Category Archives: Personal

Biking Adventures: 10 lessons from 50 miles in 10 below freezing

So I’ve been wanting to get more into long-distance biking in all weather conditions.  Last Saturday, I biked 50+ miles in windy weather in 10 below freezing from west Philly, PA to Princeton, NJ. It took about five hours, with about half of that in the dark, and a half an hour of that warming my hands up at a coffee shop.  Its true that I wanted to test out my lights and night time biking on country roads, but really  I started so late because our trip to Princeton was last minute.

I listened to Florence and the Machine, Pentatonix, and a book on Theodore Roosevelt for most of the ride. No during pictures, but below are the before and after shots. Alicia & co. wanted me to get my gear back on because I looked hilarious in my ski mask, etc.  Highlights include crossing the Delaware River at Trenton and biking on country roads.  Lessons I learned:

  1. Winter-time biking can be fun with the right gear.
  2. Biking on country roads at night is awesome if you have good lights.  Cars see you easily and give a wide berth.  Though make sure you have a good external battery in case lights and iPhone start to go (my lights got pretty dim right before I made it).
  3. Winter time biking after a snow storm is dumb as toast.  All the most beautiful parts of the ride were not plowed (i.e. canal tow paths).  Also big chunks of ice on the road can make you skid out.  Good that I have my old trusty mountain bike from Taiwan with hybrid tires instead of a road bike.
  4. I think solo biking in the winter is kinda nice.  With the constant need to stop, take off gloves, check maps, adjust gear, etc., it might be annoying to do with someone (which is strange cause I usually always love adventure buddies).
  5. Bike lanes along big roads is worse than biking down residential streets.  Map your own route beforehand, only do bike paths on small roads.  And “bike routes” are bullshit.  It’s usually just a busy road with the occasional sign on it saying watch out for bikes.
  6. Either take a river or scenic trail out of a metro area or public transport to the edge of the city.  I spent 2 hours biking through North Philly.  Not so much fun.
  7. Fill up your water bags with warm water.  My insulated bike bottle froze about 45 minutes before I arrived and I got thirsty.
  8. I stopped about two hours in for bathroom, food, water fill-up, etc.  I got back on the bike without putting more layers on, and had to stop 15 minutes later (newfound love for Dunkin Donuts) because my hands were freezing.  Dethawing hands hurt and is unnecessary if you always layer up more than seems necessary before getting back on the bike (and then taking them back off after 15 minutes of biking when you get too hot).  Slight inconvenience is godliness.
  9. Have family who love you on the other end of the trip with lots of good food, warm tea, champagne, love, hugs, and a shower ready to go.
  10. Overall, totally worth doing.  Hedonic pleasure is overrated.  Adventure is forever.  Don’t stay inside all winter, friends.  Get whatever gear you need so that being outside is fun.
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Leaving the house with my saddle bags.

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Minutes after arriving at my Aunt’s in Princeton. Food is awesome. So is my wife and cousin : )  And my uncles super incredible champagne.  Everyone responded to my adventure appropriately: “you are weird but I’m glad you enjoyed it!”

 

 

 

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An Idiot’s Bill of Rights

If blogging has taught me anything, it’s that the universe cares deeply about my every thought and feeling.  

If I would have fallen asleep a year ago, and had a dream about what my life would be like now, waking up I would have pressed myself, “Jer, you really need to work on your pride issues.”  Details be damned: basically, I’ve won the people-pleasing Super Bowl and I want to talk a bit about what life is like on the other side.  

In short, its not much better.  In fact, I noticed that my initial euphoria quickly melted into your run-of-the-mill stupefying fear.  Effort has become an opportunity not to live up to my potential.  Because there seems to be no available trajectory but down, it feels like a good time to abandon all meaningful pursuits and join the circus.  (I ‘ve day-dreamed about becoming a full-time bike messenger.)  

Alicia and Jer in Puerto Rico the day after Christmas 2013.  We went on an all-day snorkeling trip with unlimited free alcohol.  I had to document my first time having a pina colada at 9AM for posterity.

This is a pic of Alicia and I in Puerto Rico the day after Christmas 2013. We went on an all-day snorkeling trip with unlimited free alcohol on a sailing catamaran and I documented my first time having a pina colada at 9AM for posterity.  My point: don’t take these reflections too seriously. Life is  good.

My problem?  Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, might call it a “fixed mindset.”  She’s done a great deal of research unveiling the effects of implicit beliefs about where one’s talents and abilities come from.  In the first option, we see our talents and abilities as largely set in stone.  We don’t want challenges, as they are opportunities for failure.  And if at first you don’t succeed, give up quickly cause you clearly don’t have it.

