The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘Positive Psychology’

The Situation of Kindness

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 9, 2009

Yamin Anwar wrote an interesting press release about recent and ongoing research at University of California, Berkeley suggesting that the kindest, and not just the fittest, survive.   Here are some excerpts.

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Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are challenging long-held beliefs that human beings are wired to be selfish. In a wide range of studies, social scientists are amassing a growing body of evidence to show we are evolving to become more compassionate and collaborative in our quest to survive and thrive.

In contrast to “every man for himself” interpretations of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley psychologist and author of “Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life,” and his fellow social scientists are building the case that humans are successful as a species precisely because of our nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits.

They call it “survival of the kindest.”

“Because of our very vulnerable offspring, the fundamental task for human survival and gene replication is to take care of others,” said Keltner, co-director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. “Human beings have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacities to care for those in need and to cooperate. As Darwin long ago surmised, sympathy is our strongest instinct.”

Empathy in our genes

Keltner’s team is looking into how the human capacity to care and cooperate is wired into particular regions of the brain and nervous system. One recent study found compelling evidence that many of us are genetically predisposed to be empathetic.

The study, led by UC Berkeley graduate student Laura Saslow and Sarina Rodrigues of Oregon State University, found that people with a particular variation of the oxytocin gene receptor are more adept at reading the emotional state of others, and get less stressed out under tense circumstances.

Informally known as the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin is secreted into the bloodstream and the brain, where it promotes social interaction, nurturing and romantic love, among other functions.

“The tendency to be more empathetic may be influenced by a single gene,” Rodrigues said.

The more you give, the more respect you get

While studies show that bonding and making social connections can make for a healthier, more meaningful life, the larger question some UC Berkeley researchers are asking is, “How do these traits ensure our survival and raise our status among our peers?”

One answer, according to UC Berkeley social psychologist and sociologist Robb Willer is that the more generous we are, the more respect and influence we wield. In one recent study, Willer and his team gave participants each a modest amount of cash and directed them to play games of varying complexity that would benefit the “public good.” The results, published in the journal American Sociological Review, showed that participants who acted more generously received more gifts, respect and cooperation from their peers and wielded more influence over them.

“The findings suggest that anyone who acts only in his or her narrow self-interest will be shunned, disrespected, even hated,” Willer said. “But those who behave generously with others are held in high esteem by their peers and thus rise in status.”

“Given how much is to be gained through generosity, social scientists increasingly wonder less why people are ever generous and more why they are ever selfish,” he added.

Cultivating the greater good

Such results validate the findings of such “positive psychology” pioneers as Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose research in the early 1990s shifted away from mental illness and dysfunction, delving instead into the mysteries of human resilience and optimism.

While much of the positive psychology being studied around the nation is focused on personal fulfillment and happiness, UC Berkeley researchers have narrowed their investigation into how it contributes to the greater societal good.

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The sympathetic touch

As for college-goers, UC Berkeley psychologist Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton has found that cross-racial and cross-ethnic friendships can improve the social and academic experience on campuses. In one set of findings, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he found that the cortisol levels of both white and Latino students dropped as they got to know each over a series of one-on-one get-togethers. Cortisol is a hormone triggered by stress and anxiety.

Meanwhile, in their investigation of the neurobiological roots of positive emotions, Keltner and his team are zeroing in on the aforementioned oxytocin as well as the vagus nerve, a uniquely mammalian system that connects to all the body’s organs and regulates heart rate and breathing.

Both the vagus nerve and oxytocin play a role in communicating and calming. In one UC Berkeley study, for example, two people separated by a barrier took turns trying to communicate emotions to one another by touching one other through a hole in the barrier. For the most part, participants were able to successfully communicate sympathy, love and gratitude and even assuage major anxiety.

Researchers were able to see from activity in the threat response region of the brain that many of the female participants grew anxious as they waited to be touched. However, as soon as they felt a sympathetic touch, the vagus nerve was activated and oxytocin was released, calming them immediately.

