Monday, March 30, 2015

What makes people happy in Boston vs. San Francisco?

In Boston, residents ranked their financial status, educational attainment (must have that Harvard or graduate degree), family support, and feeling of contributing to their community as essential factors that determine whether they’re satisfied with life. Work is important too.

In San Francisco, however, work is the only social norm that matters for life fulfillment—to heck with the diplomas and big bank accounts. Californians being Californians mainly feed on those ebullient free-to-be-you-and-me thoughts and experiences.

That’s the conclusion of an interesting series of experiments conducted by psychologists who set out to identify predictors of happiness and whether they differ from East Coast to West Coast. ...

In [psychologist Victoria Plaut and coauthors'] experiments, published as one paper in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Plaut surveyed a total of nearly 3,800 volunteers from both cities and found that people from Boston were significantly more likely than their counterparts to perceive clear norms in their city; Boston participants also reported higher levels of life satisfaction if they hewed to those cultural practices, such as rooting for their local sports teams or being active with community organizations, compared with those from San Francisco. ...

Folks from Boston are also more likely to report higher levels of happiness if they’re not aggravated by life annoyances such as demanding in-laws, a long commute, or a tough boss. On the other hand, those from San Francisco were more apt to say they needed to have fun and novel experiences in order to get a happiness boost.
--Deborah Kotz,, on real differences between the coasts

Monday, March 23, 2015

A dying man's beautiful farewell to his daughter

Six years passed in a flash, but then, heading into chief residency, I developed a classic constellation of symptoms — weight loss, fevers, night sweats, unremitting back pain, cough — indicating a diagnosis quickly confirmed: metastatic lung cancer. The gears of time ground down. ...

Verb conjugation became muddled. Which was correct? “I am a neurosurgeon,” “I was a neurosurgeon,” “I had been a neurosurgeon before and will be again”? Graham Greene felt life was lived in the first 20 years and the remainder was just reflection. What tense was I living in? Had I proceeded, like a burned-out Greene character, beyond the present tense and into the past perfect? The future tense seemed vacant and, on others’ lips, jarring. I recently celebrated my 15th college reunion; it seemed rude to respond to parting promises from old friends, “We’ll see you at the 25th!” with “Probably not!”

Yet there is dynamism in our house. Our daughter was born days after I was released from the hospital. Week to week, she blossoms: a first grasp, a first smile, a first laugh. Her pediatrician regularly records her growth on charts, tick marks of her progress over time. A brightening newness surrounds her. As she sits in my lap smiling, enthralled by my tuneless singing, an incandescence lights the room.

Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.

Yet one thing cannot be robbed of her futurity: my daughter, Cady. I hope I’ll live long enough that she has some memory of me. Words have a longevity I do not. I had thought I could leave her a series of letters — but what would they really say? I don’t know what this girl will be like when she is 15; I don’t even know if she’ll take to the nickname we’ve given her. There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.

That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.
--Paul Kalanithi (1977 - 2015), Stanford Medicine, “Before I Go

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Why girls like Barbies and boys like trucks: a biological explanation?

In 2002, Gerianne M. Alexander of Texas A&M University and Melissa Hines of City University in London stunned the scientific world by showing that vervet monkeys showed the same sex-typical toy preferences as humans. In an incredibly ingenious study, published in Evolution and Human Behavior, Alexander and Hines gave two stereotypically masculine toys (a ball and a police car), two stereotypically feminine toys (a soft doll and a cooking pot), and two neutral toys (a picture book and a stuffed dog) to 44 male and 44 female vervet monkeys. They then assessed the monkeys’ preference for each toy by measuring how much time they spent with each. Their data demonstrated that male vervet monkeys showed significantly greater interest in the masculine toys, and the female vervet monkeys showed significantly greater interest in the feminine toys. The two sexes did not differ in their preference for the neutral toys. ...

If children’s toy preferences were largely formed by gender socialization, as traditional sociologists claim, in which their parents give “gender-appropriate” toys to boys and girls, how can these male and female vervet monkeys have the same preferences as boys and girls? They were never socialized by humans, and they had never seen these toys before in their lives. ...

In a forthcoming article [as of 2008] in Hormones and Behavior, Janice M. Hassett, Erin R. Siebert, and Kim Wallen, of Emory University, replicate the sex preferences in toys among members of another primate species (rhesus monkeys). Their study shows that, when given a choice between stereotypically male “wheeled toys” (such as a wagon, a truck, and a car) and stereotypically female “plush toys” (such as Winnie the Pooh, Raggedy Ann, and a koala bear hand puppet), male rhesus monkeys show strong and significant preference for the masculine toys. Female rhesus monkeys show preference for the feminine toys, but the difference in their preference is not statistically significant.
--Satoshi Kanazawa, Psychology Today, on potentially evolutionarily ancient roots of toy preferences. HT: NS