Having a sense of Meaning in life is Good for you — So how do you get one?

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There’s a high degree of overlap between experiencing happiness and meaning.
Shutterstock/KieferPix


Lisa A Williams, UNSW

The pursuit of happiness and health is a popular endeavour, as the preponderance of self-help books would attest.

Yet it is also fraught. Despite ample advice from experts, individuals regularly engage in activities that may only have short-term benefit for well-being, or even backfire.

The search for the heart of well-being – that is, a nucleus from which other aspects of well-being and health might flow – has been the focus of decades of research. New findings recently reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences point towards an answer commonly overlooked: meaning in life.

Meaning in life: part of the well-being puzzle?

University College London’s psychology professor Andrew Steptoe and senior research associate Daisy Fancourt analysed a sample of 7,304 UK residents aged 50+ drawn from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing.

Survey respondents answered a range of questions assessing social, economic, health, and physical activity characteristics, including:

…to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?

Follow-up surveys two and four years later assessed those same characteristics again.

One key question addressed in this research is: what advantage might having a strong sense of meaning in life afford a few years down the road?

The data revealed that individuals reporting a higher meaning in life had:

  • lower risk of divorce
  • lower risk of living alone
  • increased connections with friends and engagement in social and cultural activities
  • lower incidence of new chronic disease and onset of depression
  • lower obesity and increased physical activity
  • increased adoption of positive health behaviours (exercising, eating fruit and veg).

On the whole, individuals with a higher sense of meaning in life a few years earlier were later living lives characterised by health and well-being.

You might wonder if these findings are attributable to other factors, or to factors already in play by the time participants joined the study. The authors undertook stringent analyses to account for this, which revealed largely similar patterns of findings.

The findings join a body of prior research documenting longitudinal relationships between meaning in life and social functioning, net wealth and reduced mortality, especially among older adults.

What is meaning in life?

The historical arc of consideration of the meaning in life (not to be confused with the meaning of life) starts as far back as Ancient Greece. It tracks through the popular works of people such as Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl, and continues today in the field of psychology.

One definition, offered by well-being researcher Laura King and colleagues, says

…lives may be experienced as meaningful when they are felt to have a significance beyond the trivial or momentary, to have purpose, or to have a coherence that transcends chaos.

This definition is useful because it highlights three central components of meaning:

  1. purpose: having goals and direction in life
  2. significance: the degree to which a person believes his or her life has value, worth, and importance
  3. coherence: the sense that one’s life is characterised by predictability and routine.
Michael Steger’s TEDx talk What Makes Life Meaningful.


Curious about your own sense of meaning in life? You can take an interactive version of the Meaning in Life Questionnaire, developed by Steger and colleagues, yourself here.

This measure captures not just the presence of meaning in life (whether a person feels that their life has purpose, significance, and coherence), but also the desire to search for meaning in life.

Routes for cultivating meaning in life

Given the documented benefits, you may wonder: how might one go about cultivating a sense of meaning in life?

We know a few things about participants in Steptoe and Fancourt’s study who reported relatively higher meaning in life during the first survey. For instance, they contacted their friends frequently, belonged to social groups, engaged in volunteering, and maintained a suite of healthy habits relating to sleep, diet and exercise.

Backing up the idea that seeking out these qualities might be a good place to start in the quest for meaning, several studies have causally linked these indicators to meaning in life.

For instance, spending money on others and volunteering, eating fruit and vegetables, and being in a well-connected social network have all been prospectively linked to acquiring a sense of meaning in life.

For a temporary boost, some activities have documented benefits for meaning in the short term: envisioning a happier future, writing a note of gratitude to another person, engaging in nostalgic reverie, and bringing to mind one’s close relationships.

Happiness and meaning: is it one or the other?

There’s a high degree of overlap between experiencing happiness and meaning – most people who report one also report the other. Days when people report feeling happy are often also days that people report meaning.

Yet there’s a tricky relationship between the two. Moment-to-moment, happiness and meaning are often decoupled.

Research by social psychologist Roy Baumeister and colleagues suggests that satisfying basic needs promotes happiness, but not meaning. In contrast, linking a sense of self across one’s past, present, and future promotes meaning, but not happiness.

Connecting socially with others is important for both happiness and meaning, but doing so in a way that promotes meaning (such as via parenting) can happen at the cost of personal happiness, at least temporarily.

