Who Are You When The Power Goes Out?

contemplation time, power outage, technology dependence,

Over a decade ago a power outage started in Ohio, rapidly spreading to four other states and parts of Canada. In some places power wasn’t restored for days. For a time, systems with backup generators continued working but only as long as those generators had fuel. ATM machines couldn’t be accessed, gas stations couldn’t pump gas, phone service was disrupted, and water systems lost pressure.

When it started, my parents checked in with a neighbor who was home alone next door. My mother told the 14-year-old girl if she needed something she only had to ask. “I’m fine,” the girl assured her.

About an hour later the (now distraught) girl rang my parent’s doorbell. “I don’t know what to do!” she said.

“What’s wrong?” my alarmed mother asked her, “Are you okay?”

It turned out no particular thing was wrong, exactly. But this girl was close to panic. She couldn’t get online. She couldn’t recharge her phone. She couldn’t turn on the TV.  Tired of her iPod and without other familiar diversions she was left to her own devices.

She. Didn’t. Know. What. To. Do.

Maybe we’ve unlearned how to be with ourselves, perhaps for the first time in history. Our ancestors, whether hunting or hoeing, had hours each day to think their own thoughts. They had time to notice nuances in the natural world. They had time to know themselves. Those previous eras weren’t all golden by any means, but our ancestors probably couldn’t have imagined a future generation populated by people who would suffer when left without moment-to-moment diversions.

What are we diverting ourselves from, exactly?

My friend Urmila, who lives in India, tells me that we most fully inhabit our lives when we’re not doing but being. She says there’s a big different between her culture and ours. In the West believe a good day is spent getting a lot accomplished. Our spare minutes are filled with distractions, our vacations are way to check items off our bucket lists, and family time needs to be fit into a schedule.

To her a good day is one of daydreams, contemplation, meditation, a quiet walk—simply experiencing the flow of time.

(Urmila has motivated me to stop uttering what I think is the curse word of our time.)

Which brings me to a relevant study. Researchers performed brain scans on rats as they went through a maze and again afterwards. They found rats. given a chance to relax, showed enhanced learning and memory retention compared rats who were not. The scientists noted that human experiences also require periods of quiet wakeful intropsection to make sense of them.

What we experience is just raw data until we feel it, think about it, and weave it into our personally tapestry. Relaxing and reflecting lets us find meaning in our experiences. That sounds like a life more fully lived, whether the power is on or not.

technology addiction, introspection, studies of memory,

You Are the Food You Think About

fast food changes behavior, junk food brain, fast food thinking,

There’s such a thing as “fast food thinking.”

There’s plenty of evidence that food choices affect our behavior. But here we’re talking about what happens when we simply think of fast food.

You don’t even have to eat fast food to see behavior changes. It merely has to cross your mind.

We think we’re in charge of our choices. Our moods. Our long-term goals.

Apparently not.

Marketers work hard to shape consumer behavior. They use neuroscience findings to figure out how to attract our attention. They use psychological research to manipulate our needs. Of course we rationalize, “I’m the exception. I know my own mind. Just thinking about fast food can’t affect me.”

Chances are, it does.

A three-part study showed the mere act of thinking about fast food makes people more impatient, more eager to use time-saving products, and less likely to save.

Wonder why we all feel hurried? In the first experiment of the three-part study, half of the participants were shown subliminal images of six fast-food chains (McDonald’s, KFC, Subway, Taco Bell, Burger King, and Wendy’s). The images were seen only twice, for just 12 milliseconds — much faster than the conscious mind can recognize. Participants who were exposed to these subliminal images rushed through tasks even though they were under no time pressure.

Wonder why eco-friendly, well-made products aren’t top sellers? In the next experiment, participants were asked to recall a recent fast-food meal before rating products. When they did so, they were more likely to choose time-saving as the best rationale for making a purchase over other factors, such as environmental friendliness, aesthetics, or quality.

Wonder what happened to saving money? In the final experiment, participants who briefly looked at fast-food logos were much more likely, when considering compound interest, to choose a small payout immediately rather than wait for a larger payout later.

Children are even more at risk from this “fast-food thinking.” Because their brains are still developing through the teen years, young people are much more vulnerable to techniques used by marketers. Child-development experts see all kinds of detrimental effects, including what psychologist Allen D. Kanner calls the “narcissistic wounding” of children.

The problem is more, much more, than fast food. It has to do with a daily bombardment by messages telling us we should have it all and have it quickly — even though neither leads to greater happiness. As Robert V. Levine noted in A Geography of Time, people actually feel more impatient when they have access to time-saving devices.

There are benefits to waiting. Things like patience and a rush of pleasure when what you’ve been anticipating is finally ready. Picking apples together, cutting them, and baking them into a pie takes time. The smell of the crust breaking under your fork and the shared exclamation as you take the first bites together: bliss.

This experience can’t compare to a McDonald’s apple-pie dessert warmed in its cardboard sleeve.

What we eat and how we eat may no longer satisfy one of our deepest hungers: the desire for connection to people, place, and culture. We see the results of that separation in our health and environment.

Contrast these slogans:

  • “Have it Your Way” (Burger King)
  • “You deserve a break today” (McDonald’s)
  • “Your Way, Right Away” (Burger King)
  • “What you want is what you get” (McDonald’s)
  • “You can eat great, even late” (Wendy’s)

with this thought:

“As you eat, know that you are feeding more than just a body. You are feeding the soul’s longing for life, its timeless desire to learn the lessons of earthly existence — love and hate, pleasure and pain, fear and faith, illusion and truth — through the vehicle of food. Ultimately, the most important aspect of nutrition is not what to eat but how our relationship to food can teach us who we are and how we can sustain ourselves at the deepest level of being.”  ~Marc David

Living in a fast-food society changes more than our eating habits. As that recent study indicated, we unconsciously hurry other aspects of our lives as well. When we find ourselves “getting through” anything to get on to the next thing, we’re ignoring the here and now. We’re ignoring our lives as they are in this moment.

Let’s think instead of fast food as a metaphor, a symbol showing us that there’s another way to experience what’s right in front of us.

 

Originally published in Culinate 

fast food behavior, food related behavior,

A McDonald’s apple-pie dessert warmed in its cardboard sleeve can’t compare to sharing a slice of home-baked pie with a friend. (image: pixabay.com)

Raising Media Aware & Current Events Savvy Kids: 21 Resources

critical thinking for kids, current events for kids, think for yourself,

Critical thinking without media overload. It’s possible. (image: Kids in America)

We want to raise kids to be informed and active citizens without subjecting them to an information overload or current events-related despair. Here some activities and resources to make that easier.

1. Let current events become a regular topic. Just as you’d bring up any other subject that interests you, talk about topical issues in front of your kids. This is easy to do informally while driving or sitting around the dinner table.

2. Welcome their interests and opinions without trying to push your point of view. As they get older, help them see that using facts to bolster their talking points helps to convince others.

