Sunday, October 24, 2010

Are shows like the X Factor and the Apprentice good or evil?

The safe view, especially in such a purportedly high-brow blog as this, would be that reality TV shows are a bad thing. It wouldn't take long to come up with a whole host of arguments to support this view. For example - The X Factor puts money into Simon Cowell's already over-loaded money-bag, the show puts too much pressure on the vulnerable contestants (witness Susan Boyle in BGT), there's a pantomime element to the arguments between the judges and. above all, surely watching the X Factor isn't the good life? Similarly, the Apprentice has made  a hero - nay, a Lord -  out of Alan Sugar, gives air time to some rather unpleasant and over-ambitious characters and  lauds crude capitalist values.
And yet, and yet ....in her book on Positive Psychology. Ilona Boniwell points out that research shows that whilst watching TV in general reduces happiness (so go on a TV diet!) watching TV soaps like Eastenders is actually correlated with increased happiness.  My hunch is that  this is mainly because watching Soaps  creates a sense of community with their friends, family and colleagues who also  watch the show. So whilst watching TV is bad for you, having a sense of community is good for you and outweighs the harm from watching TV.
Could the same apply to watching reality TV shows like the X Factor ? Well,maybe, just maybe. Speaking personally my young family and I look forward to watching these shows and have a lot of fun debating the merits of various contestants and predicting what will happen next. Would it be better if we spent the winter evenings discussing Plato or playing old games like charades or writing stories for each other? Quite possibly - but then would we be doing those things if we weren't watching the X Factor?
So it's a cautious  thumbs up from me. Do you agree -  or am, I, to follow the theme of this week's X Factor show - just rationalising one of my own guilty pleasures?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Greyhound Racing and the Meaning of Life

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As someone who  has previously compared our search for unattainable and unworthy life goals to the pursuit of the artificial hare by racing greyhounds I was very excited to find the above story and  video.

It seems that one cold night  an Australian hare decided that of all the places to take its evening stroll,  the local dog track would prove the one most congenial to its happiness and well-being.  But my interest lies not in the skewed reasoning of the hare, instructive though that may be, but in the reaction of six dogs, who were at that very moment engaged in their eternally unsuccessful pursuit of the dummy hare. Moreover whilst I applaud the quick thinking of Ginny Lou, the one mutt who  diverted her attention to the real hare, my real concern is with the five greyhounds who carried on chasing the dummy one.

Never mind thirty years of hurt, how many generations of greyhounds have waited for this very moment, when they would actually get a chance to catch the real thing?  So it was a real pity that only one dog took its chance ....
What really interests me more than leporine or canine stupidity is how this relates to human beings and the meaning of our lives. I wonder whether it could be the case that some of us are like those greyhounds, chasing after things that  either we aren't going to get or if  if we did get them we'd be disappointed.
What are the dummy hares in our lives?  Money, success, promotion, praise and some achievements  might all sometimes be metaphorical dummy hares for humans.
Conversely,  what attainable goals might actually bring more meaning to your life? Friendship, love, helping others, adventure and  fun are likely candidates -or can you think of better ones?
I'll end with the most important question of all. If these and other attainable ways to meaning came your way, would you, like Ginny Lou, notice them and change direction  or would you, like the other five dogs, carry on serenely down the path to meaninglessness?

Or am I being too pessimistic?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Searching for Meaning with Viktor Frankl

Last night fifteen of us braved the heat to spend 3 hours exploring how the great Austrian existential psychiatrist Viktor Frankl could help us find more meaning in life.

I thought it would be worthwhile (meaningful even) to jot down a few conclusions.
  • The meaningless life might be one of depression (many depressives speak of lack of meaning) but it also be one of mundaneness. Both Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilyich and Abba's The Day Before you Came are examples of comforting to "the herd" and living an automaton-like existence more than being actively depressed.
  • Sometimes we need a jolt to awaken us from this meaningless state. It can be a brush with one's mortality or reading a book like Frankl's Man Search for Meaning
  • The YOU in the Abba song could refer to any number of possible sources of meaning, including
    • a lover
    • a union with someone or something
    • the divine
    • finding one's true vocation
    • awareness of one's mortality
    • winning the lottery
  • Frankl doesn't think there is any one meaning in life to be found any more than any one right move in the game of chess. There may be a best move in a particular position in chess and in life it's a case of detecting where meaning can be found in your life.
  • There is a responsibility for us to make our lives meaningful -just as we would feel a responsibility to save a drowning man.
  • Frankl can help us broaden our awareness of where this meaning may lie with a series of thought experiments
  • The "Rocking Chair" thought experiment helps us get more in touch with how our life may be meaningful in our future.
  • Frankl identified three areas of meaning - attitude, creations and experiences.The acronym ACE (not Frankl's! )can be used to remember these three areas.
  • The Andy Dufresne character in the Shawshank Redemption illustrates. For example in the scene where Andy gets stock for the prison library and then defies the warders by playing Mozart loudly to the whole prison shows
    • Attitudes of defiance, courage, perseverance, optimism, hope and love
    • Makes a difference to his fellow prisoner's day - both as a role model and changing their mundane grind into a special moment.
    • Gives Andy and his fellow inmates the aesthetic experience of Mozart - both at the time and when Andy recalls it when "in the whole" and also the experience of commune with each other
  • We can usefully think about what similar attitudes, creations and experiences will give our lives meaning.
  • It is important to look at this in concrete as well as abstract terms. One can do this by thinking about how one's life can be more meaningful in the next week. What attitudes, creations and experiences we can have in the next week.
  • We then need to think about what specifically we need to do and what obstacles we need to overcome
  • Some tips the group came up with to help included
    • writing down advantages and putting this list in a place we can see it
    • making a start however we feel
    • getting help from others (and avoiding those who will hinder)
    • asking what is the worst that can happen
    • recording our fears and comparing with what actually happens
    • breaking down large tasks into small manageable steps

We meet again next week, hopefully having got a step closer to living a life of meaning.