Feature Articles

Happiness and suicide: the paradox of middle age


We know that 50 is the new thirty, and you’re only as young as you feel ... etc, etc... but when you cut through all the clichés the evidence suggests something very strange is happening in middle age.

According to recent surveys, Baby Boomers are by far the happiest age group of all those studied;  they also have the highest suicide rates of any age bracket.

“So what is going on?” a recent New York Times article asked.  “Is middle age the best of times or the worst?”

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It's easy to fight what you don't understand


Sometimes the bang of a gavel can be as loud as the roar of a cannon. 
Late last month the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that offering “material assistance” of any kind – even advice or insight – to groups the government labels as terrorist is a crime prosecutable under federal law.  It doesn’t matter if it’s part of an academic study, or even an effort to convince the group to abandon violence:  even offering a terrorist group training in non-violent conflict resolution, the court declared, is aiding and abetting the enemy. And efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to child victims of conflict may be violating the law if aid passes through groups designated as terrorist
Academics around the world who study conflict resolution, including many who study terrorist organizations, have found the decision alarming.   Saybrook Psychology and Human Science faculty member Marc Pilisuk has initiated a resolution, subsequently modified by members of the Peace and Justice Studies Association and now approved by the its Board, voicing  an unwillingness to comply with the ruling. The Peace and Justice Studies Association – an international body of academics, K-12 teachers, and grassroots activists who explore alternatives to violence and share strategies for peace building, social justice, and social change has adopted the resolution.
The statement reads:

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Is William James a "philosopher for the new century" two centuries in a row?


That's the question the Saybrook Forum asked psychology faculty member Eugene Taylor, an internationally renowned scholar on the life and work of William James, after the question was raised by the The New Humanist magazine.  His response is below. 

William James: Still One Hundred and Fifty Years Ahead of His Time

In a thoughtful article recently published in The New Humanist [125:4, July/August 2010],  Jonathan Raée extols the attributes of his favorite philosopher-psychologist, William James. He was the only enduring figure, according to Raée, who did not get bogged down in details , and did not take a megalomaniacal stance toward his own ideas. We should resurrect his memory and seek to emulate the now forgotten direction he was always pointing us towards—world peace through a strengthening of our own inward character.

I should say that Mr. Raée as a writer is himself on the right track. Briefly, we may review here only a few of James’s prescient insights into our uniquely American and humanistically oriented legacy, and at the same time we might widen even more for the reader the scope of James’s thinking about our future.

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First chess, now music: just how creative can computers get?


"Nobody’s original," says composer David Cope.

Here’s what he means: there’s no such thing as "creativity," only endless copying, theme, and variation. "Everybody copies from everybody. The skill is in how large a fragment you choose to copy and how elegantly you can put them together."

Cope is making more than just an argument with the idea that "nobody’s original" – he’s making music. Cope is the world’s foremost creator of computer programs that compose classical music, and his latest program, called "Emily Howell," recently released its first album. In several cases, classical music scholars have been unable to tell an artificial intelligence created work in the style of Bach or Mozart from the original.

That music, Cope says, is proof that creativity, as we commonly understand it, does not exist – and that people are therefore little more than complex machines constantly crunching algorithms.

"The question," Cope says in a recent article in Miller-McCune,"isn’t whether computers have a soul, but whether humans have a soul." His answer is "no."

But what exactly has Cope proved? Very little, according to faculty in Saybrook’s program in Creativity Studies.

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Meet "the Market" - a God for the 21st century


How many times have you heard someone talking about a major policy ask: "How is the market going to respond?"

Or heard someone say that a social problem will be taken care of "if we let the market work?" Or heard that our society is in trouble because "the market lost confidence."

These statements refer, of course, to the financial markets – but in a provocative article in the London Guardian, Aditya Chakrabortty asked: if you substitute "God" for "the market" in all of these statements, doesn’t it make about as much sense?

In fact, said Chakrabortty, isn’t this a pretty good indication that "The Market" has become the Western society’s religion?

After all, we have faith in it, and in its power to perform miracles and bestow prosperity, even if we don’t really understand how.  We ask if "the market" will like something, or how "the market" will react, when we try to decide whether or not to do something. 
And, when you think about it, the market has a priestly class, temples, and orthodox doctrines, too.

Is Chakrabortt right?

We asked Alan Vaughan, a Jungian analyst and psychology faculty member in Saybrook’s PsyD program who studies both the psychology of global capitalism and the transmission of religions across cultures, to weigh in.

His response is below.

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Food, baths, and bed aren't enough


Every 70 seconds, someone in the U.S. is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. 

