Tag Archives: universal assessments

Please Rename My Life’s Work

I need to re-name what I plan to study for the next couple decades.  I asked friends on Facebook, and got over a hundred ideas in a few hours.  Thanks so much!  Incredibly helpful!  Here’s more details on what I’m looking for.

Definition: I study our most basic, highly-generalized, adjectival beliefs about the world we live in and how it works.  Examples include: the world is interesting/boring, getting worse/better, good/bad, safe/dangerous, etc.  All such beliefs answers that most basic human question, “What is this place?” on the cosmic scale.  Long term, I want to see if some of these beliefs are helpful, design interventions, and scale change.  For the past year, I’ve called them “universal assessments” (UAs).  This, it turns out, is horrible, and I’m amazed so many people have gotten so interested in the UA concept anyway.

What’s wrong with universal assessment?  There’s trouble with both words.  First, assessments usually means ‘test’ or ‘survey’ in the social sciences.  Second, “universal” can mean ‘everyone,’ like ‘universal healthcare,’ rather than ‘everything.’  Also, “world” is likely a better approximation of the object about which we have these beliefs.  “Belief” is good, but UAs are more visceral and underlying than the term “belief” implies (or “assessments” for that matter).  Across the country, psychologists I respect have confirmed for me that my term should be changed before I’m too committed.

7 Criteria: Ideally the new term should be…

  1. Memorable
  2. Self-explanatory (e.g. I can say “I study ____” and people know what I am talking about)
  3. Works for both social scientists & a popular audience
  4. Builds on related ideas in the literature…but distinctiveness can be useful
  5. Not condescending (like “assumption”)
  6. Not making a claim I can’t yet (like “most-important-belief belief”)
  7. Not words I stutter on!

Today’s Top 7:

  1. world beliefs   –   basic…a fan favorite…safe choice…Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck who invented fixed/growth mindset likes it
  2. world impressions   –   Alicia’s idea…makes it a little more unique…then when I get to a general audience and create a comprehensive assessment tool we could call someone’s UA profile their “iWorld”
  3. cosmic outlooks   –   an idea from positive psychology founder Marty Seligman
  4. worldviews   –   lots of people I respect are rooting for this one like David Yaden, Seligman, Alejandro Adler…but there is a TON of baggage with this term as it refers to religion/moral systems/nationalism/views on abortion etc….it would have to be re-appropriated VERY strategically
  5. elemental worldviews   –  by use of the term “elemental” or something else we could distinguish from other forms of worldview
  6. worldlook   –   we could make a neologism that is similar to worldview but different (worldsense, worldgist, world take, etc.)
  7. pan-beliefs  –  maybe…”pan” or “panta” means ‘everything’ in greek…I like this one because I can see myself saying it and its fairly self-explanatory

Other options: megabeliefs, world conclusions, cosmic conclusions, world judgements, cosmic convictions, world characteristics, adjectival worldview, stark world beliefs, cosmic impression, total world beliefs, state of everything beliefs, total existence beliefs, pan-existence beliefs, existential inklings, world hunches, world schemas, totalized schemas, everything judgements, world nature, underlying world beliefs, world suppositions, habitus beliefs

Perhaps a neologism: worldset, omnitraits, ubiquitraits, omni-understandings, omni-judgments, worldjectives, omni-beliefs, omniristics, world nature, omniliefs, sublets, world meta-view, world looks, pan-beliefs, metaschema, worldschema,

Terms in the literature you would think refer to UAs but don’t quite: global beliefs, world hypothesis, world assumptions, etc.

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Stutterers Revenge Part VII: Jer Strikes Back on Live Radio

Last week I joined Nick Hernandez on his radio show Community Matters on KZUM 89.3FM for a 20 minute conversation.  I’m sharing the link to his podcasts and I should be at or near the top of the page.  Nick likes to interview people doing interesting research and chat about how their strengths integrate into their work.  He also likes community development issues, so it was a pretty neat to get to know him.  We chatted for  a while afterwards, which made me feel extra special : )

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Nick’s show is all about positive psychology, character strengths, and community building.

