Friday, September 26, 2014

The NFL, the Military, and the Problem With Masculine Institutions

English: WASHINGTON (March 26, 2010) A poster ...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
, Pacific Standard:

Like the National Football League and the military, so many institutions in our society remain organized around gender. This, in itself, isn’t news. 
When women entered the work world in droves in the 1970s, work institutions remained structured around the bread-winning male employee and the stay-at-home wife. 
Today, workplace and family-leave policies are still catching up with the concept of the dual-earner family.

The important point here, though, is that it’s not the composition of the institution - how many men, how many women - that makes it gendered. It’s the organization of the institution around ideals of masculinity and femininity that makes it gendered.

And that’s a point that’s been missing over the past few weeks as both the NFL and the military have come under intense scrutiny for rampant sexual and domestic abuse.

This intense scrutiny is warranted. The rate of sexual assault against men in the military is almost 100 times that of all men in America. According to the Pentagon, 1.2% of male active duty service members are sexually assaulted, compared to 0.014% of all American men.

Similarly, domestic violence rates for NFL players are 39% higher than the national average for men in the same income bracket.

In “Son, Men Don’t Get Raped,” a collection of first-hand accounts of men who were sexually assaulted while serving in the military, Nathaniel Penn cites military data that 38 men are sexually assaulted in the military - every day.

Women in the military certainly have a higher chance of being assaulted, but male recruits still do experience sexual assault on a regular basis. I have spent the last eight years studying the military as a sociologist. And from what I’ve learned, I wouldn’t be surprised if that number was actually much higher.

The military is a gendered institution in that it promotes and encourages violent masculinity. Every aspect of the military is geared toward the enterprise of waging successful “macho” war - as opposed to “sissy” diplomacy - against an enemy often described as “limp wristed” or “wimpy.”

War is repeatedly waged to ensure that the U.S. maintains a dominating masculine force on the world stage. My own research shows President George W. Bush’s cowboy masculinity was considered the appropriate response to terrorism in 2003, while, more recently, President Obama has been urged to “man up” against ISIS terrorists.

To assert American manhood, the military must train recruits to fight and kill. Just like boys learn to associate masculinity with aggression, recruits must be schooled on the correct kind of hyper-violent masculinity for war.

New recruits are called “pussies” and “girls” by commanders and older recruiters in order to humiliate them so they know their place in the institution. Recruits must prove their masculinity by taking the humiliation (even sexual assault) “like a man” and never showing weakness.

The horrific incidents of sexual assault described in Penn’s article are the byproduct of an institution built around cultivating and rewarding violent expressions of masculinity.

Even the institutional response to sexual assault is telling. If the incident is reported at all, and if that report is not then ignored, the victim discovers there are no institutional mechanisms for dealing with the assault. Institutional questionnaires, forms, and treatment all assume female victims.

Discharge papers write off victims as mentally ill. Men cannot actually be considered victims - there’s no structure in place for this to happen - and instead they are aggressors learning how to dominate one another before dominating the battlefield.

It’s hard to consider all of this and then not think of the NFL. Football is just another example of an institution where aggressive masculinity is cultivated and rewarded. When the first openly gay NFL player, Michael Sam, kissed his boyfriend upon being drafted, many were outraged and questioned if this was really the right kind of masculinity for football.

Aggressive masculinity is encouraged on the field, but what happens when aggression, as we’ve seen with Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, and countless others, is directed as violence toward significant others and children?

Sexual assault in the military and domestic violence in the NFL show the consequences of organizing institutions around violent masculinity. All of which makes me wonder: Can an institution built on violence ever possibly create and uphold a zero tolerance policy for violence outside of it?

Wendy Christensen is an assistant professor at William Paterson University whose specialty includes the intersection of gender, war, and the media. Follow her on Twitter @wendyphd.

Men, Masculine Pride, and How to Cope With Depression

Different strategy needed off the pitch (el_gallo, CC BY-NC-SA)
by Jason Spendelow, University of Surrey

Masculinity plays an important role in dealing with problems such as depression.

Men often don’t feel able to reach out for assistance because both the symptoms of depression and the act of seeking help goes against a stereotypical view of how us blokes should or shouldn’t behave.

Of course, traditional masculine characteristics are not necessarily “good” or “bad”.

Stereotypical male traits such as self-reliance and independence can be very valuable in life (for both men and women). But when demonstrated through unhealthy and over-used psychological practises, they can spell trouble for well-being and mark seeking help as off-limits.

For example, adherence to “strait-jacket” masculinity, might not only prevent getting treatment but also intensifies tactics such as hiding depressed mood and increasing risk-taking behaviours such as substance use.

So being competitive with your mates on the football pitch, rugby field or golf course, for example, is great in order to secure the win and bragging rights, but “not giving in” to a serious dose of depression by coping in secret is not, and can do more harm in the long run.

