One of the effects of doing this blog has been that I really have thought about positive psychology and my disaffection for it more consistently than I would have otherwise. I do believe that this has led me to a better understanding than I had before, and one thing that I’ve realized is how much the people who turn to positive psychology may be suffering from depression and pain themselves, though they unfortunately sometimes turn their own pain into a superior fake blitheness that they use against others. Even though they “doth protest too much, methinks,” I sympathize with what led them to try to find better ways of living.
Of course, this has been much on my mind in the past few days as I re-enter the classroom (okay, fine) and the maelstrom of university politics and budget cuts (grim, heinous, and ugly, ugly, ugly). I have felt the need to cheer myself up by any means possible, and my friends have offered advice, poems, tips on stretching in my office to reduce tension, etc. etc. All this good will and understanding has moved me quite a lot, actually, because–Jesus!–I am coming back from a year where I worked on my own terms, in other words, from a great gift and privilege. I deserve no pity. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t need the transitional help–maybe even the long-term help in coping with an unhealthy work environment.
What I do insist on, however, is–in my own head–a continuing acknowledgement that the cheering is necessary because there are bad things in my world. I am not going to pretend that I am transforming reality by cheering myself up–I acknowledge both the very real causes and the limits of my ability to change that reality. This distinction is very important to me. I don’t want to throw out the baby of happiness with the bath water of enforced or oversimplified positivity.
Bobby McFerrin‘s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” is a good anthem for this purpose. The song, at first listen, seems like a simple, merry ditty. But there are a couple of things that make me enjoy this song beyond that surface.
One is the inevitable irony in it. McFerrin’s lilting voice is sincere (and he’s quite a jubilant fellow in general), but there’s a huge contrast between the advice given and the numerous miseries listed in the song–being robbed, lacking a home, potential lawsuits for unpaid back rent, general financial insolvency, lack of love. Perhaps this song even participates in the long African-American tradition of the coded song; it is certainly akin to the blues in its sense of encouragement in rough times if not in its musical brightness.
But I also like the utter simplicity of this song. If, as I noted in my analysis of TEDTalks, Sebastian Wernicke has boiled all the TEDTalks down to “Why worry? I’d rather wonder,” why, then, do we need the elaborate edifice of all those talks with their complex charts, graphs, and illustrations? Why not just listen to a cheerful song and get on with the day?
I began my blog journey with a desire to understand my own reaction of irritation in the face of the “positive psychology” movement and to explore what motivates me in contrast to an obsession with turning personal happiness into yet another competitive achievement.
Today I bring to you two TEDTalks on the subject of happiness. For me, these two talks demonstrate the gulf in quality among those connected to “positive psychology.” Dan Gilbert (above) I can respect, even though I don’t necessarily agree with all the conclusions he draws from his data. Shawn Achor, on the other hand, I find the twenty-first-century version of a snake-oil salesman.
There is much that overlaps in their TEDTalks—the jokes, the anecdotal examples that render their data amusing, their clunky Power Point slides. Most important, though, both talk about the ways in which we can or do recast negative events in our lives to render them more positive.
But I see differences:
Dan Gilbert notes toward the end of his talk that some things that may happen in our lives are actually better or more desirable than others. Though he insists that we overrate the impact of one result over another in terms of our happiness, he is not disconnected from reality. He is interested in what humans share in terms of how they react to life events, and he asserts that reframing unfortunate events is a human trait we all participate in.
Shawn Achor unfortunately ends his talk otherwise: with a list of ways in which we can retrain ourselves to be happy. His talk is oriented around our deficits, even as he makes fun of psychologists for wanting to diagnose illnesses in order to keep “sick” people coming back for more treatment. Happiness is something that requires treatment and training just as much as getting over any depression or other “below average” state. Achor’s talk is full of logical conflicts like this—and he even admits that the data he puts on the screen is nonexistent—he uses it just to make a point about the evils of averages. Right before this exhortative end, Achor throws out a bunch of numbers but doesn’t really tell us where they come from.
Both Gilbert and Achor rely on a connection to Harvard University for their status as experts, and both have published popular books on happiness (Gilbert’s is Stumbling on Happiness, 2006, and Achor’s is The Happiness Advantage, 2010). And this leads me to something that’s a big difference for me, but evidently not for others. Dan Gilbert really is an expert.
