Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Summer Reading Group 2022 (FLOW, post #4)


  This is the fourth and final installment of my book review of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. (post #1 is here, post #2 here, post #3 here).

            Chapter 9 of Flow is titled “Cheating Chaos”.  Csikszentmihaly begins the chapter by noting that many people may still (erroneously) believe that it must be easy for people to be happy if they have the good fortune to have money, health and looks.  Many people design their plan of living around this foundational belief.  And for such people talk of “flow” is simply additional icing on the cake of having these other attributes.  Csikszentmihaly notes that the central premise of the book is that such an outlook is spectacularly mistaken.  And that is because this outlook misses the central key to optimal experience- our subjective experience.  “Subjective experience is not just one of the dimensions of life, it is life itself” (192).  Without control over our psychic energy, Csikszentmihaly contends that wealth and health will have little impact on our wellbeing.

Csikszentmihaly focuses on a number of moving examples of people who, faced with severe disadvantages, were able to enjoy optimal experience because they were able to control their consciousness.  The examples include a young man (Lucio) who became paraplegic in a motorcycle accident, but then went on to become a regional champion in archery.  Lucio remarked, after his accident “It was like being born again.  I had to learn from scratch everything I used to know, but in a different way…. As far as the future is concerned, I hope to keep improving, to keep breaking through the limitations of my handicap… (194)”. 

There is a similar story for Franco, another person with paraplegia.  Before his accident, he worked as an electrician and enjoyed acrobatic dancing.  After the accident Franco became an counselor for other paraplegics, and said the most important goal in his life, after the accident, was “to feel that I can be of use to others, to help recent victims to accept their situation” (104). 

Other examples mentioned include a group of blind people.  Paolo, who lost his vision when he was 24 (and is now 30), didn’t consider his blindness a positive influence in his life.  However, he did see 4 positive outcomes of this tragedy:  (i) while he accepted his limits, he was always going to try to overcome them, (ii) he always strives to change situations he doesn’t like (iii) he is very careful not to repeat mistakes and (iv) he now has no illusions, but tries to be tolerant towards himself, so he can be more tolerant towards others (195).

Csikszentmihaly also discusses some examples of homeless people, like Reyad, who described most of his life as being in the state of flow, as a spiritual quest.  Despite living in material conditions most people would find unbearable, Reyad was able to find meaning and joy.

Csikszentmihaly then turns to the issue of coping with stress.  Even if one has the good fortune to avoid the circumstances described above, such as a debilitating injury or extreme poverty, we will all experience stress.  And how we cope with that stress will have a profound impact on our happiness and wellbeing.  Csikszentmihaly notes there are 3 different kinds of resources (p. 198-99) that people can have for coping with stress:

(1)   Social support network (friends and family)

(2)   One’s psychological resources- such as intelligence, education and relevant personality factors

(3)   Coping strategies that one uses to comfort themselves when stress arises.

Csikszentmihaly focuses on (3), though I was puzzled a bit by this.  I didn’t think he provided a compelling justification for this.  He asserts (199) that external supports are not, by themselves, that effective in mitigating stress.  But I felt more needed to be said about (1) and (2). 

            He argues that there are two main ways people respond to stress:  (1) MATURE DEFENCE, and (2) NEUROTIC DEFENCE “or regressive coping”.  To illustrate the difference between these two ways of dealing with stress he gives the example of Jim, an analyst who loses his job.  If he withdraws, sleeps in, denies what happened, turn his anger to friends and family, get drunk, etc….. these are the negative strategies of neurotic defence.  By contrast, he can keep his cool, analyze the problem logically and reassess his priorities in life.  Csikszentmihaly notes most people do not rely exclusively on one strategy, but rather we may start with some negative coping strategies, getting drunk the first night of being fired, getting into an argument with family, etc.  Then after a day or week we shift to the more mature defence approach.  What separates people’s ability to deal with stress is their ability to eventually transition from the negative to positive approach.  People who are capable of transforming adversity into something positive or good are rare individuals.  But how do such people do this?  This is what Csikszentmihaly focuses on next.

One’s sense of self seems to be the central determinate of one’s coping skills (and opportunity to realize flow).  A person with a strong self of self will have personally selected goals (vs simply following goals they have been told to pursue from others) and thus they are protected from the sense of serious erosion of the self that might arise from external disappointment.  By contrast if your sense of worth comes from parental or societal approval, you will suffer when they signal disappointment with your decisions or accomplishments.

            The ability to transform adversity into growth and positivity stems, argues Csikszentmihaly, from 3 transformative steps:

(1)   Unconscious self-assurance :  believing that your destiny is in your hands.  You don’t see yourself in opposition to the environment, but rather are in harmony with it.  Confidence plus humility (not arrogance).  His example involves a person who has to get to work on time but the car won’t start.  The person who tries, over and over again, to get their car started, flooding the engine and getting angry and wasting time vs the person who calmly enacts plan  B- take a taxi to work today!  The central goal for the day is to get to work on time, a person with unconscious self-assurance has the flexibility to shift the means to achieve that goal from driving there to taking a taxi vs the person who gets stuck in the frustration of the sub-goal of driving themself to work.

