's not the frequency of good feelings in and of themselves that make for a good life, but the resources that those feelings allow people to build.
"Largely as a result of Barbara's work, you can't write about emotions anymore without talking about positive emotions," says Shelly Gable, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara who studies close relationships.
But the standing of positive psychology within the discipline at large remains contentious. Citing work by Fredrickson and a handful of other researchers as a "rigorous, creative, and important" exception to the rule, Scott Lilienfeld, a psychology professor at Emory University, wrote in June on the Psychology Today Web site that it "remains to be seen whether positive psychology will mature into a legitimate scientific discipline."
Charles S. Carver, a psychologist at the University of Miami who has long studied both optimism and pessimism, says he regards the label as "a faddish social keyword."
"Of course, the financial support it has received is one important reason for the existence of the label," he writes in an e-mail message. "People do gravitate toward sources of money."
Perhaps, but some researchers also resist the label. "Many of us who called ourselves positive psychologists a few years ago don't need to anymore," says Stephen Joseph, a professor of psychology, health, and social policy at the University of Nottingham who studies trauma and resilience. Thanks to a better understanding in the discipline of work done on positive emotions, he says, "we can go back to publishing in the mainstream journals. Maybe that's why the term 'positive psychology' has fallen more into popular usage."
"A lot of people who do positive psychology don't say, 'I'm a positive psychologist' because of the connotation of the term—the idea that it's a movement," says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California at Riverside who, like Fredrickson, has worked to identify the cognitive processes that lead to enduring happiness.
Understandably, those researchers want to distance themselves from the breathless rhetoric emanating from more popular corners of positive psychology. After the Philadelphia meeting, one person posting on the Friends of Positive Psychology listserv gushed that Martin Seligman had started "nothing less than a specieswide cultural revolution." The very active listserv, run by the American Psychological Association, tends to be dominated by practitioners, including people advertising meditation retreats or hawking products. One example: A company called Innate Intelligence, which, citing Fredrickson's work among others, sells Resilience Builder software to "provide immediate feedback on your levels of realistic mindfulness."
"I question how a software could give you a shortcut to mindfulness," Fredrickson says when told about it, but after years in the field she's grown accustomed to seeing her research cited in unusual contexts. "Even when you publish a scientific article, it's in the public domain," she says.
Lyubomirsky, who was also besieged by autograph seekers at the meeting, says it felt a little "cultlike." "But just because people are interested in what we do does not mean we're not as rigorous as scientists," she says.
To the untrained eye, though, the line between the lab scientist and the layman can seem fuzzy. Like many positive psychologists (see box, below), Lyubomirsky recently published a book for general readers. Hers is called The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want—at least, that was the original title; on the paperback edition the publishers replaced the word "scientific" with the word "new" to attract a broader audience. Lyubomirsky herself freely describes it as a "self-help book."
"I'm not at all embarrassed about that," she says. "It's based on science. I get hundreds of e-mails from people who say, It's changed my life."
Lyubomirsky's work has focused on the control that people have over their own happiness, once their circumstances and genetic predisposition are taken into account. She has done studies showing that people who take time to count their blessings, perform acts of kindness, write optimistic visions for themselves, or express thanks, report greater happiness.
But she is careful to point to nuances in the research and evidence that the same practices do not work for everybody. For example, subjects who performed any of a list of 10 acts of kindness three times a week for 10 weeks reported increases in happiness; another group that performed the same three acts every time actually ended up feeling worse. That suggests to Lyubomirsky that the freshness of the activity may make a difference. In other studies, people who were told simply that they were doing a "cognitive exercise" did not show the same increases in positive feelings as subjects who were explicitly recruited to test the effects of their actions on their happiness—in other words, motivation mattered. "This showed us the importance of fitting the activity to the personality," Lyubomirsky says.
She has even worked with a company to develop an iPhone application, Live Happy, based on her research. Advertised as a "mobile happiness-boosting program," Live Happy gathers information about users' personalities and prompts them to do activities that her research suggests will make them feel better.
Lyubomirsky points out that she makes no money from Live Happy and plans to use all the data gathered from users for her research. The program is wildly popular, recently ranking 18th among health and fitness apps.
And what's wrong with that? One of Seligman's early goals, after all, was to make positive psychology "understandable and attractive." His colleagues say he believed that for his mission to succeed, nonexperts needed to be able to understand the research and make a living from it. In the early days he collaborated with a personal coach to offer "Authentic Happiness Coaching," and in 2005 he founded Penn's master's in applied positive psychology, a one-year program combining on-campus sessions with distance learning, for which professionals in business, law, medicine, and coaching pay roughly $45,000.
"Marty has always been dedicated to making sure that the science doesn't stay in the journals," says James Pawelski, director of the master's program and executive director of the International Positive Psychology Association. While Pawelski believes it is important that the research and application of positive psychology be kept distinct from each other, "it is crucial that they coexist."
Seligman says his main focus these days is to bolster the research. Positive psychology's popular reputation "is a concern for me," he says. "There's a danger of the publicity far exceeding the science."
