Friday, October 31, 2014

Harnessing the Power of the Sun to Destroy a Village

The most divisive planning application to hit our village -- possibly EVER--has come to a head. As it happens, this is transpiring while I've been taking a marvelous "MOOC" (Massive Open Online Course) called The Science of Happiness (from UCal Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center).

At the beginning of the course, we learned about the importance of something called "social capital." I couldn't dismiss this as sociological mumbo-jumbo because it made too much darn sense. Plus it has huge implications for the health and welfare of our village--actually the happiness of people everywhere. But what's on my mind especially is my tiny village, right now, right here.

Social capital is the overall benefit that results from networks of trust and cooperation. In a village, that basically means neighborliness or keeping an eye out for other folks in big and small ways: working together on projects for charity--like the Famine Lunch; cooperating on projects to raise money for the village-- like Bonfire Night; or assisting with projects to benefit subsets of residents-- like a class to upgrade computer literacy for older folks. Social capital covers simple sociability and everyday kindness -- stopping to have a chat with a fellow dog-walker; retrieving their recycling box when the wind blows it into the street; picking up your neighbor's kid from school when you see he missed the bus. Maybe you take your neighbor some spiced nuts (you're welcome, Alf) or loan her your post-driver (thanks, Lynne!)

No one called it "social capital", but that is what led our village to rally to help residents of the four homes that were most affected by last winter's floods. People donated money, helped with cleanup and repairs, and provided alternative housing in the village--for several months--for the couple most severely affected. Village farmers and experts on the lay of the land spent hours helping with a plan to drain the floodwaters. When the main road was closed, we made arrangements to assure that a resident with medical needs would be able to get to the doctor. I'm sure there were dozens more acts of kindness during the floods that I will never hear about. People just got on with helping, because that's what we do here.

More signs of goodwill in the village include the turnout for events at the Village Hall and Fun Days on "The Rec" -- the wonderful playing fields and park in our village -- and support for art and history, including musical concerts; dragon tiles, mosaics, and a small stone carving; and interest in an archeological dig lead by the county archaeologist. We have a monthly needlework group and a weekly bowls club. We hosted a 'scratch' choir in the Village Hall this summer -- which raised an impressive sum for charity. The church has an occasional choir, the "Allerlooyas," which, like the cleaning and flower rotas, includes people who aren't members of the church. That's just what we do here, because we love our village and care for one another.

And that, as it turns out, is what would be called "high social capital." Beyond making our village the friendly, trusting place that accepted me as a foreigner and outsider these past seven years, high social capital has a host of important benefits. Sociologists have discovered that individuals living in communities with high trust enjoy: more active parental involvement with schools, higher student academic achievement, less crime, better health, greater longevity, higher voter turnout, fewer disparities between rich and poor, and reduced likelihood of economic decline.

Higher social capital is especially important for ageing populations because it helps preserve health and physical mobility as people grow older. High social capital means better health information, more frequent contact with people, and lower levels of disability. People in high-social-capital communities are more likely to volunteer and enjoy lower rates of depression, neuroticism, and Alzheimer's disease.

All this means Aller has been a great place to live. But right now, the social capital of my village is at risk in the battle over the controversial planning issue--a large solar park to be located on land rented from our village's most prominent farmer. Emotions are running high. There are threats and personal attacks, half-truths, exaggerations, assumptions, irrelevancies, and falsehoods -- all being dished up with passion and fervor in hopes of making the case for one side or the other.

I know from sad personal experience how these things go. My family's yard abuts the land of a rubber-crumb processing plant that was installed without planning permission. Folks at our end of the village opposed it for the noise and because it meant bringing a light-industrial plant--and all it requires for security, waste disposal, haulage... into a peaceful residential/agricultural area. The retroactive planning application was approved with conditions, but it was left to complaining neighbors to assure the conditions were met. We don't complain, because we see the plant owner as uncooperative and intimidating.

Call it NIMBYism, but I was devastated by the loss of peace and quiet in my garden. The wife and co-owner of the facility admitted at one point that they lived in fear of complaining neighbors, and felt rejected in the community. Years later, there is no love lost -- and limited circulation of social capital--at this end of the village. This mutual distrust disturbs my peace far more than the noise from the plant.

As discomforting as it may be, our spat over the rubber-crumb processing plant is minuscule compared to the solar park. As things are going now, the split in the village over that issue could potentially spell the end of civility, trust, and social capital throughout the village for decades.

Here's my plea to everyone in Aller: Please do everything in your power to preserve goodwill in the village, now and in the trying days ahead. The damage that will result if we fail to preserve our social capital will far outweigh the damage from EITHER building or not building the solar park.

How can you help with that? Here are some suggestions based on my "Science of Happiness" class and other readings:

