Community building and the pursuit of happiness

in Psychology

We take an interdisciplinary approach to community building at Our Blocks, and since a little science never really hurt anyone, here are some pertinent excerpts from notes I took during a recent seminar led by Dacher Keltner of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

Eight ways community building can be good for you

1. It increases your social connection

In almost every study of children and adults, meaningful social connections foster greater positive emotion, personal well-being, and physical health. Social connectedness is probably the most important determinant of overall well-being. Factoids: a study in Alameda County by Berkman and Smye showed that people who reported weak social support were up to 3.1 times more likely to have died nine years later. Okay, that’s a bummer. How about this: People with strong social support live longer, report greater happiness, have lower levels of cortisol, and lower blood pressure. Since community builders are all about building social connections, your eternal life and happiness are guaranteed.

Dacher Keltner

2. It gives you more opportunities to play

Play boosts the immune response. Play is a human universal, and it builds strong bonds. Converting conflicts into dramas and play is beneficial to relationships.

3. It’s all about giving

New studies show that people derive greater pleasure in giving than in receiving. Giving activates reward centers in the brain. A study by Elizabeth Dunn found that giving away $20 makes people happier than spending $20 on themselves. Habaugh et al reported that giving to a charity produces the same activation in the ventral striatum as does receiving.

4. It gives you more chances to say thanks

Gratitude fosters personal health and healthy relations. Appreciation for loved ones uniquely relates to social well-being. Saying ‘Thank you’ greatly increases the stability of relationships. Gratitude increases worker productivity. Also makes you richer: servers who said Thank You or wrote it on receipts got 11% more tips than those in the control group. (Don’t get your hopes up: no one will ever tip you for community building)

Jason Marsh & Barbara Fredrickson

5. It gives you lots of chances to forgive (and to beg forgiveness)

Forgiveness reduces the physiological costs of stress and conflict, and can promote healthier bonds. When you do screw up and need to apologize to your community, here are the four key elements of a proper apology: (a) state what you did wrong, (b) accept responsibility, (c) offer an explanation, (d) show remorse.

6. It’ll give you stories to tell

We have a scientific mind and then a meaning-making mind that is predisposed to tell stories (Bruner). We transmit emotional conditions through storytelling. Emotion narratives build up resilience. Writing about deep emotions increases well-being and improves health (f.e by improving the immune function), and reduces stress-related physiology. It does this mainly by improving insight and avoiding the costs of suppression. True story: trauma victims who wrote down their stories (vs just recounting facts), had higher t-cell counts, better immune response, lower anxiety, better grades, and more positive emotions.

Get the book

7. It will make you wish you knew how to meditate

Breathing techniques can lower blood pressure. With eight weeks of training in mindfulness meditation (which focuses on attention, breathing, and “loving kindness”) people (including software engineers, if you can believe it) showed shifts in left frontal activation and immune response. Mindful people are in general focused on the present, and report greater optimism, greater well-being, and fewer health symptoms. Core principles of contemplation: (a) awareness of sensations, (b) awareness of mind, (c) extension of loving kindness to all. [Personal side note: I'd tried forever to learn how to meditate, but was a complete failure until I stumbled upon Guided Mindfulness Meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn, whose work was cited during this seminar.]

8. It will make you reach for a Higher Power

The sense of the sacred can be found in contemplative practice, nature, art, people, activism. Highly spiritual people report greater happiness, less depression, fare better in terms of health outcomes, and live longer. People with deep and enduring commitments to core values (like equality, respect) fare better in response to stress.

Natalie Hull

Want more? Another obsessive notetaker who attended the seminar (Natalie, shown on the right) sent me her notes, which I posted on Psychwiki (the conversion from Word to MediaWiki left some formatting lost in translation, so the notes need some cleaning up). The excerpts above come from this section of the notes.

More GGSC on Our Blocks: Compassion, Altruism, and Do-Gooding – from the Greater Good Science Center. More psychology

Take Dacher on the road: download his UC Berkeley lectures on Human Happiness

An open letter from Bill Berkowitz of Community Tool Box Re: “Taking Action in Your Neighborhood”

in Psychology

I got this note from UMass Professor Emeritus Bill Berkowitz earlier this week, and with his permission have posted it here so you can share your own thoughts and suggestions. Dr. Berkowitz is a writer, editor, and core team member of the Community Tool Box, the most extensive web site on community health and development on the planet (which we featured here). His books deal with skills, ideas, personal qualities, and stories relating to community organization and improvement. Bill is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and a recipient of its award for Distinguished Contributions to Practice in Community Psychology.

I’d forwarded this email to some of my contacts in the neighborhoods movement, and with their permission will be posting excerpts from their responses here as well.

