The Happy Society Inspires Kentucky

Positive sociology has been inspiring Kentucky residents through the efforts of Beau Weston, the Van Winkle Professor of Sociology and Chair of Anthropology and Sociology of Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, and a blogger at The Gruntled Center: Exploring the Happy Society. Weston first developed a class he calls “The Happy Society”, using a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities to develop his syllabus and run a theory camp with students to test it out.

After a successful first run of “The Happy Society” at Centre College, Weston found out about my class on positive sociology when I was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He became my “Happy Society Teaching Buddy”, which basically means he was my reading partner and pedagogical coach as I taught this class for the first time. I learned from his lessons having taught the class, and innovated the syllabus and assignments to my own class.

This year, Weston’s class took on a new twist. Inspired by the classic Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, Weston organized the group into little platoons that had to carry out projects in the community. Small groups, we know from Burke’s insights and much recent research, can inspire ideas and generative creative energy far beyond our own minds.

As reported in the Centre College online newsletter this December 5, 2013:

“Using the idea of ‘little platoons,’ Weston modified the previous year’s happiness project, changing it from one the entire class completed to a group of small partner projects. ‘One of the main findings of happiness research is that working with others—especially friends—on a meaningful project is one of the most reliably happy-making of actions,’ he explains. ‘Thus the ‘little platoons’ project was born.’ Students worked with another classmate and created a platoon that would do something worthwhile. Michaela Manley ’15 and Clark Weber ’14 paired up to bring happiness to a local retirement home, McDowell Place. ‘Michaela and I both enjoy talking to our grandparents,’ says Weber, ‘and we realized that it would be a good idea to write down their happiest memories. We thought we would record memories of other elderly individuals in the community.’ “

Weston’s project resembles what I’ve done in the Calhoun Happiness Project, in which everyone had to choose a happiness buddy. This coming spring, I would like repeat in the Calhoun Happiness Project an assignment I devised at UNC: asking students to pick a student group they belong to (a sports team, publication, student government, etc.) and try to apply the principles of positive psychology and positive sociology to improve that group. To guide students next spring, I plan to have them read Ryan W. Quinn’s Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Organization. (The Lift blog has all kinds of great ideas…)

It’s only fitting that since my collaboration with Weston t started in part because I blogged right here on Black, White and Gray about my positive sociology class at UNC, that now I should blog about his successful class. It’s also striking that in teaching this material, we both independently reached a similar conclusion: happiness is not just an idea, it should be a practice, and we all benefit from having happiness buddies or little platoons to keep us focused on our resolutions and projects to improve our lives and that of those around us. Our students have obviously inspired our respective schools’ publications to write about our course, and the Calhoun Happiness Project has now been in the Yale Herald, the Yale Daily News and the Yale Alumni Magazine. Isn’t it great to see good news in the media, the classroom and the community?

The Problem with Giving Tuesday

Black Friday seems to now be the first day in a series of spending-oriented days: Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and today’s Giving Tuesday.  Apparently 2013 marks the second official Giving Tuesday.  According to the official website, the day “celebrates and encourages charitable activities that support non-profit organizations. I suspect, however, Giving Tuesday works because it is paired with days of spending and consuming; giving to others can sometimes be a way to make people feel less guilty for their own high levels of consumption.  We consume with ourselves (and our family and loved ones) in mind; we give to help others we do not know.

In the United States, it seems that getting the best deal often becomes the most important goal in our consumption. Post after post on my Facebook feed reveals friends letting others know about the money they saved in the purchase of some toy or gadget. While I’m not against saving money (I use electronic coupons to lower the cost of groceries quite regularly!), paying the lowest price should not be the highest priority when it comes to our consumption. Black Friday thrives because we’ve convinced ourselves there is moral virtue to finding the lowest price.

At the same time, I think all of us are willing to admit that there are limits to what we can and should do to save money or pay lower prices.  For those who pay people to clean their homes, I suspect paying an elementary school child to do the work (when they should be in school) wouldn’t be an option, even it was legal.  For those who hire people to care for their children, paying someone $2/hr who was undocumented and in severe financial need and willing to accept that low wage is probably also not an attractive option.

