27 Aug 2008

The importance of everyday culture

The achievement of countries these days does not depend primarily on the extent of the land surface or the amount of natural resources the country controls. There are tiny states that have incredible radiation to the outside world (Monaco, Luxembourg, Singapore, Slovenia), and there are huge, natural resource rich countries that are struggling (most notably Nigeria, but also Venezuela).
Nothing is as important for the success of a country as the everday culture of society.
Noble prize winners and olympic gold medals are noteworthy. However, they are worth precious little if the general educational system is poor and if ordinary people live an unhealthy life. The success of a country does not depend on outstanding individual achievements. On the contrary, they are often a sign that something is wrong with the general culture. This is especially true if these personal achievements take place outside of one's home culture (as in the case of Africans who have moved to the West).
What is everday culture? First of all, it is not high culture. It is not the number of Verdi operas you can name, or the historical battles you can remember. As Dénes Kemény, trainer of the Hungarian water polo team that has won the olympic gold medal three times in a row, has put it, he will prefer weaker players who are team oriented to players with superior skills who are too individualistic for teamplay.
Everyday culture is rather an amazing number of latent understandings, compromises, abstractions, systems that people share in a given society. It begins with understanding and keeping to formalised systems such as the legal system or the the traffic code. It then extends to semi formal systems such as an understanding of how a democracy works in practice, or to to interethnic and interconfessionak tolerance. At a very extreme it reaches into domains that are completely informal: street politeness; how to interact with strangers and acquaintences; how to have effective discussions and agree on issues; how to keep your word; knowledgee of foreign languages. At the end of the day it is these latent, imponderable, unseen elements of common culture that define the economic potential of a society. Physical elements of a culture such as flashy cars, expensive cloths and new buildings are easier to see. Common culture is more difficult to identify, to discuss and to improve. However, you might come across people dressed in the finest cloths, driving the most expensive cars, and still unrefined in their everyday culture on the inside.
If these latent systems, these abstractions are there in people's minds, and they manage to keep to them, society will function smoothly. If people are unaware of these rules that govern everday lives, if they do not understand them well, or if they have lost their faith in them because society around them does not keep to them, there will be malfunctions. Members of society will cause each other harm, losses and delays. There will be snags and hitches, inefficiences. Society as a whole will lose, in addition to individuals. The operation of a society is as good as the knowledge and belief of individuals members of it.
Faith is incredible important in this respect. The driver that does not allow you into his lane knows that he will not gain much by doings so. He willget home two or three seconds earlier. The reason why he does it is because he has the experience that he gains nothing by investinging in society. He will never get back the favour from the same person. He will get it back from another member of society - society being an abstraction, but a functioning abstraction. If the majority are willing to make this abstract investment into society, the favour will be returned. If they are not, society will not function, further strenghtening individual experiences that a socially oriented strategy does not work, thus one has to fend for themselves. Therefore there are vicious and virtous circles that lead to societal failiure or success.
Robinson Crusoe, when stuck on a deserted island, continued to uphold the daily routine of a civilised environment. He kept a diary of months and dates, and punished the birds when they ate his food. He was a man who understood the importance of social norms and rules even though he was living all by himself. Some of us live in mass societies and yet fail to keep the same rules in mind.

26 Aug 2008

Modesty is a much overrated virtue

The American economist John Kenneth Galbraith says in his memoirs that he had thought that the most likely inscription on his gravestone would be: modesty is a much overrated virtue.
An interesting observation. In many of our cultures it is taken for granted that modesty is a positive virtue, whereas the opposite is bad, be it what it may be. But is modesty really so important? Isn't pride, or self-confidence just as important? Especially in today's world? Shouldn't we place at least as much emphasis on teaching kids to be self confindent and proud of themselves as we do on being modest? Americans are good at this. Europeans, especially continental Europeans in the Germanic and Slavic regions are not so successful.
Of course the opposite of modesty should never be too bragging. But why the emphasis on modesty, and why not on pride?

Do people change?

