a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

How to keep that 2012 New Year’s resolution

Posted on the December 28th, 2011

Human routines are stubborn things, which helps explain why 88% of all resolutions end in failure, according to a 2007 survey of over 3,000 people conducted by the British psychologist Richard Wiseman. (Wall Street Journal, 2009)

New Year’s Day:  Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions.  Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.  ~Mark Twain (quotegarden.com)


Notwithstanding the dismal prognosis of the first quote above, and the blackly humorous perspective of the second one, I will be making a couple of resolutions when I raise my glass of spumante in a New Year’s toast a couple of days from now. And I suspect in doing so I will be among the majority in the Western world.

Old habits die hard, you  might say. And that is one of the points of the Wall Street Journal article, excerpted above. In particular the article recounts some recent studies about will power. And in spite of its gloomy opening paragraph, the report also offers some hope.

In effect, it’s not that there are superhumans among us who simply have amazing will power, it’s that these humans seem super because they’ve learned how to cleverly manage the same meager will power we all share. The research the WSJ cites shines a light on how that’s done. And the good news is that anyone can do it.

To read that good news, read the full article here (it’s short).

I also unearthed a one-minute video on how to keep our resolutions by the psychologist Richard Wiseman quoted in the WSJ article. Click on the screenshot below to watch it.

And I leave you with a dash of optimism from Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Ellen Goodman, who probably knows a bit about will power.

We spend January 1 walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched.  Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives… not looking for flaws, but for potential.

Happy New Year, or as they say in my part of the world… Buon Anno!

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SPECK ‘N U: 9 (C.G. Jung and feminism)

Posted on the May 6th, 2011

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SPECK ‘N U:8 (C.G. Jung and feminism)

Posted on the April 14th, 2011

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So meanies are not the “fittest”? Dacher Keltner says no, they’re not.

Posted on the January 31st, 2009

If you want to excel in the biggest game of all  — life itself — your best chance is to be kind, according to UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner. And he should know, as one of his primary research areas is a focus on the biological and evolutionary origins of human goodness.

In a recent essay “From Darwin and Confucius: More Jen in the New Year” for Powell’s Books, Keltner wrote about his wish for the new year:

Jen is the central idea in the teachings of Confucius. Jen refers to a complex mixture of kindness, humanity, and respect that transpires between people.

In his own research, Keltner says he has discovered that the belief that many have that human beings are inherently greedy, competitive and violent is wrong. He goes on to explain how the ancient writings of Confucius about jen are supported by the research of Charles Darwin:

The deep story to the science of jen traces back to two of Charles Darwin’s less well-known assertions about human nature. The first is that our capacities for sympathy, play, appreciation, and fellow feeling are in fact the strongest of our species — survival of the kindest is a more apt description of our evolution than survival of the fittest. Insights from studies of our close primate relatives, the chimps and the bonobos, from archeological studies of hearths and hunting remains, and from hunter-gatherer cultures are corroborating Darwin’s early intuitions. We are learning that:

* We are a care-taking species. The profound vulnerability of our offspring rearranged our social organization as well as branches of our nervous system.
* We are a face-to-face species. We are remarkable in our capacity to empathize, to mimic, to mirror.
* Our power hierarchies differ from those of other species; power goes to the most emotionally intelligent.
* We reconcile our conflicts rather fleeing or killing; we have evolved powerful capacities to forgive.

The science of jen is founded on a second assertion of Darwin’s, unusual in western thought, that happier individuals and healthier communities — that is, those with high jen ratios — cultivate emotions like compassion, gratitude, awe, love, embarrassment, and mirth.

Keltner has written a newly-published book, “Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life,” in which he explores his findings on goodness. He talks briefly about the book in the video below:

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Prescriptions for imperfect minds from Gary F. Marcus

Posted on the April 24th, 2008

The human mind is not elegantly designed, according to New York University psychologist Gary F. Marcus, who is featured in a recent Q&A article (online) in Scientific American (“Infant Language and the Imperfect Human Mind,” April 23, 2008). Rather, he tells editor Jonah Lehrer, the mind is “a cobbled together contraption.”

Lehrer talks particularly to Marcus about his new book, “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind.” The final two questions were especially interesting:

LEHRER: Your book ends with a series of prescriptions for helping us make better use of our imperfect mind. Is there one prescription that you think is particularly important? Which piece of advice do you have the toughest time following?

MARCUS: The most important piece of advice might be the one that says, “Don’t just set goals, make specific contingencies plans”—good advice that follows from the studies of my colleague [psychologist] Peter Gollwitzer [of New York University]. It’s important because it’s the best band-aid we’ve got for dealing with one of the more problematic kluges in our evolution: the split between a set of really ancient brain mechanisms that tend to be short-sighted and automatic and a more modern set of “deliberative” mechanisms that do their best to take the long view. As a species, we humans are the only creature that’s smart enough to make long-term plans, but most of the time no matter how foresighted we might be, in the heat of the moment, our ancestral reflexive systems still tend to hold sway. By converting abstract goals (like a desire to lose weight) into specific if-then statements (e.g., “If I see the dessert menu, then I’ll sit on my hands and discuss the election rather than choosing a dessert”), we can trick the older systems into following the sometimes-wiser goals of our more modern deliberative systems.

The hardest one?…

Read more here.

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Virtual living: just playing dress-up, or more?

Posted on the January 8th, 2008

A peek at virtual living sites online, plus a deeper look at what it all means is offered in a recent video interview hosted by Ira Flatov, of ScienceFriday.com. Flatov talks to Sherry Turkle, director of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self. Turkle discusses some psychological aspects of living in virtual reality.

Also offering commentary in the video is Cory Ondrejka, former Chief Technology Officer at Linden Lab. Linden Lab created the popular Second Life virtual world website. Ondrejka talks about learning how to use virtual reality living as a way to communicate, and to connect more to the real world.

The video also features scenes from Flatov’s own visit to Second Life to meet listeners to his show.

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