Given the now-documented long-term social, mental, and physical benefits of having a sense of meaning in life, the recommendation here is clear. Rather than pursuing happiness as an end-state, ensuring one’s activities provide a sense of meaning might be a better route to living well and flourishing throughout life.The Conversation

Lisa A Williams, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Tools for Thinking: Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Freedom

isaiah-berlin

Maria Kasmirli | Aeon Ideas

‘Freedom’ is a powerful word. We all respond positively to it, and under its banner revolutions have been started, wars have been fought, and political campaigns are continually being waged. But what exactly do we mean by ‘freedom’? The fact that politicians of all parties claim to believe in freedom suggests that people don’t always have the same thing in mind when they talk about it. Might there be different kinds of freedom and, if so, could the different kinds conflict with each other? Could the promotion of one kind of freedom limit another kind? Could people even be coerced in the name of freedom?

The 20th-century political philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-97) thought that the answer to both these questions was ‘Yes’, and in his essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (1958) he distinguished two kinds of freedom (or liberty; Berlin used the words interchangeably), which he called negative freedom and positive freedom.

Negative freedom is freedom from interference. You are negatively free to the extent that other people do not restrict what you can do. If other people prevent you from doing something, either directly by what they do, or indirectly by supporting social and economic arrangements that disadvantage you, then to that extent they restrict your negative freedom. Berlin stresses that it is only restrictions imposed by other people that count as limitations of one’s freedom. Restrictions due to natural causes do not count. The fact that I cannot levitate is a physical limitation but not a limitation of my freedom.

Virtually everyone agrees that we must accept some restrictions on our negative freedom if we are to avoid chaos. All states require their citizens to follow laws and regulations designed to help them live together and make society function smoothly. We accept these restrictions on our freedom as a trade-off for other benefits, such as peace, security and prosperity. At the same time, most of us would insist that there are some areas of life that should not be regulated, and where individuals should have considerable, if not complete, freedom. A major debate in political philosophy concerns the boundaries of this area of personal negative freedom. For example, should the state place restrictions on what we may say or read, or on what sexual activities we may engage in?

Whereas negative freedom is freedom from control by others, positive freedom is freedom to control oneself. To be positively free is to be one’s own master, acting rationally and choosing responsibly in line with one’s interests. This might seem to be simply the counterpart of negative freedom; I control myself to the extent that no one else controls me. However, a gap can open between positive and negative freedom, since a person might be lacking in self-control even when he is not restrained by others. Think, for example, of a drug addict who cannot kick the habit that is killing him. He is not positively free (that is, acting rationally in his own best interests) even though his negative freedom is not being limited (no one is forcing him to take the drug).

In such cases, Berlin notes, it is natural to talk of something like two selves: a lower self, which is irrational and impulsive, and a higher self, which is rational and far-sighted. And the suggestion is that a person is positively free only if his higher self is dominant. If this is right, then we might be able to make a person more free by coercing him. If we prevent the addict from taking the drug, we might help his higher self to gain control. By limiting his negative freedom, we would increase his positive freedom. It is easy to see how this view could be abused to justify interventions that are misguided or malign.

Berlin argued that the gap between positive and negative freedom, and the risk of abuse, increases further if we identify the higher, or ‘real’, self, with a social group (‘a tribe, a race, a church, a state’). For we might then conclude that individuals are free only when the group suppresses individual desires (which stem from lower, nonsocial selves) and imposes its will upon them. What particularly worried Berlin about this move was that it justifies the coercion of individuals, not merely as a means of securing social benefits, such as security and cooperation, but as a way of freeing the individuals themselves. The coercion is not seen as coercion at all, but as liberation, and protests against it can be dismissed as expressions of the lower self, like the addict’s craving for his fix. Berlin called this a ‘monstrous impersonation’, which allows those in power ‘to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture them in the name, and on behalf, of their “real” selves’. (The reader might be reminded of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which shows how a Stalinist political party imposes its conception of truth on an individual, ‘freeing’ him to love the Party leader.)