Psychology in general is vulnerable to that, but positive psychology is especially vulnerable. "In our culture we have a presumption that people should be happy, and if they're not, they should be able to fix it," says Julie K. Norem, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College who has been critical of the movement. "That goes back to Norman Vincent Peale", who wrote The Power of Positive Thinking, "and maybe even to Horatio Alger," she says.
Ed Diener agrees. "There's a huge pressure to find happiness interventions. People rush out to do things," he says. "There's a constant risk of telling journalists or applied people more than you know."
Yet Diener is also one of the most vocal advocates for using positive psychology to influence policy. The research should be used to create "good societies," he told the crowd at the IPPA meeting, to teach people what will truly make them happy and to help create the circumstances that will promote that authentic happiness.
It is in moving from individual well-being to "good societies" that the tension between research and application becomes especially strong. Two contradictory messages were sounded again and again at the meeting in Philadelphia, sometimes by the same people: On the one hand, new research is finding nuances and contradictions in formulations of what makes people happy, and scientists must continue to mine those complexities. On the other hand, they must get a simple, clear message out to the public if they are to make a difference in the world.
Making a difference is clearly part of the agenda. Most positive psychologists aren't as concerned as Seligman says he is with drawing the line between description and prescription. At the Centre of Applied Positive Psychology, a British consulting firm, Robert Biswas-Diener (Ed Diener's son) has started a charity called the Strengths Project, which has worked with slum dwellers in Calcutta to help them identify, develop, and use their strengths to improve their circumstances. A group of recent graduates from the Penn master's program has just started the Positive Policy Institute, under whose auspices they hope to invite scholars to write position papers that will inform policy makers. "Science should be descriptive," says one of the founders, Sean Glass, "and applications can be prescriptive, with the idea that you want to go back and test them against the science."
"We're all prescribers," says Christopher Peterson, a former student of Seligman's who is now a professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. "Marty thinks he's a natural scientist," he says. "I think we're all social scientists—what we do is infused by our values. But we can be confident in saying that a long, healthy life of happiness is better than a short, ill life of depression."
Seligman has in fact worked hard to see positive psychology applied on a large scale. He's behind a program called "comprehensive soldier fitness," announced by the U.S. Army in July. With the goal of preventing problems like post-traumatic stress, the program will evaluate the psychological strengths of all new Army recruits and, based on those evaluations, teach them resilience techniques.
Along similar lines, a "positive education" curriculum developed by Seligman and other researchers at Penn and tested in several pilot programs teaches character education and "skills for happiness," not simply as an add-on, but as a way to improve academic achievement. Citing studies from the past 15 years that show that a curriculum that promotes resilience and prevents depression also seems to improve students' learning—by, for example, broadening their attention—the researchers have begun to train teachers in Australia, Britain, and the United States to use it. Positive education could "form the basis of a 'new prosperity,'" Seligman and his colleagues write in a recent article, "a politics that values both wealth and well-being."
In a draft article making the case for psychology's central policy role, Diener cites Gallup research conducted in 145 nations that showed that psychosocial conditions like public trust and tolerance are important all over the world, even if they are emphasized to different degrees depending on the culture. And while he acknowledges a slew of additional candidates for the list that researchers still need to understand better—spirituality, resilience, meaning, and purpose, to name a few—he writes, "If psychologists become engulfed in endless debates about the components of psychosocial well-being, a golden opportunity will surely pass us by. Psychology needs to speak with a clear consensus, and continuing doubts and debates about psychosocial prosperity will doom our profession to secondary status in the policy arena."
Richard Layard, a British economist and a life peer in the House of Lords who has promoted the idea of psychosocial prosperity in Britain, issued the same warning in Philadelphia. "I would like us to agree that we are concerned only about happiness and misery as people experience them, not how people judge their life satisfaction," he said. Moreover, he said, researchers should stick with the notion that positive feelings and negative feelings are two points along the same scale, and that the first drive away the second. "Otherwise we will lose our appeal to policy makers by making it too complicated."
But one of the frequent criticisms of positive psychology is that it oversimplifies happiness. "I would just want to argue for increased nuance and complexity," writes Julie Norem in an e-mail message, "not just in the research reports published in scientific journals (and read by a vanishingly small percentage of the consumers of positive psychology) but in the rhetoric emanating from the positive psychology movement (including the M.A. students and the coaches it produces)."
Norem, the author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, says "positive education" is an example of policy recommendations getting ahead of the science. "I don't think there is enough evidence of the long-term effects and corollary effects to support large-scale programs like that," she says.
She has also been critical of positive psychology's emphasis on optimism. She says that for certain people, whom she calls "defensive pessimists," thinking about what could go wrong spurs them to take more-effective actions. "Research I've done has shown that you can cheer defensive pessimists up, but their performance suffers. You have them do mindful relaxation exercises, and their performance suffers."
Seligman acknowledges that "it's clear there is some psychological benefit from pessimism," but, comparing optimism to antibiotics, he says that only a small minority are hurt by it. "We need to try to identify who is going to be helped," he says.
