Saturday, December 10, 2016

Inspirational Quote for December 10, 2016

“Years wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.”

Never give your enthusiasm for anything or anyone the opportunity to slip away! Keep a tight grip on it whatever happens as it’s one of your very best friends. It has served you well throughout your life and, just because you may be slathering on the anti-wrinkle cream at bedtime every night, doesn’t mean your enthusiasm needs to lessen. Believe you’re your enthusiasm is the anti-wrinkle cream for your soul, keep slathering it on and the results will continue to amaze you no matter how many wrinkles you have! The guarantee is on the box.


Mark Nepo: On Taking the Exquisite Risk

"Mark Nepo is a poet, philosopher, and spiritual teacher who is the author of numerous books and audio projects, including the New York Times bestseller The Book of Awakening. In this transcript of an episode of Insights at the Edge, Tami Simon has an intimate conversation with Mark about the two most important lessons he has learned from his journey with cancer, the role of effort and grace in our lives, what it means to take "the exquisite risk," and how we can shift our perspective to see with the eyes of the heart."

Friday, December 9, 2016

What Can Americans Dream Now?

By Jenara Nerenberg

We talk with Courtney Martin about building a future that prioritizes social connection and sharing over prosperity and ownership.

What does the good life look like in 21st century America?
Courtney MartinCourtney Martin
Is it still a single-family home and two cars, as it was for earlier generations? Or is there a “new better off” for millennials entering adulthood, one that emphasizes social connection and sharing over prosperity and ownership?
In The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, Courtney Martin explores the changing landscape of aspiration and community in the United States today, one shaped by co-working, freelance careers, co-housing, and social media.
Martin is an author, social entrepreneur, and weekly columnist for On Being, with two TED talks and five books under her belt. She lives with her family in Temescal Commons, a co-housing community in Oakland—an experience that inspired The New Better Off.
We talked with Martin about her new book—and the prospects for a healthy community and economy in a time of transition and unrest.
Jenara Nerenberg: How did you find the focus of this book?

Courtney Martin: It’s funny, because when I set out to write this book, I was thinking of it far more in terms of individual pursuit of success and how are we re-defining how we individually achieve the so-called American dream.
But as I reported, I kept coming back to this theme of re-focusing on a collective definition of success and quality of life in this so-called dream. In 2013 I found out I was pregnant with my daughter and my husband got a job offer in the bay area, and we decided to take the east to west coast plunge. And as I was doing it we had the incredible good fortune of knowing someone who was leaving a co-housing community in Oakland.
So without really knowing what the arc of this book would be—we ultimately both ended up freelancing, moving into this co-housing community, having kids, seeking out co-working communities and collaborators that were outside the traditional workplace norms. So it really was a process of both reporting and writing the book but also living my own way into these answers in real time. So it’s political but also deeply personal for me.
JN: Is it actually a form of privilege, being able to piece together a freelance lifestyle in what some people call the “gig economy”? That might not be available to some people who don’t have a financial padding or supportive partner.

CM: Yes, one of the things I wish I could have handled differently is the chapter on money. The discussion around the $75,000 happiness plateau doesn’t take into account having a safety net. I think having a safety net and coming from privilege does impact being able to handle a freelance life. The hard part about it that doesn’t make it so cut and dry is that a lot of “traditional 9-5” jobs are also not that dependable either. There’s often no reliable schedule, no benefits, no unions. I don’t think traditional jobs have ever been so insecure, so the contrast is getting smaller and smaller.
JN: I feel like this book was really written for younger millennials, those who are just at the brink of thinking about their futures in terms of love, family, work, and spirituality. Did you have millennials in mind? What is your advice to them?