Though Shawn Achor has made himself a guru, he has no degree in psychology at all. His bio on his corporation, GoodThinkInc., says that he “spent over a decade at Harvard University where he won over a dozen distinguished teaching awards,” and here and there he is referred to as “Professor Achor.” Yes, he has a bachelor’s degree in English and Religious Studies from Harvard and a master’s in Divinity in “Christian and Buddhist ethics.” However, he never held a position above that of “teaching fellow,” which this link makes clear is basically a teaching assistant.
He also claims that his company conducts research into happiness, and it contains a “Research” page. But go to that page and what you find is pretty thin. There is a link to yet another business that Achor has “founded,” which, even though it is called the Institute for Applied Research, clearly involves only coaching courses, no research at all, though it does boast of several large business clients. And there is a link to an 800-word column Achor wrote for the Harvard Business Review that, though it does cite some research, notes only one “study” his company performed, which was a post-experiment assessment of the company’s employees and apparently has never been vetted for its experimental legitimacy. In other words, Achor performs “studies” to prove to the corporations who have bought his coaching services that it was worth the money.
Gilbert, on the other hand, has a PhD in social psychology from Princeton (and a bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Colorado), and is actually on the faculty and runs a research lab at Harvard. This is not to say that he doesn’t have a stake in the tenets of positive psychology, but his approach is more balanced and therefore less punishing. For instance, in the Harvard Business Review’s coverage of his work, he notes, “Much of the research confirms things we’ve always suspected. For example, in general people who are in good romantic relationships are happier than those who aren’t. Healthy people are happier than sick people…. Rich people are happier than poor people.” Note that he doesn’t say that “happy people are healthier than sad people.” Nor “Happy people are richer than unhappy people.” He doesn’t reverse the equations of causality in destructive ways.
Therefore, even though I have questions about some of the implications of the research results that Gilbert mentions in his TEDTalk, I feel that it’s at least based on research and not on pure gloss designed to sell a service to line his pockets. I hope it doesn’t seem as though I am splitting hairs. These things make a difference to me as I try to understand what sources of advice and inspiration are really that and what ones are potentially damaging shams.
What makes a difference to you in a happiness guru? Which ones irritate you and which ones make sense, and why?
Bloody Thursday memorial at the ULWU office, Mason & Beach streets, San Francisco, 2009. Photo by Liz Allardyce.
Today is the anniversary of Bloody Thursday, a dark day of San Francisco’s Maritime Strike in 1934. In yesterday’s many noisy proclamations of gratitude for our freedom in the U.S.A., few probably remembered Bloody Thursday. (I myself had barely heard of it.)
On that day, in the midst of a long-term strike, two men were shot and killed by police as the police attempted to break up strike barricades that prevented the flow of goods to and from the port via the Embarcadero. Later that night, the strikers were forced to withdraw by the use of the California National Guard, but sympathy generated by the funerals of the two dead men changed the general tenor in San Francisco, and soon the International Longshoremen’s Association (now the International Longshore and Warehouse Union) was joined in a general strike by dozens of area unions. Although the ultimate settling of the series of strikes all up and down the West Coast did not grant unions every concession they sought, and though there was violence well beyond Bloody Thursday, it is often credited as being a turning point that helped to establish the power of labor.
When I was growing up, my parents both belonged to the National Education Association, but to me it was indistinguishable from the many other professional organizations to which they belonged. It was a time when what unions had accomplished in the previous decades was taken for granted, and I was hardly aware that my parents were union members. No more. Unions are now under attack again in our country, and those of us who rely on them to assure our minimally fair treatment and compensation have cause to be worried.
It is also one of those things that makes my jaw drop with disbelief that anyone who is a working person today can speak out against unions. Not that unions are perfect—they are subject to the same kind of corruption and mis-management as any other kind of human organization—but they are indeed a prime support of the so-called “freedom” that we celebrate, unless, that is, we only celebrate the freedom of the wealthy. More and more, it seems that large segments of our population somehow believe that wealth is justification for anything.
The implication of this, of course, is that the wealthy are actually better than the rest of us and deserve what they have. This is part and parcel of the acceptance of Mitt Romney noting that he “won’t apologize for being successful.” But what does it mean that millions of working-class Americans buy this line of reasoning, at least when it comes along with largely fake “conservative” emotional appeals. (See here for a more thorough analysis of Romney’s finances, just out from Vanity Fair.)