So, if the prospect of seeking help makes you twitchy, what can you do about it?

Get out of the strait-jacket

Research has shown that some men re-interpret and expand what it means to be a man in order to subtly un-hook themselves from the strait-jacket variety of masculinity. It may seem subtle to those on the outside but it’s a big personal step.

Rather than seeing seeking help as an unacceptable behaviour, some see it as demonstrating an ability to be responsible, proactive, and practical. So rather than a sign of dependence on others, it can be seen as a responsible way of maintaining psychological health and responsibilities, by being an engaged partner, for example.

And in fact, breaking out of the strait-jacket could be seen as more masculine than falling into line with traditional expectations of not seeking help. Some men even see themselves as a “hero” that is “in battle” with depression as a way to preserve a sense of their masculinity while getting help. And when you’re experiencing severe symptoms, such as suicidal thoughts or being unable to work or even get out of bed, it can feel like a fight.

Focus on things you still do

Re-framing the masculine narrative can be supported through men’s relationships with others. The role of caregiver or provider is valued by many men. Seeking help can be seen as part of being able to do this rather than undermining it.

Simply being a good dad. Bike fix by Shutterstock

Men with depression can help themselves to retain a sense of self-worth by focusing on valued roles they can still perform - and those supporting them can help them confirm this.

Small steps are still rewarding

Taking on responsibility for tasks previously given up due to depressed mood (usually in a gradual way) is a common approach to treating depression and is another way in which men can re-establish lost self-worth.

When you’re depressed, it’s important not to underestimate the boost you can get from small victories and accomplishments.

Dust off those running shoes. Ed Yourdon, CC BY-NC-SA

Trying to achieve several of these each day, such as going for a 15-minute jog or even cleaning one shelf of a bookcase, can help you fight depression in an effective way. The feeling of achievement and personal control that comes from activities such as physical exercise is believed to be one possible way in which exercise combats depression.

Professionals can help

Professional help should always be sought when depressed mood persists for more than a couple of weeks, is accompanied by significant levels of distress and/or impairment in your ability to carry out day-to-day tasks such as going to work or having a shower. Thoughts of self-harm or suicide are especially important warning signs that require immediate professional attention.

Worth a try? Therapy by Shutterstock

People often say that “talking treatments” are not for them, but when you’re really struggling it is worth a try. And not all help and treatment is the same; there are a variety of therapeutic techniques that approach depression in different ways.

One approach called Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) emphasises, among other things, developing practical skills. This is one reason why CBT might be particularly suited to men.

However, there are other approaches that focus more on other issues, such as understanding the role played by early life experiences. And, of course, medication can be a good option for people in certain circumstances. But whatever course of action is taken, it’s vital men do not suffer in silence.
The Conversation

Jason Spendelow does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Why Children Should Study Philosophy

Bertrand Russell 1893
Bertrand Russell 1893 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Laura D'Olimpio, University of Notre Dame Australia

Children are natural philosophers. Ask anyone who has encountered a three-year old constantly asking the question “Why?”

Yet how often do we encourage the questions children ask and really take the time to further develop the ensuing discussion?

The young mind that queries and demands justification for accepted norms hints at an instinctive search for meaning.

That quest can be encouraged and channelled in a constructive direction. This is where the study of philosophy can help.

Studies have demonstrated that children who study philosophy are more likely to achieve better academic results. They also enjoy additional social benefits such as better self-esteem and the demonstration of empathy for others.

There is also said to be less bullying in the schoolyard and less behaviour-management issues. This was particularly evidenced at Buranda State School in Queensland, which adopted the philosophical community of inquiry (CoI) method as an all-school approach.

Teaching critical thinking

The aim of the CoI method is to produce critical, caring, creative and collaborative thinkers. It does this by encouraging student-led discussions facilitated by a teacher who is trained in philosophy.

Is this a recipe for classroom chaos? Should teachers allow students to sit in a circle and raise their own questions, discussing many possible answers to questions that may simply not have a black-and-white factual conclusion? Should children study philosophy? Isn’t it too difficult?

Philosophy for Children (P4C) started in the 1970s in order to encourage critical thinking skills in children from K-12. Supporters of P4C believe philosophy needn’t be confined to the academy.

The term was coined by Matthew Lipman. He wanted to encourage reasonableness in citizens and figured the best way to do so was to teach critical thinking skills from an early age. Lipman defines critical thinking as:
thinking that (1) facilitates judgement because it (2) relies on criteria, (3) is self-correcting, and (4) is sensitive to context.
Alongside critical thinking skills, “caring” and “creative” thinking are equally important skills children should be encouraged to develop.

In this way the critical thinker won’t just know the right thing to do, they’ll also know how to go about achieving it, while being sensitive to the context and others involved in the situation.

Young philosophers have fewer behavioural issues.

