January 9, 2013

The root problem with all self-help programs

Filed under: Business, Health, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:26

In New York magazine, Kathryn Schulz explains why self-help programs are so popular … and why they are so difficult for most of us:

In The Age of Anxiety, W.H. Auden observed that we human beings never become something without pretending to be it first. The corollary is more prosaic but, regrettably, at least as true: We humans never become most of the things we pretend we will someday be. Nevertheless, last Monday, you and I and several billion other incorrigible optimists raised our glasses and toasted all the ways we will be different in 2013.

It’s easy to understand why we want to be different. We are twenty pounds overweight; we are $20,000 in debt; we can’t believe we slept with that guy; we can’t believe we didn’t. What’s harder to understand is why transforming ourselves is so difficult. Changing other people is notoriously hard; the prevailing wisdom on that one is Don’t hold your breath. But it’s not obvious why changing oneself should present any difficulty at all. And yet, demonstrably, it does.

The noted self-help guru Saint Augustine identified this problem back in the fourth century A.D. In his Confessions, he records an observation: “The mind gives an order to the body and is at once obeyed, but when it gives an order to itself, it is resisted.” I cannot improve upon Augustine’s insight, but I can update his examples. Say you want to be skinny. You’ve signed on with Weight Watchers, taken up Zumba, read everything from Michael Pollan to French Women Don’t Get Fat, and scrupulously recorded your every workout, footstep, and calorie on your iPhone. So whence the impulsive Oreo binge? [. . .]

This is where the cheerfully practical and accessible domain of self-help bumps up against one of the thorniest problems in all of science and philosophy. In the 1,600 years since Augustine left behind selfhood for sainthood, we’ve made very little empirical progress toward understanding our own inner workings. We have, however, developed an $11 billion industry dedicated to telling us how to improve our lives. Put those two facts together and you get a vexing question: Can self-help work if we have no idea how a self works?

December 18, 2012

The real barrier to self-improvement is always you

Filed under: Humour, Randomness — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:08

Just when did we take the portal to this alternate universe where Cracked is good? For example, this article:

If you want to know why society seems to shun you, or why you seem to get no respect, it’s because society is full of people who need things. They need houses built, they need food to eat, they need entertainment, they need fulfilling sexual relationships. You arrived at the scene of that emergency, holding your pocket knife, by virtue of your birth — the moment you came into the world, you became part of a system designed purely to see to people’s needs.

Either you will go about the task of seeing to those needs by learning a unique set of skills, or the world will reject you, no matter how kind, giving and polite you are. You will be poor, you will be alone, you will be left out in the cold.

Does that seem mean, or crass, or materialistic? What about love and kindness — don’t those things matter? Of course. As long as they result in you doing things for people that they can’t get elsewhere.

[. . .]

The human mind is a miracle, and you will never see it spring more beautifully into action than when it is fighting against evidence that it needs to change. Your psyche is equipped with layer after layer of defense mechanisms designed to shoot down anything that might keep things from staying exactly where they are — ask any addict.

So even now, some of you reading this are feeling your brain bombard you with knee-jerk reasons to reject it.

H/T to ESR for the link.

September 14, 2012

Why did people travel all over the ancient Greek world to consult the Oracle at Delphi?

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Megan McArdle on self-help, self-help books, and a good guess about why the Oracle at Delphi was so influential:

I must have read dozens — hundreds — of melancholy laments about the process of aging when I was in my twenties. I enjoyed the writing of many, and even managed to eke a wistful moment out of a few of them. But then one day, in my mid-thirties, I found myself reading another — and resonating to its message of lost youth like a finely tuned wind-chime. Suddenly I shared the wistful and slightly angry sense of a profound loss of possibility; I too had realized that there was no longer time for me to try another career, take up ballet, or enlist in the military. For the rest of my life, I was going to be basically what I am now. I also shared the sense of comfort that that realization brings; I wasted far too much of my twenties trying to construct unlikely selves from the basic starting material I was given.

Some messages can only be heard when you are ready. And some can only be taken from a stranger, as witness the dismal record of friends who try to “help” each other with their marriages. “Practice makes perfect” may not be any more true because someone did a study demonstrating it — but the edict may be easier to swallow coming from Malcolm Gladwell than from your mother.

[. . .]

Hale was part of the team that investigated the Oracle at Delphi, and found that the oracle seems to have sat directly above a crack in the earth which emitted psychoactive gases, putting her in an altered state from which she delivered her pronouncements. He gave us a stunning lecture on the topic of the Oracle (you can get a taste of what it was like here). And one of the topics he explored was what role the oracle played in Greek society. Why did people come to this remote place from all over the Mediterranean, and even beyond, in order to ask her a question? Not just to ask — to act on it. People seemed to have believed that the Oracle was really pointing the way for them.