(2)   Focusing attention on the world.  If one’s psychic energy is mostly focused inwards towards one’s ego (vs the environment) they will struggle to transform stress into enjoyable challenges.  Telic individuals do not spend all their time trying to satisfy what they believe are their needs.  Instead the focus is on processing info from the environment.  This enables one to adapt, to still pursue one’s goals but do so in a fashion informed/shaped by the constraints and challenges they encounter. When the car doesn’t start in the morning your mind needs to transcend the fixation on what will happen if you are late or the car itself, so you can think of an alternative way to get to work.  Csikszentmihaly shares a rather morbid example of a parachuter who, having been told he was given a left-handed parachute during an exercise because they didn’t have enough right-handed parachutes, fatally died when he failed to pull it with his other hand.  When they examined his body they found evidence he pulled so hard with the other side, pulling his flesh off.  He was unable to tell himself to pull with his left hand (the environment was signally this was needed!) and instead sadly repeated his trained habits, costing him his life.

(3)   The discovering of new solutions.  Two strategies are identified for dealing with situations of psychic entropy.  The first is to focus on the obstacles that obstruct the realization of your goal, and to work on removing those obstacles.  The second strategy is to assess the whole situation, including oneself, and thus the possibility that different goals (and thus solutions) might be advisable. 


The chapter concludes with a summary of the 4 core elements of the autotelic personality.  These are:

(a)   Setting goals.

(b)  Becoming immersed in an activity.

(c)   Paying attention to what is happening.

(d)  Learning to enjoy immediate experience.


Group exercise:  Some topics for discussion and debate from chapter 9:

In terms of some specifics we might focus on this issue, perhaps think of how you have coped (or failed to cope) with stressful events in your own life.  Did you react to these challenges with mature or neurotic defence?  Did you gain any valuable insights into your own personality when grappling with adversity?  Think of ongoing challenges you continue to face, are there different ways of looking at problems or solutions that might help you make progress on dealing with specific challenges?

Reflecting on your own personal experiences and observations, how important do you think the 3 resources identified in this chapter are?

(1)   Social support network (friends and family)

(2)   One’s psychological resources- such as intelligence, education and relevant personality factors

(3)   Coping strategies that one uses to comfort themselves when stress arises.

The last chapter of Flow is titled “The Making of Meaning” and it addresses what I think is the most critical part of the central message behind the book- how does flow contribute, overall, to our living a good life.  One may experience optimal flow in one specific aspect of life- say at work, or in a hobby, or a relationship- but that does not mean we realize meaning and fulfilment overall.  Csikszentmihaly provides the examples of Picasso and Bobby Fisher as individuals who were deeply committed to painting and chess and explored flow in those activities but, when outside of these activities, were unpleasant or unhappy people.  What flow really needs is a meta-account of the good life, one that transcends a focus on one specific aspect of our lives.  And this is a critical message to convey, otherwise people might mistakenly think that cultivating the autotelic personality in one specific arena of life- such work or a hobby- is the road to personal fulfilment.  Csikszentmihaly argues that one last step of control in consciousness is needed- turning all life into a unified flow experience (10).  This is necessary because the specific contributors to our flow experience- family relationships, work, hobbies, etc.- are fleeting and subject to change over time.  So if your meaning in life is tied to just parenting or work you will really struggle as your kids get older or you retire.  What we need, contends Csikszentmihaly, is to find meaning (traditionally this was provided by belief in a deity).

He acknowledges that meaning is a difficult concept to define.  He identifies 3 ways the concept is often utilized:

(1)   Refers to an end or ultimate goal (purpose):  “what is the meaning of life?”   

(2)   Refers to a person’s intentions (resolution).   Our purposes are revealed in action. 

(3)   Refers to ordering information such as the relationship between events, establishing some order between apparently unrelated or conflicting information (harmony).

Csikszentmihaly’s account of meaning is thus “the bringing order to the contents of mind by integrating one’s actions into a unified flow experience” (216) and this involves all three of the types of meaning he identifies.

Individuals who have meaning in their lives thus have a goal that consumes their physic energies- to win a game, make friends, etc.  This is purpose, and achieving this goal is actually of secondary importance as the really important thing is focusing one’s physic energy on pursuing the goal (not actually achieving it).  This relates to (2) as purpose results in striving, effort, or resolution (217).  Our energy is invested in trying to achieve this goal vs wasted somewhere else (e.g. on things that distract us from flow and meaning).  This second sense of meaning is critical as having a goal, but not the concerted effort to engage in the activity needed to realize that goal, will undermine meaning in our lives.  Many people are great at setting goals for themselves, but lack the skills needed to pursue and attain them- they give up at the first challenge or disappointment, mistakenly thinking it is the realization of the goal (vs the intention and striving) that really matters.

