Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study

screenshot_277halfGeorge E. Vaillant MD, at once both an able biographer and an eminent psychiatrist, is equally comfortable whether quoting Shakespeare, Freud, or anyone in between as he chronicles the lives of nearly 300 men from age 17 to 95. The data come from the Harvard Grant Study, a prospective study of 75 years in duration examining the factors that determine health, happiness, and success in life over the course of a human lifespan. Among the many intriguing findings is that while the influence of one’s childhood is important to later health and success, it is a factor only up to around age 50. In other words, from age 50 on, the study subjects who hailed from disadvantaged or dysfunctional families “caught up to” the ones from more loving or privileged family backgrounds. After age 50 the influences of childhood wane, and our fate lies truly in our own perseverance, our healthy and sustainable habits, our personal outlook on life, and the loving relationships we create around us. Hence the book’s title, “Triumphs of Experience”. This is an encouraging, data-based but humanistic, read for anyone looking for validation for the belief that life can truly get better with age. I would highly recommend this book, along with Vaillant’s earlier books based on findings from the Grant study, particularly the classic Adaptation to Life, written years ago when the Harvard study subjects were only ages 50 to 60 and chronicling how individuals navigate the transition from young adulthood to midlife.

Posted in Happiness

Glittering Images

13642133Glittering Images:
A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars
by Camille Paglia
ISBN: 978-0375424601

The Eye is Drawn to “Glittering Images”

Surveying 5,000 years of Western art, in 188 pages, selecting 29 images. Well, that is quite a challenge. But Paglia, through her keen eye and breadth of scholarship succeeds admirably and the result is a visual and intellectual joyride. The captivating images chosen for discussion invoke powerful themes of love, sex, power, death, dehumanization, affluence, poverty, piety, nature, and the afterlife. The mind is enriched and awareness is changed and enhanced through intelligent contemplation of these powerful works. I love art history essays; they’re such an admixture of topics from technique, to aesthetics, to the history and politics of the era, to philosophical issues such as our place and purpose in the universe. All these themes are pithily and wittily discussed by Paglia. In her essay titled “The Race”, on the bronze sculpture of the Charioteer of Delphi of 475 B.C., she observes with perspicacity, “The Greeks defined existence as a struggle or contest (agon) that tested and built character. To strive to be the best was a moral duty. Life was a perpetual game or race, with little hope of rest.”

The introductory essay might be the keenest part of the entire book. Paglia asserts that great art creates dynamic, “glittering” images that draw the viewer in and captivate him or her. For thousands of years of western art, sculpture and painting — through action, color, and composition — dominated the world of art, but these media are now out-competed – in a nearly Darwinian sense – by even more dynamic, glittering computer-enhanced graphics and big-screen cinematography. Indeed, as Paglia proceeds chronologically through her survey of western art, the most recent painting selected for an essay was painted in 1930, over eight decades in the past (true, a Jackson Pollock work from 1949 is chosen, but Pollock’s “painting the air” technique of splashing and throwing paint at the canvas is essentially a different genre from applying paint directly onto the canvas). As contemporary minds are drawn to enhanced, dynamically moving images, will future generations even be able to stay still long enough to seriously look at traditional paintings and sculpture? Probably not, implies Paglia, and that is unfortunate. I see this in my children. If Paglia’s hunch about the future of art is correct, then it’s not unreasonable to be concerned not only about the survival of traditional visual art, but about other western cultural and artistic treasures as well. As we train our brains to “surf the net” and digest information no longer than a blog post or a tweet, will future generations read Shakespeare, Aristotle, or a biography of Winston Churchill, for example?

Posted in Arts

The Myths of Happiness

myth-of-happinesssThe Myths of Happiness:
What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does
by Sonja Lyubomirsky
ISBN: 978-1594204371

Happiness: So Simple, Yet So Complicated

“While experiencing happiness, we have difficulty in being conscious of it. Only when the happiness is past and we look back on it do we suddenly realize – sometimes with astonishment – how happy we had been.”
— Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

Happiness, that eternal yet elusive goal of man, is indeed full of paradoxes as many writers have eloquently noted. In an increasingly crowded field of books on happiness and positive psychology where it is getting more and more difficult to say something original and meaningful, I feel the author has made a very worthwhile contribution. She considers some of the universal assumptions about happiness and explores, analyzes, and reframes them to show us how very naive, thoughtless, and just plain wrong is our thinking about what “makes us” happy.

These assumptions – the “Myths of Happiness” as her title defines them – include cliches almost all of us never pause to doubt, ideas such as the idea that we can’t be happy without a wonderful marriage, we can’t be happy unless we have children, we can’t be happy because we don’t have enough money, we can’t be happy because we’re not as young as we used to be, we can’t be happy if we have health problems, and a few other common beliefs. It turns out that people find a way to be happy in spite of unwanted life circumstances, and many people who are blessed by wealth and good fortune aren’t any happier that those who lack these fortunes.

The unifying theme in dealing with all of these happiness myths seems to be what psychologists call “cognitive flexibility” or “cognitive reframing”, that is, some mental flexibility, creativity, perseverance, and originality that allows people to discover all kinds of alternative paths to a rich, enjoyable, successful, and meaningful life even if we find ourselves without wealth, youth, perfect health, or a passionate romantic partner. Bottom line: Lyubomirsky convinced me that, even if we don’t get what we want in life, we can still achieve that elusive state of living variously known as contentment, fulfillment, satisfaction, or happiness.

The author’s writing style is fast-paced, wryly funny, and unpretentious. And, her knowledge of the field is encyclopedic, with over 400 references to studies in human happiness, enjoyably explained, to support her deconstruction of the myths of happiness.

I think the measure of a good psychology book is one that really makes you think about your own life differently, and this one gave me several such moments. Nearly 30 years ago as a medical student I had to cancel a planned “externship” at the prestigious Yale University Hospital on very short notice in order to be available to support my then girlfriend through a family loss. Having invested years of sweat and toil in my career and revering the Ivy League as the pinnacle of success, I went into a state of mini-despair as I reluctantly signed up for a mundane, “regular” assignment closer to home. I imagined my entire future success as a medical doctor had just taken a permanent turn for the worse. As it turned out, I was teamed up with an awesome team of residents and attending physicians, learned so much that I still use the knowledge acquired in that un-glamorous assignment in the management of patients, and years later was, nonetheless, still offered a prestigious fellowship at Yale. What’s more, I turned it down, having by then a much better idea of the kinds of things that actually would make me happy. This memory is a pefect example of the author’s main idea, expressed in the book’s subtitle: “what should make you happy but doesn’t, what shouldn’t make you happy but does.” Ultimately, I think nothing extrinsic “makes us” happy, but rather that we must decide internally to experience life as an interesting, challenging, exciting adventure, and with that inner resolve, we will find opportunities to experience a range of emotions and experiences ultimately amounting to a meaningful and happy life.

Posted in Happiness, Psychology/Psychiatry

Righteous Deception

9780275969530_p0_v2_s260x420Righteous Deception:
German Officers Against Hitler
by David Johnson
ISBN: 978-0275969530

A Timeless True Story of Incredible Courage and Sacrifice

Accomplished Germans in positions of power recognized Hitler as a murderous dictator who needed to be stopped, and gave their lives in order to make it happen. This story needs to be told, and Johnson tells it well, suspensefully, thoughtfully, and in rich detail. Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the German intelligence service (the Abwehr), Colonel Alexis von Renne, head of the German military intelligence service (western theatre), Canaris’ assistant Hans von Oster, high-ranking officers Rommel and Claus von Stauffenberg, Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other members of the “Schwarze Kapelle” underground made the ultimate sacrifice and change the course of history.

Many American lives, including quite likely that of my father, a WWII vet who arrived at Normandy a few days after D-day, were saved as a result. This book illuminates an important narrative, a vital and noble chapter of history that is not sufficiently known to wider audiences. Reading this book was therefore not only an exciting read, but an act of homage to individuals acting with moral courage in a mad, perilous time.

