Franz Kafka Agonized, Too, Over Writer’s Block: “Tried to Write, Virtually Useless;” “Complete Standstill. Unending Torments” (1915)

No one sings as purely as those who inhabit the deepest hell—what we take to be the song of angels is their song.

- Franz Kafka, 1920

Poor Kafka, born too early to blame his writer’s block on 21st-century digital excuses:  social media addiction, cell phone addiction, streaming video… 

Would The Metamorphosis have turned out differently had its author had access to a machine that would have allowed him to self-publish, communicate facelessly, and dispense entirely with typists, pens and paper? 

Had Kafka had his way, his friend and fellow writer, Max Brod, would have carried out instructions to burn his unpublished work—including letters and journal entries—upon his death

Instead Brod published them.

How horrified would their author be to read The New Yorker’s opinion that his journals should be regarded as one of his major literary achievements? A Kafka-esque response might be the mildest reaction warranted by the situation:

His life and personality were perfectly suited to the diary form, and in these pages he reveals what he customarily hid from the world.

These once-private pages (available in book format here) reveal a not-unfamiliar writerly tendency to agonize over a perceived lack of output:

JANUARY 20, 1915: The end of writing. When will it take me up again?

JANUARY 29, 1915: Again tried to write, virtually useless.

JANUARY 30, 1915: The old incapacity. Interrupted my writing for barely ten days and already cast out. Once again prodigious efforts stand before me. You have to dive down, as it were, and sink more rapidly than that which sinks in advance of you.

FEBRUARY 7, 1915: Complete standstill. Unending torments.

MARCH 11, 1915: How time flies; another ten days and I have achieved nothing. It doesn’t come off. A page now and then is successful, but I can’t keep it up, the next day I am powerless.

MARCH 13, 1915: Lack of appetite, fear of getting back late in the evening; but above all the thought that I wrote nothing yesterday, that I keep getting farther and farther from it, and am in danger of losing everything I have laboriously achieved these past six months. Provided proof of this by writing one and a half wretched pages of a new story that I have already decided to discard…. Occasionally I feel an unhappiness that almost dismembers me, and at the same time am convinced of its necessity and of the existence of a goal to which one makes one’s way by undergoing every kind of unhappiness.

Psychology Today identifies five possible underlying causes for such inactivity, and tips for surmounting them. It seems likely the fastidious, self-absorbed Kafka would have rejected them on their breezy tone alone, but perhaps other less persnickety individuals will find something of use: 

1. You’ve Lost Your Way

If you’re stalled because you lost your way, try the opposite of what you usually do—if you’re a plotter, give your imagination free rein for a day; if you’re a freewriter or a pantser, spend a day creating a list of the next 10 scenes that need to happen. This gives your brain a challenge, and for this reason you can take heart, because your billions of neurons love a challenge and are in search of synapses they can form.

2. Your Passion Has Waned

Remember, your writing brain looks for and responds to patterns, so be careful that you don’t make succumbing to boredom or surrendering projects without a fight into a habit. Do your best to work through the reasons you got stalled and to finish what you started. This will lay down a neuronal pathway that your writing brain will merrily travel along in future work.

3. Your Expectations Are Too High

Instead of setting your sights too high, give yourself permission to write anything, on topic or off topic, meaningful or trite, useful or folly. The point is that by attaching so much importance to the work you’re about to do, you make it harder to get into the flow. Also, if your inner critic sticks her nose in (which often happens), tell her that her role is very important to you (and it is!) and that you will summon her when you have something worthy of her attention.

4. You Are Burned Out

You aren’t blocked; you’re exhausted. Give yourself a few days to really rest. Lie on a sofa and watch movies, take long walks in the hour just before dusk, go out to dinner with friends, or take a mini-vacation somewhere restful. Do so with the intention to give yourself—and your brain—a rest. No thinking about your novel for a week! In fact, no heavy thinking for a week. Lie back, have a margarita, and chill.

