Following on from that post about how technology is deliberately addictive and seemingly out to get us, here’s a wider view of the problems we face and “the price we have to pay for being born in modern times”.
How the modern world makes us mentally ill
The modern world is wonderful in many ways (dentistry is good, cars are reliable, we can so easily keep in touch from Mexico with our grandmother in Scotland) – but it’s also powerfully and tragically geared to causing a high background level of anxiety and widespread low-level depression.
Thankfully, for each area of concern there’s a solution of sorts. For instance:
The media has immense prestige and a huge place in our lives – but routinely directs our attention to things that scare, worry, panic and enrage us, while denying us agency or any chance for effective personal action. It typically attends to the least admirable sides of human nature, without a balancing exposure to normal good intentions, responsibility and decency. At its worst, it edges us towards mob justice.
The cure would be news that concentrated on presenting solutions rather than generating outrage, that was alive to systemic problems rather than gleefully emphasizing scapegoats and emblematic monsters – and that would regularly remind us that the news we most need to focus on comes from our own lives and direct experiences.
It can all seem quite overwhelming, but we need to stay positive.
The forces of psychological distress in our world are – currently – much wealthier and more active than the needed cures. We deserve tender pity for the price we have to pay for being born in modern times. But more hopefully, cures are now open to us individually and collectively if only we recognise, with sufficient clarity, the sources of our true anxieties and sorrows.
The trick is remembering all this when we’re caught up in the moment and wrapped up in our day-to-day troubles. They ought to produce and sell a little cheatsheet we can carry around in our wallets or something.
The Psychology Book – Packed with everything you’d ever study in a Psych 101 class
The Psychology Book is packed with everything you’d ever study in a Psych 101 class, and, as the subtitle suggests, it’s all explained in a clear, simple way. Flip to any page and you’ll find engaging graphics, charts, sidebars, and timelines that compliment every topic, from Pavlovian conditioning, to Jean Piaget’s four stages of child development, to Timothy Leary’s real meaning behind “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”
But what’s that about autism being an extreme form of the male brain on page 298?
In 2003, Baron-Cohen developed the empathizing-systematizing theory of “female” and “male” brains, which assigns a particular “brain type” to every person, regardless of gender, depending on ability to empathize or systematize. His research suggests that the female brain is largely hard-wired for empathy, with females usually showing more sympathy for others, and greater sensitivity to facial expressions and non-verbal communication. The male brain, by contrast, appears to be geared toward understanding and building systems; it is mostly interested in how things work, as well as their structure, and organization. Is it therefore often better at tasks requiring decoding skills, such as map reading.
[Autistic people] are unable to assess another’s stage of mind or intentions. Also, they have obsessive interests that are centered on some form of system, such as an intense preoccupation with light switches. They focus on tiny details in the system, working out the underlying rules that govern it, or home in on a specific topic, learning everything about it with great accuracy. This mix of little or no empathy and an obsession with systems, along with the higher rate of autism in males, led Baron-Cohen to conclude that autistic people have an extreme “male” brain.
The BBC reported an aspect of that back in 2005 so I guess it’s old news. And here’s a link to Baron-Cohen’s paper that started it off.
"Founder of The School of Life Alain de Botton believes art can help us with our most intimate and ordinary dilemmas: Why is my work not more satisfying? Why do other people seem to have a more glamorous life? How can I improve my relationships? Why is politics so depressing? In this secular sunday sermon he introduces a new method of interpreting art: art as a form of therapy, providing powerful solutions to many of life’s dilemmas."
Here’s another take on this project, from The Spectator. A little sniffy, perhaps, but I guess Ben’s writing for his audience there in the way that Alain is here.
It’s soon that time of year again, explains Oliver Burkeman, “that segment of the calendar known to publishers and motivational speakers worldwide as New Year, New You.” Anyone thinking of new resolutions, or just repeating last year’s failed ones, should read this article on why this approach really isn’t the best way of going about things.
[Self-help books that encourage these Big Change/Fresh Start ideas] don’t keep on selling despite the fact that they don’t work, but rather because they don’t work: they deliver a short-lived mood boost, and when that fades, the most obvious way to revive it is to go back for more.
He offers us another way, a smaller, more incremental way of bringing about change, one that encourages us to ease up on ourselves a little.
In fact, as the Buddhist-influenced Japanese psychologist Shoma Morita liked to point out, it’s perfectly possible to do what you know needs doing—to propel yourself to the gym, to open the laptop to work, to reach for the kale instead of the doughnuts—without “feeling motivated” to do it. People “think that they should always like what they do and that their lives should be trouble-free,” Morita wrote. “Consequently, their mental energy is wasted by their impossible attempts to avoid feelings of displeasure or boredom.” Morita advised his readers and patients to “give up” on themselves—to “begin taking action now, while being neurotic or imperfect or a procrastinator or unhealthy or lazy or any other label by which you inaccurately describe yourself.”
Worth a try. tempted to look through this blog’s posts from Decembers and Januarys gone by, to see how badly I’ve done with all this previously.
Oliver Burkeman wrote The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. A great title, at least.
Yes, I’m highlighting yet another brainpickings blog post, but this one is very interesting, a very detailed and considered look at the ten best psychology and philosophy books of the year: “From Buddhism to the relationship between creativity and dishonesty, by way of storytelling and habit”. Off I go to add all these to my wishlist. (I’m assuming I can get all these on my kindle?)
Many fine quotes here, but my favourite one:
To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not? — Christopher Hitchens (who else?)
Link: The 10 Best Psychology and Philosophy Books of 2012