Berlin was thinking of how ideas of freedom had been abused by the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, and he was right to highlight the dangers of this kind of thinking. But it does not follow that it is always wrong to promote positive freedom. (Berlin does not claim that it is, and he notes that the notion of negative freedom can be abused in a similar way.) Some people might need help to understand their best interests and achieve their full potential, and we could believe that the state has a responsibility to help them do so. Indeed, this is the main rationale for compulsory education. We require children to attend school (severely limiting their negative freedom) because we believe it is in their own best interests. To leave children free to do whatever they like would, arguably, amount to neglect or abuse. In the case of adults, too, it is arguable that the state has a responsibility to help its citizens live rich and fulfilling lives, through cultural, educational and health programmes. (The need for such help might be especially pressing in freemarket societies, where advertisers continually tempt us to indulge our ‘lower’ appetites.) It might be, too, that some people find meaning and purpose through identification with a wider social or political movement, such as feminism, and that in helping them to do so we are helping to liberate them.

Of course, this raises many further questions. Does our current education system really work in children’s best interests, or does it just mould them into a form that is socially and economically useful? Who decides what counts as a rich and fulfilling life? What means can the state legitimately use to help people live well? Is coercion ever acceptable? These are questions about what kind of society we want to live in, and they have no easy answers. But in giving us the distinction between negative and positive freedom, Berlin has given us a powerful tool for thinking about them.Aeon counter – do not remove

Maria Kasmirli

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Does Microdosing Improve your Mood and Performance? Here’s what the Research Says

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Microdosers take such small quantities of psychedelic substances that there are no noticeable effects.
By AppleZoomZoom

Vince Polito, Macquarie University

Microdosing means regularly taking very small doses of psychedelic substances such as LSD or psilocybin (magic mushrooms) over a period of weeks or months. The practice has made countless headlines over the past couple of years, with claims it can improve health, strengthen relationships, and increase productivity.

These claims are surprising because microdosers take doses so small there are no noticeable effects. These can be just 1/20th of a typical recreational dose, often every three or four days. With such small amounts, microdosers go about their daily business, including going to work, without experiencing any typical drug effects.

Previous research suggests microdosing may lead to better mood and energy levels, improved creativity, increased wisdom, and changes to how we perceive time.


Read more:
LSD ‘microdosing’ is trending in Silicon Valley – but can it actually make you more creative?


But these previous studies have mainly involved asking people to complete ratings or behavioural tasks as one-off measures.

Our study, published today in PLOS One, tracked the experience of 98 users over a longer period – six weeks – to systematically measure any psychological changes.

Overall, the participants reported both positive and negative effects from microdosing, including improved attention and mental health; but also more neuroticism.

What we did

As you would expect, there are many legal and bureaucratic barriers to psychedelic research. It wasn’t possible for us to run a study where we actually provided participants with psychedelic substances. Instead, we tried to come up with the most rigorous design possible in the current restrictive legal climate.

Our solution was to recruit people who were already experimenting with microdosing and to track their experiences carefully over time, using well validated and reliable psychometric measures.

Microdosers go about their lives without any typical drug effects.
Parker Byrd

Each day we asked participants to complete some brief ratings, telling us whether they had microdosed that day and describing their overall experience. This let us track the immediate effects of microdosing.

At the beginning and end of the study participants completed a detailed battery of psychological measures. This let us track the longer-term effects of microdosing.

In a separate sample, we explored the beliefs and expectations of people who are interested in microdosing. This let us track whether any changes in our main sample were aligned with what people generally predict will happen when microdosing.

What we found

There are five key findings from our study.

1. A general positive boost on microdosing days, but limited residual effects of each dose.

Many online accounts of microdosing suggest people microdose every three or four days. The thinking is that each microdose supposedly has a residual effect that lasts for a few days.

The daily ratings from participants in our study do not support this idea. Participants reported an immediate boost in all measures (connectedness, contemplation, creativity, focus, happiness, productiveness and wellness) on dosing days. But this was mostly not maintained on the following days.

However, there was some indication of a slight rebound in feelings of focus and productivity two days after dosing.

Microdosers experienced increased focus.
Rawpixel

2. Some indications of improvements in mental health

We also looked at cumulative effects of longer term microdosing. We found that after six weeks, participants reported lower levels of depression and stress.

We recruited people who were not experiencing any kind of mental illness for the study, so levels of depression and stress were relatively low to begin with. Nevertheless, ratings on these measures did drop.

This is an intriguing finding but it’s not clear from this result whether microdosing would have any effect on more significant levels of mood disturbance.

3. Shifts in attention

The microdosers in our study reported reduced mind wandering, meaning they were less likely to be distracted by unwanted thoughts.

They also reported an increase in absorption, meaning they were more likely to experience intense focused attention on imaginative experiences. Absorption has been linked to strong engagement with art and nature.

