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Reflect on What You Can Put Your Agency Behind, On What You Can Be For, & Through Hard Choices, Become That Person

Far from being sources of agony and dread, hard choices are precious opportunities for us to celebrate what is special about the human condition.That the reasons that govern our choices as correct or incorrect sometimes run out and it is here, in the space of hard choices, that we have the power to create reasons for ourselves to become the distinctive people that we are. And that’s why hard choices are not a curse, but a godsend.” – Ruth Chang

In this splendid TED talk, philosopher Ruth Chang examines the misconceptions and unexamined assumptions that govern our understanding and handling of hard choices. She invites us to rethink how we frame the act of choosing between unequal alternatives, where each option is better in some ways than the other but neither is better overall. Rather than agonizing over trying to uncover the “right” option in such a situation, we should celebrate and enact our agency in creating the right reasons for ourselves. This is a modern take on Giovanni Pico della Mirandola‘s Oration on the Dignity of Man. Way back in 1486, Pico della Mirandola unhinged mankind from the Great Chain of Being, highlighting the agency we each possess in choosing and fashioning our own nature. It is this very agency, this power we have to choose who we shall be[come], that is the defining characteristic of the human condition, he argued. And it is through the hard choices we make, claims Chang, that we enact this great human power we all have to shape our being and embrace the fullness of our humanity.

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I think the puzzle arises because of an unreflective assumption we make about value. We unwittingly assume that values like justice, beauty, kindness, are akin to scientific quantities, like length, mass and weight. Take any comparative question not involving value, such as which of two suitcases is heavier? There are only three possibilities. The weight of one is greater, lesser or equal to the weight of the other. Properties like weight can be represented by real numbers — one, two, three and so on — and there are only three possible comparisons between any two real numbers. One number is greater, lesser, or equal to the other. Not so with values. As post-Enlightenment creatures, we tend to assume that scientific thinking holds the key to everything of importance in our world, but the world of value is different from the world of science. The stuff of the one world can be quantified by real numbers. The stuff of the other world can’t. We shouldn’t assume that the world of is, of lengths and weights, has the same structure as the world of ought, of what we should do. So if what matters to us — a child’s delight, the love you have for your partner — can’t be represented by real numbers, then there’s no reason to believe that in choice, there are only three possibilities — that one alternative is better, worse or equal to the other. We need to introduce a new, fourth relation beyond being better, worse or equal, that describes what’s going on in hard choices. I like to say that the alternatives are “on a par.” When alternatives are on a par, it may matter very much which you choose, but one alternative isn’t better than the other. Rather, the alternatives are in the same neighborhood of value, in the same league of value, while at the same time being very different in kind of value. That’s why the choice is hard.

Understanding hard choices in this way uncovers something about ourselves we didn’t know. Each of us has the power to create reasons. Imagine a world in which every choice you face is an easy choice, that is, there’s always a best alternative. If there’s a best alternative, then that’s the one you should choose, because part of being rational is doing the better thing rather than the worse thing, choosing what you have most reason to choose. In such a world, we’d have most reason to wear black socks instead of pink socks, to eat cereal instead of donuts, to live in the city rather than the country, to marry Betty instead of Lolita. A world full of only easy choices would enslave us to reasons. When you think about it, it’s nuts to believe that the reasons given to you dictated that you had most reason to pursue the exact hobbies you do, to live in the exact house you do, to work at the exact job you do. Instead, you faced alternatives that were on a par, hard choices, and you made reasons for yourself to choose that hobby, that house and that job. When alternatives are on a par, the reasons given to us, the ones that determine whether we’re making a mistake, are silent as to what to do. It’s here, in the space of hard choices, that we get to exercise our normative power, the power to create reasons for yourself, to make yourself into the kind of person for whom country living is preferable to the urban life.

When we choose between options that are on a par, we can do something really rather remarkable. We can put our very selves behind an option. Here’s where I stand. Here’s who I am. I am for banking. I am for chocolate donuts. This response in hard choices is a rational response, but it’s not dictated by reasons given to us. Rather, it’s supported by reasons created by us. When we create reasons for ourselves to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are. You might say that we become the authors of our own lives.