Such general thinking skills can be taught in the classroom by using narratives. Children respond well to stories, from which questions are generated about philosophical topics such as truth, friendship or morality.

Guidelines are set as a group. These include rules such as “address the topic, not the person” and “do not interrupt”. The teacher then facilitates an open, democratic, student-led discussion, which follows the direction of the inquiry of the group as opposed to having a specific end goal in mind.

In this way, the CoI encourages respect between students and the teacher who discuss ideas together. This creates a safe environment for participants to explore the strengths and weaknesses of different perspectives. Students are encouraged to be autonomous thinkers and this gives them self-confidence.

Further, the CoI encourages empathy. The ideas of others are built upon, not simply argued against. The thinking skills honed in the study of philosophy are transferable, relevant to all other subjects as well as to real-life situations.

Developing values in schooling

For all these reasons, we can see why the Western Australian government’s Curriculum Council identifies critical reflection as an individual value. It should be included at the national level. Critical reflection is defined in the WA school curriculum as the ability to:
reflect critically on both the cultural heritage and the attitudes and values underlying current social trends and institutions.
This is compatible with the nine values listed in the national framework for schools, which include: care and compassion; integrity; doing your best; respect; fair go; responsibility; freedom; understanding, tolerance and inclusion; honesty and trustworthiness. In order to possess these qualities, one would need to develop the skills to think in this way.

Such skills can (and should) be taught in relation to many disciplines, but their original home is the discipline of philosophy. Philosophy is ideally suited to encouraging reasonableness. The study of philosophy teaches students to consider the justification for arguments, the reasons supporting a position and to consider alternatives.

Harvey Siegel notes:
A critical thinker, then, is one who is appropriately moved by reasons: she has the propensity or disposition to believe and act in accordance with reasons; and she has the ability to properly assess the force of reasons in the many contexts in which reasons play a role.
Surely these are precisely the kinds of members of society we would like to have.
The Conversation

Laura D'Olimpio is President for the Australasian Association for Philosophy in Schools (APIS Inc.), W.A. ( The Federation of Australasian Philosophy in Schools Associations (FAPSA) is the national umbrella body for APIS and both are not-for-profit.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Hell-Oh Neighbor: On Being a Good Neighbor

by Amy Alkon, Psychology Today:

One day, I came home to find bags and boxes brimming with garbage dumped on the grassy strip lining my cute Venice, California street.

Amidst food cartons and wrappers from just-purchased socks and underwear were a UPS invoice and a boarding pass. I paid a visit to Uncle Google and quickly tracked the names on them to a top foreign surgeon and his wife.

I messaged each on Facebook to come pick up their trash. No response. Grrr. Well, I thought, surely their trash had to miss them.

I boxed up a sampling of it with a photo of their dumping and a scoldy demand that they clean it up. And then, for a very well-spent $3.69, I mailed it to a ritzy address in the Pacific Palisades (from the UPS invoice), where they were apparently visiting American friends.

I never heard a word of denial or apology from them, but the experience underscored something: One of the best ways to stop feeling victimized is to refuse to roll over and take it like a good little victim. And I have to say, it's hard to keep feeling victimized while snickering about somebody's tony friends calling them up to ask whether they maybe littered in Venice.

You've probably experienced similarly piggy behavior in your neighborhood. Sure, there are laws against some violations, like 4 A.M. stereo blasting and persistently yapping dogs, but just try getting them enforced.

Image: Devil shredding guitar and scaring the iced tea out of his neighbor
Gregg Segal
This isn't to say it should be the job of the police to intervene, and it doesn't have to be if we just understand and accept an essential fact about human nature: We're all jerks. Or, as the late psychologist Albert Ellis put it, to be human is to be "fallible, f*cked up, and full of frailty." And that's on a good day.

We want what we want, when we want it, and we'd like other people to shut up and scurry out of our way so we can get it already. As depressing as it may seem to see ourselves like this, being honest about our jerkitude is the best way to personally dispense less of it and to decrease others' emissions - and maybe even prevent them.

Frankly, if you get off on the wrong foot with one of your neighbors, a good fence will need to be patterned on the Great Wall of China.

Many of us make the mistake of keeping to ourselves until a neighbor does something annoying. Bad idea. If your first contact with the guy next door is letting him know how rude he is, you encourage him to achieve his natural potential for jerkishness. Better neighbor relations instead start with canny strategizing and proactive neighborliness.

Image: Neighbors watering gardens, one is a red skinned devil
Gregg Segal
Machiavellian Altruism

Sixteenth-century political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli may have been mislabeled a bad guy for writing The Prince, a self-help book on how to be a royal scheming user. The truth is, scheming doesn't have to require anyone getting screwed over. In fact, you can manipulate your neighbors for the greater good while manipulating them for your own good.