There is a lot of debate out there about whether or not people change, or can be changed. We tend to find examples of both: people whose personality changed surprisingly for the better over time, and people we are unable to change even though we do our best and try over and over for years.
One way to resolve this controversy is to understand that people do change and they don't at the same time. How can this be? We must start by stating that our personality consists of very deep undercurrents, tendencies that we had learned at a very early stage. These deep chracter traits define whether we are self centred or altruistic, risk ready or evasive, aggressive or depressive, etc. They are essentially attitudes. They come to us mainly from our parents (or other significant people around us) as imprints from a very early age. There is a learning curve from day zero, in the shape of a slowing downward slope. We tend to learn most in the very initial days, weeks and months. We learn a bit less in the first few years, but we are still quite open. By age seven we are pretty much formed into who we are. Naturally the teen years have some impact, but by the time we reach adulthood we ha a rather well formed underlying personality. This does not consist of views of the world that we posess - this can change over time - but rather of attitude imprints from out parents.
Children concentrate on their parents. Babies sense almost nothing else of the world. Small kids are still intensly focused on their parents. They tend to copy the way their fathers and mothers behave...for the better or for the worse. Thus we have an imprinted programme inherited from our parents. All this would suggest that people do not change after they reach adulthood. This is not quite the case. People certainly have a set nomenclature of imprints from childhood.
Yet people can change. Against their imprints! They must institute a concious counterprogramme to act against their imprints. This means that the imprints will always stay with us, but we are able to counteract them on a case by case basis. In the meantime we are essentially concious about the programme and the counterprogramme at every instance...only less and less so. After a while we achieve a certain degree of leverage over our own imprints. This is when others will remark that we have changed.
The good news, of course, is that if we are able to change ourselves, we shall install a very different imprint or programme in our own kids when the time comes. Thus we can gradually get rid of negative tendencies from generation to generation, if we are concious and strong enough.

Agression and depression

The two most frequent sources of psychological problems in our lives are undoubtedly agression and depression. With depression we hurt ourselves, and indirectly others. With agression we hurt others, and indirectly ourselves.
Not many people realise that both agression and depression have a common root. Both actually stem from a feeling of frustration that one is not in control of a situation, or on a wider scale of his or her destiny. They sense that forces outside of themsvelves (other people, society, fortune...) are in control, and they can do nothing to change their situation for the better, or alter the course of events. People react differently to this situation. Some with agression, some with depression.
Quite often the feeling of hopelessness is only perceived and not real. This is typically the case with depression. One can grow to cultivate a feeling of helplessness, a belief that nothing depends on him or her. This can be true even of communities (a circle of friends, schoolmates) and even of entire societies. Such a person tends to give up hope in situations of decision making even before really trying whether the outcome can or cannot be affected. The result is psychological paralysis, lethargy, unhappiness, low self esteem. Depression is an illness. It is not just a passing phase as many young people would like to imagine. It does not go away by itself. Quite on the contrary, it tends to strengthen unless the victim is able to implement a very concious counterprogramme.
Aggression is another reaction to a feeling of helplessnes. It takes place when people suddenly sense (or in truth perceive) that they are unable to control a situation by peaceful means. An imprinted program then steps in, and the person resorts to violence, be it verbal or physical.
Whether one is more prone to depression or aggression is essentially a question of imprinting. We tend to inherit these tendencies at a very early stage from people around us. These are primarily our parents, or other people that make a lasting impression on us at a very early age, in our formative years. Small kids watch instensly the way their parents react to situations, and as the single and central source of wisdom, they tend to copy them. If they see that their parent finds stressful situations hard to cope with, and they tend to turn to depression, they will copy that. If they are surrounded by aggression, on the other hand, it is this modell that they will emulate. They will learn these as the forms of reaction to certain difficult situations, and these imprints will determine how they will act in later life, includeing adulthood. If they do not realise this loaded inheritence, and if they are unable to introduce a counterprogramme, they are likely to repeat the mistakes of their parents and even pass these harmful tendencies on to yet another generation.
What is the counterprogramme then? In both cases it begins with the realisation that one is prone to aggressivity or depression. Without the honest acceptance of such an imprint no further steps are possible. Next comes the distancing. Every single time one finds him or herself in a situation of emerging depression or aggression, one must immediately abandon the situation, take a few steps forward (in an abstract sense, but sometimes even literally). No matter how important the situation is, we must be able to look at it as a case study rather than a key turning event in our lives.
In the case of depression it is advisable to try to re-evaluate the chances of being able to affect the outcome after all. We must ponder what our first, fearful gut reaction is about the likely outcome, and what it really is likely to be. We must eliminate the depressive imprint from the decision, and we must do this every single time, over and over, until we find that we no longer listen intuitively to the imprint. In therapy patients are often told to record the most positive, the most likely and the most negative outcomes in a series of events over a llonger periof of time. They will soon come to realise that in fact retrospectively it is not the most negative outcome that does take place. It is quite often not the most positive either...life is simply boring and revolves around the average. Does the central element of the counterprogramme in the case of depression is being able to distance ourselves from our decisive moments and to eliminate or act against the depressive imprint.
The counterprogramme for aggression starts with the realisation that no argument can ever be won by violence. He who shouts is always wrong. There is no such thing as 'a peppery personality'. This is a bad and harmful imprint, against which we are obliged to work, otherwise we cause much harm to others, and not least to ourselves. The key to overcoming aggression is first admitting the tendency, then being able to distance ourselves from situations when we feel our temper is rising. No matter how important we feel the situation is, we must keep in mind that our counterprogramme to overcome our aggressive tendencies is more important. Thus we must withdraw from aggressive situtations, and come back to the argument once we are able to reopen it in a peaceful and constructive way. If we are unwilling to this, we cannot hide behind the curtain of a bad temperament. We are simply being selfish. We want to shortcircuit situations to out own advantage rather than investing the amount of emotional energy that would make the situtation win-win for everyone involved. Anger can and must be managed.

Distance from self

An interesting measure of people is the amount of time they are able to spend talking about subjects that are distant from themselves, their immediate life and circumstances. For a great many people this is incredible short. For an amazing number of people it seems impossible to talk about things, concepts, issues, events or ideas that do not seem to have any close and immediate connection to their personal lives here and now. For a still significant number of people, conversation simply revolves around themselves.
As a collective attitude, this attitude is more prevelant in peasant societies. This is highly problematicc as these societies begin to urbanise and modernise, as a sophisticated and metropolitan society depends on abstract common knowledge from the traffic code through democratic theory to understanding complicated processes around us (such as globalisation, capitalism, etc.)
The oppososite is true of certain other people we meet, especially from the intellectual professions. They seem to be able to speak endlessly about highly abstract, even scientific concepts. Yet they are unable to express who they are, what they want from their own lives. It is as if they were escaping from their own realities to another world that is deliberately at some distance from their live, where they feel in control and competent.
Ditancing is somehow associated with intelligence. People who are unable to talk about issues that are not of their immediate concern are perceived to be stupid and unintelligent. Most of the former educational system tends to teach us distant abstractions.
People who cannot talk about themselves, on the other hand, are emotional cripples. Many giants of intelligence (including academics and professors) are emotional dwarves. Countless highly intelligent people do not even realist that they should also be emotionally learned, refined, concious, and shoud possess a high EQ as well as a high IQ. Hence the general observation that emotional intelligence does not come together with a university degree.

11 Aug 2008

Csikszentmihalyi: Spiritual East, physical West

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a Hungarian born (Fiume) American psychologist at the University of Chicago. He is famous for his theory of 'the flow'. His starting point is that Freud, Jung, Adler and others ran into a dead end street at the time of the founding os psychology at the turn of the century. They concentrated too much on healing ill minds without ever establishing what it means to be a happy person.
Csikszentmihalyi studies tens of thousands of people from all walks of life during his carreer. He asked them when it is that they feel happy in life. The sample included professors, fire fighters, cooks, gardeners...all sorts of people. What he found was that people are happy when they feel a state of flow. This is the kind of feeling you get when you have a fantastic day playing tennis. You somehow reach all the balls withour having to make an effort. Things just flow naturally.
Fine...but how do you reach this state of flow? Csikszentmihályi found that people usually feel this way when they 1. have a goal to reach and 2. feel that they are heading towards this goal.
This is his theory of flow. Equally interesting is Csikszentmihalyi's observation about the east and the West. People in the West have developed a fantastic physical environment around themselves. They are safe from cold, storms, diseases, they have great cars and clothes, good roads. However, they hardly have any words to describe just how they feel. Words like 'sad' or 'happy' are inadequate. Our feelings are much more subtle and sofisticated then these. Plus we hardly take time to express them to each other. Hence all the frustration. People in the East, however, are exactly the opposite. They have horrible physical conditions: lousy housing, bad roads, a poor diet, diseases. Yet they have millions of words to express their feelings. "This morning I woke up and feel like this and like that...." We don't even have the words in Western languages. They take their time to try to explain to each other what goes on inside them. Hence more harmony and less frustration.

10 Aug 2008

"I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free."

This of course is the famous quote from Kaza. It is written on his tomb in Heraklion. A lot of Westerners find it difficult accept it. The fear bit seems more obvious at first: to live without fear is to be free, straight forward.
What about the hope thing. Surely hope must be a positive thing, it helps you connect to the future, gives you strength, etc. Well, Kaza was thinking of something different here. This is more the Buddhist idea of not clinging on to your ambitions too strongs. You have got to be able to let go...of your career aspirations, your great plans, even your relationships. if you feel your life or your self depends on these things, you have already lost it. Be easy about it, risk being able to let go if necessary...and miraculously you won't have to... The reason for this of course is that you don't try as desperately and therefore you make less mistakes. You become cool and loose.
What about the fear bit? What do we fear? Mostly other people, the loss of our jobs (and therefore our money). Fearing what others mights say is one of the most retarding things in life. We do this to each other. As for money, we tend to have a lot more than we really need. We tend to overestimate this worry. Almost noone in the west is really in an existential threat. We have a lot less time on our hands than money. Yet we spend long hours, summers toiling at our jobs, concerned about money, being worried about loosing our jobs. Only as we grow older do we realise how little time we actually have on this planet.