"I don't think you can so easily dismiss the pessimists," says Norem, whose research shows that 25 to 30 percent of people fall into that category.
Lilienfeld makes a similar critique. "I worry especially about the all-too-frequent implication (which, in all fairness, a few of the more thoughtful exponents of positive psychology have not endorsed) that positive psychology is for everyone," he wrote on Psychology Today. He cited new research that people with low self-esteem actually felt worse, rather than better, after repeating positive statements like "I'm a lovable person."
Positive psychologists say that research is entirely compatible with their findings. "Merely mouthing invocations is useless or worse than useless," says Seligman. "I've been saying that and so has Aaron Beck," the founder of cognitive psychology, "for years." Fredrickson, too, has repeatedly said that trying to force oneself to feel positive is a recipe for "toxic insincerity."
"It's just not true that we want to impose the same thing on everybody," says Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who studies emotions and morality across cultures. "The idea of fitting interventions to individuals is a tenet of positive psychology."
Indeed, much of the work presented at the IPPA meeting defied Diener's and Layard's calls for simplicity. Joar Vittersø, a psychology professor at the University of Tromsø, in Norway, presented studies he had conducted showing that people who were highly satisfied with their lives over all reported only slightly more happiness during working hours than people who were dissatisfied with life. "Flourishing" means both feeling well and functioning well, he argued, and functioning well may require struggle as we try to overcome intellectual challenges. He also pointed to surveys in which Danes reported more experiences of enjoyment and Americans reported more of pride. "We can't just lump them together," he said.
By the same token, "whether people say life is 'meaningful' means quite different things," said Dmitry A. Leontiev, a psychology professor at Moscow State University, and future research will need to find a way to get at the question of meaning that goes beyond simply asking people if they find life meaningful.
At session after session, researchers told attendees of the IPPA meeting that scientists need more cross-cultural studies, more behavioral studies to complement subjects' own reports of whether and why they are happy, and more longitudinal data to show how people's satisfaction with life changes over time.
"In the large majority of areas there's not enough data to be certain" of what practices or policies would be good, Gable told me.
Lyubomirsky points to the same risk. "I'm very open in [The How of Happiness] about where there are holes in the literature," she says. A few years ago, school principals in Compton, Calif., asked her to work on a curriculum that would include happiness interventions. At the time she declined, thinking the research was not ready for large-scale interventions.
Since then, she says, the research has advanced. Still, she remains more at ease fitting strategies to individuals.
"There is always a tension between basic research and its application," she says. Researchers must simply focus on "doing our science and doing it well."
Fredrickson sounds the same note when asked about Layard's call for researchers to simplify their findings. "It makes sense for an economist to tell psychologists how to be heard by policy makers," she says. "But science doesn't proceed that way. Science is about pulling things apart and finding out how they work."
She is mulling the idea of starting a group specifically for positive-psychology researchers and their graduate students, where they could share findings in all their complexity, perhaps in conjunction with one of the major disciplinary conferences.
But increasingly, she says, she thinks positive psychology must come to terms with its different, overlapping audiences. The public's craving for the research is unavoidable, and in the end Fredrickson says it's a good thing.
"This is not a 'nobody's listening' experience," she says. "It's much better than if nobody were listening."
~ Jennifer Ruark is a deputy managing editor of The Chronicle.
Kauffman on the Philosophy of MindThe theoretical biologist, Stuart Kauffman, argues that quantum physics can explain the existence of free will.
Stuart Kauffman is a theoretical biologist and author from the University of Calgary in Canada who has pioneered the study of complexity in relation to biological systems.
As a theoretical biologist, it must be hard to avoid the biggest outstanding problem of them all: what is the nature of consciousness? And today, Kauffman takes a crack at it along with five others related to the philosophy of mind.
He begins by mapping out his territory: "If mind depends upon the specific physics of the mind-brains system, mind is, in part, a matter for physicists." Fair enough.
He then lists the questions he hopes to tackle:
How does mind act on matter?
If mind does not act on matter is mind a mere epiphenomenon?
What might be the source of free will?
What might be the source of a responsible free will?
Why might it have been selectively advantageous to evolve consciousness?
What "is" consciousness?
That's an ambitious list. The gist of his answers is that mind is a quantum phenomenon that produces a classical output that Kauffman says is the source of free will. He adds that this classical output is nonrandom and yet cannot be described by the laws of physics because, as the quantum system decoheres, information is lost in a way that can never be retrieved.
If true, that's important because "if the quantum-classical boundary can be non-random yet lawless, then no algorithmic simulation of the world or ourselves can calculate the real world, hence the evolutionary selective advantages for evolving consciousness to "know" it may be great".
In other words, consciousness is very useful for making sense of the world which is why evolution selects for it.
He also says this means we are not machines, although how he reaches this conclusion isn't clear. A more reasonable conclusion would be that we are machines that span the quantum-classical divide.
In any case, that clears up questions 1 to 5.
As for the biggie, he says: "I make no progress on problem 6"
An honest answer for sure; but then why include it in the essay in the first place?Ref: arxiv.org/abs/0907.2494: Physics and Five Problems in the Philosophy of Mind