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.
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.
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.
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.
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/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1687). 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.
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!
- 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.
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.
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
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!