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, that means that there could be up to 16 million Americans with Alzheimer’s by 2050 – and that’s only one of many different kinds of dementia that afflict the elderly.

In the most literal sense possible, what are we going to do with all these people who can’t do for themselves?

For the most part, they get their physical needs met:  hospitals and clinics and care workers and families are increasingly good at helping people with dementia eat and bathe and take their medicine. 

But what about their psychological needs?  Does dementia condemn someone to a life of confusion, loneliness, and solitude?

“People with dementia are present, they live in the moment, and they still want to be met, noticed, related to,” says Doris Bersing, an expert on the psychology of aging and a faculty member in Saybrook’s PsyD program.  When people with dementia aren’t related to, their confusion often becomes depression and anger – the way anyone’s does. 

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Special courts for veterans? No thanks.


It’s simple arithmetic:  more and more veterans are showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder(PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI), as more and more soldiers are coming home from war.  This adds up to tragedy.  More veterans are getting into trouble after they return home, and many of them are in the nation’s prison system. 

A recent study suggested that six percent of new inmates in the Texas prison system are recently returning veterans, and now that state is trying a new approach to address the problem:  special courts for veterans. 

Modeled on “drug courts” that offer drug users social services and mental health treatment instead of jail time, the veterans courts – which are either operating or ramping up in six Texas counties – would try to identify veterans whose crimes can be traced to combat stress or the attempt to cope with it, and offer them social and mental health services and treatment for addictions instead of jail time.

Saybrook psychologists who have worked frequently with soldiers say they appreciate what Texas is trying to do, but are skeptical about the idea. 

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"Net Neutrality" is the future of democracy


The internet might rightly be called the greatest medium of free expression in human history – but just how free is the internet?

This month a federal court ruled that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can block or slow internet content they don’t like … or charge popular sites to be accessed. 

In other words, the company that provides your internet can also decide what you see on it.

The ruling has caused an uproar, with everyone from government regulators to high-tech companies trying to decide what to do next.  Many of them argue that the principle of “net neutrality” – the idea that every site on the internet should be treated equally by ISPs – is essential to preserving the potential for the internet as a free exchange of ideas. 

For Joel Federman, a member of Saybrook’s Human Science faculty who heads its interdisciplinary concentration in Social Transformation, this discussion couldn’t be more crucial.  The future of democracy – which depends on access to information – is at stake. 

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Will "results only" rules for federal workers deliver good results?


It’s one small step for 400 people – but could turn into a huge change for the federal government.

The United States Office of Personnel Management has announced that it will implement a pilot “results only” work program for 400 federal employees – allowing them to work wherever, whenever, and however they want, and evaluating them only by the results they produce.

If successful, it could lead to widespread changes, and greater flexibility, for government employees at every level.

Saybrook scholars who work with governments say they are impressed – but that programs like this aren’t always easy to get right.

“The devil is in the details, as they say,” says Gary Metcalf, an Organizational Systems faculty member who teaches at the Federal Executive Institute of the U.S. government.  “How it actually works will depend a great deal on the targets they set, and how they get measured.  Some people will do better with it than others.  Also, it takes more discipline to run your own schedule, and some people don’t do that well.”

Still, he’s excited by the prospect.  “Conceptually it sounds like a huge step forward – well beyond what many corporations are ready for yet.  If the expected amount of work for each person remains relatively the same, though, and employees feel like outcomes are evaluated fairly, I think the end result could be really positive.”

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Civilizing the Economy: what we can do if the myths of capitalism don't add up to the facts


If you want to prove capitalism works, you might think back to 18th century Glasgow.  That’s where Adam Smith was when he created the theory of market capitalism – he looked around, saw open markets, saw competition, saw the industriousness and prosperity that resulted, and correctly concluded that a system of free markets based on competition benefits everyone.

Everyone, that is, except the slaves.

Because what Smith’s famous example leaves out is the fact that Scotland’s prosperity was the result not just of free markets, but of slaves in the Americas producing tobacco that could be shipped to Scotland for processing.  Without the slaves, the system wouldn’t have worked.

Smith knew it, too.  He roundly condemned slavery as an evil thing in his moral writings, but simply considered it part of doing business in his economic writings – prosperity trumped human rights, because economics has nothing to do with morality.

That’s the finding of Saybrook faculty member Marvin Brown’s provocative new book Civilizing the Economy: A New Economics of Provision. “When he’s talking about slavery in his economic works, slavery is an economic issue, and when he’s writing his moral treatises, it’s a moral issue, and he never connects the two,” Brown says. “And we’re still seeing that disconnect today.  We’re living it.  It’s at the very basis of our identity.”

The implications for capitalism are enormous.

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