Alternatively, we can adopt a “growth mindset.”  In this view, failure is not failure.  Everything is an opportunity for growth.  Results are not defining because things change, and if you work hard you can get better, grow, and learn more and more.  Fixed mindsets have been tied to a whole bunch of stuff nobody wants, like struggling in school, and growth mindsets are generally helpful in your professional and personal life.

Carol Dweck has been working on implicit beliefs for decades.  I'm thrilled that she has taken an interest in my UA work.

Carol Dweck has been working on implicit beliefs for decades. I’m thrilled that she has also taken an interest in my UA work.

One of the ways we get fixed mindsets, ironically, is from  praise.  Praise for ability seems to actually undermine how persistent we are in our efforts (“Johnny, you are so smart!”).   Meanwhile, praising effort and strategy encourages trying and trying hard, at least in school-aged kids (Mueller & Dweck, 1988).

Check out Dweck's book at

Check out Dweck’s popular press book for more info.

Are you fixed or growth?  I think I’m likely somewhere in the middle, but lately I think I have been seduced by lavish praise into a fixed mindset.  I remember after the subway thing how everyone and their mom was calling me a hero for a few weeks.  Then it stopped.  Believe me, I understood those guys who go out and push people onto subway tracks themselves so that they can save someone again.  Extravagant praise of talent and ability is addicting, and, if Dweck is right, corrupting.

Some of you are probably thinking, “hah!  Woe is Jer!  It must be so hard that everyone likes you.”  I would say, “absolutely!  Ridiculous, right?” and then kick you in the shins (as loving friends do).  Stop being small!  Winning the lottery ruins people’s lives (overstatement of Brickman et al, 1978 and other studies).  Winning the lottery of public opinion can as well.  Take it from somebody who has somehow made it to the top of magic mountain (of people-pleasing…not money…I have a ways to go in that other rather worthless pursuit).  The view is not as satisfying as I thought it would be.

One symptom of my hardening fixed mindset (and probably other stuff like being busy) has been blog silence.  I continue to have interesting ideas (I designed a company over Christmas break that would be a full-service fake vacation provider), but are they interesting enough to raise people’s opinions of me?  A dollop of paralysis is sometimes all one needs to avoid trying.

So get rid of it!  I think the first step is to boldly declare my rights, not only as a learner, but also a buffoon.  Dweck’s research, blah blah blah…I really miss allowing myself the freedom to be an idiot.  The guy who will occasionally accidentally pee in the trash can instead of the toilet, who will bike with his arms out like he’s flying, who will unknowingly put the car in park and turn it off at a traffic light if the conversation is interesting…I like that guy and people who are like him.  Thus I solemnly declare that idiots everywhere have  fundamental human rights:

  1. To not know.
  2. To say dumb shit.
  3. To disagree with ourselves without warning.
  4. To pour our heart and soul into a project we later think is silly.
  5. To fail magnificently — so bad that everyone notices.
  6. To fail uninterestingly — so small that it hardly affects anyone’s opinion about anything.  (This one is really scary for me.  I love epic failure.  It’s the mundane disappointing performance that freaks me out.)
  7. To appear foolish.
  8. To learn.
  9. To value growth over other people’s esteem.

Ahh…what a wonderfully freeing exercise!  Thank you internet for your cathartic caress.

But for me utility of this exercise is not just augmenting a present emotional state.  I’ve observed that time and time again what has helped me get over myself, whether it be negative feedback (having a manuscript rejected by 50 publishers) or positive feedback (being the highest-rated speaker at a conference),  is not to ignore feedback or stop caring what other people think–that’s mental illness–but to refocus on the work itself.  Declaring my rights as an idiot helps me do that.  Declaring my rights as an idiot gets me back to content.  Fortunately my work is  damn fascinating.  Usually all it takes is a reminder.

Some people use alarm clocks.  I use my wife.  After five years of marriage, Alicia continues to amaze me, not only because she lovingly kicks my ass with verbal reminders (my masters thesis was languishing before she stepped in), but is herself an example of growth mindset everyday.  While we were in Peurto Rico, I took her boogey-boarding for the first time.  Now, she would be the first to admit that she is not terribly athletic.  True to form, at first she was horrible, really quite impressively bad.  Then she got better.  Then she got good.  And boogey-boarding became a meaningful daily laugh-fest for us.  On the final day, she wore me out, and as the sun set I watched her ride waves and reflected on how lucky I was to have her.  She knows her rights as an idiot, I realized, and those same rights protecting her can protect me (and you) too.

Alicia is the tiny silhouette on the right.

Alicia with her boogey-board is the tiny silhouette on the right.

All are free to be life-loving fools.


Why People Like Me

I was listening to a lecture on love by Yale President Peter Solovey and he mentioned a psychological effect that explains why people like me.

Some of us wandering this world struggle with chronic amazingness.  Indeed, it is onerous.  Being good at everything annoys people.  Empirical stuff says so!  It’s objectively unlikeable.

Yet people do like me!  How can this be?  Shouldn’t the awesome oozing from my pores be driving them away?  The answer, it turns out, has nothing to do with seriously-mega-rock-solid assumptions, but with something called the “Pratfall Effect.”  Apparently, psychologists have observed that, for highly competent people, it helps to have major visible screw-ups that you can take responsibility for that shows you are just human.  Scientists see it over and over.  Not having it all together allows people to love you.

I suspect lots of people already know about the Pratfall Effect.  Maybe it’s another of those things that never quite made it to Taiwan growing up.  When I heard about it today I instantly realized something.  For years I’ve been saying that my stuttering has a strange effect on people.  Its not such a bad stutter that it substantially frustrates communication, but its just bad enough to let people know that I am struggling and don’t have it all together.  I guess its endearing to say smart things while looking like an idiot.

So now I broadcast wise counsel across the blogosphere to all those who, like me, struggle with chronic amazingness.  Acquire a speech impediment.  Despite occasionally confusing phone conversations, there is nothing finer for lubricating any social occasion.  Some people go with the lazy eye, a few try the periodic facial spasm, still others psychotic nervous laughter.  Don’t be fooled!  Stuttering gets the girls (which so happens to be the title of a collection of short stories that I am trying to publish which you should help me publish by becoming a publisher immediately or if you are one already writing me and telling me “hey we would love to publish your stories”) and stuttering may get boys as well (I am less informed in this particular area).

Stuttering is the wave of the future for overly awesome people everywhere and you are in luck.  For a limited time only, I am offering certified stuttering lessons.  Contact me before all slots are taken!  My talent in this area is legendary and your happiness is only a few elongated syllables away.

 
The Pratfall Effect while talking with Steve Doocy on Fox & Friends.  Risking your life to rescue strangers is just piss-poor career planning if you don’t have a stutter to go along with it.

Jer’s Thesis in Three Pages Using Non-Academic Language because Academic Language is for Silly Nits

Psychologists have found a whole bunch of behaviors that are good for you, like staying positive and being persistent.  Understandably, many people then pursue those behaviors passionately.  “Be positive!” we say.  “Keep at it!” we shout.  But, like a many New Year’s resolutions, these efforts, these sheer acts of will, fail to produce long term results.  Underlying and unaddressed reasons why you didn’t act that way before re-assert themselves.  So how do we change the underlying stuff?  Big time psychologists Ellis (Ellis & Ellis, 2011) and Beck (Beck & Weishaar, 1989) argued that emotions and behaviors are driven by a puppet-master behind the scenes: beliefs.  Therefore, a key to happiness might be having certain beliefs that effortlessly fuel these positive behaviors across a lifetime.  A type of these beliefs are universal assessments, and I focus on them.

Joe smiles at the 2nd 2012 VP debate in Danville, Kentucky.  I think they are that pearly white in peson too!

Joe smiles at the 2nd 2012 VP debate in Danville, Kentucky. They are that pearly white in peson too!

Universal assessments (or UAs) are judgements about the universe as a whole.  They may not be explicitly recognized, but, so my theory goes, they express themselves through words and behaviors.  For example, Joe Biden, speaking at my graduation this summer at Penn, encouraged us to participate in the world and said repeatedly that the world is “open and full of possibilities.”  This is a UA that Joe believes should inspire certain behaviors.  As another example, here is the chorus and 2nd verse of It’s a Dangerous World by folk musician Bill Morrisey (1991).

There’s nothing you can say

That could get me up today

Nothing you have ever said

That can drive me from this bed

You can call me lazy, crazy

Call me stupid I don’t care

I ain’t getting up

It’s dangerous out there.

There’s a hunter from New Jersey

In my kitchen drinking beer

There’s a Texan out my window

With a chain saw and a leer

I can take a walk around the block

To shake me from my slumber

But there’s student drivers out today

And one has got my number

This is a perfect example of how a specific UA (the world is dangerous) is causing specific behaviors (staying in bed).

UAs are one component of worldview.  Worldview is a set of assumptions, beliefs, and values that one uses to interpret life and make sense of the world.  In my thesis, I briefly trace the development of the concept of worldview (or Weltanschauung in German), from its beginnings with Kant to its domination of intellectual life in the 20th century.  Big-time philosophers agree (like Humboldt, Hegel, Fichte, Emerson, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dilthey, Husserl, Hiedeggar, etc.): worldview matters.  Chesterton thought that “the most practical and important thing about a man is his view of the universe” (Introduction to Heretics).  William James thought that worldview is the most “interesting and important thing about you” (Introduction to Lowell Lectures).

Thomas Kuhn

Thomas Kuhn coined the now widely used term “paradigm shift” to describe the process in which a scientific community abandons and adopts worldviews. Scientists, Kuhn argues, rely on a common paradigm that allows for progress by providing a sophisticated set of common assumptions–the don’t start from scratch. Among others, Kuhn credits Piaget, Gestalt psycholgists, and B. L. Whorf’s “speculations about the effect of language on worldview” (Kuhn, 1962/1996, p. viii) for playing an important role in the development of his ideas.

By the 20th century, the power of worldview thinking had spread to other disciplines.  I note three powerful examples: Max Weber applied worldview-thinking to socioeconomics in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1921/1958), Thomas Kuhn to scientific development in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962/1996), and Adolf Hitler to power politics in Mein Kampf (1925/1999).

Most know that Hitler's goal was Aryan dominance.  Few realize that he was just as insistence on establishing a dominate worldview, and achieving power through creating "psychically homogenized creatures" (p. 393) with one "infallible philosophy of life" (p. 455) which alone can achieve victory.

Most know that Hitler published his goal of Aryan dominance in 1925. Few realize that he was also just as insistent on establishing a dominate worldview.  His strategy for achieving power was creating “psychically homogenized creatures” (p. 393) with one “infallible philosophy of life” (p. 455) which alone could achieve victory.

Worldviews, and the beliefs that form them, are schemas.  Schemas are an important notion in psychology which developed in this world dominated by Weltanschauung thinking.  Schemas are defined as mental representations of objects and processes that generate expectancy.  For instance, if I am narrating a story about a conversation in a Manhattan apartment, and then mention that a bengal tiger jumps out of a bamboo thicket and kills the speaker, you will grow annoyed with the story.  Your schema of Manhattan apartments likely does not include tigers or bamboo thickets.  It’s just not realistic.

Schemas define what is and is not ‘realistic’ — in art, movies, and in the real world too.

We have schemas about everything from human faces to Manhattan apartments to water bottles.  We expect them to function in certain ways.  Numerous studies have shown that (beware of a useful oversimplification here) we tend to ignore things that go against our schemas.  For example, if one has a schema that poor people are incompetent, we will tend to ignore data that supports competence and highlight data that shows incompetence.

UAs, as schemas, are powerful because they generate expectancy.  This affects how we interpret and learn new data AND also affects how we interpret and remember our past.  Psychologists believe that memory bears little resemblance to data-retrieval.  Instead, ‘remembering’ is an active process in which we use bits of information to piece together what we think should be true, a process which is shepherded by schemas.  UAs, therefore, are prime candidates to play a big role in human life by creating expectations about everything we taste, touch, see, feel, and hear in this universe.

In Psychology of Worldviews (1919), Jaspers begins the process of operationalizing the construct of Weltanschauung in what he will later consider to be the most important work in his life.  He defines worldviews as frames of reference in which mental life takes place (later called schemas) and categorizes Weltanschauung as 1) attitudes or 2) world pictures.  Attitudes are approaches through which humans experience the world and World pictures, on the other hand, are mental representations of the world that we create in our heads.

In Psychology of Worldviews (1919), Jaspers begins a process of making Weltanschauung philosophy more practical in what he will later consider to be the most important work in his life. He defines worldviews as frames of reference in which mental life takes place (later called schemas) and categorizes Weltanschauung as 1) attitudes or 2) world pictures. Attitudes are approaches humans adopt towards the world and world pictures are mental representations of the world that we create in our heads.

I identify at least four types of UAs, with potentially dozens of each type.  I base this typology on Jaspers distinction in Psychology of Worldview (1919).

