Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘out of the box’

“Happy New Year!” We wish it to each other, in many languages, in a form or another at the beginning of every year. Around the same time, millions of us also make personal resolutions (set goals for the year), possibly in an effort to enhance our happiness… This seems a good time of the year and reason for all of us to ponder – again – on the subject of “what is happiness?” At the beginning of last year we investigated it, mostly in relation to one’s work parameters, w/specific data about science-intensive work places, but also suggested general themes (“Where do you find ‘happy scientists’? and what makes them feel that way?”)

One possible immediate reaction to this question is to just dismiss it: why bother? Happiness is hard to define, or very personal (we may all define and experience it differently); however, should you agree the answers might help us better understand ourselves and others and set goals to enable our constant progress toward happiness, here is a selection of insights from the candid responses brought back by an amateur international team who participated in a year-long field exploration of “what makes people happy around the world”, to the “expert opinions” on the nature of happiness from scientists, psychologists, economists, and Buddhists. Please feel free to add your own.

Macro photograph of coca cola bubbles (image via Wikipedia)

The 3 young “happiness ambassadors” comprising the international team of the “206 expedition” just returned from a year-long field research into the subject of “what makes people happy around the world”. Despite their initial plan, they actually only visited 186 of the 206 countries where people drink Coca Cola, the project sponsor (by the way, no relation to me, I do not drink Coca or any other cola). Nonetheless they had traveled 273,204 miles to collect a large sample of international opinions and brought back many of their own new impressions. What I thought was very powerful was their conclusion that around the worldPeople definitely have more things in common than differences”, also demonstrated by the sharing of main reasons to be happy worldwide:Family and friends, food, sports, music, health”. Interestingly, money was only mentioned as important if it enabled people to travel more or spend more time with friends and family. To watch various testimonials collected all over the world see here. Among other impressions solicited during the interview, Guy Kawasaki also asked the question: “Which country has the best looking women?” The 206 expedition team offered the following verdict: “The eastern European countries definitely have some of the best women in the world.” May I suggest finishing reading this post before booking a trip?

The more money does not make one happier message is consistent with the “Easterlin’s paradox”, formulated by Richard Easterlin, a professor of economics, based on data collected from several dozen countries. This theory is not without opponents. Says sagely my main economic advisor (my son) “economics is not an exact science” (gasp!): ”one can always collect and analyze the data in ways that will support their personal beliefs.”

Happy Mattieu Ricard

Some refer to Matthieu Ricard as the “happiest man in the world” – apparently a scientific classification based on results of intensive brain clinical testing performed at the U of Wisconsin. He is actually a molecular biologist (Ph.D.) from Pasteur Institute, later turned Buddhist monk. Ricard says happiness is “life’s most important skill” so we all have to attempt to understand and define it and, thanks to our brain’s plasticity, we can all work to attain it or increase it further by training our brain to be happy– see his TED talk (funny Ricard should start it by mentioning a Coca Cola team being present on top of Everest, as evidence of globalization – a nowadays version of “shared experiences?”). He teaches us that happiness comes from inner serenity. Anger, jealousy, hated, or obsessive desire are detrimental to our and others happiness. Ricard illustrates the danger of basing our happiness on fleeting pleasures by reminding us that even the best things at some point lose their ability to make us happy, e.g., the first serving of chocolate cake is delicious, the second “no so much, the third is disgusting.” OK, that specific number may be debatable for some, but we can all get the point. Instead of focusing on the object of our positive or negative emotions, which result in reinforcing these every time, he advises we should instead focus on the emotion itself. Just like a menacing storm cloud when seen from up close, anger will prove to be just mist…

Possible option

Also mentioning chocolate’s relation to our happiness, Dan Gilbert, a professor of psychology from Harvard is “Exploring the frontiers of happiness” in another TED talk. In a simple experiment looking at perceptions of happiness, scientists gave subjects a bag of chips and asked them if they will be happy to eat them one minute later. They were, unless a box of chocolates was also in sight. So, while the intrinsic value of the chips, their taste or availability, did not change, their desirability – hence their ability to make those who were about to eat them happy – was eroded through the simplecomparison with the possible” (the subjects were not actually offered the option to eat some of those chocolates).  As Ricard had pointed out, this experiment also illustrated the relativity of the happiness based on appreciation of an object of desire. Furthermore, Gilbert says we are generally happier when we are not given the option to take a decision/change our mind (i.e., when we are stuck with a specific option), because we manage to convince ourselves that’s what we actually wanted, something he calls “synthetic happiness”. He describes it as a sort of “psychological immune system” we all have, which allows us to adapt to the environment, i.e., like what we have. See another talk where he elaborated on this notion. I can see where this phenomenon may explain a range of synthetic happiness in personal and collective situations when people are unaware of other potential options.

