Man Disconnected

Amid shifting social, economic and technological climates, young men are getting left behind, at least according to Philip Zimbardo and Nikita D. Coulombe in their 2015 book ‘Man Disconnected: How the Digital Age is Changing Young Men Forever‘.

Zimbardo Man Disconnected.png

The two authors cite a range of anecdotal and research-evidence (some of it primary) to put forward the argument that men are ‘flaming out academically’, falling behind in the world of work, failing to connect with women and struggling with addictions to porn video games and drugs (both legal and illegal).

In order to understand why men are increasingly disconnected, they develop a three part analysis:

  • firstly they highlight the individual dispositions (such as ‘shyness’ and ‘impulsiveness’) related to male disconnectdness
  • secondly they look at situational context – such as widespread fatherlessness and the ease of availability of online games and pornography
  • Finally they look at structural factors such as changes in the labour market.

These three factors together have resulted in many men lacking purposeful direction and lacking in social skills: may would rather live at home with their parents, often extending their childhood into their 30s, (on this note, you night me interested in this post on the increasing numbers of young people living at home with their parents, UK focus).

Rather than face up to the complexities of adult life, more and more young men stay at home, distracted by an online world of gaming and porn, which further reinforces their social isolation and awkwardness.

The book is split into three sections:

  • the symptoms (or you might say indicators) of men being disconnected, which I deal with in this post
  • the causes of men being disconnected.
  • Finally, the authors offer some solutions for dealing with what we might call a ‘crisis of masculinity’.

The Symptoms of Male Disconnectedness 

In this (short) section the authors simply trawl through a range of evidence to outline the problems faced by young men in many societies about the world. NB the evidence cited is mixed – some is global, some US and UK focuses, some not particularly well referenced at all.

The authors break ‘the symptoms’ down into seven major sections:

  1. Disenchantment with education – girls are outperforming boys in every subject at every level of education around the world.
  2. Men opting out of the workforce – the male unemployment rate globally has increased nearly fourfold since the 1970s – from 2% in 1970 to 7% in 1990/
  3. social intensity syndrome – this is a phenomenon in which increasing male shyness means men prefer the company of other men… they’d rather have bromance than romance.
  4. excessive gaming – this is a weekly evidenced section – we are told that the average person will clock up 10k hours of gaming before they are 21, but in terms of gender, we are simply told that the majority of gamers are male, and informed that in a couple of pieces of research of couples where only 1 person was into gaming, that person was male 70-80% of the time.
  5. becoming obese – this section focuses mainly on the US where 70% of US men are overweight, 1 in 3 are obese.
  6. excessive porn use – the average boy watches nearly 2 hours of porn ever week, and 1 in 3 are heavy users, meaning they can’t even count how much they watch. The problem with porn is that it teaches young men (with no prior sexual experience) to treat women like sex objects rather than as human beings.
  7. over-reliance on medications and illegal drugs – this is a poorly written section, the only statistical evidence cited is that 85% of medication for disorders such as ADHD are given to males.

If you like this sort of thing then you might also like the following, follow on posts:

Before reading this you might like to read the following posts:

  1. Man Disconnected summary part 2: why are young men in crisis? #1 (chapters 8-10)
  2. Man Disconnected summary part 3: why are young men in crisis #2 (chapter 11) – technology enchantment and arousal addiction
  3. Man Disconnected summary part 4: why are young men in crisis? #3 (chapters 12-15)
  4. Man Disconnected summary part 5: solutions to the crisis of masculinity (chapters 16-21)


Validity in Social Research

Validity refers to the extent to which an indicator (or set of indicators) really measure the concept under investigation. This post outlines five ways in which sociologists and psychologists might determine how valid their indicators are: face validity, concurrent validity, convergent validity, construct validity, and predictive validity. 

Validity refers to the extent to which an indicator (or set of indicators) really measure the concept under investigation. This post outlines five ways in which sociologists and psychologists might determine how valid their indicators are: face validity, concurrent validity, convergent validity, construct validity, and predictive validity.

As with many things in sociology, it makes sense to start with an example to illustrate the general meaning of the concept of validity:

When universities question whether or not BTECs really provide a measure of academic intelligence, they are questioning the validity of BTECs to accurately measure the concept of ‘academic intelligence’.

When academics question the validity of BTECs in this way, they might be suspicious that that BTECs are actually measuring something other than a student’s academic intelligence; rather BTECs might instead actually be measuring a student’s ability to cut and paste and modify just enough to avoid being caught out by plagiarism software.