CM: I do think I wrote with a millennial audience in mind. There was a moment in writing this book when I wrote a letter to a 26-year-old friend, trying to figure out my voice and re-claim what I was trying to say, because she is my audience.
The funny thing is that since publishing, many millennials have told me they are buying the book for their parents because they feel it explains to their parents what they are doing and why they’re doing it in a way that they can’t. Parents are worried their children are making crazy choices–like super-involved fathers staying home or freelance careers—so it’s much easier to have a third party explain choices to parents, and I think the book is becoming a proxy for that.
In terms of advice, I would tell millennials to invest time in their relationships. The truth is those 22-year-old peers grow up to have influence, and professionally those relationships can create opportunities. Genuine networks—people you feel are actually invested in you—are way more important than figuring out exactly what you’re going to do.
JN: Do they have any models for that kind of life?

CM: My not-so-covert chapter about work-life balance for fathers looked at the old model of leadership where everything gets sacrificed for work. We don’t do a great job of highlighting models where passionate work and commitment to family are both present. A lot of millennials are rebelling against that. People feel repelled by those sacrifices.
The truth is that economically we don’t have the policies set up to have work-life balance and it’s also in our culture. We worship at the feet of people who over-work. So what does it look like to collectively shift that, rather than chalk that up to individual people? I think it’s an unfinished shift and a lot of people are living into that right now.
JN: What’s catching your attention now, since the publishing of the book?

CM: One very obvious thing for me is what I call “the conversation under the conversation” that’s happening under the election—there’s so much rhetoric about the American dream and what it means and what Americans are promised. On a deep level, I think what voters are trying to understand is that they’re looking at their own lives and wondering, “Is this the life I was promised? Is the country supporting my best quality of life?” And I think a lot of people feel like it isn’t—and for good reason.
That’s leading to a lot of fear and blaming—and so for me that means how to re-structure the policies in this country so they actually do support people to live their best lives. But let’s also question the cultural narrative around what the best life means in America. Maybe it’s not getting rich like Trump. Does it look like he’s living the best quality of life for a human being? Not from my perspective.
So it’s interesting to be watching this election and think about how my book speaks to a lot of the things that are ultimately not being said by either candidate, because they’re below the surface—below the level of rhetoric.
JN: What research or insights that you came across make you the most hopeful or optimistic about our future?

CM: Living in co-housing has led me to do more research on this way of living—in a formal respect, with people owning their own homes and sharing common areas like kitchen, garden toolshed—and it shows that it helps on all these different fronts, especially America’s most pressing problems, like lack of care and housing options for our aging population, and for working families who are both psychologically and financially stretched.
For me that’s exciting—though this setup is still rare—but it does make me more hopeful and it seems like co-housing is the thing that people are really responding to with such enthusiasm in terms of the book and my TED Talk. People are really seeking out different ways of living, so it’s just a matter of keeping up the supply with the demand.

Would the World Be Better Off without Empathy?

By Jill Suttie

Paul Bloom’s controversial book Against Empathy mixes valid points with misguided critiques.

Some weeks ago, I sat down in my local coffee shop to begin reading Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. A man sitting at a nearby table pointed to my book with a look of incredulity and said, “What’s that about? Sounds awful.”
I’m sure others may have the same reaction based on the title alone. But Bloom’s book is a bit more nuanced than his title suggests. Looking through years of research on empathy, he has come to the conclusion that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. “From a moral standpoint, we’re better off without it,” he writes.
It’s an interesting premise. The idea that empathy is a problem rather than a solution to social ills flies in the face of public opinion as well as the work of many researchers. But Bloom insists that “the problems we face as a society and as individuals are rarely due to a lack of empathy. Actually, they are often due to too much of it.”
His book makes for an engaging, and somewhat enlightening, tour of the research in this area. But the book falls short in its case against empathy. 

What’s wrong with empathy?