  • Universal Characteristic Assessment (world picture)- What qualities does the universe have in and of itself?  For example, is the world characterized by dynamic change or rigidness?
  • Universal Policy Assessment (attitude) – What attitudes or policies do I adopt in dealing with the world?  For example, is the world best experienced alone or with others?  Universal Policy assessments are of two types: our policies towards the universe and what we percieve to be the universe’s policies towards us (e.g., the world is out to get me).
  • Universal Meta-Assessment –  These are the BIG paradigmatic assessments which take into account everything we think or feel about the universe and sums it all up–an “assessment of assessments.”  Universal Meta-Assessments were what I was talking about in my last post: Is my wife good, and does it matter?  There are at least four UMAs: 1) Is the world good?  2) Is the world worth existing?  3) Do I like the world?  4) Do I say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the universe?

However, only three UAs have been identified and studied by researchers.

  1. Is the world just or unjust?  This UA is called BJW (belief in a just world) and is about whether one believes that the universe is a place where people get what they deserve and deserve what they get.
  2. Is the world safe or unsafe?
  3. Is the world meaningful or meaningless?
Ronnie Janoff-Bulman wrote Shattered Assumptions in 1992.  Her theories continue to guide much depression and trauma research.

Ronnie Janoff-Bulman wrote Shattered Assumptions in 1992. Her theories continue to guide much depression and trauma research.

There are three big takeaways from this list.  First, three is very few (after all, there are at least four categories to fill!).  Secondly, research indicates that all three play a very important role in human life (not an overstatement).  For example, good data has tied BJW to better mental health, more positive emotions, optimism, less suspicion towards others, less depression, less loneliness, more kindness, more kindness when under stress, more productivity in the workplace, and more loyalty to one’s work place.  At the same time, BJW causes people to blame victims for being victimized!  BJW has been tied to prejudice towards the unemployed, those with AIDS, the elderly, and the poor.  Thirdly, all three of these UAs are negative in orientation.  Universal safety and universal meaningfulness, for example, were identified by Janoff-Bullman (1992), a trauma specialist, and have been studied exclusively in the context of trauma and depression.  Rape, for example, can destroy a belief that the world is a fundamentally safe place.  Many therapists feel that they must restore this belief before the person can “move on.”

I applaud all this work on trauma and depression.  However, in addition to the question, “What UAs are essential for staying sane?”  we might ask, “What UAs are essential for building the ‘good life?'”  As far as we know, I am the first to do so, which puts me firmly in the vein of positive psychology.  Positive psychology assumes that strengths and positive emotions are not merely the absence of the negative.  For example, joy is not the result of a simple lack of sadness and hope is not the mere absence of fear.  Rather, both the positive and the negative can be present in abundance, or both can be absent.  Moreover, each strength and weakness, each negative emotion and positive emotion,  has a unique physiological signature that does not simply mirror its “opposite.”  In other words, strengths and positive emotions deserve study in their own right because they have their own qualities.

So, I conducted a conceptual analysis–an exercise in hypothesis generation–designed to identify major UAs which might contribute to the ‘good life.’  It involved a methodical process which identified relevant UAs and cross-referenced them with each strength and positive emotion that has been identified by positive psychologists.  In the end, I examined (and re-examined) 884 possible connections between UAs and the ‘good life’ and 13 major UAs emerged which may help humans live particularly happy and fulfilled lives:

  1. Is the world good or bad?  Thinking that the world is good and having a gut-level positive response was the single most relevant UA I identified.  It pays to have a little crush on existence.
  2. Is the universe interesting or boring?  It’s hard to imagine developing strengths like “love of learning” and “curiosity” without a strong belief in universal interestingness.
  3. Is the universe beautiful or ugly?  My wife’s top strength is “appreciation of beauty and excellence.”  Why would she or anyone stop to savor (which research says is good for you) the roses if one does not expect roses, or much else, to be worth savoring.
  4. Can the universe change or can’t it?  My good friend Eric is remarkably politically informed AND remarkably politically apathetic.  I think he imbibes the notion that nothing really changes in this world.   This UA may separate “believers” and those who are at their heart grumpy old men.
  5. Is the universe is getting better or getting worse?  We know stories matter.  What is the story you tell over the universe?  Where are we going?  How will this all end?  I think religion can play a big role in all of these, but especially this one.
  6. Is the world safe or dangerous?  A sense of danger causes you to scan the horizon for threats while a sense of safety is a prerequisite to feeling good and being open to new things and new ways of thinking.
  7. Is the universe to be explored or avoided?  Of course, we cannot avoid the world completely, but we can try to stay away from it as much as we can.  Alternatively, we could pursue immersion, novelty, and new experiences.
  8. Is the universe comprehensible or incomprehensible?  Why should I try to understand the world if I have no chance of doing so?
  9. Am I at the center of the universe or not?  If I do not get a job I apply for, does that mean that there is something wrong with me?  Maybe, but someone who thinks that they are the center of the universe will tend to think it is definitely their fault somehow.  Being at the center of the universe means that you are always in the right place at the right time for credit and blame.
  10. Is the universe intentional or mindless?  Is there a mind behind the scenes orchestrating events, or is it random?  This mind might be Jesus, superstition, fate, Karma, etc.  An example of this UA might be, “the world is out to get me.
  11. Is the universe best experienced alone or with others?  If the world is a war zone, we need buddies in our bunker.  If the world is a paradise, we need playmates.
  12. Is the universe as it should be, or should it change?  When we approach something new, do we assume that there is a reason for it being the way it is and it likely needs to be accepted, or is there little reason for it being the way it is and should we prepare ourselves to change it?  This might be at the core of conservative and liberal tendencies.  This is the only UA continuum that did not have an obviously “better” choice.
  13. Is the universe just or unjust?  Strengths like prudence and self-regulation would be difficult to come by if one did not beleive that his or her actions affected outcomes.
Calvin seems to think the world has intentionality, that there is a mind to compete against, and that mind is after him.