Posted in History

Surviving Survival

9780393083187_p0_v1_s260x420Surviving Survival:
The Art and Science of Resilience
by Laurence Gonzales
ISBN: 978-0393083187

How People Put Their Lives Back Together After Life-threatening Trauma

The awkward title of this book belies one of the most insightful and inspiring books on psychological resilience ever written. “Surviving survival” refers to the long and complicated road back from trauma to normalcy, from isolation to connectedness, from despair to hope, from fear to comfort or joy, that survivors of shark attacks, combat trauma, death of a child, or other life-shattering experiences must travel. Gonzales explains how the brain’s workings, including memory systems and alarm systems, produce the unusual and intense behaviors exhibited by trauma survivors, and how survival strategies that survivors employ lay down new experiences that allow new growth and positive emotions, without ever completely erasing the trauma imprint that has been burned into the brain. One of the many great strengths of this book is the author’s use of the findings from a 60 long year study of adult development to explain how coping traits such as humor, anticipation, sublimation, suppression, and altruism help us prepare for and recover from life’s inevitable psychological trauma.

Posted in Happiness, Psychology/Psychiatry

A Guide to the Good Life

stoic-joyA Guide to the Good Life:
The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
by William B. Irvine
ISBN: 978-0195374612

“Stoic Joy”, “Practical Philosophy”, and other Oxymorons

I majored in philosophy many years ago in college, and ever since, I made a practice of reading a book on philosophy every ten years, rain or shine. But if all philosophical books were as clearly written, easily digestible, and potentially life-changing as William B. Irvine’s “Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy”, then I’d be reading this genre far more frequently.

In this book one learns that practitioners of Stoicism included prominent scions of Roman society such as Seneca, and even one of the greatest of the Roman Emperors, Marcus Aurelius. In contemporary times, Stoic thinking is a precursor to a predominant school of psychotherapy, called cognitive-behavioral therapy, and Stoic philosophy was credited by Viet Nam-era P.O.W. James Stockdale for his ability to withstand the horrors of captivity by the North Vietnamese. Such a powerful school of thinking deserves a thoughtful presentation, and Irvine’s tome did not disappoint.

Just as biology divides living organisms into two great kingdoms, animal and plant, so the field of philosophy divides itself into two realms: theoretical philosophy (including metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, and so on), and practical philosophy (ethics, existentialism). The vast majority of philosophizing done in universities today is in the realm of theoretical philosophy which is highly abstract and inaccessible to most, but the philosophy that intuitively appeals to people involves questions of how to live a better, wiser, richer, and more insightful life.

This is a great work of practical philosophy. I was amazed to read excepts from writings of the ancient Stoics showing just how little human nature has changed in thousands of years. And then I was delighted to discover how Prof. Irvine has applied these writings to the challenges of modern life. I laughed out loud from the author’s dry sense of humor and irony. The author reminded me of another great popularizer of philosophical ideas, Will Durant (author of “The Story of Philosophy”, published around 60 years ago); Irvine is similarly gifted in his ability to explicate complex ideas in a manner that is engaging for a general audience.

Posted in Happiness, Psychology/Psychiatry

Highest Duty

screenshot_73Highest Duty:
My Search for What Really Matters
by Jeffrey Zaslow
ISBN: 978-0061924682

3 Minutes in the Cockpit, a Lifetime of Preparation

“Sully” Sullenberger’s safe water landing of a US Airways Airbus A320 with 155 passengers and crew on board on January 15, 2009, was a phenomenal act of skill, experience, courage, and professionalism. Personally, the fact that he was nearly 60 years old on that cold day on the Hudson River made the story all the more inspiring for me (“score one for the old guys”, I remember thinking to myself!).

The book covers much more than the brief, ill-fated flight itself. Sully tells the story of his life, his family roots in small-town Texas, his early love of flying, the importance of family, and the various life experiences, mental habits, and deeply-held personal values that all came together to produce the man who was capable of performing so admirably when Flight 1549 was struck by a flock of Canada Geese and immediately lost power to all engines shortly after take-off. Some reviewers didn’t like the extended biographical parts of the book, but it was exactly what I was looking for: what goes into the make-up of someone who performs so well at his moment of life’s greatest test, what are the psychological antecedents of extraordinarily resilient performance under stress?