3. Model civil discourse. When people who disagree can engage in conversations with respect and integrity, they’re on the way to creating solutions. This is true in backyard squabbles, regional disputes, and diplomatic negotiations. A key is finding common ground. That happens after every person involved has access to the same information and feels that their input is understood. This is a critical skill to practice. Make it a part of your daily life for smaller issues so you can more easily use it when harder issues arise. Notice it in use by individuals and groups around the world.

4. Emphasize accurate and varied information sources so kids are equipped to think for themselves rather than led by popular opinion.

5. Hang a laminated world map on the wall. Notice where news happens and where friends travel. Mark places you’d like to go. Whiteboard markers wipe off this surface, so it’s easy to write directly on oceans and continents. This is also a subversive way to advance geographical knowledge.

6. Make timelines of your lives. Once kids have added details to their timelines such as when they lost the first tooth, got a dog, and moved into a new neighborhood help them go back to add events and discoveries that happened the same time. Continue the timeline on toward the future, speculating where you will live, what you will do, and what will be happening in the world around you. Getting kids to predict the future gives a lot of insight into their worldview.  You can also make a timeline for a grandparent, filling in newsworthy events, particularly those impacting the person’s life.

7. Get to know logical fallacies like guilt by association, appeal to fear, or red herring. By avoiding fallacies you can craft well-reasoned opinions while pointing out fallacies to deconstruct faulty arguments. Write some of the most common fallacies on place mats you use everyday or hang a list on the refrigerator to defuse squabbles. Get everyone involved by playing Logic Shrink, an entirely free game you can enjoy as you choose (basically everyone shouts out logical fallacies as they notice them committed by politicians, pundits, and others). Enjoy Ali Almossawi’s wonderful book An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments, free online and also available hardcover or audio format.

8. Pay attention to positive news. Don’t let the family news diet center heavily on the negative. Subscribe to high quality children’s magazines such as MuseSkipping StonesOdyssey, and New Moon Girls. Get updates from KarmaTube and Good News Network. Talk about what kids have seen or heard that makes them feel optimistic.

9. Find age-appropriate news sources. Try Scholastic NewsDoGo News, and the similarly named GoGo NewsKid’s Post (offered by The Washington Post), National Geographic KidsNews-o-Matic, and Time for Kids. Teens are likely to enjoy the news-based wit of The Daily Show  and Last Week Tonight.

10. Understand media input. There’s a heavy emphasis on celebrity worship, superficial attractiveness, material possessions, and violent use of power. As much as possible, counteract this through wise use family policies and a regular technology sabbath. There are excellent sources of information on media literacy including Campaign for a Commercial Free ChildhoodMedia SmartsCenter for Media Literacy, and National Association for Media Literacy Education.

11.Talk about the impact of marketing on daily decision-making. Point out product placements in movies, video games, and television shows. Notice how ads are targeted to specific markets. Talk about the way attractiveness is portrayed and the effect on self-image. Find out how marketing information is gathered on potential customers. Read Made You Look: How Advertising Works and Why You Should Know by Shari Graydon (for kids) and Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel by Jean Kilbourne.

12. Analyze the news. Check out the same story from different information outlets, maybe a major television station, a major newspaper, an alternative newspaper or site, social media, or blog commentary.  Notice what angles are reflected differently and what’s missing from a single news source. Is the media the message? Is there a commercial slant? Find out what’s behind the reporting with Source Watch which tracks the people and organizations shaping our public agenda and PR Watch which exposes public relations spin and propaganda.

13. Open up to reporting and commentary from other countriesPEARL World Youth News is an online international news service managed by students from around the world. OneWorld is a global information network designed to link people who see and share the news. Survival International and Cultural Survival are organizations sharing news about and advocating for the rights of indigenous peoples around the world. And check out links to dozens of links to far-flung news sources.

14. Play video games. Socially responsible games combine challenges with real life lessons about current situations. (Some are pretty heavy on the message.) Check out listings at Games for Change.

15. Report your own news. Capture the sights and sounds of your family, neighborhood, or travels in a family newspaper, blog, or video diary.

16. Consider the source. Watch the same topics covered in different news shows, such as conservative Fox and Friends versus liberal Rachel Maddow. Weigh assertions made by leaders in politics or business against historical example. Look up what a politician or pundit said on the topic years ago compared to now.

17. Look at coverage. Why are some stories headliners, others barely covered, and still others never reported? You might consider immediacy, negative impact (“bad” sells better than good), celebrity connection, and surprise factor.  What about stories Project Censored claims aren’t covered by mainstream outlets?

18.Think globally. Notice where toys, clothing and other household purchases are made, perhaps locating the country of origin on a map. Focus your interest on an area in the world, paying attention to the news, weather, and celebrations taking place there.  Put into place suggestions found in Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World by Homa Sabet Tavangar and consider changes suggested in The New Global Student by Maya Frost. Check out the information shared by the United Nations Cyber School Bus.

19. Connect with people around the world.  Talk about issues with people on forums and social media. Pose and answer questions on Dropping Knowledge, an incredible resource where there are dozens of current discussions such as, “Why don’t schools teach us to form our own opinions?” and “Would a universal language help us get along?”

20. Compete. Student Cam is C-SPAN’s annual documentary competition for young people. We The People hosts competitions for middle school and high school students. Do Something honors young volunteers. Academic WorldQuest is a team game testing competitors’ knowledge of international affairs, geography, history, and culture.

21. Host an international visitor. (Here’s what happened when we did just that.) You might welcome an exchange student through well-established programs such as American Field ServiceYouth for UnderstandingRotary Youth Exchange, or World Exchange. A short-term stay by a visiting professional might be more convenient, through Fulbright Scholar Program or National Council for International Visitors.

This is an excerpt from Free Range Learning

current events kids, teach critical thinking, teach media awareness,

Look beyond. (image: Valley Magnification)

Why You Care About (insert celebrity here)

celebrity obsession, fans, reality tv, media hypervigilance, celebrity worship, celebrity idols,

The distance between a baby in arms and nursing mother is eight to 15 inches, perfect for the focusing ability of a newborn. Even the youngest babies speak with their eyes. They hunger for eye contact and tell us how to respond to them by looking delighted, looking away, watching intently, or drifting off to sleep. When babies are cared for by people who are nurturing and responsive they learn to trust.

When a baby is a few months old,  he or she is held upright in a parent’s arms, still in close facial range. Such young children, still new to speech, pay close attention to a parent’s expression especially in new or unsettling situations. Eye contact is paired with the comfort of close body proximity. The child’s nerve endings continually input the sensation of being held safely but gently while correlating movement, smells, tastes, and sounds they experience.

celebrity worship explained, eye contact through tv screen, depression linked to tv, relationships versus tv, screens and mental health,  Close proximity to loved ones. (dhgoodman's flickr photostream)

Close proximity to loved ones. (dhgoodman’s flickr photostream)

As children get older they still are in close proximity to caregivers and family members, but also become close to friends. Face to face contact is likely with a few close friends as the child matures, and perhaps some face time with a disciplining teacher or coach also makes a pretty strong impact.