Hi, Leo – Thanks very much for your April 12 note. It’s so easy to be impressed by it – both by your statement of purpose and by the people you’ve been gathering around your ideas. I surely hope your work gains momentum, takes off, and soars.

In this note, I’m sending along a concept of our own, titled “Taking Action in Your Neighborhood,” which perhaps you might reflect and comment upon.

In some ways, it’s a variation and extension of Our Blocks. Some differences are that it’s more explicitly action-oriented, and more explicitly participatory. It also structures the content by topic, rather than have the user do it via tagging. And it centralizes and gives a specific focus for much of the needed neighborhood work.

What’s here could be a rather big idea, probably calling for both synthesis of existing content and creation of some new content as well. The potential payoff, though, could be very large.

So take a look if you can, and see what you think; we’ll be very grateful to learn of your own reactions, others’ as well, whatever they may be.

We’re also very comfortable with your sharing any or all of this with your other neighborhood contacts – actually we’d encourage this, since more feedback may both help strengthen this concept, as well as Our Blocks itself, and potentially lead to mutually-beneficial collaborations.

Thanks very much again, Leo, and be talking to you.

~~ Bill

* * * * *

In response to your note and request for feedback, I’m writing to sketch out some neighborhood thoughts, and more specifically around developing a centralized “Taking Action in Your Neighborhood” resource that I’d mentioned before.

We’d certainly be interested in any of your own thoughts you might have on this, especially (if the idea has merit) for moving this idea forward. I’m also copying Jay here, since this relates pretty closely to some work he has done.

Here’s the rationale: There’s a lot of neighborhood-related stuff in print and in cyberspace, which may not be very surprising. Much of what exists is both good and useful. A lot of it can be found on Our Blocks. Some of it is on the Community Tool Box, and I’m sure also on many other sites as well.

But a real downside is that it’s scattered all over the map – so if someone is interested in a particular neighborhood topic or issue, they might find themselves looking in a lot of places, and having to patch together what they need from a bunch of different sources. This is both time-consuming and often not all that effective.


Compassion, Altruism, and Do-Gooding – from the Greater Good Science Center

in Psychology

The Greater Good Science Center is an interdisciplinary research center devoted to the scientific understanding of happy and compassionate individuals, strong social bonds, and altruistic behavior. While serving the traditional tasks of a UC Berkeley research center—fostering groundbreaking scientific discoveries—the GGSC is unique in its commitment to helping people apply scientific research to their lives.

The Compassionate Instinct – Think humans are born selfish? Dacher Keltner reveals the compassionate side to human nature.

Humans are selfish. It’s so easy to say. The same goes for so many assertions that follow. Greed is good. Altruism is an illusion. Cooperation is for suckers. Competition is natural, war inevitable. The bad in human nature is stronger than the good. These kinds of claims reflect age-old assumptions about emotion. For millennia, we have regarded the emotions as the fount of irrationality, baseness, and sin. The idea of the seven deadly sins takes our destructive passions for granted. Plato compared the human soul to a chariot: the intellect is the driver and the emotions are the horses. Life is a continual struggle to keep the emotions under control.

Even compassion, the concern we feel for another being’s welfare, has been treated with downright derision. Kant saw it as a weak and misguided sentiment: “Such benevolence is called soft-heartedness and should not occur at all among human beings,” he said of compassion. Many question whether true compassion exists at all—or whether it is inherently motivated by self-interest.

Recent studies of compassion argue persuasively for a different take on human nature, one that rejects the preeminence of self-interest. These studies support a view of the emotions as rational, functional, and adaptive— a view which has its origins in Darwin’s Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. Compassion and benevolence, this research suggests, are an evolved part of human nature, rooted in our brain and biology, and ready to be cultivated for the greater good.

Global Compassion – A conversation between the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman

Emotions unite and divide the worlds, both personal and global, in which we live, motivating the best and the worst of our actions. Without emotions there would be no heroism, empathy, or compassion, but neither would there be cruelty, selfishness, nor spite.

Bringing different perspectives to bear—Eastern and Western, spiritual and scientific, Buddhist and psychological—the Dalai Lama and I came together in conversation and sought to clarify these contradictions, in hopes of illuminating paths to a balanced emotional life and a feeling of compassion that can reach across the globe.

Better Than Sex (and Appropriate for Kids)

By Christine Carter. Might be that sitting with your legs crossed repeating stuff like “May all beings be free from suffering,” is a little too far-out for you. I’m a scientist for crying out loud, so you can imagine how I might feel meditating while surrounded by prominent neuroscientists, which I recently did on a 7-day silent meditation retreat. Except that I actually didn’t feel silly. Why? Because there is new scientific research that demonstrates the incredible power of loving-kindness meditation: No need to be self-conscious when this stuff might be more effective than Prozac. Also called metta, loving-kindness meditation is the simple practice of directing well-wishes towards other people.

Compassion across Cubicles – A new research movement tries to help everyone who tunes out their emotions when they punch in to work.

Five-foot tall panels divide the physician’s billing department into a maze of cubicles at Foote Hospital in Jackson, Michigan. Each cubi¬cle contains one of the 39 employees who make up the billing office staff. Most of the employees are women, many are single mothers, and they spend each day on the phone trying to collect unpaid debts owed to the hospital. The work is repetitive and may seem uninspiring. Yet the hosipital staff widely considers this department one of the best places to work at Foote. “Our department is special,” said Susan Boik, head of the billing unit. “People care about each other here.”

The Altruistic Electorate – New research debunks some conventional political wisdom.

By Jason Marsh. A new line of research has challenged some age–old assumptions about why people vote, suggesting that it’s concern for the welfare of others—not narrow self–interest—that sends people to the polls. In one study published earlier this year, Richard Jankowski, a professor of political science at the State University of New York, Fredonia, found that altruism is the single most important factor in predicting whether someone will vote. Jankowski recorded people’s responses to questions measuring their level of concern for others, and then compared those responses with their voting data from the 1994 general election. He found that if people expressed concern for helping others, they were far more likely to have voted. In fact, a sense of altruism was even more influential than people’s age, income, or education level, generally considered the most important factors for voting.

Connecting through compassion – For three decades Charles Garfield has trained volunteers to care compassionately for strangers. He shares what he’s learned about the extraordinary deeds of ordinary people.

I discovered a lost civilization on the cancer wards of San Francisco’s hospitals, hordes of anxious people facing a limited life span. I wanted to find a way to meet the psychological and social needs of these patients. It was obvious that I couldn’t meet this challenge alone, and many of my colleagues simply didn’t have the time or inclination to help. On a hunch, I turned to volunteers, who I trained in interpersonal and listening skills, and who could continue to provide peer support to patients even after the patients returned home. I soon realized I had a phenomenon on my hands: a cadre of volunteers who could respond to the human elements of illness and death—the isolation and loneliness that mainstream

Altruism in Space - What does the science-fiction series Battlestar Galactica teach us about human nature?

In the 1970s, anthropologist Robert Trivers proposed the theory of reciprocal altruism, which argues that organisms provide a benefit to others only in expectation of future reward. But Trivers’ influential theory has some holes. It doesn’t necessarily explain why someone would sacrifice her life for another, nor does it cover anonymous acts of charity. These behaviors offer a more benevolent picture of human nature, challenging the inherent selfishness presumed by Trivers’ tit-for-tat theory of altruism. So which is the more accurate depiction of altruism— and, by extension, of human nature?

Compassion & Empathy (from GoodWiki, GGSC’s user-editable website – think Wikipedia for the greater good)

Definitions and Overview – Based originally on text by Jennifer Goetz (UCB) – The construct of compassion is not clearly defined in psychological literature. Our first step was to form a working definition that would allow us to explore related constructs. We define compassion as a feeling of sorrow or concern for another person’s suffering or need accompanied by a subsequent desire to alleviate the suffering. This phrasing focuses on compassion as an emotion: a short-lived feeling that anyone may experience. We expect, however, that there are specific conditions in which people will be more likely to feel compassion, that there are differences in individual propensities to feel compassion, and that many people and cultures may view compassion as a basic human value.

More on Compassion and Altruism from the Greater Good Science Center

KaBOOM! – Empowering Neighborhoods and Restoring Play

in Psychology

Peter Gray is a research professor of psychology at Boston College. He has conducted and published research in comparative, evolutionary, developmental, and educational psychology; published articles on innovative teaching methods and alternative approaches to education; and is author of Psychology (Worth Publishers), an introductory college textbook now in its 5th edition.

Peter Gray

In Empowering Neighborhoods and Restoring Play, Psychology Today columnist Peter Gray asked his readers to help him develop a proposal to build a neighborhood play and learning center “that could serve as a model that communities everywhere might emulate”. I said I’d help, and after putting in a few hours, recommended that he check out KaBOOM!, a nonprofit founded by Darell Hammond, who studied under John Kretzmann, Director of the Assets Based Community Development Institute (ABCD Insitute) at Northwestern University.