Empathy is biased—we care more about certain people who are close to us, both proximally and emotionally, says Bloom—and it leads us to seek short-sighted rather than long-term solutions to problems.
Compare the public’s reaction to the Sandy Hook massacre, where many empathized with the parents of the dead children, to the public’s reaction to everyday murders in Chicago and other urban settings, which often pass with barely a nod. This disconnect between our emotional responses to unusual events versus everyday violence may lead us to make wrong-headed suggestions for how to cope with gun violence, says Bloom.
He outlines several research studies that show empathy can lead to bad outcomes. For example, in a study by Daniel Batson and colleagues, participants who were induced to feel concern for a terminally ill child were more likely to put her above other children on a waiting list for receiving care than participants who were told to take an objective perspective toward the child.
“Empathy’s effects…weren’t in the direction of increasing justice. Rather, they increased special concern for the target of empathy, despite the cost to others,” writes Bloom.
Empathy is also immune to numbers, he argues, so that we may feel more empathy for one suffering person than we will for many. Empathy has too narrow a focus, says Bloom, and doesn’t help us when we need long-term solutions to social problems that may hurt some people but are better for the greater whole.
Instead of empathy, Bloom believes that “self-control and intelligence and a more diffuse compassion” are the answer. He points to people who fight for climate change, not because of an empathic connection with anyone in particular, but because of their concern for the lives of humans in general and the world at large. This is an astute observation about the importance of compassion, and one I agree gives us more reason to promote compassion. But I’m not sure it’s a solid case against empathy.

What is empathy, anyway?

To illustrate why empathy isn’t needed, Bloom argues that most people would come to the aid of a child reacting with fear to a barking dog whether or not they empathized with the child. But this seems a poor example: Understanding the child’s emotional state is exactly how you know she is afraid rather than simply playing with the dog.
This gets to the crux of the book’s problem: Bloom’s definition of empathy—“the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does.” This definition doesn’t jive with the common view of empathy, which is not just about resonating with others emotionally but more about understanding their emotions and viewpoints. And it doesn’t really jive with that of researchers, either, who tend to parse out different aspects of empathy, especially in relation to moral decision-making.
I think Bloom makes a firm case that emotional resonance—or feeling what someone else is feeling—is not always good. Research suggests that feeling distress when others are suffering can impede performance, reduce the desire to help, and lead to burnout, which is antithetical to altruism. Conflating empathy with emotional distress, though, when researchers consider them distinct processes that have different impacts on altruism, is very confusing.
This is why researchers often tease out different aspects of empathy, showing how empathy can be affective and cognitive, trainable and spontaneous, and conducive and not conducive to moral action. Whether or not your emotional resonance, in particular, is a good thing depends on your self-awareness, how well you manage your emotions, and your stress levels. Many of the people Bloom cites as supporters of his views—like Jean Decety, Joshua Greene, and Jamil Zaki—would never suggest foregoing empathy, not even empathy in the sense of emotional resonance.

Can we turn off empathy?

For a moment, let’s grant Bloom’s argument that affective empathy is a bad thing. It still seems foolish to argue against a response to suffering that is clearly ingrained within us. By suggesting that we can run a campaign against empathy as though it were strictly under our cognitive control, he loses credibility—especially since many of his examples just prove the opposite.

Bloom comes closer to the heart of the issue when we writes, “I believe our emotional nature has been oversold.” Perhaps so. It’s misguided to make a decision based on what we “feel” is the right thing to do when it clearly hurts those around us. We certainly need to consider the biases that empathy may be subject to and take pains to counteract them so that we can make wiser decisions.
But we can’t simply turn empathy off. And if we could, we’d lose the positive aspects that even Bloom seems to recognize. “I don’t doubt that it [empathy] can be strategically used to motivate people to do good things,” he writes—not to mention that positive emotional resonance helps us to experience another’s joy and even to feel closer in relationships.
The key isn’t to get rid of empathy. But we do need to learn to pay more attention to it and to understand how it drives our behavior, some of which Bloom describes in his book. In that way, we can take the necessary steps to counteract negative influences—perhaps through expanding our circle of care, learning emotional self-control, learning how to read others’ emotions, examining bias in ourselves, and maybe even practicing rational compassion, as Joshua Greene and others have argued.
Against Empathy would definitely be more compelling if it weren’t framed as a polemic. Some of Bloom’s points are thoughtful and convincing, and I agree with his arguments concerning moral decision-making when he suggests we need greater compassion for others, more kindness, and increased self-regulation—all of which can be taught and that research suggests can help improve well-being and social interactions.
But I think Bloom is fighting the wrong demon here. Empathy isn’t the problem; lack of self-awareness and emotional regulation are the problem. Interestingly, Bloom seems to demonstrate self-awareness when he admits, “I’m only human, so it’s probably true that this book contains weak arguments, cherry-picked data, sneaky rhetorical moves, and unfair representations of those I disagree with.”