I’m not heading in the direction you suspect. This isn’t about growing up with insufficient eye contact, although when everyone is distracted by handheld screens this may be an increasingly sorrowful issue.

There are cultural variations in personal space as we become adults but in general, close personal contact has a lot to do with close emotional connections. We care about the people we’re closest to, literally, and our emotional health hinges on whether they care about us. In fact, two studies showed that strangers who were asked to maintain eye contact for two full minutes reacted by not only liking the other person but feeling “passionate love” for that person. Talk about the power of eyes, up close!

We also have, whether we recognize it or not, close associations between their facial expressions and our own self image. Closeness to another person’s face also means sensory experiences—smell, touch, taste, and movement that helps us continually form a sense of ourselves in relation to other people. That may be why brief sexual encounters and bad relationships are so emotionally damaging, not enough time spent looking with affection at one another’s faces along with insufficient eye contact. We’re left feeling as if we aren’t fully ourselves in the relationship, we’re not SEEN for who we are. That may be the case in unhealthy family dynamics too—-not enough face time or face time associated with unresponsive nurturing (either inattentive or intrusive). And inappropriate facial closeness, a screaming boss or threatening bully or dangerous intruder, can strip away this very essential boundary we establish early on that only welcomes those people who nurture us in some way to get that close.

How many people have you been in close facial proximity to over and over, so many times that their faces are more known to you than your own face? I’m guessing not that many. In childhood it was likely your parents, maybe a grandparent, and a close sibling or two. In adulthood it may be a partner (or several partners over time) and your own children. Tally that up. Perhaps a dozen people in total?

proximity and relationships, eye contact effects, eye contact affection,

I know, I’m slow getting around to my point but here it is. We are primed to care about and expect reciprocal caring from people whose faces we regularly see up-close, to know we have a place in each other’s lives. Screens change all that.

Movies, television, videos, and some video games bring other faces into personal range. You aren’t nose to nose with the screen but zoom shots bring those expressive lips and eyes up close, letting our brains experience an intimacy that isn’t there.  That’s the only way acting and filming techniques work, when viewers suspend reality by believing what’s on the screen. These screens have been around a scrap of time in the long expanse of human history. We’ve evolved to care intensely for and do everything we can to stay in touch with to those who have been repeatedly in close eye contact with us. They are, our bodies and minds believe, the core members of our tribe. Now there’s a good chance you see close-up faces of broadcasters, movie stars, and sports figures at least as many hours a day, probably more, than you do your close friends and family.

alienation tv, eye contact essential,

Feel connected? ( Bludgeoner86 flickr photostream)

I deeply appreciate the way technology allows us to learn and connect. I’m also a movie-watcher and fan of several TV series, so I’m not pointing any fingers. But I am intrigued about the way technology intersects with, perhaps intrudes upon, the unspoken essence of loving connection.

I wonder if this explains obsession with celebrities and absorption with lives of reality TV participants. I wonder if this relates to widespread problems in sustaining relationships, to general malaise, and to the fact that ten times more people are suffering major depression than than during World War II. (Yes, there are other factors.)

If we expect reciprocal attention and care from those whose faces are close to us, yet those faces can’t see us, it may very well reinforce a sense of loneliness and misery. It would drive us back to those screens, to look again and again at eyes that for the moment seem so close.

The concept seems laughable, but still I wonder. What do you think?

Who We Are In A Crisis

how people act in disaster, survivor, true survivor behavior,

Versions of Survivor are watched all over the world. Forty-five countries have pitted contestants against the odds and shows are still filmed in Denmark, Croatia, Italy, Norway, Serbia, France, India, Israel, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the U.S. These series drop people in inhospitable places with minimal resources and ask them to cope successfully with unexpected challenges. It’s called “reality” television, although people in the real world face harder challenges every day.

Survivor shows have to be carefully structured with authoritarian rules and imposed competition. Otherwise contestants might resort to a very natural state. Not Lord of the Flies levels of cruelty and exclusion. No, something far worse for ratings. Cooperation.

In our non-reality TV lives we don’t live as separate entities battling for limited resources like wanna-be stars on an island bristling with cameras. We humans are wired to live in interdependent networks of people based on mutual support and compassion. Ninety-nine percent of humanity’s time on earth took place while we lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers, a time when we did not make war against each other. Anthropologists tell us that our species never would have survived without structuring our lives around sharing food and resources. This responsive caring is basic to who we are.

But somehow, after years of schooling where collaboration is redefined as cheating and recreation where play is turned into supervised competition, we adopt the idea that people are essentially selfish. Popular culture feeds this concept by elevating what’s superficial and materialistic, the better to shape us into perpetual consumers. Worse, we seem to think that selfishness can easily erupt into brutally dangerous behavior when disaster strikes. According to a remarkable book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, the opposite is true.

Author Rebecca Solnit takes a close look at disasters including earthquakes, floods, and explosions. She finds tragedy and grief, but something else too, something rarely noticed. During and after these horrific crises there shines from the wreckage something extraordinary. People rise up as if liberated, regardless of their differences, to act out of deep regard for one another. They improvise, coordinate, create new social ties, and pour themselves into work that has no personal gain other than a sense of meaning. Such people express strangely transcendent feelings of joy, envisioning a greater and more altruistic community in the making. Even those suffering the most horrific misfortune often turn around to aid others and later remember it as the defining moment of their lives. This is a testament to the human spirit, as if disaster cracks us open to our better selves. As Solnit says, “The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting.”

Disaster is often compounded by those who believe that human nature is selfish and cruel. In many cases this is the drumbeat sounded by the media and acted on by authorities. An analysis of disasters shows that official efforts to deal with disaster tend to focus on this aspect, suppressing the efforts of ordinary people to help one another while increasing militaristic control. This deprives people of helping one another and compounds the crisis.

Solnit says that the enlivening purpose that truly comes to the fore as a result of disasters tells us something about ourselves. “Each of us enlarges the world by idealistic passion and engagement. Meaning must be sought out; it is not built into most people’s lives. The tasks that arise in disaster often restore this meaning.”

No one wants their blessedly ordinary lives wiped away by something unimaginably horrible. But it’s good to know, as Solnit says, who we are in a crisis gives us a “glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.”

who we are in a crisis, humanity at its best in crisis,

This article first published in Wired

What’s To Love About Pinterest

5 reasons to use Pinterest, why like Pinterest, pinning on Pinterest,

Creativity103's Flickr photostream

Are you on Pinterest?

This virtual pinboard lets us create, organize, and share what we find online. Because it’s a visually-oriented site, it attracts us using something other social media sites haven’t done nearly as well: images. While online we tend to be seekers. We look for information, distraction, connection, and inspiration. Pinterest lets us find (and revel in) all these things through compelling images.