4. Increases in neuroticism and some challenging experiences

Not everyone had a good time microdosing. Some participants reported unpleasant and difficult experiences. In some cases, participants tried microdosing just once or twice, then didn’t want to continue.

Overall, participants reported a small increase in neuroticism after six weeks of microdosing, indicating an increase in the frequency of unpleasant emotions.

5. Changes do not entirely match people’s expectations

People have strong expectations about the effects of microdosing. But when we looked at the specific variables participants most expected would change, these didn’t match up with the changes actually reported by our microdosers.

Two of the biggest changes microdosers expected were increases in creativity and life satisfaction, but we found no evidence of shifts in these areas. This suggests the changes we found were not simply due to people’s expectations.

What does it all mean?

This complex set of findings is not what’s typically reported in media stories and online discussions of microdosing. There are promising indications of possible benefits of microdosing here, but also indications of some potential negative impacts, which should be taken seriously.


Read more:
Opening up the future of psychedelic science


It’s important to remember this was an observational study that relied heavily on the accuracy and honesty of participants in their reports. As such, these results need to be treated cautiously.

It’s early days for microdosing research and this work shows that we need to look more carefully at the effects of low dose psychedelics on mental health, attention, and neuroticism.The Conversation

Vince Polito, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Cognitive Science, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How Seeing Snakes in the Grass Helped Primates to Evolve

snake

Phrynonax poecilonotus, Wikipedia


Lynne A Isbell | Aeon Ideas

Evolution has favoured the modification and expansion of primate vision. Compared with other mammals, primates have, for example, greater depth perception from having forward-facing eyes with extensively overlapping visual fields, sharper visual acuity, more areas in the brain that are involved with vision, and, in some primates, trichromatic colour vision, which enables them to distinguish red from green hues. In fact, what separates primates from other mammals most is their much greater reliance on vision as the main sensory interface with the environment.

Vision is a window onto the world, its qualities determined by natural selection and the constraints of both animals’ bodies and the environments in which they live. Despite their long, shared evolutionary history, mammals don’t all see the world in the same way because they inhabit a variety of niches with different selective pressures. What were those selective pressures for primates, our lineage, that led to their having visual systems more expansive and more complex than those of other mammals?

In 2006, I published a new idea that could answer that question and more: the ‘snake detection theory’. I hypothesised that when large-gaped constricting snakes appeared about 100 million years ago and began eating mammals, their predatory behaviour favoured the evolution of changes in the vision of one kind of prey, the lineage that was to become primates. In other words, the ability to see immobile predatory snakes before getting too close became a highly beneficial trait for them to have and pass on to their descendants. Then, about 60 million years ago, venomous snakes appeared in Africa or Asia, adding more pressure on primates to detect and avoid them. This has also had repercussions on their visual systems.

There is a consistency between the degree of complexity in primate visual systems and the length of evolutionary time that primates have spent with venomous snakes. At one extreme, the lineage that comprises Old World monkeys, apes and humans has the best vision of all primates, including excellent visual acuity and fully trichromatic colour vision. Having evolved roughly at the same time and in the same place as venomous snakes, these primates have had continuous coexistence with them. They are also uniformly wary of snakes.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Malagasy primates have the simplest visual systems. Among other things, they have low visual acuity because the fovea, a depression in the retina that is responsible for our visual acuity wherever we focus our eyes, is poorly developed (when it’s present at all). Although Madagascar has constricting snakes, it has no venomous snakes, so primates on that island never had to face that particular selective pressure. Behavioural evidence also reveals that they don’t all react fearfully toward snakes. Some can even walk on snakes or snake models, treating them as if they’re just another branch.

The visual systems of New World monkeys are in the middle. They have better visual acuity than Malagasy primates but more variability in their visual systems than Old World monkeys. For example, New World howler monkeys are all trichromatic, but in other New World primate species, only some individuals are able to distinguish red from green hues. New World primates were originally part of the anthropoid primate lineage in Africa that also includes Old World monkeys and apes, and so had to deal with venomous snakes for about 20-25 million years, but then, some 36 million years ago, they left Africa and arrived in South America where venomous snakes were not present until roughly 15 million years later. By then, New World monkeys had begun to diversify into different genera, and so each genus evolved separate solutions to the renewed problem caused by the arrival again of venomous snakes. As far as I know, no other explanation for the variation in their visual systems exists.