“Sympathy is indeed wired into our brains and bodies; and it spreads from one person to another through touch,” Keltner said.

The same goes for smaller mammals. UC Berkeley psychologist Darlene Francis and Michael Meaney, a professor of biological psychiatry and neurology at McGill University, found that rat pups whose mothers licked, groomed and generally nurtured them showed reduced levels of stress hormones, including cortisol, and had generally more robust immune systems.

Overall, these and other findings at UC Berkeley challenge the assumption that nice guys finish last, and instead support the hypothesis that humans, if adequately nurtured and supported, tend to err on the side of compassion.

“This new science of altruism and the physiological underpinnings of compassion is finally catching up with Darwin’s observations nearly 130 years ago, that sympathy is our strongest instinct,” Keltner said.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Caring,” New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy,” “Well-Being Is a Walk in the Park,” and “Some Situational Sources of Longer Life.”

Posted in Life, Positive Psychology | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

The Situation of Becoming Happier

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 8, 2009

From BigThink: “For however elusive happiness is to define, there are very specific things people can do each day that are proven to increase happiness: Tal Ben Shahar has spent his career studying them. He gave Big Think several practical happiness tips, including changing your calendar, buying a notebook, and changing your approach to car parking.”

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Something to Smile About,” “Dan Kahneman on the Situation of Well-Being,” and “Martin Seligman on Positive Psychology.”

Posted in Life, Positive Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

The Situational Consequences of Uncertainty

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 24, 2009

FearThis spring, Situationist friend, Dan Gilbert published another illuminating and entertaining op-ed, titled What We Don’t Know Makes Us Nervous,” (New York Times, May 21, 2009).  Here’s an excerpt.

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Seventy-six years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took to the inaugural dais and reminded a nation that its recent troubles “concern, thank God, only material things.” In the midst of the Depression, he urged Americans to remember that “happiness lies not in the mere possession of money” and to recognize “the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success.”

“The only thing we have to fear,” he claimed, “is fear itself.”

As it turned out, Americans had a great deal more to fear than that, and their innocent belief that money buys happiness was entirely correct. Psychologists and economists now know that although the very rich are no happier than the merely rich, for the other 99 percent of us, happiness is greatly enhanced by a few quaint assets, like shelter, sustenance and security. Those who think the material is immaterial have probably never stood in a breadline.

Money matters and today most of us have less of it, so no one will be surprised by new survey results from the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index showing that Americans are smiling less and worrying more than they were a year ago, that happiness is down and sadness is up, that we are getting less sleep and smoking more cigarettes, that depression is on the rise.

But light wallets are not the cause of our heavy hearts. After all, most of us still have more inflation-adjusted dollars than our grandparents had, and they didn’t live in an unremitting funk. Middle-class Americans still enjoy more luxury than upper-class Americans enjoyed a century earlier, and the fin de siècle was not an especially gloomy time. Clearly, people can be perfectly happy with less than we had last year and less than we have now.

So if a dearth of dollars isn’t making us miserable, then what is? No one knows. I don’t mean that no one knows the answer to this question. I mean that the answer to this question is that no one knows — and not knowing is making us sick.

Consider an experiment by researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands who gave subjects a series of 20 electric shocks. Some subjects knew they would receive an intense shock on every trial. Others knew they would receive 17 mild shocks and 3 intense shocks, but they didn’t know on which of the 20 trials the intense shocks would come. The results showed that subjects who thought there was a small chance of receiving an intense shock were more afraid — they sweated more profusely, their hearts beat faster — than subjects who knew for sure that they’d receive an intense shock.

That’s because people feel worse when something bad might occur than when something bad will occur. Most of us aren’t losing sleep and sucking down Marlboros because the Dow is going to fall another thousand points, but because we don’t know whether it will fall or not — and human beings find uncertainty more painful than the things they’re uncertain about.

But why?

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To find out, click here to read the entire op-ed.

Dan Gilbert will be speaking at Harvard Law School on Monday, October 19.  Stay tuned to the Situationist for further details.