I am stumped by this phenomenon, but I also believe it is related to the positive psychology movement that indicates we have a “choice” about everything that happens to us. And it is in this way that I believe that Oprah, who is a big Obama supporter, nonetheless undermines reality-based politics and policies with her incessant, wealthy-woman insistence on the legitimacy of positive psychology. I guess she needs to believe that she deserves all of her wealth and that the rest of us could have it, too, if we only believed in ourselves. She retains one foot in the real-person world based on her modest beginnings, and therefore she can show some sympathy to others, but still… she’s forgotten too much.
In a recent conversation with an old friend, an incident from my past came up. Once, when I was helping to register voters in a poor neighborhood, one older black woman collapsed wearily into a chair as I went over to help her fill out the form. I gave her a pen and asked if she had any questions about anything the form said or asked. She sat back for a moment and eyed me up and down with clear suspicion on her face. “How is it that you here?” she asked me. “A nice, white lady like you—how is it that you on our side?”
Without hesitating, or even really thinking, I answered her. “Ever since I was twelve years old and diagnosed with diabetes, I have known that people don’t always get what they deserve.”
She nodded and turned back to filling out the form, gripping the pen and bearing down hard.
Truly, though, I don’t know. I had parents and a brother who understood this without having had diabetes, and grandparents who did, too. It was an answer, at least, that the black lady filling out the form could believe in, and that has often made me think about how she needed a reason to trust me. Comprehension of her situation without a bridge was inconceivable to her.
Yet, I remain flabbergasted that people buy into the story that everyone gets what they deserve. I want to start a new mantra:
If you are dumb enough to believe that everyone gets what they deserve, then I can’t wait for you to get what you deserve.
Of course, I know that it’s just as likely that you won’t.
Does anyone understand this belief better than I do? Is there any explanation for people who resent their own lot in life but who are willing to point to the even more downtrodden and say they must deserve it? Is there any effective way to point out the delusion inherent in this line of thought?
In my musings on the anniversary of Bloody Thursday, I wonder why so many want to strip away protections from others rather than extending them to more. I wonder why if they don’t feel they have what they deserve in terms of job security and working conditions, they think that others shouldn’t have it either. I wonder that those who have health insurance want it denied to anyone else, and I wonder even more at those without it who don’t want to be “forced” to share the financial consequences of their health risks. I wonder at working people’s susceptibility these days to being divided and conquered by the wealthiest of the wealthy, whose only interest is in maintaining their own power, their freedom to do to the rest of us what they will and to use us for their own ends, their freedom to take away ours.
Freedom in this country at least theoretically means that people have the opportunities to pursue health and happiness. The growing income inequity impinges on that, as does a lack of basic healthcare provisions for all citizens. We need to make sure that we all have those opportunities, not just a select, self-appointed few.
I think in the future, I will celebrate July 5 right along with July 4. They seem to me two sides to the same coin of freedom–freedom to rise a little bit as much as the freedom to accumulate vast wealth unimpeded.
In my ongoing quest for understanding about the life of the feelings, yesterday I attended a half-day event on “Dealing with Destructive Emotions.” Now, this was not some egregiously awful, dumbed-down positive psychology event, but a “meditation workshop” led by Dr. Barry Kerzin, personal physician of the Dalai Lama and a Buddhist monk.
I had had the pleasure of joining a group that took Dr. Kerzin to dinner on a previous visit to UCF last April, and I found him charming, compassionate, and intelligent. He had been particularly kind to me in that vulnerable time after my brain hemorrhage—that time when some people were so very kind and others showed their cruelty and indifference so clearly. I also know and admire the two organizers of the event, both of whom are leaving UCF for better positions elsewhere, and I wanted to support their final efforts here.
In addition, though I’m not a Buddhist and I can’t even claim to be all that knowledgeable, I was motivated to attend because I find much appealing in the Buddhist approach to happiness. I’ve posted before about the Buddhist concept of self-compassion, and there are other ways in which I think the Buddhists have it right. For one, they readily acknowledge that suffering is also a part of life, and they refrain from the blame that so many purveyors of popularized positive psychology allow themselves to indulge in.
