Thursday, November 22, 2007

Being Thankful: Good and Good for You

The day after Thanksgiving is the kick off for the big holiday shopping season. At least it used to be. The greed mongers also known as giant retail chains have been pushing us to start our great dance into irretrievable debt even earlier than usual. The weekend before Thanksgiving KOLS Magic 95 started playing Christmas music. Not just here and there interspersed amongst the usual play list, but all the time. This is just wrong! Not only was Christmas more than a month away, but global warming was in full bloom pushing the temperatures well above anything Frosty, Rudolph, and all the Whos down in Whoville would think indicated St. Nick was even contemplating pulling the sleigh out of storage. If I am driving to the store wearing shorts and sandals I want Surfin’ USA not Winter Wonderland.
You can call me a Scrooge if you want, but I will not believe the purpose of pushing the Christmas season up earlier and earlier on the calendar is motivated by people looking for peace on earth and good will towards men. It is motivated by people who want a piece of the action and are unconcerned if the general public spends their nest egg and needs the help of Goodwill Industries to eat next holiday season. Actually, when you stop to look at it the people who are trying to skip Thanksgiving and go right into Moneygiving resemble the Scrooge at the beginning of the Dickens classic rather than the altruistic one at the end.
In my own mini-form of protest I would like to elongate Thanksgiving rather than go right into Christmas. Let’s make Thanksgiving a full weekend, not just a day. We eat leftovers past Thursday. Many of us have Friday off from work already. Football games are on television Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. If we think about it the great majority of us have enough going right in our lives to be thinking thankful thoughts beyond one day, a day we spend a great chunk of the afternoon sleeping through because we have unbuttoned the sans-a-belts, stretched out on the couch, and settled in to watch a game featuring the Detroit Lions which easily allows the tryptophan to kick in sending us to Sleepytown.
Giving thanks is not only a good reason for a day off, but it has been shown to improve one’s health. Martin Seligman holds a Ph.D. and has written books meant to help people raise the level of happiness in their lives. One prescription he offers for a jump on the happy meter is to take time to be grateful. He sites a psychological study which had people spend just a few minutes each night writing short notes on what they were grateful to have. It did not have to be anything all that momentous, just stuff you are glad pops up during the day. The people who did this actually showed growth in their general feelings of contentedness.
Mr. Seligman goes on to explain that the act of being grateful amplifies the good memories from the past. This increases the number of times good things simply pass through your mind, and if you are thinking happy thoughts you will be happier (add Tinkerbell dandruff and you can fly). If you stop to think about it, this seems pretty obvious and the next thought has to be, “Is this all it takes to get a Ph.D?”
Here is my own way of teaching people the process Mr. Seligman suggested. I cannot say what you personally should be grateful for, but if I apply it to people we all know it becomes more concrete.
Alex Rodriguez: I am thankful the priorities of the planet are so far out of whack that I get over 27 million dollars a year to lead my team somewhere near the World Series.
Keith Richards: Even though I died ten years ago and that is why I look the way I do, I am grateful no one has actually checked my pulse and blown it for me.
Bill Gates: I am grateful survival of the fittest has changed from being fast enough to outrun a tiger and strong enough to skin a mammoth to smart enough to create software which confounds and frustrates, but people will spend good money to have.
Mark Mangino: I am thankful my team follows me each and every Saturday. I realize part of the reason is I have reached a mass which creates its own gravitational pull and much of the team functions as moons and satellites.

Christopher Pyle is thankful for many of the little things in life: cookies, giggling children, music, and the fact he is not required to do algebra.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Glass is Half Full of Sour Milk