For a sample of previous Situationist posts by or about Dan Gilbert and his work, see “Dan Gilbert on the Situation of Psychology,” “Something to Smile About,” “The Situation of Climate Change,” The Heat is On,” “Don’t Worry, But Don’t Be Happy, Either?,” “The Situation of Happiness,” “The Unlucky Irish: Celtics Fans and Affective Forecasting,” and “Conversation with Dan Gilbert.”

To review a collection of Situationist posts about the psychology of happiness, click here.

Posted in Distribution, Emotions, Life, Positive Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

What Is Welfare? – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 4, 2009

Door to HappinessJohn Bronsteen, Christopher Buccafusco, and Jonathan Masur posted another interesting paper, “Welfare as Happiness,” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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In the fields of law, economics, and philosophy, the leading conception of human welfare is preference-satisfaction — getting what one wants. An important rival is an objective list approach to ethics — possessing an enumerated set of capabilities. This Article argues against both major views and in favor of a third, defining welfare as subjective well-being — feeling good. We reject the leading approach on the ground that preferences are often mistaken or else involve goals independent of the individual’s own welfare. When sophisticated preference-satisfaction theories launder out such preferences, those accounts reduce to our happiness-based approach. We reject objective list theories on the ground that they impose objective criteria, whereas an individual’s well-being is a purely subjective concept. How good a person’s life is for her cannot be judged by how well she satisfies someone else’s standards of virtue or flourishing. By contrast with these theories, our hedonic approach captures the ordinary understanding of what it means for someone to have well-being, and it stands up better to analytical challenges than do its rivals. As a result, we advocate that administrative agencies replace cost-benefit analysis (the tool of the preference-based approach) with well-being analysis. Groundbreaking new research in hedonic psychology makes this possible, and we discuss how it can be accomplished.

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You can download the paper for free here.  For more Situationist posts about some of those authors’ previous work, see  “Happiness and Punishment – Abstract,” and “The Situation of Civil Settlements – Abstract.”  To read other releated Situationist posts, see “Something to Smile About,” Happiness Rankings by Country,” “Miscalculating Welfare – Abstract,” and “Situating Emotion.”

Posted in Abstracts, Emotions, Legal Theory, Positive Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Something to Smile About

Posted by Adam Benforado on May 23, 2009

Smiley Face Suckers

Yes, I’m easily excitable, but I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see mainstream newspapers publishing articles on hedonic research!  Lame (terribly clever) puns aside, there is a promising trend afoot.

In the last couple weeks, the New York Times and the Boston Globe have published articles exploring the implications of research on human happiness.

In the NYT, Situationist friend Dan Gilbert sought to shed light on “new survey results from the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index showing that Americans are smiling less and worrying more than they were a year ago, that happiness is down and sadness is up, that we are getting less sleep and smoking more cigarettes, that depression is on the rise.”

According to Gilbert, the explanation has to do with the discomfort of uncertainty.

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Consider an experiment by researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands who gave subjects a series of 20 electric shocks.  Some subjects knew they would receive an intense shock on every trial.  Others knew they would receive 17 mild shocks and 3 intense shocks, but they didn’t know on which of the 20 trials the intense shocks would come.  The results showed that subjects who thought there was a small chance of receiving an intense shock were more afraid—they sweated more profusely, their hearts beat faster—than subjects who knew for sure that they’d receive an intense shock.

That’s because people feel worse when something bad might occur than when something bad will occur.  Most of us aren’t losing sleep and sucking down Marlboros because the Dow is going to fall another thousand points, but because we don’t know whether it will fall or not — and human beings find uncertainty more painful than the things they’re uncertain about.

But why?

A colostomy reroutes the colon so that waste products leave the body through a hole in the abdomen, and it isn’t anyone’s idea of a picnic. A University of Michigan-led research team studied patients whose colostomies were permanent and patients who had a chance of someday having their colostomies reversed. Six months after their operations, patients who knew they would be permanently disabled were happier than those who thought they might someday be returned to normal.