Csikszentmihaly contends that (1) and (2) thus lead to (3), which is a harmony in one’s consciousness.  “When an important goal is pursued with resolution, all one’s varied activities fit together into a unified flow experience, the result is that harmony is brough to consciousness” (217).   Bringing these points together we thus get a concise account of the central conclusion of this chapter:  PURPOSE, RESOLUTION AND HARMONY UNIFY LIFE AND GIVE IT MEANING BY TRANSFORMING IT INTO A SEAMLESS FLOW EXPERIENCE (217-8).  But how can we attain this?  That is the next topic Csikszentmihaly addresses in the chapter.

When discussing the setting of goals, Csikszentmihaly invokes a gradient of complexity with respect to individual development.  This coheres very closely with Kegan’s distinction between the socialized mind, the self-authoring mind and transformative mind.  (According to Kegan, the former  (approximately 58% of the population) just internalize the values and roles socially prescribed to them.  But the latter two conceptions of the mind, achieved by only a minority of adults, 35% and 1% respectively, can stand back and critically assess societal norms and roles).  Csikszentmihaly notes 4 stages of individual development with respect to purpose/meaning, that involve an oscillatation between the self and Other.  In the first stage we equate our purpose with our survival needs- our energy is invested in getting survival, comfort and pleasure.  Once this is achieved we equate meaning with group values- religion, patriotism, etc.  Then, having achieved a sense of belonging to a larger collectivity, we oscillate back to the self in the next stage, where enjoyment (rather than pleasure) becomes our focus.  We become “a seeker”, faced with a mid-life crisis, career change, etc.  And then, finally, “having discovered what one can, and cannot, do alone, the ultimate goal merges with a system larger than the person- a cause, an idea, a transcendental reality” (222). Like Kegan’s account, Csikszentmihaly notes that not everyone goes through all these stages of development.  Some, because their basic needs are at risk, never go beyond the first stage.  And Csikszentmihaly contends that the majority of people never go beyond the second stage, where the country, family, community, etc. is the source of meaning.

With respect to resolution, Csikszentmihaly notes the importance of the interdependence of action and reflection:

Activity and reflection should ideally complement and support each other.  Action by itself is blind, reflection impotent.  Before investing great amounts of energy in a goal, it pays to raise the fundamental questions:  is this something I really want to do? Is it something I enjoy doing?  Am I likely to enjoy it in the foreseeable future?  Is the price that I- and others- will pay worth it?  Will I be able to life with myself if I accomplish it? (226)

Harmony, the third feature of meaning Csikszentmihaly identifies, thus involves a harmony between reason and choice.  “When a person’s psychic energy coalesces into a life theme, consciousness achieves harmony” (230).  But can this harmony transcend the traditional narratives of religious culture?  I believe this is the real challenge for positive psychology.  Csikszentmihaly argues:

If a new faith is to capture our imagination, it must be one that will account rationally for the things we know, the things we feel, the things we hope for, and the ones we dread.  It must be a system of beliefs that will marshal our psychic energy toward meaningful goals, a system that provides rules for a way of life that can provide flow (239).  


Group Exercise:  A few things we might consider from chapter 10 include:

(1)   When you reflect on purpose, intention and harmony in your own life, what is the relation between the self and Other?

(2)   What obstacles have you faced when it comes to finding purpose or action in your own life?  How have did you overcome some of these constraints (if you have)?

(3)   Do you think science can replace religion in terms of providing us with a life of meaning? 

Lots of interesting topics to discuss in these two final chapters from the book!  Looking forward to the discussion.



Thursday, July 28, 2022

A Tale of Two Johns (Part 2)

The title of this post is the sequel to this earlier post about John Dewey and John Rawls.   But I will change one of the Johns in this post.  This post is about John Haldane and John Rawls, and the two different (though related) insights they advanced which have major implications for egalitarianism, which basically changed the trajectory of my career over the past 20 years.

As noted in my earlier post, Rawls was the focus of my PhD thesis back in 1999, and for a period of time (1997-2004) I considered myself "A Rawlsian".  During that time I published the following articles, broadly defending or refining Rawls's project:

Colin Farrelly, “Does Rawls Support the Procedural Republic?” Politics 19(1) (1999): 29-35.

Colin Farrelly, “Incentives and the Natural Duties of Justice” Politics 20(1) (2000): 19-24.

Colin Farrelly, “Justice and a Citizens’ Basic Income” Journal of Applied Philosophy 16(3) (1999): 283-296.

Colin Farrelly, “Public Reason, Neutrality and Civic Virtues” Ratio Juris: An International Journal of Jurisprudence and Philosophy of Law 12(1) (1999): 11-25.