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So when we face hard choices, we shouldn’t beat our head against a wall trying to figure out which alternative is better. There is no best alternative. Instead of looking for reasons out there, we should be looking for reasons in here: Who am I to be? You might decide to be a pink sock-wearing, cereal-loving, country-living banker, and I might decide to be a black sock-wearing, urban, donut-loving artist. What we do in hard choices is very much up to each of us.

Cultivating Optimism & Hope to Enhance Well-Being, Performance & Positive Emotions About the Future …*

Cultivating Optimism & Hope to Enhance Well-Being, Performance & Positive Emotions About the Future ...* | rethinked.org - Photograph: Elsa Fridman

Today, we’ll examine how to increase one’s positive emotions about the future by learning how to cultivate our capacity for optimism and hope. As you’ve seen in my previous posts on the theory of positive emotions, and increasing satisfaction about the past, the various shades of happiness we experience over the course of our lives have very important effects on both mental and physical health. This holds true for optimism and hope:

Pessimists, I have found over the last two decades, are up to eight times more likely to become depressed when bad events happen; they do worse at school; sports, and most jobs than their talents augur; they have worse physical health and shorter lives; they have rockier interpersonal relations, and they lose American Presidential elections to their more optimistic opponents. (24)

While some people seem naturally more inclined to view the glass half-full than half-empty, the muscle analogy that pervades most of behavioral psychology also applies in the domain of optimism and hope. Both of these capacities function much like physical muscles which, when exercised correctly grow and develop. So don’t despair if you tend to be pessimistic, with a little work, you can learn to become more optimistic and hopeful and reap the many benefits of these positive frames.

Optimism and hope are quite well-understood, they have been the objects of thousands of empirical studies, and best of all, they can be built. Optimism and hope cause better resistance to depression when bad events strike, better performance at work, particularly in challenging jobs, and better physical health. (83)

TWO BASIC DIMENSIONS OF OPTIMISM: PERMANENCE & PERVASIVENESS

As we saw last week, the narratives we construct about our lives have enormous implications on our happiness and well-being, both mental and physical and one of the most powerful ways to increase well-being is to rework our beliefs about what happens to us and take charge of creating a more productive narrative. Pessimism and optimism are also tightly linked to the explanatory styles we use to frame the experiences in our lives and are defined by two basic dimensions: permanence and pervasiveness. Whether you view events and moods as permanent or temporary and universal or specific has great implications for your happiness and well-being.

Optimistic people tend to explain the bad events they experience as both temporary and specific to this one event. Pessimists, on the other hand, tend to view the misfortunes that befall them as universal and permanent.

Pessimists have a particularly pernicious way of construing their setbacks and frustrations. They automatically think that the cause is permanent, pervasive and personal: “It’s going to last forever, it’s going to undermine everything, and it’s my fault.” […] Optimists, in contrast, have a strength that allows them to interpret their setbacks as surmountable, particular to a single problem, and resulting from temporary circumstances or other people. (24)

Interestingly, the pattern is reversed when appraising good events: optimists view their good fortune as permanent, pervasive and personal while pessimists see it as temporary, specific to that one event and the result of luck rather than personal intervention.

CULTIVATING HOPE

Similarly to optimism, hope results from our explanatory style when appraising the events of our lives:

Finding permanent and universal causes for good events along with temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope; finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune and temporary and specific causes of good events is the practice of despair. (92)

INTERVENTIONS FOR INCREASING OPTIMISM & HOPE

So, concretely, what can you do to increase hope and optimism in your life? Much like enhancing satisfaction about the past, increasing hope and optimism is about reframing how you explain your life to yourself. The first step to building optimism and hope is “to realize your beliefs are just that—beliefs. They may or may not be facts.” (94) When negative thoughts creep up, you need to recognize them, learn to dispute your internal monologue and replace the negative thoughts with more productive beliefs. In Authentic Happiness, Seligman proposes the “ABCDE Model” as a helpful framework through which to recraft your beliefs:

  • A stands for adversity
  • B stands for the beliefs you automatically have when it occurs
  • C stands for the usual consequences of the belief
  • D stands for your disputation of your routine belief
  • E stands for the energization that occurs when you dispute it successfully

By effectively disputing the beliefs that follow an adversity, you can change your reaction from dejection and giving up to activity and good cheer. (93)

In Authentic Happiness, Seligman shares four techniques for making your disputations convincing and thus translating this mental act into tangible benefits: evidence, alternatives, implications and usefulness.

