Sunday, February 27, 2011

Seven Principles to Happiness

Everyone faces some stress at work and in life.  Regardless of how happy one may be.   Shawn Achor is at the cutting edge of positive psychology, a new branch of psychology that finds and nurtures genius and talent,  while striving to make normal life more fulfilling.  Rather than not simply to treating mental illness, the emerging field of positive psychology is intended to complement, not to replace traditional psychology.   Although librarianship and academia are spaces of social networks, they are also nodes of critical inquiry and draconian debates -- not often ingredients for pleasantries, let alone, goodwill.

In his new book, the Happiness Advantage, Achor looks at the seven basic principles that we can all use to boost our happiness level.  Why do we need this?   Well, simply because it also supports our well being as well as effectiveness at work.   By scientifically studying what has gone right, rather than wrong in both individuals and societies, positive psychology is actually an interesting starting point in examining our work lives as well as personal lives.  Happiness leads to success in almost every domain of our lives: marriage, health, friendships, community participation, creativity, jobs, careers, businesses.   So how do we do it?  
Happiness Advantage -  Giving quick "jolts" of happiness is important.  Find something to look forward to each day - each little item counts one more bit towards that goal of happiness.  Infuse positivity into your surroundings.  Exercise more.  Spend money on experiences.  Commit conscious acts of kindess.  Give positive feedback.  Engage in activities you enjoy while working.  What we want to do is reach the critical mass of happiness that will snowball into long-term content.

The Fulcrum and the Lever - Archimedes once said, "Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world."  What this metaphorically means is that our minds are our realities.  Einstein's relativity doesn't end with just physics: we can actually use our relative experiences of the workday to the best of our advantages.  Our realities are how we view it. Make meaning in your job.  Rewrite your job description into something meaningful for you: make it your calling.  This can work with those around us, for Achor dubs this the "pygmalion" effect, that our belief in a person's potential can actually bring that potential to life.  The heart of this challenge is to cease interpreting the world as fixed when reality is relative.

The Tetris Effect - Just like the game of tetris, a psychology experiment proved that people tend to perceive their world in mere tetris blocks after playing the game for hours on end.  Similarly, people can also be unable to break a pattern of thinking or behaving after a while of being conditioned to it.   This can have detrimental effects when our selective perception warps us into actively searching for something when it's not even there.  The trick is then to turn this into a "positive tetris effect" in which we infuse our minds with gratitude and optimism.  Psychology experiment after experiment have shown that positive people tend to solve puzzles more quickly and spot errors more accurately.  By listing all the good things we have in life, getting stuck in the positive tetris effect can be productive.

Falling Up - Being able to battle through adversity is all the difference to leading a happy life. Helplessness is a learned behaviour and the sooner we can rebound from failures the sooner we can pave the way for happiness. Crises are in fact, a catalyst for happiness.  Rather than seeing life as a series of successes and setbacks, there is a third path: falling upwards.  Success is much more than mere resilience; rather, it is about  redirecting downward spirals to propel ourselves in the opposite direction so that we can capitalize on setbacks and adversity to become even happier. 

Zorro Circle - This is a beautiful metaphor: Zorro became an expert, swashbuckling hero after his aging master Don Diego instructed the young man to learn his craft inside a small circle until he could expand his repertoire to hanging off chandeliers and handling five enemies with one swoosh of his sword.  The same goes for our lives: we simply can't expect to reverse our lives in one day, neither can we run a marathon in under an hour.  The trick is to regain control aspect of our lives one circle at a time, making it so manageable that it is almost effortless, and gradually expanding it until we reach our goal.  Small successes can add up over time.  But it takes drawing that first small circle.

