Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

29 JUNE, 2012

Creative Legend George Lois on Ideas as the Product of Discovery, Not Creation

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How to cultivate the mental medley that sparks the alchemy of ideas.

In celebrating the greatest living graphic designer’s 83rd birthday on Tuesday, I somehow forgot that Milton Glaser shares his birthday with another creative world icon, two years his junior — legendary designer, author, and contrarian George Lois, often regarded as the greatest art director of all time and called, much to his disgruntlement, “the original Mad Man.” To celebrate his 81st birthday, here’s a wonderful short film by On Creativity, in which Lois reflects on the combinatorial nature of creativity and echoes insights we’ve already heard from other great creators — the power of cultivating a personal microculture, the idea that to invent is to choose, the importance of “being-in-the-world-ness,” the notion that to create is to discover and connect rather than “invent” out of thin air.

I don’t think I create anything. I’m really serious — I discover the ideas.

[…]

If you understand how to think… If you have a background of graphic art, and you are a sports fan, and you’re literate, and you’re interested in politics, and you love opera, and ballet’s not bad either, and if you understand people… and you understand language, and you understand that product, and you understand the competitive products… and you put that all together in about ten minutes — the idea’s there.

Lois’s new book, Damn Good Advice (For People with Talent!): How To Unleash Your Creative Potential by America’s Master Communicator, George Lois, came out earlier this year and is precisely the kind of no-bullshit, feather-ruffling gem you’d expect from the beloved curmudgeon.

Swiss-Miss

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28 JUNE, 2012

Learned Optimism: Martin Seligman on Happiness, Depression, and the Meaningful Life

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What 25 years of research reveal about the cognitive skills of happiness and finding life’s greater purpose.

“The illiterate of the 21st century,” Alvin Toffler famously said, “will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Our outlook on the world and our daily choices of disposition and behavior are in many ways learned patterns to which Toffler’s insight applies with all the greater urgency — the capacity to “learn, unlearn, and relearn” emotional behaviors and psychological patterns is, indeed, a form of existential literacy.

Last week, Oliver Burkeman’s provocatively titled new book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, prompted me to revisit an old favorite by Dr. Martin Seligman, father of the Positive Psychology movement, who was once elected President of the American Psychological Association by the largest vote in the organization’s history and under whom I studied in my college days. Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (public library), one of these 7 must-read books on optimism, was originally published 20 years ago and remains an indispensable tool for learning the cognitive skills that decades of research have shown to be essential to well-being — an unlearning those that hold us back from authentic happiness.

Seligman begins by identifying the three types of happiness of which our favorite psychology grab-bag term is composed:

‘Happiness’ is a scientifically unwieldy notion, but there are three different forms of it if you can pursue. For the ‘Pleasant Life,’ you aim to have as much positive emotion as possible and learn the skills to amplify positive emotion. For the ‘Engaged Life,’ you identify your highest strengths and talents and recraft your life to use them as much as you can in work, love, friendship, parenting, and leisure. For the ‘Meaningful Life,’ you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.

He then defines optimism and pessimism, pointing out the challenge to self-identify as either, and offers a heartening, heavily researched reassurance:

The optimists and the pessimists: I have been studying them for the past twenty-five years. The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.

[...]

I have seen that, in tests of hundreds of thousands of people, a surprisingly large number will be found to be deep-dyed pessimists and another large portion will have serious, debilitating tendencies towards pessimism. I have learned that it is not always easy to know if you are a pessimist, and that far more people than realize it are living in this shadow.

[...]

A pessimistic attitude may seem so deeply rooted as to be permanent. I have found, however, that pessimism is escapable. Pessimists can in fact learn to be optimists, and not through mindless devices like whistling a happy tune or mouthing platitudes…but by learning a new set of cognitive skills. Far from being the creations of boosters or of the popular media, these skills were discovered in the laboratories and clinics of leading psychologists and psychiatrists and then rigorously validated.

Seligman, however, also corroborates what’s perhaps Burkeman’s most central admonition — that the extreme individualism and ambition our society worships has created a culture in which the fear of failure dictates all. As Seligman puts it:

Depression is a disorder of the ‘I,’ failing in your own eyes relative to your goals. In a society in which individualism is becoming rampant, people more and more believe that they are the center of the world. Such a belief system makes individual failure almost inconsolable.

[...]

Teaching children learned optimism before puberty, but late enough in childhood so that they are metacognitive (capable of thinking about thinking), is a fruitful strategy. When the immunized children use these skills to cope with the first rejections of puberty, they get better and better at using these skills. Our analysis shows that the change from pessimism to optimism is at least partly responsible for the prevention of depressive symptoms.

Ultimately, Seligman points to optimism not only as a means to individual well-being, but also as a powerful aid in finding your purpose and contributing to the world:

Optimism is invaluable for the meaningful life. With a firm belief in a positive future you can throw yourself into the service of that which is larger than you are.

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life was followed by Authentic Happiness and Flourish, which was among best psychology and philosophy books of 2011.

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27 JUNE, 2012

Nora Ephron on Women, Love, Happiness, Reading, Life, and Death

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“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”

What a tragic year it’s been for literary and creatives heroes, with losses as inconsolable as Maurice Sendak, Ray Bradbury, and Hillman Curtis. Last night, we lost the great Nora Ephron (1941-2012) — prolific and thoughtful filmmaker, novelist, journalist, playwright, essayist, and blogger, a feminist with fierce wit, whom The New York Times describes as being “in the Dorothy Parker mold (only smarter and funnier…).”

Today, let’s take a moment and celebrate Ephron with some of her most memorable insights on women, politics, happiness, love, intellectual life, and death.

On reading, in I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman (public library):

Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.

On money and creative incentive, in My Life as an Heiress:

I was extremely lucky not to have ever inherited real money, because I might not have finished writing ‘When Harry Met Sally…,’ which changed my life.

Addressing young women in her 1996 Wellesley commencement speech, a fine addition to some modern history’s finest graduation addresses:

I want to remind you of the undertow, of the specific gravity. American society has a remarkable ability to resist change, or to take whatever change has taken place and attempt to make it go away.

[...]

Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.

On the difference between controversy and political incorrectness, in the January 1976 issue of Esquire:

I am continually fascinated at the difficulty intelligent people have in distinguishing what is controversial from what is merely offensive.

On the evolving metrics of “happiness” for women, in Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women (public library):

We have lived through the era when happiness was a warm puppy, and the era when happiness was a dry martini, and now we have come to the era when happiness is ‘knowing what your uterus looks like.’

On the joy of being awake to the world, in Heartburn (public library):

I look out the window and I see the lights and the skyline and the people on the street rushing around looking for action, love, and the world’s greatest chocolate chip cookie, and my heart does a little dance.

On the politics of the public encroaching on the private, in her 1996 Wellesley commencement address — remarkably timely, despite the dated references, in light of today’s ongoing debates about publicly-private issues like marriage equality and abortion:

One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, don’t take it personally, but listen hard to what’s going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally. Understand: every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you. Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: get back, get back to where you once belonged. When Elizabeth Dole pretends that she isn’t serious about her career, that is an attack on you. The acquittal of O.J. Simpson is an attack on you. Any move to limit abortion rights is an attack on you — whether or not you believe in abortion. The fact that Clarence Thomas is sitting on the Supreme Court today is an attack on you.

On love and the capacity for romantic rebirth, in I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman:

Why hadn’t I realized how much of what I thought of as love was simply my own highly developed gift for making lemonade? What failure of imagination had caused me to forget that life was full of other possibilities, including the possibility that eventually I would fall in love again?

On death, in I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections (public library), her final book:

Everybody dies. There’s nothing you can do about it. Whether or not you eat six almonds a day. Whether or not you believe in God.

Photo via The LA Times

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