Thursday, February 14, 2013

Lord Valentine

Barbara Frederickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has written a book, Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become, in which she argues that our ideas about love need to be overhauled. Love is neither a long-lasting, continually present emotion, nor a deep-rooted blood-tie of kinship. Rather, It’s a "micro-moment of positivity resonance" that you can share with anyone you happen to come into connect with in the course of your day.

Part of Fredrickson's motive in advancing this unorthodox theory (according the article in the Atlantic where I heard about the book)  is to remind lonely,  love-starved people that the absence of a “significant other” in their lives doesn’t mean they’re incapable of loving or are leading a loveless existence. She writes:  "Thinking of love purely as romance or commitment that you share with one special person—as it appears most on earth do—surely limits the health and happiness you derive" from love.

The point is well-taken—and it has often been made before. But Frederickson veers into error when she suggests that the myriads of single people who are looking for a partner are in the grip of a "worldwide collapse of imagination.” 

The fact is that Frederickson’s definition of love—as a momentary thrill that we feel in spite of ourselves, which she and other biologists can no doubt write a chemical equation to describe—is severely limiting itself. The most profound and satisfying thrill of love is, perhaps, a low murmur of heartbreaking affection for that special someone with whom we have shared many years of living. (Some would go further and take the argument into the theological realm. But we’ll leave that train of thought for another time.)

I suspect that individuals who have experienced the long-standing affection of a soul-mate are better able to tap into those micro-moments of love that are all around us than those who lack a shared inner world. We love our spouse or significant other more than the clerk at Walgreens, not only because we know them far better and are tirelessly attracted and engaged by what we know, but also because we get far more in return. The ricochets of ongoing experience are the source of endless interest and more than occasional delight. 

For myself, I love the snow on the trees, the music on the stereo, the article in the morning paper about tofu, and a hundred other things just now. I love waving to the postal worker I see almost every day who returns my wave with an appreciative smile before returning to her plodding path around the block. But I love my wife Hilary a whole lot more.

This is not to say that Frederkson’s researches are unimportant. She presents us with an entirely new meaning for the phrase “love triangle”—it involves mirror neurons, oxytocin, and vagal tone. And she offers compelling proof that love is connected to the heart—via the vagus nerve. Her research also lends credence to the power of Buddhist and Jewish teachings of loving kindness to strengthen vagal tone, thus helping people to become more loving, whatever their condition in life might be.

Her advice to single folk--to seek out little moments of connection--is probably sound, though I’m not sure how she feels about flirting.

And when she describes love as "a single act, performed by two brains," she touches upon a realization as old as the troubadours, though it’s also possible to love something that doesn’t have a brain—a pear, say, or a mountain. Or a poem.

In one of his lyrics Bertrand de Ventadorn writes:

Of course it’s no wonder I sing
better than any other troubadour:
my heart draws me more toward love,
and I am better made for his command.
Heart body knowledge sense
strength and energy—I have set all on love,
The rein draws me straight toward love,
and I cannot turn toward anything else.

A man is really dead when he does not feel
some sweet taste of love in his heart;
and what is it worth to live without worth,
except to irritate everybody?
May the Lord God never hate me so
that I live another day, or even less than a day,
after I am guilty of being such a pest,
and I no longer have the will to love.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Italian Folk: Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino

I might describe the music of Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, who performed last night at the Cedar Cultural Center, as mesmerizing, but it seems odd to use a word derived from the practices of an eighteenth-century Austrian physician when referring to a South Italian band singing songs from a tradition dating back to ancient times, often in a Greek-tinted dialect. Then again, that adjective—mesmerizing—has largely lost its historical associations with the early days of therapeutic magnetism, and CGS makes no bones about the power of its music to ease the worries of daily living and elevate listeners to a loftier realm. 

I’d give them a testimonial any time.