Yet somehow we think that if we buy an item in the informal marketplace, we are not responsible for how the business treats their workers. If we get a low price because the business we buy it from hired a child,  paid someone under the minimum wage, or made people work under hazardous conditions, then that’s not on us.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?” we ask, much like Cain.  That’s their problem, not ours.  I assume this because I see people championing their great deal much more often than people asking questions about why prices are so low.  Economic sociologists often talk about the ways we’ve become disconnected from the items we buy under modern capitalism.

But then, in Giving Tuesday, we give to organizations that help those in poverty–often workers who may have been involved in the goods we buy.  How can we fail to see the irony within this?  Since this day just started, and we in the US like our specially named days, what about a different way to help, that actually connected with all the buying this season entails.  Informed Sunday.  That’s what I would support. What if, as Christians, we connected the buying and the giving; our consumption with our concern for others we do not know. The idea that we are not our brother or sister’s keeper, that we are not responsible for the conditions under which our goods are produced — it’s a lie.  We are called to live in covenant with God and with others.  While the market may be depersonalized, when we buy items, we lend our support to the business practices of the seller.  We are connected to the workers involved.

Why don’t we reflect? Why aren’t we informed about our purchases?  I think for many, it’s simply too hard. I have students come to me, overwhelmed with trying to figure out how to live justly in a system they see as unjust.  How do they make ethical purchasing decisions? How do they choose a workplace that values human dignity above profit? But doing nothing… it’s always less than doing something.

This is why I plan to celebrate Informed Sunday. It’s a way for me to think more critically about the ways I spend money, and to demand of myself that I am informed about the conditions that I support.  As Christians who seek to pursue God’s justice in the world, I don’t think we have an option to not be informed.  We are called to be obedient and to love, regardless of the impact that has.  Being informed about my purchasing decisions isn’t solely or mainly about changing the economic structures that exist.  It’s primarily about learning to be faithful to God and God’s call to love others.It’s about owning my role in the economic structures I participate in. It’s about embracing a responsibility to be my sister’s keeper.

Second, as Christians, we are part of a larger community.  Again, as Christians in the US we often see the word you in the Bible and think about ourselves; others throughout the world may see the word you and think about the community that they are a part of.  Committed individuals who challenge the dominant logic of the systems they live in can promote real change.  In my research on Central American coffee farmers, I was struck by how disappointed many of them were in the Christians in the United States.  As they tried to sell their ethically-produced coffee, they found Starbucks was able to give them a higher price than the Christian organization they wanted to work through. One leader lamented that Christians in the US only wanted to give him aid; he wanted fair prices for a product. My new research endeavor will look at how non-profits on the ground have the potential to change some of the exploitive conditions workers are in, and challenge the logic of transnational corporations.

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In 2013, I’ve decided to try and think each month about one product I consume, and change my habits in a way that is more faithful.  And I hope to blog about them this coming year.  The first practice I’m changing is only buying organic, fair trade, or single origin chocolate and chocolate products. I love chocolate. But I have to admit it’s a luxury, and much of it is produced under some bad conditions. In 2001, there was a lot of attention in the media to the forced slavery occurring in cocoa production in West Africa. After a measure was passed by the House in 2001 requiring chocolate manufactures to verify their goods were “slave-free,” the Chocolate Manufactures Association successfully lobbied against it, and promised to regulate themselves through the Harkin-Engle Protocol. Groups such as Hershey and Nestle agreed to eliminate the worst forms of child and adult forced labor in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. CNN’s Freedom Project has an interactive website that provides different details about the protocol and the larger context.

A 2010 statement (one of several following up from the initial protocol) claims they (chocolate manufacturers) will reduce child labor by 70% by 2020. A report in 2010 from Anti-Slavery International, highlights the child-trafficking that still occurs in the Ivory Coast (where about 30% of the world’s cocoa is produced). The Payson Center for International Development at Tulane has lots of research available on this topic, including on-going analysis funded by the US Department of Labor. Their research also suggests that the chocolate industry’s pledge to regulate the chocolate trade has largely failed. A 2013 article in the Christian Science Monitor highlights problems in the cocoa sector, along with other agricultural and manufacturing fields. According to UNICEF, around 500,000 children labor in cocoa production.