  1. Pause to consider all the cooperation that you are grateful for in our village -- times you have been helped; times we've worked together to help others; groups and activities you've enjoyed. Consider, in particular, the help given to the village by people who do not share your views on the solar park.  This might mean consideration of the farmer's helping with the Great Crane and archeology projects; providing generous use of buildings and land for village and church events; and trying to improve the land for wildlife. Or this might mean consideration of many villagers' work in the many cooperative projects I've mentioned above. Count those blessings; express your gratitude.
  2. Consider the common values we share. I'll bet we all moved here for pretty much the same reasons. We love the place -- the peace, the rural character, the birds, the views, the agricultural contribution of the active farms, the walks, the fresh air, and the neighborhood full of trust, cooperation, and goodwill.
  3. Strive to see things from other points of view. Put yourself in the place of the farmer, worried about depletion of the soil, unpredictable prices for milk, and numerous uncontrollable forces, including animal diseases, legal liability for people on his land, and the weather. Put yourself in the place of the resident whose greatest treasure is the view out her window -- a view that could encompass thousands of large solar panels.
  4. Disagree respectfully. Treasure your neighbor. Try to be as kind and generous as possible, even if you don't share his viewpoint. Don't intimidate or shout him down.
  5. Don't exaggerate or misrepresent in making your case, and trust the folks on the other side to do the same. There is a strong case to be made for either side and economies of the truth are both unnecessary and likely to be remembered for a long time. Calmly accept that there really are people who don't think the views will be so awful and who do believe solar energy is more eco-friendly than fracking or nuclear power plants. There really will be sheep grazing between the solar panels. There really are people whose views and deeply-held sense of the sacred, historic site will be spoiled by the large solar installation. There are honest people who have good reason to distrust energy companies.
  6. Do not make threats of mischief, sabotage, or withdrawal of cooperation if you don't get what you want. Whether you do or don't carry out your threats, people will remember them and it will be much harder--if not impossible--to rebuild trust. No one wants to live in a village fearing they will be the next targets of malice.
  7. If you can see both sides -- or grounds for compromise -- or if you are somewhere on the fence, reach out to people to start laying the groundwork for reconciliation when this is over.
  8. Realize this psychological truth: in a year's time, the outcome of not getting your way will not be as bad as you now fear, and the benefits of getting your way will not be as great as you now expect. This is a psychological truth, and it holds for people on all sides of this issue, however it ends up. The only thing that could block you from enjoying that happy truth is tenacious lack of goodwill for the village and your neighbors.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Compass of the Heart & Measuring a Dose of Mindfulness

Researchers studying new medicines must often come to grips with "patient compliance" issues--assuring that participants actually take each dose of an experimental treatment. But the patient compliance difficulty factor goes up orders of magnitude when it comes to studying the effects of mindfulness.

I'm currently taking an EdX class (with 100,000 other people!) on The Science of Happiness from the University of California, Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center. The subject for this week is mindfulness. One of this week's guest presenters--Shauna Shapiro from UCal Santa Clara--is a leading light in the academic field of mindfulness.

In her definitions, Dr. Shapiro highlights three core elements of mindfulness: Intention, Attention, and Attitude. It was her discussion of the role of Intention that has given me new appreciation for one of the most serious challenges of conducting mindfulness research. Shapiro sees Intention as "knowing why you are practicing" mindfulness or "setting the compass of your heart."

To drive this home, Shapiro quotes a confession from the father of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn:
"Your intentions set the stage for what is possible. They remind you from moment to moment of why you are practicing . . .  I used to think that meditation practice was so powerful...that as long as you did it at all, you would see growth and change. But time has taught me that some kind of personal vision is also necessary."
Personal intentions of participants in mindfulness studies are essentially the equivalent of "patient compliance" in studies of medical treatments. Each person's intention in pursuing mindfulness is a key determinant of the "dosage" of mindfulness that reaches his or her brain.

Miranda Bevis, my mindfulness teacher, framed intention with a light touch in one of the first classes.  She had us form small groups and invited us to say why we'd signed up for the class and what we hoped to get out of it. And, when telling us we needed to do our meditation homework assignments, she said learning mindfulness was like learning a foreign language. It doesn't do much good just to come to class once a week, she said -- you need to practice, practice, practice.

The drill of home practice no doubt is one necessary manifestation of intention to develop mindfulness. But it's probably not sufficient. I learned this from a close friend who studied mindfulness (but not with Dr. Bevis) and who had a very different experience from mine.

My friend signed up for the class on the recommendation of friends and colleagues. He had studied and practiced psychology and thought studying mindfulness would familiarize him with a new aspect of the field that had come along since he was at school. His intention was to learn about mindfulness techniques in order to help others. He was irritated to get a "pre-test" for various psychological problems in the first class, followed by instruction that seemed to be oriented toward resolving psychological challenges of class members.

My friend did do his home practice during the course, but it's fair to say he did not set the compass of his heart on becoming mindful himself. He found the voice on his practice tape irritating; the practices took too long; they didn't do much for him. He was especially irritated to get a "post-test" version of the psychological assessment again at the end of the 8-week class. Easily fudged and he saw it as more for subsequent promotion of the course than for the students' benefit. He hasn't practiced mindfulness since he finished the class.

My friend is case-in-point for why mindfulness studies are hugely difficult. A typical research paper would say that my friend and I both got the same "dose" of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction -- we both had an 8-week class with a trained Mindfulness teacher and did our home mindfulness practices. But clearly the difference in our respective intentions meant that we got very different doses.

Currently, the closest mindfulness studies come to measuring (and controlling for) participant compliance is data on class attendance and self-reports of home-practice. The degree to which these data approximate participants' actual intentions and efforts to cultivate mindfulness determines --and currently limits-- the reliability and strength of the studies' conclusions. Someday researchers may do better. Maybe cheap, easy, painless, convenient, home-use brain scanning? Or perhaps they can do a massive data crunch and find better correlates of actual mindfulness dose.  Controlling more precisely for heart-compass readings will make for sounder science.

Beyond this, finding better correlates of intention also could help improve the way mindfulness teachers advertise Mindfulness courses, the claims they make, and how and what they teach. It might change class composition, the way teachers relate to class participants -- or even help identify people who are wasting their time and money studying mindfulness.