Similarly, researchers at the University of British Columbia studied people who had undergone genetic testing to determine their risk for developing the neurodegenerative disorder known as Huntington’s disease.  Those who learned that they had a very high likelihood of developing the condition were happier a year after testing than those who did not learn what their risk was.

Why would we prefer to know the worst than to suspect it?  Because when we get bad news we weep for a while, and then get busy making the best of it.  We change our behavior, we change our attitudes.  We raise our consciousness and lower our standards. We find our bootstraps and tug.  But we can’t come to terms with circumstances whose terms we don’t yet know.  An uncertain future leaves us stranded in an unhappy present with nothing to do but wait.

Our national gloom is real enough, but it isn’t a matter of insufficient funds. It’s a matter of insufficient certainty. Americans have been perfectly happy with far less wealth than most of us have now, and we could quickly become those Americans again — if only we knew we had to.

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To read the entire article, click here.

For the Globe, Drake Bennett wrote about the potential policy implications of hedonic research.  Here are some excerpts.

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In recent years, cognitive scientists have turned in increasing numbers to the study of human happiness, and one of their central findings is that we are not very good at predicting how happy or unhappy something will make us. Given time, survivors of tragedies and traumas report themselves nearly as happy as they were before, and people who win the lottery or achieve lifelong dreams don’t see any long-term increase in happiness. By contrast, annoyances like noise or chronic pain bring down our happiness more than you’d think, and having friends or an extra hour of sleep every night can raise it dramatically.

These findings have fed the growth of a burgeoning “positive psychology” movement focused on helping people enrich their own lives. But now some scholars are starting to ask a bigger question: shouldn’t this new understanding affect policy, too? A huge range of social systems, from tort law to urban planning to medical care, are built on assumptions about what makes people happy. Now, for the first time, researchers are claiming to be actually measuring happiness, to actually know what causes it. In a society whose Smiley Facefounding document asserts a basic right to the pursuit of happiness, that new knowledge could have far-reaching implications.

What we’re learning, these thinkers argue, should make us reconsider some of the basic rules by which government regulates behavior: how we litigate lawsuits and write contracts; how we zone neighborhoods; which medical research we fund, and how we prioritize healthcare. The findings of happiness researchers offer a new and potentially powerful set of tools to compare the impacts of various laws: how does it change everybody’s happiness if the minimum wage is raised, if the speed limit is lowered, if divorce laws are loosened?

Some skeptics think it’s premature to let happiness research dictate policy: much of the data is still provisional, and some findings seem to contradict each other. And, more fundamentally, some argue that no amount of data could justify the sort of paternalism that would be required for the government to force people into some happiness-maximizing choices. It’s part of a broader debate that has preoccupied thinkers since the dawn of philosophy but been rekindled by the new research: how do we define happiness, anyway, and how much should we value it?

[S]ome psychologists have begun to argue that you can, in fact, reliably measure happiness: all you need to do is ask people. Because we so badly mispredict and misremember how happy something made us, however, the trick is to ask people to rate their current happiness, and then track the changes over time. Many recent studies have subjects keep happiness diaries; others give them beepers and have them rate their happiness whenever beeped.

Perhaps the best known study in the literature was published in 1978 by the psychologists Philip Brickman, Dan Coates, and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman. They compared the self-reported happiness levels of lottery winners, paralyzed accident victims (both paraplegics and quadriplegics), and people who were neither. What they found was that lottery winners didn’t report themselves appreciably happier than the control group, and while the paralyzed did report themselves less happy than the controls, the difference was not as dramatic as the researchers had expected. More recent and rigorous studies have yielded results broadly similar: getting married or getting a raise or a new house all give a boost to our happiness, but eventually we drop to levels near where we were before. By contrast, happiness dips and then rebounds after people lose a limb, their sight or even – though the data is more conflicting here – a loved one.

For Daniel Gilbert . . . the implications for policymaking are straightforward. Lawmakers, judges, doctors and managers alike should take the growing happiness literature into account as they decide what behavior they want to encourage or discourage. “Before we get people to do X, we ought to know that X is actually a source of happiness for them,” he says.

