Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Book review: Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman

I generally dislike self help books (especially the ridiculous ones claiming that the universe or quantum laws are doing the job for you). However, if a book at least aspires to be science based then I am willing to give it a try. In addition positive psychology i.e., the scientific study of what makes happy people happy, is a hot topic within psychology today and Martin Seligman is one of the founders of this field.

For these reasons I was able to overcome my fear of being pursuaded to change my life by a silly self help book. It was a nice surprise when early on Seligman acknowledged that happiness is not everything. One can find meaning in life without being extraordinarily happy. Interestingly, happy/optimistic people are actually quite inaccurate in their beliefs about the world when compared with depressed people. For instance, happy people thought they were in control of completely random events much longer than depressed people who acknowledged their inability to affect events much earlier.

Still happiness, at least statistically, is correlated with many beneficial effects. Happiness and optimism correlates with longevity, income, and ability to endure pain, and whether or not someone would end up in a happy marriage correlated with the type of smile (genuine or fake panam smiles) people had on photos from their youth.

So how do you become happy? Having the right genes helps but at least according to Seligman (who does quote a lot of studies), there are thing you can do to become happier. Be warned though, it requires an effort. Up to a rather low limit, money makes you happier. Having friends and a wife is also correlated with happiness.

Another strategy if you do not fancy wives and friends but would still like to be happy is to engage in gratifying activities. Gratifying activities (e.g. hiking) are the one that make you feel good about yourself for a “long” time after you have done them (often they require you to work in some way). This should be contrasted with pleasurable activities (e.g. eating chocolate) that make you feel good when you do them but not afterwards. Seligman (thankfully) does not say that you should never engage in pleasurable activities, only that to achieve happiness we should really focus on gratifying activities.

Seligman further argues that it is important to use your “signature strengths”. Signature strengths are essentially the positive parts of your personality. This includes things such as passion, curiosity, openness, integrity, sense of justice humour etc etc. In other words, the things that others value in you. Try to steer towards situations that let you use your signature strengths and you will become a happier person...

Have this book changes my life? Not really, no. It was interesting and it has made me think more about what type of activities I find gratifying which include training and doing research, and I try to do more of this. All in all “Authentic Happiness” is a good interesting book that I would recommend it to people interested in positive psychology, and who would like a science based understanding of happiness and its consequences.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Book review: Complications by Atul Gawande

Would you let a young inexperienced surgeon operate on your child or yourself, even if it involved a greater risk of complications, so that they could become better surgeons? Almost everyone would answer no to this question and indeed when the authors own son experienced a complication, he insisted on an experienced surgeon. Despite this it is an unavoidable fact that surgeon need practice and if they are not allowed to practice there will be no good surgeons in the future.

The reader of this book will receive an insight into the dilemmas faced by surgeons. It is a book that acknowledges the fantastic benefits of surgery while simultaneously acknowledging the fact that doctors are merely human beings and that even with the best of intentions mistakes are frequently made.

Some questions discussed (without aspiring to provide a definite solution):
  • How can you provide young surgeons with practice opportunities without compromising the care of patients (and on how many animals do you let them practice before allowing them to operate on humans)? 
  • How much should you trust a doctors “intuition” - and how does it compare to neural networks and machine algorithms? 
  • How should you deal with bad doctors - doctors who compromise the care of their patients because they have a depression, are stressed out or have a drinking problem (again doctors are just human beings and are affected by such things too)? 
Gawande takes on these and other questions. He is consistently honest about the limitations as well as the benefits that surgery involves and it seems that he does not hide unpleasant truths. All in all, Complications is a good intriguing book which I would recommend to anyone interested in surgery or medicine in general.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Book review - Science of Evil by Simon Baron Cohen

Simon Baron Cohen’s fundamental idea is that in order to prevent evil we must first understand its causes. How was Josef Fritzl capable of locking up his own daugter in his basement and then rape her on a daily basis for more than a decade? The typical reaction to this type of story is that Josef Fritzl is an evil man, and he did what he did because he was evil. But what does it mean when you say that someone is evil, and does deeming someone as an evil person have any positive side effects?

These are of course difficult questions and I don’t think that Baron Cohen provides a complete answer to them (which would have been a lot to hope for). What Baron Cohen does claim is that if we want to prevent evil we must first understand it. He further suggests that individuals, such as Fritzl, who commit horrendous acts probably suffers from a lack of empathy, that is a lacking ability to see the world from another persons perspective. Borderline patients, psychopaths and narcissists are three mental disorders that have a common feature, namely zero empathy. In other words they are more or less incapable of seeing the world from another persons perspective and therefore they may not get the same “gut response” when they hear about Fritzl.

Many people lack empathy, but not all of them endorse in “evil”. Other factors such as upbringing and attachments to caregivers can influence whether a person born with deficient empathy becomes an offender or learns how to follow the rules of society despite lacking some of the intuitions that derives from having empathy.

Simon Baron Cohen’s expertize lies in the field of autism which is another mental dissorders characterized by a lack of empathy. Individuals that have a autism spectrum dissorder (this category includes those with asperger syndrome), also behave in ways that reveal a lack of empathy, however, they are often good at systematizing, that is seeing relationships between various variables in the world. Because of this special ability they have benefited the world in many ways
Rather than deeming individuals evil, we should try to understand why evil acts are committed. To look at people with a severe lack of empathy is a good and plausibly fruitful starting point for such an endeavour.

Simon Baron Cohen, is a terrific writer with the ability to convey complex ideas and complex research findings in an accessible and easy to understand way. This book as well as “The essential difference” show that this is indeed the case.