Category Archives: Ideas From Therefore Joy

Is the World Good, and Does it Matter?

I think I have figured out what I want to do with my life.  This post is one part autobiography, one part philosophy, and one part personal strategic plan.

I have three manuscripts my agent and I are trying to publish.  One is a collection of auto-biographical short stories called Stuttering Gets the Girls: Stories from a Life on Three Continents.  The other is about just war theory and pacifism.  The last is called Therefore Joy: A Positive Theology for the Next Generation.  The latter is the only one I really care about.  It has a genuine shot at changing the world.

Therefore Joy rides a philosophical train of thought that winds through freewill, causal determinism, divine predestination, omniscience, and omnipotence.  I find satisfying answers to many timeless questions that led me to believe in college, as I still do, that the world is objectively good.  But at first I did not see the world this way.  I saw a shit world—ugliness, suffering, and tears.

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Why was I blind to the reality of a good world?  I hypothesized that perhaps humans do not see the good in the world because we are not paying attention.  To correct this, every night I started writing down five wonderful things about the universe.

These minutes somehow changed me.  I got happy.  I smiled incessantly.  I imagined a social movement in which people helped each other explore all the reasons why God chose to make this beautiful universe.  My hero became the tourist in their homeland, the one who flirts with the line separating enchantment and idiocy.  I felt privileged to be alive.

by Banksy

by Banksy

What the hell?  Philosophy is not supposed to make you happy, right?  But it did!  That seemed too easy.  So the last day of college, six years ago, I walked into the office of Dr. Paul Young, the head of Houghton’s psych department, and said, “I want to study happiness.”  He told me about Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, and the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania.

LIVE.CNF_Seligman

Dr. Martin Seligman, former president of the APA, speaker, and author of Authentic Happiness, Flourish, and other bestselling books.  I had dinner with him recently and we chatted about my thesis topic.  He is excited and promised to read the final draft.

Positive psychology is the study of what it means to thrive.  It asserts that emotions like joy are not automatic in the absence of pain or fear; joy has its own substance and characteristics and deserves focused study.  Positive psych examines all positive emotions, defines strengths and identifies their symptoms, and explores what it takes for a humans to maximally and holistically flourish.  So, while Socrates pondered the nature of the good life 2,400 years ago, science, in the form of positive psychology, has only been doing so for the last 15 years.  I went to “happiness college” (as children of my classmates call the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program) to learn what has been discovered so far.

Jer, Christa Fritner, and Allison Webster graduating from “happiness college.”  (Allison’s kids coined the term.)

Jer, Christa Fritner, and Allison Webster graduating from “happiness college.” (Allison’s kids coined the term.)

I found, for instance, that our lives, to a great degree, are determined by what we choose to focus on.  Secondly, there is indeed a very, very well-established negativity bias that make people focus on what is wrong in the world.  Finally, writing down three new things that you are thankful for each night before you go to bed is a formal exercise called “Counting your Blessings.”  It has been subjected to randomized controlled trials and found to significantly boost well-being for months after the individual stops doing it (Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E., 2003 doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.84.2.377).  In fact, it turns out that my numerous and bold psychological assertions in Therefore Joy are testable and supported by a host of related theories and empirical studies.  There is even a perfect Jer-size gap in the research right where I was headed anyway.

Goofing off at graduation with classmates Bit Smith and Andrew Soren.

Goofing off at graduation with classmates Bit Smith and Andrew Soren.

This summer I am spending two months writing a masters thesis.  My title is “Is the World Good, and Does it Matter?”  The idea is that humans make quick and sweeping judgements that have a demonstrated effect on how we interact with the thing we are judging.  For instance, we often judge a whole country after a single 2-day visit, a person after seeing their skin color, or an entire book after reading one page.  I wish to explore what might be called the biggest of all possible judgements: our “take” on the whole universe.  I call them “universal assessments” (UAs).

I am interested in what UAs people make, how they are formed, and how they affect life.  Is the world a shit-hole to be endured or a wondrous place to be explored?  Can I tie universal assessments to depression, subjective well-being, divorce, spirituality, suicide, social ability, income, education levels, culture…even travel habits—it seems likely that believing that the world is a dangerous place may keep one indoors.  Finally, if UAs affect life outcomes, I want to create interventions to change them.