The site was launched in March 2010. One of the founders, Ben Silbermann, said in an interview that the idea stemmed from his penchant for collecting. As a child he was particularly taken with entomology. He realized that collecting bugs said something about him, just as any of our interests say something about us. Co-founder Evan Sharp noted that he too was a collector as a child. As an adult that tendency shifted to amassing images in folders on his desktop. So they, along with the third co-founder, Paul Sciarra, developed Pinterest as a way for users to collect and share related images, linking back to the originating site.

Pinterest didn’t catch on immediately. But within a few months users began applying it in ways the founders hadn’t anticipated. They posted travel hacks, home renovation ideas, Etsy items, wedding plans, and craft tutorials. And it’s really taking off.  From Oct 2010 to March 2012, Pinterest went from 40,000 to 18 million monthly unique visitors.

Articles about Pinterest often focus on how it can drive sales or be used as a PR tool. For example TechCrunch predicts Pinterest could change consumer behavior, causing them to seek out goods favored by other Pinterest users. This may be true.

But what’s noted but little understood is that the primary users of Pinterest, at least so far, tend to be women.  A regular look at the Everything front page indicates that these users aren’t necessarily on Pinterest primarily to share consumer recommendations, although there are plenty of tempting pins for fashion and home décor products. They’re using it to share inspiration for ways to live; with more humor and less angst, with beauty found in an evocative landscape, with clever ideas for raising kids or making gifts or building a garden shed. This in itself makes Pinterest seem like a blessed relief from the endless marketing found online.

I’ve fallen for it for several reasons.

1. It’s hubbub free. Unlike FB, Twitter, or G+ you don’t need to scroll past drama or post repeats, nor do you need to hop in regularly lest it seem you’re ignoring ongoing conversations. Instead of all those voices clamoring for your attention, Pinterest has a peaceful vibe. It’s like moseying through a quiet gallery of images, each one ready to tell you more with a click.

2.  It’s a wonderful method of storing visually inspiring ideas for later use. Going back over your own boards can be like flipping through magazines made entirely of what you love. Previous pins can help you find that entree you want to make today, the shelves you want to build in your kitchen next summer, and the song that teaches your kids about the periodic table as soon as they’re old enough.

3. It’s a way to browse freely and casually within any interest you might have. Yes, you can create circles on G+ and lists on Twitter, but on Pinterest it’s easy to follow any chosen user’s specific boards. Whether you want ideas for DIY projects or images of trees or ways to preserve family peace, you’ll find it on Pinterest.

4.  Marketers assume Pinterest will drive sales and yes, there are plenty of luscious products pinned. But I wonder if it might actually serve as an antidote to materialism.  Sorting and sharing images may satisfy the urges often channeled into shopping or ordering online. If purchasing has something to do with acquiring and keeping, maybe, just maybe, acquiring and keeping images may fill the same need.

5. It’s a way of sharing what simply delights us. By organizing what appeals to us, we make it easier for other people to find interesting ideas and images. It’s heartening, in a way, to find that a woman I know as a writer of math books also has a thing for Spanish architecture, punk t-shirts, frothy cocktails, and Daniel Craig movies.

Connect with me on Pinterest!

Five Ways Frugal Living Benefits Kids

simple living best for kids, frugal best for family, saving money develops character,

Photo by Peter Klashorst

Sophie is a single mother raising a five-year-old boy. She’s working to establish her own house cleaning business after losing her job nearly two years ago. Sophie and her son live in a small trailer home.

Marissa and Jack run a thriving dental practice while raising five-year-old twin daughters. They live in a suburban home on several acres.

The five-year-olds from these families are at opposite ends of the economic spectrum. But their parents are raising them in remarkably similar ways. Frugally.

Although Sophie would prefer a more reliable income, she wouldn’t spend a cent more than she already does on herself or her son. She adheres closely to simple living tenets. Sophie grows as much food as possible in a community garden plot and makes meals from scratch. She and her son fully enjoy the free benefits of the local library and park system. On weekends, Sophie’s folk band crowds into her trailer for practice sessions. Her son is already learning how to play the harmonica and fiddle. Sophie believes he should rely on his imagination for fun rather than on toys. When she does buy him gifts, they tend to be modest items such as crayons or socks, or ones that have long- term use such as simple tools or sheet music.

Marissa and Jack choose to live simply in their own way. They buy clothing and their children’s playthings from thrift stores, exchange only homemade gifts, and emphasize having fun outdoors. They carefully consider expenditures based on their ethics. Health is a priority, so they buy only organic foods and when they deem it necessary they pay for alternative medical treatments. Supporting the arts is another priority so they invest in original works to hang on their walls and regularly attend plays, concerts, and gallery events. They strongly believe in the importance of international travel. When they go to far-off places, they get around by bike or local mass transit, a method they find brings them closer to the cultures they’re visiting.

Many of us are living more frugally. It certainly eases financial strain. It also makes a difference in wider ways, from reducing our ecological footprint to promoting social justice.

Today’s relentlessly materialistic culture tells young people in every way possible that their identity is built on wearing, playing with, and using the very latest consumer products. That’s a heavy tide to fight against on the home front. But that tide is worth turning.

Living simply puts the emphasis on exactly the conditions that are best for our kids, now and as they grow into adulthood.

simple living best for kids, cheap and happy families, non-commercial living

Image courtesy of woodley wonderworks.

Shelter From Commercialism

Humanity has always raised her children with the stories, foods, rituals, and values of particular meaning to the people close to them. While there are undeniable benefits to today’s connections and conveniences, a major drawback is the way advertisers have insinuated themselves into the lives of even the youngest children. Nowadays, a child’s stories, foods, rituals, and values are more likely than ever provided by the marketplace. And we know what’s preached there – that meaning comes from what can be bought.

Every year, a 15 to 17 billion dollar marketing industry is aimed at our kids. That money is spent because it’s effective. It’s estimated that 565 billion dollars in purchases are influenced by four- to twelve-year-olds.

Susan Linn, who teaches psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, notes in Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood, that psychological and neurological research is used to exploit the vulnerabilities of children. She writes, “The explosion of marketing aimed at kids today is precisely targeted, refined by scientific method, and honed by child psychologists – in short, it is more pervasive and intrusive than ever before.”

These strategies are not only employed in advertising itself but are embedded in Internet sites, video games, television, and movies. They’re designed into packaging, implicit in many playthings, and nearly ubiquitous in schools.

Young people have minimal defenses against such tactics. Children under the age of eight aren’t even able to understand the persuasive intent of advertising. And studies show that a network in the brain necessary for many introspective abilities – forming a self-image, understanding the ongoing story of one’s own life, and gaining insight into other people’s behavior – is profoundly weaker in young people. Those brain networks aren’t fully established until adulthood. Just at the stage when selfhood is forming, our children are most vulnerable to the messages of a consumer culture.

