Monday, 23 January 2017

Optimism and Love

Are We Biased about Love?

Recently I was interviewed by David Edmonds on my recent research project on optimism and the podcast of the interview is now available at Philosophy 24/7, a new series of philosophy podcasts on topics that interest all of us and are relevant to our daily lives.

The conversation starts from the results of psychological research showing that we are biased when we think about our relationships and make predictions about how long they will last and how satisfying they will be. Essentially, we are overly optimistic about the success of our relationships and discount evidence suggesting that divorce and separation are very common, holding on to the belief that our romantic partners have ideal qualities and that we will be with them for a long time, thoroughly enjoying our time together.

One question is whether this unrealistic optimism, which can be seen as an instance of irrationality given that we believe against the evidence, is beneficial or harmful to our relationships. Research presents somewhat conflicting results on the costs and benefits of optimism, but one influential view is that some moderate optimism is good for us, helping us cope more effectively with crises.

I hope you enjoy the interview!

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Swapping Arrows in the Heart of London

The London poverty map, produced by Charles Booth at the end of the nineteenth century, was an influential attempt to study the impact of socio-economic status – and, more generally, people's life conditions – on opportunities and wellbeing.

London Poverty Map, Charles Booth 1889

There are countries and contexts where poverty and war cause grave harm to individuals and communities. Their impact on health and wellbeing is devastating. But the link between the conditions of life and wellbeing is obviously not confined to extreme situations.

Social epidemiologists have provided much evidence for the claim that all the things that matter to us most have an impact on our health. This includes all the circumstances that shape our family lives, our work lives, and our opportunities for meaningful and egalitarian interactions with others, and for active participation in the various communities we belong to.

The social and political arrangements – and the public ethos and cultural contexts – that affect our life circumstances are therefore crucial. It is for this reason that it is possible and important to talk about the sociocultural and political determinants of health.

Anxiety, depression and similar conditions are increasingly common in affluent societies. The diffusion and promotion of competition-focused, hyper-individualistic, and narcissistic conceptions of success seems to be an important factor. The precariatization of the labour market in a labour-obsessed society is another important factor. And so is the erosion of collective forms of protection, which is due to changes in welfare regimes driven by demographic and social changes, but also by misconceptions about how to improve people's lives all over the world.

The world is changing fast, but despite the new technological tools we have at our disposal and their incredible productive power, the lives of many are becoming more insecure. And insecurity and wellbeing are incompatible.

Let me conclude this post with one story. The bushmen of the Kalahari desert swap arrows before they go hunting. Each hunter gives some of the arrows he has made to other hunters, in exchange for their arrows. Then they go hunting, and when the catch some game, the credit for the kill goes not to the person who killed the animal but to the person who made the arrow with which the animal was killed. In this way, because of all the swapping of arrows, sooner or later every hunter gets credit and gets praised for the successful hunt.

A mechanism like this ensures that all hunters feel they are an active part of the collective enterprise. It is also a way of reminding the strongest, most-skilled hunters or lucky hunters that they should not be boastful, or arrogant, or behave like bullies. Their success depends on the unity of the group and on the contribution and cooperation of everyone.

I like this story because it illustrates the importance of egalitarian relationships for individual wellbeing and for successful cooperation. Also, I like the idea of swapping arrows as a metaphor for how a successful research group should work. With this blog, we have started swapping arrows between ourselves and with some of our prospective collaborators. I look forward to swapping arrows with the various audiences we will interact with.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Building a Successful Team

At a roundtable event at the House of Lords earlier this week there was much talk about partnerships and sustainability. The topic was the use of museums to enhance health and wellbeing. An All Party Parliamentary group is currently undertaking an Arts, Health and Wellbeing Inquiry and the event sought to showcase museum projects and to stimulate discussion and debate.

The view from the stairwell
The House of Lords
Most of us would agree that publically-funded institutions ought to be vehicles of social justice, placing public engagement at the heart of their activities. In fact the Museums Association have just signed up to an ethical charter promoting the very same. Yet the reality is that many in our communities feel excluded from toff's palaces, Lord Lupton's term, not mine. In the awe-inspiring surrounds of the Lords, the idea of institutions such as the British Museum, the Royal Academy, the Tates et al, building partnerships with the socially, politically and economically excluded, seemed more than a little surreal. Still, feeling the weight of the establishment supporting the burgeoning field of arts, health and wellbeing felt cause for optimism.

I was inspired as ever by the wonderful Gillian Wolfe who talked eloquently about the importance of relationship-building in achieving sustainable partnerships. She compared this task to constructing successful human relationships; they need time, trust and commitment. She knows of what she speaks. For over 30 years she pioneered innovative programmes for those deemed marginalised and excluded at Dulwich Picture Gallery, advocating public engagement well before the term was common parlance.

As she stated on being awarded an honorary doctorate at Canterbury Christ Church University in 2014: 

"I've been very lucky to have had the freedom to create innovative routes to engage non-traditional audiences such as disaffected youth, those with mental and physical disability, the elderly and notably those suffering early stage dementia and their carers. They are all embraced in enhancing cultural experiences every day of the year. The reward is always seeing the delight and joy it brings."

In a similar way, building a successful interdisciplinary team has been challenging yet rewarding. The freedom to think big without the usual restraints and frameworks of academic life, e.g. the Research Excellence Framework (REF), student satisfaction surveys, etc. has been liberating and has facilitated innovative and ambitious plans. Yet it is a challenge to bring a group together, and to embrace the differences in disciplines, training, and life experiences.

Some of the key elements that have helped build the team are:

  • spending time together in different contexts - this has enabled us to bond, shape ourselves into a distinctive group, and has given us space, generating the energy needed to be creative
  • listening to, and learning from each other - this has led to many fascinating conversations taking place, generating new ideas and approaches
  • good leadership - this has involved attending to task and social elements - to keep the team on track, and to engender a sense of belonging
  • sharing ups and downs - as with any relationship, things don't always have an upward trajectory, and here humour and acceptance has been valuable, to sustain team spirit and to and to generate trust. 

This blog is one way that we have developed ideas, initiated conversations amongst core team members, collaborators and the wider community, and is a record of a successful team building.