Rutgers University anthropologist Robert Trivers came up with the term "reciprocal altruism" to describe showing generosity to others at a cost to yourself, in hopes that they'll repay you in kind in the future. Absolute altruism is giving with no expectation of getting anything in return. But as Trivers points out, there's likely no such thing as pure altruism.

If you're sacrificing for somebody related to you, it benefits your genetic line, and if you're sacrificing for somebody unrelated, you get a bump in reputation if others see what you're doing, and probably a bump in self-respect if they don't.

A little calculated generosity can also help you deter all sorts of ugliness from those living around you. When new neighbors move in, bring them a plate of cookies. And don't forget to look out for those who've been living around you for a while.

Text them when they've forgotten to move their car on street-cleaning day. When their package gets chucked in your bushes, bring it to their door. Replace their porch lightbulb when it goes out while they're out of town (and leave a note telling them so).

It's not only nice to be nice, it's in your self-interest. There's a growing body of research suggesting that doing kind acts for others gives you a helper's high and makes you feel happier and more satisfied with your own life.

Plus, in the time spent baking cookies for a new neighbor, you're putting positivity into the world: making them feel welcome, creating community, and generating or reinforcing a social norm for neighborliness. At the same time, you're also inoculating yourself against that person suddenly going all lifelong blood-feud on you because your sprinklers killed their nap.

How the Nice-Neighbor Sausages Are Made

A little preemptive gift-giving can have such a transformative effect, thanks to our powerful drive to reciprocate. A couple of million years ago, in the harsh environment in which we evolved, being seen as a mooch could mean getting booted from one's band - a likely death sentence.

Being an easy mark posed other survival and mating issues. To keep our giving and taking in balance, humans developed a built-in social bookkeeping department.

There's some little old lady in a green eyeshade inside each of us who pokes us - "Wake up, idiot!" - when somebody's mooching off of us so we'll get mad and try to even the score. When somebody does something nice for us, our inner accountant cranks up feelings of obligation, and we get itchy to repay that person.

For example, in a study by Cornell psychologist Dennis Regan, subjects were told they were participating in research on art appreciation. The actual study - on the effects of doing a favor - took place during the breaks between a series of questions about art. Regan's research assistant, posing as a study participant, would leave the room and either come back with two Cokes - one for himself and one for the other participant - or he'd come back empty-handed.

After the art questions were completed, the research assistant asked the participant a favor, explaining that he was selling raffle tickets and that he'd win a prize if he sold the most. He added that anything "would help, but the more, the better." The subjects who received the Coke ended up buying twice as many tickets as those who'd received nothing.

Regan's results have been replicated many times in the lab and out - by Hare Krishnas, who see a marked increase in donations when they give out a flower before asking for cash; and by organizations whose fundraising letters pull in far more money when they include a small gift such as personalized address labels.

A TV soap actress moved in next door to me and started throwing all-night backyard parties, complete with campfire-style guitar sing-alongs. Asking her to be more considerate was useless. The way she saw it, why should her neighbors' silly sleeping hobby take precedence over her drunken friends' need to belt out "This Land is Your Land" at 3am?

Image: Man gifting his devil neighbor with a 666 cake

Gregg Segal

What finally changed this was an email I sent to my more neighborly neighbors, warning them about a spate of break-ins. I didn't have Soap Snot's email address, so I printed the email and slipped it under her gate with a note scrawled at the bottom: "You aren't very considerate of those who live around you, but I don't think you should be robbed because of it, so FYI." I added that I would keep an eye on her house during the day, when she's away.

Amazingly, from that day on, there were no more wee-hours guitar-apaloozas. A few weeks after leaving her the note, I ran into her and she said, "Hey, just wanted to let you know I'm having some friends over tonight, but only for a dinner party, and we'll go inside at 10." As soon as I could rehinge my jaw, what was there to say but, "Uh ... thanks"?

A Neighborhood Watch That Doesn't Require Watching

Sitting in a lawn chair by your mailbox with your twin Rottweilers and a shotgun is a highly effective way to keep passing dog walkers from letting their pooch violate your lawn. Should you find this impractical, you might take advantage of our evolved concern for preserving our reputation and post a photo of human eyes on your mailbox, tricking passersby into feeling they're being watched and possibly improving their behavior accordingly.

It seems even a drawing of eyes triggers this sensation, according to research by UCLA anthropologist Daniel M.T. Fessler and then-grad student Kevin J. Haley. In a computer game they designed to measure generosity, when a stylized picture of eyes was displayed on the computer's desktop, participants gave over 55 percent more money to other players than when no eyes were displayed.

These findings were repeated in a study by Newcastle University ethologist Melissa Bateson and psychologist Daniel Nettle, in which people put nearly three times more money into a coffee room "honesty box" during the weeks when a photograph of eyes was posted above it.

So, in neighborhood terms, poop happens, but tape a picture of eyes to your mailbox, and that Great Dane's dung mountain just might get lugged home instead of being left in a steaming pile for you.