Colin Farrelly, “Genes and Social Justice: A Rawslian Reply to Moore”, Bioethics 16(1) (2002): 72- 83.

Colin Farrelly, “The Genetic Difference Principle” American Journal of Bioethics, 4(2) (2004): W21-28.

Colin Farrelly, “Dualism, Incentives and the Demands of Rawlsian Justice” Canadian Journal of Political Science 38(3) (2005): 675-95.

Then, after I had more fully processed a number of critical developments that occurred in the early 2000s, such as the sequencing of the human genome (which inspired me to learn more about human genetics, evolutionary biology and biogerontology), and Sept 11th (2001), and  my switching from teaching in philosophy departments to political science (in 2001), I became the "non-ideal" critic of Rawls that I still am today.  The shift is most evident in these two older publications, and a more recent book chapter: 

Colin Farrelly, “Justice in Ideal Theory: A Refutation” Political Studies 55 (2007): 844–864.

Justice, Democracy and Reasonable Agreement (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007).

“The “Focusing Illusion” of Rawlsian Ideal Theory” in John Rawls: Debating the Major Questions (edited by Sarah Roberts-Cady and Jon Mandle) (Oxford University Press, 2020).

When I reflect upon my "Rawlsian past" I put the allure it had for me at the time to what was perhaps Rawls's most influential insight in political philosophy- some inequalities in life are the product of choice, and other inequalities are the product of chance.  Justice, for Rawls, was concerned only with mitigating the latter.  This is the position known as "luck egalitarianism", the dominant theory in analytic political philosophy during the 1980s and 1990s.  While I enjoyed following these debates at the time, I really wish the discipline had instead taken more seriously a much more profound, and important, insight from the evolutionary biologist John Haldane.

Haldane was one of a number of important biologists (Fisher, Hamilton, and Medawar) in the middle of the 20th century that made significant contributions to the biology of aging.  The critical insight Haldane made, which has been a focal point of my academic research for nearly the past 20 years, is expressed eloquently by him in the following passage from his 1963 book review of the life tables for England and Wales (1841-1960).  Haldane remarked that "Natural selection sees to it that genes causing early death or sterility are fairly rare.  On the other hand post-reproductive mortality seems to be genetically determined to a large extent." (J.B.S. Haldane, Journal of Genetics (1963) 58: 464.)  The image below depicts what Haldane was saying.

Haldane's sentiment expresses a similar version of Rawls's insight about luck egalitarianism, namely that some inequalities are unchosen- but Haldane's insight has profoundly more important empirical insights and practical consequences.  Here are a few of the former:

(1) we have a biology.

(2) that biology has a history (a history shaped by the interplay between environment and genes).  

(3) genes are the basic unit of physical and functional heredity.

(4) aging is a product of evolutionary neglect.

(5) evolutionary history influences the pattern of disease, frailty and disability we see over the course of the human lifespan. [the social significance of this has only recently been realized, as populations now age due to reductions in early and mid-life mortality and declining birth rates]

In terms of the practical and social implications of Haldane's insights, I have spent 2 decades exploring these issues in the following research projects:

Genetics and Ethics: An Introduction (Polity Books, 2018).

Biologically Modified Justice (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

“Imagination and Idealism in the Medical Sciences of an Aging World”  Journal of Medical Ethics 2022.

Colin Farrelly, “Responsible Biology, Aging Populations and the 50th Anniversary of the “War on Cancer”” Biogerontology 2021 Aug;22(4):429-44. 

Colin Farrelly, “How Should We Theorize About Justice in the Genomic Era?” in Politics and the Life Sciences 40(1) (2021): 106-25. 

Colin Farrelly, ”50 Years of the War on Cancer: Lessons for Public Health and Geroscience” Geroscience. 2021 Jun;43(3):1229-123. 

Colin Farrelly, “COVID-19, Biogerontology and the Ageing of Humanity” The Journals of Gerontology. Series A, Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 2021, 76(8), e92–e96.

Colin Farrelly, “Aging, Geroscience and Freedom” Rejuvenation Research 22(2) 2019: 163-170.

“Insulating Soldiers from the Emotional Costs of War: An Ethical Analysis” forthcoming in Transhumanizing War: Performance Enhancement and the Implications for Policy, the Soldier, and Society (eds. C. Breede, S. von Hlatky and S. Bélanger) (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019).

Colin Farrelly, “Gene Patents and the Social Justice Lens” (commentary) American Journal of Bioethics 8(12) (2018) 49-51.

“Justice and Life Extension” in End-of-Life Ethics (edited by John Davis) (New York, NY: Routledge Publishing, 2016).

Colin Farrelly, “Empirical Ethics and the Duty to Extend the Biological Warranty Period” Social Philosophy and Policy 30 (2013): 480-503.

Colin Farrelly, “Normative Theorizing about Genetics” Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 22(4) (2013): 408-419.

