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Will downloading make you smart and happy?

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

For some time now, people have been talking about – at some point in the future – downloading information directly to your brain. (Check out the interesting twists on this idea by scientist/inventor Ray Kurzweil and science fiction writer John C. Wright.) Apparently a crude form in the opposite direction is already possible: controlling a computer with your thoughts (See the Berlin Brain-Computer Interface). This means you could control devices that can be controlled by computers, including a computer somewhere on the internet (which means the device could be attached to your body, or halfway around the world).

Related: video of a monkey controlling a robotic arm.

Coming back to the first issue (downloading information), to my knowledge we have to be content for now to download the old-fashioned way. But if you think about it, this just keeps getting better, sometimes by leaps and bounds. Google’s better search algorithm was an obvious advance. Google made it even easier than previous search engines to find exactly what you want, even some very obscure bit of information. We have more knowledge at our fingertips than ever before in history. In that sense we’re smarter than we’ve ever been. It’s a bit of a stretch to compare this to intelligence, but you could say everyone who knows how to search on the Internet has a sort of genius-level knowledge base. I thought about calling this your “Google Quotient,” but I found out the phrase was already being used to mean something else. (I googled it!)

As more complete, better-quality, and more specialized information gets put on the Internet, that knowledge base available to you just keeps improving.

I sometimes read a blog written by Scott Adams, who does the Dilbert cartoon. He’s a smart guy, and often raises interesting issues. A few days ago he mentioned again that he’d been suffering from a mysterious voice problem that baffled his doctors.

I woke up one day thinking my voice problem might be related in some way to my hand problem – a writer’s cramp called focal dystonia. So I Googled “voice dystonia” and up popped a link to a video of a person speaking with exactly the same speech defect I had at the time, something called Spasmodic Dysphonia.

So he was able to use Google to self-diagnose a rare condition, that diagnosis later confirmed by doctors. He tried recommended treatments and therapies, with limited success. Then Google came to the rescue again:

About a year ago I started using Google Alerts to tell me whenever someone mentioned Dilbert, me, or anything about Spasmodic Dysphonia on the Internet. About six months ago I got an alert with a link to an obscure medical publication with a report about an even more obscure surgical procedure for fixing spasmodic dysphonia. I took that information to my doctor, who referred me to an expert at Stanford University, who referred me to an expert surgeon at UCLA. Long story short, the operation I read about wasn’t as promising as the article suggested, but the final surgeon in my travels had his own version of surgery that had a good track record. I tried it, and now my voice is normal. I never would have found that path without Google Alerts.

One way to look at the success of science is that it’s the story of more and more pieces of reliable information being built up so that when you need an answer to a particular problem, it exists. With the development of the Internet, that information is more accessible, which should help more and more problems be solved. Will this make you smarter and happier? Well, if being smart is at least partly the ability to solve problems, the answer is yes, it would help you be smarter. Whether this would make you happier is a little more complicated. Some changes in our lives can make us lastingly happier, but many changes in life situation – even big ones – are easy to get used to. We adapt. New situations that are good, or bad, become normal after awhile. Psychologists call this the “hedonic treadmill.” You’re happy with some new thing you got. But then you get used to it. It becomes the new normal situation for you. And your happiness returns to your normal level.

A method for countering this erosion of your happiness is to renew the positive benefit the good thing provides by actively appreciating it. This goes along with the theme of gratitude I started writing about around Thanksgiving. As you know if you read those articles (Gratitude Visit) (Eight ways gratitude boosts happiness), gratitude can be a powerful support for increased happiness that lasts.

So my thought for the day is that I’m grateful for the development of science and technology (and its public accessibility) that solves problems and creates new possibilities.

Gratitude Visit

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

In 2004, Martin Seligman told a group of us on a conference call that a specific exercise in which a person expresses gratitude was the single most effective intervention in the budding field of positive psychology, according to the limited research available on these new techniques.

At the University of Pennsylvania, Seligman teaches a course on positive psychology, and has his students plan and carry out a “Gratitude Visit” as an assignment. In his best-selling book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting FulfillmentAuthentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, Seligman says that in his course evaluations he gets comments like “October 25th was one of the best days of my life.” He recommends all readers to do the exercise, and gives the following instructions:

Select one important person from your past who has made a major positive difference in your life and to whom you have never fully expressed your thanks. (Do not confound this selection with new-found romantic love, or with the possibility of a future gain.) Write a testimonial just long enough to cover one laminated page. Take your time composing this; my students and I found ourselves taking several weeks, composing on buses and as we feel asleep at night. Invite that person to your home, or travel to that person’s home. It is important you do this face to face, not just in writing or on the phone. Do not tell the person the purpose of the visit in advance; a simple “I just want to see you” will suffice. Wine and cheese do not matter [he mentioned in the book that this was part of “Gratitude Night” where students brought guests to a joint event], but bring a laminated version of your testimonial with you as a gift. When all settles down, read your testimonial aloud slowly, with expression, and with eye contact. Then let the other person react unhurriedly. Reminisce together about the concrete events that make this person so important to you. (If you are so moved, please do send me a copy at

There are a lot of ways in which giving works better than receiving for making you happier. The Gratitude Visit is a great way to enrich both giver and receiver. Try it! If you would like to send me a copy, I’d be happy to read it.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting FulfillmentAuthentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press. p. 72-75.

Seligman, M.E.P., Steen, T., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.

Blog about positive psychology, happiness research, and how to apply it

Saturday, October 4th, 2008

I wanted to pause and tell you a little more about what I have in mind for this site. I might expand on this plan, but right now my idea is to create several kinds of pages as described below. You can already see that my blog entries are really more like short articles on particular topics than they are like typical blog entries (that most bloggers tend not to spend much time carefully creating). The vast majority of these will deal with some issue in positive psychology.

1. I’ll tell you, in plain English, about interesting things coming out of research on happiness; satisfaction with life, work, and leisure; meaning in life and activities; being fully engaged in what you’re doing (flow); relationships; building on your strengths; and related issues.

2. I’ll give you ideas for how you can apply this to your own life. Some will be my own ideas, and some will be my explanations of how other positive psychologists apply what they’ve learned in their investigations. I hope this stuff will be really helpful to you.

3. Sometimes the main theme of an article / blog post will be a bit off the topic of positive psychology, but will share something I think you might find interesting. In these cases I’ll usually relate it to something in positive psychology, and to happiness. I tried this for the first time with my last article, “How to be rich and happy.” By the way, there’s obviously much more to say about this topic, for example, Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener‘s concept of “psychological wealth.”

4. I’m not going to promise I might not occasionally add a blog entry on some random topic I find entertaining, funny, or interesting. I want to make the blog more personal. And I might add things just because they make me smile.


Here’s an example of an off-topic tip that’s timely. Today I ran across Google’s voter tools ( If you’re reading this soon after I wrote it, and if you haven’t already received voter information in the mail, be sure to check deadlines (they’re soon!), see if you’re still registered, learn how to register, find out where your polling place is, etc. with Google’s convenient tools. Google always seems to be coming up with something cool.