If this is the case, then we can say that BTECs are not a valid measurement of a student’s academic intelligence.

How can sociologists assess the validity of measures and indicators?

what is validity.png

There are number of ways testing measurement validity in social research:

  • Face validity – on the face of it, does the measure fit the concept? Face validity is simply achieved by asking others with experience in the field whether they think the measure seems to be measuring the concept. This is essentially an intuitive process.
  • Concurrent validity – to establish the concurrent validity of a measure, the researchers simply compare the results of one measure to another which is known to be valid (known as a ‘criterion measure). For example with gamblers, betting accounts give us a valid indication of how much they actually win or lose, but wording of questions designed to measure ‘how much they win or lose in a given period’ can yield vastly different results. Some questions provide results which are closer to the hard-financial statistics, and these can be said to have the highest degree of concurrent validity.
  • Predictive validity – here a researcher uses a future criterion measure to assess the validity of existing measures. For example we might assess the validity of BTECs as measurement of academic intelligence by looking at how well BTEC students do at university compared to A-level students with equivalent grades.
  • Construct validity – here the researcher is encouraged to deduce hypotheses from a theory that is relevant to the concept. However, there are problems with this approach as the theory and the process of deduction might be misguided!
  • Convergent validity – here the researcher compares her measures to measures of the same concept developed through other methods. Probably the most obvious example of this is the British Crime Survey as a test of the ‘validity’ of Police Crime Statistics’. The BCS shows us that different crimes, as measured by PCR have different levels of construct validity – Vehicle Theft is relatively high, vandalism is relatively low, for example.


Bryman (2016) Social Research Methods



Good Resources for Teaching and Learning Research Methods

Being able to choose appropriate research methods and executing those methods effectively are absolutely essential if we are to collect valid, reliable and representative data, and below I present some links to some of the best resources which enable us to do so. These are mainly relevant to the selection, application and evaluation of research methods within sociology, but might also be of interest to students of other social science related subjects such as psychologists, business studies students, international relations students, and anthropologists. 

I start off below by including some good ‘general resources’ such as text books and general web sites, followed by some links which focus on specific research methods – surveys, experiments, interviews, participant observation and secondary quantitative and qualitative data.

The point of this post is to provide links which take you to sources which are as broad as possible but where this isn’t possible, I provide links to specific examples of studies using certain research methods.

links to my own posts on research methods can be found at my main page on research methods!

This list is very much a work in progress and will be updated in an ongoing manner. 

Good general resources 

Bryman, Alan (2015) Social Research Methods – A great introductory book on research methods organised by the major different types of research method (surveys, interviews, etc.), with supplementary material including PowerPoints and mutli-choice quizzes.

Gilbert, Nigel (2015) Researching Social Life – A classic introductory text book which takes you through the research process step by step, from research design, to data collection and analysis.

Supporting web site for ‘Researching Social Life’ – I’ve set the link to the Sage Journal publication links page, which is probably the most useful of the supporting pages, but if you want something a bit more advanced than A-level then you might like to check out their Quizlet Flash Cards too – definitely first year degree level (or maybe even beyond that)

The British Sociological Association Code of Ethics – A very thorough consideration of what counts as ‘ethical research’ according to the BSA.

Good Resources for Quantitative Data 

Data Science Central – The online resource center for big data practitioners. Big data ‘scientists’ analyse huge data sets to reveal insights into human interactions. The link takes you to ’38 seminal articles about big data’.

YouGov is a great site for finding out results of recent surveys of public opinion on a range of issues. Of special interest at the moment (July 2017 at time of writing this paragraph!) are the election results, which give details of how different ages voted. If you like this sort of thing, you can even sign up to take part in YouGov surveys, which will give you a chance to find out some of the limitations of the survey method, and earn some cash.

The Office for National Statistics – ‘The UK’s largest provider of official statistics – it’s not actually that useful as a ‘search site’ (you’re better off just using Google), but you cant’ not include this!

The Crime Survey for England and Wales (about) – Crime stats are one of the most useful sources for illustrating how statistics are socially constructed – this is a useful Q and A on England and Wale’s massive annual victim survey.

The Crime Survey of England and Wales – The Results… A link to the results of the 2016 crime survey, towards the end is a discussion of methodology.