Also, I continue to find it hilarious that I’m doing media appearances with a stutter.  I wonder if I’ll ever get over that.  I think I’m going to start naming my media appearances as sequels in a “Stutterers Revenge” series.  (Cue evil laughter.)


The First Philosophy Debate Ever

In previous work, I traced the history of the concept of universal assessments (overall judgements of the world) in German philosophy back to Immanuel Kant in the 18th century.  But this week while listening to the lecture series “The Story of Psychology” by Todd Daniel, I realized that UAs go back way WAY further than I thought.

But I am skeptical of me.

Since studying UAs, I’ve started seeing them everywhere.  I’m currently reading through all of my childhood Calvin & Hobbes books and finding tons.  For example, here’s a strip from It’s a Magical World (the title itself a UA) the last image of which is the cover of another of Watterson’s books:

treasure

As I go through life talking to people, watching movies, and reading books, I find myself constantly writing down UAs and a new universal assessment is growing in me faster than bamboo.  It says “there’s UAs (subset of treasure) everywhere.”  But the mark of a mediocre theorist is that they form the UA that there theory explains everything all the time.

So I’m skeptical.  I might be seeing things.  But I think I’ve made an important connection: the first debate in philosophy was over universal assessments.

In most survey history books, western philosophy begins in Athens, where Socrates taught Plato, Plato taught Aristotle, Aristotle tutored a young Alexander of Macedon, Alex conquered the known world becoming “Great,” and Greek culture spread and dominated. The focus of these early thinkers was on how one should live.  But, outside philosophy students, many do not realize that this focus on people and society was a somewhat new topic in philosophy and represented a transition away from a prior discussion among an eclectic group now called the Pre-socratics.

These guys are overlooked for good reasons.  We know very little about them, they left behind scant literature — fragments really, and, instead of being part of a single story based in the important city of Athens, they lived in far-flung parts of the greek-speaking world.  Perhaps the biggest reason of all that we don’t talk alot about the Pre-socratics is because their major topic of conversation, and most of the conclusions they draw, strike us as silly/irrelevant.  But their not.  This week I have been thinking about the possibility that philosophy was birthed out of a desire to use reason to form UAs.

“What all the pre-Socratic philosophers have in common is their attempt to create general theories of the cosmos.”  — Donald Palmer in Looking at Philosophy, 2001, p. 11

Really?  The first inkling of philosophy as we know it was about characterizing existence as a whole?  To investigate, I created the following short summary of all the major Pre-socratics and all their big ideas.  These are not just their UA-related ideas.  Rather, all their big ideas seem to be UAs.  Its nuts!

Step back: the reason I thought of UAs in the first place is that I observed humans may at times treat existence as one big fat object and our relationship to that object could be both causally independent and connected to our relationship with individual objects within the universe.  It turns out that when we emerged from the cave of pre-history, we sought first to understand the wide world as one object, and only later to turn our attention to individual objects within it (after UAs, I believe the other three components of worldview are the self, others, and nature) when our initial project failed.

Locating UAs even bigger font.001

If you really want to understand how UAs fit in with other big concepts, here is Figure 1 (from my thesis) entitled “Locating Universal Assessments.”  The diagram categorizes belief types in order to visualize where UAs fit. Schemas are the largest subset; they consist of beliefs regarding any number of objects and object types, some of which can be composite. For example, a schema regarding New York City apartments might incorporate specific schemas about component parts, such as New York City bedrooms and balconies. Because the world is an exceptionally large composite object, worldview is a schema with a large number of sub-schemas regarding component parts, the four most important of which are assumed to be the self, other people, the natural world, and existence as a whole (UAs). Also, please note that because worldviews are comprehensive, no complete examples can be provided. Nonetheless, religions, historical narratives, and moral philosophies are examples of traditions or voices that can at times effectively describe much of a worldview or its major components.