The field that has taken this most to heart so far is the law. A few scholars have begun arguing, for example, that the damages we award in lawsuits need to be rethought in light of work like Gilbert’s. Last year Cass R. Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor who is now the Obama administration’s nominee for “regulatory czar,” published a law review article in which he argued that our inability to predict how well people adapt to traumas leads to excessively large awards in personal injury lawsuits. Jurors and judges overcompensate plaintiffs for their suffering, he argued, because they are unable to believe that a disabled life can be a happy one. At the same time, Sunstein pointed to evidence that people are actually better at adapting to physical disabilities than to mental illness or chronic pain – conditions that, because they are not visible, don’t tend to elicit the same sort of reaction from juries. Because of that, he argued, our misunderstanding of happiness shortchanges those plaintiffs.

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Other legal scholars are concerned not with the misallocation of award money, but with how the legal process itself may hurt people who have already suffered a trauma by impeding their natural ability to adapt. Samuel Bagenstos and Margo Schlanger, law professors at Washington University in St. Louis, co-wrote a law review article in 2007 suggesting that the emphasis on lost enjoyment of life in jury awards actually makes it harder for the plaintiff to recover. Better, they argue, to focus remedies not on the lost happiness, which in many cases will take care of itself, but on specific lost capabilities, and on mitigating their effects through rehabilitation. And to the extent that disabilities do cause unhappiness, it’s often from social factors like isolation and discrimination – so paying people off just for their disability may be counterproductive, since it can leave the real causes of unhappiness unaddressed.

In the legal world, these ideas have triggered some pushback. Among the more specific critiques was one offered by Peter Huang, a law professor at Temple, and Rick Swedloff, a visiting associate professor at Rutgers. In a law review article published this spring, they take on what they call the “legal hedonists,” cautioning that happiness research was still too uncertain to justify large-scale legal changes. What’s more, they argue, juries and judges often display a subtler intuitive understanding of hedonic adaptation than Sunstein allows.

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To read Bennett’s worthwhile piece in its entirety, click here.   For related Situationist posts, click here.

Thanks to Julian Darwell for his assistance with this post.

Posted in Emotions, Law, Legal Theory, Positive Psychology | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Situationism in the Blogosphere – November 2008

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 14, 2009

Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quotation from some of our favorite non-Situationist situationist blogging during November 2008. (They are listed in alphabetical order by source.)

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From BPS Research Digest blog: “Dazzled by digits: how we’re wooed by product specifications

“From megapixels and gigabytes to calorie counts and sun protection factors, there’s barely a product out there that isn’t proudly boasting its enviable specs to would-be purchasers. A new study suggests these figures exert a powerful, irrational effect on consumers’ decision-making, even overriding the influence of a person’s direct experience with a product.” Read more . . .

From BPS Research Digest blog: “Rare, profound positive events won’t make you happy, but lots of little ones

“Rather like a pond that soon returns to calm no matter the size of the stone you throw in it, psychological research has shown that people’s sense of happiness is stubbornly immovable, regardless of how good or bad the experiences one endures. . . . According to Daniel Mochon and colleagues, however, this is not the full story. Mochon’s team have tested the idea that whereas rare, massive events have no lasting effect on happiness, the cumulative effect of lots of little boosts may well have the power to influence happiness over the longer-term.” Read more . . .

From BPS Research Digest blog: We’re better at spotting fake smiles when we’re feeling rejected

“Bernstein’s team provoked feelings of rejection in students by asking them to write about a time they felt rejected or excluded. These students were subsequently better at distinguishing fake from real smiles as depicted in four-second video clips, than were students who’d either been asked to write about a time they felt included, or to write about the previous morning.” Read more . . .

From Everyday Sociology Blog: “Ideology

“You probably hear the word ideology used a lot, whether it is used in political or economic discussions (or in sociology classes). But what does it really mean? Put plainly, ideology is a way of seeing the world. Ideologies are like lenses through which we view just about everything. . . .” Read more . . .

