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Archive for October 2012

Happy conservatives, unhappy liberals, and the power of "imposed selfishness"

Varwwwclientsclient1web2tmpphp Ai Cuh5It's a fairly well-established fact, in political psychology, that leftwingers report lower levels of happiness than rightwingers. (This fact, you may have noticed, is self-reinforcing: learning of it makes leftwingers even gloomier.) What's much less clear is why. Conservatives like to argue that it's because the things they value – traditional families, faith, free markets – make people happiest. Liberals prefer to think conservatives are blinkered, clinging to an ideology that lets them avoid confronting life's grim truths; it's even been proposed that conservatism might be a mental illness. And there's an added complication: the social psychologists who study such questions, as the American academic Jonathan Haidt has complained, tend to lean left. But does that mean they are biased – or that, when you closely study the real world, you usually end up liberal? ("Reality has a well-known liberal bias" – Stephen Colbert.) It's all very murky – though if you're a liberal, like me, that's less of a problem, as studies suggest we might have more capacity for tolerating uncertainty. So there's that.


Mirror fasts, clock fasts, and when quantifying your life makes things worse

263519912 B1e203da20 ZEarlier this year, two American bloggers triggered a global media convulsion by embarking on what they called a "mirror fast": covering the mirrors in their homes, and shunning mirrors elsewhere, in an effort to reduce what one of them called "the overriding self-consciousness that's taken up residence in my psyche". Since the social pressure to conform to ideals of beauty falls mainly on women, I can only guess what it's like to be so aware of one's appearance: I assume it's related to what I feel whenever a badly-angled photo reminds me how astoundingly bald I am. But for the fasters, the experiment proved a liberation. "All the other interests in my life – my goals, passions, friends, family, favourite hobbies, etc – have attracted the energy and attention I used to give to my looks," wrote Kjerstin Gruys, while Autumn Whitefield-Madrano said she felt "calmer and more serene". They'd pulled off an ingenious psychological trick. In a world obsessed with appearances, it's impractical just to decide you're going to think differently. What they'd done, instead, was to deny themselves the feedback that fuelled the fixation.


Oliver Burkeman I'm a writer for The Guardian based in Brooklyn, New York. My new book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking explores the upsides of negativity, uncertainty, failure and imperfection. Each week in This Column Will Change Your Life I write about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity and the science of happiness, and make unprovoked attacks on The Secret.

I also blog about things for Guardian US and write a monthly column for Psychologies magazine. Hello.

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