Those of us who live simply shelter our kids in different ways and to differing degrees. No matter what approach we take, it’s neither possible nor desirable to shelter teens the same way we shelter toddlers. That’s why it’s vital to raise our kids to be critical thinkers with a strong sense of self. Then they’re empowered to make their own fully informed choices.

Delayed Gratification

This is a biggie in the “you’ll thank me later” department because kids who are able to delay gratification are much more likely to do well as they grow up.

We model delayed gratification each time we choose to save, make do, or make it ourselves. We demonstrate it when the whole family adds coins to a jar until there’s enough to finance an anticipated event. We teach it when we help children find ways to earn and save for their own aims. And we show that it’s expected whether our kids have to wait to see a movie until it’s available at the library or wait until the next birthday for a new pair of jeans.

This may seem negative, particularly when popular culture constantly screams “have it now” and “get what you want.” But there are enormous positives. Our children become familiar with the pleasures of anticipation, which multiplies the eventual delight when a goal is reached. They also begin to internalize the ability to delay gratification. That is pivotal for success. In multiple studies (cited in Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence) children who were able to defer gratification grew into teens and young adults who were more socially competent, better able to deal with frustration, more dependable, reached higher educational attainments, and were effectively able to make and reach long-term goals.

Delayed gratification is related to impulse control. Research shows that a child’s ability to control his or her impulses at an early age is predictive of success even decades later as a healthy, financially stable, and positive member of the community.

There are many ways to help kids gain the positive coping skills that help them control their impulses and delay gratification. It may be about waiting, but the outcome is extraordinary.

family values and simple living,

Image courtesy of Lorena

Happiness

Despite advertisers’ images of happy children playing with new toys and giddy teens dancing in designer hoodies, the facts are glaringly obvious. Things don’t make us happier. Children seem to understand the “time is money” conundrum. When their parents spend more time away from home earning an income, they have less time to spend with the family. In a nationwide poll of American kids ages nine to fourteen, ninety percent said they’d prefer increased time with friends and family over material possessions. And when asked if they could have one wish to change their parents’ jobs, sixty-three percent said they would like their mom or dad to have a job that gave them more time to do things together. Only thirteen percent wished their parents made more money.

The more materialistic young people are, the unhappier they tend to be. According to research cited in The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser, people who hold materialistic values are more likely to suffer from a whole dumpster load of problems. This includes aggressive behavior, insecurity, depression, low self-esteem, narcissism, even physical maladies. And when people place high value on material aims, they’re prone to have trouble with interpersonal relationships and intimacy. Materialism is also related to less independent thinking and lower value placed on being “true to oneself.” Of course, we want to spare our kids this festering personal mess.

How? We recognize that a sense of well-being depends on intangible qualities like warm interpersonal relationships, reasonable autonomy in one’s choices, exactly those things that money can’t buy. But what’s interesting is that materialism and unhappiness seem to “cause” each other. We all know people who exemplify this. Unhappy people tend to seek status and satisfaction in more transitory ways such as acquisition and appearance. When they do, they feel a temporary boost in happiness, which reinforces even greater materialism.

Studies show that happiness has much more to do with experiences than with possessions. A family camping trip will provide more lasting pleasure than a large purchase. That may be due to the way we access memories. Long after the experience is over, we have fuller sensory-based recall that’s invariably richer than any a purchase can provide.

It’s important to model a cheerful approach to simple living for our kids, but that’s not enough. To ward off materialistic attitudes, our children need the personal strength found in self-worth. That self- worth tends to come from supportive relationships and a sense of accomplishment. In a marvelous example of synchronicity, these are precisely what simple living reinforces in our daily lives. We consciously choose to do for our- selves, to spend more family time together, and to focus on active rather than passive entertainment.

frugal families, simple living benefits children,

US Fish and Wildlife Service

Creativity and Enthusiasm

Many adults seem determined to keep kids busy by enrolling them in supervised activities. And they provide kids with plenty of distractions like toys, video games, and television. Unintentionally, these efforts teach children that fallow time is undesirable. But brain studies show that daydreaming, contemplation, even that uncomfortable condition we identify as “boredom” is vitally important. These natural periods of down time are necessary to incorporate higher level learning and to generate new ideas.

If we expect children to resolve their own boredom without resorting to electronic or other distractions, we help them access a wellspring of ideas that seem to come from nowhere, a wellspring they discover within. Frugal living is one way to preserve a slow pace and minimal distraction load, letting our children become familiar with generating their own ideas.

When we live frugally, we also tend to avoid popular methods of “enriching” our children’s lives such as academic preschool, specialty classes, coached sports, and other paid programs. That saves on fees. It also fosters the kind of expansive learning that’s natural for our species. Research continues to show that when adults are highly directive and exert influence even in the form of rewards or evaluation, their efforts actually diminish a child’s motivation, enthusiasm, creativity, and ability to innovate. Well-intended efforts to hone a child’s abilities through early instruction tend to be counterproductive.

That’s also true of play. Our kids don’t need expensive toys or games. Children’s creativity and resourcefulness flourish when they play without the structure imposed by most playthings. Imagination flows freely when they use what they find in the backyard to play act, build hideouts, or create their own games. In contrast, a toy linked to a movie release or a game with structured rules has predetermined uses and children are much less likely to innovate.

Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughn write in Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul that, “play lies at the core of creativity and innovation.” It enhances development in areas such as emotional health, social skills, motivation, confidence, a sense of justice, and much more. Young people who maintain a playful nature into adulthood are, according to Brown and Vaughn, remarkably well suited for success. A playful adult is more flexible, humorous, optimistic, and efficient. They note that throughout life, “the ability to play is critical not only to being happy, but also to sustaining social relationships and being a creative, innovative person.”

When our frugal homes provide plenty of raw materials necessary for play without up-to-the-minute popular toys, we’re putting into place the best conditions for sustaining creativity and playfulness.

value of chores for kids, kids delayed gratification, kids impulse control, non-commercial kids

Image courtesy of Catherine Scott

Self-Reliance And Responsibility

There’s a resoundingly positive impact on our children when we include them in the real work of maintaining our family home, yard, vehicles, and more. Children growing up in frugal households often have regular chores. While some complaining is natural, chores help children understand how things work. They see the benefits of saving as they do calculations for the family budget. They recognize what happens if they forget to take the dog out or don’t bring the laundry in from the line before it rains. They take extra pleasure in the warm fire from firewood they helped to stack. Chores also enable children to master useful skills that will help them become more self-reliant adults.

Taking on early responsibility brings long-term consequences. A study, starting in the 1930s, followed men from young adulthood to death. These men had very different lives; some were affluent Harvard graduates and others were impoverished inner city residents. The men who helped out with regular tasks starting at a young age were most likely to enjoy stability and good mental health.