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For previous installments of “Situationism on the Blogosphere,” click on the “Blogroll” category in the right margin.

Posted in Abstracts, Blogroll, Ideology, Marketing, Positive Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Dan Kahneman on the Situation of Well-Being

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 12, 2009

In Part II of his 2007 Hitchcock Lectures (titled “Explorations of the Mind – Well-Being: Living and Thinking About It“) , Daniel Kahneman explores meaning and causes of well-being:

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To view Part I of the lecture series, see Dan Kahneman on the Situation of Intuition.” For a collection of videos of Dan Kahneman, click here.  For a sample of other Situationist posts related to Kahneman’s work, see Dan Kahneman’s Situation,” “The Situation of Financial Risk-Taking,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part I,” and “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part II.”

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Emotions, Life, Positive Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Martin Seligman on Positive Psychology

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 12, 2008

From Ted Talks: Martin Seligman talks about psychology — as a field of study and as it works one-on-one with each patient and each practitioner. As it moves beyond a focus on disease, what can modern psychology help us to become?

Martin Seligman founded the field of positive psychology in 2000, and has devoted his career since then to furthering the study of positive emotion, positive character traits, and positive institutions. It’s a fascinating field of study that had few empirical, scientific measures — traditional clinical psychology focusing more on the repair of unhappy states than the propagation and nurturing of happy ones. In his pioneering work, Seligman directs the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, developing clinical tools and training the next generation of positive psychologists.

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For other Situationist posts discussing research on positive psychology, click here.

Posted in Emotions, Positive Psychology, Video | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Lawyers and Practicing Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 24, 2008

The Situationist has examined various implications that social psychology and related fields for law and legal theory. But what about for the practice of law? Martin Seligman, former American Psychological Association president and one of the leaders of the new field of Positive Psychology, examines the relationship between psychology and the practice of law in his fascinating book Authentic Happiness. Here are some relevant excerpts.

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Thirty years ago, the cognitive revolution in psychology overthrew both Freud and the behaviorists, at least in academia. Cognitive scientists demonstrated that thinking can be an object of science, that it is measurable, and most importantly that it is not just a reflection of emotion or behavior. Aaron T. Beck, the leading theorist of cognitive therapy, claimed that emotion is always generated by cognition, not the other way around. The thought of danger causes anxiety, the thought of loss causes sadness, and the thought of trespass causes anger.

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These two opposite views have never been reconciled. The imperialistic Freudian view claims that emotion always drives thought, while the imperialistic cognitive view claims that thought always drives emotion. The evidence, however, is that each drives the other at times. So the question for twenty-first century psychology is this: under what conditions does emotion drive thinking, and under what conditions does thinking drive emotion?

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Our economy is rapidly changing from a money economy to a satisfaction economy. These trends go up and down (when jobs are scarcer, personal satisfaction has a somewhat lesser weight; when jobs are abundant, personal satisfaction counts for more), but the trend for decades is decidedly in favor of personal satisfaction. Law is now the most highly paid profession in America, having surpassed medicine during the 1990s. Yet the major New York law firms now spend more on retention than on recruitment, as their young associates—and even the partners—are leaving law in droves for work that makes them happier. The lure of a lifetime of great riches at the end of several years of grueling eighty-hour weeks as a lowly associate has lost much of its power. The newly minted coin of this realm is life satisfaction.I should be studying by katesheets-flickr

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Law is a prestigious and remunerative profession, and law school classrooms are full of fresh candidates. In a recent poll, however, 52 percent of practicing lawyers described themselves as dissatisfied. Certainly, the problem is not financial. As of 1999, associates (junior lawyers vying to become partners) at top firms can earn up to $200,000 per year just starting out, and lawyers long ago surpassed doctors as the highest-paid professionals. In addition to being disenchanted, lawyers are in remarkably poor mental health. They are at much greater risk than the general population for depression. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found statistically significant elevations of major depressive disorder in only 3 of 104 occupations surveyed. When adjusted for sociodemographics, lawyers topped the list, suffering from depression at a rate 3.6 times higher than employed persons generally. Lawyers also suffer from alcoholism and illegal drug use at rates far higher than nonlawyers. The divorce rate among lawyers, especially women, also appears to be higher than the divorce rate among other professionals. Thus, by any measure, lawyers embody the paradox of money losing its hold: they are the best-paid profession, and yet they are disproportionately unhappy and unhealthy. And lawyers know it; many are retiring early or leaving the profession altogether.

