Learning for conservation

Have you heard of MOOCs? It means Massive Open Online Courses, which are pretty much just that – plus from what I have seen they are also free. I am now taking one through Coursera.org called Social Psychology, hoping that I’ll learn more about why people and groups think and behave the way they do. I’ve always felt that one of the biggest challenges in conservation is to understand and change people’s motivations and behaviours. 

This course is Coursera’s largest to date, with 230,000 students currently registered! To take part, you sign up on the website for free, and watch the video lectures and read the assigned material at your own pace each week – the course is time-bound which is a useful motivator. Each week you are expected to complete a homework assignment. Homework is peer-assessed, so you also review at least five assignments from others in the class. The course is taught by a professor at Wesleyan University who, along with the five teaching assistants, has done an amazing job putting together clear and professional video lectures. 

It’s not too late to sign up, so if you have any interest in how people think about, relate to and influence each other, give it a try! 


When synthetic is better than natural

Reviving stale bread with cinnamon and sugar!

In contrast to conservation where natural tends to be preferred to synthetic, and control of our environmental destiny seems to be further from reach than we would like, synthetic happiness is within reach.

Happiness is very trendy these days. I was just sent a whole playlist of happiness talks and in the last two years have been given two books on the subject. There is a lot of advice on how to find it but this TED Talk I just watched says that actually the happiness we make is just as powerful as ‘natural happiness’ and possibly more enduring.

You should watch Dan Gilbert’s talk, but as a self-experiment to create some happiness I will try to quickly summarize and post this blog because according to Gilbert we are more satisfied with irreversible decisions.

If you are given a Monet painting that wasn’t your favorite one from the set you were looking at and then asked a while later to rank according to your preference that same set again, you are likely to rank the one you own as higher within the set. People actually learn to like what they have better.

Here’s a simpler example: you go on a date with a guy who picks his nose, you don’t see him again. Your husband picks his nose, and you say he has a really big heart.

Why? Well for starters our ability to predict our own happiness is not very good, and secondly we have a kind of “psychological immune system” that can help us make the best of what we have.

I think this is the explanation behind why I loved the freedom of traveling by bike, including the freedom of having only one ugly, unflattering and stained shirt to wear every day in front of the guy I hoped would fall in love with me. It’s the paradox of choice, whereby logic says that more choices will bring more happiness, but as one of the world’s most indecisive people, my observation is that happiness comes from packing light (metaphorically speaking).

So though we think that if things don’t go as we hoped they would we will be less happy, what really happens is that our “psychological immune system” takes over and if served lemons our minds (and hearts) make lemonade.

I’ll stop there and recommend again that you watch Dan Gilbert’s TED Talk on the Surprising Science of Happiness, for some very surprising and reassuring insights about creating your own happiness.