Buying organic or fair trade or single origin chocolate ensures that retailers know the conditions under which the chocolate was produced, and insures that child-trafficking is not being used to harvest cocoa. It’s expensive, however.  And chocolate is used in all sorts of products: cookies, brownies, hot chocolate, etc.  For someone trying to balance work, family, and community commitments, it can feel like an inconvenience to go the extra mile to find chocolate; or to go without the treat my daughters want for a special event.  It’s a small inconvenience to say no to an awful scenario of accepted exploitation.  This website, hosted at UCSD, is just one example of information available that makes buying ethically produced chocolate possible.

As Christians, we should call ourselves to a higher level of accountability for our actions that legal requirements dictate. We should desire to love our neighbor, including people we do not know, better. We should resist a consumerism that says working conditions don’t matter – or that we need not be concerned with such things.   I have friends who challenge and inform me in all sorts of areas. Some buy second hand when they can to avoid buying from factories whose conditions they are uniformed about. Others buy all their gifts at Ten Thousand Villages because they know the artisans receive a fair price.  Yet others buy produce from CSAs where they know local farms produced agriculture.  Some resist buying Apple products because of worker conditions.  All have challenged me to become more informed, and to change my practices, one step at a time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giving Tuesday?  I’m all for contributing to non-profit organizations, and I think there are a number of international NGOs who are using their resources to promote real social change.  A recent chapter I co-authored with my husband, Stephen Offutt, in The New Evangelical Social Engagement (Oxford, 2013) discusses some ways that evangelical non-profits are moving towards more structural engagement, and provides some examples of ways they are challenging different economic structures.  I financially support a number of those initiatives.  But Giving Tuesday can’t just simply exist alongside Black Friday. We have to challenge the assumptions we have about our place in the economy; consuming unjustly and giving to promote justice contradict one another. Giving Tuesday needs to exist alongside the more informed and ethical buying practices of an Informed Sunday, and not alongside the glorification of the lowest prices sought on Black Friday.

 

 

 

 

Don’t Accept that Apology!!