NB – these research methods resources are not meant as an exhaustive list, nor are they meant as a ‘good sources for A-level students’ list – this is more meant for first year degree students and people with a more general interest in learning about research methods.

As a final note, these are the resources which I have used (in modified form) to write many of the blog posts here on research methods.

Sociology Teaching Resources for Sale

You might be interested in my latest (November 2019) teaching resource pack which contains everything teachers need to deliver 10 hour long ‘introduction to sociology’ lessons.

sociology teaching resourcesIncluded in the bundle is a clearly structured 50 page gapped student work-pack, six PowerPoints* to structure the 10 lessons, 10 detailed lesson plans outlining a range of learning activities you can use with students, a massive list of relevant contemporary resources with links, and numerous lesson activities including introductions, plenaries and links to some Socrative quizzes.

These resources contain all the core sociology knowledge students need for a through introduction sociology, illustrated with numerous up to date contemporary case studies and statistics.

The resources have been designed for A-level sociology and cover the core themes on the AQA’s specification but are suitable for new 16-19 students studying any specification.

You might also like these teaching resources for the sociology of education. They are specifically designed for A-level sociology students and consist of several versions of key concepts definitions (80 concepts in total), gapped summary grids with answers covering the entire sociology of education specification and 7 analysis activities.

If you want to get both of the above resources and receive regular updates of teaching resources then you can subscribe for £9.99 a month. I’ll be producing 10 hour long lessons worth of resources every month throughout 2020 and beyond. The £9.99 subscription means you get the resources for 50% off the usual £19.99 price.

Experiments in Sociology – Revision Notes

Definitions, key features and the theoretical, practical and ethical strengths and limitations of laboratory and field experiments applied to sociology (and psychology). Also covers key terms related to experiments.

post has been written to help students revising for the research methods aspect of their second year A-level exams.

Experiments – The Basics: Definitions/ Key Features

  • Experiments aim to measure the effect which one or more independent variables have on a dependent variable.
  • The aim is to isolate and measure as precisely as possible the exact effect independent variables have on dependent variables.
  • Experiments typically aim to test a ‘hypothesis’ – a prediction about how one variable will effect another.
  • There are two main types* of experimental method: The Laboratory experiment, the field experiment and the comparative method.
    • Laboratory Experiments take place in an artificial, controlled environment such as a laboratory.
    • Field Experiments – take place in a real world context such as a school or a hospital.

Advantages of Laboratory Experiments

  • Theoretical – The controlled conditions of laboratory experiments allow researchers to isolate variables: you can precisely measure the exact effect of one thing on another.
  • Theoretical – You can establish cause and effect relationships.
  • Theoretical – You can collect ‘objective’ knowledge – about how facts ‘out there’ affect individuals.
  • Theoretical – Good Reliability because it is easy to replicate the exact same conditions.
  • Theoretical – Good Reliability because of the high level of detachment between the researcher and the respondent.
  • Practical – Easy to attract funding because of the prestige of science.
  • Practical – Take place in one setting so researchers can conduct research like any other day-job – no need to chase respondents.
  • Ethical – Most laboratory experiments seek to gain informed consent, often a requirement to get funding.
  • Ethical – Legality – lab experiments rarely ask participants to do anything illegal.
  • Ethical – Findings benefit society – both Milgram and Zimbardo would claim the shocking findings of their research outweigh the harms done to respondents.

Disadvantages of Laboratory Experiments

  • Theoretical – They are reductionist: human behaviour cannot be explained through simple cause and effect relationships (people are not ‘puppets’).
  • Theoretical – Laboratory experiments lack external validity – the artificial environment is so far removed from real-life that the results tell us very little about how respondents would actually act in real life.
  • Theoretical – The Hawthorne Effect may further reduce validity – respondents may act differently just because they know they are part of an experiment.
  • Theoretical – They are small scale and thus unrepresentative.
  • Practical – It is impractical to observe large scale social processes in a laboratory – you cannot get whole towns, let alone countries of people into the small scale setting of a laboratory.
  • Practical – Time – Small samples mean you will need to conduct consecutive experiments on small groups if you want large samples, which will take time
  • Ethical – Deception and lack of informed consent – it is often necessary to deceive subjects as to the true nature of the experiment so that they do not act differently. Links to the Hawthorne Effect.
  • Ethical – Some specific experiments have resulted in harm to respondents – in the Milgram experiment for example.
  • Ethical – Interpretivists may be uncomfortable with the unequal relationships between researcher and respondent – the researcher takes on the role of the expert, who decides what is worth knowing in advance of the experiment.