One possibility, of course, is that the psychoactive gasses actually allowed the Oracle to see the future, and thus provide a very useful service. But I think we can assume arguendo that this is probably not the case. So why were people so interested in what she had to say?

Perhaps they were just all stupid — this is a popular theory about the past. But Hale offered another possibility. He suggested that even cryptic, elusive statements such as the oracle liked to make can be very valuable, because they snap us out of our current mode of thinking. When you are stuck in a rut, rehearsing the same arguments (or behaviors) over and over again, just having someone offer you new food for thought may open up possibilities that you previously hadn’t considered.

February 10, 2012

Willpower, for good or evil

Filed under: Media, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:52

In the Guardian, Jon Henley reviews the new book by Roy F Baumeister and John Tierney:

Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength distills three decades of academic research (Baumeister’s contribution) into self-control and willpower, which the Florida State University social psychologist bluntly identifies as “the key to success and a happy life”.

The result is also (Tierney’s contribution) readable, accessible and practical. It’s an unusual self-help book, in fact, in that it offers not just advice, tips and insights to help develop, conserve and boost willpower, but grounds them in some science.

Willpower is, Baumeister argues over lunch, “what separates us from the animals. It’s the capacity to restrain our impulses, resist temptation — do what’s right and good for us in the long run, not what we want to do right now. It’s central, in fact, to civilisation.”

The disciplined and dutiful Victorians, all stiff upper lip and lashings of moral fibre, had willpower in spades; as, sadly, did the Nazis, who referred to their evil adventure as the “triumph of will”. In the 60s we thought otherwise: let it all hang out; if it feels good, do it; I’m OK, you’re OK.

But without willpower, it seems, we’re actually rarely OK. In the 60s a sociologist called Walter Mischel was interested in how young children resist instant gratification; he offered them the choice of a marshmallow now, or two if they could wait 15 minutes. Years later, he tracked some of the kids down, and made a startling discovery.

[. . .]

What they found was that, even taking into account differences of intelligence, race and social class, those with high self-control — those who, in Mischel’s experiment, held out for two marshmallows later — grew into healthier, happier and wealthier adults.

November 28, 2011

Megan McArdle reviews some recent scolding books on thrift

Filed under: Economics, Media — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:39

Megan McArdle admits right up front that she recently splurged on a very spendy kitchen appliance, so you know she does not number herself among the community of scolds on the topic of thrift:

For decades, Americans have wallowed in credit, shunned savings and delighted in debt. In 1982, the personal savings rate was 10.9% of disposable income, by 2005 it had fallen to just 1.5%. It has since rebounded, but remains a measly 5%.

All this profligacy supports a rather vibrant cottage industry in polemics against consumerism. Authors as varied as the economist Robert H. Frank (1999′s “Luxury Fever”) and the political theorist Benjamin R. Barber (2007′s “Consumed”) have ganged up on what they see as the particularly unequal and excessive American spending habits. Unsurprisingly considering their abhorrence of waste, they are avid recyclers; the same arguments, behavioral economics studies and anecdotes appear time and time again. Access to credit makes consumers overspend. Materialistic people are anxious and unhappy. The conspicuous-consumption arms race is unwinnable. Down with status competition! Down with long work weeks, grueling commutes and McMansions! Up with family time, reading and walkable neighborhoods! The effect is rather like strolling down the main tourist strip in a beach town: Each merchant rushes out of his shop, gesticulating wildly and showing you exactly the same thing that you saw at all the previous stores.

The latest person to open up shop on this boardwalk is Baylor marketing professor James A. Roberts. “Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy” runs mostly true to form, its main innovation being to add financial self-help advice to the usual lectures. The book includes not only exhortations but actual instructions—how to make a budget, get out of debt and save for retirement.

It’s a thorough survey of both academic research on consumerism and basic finance advice. Still, I first ran into an argument I hadn’t seen before somewhere around page 200 — that the perfect surfaces of modern products hasten the replacement cycle because they show wear so badly — and well before then Mr. Roberts had fallen into some of the terrible habits of the genre. Though less openly contemptuous of the spendthrift masses than many of his fellow scolds, he still exudes that particular sanctimonious anti-materialism so often found among modestly remunerated professors and journalists.

Here are some of the things that upset him and that “document our preoccupation with status consumption”: Lucky Jeans, bling, Hummers, iPhones, 52-inch plasma televisions, purebred lapdogs, McMansions, expensive rims for your tires, couture, Gulfstream jets and Abercrombie & Fitch. This is a fairly accurate list of the aspirational consumption patterns of a class of folks that my Upper West Side neighbors used to refer to as “these people,” usually while discussing their voting habits or taste in talk radio. As with most such books, considerably less space is devoted to the extravagant excesses of European travel, arts-enrichment programs or collecting first editions.

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