Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Science of Happiness

I just read an article titled "The Science of Happiness" in Harvard magazine, written by Craig Lambert. It summarizes the principles of positive psychology and notes its gaining popularity in academia. Of interest to me were a number of arguments made about the utility of happiness, pleasure and pain and their evolutionary functions
“We start with a mild tendency to approach [others],” Etcoff continues. “But when we encounter something negative, we pay extraordinary attention to it. Think about hearing a description of a stranger: ‘Joe is happy, confident, and funny. But he’s cheap.’” Negative information like this can forecast a problem: if Joe is cheap he may hoard, rather than share his resources with us. “Our emotions are like a smoke detector: it’s OK if they sometimes give a false signal,” Etcoff says. “You don’t die from a false positive. It’s better to be too sensitive. We evolved in a world of much more immediate danger—germs, predators, crevasses.”

And further:

“We didn’t evolve for happiness, we evolved for survival and reproduction.” For this reason, we are sensitive to danger."
It is argued that it pays to be skeptical of people rather than to trusting. It is interesting that she states that we have a tendency for "approach" but that this fades when we hear something negative. This highlights the distinction between the premises that underlie NVC and those that underlie most accounts of the human behavior. From an evolutionary perspective we are fundamentally programmed to reproduce rather than seek happiness or "enrich life". Being happy in close relationships is just a nice by-product in the quest to fulfill our evolutionary purpose.

Also interesting were George Vaillant’s comments on emotions:
“Negative emotions help us to survive individually; positive emotions help the community to survive. Joy, unlike happiness, is not all about me—joy is connection. Beethoven knew little happiness, but he knew joy.”

Negative emotions are useful because they keep us safe and healthy from the threats of other self-interested individuals while positive emotions help us connect, collaborate and cooperate which also is necessary for our survival. Thus, evolutionary thinking provides an explanation for the experience of both positive and negative emotions. Consequently negative emotions like anger and disgust are viewed as appropriate responses to potentially threatening environments. Then again, different cultures are likely to have different responses to the same stimulus. A good example is incest, where cultures vary considerable in their level of tolerance and/or disgust for this practice. Is it possible that emotions are learned responses?
Happiness activates the sympathetic nervous system (which stimulates the “flight or fight” response), whereas joy stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (controlling “rest and digest” functions). “We can laugh from either joy or happiness,” Vaillant said. “We weep only from grief or joy.” Happiness displaces pain, but joy embraces it: “Without the pain of farewell, there is no joy of reunion,” he asserted. “Without the pain of captivity, we don’t experience the joy of freedom.”
This distinction between joy and happiness seems similar to the Buddhist notions of well-being. Where happiness or the experience of pleasurable sensations is temporary and ignorant, and joy represents a more sustainable and lasting inner peace. It is interesting that this potentially corresponds to the neurophysiology of the brain.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Building Campus-Wide Trust and Respect

Below is the presentation we gave as part of our AQIP project. This project is part of the college's larger accreditation process. Specifically, our group worked on building campus-wide trust and respect.

Today we would like to present to you our AQIP project that we hope will strengthen campus-wide trust and respect. It has been difficult for our group to come up with a tangible and doable AQIP project for promoting campus-wide trust and respect. Part of this difficulty was just trying to understand what Trust and Respect actually mean to us as a campus. We came to realize that these terms actually can mean different things for different people and that any policy, project, suggestion that we could potentially come up with was likely to increase trust and respect for some, while decreasing trust and respect for others.

To illustrate, imagine our group found that trust and respect was lacking because employees didn’t know each other well. Imagine that in order to deal with this, the T and R group made the suggestion that every employee is required to say hello with a smile when they pass someone in the hallway. It became clear to us that although a “rule” like might be good for some circumstances, it may be difficult or cumbersome in others.

We would like to now present a skit that addresses the process by which our group went through to grapple with this issue. The skit is not intended to represent an actual conversation or what people actually said in our meetings. It is however, a representation of a particular issue that came up in our group and how we collectively agreed to address it. Our intention is to highlight the difficulties we faced in addressing campus-wide trust and respect and how we choose to go forward.

Trust and Respect - Meetings_1.doc