The 20 Second Rule - Sure, we are probably thinking this already: this is common sense, right?   But as Achor puts it, common sense is not common action. As we are mere bundles of habits (and bad ones usually), we don't consciously work towards good habits.  Willpower usually takes us only so far; much of the time, it doesn't take us anywhere at all.  Rather than using willpower, we need to create the path of least resistance so that our lazy minds won't need to consciously use willpower. The key is to create habits as ritual, repeated practice, until the actions become ingrained in our brain's natural chemistry.  If it means hiding the email icon to stop us from consciously looking to email in order to improve our productivity at work, then do it.  By as little as 20 seconds at a time, it means an investment where forming one today will automatically give out returns for years to come.

Social Investment - The best investment we can make is our support networks.  In times of crises, experiments have shown that those who lack support are those most prone to continuing the downward spiral.  Surrounded by our support networks, whether at home or at work, big challenges feel more manageable and small challenges don't even registar on the radar.  Our social support prevents stress from knocking us down and getting in the way of our achieving our goals.   The most innovative artists and scientists worked as part of a group.  Social connections motivate.  As a result, social relationships are the greatest predictors of both happiness and high performance. So it's time to make that investment.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Social Media and Clay Shirky's View of World Politics

 One complaint about the idea of new media as a political force is that most people simply use these tools for commerce, social life, or self-distraction, but this is common to all forms of media. Far more people in the 1500s were reading erotic novels than Martin Luther's "Ninety-five Theses," and far more people before the American Revolution were reading Poor Richard's Almanack than the work of the Committees of Correspondence. But those political works still had an enormous political effect. (Shirky, Foreign Affairs, 2011)
Clay Shirky has finally made it.  Often championed as one of the modern thinkers of technology and society, but also maligned as a mere naval-gazing pop intellectual who talks the talk, Shirky's recent article The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change in the long-renowned journal, Foreign Affairs, has penned some thought provoking gems about the changing political order thanks the effects of ordinary citizens' use of social media technologies.
Social media have become coordinating tools for nearly all of the world's political movements, just as most of the world's authoritarian governments (and, alarmingly, an increasing number of democratic ones) are trying to limit access to it.In response,the U.S. State Department has committed itself to "Internet freedom" as a specific policy aim. Arguing for the right of people to use the Internet freely is an appropriate policy for the United States, both because it aligns with the strategic goal of strengthening civil society worldwide and because it resonates with American beliefs about freedom of expression. But attempts to yoke the idea of Internet freedom to short-term goals-particularly ones that are country-specific or are intended to help particular dissident groups or encourage regime change-are likely to be ineffective on average. And when they fail, the consequences can be serious.

1.  A New Political Science? -  What social media has done is essentially re-write the rules of political science and even the social sciences.  It would be impossible to describe the recent political crises in Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Moldova, or Thailand (among the many) without discussing the use of mobile media and online tools by those resisting against authoritarian governments.  Such social technologies have mobilized grassroots citizenry and civic grassroots journalism to not only effecting change in the political landscapes in countries, but ultimately bringing down regimes.

2.   What Is Civil Society? -  What social media has down is ultimately breaking down the state's ability to use violence and oppression, truly allowing for a degree of civil society unheard of before the age of the internet.   Shirky views this as a shift in the balance of power between the state and civil society that has ultimately led to a largely peaceful collapse of communist control.  As such, when civil society triumphs, many of the people who had articulated opposition to the communist regimes-such as Tadeusz Mazowiecki in Poland and Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia- became the new political leaders of those countries.  Communications tools during the Cold War did not cause governments to collapse, but they helped the people take power from the state when it was weak. The same should be seen from the power of social media -- perhaps even in a more intensified process.  And we're witnessing that as we speak.

3.  The "New" Public Sphere - The famed social philosopher Jurgen Haberman's concept of the public sphere is being challenged and perhaps will soon be thrown right out the window in this age of intensive social media.   Developed during the Renaissance in Western Europe and the United States, Habermas viewed a vibrant public sphere acting as a positive force keeping authorities within bounds lest their rulings be ridiculed.  As such, the public sphere is a place between private individuals and government authorities in which people could meet and have debates about public matters.  With such critical discussions taking place, they anchor as a counterweight to political authority.  The "public spheres" more importantly, happened physically in face-to-face meetings in coffee houses and cafes and public squares as well as in the media in letters, books, drama, and art. Forward three hundred years, and we’re seeing the physical public sphere turn digital: in the blogosphere, twittersphere, Facebook, and viral video sharing sites.

4.  Communications -  Although mass media alone do not change people's minds, the process does.  As Opinions and ideas are first transmitted by the media, and then they get echoed by friends, family members, and colleagues. Eventually, it is the social network that influences and forms political opinions.  This is the step in which the internet in general, and social media in particular, effects change. As with the printing press, the internet spreads not only media aconsumption, but also media production.  As Shirky argues, "It ultimately allows people to privately and publicly articulate and debate a welter of conflicting views."   How's that for social change?

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Have You Been Screw-gled Lately?

Greg sighed. He knew Google too well: Every time you visited a page with Google ads on it, or used Google maps or Google mail -- even if you sent mail to a Gmail account -- the company diligently collected your info. Recently, the site's search optimization software had begun using the data to tailor Web searches to individual users. It proved to be a revolutionary tool for advertisers. An authoritarian government would have other purposes in mind. (Scroogled, 2007).
Canadian writer Cory Doctorow is best known as the proponent of copyright laws that should be liberalized and allowed for free sharing of all digital media. Arguing that copyright holders should have a monopoly on selling their own digital media, he proposes that copyright laws need only come into play when someone attempts to sell a product currently under someone else's copyright.  How's that for digital democracy?

Doctorow is also a science-fiction writer, and a futurist.   In 2007, Doctorow penned a fascinating, but eerily nihilistic view of the Google-dominated universe.  Like the panopticon, Doctorow's short story, Scroogled, is about a world gone terribly astray, where every action parsed directly or indirectly by Google is effectively used to monitor our every action. 

Not surprisingly, there is a search engine that goes by this very title that  Scroogle, a site designed for those who don’t want Google tracking their searches back to them.  Disguising the Internet address of users who want to run Google searches anonymously, Scroogle is a web service that gives users the option of having all communication between their computer and the search page be SSL encrypted.

Think about it: Google can keep your searches on record for up to a year and a half.  It's said that if you do not want a record of all your searches in storage, then using Scroogle's "scrapper" might be an effective method.

Are we living in a paranoid dimension here?   The librarian in me says that freedom of privacy and information is of course central to a democratic society.   Think about it: Google does have an enormous influence on us, although we are only subtly aware of it:

1.  Societal Influence - It has been a mental influence on people that if your search is not found on google it does not exist.  In fact, if it's not ranked highly, it isn't important.  And if one Google yourself (which a lot probably do), it's a reflection of one's "importance" virtually and physically, too.  Think of all the resources that companies are exercising in raising their Google ranking. Think of all times you search for meaning and answers to life, all coming from Google search results.  If Google isn't a convenient magic eight ball, then what is?

2.  Street View - I must admit, I am an admirer of Google Street View, especially when I want to see places I haven't been before.  However, it has also been accused of taking pictures and coming too close inside people's private homes and people who walk down the street not knowing they are being watched on Google's service.   While they were at it, Google collected about 600 gigabytes of data from users of public WiFi stations (which are not owned by Google) during 2006-2010, including snippets of emails. 

3.  Politics - Being the world's largest company ultimately drags it into the political sphere, too.  Case in point: although Mainland China had already enforced by filters colloquially known as "The Great Firewall of China," search results were further filtered so as not to bring up any results concerning the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, or websites supporting the independence movements of Tibet and Taiwan, or the Falun Gong movement.  It wasn't until only recently after a clash with China that Google stepped out of placating the world power.   But is Google tempting fate as a multinational corporation?   I guess while we wait for the answer, we should at least give Scroogle a try.