Image: Neighbors watching high flaming grill

Gregg Segal

How to Defuse the Problem Next Door

Confronting a neighbor can be tricky. A self-important Hollywood bigwhoop started walking his dog down my street at 5am - while shouting showbiz lingo into his phone at colleagues in different time zones. He stopped after I typed a note in big letters, printed it on hot pink paper, and posted it on my fence: "Hey, guy on cell phone at 5am: The houses on this block are actually not a Hollywood set, but real homes with real people trying to sleep in the bedrooms. Thank you."

Empathy, the Great Panty-Unwadder: In many conflicts, like when the guy next door leaves his trash cans in front of your property, the injury we feel is largely symbolic. Deep down, we're all large, easily wounded children. More than anything, we want to be treated like we matter.

Take the case of Christine. From time to time, her children's balls would fly over the fence into her neighbor's yard. The first time, she and the kids knocked on the neighbor's door. The lady seemed friendly, and she let them into the backyard to get the balls. But, the next few times, the balls were tossed back over the fence, slashed. Creepy. And really mean.

But in trying to resolve conflict - even when people act horror-movie ugly to your children - it helps to try to consider where they're coming from.

For example, do the balls maybe bounce against the windows, startling the lady? Is she infirm, making it hard for her to get to the backyard and throw the balls back over? It's possible she's just an awful person, but by trying to call up empathy you'll deflate some of your anger - improving your ability to approach the offending party in a calm, solution-oriented way.

A Handwritten Note: The pen tends to be far less inflammatory than face-to-face conversation. A handwritten note about an issue puts time and distance between you, your criticism, and the criticized person, giving them the chance to cool down and respond in a more reasoned way.

And yes, it's best to handwrite your message rather than email it, which makes it too easy for you to dash off something rash and for your neighbor to dash back an angry reply. I suggested that Christine write a card with an apology, expressing empathy for the neighbor and saying the kids were trying to do better.

She might even include a $10 Starbucks card. Beyond gift-giving's power to ramp up goodwill, research suggests that a costly apology is a more meaningful apology - more likely to dissolve anger and lead to forgiveness.

Honesty, the Worst Policy: Calling a person on her bad behavior in anything but a roundabout way tends to provoke denials, which are basically angry attempts to save face. A less provoking approach is to present an issue by appearing to give your neighbor the benefit of the doubt - even when you both know she doesn't deserve it.

Say, for example, the lady next door has been letting her unleashed dog run over and poop on your lawn (this is not a secret to her because she's on her porch shouting, "Muffin, go poop in the neighbor's bushes!").

You still need to pretend otherwise, writing her a note: "You probably don't know this ..." This approach allows the two of you to maintain a polite fiction in which you both pretend that you don't find her about as genteel as an ass boil, which is the best way to keep your lawn from continuing to be her dog's free-range litter box.

The Tragedy of the A**hole in the Commons: There are homeowners who'd start the second Hundred Years' War to defend the sanctity of their property, but half a block from their property line, anything goes.

The "Ain't my land!" excuse for allowing the trashing of public spaces illustrates what ecologist Garrett Hardin referred to as "The Tragedy of the Commons" in his 1968 essay on overpopulation. In a space owned by nobody and shared by many, the piggy can take advantage by grabbing more than a fair share of resources or by slopping up the space, ruining it for everyone.

What stops this piggery is acting like we have shared ownership of public spaces, and getting as indignant about people polluting them as we would if they were redirecting traffic across our front lawn.

When You're the Problem: Selfish, self-absorbed little beasties that we are, listening doesn't come naturally to us. And because we tend to fly off the handle when criticized, listening calmly when we're in the hot seat takes preplanning: being mindful of our bratty tendencies and resolving that we'll take some deep breaths and hear a critic out.

Considering things from a complaining neighbor's point of view may require a field trip. Michael's neighbors complained about the thumping bass line from the music he plays. I suggested that Michael say something like, "I want to solve this; I don't want to torture you," and ask to come over and listen from their place so he can hear what they hear (just letting your neighbors know you're willing to investigate means a lot).

The Power of I'm Sorry: The deep need we feel for an apology after we're wronged emerged out of the evolution of human cooperation, which makes it possible for us to live together in groups. We have an evolutionary adaptation that helps guard against being chumped, making sure that we aren't all-give to people who are all-take.

When our sense of fairness is violated, we need a sign from the violator that we aren't idiots to trust them in the future. An apology can't undo a wrong that's been done, but it's an offering suggesting that one's future actions will be more partnerlike than selfish jerk-like.

Don't Be Geographically Snobby: Being around strangers all the time, as we often are in our society, can be cold and alienating unless we regularly take steps to remedy this state with some generosity of spirit. The way I see it, a neighbor is anybody you treat like a neighbor.

Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky of UC Riverside has studied generosity toward others, finding that it's one of the main ways (along with expressing gratitude) that we can increase our happiness. Showing another person a little generosity is also likely to put them in the spirit of "paying it forward." A bare minimum of one kind act a day should be our self-imposed cover charge for living in this world. We get the society we create - or the society we let happen to us.

Adapted from: Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck by Amy Alkon. Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Griffin.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Mind Over Matter: Cynics, It Seems, Triple Their Risk of Dementia

Age-standardised disability-adjusted life year...
Age-standardised disability-adjusted life year (DALY) rates from Alzheimer and other dementias by country (per 100,000 inhabitants). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Anthony Hannan, The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health

I don’t want to sound too cynical, but recent research findings in dementia seem hard to believe. A study of over 1,000 people has found people who scored higher on a measure of cynicism during late life were three times more likely to develop dementia.

The researchers who did the work took into account the major known risk factors for dementia, such as sedentary lifestyles, smoking, high levels of cholesterol, body weight and alcohol use. Even after correcting for all of these, high levels of cynical distrust remained a risk factor for dementia.

This kind of epidemiological study examines a range of different measures in a large collection of people and looks for significant correlations that are not expected to occur by chance. It’s often challenging to draw definitive conclusions regarding cause and effect from such work.

Nevertheless, these findings are consistent with some of what we know about the power of the mind over the body, and the body over the mind. If we consider our bodies as “temples”, then our brains might be considered “high altars”.

Brains, minds and bodies

Brains, which generate all behaviours as well as thoughts and emotions, don’t exist in isolation. Rather, they’re in a dynamic bidirectional interplay with our bodies. This has major implications for the health of both our brains and bodies, as well as a vast array of diseases of brain, mind and body.

Like all brain disorders, dementia results from a complex combination of genes and environments; nature and nurture. We now know that healthy lifestyles, including a balanced, nutritious diet and high levels of physical activity and mental stimulation, can help protect from diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Similarly, recent studies performed in disease models (involving laboratory mice and rats) that examine cause and effect suggest specific negative environmental factors, including high levels of chronic stress, may accelerate the onset of dementia associated with genetically-induced brain degeneration. This could, perhaps, relate to the negative aspects of a highly cynical mindset.

Indeed, it might be expected that people who score more highly on the measures of cynical distrust might also experience more negative thoughts and associated psychological stress.

Possible reasons

One hypothesis I would suggest, which relates to the power of the body over the body, is that exposure to chronic stress might contribute to increased cynicism. Both factors might therefore be linked to an increased risk of dementia.

Chronic stress causes physiological and metabolic changes in the body and can be toxic to the brain in the long term. It can also affect the immune and cardiovascular systems, which have both been linked to dementia.

Intriguingly, a Swedish study found a link between a combination of type A personality traits, which includes cynicism, and cardiovascular disease and dementia. The definition of type A personality traits is quite broad and relates to psychological stress levels, which may be key to possible links with heart disease and dementia.

Another hypothesis might be that people with the highest cynicism scores are less likely to make the kind of healthy lifestyle choices that might delay onset of dementia. Higher levels of cynicism towards life (and death) could potentially lead to less engagement with preventative health strategies, such as more physical activity and a healthy diet.

It’s almost impossible to design studies that definitively test these hypotheses and demonstrate how extreme cynical distrust is associated with a higher risk of dementia. However, ongoing studies are testing the broader relationship between a healthy body and a healthy mind.

Hope yet

The phrase “mens sana in corpore sano” (a sound mind in a sound body) is thousands of years old, so the concept is clearly not new. The good news is that we can all do something to improve the health of our brains and bodies.

There’s an abundance of evidence that key lifestyle choices can prevent or delay a range of diseases of brain and body. These choices include a healthy diet, regular physical activity, cognitive stimulation, adequate sleep, as well as avoiding high levels of chronic stress and alcohol consumption.

The authors of the study acknowledge their hypothesis requires follow-up research in larger international populations. Nevertheless, multiple lines of evidence suggest personality traits and associated lifestyle choices can impact on various brain disorders, such as dementia.

Each of us is dealt a genetic deck of cards at conception that we can do nothing about. Through development and adulthood, our genes interact constantly with environmental factors to regulate how our brains and bodies function, as well as dysfunction when they put us at risk of specific diseases.

With a positive mental attitude supporting a healthy lifestyle, we may be able to maintain soundness of body and mind for as long as possible. And hopefully, medical research will deliver new treatments for devastating disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
The Conversation

Anthony Hannan receives funding from the Australian Research Council (FT3 Future Fellowship; Discovery Project Grant) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (Project Grants; Senior Research Fellowship funding from 2015).

