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March 2009

Happiness Research Proves Milton Friedman Wrong

I have been reluctantly dipping into the new "happiness" research in psychology. What distresses me is not the wine (essentially right out of Aristotle and the wisdom literature from time immemorial), nor the bottle (experimental psychology), but the implicit enythmeme that goes like this:

1. Science has shown...

2. Happiness is...

I would prefer this disquisition:

Until we became market obsessed, it was common knowledge, in all moral, literary, philosophical and folk traditions that happiness or a successful human life is essentially gregarious, a matter of excellence and virtue in solidarity with others as part of a just community.  Aristotle was eloquent on such topics, as was the Buddha, Jesus,  Lao Tzu, Confucius, Wordsworth, and George Eliot.  Economics, as it became denatured into the mathmatics of selfishness,  took us astray. Now, here and there a few mildly well educated psychologists have found objective evidence that Crusoe was a miserable man, a failure as a human being, and the image of the isolated entrepreneur (who self-creates himself on an island by pilfering the necessities from the wrecked ship of state on which his colleagues died).  

Instead of such a social critique, I am afraid that happiness research tends towards corporate consulting contracts, self-help books, therapeutic interventions, and uplifting blather.   How about if we said that happiness research proves Ayn Rand wrong?

"Call no man happy until he is dead," as the Greeks said. That Oedipus was unhappy as he slew his father or slept with his mother would not have been discovered by testing his serotonin levels or having him fill out a handy happiness self-reporting form. By all reports he felt righteous bliss as the sword hissed, and ecstacy as his mother bucked beneath him.  Happiness is bound up with moral and political theory, no less than psychology and physiology- a proposition that would have won the assent, not only of Aristotle, but of Locke, Hume, and Adam Smith whose works stand behind the analytic tradition of our current happiness research. (At Oxford, an undergrad may study PPP, or Philosophy, Psychology and Physiology or PPE, Philosophy, Psychology, and Economics.) But science has shown that a good liberal arts education is a total waste of time.  Better to be a learned fool experimenting in a lab, than wise, you will enjoy it more and be more in touch with your readers. Science has shown that hard data is more instructive than tragedy. Tragic wisdom is the catharthis maybe by which a sick society heals itself by coming to self-recognition.  Happiness research I am afraid just dulls the pain, citizen by atomized citizen, like a drug that leaves the disease - atomiziation and injustice - unchanged  and unchallenged.

Happiness unearned is a moral disease, the cure is misery.  Self-blinded, bereft, Oeipus calls himself happy at the end of the play because he knows how vicious he was. He is happy because he got what he deserved and knows it.  When will happiness research in America rise to what Aristotle knew of the subject in his Ethics,  Poetics, and Politics? Another one thousand years, maybe. Well, what the heck, I should get with the program. Happiness studies are a lucrative field.


Hello .. can anyone argue that there is not, today, a de facto plutocracy in charge of the USA’s economy ?  Bailing out bankers whilst attacking the foundations of Medicare and Social Security in the euphemistic guise of “entitlement reform” because fiscal responsibility is necessary ?

Yet, we will probably also have higher income tax brackets for the wealthy, and maybe lower deductions, including the charitable deduction, to pay for health care reform.

The Philanthropist (Philanthrope)

My, my:

Two-time Tony Award® winner Matthew Broderick (The Producers) stars in this biting comedy that turns Molieré's The Misanthrope on its cynical ear. Set at an elite British university in the near future,

The Philanthropist is about nice-guy professor Phil (Broderick), who - in refusing to succumb to his colleagues' excessively critical ways - winds up destroying his own credibility in the twisted world of academia...and in the bedroom!

Nonprofits strained to breaking point, NFF survey says

NFF: "America's nonprofits, including the "lifeline" organizations that many depend on for food, shelter, and other basic services, are strained to the breaking point, according to a survey released today by Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF). The survey of 986 nonprofit leaders in markets nationwide captures the financial state and particular challenges facing these organizations."

Association of Fundraising Professionals: Planning Giving Workshop

Speaking for 8 hours on Planned Giving here, or rather speaking and facilitating. The moral of that presentation is that wealthy people need and want to talk about meaning and purpose and love and family and community, before they get down to talking about financial and legal tools and techniques.  Where would you rather talk about your life, its impact, your children, your community and what it all means?

  • A law office at $450 an hour
  • A fortune 100 financial services offce
  • A table in your own house of worship, or school, or study group, or women's group, with a few trusted peers, speaking in the language in which you discuss death and love when alone with your own thoughts, the language in which you "dwell," raising your children, saying your prayers, making your case when confronting your own conscience.  