Thales of Miletus, the first ever western philosopher (about 580 BC), lived on the coast of what today is Turkey.  He argued that the universe is characterized by change.  However, there is also an underlying unity, which he conjectured might be water because it is the element that is most conducive to change.  He writes, “the first principle and basic nature of all things is water” (Wheelwright, The Presocratics, 1966, p. 44).  For Thales, water is literally the underlying element of everything, but it is the foundation of everything because of its more abstract qualities — because, like all things, water changes and yet remains the same.   This conceptual blending of material and its associated poetic qualities is common among the Pre-socratics.  Thus their pursuit of UAs had a quasi-scientific feel to them.

Thales of Miletus

Thales of Miletus

Anaximander of Miletus, a student of Thales, thought that there was something bigger and better than water underlying the four elements which he called “the boundless.”  It was unlimited, unspecific, and sought balance.  Creation itself was an imbalance that would eventually “correct” itself in the destruction of all things.  In my original thesis, I  identified “the world is declining/improving” as one of 13 UAs likely conducive to the ‘good life’ (explored non-academically in the recent post “Once upon a time there was a universe…“).  Anaximander put forth a story of  existence: everything is doomed to devolve back to “the boundless.”

Anaximenes (545 BC) and others thought “the boundless” was a useless concept — to abstact– and instead put forth air as the element underlying all things.  Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes constitute the major thinkers of the Milesian school and sought simple understandings that made sense of the universe’s complexity (Palmer, 2001).  In so doing they established a UA most of us believe to this day: the simpler answer is probably more reflective of the true nature of existence (Ockham’s Razor).   Sadly, when Persia conquered Miletus in 494 BC the Milesian school ended.

Pythagoras (572-500 BC) of Samos (island in the Aegean) thought that, instead of a physical substance, all things are numerical in nature and the universe functions according to laws and principles that is ultimately understandable and expressible through mathematics.  For example, he is attributed to have discovered the pythagorean theorem which we all learned in middle school when finding the lenghts of the sides of triangles:

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Who would have thought that the relationships between sides of triangles were so mathematically exact?  The discovery of this theorm is likely an early example of how a specific UA led to a positive outcome, in this case advances in geometry.  (Throughout history, if the reflections of the great scientists themselves are to be believed, the belief in universal orderliness and comprehensibility seems to aid, and even drive, scientific advancement.)

Pythagoras also thought that the universe was saturated by music so loud we cannot hear it.  It was produced by the movement (the idea was that all movement produced sound) of the biggest things he knew about: the 10 planets.  Usually, humans can only hear everyday sounds of individual objects.  However, sometimes we can transcend the particular and hear the universe’s vast harmonious song — the music of the spheres.  His views implies several UAs such as “the world is beautiful” and, in the case of his emphasis on mathematics, “the world is comprehensible.”  Both of these UAs I identified in my thesis as key for the development of the ‘good life.’  Another might be, “the world is interconnected.”  Pythagoras and the Dalai Lama would have gotten along I think.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (470 BC) thought fire was the basis of all things.  But his understanding was more figurative.  He thought everything was characterized by unceasing change, flux, creation, and destruction.  He writes, “Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed” (Wheelwright, p. 70) and “you cannot step into the same river twice” (Ring, p. 70).  The only thing that does not change is that everything changes.  The river is different the moment you step out of it.  However, this change is governed by logos, a logic, that makes the universe less than chaotic.  In this, Heraclitus’ views can be captured in several different UAs, two of which were part of my original 13: the world is malleable/unchangeable and the world is comprehensible/incomprehensible.  Another might be “the world is bad.”  Heraclitus often bemoaned how the state of the world is constantly becoming foreign.  In other words, one can never come home.  All is unfamiliar.

Heraclitus was often called the "Dark One" because his thoughts were depressing.  Cough...his UAs may lead to certain life outcomes.  : )

Heraclitus was often called the “Dark One” because his thoughts were depressing. COUGH (UAs may lead to certain life outcomes).

Parmenides (515-440 BC) was the anti-Herclitus.  He said that change is completely illusory.  In fact, “you cannot step into the same river once” because you can’t do anything at all.    Only truths and concepts exist.  They are uncreated, indestructible, eternal, and indivisible — one big Being.  There is no such thing as nothing.  There is only being.  This is similar to Aristotle’s idea, “nature abhors a vacuum.”

Zeno of Elea (490 BCE) agreed with Parmenides and came up with a series of paradoxes (Zeno’s Paradoxes) to show that change was illusory.  The universe, it turns out, is fixed (a UA) and cannot be truly comprehended via the senses but through the mind (another UA that I would call a universal policy assessment which concerns how the universe should be best dealt with).

R6Fig01

Achilles and a tortoise are racing.  Achilles, being the great warrior, gives the tortoise a head start. But, to catch up, Achilles must get to where the toroise used to be, at which point the tortoise will have moved on.  But he can only ever get to where the tortoise used to be.  Thus, Achilles can never catch up. The fact that we see fast runners overtaking slower runners just means that the senses can’t be trusted.

Zeno and Parmenides convinced many and people started to question the UA assumption that all philosophers had held.  Is the universe not reducible to one thing?  If it was reducible, change seemed likely to be illusory.  So they gave it up, monism faded, and they started composing theories that assumed the universe was composed of multiple things.

Empedocles of Acragas (440 BC…and keep in mind that all these dates are quasi bullshit) was the first pluralist.  He thought that all four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) were irreducible and two forces (love and strife) moved them around.  In fact, from these UAs emerged an idea of evolution over 2,200 years before Darwin: strife and love produced all kinds of crazy creatures and mutations with three arms, four eyes, etc., “and those that could survive, did survive” (Palmer, 2001).  Empedocles put forth the UA that as a result of the cosmic war between love and strife much in the universe was left to chance.  Aristotle would later reject this notion, saying that the universe was not so characterized by randomness.

Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (500-428 BC), another pluralist, said that the world is not in some mythic struggle.  Instead, like Pythagoras, he asserted that everything is ordered according to mind and rational law (I’ve stopped noting UAs cause I feel like they all are).  These laws govern the behavior of “infinite seeds” that can be ordered in different ways to create different things.  Mind can also inhabit some of these seed constructions, which is the case with the human body.

Leucippus and Democritus (460-370 BC) were known as the atomists and they built on Anaxagoras’ idea of ‘infinite seeds.’  They said that these seeds, called “atomons,” cannot be split.  Each was a little piece of Parmedian Being (indivisible, indestructible, eternals, etc.) and the motions of these little atomons determined reality.  The universe, they thought, was fixed and deterministic.  There was no space for free will.

At this point, the pre-socratics had worn down tradition and created, on balance, confusion and uncertainty about the true reality of the universe.  In this void stepped the Sophists, who embraced the confusion, used reason to argue their points, and hired out their intellectual abilities to aid whoever could pay (they were often lawyers actually).  I’ll mention five Sophists.  First, Protagoras (490-422 BC), perhaps the most famous sophist, argued that man is the measure of all things.  Human customs, traditions, and even closely held beliefs such as UAs, were subject to expediency.  The universe should be interpreted according to the needs of humans, and that there is no ‘truth’ out there to understand except what is helpful for people.  You might say his UA is “whatever works.”  Second, Gorgias (483-375 BC) wanted to replace philosophy with rhetoric.  He argued for three truths:

  1. There is nothing.
  2. If there were anything, no one could know it.
  3. If anyone did know it, no would could communicate it.

He “proved” these points not to convince people of their truthfulness, but to convince people that searching for truth is a stupid enterprise.  If these idiotic statements can be proven, anything can.  Third, Thrasymachus argued that “justice is always in the interest of the stronger” or might makes right.  Fourth, Callicles claimed that traditional morality was the masses’ way of constraining the strong.  Therefore, the strong should throw off their shackles.  Finally, Critias, a famous tyrant, argued that fear of nonexistent gods should be used to control the masses.  (Its incredible how these ideas mirror Nietzsche’s Will to Power, nihilism, and the road to postmodernity.)  The result of the UA discussion of the pre-socratics was subjectivism, skepticism, and nihilism.  There was also a turn from the nature of the universe, which seemed out of reach, towards more immediate human concerns.  At least that might be graspable.

In this dark philosophical climate steps Socrates, who started talking constructively about what it meant to be a good person, have a good life, and live in a good society.  He talked about understanding the self (the unexamined life is not worth living) and others (Plato’s Republic).

As he reaches for the poisonous hemlock, Socrates spends his final moments discussing virtue and the importance of living well.

Even as he reaches for the poisonous hemlock, Socrates spends his final moments discussing virtue and the importance of living well.

Aristotle would also start the process of cataloguing and understanding other objects in the universe–not the forest but at least the trees.  These objects (the self, others, and nature) were tackled, it seems, only after philosophers had failed in courting their first love: understanding existence as a whole.  Of the four components of worldview, they wanted UAs first, and spent over 200 years in nearly exclusively UA-focused debate.

Of course, UAs continued to be debated.  Plato would argue that endurable and perfect ideas are the true reality and the world is a copy of it (his theory of forms, allegory of the cave, etc.) and Aristotle would argue that the world is as diverse as it appears.  And these UAs mattered: they led to different practical approaches in understanding the world (different policies towards existence are universal policy assessments).  Plato advocated for more thinking and Aristotle wanted more observation (major oversimplification of course).

But, at least for the next few hundred years, UAs became less and less important as a topic, though I can’t say much more at present.  I am now in a process, a side project, of rediscovering the history of philosophy via this UA lens and finding it fascinating.  I had no idea that understanding nature of the universe as a whole was our first philosophical pursuit and that we only moved on when we failed to find satisfying answers to the UA question.

I’ll end with this: should we ask their question again?  Unlike the sophists,  I do not believe that the universe must remain an utter mystery.  If anything I’m quite pumped to try to understand the true nature of the universe again.  Though we don’t know much, we certainly know more than we did 2,500 years ago.  (Perhaps that is how Descartes felt about his modern project.)

However, for the next few years, I’ve decided to be just Aristotle with a dash of sophism.  I want to observe and understand what UAs we hold and how they affect our lives.   This does not mean that I have given up on the truth of the matter.  Rather, thoroughly rigorous empirical research is Act I.

Act II: The Return to the Pre-socratics – what is the true nature of the universe?  Give me a decade or so and I’ll get to it.


Once upon a time there was a universe…

Stories matter.  The stories we tell over our lives affect our health and happiness (Tomasulo & Pawelski, 2012).   Stories can be about specific individuals, but likely the more powerful ones are those which apply to big groups or time periods (meta-narratives or “big stories”) which invite us to play a small part in world-size drama.

Major religions get this–successful churches make people feel like they are a part of God’s plan of redemption.  Great movements of philosophy have this–Descartes started the modernist project by saying that we can base everything on unquestionable truths and eventually create a perfect society.  Successful politicians get this–Marx wrote a story that inevitably ended in revolution and the rule of the working class.

Postmodernism itself is often defined by (Middleton and Walsh for example) as “incredulity towards meta-narratives.”  Postmoderns think that all ‘big stories’ are bullshit, so its stupid to be Democrat or Republican, Buddhist or Christian, or a part of any tradition at all.

Descartes wanted to establsih the modern project on the axiom, "I think, therefore, I am."

Descartes tried to establish the modern project on the axiom, “I think, therefore, I am.”

But there is some evidence that being story-less is not healthy.  Humans have reason to want the meta-narrative.  Positive psychologists define meaning as being a part of something bigger than yourself and have found that meaning defined in this way is a key pillar of deep and lasting happiness (Seligman, 2011).  We crave a deep sense that life has order and direction.  This passion often motivates the historian in each of us.  We want to know who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.

Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

A skeptical moment from Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

We know that endings matter.  Psychologists have found a phenomenon they call “peak-end theory” which maintains that the last few moments of an experience or human life (Rozin & Stellar, 2009) tend to define the entire experience (e.g. Kahneman & Wakker, 1997).  In other words, you never get a second chance to make a last impression.  One of the reasons why our meta-narratives are so important is because meta-narratives tell us the end of the story.  Then we create meaning “pro-retrospectively” (looking forward to look back).

But all this stuff about story, endings, and meta-narrative was not on my mind this summer.  For my masters thesis, I was just trying to figure out what judgements of the universe helped people live happier lives (full text here and non-academic summary here).  I called these judgements “universal assessments” (UAs) and found 13 of them that seemed particularly good for increasing people’s strengths and positive emotions.  Only after I finished the analysis did I realize that one of those 13, the following UA, is really all about the story people tell over existence:

The world is getting better vs. the world is getting worse.

Where are we headed?  Where are we going?  Will the world be renewed, or does it decay and die?  Unlike the other 13 UAs , this one has handy-dandy terms that are already in use.  A meliorist believes that the world is getting better (think bambi-eyed believer).  The pejorist believes the world is getting worse (think grumpy old man).  Together, these two positions represent the two major possible story-lines: is the universe a tragedy or comedy (as in Dante’s Divine Comedy rather than Comedy Central)?

Wether it be heaven, utopia, or just a kinder humanity, the meliorist believes that the world is getting better and the world will "...live happily ever after."

Wether it be heaven, utopia, or just a kinder humanity, the meliorist believes some variation of “…and they all lived happily ever after.”

Of course, many meta-narratives are too complex for these simple categories.  For example, many Christians believe that the world is presently declining, but God will come back and the universe will end well (e.g. Romans 8:20-21).  Other people might believe in human progress and look at how in the last decade 350 million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty (International Fund of Agricultural Development, 2011), but still believe that humans will eventually destroy themselves in nuclear holocaust.  However, for the time being, this UA is meant to encompass both ideas.  First, it is concerned with present trajectory.  Even if down the road the world is renewed, what is the trajectory now?  Second, it is asking if the story ends with “happily ever after” or “and then they all died.”

Pejorism, perhaps?

A pejorist vision, perhaps?

Out of the 24 strengths in the CSV, I found 18 that could potentially be encouraged by meliorist stories and eight by pejorist stories.  Also, out of 10 positive emotions identified by researchers, 9 might be encouraged by meliorism, and 3 by pejorism.  Here’s an example of one connection between meliorism and strength:

Hope is an important psychological strength.  It keeps people motivated and moving, even in dark times.  Empirical studies indicate that those with lots of hope tend to say certain things that sound similar to meliorism.  They include “I expect the best,” “I always look on the bright side,” “despite challenges, I always remain hopeful about the future,” and most strikingly, “I believe that good will always triumph over evil.”  Believing that the world is getting better might be tied to being a hopeful person.  Likewise, believing that the world is getting worse may make hopefulness elusive.

And here is an example of one connection to pejorism:

People who have strengths in humor can sometimes develop it as a coping skill.  Thinking that “the world is going to shit” might push some people to be light-hearted about tragedy and pursue novelty and fun in the moment.  This could be the thinking behind the popular paraphrase of Isaiah 22:13b: ‘Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.’

Future research is needed to know for sure, but I expect that, overall, a beleif that the universe is improving helps us live better lives.  In addition to developing strengths and increasing positive emotions,  those with positive meta-narratives may enjoy other benefits too, like more close friendships, less depression, greater coping skills, and even higher incomes.  But, first things first, I need to develop an assessment tool that captures what stories people have for existence and see if it correlates with life outcomes.  Where do you fall on this UA?  I’d love to know.  Is the world getting better or worse?

I recently got to visit my brother's family in Hong Kong and meet Daniel, my nephew, for the first time.  What brings this UA home for me is the very simple question: will Daniel inherit a world which is worse or better than my own?  Politicians

I recently got to visit my brother’s family in Hong Kong and meet Daniel, my nephew, for the first time. What brings this UA home for me is the very simple question: will Daniel inherit a world which is worse or better than my own? My own personal intuitive answer: probably slightly worse.  I’m not sure though.  I have to think about it more.

What is so fun about this is that I know I have a damn good hypothesis.  Hopefully, in a few years, I’ll be able to let you know for sure about wether I am right or wrong about meliorism having good effects on human life.  Either way, it will definitely be interesting!    It will be fascinating if I am wrong! : )

This post concerns one of  13 universal assessments that were identified in my masters thesis as being possibly critical for the ‘good life.’  An abstract and full download of the capstone project at the University of Pennsylvania is available here on scholarly commons.  A non-academic summary (with pictures and bad puns) can be seen here.  Also, this is the second UA I have elaborated on.  The first was “the world is bad vs. the world is good” that I talk about in the post “Is my WIFE good, and does it matter?”  


