More from the mindfulness movement, but with a fun Holmesian twist. You don't have to know much about Sherlock Holmes to enjoy the book. Plus, if you...moreMore from the mindfulness movement, but with a fun Holmesian twist. You don't have to know much about Sherlock Holmes to enjoy the book. Plus, if you are interested in the Psychology of Perception, this book's end notes lists key reading for you. I gave it 3 stars and not 4 (I only reserve 5 stars for books that change my life) because I found myself highly distractable at times while reading it. i.e., I wasn't engrossed. The prose can tend to wander just a bit at times. But Konnikova's writing in this book and in traditional and online media is delightful. She's definitely an author to watch. (less)
“Positive thinking is so firmly enshrined in our culture that knocking it is a little like attacking motherhood or apple pie.” -Srikumar Rao, Ph.D., author of Happiness at Work.
Thinking about what can go wrong with a business plan is a secret task, lest anyone in the board room sniff out treachery. Planning for the worst possible scenario in life is chastised as a Fates-tempting practice, as if the idea itself could manifest doom. Positive thinking has taken over the culture. Any attempt to examine its logic, as Dr. Rao implies above, is met with disdain and even fear.
But we must examine the tenants of positive thinking. Visualizing a positive outcome, eradicating negative thoughts, setting meaningful goals, and being optimistic in all endeavors can actually lead us down paths to failure and sadness. Research shows that these practices can be dangerous pursuits that evoke the opposite of their intentions. Some studies discovered that visualizing yourself as having accomplished a goal actually decreases your likelihood of actually achieving that goal. In educational studies, the almost-holy positive-thinking concept of telling children they are smart harms their ability to do well on increasingly hard tasks. All of this “glass half full” stuff has a dark downside.
What if, instead of bubbly (but ignorant) bliss was replaced by sensible realism? Would we descend into the dark depths of cynicism if we examined the cracks in the positive thinking armor?
In his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman shares his own journey across the underbelly of the optimism movement in America. In the spirit of Barbara Ehrenreich and Julie Norem, Burkeman sets out to test some of the more damaging principles of positive thinking and battles with the assumptions surrounding them. Burkeman educates us about the Stoics and their hard-won and precious reality focus. He also visits an extreme Buddhist meditation retreat to become hyper-aware of the “bad thoughts are our enemy” myth. His meeting with an Oprah guru teaches him that silence gets a bad rep. Other adventures and more lessons continue toward the end of the book, where Burkeman realizes we all may be asking ourselves the wrong question. It isn’t about “how to be happy” as much as it’s about “defining happiness” that fits into our human existence.
Combining Stoic and Buddhist teachings, Burkeman gives us this alternative perspective on how people and companies can release their fears by “leaning into the discomfort” (as therapists say) as opposed to turning our backs to it. We need not stare at the sun to see the light, nor must we always be thinking “positive” thoughts in order to succeed. As humans, we can’t keep tensing that positivity muscle and expect it to hold out. Instead, Burkeman suggests, perhaps we should wonder why we insist on positivity in the first place.
I like this book. It’s a fun read and the storytelling makes difficult concepts easy to understand. I’ve already put some things I’ve learned from the book into practice. For example, I now know that my anxious thoughts are not me, no more than my internal organs are “me”. I can step back from my thoughts and observe them like I can observe my breath, or the weather, and realize I have little to do with them, and they have little to do with me. When I feel anxiety creeping up, I go into this “movie mode” and let it play out. At the end, I see what’s left. What issues really need addressing? What are my resources? What do I need? I can disown the anxiety and take responsibility for solving the problem instead. Circumstances are weather. They are neither good nor bad. They just need to be dealt with.
The “negative” path to happiness, Burkeman poses, will render a more solid and realistic pursuit and destination than constantly fighting against our own nature to spot the inconsistencies and dangers that await us. This path to a happy realism may be just what we need to get out of the positive thinking hangover we’ve all been nursing for the past 30 years.