5. You’re Too Distracted

Take note that, unless you’re just one of those rare birds who always write no matter what, you will experience times in your life when it’s impossible to keep to a writing schedule. People get sick, people have to take a second job, children need extra attention, parents need extra attention, and so on. If you’re in one of those emergency situations (raising small children counts), by all means, don’t berate yourself. Sometimes it’s simply necessary to put the actual writing on hold. It is good, however, to keep your hands in the water. For instance, in lieu of writing your novel:

Read works similar to what you hope to write.

Read books related to the subject you're writing about.

Keep a designated journal where you jot down ideas for the book (and other works).

Write small vignettes or sketches related to the book

Whenever you find time to meditate, envision yourself writing the book, bringing it to full completion.

Make writing the book a priority.

Additionally, you may find some merit in enlisting a friend to publish, I mean, burn the above-mentioned journals posthumously. Just don't write anything you wouldn't want the public to see.

Read author Susan Reynolds’ complete Psychology Today advice for blocked writers here.

Have a peek at Kafka’s Diaries: 1910-1923 here.

via Austin Kleon

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine, currently appearing onstage in New York City in Paul David Young’s Faust 3. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Going to Concerts and Experiencing Live Music Can Make Us Healthier & Happier, a New Psychology Study Confirms

Image by Niels Epting, via Flickr Commons

It can sometimes seem like so much qualitative science confirms what we already know through experience and folk wisdom. But that does not make such research redundant. Instead, it sets the stage for more detailed investigations into specific causes and effects, and can lead to more refined understanding of general phenomena. For example, “a new study out of Australia,” reports CNN, “confirms what we probably already knew,” by concluding that if you want to be happier, you should get out more.

Specifically, you should get out to concerts and music festivals and dance your you-know-what off. The Australian researchers found that “people who actively engaged with music through dancing and attending events like concerts and musicals reported a higher level of subjective wellbeing.” The March, 2017 study, cheekily titled “If You’re Happy and You Know It: Music Engagement and Subjective Wellbeing,” defines the latter phrase as “the scientific psychological term for general mood ‘happiness,’ which is positive, stable, and consistent over time.”

Subjective wellbeing (SWB), although a self-reported measure, helps psychologists identify effective therapies for depression and mood disorders. Engaging meaningfully with music is one of them, and one needn’t be a musician to reap the benefits. While “producing music and performing encourage self-exploration, emotional expression, self-esteem and confidence,” the study’s authors write, interacting with music as a fan is also “associated with higher mood when considered in terms of activation and valence."

Simply consuming recorded music, however, will not have the same benefits. While “recent technological advances” and streaming services have “increased the availability of and accessibility to music… engaging with music extends beyond just passive listening.” In large part, the active participation in a music scene—as part of a fan community or festival audience, for example—shows positive outcomes because of the “social component of music engagement.” Listening by oneself “may improve physical health and emotional wellbeing.” Listening “in the company of others is associated with stronger positive experiences.”

As the site Live for Live Music puts it, “live music universally lowers stress levelsincreases social bonds while decreasing levels of pain, and can even physiologically cause people to get “skin-gasms.” And if that’s not reason enough to get tickets to see your favs, I don't know what is. One would also hope the study makes a convincing case for funding live music as a mental health initiative. Unless you live in a city with lots of free concerts, the expense of such events can be prohibitive. At least in Australia, the researchers note, “attending musical events is costly, and may be a privilege afforded to those who earn a higher income.”

Susan Perry at Minnpost sums up a few other limitations of the study, such as its lack of data on frequency of attendance, and that it does not “differentiate between people who are musically talented and those who aren’t.” Nonetheless, one particular finding should have you shedding inhibitions to increase your SWB. “Dancers,” Perry summarizes, were “more likely than non-dancers to be happy,” as were those who sing along.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Rare Footage Shows US and British Soldiers Getting Dosed with LSD in Government-Sponsored Tests (1958 + 1964)

We’re usually right to reserve judgement when it comes to conspiracy theories. But the reason they often sound plausible is a compelling one: What we do know about the secret activities of agencies like the CIA, FBI, KGB, NSA, etc. often points to a surreal, nefarious, extra-legal dimension full of plots Kurt Vonnegut or Philip K. Dick might have written. In such a dimension was born Project MK-ULTRA, the mind control program developed by the CIA in the early fifties and only officially stopped in 1973.