Advantages of Field Experiments over Laboratory Experiments

  • Theoretical – They generally have better validity than lab experiments because they take place in real life settings
  • Theoretical – Better external validity – because they take place in normally occurring, real-world social settings.
  • Practical – Larger scale settings – you can do field experiments in schools or workplaces, so you can observe large scale social processes, which isn’t possible with laboratory experiments.
  • Practical – a researcher can ‘set up’ a field experiment and let it run for a year, and then come back later.

The relative disadvantages of Field Experiments

  • Theoretical – It is not possible to control variables as closely as with laboratory experiments – because it’s impossible to observe respondents 100% of the time.
  • Theoretical – Reliability is weaker – because it’s more difficult to replicate the exact context of the research again.
  • Theoretical – The Hawthorne Effect (or Experimental Effect) may reduce the validity of results.
  • Practical Problems – access is likely to be more of a problem with lab experiments. Schools and workplaces might be reluctant to allow researchers in.
  • Ethical Problems – As with lab experiments – it is often possible to not inform people that an experiment is taking place in order for them to act naturally, so the issues of deception and lack of informed consent apply here too, as does the issue of harm.

Experiments – Key Terms Summary

Hypothesis – a theory or explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation. A hypothesis will typically take the form of a testable statement about the effect which one or more independent variables will have on the dependent variable.

Dependent Variable – this is the object of the study in the experiment, the variable which will (possibly) be effected by the independent variables.

Independent variables – The variables which are varied in an experiment – the factors which the experimenter changes in order to measure the effect they have on the dependent variable.

Extraneous variables – Variables which are not of interest to the researcher but which may interfere with the results of an experiment

Experimental group – The group under study in the investigation.

Control group – The group which is similar to the study group who are held constant. Following the experiment the experimental group can be compared to the control group to measure the extent of the impact (if any) of the independent variables.

You should also know about natural experiments/ the comparative method –involves comparing two or more societies or groups which are similar in some respects but varied in others, and looking for correlations.  


This post has been written to help students revising for the research methods aspect of their second year A-level exams.

These are the more in-depth posts on experiments

Experiments in sociology – an introduction

Laboratory experiments in sociology

Field experiments in sociology

Milgram’s Obedience Experiment – Strengths and Limitations

Milgram’s obedience experiment is one of the most useful examples to illustrate the strengths and limitations of laboratory experiments in psychology/ sociology, as well as revealing the punishingly depressing findings that people are remarkably passive in the face of authority…

This post outlines details of the original experiment and two recent, televised repeats by the BBC (2008) and for Darren Brown’s ‘The Heist’ (2014).

The Original Obedience Experiment (1963)

Milgram (1963) was interested in researching how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person. Stanley Milgram was interested in how easily ordinary people could be influenced into committing atrocities for example, Germans in WWII.

The video below is quite long, but you can selectively watch it to get an idea of the procedure (which is outlined below)


Volunteers were recruited for a lab experiment investigating “learning” (re: ethics: deception). Participants were 40 males, aged between 20 and 50, whose jobs ranged from unskilled to professional, from the New Haven area. They were paid $4.50 for just turning up.

At the beginning of the experiment they were introduced to another participant, who was actually an associate of the experimenter (Milgram). They drew straws to determine their roles – learner or teacher – although this was fixed and the confederate was always the learner. There was also an “experimenter” dressed in a grey lab coat, played by an actor.

Two rooms in the Yale Interaction Laboratory were used – one for the learner (with an electric chair) and another for the teacher and experimenter with an electric shock generator.

A diagram illustrating the Milgram Experiment

The “learner” was strapped to a chair with electrodes. After he has learned a list of word pairs given him to learn, the “teacher” tests him by naming a word and asking the learner to recall its partner/pair from a list of four possible choices.

The teacher is told to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger – severe shock).

The learner gave mainly wrong answers (on purpose) and for each of these the teacher gave him an electric shock. When the teacher refused to administer a shock the experimenter was to give a series of orders / prods to ensure they continued. There were 4 prods and if one was not obeyed then the experimenter read out the next prod, and so on.

  • Prod 1: please continue.
  • Prod 2: the experiment requires you to continue.
  • Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  • Prod 4: you have no other choice but to continue.
A respondent administering a shock for a wrong answer


65% (two-thirds) of participants (i.e. teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.

