The Paradox of Idleness
Would Sisyphus have been happier just sitting in a jail cell, twiddling his thumbs? After all, the punishment Zeus meted out to him was nothing more than make-work: rolling that boulder up the hill again and again and again, without purpose or sense of accomplishment. It couldn’t have been very satisfying. What if Zeus had softened, and granted him a reprieve—and eternal idleness? An interesting new study suggests that the mythical prisoner would not have liked it in the least. Indeed he would have longed for his days of rock pushing. Make-work may be pointless and demeaning, but at least it’s work; it’s an activity.
How lucky charms really work
Wade Boggs, the former Red Sox slugger and third baseman, was very ritualistic about his warm-ups. For night games, he took batting practice at precisely 5:17 and ran wind sprints at exactly 7:17. He fielded 150 ground balls before every game, never more nor less, and always ended his infield practice by stepping—in the same order—on third, second and first base, then the baseline, followed by two steps in the coaching box and four more steps into the dugout. He ate chicken before every game, and even though he was not Jewish, he scratched the Hebrew word for “life” in the dirt before every at-bat. Boggs had a career batting average of .328, earning him a spot on the Hall of Fame.
The perils of ‘having it all’
It’s fair to say that Thurston Howell III doesn’t savor the little things in life. One of seven castaways on an uncharted Pacific island, the WASPy billionaire never stops scheming to get back to his money. While the others often seem content in their tropical paradise, Howell mostly likes to talk and dream about his assets, which include a coconut plantation, a railroad, an oil well, a diamond mine and all of Denver, Colorado. He never seems to understand that his wealth won’t buy him happiness on Gilligan’s Island. Okay, so Gilligan’s Island isn’t real. I get that. But is it possible this old TV fantasy contained a grain of psychological truth?
The New Phrenology?
Phrenology was the intellectual rage of 19th century America. Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman each incorporated bits of the popular personality theory into his works, and Herman Melville went so far as to make his most famous narrator, Ishmael, an amateur phrenologist. The essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson was obsessed with the practice, alternating between enthusiasm and fear about phrenology’s deterministic view of the brain and behavior. For those who need a quick refresher, phrenology was the theory that an individual’s personality could be “read” from the shape of his skull.
Copycats and Culture
Young kids have to figure out everything about the adult world. Think about it: They have no innate understanding of how to get peanut butter out of a jar, or how to switch to the cartoon channel, or how to tie a shoe. So they figure these things out mostly by watching others very closely—and aping what they see. Well, not aping exactly. Apes imitate too, but they focus on the goal rather than the drill. Kids are high-fidelity copycats, precisely mimicking every adult action, including arbitrary and irrelevant and counterproductive actions.
"I feel your disease"
Make no mistake. Flu season isn’t over. I was in my doc’s office the other day for something routine, and he’s still pushing the H1N1 vaccine. I don’t know why the other patients were in the waiting room, but I do know a few of them were sniffling and sneezing. There was a video on the TV about the importance of hand washing during flu season, to prevent the spread of germs. My throat started to feel a little sore. I’m fine. I apparently escaped without exposure to anything sickening. But my mind was on high alert the entire time I was there. Such waiting room vigilance is not unusual, and indeed has long been recognized as a kind of behavioral immune system.