For instance, in the talk I link to above, Dr. Kerzin cites a study about women with breast cancer and happiness. What’s different about this from so many of the kinds of “if you’re happier you will be healthier and live longer” assertions is that Kerzin notes not that the happier patients who lived longer were somehow innately more happy as persons (and therefore superior), but that they received tender loving care and that it was this compassion that contributed to their happiness and better health outcomes.
I think this is a radically important difference. In Buddhist thinking, we are responsible for helping ourselves be happier, but we are just as called upon to help other people. That mutuality and interdependence is key to keeping the search for happiness from becoming a weapon against those less fortunate than oneself. This kind of nuance distinguishes many Buddhist teachings from a lot of junk positive psychology, and so I feel myself more open to its strivings for a better world.
But I also attended with some apprehension based on my own make-up as a human being. As I put it to my husband yesterday, my pathology is such that group hugs just make me feel more alone and alienated than almost anything else. I am squeamish about crowds of all sorts, and the most common of types—the roaring audience of the sporting event or the rock concert—I find downright revolting, terrifying, really. Even a lecture given and a meditation practice led by someone I find intelligent and compelling can make me feel queasy in a large-group setting. When everyone else is sharing life-affirming togetherness, I usually feel more and more as though I don’t belong anywhere. So, I went with my mind as far open to that sort of thing as I could pry it, though I knew I would find myself uncomfortable. I assured myself that I nonetheless would be able to use it as a point of useful contemplation. Everything, as they say, is grist.
The day was divided into three segments, one before lunch and two after lunch. Each hour, Dr. Kerzin would talk for a while, take questions, and then lead a brief meditation.
In the opening session, Dr. Kerzin talked for quite a bit about where he had recently traveled, where he was traveling next, and the few days he had spent on a silent retreat near Deland, writing, reading, and kayaking. He talked a bit about his encounter on the St. John’s River with an alligator, which he would touch upon throughout the talk.
What I noticed right away was my own destructive impatience. I wanted Dr. Kerzin to start getting to the point, to give me something that I could take away from this talk. He wasn’t, after all, talking in any way about how to deal with destructive emotions, but about the pleasures and challenges of his lifestyle.
After a while, he transitioned into talking about the way that Buddhism defines “destructive emotions” or kleshas in Sanskrit. (He gave us Tibetan terms as well, but I could not venture to spell those.) He spoke of the three roots of these kleshas—anger, desire, and distorted ignorance—from which negative feelings arise. This all seemed obvious to me—of course, while I understand the need to define things clearly, I felt I knew what destructive emotions are, including the ones I was having in that moment. I wanted not to define them, but to work on “dealing with” them.
By the end of the day, I would realize, of course, that in itself this was a productive lesson for me. As the day went on, it dawned on me how utterly exhausted I would be by giving a program that lasted so many hours, especially one where my presence and wisdom might be sources of expected sustenance for so many. And yet, Dr. Kerzin did not show signs of exhaustion or stress. The slow pace of his talk, rather, allowed a relaxed approach that might help prevent burn-out. I will think much more about this as I return to teaching next year with a desire not to kill myself with frenzied overwork.
Kerzin’s entire first segment, it seems to me now, was about sticking with things and how you can do that in spite of impatience. He noted several times the Dalai Lama’s fondness for saying, “Never give up,” and he went through a long and rather elaborate description of various phases of awareness and practice—at first, you may have an intellectual understanding, and only later will that become felt or experienced. You start with an awareness that there’s another possible way of responding other than getting angry, and from the brief “sigh of relief” that can give, you keep trying and move on to being able to laugh at appearances, then to a point when “love boils up” and the conflictual appearances subside.
As I sat in the ballroom, I contemplated a task that faces me today—calling the health insurance company and the hospital about bills that I’ve been receiving and don’t understand. If there is one thing that sends me into a rage, it is dealing with the medical world in our bureaucratized and profit-motivated system. The last time I talked with someone in the billing department at the hospital and he kept repeating, “That’s our policy,” I ended up calling him a drone. He got all insulted and told me he was a human being. I told him he didn’t act like one. It was a terrible impasse all around. We’ll see if I can do better today, because one thing is certain, and it’s that my fury about this system does me no good on a daily basis. I need to transform that fury into larger action rather than letting it eat me up or letting it make me mean.