A 2008 study authored by Deborah Puntenney found that “when implemented appropriately, the KaBOOM! Community-Build process creates a lasting impact on the communities it partners with, both in terms of building capacity, enhancing community pride and cultivating leadership, as well as enhancing the play experience of neighborhood children.” Dr. Puntenney’s researchers conducted site visits and telephone interviews with 110 playspace builders, and reported that:

  • Nearly 100% believe that their KaBOOM! playground positively impacted the quality and quantity of children’s play
  • 94% believe that their playground project helped strengthen relationships among neighborhood residents and among community partners
  • 91% said that the KaBOOM! Community Build model and tools work

The KaBOOM! model (Road Map) comprises eight steps:

  1. KaBOOM! Road MapResearch – Why play matters, the “community-build model,” benefits of a community build model, play equipment appropriate for specific ages, abilities, and types of play, playground safety hazards in old equipment, make the case for a new, community-built playground.
  2. Conceive – Create a project vision and mission statement, form a planning committee, choose a playground site, choose a surfacing and equipment vendor, estimate the project budget, establish a project timeline, create a fundraising strategy.
  3. Organize – Organize and hold the first playspace meeting, start fundraising, finalize planning committee teams, determine the necessary site preparation, create a project website.
  4. Design – Holding a Design Day, working with an equipment vendor to select a design, press materials and media involvement, accelerating youth involvement through the Design Day and service learning projects.
  5. Coordinate – Recruiting Build Day volunteers and captains, creating a contingency plan for bad weather and emergencies, mapping the build site and the Build Day “matrix,” creating a maintenance plan with the landowner and staff, leveling the site and removing old equipment.
  6. Energize – Planning final fundraisers, writing and sending out a media advisory to notify local newspapers, radio, and TV stations, ordering side project materials, confirming delivery schedule for equipment and surfacing, training build day captains.
  7. Build – Equipment and surfacing delivery, organizing materials one to two days before the Build Day, motivating volunteers, rehearsing the ribbon cutting ceremony, taking pictures of the site and securing the area.
  8. Maintain – Sending official thanks you’s, starting your maintenance program, hosting a final planning meeting, supervising, playing and enjoying, RALLY!-ing for play.

The website’s toolkit provides resources (including samples) for every step on the map, including pre-planning, community involvement, volunteer recruitment, fundraisingconstruction, and maintenance.

KaBOOM! also provides free online training, and a Project Planner: a free website that aims to help you plan each step of your project, communicate with your team, recruit local volunteers, raise money, get free advice from the professional playground builders at KaBOOM!, and connect you to a community of people like you who are building playspaces around the country.

KaBOOM! Project PlannerClick here to read news articles on KaBOOM!

Jonathan Haidt on the moral roots of liberals and conservatives

in Psychology

Community builders have to bridge all sorts of divides – of race, religion, money, politics, philosophy. In this TED talk, psychologist Jonathan Haidt gives an overview of how — and why — we evolved to be moral. By understanding more about our moral roots, his hope is that we can learn to be civil and understanding of those whose morals don’t match ours, but who are equally good and moral people on their own terms. Excerpts:

Let’s start at the beginning. What is morality and where does it come from? To find out, my colleague Craig Joseph, and I read through the literature on anthropology, on culture variation in morality and also on evolutionary psychology, looking for matches. What are the sorts of things that people talk about across disciplines, that you find across cultures and even across species? We found five — five best matches, which we call the five foundations of morality.

The first one is harm-care. We’re all mammals here, we all have a lot of neural and hormonal programming that makes us really bond with others, care for others, feel compassion for others, especially the weak and vulnerable. It gives us very strong feelings about those who cause harm. This moral foundation underlies about 70 percent of the moral statements I’ve heard here at TED.

The second foundation is fairness-reciprocity. There’s actually ambiguous evidence as to whether you find reciprocity in other animals, but the evidence for people could not be clearer. We heard about this from Karen Armstrong as the foundation of so many religions. That second foundation underlies the other 30 percent of the moral statements I’ve heard here at TED.

The third foundation is in-group loyalty. You do find groups in the animal kingdom — you do find cooperative groups — but these groups are always either very small or they’re all siblings. It’s only among humans that you find very large groups of people who are able to cooperate, join together into groups — but in this case, groups that are united to fight other groups. This probably comes from our long history of tribal living, of tribal psychology. And this tribal psychology is so deeply pleasurable that even when we don’t have tribes, we go ahead and make them because it’s fun. Sports is to war as pornography is to sex. We get to exercise some ancient, ancient drives.

The fourth foundation is authority-respect. Here you see submissive gestures from two members of very closely related species — but authority in humans is not so closely based on power and brutality, as it is in other primates. It’s based on more voluntary deference, and even elements of love, at times.

The fifth foundation is purity-sanctity. It’s about any kind of ideology, any kind of idea that tells you that you can attain virtue by controlling what you do with your body, by controlling what you put into your body. And while the political right may moralize sex much more, the political left is really doing a lot of it with food. Food is becoming extremely moralized nowadays, and a lot of it is ideas about purity, about what you’re willing to touch or put into your body.

I believe these are the five best candidates for what’s written on the first draft of the moral mind. I think this is what we come with at least, a preparedness to learn all of these things.