In short, I want to see if I can change the world by changing how we think about the world.

This is a ton of research, perhaps a career’s worth.  So, in addition to my masters thesis, the second thing I want to do is get a PhD in psychology.  I have come to this conclusion only recently, and it may surprise some of you.  I have seven major personal reasons.

  • First, universal assessments are exactly what I want to study.  At the risk of sounding overdramatic, this is apparently the big idea of my life and has been for a while.
  • Second, studying UAs is strategic.  In Therefore Joy I argue that all monotheists must assert that existence is objectively good.  But even if I could get folks to sit and listen, I would convince few.  Studies have shown that people tend to believe convenient truths — truths that we want to be true.  If I can show that positive UAs (such as “the world is good”) are not only true, but helpful, I can change the world.  Additionally, I came to believe this convenient truth before I realized it was convenient so I am not likely to be accused of bias.
  • Third, professional philosophy is super duper boring (sorry Ben Lipscomb, Carl Fisher, and Chris Stewart).  I have thought for years that a philosophy PhD was where I was headed, but I cannot stomach the notion of making fine distinctions for seven years.  Practically, I found myself avoiding getting a PhD.  I am a philosopher that struggles with academic philosophy.  Incidentally, Martin Seligman got his undergrad in philosophy, as did Jon Haidt, and my capstone advisor James Pawelski, the director of my program, was formerly a philosophy professor who wrote his dissertation on William James. In many ways, philosophy and psychology has become increasingly interconnected.  And if my topic is UAs, then I am looking at the nature of belief, its varieties, and its sources.  It’s perfect!
James Pawelski, myself, and Assistant Instructors Dan Lerner and Dan Tomasulo

James Pawelski, Jer Clifton, and Instructors Dan Lerner and Dan Tomasulo.  These are some of my favorite people!

  • Fourth, even though my stuttering has improved over the years, it is still especially awful in some contexts, such as learning languages.  Psychology PhD programs don’t have language requirements.
  • Fifth, I remain very interested in practically helping people.  I have loved working the past six years as a community organizer and at Habitat for Humanity.  I want the flexibility to do more pro-poor work, and a PhD in psychology is recognized as exponentially more useful than one in history or philosophy.  I love ideas, don’t get me wrong, but I love people more.  A PhD in psychology is relevant to my vocation and my passion for helping people.
  • Sixth, the fit is right.  I came alive during my masters program in a way that I have not since college.  I believe studying and changing UAs will allow me to use my top strengths (creativity, bravery, love, curiosity, love of learning).
  • Seventh, I need a PhD to satisfy  publishers, and it will help me build my platform.

Recently, Zondervan became very interested in publishing Therefore Joy.  We were on the verge of signing (it felt awesome, like I was being considered by the L.A. Lakers), but they ultimately declined.  They said emphatically that they loved my writing, and I should get back to them the moment I have a bigger platform and/or a PhD.  My agent, author friends, and other publishers have been telling me the same thing.

I have been trying to build my platform around being Mr. Huggies Taiwan, 1987.

My efforts to build a platform around being Mr. Huggies Taiwan, 1987 has achieved limited success.

For years I have resisted platform-building.  I thought it entailed, I don’t know, rescuing someone on a subway?  I’m not sure.  Whatever it was, it sounded like tons of self-aggrandizing or boring tweets about politics (seriously though, follow @jerclifton).  And, because I found the good news of Therefore Joy via a winding road through philosophical theology, I thought philosophical theology was the only avenue available.

Talk about a bottle neck!  Therefore Joy is entertaining, but it is still philosophy, and my arguments are complex and build on each other.  For years I have been waiting for the book to come out, so people can read and understand all of my arguments at once.  So I muzzled myself.  I waited.  I have not blogged about Therefore Joy.   I have not tried.  But now I realize that I can build a platform on the good news that Therefore Joy is all about in the first place.

So what exactly is that good news?  Eight years ago, I made a shirt for my girlfriend.  Today she is my wife (of almost five years), I have re-appropriated the shirt, and the quote I crafted for her has become my own mantra.

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I want the world to look up, see that the world is beautiful, and, pending future research, enjoy the benefits of this belief.  You can help me do that in four ways:

First, let me know your thoughts.  Is this crazy?  What advice do you have for platform-building or in general about UAs?  Many of you have given me great advice already.  Thank you!