Calvin seems to think the world has intentionality (UA #10), that there is a mind to compete against, and that mind wants to win.

Some UAs relevant to the miserable life are on this list, some are not, and several of them (like the world is beautiful) seem very unlikely to have emerged without a focus on the ‘good life.’  Also, like BJW, most of these UAs had positive and negative connotations.  For example, thinking the world is good might be tied to 32 strengths and positive emotions but thinking that the world is bad still might be tied to 16.  Still, in almost all cases, there was a clear candidate for a UA that was much better for you than the other.  In other words, if Jack thinks that the world is good, interesting, beautiful, changeable, safe, comprehensible, just, intentional, to be explored, not centered on him, best experienced with others, and getting better, he is much more likely to have a good life than Jill, who thinks the world is bad, boring, ugly, dangerous, incomprehensible, unjust, can’t be changed, is centered around her, is best experienced alone, and is getting worse.  That’s my hypothesis anyway.  Each of these UAs require empirical research as all this is based on little more than my own thinking.  Psychometrically valid assessment tools have to be created, results have to be correlated with life outcomes, etc.

James Pawelski, my thesis advisor, is very excited by the new and important realms of research my work has identified.  He has strongly encouraged me to pursue running a UA-research lab.  Ultimately this would address a series of nine empirical questions:

  1. What universal assessments do people actually hold, who holds them, and what do the distributions look like?
  2. How are they held (implicitly or explicitly, compulsorily or freely, strongly or weakly, etc.)?
  3. Can certain UAs be tied to specific life outcomes, such as depression, divorce, subjective well-being, longevity, health, strengths, or even travel habits?
  4. What is the causal relationship between UAs and life outcomes?
  5. Which UAs are most likely to make people happy and fulfilled in life?
  6. Where do UAs come from, and at what age are they typically formed?
  7. Can UAs change?
  8. Can interventions be developed which change UAs into those most likely to bring happiness?
  9. Can these interventions be administered at scale (quickly and inefficiently to lots of people)?

In other words, I am interested in changing the world by examining and then potentially changing our beliefs about it.  If interested, all 157 pages of the thesis are posted here on Scholarly Commons.  About 30 pages are references, 60 are appendices, and 60 is the paper itself.

In the near term, I am creating a real world UA-bank, and I need your help. There is great need to create a well-thought out and respected list of UAs that can catalyze independent UA-research.  In order to do that, in addition to researchers and resources, we need popular help finding and identifying UAs that people actually believe in the real world.  Please be on the lookout for UAs that you come across, like the Calvin & Hobbes comic above, and send them to me.  I just got this one from a  friend: “One of my mother’s favorite sayings was, ‘I can’t see why not!'”  This UA, specifically a universal policy assessment, is about saying ‘yes’ to the universe.  Creating and analyzing a vast real world UA-bank is the only way to identify every UA that plays an important role in human life.  I invite you to be a part of this project.  Thank you!