At one point, as in the video above, Kerzin asked the audience if there was anyone who had let go of all of his or her anger. There were actually a couple of people who raised their hands. Perhaps it was then I began to feel alienated. How can anyone claim that? I felt suddenly as though I were in a room of poseurs, fake Buddhas. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have no anger left in me, only what it is like to keep trying to let go of it. Probably, if I’m honest, I’m not even fully convinced that I should let go of all of it.
Kerzin ended the first session by taking some questions and then leading us in a five-minute meditation, starting and ending with a toll of a chime, in which we were to empty our minds and concentrate only on our breathing. Once, years ago, when I regularly practiced yoga, I could sometimes do this. Lately, I can only observe as the thoughts fly in and out of my brain like so many pieces of confetti. If meditation could produce a panic attack, I’m a likely candidate these days.
Once dismissed for lunch, I discovered my blood sugar was a low 63, and I stumbled out onto the empty campus and found a vending machine. No doubt the low affected my responses, and I hoped I’d feel better later on. I had told myself that I would go to the library over the hour-and-a-half-long lunch period, but it was closed for semester break, and so I sat on a bench and enjoyed the sunshine until the ants started biting my ankles.
As I watched two middle-school-aged boys playing in the fountain, I contemplated Kerzin’s talk. I was grateful at his nuance. It seemed to me that some of the audience questions had been agenda-driven and tended toward the oversimplifications that so offend me. Kerzin always made important distinctions. “Anger,” he noted, “needs to be distinguished from strength and courage and passion. The problem with anger is that its motivation is harm or revenge, even directed at oneself.”
“Fear,” he noted, on the other hand, “can in itself be sensible.” When you face an alligator, he noted, some fear is a correct response and can keep you alive. “Fear becomes a problem when it becomes habitual anxiety that doesn’t serve to remove you from the danger.”
Dr. Kerzin started the afternoon sessions with reminders once again to be patient and to be gentle with ourselves and others. Once again, he made a distinction important to me: If you ever think you’ve “got it,” he said, you are falling into a trap, the trap of arrogance. He emphasized the lack of right answers and formulas.
He posed the question of how it is that distorted ignorance appears and noted that it’s built in to the assumptions we live with and are born into. Then he used an acronym—PPI—for permanent, partless, and independent. Leisurely, he discussed how people assume these qualities for themselves and other things in the world.
Another destructive emotion invaded me at this point… I felt a little bored. Certainly, on an intellectual basis, I have understood a world that is ever-changing, multi-faceted, and interdependent for a long time. True that I often don’t experience it that way, and in that ballroom I felt atomistic as can be. But this wasn’t introducing me to new concepts.
I felt relieved when we moved on to the practice of a new meditation—that he called “tonglen”—where you breathe in the sorrow or pain (of one person or animal or a group or opened to the general sorrow of the world), and then transform it on the out breath to healing love to alleviate that suffering. It was striking to me throughout the day that Dr. Kerzin included animals as sentient beings, especially because I was once again very worried about my elderly cat, who had done so well over the past couple of weeks but who has now taken another down turn. I was grateful to be able to focus my meditation at least in part on my little cat.
After this second meditation, while we took a short break, I also thought about how it is that I am a practice person rather than an intellectual one. This, of course, is always a factor in academia and one of the reasons why I seldom feel truly at home there. Academia is a traditionally scholarly place, and scholars are oriented toward concepts and ideas, whereas artists of various stripes are oriented toward practice.
This led me to thinking about myself in the context of a large lecture hall full of people. I feel so fortunate to teach the generally small and often truly intimate creative writing courses that I teach. For some in the ballroom yesterday, there was a sense of closeness and sharing encouraged by Dr. Kerzin, but because I am so used to the much more intimate workshop setting, it continued to feel rather abstract and distant to me. This made me grateful for the usual practice of which I’m a part, and reinforced once again my sense of the value and specialness of that method. There are workshops that do unfortunately become the site of intimate brutalization, but for the most part I think the creative writing workshop is a primary location of exploration and sharing of human qualities. When Kerzin mentioned how in his study with his Buddhist teachers, there was often a lot of laughter, I thought of my workshops.