Sully’s book does not disappoint in this regard. He details the typical struggles of an “ordinary” American family: financial woes, job insecurity, marital and familial challenges, and the joys and challenges of parenthood. If not for the events of 15 January, 2009, Sully would have lived a competent but unknown life. But a high-flying flock of geese near Laguardia Airport changed all that, and the dramatic cockpit events are well-described also.

Having recently read Ben Sherwood’s excellent book, “The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life”, I read this book looking to identify some resiliency traits in Captain Chesley Sullenberger. Indeed, Sully’s real-life story demonstrates many qualities of highly resilient human beings, including traits found in “survivor” personalites. He has a backbone of core principles and personal integrity, a strong sense of meaning and purpose in life, the ability to work with others and both give and receive support to/from others, maintains healthy and sustainable daily habits, quickly faces facts and responds to those facts without wasting energy protesting against reality, and makes a habit of “situational awareness” that allows him to make use of the facts at hand and take advantage of whatever opportunities are available in the environment. Sullenberger writes that his personal value of “daily devotion to duty” (embracing, every day, with all your best effort, the path in life you’ve chosen), helped him to build the skills that he needed to call upon in his time of emergency and crisis.

Sullenberger’s life story is not just a Great American real-life drama with a happy ending, but also a great example of a person living life with great resiliency strengths and behaviors, prepared for adversity that life one day may or may not send up to challenge him.

Posted in Autobiography/Biography

The Napoleon of Crime

napoleon-of-crime260wThe Napoleon of Crime:
The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief
by Ben Macintyre
ISBN: 978-0307886460

Ben MacIntyre = The Napoleon of Storytellers

This is the 2nd Ben MacIntyre book I’ve read and I intend to continue reading the rest of his books. He has a knack for finding great stories, then telling them brilliantly, in a manner that is both fast-paced, yet also rich in historical detail. Oh, and he has a fine ironic, comic lens as well (as, for example, when he describes Adam Worth’s manservant and hoodlum bodyguard, John “Junka” Phillips, as a man of such gargantuan proportions that “his mother had obviously mated with a grizzly bear”).

Adam Worth himself was a classic “larger than life” character, rising from abject poverty as an antebellum eastern European immigrant, to elitist status in Victorian England, all through ill-gotten wealth, only to have the proverbial chickens come home to roost at long last. Worth’s ingenious and daring crimes, his eccentric underworld associates, and, very notably, the equally larger-than-life Pinkertons, in all their storied glory are all presented herein. The book is well sourced, supporting its historical accuracy.

The author has a gift for weaving together history, biography, psychology, and humor in a manner that kept me fascinated from cover to cover.

Posted in Autobiography/Biography

Shouting Won’t Help

shouting_wont-helpShouting Won’t Help
Why I — and 50 Million Other Americans — Can’t Hear You
by Katherine Bouton
ISBN: 978-0-374-26304-1

In Shouting Won’t Help, Katherine Bouton has written the most useful and interesting book in print about hearing disability — its probable causes, possible prevention, and state-of-the-art treatments. The book’s science is flawless, yet more significant to me are Bouton’s moving confessions about the personal, psychological, and day-to-day effects of hearing loss. And thanks to sincerity and style, the author has managed to transform what might have been a ho-hum treatise about deafness into a thoroughly enjoyable book.

Hearing loss (in some degree) affects 48 million persons in the USA (17 percent of our population), and 275 million persons around the world. Among senior citizens over age 70, two-thirds experience some hearing disabilities. Of growing concern is the fact that almost 20 percent of American teenagers (ages 12 to 19) have some hearing loss, and 5 percent of teenagers suffer from a serious hearing impairment.

Bouton writes:

“When I first learned how many Americans are hearing impaired, I was astounded. Hearing problems outnumber vision problems by the tens of millions.”