Since I proposed the snake detection theory, several studies have shown that nonhuman and human primates, including young children and snake-naive infants, have a visual bias toward snakes compared with other animate objects, such as lizards, spiders, worms, birds and flowers. Psychologists have discovered that we pick out images of snakes faster or more accurately than other objects, especially under cluttered or obscuring conditions that resemble the sorts of environments in which snakes are typically found. Snakes also distract us from finding other objects as quickly. Our ability to detect snakes faster is also more pronounced when we have less time to detect them and when they are in our periphery. Moreover, our ‘primary visual area’ in the back of the brain shows stronger electrophysiological responses to images of snakes than of lizards 150-300 milliseconds after people see the images, providing a measurable physical correlate of our greater visual bias toward them.

Since vision is mostly in the brain, we need to turn to neuroscience to understand the mechanisms for our visual bias toward snakes. All vertebrates have a visual system that allows them to distinguish potential predators from potential prey. This is a nonconscious visual system that involves only subcortical structures, including those that in mammals are called the superior colliculus and the pulvinar, and it allows for very fast visual detection and response. When an animal sees a predator, this nonconscious visual system also taps directly into motor responses such as freezing and darting.

As vertebrates, mammals have this nonconscious visual system, but they have also incorporated vision into the neocortex. No other animals have a neocortex. This somewhat slower, conscious visual system allows mammals to become cognizant of objects for what they really are. The first neocortical stop is the primary visual area, which is particularly sensitive to edges and lines of different orientations.

In a breakthrough study, a team of neuroscientists probed the responses of individual neurons in the pulvinar of Japanese macaques as they were shown images of snakes, faces of monkeys, hands of monkeys, and simple geometric shapes. Sure enough, many pulvinar neurons responded more strongly and more quickly to snakes than to the other images. The snake-sensitive neurons were found in a subsection of the pulvinar that is connected to a part of the superior colliculus involved in defensive motor behaviour such as freezing and darting, and to the amygdala, a subcortical structure involved in mediating fear responses. Among all mammals, the lineage with the greatest evolutionary exposure to venomous snakes, the anthropoid monkeys, apes and humans, also have the largest pulvinar. This makes perfect sense in the context of the snake detection theory.

What is it about snakes that makes them so attention-grabbing to us? Naturally, we use all the cues available (such as body shape and leglessness) but it’s their scales that should be the most reliable, because a little patch of snake might be all we have to go on. Indeed, wild vervet monkeys in Africa, for instance, are able with their superb visual acuity to detect just an inch of snake skin within a minute of coming near it. In people, electrophysiological responses in the primary visual area reveal greater early visual attention to snake scales compared with lizard skins and bird feathers. Again, the primary visual area is highly sensitive to edges and lines of different orientations, and snake skins with their spades offer these visual cues in spades.

The snake detection theory takes our seemingly contradictory attitudes about snakes and makes sense of them as a cohesive whole. Our long evolutionary exposure to snakes explains why ophiophobia is humanity’s most-reported phobia but also why our attraction and attention to snakes is so strong that we have even included them prominently in our religions and folklore. Most importantly, by recognising that our vision and our behaviour have been shaped by millions of years of interactions with another type of animal, we admit our close relationship with nature. We have not been above or outside nature as we might like to think, but have always been fully a part of it.Aeon counter – do not remove


Lynne A Isbell is professor of anthropology at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of The Fruit, the Tree, and the Serpent: Why We See So Well (2009). She is interested in primate behaviour and ecology.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Visit the original article here.

My Heroine


Silverstein – My Heroine

The drugs begin to peak,
A smile of joy arrives in me.

But sedation changes to panic and nausea,
And breaths start to shorten,
And heartbeats feel softer.

You won’t try to save me!
You just want to break me!
You’re leaving this way!

You taunt my heart, a sense I never knew I had,
I can’t forget,
The times that I was lost and depressed from the awful truth,
How do you do it?
You’re my heroin!

You won’t leave me alone!
Tears of my heart turn to stone!
You’re leaving this way!

You taunt my heart, a sense I never knew I had,
I can’t forget,
The times I was lost and depressed from the awful truth,
How do you do it?
You’re my heroin!

I bet you laugh, at the thought of me thinking for myself,
I bet you believe, that I’m better off with you than someone else.

Your face arrives again, all hope I had becomes so real,
But under your covers more torture than pleasure,
And just past your lips there’s more anger than laughter,
Not now or forever will I ever change you,
I know that to go on, I’ll break you my habit!

You taunt my heart, a sense I never knew I had,
I can’t forget,
The times when I was lost and depressed from the awful truth,
How do you do it?
You’re my heroin!

I will save myself!


Songwriters: Shane Told
My Heroine lyrics © Another Victory Publishing

Native Tongue


Switchfoot – Native Tongue

Sing to me, baby, in your native tongue,
Sing the words of the wise and the young,
Show me the place where your words come from,
Love is the language, love is your native tongue.

Feel your heartbeat bang the drum,
Open up your eyes and fill your lungs,
The same word from where the stars are flung,
Love is the language, love is your native tongue.

My heart is a beating drum,
My head in oblivion,
My soul, such a long way from,
My lips, my lungs, my native tongue.

My friend, where did we go wrong?
My Lord, we forgot our sound,
My soul, such a long way from,
My lips, my lungs, my native tongue.

Sing it to me, whisper into my ear,
Accuser’s voices start to disappear,
In the wind, in the tongues of the flame,
In my soul, in my one true name, oh.

Back before we learned the words to start a fight,
Back before they told us that the haters were right,
He spoke the truth, “let there be” and there was,
Love is the language, love is your native tongue.

My heart is a beating drum,
My head in oblivion,
My soul, such a long way from,
My lips, my lungs, my native tongue.

My friend, where did we go wrong?
My Lord, we forgot our sound,
My soul, such a long way from,
My lips, my lungs, my native tongue.

So sing it loud, get loud, get,
Louder than the voices in the crowd, yeah,
Even when they tried to drown you out, eh,
Your lips, your lungs, your native tongue.

So sing it out, get loud, get,
Louder than the darkness and the doubts, eh,
Louder than the curses and the shouts, yeah,
Your lips, your lungs, your native tongue.

My heart is a beating drum,
My head in oblivion,
My soul, such a long way from,
My lips, my lungs, my native tongue.

My friend, where did we go wrong?
My Lord, we forgot our sound,
My soul, such a long way from,
My lips, my lungs, my native tongue.

I want the world to sing in her native tongue,
To sing it like when we were young,
Back before the pendulum had swung to the shadows.

I want the world to sing in her native tongue,
Maybe we could learn to sing along,
To find a way to use our lungs for love and not the shadows.

I want the world to sing in her native tongue,
To sing it like when we were young,
Back before the pendulum had swung to the shadows.

I want the world to sing in her native tongue,
Maybe we could learn to sing along,
To find a way to use our lungs for love and not the shadows.


NATIVE TONGUE lyrics © Downtown Music Publishing

Don’t let the rise of Europe steal World History

harvard-classics


The first 10 volumes of The Harvard Classics, Wikipedia


Peter Frankopan | Aeon Ideas

The centre of a map tells you much, as does the choice where to begin a story, or a history. Arab geographers used to place the Caspian Sea at the centre of world maps. On a medieval Turkish map, one that transfixed me long ago, we find the city of Balasaghun at the heart of the world. How to teach world history today is a question that is going to grow only more and more important.

Last summer in the United States, a debate flared when the influential testing agency Advanced Placement (AP) announced a change to its attendant courses, a change in which ‘world history’ would begin in 1450. In practice, beginning world history in 1450 becomes a story about how Europeans came to dominate not one but all the continents, and excludes the origins of alphabets, agriculture, cities and civilisation. Before the 1400s, it was others who did the empire-building, drove sciences, medicine and philosophy, and sought to capitalise on and extend the trading networks that facilitated the flow and exchange of goods, ideas, faiths and people.

Under pressure, the AP College Board retreated. ‘We’ve received thoughtful, principled feedback from AP teachers, students and college faculty,’ said a statement. As a result, the start date for the course has been nudged back 250 years to 1200. Consequently, said the board, ‘teachers and students can begin the course with a study of the civilisations in Africa, the Americas and Asia that are foundational to the modern era’.

Where that leaves Plato and Aristotle, or ancient Greece and Rome, is unclear – but presumably none are ‘foundational to the modern era’. That in itself is strange given that so many of the most famous buildings of Washington, DC (for example) are designed in classical style to deliberately evoke the world of 2,000 years ago; or that Mark Zuckerberg, a posterboy for new technologies and the 21st century, admits to the Emperor Augustus as his role model.

Gone too is China of the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) and the networks that linked the Pacific with the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean 2,000 years ago, and that allow us to understand that Asia, Africa and Europe were connected many centuries prior in a world that was effectively ‘globalised’. No space for the Maya civilisation and culture in Central America or for the kingdom of Igodomigodo in West Africa, whose economic, cultural, military and political achievements have been discarded as irrelevant to the ‘modern era’. Who cares about the Indian emperor Ashoka, or the Chola dynasty of Southern India that spread eastwards into South East Asia in the 10th and 11th centuries? The connections between Scandinavia and Central Asia that helped to bring all of northern Europe out of what used to be called ‘the Dark Ages’ don’t get a look-in either. And too bad for climate change and the ways in which looking at the changes in global temperatures 1,500 years ago led to the collapse of cities, the dispersal of populations and the spread of pandemics.

History is at its most exciting and stimulating for students and teachers alike when there is scope to look at connectivity, to identify and work through deep rhythms and trends, and to explore the past by challenging assumptions that the story of the world can be charted through a linear progression – as the AP College Board seems to think with its statement linking 1200 with the ‘modern era’.

If you really want to see how foolish this view is – and how unfortunate it is to narrow down the scope of the World History course, then take a look at the front pages in just about any country in the world today. In China, news is dominated by the Belt and Road Initiative, the Chinese-led plan to regalvanise the ancient networks of the past into the modern-day Silk Roads: there are many and sharply divergent views about the aims, motivations and likely outcomes of the Belt and Road Initiative. This is far and away the single most important geopolitical development in the modern world today. Understanding why Beijing is trying to return to the glory years of the Silk Roads (which date back 2,000 years) would seem to be both interesting, and important – and largely to be bypassed by the new World History scope.

We can look to the other end of Asia, to Istanbul where, every year, hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets in Turkey to commemorate the Battle of Manzikert – which was fought in 1071. It might be useful to know why. Assessing the relationship between Russia and Ukraine might also be of some value in a period when the former has annexed part of the territory of the latter. A major spat broke out last summer between the two countries over whether Anne of Kiev was Russian or Ukrainian. She died in 1075.

It does not take an expert to see the resonance of the 7th century across the Middle East – where fundamentalists attempted to build an ‘Islamic State’ based on their model of the early Muslim world, destroying not only lives and the region in the process, but deliberately destroying history itself in places such as Palmyra. It does, though, take an expert to work out why they are trying to turn back the clock 1,400 years and what their utopian world looks like. It matters because there are plenty of others who want to do the same thing: Imran Khan, the new Prime Minister of Pakistan, for example, has said that he wants to turn his country, with its population of almost 200 million people, into ‘an ideal welfare state’ on the model that Muhammad set in Medina in the 620s and 630s – a model that set up one of the world’s ‘greatest civilisations’.

Students taking world history courses that begin in 1200 will not learn about any of these topics, even though their peers in colleges and schools around the world will. Education should expand horizons and open minds. What a shame that, in this case, they are being narrowed and shuttered. And what a shame too that this is happening at a time of such profound global change – when understanding the depth of our interconnected world is more important than ever. That, for me anyway, is the most valuable conclusion that is ‘foundational to the modern era’.Aeon counter – do not remove

Peter Frankopan

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Meant to Live


Switchfoot – Meant to Live

Fumbling his confidence,
And wondering why the world has passed him by.
Hoping that he’s bent for more than arguments,
And failed attempts to fly, fly.

We were meant to live for so much more,
Have we lost ourselves?
Somewhere we live inside.
Somewhere we live inside.
We were meant to live for so much more,
Have we lost ourselves?
Somewhere we live inside.

Dreaming about Providence,
And whether mice or men have second tries.
Maybe we’ve been livin’ with our eyes half open,
Maybe we’re bent and broken, broken.

We were meant to live for so much more,
Have we lost ourselves?
Somewhere we live inside.
Somewhere we live inside.
We were meant to live for so much more,
Have we lost ourselves?
Somewhere we live inside.

We want more than this world’s got to offer,
We want more than this world’s got to offer,
We want more than the wars of our fathers,
And everything inside screams for second life.

We were meant to live for so much more,
Have we lost ourselves?
We were meant to live for so much more,
Have we lost ourselves?
We were meant to live for so much more,
Have we lost ourselves?
We were meant to live.
We were meant to live.


Songwriters: Jonathan Foreman / Tim Foreman
Meant to Live lyrics © Capitol Christian Music Group