Less is more

On the relation between free choice and happiness, Barry Schwartz, another psychologist, also illustrates why having too many choices does not actually make us happier (The paradox of choice”). In such cases he says, facing the need to take decisions we get analysis paralysis. Schwartz states this is mostly a problem of affluent societies, “we don’t have freedom of choice, we have paralysis” (of decisions). Then, when comparing many options it’s easy to see all the attractive features of those we didn’t chose, and most times we end up regretting our choice and hence being less happy. Sounds very apropos to the current state of the health care bill? It seemed to me that this applies with a couple of major caveats: a) one should not know any better (indicated by Gilbert), b) one should be indecisive or risk-adverse. There is a reason for which some are leaders and the others are happy to follow. According to Barry Schwartz, the secret of happiness is to “Lower expectations.”  I’d add: if you can’t make a decision, be happy with what someone else you trust had decided for you! In any case, the conclusion of all these potential comparison studies reminded me of the old song: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you are with”… Is visiting former Eastern bloc countries still one of your 2011 resolutions?

Ok, getting us thinking about the subject of choices and decisions that can make us happy seems a good pause point and a premise for a future post of New Year resolutions.

What makes you happy?

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Our educational journeys, when and where (in its most general sense) did we start them and where through these have taken us, have a lot to do with “where we are coming from” (i.e., our current perspective and approach to things). Multiple personal and cultural anthropological factors influence our formation as individuals. To keep on my previous post’s train of thought, I will refer specifically to issue regarding the exam type choices.

My own early educational experiences (I was initially trained as a physicist) did not include multiple choice questions exams. Quite frankly, it was probably the main factor that allowed me to survive the rather arduous process to emerge with scientific credentials. I became familiar with the multiple choice exams afterward during my North American education in the life sciences and medicine. As I concentrated on unraveling the intricacies of the human body I thought  the years I had spent resolving differential equations modeling inanimate matter behavior might have been a huge waste. Yet, I finally realized the real value of a training gained through examinations of abilities based on a combination of writing essay, solving new problems, and oral (“free style”) exams, requiring us to understand fundamental principles and to use them to continuously deduct or construct solutions on the spot. These had armed us with a system for thinking through any kind of problem. We also had to develop the ability to clearly (and efficiently) explain in words our thinking process and interact live with our examiners, which further encourages (forces?) cultivation of our creative side. I now credit my initial training for the ease of doing well later on my multiple choice tests. On the other hand, I am pretty convinced that, personally, I would have had trouble passing as successfully through a reversed sequence of exam styles.

One instance when the realization of the likely impact of differences in educational and selection systems finally struck home not too long ago. While attending a professional session aimed at assessing personality profiles, I turned out to be the only “creative” out of a group of 20+ scientifically trained people. The most surprising to me was my colleagues’ reaction: “How can you possibly be creative? You are a scientist!” (?!?) Furthermore, corporate HR guidelines recommend that people with my profile work in the sales or marketing divisions rather than in R&D. One cannot but wonder: are the current education and selection systems working to most efficiently filter out all the creatives from the scientific and technical fields?!? Likely! Furthermore, is the common work environment placing people into boxes, force fitting or even rejecting the ones who are different or refuse to fill predefined boxes? Would this be expected to have an impact on our overall ability to innovate? I would love to hear other opinions…

My hypothesis, that not only the field of education but also the place of education plays an important role in our predisposition to innovation, has been confirmed by many conversations with other foreign-trained individuals. Besides the many obvious ethnical differences that influence our formation in general, many of the foreign-trained individuals are the product of different educational systems where the multiple choice selection does not reign supreme, thus were not filtered out tightly by its use. Other differences are likely to put their mark. For instance, individuals might have also been trained to think more broadly.

Times also put their mark on the issue. The younger generations, currently using mostly keyboards to communicate, are likely to erode the domination of either side, allowing an increased use of both sides of our brains: the end of the lopsided – or maybe lobe-sided – “left brain-right hand” era”? We all, regardless of age, are increasingly using new learning, communication, and cooperation channels, a phenomenon which I think is majorly responsible for the definite surge in the interest toward understanding global issues and wide open cooperation. Take for instance the “crowd-sourcing” phenomenon, which allows a wide variety of people to jump at the chance to solve problems, including some that normally would not be presented to them, because they do not have the credentials normally qualifying them as “specialists”. Due to the broad availability of knowledge on the Internet, what one needs to be able to do is not to remember information, but be able to use it in a constructive way. Technically speaking, the only relevant product of the educational system should be developing reasoning skills and knowledge management skills, finally releasing us from our current hang-up on possessing factual domain knowledge, and the definition of ability based on narrowly classified specialties or specific degrees. We could then step into the brave new era of creative problem solving.

 

Addendum. As I was writing this entry, the following joke was landing into my e-mail box… (seemed to hit too close to let it drop).

“During a physics lecture to the pre-med class, the professor was explaining a particularly complicated concept. A student interrupted him:

‘Why do we have to learn this physics stuff?’

The professor responded: ‘To save lives!’ and he continued his lecture.