{ EVIDENCE }

The most convincing way of disputing a negative belief is to show that it is factually incorrect. Much of the time you have facts on your side, since pessimistic reactions to adversity are so very often overreactions. You adopt the role of a detective and ask, “What is the evidence for this belief?” (95)

{ ALTERNATIVES }

Almost nothing that happens to you has just one cause; most events have many causes. If you did poorly on a test, all of the following might have contributed: how hard the test was, how much you studied, how smart you are, how fair the professor is, how the other students did, and how tired you were. Pessimists have a way of latching onto the worst of all these causes—the most permanent and pervasive one. Here again, disputation usually has reality on its side. There are multiple causes, so why latch onto the most insidious one? Ask yourself, is there any less destructive way to look at this?

To dispute your own beliefs, scan for all possible contributing causes. Focus on those that are changeable (not enough time spent studying,) specific (this particular exam was uncharacteristically hard), and non-personal (the professor graded unfairly). You may have to push hard at generating alternative beliefs, latching onto possibilities that you are not fully convinced are true. Remember that much of pessimistic thinking consists of just the reverse, latching onto the most dire possible belief—not because of evidence, but precisely because it is so dire. It is your job to undo this destructive habit by becoming facile at generating alternatives. (96)

{ IMPLICATIONS }

Reality may be against you, and the negative belief you hold about yourself may be true. In this situation, the technique to use is decatastrophizing.

Even if the belief is true, you say to yourself, what are its implications? It was true that the dinner was not romantic. But what does that imply? One bad dinner does not mean divorce.

How likely, you should ask yourself, is the worst-case scenario?  (97)

{ USEFULNESS }

Sometimes the consequences of holding a belief matter more than its truth. Is the belief destructive? When you break your diet, the response “I’m a total glutton” is a recipe for letting go of your diet completely. Some people get very upset when the world shows itself not to be fair. We can sympathize with that sentiment, but the belief itself may cause more grief than it is worth. What good will it do me to dwell on the belief that the worlds should be fair? Another tactic is to detail all the ways you can change the situation in the future. Even if the belief is true now, is the situation changeable? How can you go about changing it? (97)

To practice disputing your pessimistic beliefs and reframe your explanatory style, Seligman suggests the following exercise:

During the next five adverse events you face in your daily life, listen closely for your beliefs, observe the consequences, and dispute your beliefs vigorously. Then observe the energy that occurs as you succeed in dealing with the negative beliefs. Record all of this. These five adverse events can be minor: the mail is late, your call isn’t returned, or the kid pumping your gas doesn’t wash the windshield. In each of these use the four techniques of self-disputation. (98)

Do it in your daily life over the next week. Don’t search out adversity, but as it comes along, tune in carefully to your internal dialogue. When you hear the negative beliefs, dispute them. Beat them into the ground, then record the ABCDE.

  • Adversity:
  • Belief:
  • Consequences:
  • Disputation:
  • Energization:

(100)

Hope this review of hope and optimism was helpful. Thursday we’ll take a look at the various types of happiness in the present.

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Source: Seligman, Martin. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology To Realize Your Potential For Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press, 2002. Print.

Sir Ken Robinson on the 3 Principles By Which Human Life Flourishes & What That Means For Education…*

“There are three principles on which human life flourishes and they are contradicted by the culture of education under which most teachers have to labor and most students have to endure.”

In this insightful and brilliantly delivered talk, which first aired on the TED TV special on education, produced with PBS, Sir Ken Robinson highlights three principles by which human life flourishes and the implications that these principles have for learning and teaching practices. Robinson notes some of the various ways in which America’s education culture contradicts these critical principles and then goes on to offer some suggestions on how to better align our educational system and culture to these inherent principles of human flourishing.

The three principles that Robinson identifies are:

1. Human beings are naturally different and diverse ~ “Kids prosper best with a broad curriculum that celebrates their various talents, not just a small range of them.”