Positive psychology sees three principal causes of the demoralization among lawyers. The first is pessimism, defined not in the colloquial sense (seeing the glass as half empty) but rather as the pessimistic explanatory style . . . . These pessimists tend to attribute the causes of negative events to stable and global factors (“It’s going to last forever, and it’s going to undermine everything”). The pessimist views bad events as pervasive, permanent, and uncontrollable, while the optimist sees them as local, temporary, and changeable. Pessimism is maladaptive in most endeavors: Pessimistic life insurance agents sell less and drop out sooner than optimistic agents. Pessimistic undergraduates get lower grades, relative to their SAT scores and past academic record, than optimistic students. Pessimistic swimmers have more substandard times and bounce back from poor efforts worse than do optimistic swimmers. Pessimistic pitchers and hitters do worse in close games than optimistic pitchers and hitters. Pessimistic NBA teams lose to the point spread more often than do optimistic tams.

Thus, pessimists are losers on many fronts. But there is one glaring exception: pessimists do better at law. We tested the entire entering class of the Virginia Law School in 1990. . . . These students were then followed throughout the three years of law school. In sharp contrast to results of prior studies in other realms of life, the pessimistic law students on average fared better than their optimistic peers. Specifically, the pessimists outperformed more optimistic students on the traditional measures of achievement, such as grade point averages and law journal success.

Pessimism is seen as a plus among lawyers, because seeing troubles as pervasive and permanent is a component of what the law profession deems prudence. A prudent perspective enables a good lawyer to see every conceivable snare and catastrophe that might occur in any transaction. The ability to anticipate the whole range of problems and betrayals that nonlawyers are blind to is highly adaptive for the practicing lawyer who can, by so doing, help his clients defend against these far-fetched eventualities. And if you don’t have this prudence to begin with, law school will seek to teach it to you. Unfortunately, though, a trait that makes you good at your profession does not always make you a happy human being.

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Lawyers by Wrote - FlickrA second psychological factor that demoralizes lawyers, particularly junior ones, is low decision latitude in high-stress situations. Decision latitude refers to the number of choices one has—or, as it turns out, the choices one believes one has—on the job. An important study of the relationship of job conditions with depression and coronary disease measures both job demands and decision latitude. There is one combination particularly inimical to health and morale: high job demands coupled with low decision latitude. Individuals with these jobs have much more coronary disease and depression than individuals in the other three quadrants.

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The deepest of all the psychological factors making lawyers unhappy is that American law has become increasingly a win-loss game. Barry Schwartz distinguishes practices that have their own internal “goods” as a goal for free-market enterprises focused on profits. Amateur athletics, for instance, is a practice that has virtuosity as its good. Teaching is a practice that has learning as its good. Medicine is a practice that has healing as its good. Friendship is a practice that has intimacy as its good. When these practices brush up against the free market, their internal goods become subordinated to the bottom line. Night baseball sells more tickets, even though you cannot really see the ball at night. Teaching gives way to the academic star system, medicine to managed care, and friendship to what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. American law has similarly migrated from being a practice in which good counsel about justice and fairness was the primary good to being a big business in which billable hours, take-no-prisoners victories, and the bottom line are now the principal ends.

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Lawyers are trained to be aggressive, judgmental, intellectual, analytical and emotionally detached. This produces predictable emotional consequences for the legal practitioner: he or she will be depressed, anxious, and angry a lot of the time.