Most famous for introducing a young hospital orderly named Ken Kesey to LSD when he volunteered for an experiment—and thus acting as a primary cause of the Acid-fueled Haight-Ashbury movement to come—MK-ULTRA tested drugs, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, and psychological torture as a means of manipulating interrogation subjects. At the same time as the CIA drugged willing and unwilling participants, Army intelligence conducted research into using LSD as a mind control agent.

Raffi Khatchadourian tells the story in The New Yorker of Dr. Van Murray Sim, founder of the Army’s Edgewood Arsenal program of clinical research on psychochemicals. To his colleagues, Sim “was like Dr. Strangelove; he was a leader; he was the ‘Mengele of Edgewood’... manipulative and vengeful, ethically shortsighted, incoherently rambling... and devoted to chemical-warfare research.” He volunteered himself as a test subject for VX, a lethal nerve agent, for Red Oil, a “highly potent synthetic version of marijuana,” and for other hallucinogens designed for “psychochemical warfare.”

Sim dosed himself several times with LSD and in 1957 proposed a series of “practical experiments” with the drug at Edgewood. “It was deemed important,” writes Khatchadodourian, “to conduct LSD tests on people who were provided no information about what the drug would do.” You can see film of one of those tests above, conducted in 1958 on Army volunteers who, the narrator tells us, “responded like well-trained soldiers to the request: immediately and without question.”

The soldiers are put through a series of drills. Then they are dosed and drilled again. There is much laughter among the squad, but one man succumbed to such severe depression that five minutes after they begin, the medical officers “end his participation.” After a few more minutes, “the men found it difficult to obey orders. And soon the results were chaos," the narrator says. In reality, as we can see, the soldiers seemed happy and relaxed, not in a "chaotic" state, though their unwillingness to obey would certainly seem so to the brass.

British intelligence also tested LSD on its troops. In the film above from 1964, several armed British Marines are given a dose and sent out into the field exercises. The results are strikingly similar. Immediately after taking the field the drugged marines begin to giggle, laugh, and relax. But one man “is more severely affected than the others, losing all contact with reality, dropping his rifle, and becoming unable to take part in the operation. In fact, he has to be withdrawn from the exercise a few minutes later.” The remainder of the test subjects collapse in fits of hilarity.

“In the end,” writes Rich Remsberg at NPR, the U.S. Army decided that LSD “was too expensive” and “unstable once airborne,” though it did lead to something called Agent BZ, “which was weaponized but never used in combat.” But at the peak of its testing programs, Army intelligence, the CIA, and even Operation Paperclip—the secretive program that recruited former Nazi scientists into its ranks—showed an obsession with the drug, amassing huge supplies of it, and testing it on witting and unwitting subjects alike.

In one operation, called “Midnight Climax,” unsuspecting clients “at CIA brothels in New York and San Francisco were slipped LSD and then monitored through one-way mirrors to see how they reacted,” writes David Hambling at Wired. “Colleagues were also considered fair game for secret testing, to the point where a memo was issued instructing that the punch bowls at office Christmas parties were not to be spiked” with acid.

While the CIA pulled pranks—and inspired Kesey’s Merry Pranksters—the Army took its program overseas to Europe under the aegis of “Operation Special Purpose.” Even today, Khatchadourian writes, “the non-Americans who were tested have still not been identified.” Operation Special Purpose’s experiments “were disastrous, offering little or no useful intelligence, and risking untold psychological damage to the subjects.” The Cold Warriors in charge thought of the drug as a weapon, and threw ethics and scientific caution to the wind. In certain tests, interrogators intended “to cause maximum anxiety and fear.” They degraded and threatened subjects “as long as the drug was effective: eight hours, or possibly more.”