Check out my interview with Oliver Burkeman, the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, at PurpleCarPark or on iTunes at PurpleCar Park. (transcript available).(less)
Sister Bernadette was having none of my hijinks. Her face was as old and gray as her patience, and time was running out on both. Usually when my first grade self got a bit “bold” (Sister’s favorite word for me), a swift and decisive reaction from her was enough to get me in my seat. This day, though, I was on a roll. I had the class in stitches, and like any good comedian I wanted to ride it out. I was incorrigible.
Sister Bernadette, in a rare gutsy move I hadn’t seen before or since, made me stand in front of her desk facing the class in a waste paper basket. The message: “You’re garbage.” Sister was betting on my ability to be embarrassed.
This old school nun was not a good gambler. She made two fatal mistakes: 1. She overestimated my moral sense. 2. She underestimated my ingenuity. She had me stand with my back to her and my face to the crowd. Immediately I was miming and moving my hands, continuing to make the class laugh. She told me to stand straight with my arms locked at my sides. I stood perfectly still. Except for my face. I started contorting my mouth, nose and eyes in all sorts of crazy shapes. More laughs!
The basket was then moved to the side of her desk where I could face her. That’s when pure boredom set in. Still, I wasn’t absorbing the lesson, until my older brother came in the classroom with a message from his 4th grade teacher. In hindsight, Sister must have, without my notice, summoned my brother down on a messenger ruse. This was a devastatingly clever strategic move on her part, because the thought of my mother knowing about this incident terrified me to the point of pure panic. Instant, hysterical tears came pouring out of me and I lost my breath. The beating that awaited me when I returned home would be so severe I wouldn’t be able to sit for a week. Sister Bernadette finally seemed satisfied and I was permitted to go back to my seat. Lesson learned. I never acted up that much again in her classroom.
In his new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, New York Times journalist Paul Tough presents research about the importance of traits like resilience, optimism, self-control, and conscientiousness to long term success. These characteristics appear to be more important than early-intervention academic support for long term success in children growing up under the poverty line. Tough, an education reform reporter and author of the poverty-reform call-to-arms book Whatever It Takes, cites studies that give a different view on what schools, parents and the government can do to break the poverty cycle through education; success, these studies say, lies not in early intervention and implementation of traditional cognitive skills (reading, math) but by teaching the “non-cognitive” skills that noteworthy people appear to have in abundance since toddlerhood.
This “strong character” argument in education is nothing new. Parochial schools and many elite private schools use “building character” as a selling point as much today as they did 200 years ago. Tough reports that the current education system’s shift away from inculcating character traits toward teaching to standardized testing (the
quantitative measurement of basic academic skills) only took hold in the 20th century. This skill-measuring approach was solidified by the most recent testing-on-steroids No Child Left Behind program. And, Tough notes, it is just easier to test skills like reading, addition and subtraction. “Soft-skills” are harder to quantify. How does one judge a child’s self-control? How do you measure curiosity? What defines “grit” in a first grader?
Enter the Marshmallow test. It turns out there are ways to measure character traits. This famous test, conducted by researcher Walter Mischel in 1972 at Stanford University, put one large, yummy marshmallow in front of a 4-year-old, then instructed the child to wait to eat the treat. If she could wait for 10 short minutes, the researcher said, she would have two marshmallows, but only if she waited the whole time. If she couldn’t wait, she could ring a bell and the researcher would come back and the preschooler could eat the one marshmallow.
Some preschoolers made it through the ten minutes, some didn’t. There were varying lengths of tolerance, of course. None of this is very interesting. The mind-blowing part of this study was what Mischel and others learned years later. It turns out that the length of time the 4-year-old waited directly correlated to her level of achievement decades later. The kids who could wait were more likely to graduate from high school, avoid teen pregnancy, and dodge other pitfalls, then go on to college and eventually earn more. The researchers studied the tapes and discovered the successful delayers had creative ways to distract themselves from the tempting treat. Some sang songs, some turned their backs to the marshmallow, others played with their hands. One kid even napped. The kids who couldn’t hold off for even just a little bit tended to fall into the nightmares that poverty can bring, dropping out, drugs, crime, and early sexual intercourse. The message was clear: the early character skill of being able to delay gratification was essential to accomplish long-term goals.
