Friday, May 28, 2010

Five Ancient Secrets to Modern Happiness!

The second talk I attended today, by Tamar Gendler, showed that most modern self-help books - and the famous Serenity Prayer - stem directly from Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Epictetus. I'm using these posts as a filing cabinet.

She talked about our "misattribution of preference" - we think we know why we like something, but actually we may not. For instance, boys at Cornell walking on a scary foot bridge across a chasm are more than twice as likely to call a girl who gives them her phone number as boys sitting safely on a bench. They attribute their heart-pounding excitement exclusively to the girl. This was also astounding to me:

Abstract from

Moniker Maladies: When Names Sabotage Success
by Leif Nelson and Joseph Simmons

In five studies, we [Nelson and Simmons] found that people like their names enough to unconsciously pursue consciously avoided outcomes that resemble their names.
  • Baseball players avoid strikeouts, but players whose names begin with the strikeout-signifying letter K strike out more than others (Study 1).
  • All students want As, but students whose names begin with letters associated with poorer performance (C and D) achieve lower grade point averages (GPAs) than do students whose names begin with A and B (Study 2), especially if they like their initials (Study 3).
  • Because lower GPAs lead to lesser graduate schools, students whose names begin with the letters C and D attend lower-ranked law schools than students whose names begin with A and B (Study 4).
  • Finally, in an experimental study, we manipulated congruence between participants’ initials and the labels of prizes and found that participants solve fewer anagrams when a consolation prize shares their first initial than when it does not (Study 5).
These findings provide striking evidence that unconsciously desiring negative name-resembling performance outcomes can insidiously undermine the more conscious pursuit of positive outcomes.

She also pointed us to this, saying that not only did the warm-coffee-cup holders experience others as being "warmer" people, but that they evaluated resumes positively twice as often!

Abstract from
Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth
by Lawrence E. Williams and John A. Bargh

"Warmth" is the most powerful personality trait in social judgment, and attachment theorists have stressed the importance of warm physical contact with caregivers during infancy for healthy relationships in adulthood. ... we hypothesized that experiences of physical warmth (or coldness) would increase feelings of interpersonal warmth (or coldness), without the person's awareness of this influence.

In study 1, participants who briefly held a cup of hot (versus iced) coffee judged a target person as having a "warmer" personality (generous, caring)

In study 2, participants holding a hot (versus cold) therapeutic pad were more likely to choose a gift for a friend instead of for themselves.

She mentioned the "cost of discord" - people struggling not to eat cookies put out on a plate in a room where they are asked to complete tasks give up much more quickly than those who are allowed to eat the cookies. Heh heh.

Getting into the prescriptive part of her talk, she brought up the idea my college boyfriend told me was Wittgenstein's: "We Are What We Pretend To Be." It really revolutionized my life. Here, from an earlier thinker...

Nichomachean Ethics
by Aristotle

Moral virtue comes about as a result of habit.

None of the moral virtues is engendered in us by nature...

The virtues we get by first exercising them. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

It is a matter of no little importance what sort of habits we form from the earliest age -- it makes a vast difference, or rather all the difference in the world.

First we must consider this fact: that it is in the nature of moral qualities that they are destroyed by deficiency and excess.

It is by refraining from pleasures that we become temperate, and it is when we have become temperate that we are most able to refrain from pleasures. Similarly with courage; it is by habituating ourselves to make light of alarming situations and to face them that we become brave, and it is when we have become brave that we shall be most able to face an alarming situation.

For happiness, have good friends...

Marcus Tullius Cicero: Friendship improves happiness and abates misery, by the doubling of our joy and the dividing of our grief.

Finally - something I've been working on for few years, without having the fancy words for it, advice from Epictetus: for happiness, cultivate ataraxia (peace of mind) and apatheia (freedom from destructive passions.

Respectfully submitted,


At 9:41 PM, Blogger Ezra said...


glad you're enjoying your college lite up in CT. Your beasts are all happy, though I'm sure they miss you.


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