And there’s more evidence. A long-term study followed children from early childhood to their mid-twenties. What led to success? Balancing all other variables, it was found that the best predictor of a young adult’s success was participation in household tasks at a young age. And we’re talking resounding success – including educational attainment, high intellectual capabilities, a career, and good relationships with family and friends.

The optimum age to get started is three or four years old. According to researchers, starting in the preteen or teen years doesn’t have a strong association with success, although children who take an active role early continue to help out as teens. It’s important to gear the task to the child. Parents should take care to present tasks that aren’t too difficult and that fit the child’s learning style, and not to “pay” for tasks directly or through an allowance tied to the work. Researchers also suggest that children be involved in choosing tasks, perhaps through family meetings or rotating chore charts.

They key to success may also lie in the sensory riches gained by hands-on tasks. Those of us who live simply tend to do more for ourselves. We may grind our own grain and make our own bread, we may raise chickens and barter the extra eggs for a local beekeeper’s honey, we may fix rather than replace what’s broken. And when our kids take part they also gain learning experiences that apply to many other areas of life.

Neurologist Frank Wilson explains in The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture that brain development and hand use is inextricably connected. And Wilson found a transfer effect. As he studied people who were masters in all sorts of fields (surgeon, puppeteer, and guitarist to name a few), he found each of them had engaged in regular hands-on efforts during their formative years. Whether they grew up doing farm work, playing a musical instrument, or helping grandpa build birdhouses,Wilson says the hand-brain link activated “hidden physical roots . . . of passionate and creative work.”

Starting our kids on tasks at an early age blesses them with self-reliance and a greater likelihood of success. It also demonstrates to them day after day that their efforts are needed. A child can see the outcome of his or her efforts in a meal the whole family worked to get on the table. It feels good. It feels even better is when a parent says, “Thanks, I couldn’t have done it without you.” There’s not a commercial product out there that can create the same genuine satisfaction.

Sophie’s little boy and Marissa and Jack’s twin daughters know that satisfaction. Their young lives have ample time for play, working alongside adults, and warm family conversation. The children soak up their parents’ values while learning and growing largely free of commercial influences, at least for now. Their parents have never met each other but they have the same focus. They see simple living as an integral way to bring forth a more conscious and life sustaining future for their children.

Natural Life Magazine  July/Aug 2011

Learn More

All Made Up: A Girl’s Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype to Celebrate Real Beauty by Audrey D. Brashich (Walker Books, 2006)

Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture by Juliet B. Schor (Scribner, 2005)

Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel by Jean Kilbourne (Free Press, 2000)

Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood by Susan Linn (New Press, 2004)

Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman (Bantam, 2006)

Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown, Christopher Vaughan (Avery Trade, 2010)

The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser (The MIT Press, 2003)

The Psychology of Parental Control: How Well-meant Parenting Backfires by Wendy S. Grolnick (Psychology Press, 2002)

What Kids Really Want That Money Can’t Buy: Tips for Parenting in a Commercial World by Betsy Taylor (Grand Central Publishing, 2004)

Commercial Free Childhood

Alliance For Childhood

New American Dream

What Movies Tell Girls

how movies affect girl's self-image, damaging effect of media on girls, For years my daughter’s favorite movie was Just Visiting. This old remake of an older hit French comedy was packed with plenty for my little girl to adore. Magic, time travel, and plenty of humor. Some quotes from the film are still in rotation as favorite family sayings. Although it didn’t lack for laughs, it was missing something more vital. Strong female roles. Sure, women star in the film. Passive, pretty characters who only gain a stronger sense of themselves through men. Well, there’s also a stereotypical witch. Don’t even get me started on that. I’m not about to stomp my foot and decry one B movie because the women’s roles aren’t up to good-for-my-daughter standards. But when I take a look at movies available in theaters and on Netflix, foot stomping seems imperative. In the real world girls and women have full, interesting lives. Their conversations are complex and rarely limited to shoes, hair styles, and attracting the “right” XY chromosomes. But in the entertainment world, females are often little more than gloss. Little more than women’s roles in the past. sexualized roles in movies, One way to gauge a female character’s presence in any movie is the Bechdel test. This method doesn’t imply that a particular movie has merit, it simply demonstrates character treatment based on gender. To pass the Bechdel test, a movie has to meet all of the following three qualifications:

  1. Have at least two female characters (with names known to the audience)
  2. who have a conversation with each other
  3. about something besides a male.

Recall the last five movies you saw. How many really pass the test? I’m not sure Just Visiting passes. But according to the Bechdel test database, recent movies such as Limitless, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,  The Tree of Life, Water For Elephants, Your Highness, Beastly, I Am Number Four, The Lincoln Lawyer, No Strings Attached, Source Code, and Avatar don’t pass. Kids’ movies aren’t much better. Bechdel test failures include Hop, Rango, Rio, Jack and the Beanstalk, Megamind, The Secret of KellsFantastic Mr. Fox, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Ice AgeDawn of the Dinosaursand Shrek Forever After. Another way to pay attention to gender disparity in movies is to simply count the number of female speaking characters. Top movies for kids from 1990 to 2005 averaged less than one female out of every three speaking characters. And in both animated and live action movies from 1999 to 2006, researchers noted that females were outnumbered by males in speaking roles as well as crowd scenes. Worse, girls and women were typically portrayed in stereotypical, often hypersexualized roles. It seems girl power, even in today’s family films, has a lot to do with sexy clothes.

Jeff Brunner thesocietypages.org/socimages/2009/10/25/disney-princesses-deconstructed/

This gender disparity is more than annoying. It’s damaging. Sexualized stereotypes are linked to a slew of problems in girls as well as women including eating disorders, poor self-esteem, and depression. Girls and young women who frequently consume mainstream media content are more likely to believe that a woman’s value is based on physical attractiveness. Even very young girls are beginning to self-objectify, to think of themselves as objects to be evaluated by appearance. And there’s a lot of media consumption going on. Half of kids under six watch at least one DVD a day. That’s some heavy reinforcement of Hollywood ideals. In our house Just Visiting has given way to new favorites. I’ll be watching them with popcorn, a snuggly blanket, and some attitude. My foot is just itching to stomp. Here are a few resources to light the way. About Face Adios Barbie All Made Up: A Girl’s Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype to Celebrate Real Beauty Beauty Redefined Body Drama: Real Girls, Real Bodies, Real Issues, Real Answers Body Outlaws: Rewriting the Rules of Beauty and Body Image Body Shots: Hollywood and the Culture of Eating Disorders (Excelsior Editions) Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture Mothers for a Human Future New Moon Girls Packaging Girlhood Pink Stinks Resolving the Confidence Crisis Taking Back Childhood Teen Voices The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls 101 Ways to Help Your Daughter Love Her Body

9 Amazing Reasons To Be Optimistic

world betterment, global optimism, oneness, hope, peace, all will be well,

If you could scroll through history searching for an era where you’d like to spend a lifetime, what would attract you?