I have been blessed with perfect hearing, thanks to the careful protection of my ears from any sounds even near to loud. Nevertheless, this book captivated me for two main reasons: the number of people I know who have hearing loss, and the insights about the bane of my existence: Noise. Loud noise is not only the leading cause of hearing disabilities, it is a disruptor of creative activities, and a source of annoyance and stress. Except for those happy few who have have managed to escape to a Bora-Bora, everyone in the modern world should be concerned about the dangerous impact of noise on health and on the quality of life.

Bouton’s third chapter “Bring in ‘Da Noise!” begins this way:

“The sad truth is that many of us are responsible for our own hearing loss. The cause isn’t disease or genetics or accidental exposure to a toxin, or an explosion. It’s the noise we blithely subject ourselves to day after day.”

Noise is everywhere. Sports events and gyms are too loud. Music concerts — hard rock and sometimes even classical — are too loud. Subway systems and public spaces in New York City are too loud. Restaurants are some of the worst offenders, often driven by profit, since studies show that people will drink alcohol faster under the influence of loud noise. Even toys for young children are too loud, and iPods and other music-playing devices are clearly harming our children’s ears.

In this chapter, too, Bouton describes Thomas Carlyle’s struggle — and Everywriter’s struggle — for a quiet place to think and write. And she reminds us that excessive exposure to noise causes or aggravates many other health problems including hypertension, heart disease, disruption of stress hormones, and sleeping disorders.

For more information about Shouting Won’t Help, visit the author’s website: http://www.katherinebouton.com/

Related Links About Hearing

Acoustical Society of America
http://acousticalsociety.org/

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association
http://www.asha.org/

Hearing Loss, Mayo Clinic
http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/hearing-loss/DS00172

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD)
http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/Pages/default.aspx

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/

Posted in Sound Noise Hearing

Brain-Based Parenting

Brain-Based-Parenting-Baylin-Jonathan-9780393707281Brain-Based Parenting:
The Neuroscience of Caregiving for Healthy Attachment (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology)
by Daniel A. Hughes
ISBN: 978-0393707281

This book will help parents to manage their stress levels and creatively overcome many of the common dilemmas of parenting.

This is a clearly written book on how to stay open, responsive, and flexible in parenting and how to avoid or repair parenting mistakes when they occur, informed by remarkable scientific progress in the field of “interpersonal neurobiology” – how our relationships are shaped by our brain’s wiring, and how our brain functioning is altered by relationships.

What parts of the brain are involved in parenting? What happens when, due to anxiety, frustration, or stress, those parts of the brain shut down and the “defensive-protective” parts of the brain take over? What role do oxytocin, dopamine, and stress hormones play in shaping outcomes of parenting episodes?

The authors have identified 5 brain systems active in healthy parenting (Approach, Reward, Child-reading, Meaning-making, and Executive systems), as well as describing other brain regions activated in thwarted or “blocked” parenting, and a model for keeping the healthy, attentive, responsive, joyful systems active and open for business. The acronym for their model is “PACE” for Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, and Empathy.

There are many interesting insights, including the thesis that proper discipline isn’t really responsible for well-behaved children, but rather that the maintenance of an active, empathic, attuned, intersubjective connection between child and parent is what truly regulates the child into positive behaviors, as a result of the child’s efforts to maintain that secure, vital connection with the attuned parent. Even apart from the interesting (and painless) neuroscience, this manual is a surprisingly practical resource for how to stay on your parenting game and avoid “going limbic” when stressed or frustrated.

Posted in Child Maintenance

The Terrestrial Gospel of Nikos Kazantzakis

The Terrestrial Gospel of Nikos Kazantzakis
Translated and Edited by Thanasis Maskaleris

Paperback, 160 pages (ebook edition also available)
ISBN: 978-0927379-97-7

Published by Zorba Press

On March 30 (2013), Professor Thanasis Maskaleris — whose passion for life is no less than the fire of Zorba the Greek — received the Saloutos Award, in recognition for his many contributions to Greek literature and culture. Maskaleris has been touring the USA to discuss his newest book, an anthology of freshly-translated poetry, reverence for nature, and sublime ideas.

