Click here to listen to this week’s episode of The Mockingcast, which features an interview with psychologist and ‘experimental theologian’ Richard Beck, author of Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted.

1. The New Yorker asked last week whether or not you can mandate happiness? Looking specifically at workplaces—workplaces that are basing their strategy from positive psychology and “science of happiness” studies—the article describes that happiness (believe it or not, people!) triggers better personal relationships in the workplace, and thus higher productivity. What the studies do not show, though, is that that happiness cannot be instrumentalized from the top down. T-Mobile is one such company trying to mandate a happiness code (ht BPZ):

The law has its own imperatives, but if you took the same work-environment mandate and put it through a different intellectual grinder—in this case, social science—would you come up with a different result? If we agree that a positive environment is a worthy goal, we still have to agree on how, exactly, to foster such an environment. Research certainly suggests that people thrive in positive and supportive spaces: they are happy and satisfied; they are motivated and optimistic, setting higher goals and working harder and longer; they are creative; they are less likely to burn out and more likely to stick with a company or project. But can you actually create positivity by mandating it?

“It sounds really nice. It sounds like they’re creating a civil workplace,” Alicia Grandey, an organizational psychologist at Penn State who studies emotional labor, told me when I asked her about positive-environment provisions such as T-Mobile’s. But Grandey cautions that it is incredibly difficult to impose positivity from the top and actually exert a positive effect. “When anything feels forced or externally controlled, it doesn’t tend to be as beneficial as when it’s coming from the self,” she said. “The irony is, when you’re trying to get people to do something positive, you can’t do it. Once it’s required, it’s fake and forced.” What you create instead is a negative backlash. “It feels like Big Brother.”


Worrying about whether or not you’re in violation of a feel-good policy and constantly monitoring yourself for slipups takes a mental toll. More than two decades of research suggests that thought suppression, or trying to stifle your initial impulses in favor of something else, can result in mental strain and may also impair other types of thinking—memoryself-controlproblem solving, motivation, perceptiveness. When we are actively monitoring ourselves, our mental energy for other things suffers. The result is not only a less-than-positive work environment but also workers who are less-than-optimally productive. In other words, it’s bad business.

Of course we have here a classic misunderstanding of the law here, a false belief that commanding a good thing can actually produce it. It is also a classic confusion of measures and targets, the idea that, as soon as a certain measure of workplace happiness becomes something to shoot for, it ceases to carry the same benefits it carried as the simple byproduct of a supportive environment. Once it becomes an enforceable standard, it’s no longer productive at all—it’s paradoxically counterproductive.

We have covered this idea before in Silicon Valley’s ‘happy workplaces.’ But the same dynamic is at work wherever relationships (or Human Relations Departments) enforce an expected response to a gift. Wherever a gift carries the hope for improvement, for change, even for happiness, it ceases to be a gift. It has, instead, become a wage.

2. Speaking of mistaken targets, a perennial favorite in the mind of every human is the past. The past provides us a standard of perfection that simply can’t be replicated in the present. Aeon published an intriguing piece about the allure of nostalgia, and its power to crystallize a less-than-perfect past into a vintage-nostalgia-illustrated-magazine-august-1975-ronald-reagan-judy-garland-60ade8810ee0fea61a815690ad6892ffreachable future. Of course, nowhere is the rhetoric of nostalgia more present than in political campaigns, but the article points out that this myth of a “golden age” is everywhere—in our family stories, in our own inner-life inventories.

Longing for the past is generally referred to as nostalgia – a gentle, tender feeling that might make these stories seem like nothing more than harmless sentimentality. But it is crucial to distinguish between wistful memories of grandma’s kitchen and belief in a prior state of cultural perfection. The latter form of nostalgia currently serves as the ideological foundation for political movements like Greece’s Golden Dawn, which calls for a return to Hellenic glory via radical right wing nationalism, and ISIS, which waxes rhapsodic about a distorted Islamic golden age. This alone should serve to make us warier of nostalgia’s dark side, which, I fear, is badly underestimated, and wreaks havoc not only in politics but also medicine and anthropology. Far from being harmless, ‘the good old days’ is a virulent falsehood that infects those whose intellectual defences have been weakened by fear and insecurity. It is easily weaponised by power-hungry propagandists who seek to replace nuanced discourse with patriotic platitudes, and diverse ideologies with homogenous tribal nationalism: Mao, Pol Pot, Hitler, the Ku Klux Klan. In its endless incarnations this myth has shackled people’s thoughts and actions to the promise of a fiction, facilitating evil on all scales, from everyday racism to the greatest human rights catastrophes of the 20th century. Faced as we are with yet another global epidemic of golden age rhetoric, the time has come to inoculate ourselves against the good old days once and for all.

As Levinovitz argues, this cultural nostalgia is just as dangerous anthropologically—we tend to have a higher view of what the human race has been capable of, and therefore what the human race can become again. This inevitably, of course, affects our theology, too. Our tendency to hold up human sovereignty as a bygone ideal means that God’s sovereignty takes a back seat. On the flip side, a sober understanding of ourselves (i.e. a low anthropology) requires a higher theology. It is John the Baptist’s “He must become greater, I must become less” dynamic at work in our collective memories.

3. In the “should have seen it coming” department…Have you heard of Facetune? The new selfie photo editing app takes filters to a whole ‘nother level. Not only can you shade and color per usual—you can make your nose smaller, remove blemishes, fill in the receding hairline. Scary… (ht TP)

4. The Economist wrote a feature article about the continuing scientific race to human perpetuity. More than ever, and without irony, scientists are looking at radical ways not just to slow aging, but to stop it altogether, and they think it’s in the not-too-distant future. The hypothesis is based upon theories like calorie restriction (CR) and regenerative medicine, which is known to reduce the risk of cancers and heart disease in other animals. Longevity firms like Google’s Calico Project and the Methuselah Foundation (I know…) are looking for ways to reach “longevity escape velocity,” a rate at which “life expectancy increases by more than a year every year.” Needless to say, these researchers and scientists are operating under some pretty suspect speculations, the biggest of which being that ‘death’ is not a (or, the) condition of being human, but is really a disease with a biological-pharmacological treatment.

Many stem-cell therapies are moving rapidly towards clinical trials under the rubric of “regenerative medicine”. Both Calico and HLI are active in the field. Research has shown that nerve cells grown from human embryonic stem cells and transplanted into rats with the equivalent of Parkinson’s disease proliferate and start to release dopamine, which is what such rats and people lack. Roger Barker of the University of Cambridge recently treated a man with Parkinson’s this way. ReNeuron, based in Bridgend in Wales, is in trials designed to discover the efficacy of stem cells as a treatment for disabilities brought on by stroke. Despite the risks of unregulated therapies, hundreds of clinics around the world are already rushing to offer “treatments” for the diseases of age. This is unsurprising. It is historically an area rich in hope, hype and quackery, and it will take some time for well-founded research to clean the stables—if, indeed, it can.

5. Speaking of stables, these ESPN shorts just keep getting better and better. This is the story of Haru Urara, a Japanese race horse that, in a time of economic depression, became a symbol of the Japenese people. The horse, whose name means “Glorious Spring,” never won a race, and so captured the heart of a people on a terrific losing streak themselves. Through this losing horse (with a Hello Kitty hood, of all things) a track is saved and its nation’s people are given hope.

The Shining Star of Losers Everywhere from The All-Nighter Room on Vimeo.

6. From Sean Fagan Book’s Twitter page, a rejection letter from one T.S. Eliot (working for Faber) to one George Orwell, over a manuscript he sent entitled, Animal Farm. So it goes!


7. Time Magazine’s cover story this month is internet trolling, a subject matter we’ve covered before, especially in the desensitized power that is granted to those who can hate from a distance. Time also notes, though, that the rise in trolling by the ‘alt-right’ is also directly related to the rise in political correctness. One such example is Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos, who recently was suspended from Twitter for slandering Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones:

He says trolling is a direct response to being told by the left what not to say and what kinds of video games not to play. “Human nature has a need for mischief. We want to thumb our nose at authority and be individuals,” he says. “Trump might not win this election. I might not turn into the media figure I want to. But the space we’re making for others to be bolder in their speech is some of the most important work being done today. The trolls are the only people telling the truth.”

8. We’ll finish with this story, holy moly. A couple who fell in love in a labour camp during the Holocaust now celebrate their 71st anniversary:

“I remember the first kiss,” Hanka says as she puts her hand on her face.

That is exactly what she did on that first day, because she says, she wanted to hold onto it forever. Sigi had stood out in an environment where the inhumane conditions had left most people shells of their former selves.

“At that time, the people in the camp were terrible,” she says. “He was very gentle.”

Over the coming days this new love was tested. Sigi had been working in the munitions workshop making bullets for the Nazi German army.He says he had been sabotaging the factory line — making bullets too small for the gun barrels.When he received word that the Gestapo were looking for him, he found a hiding spot in a nearby abandoned construction site.

He says only Hanka knew where he was hiding.”She was the only person I could trust my life with,” he says.

Hanka says she risked her life to keep him alive — smuggling him small pieces of her bread ration and a blanket that she had made to keep him warm on -15 degree nights.Then one night, she came for a second visit.This time she was smiling and had her arms out.The camp was being liberated.

“They’re gone,” she told him. “We are free.” The next day they were married.