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Happy Days: Virtue Isn't Just for Sanctimonious Do-Gooders

Portrait of Aristoteles. Pentelic marble, copy...
Portrait of Aristoteles (Wikipedia)
by Laura D'Olimpio

When we think of morally upright, virtuous citizens, do we imagine boring do-gooders? Is the idea of being virtuous out-dated and old-fashioned? Or is “being virtuous” still something we should aspire to in our contemporary society?

Prior to the notion of one Omni-God, Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) claimed that being virtuous was rational and good for everyone.

The father of Virtue Ethics, Aristotle’s starting point wasn’t based on reward in another life or on categorical rules, but on what makes us essentially human.

In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle writes that we are essentially social, political and moral creatures because we live in a society and our behaviour affects one another. In this way being virtuous makes good sense because if people treat each other well, they’re likely to be content.

This suggests the wellbeing of the individual is linked to the place in which they live, and this idea is still supported today as psychologists claim our environment affects our physical and mental health and annual most liveable cities lists are enthusiastically shared.

For Aristotle, the purpose of life is eudaimonia, which is often translated as happiness, but is better understood as flourishing, so as to distinguish it from hedonism. A happy or good life is not one in which we have every single thing we desire, instead, it is about being fulfilled and feeling that we’ve contributed something to the world, however small or great, through the life we have lived.

According to the virtue ethicist, this goal of eudaimonia is best achieved by following the virtues, and developing a good or virtuous character.

So how do we develop good moral character, and does this mean we’ll be boring do-gooders?

Good moral character is developed by practising the virtues, which are mid-point between excessive or deficient behaviour. Thus, the right thing to do is guided by this doctrine of the mean. The mean is mid-point between two extremes. So, courage is a virtue as it is mid-point between rashness (excessive) and cowardice (deficient).

To practise the virtue of courage, I would consider the specific situation and think of what would be rash or cowardly and then consider what would be the mid-point or courageous thing to do in that situation. I may get it wrong, but Aristotle allows for the fact that we learn by doing things, and thus we can keep practising and get better at working out what is the right thing to do.

If I practise the virtuous action often enough, it eventually becomes a character trait whereby I don’t even have to think about it and my natural response is virtuous.

For example, if I decide that honesty is a virtue (as it is mid-point between lying and bluntness), I may practice truth-telling until my usual response is to tell the truth when appropriate. Of course, this also allows for me to become less moral if I practice the vices and, for example, I could become a proficient liar if I work at it enough.

The usual criticism of virtue ethics is that it is too subjective, as the virtues are related to one’s own talents and abilities. For instance, my mid-point between lying and bluntness, my version of being honest, may equate to your version of being blunt. There is also much debate as to whether, say, “tolerance” is a virtue, or whether or not you should ever tell a white lie.

Yet, this weakness of the theory may also be considered as its strength. The subjective nature of the virtues allows for some social and cultural variance, and if this individual difference is respected, it need not be a bad thing but rather improve global harmony.

If we respect the traditions of other cultures, provided they don’t cause harm, then most people would agree this is a good thing. Although what constitutes “harm” can still be a grey area.

But the pluralism of virtue ethics that accounts for context doesn’t deny that there are shared values. Generally, everyone will agree that we should avoid being cruel, and try to be kind, but we may interpret this slightly differently according to the time and place in which we live. This means that the theory of virtue ethics is flexible enough to still apply today.

So how does being virtuous help us today?

In today’s contemporary society it may be useful to consider how to virtuously engage in an ethical debate on social media. The excessive reaction may be to troll or bully others whose ideas differ to my own. The deficient response may be to not enter into the conversation at all for fear of confrontation or others disagreeing with me.

The midpoint between these two responses may be to have a reasonable discussion whereby not everyone has to agree, but we understand that we are contributing to an ongoing and meaningful conversation. Following the doctrine of the mean, this is the virtuous act.

Sure, this doesn’t tell me what to believe, yet it hints as to how to communicate my ideas, based on respect and empathy and a fellow-feeling that recognises I am one among a community.

Therefore, the old-fashioned Golden Rule: treat others as you’d like to be treated still seems relevant today. Even in a technological world, following the virtues is useful because, by treating others well, I will also benefit. Furthermore, if the majority value virtuous behaviour, then the society in which I live allows for a good or happy life.

It seems that Aristotle is correct, and the virtues can be a useful guide in helping me to reach this goal of living the good life.

This is the first article in a series on public morality in 21st century Australia. We’ll be publishing regular articles on morality on The Conversation in the coming weeks.
The Conversation

Laura D'Olimpio does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Easy Ways to Beat Stress and Stay Happy at Work

No Stress
No Stress (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by , Life Hack:

It’s no secret that excess stress is a major productivity roadblock. But you’ve got work to do, work that’s likely a source of your stress (or the people you have to be around to do it).