The Terrestrial Gospel
 is an anthology of passages selected from various books by Kazantzakis, centering on Nature and the workers of the soil. A powerful and poetic work that raises environmental awareness and calls us to compassionate action, the book contains new translations from the Greek originals to English, some original poems by Maskaleris, a Preface by Jean-Michel Cousteau, and an illuminating essay by ecologist, author, and film-maker, Michael Tobias.

Love supports survival … Nikos Kazantzakis’ love of Nature inspired him to write beautiful hymns to Her and to the human life rooted in the soil — as the selections for this Anthology movingly demonstrate.

Included in the new book are 
17 black-and-white photos of Greece and Crete; and these contributions from Kazantzakis scholars and experts:

  • Foreword from Athens by Patroclos Stavrou and Niki P. Stavrou
  • Preface by Jean-Michel Cousteau
  • Preface from Crete by Dr. Yannis Phillis
  • Preface from Arkadia by Dr. John Anton
  • Postscript by Dr. Peter Bien
  • Two illuminating essays by Michael Tobias and Michael Pastore
Nikos Kazantzakis at work

Nikos Kazantzakis at work

Having grown up on the fascinating island of Crete — close to trees, animals and wild peasants — he absorbed and retained the terrestrial life in his soul, and made it bloom in brilliant descriptions throughout all of his works. These poetic tributes are not mere “décor”  but  a vital source of ever regenerative human life, biological growth, individual spirit and ecological community. It is a poetic vision that is at once communal, and global, from one of the 20th century’s greatest writers.

Reading Kazantzakis’ passages in this book, one is not only delighted by their lyrical beauty but also inspired to revere the Earth, to live fully, never forsaking that all-abiding connection rooted in us which is the life force.

Let us hope that an embrace of  our natural habitat, such as Kazantzakis summons  in each of us, will help galvanize our resolve to respect, revere and collectively protect our one and only home, the Earth.

~~ M.P.

Posted in Green and Sustainable Living, Poetry, Zorba Press Books

Perfect Chaos

perfect-chaos260x420Perfect Chaos:
A Daughter’s Journey to Survive Bipolar, a Mother’s Struggle to Save Her
by Linea Johnson and Cinda Johnson
ISBN: 978-0312581824

You can’t fully understand mental illness unless you hear it from the patient’s and family’s point of view.

This is a very good book that deepened my understanding of mental illness, especially what it must be like to experience suicidal depression. It’s the story of an intact family that packs their talented, scholarship-winning daughter off to college only to see her crash and burn with a crippling, life-threatening depression and ultimate diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and the determined young woman’s first steps toward recovery. The book is written by the patient and her mother, with alternating entries, journal-style, of one to three pages at a time.

There a few minor shortcomings and let me get those out of the way first:

(1) Melodrama: it seems barely a page goes by without mother, daughter, or both, gushing tears like water over Horseshoe falls at Niagara. They cry in bathrooms, bedrooms, living rooms, at work, in class, at parties or in therapy sessions, while stoned or sober, while driving their cars in Seattle or walking the streets of Chicago, in coffee houses, hospital bedsides, doctors’ office waiting rooms, during airplane rides as well as departure and arrival gates; this is the most lacrimating family in the history of western civilization. They cry tears of sadness, worry, joy, relief, anger, regret, or for reasons unknown to the protagonists themselves. I realize this tale is one of mortal drama and not mere contrived melodrama, but — how to say this without appearing incredibly robotic and unfeeling? — one craves some respite (at least a page or two, perhaps) from protracted narratives of tears running down cheeks, smearing make-up, worries about the stares from strangers in public places, etc., ad infinitum;
Read more ›

Posted in Child Maintenance, Psychology/Psychiatry
About BookLovers Review
BookLovers Review (BLR) highlights the innovative books and films, present and past, that enrich our lives. We focus on literary fiction, non-fiction about personal and cultural transformation, the classics, and —"the best words in the best order" — poetry.
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