Milgram did more than one experiment – he carried out 18 variations of his study. All he did was alter the situation (IV) to see how this affected obedience (DV).


Ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being. Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are brought up.

People tend to obey orders from other people if they recognize their authority as morally right and / or legally based. This response to legitimate authority is learned in a variety of situations, for example in the family, school and workplace.

Despite the many ethical pitfalls of this experiment, some participants still believed the benefits outweighed the costs – below is the view of one participant…“While I was a subject in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority… To permit myself to be drafted with the understanding that I am submitting to authority’s demand to do something very wrong would make me frightened of myself… I am fully prepared to go to jail if I am not granted Conscientious Objector status. Indeed, it is the only course I could take to be faithful to what I believe. My only hope is that members of my board act equally according to their conscience…”

More recent video repeats of the Milgram experiment:

The BBC did a documentary in 2008 in which 12 people were subjected to what seems to be the same experiment, and a similar results found. Vimeo link here.

‘Sorry, that’s the wrong answer, 450 volts’ (giggle)

Darren Brown also did a more recent re-run of the Milgram obedience experiment in order to test people’s responses to authority as part of his 2014 programme ‘The Heist’ – interestingly in this, one participant says they can’t carry on because they’ve heard of the experiment (even though they seem to have started it), while another who hadn’t heard of it comments that they needed more buttons on the shock machine.

Strengths and Limitations of Milgram’s Obedience Experiment

The above experiment illustrates many of the advantages and disadvantages of using laboratory experiments in psychology and sociology.

Some of the obvious advantages include the fact that it’s got excellent reliability, given the similar results gained on the two repeats, and it’s still a useful tool for waking us up to just how quiescent to authority many of us are, challenging theories such as the flight from deference.

It also illustrates many of the limitations of experiments – it is still extremely artificial, not true to real life because authority manifests itself in vastly different ways (as teachers, police and so on, not scientists), and the Hawthorne Effect is very nicely illustrate in the Darren Browne clip above (seriously has not EVERYONE heard of the Milgram experiment by now?!, or is that just my middle class cultural bias?), and then of course, there’s the ethics – Darren Browne actually comments that it took one of the respondents too long to recover from the experiment, so he doesn’t select her for the next stage of ‘The Heist’.

One of the original respondents showing signs of distress


Milgram’s Experiment on Obedience to Authority, which cites Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper and Row. An excellent presentation of Milgram�s work is also found in Brown, R. (1986). Social Forces in Obedience and Rebellion. Social Psychology: The Second Edition. New York: The Free Press.


Laboratory Experiments are one of the main methods taught as part of the Research Methods topic within A-level sociology.

You might also like this more general post on the strengths and limitations of laboratory experiments.

Please click here to return to the main ReviseSociology home page!

Age of Absurdity – Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy

Michael Foley: The Age of Absurdity – Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to Be Happy (2010)

age absurdity foleyMost of what modern society tells you about how to be happy is wrong – at least according to a wealth of psychological and sociological research, most modern philosophers and the the insights of pretty much every religious tradition.

This book slates the messages about how to be happy that we get from the mainstream media – from consumer culture and advertising, and from the self-help industry – there is no simple easy-step guide to happiness, and it certainly can’t be achieved through shopping (at least not meaningful, lasting happiness); instead happiness can only be achieved through introspection and damned hard-work, basically, happiness worth having is a painful process of adjustment.

There’s a lot of sociological themes running through this book, it’s especially relevant to the sociology of emotions (it deals with happiness, but also anxiety and depression), hence why I’m summarising it here.

Part One, which consists of chapter one is just the introduction, which I read but haven’t summarised as everything in it’s covered below!

Part Two – The Sources (of unhappiness) 

Chapter 2 – The Ad and the Id

Executive Summary

The ‘Id’ is the unconscious, untamed aspect of ourselves – the root of our (irrational) wants and desires (opposed in Freudian terms to the more conscious, rational ego) – modern consumer culture stimulates our unconscious desires (for stuff, for sex, for whatever) through advertising and suggests to us that the way to realise happiness is to satisfy these wants, mainly through shopping.

In effect, consumer culture presents to us a norm – let your irrational, unconscious desires lead the way – don’t fight them, give into them, satisfy them through shopping.