In recent years, LSD research has made a promising return, and has shown that, when used for purposes other than mind control, torture, and manipulation, the hallucinogenic compound might actually have beneficial effects on mental health and well-being. Today’s research builds on experiments conducted by psychiatrists at the same time as MK-ULTRA and Operation Special Purpose. “From the 1950s through the early 1970s,” writes the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), “psychiatrists, therapists, and researchers administered LSD to thousands of people for alcoholism, as well as for anxiety and depression" in terminal patients.

As in the tests in the films above, they found that—with notable exceptions—the drug made people happier, more relaxed, and less afraid of death. “When used by people without a family history or risk of psychological problems,” reported The Washington Post in a story last year on new research, “psychedelics can make us kinder, calmer and better at our jobs. They can help us solve problems more creatively and make us more open-minded and generous.” Perhaps part of the government conspiracy to use hallucinogenic drugs for ill involved suppressing all of the ways they could be used for good.

Related Content:

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A Short Anti-LSD Horror Film Made by the Lockheed Corporation (1969)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why Catchy Songs Get Stuck in Our Brains: New Study Explains the Science of Earworms

What’s your current earworm?

For obvious yet sad reasons, “Raspberry Beret” and “Ashes to Ashes” have tunneled into my brain in the past year. Can’t seem to shake ‘em loose, though it certainly could be worse. Wander through a shopping mall (while they still exist), go to a chain restaurant or grocery store. You may pick up an unwanted passenger—the tune of a song you loathe, yet cannot for the life of you forget.

But can the Prince/Bowie soundtrack in my mind properly be called an “earworm”? According to researchers at Durham University, Goldsmiths, University of London, and the University of Tubingen, this is a scientific question. Music psychologist Kelly Jakubowski of Durham University and her colleagues published a study last year titled “Dissecting an Earworm: Melodic Features of Song Popularity Predict Involuntary Musical Imagery.” In it, they define the properties of songs that produce “involuntary” recall.

You can read the study yourself here. It begins with a summary of the previous research on “the concepts of musical ‘catchiness’ and song ‘hooks,’” as well as the advice successful musicians often give for writing “hooks” that will stick with listeners for life. It’s not as easy as it looks, though one of the hallmarks of a successful earworm is simplicity. As Joanna Klein writes at the New York Times, Jakubowski and her colleagues “found that earworm songs tended to be fast, with a common, simple melodic structure that generally went up and down and repeated, like ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.’”

However, earworms also unsettle our expectations of simple melodies, with “surprising, unusual intervals,” as in the chorus of Lady Gaga’s insidious “Bad Romance” or, bane of every guitar store employee, Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” Research on earworms began, notes Klein, in 2001, “when James Kellaris, a marketing researcher and composer at the University of Cincinnati translated the German word for earwig, Ohrwürmer, into that ‘cognitive itch’ he called an ‘earworm.’”

Kellaris estimated that around “98 percent of people experience this phenomenon at some point in time.” In order to analyze the earworm, Jakubowski and her team collected lists of songs from 3,000 study participants. They attempted to isolate variables such as “popularity and recency” that “could affect the likelihood of the song becoming stuck in the mind.” Before controlling for these factors, “Bad Romance” appeared at the top of a list of “Songs Most Frequently Named as Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI).”

It’s a tune that might—under certain circumstances, be used as a weapon—along with two other Gaga songs at numbers 8 and 9. See the full list below:

1. “Bad Romance,” Lady Gaga
2. “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” Kylie Minogue
3. “Don’t Stop Believing,” Journey
4. “Somebody That I Used to Know,” Gotye
5. “Moves Like Jagger,” Maroon 5
6. “California Gurls,” Katy Perry
7. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Queen
8. “Alejandro,” Lady Gaga
9. “Poker Face,” Lady Gaga

The study goes on, in some technical detail, to account for chart position, length of time on the charts, etc. Unless you’re familiar with the methods and jargon of this particular kind of psychological research, it’s a bit difficult to follow. But Klein summarizes some of the upshot: “While it may feel like earworms exist only to annoy you, researchers say they may actually serve a purpose.... earworms could be remnants of how we learned before written language, when information was more often passed through song.”