Probably peace and prosperity. Probably a time when the arts flourish and science is open to new wonders. Probably too, a time period when people behave morally, care for one another, and uphold higher ideals than selfishness.

Does it make a difference to your answer if you don’t get to choose where on Earth you’ll be born?  Into what class, gender, creed, and ability?

You’ll probably want to stay right here, right now.

Our 24 hour media attention on what’s terrifying and what’s superficial steers us away from the big picture.  That picture, looking at the wider view, is actually pretty heartening.

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1. War and global violence continue to decline.

Armed conflicts aren’t going up, they’re going down.

The world has seen a 70 percent decline in the number of high-intensity conflicts since the end of the Cold War era. Genocide is down 80 percent. Weapons sales between countries have diminished by 33 percent and the number of refugees has fallen by 45 percent. Even measuring from as little as 15 years ago, the number of armed conflicts has dropped from 44 to 28.

Why? Project Ploughshares credits peace building efforts.

Chances are, the reasons for peace are complex. Yet a stronger international resolve to focus on peace building and basic human rights is taking place. Imagine the far larger potential for enduring peace if we intentionally educate our children and ourselves in the proven methods of non-violence—-negotiation, mediation, reconciliation, even basic listening skills.

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2. Freedom is stretching across the planet.

By evaluating variables including civil liberties, democratic institutions, and independent media it’s possible to assess how free each nation in the world really is. Back in 1973, 29 percent of nations were deemed free, 25 percent partially free, and 46 percent not free.

In a little over 35 years, the number of nations ruled by authoritarian regimes dropped from 90 to 30. Countries around the world considered to be free increased by 50 percent while those not free had dropped by more than half.

Independence has a long way to go. And what we may not recognize as positive signs—protests, dissent, political upheaval—may very well be ordinary people speaking up for freedom.

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3. Affluence is on the increase.

A shifting focus away from war, conflict, and chaos means that countries are better able to meet the needs of their citizens. Those 151 countries deemed free or partly free account for 95 % of the world’s gross domestic production (GDP).

The number of people living in poverty has dropped by 500 million people, although most of those successes are in a few key countries.  Since 1975 the world’s poor have seen their incomes grow faster than the world’s wealthy, meaning economic equality is increasing.

Of course, we make a mistake when we confuse affluence with well-being. After certain (surprisingly minimal) levels of health and safety are reached, money doesn’t buy happiness.

Current global conditions of institutional breakup, financial chaos, and environmental decline are exactly those which seem to be (slowly) leading to long-term beneficial change. Collectively we’re waking up to the limitations of short-term fixes and relentless economic expansion. Hopefully we’re also waking up to the reality that we’re in this together—rich and poor, developed and developing nations, young and old, left and right. We see in our own lives that what’s important can’t be measured by dollars alone. Things like good health, supportive relationships and a vital ecosystem.

There are plenty of other ways to define affluence. A fascinating measure of wealth lies in a quick look at how many hours of labor it once took the average worker to pay for light.  In ancient Babylonia it took over 50 hours to pay for an hour of poor light from a sesame-oil lamp. At the start of the last century, it would have taken the average worker a thousand hours to earn the money to buy candles equaling the light of a single 100 watt bulb. Today’s high efficiency lighting costs us less than a second of work.

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4. Fewer people are hungry.

Hunger continues to drop although we have a long way to go. It’s staggering to realize that 925 million people are chronically hungry. But according to The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet by Indur Goklany, global food supplies increased 24 percent per capita in the last 40 years. In developing countries the food supply increased at an even greater rate, 38 percent more food per person. Since 1950, the real global price of food commodities has declined 75 percent.

No one should go hungry. The future of global food justice relies on efforts to restore and protect biodiversity, stop the spread of genetically modified crops, and assure water rights.

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5. Longevity is improving yet total population faces a downturn

Fulfilling the cherished hopes of their parents, more children around the world are born healthy. Mortality rates for those under five years of age have fallen by 60 percent since 1960.

Meanwhile, life expectancy has risen 21 years since the mid 1950’s.

This doesn’t mean the planet will be too crowded. Overall population will continue to rise for several more decades but we’re facing a major downturn. Already birth rates are near or below replacement rate in countries all over the world. Increased education and affluence tend to inspire women, no matter what country they live in, to invest their time and resources in fewer children. As Fred Pearce clearly explains in The Coming Population Crash: and Our Planet’s Surprising Future, our little Earth will likely reach a (painful) peak of 8 billion people around the year 2040, then the total number of human will begin to decline so rapidly that nations will struggle to keep their populations levels from slipping too low. They may create perks for becoming parents and incentives to attract immigrants.

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6. Health continues to improve.

Studies conducted by Robert W. Fogel, a Nobel laureate and economic historian at the University of Chicago, show that in a few hundred years human biology has changed in startling ways. We are more resistant to ill health, more likely to recover when faced with disease and less likely to live with chronic disability. We are also smarter and live longer. Fogel calls this radical improvement “technophysio evolution.”

An interview quotes Fogel as saying, “The phenomenon is not only unique to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of human beings who have inhabited the earth.”

Fogel doesn’t necessary attribute the changes to genetic shifts.  Improvements in medical care, nutrition, sanitation and working conditions may cause epigenetic changes. These are shifts in gene expression that can last through many generations without altering underlying DNA.

Information amassed by Fogel indicates that chronic diseases such as arthritis, heart disease and lung ailments are occurring 10 to 25 years later in life than they did 100 or 200 years ago. Interestingly, well-being may be more strongly affected by conditions each individual faces in utero and during the first few years of life than previously suspected.

These remarkable health gains don’t diminish our current struggles with cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, autism and other serious health conditions on the increase. Despite the blessing of bodies more resilient and healthy than those of our ancestors of just 150 years ago we suffer the effects of environmental toxins and nutritionally inferior diets. To fully accept the gift of health and energy from our ancestors, we need to make the right choices to pass those benefits to our descendants.

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7. Literacy rates continue to improve.

Global adult literacy rates have shot up from 56 percent in 1950 to nearly 84 percent today, the highest ever.

Women’s rates haven’t risen as quickly due to inequality and poverty, but in some areas, particularly East Asia, 90 percent more girls are able to read than 10 years ago. As female literacy goes up, other overall positive indicators tend to follow including decreased domestic violence, improved public health and greater financial stability.

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8. Intelligence is on an upswing.

From generation to generation, we’re getting smarter. In fact, to accommodate continuously increasing intelligence the IQ test must be renormalized (standardized to keep the average test results at the 100). This is called the Flynn Effect.

Between 1932 and 1978, mean IQ scores in the U.S. rose 13.8 points. If your grandparent received IQ score results of 98 back in 1932 they’d have been deemed of average intelligence. That same grandparent, if administered today’s tests, would be considered to have a borderline mental disability by current scoring standards. IQ scores have risen even higher in some other countries. Of late, developing countries seem to be experiencing the biggest surge.