Second, follow this blog, follow me on twitter, like my Facebook posts, refer friends, and tell me about people with similar interests.

Third, please send me any examples you find of universal assessments, both negative and positive, as you interact with others and with the humanities (art, religion, music, literature, etc.).  Here are three great examples of universal assessments:

“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”   — Genesis 1:31a (NIV)

“Life is a shit sandwich and you just took your first bite.”  — half-joking father-in-law

final-calvin-and-hobbes — Bill Watterson

Finally, reflect on your own beliefs and tell me about it.  Do you think the universe is a shit-hole to be endured or a wondrous place to be explored?  Which universal assessment do you want to have?  I will be posting polls and ideas for interventions in the future.  In the meantime, I encourage you to look up.  Turn your gaze to the trees, the sun, the blue sky, or the face of a loved one, and consider what is right with the universe.  Doing so changed my life.

Thanks for reading this very long and personal post!  I promise I won’t make a habit of it.  Looking forward, I  plan to re-start weekly posts every Tuesday or Wednesday.  Initially many will relate to the topic, “Is the World Good, and Does it Matter?” especially in this period of thesis writing.  Thanks again! 

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Outliers (2008), Guns, Germs and Steel (1999), and Michele Bachmann–Part 2 of 2

Outliers made me realize that lots of people are talented, work hard, and succeed (10,000 hour rule), but the bridge between success and wild success is built exclusively on fortune.  Because of this I cannot help but surmise that much of the wealth of the wildly wealthy belongs, in a way, to all of us.  Guns, Germs, and Steel took this line of thinking further: the “us” is larger than one country.  In other words, much of the wealth of wildly wealthy countries belongs to the world.

By 12,000 years ago, every continent and major area had been settled.  People were everywhere.  In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond asks this question: why did some societies develop faster than others?  In other words, why did the Spanish conquer the Aztecs instead of the Aztecs sailing to Spain and conquering the Spanish.  He notes, quite correctly I think, that if you do not have an explanation for this, it is difficult to uproot racism–even one’s own.  How could a couple hundred Conquistadors conquer millions of Aztecs?  Our minds immediately go to the first distinction: one group is Spanish, the other is Aztec.   To combat this, Diamond explains in detail why societies developed the way they did.  I want to point out just a handful of his observations.

In the long term, enormous benefits come to those who stop being hunter-gatherers and turn to food production.  I’ll mention three.  Because hunter-gatherers support population densities of 10-100 times less per acre than food producers, 1) food producers have more warriors and 2), and this cannot be overstated, high population density breeds diseases and disease-tolerant populations.  3) Also, food production will eventually allow some people to do something besides agriculture.  Food production allows for food supluses which can support an artisan class, a key to starting the process of rapidly ‘making stuff better.‘  Artisanship leads to specialization, expertise, academia, and ultimately to some form of scientific inquiry and space shuttles.

But these benefits are long term.  In the short term, the switch from hunter-gathering to food production can be very unattractive for at least these two reasons.

  1. In general, food producers have to work harder than hunter-gatherers, sometimes even twice as many hours in a day.
  2. The first food producers had, compared to what we had today, pretty shitty crops.   Have you seen a wild tomato?  They are tiny pathetic albeit beautiful things.  It would take a while for those to develop into something big enough to be worthwhile.  Likewise, after controlling the breeding of domesticated animals for thousands of years, we have developed chickens that create lots of eggs and lots of meat.  Sheep have more wool.  Cows have more milk.  All of these gains would be nearly non-existent when they first started.

Of course, hunter-gatherers did not switch to food production because they foresaw its benefits for distant descendants.  Indeed, because making the switch was so unattractive, food production only developed independently in 4 separate places around the globe.  The cultrual, and specifically agricultural, descendants of these areas would come to dominate the others.  For example, it is estimated that Spanish disease wiped out between 85-97% of the Aztecs in first 130 years of exposure to Conquistadors.  This incredible advantage was due directly to population density made possible by the switch to food production.

Switching to food production doesn’t really make sense until you have a package.  A food production package includes a number of different domesticable crops along with animals to eat, to use for muscle and for manure.  Why weren’t all aborigines able to develop a food production package from local flora and fauna?