A few weeks ago Martin Bashir made an apology. He needed to make an apology. He implied that Sarah Palin deserved to have someone defecate in her mouth and urinate into her eyes. No matter how you feel politically about Governor Palin such a statement on a national program, even by a pundit, is not acceptable.
It was a good apology. Although no one can know what is in his heart, it seems like he was sincerely aggrieved at his actions. You can see this apology in this link. Note something else in this link. Note that the apology is not accepted by Robert Laurie who is a conservative columnist. In fact, as I listen to a variety of individuals talk about this situation there are a lot of people who will not accept his apology. Governor Palin herself does not seem eager to accept it either as she insists on Bashir being punished. That what Bashir did was wrong is very clear. But the fact that his apology is not accepted, especially by someone who prides herself on her Christian faith, is even more troubling to me.
Lest one thinks that I am only picking on conservatives I must say that I first noticed the unwillingness of others to accept apologies among progressives. Apologies of Paula Dean and Rush Limbaugh are not accepted by progressives any more than conservatives accept the apologies of Bashir. We seem to live in a society where we dare not mess up because we will not be allowed to apologize for our mistakes.
I am not suggesting that we accept an apology if the person does not seem sincere. The persona apologizing should name exactly what they did wrong and offer an apology for it. Nor am I arguing that there should not be consequences for the perpetrator’s actions even if there is an apology. If MSNBC decides to fire Bashir even with the apology I contend that they are in their ethical and moral rights to do so. Finally, we should expect the offending behavior to stop. If Bashir is talking next week about how Ann Coulter needs to be raped then all bets are off on accepting his apology. The Christian concept of an apology is called repentance. The way I was taught repentance is not merely that we are emotionally distraught at what we have done but are resolved to not do it again. That is the sort of attitude we should look for in an apology.
But when we see true repentance on the part of the person who wronged us, is it not healthier to accept apologies than to reject them? If you wish to live a life in bitterness then by all means reject apologies. Enjoy that bitterness and the depression that will come along with it. But a healthier path is to accept the apologies of others so that we can move beyond the offence we feel. Forgiveness allows us to live a life of wholeness rather than live in our rage and anger. Any psychologist who does not help a person work towards forgiving instead of living in bitterness is not one that I would recommend for anyone.
Given the advantages of accepting apologies, it is fair to ask why relatively few people accept the apology of a public figure, especially one that has taken strong political or religious stances. Here I tend to accept the wisdom found in conflict theory. Conflict between different social groups helps shape what occurs in our society. In this case there is an advantage in rejecting the apologies of those we disagree with (but of course to accept the apologies of those who support our political, social and religious ideas). Such rejection makes it easier for us to stigmatize them and makes them lesser spokespeople for their causes. From the perspective of pushing our point of view, when people we disagree with apologize, we are better off not accepting the apology and let them wallow in their sin.
Yes, we can punish them. But we also punish ourselves. We hold on to the offence and live anger at that person. That anger punishes us as it becomes the source of our depression and feelings of victimization. But we keep our ideological opponent stigmatized and controlled. We are able to warn others of his/her ideological position to be very careful in how they speak and what they say. We have gained an advantage in social discourse but have done so at the costs of our own personal and psychological health. I fear that too often in our society we trade our own psychological health to gain social advantage over those we oppose.
It is important to fully consider the benefits and costs of refusing to accept the apologies of others. There truly is an advantage in social dialogue when we reject the apologies of others. We are fools not to realize that fact. But this advantage comes at a cost of our own happiness. If we think our cause is worth sacrificing our health and happiness then by all means we should refuse to accept the apology of anyone who disagrees with our social, political and religious beliefs. Is there a social or political cause that is so precious to me that I will sacrifice my psychological health, and spiritual well-being, for? None of them are worth that great a price. So as for me, refusing to accept the apologies of others because I disagree with their social, political or religious perspectives is too high of a price to pay.

Muslim Fundamentalists and Married Bachelors

Did you know that the last time I saw a Muslim fundamentalist that he was a married bachelor? That is because both Muslim fundamentalists and married bachelors are logical impossibilities. By definition if you are married then you cannot be a bachelor. Also a Muslim cannot be a fundamentalist. But while we do not hear people talk about married bachelors, because everyone recognizes that they are logical impossibilities, we consistently hear talk about Muslim fundamentalists. In my academic dreams we would hear individuals talk about Muslim fundamentalists as much as we hear them talk about married bachelors. (Okay, so I do not have big dreams).
To understand why Muslim fundamentalist is a logical impossibility we have to understand what the term fundamentalist means. Fundamentalism comes from a series of essays, edited by A. C. Dixon, in books written in the early 20th century called The Fundamentals. The major purpose of these books was to create the boundaries between what the authors perceived as true Christianity and other religious beliefs in society. The tenets in these writings (Biblical inerrancy, virgin birth, resurrection of Christ) are rooted in Protestant beliefs. Thus, to be a fundamentalist, one has to adhere to Protestant beliefs. This makes Islamic fundamentalism impossible since Muslims by definition do not have the same exact religious beliefs as Protestants. For that matter there are not Jewish fundamentalists, Mormon fundamentalists, or atheist fundamentalists either.
That I listen to non-academics misuse the term fundamentalist is not surprising. Often individuals are sloppy with their use of language. Most people do not understand the history of the concept and so it would be surprising if they did not sometimes misuse this term. But when I hear scholars of religion talk about Muslim fundamentalists, I want to tear my hair out (or would if I had hair). Such individuals should know better. It was especially frustrating for me to send in a book manuscript where I discuss the proper use of fundamentalist and a reviewer state that while I was technically correct I should just accept the common layperson use of the word. Is not part of the job of academics to correct misconceptions out in the public? Evidently not according to this reviewer.
It is useful to ask why this term has been corrupted. I can only speculate about why this corruption has occurred, but I would be naïve to not consider that certain social interests are invested in having fundamentalist misused in this particular way. It is clear that the term “fundamentalist” is being used to replace the term “extremist”. While a Muslim fundamentalist is a myth, a Muslim extremist is not. Thus individuals use the term fundamentalist when what they really mean is extremist. So the misuse of the term fundamentalist can be seen as a critique of conservative Christianity. The term fundamentalist implies that conservative Christians are at the extremes of society. Thus, talking about Muslim fundamentalists becomes a useful way to stigmatize conservative Christians.
In a society where there is evidence of a culture war and conservative Christians are on one side of that culture war, promoting the perception of them as being the same as Muslim extremists is purposeful for those who oppose conservative Christians. Linking conservative Christians to images of angry Muslims, some of who may be terrorists, provides legitimization to oppose those Christians. This is not to say that everyone who misuses the term fundamentalist intends on marginalizing conservative Christians; however, it is clear that the implications of that misuse is supportive of the idea that conservative Christians should be kept at the periphery of society. It is an idea I found among cultural progressives when conducting research on them for my book.
The way we use terms does not occur by accident. It generally occurs to reflect the social ideas of those who use the terms. If we conceptualize a culture war between cultural progressive activists and conservative religious supporters, then it makes sense that progressive activists accept interpretations of fundamentalism supporting notions that those conservative religious supporters should be marginalized. Since Christianity is the major religion in the United States, comments aimed at Christians, as opposed to those of other religions, should be especially relevant to cultural progressive activists.
As a scholar I would like to see the term fundamentalist used in a proper manner. Using words accurately is vital to communicating academic knowledge. So I will consistently encourage individuals, and especially my students, to use “Muslim extremist” instead of “Muslim fundamentalist”. But I am realistic about the chances of changing the patterns of how we speak about fundamentalism. I am also realistic that the current way this misuse serves certain social interests in ways that an accurate understanding of the term fails to do. I am tilting at windmills. But if I am going to call myself a scholar of religion, then I have to be honest about addressing such mistakes no matter who’s interest is at stake.