The survival of this mechanism can be used for good or ill—as was so humorously illustrated in my favorite scene from Pixar’s psycho-dramedy for kids, Inside Out. Advertising jingles, annoying pop songs that we mindlessly buy and stream because we can’t stop singing them, and—not least—perhaps the most effective earworms of all time, TV sitcom theme songs.

The heyday of unforgettable theme songs, the 80s, left us with some real gems: Klein names Growing Pains (“show me that smile again!”). But I’m guessing we could get together in the thousands for an impromptu chorus of Cheers, Charles in Charge, Family Ties, Family Matters, Step by Step, or my new earworm Silver Spoons (thanks YouTube). As these examples—and so many hundreds more—prove, musical earworms have been used by clever hacks to hack into our brains for quite some time now. When songwriters we like do it, we can at least enjoy the involuntary intrusions.

Feel free to share your own unshakeable earworms in the comments section below.

via The New York Times

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Stanford Researchers Discover a Smarter Way to Prepare for Exams: Introducing MetaCognition, the Art of Thinking About Your Thinking

Early in the second season of Noah Hawley’s excellent Fargo series, one of the gruff, laconic Gerhardt brothers shakes his head during a tense crime family moment and mutters sagely, "know thyself." Challenged to produce the quotation’s source, he says, with irritated self-assurance, “It’s in the Bible.” The quote does have an ancient origin---maybe the temple of Apollo at Delphi, maybe the temple court at Luxor---and it's an idea that reappears in every philosophical system from age to age. Even if the self doesn’t really exist, some thinkers have reasoned, we should still study it.

These days, psychologists call a certain kind of self-knowledge “metacognition,” a new word for what they recognize, Jennifer Livingston notes, as a concept that has been around “for as long as humans have been able to reflect on their cognitive experiences.” Developmental psychologist John Flavell used the term in 1979 to refer specifically to “how human beings learn and process information, as well as individual knowledge of one’s own learning processes.” Often defined as “thinking about thinking,” megacognition involves knowing what conditions best enable concentration and memory retention, for example, and practicing it can immensely improve study skills and academic achievement.

A new study published in Psychological Science by Stanford psychology researchers has validated the idea with experimental data. In two different experiments, students in a control group studied for exams in their ordinary way. Those in another group received an exercise called "Strategic Resource Use." “They were asked,” Stanford News reports, to think about what might be on the exam, "and then strategize what kinds of resources they would use to study most effectively.” Then they reflected on “why each resource they chose would be useful” and how they planned on using them. It may seem like seriously front-loading a study session, but the intervention paid off. Students who got it scored on average a third of a letter grade higher than those who didn’t.

Postdoctoral fellow Patricia Chen, the study’s main author, undertook the experiment when she noticed that many of her own students genuinely worked hard but felt frustrated by the results. “Describe to me how you studied for the exam,” she began asking them. After conducting the metacognition studies, Chen concluded that “actively self-reflecting on the approaches that you are taking fosters a strategic stance that is really important in life. Strategic thinking distinguishes between people of comparable ability and effort. This can make the difference between people who achieve and people who have the potential to achieve, but don’t.”

Thinking about your thinking can’t make all the difference, of course, but the effect is dramatic among groups in relatively similar circumstances. An Australian study of 2000 Ph.D. students discovered a close correlation between “how they thought about the learning process,” notes Big Think, and “their successes and failures in achieving their degrees.” A broader study in Britain that accounted for class differences evaluated Year 6 and 7 students in 23 primary schools. In eleven of these schools, students were instructed in something called “Self-Regulated Strategy Development”—a means of consciously monitoring the writing techniques they used in assignments: “Overall," the authors write, "the project appeared to have a large positive impact on writing outcomes,” especially among “pupils eligible for free school meals.”

