I love Festivus because it frees the part of my personality that I am told I should suppress--the gripey, complainy part. (What's Festivus? Watch the video here.) Perhaps I shouldn't admit to having anything in common with Frank Costanza. And I'd rather skip the Feats of Strength part of the holiday. And I haven't put up a Festivus pole this year. But the Airing of the Grievances? I'm all over it. I'm not good at being a little ray of sunshine. I'm a pessimist and enjoy what I call recreational bitching and moaning. And I have found some good that can come of negative conversation---I wrote about it here. Plus, there's some evidence that seeing all the happy updates from Facebook friends makes people unhappy. So to air a grievance, I have to admit that I do get a little weary of people whose Facebook updates are relentlessly upbeat. And this is especially true during holidays.
What is your favorite kind of gift to receive? My favorite is useful gifts. Socks, for example. A nice sweatshirt—nicer than I might buy myself. Something related to one of my hobbies. Food gifts are nice. They always fit and don’t take up space. My least favorite is gift cards, which stress me out a little because then I have to decide what gift to buy myself. That’s a lot of pressure. And I’m at an age when tsotskes are a headache. I have a house full of stuff already. These are gifts I also rarely give. Research has found that experiences make people happier than possessions. I like those, too. I don’t remember what gift my husband gave me on my last birthday, but I do remember the fun we had a baseball game that day. A festive dinner with friends is a gift in itself. Gifts are interesting, when you really stop to think about them. Dr. Dan Ariely, a Duke University researcher and author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions has a nifty story in the Wall Street Journal about gift-giving. Rational economists, he points out, think gifts are just like burning money.
New research finds a small but significant correlation between social anxiety and ability to recognize faces. Yes. Oh yes. I don’t have severe social anxiety, but I do have some, and this gave me an aha! moment about it. I have a terrible time remembering faces. Even famous people. I recognize George Clooney, easy. Matt Damon? Not so much. Meryl Streep, easy. Charlize Theron? Not so much. Put me in a large party and I spend a lot of time pretending I remember people who remember me. People tend to be hurt and offended when you don’t remember meeting them and I don’t blame them. If you remind me where or how we met, I might remember (although my memory is crappy in many ways so maybe not). Every party is a minefield of not recognizing people I don't know well. And this is not just a problem at parties. I didn’t recognize a neighbor the other day and what’s worse, I took a guess and was wrong. Ugh, ugh, ugh. I never made the connection between my anxiety about parties and facial recognition, but this information fits with the satisfying click of a puzzle piece set in place.
The other day I learned that I’ve been walking around for the better part of a decade with a dislocated toe. I knew something was wrong. I’d had it X-rayed and the doctor said it looked like I’d jammed my toe somehow (true) and had developed some form of arthritis. I can’t remember the name. He gave me a prescription I never filled. I was not ready for a lifelong commitment, and figured such is age. You get arthritis, you learn to live with it. I don’t know how painful arthritis is, but this was extremely painful. I got rid of shoes that hurt too much, and was more than once brought to tears in the aisle of DSW just from trying on a shoe that hit my toe wrong. I often had near-blinding stabs of pain randomly, when I was lying in bed. The weight of the bedclothes could be painful. I’ve recently developed plantar fasciitis from walking wrong. Then, the other night, I turned in the kitchen and had a sudden stab of pain in my toe. But even as I was still staggering dizzily while it throbbed, my first thought was: It’s fixed.
A friend learning her way around her new iPad wonders if learning really is different as we get older. And what’s the deal with that? The short answer is yes, our ability to learn does change as we age. We get slower. We have diminished capacity in our working memory as we age. That is, you can’t throw too much stuff at us at once. As a rule, it takes older people longer to learn things than it does young people. And older people might never get as good at new stuff as younger people can, no matter how long they study. Hm, yeah, that’s no fun. I read that in an article discussing evolutionary theory, which also gave me this cheering thought, about allocation of psychological resources: In childhood, the primary allocation is directed toward growth; during adulthood, the predominant allocation is toward maintenance and recovery (resilience). In old age, more and more resources are directed toward regulation or management of loss. The older you get, the more of a bummer evolutionary theory can be. So let us skip, instead, over to educational psychology, and an article titled “Age-related differences in the relation between motivation to learn and transfer of training in adult continuing education.” This article argues, through a literature review and a re-crunching of statistics, that motivation is key to learning, and that older adults are just as motivated to learn as younger ones.
Last night, my yoga and meditation teacher mentioned her surprise at how much easier meditation gets over time. She no longer has to work nearly as hard as she once did, she said, to reach a meditative state. And, she said, it's much easier than it once was to keep intrusive thoughts and daydreams at bay while she meditated. “I don’t know why,” she concluded, with some wonder in her voice. Coincidentally, I’d just spent much of the day reading about this very thing, in order to write this post. People who study the brain talk about something called the default-mode network (DMN), which is where our brain tends to go when we’re not making it do something else. The DMN correlates with the parts of the brain that activate when we’re thinking about ourselves—the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices, if you want to get technical about it. And our DMN does not always have our best interests at heart.
I’ve recently started listening to audio books. The idea never appealed to me much because I’ve never liked being read to. Reading is a solitary experience for me and being read to always seemed a little icky, though I couldn’t tell you why. Certainly being read to has a venerable history. At one time, all writing was meant to be read aloud, since few people could read. And reading aloud was family entertainment in the pre-radio, pre-TV days. And, of course, reading to children is both cozy and the first step towards their literacy. So it's not like listening to books is anything new. But downloadable audio books are increasingly popular (though the growing popularity of ebooks is the headline news in publishing.) Fans of audio books even have their own magazine. The first audio book I listened to was Bossypants, which is read by Tina Fey herself. Now I’m listening to Never Let Me Go, by Kazua Ishiguro, which is beautifully read by Rosalyn Landor, who strikes a tone as wistful as the book and conveys changes of character with just the slightest change in her voice. Narration, I realize, is an art form unto itself. But I’m still not sure how I feel about the audio book. It might be seducing me, but I worry about whether I’m having the experience of the book the author originally intended. Do we lose something of a novel when we don’t see the words spelled out in front of us? Is the medium integral to the message?
“When does trying to protect them become overly restricting? Is there a happy balance?” A reader posed that question about raising kids earlier this week and it’s a good one. We recognize a helicopter parent when we see one, especially by the time their kids are teenagers. But how about when they’re younger? Are there red flags in parenting style that might mark the beginning of overprotective parenting? What is overprotective? How is it measured? My disclaimer here: I have no children, my parents were pretty laissez-faire. I’m just throwing all this out there. You tell me if it makes sense. I looked at a number of studies that mention overprotection and found that frequently, overprotection is assessed by the protected. In other words, researchers ask children if they feel their parents are overprotective; or they ask people who have had strokes if their caregivers are overprotective.
It’s Anti-Bullying Week and this year’s theme is Stop and Think—Words Can Hurt. Interestingly, for all our focus on how to stop kids from bullying each other, we have precious little research addressing what parenting styles are likely to produce bullies. Because, let’s face it, if your nine-year-old child is a bully, chances are very good you and/or the child’s other parent can take credit.
A friend told me that one word guaranteed to infuriate his teenage daughter during any disagreement is “relax.” Riders on New York City’s subways were for years irritated by the phrase “Please be patient” at the end of announcements about subway delays. And the quickest way to get a rise out of me is to tell me, “Don’t be ridiculous.” Oooh, that burns me up. What makes phrases like these so incendiary? Some phrases are guaranteed to turn a disagreement into a fight, or make a benign situation toxic. They're not blatantly insulting, so why are they so irritating?