Being present ain’t easy. Well not for humans — dogs and cats seem to manage it easily enough. Perhaps all the flaws that make us human also make it difficult to be present. Children manage best – they skip not because they are skipping over something, just because they want to skip.Resilience: Internal or External?
I have had frequent opportunities to reflect on US and European differences over recent years. For instance it is striking to me that much of the European work on resilience focuses on extrinsic factors: a wonderful grandparent is hugely valuable for the resilience of a bereaved child. In contrast, much of the US work emphasizes what individuals can do themselves (Reivich & Shatte, 2003). These points of view are not mutually exclusive, but the difference in balance is interesting.
There is clear evidence that European and US people have different responses to inequality as it effects their own subjective well-being (Alesina, Di Tella & MacCullough, 2001). It can be argued that this is because Europeans do not expect much change (if I am poor today I shall be poor tomorrow, I know my place), whereas US folk may more likely think that even if I am poor today I may be rich tomorrow.
Yet pragmatism, America’s great contribution to philosophy (and hugely relevant to applied positive psychology), behooves us to look at the result, not the theory. Moving forward in our globalized, modernized world these seem, to me at least, vital issues.
My own take is that for much of the last two centuries we have tended to pay attention to only one half of Adam Smith. The half that appears in the Wealth of Nations argues that economic progress depends on leaving markets (a-brim with individual goals) as free as possible.
The other half that appears in Theory of Moral Sentiments argues that social exchanges are at least as important as economic exchanges (and that we are innately bound to act altruistically). Theory of Moral Sentiments was Smith’s first book and also the one he spent the last 6 years of his life editing.
Richard Titmuss, a great British social scientist of the 20th century, latterly studied blood supply systems and presented the analysis that systems where blood was donated freely provided better quality blood than systems where blood donations were paid for (1997). Do we want societies in which people are sufficiently content that they will donate blood freely for others?
Avner Offer (2006), an Economic Historian at Oxford, wrote a book that is an interesting, if challenging read (emotionally not least his chapter on The Retreat from Commitment). His central argument is that affluence breeds impatience and impatience undermines well-being. Barry Schwartz (2007) wrote a great review in the London Review of Books.
So pause before springing. Listen to the February 17 edition of Poetry Please, a rare archive rare archive of WH Davies introducing (with interesting reference to strengths and flow) and reading his poem Leisure – with those famous lines:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
It takes courage to be present. To pause. To stand and stare.
Cats and dogs are experts. Children sadly have it hammered out of them.
The rest of us have spring – let’s use it.
Alesina, A., Di Tella, R., & MacCulloch, R. (2001). Inequality and happiness: Are Europeans and Americans different? NBER Working Paper No. 8198.
Avner, O. (2006). The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain since 1950, Oxford University Press.
Reivich, K, & Shattẻ, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.
Schwartz, B. (2007). Stop the treadmill! Review of Avner Offer’s The challenge of affluence. London Review of Books.
Titmuss, R. M. (1997). The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy (Expanded and Updated). The New Press.