Each of these studies necessitated methods of teaching self-regulation and metacognition, and each one formulated its own pedagogy. The British study specially trained a group of Year 6 teachers. "Part of the appeal of Chen’s approach," writes Jenny Anderson at Quartz, “is its simplicity: any student, teacher or even parent could use it.” And one might reasonably assume that anyone could teach it to themselves. For parents and teachers of struggling students, Chen offers some straightforward advice. Rather than suggesting more study time and resources, first “Look at the way they are doing things. Do you think they could have gone about it in a better way?” As nearly every ancient philosopher would affirm, we better ourselves not by acquiring more, but by understanding and using wisely what we already have to work with.

via Stanford News

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Sigmund Freud, Father of Psychoanalysis, Introduced in a Monty Python-Style Animation

Pity the hedgehog. The freezing temperatures of winter compel them to cozy up to others of its kind, but the prickly spines covering their bodies prevent them from sustaining the easy, ongoing intimacy they so crave.

It's a hell of a metaphor for human relationships, compliments of 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. It certainly spoke to Sigmund Freud, who devoted his life trying to figure out why so many of us resort to petty behaviors, spurning those we love, and sabotaging ourselves at every turn.

Popular representations would have us believe that the father of psychoanalysis was a detached sort of know-it-all, emotionally superior to the basket cases sniveling on his couch. Not so. As he noted in 1897:

I have been through some kind of neurotic experience, curious states… twilight thoughts, veiled doubts… The chief patient I am preoccupied with is myself… my little hysteria… the analysis is more difficult than any other. Something from the deepest depths of my own neurosis sets itself against any advance in understanding neuroses…

We feel ya', doc, and so does The School of Life, the London-based organization for developing emotional intelligence, co-founded by philosophical essayist, Alain de Botton:

… consulting a psychotherapist should be as accessible and as normal as developing your career, getting help for a physical problem, or going to the gym to get healthy. Just as we take care of our bodies and physical health, a vital element of self-care is devoting focused time and energy to exploring and understanding our thoughts and feelings.

The school puts your money where its mouth is by retaining a roster of licensed psychotherapists who can be booked for in-person or Skype sessions.

It's not for everyone. There are those who are determined to pursue the path to contentment and self-knowledge solo, impervious to Freud’s belief that “No one who disdains the key will ever be able to unlock the door.”

The therapy-averse can still learn something from the video above. Narrator de Botton charms his way through an easily digested overview of Freud’s personal and professional life, and the resulting tenets of psychoanalysis.

And filmmaker Mad Adam ensures that this brief trip through the infant phases---oral, anal, phallic---will be a jolly one, replete with droll, mostly vintage images.

Release more monsters of the id with the School of Life’s psychotherapy playlist.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How Baking, Cooking & Other Daily Activities Help Promote Happiness and Alleviate Depression and Anxiety

Image by Beth MacKenzie, via Flickr Commons

Most healthy people practice at least some form of what we call these days “self-care,” whether it be yoga, meditation, running, writing, art, music, therapy, coloring books, or what-have-you. And if you’re functioning tolerably well in the madness of our times, you’re probably dipping regularly into the well of at least one restorative discipline, in addition to whatever larger beliefs you may hold.

But perhaps you feel at loose ends—unable to find the time or money for yoga classes or painting, feeling too restless to sit motionless for half an hour or more a day.... The activities that sustain our psyches should not feel unattainable. One need not be a yogi, Zen monk, marathoner, or Impressionist to find regular fulfilment in life. Perhaps regular, ordinary activities have the power to make us just as happy.

Recent research suggests that tasks such as “knitting, crocheting and jam-making” can “work wonders for wellbeing,” writes Tom Ough at The Telegraph, as can other creative practices like “cooking, baking, performing music, painting, drawing, sketching, digital design and creative writing.” All may have profound effects on emotional health. This list might expand indefinitely to include any hands-on activity with measurable results, from woodworking to beekeeping.