Tough cites some similar thought-provoking examples of this character research that ended up delivering the question of measurable traits to neuroscientists. Neuroscientists love their EEG’s, PET scans, CAT scans and functional MRI’s, and they employed the tech to discover if any brain variations were happening between the successful kids and the “at-risk” youth the education system tries so desperately to help. The tech showed some disturbing results: brain anatomy is altered, yes, physically altered, by stress. Repeated stress introduced into early lives can prevent the construction of the pathways children need in order to develop good character traits and solid cognitive skills.
This isn’t to say that those pathways can’t be generated later. If lower-income parents, Tough posits, can learn some theories and practices adopted from the attachment parenting movement, the children’s brains can recover and the kids can thrive and succeed even whilst living in poverty. There is some evidence to support this, and Tough gives some real world examples of what an “attachment to build character” program looks like. He also spends quite a large chunk of the book studying unique and wildly successful inner-city chess clubs as well as some pathway-to-college programs in Chicago’s poverty-ridden districts.
How Children Succeed is pretty compelling. Tough is a seasoned writer. He frames the dry research with rich profiles of educators and academics. His stories of students affected by these programs pull at your heartstrings.
Personally, the book brought me back to fundamental questions that come with being a parent in an affluent suburb of Philadelphia. No child I know is struggling with poverty. The kids here attend very well-ranked public and private schools. Despite their secure middle-class lives, these children’s bad behavior frustrates me almost daily. Not only would the majority of these kids not be able to wait 5 seconds for the marshmallow, they would not be able to keep their hands off the bag as the researcher opened it. I couch my complaints to my husband as “lack of discipline” but Tough’s book peels that onion back a bit more and reminds me these children lack fundamental character traits. And indeed, Tough mentions how this dearth can affect more affluent children, especially those born to classic “helicopter” parents (attachment parents gone astray). I worry for the preschool children who torture their infant siblings, I am concerned for the kids who can’t sit in a restaurant, or those who simply cannot allow their parent two quiet minutes for an important phone call. These parents, in a misguided effort to shield their children from suffering, are creating self-control-free mini-tyrants. We all worry for the future of our country when we’re standing in line behind these little monsters at Whole Foods. A little character-trait training could do us all some good.
That fateful day in the beginning of my first grade year, I rode the bus home in fearful silence. I dragged my feet when my two older brothers got off the bus with the dozen (wild!) public school kids that also lived in the dilapidated apartment complex across from an equally dilapidated US Army depot. It was still September, my first month at the small club that was Monsignor McHugh Elementary school and here I was, already labeled garbage. My brothers were home probably for a full minute before I got to the door. I expected one of my mother’s famous full-on, thick-leather-70’s-belt blitzes, but all I got was the typical (and contradictory) “I-miss-my-baby-all-day” smothering. My brother didn’t rat me out. He let me dodge a bullet, and I always respected him for it. I learned loyalty and compassion from him that day.
My parents divorced when I was in 4th grade. We stayed in that apartment complex, my brothers and I sharing a room, until I was 12-years-old. Life was stressful, but my brother had just enough rare moments of precocious wisdom to carry me through to adulthood. I chafed every single teacher at Msgr. McHugh and at my catholic high school, but there were a few strong, trustworthy folks there who provided me with some solid footing. And early in my life, my bond with my mother was good enough to create the brain I needed for success.