Posted in Book, Emotions, Law, Life, Positive Psychology, Situationist Sports | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Happiness Rankings by Country

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 20, 2008

Andrew Cohen of the Ottawa Citizen has a new piece that discusses a 2006 study by social psychologist Adrian White of the University of Leicester. The study, entitled “A Global Projection of Well Being: A Challenge to Positive Psychology?,” employed more than 100 studies to rank countries by their citizens’ level of happiness.

Congrats to our readers from Denmark, the happiest nation according to White’s study.

Below we excerpt portions of Cohen’s article.

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When they say that the Danes are the happiest people on earth – as a widely publicized study by the University of Leicester found in 2006 – the Garden of Mythology comes to mind. After all, an airport garden, in a country that is dreary for much of the year, is fundamentally human. When the sun finally comes out, people have a heightened sense of well-being.

The study was done by Adrian White, a social psychologist. Using a battery of statistics and a survey of attitudes among 80,000 people around the globe, he created “a world map of happiness.” Of 178 countries, he found Denmark the happiest.

An odd choice, you might think, for a people known for herring and Hamlet. Or for a people described as brooding, remote and dour.

No matter. Professor White concludes that happiness is about being healthy, wealthy and wise. While much of his study is subjective, he measures levels of GDP, health and education. He also finds that countries of low population and high social cohesion tend to be happier.

Denmark, for example, is a generous welfare state. Health care is excellent. University is free and students are paid to attend. Paid holidays extend to six weeks a year. Violent crime is rare.

Unsurprisingly, the next half-dozen countries on the list – Switzerland, Austria, Iceland, The Bahamas, Finland, Sweden – are also (with some variations) small, safe, affluent and homogenous. Canada is 10th on the list, which would seem about right given its prosperity (though not its distinctive diversity).

The United States (where happiness is virtually a constitutional right) is 23rd, Germany 35th, Great Britain 41st. Japan, which is wealthy and healthy, does surprisingly badly at 90th place.

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For the rest of the article, click here. To read White’s study, click here. For other Situationist posts on happiness, click here.

Posted in Life, Public Policy | Tagged: , , , | 8 Comments »

Happy Law Students, Happy Lawyers – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 26, 2008

Nancy Levit and Douglas Linder posted their article, “Happy Law Students, Happy Lawyers” (forthcoming 58 Syracuse Law ReviewSSRN. We’ve pasted the abstract below.

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This article draws on research into the science of happiness and asks a series of interrelated questions: Whether law schools can make law students happier? Whether making happier law students will translate into making them happier lawyers, and the accompanying question of whether making law students happier would create better lawyers? After covering the limitations of genetic determinants of happiness and happiness set-points, the article addresses those qualities that happiness research indicates are paramount in creating satisfaction: control, connections, creative challenge (or flow), and comparisons (preferably downward). Those qualities are then applied to legal education, while addressing the larger philosophical question, What if happiness were a goal of law schools?

The authors believe that making law students happier does translate, at least in part, into making them both happier and better lawyers because there is an interplay among happiness, collaboration and professionalism. As just one example: The people who are happier in life are those who give back. There is a distinction between feeling good, the pursuit of pleasure, and doing good, which can lead to more lasting happiness, and a life with meaning. People who have a richer sense of happiness aren’t those who work on their narcissistic personal needs, but those who embrace a larger sense of civic engagement. Happily, that dovetails with pro bono obligations in law. A recent ABA survey reported that only 46% of lawyers met the ABA’s goal of 50 hours of free pro bono services. Those who did meet the aspirational goal reported a direct correlation between that form of giving back and their own satisfaction.

The article concludes with some concrete suggestions about maximizing student happiness, through addressing some of the career reasons why law students become unhappy lawyers. One of these is, as Daniel Gilbert observed in his book Stumbling on Happiness, that people are bad at forecasting what will make their future selves happy. If law schools address this phenomenon of poor prediction by offering better information on not only paths of career decision-making, salary expectations, and non-practice options but also decision theory and psychological constraints on decision making, this will increase the likelihood that students will more accurately choose how to make their future selves happy.

Posted in Abstracts, Education, Emotions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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