Sunday, April 7, 2013

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, March 2013

Reviews of books read last month: all three books were non-fiction.
My fascination with psychology seems to know no bounds.  I started a
novel too, but haven't finished it yet.

A bit of an experiment this month: I've limited myself to three
hours to write the reviews.

1. "The Resiliency Advantage" by Al Siebert

Resiliency, the ability to adapt and cope with life's changes, is not
an innate talent.  It is a skill that can be learnt just like any other.
The book's subtitle is: "Master Change, Thrive Under Pressure, and
Bounce Back from Setbacks".  The author is a clinical psychologist and

The book looks at the attributes of highly resilient people: those
suffering chronic pain or life-changing disabilities, and survivors
of terrible adversity.  The examples and anecdotes are backed up by
research findings.  Attributes that help build resilience include the
ability to solve problems, curiosity, willingness to try new and
possibly uncomfortable or challenging things, and openness to
serendipity.  This last point helps turn accidents or misfortune into

Resiliency requires a healthy view of three aspect of one's "self":
self-esteem, self-confidence and self-concept.  An interesting
argument the author makes is that people who never complain and
always try to please others (i.e. to be a "good child") can actually
harm their ability to cope with their problems.  Detachment and a
modest level of selfishness can help people become resilient.

The author challenges the concept of stress.  Often the thing causing
stress is not the real problem, but rather how we choose to internalise
it and react to it.  Just as straining muscles in an exercise routine
helps strengthen them, coping with the strains of everyday life helps
strengthen our "resiliency" muscles.  This makes me wonder if many
parents are actually harming their children by always trying to make
their children's lives as easy as possible.  Too much sheltering from
helicopter parents could backfire when the child grows up and has to
face life's challenges on their own.

2. "How to Thrive in the Digital Age" by Tom Chatfield

Advances in technology are changing the way we live our lives.  This
book looks at how our "wired", continuously "plugged in" lifestyles
impact our
work, leisure, relationships and politics.

The author points out both the benefits and drawbacks of the digital
age.  While we have access to more information than ever before, not
all the information is of equal quality.  He argues "much as online
authority has increasingly become divorced from expertise, so, it
seems, cultural production is becoming divorced from talent".  Other
issues include information overload, the dehumanising effect from
instant gratification, escapism, and the feeling of isolation.
Technology is not the root cause of these problems, but just an
enabler.  As such, we can learn to take control of the situation to
help mitigate the problems.

The author makes some interesting points about the consequences of
technology, and provides some useful suggestions for thriving and
flourishing in the digital age.

3. "Stumbling on Happiness" by Daniel Gilbert

It seems like an easy question: what makes us happy?  The author, a
professor of psychology at Harvard, argues that we can't be relied upon
to give a decent answer.  In the foreword he writes: "This book is
about a puzzle that many thinkers have pondered over the last two
millennia, and it uses their ideas (and a few of my own) to explain why
we seem to know so little about the hearts and minds of the people we
are about to become".  He covers psychology, cognition, neuroscience,
economics and philosophy to make his argument.

Findings include:
* Happiness is very subjective.  As they say, "one man's meat is
  another man's poison".
* We're not very good at predicting the future.
* We're not even particularly reliable remembering the past.
* Our memories are selective.
* Our thinking is subject to biases.
* Major events which we expect would have a lasting impact on our
  happiness (e.g. winning the lottery or becoming handicapped), will
  affect us in the short term, but then we will eventually return to
  our individual "default" level of happiness.

When making decisions about the future, and how that affects our
happiness, we often resort to thoughts and imagination.  But there
are three major shortcomings of imagination:
 1. Its tendency to fill in and leave out without telling us (Realism).
 2. Its tendency to project the present onto the future (Presentism).
 3. Its failure to recognise that things look different once they
    happen - in particular, that bad things will look a whole lot
    better (Rationalisation).

So, if imagination leads us astray, what are we to do when trying to
make important decisions?  According to the author, the best advice
is to ask others who have already made similar decisions to see if
they're happy or not with their choices.

The author also makes some potentially controversial claims regarding
life as a "belief-transmission game".  In particular, we believe in
the joy of money and the joy of children.  Regarding money, research
shows that beyond a certain amount, additional income does not lead
to increased happiness.  Regarding children, research studies show
that marital satisfaction actually dips just after the birth and
only picks up when the nest empties.

Overall, the author makes a persuasive case, often with humour.  There
is no simple, universal formula for finding happiness.  We probably
shouldn't try to think too much about making ourselves happy, since
we have unreliable ideas on the subject.  Instead, we should take
each day as it comes, accept what we have, and make the most of the
situations we find ourselves in. And where possible, seek the advice
of people more experienced than ourselves.