Happiness at Yale

Calhoun College shield

How can Yalies get more flow? Last night at the fourth meeting of the Calhoun Happiness Project I started at Yale, we discussed the meaning of flow—being so engrossed in an activity that time feels like it has stopped– and how busy, high-achieving students can get more flow in their daily lives. Of the 5 elements of Martin Seligman’s PERMA theory of authentic well-being that we discussed last night, flow was the hardest one to grasp conceptually and figure out how to improve on. But Seligman is adamant that we can all get more elements of all 5 parts of his well-being theory he calls PERMA: Positive emotions, Engagement (flow), Relationships, Meaning and Achievement. In his book called Flow, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi gives numerous tips on how to increase flow in everyday life.

One obstacle to flow is just how busy students are. Who has time to stop and really get engrossed in one thing when all day is spent rushing to and from classes and extra-curricular activities? When I asked students to name when they experience flow, some said that like me, they experience it while engrossed in their studies. Another student practices meditation. A third student said she gets into flow when she works for nine hours straight at a restaurant students run once a week in Davenport College at Yale. She likes being so busy cooking and serving that she can’t think about her upcoming midterm.

My makeshift standing desk

Before our meeting yesterday, I definitely experienced flow as I wrote about my new project on young adults and resilience. On the advice of a friend who says that doing work while standing up increases energy throughout the day, I put together a makeshift standing desk at home, using a plastic box on top of my dining room table. In just 2 days of writing from that standing position, I wrote 14 single-spaced pages about my new project. Yesterday alone I stood in the same spot for three and half hours writing. That’s flow for sure.

Then I went on with the rest of my busy day, hustling back and forth from meetings and re-reading Martin Seligman’s book Flourish over lunch. I also listened to a video lecture on productivity “hot spots” which prompted me to reflect on my goals and whether how I use my time actually lines up with those goals. Then I rushed off to eat dinner in Calhoun College, carrying Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project with me.

In preparation for the evening meeting of the Calhoun Happiness Project, I re-read Chapters 5-8 of The Happiness Project while eating. I laughed out loud several times…Rubin is just hilarious. When I stood up after finishing dinner, I rushed out of the dining hall and was planning on running back up to my suite to prepare some more for the Calhoun Happiness Project meeting.