So how do you manage your stress without completely checking out at work?
Happify, a company that specializes in improving mentality through specially designed activities and games, came up with some suggestions for keeping your work stress levels under control and and why letting stress take over is detrimental to your health.
The next time your least favorite co-worker is on your last nerve or your workload feels overwhelming, remember these helpful tips:

There's More to Personality Than a Test Score

Onion Skin ID
Onion Skin ID (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Luke Smillie, University of Melbourne

Have you ever completed a personality test and felt dissatisfied with your scores?

Maybe you’ve quibbled with the low score you received on extroversion - a personality trait reflecting outgoing and gregarious behaviour.

Well, fine, you’re not a party animal, but when you are out with your friends you are lively, chatty and enthusiastic. Doesn’t that count for something?

For many people, the idea of a numerical “score” on a personality test seems simplistic.

We can’t argue with the feedback from the bathroom scales, but personality is different to weight: it is a description of who we are - and we are complex, dynamic and changeable.

We are different around our friends compared to our romantic partners. We might even feel sure that aspects of our personality have changed at key points in our lives. Can a test score accurately describe any aspect of your personality? The simple answer - as for many things in psychology - is yes … and no.

We are different people at different times

Personality tests offer broad, reasonably accurate descriptions of what a person is like. Test scores are relatively stable over time. How people describe themselves on a personality test is quite similar to how people who know them well describe them.

Test scores also predict important outcomes in our life - from how long we spend at university to how long we spend on earth. So personality test scores do reflect something meaningful and enduring about us.

On the other hand, it is obvious our behaviours and experiences change across time and situations. Optimists experience moments of pessimism, and intellectuals sometimes watch mindless TV. Most people are quiet and reflective when reading a book, but not when attending a music festival. How can this variation be reconciled with a personality test score?

One answer to this comes from research conducted by Wake Forest University’s Professor William Fleeson. He has shown that our various behaviours and experiences form “distributions” of momentary states. While these states can vary dramatically from one moment to the next, over time they tend to cluster around some average level.

For example, you might sometimes behave in an outgoing and gregarious way (like an extrovert) and sometimes in a reserved and quiet way (like an introvert). Nevertheless, you will also tend to spend a majority of your time at one particular point along the continuum.

Consider it what we tend to do, not always do

According to Professor Fleeson, our score on a personality test is a brief summary of what we tend to do, not an absolute indicator of what we always do. A relatively low score on extroversion does not suggest that you are never gregarious and outgoing.

Rather, it means that you behave this way relatively less often. And while our behaviour changes from moment to moment, our average levels of a particular behaviour are highly consistent over time.

Going back to the bathroom scales, we can therefore see that our score on a personality test is a bit more like our average weight for a particular year (and like with personality, we might quibble that our average weight does not fully capture how we are at every point in time!).

If our score on a personality test is a summary of what we tend to do, can we change our personality simply by doing something else? For instance, does an introverted teacher who develops a highly extroverted presentation style, in effect, become more extroverted? This notion captures what Cambridge University’s Professor Brian Little calls “personal projects”.

The ‘me project’

Like projects in any other domain of our lives - to learn Spanish or renovate the kitchen - we often work on projects concerning our personality. We try to be kinder and more patient (“project agreeableness”). We push ourselves to try new things (“project openness”). These projects may often arise in response to new challenges in our lives.

For instance, working at the University of Illinois, Professor Brent Roberts found that women who increased their participation in the workforce in young adulthood became more assertive and socially dominant over the following 10-15 years. Such changes may reflect deliberate efforts to survive and thrive in the workplace.

Similar to the idea of personal projects, people flex different aspects of their personality in accord with their current goals. When we want to engage others and hold their attention, we tend to act in a more extroverted way.

Acting in an extroverted way might also help elevate our positive mood levels. Personality psychologists have long known that extroverts typically feel more upbeat than introverts.

Recent research from a number of teams around the world, including the University of Melbourne’s Personality Processes Lab, shows these benefits of being extroverted can be reaped simply by acting extroverted.

Surprisingly, the boosts in positive mood caused by acting extroverted are just as strong for introverts: quieter, more reserved people enjoy being talkative and enthusiastic too.

Of course, there are limits to how easily we can change. Professor Little suggests an introvert can act extroverted for a short time, but will later need to recharge. Some aspects of our personality are resistant to change.

More sensitive, anxious individuals probably get tired of people telling them to stop worrying about things (as if this were a simple choice).

Change is possible, but various factors have a stabilising effect on our personality - such as our genetic make-up, which we can’t change. As a result, personal projects can be life-long endeavours requiring constant tinkering.

What we can say with confidence is that personality is a more complex and versatile phenomenon than is reflected in a personality test score. These scores seem like very rough descriptions of what we are like, because in many respects they are. They provide a brief sketch of what we are like overall, on average. They do not capture everything that we are, or everything we might become.
The Conversation

Luke Smillie receives funding from The University of Melbourne.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.