You might frame the questions differently, but you see the point. Nonprofits are where we go when we do things for love, rather than just the money. They are a good staging area for conversations about what matters most to their wealthy constituents.  That, rather than tools, techniques,  and transactions, is the competitive edge that nonprofits have over the commericial providers of philanthropic services.  Yet, it is the forprofits who today are emerging as "trusted advisors" around meaning and purpose. And it is the forprofit planned giving programs that are transactional. Something is wrong with that pictur. Yes, one can understand why nonprofits are driven to get the money in the door fast.  Yes, one can also understand why wealthy people don't like the transactional process and go elsewhere when serious issues and money are discussed.

Crooked GDP

Greenspan looks back with pride, "Remember, prior to the crisis, the U.S. economy exhibited an impressive degree of productivity advance." Yes, we sold a huge amount to toxic assets to one another. Each fraudulent transaction was booked to GDP. Madoff also had quite impressive performance over the same period. Had we put the crooks in jail before they did their crimes, the economy would have gone nowhere. The moral is that regulating crooks is bad for us all.

Purchasing Pox-Corrupted Assets from Wealth Bondage

I notice in the discussion of what amounts to systemic financial corruption, phrases like:

  • toxic assets
  • clogging the system
  • congesting the system

What all this implies is that the system is healthy, just with a few toxic byproducts, and that our current ills are like a cold or allergy or a stopped up pipe. What if corruption is the right word? What will be done with the putrid assets and those who produced them, profited from them, and are still role models for anyone who wants to get rich within the law through shifting risk to others and aggrandizing gain to oneself?  Contagious is maybe a good term too; corruption is systemic and contagious.  Maybe the plague is a good analogy too.  Wounded healers carrying plague with them as they attempt to cure the pustule congested cases.  Bring out your toxic dead!, cries the Treasury, ringing its bell down Wall Street.  Let Greenspan marry the poxed corpse he created.

Teaching Gen Y: One Real World Discussion

One of the Gen Y tech people at the College where I work is doing a paper for a course he is taking. The topic is how Gen Y learns differently than do the Boomers or even Gen X. He asked me for input on the blue-sky questions: How is the College positioned for teaching Gen Y? What holds us back? And what can be done? Jon Husband, who sends me lots of links, added this one to the conversation.

Unless the learning styles of Gen Y are accommodated many a College will not perform up to par, and some may fail as going concerns.  The best step forward might be constant experimentation at the margins, on low budgets, with small audiences, in perpetual online beta.  In researching this the "stoppers" I keep hitting are these: 

  1.  How do we test online learning in a way so tight that the accrediting bodies will approve it? ("On the internet no one knows you are a dog," so how do we verify that those we converse with or test online are really who they say they are?Today, at my College, students read big tomes, fill in study guides, take practice objective exams, then go to a testing center where their identity is verified and the test is taken on a computer under controlled conditions. 
  2. Immersive conversation is expensive to deliver and monitor. A class of 25 in a discussion thread, or on Webex, would be busy.
  3. Assuming that testing means validation by having the student do a real world action project, that means additional teacher time to grade, in comparison to objective testing of memorized info in a Examination on Demand Testing Center.
  4. For an enrollment of 500 people a year (my current load) online immersive learning with graded action projects does not scale without "adjuncts." And that gets into money, pricing of the educational product, and the price sensitivity of an audience that is drawn in part from nonprofits.

I am tending towards Moodle or Movable Type as "sandboxes" to test online learning in a graduate level symposium, maybe with H. Peter Karoff on the topic of Philanthropy and the Moral Imagination. It could be spiced up with high quality webcasts. Ning is a possible discussion site, but cannot be run behind a firewall, which may be a design imperative when clients include Fortune 100 financial services firms who expect everything to be buttoned down as tightly as possible lest the inmates take over the asylum, or confidential info be shared by advisors in a wide-open setting, or at all.  Hierarchy meets Wirearchy, and Gen Y meets Boomers.  I am betting on the insurgents, and hope we can strike a balance with hierarchical realities.  In other words, show some respect to your elders, you Gamers! Geezers rule. Forever! Now fetch me my cane.

Valuing Impact Conference

Valuing Impact, a first ever conference for those who evaluate nonprofits.  The conference, to be held in London, is organized by New Philanthropy Capital, in association with Bertelsmann Foundation. The hope is to evolve from this an Association of Nonprofit Analysts to steer dollars towards the most impactful nonprofits in given issue areas.  Recent research reports for funders by NPC are available here.