Suddenly I was aware of beautiful piano music in the Calhoun Common Room. I stopped dead in my tracks. Didn’t I just read Rubin’s advice in Chapter 5 to “Be Serious about Play”? Didn’t she also say in Chapter 8 to take time to “contemplate the heavens’? Hadn’t I been frantically trying to fit into my busy schedule time to go to all the amazing music and theater Yale offers? Was I really about to rush past this heavenly piano music? Isn’t the first step in contemplating simply slowing down, something Yalies (including me) have a hard time doing?

I plopped onto a big leather chair in the Calhoun Common Room, said hello to another Calhoun Happiness Project group member sitting there, and closed my eyes. I relaxed and breathed deeply for the first time all day, marveling at the beautiful sounds I was hearing. When the student stopped playing, I remembered Rubin’s advice in Chapter 6, “Make time for friends.” Show gratitude to people, I recalled, is one piece of advice to make and keep friends.

So as the student walked away from the piano, I stopped him and said, “I really enjoyed listening to you play the piano.” His face lit up and he said, “Thank you!” Then he explained that he had started learning piano when he was 4, and used to play very seriously. Now he just plays because it makes him happy. Hello, I thought, is that flow or what?

“Do you think I could l learn piano even though I’m not starting at age 4?” I asked. “You see, I’m reading this book called The Happiness Project, and she recommends taking play seriously. And I know that to increase my happiness, I have to find more ways to flow than just working. I worked so hard today and my mind was racing to and fro. So when I heard your beautiful music, I realized I need to slow down and enjoy something beautiful today.”

The student, named Kevin, was fascinated by all my talk about happiness and flow, and totally encouraged me to learn the piano. “It’s the master instrument,” he said. “It’s like a spiritual experience when I play.” Kevin also was fascinated to hear about my research, especially the idea that there are certain parts of happiness we can’t get without suffering. “Oh…I had never thought of that. Can you say more?” he said. I briefly told him how I’ve been interviewing young adults who have had stressful life events, and how some of them have developed incredible compassion and generosity as a result of their hardships. Kevin and I only talked for about 7 minutes, but I felt like I had made a new friend, in part because we talked about things we are passionate about: happiness and music.

Friendship, I told the students later on that evening, is not only about spending time together, it’s also about sharing passions, and pursuing excellence in some activity. No, it’s not about being perfect in everything or winning everything. But friendships are based on shared activities that are conducive to flow. Try it out. This weekend, instead of going to a night club with your friends, go to a live classical music concert. Try to learn about the artists and the music before you go.

As I’m learning through my students, happiness resources and happiness groups are growing in number at Yale. I expect to learn more this weekend after a meeting hosted by the Yale College Council to discuss mental health at Yale. How can the happiness resources at Yale unite? What more can be done?

My sense is that the Calhoun Happiness Project is unique because it is integrated with one of Yale’s strengths: the residential college system. Students in the Calhoun Happiness Project see each other in the courtyard and dining hall, and continue talking about the book and their own happiness resolutions. I provide the intellectual content through monthly meetings, and since I live in Calhoun College, I’m available to talk with students one-on-one. The informal mentoring, coupled with a light responsibility to read about happiness and make resolutions, seems to be the right dose students need to make changes. It’s a light commitment with fellowship, mentoring, learning, and a quick payoff.

The first lesson to learn about happiness is that is starts right now, right where you are. So think about your own living situation, your own work situation. Flow is not only about playing or listening to beautiful music, if we practice flow, we can have it all day long even doing menial tasks. Try listening to what is going on around you, showing charity to everyone you meet. That’s step one to getting more flow: fighting the hustle and bustle and living inner contemplation even in the midst of outward activity.

Thanks to you Yalies who keep me in the flow, encouraging me to re-read my favorite books from positive psychology and make new resolutions. Yesterday I flowed first in my intense solitary writing, and then in my deep interactions with Yale students. I went off to bed tired but contemplating the heavens and giving thanks for my friends, and woke up this morning to find my flow writing this blog from my standing desk.


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