Colin Farrelly, “Why the NIH Should Create an Institute of Positive Biology” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 105 (2012): 412-15.

Colin Farrelly, “Biogerontology and the Intellectual Virtues” Journal of Gerontology: Biological Sciences 67(7) (2012): 734-46.

Colin Farrelly, “”Positive Biology” as a New Paradigm for the Medical Sciences” Nature’s EMBO Reports 13(2) (2012): 186-88.

Colin Farrelly, “Global Aging, Well-Ordered Science and Prospection” Rejuvenation Research 13(5) (2010):607-12.

Colin Farrelly, “Equality and the Duty to Retard Human Aging” Bioethics 24(8) (2010): 384-94.

Colin Farrelly, “Why Aging Research?” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1197 (2010): 1–8.

Colin Farrelly, “Mind the Gap: Senescence and Beneficence” Public Affairs Quarterly 24(2) (2010): 115-30.

Colin Farrelly, “Framing the Inborn Aging Process and Longevity Science” Biogerontology 11(3) (2010): 377-85.

Colin Farrelly, “Towards a More Inclusive Vision of the Medical Sciences” QJM: An International Journal of Medicine 102 (2009): 579-582.

Colin Farrelly, “Genetic Justice Must Track Genetic Complexity” Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 17(1) (2008): 45-53.

Colin Farrelly, “Aging Research, Priorities and Aggregation” Public Health Ethics 1(3) (2008): 258-67.

Colin Farrelly, “Has the Time Come to Take on Time Itself?” British Medical Journal 337 (2008):147-48.

Colin Farrelly, “3 Wishes” Journal of Evolution and Technology 20(1) (2008): 23-28.

Colin Farrelly, “A Tale of Two Strategies: The Moral Imperative to Tackle Ageing” Nature’s EMBO Reports 9(7) (2008): 592-95.

whew... it has been quite the journey exploring these fascinating issues and seeing how my ideas have evolved over time!!  I have no regrets about stepping out of the theoretical armchair of ideal theory in 2005 and engaging in interdisciplinary research to tackle the real-world problems pertaining to human genetics, science policy and population aging.  And I feel like the journey is still only at the beginning stage for me.  There are so many other issues I would like to explore in the years to come. 

Haldane's insight compels one to adopt an interdisciplinary perspective, and the social and political implications of it are profound.  By contrast Rawls's insight now seems, if I am being open and honest, to be intellectually impoverished and politically inert. Perhaps it could have been the focus of a handful of journal papers over a 2-3 year period, but not something to debate and discuss for a few decades as a central problem for the discipline. 

Like in my original 2009 post "A Tale of Two Johns", I ask my readers to consider the following counterfactual...

Where would the field of political philosophy be today if the field had spent as much time and energy examining and debating Haldane's insight about how evolution impacts our life prospects as we have Rawls's luck egalitarianism?

Imagine if political philosophers had spent 20 years engaging with the social implications of the biology of aging rather than the abstract, conceptual dance initiated by luck egalitarianism.  The journals of the discipline would be littered with articles engaging with evolutionary biology, the social implications of population aging, and the fascinating technological implications of the genetic revolution and geroscience.  Instead we were left with a discipline that was ill-equipped to address science policy.  Perhaps the one issue that has gained traction in the last two decades is climate change, though that may have more to do with it's potential coherence to some of the conceptual, theoretical terrain of the abstract debates about justice than the complexities and nuance of the actual science and policy landscape.  But I digress...

I of course have a great deal of respect for the contributions of John Rawls himself, he was a great political philosopher (if I didn't think this, I wouldn't have spent so much of my time engaging with him as a thinker!).  My criticism is really of the dominance of the Rawls-industry that flourished for a number of decades from the 1970s into the early 2000s.  Things are different now.  But I think there are still important lessons to be learned by looking at the "opportunity costs" of ideal theory.  If we do not learn from the mistakes of the past, we are bound to repeat them again.... and again....!




Sunday, July 24, 2022

Egalitarianism and Ageism


I have always been surprised by how prevalent ageist attitudes are, especially on social media and even in the mainstream media.  The clearest example of this that comes to my mind was the last American Presidential election, where I saw many commentators making derogatory comments (especially about Biden) about the age of the candidates, implying that their advanced age was a sufficient reason for discounting them as viable political leaders.  

When it comes to the race or sex of a political candidate we reject discriminatory and inegalitarian sentiments that try to tell people to "stay in their place", but when it comes to age prejudice some people's attitudes change.  This has always perplexed me.  This study explains what is going on.  A sample:

In this article, we argue that unlike the explicit prejudices directed toward women and racial minorities to “stay in their place,” age prejudice constitutes a unique form of Succession, prescribing older individuals to dynamically “get out of the way.” Succession is characterized by expectations for generational turn-taking, dictating that older people step aside and make way for younger generations by relinquishing their power and resources (North & Fiske, 2013a). Succession uniquely targets older individuals, and differs from other forms of prejudice, in which these “natural progression” expectations are not as clear (North & Fiske, 2013b). From this standpoint, although facing their own forms of discrimination, older individuals are perceived as blocking not only younger people, but also other disadvantaged groups, from opportunities. Thus, egalitarian advocates—or those who are motivated to create equal opportunity for all groups— might actively (and counterintuitively) discriminate against older adults.

....As society experiences a rise in social justice movements, understanding the mindset of egalitarian advocates is becoming increasingly timely. Nevertheless, in the context of an equally rapid rise in generational equity issues, the current research shows that such advocates do not endorse anti-ageism views in the manner that they do with racism or sexism. In the minds of such individuals, “equality for all” in spirit might yield “equality for some” in reality.



Monday, July 18, 2022

What is in a name?

What may appear as a simple semantic debate (e.g. is aging a "disease" vs simply part of "normal species functioning") is, IMHO, one of the most important issues facing public health and biomedical research this century. It could mean the difference between investing billions of research dollars into the scientific research likely to increase life expectancy by simply postponing death vs increasing healthy life expectancy (that is, adding more years to life vs adding more life and years to life).



Friday, July 15, 2022

Haldane on the 4 Stages of Acceptance

In his 1963 book review of life tables, entitled “The Truth about Death”, the British geneticist and polymath John Haldane (1892-1964) noted that resistance to more biologically accurate estimates of death and survival would go through the following 4 stages of acceptance:

1) this is worthless nonsense;
2) this is an interesting, but perverse, point of view;
3) this is true, but quite unimportant;
4) I always said so.

J.B.S. Haldane, Journal of Genetics (1963) 58: 464.

A few other gems from his review:

Natural selection sees to it that genes causing early death or sterility are fairly rare.  On the other hand post-reproductive mortality seems to be genetically determined to a large extent.

 ….One does not have to be a profound Marxist to realise that a system of life tables which consistently overestimates future death rates will find favour with companies whose main business is "life insurance", i.e. payment of fixed sums at death, rather than payment of life annuities to the aged. 


Disease Control vs Rate Control


Some powerful insight and wisdom from 1977.  Tragically we made the mistake of pursuing the myopic goal of disease control with little regard for aspiring to control the rate of biological aging.  This is why I have written so much in recent years on the importance of "well-ordered science"/responsible biology (list below) and aging.  It is much more important to make sure we are asking the correct questions than it is to answer the wrong questions.  My reflections on this issue over the past decade of research include:

“COVID-19, Biogerontology and the Ageing of Humanity” The Journals of Gerontology. Series A, Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 2021, 76(8), e92–e96.

“Why the NIH Should Create an Institute of Positive Biology” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 105 (2012): 412-15.

“Biogerontology and the Intellectual Virtues” Journal of Gerontology: Biological Sciences 67(7) (2012): 734-46.

"Positive Biology” as a New Paradigm for the Medical Sciences” Nature’s EMBO Reports 13(2) (2012): 186-88.

“Global Aging, Well-Ordered Science and Prospection” Rejuvenation Research 13(5) (2010):607-12.

“Positive Biology” and Well-Ordered Science” in Measuring Well-Being: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from the Social Sciences and the Humanities (edited by Matthew Lee, Laura Kubzansky, and Tyler VanderWeele) (Oxford University Press, forthcoming in 2020).

Biologically Modified Justice (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Tackling this issue has been both challenging for my career, but also very rewarding intellectually.  It is a direly neglected topic in the field of political theory and political philosophy, where people apparently don't age and science policy is either non-existent or largely ignored (the sole exception being climate change policy).  This has meant there are rarely any conferences, colleagues, research grants or mainstream publication venues that enthusiastically support this aspect of my research.  

At a conference many years ago a fellow theorist joked, when I told him I was working on the topic of the genetic revolution and longevity science, that I pretty much have that field to myself.  His insight was very perceptive and proved to be true!  This reality has certainly compelled me to get innovative in terms of the way I communicate these ideas to potentially interested readers, targeting a diverse range of journals in science and medicine over the past decade. And this has proven to be a very intellectually rewarding process for me as a researcher.           



Thursday, July 14, 2022

Gene Editing Drug (first clinical trial)

Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death in the world, causing approximately 18 million deaths every year. Nature news reports that the first phase 1 clinical trials have now begun for a gene-editing drug for high cholesterol, designed to modify the gene which regulates cholesterol in the bloodstream. This is a pivotal stage in the rapidly unfolding “genetic revolution” of the past half a century.



Friday, July 08, 2022

Summer Reading Group 2022 (FLOW, post #3)


This is the third installment of my book review of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. (post #1 is here, post #2 here).

Chapters 7 and 8 of Flow address the two things that impact our quality of life more than anything else, and so they are probably the most important chapters of the book.  Those two factors are (1) how we experience work (not actually what we do for work, but rather how we experience it, which Csikszentmihalyi contends is amenable to the control of consciousness), and (2) our relations with other people.

Chapter 7 is titled “Work as Flow” and a central focus of the chapter is on “autotelic workers”, individuals who have “the ability to create flow experiences even in the most barren of environments” (149).  It is critical to note that Csikszentmihalyi does not argue that there is only a limited list of specific jobs that provide people with optimal experience, and then other jobs which involve so much drudgery and toll that no flow could ever be experienced doing them.  Instead he goes to great lengths to note that the attitude or temperament we have about work is critical.  This is not to deny the reality that the nature of work can also be important, which it is.  But our attitude about work is very important and this insight is, for me, perhaps the most surprising and significant insight of the book. Most people simply ask themselves the question- “what job would make me happy? (or, perhaps more plausibly, “what job will inflict the minimal misery/boredom on me?”).  But Csikszentmihalyi’s study of flow suggests an important and neglected issue is the mindset we should have about work, which can make the particulars of the work we do less important.  The latter is of course important as well.  There are two methods Csikszentmihalyi notes (p. 152) that can be pursued for achieving flow in work: 

(1)   Develop the autotelic personality:  a person who can change constraints into opportunities for expressing freedom and creativity.


(2)   Change jobs:  the more a job resembles a game- with variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals, and immediate feedback- the more enjoyable it will be regardless of the worker’s level of development (152).


When elaborating on (1) Csikszentmihaly provides the examples of Serafina, Joe and Ting.  Serafina is a 76 year old women in the Italian Alps who awakes at 5am each day to milk her cows.  She is immersed in the life activities of being on the farm- taking the cows to pasture, cooking large breakfasts, her lifestyle blends “work” and “play”.  For Serafina such a distinction is artificial.

Joe worked in a factory plant and mastered every job at the plant.  He could fix any machine at the plant, and his “fixing” mentality was part of his childhood fascination with learning how machines worked.  His curiosity and passion were intense and he found ways to exercise these in the factory plant.

Ting is a character in the Taoist scholar Chuang Tzu’s parable of a humble worker.  Ting is a cook whose job involves butchering meat for nobility. When preparing the food, such as cutting meat, Ting would have a transcendental experience.  Such a process was one in which he discovered new challenges that enabled him to enter into flow.

Now not everyone’s job presents the opportunities these three autotelic personalities enjoy, so what can one do if they do not experience much flow at work?  Before deciding to change jobs (option 2) Csikszentmihaly emphasizes the point that some of our current discontent with work may be due to our attitudes/mindset, and thus it could be changed by looking at things differently. The 3 most common complaints about work that Csikszentmihaly identifies (p. 161) are (1) lack of variety and challenge, (2) conflict at work (especially with bosses) and (3) burnout (too much stress, too little time with family, etc.). 

Csikszentmihaly argues that (1) is often determined by how you look at your work.  The three autotelic personalities he addresses all did work that some people would no doubt find dull and meaningless.  So one must approach work with the right mindset, it is not purely down to the actual working conditions of a job.  For (2), conflict at work can be managed (though I think Csikszentmihaly perhaps underestimates how challenging this may be for many people).  With (3) Csikszentmihaly argues there are numerous ways to reduce work stress- delegate responsibilities, be more organized, better communication and improved home life,  meditation etc.

For the second strategy of finding more flow at work, namely, changing jobs, Csikszentmihaly claims that the more a job resembles a game the better its potential for flow.  So work features like variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals, and immediate feedback (p. 152) will make the work more enjoyable for the worker.

Chapter 8 is entitled “Enjoying Solitude and Other People” and it covers a number of important, substantive topics.   Csikszentmihaly asserts (p. 164) that we are “biologically programmed to find other human beings the most important objects in the world”.  People can make our lives very interesting and fulfilling, and yet they can also make our lives miserable!  Thus how we manage human relationships makes a significant impact on our happiness and wellbeing.  If we learn to make our relationships with others more like flow experiences, our quality of life as a whole is going to be much improved” (164).

      But Csikszentmihaly also notes that we value or privacy and some alone time.  But as soon as we are alone (for prolonged periods) we can become depressed.  It is critical, contends Csikszentmihaly, that we learn ways to control our consciousness so that we can tolerate being alone.  Why is being alone so painful?  Csikszentmihaly’s answer is that keeping order within the mind from within is very difficult.  Connecting with others provides external goals, stimulation, feedback, etc. and so help focus our attention.  When we don’t focus our attention in this way it is easy for our minds to focus and ruminate on negative thoughts and experiences – our health, our finances, our job, our love life, etc., etc. 

The real danger of solitude is that we can indulge in coping strategies that are maladaptive, such as the regular use of drugs or engaging in obsessive practices like incessant cleaning or compulsive sexual behaviour.  These provide some short-term reprieve from the pain of solitude.  But the real test of our ability to control the quality of experience, argues Csikszentmihaly (p. 171), is what a person does in solitude.  The bad strategy is to frantically seek out distraction from our solitude.  The positive strategy is to take on activities that are not only enjoyable, but that make us self-grow.  Drug abuse, incessant cleaning and sex addiction do not help us grow, they do not present complex challenges we must refine skills to navigate.

Csikszentmihaly remarks:

To fill free time with activities that require concentration, that increase skills, that lead to a development of the self, is not the same as killing time by watching television or taking recreational drugs.  Although both strategies might seem as different ways of coping with the same threat of chaos, as defenses against ontological anxiety, the former leads to growth, while the latter merely serves to keep the mind from unraveling.  A person who rarely gets bored, who does not constantly need a favorable external environment to enjoy the moment, has passed the test for having achieved a creative life. (171)

He does note that some (rare) individuals chose to actually live alone.  Csikszentmihaly provides the example (p. 171) of Dorothy, a widowed nurse who decided, after her children were grown, to move to the wilderness of a tiny island, in a cabin in Minnesota.  She personalized her surroundings (garden gnomes, flower tubs, etc.) and will go months with no other human contact.  In addition to structuring her space (making if familiar), Dorothy also structures her time.  She has a strict routine for every day of the year, awaking at 5am to check the hens for eggs, milking the goat, etc.  By ordering her attention she survives solitude, taking her mind off unpleasant thoughts and feelings.  She actually enjoys solitude, seeing it as an opportunity for growth, to achieve higher levels of complexity. 

      With respect to the family, Csikszentmihaly notes that, “because it is our first and in many ways our most important social environment, quality of life depends to a large extent on how well a person succeeds in making the interaction with his or her relatives enjoyable” (177).  Each relationship- with a spouse, child, friend, etc.- requires a reorienting of attention, “a repositioning of goals”. Family life must help create flow activity lest it degrade into boredom and frustration.  This means the family must have a goal for its existence, both short-term and long-term goals.  By doing so Csikszentmihaly claims the family helps increase the complexity of its members, enabling all to be both differentiated and integrated.  The former means that each person develops their own unique traits, qua individual person.  And integration means we understand that what happens to one person impacts other family members. 

So having long-term family goals (e.g. certain lifestyle, values, etc.) and short-term goals (e.g. planning a picnic, planning a vacation, etc.) help keep a family physically and psychologically connected. 

When it comes to friends Csikszentmihaly notes (p. 186) that young adults and retirees are happier when the spend time their friends than with anyone else, including their spouses! [just an aside, my own thoughts…. this might explain the high divorce rate!]  He notes that, because friendships are chosen and involve common goals and activities, they are “naturally enjoyable”.  But he contends that friendships, like any relationship, can also be destructive.  For example, when they stifle rather than facilitate growth.  His example is of “drinking buddies.”  Such activity can keep the disorganization of solitude at bay, but it functions much the same way as collectively watching TV.  While perhaps a bit more complex than watching television, it is rigidly scripted and highly predictable and provides few of the benefits of actual friendship. 

      The good news in this chapter is that, because human relationships are malleable, we can shape them to increase our positive experiences.  Creating more flow in our romantic lives, friendship and in our approach to parenting as our kids develop will result in mutual personal growth and development and the enjoyment of more optimal experience.

Csikszentmihaly does note (on page 189, which I was glad to see!) that the ideal of modern marriage is to have one’s spouse as a friend.  In previous times we married for the conveniences of both families and there was great external pressure to get married. 

The final topic in the chapter is the wider community.  As Csikszentmihaly notes, the ancient Greek meaning of “politics” = affairs that went beyond personal and family welfare.  Getting involved in our communities should follow the flow recipe (p. 190): set goals, concentrate one’s psychic energy, pay attention to feedback, and make sure the activity is appropriate to one’s skill level.

Below are a few questions to consider (see… set goals! ha ha) to facilitate the flow experience in our group discussion:  

#1 One of the central insights from chapter 7 is that we tend to think (mistakenly) that work is something to avoid, and leisure time something to maximize.  And yet the reverse seems to be true, that work actually adds much more optimal experience to our lives and we often struggle with leisure.  What has your experience of work and leisure been like?     

#2  The 3 main struggles Csikszentmihaly identifies with respect to finding flow in work is lack of variety, conflict with people and burnout.  Have these arisen in your own work lives?  And if so, what did you try (either successfully or unsuccessfully) to remedy the problem?  How do you feel about solitude, something most of us have experienced more of during the pandemic?  Do you struggle with or find it natural to keep order within your mind? 

#3.  Do you agree with Csikszentmihaly’s claim that we are “biologically programmed to find other human beings the most important objects in the world”?  

#4.  What has your experience be with respect to flow in romantic partnerships, parenting, friendship and community?

Should make for a fun, flow-filled discussion!