Two Ways to Improve the Quality of Life

“There are two main strategies we can adopt to improve the quality of life. The first is to try making external conditions match our goals. The second is to change how we experience conditions to make them fit our goals better.”

— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Gratitude for Ordinary Things

In my recent TSM post ‘Gratitude as a Way of Seeing‘, I suggested that the areas we should be the most grateful for are often the things we easily overlook:

“Consider that much of what we think are justifiable grounds for complaint, and many of the circumstances that we become unhappy about, actually occur against the backdrop of lifestyles that are unimaginably prosperous and blessed from the perspective of all human history. The normal things in our life that ought to be occasions for profound gratitude are often overlooked precisely because they are so normal.

“For example, when was the last time you registered gratitude for clean drinking water? When was the last time you were grateful for the absence of enemies on the border of your town? When was the last time you experienced gratitude for the accessibility of books, music, tools and comfortable transportation?
“We’re naturally grateful for the things that are out of the ordinary—a bonus from work, a warm comment from a stranger, an extra special meal, an appreciative letter from a friend we haven’t seen in years, and so on. But we have to really work to cultivate gratefulness for the ordinary things that we tend to take for granted—our normal paycheck, routine kindness from family members, not having to go hungry every day, having a warm place to sleep at night, to say nothing of cultural advances that are ubiquitous. When you think about, these ordinary things ought to occasion the highest levels of gratitude. We ought to be grateful for these things precisely because they happen frequently enough to become normal.”

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Philosophical Realism and Literature

From my Colson Center article ‘The Abstraction of God and the Culture Wars (Nominalism 7)‘:

Overemphasizing the noetic effects of sin and underestimating the reality of common grace has enormous ramifications in how we approach pagan literature. When we come to a text like Homer’s Iliad, or the plays of Sophocles, is our knee-jerk instinct to assume these texts have nothing valuable to teach us regarding human nature and God’s world? If so, we will conceive our task primarily to unearth worldview deficiencies in these writers: to attack, criticize and condemn.

But if, on the other hand, we recognize that the ordering of reality has left the imprint of a divine grammar that even pagans cannot help but recognize, then we will come at these texts expecting to find additional confirmation of the inherent logic of creation – a logic which not even human sin can fully eradicate. Once again, there is a structural order to creation that is larger than, and prior to, God’s pedestrian commands

Intellectual Curiosity and Freedom

From ‘Best Kept Secrets About Brain Fitness: a Conversation with Graham Taylor and Robin Phillips (Part 4)

When I used to teach high school history, I often found myself puzzled why some students would diligently take notes about all the different historical figures I discussed in class but then as soon as the final test was over they would throw away a year’s worth of notes. Why was it that some students were genuinely interested in the material while others didn’t care and only learned for the test? We could probably think of lots of different reasons for this, but one important factor seemed to be the total lack of intellectual curiosity in some students.

Without intellectual curiosity learning is boring. Without intellectual curiosity the justification for knowledge ultimately rests in pragmatic concerns outside the material itself, with the result that knowledge is reduced to a utilitarian tool. Intellectual curiosity saves us from the type of servile mind that sees knowledge as only useful for material gain. That’s why intellectual curiosity is freeing, dignifying and humanizing. Intellectual curiosity arises naturally from the best education, since the finest education is able in instill in us the sense that life is intensely interesting and worthwhile to study for its own sake.

But intellectual curiosity is also very practical since it is closely connected with memory. When knowledge ceases to be interesting for its own sake then we find it difficult to remember the content. The brain is very efficient so that when something is boring for us the brain gets the message “This isn’t worth remembering, I need to conserve my resources for stuff that is more interesting.”

Most of the time those students whom we think have inherently good memories are simply the ones who are curious about the world and who therefore find the content they are learning interesting. Again, if content interests or excites us, then it is more likely to embed itself in our long-term memory as part of a larger web of schemas, associations and interconnections. But if something is boring to us, if we are only learning something because we feel we ought to, and if we don’t have the type of internal incentive to learn that comes from being genuinely curious about the world, then the knowledge is more likely to sit in our brain as isolated facts without any hooks to hang it on. Either that or knowledge is reduced to merely a pragmatic tool to help career advancement, which is what seems to be happening in a lot of science education today. (Matthew Crawford touched on this in an excellent article for The New Atlantis called ‘Science Education and Liberal Education.’)

Education Should Nourish Our Souls

From my Touchstone article ‘More Than Schooling‘:

“Our loves orient us to visions of human flourishing that pull us towards a certain telos far more effectively than someone trying to push us there. …the real competitor of classical education is not the public schools, as so often thought, but the panoply of what [James K.A. Smith] calls “secular liturgies,” which also aim to capture our imaginations on an instinctive level. For him, Christian education is important, not because the public schools are so bad, but because shopping malls, commercials, and clothing advertisements are so good, or appear so to the impoverished soul.

The idols of the materialistic world usually reach our hearts only because they have first captured our imaginations. Now, capturing the imagination is also what a liberal arts education should fundamentally be about. It’s not simply about learning things, but about being nourished, and coming to love what is good, true, and beautiful at a gut level.”

Neuroplasticity and the Classroom

Ever since reading Norman Doidge’s book The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science, I’ve been fascinated by the science of neuroplasticity and the truth that our thoughts and choices actually change the physical structure of our brain. I’ve been applying this science to my own life in developing skills I once thought inaccessible to me, in addition to working to overcome unhealthy mental habits.

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