I am having a minor crisis of my conviction. For years I have tried very hard to believe in the intrinsic goodness of people. This assumption is getting harder and harder to find corroborating evidence of support. It is not that I have crossed over to the dark side and think everyone is a deceitful, selfish, mean-spirited purveyor of degradation and boom-de-boom devil worshipping music making me want to stockpile bottled water, batteries, and Pop-Tarts in my basement, duct-tape plastic over my windows and buy a Rottweiler with a disposition making Dick Cheney look like Mr. Rogers. Nope, I just think too many people are horribly unhappy.
A theory was proposed by my wife stating babies are born knowing how to express unhappiness. (Crying happens before they do anything else.) On the other hand it takes weeks and focused effort by the parents to get the little beggars to smile. (Of course, when they do it would even melt the heart of the above mentioned Rottweiler.) Many babies don’t smile until they are two months old. That means eight weeks of going from overtly cranky to merely placid before genuine signs of happiness appear.
I have read a variety of books by philosophers, psychologists, gurus, and comedians (carefully omitting Dr. Phil) in search of what happiness is and how to make it more prevalent. In “Authentic Happiness” Martin Seligman discusses the evolution of different emotions. He makes it clear that both negative emotions and positive ones have very real benefits. The negative ones (fear, sadness and anger) are the first line of defense against external threats. Of course our ancestors with well honed fight or flight instincts were better equipped to survive and create descendents.
Picture this Caveman A, let’s call him Carl, is a depressed wheel-maker. He is constantly scared and hasn’t smiled since the early Pleistocene. Caveman B, known as Mel, is a happy cave painter best known for the very life-like mammoths he creates. He is cheery and laughs frequently. One day the two of them are sitting by the bank of the river. Mel is cultivating his positive feelings observing small mammals cavorting in the short grass. Carl is cultivating his negative feelings by frequently jerking his head from side to side looking for signs the ice age is coming back. When Mel turns to point out a particularly cute Crusafontia (prehistoric squirrel) to Carl he does not see Carl. He sees an Arctodus, a.k.a short-faced bear (the face may have been short but the bear was six foot). Thus the pessimist, running away Carl, was alive and the optimist, sitting and smiling Mel, was a prehistoric version of Purina Bear Chow.
Mr. Seligman and his Ph.D. go on to say that our positive emotions also have an important purpose in evolution. They broaden intellectual, physical and social resources. Happy people appeal more to other people. Happy people are more open to new thoughts and ideas. Happy people are more tolerant. Happy people are more altruistic. Happy people have fewer health problems like issues with the heart. There is another Dick Cheney joke in here somewhere, but I have already used up my one per column allotment.
The general mood of a person can make a big difference in the levels of success he finds in certain tasks. Seligman says critical thinking is best done in a less happy mood. So doing your income tax while depressed is actually more likely to mean you’ll do it right. That’s convenient. But deciding who to marry should be done whilst one is in a good mood. That’s easy to understand. Happy Guy, being an optimist, gleefully thinks the gorgeous blonde in accounting is just right for him. Depressed Man, being a pessimist, looks at the cute red-head in human resources and thinks she would never be interested in him so he might as well quit his job, move to a cabin in Alaska and write his manifesto on how mankind is doomed due to the mass consumption of carbonated beverages and the fact that Jimmy Kimmel has his own television show.
It seems to me both pessimism and optimism come in handy. Therefore, I have designed a new philosophy. I call it Pezoptimism. The theory here is happiness needs to be doled out on a regular basis in small easy to digest portions preferably by swinging back the plastic head of a cartoon character and having the piece of happiness drop into our hands.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Some Things We Just Don't Need to Know

Not long ago J.K. Rowling made a statement which sent some shockwaves through the world of popular literature. While making an appearance at Carnegie Hall the author was answering questions about her wildly popular series of books detailing the adventures of boy wizard Harry Potter. One member of the audience asked what appeared to be a most innocuous question. While answering the question, Ms. Rowling revealed something most unexpected. A fact that might have been hinted at if one read most carefully through the more than four thousand two hundred pages of the seven books. Yet a fact many of the most obsessive fans may have blithely let slip right past them. Dumbledore is fictitious. She made him up. He is as real as Mr. T’s acting talent, as real as my chance to be the starting point guard for the Celtics, as real as Salina secretly stockpiling WMDs in case of an invasion from those belligerent Swedes over in Lindsborg. He does not exist.
Okay, so stating he was fictitious is not what started a new controversy in the press. She said he was gay. The sexual orientation of a character who can transport himself anywhere on the planet in a split second, a character whose pet is a mythological bird who bursts into flames, on purpose, a character who uses a stick as his chief weapon against evil is as relevant as whether or not Clark Kent is a Republican. It just doesn’t matter.
While it may not matter it does beg the question: What else don’t we know about some of literature’s most famous characters?
Sam Spade is one of the most well-known hard boiled detectives ever. He wore a snap-brimmed fedora, carried a gun and had no trouble at all sending his girlfriend up the river. After all when a guy’s partner is killed you’re supposed to do something about it. Little did we know as we read Dashiell Hammet’s book or watched Humphrey Bogart that Sam Spade collected Precious Moments figurines and raised teacup Chihuahuas.
George Orwell wrote the book “Animal Farm,” a satirical allegory on the totalitarian state of Soviet Russia. The chief characters were animals. Snowball was a pig. He was a good pig. He worked for the greater good of all animals on the farm. He cared about making a society where all shared equally in the work and in the benefits. Something Mr. Orwell did not share with the readers was Snowball was truly conflicted. He was Jewish. Not only did communism denigrate the importance of religion, which made openly practicing his faith very risky, but he himself was not kosher.
The Laura Ingalls Wilder books have been childhood favorites for more than one generation of little girls. Well, one thing Ms. Wilder never stated outright for the audience was that Pa was dumb as a bag of hammers. This one is not a joke. Have you read those books recently? Pa was constantly leaving his family just as a blizzard was about to hit or dragging them into barely habitable parts of the country just because he felt closed in. This guy was a dim bulb of epic proportion.
The legend of Faust has been told in every generation. The main character sells his soul to the devil. In most incarnations the motivation of the transaction was Faust wanted great power and unlimited knowledge. What few people realize is he really just sold his soul for a really great pastry. Not just any old doughnut, we’re talking something with fruit and cream cheese.
In Hemingway’s novella, “The Old Man and the Sea” the old man catches the biggest fish he ever caught. He is thrilled with his success. He thinks about all the positive things which will befall him due to his skill and triumph. The secret that few ever knew was that he caught this huge marlin with Popeil’s Pocket Fisherman, otherwise known as the “biggest fishing invention since the hook” and he got it for just $19.95.
Maybe one of the biggest shockers is Hester Prynne was actually just a big fan of the Crimson Tide. That letter “A” was simply pledging her allegiance to the spirit of Bear Bryant and the great Alabama football teams of years past. It turns out Rev. Dimmesdale was an Auburn fan who couldn’t handle falling for a girl from Tuscaloosa.