Herman Van Rompuy is thinking positive

Herman Van Rompuy is thinking positive. He is staring into his mirror each morning, and repeating to himself: ‘I am a strong, confident, powerful currency. I am A TIGER!’ He’s so positive, he’s sent out a hefty tome called The World Book of Happiness to 200 world leaders, with this extraordinary letter. I’m quoting from the letter he sent to Barack Obama:

Dear Mr President Barack

I am very happy to present you with this copy of The World Book of Happiness…with my best wishes for a ‘Happy New Year’ but also with my request to you as world leaders to make people’s happiness and well-being our political priority for 2012 [um…what about preventing the catastrophic collapse of the euro? No?]

Positive thinking is no longer something for drifters, dreamers and the perpetually naive. Positive Psychology concerns itself in a scientific way with the quality of life. At stake are not only the happiness and well-being of individuals, but also those of groups, organisations and countries. And above all, in today’s global world we can all learn from one another. It is time to make this knowledge available to the man and woman in the street….

People who think positive see more opportunities, perform better, possess greater resilience, take more often correct and sound decisions [sic], negotiate better, have more self-confidence, maintain better relations, take greater responsibility, have more trust placed in them and so on. In short, they give more hope to others because they can experience it themselves. In order to release this positive energy, people need oxygen. Society can offer this oxygen. Positive education, positive parenting, positive journalism and positive politics play a crucial role here. This oxygen we can also create ourselves by a balanced existence or a religious or philosophical rooting.

[I love this paragraph. My favourite line is ‘to release this positive energy, people need oxygen’, though I also like the idea of ‘a religious or philosophical rooting’ – ‘rooting’ is a slang Australian word for shagging].

Why not address women and men from all angles of their multiple intelligence? [Why not indeed!]...By addressing men and women who are on a growth path, we all become better and happier people. We then do not turn every incident into a trend and every anecdote into a general truth. [You’ve lost me Herman]. As a consequence our governing will stimulate self-knowledge, reflection, sense of responsibility and commitment.

Positively inclined people see everything in its right proportions. [etc etc for a few more sentences.]

Happy New Year!

Herman Van Rompuy

Chairman of the European Council

Woohoo! I love his cheery upbeatness in the face of chaos. And quite a plug for the book itself. The author, another Belgian called Leo Bormans, blogs excitedly: ‘Will Barack Obama and Angela Merkel in the near future read in the World Book of Happiness before going to sleep?’ You betcha Leo!

Now, a cynic might suggest Herman is reminiscent of the conquistador hero of Werner Herzog’s movie Aguirre Wrath of God, who dreams of ruling over new empires while monkeys swarm over his sinking raft. But that’s a cynical thought. Think positive. Think Belgian. Find a happy place!


Drawing over-hasty conclusions

Here’s a new RSA animation in which Matthew Taylor, former head of the Institute for Public Policy Research and now chief executive of the RSA, sets out what he wants the Royal Society to do. It’s a great animation and lively talk, and he’s clearly very interested in the politics of well-being, and in what moral and political insights we can draw from new research in psychology and neuroscience. But he may be over-hasty in the policy conclusions that he draws. [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AC7ANGMy0yo[/youtube]

Taylor refers in the talk to “powerful new insights” from neuroscience, anthropology and psychology, particularly the idea, in the work of social and behavioural psychologists like John Bargh and Jonathan Haidt, that we are mainly automatic, irrational creatures, and we need to be aware of the limits of our rationality and free will, in order to become more self-aware and responsible people. (If you read the excellent www.edge.org, you’ll be familiar with a lot of this research.)

Taylor argues that this research provides a scientific ‘evidence base’ that takes us beyond individualism, and towards a more social and communitarian model of politics. In this, he is in the same camp as New Left thinkers like Richard Layard and Oliver James, who have tried to use insights from psychology to criticise neo-liberal individualism and justify a more social-communitarian model of society.

The main problem with this ‘natural communitarianism’ is that Taylor and the RSA are moving too rapidly from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’, when in fact the same scientific research can be used to justify quite different policy approaches.