Plenty of explanations have been proposed, but the increase can’t be definitively pinned on genetic improvements, improved nutrition, greater familiarity with testing or better schooling.

According to Cornell professor Stephen J. Ceci, the most direct gains are not in subjects that are taught (math, vocabulary) but are shown in parts of the test that seem unrelated to schooling (matrices, detecting similarities). In fact, test gains have been enormous in areas requiring the child to apply his or her own reasoning, such as arranging pictures to tell a story or putting shapes in a series. Although teaching children does return positive results, what a child learns through the natural stimulation of everyday life has a more profound effect. For example, a study to determine the effect of schooling on rural children in India found that the increase in overall intelligence from a year of age is twice the increase from that of attending a year of school.

IQ test scores don’t relate to what truly provides satisfaction in life. But the Flynn Effect is intriguing. Factors we can’t completely explain are giving us the intellectual capacities to deal with an ever more challenging world.

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9. Compassion is huge.

Never before in history have so many people worked tirelessly and selflessly to benefit others. Paul Hawken writes in Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming that the abolitionist movement was the first major movement by human beings to advocate on behalf of others without seeking advantage for themselves or their particular social or political group.  Since that time, such efforts have grown with astonishing vigor.

There are now over a million organizations on the planet working for environmental stewardship, social justice, the preservation of indigenous cultures, and much more.  These groups don’t seek wider acclaim, they seek to make a difference for the greater good.

Humanity, which is clever and kind enough to bring about so much improvement for one another, is awakening to the vital importance of living more sustainably on Earth. Unless we pull another planet out of the galaxy’s pocket in the next decade or two, we have to stop using up our precious blue green Earth. It’s time to turn our ingenuity to living well within our means. Peacefully, wisely, and with optimism.

world peace, ending world hunger, ending war, ending illiteracy, global optimism, heartening optimism,

Hand Globe image courtesy of HapciuMadam

Hummingbird image courtesy of PhapPuppy

Do You Suffer From Mean World Syndrome?

tv overload, mean world syndrome, george gerbner, pessimism, fearful of strangers,

Do you turn on TV news most days? You’re probably not doing yourself or your family any favors.

What you bring into your home is tragedy, violence and the worst of human behavior. Study after study has shown that news programming tends to breed cynicism and helplessness.

Yes it’s important to be informed, but the kind of coverage found in network and cable news is usually superficial. And worse, it’s skewed to visuals and headlines chosen for shock value. That’s what boosts rating. In-depth information that advances real comprehension isn’t what TV news delivers. As a result, viewers are more likely to become pessimistic, fearful and unable to gauge reality.

Yes, really.

The phenomenon is called Mean World Syndrome.

It’s based on the research of George Gerbner. His analysis showed that the violent content of news and entertainment convinces viewers that the world is more dangerous than it actually is. Back when Gerbner did the bulk of his work, media was a smaller and quieter place. Now we have 24 hour access to news channels, movies, and shows as well as all kinds of net content.

Gerbner wrote,

Our studies have shown that growing up from infancy with this unprecedented diet of violence has three consequences, which, in combination, I call the “mean world syndrome.” What this means is that if you are growing up in a home where there is more than say three hours of television per day, for all practical purposes you live in a meaner world – and act accordingly – than your next-door neighbor who lives in the same world but watches less television. The programming reinforces the worst fears and apprehensions and paranoia of people.

And those who are convinced the world around them is a highly dangerous, unpredictable and unforgiving place have more than a heightened sense of insecurity. They are more likely to see violence as a solution to problems rather than to reason in more nuanced ways. Fear also drives them to take hard-line political and social attitudes.

When Gerbner testified before a congressional subcommittee in 1981, he said

Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hard-line measures…

mean world syndrome, news overload, cynicism and mass media, happy family without tv news,Hmmm.

Fact is, the world is NOT more violent.

Center for Media and Public Affairs did a study on network coverage of murder. Between 1990 and 1995, the murder rate in the U.S. went down thirteen percent. (It continues to go down.) But during that same period, network coverage of murders increased three hundred percent.

Try this antidote, an excerpt of a Steven Pinker article titled “We’re Getting Nicer Every Day: A History of Violence,”

The criminologist Manuel Eisner has assembled hundreds of homicide estimates from Western European localities that kept records at some point between 1200 and the mid-1990s. In every country he analyzed, murder rates declined steeply–for example, from 24 homicides per 100,000 Englishmen in the fourteenth century to 0.6 per 100,000 by the early 1960s.

On the scale of decades, comprehensive data again paint a shockingly happy picture:

Global violence has fallen steadily since the middle of the twentieth century.

According to the Human Security Brief 2006, the number of battle deaths in interstate wars has declined from more than 65,000 per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 per year in this decade. In Western Europe and the Americas, the second half of the century saw a steep decline in the number of wars, military coups, and deadly ethnic riots.

Zooming in by a further power of ten exposes yet another reduction. After the cold war, every part of the world saw a steep drop-off in state-based conflicts, and those that do occur are more likely to end in negotiated settlements rather than being fought to the bitter end. Meanwhile, according to political scientist Barbara Harff, between 1989 and 2005 the number of campaigns of mass killing of civilians decreased by 90 percent.

The decline of killing and cruelty poses several challenges to our ability to make sense of the world. To begin with, how could so many people be so wrong about something so important? Partly, it’s because of a cognitive illusion: We estimate the probability of an event from how easy it is to recall examples. Scenes of carnage are more likely to be relayed to our living rooms and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age.”

Yes, we face harsh realities. I hardly need to recount them to you. But when crime, disaster, ecological devastation, famine, and other tragedies are presented as random occurrences nothing constructive is gained. Emotions like anger, fear, and sorrow can rouse us to positive action but only if action is an option. Sometimes that’s direct action, sometimes it’s seeking deeper understanding of how to prevent these occurrences from happening again.

Problems portrayed on movies and shows, problems relentlessly hyped in the news and by pundits—-well, they just seem so pervasive, so disconnected from causes, so impossible to change that we feel helpless to do anything about it. That’s another effect of Mean World Syndrome.

We end up pessimistic, which is bad for our own health and bad for the planet.

True, we humans may be more likely to pay attention to negatives than positives, a trait that probably helped us to survive in saber-tooth tiger days. But long progress of humanity has much more to do with our tendency to cooperate, form close relationships, and to care. We are hard-wired for compassion, not for the imaginary mean world.

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Fight Mean World Syndrome

Get your news from sources that adhere closely to the highest journalistic standards.

Consider widening your perspective with international news.

Check out Center for Media Literacy. They offer resources to help young people develop critical thinking skills related to our world of mass media.

Read magazines about people and groups working for positive changes such as Ode and YES.

Enjoy some heartening news with Good News Network and Great News Network.

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Fear image courtesy of Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha’s Flickr photostream.