Jared Daimond tells this story: He was hiking in the jungle of Papua New Guinea with a few aborigines and ran out of food.  They stopped for the night, and one of the men slipped off into the falling light.  He came back with arms full of mushrooms and starts preparing them.  “We can’t eat these,” Jared protests, “people get sick from mushrooms all the time.  Even scientists who study it their whole lives can collect the wrong mushrooms and die.”  The aboriginees turned to him, scolded him like a child, and then commenced to describe, by memory, the 87 different varieties of mushrooms that could be found in that area, how they could be recognized, where they grew, which parts were edible, what sort of sicknesses were caused by ingesting the wrong parts, etc.

It is reasonable to believe that 12,000 years ago everyone would have been just as familiar with the local flora and fauna as the aborignees in Daimond’s story.  Ok, so why did food production develop in some places but not others?  In short, some places, like the fertile crescent, had enormous local benefits.  Others, like Australia, had very little benefits.  What are these benefits?  Edible plants that were the easiest to domesticate, the “low hanging fruit,” were nearly all native to areas in which food production developed independently (e.g., wheat was native to the fertile crescent and was by far the best candidate for domestication).  Even more striking is that worldwide there are only 14 possible domesticable animals.  Of these, 7 were native to the fertile crescent.  None were native to Australia.

What facilitated the spread of food production across Eurasia is another thing that Eurasians cannot take credit for: their continent’s long east/west axis.  Crops and animals had a hard time spreading over North and South America.  The tropical jungle, the Isthmus of the Panama, as well as the vast climate differences associated with different latitudes, made the spread of food-producing crops and livestock very unlikely.  After all, a llama is not suitable to live in the Amazon.  Not until the present age were Llamas raised in North America where, it turns out, there has been appropriate environments for thousands of years.  In contrast, the crops originally developed in the fertile crescent, and the animals domesticated there, could be used everywhere from Spain to east asia (although east asia was blessed with rice varieties and water buffalo, upon which they developed their own agricultural package).  So why wasn’t there domesticable animals in places like North America?

The truth is, and I did not know this before I read Diamond’s book, there was.  Archeological evidence suggests that there were various animals that might have been docile, herd-like, sufficiently safe, etc.–that would have had all the qualities necessary for being a candidates for domestication.  Millions of these creatures covered North and South America, but they had a weakness.

Remember the Dodo bird?  It had developed without humans, and so had no fear of them.  Hungry explorers would literally walk up to them, grab their heads, wring them off, and make supper.  Such an easy food quickly went extinct when they were exposed to humans.  Now, unlike Eurasia and Africa, the flora and fauna of the American continents developed, like the Dodo bird, with no human contact.  But, 20,000 years ago, when humans crossed the Bering Strait, that isolation ended, and animals that might have done nicely as plow-pulling, milk-producing, manure-making, yummy beasts were killed and eaten.  Little did these newly arrived peoples know that they were killing their own descendant’s chances of food production and opening themselves up to Spanish conquest 20,000 odd years down the road.

In two recent Republican presidential debates, this question has been posed to Michelle Bachman: for every dollar that I make, how much do I deserve to keep?  She responded without hesitation: “All of it.  You earned it.  Of course you deserve it.”

Among hunter gatherers, without division of labor, there is in fact a surprising amount of equality, and decisions that the strong-man makes are generally arrived at by consensus.  Combine that with the previously-mentioned intimate knowledge hunter-gatherers had of their environment and this scene comes to mind:

Everyone had noticed: the mighty herds were gone.  A good many of the tribe were thinking that restraint might be necessary.  They were hoping that their strong-man would make a decree.  Others, no doubt, were indignant.  “How dare you tell me how to live my own life!”   This group despised any attempt at others to coerce them, which of course nobody wanted to do.  The tribe had grown large with the easy abundance of food, but now great swaths of land had to be combed over in an attempt to locate these animals, and some large families were already on the verge of starvation.  How could people be expected to limit consumption now?

So I imagine the opportunistic prehistoric politician/priestess, jumping around a fire in garments made of animal fur, preaching earnestly to her people.  “You killed it.  You dragged it back to camp.  You cooked it.  Of course you deserve it.”

“Therefore Joy,” OutliersGuns, Germs and Steel, and my study of economics–and I would even say the Bible too–puts me in a different place.  For every dollar we earn, we probably deserve very little of it, and even less as one becomes more wealthy.  Nearly everything we are able to accomplish we owe to others, some living, most not, and all of us in one way or another owe God/fortune.