My neighbors weren’t so lucky. By the time I was in second grade, I could feel myself pulling away from my playmates by leaps and bounds. They would spend any loose change immediately on candy; I would save it. They would play pranks and steal little things here and there, and I would walk by myself in the woods. I would read; they would watch hours upon hours of TV. By the time we left the complex when I was 12, I was college bound and they were running with crowds that would lead them down tragic paths. The discrepancy was painfully apparent. An old neighbor stopped my mother in the grocery store, years later, to ask how she managed to get me off to college when her granddaughter, my childhood friend, was pregnant by the time she turned 16. My mother couldn’t do anything but shake her head. She often had the same question.
In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough may have just offered the answer. (less)
**spoiler alert** I don't want to rain on a parade here; I see most of the reviews are glowing. I do have a few comments, though, as to why I thought...more**spoiler alert** I don't want to rain on a parade here; I see most of the reviews are glowing. I do have a few comments, though, as to why I thought the book was only "OK."
Here are three main "mehs" I have with the book (I have more but these are my main ones):
1. The author doesn't truly get the point of her whole experiment until page 293 or so, and even then, Wyma hardly has a true grasp on the concept. Our behaviors, as humans, affect one another and in turn our own well-being. Common courtesy, empathy, resilience, and grit are the survival characteristics Wyma is truly teaching; these are the very core skills we need to be good people, and Wyma only touches upon this idea toward the end of the book. Granted, she is no child-psychology expert, but still... I'd expect a bit more insight sooner rather than later from someone who used to hold high-powered jobs. (And on a side note here, I felt like the Christianity was thrown in for marketing purposes. Not much of it sounded sincere).
2. Basic economic theory and behavioral theory is ignored. Never pay for chores. There are many, many writings that debunk the misguided notion of pay or allowance for children's household work, showing that it is a law of quickly decreasing returns with a backlash of inflation in the mix. Again, this woman is no expert, but it's disappointing to see an educated, privileged woman fall into famously debunked myths. For more information, see Freakonomics or any of Dan Ariely's work. Also, the other hidden side of this chore experiment is nagging. To avoid nagging and deal out more relevant (not monetary) immediate consequences, see How to Talk So Kids Will Listen by Faber & Mazlish.
3. Wyma's "experiment" is just a version of helicopter parenting. Stay with me here, it's a bit hard to explain. Throughout the book, Wyma insists her children are being handed a disservice when she does all the errands, tasks, housework, etc., without the children's help. In the beginning of the book Wyma admits she skipped the teaching sessions because it was easier for her to do things herself. She chided herself for raising privileged kids, as if the only way to teach children to be responsible is to break your back instructing them on how to do daily tasks. I don't owe my children a correct bathroom-cleaning technique. That is something they will pick up in time. I do owe them their best shot in life, and doing chores builds skills toward grabbing that best shot, but I need to take care of my entire family as well as myself. My kids will learn the skills in the book as they grow, because I raise them to be empathetic, resilient and hard-working. I think it's OK if parents decide to post-pone the gas pumping lessons forever, especially if they need to get to work on time.
Here are three main "WAY TO GOs":
1. Wyma learns how to stop underestimating her children. Human children are capable of a lot. Most of the time they are left to exercise their manipulation skills, all under the guise of "Oh, he's a just baby, he doesn't know any better." You wouldn't say this if you've seen all the research as well as all the anecdotal evidence I've seen about the animal kingdom and human children. They're smart and resourceful and you should give them a chance. They have agency. Foster it.
2. Sibling rivalry is kept to a minimum. Perhaps Wyma didn't report it, but absent were the torturous whines about fairness, work loads, etc. It seems like Wyma could've either had a good editor or her kids do have a general respect for each other.
3. Humor helps. There aren't rip-roaring comedic scenes in the book but there's a definite sense of humor throughout the book (and hopefully throughout the household). Humans are imperfect. You gotta laugh at yourself. No one has to be supermom. Just do your best.
I hope you all have a great time with your kids. Check out the books I mentioned if you want some more peace and respect in your house.