However, most religious traditions and the findings of modern neuroscience hold and have found evidence for the validity of the opposite view of unconscious desires – religion tends to see wanting/ desire/ lust as bad, as something to be suppressed or overcome if we are to realise deeper, more meaningful happiness, and neuroscience has demonstrated how we make sub-optimal (bad or wrong) decisions when the unconscious rather than the rational parts of our brain are stimulated.

In short, modern consumer culture tells us that we should give into our desires in order to be happy, yet religious and scientific world-views and evidence tells us that doing so will not make us happy.

Shopping won’t make you happy!

More detailed summary

The ad appeals to the ‘Id’ – it appeals to the unconscious, emotional aspects of ourselves through flattering, impressing and stimulating.

Never have adverts been more numerous, ‘entertaining’ and subtly aggressive; and they now infiltrate more corners of our lifeworlds, they are more personalised, and increasingly demand that we interact with them rather than just passively watch them.

This suits the contemporary id, which is rampant, and in no mood to be tamed. Never have so many wanted so much so badly, and never have these wants been so indulged by the advertising industry. Consumer culture (shopping centres and advertising) give us the impression, in fact, that it would be churlish to not want to buy things, and the Id in general embraces this.

Once upon a time, in fact in most religious traditions and many classic and modern philosophies, the id was despised, was seen as something to be suppressed, tamed or overcome. Buddhism is the most obvious example of this – where unconscious desiring is seen as one of the roots of all human suffering. In Buddhism, self-knowledge is applied to generate a method to ‘consciously overcome’ the wanting id.

In Buddhism, the ‘truth of the self’ is that consciousness has no substance – it is merely flux, so all wanting (when it becomes conscious) is fickle – and part of the Buddhist strategy towards happiness is to realise this through meditation – to watch desires rise and then fade, without acting on them, and in this way desires lessen and the ‘mind’ becomes more at peace (less subject to the whims of desire). (NB this is easier said than done!)

Similar ideas of this ‘two-part’ self – the unconscious, emotional wanting side as ‘bad’ and the rational, reflective conscious side as ‘good’, are found in Western philosophies too,– such as Spinoza, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, but these ideas have not been well-received by a wider audience. Most recently, a similar idea of the self is to be found in Freud’s theory of the self.

Modern Neuro science suggests that the rational brain generally makes wiser decisions than the emotional brain*, as demonstrated by the following experiment:

The neuroscientist Jonathan Cohen put subjects into a scanner and gave them the option of receiving a gift certificate immediately or a certificate for a larger amount in a few weeks time. The prospect of receiving a certificate right away activated the emotional brain, while the prospect of a larger certificate in the future activated the rational brain, the pre-frontal cortex – and the area with the strongest activation decided the choice. Most people opted for the smaller certificate immediately.

Here the chapter ends, somewhat suddenly for my liking, but that’s the way it goes I guess!

*Foley does also point to research showing that the brain isn’t simply divided into the emotional and the rational, the two are interconnected and overlap.

Chapter 3 – The Righteousness of Entitlement and Glamour of Potential

Executive Summary

We live in a culture which suggests to us that the individual is hugely important, and in which we believe that self-fulfilment is not only a basic right, but thoroughly deserved (the righteousness of entitlement) – ‘I believe I have the right to be happy’.

We also believe happiness is easy to achieve – as easy as going on a cruise – realising happiness is not that difficult (the glamour of potential).

However, all of this is an illusion and we need to get over these myths. Here Foley draws on existentialism and suggests that we need to realise the truth of our own individual insignificance, and accept the fact that achieving real happiness is a never ending chore of taking responsibility for our own choices in life, and that there is no guarantee that any of the choices we make will ever lead to true happiness (i.e. we are entitled to nothing).

Having said this we can take some comfort in embracing an absurdist position towards modern life (as do existentialists) – by relishing the fact that living modern life means realising that individual freedom means not happiness but hard-work and uncertainty.

Finally, there is at least some hope of transcendence/ change and great happiness in modern-life, we just need realise as a starting point that these things are not deserved and not easy to achieve, and that I am not that important.

Commentary – My way of looking at this is that modern western culture encourages us to pursue ‘shallow happiness strategies’, while Foley seems to be suggesting that we should pursue what I call ‘deep happiness strategies’ – as I outline in this post – What is Happiness?

More detailed summary

We are all influenced by culture, and over the last couple of centuries the demand for specific rights has degraded into a generalised demand for attention and anger at injustice into a generalised feeling of grievance and resentment, the result is a culture of entitlement, attention-seeking and complaint.