The last hour of the day, Dr. Kerzin mostly took questions from the audience. Several people seemed to me again to have come with agendas—to show off their knowledge, to question him about Taoist principles (not his area), to demonstrate to this wise man how good they were. One even seemed to have that good old positive psychology agenda. I had heard him during the break talking about studies that supposedly showed that people could affect reality with the strength of their thoughts. He asked about the Buddhist precept that “nothing exists.”
Dr. Kerzin gently corrected him. The Buddha, he noted, taught that nothing exists in itself, but he also taught that there is a reality behind the common reality based on experience. The way that we commonly perceive things may be an illusion, but a belief that nothing exists at all would be considered nihilism, and is not a tenet of most kinds of Buddhism. (See also, the third paragraph in the Second Dharmachakra here.) This is another one of those oversimplifications that tend to infest people’s thinking, and I was grateful he pointed that out.
We ended the day with a walking meditation, in which we all stood, found a spot in the room and began walking as slowly as possible, paying attention to the way our feet moved and touched the carpet. This was delightfully new for me. Sitting meditation was always hard for my fluttering mind, but recently has also become physically hard for me with my back aches. Many of the yoga practices I used to do to work on my sense of balance (such as the tree pose), I simply can’t hold now. Even walking itself has sometimes become painful with my arthritic foot.
I found it amazingly challenging to walk so slowly, and it proved a great balance exercise. It also was easy on my foot, as the slowness prevented any pounding of my bones on the floor. Perhaps it was also true for me that the activity helped calm and focus my mind, so that I felt more meditative than I usually ever accomplish sitting.
Besides, as the featured video below will show, it’s wacky to do in close proximity to others, and I am always glad to greet the wacky. Finally, I enjoyed all the other people in the room, their various and varied bodies moving around the space, encountering each other and yet not colliding, all of us doing the best we could do at this deceptively simple task.
It was a good way to end the day, and I came home with plenty to think about and the empty spaces in my head in which to do so.
I enjoyed the walking meditation so much, I’ll include links to a few more videos about it in addition to the one below.
Conversation has become a luxury. The Conversation by Kobe de Peuter.
I think of my generation as the one in which the meaning of “love” shifted and became larger (a good thing) but also more confusing (a bad thing). My female college friends and I both celebrated and mourned the loss of the clarity that most of our mothers seemed to have about what love meant. To them, it meant marriage.
To us, it meant so many other things. For one thing, marriage wasn’t available for those among us who were gay. Yet it was becoming clearer and clearer that gay love was a reality that needed to be acknowledged. And at the same time, our heterosexual relationships were undergoing massive upheavals—marriage, though we didn’t wish to deny it to our gay friends, seemed to many heterosexual women like a “property relationship.” We wanted our love to be free, not attached to economic or child-rearing promises.
The men I knew often took perhaps unfair advantage of this. Even when what they felt was clearly not love to them, they might claim to love us, but to just not to want to participate in the strangling institution of marriage. For the most part, women still wanted to be loved. This made for a lot of broken hearts, and many women eventually “got over” their liberation from marriage. Women and men (gay, straight, and bisexual) began to redefine marriage in multiple ways that (we hope) retain the goodness of an institution of intimate commitment and jettison the woman-down or gays-denied aspects.
Not that the redefining of romantic love is over, but lately what I find shifting more radically is the meaning of friendship.
This weekend I read an article in the May 2012 issue of the Atlantic called “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” by Stephen Marche. It is one of many litanies lately about the dangers of our reliance on social networks on the Internet. Bruce also sent me a link of a TED talk by psychologist Sherry Turkle, who is mentioned in the Atlantic article and who has changed her once-upbeat take on the social network into a lament for the depth and spontaneity of real conversation.
These two commentaries bring so much to my mind. Mainly, they resonate. I myself can experience great loneliness in spite of the ever-enlarging circle of Facebook and blogging friends that I have. Blogging sometimes brings about more substantive exchanges, but even that is not real companionship.
And I have noticed that even my dearest friends no longer want to talk. Now, I am a “long-talker,” as my boss once told me, and I have tired people out for many years in that regard. But I feel more and more removed from this quick-take social interaction that has become the norm. I worry that my pleasure in and need for complex, digressive, even desultory conversation is becoming more and more anachronistic. My friends love me, and I love them, but we don’t have time to talk with each other. Conversation has become the ultimate luxury.
