Recently, I decided to try to deal with a bout of insomnia by deliberately getting even less sleep. If this strikes you as absurd, I can only reply that it’s no more absurd than what most insomniacs do instead: lie awake in bed for hours every night, getting more wakeful the harder they try to drop off, while ruminating on horrifying existential truths. (Such as: did you know there isn’t an infinite supply of This American Life podcasts? Only insomniacs discover this.) Besides, “sleep restriction therapy” (SRT), as it’s known, is growing in popularity; some evidence suggests it’s as effective as pills. When you’re sleeping poorly, your instinct is to spend more time in bed, to catch up. To which SRT arches an eyebrow and enquires: “Oh yes? And how’s that working out for you?”
When you take a class with the Harvard University art historian Jennifer Roberts, your first task is always to choose a work of art, then go and look at it, wherever it’s displayed, for three full hours. Three hours! If that notion doesn’t horrify you at least a little, I suspect you’re atypical: in our impatient, accelerated age, the mere thought of it is sufficient to trigger an irritable jumpiness. (Stick me in front of a painting for three hours and I’d soon be swiping my thumb on it downwards, to see if there had been any updates.) Roberts knows this: the whole point, she writes, is that it’s “a painfully long time”. She doesn’t expect her students to spend it all in rapt attention; rather, the goal is to experience that jumpiness, tolerate it, and get through it – whereupon they see things in the artwork they’d never have imagined were there.
When the new Pixar movie Inside Out was released, a multitude of psychologists popped up to debate its portrayal of emotions, which appear as five characters – Anger, Fear, Sadness, Joy and Disgust – inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl. I found the debate strange. To be sure, there’s much to ponder in the film’s message that negative emotions have their value, and that emotions can aid decision-making, rather than just getting in the way. Yet none of the experts mentioned the dirty secret at the heart of the study of emotions. They don’t discuss it in interviews. But get chatting to a psychologist on his or her third whiskey, at a lonely bar on the outskirts of town near closing time, and you might finally hear the truth, which is that no one really has a damned clue what an emotion is.
Usually, I’m sceptical whenever some ultra-successful Silicon Valley firm gets held up as an example of how we’ll all be working in future. Sure, it’s possible that Google’s success is down to free yoga classes, napping pods and unlimited gourmet food consumed in “conversation areas designed to look like vintage subway cars”. But it’s surely equally likely that these are indulgences a rich company can afford, whether or not they help the bottom line – and they won’t be coming to call centres or council offices any time soon. The latest trend might have more going for it, though: more tech businesses are experimenting with four-day weeks. As Ryan Carson, co-founder of the education startup Treehouse, put it: “You get all day Friday off, instead of pretending like you’re working when you’re not.”
A new study on the link between sex and happiness has been getting lots of media attention – presumably because it’s about sex, and for the staff of traffic-hungry media organisations, the experience of receiving vast numbers of clicks on a story about sex is, ironically and poignantly, better than sex. The headline finding is that more sex doesn’t automatically make you happier; in fact, contrary to the assumptions of most researchers, and for that matter most sex-havers, it makes many feel worse.
“It appears to be the case that in these modern days many people have no time to be polite,” grumbled the New York Observer in 1899, though you can easily imagine those words coming from any cantankerous non-twentysomething newspaper columnist working today, a category from which I cannot exclude myself. “The fact is that we are living in a rushing, distracted age when the utmost that many seem able to do is barely to catch trains… without wasting time on formalities or pretty speeches by the way.” Rudeness does seem to be on the rise: according to the American civility researcher Christine Porath, writing recently in the New York Times, you’re about twice as likely to experience incivility in the workplace as in the 1990s. But the explanation for it hasn’t changed since 1899. Porath’s work shows that around 40% of us, across multiple industries, say we’re rude because we haven’t the time to be polite.
What's the secret to writing well? As I've argued previously, an awful lot of people seem to think they know, yet their "rules for writers" are almost always (pardon the technical linguistics jargon) bullshit. For example, "Show, don't tell" is frequently bad advice. In the right context, the passive voice is fine. Elmore Leonard's most famous rule, "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue", is sheer silliness. Even the sainted Orwell's rules are a bit rubbish: the final one is "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous", which means his advice is really just "Don't write barbarically". So it doesn't bode well that the psychologist Steven Pinker has published his own advice book, The Sense Of Style. Judging by a recent interview at edge.org, however, this one might be different. Writing, Pinker points out, is inherently a psychological phenomenon, "a way that one mind can cause ideas to happen in another mind". So one place to begin is with actual psychology.
Information: there’s a lot of it about. In his new book The Organised Mind, psychologist Daniel Levitin notes that we consume five times as much as we did in 1986. He also puts it like this: if you took one person’s share of all the human-created information in the world, wrote each byte of it on an index card and spread them out, you’d blanket Massachusetts and Connecticut. (Don’t actually do this – you’d cause chaos.) But then he drops his bombshell: we’re not really suffering from “information overload” at all. Your brain is incredible at storing data; some neuroscientists believe almost everything you’ve ever experienced is in there somewhere. Which is a relief. I don’t need to worry that my ability to recall the lyrics to Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in their entirety means I’m using up space needed for something else.
On the worst kind of New York day – soon after heavy snow, when everything’s covered in a slurry of mud, slush and litter – I stepped off a busy street into the lobby of a building I’d not visited before. I gave my name to the doorman, who murmured in recognition, and made my way down a corridor. I typed a code into a keypad and the door of a suite clicked open. If this sounds shady, it won’t help to add that I was paying for it by the hour. But all I did when I got inside – a spotless room, with Scandinavian furnishings and a yoga mat – was to write part of this column and stare out the window. I’d booked the space through Breather, a startup offering “peace and quiet on demand”: spaces for around £20 an hour, currently only in New York, San Francisco, Ottawa and Montreal. (To pre-empt your questions: the rules include “a zero tolerance policy for anything illegal or inappropriate”, and rooms are cleaned after use.) Breather’s a fabulous idea. On the other hand, it’s troubling that it’s a fabulous idea. What does it say about the world that there’s money to be made in giving people a few minutes to hear themselves think?
When publishing a book in Britain or the US about eastern spiritual practices – meditation, yoga, reiki – there’s an unwritten rule as to the cover design: it must feature a lotus flower, pebble, clear sky, still lake or smiling statue. (You can generate titles by randomly combining those words, too: Smiling Pebble In A Clear Sky: The Art Of Meditation. Out now in all good bookshops!) These cliches reflect the widespread assumption that the traditions of south-east Asia are all about slowing down, looking inwards and cultivating calm: the things you do, in other words, when you’re desperate for a break from the pace of modern (implicitly, western) life. But for Gregg Krech, an expert on Japanese psychology, that’s only half the story. Look closely at such philosophies, he argues in a new book, The Art Of Taking Action, and you’ll find they’re full of practical advice for getting things done. True, his book’s cover shows some bamboo strips by a pond, but there’s nothing so placid about what’s inside.