Today we believe that fulfilment is not only a basic right, but thoroughly deserved, and that attaining it requires no more thought, effort or patience that an escalator ride to the next level of the shopping centre.

The following shift in values has occurred – we now prefer:

  • Change over stability
  • Potential over achievement
  • anticipation over appreciation
  • opportunism over loyalty
  • transaction over relationship
  • passivity over engagement
  • eloping over coping
  • entitlement over obligation
  • outwardness over inwardness
  • cheerfulness over concerned

Examples of some of the above lie in the following:

  • Our sense of entitlement is seen in our culture of complaint, and the practice of ‘taking offence’.
  • Shopping has become an end in itself and there is an increasing tendency for shopping pleasure to become detached from the actual goods
  • We are obsessed with travel – which increasingly based on expectation of the promise of the next place.

NB – Foley doesn’t state it explicitly at this point, but he obviously disapproves of the above cultural norms and practices – being constantly on the move and feeling entitled do nothing to foster meaningful happiness. Interestingly, a lot of these themes seem to chime with Zygmunt Bauman’s theory of liquid modernity.

What is to be done about this?

After a quick trip through the Stoics and Christ to demonstrate that we can live in a wealthy world without withdrawing from it, he lands on existentialism as offering us a viable strategy to cope with life in the modern world.

Following Satre, Camus and Kierkegaard Foley now argues that realising and even celebrating the absurdity of modern life is one way we can cope/ thrive in this society.

Two of the absurdities of modern life emphasised by the existentialists =

(1) Just as we realise that we are free, we also come to realise our complete insignificance – applying this to modern times, the absurdity of our culture is that it tells us that we are somebody special and that we deserve recognition (in reality, this simply isn’t the case).

(2) Freedom brings with it the responsibility of unremitting choice, but this does not lead to happiness – choice is unsettling, hard work, and full of uncertainties, but it also brings with it the potential for transcendence. Again applying this to our contemporary culture – the message we get is that we should be happy and that this is easy to achieve, in reality the only way to true happiness is struggle.

So I guess what Foley is saying here is that we should realise the truth of existentialism (not dissimilar to Buddhism) and then adopt all or any of the following attitudes towards this absurdity – enjoy it? Relish it? Play with it? Or (ideally maybe) take part in it and take advantage of the real potential for transcendence?

It strikes me that Charlie Brooker does a very good job of pointing out the absurdities of modern life… especially in this clip!

Chapter 4 – The Old Self and the New Science

‘You can have anything you desire and become anyone you wish to be, and there are no limits to potential, achievement and reward… such are the seductive claims of the frenziedly cheerful self-help industry.

The self-help industry has three basic assumptions:

– Fulfilment is a consequence of worldly success

– There are a number of simple steps for achieving fulfilment

– Anyone who follows such steps will discover vast, untapped potential.

However, the message of serious psychology is the opposite of self-help – fulfilment is not easy, but exhaustingly difficult. Self-help insists on transformation, but psychology shows us how difficult transformation is – the id prevents us from making changes through self-deception, self-righteousness and self-justification.

Foley identifies the following barriers to changing ourselves, these are six reasons why most self-help books won’t work (I’ve put the numbering together myself, I think it adds clarity.)

1. Psychological and sociological research show us we are deluded about our current state of happiness

For example:

– Everyone reports an above average level of happiness, this can’t be possible

– Most people in the west report above average levels of performance at work (this isn’t the case in Asian countries)

– Most us think we are less selfish than we are.

If we don’t have realistic ideas about our starting points, then it is impossible to measure genuine change.

2. It isn’t easy to achieve happiness, it takes sustained effort

Firstly Foley wheels out the old happiness survey research to remind us that happiness levels do not improve with increased income in a country, once average income raises above about $20K/ year.

There is, however, evidence that resisting immediate gratification can bring long term fulfilment as evidenced in Walter Mischel’s 1970 marshmallow experiment:

Mischel sat a succession of four year old children in front of a marshmallow on a plate and explained that he had to leave the room for a moment but that, if the marshmallow was still uneaten when he returned, the reward would be two marshmallows instead of one. Only a third managed to resist the urge to ear it and when Mischel surveyed the children fifteen years later he discovered that those with self control had turned out to be more successful in every way, while the most ‘immediate scoffers’ were more likely to be low achievers and to have drug and alcohol problems.