People don’t even like length in writing any more, as literary magazines shrink and shrink the length of manuscripts they will even consider for publication and as those of us teaching creative writing shrink and shrink the length of assignments we accept from our students because we have more and more students and therefore fewer and fewer hours to devote to critique of their work. We indeed are living in an aphoristic time.
Turkle, in her talk, reports that one 18-year-old, “who uses texting for almost everything,” told her “someday, someday, but certainly not now, I would like to learn to have a conversation.” And it is true that sometimes my students today have a hard time participating in a workshop at all. I have even had a few students so afraid that I had to coach them outside of class about how to manage to participate in class. I had to teach them how to have a conversation.
So, another thing that came to my mind is the continuing value of the creative writing workshop model. In creative writing workshops, we still talk. This may be on its way to becoming a lost art, but it may also be something that we should emphasize as part of the value of a liberal arts education. Rare skills can become extremely valuable, after all. And the magic that can sometimes happen in a creative writing workshop (the minds melding, the contributions mixing, the starts and stops coalescing into something new that no one thought of alone) will never, I believe, be replaced by even the most detailed online critique.
That some 18-year-old, who probably has hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, can have all those friends without conversations strikes me as odd. Yet I know that I have some friends on Facebook I have never met, or have met once or twice, or who simply “liked” some brief quip I made in response to someone else’s post.
And this phenomenon of friends we don’t really know is more and more being extended to relationships that have nothing to do with actual friendship and everything to do with business. I offer a mere two examples, though I could go on all day with more:
* I just recently had to purchase a new insulin pump. I’ll save the internecine details of this most recent set of frustrating health care exchanges for another time, but here I at least want to object to the constant reference by the insulin pump company to their being my “partner.” In fact, the company website refers to us as “partners for life.”
Forgive me if I view this with cynicism. I had to order a new pump because my previous one went completely kaput a few days after the warranty expired, not because I desired any of the minimally new features. (Most of which, I am finding, have created a kind of neurotic, nagging, numbing effect with lots of extra alarms.) Since the new pump takes a while to “process,” the company offered a loaner pump for the duration. However, they informed me that if I canceled my order, and didn’t buy my next pump from them, I would be charged $3600 for 90 days with the loaner.
If this is a “partnership,” it’s a coercive one.
* At least the pump company still uses a neutral word like “partner.” In other business news, however, Brighthouse has launched a new advertising campaign in which they pull out all the stops and go right to calling themselves my “friend,” your friend, everybody’s friend. That friendship could be offered to all comers for the price of subscribing to Brighthouse services totally perverts the meaning of the word, of course.
At first the only clue to the identity of who was paying for these prime-time and expensive Hello Friend ads was the combination of blue and yellow in the text portion of the ads. Now, they are gradually introducing ads that move from soft-touch pleasantries to out and out courting. Brighthouse wants to be your friend, the ads say.
How, I wonder, can anyone take this seriously?
Bruce tells me that the campaign is likely a response to the horrible customer service reviews that Brighthouse has received in the past on Internet complaint sites. “Brighthouse,” he said, “gives notoriously bad service. There are all kinds of comments like, ‘DirectTV is bad, but Brighthouse is the worst.’”
In fact, the campaign may actually indicate an actual change in policy that could be important. This would never have occurred to me if the folks who helped put in our new flower and garden beds last week hadn’t accidentally cut our Brighthouse cable. When we realized what had happened, I thwacked myself in the forehead repeatedly, cursing the fact that I’d mistakenly believed all the cables were away from our dig areas. How much would they have to dig up again, and how much would this foolish oversight cost us?
Within 24 hours, the repairman came, made a quick fix, and charged us nothing. I was so relieved not to be punished that I have to admit I felt almost like this man was my friend.
The ads, however, have made me feel simply that the world is more pathetic than ever. I wondered if it’s true that people are just getting more and more disconnected from other real humans and more lonely than ever. That such ads could be deemed effective seems to coincide with the research that Turkle and others report about heavy Facebook users being lonelier than those who use it less or not at all. And with the fact that more and more people use it regularly.