2. Curiosity is the engine of achievement ~ “If you can light the spark of curiosity in a child, they will learn without any further assistance, very often. Children are natural learners.”

3. Human life is inherently creative ~  “It’s why we all have different résumés. We create our lives, and we can recreate them as we go through them. It’s the common currency of being a human being. It’s why human culture is so interesting and diverse and dynamic.”

Drawing from the practices of high-performing educational systems across the world, Robinson highlights three trends of real-life applications of these principles to actual teaching and learning practices which lead to greater engagement and more effective learning:

1.  They individualize teaching and learning. They recognize that it’s students who are learning and the system has to engage them, their curiosity, their individuality, and their creativity. That’s how you get them to learn.

2. They attribute a very high status to the teaching profession. They recognize that you can’t improve education if you don’t pick great people to teach and if you don’t keep giving them constant support and professional development. Investing in professional development is not a cost. It’s an investment.

3. They devolve responsibility to the school level for getting the job done. You see, there’s a big difference here between going into a mode of command and control in education. [Learning] happens in classrooms and schools, and the people who do it are the teachers and the students, and if you remove their discretion, it stops working. You have to put it back to the people.

 

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The drop out crisis is just the tip of an iceberg, what it doesn’t count are all the kids who are in school but being disengaged from it–who don’t enjoy it, who don’t get any real benefit from it.

Education, under No Child Left Behind, is based on not diversity but conformity. What schools are encouraged to do is find out what kids can do across a very narrow spectrum of achievement. One of the effects of No Child Left Behind, has been to narrow the focus on to the so-called STEM disciplines. They’re very important; I’m not here to argue against Science and Math. On the contrary, they’re necessary but they’re not sufficient. A real education has to give equal weight to the Arts, the Humanities, to Physical Education.

By the way, the Arts aren’t just important because they improve Math scores, they’re important because they speak to parts of children’s being which are otherwise untouched.

There is no system in the world or any school in the country that is better than its teachers. Teachers are the lifeblood of the success of schools. But teaching is a creative profession. Teaching, properly conceived, is not a delivery system. You know, you’re not there just to pass on received information. Great teachers do that, but what great teachers also do is mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage. You see, in the end, education is about learning. If there’s no learning going on, there’s no education going on. And people can spend an awful lot of time discussing education without ever discussing learning. The whole point of education is to get people to learn.

You can say, “There’s Deborah, she’s in room 34, she’s teaching.” But if nobody’s learning anything, she may be engaged in the task of teaching but not actually fulfilling it.

The role of a teacher is to facilitate learning. That’s it. And part of the problem is, I think, that the dominant culture of education has come to focus on not teaching and learning, but testing. Now, testing is important. Standardized tests have a place. But they should not be the dominant culture of education. They should be diagnostic. They should help.

So in place of curiosity, what we have is a culture of compliance. Our children and teachers are encouraged to follow routine algorithms rather than to excite that power of imagination and curiosity.

We all create our own lives through this restless process of imagining alternatives and possibilities, and what one of the roles of education is to awaken and develop these powers of creativity. Instead, what we have is a culture of standardization.

The point is that education is not a mechanical system. It’s a human system. It’s about people, people who either do want to learn or don’t want to learn. Every student who drops out of school has a reason for it which is rooted in their own biography. They may find it boring. They may find it irrelevant. They may find that it’s at odds with the life they’re living outside of school. There are trends, but the stories are always unique.

Right beneath the surface are these seeds of possibility waiting for the right conditions to come about, and with organic systems, if the conditions are right, life is inevitable. It happens all the time. You take an area, a school, a district, you change the conditions, give people a different sense of possibility, a different set of expectations, a broader range of opportunities, you cherish and value the relationships between teachers and learners, you offer people the discretion to be creative and to innovate in what they do, and schools that were once bereft spring to life.

The real role of leadership in education — and I think it’s true at the national level, the state level, at the school level — is not and should not be command and control. The real role of leadership is climate control, creating a climate of possibility. And if you do that, people will rise to it and achieve things that you completely did not anticipate and couldn’t have expected.

 

Enjoy & rethink…

Ken Robinson: How to escape education’s death valley via TED.com, published May 2013.

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