Many people contributed to the success of my Masters thesis.  I want to thank Bob Easton, Andrew Soren, David Yaden, Dan Lerner, Karen Warner, Bit Smith, Paul Giacomini, Marty Seligman, Kevin Lum, Brandon Allen, Clinton Montgomery, Kiran Thadhani, Hannah Lythe, Chris Major, Christa Fritner, Dan Tomasulo, Johannes Eichstaed, Amy Walker, and Judy Saltzberg-Levick, for your support and contributions to this capstone.  Also, two people need special appreciation for the enormous help they provided.  First, James Pawelski worked tirelessly on my behalf and continues to be my great advocate and supporter.  He read my work carefully and offered thoughtful insight.  On the basis of an epic three and a half hour phone conversation, I scraped a very solid draft and created an excellent one.  He was the one who initially directed me towards schemas and towards Weltanschauung philosophy.  He helped me find my voice as a promising and serious academic instead of what he hilariously identified as “a brilliant yet over-reaching undergraduate philosophy student” (the man understands me! : ) ).  Thank you so much, James!

This handsome devil is James Pawelski.  He is my professor, mentor, and friend.  He works as a Senior Scholar at the Positive Psychology Center, Director of the Masters of Applied Positive Psych program, and Executive Director of the International Positive Psychology Association.  He is also a philosopher who wrote his dissertation on William James.  We have a lot in common and it was a pleasure working with him!

James Pawelski is my professor, mentor, and friend. He works as a Senior Scholar at the Positive Psychology Center, Director of the Masters of Applied Positive Psych program, and Executive Director of the International Positive Psychology Association. He is also a philosopher who wrote his dissertation on William James. We have a lot in common, and it was a pleasure working with him!  He is possibly the most emotionally intelligent philosopher I know.

Finally, I want to thank my wife, Alicia, for her support and shaping of the project itself.  For six weeks this summer, Alicia lived with a zombie as I neglected all my relationships, my health, and other projects to focus 100% on this thesis.  I did not leave my nearly windowless basement apartment.  I ate when I was hungry, went to sleep when I was tired, and skipped a few days in the process (my body seems to like 30-hour cycles).  I often went for 10 hours straight without eating or using the bathroom.  But Alicia encouraged me to eat and got me to sleep.  She helped me brainstorm and prioritize.  She was my sounding board.  She’s  vastly intelligent and wise.  She helped us sprint towards July 24th, when we flew to Taiwan on a long-awaited trip.  It was her first time to see where I grew up, the first time for me to be back “home” in a decade, and the first time to meet our new nephew.  We had not seen my brother and his family in two and half years, my father in a year, and it was my 10-year high school reunion.  Not only was it meaningful to show Alicia my roots, not only was she ever-interested in my nostalgic musings for two weeks (pics of the trip will be up on facebook soon), she spent most of her 15-hour flight from Chicago to Hong Kong doing a final read through and edit of my paper.  It would not have been a success without her.  Her fingerprints are all over the best parts.  

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Alicia, my beautiful wife, hiking up Lantau mountain in Hong Kong.


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.

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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! 


My Segment on the Dr. Drew Show

If I had a bucket list, disagreeing with Anderson Cooper on national television would be on it.  And I would be crossing it off!

A few weeks ago, a man got pushed onto the tracks of a New York subway station.  Someone managed to take the picture below, which wound up on the cover of the Post.  You probably saw it.

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The next day, in the context of a national bitch session in which America heaped blame on bystanders for their inaction (including the cameraman) and their own culture for producing a population of cowards, I was asked to join a “panel of heroes” on the Dr. Drew show on HLN, a CNN sister channel, to talk about why we acted in the face of danger when others did not.  What was our awesome sauce?  Why did I reach out and grab the guy’s hand, who was getting shocked by the third rail, when I knew I could die?  (Checkout the 15 minutes of fame tab above, which I suppose now is my 15.5 minutes of fame, if you don’t know what I am talking about.)

Sorry it has taken a long time to post the video clip of my interview.  I know many of you have been waiting.  My segment is only 2 minutes and starts 12.5 minutes in. I was told the discussion with Anderson Cooper went long and they lost my feed for second.  But for what it’s worth:

While I was super pleased to be on the show and enjoyed myself, I was frustrated that I did not get a chance to share a couple of important points, especially when I felt like we were all living in a fun little fantasy.  While Cooper was right on some things, and the conversation was in many ways more substantive than I have come to expect from cable news, he is completely wrong about wider culture.  It is ludicrous to think that emergency situations are some magical prism in which our true character is revealed.  Keeping Your Head is a specific skill that is cultivated through practice.  Most of us have little.

Instead, we do what we are trained to do. The modern human, generally, is good at whipping out phones and taking pictures. We usually have no clue what to do in pressure situations.  A couple reasons might be that our lives include sitting in cubicles and exclude panicked flight from saber-toothed tigers.  But, when the modern human does have a clue (read soldiers, fireman, police officer, etc.), we almost always act bravely.