Sadly, I have to agree with him there.

Is Your Empathy Determined by Your Genes?

By Summer Allen

A new study of twins explores where empathy comes from: nature or nurture?

In this divided world, there is a growing interest in cultivating empathy—in populations ranging from preschoolers to police officers. And for good reason: Studies suggest that, besides increasing kind and helpful behavior and making the world a better place to live, empathy contributes to our relationships and career success.
But where does empathy come from? Is it mostly taught by parents, teachers, and community? Or is it an innate personality trait determined by genetics?

A recent study, conducted by Martin Melchers of the University of Bonn, Elisabeth Hahn of Saarland University, and colleagues and published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, sought to answer these questions. By using multiple ways of measuring empathy in 742 twins and adult siblings, the study provides some new insights into empathy’s origins.

Previous studies on this subject have had mixed results, with estimates for the heritability of empathy ranging from 0 to 70 percent, depending on the participants who were included and the methods used. If a trait is 0 percent heritable, that means that differences in that trait are due solely to environmental differences—the influence of so-called “nurture.” If a trait is 100 percent heritable, that means that all differences observed in that trait across a population can be attributed to genetic variation.
Observational studies of very young children found low estimates of heritability, and these estimates varied depending on the children’s ages. Studies in adults, which have mostly relied on participants reporting their own empathy levels, have produced similarly disparate results, with estimates of the heritability of empathy ranging from 28 to 72 percent.
The study by Melcher, Hahn, and colleagues was the first to address the concern that participants don’t rate their own empathy accurately, by combining self-report surveys with the results from a behavioral empathy test. Specifically, the researchers looked at the heritability of two different subcomponents of empathy: affective empathy, or a person’s ability to feel what someone else is feeling, and cognitive empathy, or a person’s ability to understand another person’s feelings and reasoning.
To do this, Melchers and colleagues compared the similarity in empathy levels between identical twin pairs, who are virtually genetically identical, to the similarity between fraternal twins and other sibling pairs, who are expected to share about half of their genetic background. This way, the researchers were able to determine the extent to which individual differences in empathy are likely due to inherited genetic factors rather than environmental ones. 

To quantify the participants’ affective and cognitive empathy levels, the researchers asked them to answer a questionnaire and take the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test, which measures the ability to recognize emotions from faces. Based on the results of these tests, Melcher and colleagues estimate that affective empathy is between 52-57 percent heritable, whereas cognitive empathy is less determined by genetics—about 27 percent heritable, presumably influenced more by environment and learning experiences.
These results are relevant to empathy training programs, the authors note, such as those offered to people with autism, to patients with conduct problems, and to prevent bullying in schools.
“These trainings often try to enhance participants’ ability for perspective taking, following the idea that better abilities in this domain may lead to empathic concern/affective empathy,” write the researchers. Yet differences in the success of this training might be due in part to the heritability of affective empathy, they note—as some people may be more genetically hardwired to feel the emotions of others before even starting such a program.
There are some limitations to this study. For one, it doesn’t tell us about the role of gender in the heritability of empathy. Past studies have found evidence of gender differences, including differences in the neural networks activated by empathy. Another unknown is how exactly measurements of the heritability of empathy might be affected by age—previous studies have found that the heritability of other traits, such as cognitive ability, shows up more strongly in older people. Future studies that measure the heritability of empathy across development might help answer these open questions.

Does Self-Compassion Make You Selfish?

By Jill Suttie

A new study suggests that self-compassion makes you hold yourself to a higher standard of morality.