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.  

IMG_1877

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


Is my WIFE Good, and Does it Matter?

My wife pisses me off. She has made me feel stupid hundreds of times. She has this strange ability to make me cry those uber-pathetic hiccup sobs that just make me look like an idiot.

And she brings me joy. I adore her. She makes me smile and laugh more than anyone else. She loves me, expresses her affection effusively, and helps me engage in activities that make me feel alive. In fact, she brings me more joy than arguably all my other relationships combined.

Alicia, Spring of 2013, Washington DC

Alicia, Spring of 2013, Washington DC

Why am I talking about this?

In my last post, “Is the World Good, and Does it Matter?” I mentioned my opinion that the world is, in fact, good, and believing so can potentially lead to a better life. Since then, a number of blog readers, such as Eddie the Erudite, have written me with questions like, “what about sin?” and “what about suffering in the world?” and, my favorite, “what about immense suckiness?” Good questions!

Eddie, “The world is good” is one example of a type of judgement I call a “universal assessment” (UA), which are overall judgements we make about the universe. Example? My friend Dan Black is writing a dissertation on 19th century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. Two days ago he told me about an assertion made by a music critic in 1987 while comparing Liszt to Wagner. “For Liszt,” the critic said, “the ‘reality’ is the divine vision; for Wagner the ‘reality’ is a cruel world.” (P. Merrick) This difference in their assessment of the world played out in the emotional valence of their musical compositions.

Before Franz Liszt died in 1886, he was a pianist, composer, and famous teacher —of Wagner and others—and a Franciscan.

Before Franz Liszt died in 1886, he was a pianist, composer, and famous teacher —of Wagner and others—and a Franciscan.

My idea is simple: our universal assessments like “the world is cruel” matter in a variety ways—even musical expression. In order to answer Eddie’s question, however, I must dive a little deeper into what UAs are exactly.

Until his final years, Wagner's life was characterised by political exile, turbulent love affairs, poverty and repeated flight from his creditors.

Until his final years, Wagner’s life was characterised by political exile, turbulent love affairs, poverty and repeated flight from his creditors.

Universal assessments are not simply any belief one has about the universe. A few nights ago, I got out my logic textbook from college (logic class is sexy), and remembered that one can mean at least three different things when making a statement like the “the world is good.”

Option 1: I might be saying that the entire universe is characterized by goodness (and thus nothing is bad). This is the potential meaning Eddie the Erudite found concerning. The assertion can be represented by the category statement, “All X is Y.” In fact, since we are talking about the universe, the class of “X” consists of everything that exists—you, me, the box fan that is keeping me cool as I type this, and everything else. Thus we can simplify the category statement to “All is Y” or “All is good.”

Option 2: The second meaning of “the world is good” might be that there is some unknown measure of goodness in the world. This can be represented by the category statement, “Some is Y.” This means nearly nothing. In logic, “some” can mean hardly anything or almost everything.

Option 3: If one asserts “the universe is good” they might mean something like, “Most is Y.” This is closer.

When I say, “the world is good” I want to assert that the world’s moral valence, its gist, its core, its essence, its balance, its je ne sais quoi, is good. In doing so, we have to weigh all the world’s shittiness…

  • 1.6 billion people lack a safe and healthy place to sleep at night (Habitat for Humanity Intl).
  • 870 million people in the world do not get enough food to eat.
  • The 2009 USA Reinvestment Act spent 831 billion dollars by printing money and taking out loans.
  • The West Wing has been off the air for 7 years!

…against all the world’s awesomeness.

  • 5.5 billion people slept last night in a safe and healthy place (see Jer’s crazy math skills).
  • 6.2 billion people get plenty of food to eat (see Jer’s crazy math skills).
  • For every dollar spent in the 2009 Reinvestment Act, there are nearly 100,000 trees. Seriously, according to NASA there are about 400 billion adult trees in the world. At about 200,000 leaves per tree, that is 80 thousand quadrillion leaves (real word—I looked it up—it goes billion, trillion, then quadrillion). I love leaves. They are beautiful. Each one would be mounted in places of honor if they weren’t so damn abundant.
  • I have all seven seasons of The West Wing on my computer!

These stats barely scratch the surface of what is relevant to a universal assessment, but it’s clear enough that there is vast goodness and badness in the universe. Thus asserting the existence of some goodness or some badness (option 2) in the universe is boring because it’s obviously true, and asserting that existence is 100% good or 100% bad (option 1) is boring because it’s obviously false. The interesting question instead is which side wins (option 3). What side is bigger, more weighty, or more numerous?

our earth from the moon

our earth from the moon

Sidestepping the metaphors of size, kilograms, or quantity, at the heart of a universal assessment is some sort of balance point. There is a threshold which must be achieved before a given aspect of an object becomes characteristic of that object. In forming UAs, therefore, we treat existence as a single thing and assess its defining qualities.

So, in response to Eddie the Erudite: yes, sin, suffering and ugliness are huge. But just because they are huge, does not mean they are defining. Of course it is difficult to assess a data set that is so… large.

But we do it. We do it all the time. And it matters.

I met my wife 10 years ago the very first day of college. We were close for a year and a half, dated for three and a half years, and have now been married for almost five years! This decade has created a vast army of pros — the gross tonnage of awesomeness that I see in Alicia — and a monster force of opposing cons — all the shit-tastic things she does that piss me off. In other words, my wife is a large data set. Some is good, some is bad, but what is more defining? Is my wife good? Is she worthwhile? Do I like her?

The Honeymoon Shot: Jer and Alicia, 2008, Tobermory, Canada

The Honeymoon Shot: Jer and Alicia, 2008, Tobermory, Canada

Yes. I do. Thank God! The good radically outweighs the bad. In fact, the good outweighs the bad to such an enormous extent, that I am not afraid that the bad might outweigh the good any time soon. My wife is good. Whew!

And it matters. I have no data to support this, except a violently strong feeling in my gut that reaches from my jaw to my tailbone: my “wife assessment” has an enormous effect on my relationship to her. If I imagine, even for a second, a world in which I thought my wife was an ass, I quickly see relationship dynamics slipping into aggression, resignation, and divorce.

And just kidding! Psychologists actually do have data, lots of it, to support the notion that overall beliefs about one’s significant other affects one’s relationship. In one study, thinking your partner was “perfect” correlated with relationship health and longevity (Franiuk, R., Cohen, D., & Pomerantz, E. M., 2002). In another study (Showers, C. J., & Limke, A, 2006), researchers found that beliefs about a partner are related to breaking-up. And lots of work indicates that one’s overall disposition towards something affects one’s interactions with it — we make “school assessments,” “church assessments,” “friend assessments,” “job assessments,” etc., and they matter.

But I am especially excited about the comparison of “spouse assessments” for understanding UAs because: 1) Spouses are crazy personal. 2) They create an unfathomably large data set. 3) One has no idea how to “count” good and bad aspects. 4) Yet we make overall assessments of spouses all the time because we know its absolutely necessary for the health of our relationship. My own “spouse assessment,” my gut feeling about whether Alicia is in fact good or not, affects my life, and ultimately whether or not I choose to stay married. Likewise, perhaps my universal assessment affects my life, whether or not I choose to stay alive in it, and even add life to it.

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. — Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus

While our own existence is thrust upon us without our consent, we can choose whether or not to pass this existence on to our possible offspring. Presumably, this choice will reflect our judgment as to the worthwhileness of existence.  — James Pawelski (my friend, professor, & thesis advisor)

Beyond suicide and procreation, perhaps my UAs also affect how I get busy living.  Will I suffer through life like a depressed spouse in an abusive relationship (world), or is there another option? Can I be head over heels in love with the universe and thankful for this gift of life? (I got chills when I wrote this.)  Is it possible to be passionately, meaningfully, and levelheadedly in love with life like I am, or try to be, with my wife? I am not sure.

We’ll see…

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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.

tears4

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!