Next Foley cites some interesting sounding research by Richard Easterlin who surveyed young people about what they thought they needed to leave the ‘good life’ and then surveyed them later in life – the one’s how had realised their aspirations, had just developed new, higher materialistic aspirations. This is the problem of the headonic treadmill – when we get the things/ states/ people we want, we quickly adapt to them and get used to them and the just want more – we up our level of wanting, suggesting that simplistic strategies of acquisition do nothing to improve our actual levels of well-being.

3. We justify our own beliefs to ourself (which tells us it’s OK to carry on just as we are)

-A classic example of this Leon Festinger’s research based on his infiltration of a UFO cult in America – the followers believed that a UFO would save them from a doomed world on 21st December 1954 – but when it failed to turn up, the leader convinced them (and/ or they convinced themselves) that this must be evidence of the truth of their believes – their faith in salvation had in effect saved the doomed world, or at least so they believed.

Foley also cites the examples of violent people in relationships and violent political leaders, who justify their violent atrocities in numerous ways (kind of like Matza’s techniques of neutralisation)/

4. We have a ‘set point’ of happiness, which we revert back to after change occurs

The reality about the future is that it is never as amazing or as bad as we expect it to be – we get used to pretty much any state pretty quickly – we adapt, thus the hopes of self-transformation touted in self-help books are extremely likely to be exaggerated compared to the experience of actually realising the transformation.

5. Our position relative to others effects our happiness (so if everyone’s status changes, so will our level of happiness)

Here Foley cites the classic example of bronze medal winners being happier than silver medal winners because the later compare themselves to fourth place, while the former compare themselves to first place.

Foley also suggests that there is cultural pressure towards being better than the next person – and we live in a society where we invent new ways of being superior – he cites ‘coolness’ as an example – but the numerous forms of cultural capital proudly displayed by the middle classes would be better illustrative to my mind.

6. The asymmetry of emotions

The negative effects of going through a painful process, for example, taking a wage-cut, are greater than the positive effects of going through a pleasurable process, for example getting a pay rise. This suggests that any gains we make are more fragile than we might think – we might get a 10% pay increase this year, but if we then get a 5% pay decrease the year after, we’ll probably feel worse off, even though we’re still better off than our starting point!

As a solution to these 6 delusions Foley suggests CBT, or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – he draws here on Albert Ellis who further developed Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy – which was intended for the multitude suffering from unrealistic expectations – Ellis’ unholy trinity was the three crippling musts – ‘I must succeed’; ‘everyone must treat me well; ‘the world must be easy’ (he called the three together musterbation’ – related to the three curses of perfectionism, neediness and stupidity. Foley now suggests that we should have balloons floating above cities saying such things as ‘ failure is more common than success’; ‘many will dislike you, no matter what you do’; and ‘the world will not oblige’.

He finishes the chapter by pointing out that a few quick sessions of CBT may help change a few thought patterns, but probably won’t help us overcome the delusions of modern life – The Buddha for example realised that realising genuine happiness would necessarily involve a very long and painful process of introspection.

Chapter 5 – The Quest and the Grail

There are many meta narratives still competing for our attention in the ‘life-explanation and strategy market’ – from religion to politics to evolutionary psychology. There is a temptation to surrender to one belief system, there is evidence after all that believers are happier, but many of these BIG solutions involve too much commitment for most people, and many of the big thinkers who developed strategies for self-transcendence didn’t actually lead regular lives in ordinary society.

So we are left with a situation in which we are forced to pick and mix a strategy of ‘how to live’ from many different systems of thought, and the big question is what do we choose and how?

The American pyschologists Peterson and Seligman observed many cultures and tried to extract the universals for how to live well. They found that the following six elements kept turning up:

– Humaneness



– Justice

– Courage


While acknowledging that finding that ‘transcendence’ was surprising, Foley actually dismisses the above research as not really finding anything that interesting, and being too platitudinous.

He suggests that we should instead see what the great thinkers say about how we should seek to live well – and here the problem is that what they say is in contradistinction to what modern society suggests the good life should be about.

Many of the great thinkers (religious and philosophical mentioned earlier) emphasise the importance of (a) an awareness of our own mortality and thus relative insignificance and (b) the importance of striving and struggling to achieve transformation via detachment, struggle self-knowledge.

He also points out that most of these thinkers did it for themselves, none of them passively accepted the existing order of things, and none of them wanted an easy life.

Next Section – The Strategies (by which we’ve been duped into thinking that being happy is easy)

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