In addition, I think it’s a documentable fact that more and more of our daily needs are met through these large corporate entities. There are few family-owned corner grocery stores, gas stations, drug stores, hardware stores, and pet food stores, so we don’t have even the same kind of superficial acquaintances that we know over a long period of time and that might bloom into something like genuine friendliness, even if not intimate knowledge. I visit the same stores over and over again and hardly ever see the same clerk twice because they are chains that move people around and that people leave at the next best opportunity.
We also have witnessed the rise of various kinds of stealth marketing, where people who purport to be our friends are actually (or also) trying to use us for financial ends. To me, these practices are particularly heinous because I like to know when a spade is a spade. But many young people today live lives much more merged with advertising than an oldster like me is comfortable with. They see nothing wrong with defining themselves with logos, with trying out free sample products and sharing them with friends, and so on. For them, there is no private sphere.
(And there are so many how-tos and analyses of these kinds of marketing that I can’t find a single link to represent them, but if you’re interested, the key terms are stealth marketing, viral marketing, word-of-mouth marketing. And don’t forget product placement!)
These secret agendas also exist in terms of pyramid schemes like Amway, Landmark Forum, and Stargate. Whenever someone approaches you with some ulterior motive, there’s a kind of strain. This person is not approaching with an open mind or with curiosity, but with a pre-determined agenda: to get you to join so that they can get a discount on their own self-help seminars.
One of the most disturbing trends noted by Stephen Marche in the Atlantic is this: “In 1985, only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and 15 percent said they had only one such good friend. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only one confidant.”
And so we also pay others to listen to us. Marche also reports on the dramatic rise in the numbers of psychologists, other kinds of therapists and counselors, and life coaches. This marketplace is more legitimate—at least most of the time you know what you are paying for and it’s about your own needs, whereas the stealth marketers are lying to you to meet their needs. But sometimes even that gets confusing. In my dealings with Landmark Forum, I encountered several members who had also become independent life coaches—they had little in the way of credentials I would recognize for advising others about their lives, but there is no licensing necessary for life coaching. Even in the realm of professional “friends,” the stakes can get confused these days.
What many commentators have begun to notice, including Stephen Marche and Sherry Turkle, is that what many of these online friendship forums promote is a kind of uber cheerfulness, an editing of our personal lives into success stories and personal p.r. campaigns.
I think, however, this trend goes far beyond and certainly doesn’t originate in online social networks. Landmark Forum, Oprah, Dr. Oz, Kris Carr, and the whole host of self-help gurus have over the past decade moved so deeply into the superficial tenets of positive psychology that this kind of self-editing has become ubiquitous. Everyone, nowadays, fears being a “drag,” whether in person or online.
Marche’s article thankfully makes this connection, and he cites a recent study by Iris Mauss and others at the University of Denver that finds that valuing and seeking happiness can doom people to disappointment. Mauss and her fellow psychologists all consider themselves to be working in the arena of positive psychology, and in other writings that I found, she seems a true believer, even in “positive neuroscience.” They apparently expected happiness to be like other goals—those that value academic achievement usually make better grades in school. But they found the opposite—at least in situations of low stress, the valuation of happiness correlated with lower happiness and life satisfaction and higher symptoms of depression.
So, I believe that what Stephen Marche points out about Facebook’s pitfalls is actually something that spreads beyond the online environment. I suppose it’s a chicken-and-egg question whether our online habits have created the changes in our psyches concerning friendship, but I do know that it’s not only online that this issue exists.
However, in a live chat about his Atlantic article, Marche just now referred to another article he wrote—for Toronto Life—about his institution of a Digital Sabbath. I know that I agree with him fully that simple pleasures have become filled with distraction. He mentions playing Legos with his son; for me, this shows up in a variety of ways. How often do I sit quietly with a cat on my lap without checking Facebook and email on my phone every few minutes? How many nights do I wake up and cuddle with a Scrabble game rather than with my sleeping husband? How often when I’m talking on the phone with my mother am I also answering emails?
It seems a supreme irony that we learn so much on Facebook and other online forums and yet also isolate ourselves this way. We won’t give them up, and doing so even on a Sabbath seems unlikely for many. I do hope, however, that we can strive to use them more thoughtfully. No doubt, the meaning of “friend” has changed permanently. But it’s good to remember what’s at the core of it. Else, I fear, friendship will see a worse fate than the changes wrought in the world of romantic love. Sex, after all, still cements romance in the physical world. Friendship may not have such a tangible hold.