However, God and most people, past, present, and future, aren’t idiots; if individuals do not get enough gain from their labor, they will not work.  And so God and society are generally wise to approve of individuals and individual countries keeping a disproportionate amount of their profit.  But we must never think that anyone is entitled to cheap oil or tasty, slow-moving creatures.  Instead, all should be thankful for the gifts and advantages they have been given.

I imagine the global non-temporal society, which we are connected to in a weird and beautiful way,

  • from those who first switched from hunter-gathering to food production
  • to modern day Australian aborigines who never had a viable food-producing package
  • to our children’s children’s children who will live out the consequences of our actions,

…is genuinely thrilled to see us productive and rewarded for our work.  After all, present day production and innovation, though often dependent on the exploitation of natural or human resources, may ultimately do the most good.  But I also imagine this global non-temporal society beseeching us to be thankful and do our best to look out for their interests too.  Jesus might call it “loving your neighbor.”

These days, I might call it being a conservative Democrat.



Lovesick Reflections

In 10 hours I get to see Alicia after 10 weeks and one day of being apart.  At first, reverting to bachelorhood was a party.  I ate meat, played board games, got lazy about recycling, and drank beer.  Actually, I drank more herbal iced tea than beer, but the point is that I did very manly things.  But after the first month I began to experience severe symptoms of what I suppose would be best diagnosed as lovesickness.  My best friend, my lover, was far away.  But as the day approaches weariness has given way to  excitement, or to be more accurate, excitement has been added to weariness.  Last night I was so jazzed to see her I could not sleep, not a wink, and as I lay there in the dark thoughts crashed over me, eventually overwhelming my heart with a profound sense of blessing.  I got up determined to share these thoughts with you.  (So please pardon any sleepy verbosity you might encounter.  I am writing in a sleep-deprived stupor.)

A good friend of mine, Ben Walker, had to bury his mother recently.  It got me thinking about death and bereavement.  Comparing my bereavement to his is about as ridiculous as comparing a pinch to losing a leg, but it has nonetheless provided helpful perspective.  Because it is a perspective constantly eroded by the grind of our daily banality, it must be reestablished from time to time and for me it happened last night.

Obviously, losing a loved one or being separated from them is only excruciating because we care.  A very easy solution would be to never love anyone, care for anything, or enjoy anyone.  If we did that, if such coldness was possible, the day your father died would be just another breezy summer day.  But for humans, you and me, we grieve, we wail, we cry, we ache, and all of it heaves deep within our chests and stomachs.  Frankly, I find this response  to loss very encouraging.

Loss is only capable of causing pain when we have something good to lose.  Loss reveals what we have been enjoying this whole time.  It allows us to see how those we lose are enormously precious to us.  This morning this idea overpowered my brain until I felt nearly unbearable levels of gratefulness as I ached to see my wife.

Loss helps us in another way.  It gives us insight into other relationships.  Loved ones do not magically become important to us because they die or go to Rwanda.  If so, living loved ones and nearby loved ones, are likely similarly connected to us.  Imagine a farmer who goes out to the field to check his carrots.  He can’t see the carrots underground, so he pulls one up, roots and all, and then has a pretty good guess about the state of his other carrots.  Bereavement pulls up one of our carrots, and that process sucks, but it also provides an opportunity to see the likely depth of other relationships.  We should not waste it.

Those of you who have read Therefore Joy already know that one of my big mantras is that humans universally possess an embarrassingly pathetic understanding of the enormity of good in the world and in our lives.  We do well when we widen that understanding and share our insights with each other.  The widening thought that hit me in the face this morning, not for the first time and hopefully not for the last, is pretty simple: I enjoy this girl so much that just the prospect of being reunited with her makes me too excited to sleep.  These roots run deep.

Alicia will die on me someday, or I will die on her, and one of us will see the roots pulled out, and it will be awful.  But until then, I want the presence of mind to see and appreciate our deep love and enjoyment of each other.  I want to treasure her affectionately before I lose her.  My hunch is that it will make the good times even better.

In other news, my goal this summer was to finish sending Therefore Joy in to publishers by the time Alicia got back and I did it!  I feel 10 pounds lighter.