After I grabbed the guy on the subway and it was caught on film, everyone in my life was calling me a hero, and it was obnoxiously irrefutable that I was one.  I was uncomfortable with it, it made me reflect, and I came to a startlingly life-affirming conclusion that I have blogged about previously.  Here is the elevator speech:

We are a brave and caring species: you, me, pretty much everybody.  I am the same philosophizing-goofball I was when I was waiting anxiously for the train.  My actions says something about all of us, about average people.  We rise to occasions.  It would be absurd to think, for example, that the folks on flight 93, which crashed in PA on 9/11, who acted way braver than me, were by some fluke of travel planning in the top 1% of brave people in the country, or even the top 10% or 30%, and that this flight full of super duper heroes happened to be one that was hijacked. Nah.  The folks who stormed the cockpit on flight 93 were most likely a swath of regular folks.  This tells me that the average Joe can be counted on to be brave and is most likely capable of incredible human kindnesses.”

Famous psychologist and Stanford proffessor Phillip Zimbardo agrees.  He writes in  “The Banality of Heroism”:

The idea of the banality of heroism debunks the myth of the “heroic elect,”…[which ascribes] very rare personal characteristics to people who do something special—to see them as superhuman, practically beyond comparison to the rest of us.

But if incredible bravery is normal, why are we so blind to it?  Why did the country roundly condemn the bystanders who let the man die on the subway tracks?  Good question.  I’ll blog about that next time, but I’ll say this much: What struck me as I listened to Anderson Cooper and Dr. Drew talk before I went on the air is that negative news and looking down on others seems to serve an important social function that I had been reading about in Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis.  Namely, gossiping about what’s wrong with other people helps us bond to the people that we gossip with.

More later…

Oh…and here is a picture of Alicia and I at a little shin-dig that happened 20 blocks away from our house.  Thank you Derek Schwabe for getting us tickets!

Alicia and I at Obama’s 2nd Innagural.

Jer and Alicia Clifton at Obama’s 2nd inaugural, 2013


Concept Listening: A Dinner Party Idea

Cigars have scotch.  Peanut butter has chocolate.  Pizza has beer.  Connoisseurs everywhere recognize that by cleverly pairing pleasurable experiences both can be enhanced and blended into something exponentially greater.

While listening to music yesterday as I biked around DC, I realized that these same enhancing dynamics might apply to pairings between particular pieces of music and a particular ideas.  Of course, this is done all the time in movies and musicals where songs are composed for a specific moment in a story.  But these moments are highly structured.  They do not free the imagination because they impose a specific bounded vision.  They also tend to mold the music to fit the story, instead of the story to fit the music.  This is fine, but something is lost.  Something pure and abstract in the music is ignored.

I propose a fun activity to do with a small group of friends.  Each person is responsible to pair a chosen concept with a chosen song and articulate the concept to the group.  Then together the group quietly listens to the song and talks afterward about the experience.  This is a chance to get your artistic hats on.  Of course, the more creative pairings (that still work), the better.  And note, lyrics are not relevant.  This is about the mood and abstract meaning that the music offers and the relationship it develops  with the concept in the cinema of your imagination.  The key: focus only on this activity (dimming lights is good, multi-tasking is bad) and let your imagination run free.

I call this activity concept listening as it is analogous to the popular concept album, an album that crafts its songs to contribute to a theme or overall story.  In concept listening however, the listener picks the concept, which is more explicitly stated, and picks a single song.

Last night, Alicia and I tried concept listening.  We did the idea/song pairing below and enjoyed an amazing shared experience.  Though we have heard this song many times, the concept made the song seem completely fresh to us. I hope you enjoy it.

Is it?  

Yes it is coming.  

The captain orders the crew into action.  A grizzled, bearded man and a younger friend pull an oar on a tireme, an Athenian warship, as it struggles to outrun one of the Aegean’s dreaded winter storms.  They row mightily, land comes into sight, but the wind picks up, chaotically whistling through the sails, and they realize they are too late.  Though the crew is already weary, the captain turns the prow back out to sea.  Their only hope now is to wether the storm.

As two hundred crewmen row in unison, for all they are worth, against mammoth cresting waves, likely death brings a strangely vital and shared energy.  Waves pound.  Salt spray soaks their beards.  And they face the thrill of death together.

song (moulin rouge tango de Roxanne)

Let know what you think!  If you have pairing ideas please share.

Turner Reflection Snowstorm on the Sea, Turner, by Joe Scotland

Turner Reflection Snowstorm on the Sea, by Joe Scotland