Archive for August 2015

Patience is more than a virtue – it's a superpower

AttentionWhen 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.

What is an emotion, anyway?

LegoWhen 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.

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.

Get my occasional email updates.