Brainmatters | A great 2017


Looking back at 2016, it was hardly a great year. David Bowie: dead. And Prince. And Leonard Cohen. Muhammed Ali, Alan Rickman, Johan Cruijff, and Peter van Straaten. The British who no longer wanted to be part of 'our' Europe. Not to mention the election of a narcissistic horror clown to the White House. Enough reason for the Executive Board to add another bottle of liquor to our Christmas hamper - for which, thank you - but the comfort of that 12 percent evaporates as easily as the alcohol itself.

Time for therapy. Does psychology have any solace to offer at the end of this miserable year? Yes, it does.

Behavioral therapy can help us by means of 'systematic desensitization'. This involves incremental exposure to  whatever it is we fear, while we use relaxation exercises to make our fear manageable. For example, we can start with the idea of Trump being president, then progress to a photograph of Trump with one hand on the Bible, then imagine a moving image of Trump, a moving image of Trump with sound (a difficult step, I know), and then Trump's actual inauguration as President on January 20. Be sure to keep on breathing calmly!

Rational-emotive therapy focuses on getting things into perspective: it is not the problems themselves that make our lives unpleasant,  but the way in which we look at them. In the words of John F. Kennedy, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” An attitude of fear and catastrophe are best tackled with rationality and reframing. We would do better to realize that, really, our lives aren't at all bad, that life will carry on largely as usual, and (contrast effect!) that the year 1916 wasn't exactly a laugh a minute either.

The positive psychologist (oh yes, there is such a thing as ‘positive psychology’) takes a very different approach. No paralyzing fear or learned helplessness, but positive actions. Thanks to psychological research we know that it is indeed more blessed to give than to receive, that voluntary work makes us happier and healthier, and that investing in friendship and other intimate social relationships is the bedrock of our feeling of happiness. Now, that certainly has a Christmassy ring to it, doesn't it?

And for those who can't get used to it, who fail to feel that it isn't so bad after all, and who are not enthused by voluntary work, there is always John Oliver, the most eloquent comedian in our lefty intellectual bubble. At this point, I would like to warmly recommend his YouTube video, 'Fuck You 2016!' It triggers - entirely in the style of Freudian psychoanalysis - an extremely satisfying catharsis. It is best played on 31 December, as the clock strikes midnight, accompanied by a large glass of Executive Board bubbles, a couple of good friends, and some great plans for 2017.

Wijnand IJsselsteijn | professor of Cognition and Affect in Human-Technology Interaction

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