I’m probably not alone when I say that I sometimes balk at the idea of self-compassion. I know that researchers have linked it to many positive outcomes, like less stress, increased well-being, and improved relationships. But I find the idea of directing kindness, understanding, and forgiveness toward myself to be a dubious proposition. Isn’t self-compassion just a way of letting yourself off the hook when you did something hurtful or unethical?
Actually, it appears that the opposite may be true.
In a recently published study, researchers in China looked at how self-compassion relates to how people judge their own moral transgressions. Chinese university students imagined themselves engaging in morally wrong behavior—like breaking traffic rules, keeping money from a found wallet, or plagiarizing for a test—and then rated how acceptable the behavior was on a scale of 1-9.
The students also filled out a self-compassion questionnaire that measured how much they respond to perceived flaws in themselves by being kind to themselves (versus self-judging), by recognizing that everyone is flawed (versus feeling isolated or alone), and by being mindful and accepting of their flaws (versus over-identifying with them).
Analyzing the results, the researchers found that the more self-compassionate the students were, the less acceptable they rated the moral transgressions. However, since this study involved a hypothetical scenario and couldn’t prove that self-compassion leads to higher moral standards, the researchers conducted a second, experimental study to further investigate the connection.
Participants (primarily Americans) were asked to choose between one of two tasks—either an easy, fun one or a difficult, boring one—after being told the other task would be assigned to an unknown fellow participant. Those who chose the easier task for themselves were then selected to continue with the study.
These participants were randomly assigned to either a self-compassion practice, in which they identified a weakness of theirs and wrote about it in a caring, compassionate, understanding way, or to a control practice, in which they wrote about a hobby. Afterward, they reported their mood (positive or negative), as well as their levels of anger, guilt, and envy—emotions that have been found to impact moral judgment.
The participants then rated how fair and acceptable it was for them to have assigned themselves the easier task in the first part of the experiment. The researchers found that those in the self-compassion group saw their selfish behavior as significantly less acceptable than those in the control group. Mood and other emotions had no impact on the relationship between self-compassion and moral self-evaluation.
Again, self-compassion seemed to increase rather than decrease people’s willingness to take responsibility for misbehavior. “Our findings demonstrate that higher self-compassionate people endorse harsher moral judgment of themselves and accept their own moral violations less,” the authors write.
Self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff, from the University of Texas, Austin, says these dovetail with prior research.
“It fits with findings that self-compassion is negatively correlated with guilt-free shame (‘I am bad’) but uncorrelated with shame-free guilt (‘what I did was bad’),” she says. “There’s a lot of research—like that of Mike Leery and Juliana Breines—showing that people take more responsibility for their transgressions when they practice self-compassion.”
Why would this be? It seems counterintuitive, but past research has found that self-compassionate people tend to have a more stable sense of self-worth, and so they feel less threatened when considering their own shortcomings. This allows them to admit more readily that they’ve done something wrong and to consider making amends.
“If you’re afraid you’ll be shamed or really self-critical for admitting to doing something wrong, there’s going to be more motivation for ego-centric reactions,” says Neff. “Self-compassion gives you more ability to see your mistakes clearly, rather than trying to blame them on someone else or fob them off as not that big a deal.”
It’s also possible that self-compassion impacts moral judgment and behavior directly, according to the study authors. They point to a recent study in which white students who were manipulated to feel self-compassion were more likely to engage in activities promoting racial justice, suggesting that self-compassion may increase caring and adherence to fairness principles.
It’s noteworthy that two different groups studied—one Western and one Eastern—showed similar results, building upon prior research that suggests self-compassion might be helpful for people from divergent cultural backgrounds.
The good news for those of us who aren’t naturally self-compassionate is that we can learn techniques for self-compassion and still benefit from a host of positive outcomes. And we won’t be letting ourselves off the hook, either.

Inspirational Quote for December 9, 2016

“The World is changed by your example, not by your opinion.”

Of course it is, we all know this don’t we? That’s why we all strive to be the best we can be in this troubled world of ours. Being the diverse human beings we are, naturally we all hold different opinions on everything and everyone. That’s just the way it is. However, wouldn’t it be absolutely amazing if the one thing we could ALL agree on was just to be the decent, tolerant, truthful, compassionate, people we are meant to be. Realizing that being prepared to put our differences aside and work together will encourage others who follow us to do the same. What a wonderful world this could be, if only……