After just a few moments the student interrupted again. ‘So how does physics save lives?’

The professor intently stared at the student. After a long silence, he said: ‘Physics saves lives because it prevents certain people from getting into the medical school.'”

Read Full Post »

For no apparent reason, I recently remembered an odd thing from my childhood. One of my earliest memories is looking down in disbelief at my left hand, and wondering why everybody seemed to think that it was not as good as my right hand… I could not write yet, but I already knew that I was going to have to use my right hand for that purpose as well. There was no negotiation about it, I had been disciplined that the right hand was the only hand to eat with, to write with, to shake other right hands with. Even so, I kept coming back to my original question: why did nobody want to give my left hand a chance, why was everybody discriminating against it? I can remember the moment when I decided I that I would become a secret supporter of my left hand: I would comfort it when all the important assignments went to my right hand and then I would give it a chance to try them when nobody else was around. As I grew older, I realized that in several languages the word “right” was used to not only designate one of the sides, but to specifically indicate the correct or positive side, while the word “left” in many languages suggests something inapt, unlucky, even designates a strongly negative trait. For instance the Italians use “sinistra” (for left) from the Latin sinistr-, or sinister, unlucky, inauspicious.  How did it get to this point, but more importantly how does this predetermined, negative view of one of the two sides consciously or subconsciously affect the way we place judgments when it comes to anything that can be specifically related to one of the sides: of our body (our hand, our brain) or our thinking and actions? Is there a wrong way to think or do things? Why “take sides” anyway?

My secret persistent support for my left hand proved to be extremely useful to me several years later. My right hand had to be immobilized for a few months in a cast from its finger tips to the shoulder, after a basketball accident during my high school freshman year. I had to take a bunch of exams during that time, none of them a multiple choice test… My somewhat prepared left hand, emerged from its previous anonymity to legitimately take over the task of writing my exam essays, allowing me to not miss a beat. Even later, I learned that the left side of our body is controlled by the right side of our brain, which also happens to the center of our creativity, the one with the capacity to discern patterns, and make new connections. This further made me wonder: is the widely supported predominance of the right hand leading to a supremacy of the left brain thinking patterns?

Why am I writing about this? The constructive interference of my old memory, which couples my willingness to make use of my left hand (widely considered substandard) to write exam essays (right brain?), is now finally starting to make sense to me… Moving later in my educational journey to North America, I had briefly considered now and again the potential implications of the over-reliance of this educational system on the multiple choice type tests. I am not referring to the problems created by poorly written questions (e.g., ambiguous, or too obvious). I am questioning the reign of the principle itself: the correct solution has to come from a pre-set collection of choices, all provided for the picking. Do the multiple choice tests adequately measure the right brain creative problem solving ability? Maybe if you had forgotten or maybe never learned the correct answer, and you had to figure it out? Could be, but as many readily available materials, some displayed by websites, will eagerly teach you, the intellectual effort of finding the correct answer should focus on finding a fault in the question or the potential answer formulation, rather than on trying to find the answer based on making logical connections with the learned material or attempting to build a solution from scratch. One is advised to analyze the mismatch of the “superficial” features, e.g., does the answer match the grammatical construction of the question, or to consider whether some answer is just a decoy based on being overly restrictive or too different (or maybe appears to use jargon!!!) Yet another suggested technique is to basically game the system, either by literally using game theory reasoning (Ian Ayres writes: “Game theory is so powerful it can help you figure out the correct answer without even knowing what the question is.”) or to mindlessly select random answers which might just turn out to be right one and will bring you points. On other tests there is also some gain for leaving all blank answers or sometimes no penalty for giving the wrong answer…

What are the advantages and disadvantages of the “Multiple choice” examination system? The related entry from Wikipedia indicates that the main advantage compared to soliciting written answers is “a more comprehensive evaluation of the candidate’s extent of knowledge” (in the same amount of time).  I.e., the multiple choice test is convenient to administer and grade, and say some students easy to take. On the flip side, the consensus seems to be that the main disadvantages are losing some credits for partial answers or gaining some credit for random guesses. Personally I think that operating based on these principles and selecting year after year students mostly based on this type of test creates an enormous loss of an entirely different order of magnitude: the test does not teach the students to consider the possibility that… there just might be another/new, potentially better solution! Creativity and the creative don’t stand a chance! I am referring to people who might be able to “build” the correct answer, whether it might be the one known to the examiners as being the correct one or maybe a completely new answer. These people are weeded out of the system early or retrained to think in terms of memorizing pre-set answers, to find fault in the superficial formulation of the question or the answer, or simply to become champions at gaming the system. Along the way we lose the ability to assess and stimulate a lot of qualities that include organizing, processing, and articulating information and thoughts, and the ability to think outside of the box (literally, outside of those A, B, C, D choices). This post is getting too long, so I plan to come back with some considerations of the interplay between education/selection systems, fields of training, geography and potential generational differences.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: