Principal’s Assembly 13 Nov 2018

In my absence, Vice Principal and Head of Psychology, Gemma Carver, took this week’s assembly, continuing our theme of kindness.

In two million years, the human brain has nearly tripled in mass, going from half a kg in our ancestors to the almost 1.5kg whopper that everybody here has between their ears. But what is it about a big brain that made nature so eager for every one of us to have one?

Well, it turns out that when brains triple in size, they don't just get three times bigger, they also gain new structures. One of the main reasons that our brain became so big is because it gained a new part, called the "frontal lobe." Particularly, a part called the "pre-frontal cortex." What does a pre-frontal cortex do for you that should justify the entire architectural overhaul of the human skull in such a short period of evolutionary time?

Well, it turns out the pre-frontal cortex does lots of things, but one of the most important things it does is provide an experience simulator. Pilots practise in flight simulators so that they don't make real mistakes in planes. Therefore, human beings have this marvelous adaptation that they can actually have experiences in their heads before they try them out in real life. This is a trick that none of our ancestors could do, and that no other animal can do quite like we can. It's a marvelous adaptation, up there with opposable thumbs, standing upright and language as one of the things that got our species out of the trees and into Trinity spending money on designer gear and tech devices.

I can guarantee that all of you regularly use this simulator. For example, Ben and Jerry's doesn't have liver-and-onion flavour ice cream, and this is not because they whipped up a batch, tried it and went, "Yuck." It's because, without leaving your seat, you can simulate that flavor and say "yuck" before you make it.

So, let's see how your experience simulators are working by running a quick diagnostic before I proceed with the rest of assembly. Here's two different futures that I invite you to contemplate. You can try to simulate them and decide which one you think you might prefer. One of them is winning the lottery. The next jackpot is estimated at 1.8 million according to the National Lottery website when I checked this morning. And the other is losing the use of your legs.

Just give it a moment of thought. You probably don't feel like you need a moment of thought …

Interestingly, there is data on these two groups of people, data on how happy they are. The data however, is not what you may expect. Because the fact is that a year after losing the use of their legs, and a year after winning the lotto, lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their lives.

Don't feel too bad about getting that wrong though, because everybody fails at these questions all  of the time. Research that economists and psychologists around the world have conducted, reveals something really quite startling to us, something we call the "impact bias," which is the tendency for the simulator to work badly. For the simulator to make you believe that different outcomes are more different than in fact they really are.

From studies, we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or breaking up with a boyfriend/girlfriend, passing or not passing an exam (dare I say it), and so on, have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration than people expect them to have. They all have with only a few exceptions, no impact whatsoever on your happiness.

Why? Because happiness is manufactured.

Yes, we manufacture our own happiness, but we think happiness is a thing to be found.

So the next question, what drives human happiness? A question that psychologists have long been interested in and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are a number of different views on this. After all, if we all knew the recipe for happiness there would be no problems in the world right?

So let me tell you a story,

One cold morning in Bristol, a man named Gavyn Emery tied a scarf to a lamppost, and on a cardboard tag wrote: “I am not lost.” It was 2016, and rough sleeping in Bristol had risen by more than 800% in seven years. As temperatures plummeted, more people were inspired to do the same, wrapping trees in coats, sticking hats on bollards, warmth for anybody who needed it. Scarves started appearing in Cornwall, Glasgow, London, Cambridge and even Leeds; across the UK through this very long winter it was possible to see a blossoming compassion, visible in wool.

Kindness is not new. It’s pretty old. Aristotle said: “It is the characteristic of the magnanimous man to ask no favour but to be ready to do kindness to others.”

And yet, for a long time it has been seen as sort of… suspicious and a certain selfishness has come to be expected.

To be kind is also to be weak, unfocused on achievement. Unsuccessful. Kindness is seen as a nostalgic throwback to simpler times, or worse, a con. A man who throws his coat over the puddle is a man who onlookers suspect must be protecting something valuable in the mud.

To go out of one’s way to be kind suggests an ulterior motive – who has time to look up from their phone, let alone expose themselves to the discomfort of empathizing with a stranger?

Well today my appeal to you is to be kind.

Remember that big brain we talked about at the beginning. Well, evidence suggests that being kind activates its pleasure centres and ironically this leads to personal satisfaction and ultimately happiness.

So, by worrying less about happiness and moving towards kindness we accidently affect the rise of our own “happiness” and while happiness and kindness are undoubtedly linked, the difference is that happiness is passive, while kindness is active. This means you can choose to do something about it.

Ultimately when we are kind it doesn’t just help that person, it improves our own wellbeing!

So why this message today. Mr Taylor ended his assembly with an appeal to ‘work hard and be kind’ last week and today,13th November, is also coincidently, international day of kindness.

The final question is how will you spend yours?

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