Vale Ed Diener, Mr Happiness

Positive psychology 11.06.10Ed Diener, one of the best-known scholars of happiness died this week at the age of 76. He was known as Dr Happiness in the United States, well-known for his 7-item scale on wellbeing and his constant refrain that the secret to happiness is in warm social relations.

TraderFeed: When Doing More Means Achieving LessI met Ed a few years ago in Utah, where he was running a center on wellbeing, trying to keep the flame of wellbeing going in the United States. You would think that in a country that has “the pursuit of happiness” in its constitution, policy interest in happiness would be rife, but the opposite is true. People like Ed were very much needed and he worked tirelessly for the cause.

You can get the measure of Ed by looking at what he wrote in 2020, at the age of 75/76, a year before his death. Not only did he publish almost 20 studies with something like 30 different co-authors, but he also published on important questions. He documented how the Syrian civil war had dramatically reduced the wellbeing of its people. He gathered evidence on how it is the happier people that take up good causes more than unhappy people. He wrote on how volunteering helps people get over trauma and on how happiness improved later health. He still pushed questions of wellbeing methodology and of world-wide data, even writing on major outstanding questions in the field. In short, he died in the saddle.

Ed truly practiced what he preached, leaving behind very warm relations with both the academics and family he spent time with. Together with his wife Carol he raised many children and young scholars, who were all infected with the idea that emotional skills and making time for relationships is the smart thing to do. Ed championed group-based programs that gave participants the idea that working on one’s emotional skills and happiness was worthwhile and rather easy once one got the knack. Ed leaves behind many friends, many books, and many good memories.

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God defend New Zealand

No folks, that is not a joke. Listening to it on occasion over the years, I’ve grown fond of the New Zealand National Anthem. The tune is classic national anthem. That is to say it manages to fuse both aspiration and pathos as any national project should.

Because of my excessive familiarity with it, it’s harder to be objective about the Australian National Anthem. It’s also a cliche of educated left of centre opinion that it’s essentially silly. Trying to listen to the tune as if for the first time it does have some emotional resonance. But not much. And the words are mostly silly. And when they are not. They are shallow or forelock tugging to our colonial masters – it’s quite striking how absent that is from the New Zealand effort. Looking up the words of New Zealand’s national anthem, and making allowances for the idiom of the time, the sentiments they express are fine ones.

Men of every creed and race,
Gather here before Thy face,
Asking Thee to bless this place,
God defend our free land.
From dissension, envy, hate,
And corruption guard our state,
Make our country good and great,
God defend New Zealand.

Quite worthy, indeed topical words.

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Posted in Democracy, History, Indigenous, Politics - national, Race and indigenous | 11 Comments

Lockdown cost-benefit analysis for Australia by Martin Lally

Our most popular cartoons of the yearMartin Lally is a kiwi economist who late in 2020 decided to calculate for himself what his own country was losing by locking itself away from the world, coming to the conclusion that New Zealand was sacrificing something like 26 life-years in the future to ‘save’ 1 life-year. The way he arrived at that number was to essentially calculate how much less the government would have available to spend in the future as a direct result of the effects and costs of lockdowns, and then compare that reduction with how much governments historically had to pay to produce healthy years of life. The logic is that if you reduce government expenditures to that of Russia, then you will get the life expectancy and health of Russians.

Helpfully, he has now done the same type of calculation for Australia (THE COSTS AND BENEFITS OF A COVID LOCKDOWN-6).

You will not be surprised that his headline conclusion is that the lockdowns in Australia will cost around 20 times more than they save, though even that number is achieved by being extremely optimistic about the benefits of lockdowns and by ignoring many of its costs.

Let me point out some interesting aspects of Martin’s effort: Continue reading

Posted in Coronavirus crisis, Death and taxes, Economics and public policy, Employment, Health, Politics - national, Science, Social Policy | 60 Comments

Common features of the Covistance

I am co-writing a book on the Great Panic to explain what happened and what can be done to avoid a repeat. In the course of our research for that book, me and co-authors are scouring websites in the rest of the world to find out how others in the Covistance have experienced the events of 2020/2021. A fascinating aspect is how similar all the stories across the world are, even though the Covistance people in different continents are extremely diverse in terms of their education, their political orientation, their religious beliefs, and what they read.

There are 5 features of Covistance people that I have found to be nearly identical the world over:

  1. Stunned incredulity. The common experience of Covistance people in February-April 2020 was one of bewilderment at what the majority were doing. Neighbours one saw for decades as sensible people suddenly became wildly in favour of Chinese-style lockdowns on no other basis than that they were afraid and that they saw lockdowns on tv. Colleagues one thought were no-nonsense people loudly started advocating everybody wears masks everywhere, insisting that would save millions of lives. Family members one thought one knew since birth started signing petitions to close the schools and the offices for no other reason than that it sounded like an appropriately tough response to their fear. Covistance people around the world saw their neighbours, colleagues, and family do such things, thinking “What the hell is happening here? Have these people all lost their minds?”. There was a very distinct sense of being left behind, of not being able to join in with the madness, feeling slightly lonely at that realisation.
  2. Slow divorce from mainstream media. Covistance people everywhere started looking at the main newspapers and tv stations with different eyes, hardly believing what they were being bombarded with. Whether they were themselves highly educated or not educated at all, they all became gradually more detached from the media they had until recently seen as their main source of truth. They started to doubt everything that came out of the mainstream media, even if just before they would swallow all kinds of stories. Suddenly they started to re-evaluate, such as what had really gone on with gas attacks in Syria, or whether the Chinese government had been coercing the WHO. Essentially they felt their ‘general truth’ had become a whole lot less clear and they needed to re-anchor.
  3. Dogged resistance. Covistance people all experienced the determination to hold on to their humanity and not get sucked into the madness around them. As ‘Annie’ on lockdownsceptics worded it perfectly in her new year’s resolution on January 1st 2021:  
    I will not be turned into a zombie.
    I will not gibber in fear of a disease that has a 99.97% survival rate
    I will not cower in a hole like a frightened rabbit.
    I will not exchange living life for living death.
    I will not kow-tow to a tinpot Stalinist dictator.
    I will not believe government lies.
    I will not be terrorised by media death porn.
    I will not consider other people as squelching sacks of poison.
    I will not delete my face.
    I will never surrender.
    I will remain human.
  4. New communities with a new tolerance towards old enemies. The Covistance is made up of very odd bedfellows, uniting people who just beforehand got on like water and fire. I have found myself in the company of smart right-wing people who never believed in climate change or vaccines (which I do believe in). I have also found myself in the company of old-style socialists believing the whole thing to be concocted by large corporations trying to oppress the workers. I have found myself in the company of the super-woke and the anti-woke, pro-Brexiteers and pro-world government. Many old distinctions have become unimportant within the Covistance, leading to enormous tolerance for all kinds of views that would previously have been cause to run away from that company. That increased tolerance is felt heartily by Covistance people who have invested in at least gaining some understanding of where the others are coming from and why they believe what they believe. A real appreciation of radical diversity as a source of strength has emerged within the Covistance.
  5. A search for a clear culprit. I have resisted this myself, but see the very powerful pull within the Covistance towards a clearly named enemy: some organisation or country that is to blame for the madness and that has planned all this. My own stance is that it is all ‘correlated madness’ but not ‘planned evil, at least not initially’. At best I would say ‘fear itself’ is the common enemy, internal to all of us. That idea is a minority position in the Covistance though as it searches for an external identifiable common enemy to turn all arrows towards. Some blame the Chinese government, others the World Economic Forum, yet others the CIA or Big Tech. New names are popping up to identify the enemy, whether that is the Great Reset or Techno-Facism. A common cause has created images of a common enemy.
Posted in Coronavirus crisis, Cultural Critique, Health, History, Humour, Social, Society, Terror | 61 Comments

Stefan Zweig on killing your darlings and getting to the point

I put in “Getting to the point” on the marvellous free graphics site Unsplash, and up came this: by salvatore ventura

Just in case people aren’t sick of my extracts from SZ. I liked this. It very much describes my own approach – right down to one of the main temperamental drivers – however much I fall short of the aspiration, however verbose some of my efforts are.

I could not help wondering what exactly it was that made my books so unexpectedly popular. In the last resort, I think it arose from a personal flaw in me—I am an impatient, temperamental reader. Anything long-winded, high-flown or gushing irritates me, so does everything that is vague and indistinct, in fact anything that unnecessarily holds the reader up, whether in a novel, a biography or an intellectual argument. A book really satisfies me only if it maintains its pace page after page, carrying readers breathlessly along to the end. Nine-tenths of the books that come my way seem to be padded out with unnecessary descriptions, too much loquacious dialogue and superfluous minor characters; they are just not dynamic and exciting enough. I get impatient with many arid, slow-moving passages even in the most famous classic masterpieces, and I have often suggested a bold idea of mine to publishers—why not bring out a series of the great works of international literature, from Homer through Balzac and Dostoevsky to Mann’s The Magic Mountain, with the unnecessary parts cut? Then all those undoubtedly immortal works would gain a new lease of life in our own time.

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Posted in History, Literature | 3 Comments

Pyramids of lies: Some more from Stefan Zweig

I continue listening to Stefan Zweig’s description of the disasters of the twentieth century a passage of which I’ll reproduce below.

My big essay on the Productivity Commission’s Draft Indigenous Evaluation Strategy represented a bit of intellectual progress for me. As I wrote it, my previous decade of experience and reflection poured out as anecdotes all reinforcing a point which, once I had articulated it to myself I saw elsewhere. I’d read Hannah Arendt’s “Lying in Politics: Reflections on The Pentagon Papers” ages before, and been struck by her horror that the whole thing had snowballed from officials’ understanding that saving face was enough of a reason to kill millions of Vietnamese, tens of thousands of American kids and ruin the global economy. But only now did I focus on her other central point which is that a system of lies many of them small white(ish) lies had snowballed into official perceptions that were functionally unhinged from reality. A system in which, speaking or even thinking the truth was not thinkable, let alone sayable.

My essay argued in effect that the same thing was going on in Indigenous affairs – and in most other areas of ‘thick policy and practice‘ – but that it was immensely more subtle built on a thousand evasions large and small. By not putting itself or the system through the discomfort of looking the issue in the eye, the PC was effectively making itself part of the problem – and helping the system reach for its next fad-diet (evaluation) – rather than point it toward the preconditions of some substantial change.

In a teleconference with the folks from the Centre for Public Impact in London, they who told me of their own recent publication of a piece from someone in local government which puts it all more starkly:

I spent 10 years of my life writing. I wrote neighbourhood plans, partnership strategies, the Local Area Agreement, stretch targets, the Sustainable Community Strategy, sub regional infrastructure plans, funding bids, monitoring documents, the Council Plan and service plans. These documents describe the performance of local government and its partners.

I have a confession to make. Much of it was made up. It was fudged, spun, copied and pasted, cobbled together and attractively formatted. I told lies in themes, lies in groups, lies in pairs, strategic lies, operational lies, cross cutting lies. I wrote hundreds of pages of nonsense. Some of it was my own, but most of it was collated from my colleagues across the organisation and brought together into a single document. As a policy, partnerships and performance officer in local government, this was my speciality and my profession.

Why did I do it? I did this because it was my job.

And so onto Zweig below the fold: Continue reading

Posted in Democracy, History, Philosophy, Political theory | 13 Comments

Australia or Sweden: which has had the better 2020?

Compared to the trends on January 2020, has Australia or Sweden lost more wellbeing in 2020? And which has seen the greater damage to expected future wellbeing years for after 2020? The Table below summarizes the answers to this.

For the first calculation, let us only count the main elements going into the wellbeing of these two countries in 2020: the experienced wellbeing of the population in 2020 and the excess deaths in 2020. Lots of the other things we normally look at in these covid-calculations, such as changes to GDP, will show up in the anticipated effects for after 2020.

Lost Wellbeing years in Sweden and Australia due to covid and lockdowns
in 2020 beyond 2020
Australia Sweden Australia Sweden
Lockdown Misery 510000 62400 ? ?
Excess deaths -56 3000 -280 15000
Future debt repayment 7773333 886340
Loss per million 20077 6288 306026 86667
Ratio 3 3.5

First, what was the wellbeing drop in Australia? Well, an ANU-sponsored longitudinal panel found a drop from 6.9 to 6.5 in their life-satisfaction poll from January to April, a huge decline that is similar to the drop in the UK. This panel is based on over 3,000 individuals, which is why this drop is strongly statistically significant.

What about the rest of 2020 in Australia though? The same ANU team, headed by Professor Biddle said at the end of 2020 about the lockdowns in Australia that they were “a massive hit to happiness, experienced by Australians from all walks of life”. They document the increased inequality and how things are particularly bad among the young and the vulnerable in general. Their key graph for the whole of 2020 is above. Continue reading

Posted in Coronavirus crisis, Cultural Critique, Death and taxes, Ethics, Health, Life, Politics - international, Science | 39 Comments