The rhythm of the music last night was driven by large tambourines, and much of it held to the same medium up-tempo beat, though there were a few ballads in the mix, and the beat also rose to levels of genuine fury from time to time. The structure seldom varied from a tonic-dominant-tonic toggle, and the tunes, such as they were, resembled plangent cries and cackling, staccato shouts held within a narrow range of intervals. Some of the songs had a dark, rich-textured, almost drone-like harmony that reminded me of some a capella songs Alan Lomax collected in 1954 in Calabria, just around the instep from the band's home region of Salento (Rounder Records:11661-1803-2).

Nothing in the show even faintly resembled pop.

The CGS “sound” would soon become monotonous, however, were it not for the energy and explosive insistence with which it’s delivered and the virtuosity, both vocal and instrumental, of the musicians. Bagpipes, recorders, guitar and bouzouki, accordion, fiddle, several sizes of tambourines, and on one occasion, even a bag of stones tossed in the air again and again to establish a rhythm, with dust rising into the spotlights (from the mountain paths of Salento, perhaps?) 

It was easy to see, and to feel, that the musicians were grooving on the intensity of the fields of sound within which they moved. And it would not be too far-fetched to imagine that as the pulse of the music reached a pitch of intensity, we were being carried back beyond the boot of Italy, across the Adriatic to the origins of the Western musical tradition. 

On a slightly more intellectual note, it occurs to me that when done well, there is something fascinating about a musical style that doesn’t develop much, but draws its interest from tiny variations in short, edgy phrases happily repeated over and over again. (I think Stravinsky would agree.)

And then, from time to time, a dancer with dark, flowing hair, wearing a red dress (Silvia Perrone) would appear and prance about on the stage waving a black shawl. Her demeanor seemed less frantic, less hyper-charged, than the music she was dancing to, but it was pleasing nevertheless. This, we were told, was the tarantella, a dance with roots extending back for centuries.

There is some confusion about the name, however. Scholars tell us it derives from the city of Taranto, yet there is also a long-standing tradition that the dance developed as a cure for the bite of a local wolf spider or tarantula (also named after the city). The belief dates back to the sixteenth century that the spider’s bite was poisonous, causing a hysterical condition that would lead to death unless the victim performed a frenzied tarantella to exorcize the poison.

Vocalist Maria Mazzotta, a diminutive figure out of a fairy tale, had a high-pitched penetrating sound, like the buzz of a power saw in the garage next door—if such a sound can also be agitated and sweet and haunting. Giancarlo Paglialunga  delivered a booming shout from the right hand side of the stage while at the same time pounding away on his tamburrieddhu. Emanuele Licci offered up a lighter, more flexible lyric voice and when he wasn’t singing, he often took off spontaneously, dancing nimbly across the stage while strumming his bouzouki. Giulio Bianco’s Pan-like recorder trills were sometimes lost in the mix, but his bagpipe solos, delivered from center stage, were a treat.

Those hoping for a “O Sole Mio”-style cafĂ© accordion from  Massimiliano Morabito left the hall disappointed, I’m sure. He kept to a heavy rhythmic pulse in which  individual notes were seldom discernible.

The band’s leader, Mauro Durante, did the talking, explaining the origins of the group (it was founded in 1975 by his father) and also offered up some extraordinary fiddling. His ten-minute solo on the tambourine exhibited a remarkable range of rhythms, colors, and pitches.

Not so long ago, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino was performing in front of a hundred thousand people at the itinerant La Notte della Taranta festival in  Salento. Tuesday night it put on a spirited show in front of a hundred curious and enthusiastic Minnesotans, many of whom, by the time it was over, were dancing in the dark behind the delta of folding chairs clustered in front of the stage.

Many thanks to Cedar, and to Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino! And thanks, I guess, to the tarantula, too.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Unhappy with Happiness?

 There are those who conduct the polls, and those who tell us what the polls mean. Then there are people like me, who read such reports online and notice that the explanations being offered don’t match the statistics being presented.

A recent case in point: an article appeared in the Atlantic with the title, “There’s More to Life Than Happiness.” It begins with a discussion of Victor Frankl’s influential book, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he contends that those who feel their life has meaning, and therefore “have something to live for,” fare better and deal with adversity more successfully than those who don’t. (For what it's worth, I read that book 40 years ago. I liked it.)

Frankl suggests that Americans don’t think much amount meaning nowadays, placing an emphasis, rather, on “being happy.”

"To the European," he’s quoted as saying, "it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to 'be happy.' But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to 'be happy.'"

At this point the author of the article, Emily Esfahani Smith, shifts gears a little, referring to a recent Gallup poll that suggests 6 out of 10 Americans are happy. Two sentences further on, she notes a recent finding of the Center for Disease Control that 4 out of 10 Americans “have not discovered a satisfying life purpose.”

Here’s where the trouble begins. It would be reasonable to presume that those 60 percent who are happy have found meaning, and the 40 percent who are glum are drifting aimlessly through life. But that’s not what the evidence reports. It comes from two separate studies, one of which dealt with happiness, and the other with meaning.

There is no good reason to present these findings in the same paragraph. Perhaps recognizing that she has failed to “connect the dots,” Smith immediately moves on to yet further assertions with less specific data behind them: “Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research.”

Here is a real story…but it isn’t the one she’s reporting. It’s Todd Kashdan’s story. You can follow the link to explore his studies showing that those who pursue happiness more assiduously have less success finding it. 

But even here there’s a fly in the ointment. Listen to this sentence: “People putting the greatest emphasis on being happy reported 50 percent less frequent positive emotions, 35 percent less satisfaction about their life, and 75 percent more depressive symptoms than people that had their priorities elsewhere.”

That may be true, but perhaps it should have been phrased the other way around: People who have less frequent positive emotions, less satisfaction about their life, and more depressive symptoms, are more likely to place an emphasis on being happy than those who are already experiencing a high level of well-being.

In other words, people who are happy don’t think much about it. Those who are fighting an unending battle with anxiety or depression, perhaps due to childhood trauma or physiological issues, must work harder to “find” happiness any way they can.

Kashdan agrees with Frankl that Americans think too much about happiness:
The United States is obsessed with happiness … There are cultural pressures to be happy. Go on and look at how many books have happiness in the title.
So I did. I also keyed in a few other categories for comparison. Here are the results, in thousands:

Happiness        29
Baseball           32
Meaning          34
Gardening      54
Sex                 142
Philosophy     376
Music             749
Religion         928
Art               1,898  

 Doesn’t look too obsessive to me. And we ought to be open to the possibility that most of the books that deal with happiness are saying the same things these researcher are – Give it a Rest.

Meanwhile, back in the original story, Smith is pushing her argument further, citing evidence that there is a strong correlation between those things that give meaning to life, such as responsibility and commitment, and genuine unhappiness. Thus the often-cited relationship between childrearing and unhappiness. The upshot of it all, according to Smith, is that “the amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.”

This strikes me as hogwash, pure and simple. It seems to me that happiness, meaning, social responsibility, and commitment are like peas in a pod. It's worth noting that Frankl doesn’t shy away from using the word “happiness,” but puts it in context. Smith quotes him as saying: “… happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” He doesn’t deny that it exists; he doesn’t suggest it's unimportant. He merely says that it’s futile to pursue it directly.

I suspect it is only by making use of the shallowest definition of happiness that researchers have been able to differentiate it from meaning, satisfaction, and even bliss. It may be that the standard research definition of happiness basically correlates with thrill-seeking. But that’s not what happiness is.

In the end, studies like the ones I’m reviewing here are muddled and the conclusions wrongheaded and misleading, What’s worse, they give happiness a bad name. 

Why should we care? Because one of the enduring misconceptions of modern life, in America or anywhere else, is that if we’re happy, we must be doing something wrong. It is from this soil that guilt and neuroses arise. It would be far better to start celebrating Gaudium essendi, the joy of existing, and go on to note that we’re more likely to feel it as we become more deeply engaged in life.  
“Happy is the man who’s found his work.”