Saturday, July 23, 2011

Fighting Army Suicides With Positive Psychology

The most interesting thing I learned at the World Congress of Positive Psychology today was reported by the founder of the discipline, Martin Seligman. The Army has been working with several big names in the field, including Seligman, to test and train soldiers to make them more resilient, and to identify people needing help early.

A well-being test developed by Chris Peterson and colleagues was given to all soldiers last year. Two of the crucial measures of well-being ask people whether they think their life has meaning, and whether they think their work has meaning. Those soldiers who scored in the bottom one percent on both measures had the worst subjective well-being in the Army.

They then looked at the test results for the 84 soldiers who committed suicide during the year. Half the suicides were in the lowest one percent on both well-being measures.

The Army is training drill sergeants to teach soldiers to be more resilient. With results like these, the Army can know where to pinpoint its training so it will do the most good.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Happy Society Needs a Fluid Economy and Stable Families

I am strongly attracted to the view, expressed by Matt Ridley in The Rational Optimist, that a fluid world benefits workers as workers, and benefits everyone as consumers.

At the same time, I know that families benefit from a stable world, especially when they are raising young children.

Families benefit from cheap goods reliably delivered. But families are hurt by unstably employed parents.

I do not know how to balance the exhilaration of the creative destruction of capitalism with the fulfillment of the creative nurture of families. But I think I have identified a central problem of the happy society.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Rightly Ordered and Disciplined Happy Society

The other day I started what I think will become a major thread of "exploring the happy society," by arguing that

The quest for the happy society begins with the courage to proclaim that the world is better off now than it ever has been, and is getting better.

Regular reader ceemac asked this rich question: "I am curious how your concept of 'happy society' either meshes with or conflicts with the Calvinist quest for a society that is 'rightly ordered and disciplined.'"

My short answer is that a rightly ordered and disciplined society is one in which people are free to pursue what makes them happy.

I will go further to claim that most people, if free to choose, will get sick of the lower pleasures and work their way toward the higher ones.

I believe that there are lower and higher forms of happiness. I think Aristotle is right that contemplation is, or is the form of, the highest happiness. I think that Thomas Aquinas is right that what we contemplate in the highest happiness is the beatific vision.

Few people will reach that highest happiness in this life. But a rightly ordered and disciplined society can help people develop habits that lead toward virtues - and therefore happiness. How, exactly, people reach the contemplation of the divine is, I believe, beyond what any merely social theory can explain.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Millennials are Appealingly Conventional

Penelope Trunk held back from criticizing Gen Y, today's youth and young adults, when she was giving them career advice on Brazen Careerist. Now that she has moved on, she let fly with a few mostly just points.

The main point is that Gen Y like to fit in, be part of the team, do what is normal and conventional. Howe and Strauss, who called this generation Millennials, said they are like the '50s Silent Generation, their structural counterparts in the cycle of generations.

My students now are Millennials. I like them. Their distinctive qualities are about 90% beneficial. They are weak on critical thinking and innovation - but so are most people in most generations. They are nice and want to work together (unlike Gen X at the same age).

The mission of Gen X is to rebuild basic institutions after the Boomers' cultural revolution. The task of the Millennials will be to consolidate an appealing normal life within those renewed basic institutions.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The World Is Just Awesome

We Can Only See the Happy Society If We Accept That the World Is Better Off Now Than It Has Ever Been

My main project for this sabbatical and for the years to follow is to explore the idea of the happy society. I changed the subtitle of this blog to reflect that new quest.

I am reading Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist. He argues that life for the vast majority of people is better now than it has ever been, due to specialization and exchange.

The idea that this reading, and many others like it, has led me to is this:

The quest for the happy society begins with the courage to proclaim that the world is better off now than it ever has been, and is getting better.

I believe this is true no matter how materialist or spiritual your standard of happiness is.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Tiger Mom vs. Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids

Our Centre College alumni study group considered Amy Chua's The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Bryan Caplan's Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. They are, in effect, arguing with each other.

I have given my overall assessment of each book here and here.

Chua is right that her children would not have been great child musicians if she had not pushed them to an extreme degree.

Caplan is right that upper-middle class children with competent, loving homes will not turn out very much differently as adults if they are pushed to achieve early, or not.

On the whole, I think Caplan has the better argument. I am all for helping your children to pursue their passion to get good at it. And everyone, at every age, needs to be held to high standards. But I don't think that pushing children to either be prodigies by sheer effort, or to spend their youth on something that the parents have the passion for, is worth it.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids

Bryan Caplan's Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids is a wonderfully gruntled book.

Based on twin and adoption studies, Caplan concludes that middle-class parents really don't need to overwhelm themselves and their children with a scheduled and directed childhood. In the long run, if you give your kids a vaguely normal childhood, they will turn out like you. The intense interventions have an effect in the short run, but tend to wash out in the long run.

Therefore, raising kids is easier than you probably thought. And kids are great fun for most parents. ERGO: have more than you were originally planning on.

The best advice he gives is that you should think long-term about your own parenthood. Sure, kids have lots of up-front costs in money, time, effort, and sleep, but the payoff later is huge. In fact, Caplan argues, you should pick the number of children you have based on the number of grandchildren you want to end up with.