A 2016 study of 658 students at New Zealand’s Otago University found that engaging in small creative pursuits on a daily basis produces enthusiasm and feelings of “flourishing”—“a mental health term describing happiness and meaning.” The results of, say, making a loaf of bread or a scarf, don’t simply benefit us in the moment, but carry over into the future. As the study’s lead author Tamlin Connor notes, “engaging in creative behaviour leads to increases in well-being the next day, and this increased well-being is likely to facilitate creative activity on the same day.”

The more we bake, the more we’ll want to bake, the happier we’ll feel.

Does focusing our attention on small, achievable daily tasks lead to the kind of metaphysical fulfilment most people seem to crave—what Viktor Frankl called “man’s search for meaning”? Not necessarily, no. “Recent research suggests,” notes Daisy Grewal at Scientific American, “that while happiness and a sense of meaning often overlap, they also diverge in important and surprising ways.” Frankl may not be wrong about the need for meaning, but even he admitted that seeking it out is not identical to the pursuit of happiness.

In a 2013 study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Aaker, and Emily Garbinsky found that happiness, “flourishing,” or emotional well-being correlate strongly with “satisfying one’s needs and wants” as well as with “being a giver rather than a taker.” Philosophy, politics, religion, and art may seek truth or coherence, but while “concerns with personal identity and expressing the self contributed to meaning,” they have little lasting effect on happiness, as many a philosopher, priest, or poet may tell you. On the other hand, while having comfortable economic means does measurably improve happiness, it does not contribute significantly to a sense of larger purpose (that which, Frankl argued strenuously, can save our lives in times of crisis).

Baumeister and his colleagues obtained their findings by surveying around 400 American adults over a period of three weeks, during which time the participants monitored a variety of daily activities. In one reading of the Otago University study, Daisy Meager at Vice focuses specially on baking as a means to ward off a “shitty mood.” It may be a matter of taste---some may prefer making sauces to cakes. The effects are the same, "a common cure," writes Danny Lewis at Smithsonian, "for stress or feeling down."

Meager points to work done by Julie Ohana, a “culinary therapist” who uses the kitchen to help patients combat “depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.” Vice's Jackson Connor describes his personal experience of how cooking “alleviates symptoms of stress and anxiety almost immediately,” as well as over time. And no less an authority than food theorist Michael Pollan makes the persuasive case for "how cooking can change your life" in the short animated video below (see his full talk at the RSA here).

Further arguing, however, for baking as a special form of “flourishing,” Julie Thomson at HuffPo describes the act as “a productive form of self-expression and communication" and consults with experts like Ohana and Donna Pincus, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University, who told Thomson, “Baking has the benefit of allowing people creative expression.” People who may not be natural artists, writers, or musicians. Yet baking is also a kind of problem-solving as well as a creative act, and “actually requires a lot of full attention.”

You have to measure, focus physically on rolling out dough. If you’re focusing on smell and taste, on being present with what you’re creating, that act of mindfulness in that present moment can also have a result in stress reduction.

The reference to mindfulness is apt. (Go ahead and read about a course on “Breaditation,” make fun of it, then try it at home.) I know not a few people who swear they cannot meditate to save their lives, but who will happily spend a couple hours on a Saturday evening baking brioche or plates of cookies. But there’s more to it than the meditative absorption that comes from mindful activity. Baking, says Pincus---and cooking in general---is a form of altruism. “The nice thing about baking,” she ways, “is that you have such a tangible reward at the end and that can feel very beneficial to others.”

So the research suggests that---whatever activities one gravitates toward---finding happiness on a daily basis involves more than using Pinterest boards and magazines to craft a cozy, stylish new life. Though any sustained creative activity may do the trick, we approach closer to lasting happiness as well as greater fulfillment—to meaning—when we direct activity to a “connection with other people” through generosity.

via Scientific American

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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