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Minimizing Pain, Maximizing Joy:

 Learning from 2,000-year-old Philosophy

By Shlomo Maital

   Two unrelated events in my life have come together, in an unexpected way.

   My wife and I are taking a Zoom class, on Sunday nights led by our Rabbi Elisha, on the Stoic philosopher Philo the Greek, who lived in Alexandria 2,000 years ago, and who used Stoic philosophy to help interpret the Bible, in a creative and highly insightful manner.

   And, from time to time, I listen to the wonderful NPR podcast Hidden Brain,  featuring Harvard University psychologist Shankar Vedante.  The podcast features psychological insights into behavior, with information that we can use daily.  The episode I am listening to now is “Minimizing Pain, Maximizing Joy”,  an interview with philosopher William Irvine, about how we can manage extreme anger reactions, when we ‘lose it’.  Irvine’s book

     In these pandemic days, I am sure there have been an unusually large number of these anger-arousing incidents, when fierce anger arises and we ‘lose it’ or come close.  It is sad, because in my country, and I believe in other countries, there has been an alarming rise in domestic violence, especially against women. 

     In his book, William Irvine proposes how we can use a two-millenium-old philosophy, Stoicism, to better deal with the problem,  to “minimize pain, maximize joy” – the title of Hidden Brain podcast, available at th NPR website. 

    Here is the essence:

“Some people bounce back in response to setbacks; others break. We often think that these responses are hardwired, but fortunately this is not the case. Stoicism offers us an alternative approach. Plumbing the wisdom of one of the most popular and successful schools of thought from ancient Rome, philosopher William B. Irvine teaches us to turn any challenge on its head. The Stoic Challenge, then, is the ultimate guide to improving your quality of life through tactics developed by ancient Stoics, from Marcus Aurelius and Seneca to Epictetus.

   “This book uniquely combines ancient Stoic insights with techniques discovered by contemporary psychological research, such as anchoring and framing. The result is a surprisingly simple strategy for dealing with life’s unpleasant and unexpected challenges―from minor setbacks like being caught in a traffic jam or having a flight cancelled to major setbacks like those experienced by physicist Stephen Hawking, who slowly lost the ability to move, and writer Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered from locked-in syndrome.

    “The Stoics discovered that thinking of challenges as tests of character can dramatically alter our emotional response to them. Irvine’s updated “Stoic test strategy” teaches us how to transform life’s stumbling blocks into opportunities for becoming calmer, tougher, and more resilient. Not only can we overcome everyday obstacles―we can benefit from them, too.”

    What are the practical Stoic techniques:  *  Practice:  pull anger-arousing incidents out of your memory, and revise, re-edit them, as you revise (retroactively) your reaction.  * Someone says hurtful things to you:  Ignore, move on, disregard… and forget them.  If they’re trying to wound you, they will deeply regret failing.  * Visualize: imagine highly annoying situations, and practice sliding through them.  * Blessings: remind yourself more regularly of what is good in your life.  * Real-time realization:  In an anger-arousing situation, look more deeply into it, and find the parts that comprise blessings to you. 

   I know – much easier said than done.  But dealing with extreme annoyance is a life skill that is incredibly valuable.  One technique I use myself is the ‘echo chamber’.  When you feel you are about to say something hurtful, in white-hot anger,  say it first in your head, think it, unspoken.  Listen to it.  And then delay it, and ask, do I really want to say this?   

    In close to 100% of the time, I do not actually say those words. And boy – am I grateful I did not!

     Try it.    

How Competing For Grants Kills Science – and Scientists’ Motivation

By Shlomo   Maital  

Science lab

   This is the sad story about how a shortage of resources, and the system of competitive funding of research grants through peer-review, is ruining U.S. science and killing scientists’ motivation.   I heard it today on America’s National Public Radio News, in a report by Richard Harris.

   Ian Glomski thought he was going to make a difference in the fight to protect people from deadly anthrax germs. He had done everything right – attended one top university, landed an assistant professorship at another.  But Glomski ran head-on into an unpleasant reality: These days, the scramble for money to conduct research has become stultifying.  So, he’s giving up on science.  Ian Glomski outside his home in Charlottesville, Va. He quit an academic career in microbiology to start a liquor distillery.

Why is he giving up????  

Because to get grants, you need to ‘tweak’ safe existing ideas, so your peers will approve it; because if you have radical ideas, your peers who judge the grants competition will shoot them down, because if you succeed, those ideas will endanger the judges’ own safe, conventional, non-risky research.

“You’re focusing basically on one idea you already have and making it as presentable as possible,” he says. “You’re not spending time making new ideas. And it’s making new ideas, for me personally, that I found rewarding. That’s what my passion was about.”

    Glomski wanted to study anthrax ‘in vitro’, in live animals, using scanning techniques.  Today it’s done by analyzing tissues of dead animals. His idea might have failed. But if it succeeded, it could have utterly changed our understanding of anthrax and other such diseases. 

    In theory, peer-review of grants is fair.  But it fosters extreme mediocrity.  And as government funding of research declines, (20% cut in recent years),   competition gets fierce (1 of 8 grant proposals is successful, and it takes long stretches of time to prepare one – so young scientists spend their time writing proposals rather than doing effective research). 

    Harris reports that “…. payoffs in science come from out of the blue – oddball ideas or unexpected byways. Glomski says that’s what research was like for him as he was getting his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. His lab leader there got funding to probe the frontiers. But Glomski sees that far-sighted approach disappearing today.”   Playing it safe will never generate the creative breakthroughs we need.

     As with many things in America, scientific research is utterly screwed up.  And it is unlike to change in the near future. 

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital