The Overselling of Gratitude

Being told that all of us should regularly take time to list the things we’re grateful for sets my teeth on edge. It took me a while to figure out why.

I realize that anyone who criticizes gratitude (really? gratitude??) risks being labeled not merely a contrarian but a curmudgeon, and even the fact that I wrote a book some years ago called The Brighter Side of Human Nature may not be enough to immunize me from that label. So I probably should start by offering reassurance that there are plenty of things for which I feel grateful. If someone does something nice for me, I appreciate it and don’t hesitate to say so. What troubles me, by contrast, is the idea, propounded with evangelical fervor these days, that generic gratitude should define our way of being in the world.

No doubt such a stance makes sense for people who believe that an invisible, supernatural Being watches over them, decides what happens to them, and responds to their requests. In that case, it’s probably not a bad move to keep glancing at the sky while saying, “Hey, thanks!” — and also maybe to sacrifice a goat periodically, or at least buy a dead turkey once a year and invite one’s extended family over to eat it. One isn’t just grateful for but grateful to, which is why the vast majority of quotes and aphorisms about gratitude that you’ll find online are religious.

Conversely, if you don’t believe sunsets were deliberately created for their beauty, it would make no sense to respond with gratitude. Pleasure, sure. But not gratitude. Which leaves us to ponder why so many secular folks — particularly those who like to describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” and enthuse at length about meditation and mindfulness — have accepted a fundamentally religious idea like living a life of gratitude.

For some, the answer appears to be self-interest. Just as certain psychologists have argued that generosity confers emotional and physiological advantages on the giver — a defense of altruism for which the most polite word would be “paradoxical” — we’re now hearing that gratitude will make you more content, more optimistic, less selfish, better able to defer gratification, and even a sounder sleeper.

Maybe.[1] But “count your blessings in order that you’ll have more of them” is a bit instrumental as justifications go, and there’s something suspect about feelings of gratitude that one has adopted with just such objectives in mind. In any case, more important than whether this posture will pay off is whether it’s intrinsically justified — that is, whether it makes sense in its own right. And I’m not at all sure that it does.

Look at it this way: If there’s something wrong with being perpetually sour and discontent, why wouldn’t we also object to erring in the opposite direction? If we think those who are constantly carping should take stock of what they have and quit their First World whining, why not push the habitually happy (“There must be a pony in here somewhere!”) to contemplate what isn’t satisfactory, to express displeasure when doing so is the apt response to a given turn of events? And if their own lives really are a nonstop delight, couldn’t they summon some indignation on behalf of all those humans whose lives clearly suck?

On the last Thursday of November 1931, about two hundred people gathered near Union Square in New York City for what was billed as the First Annual Blamesgiving Service. “While others are expressing their gratefulness for the good things of the past year,” their leaflet said, “there can be no harm in making a similar list of things that were not so good.” I say amen to that — and also to Yossarian’s ready rebuttals in Catch-22 to each of his friend’s chiding reminders of the blessings he should be counting:

“Be thankful you’re healthy.”

“Be bitter you’re not going to stay that way” [he replied].

“Be glad you’re even alive.”

“Be furious you’re going to die.”

“Things could be much worse,” she cried.

“They could be one hell of a lot better,” he answered heatedly.

My point, of course, is not that we should be relentlessly negative but that we should stop being relentlessly positive — and tiresomely stoic. I’m thinking here of people who never admit to being dissatisfied, who declare that the glass is one-tenth full, who insist that we keep quiet if we don’t have something nice to say, who respond to a ghastly tragedy with, “Hey, it could have been worse…” It’s enough to put one in mind of the unforgettable set piece at the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian: rows of unfortunates nailed to crucifixes who bob their heads while singing (and then whistling) a cheerful tune called “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

When someone loudly offers thanks to his or her preferred deity for the fact that a handful of people “miraculously” survived a disaster, nonbelievers can’t help but wonder why this god simultaneously saw fit to abandon the vastly greater number of souls whose lives were pointlessly extinguished. But isn’t a secular version of unbalanced positivity also contrived? Yes, of course you’re relieved beyond words if you (or your loved one) was lucky enough to recover from a horrible injury or illness. But what of the meaningless, awful, excruciating injury or illness itself? Again, I say this not to be a killjoy or a cynic but simply because I believe it’s better to see things as they really are — and respond accordingly — than it is to adopt any reaction a priori, particularly throughout one’s life. Neither an Eeyore nor a Tigger be.

My first objection to gratitude as an across-the-board stance, then, is that it’s disproportionate, unearned, and therefore inauthentic. Even if training oneself to be constantly grateful really did boost what psychologists call subjective well-being, I’m not sure that’s a sufficient reason. As the psychological researcher Ed Deci put it, “When people want only happiness, they can actually undermine their own development because the quest for happiness can lead them to suppress other aspects of their experience. . . .The true meaning of being alive is not just to feel happy, but to experience the full range of human emotions.”

Making children express gratitude they don’t feel, meanwhile, just like forcing them to apologize when they’re not sorry, mostly teaches them insincerity. Subjecting them to exercises in which they must manufacture gratitude — and, yes, some schools, in the name of “positive psychology,” really do make kids cough up lists of things for which they’re grateful — strikes me as deeply wrongheaded.

I realize that to insist on seeing things as they are — and expressing gratitude, outrage, sadness, delight, or whatever reaction is called for — is to venture out on thin ice, epistemologically speaking, particularly when we turn our attention to the human condition itself. Does it make sense to speak of an “accurate” assessment, a properly balanced view? Can life be objectively classified as x percent good (and worthy of gratitude) and 100-minus-x percent horrible? Don’t we decide what to make of life and how to feel about it? After all, making meaning is what we humans do. The trouble starts when we deny that the meanings come from us, when even adults persuade themselves that “everything happens for a reason” — just because it’s too unsettling to acknowledge that things actually happen for no reason at all and nothing is actually “meant to be.”

If it makes you nervous that all possible purposes and moral guidelines for our lives are invented by humans, well, join the club. People are fallible, biased, often irrational. But it won’t do to toss our meanings and principles up to the heavens and then point in that direction as if they had originated there. That doesn’t bestow on those meanings and principles a status of absolute, eternal truth. It just proves we’ve acted in bad faith by denying our authorship. As Sartre and Camus reminded us, to see clearly and live honestly means we must begin by recognizing the fundamental futility of our condition. Camus urged us to embrace all that is precious and ennobling about life — beauty, love, humor — as a defiant “metaphysical rebellion” against the absurdity of our existential situation, one in which you and I and everyone we know will, before long, be utterly extinguished, and it will be as if we never were.

So, yes, the degree to which human existence is worthy of delight or rage is indeed a function of the meaning we construct and the reaction we choose. But the fact that this is the only meaning that exists provides a crucial context in which to understand the artificiality of unqualified positivity. As a default state, gratitude simply doesn’t ring true — not when our individual circumstances sometimes demand a very different response, and not when the human predicament itself has an irremediably tragic dimension.

But I think there’s a second reason to push back against simple-minded gratitude, and this one is more political than philosophical. It evokes my favorite Latin question: Cui bono? Who benefits when we’re persuaded to live life that way?

Consider an analogy. One of education’s current fashions is the celebration of “grit,” a notion that basically just updates the idea of stick-to-itiveness commended to us by Aesop’s fables, Benjamin Franklin’s aphorisms, and Christian denunciations of sloth. Elsewhere I’ve argued that the more we focus on getting children to persist at whatever task they’ve been given to do — to treat grit and self-discipline as inherently laudable — the less likely we are to question what they’ve been given to do, to ask whether it really has any value, and who gets to decide.

Impressing on people, particularly young people, that they ought to keep working (in general, not just at what seems meaningful) is a conservative precept in that it helps to perpetuate the status quo. My point now is that exactly the same is true of reminders to be grateful for whatever one has. In fact, these two positions aren’t just analogous; they mesh beautifully. Cui bono if we’re persuaded both to count our blessings and to never give up?

In the last few years, the Templeton Foundation, long committed to religious and free-market causes, has given millions of dollars in grants to support the study and promotion of gratitude, including to the Greater Good Center at the University of California, Berkeley. (As Barbara Ehrenreich drily observed, “The foundation does not fund projects to directly improve the lives of poor individuals, but it has spent a great deal, through efforts like these, to improve their attitudes.”) Right around the same time, the ultraconservative Walton Family Foundation — created with Walmart money — gave millions to study and promote grit and persistence in schools. As the New Testament might have said, Ye shall know them by their funders…

The holiday devoted specifically to the cultivation and expression of gratitude didn’t sit right with the puckish creators of Blamesgiving back in 1931, and it has troubled others as well. Jon Hanson, a professor at Harvard Law School, writes, “The norm of Thanksgiving seems to be to encourage a particular kind of gratitude — a generic thankfulness for the status quo. Indeed,” he adds, “when one looks at what many describe as the true meaning of the holiday, the message is generally one of announcing that current arrangements — good and bad — are precisely as they should be.” And he proceeds to prove his point by quoting from official Thanksgiving proclamations from George Washington to George W. Bush as well as a variety of blog posts and articles.

So, too, for gratitude as a year-round stance. The implication seems to be that it’s impolite for any of us, including the have-nots and victims of various forms of oppression and exclusion, to be dissatisfied, let alone to speak up against existing conditions. Social scientists have found that politically conservative people are more likely to emphasize the value of politeness.[2] As Richard Eibach, a social psychologist, and his colleagues pointed out, “Critics of social justice movements…[have characterized] activists’ demands for fundamental changes in the system as petulant expressions of ingratitude….Gratitude norms that discourage people from expressing dissatisfaction…may function to inhibit citizens from voicing complaints about shortcomings and injustices.”

Is it possible to feel grateful while also speaking out against what’s wrong? Of course. But it’s worth asking about the uses to which gratitude is put, the questions it quiets, the interests it serves. We can appreciate a welcome development and thank those who make our lives more satisfying — and still offer a realistic appraisal of what isn’t worth celebrating. Perhaps instead of “count your blessings,” a better motto would be: A place for every feeling and every feeling (including gratitude) in its place.

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NOTES

1. An association between gratitude and one of these states doesn’t necessarily mean that the former caused the latter. And even when there is evidence for a causative role — for example, regarding generosity — the strength of the effect depends on whether we’re talking about gratitude as a characteristic that people attribute to themselves on an ongoing basis or a (presumably transient) state induced by experimental manipulation. Other such doubts and caveats emerge when you look carefully at the relevant research rather than accepting at face value simplistic summaries about the benefits said to derive from being grateful.

2. Conservatives also tend to be somewhat more content than liberals — perhaps, as two New York University psychologists argue, because they’re more inclined to justify or dismiss potentially disturbing concerns about social and economic inequities. To that extent, it may not be surprising if chronically grateful people also turned out to be happier. As Deci pointed out, though — echoing philosophers from the ancient Greeks to John Stuart Mill — happiness shouldn’t be our sole criterion for deciding what to believe and how to act.


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Biomaster assists a sanitary hygiene revolution

We live in a world of rapid change, but there are some everyday washroom items that haven’t really changed much at all in basic form or function in the last 100 years: sinks, mixed-temperature faucets, flush toilets – and how about the common toilet brush?

A German company has designed a sanitary innovation that they believe will banish unhygienic and unsightly toilet brushes for ever.

Similar to a toilet brush, the WC-STICK is not used for cleaning the toilet, but for the hygienic removal of residues immediately after use. It has a disposable tip which can be used to remove any residue then you simply eject it and flush it away.

The WC-STICK applicator also contains inbuilt Biomaster antimicrobial technology. When bacteria come into contact a Biomaster surface it is unable to replicate and therefore dies. The active agent in Biomaster is built into the device during the manufacturing process so the protection lasts for the useful lifetime of the product.

The high performance hygienic materials used in the manufacture of WC-STICK are part of the ALBIS PLASTIC ALPERFORM product series.

WC-STICK CEO Martin Konietzny explains: “We all know the problems with the toilet brush and its handling. Spraying, dripping, unpleasant odour, unsightly and discoloured toilet brushes and toilet brush holder. They are excellent place for germs and bacteria and their distribution. So far there is no suitable alternative to the toilet brush – until now.

Standard toilet brushes only smear and distribute germs and bacteria and ensure that the breeding grounds of the germs and bacteria spread more and more.

For reasons of hygiene, a toilet brush should be replaced every three to six weeks depending on its use. In prestigious facilities and hotels, the service life of toilet brushes is considerably shorter.

The WC-STICK will become the future standard of hygiene in private households, hotels, public buildings, hospitals, nursing homes and everywhere where hygiene is important and the risk of harmful infections with germs, bacteria and viruses should be minimised. People can also benefit from this hygienic advantage at home as well.”

For more information visit WC-STICK.

For more information about ALPERFORM visit ALBIS PLASTIC.

An Unexpected Addition to the Menu

Naturally, most of us will refuse to eat at a restaurant table that has not been cleaned. We want to sit back and relax in the comfortable knowledge that any germs have been mopped up before we tuck in.

But how many times have you refused to pick up the menu? I expect not too many…

NewsChannel3 have teamed up with researchers at the University of Memphis School of Public Health to investigate the bacteria found on commonly touched surfaces.

Shockingly, restaurant menus were found to have the highest levels of bacterial load, second only to ATM machines.

This is not the nicest thought when you consider that the menu is usually the last thing you touch before eating. The Bowling Green State University found that 83% of restaurant menus were contaminated with potentially harmful bacteria including Staph aureus and E. coli: species that can cause severe stomach cramps, diarrhoea and vomiting.

Not something you would generally choose from the menu I’m sure.

Keeping it clean?

A study by the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Purdue University found that the hygienic status of menus is often overlooked as they are not commonly considered to be `food-contact` surfaces.

In many restaurants their menus went days, even weeks, without being cleaned and, perhaps unsurprisingly, menus that were left on tables were found to be worst affected by bacterial contamination.

Results of the study suggested that the most hygienic menus were handed out only when ordering food and were cleaned after every shift.

But that is not very reassuring if, like many of us, you enjoy a late-evening meal and end up receiving a menu in serious need of a clean.

The smart addition to your menu

What if there was something that could protect your menu no matter what time of the day you choose to eat?

Well, some good news, there is!

When incorporated into a menu, Biomaster silver-ion technology provides round the clock surface protection by inhibiting the growth of bacteria that land on the menu.

Biomaster’s active antimicrobial agent is entirely safe and prevents bacteria from producing energy or replicating. Therefore, potentially harmful bacteria are unable to survive.

The Thai cave rescue was born of hope, an instinct that sustains and drives us

Rescuers carry the boys out of the Tham Luang cave complex. Photograph: Social Media/Reuters

‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” So reads the inscription above the entrance to Hell in Dante’s Inferno. There must have been times over the past two weeks when it might have seemed the inscription to the entrance to the Tham Luang caves in Thailand. Twelve boys and their football coach trapped in total darkness, tired and emaciated, three kilometres from the entrance, cut off by flooded chambers and facing the threat of monsoon rain.

Yet what those caves have come to symbolise is the very opposite. Not the abandonment of hope but its sustenance in the most difficult of circumstances. Hope embodied in the boys, whose resilience in the face of almost impossible odds was remarkable; in the rescuers who risked their lives, refusing to countenance defeat; in the authorities whose every decision took no little courage. “Hope became reality,” said Rear Admiral Arpakorn Yuukongkaew, head of the Thai navy Seals, as the last boy was carried out of the caves.

In everyday life, we use “hope” in many contexts, from personal desire – “I hope I get an iPhone for Christmas” – to political yearnings – “I hope the trade war does not end up in real war”. But hope in the sense of that which was abandoned at Dante’s gates of Hell or sustained in the Tham Luang caves expresses something more profound: our ability as humans to imagine a future and to act in a way that might shape it. It suggests that hope is not mere wish or desire but an indissoluble feature of our humanity.

Yet, if hope is a concept inextricably linked to our understanding of ourselves as human, it is also an idea that has long been disparaged by serious thinkers. For many, it is too woolly, and too religious, a concept to take seriously. For others, it is troublesome because to hope is also to fear. Hope and fear, the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca argued, “march in unison like a prisoner and the escort he is handcuffed to”. Both “project our thoughts far ahead of us instead of adapting ourselves to the present”.

It’s a view echoed by many contemporary thinkers. Hope and fear, suggests the American writer Sam Harris, “are two sides of the same coin: if we would be free of fear, we must let go of hope”.

It is true that hope and fear are intertwined. As the Thai boys were rescued, there cannot have been many who did not fear that all might not survive. Yet the insistence that one should jettison hope because it is linked to fear is no more meaningful than would be the claim that we should do away with the idea of the “good” because it cannot exist without also the concept of the “bad”.

To act on hope is to act without certainty, to risk disappointment. One can, of course, plan, and do so with the meticulous care exhibited by the Thai rescuers. But humans, in the end, have to make choices without knowing fully the consequences of doing so. There is no God, or scientific law, that can free us from the possibility of failure or absolve us from having to take responsibility for our actions.

The only way to rid ourselves of the fear of failure is by never trying in the first place. But that would be unconscionably worse than failing. No one, even those who dismiss the idea of hope, would have suggested that there should not have been a rescue attempt at the Tham Luang caves. Hope and fear accompany not just each other, but also any expression of human agency.

To repudiate hope, in other words, is also to deny agency. Such denial is most acute not in circumstances such as the cave rescue but in the realm of politics.

Voters put their trust in Donald Trump because they believed he could transform their lives. Photograph: Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

Politics entails collective action in the pursuit of goals, the outcome of which we can never be certain. A feature of recent decades has been both growing disillusionment with collective action and the erosion of movements for social change. This has given rise to a distorted sense of who or what can effect change. In America, four out of five people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 saw an ability to bring about change as his most important quality. That tells us less about Trump than it does about the way that real agents of change, social movements that can truly transform people’s lives, have crumbled.

And not just in America. Across the world, from Turkey to the Philippines, from Russia to Rwanda, there has been the emergence of the democratically elected authoritarian, of strongmen in whom many voters place their trust because no other routes to change are visible.

At the same time, we have seen also the rise of technocratic governments in which democratically elected politicians are replaced by experts, supposedly above the political fray. The outcome of democratic politics is necessarily uncertain. But it embodies a certain sense of hope about the ability of humans, collectively, to shape our future. The rise of technocracy, as much as of authoritarianism, is a questioning of such hope.

No one has reflected more profoundly about the nature of hope than those who survived the death camps of the Holocaust. Viktor Frankl spent three years incarcerated in concentration camps, including six months in Auschwitz. His 1946 work, Man’s Search for Meaning, is a meditation on that experience, a reflection on the ability of human beings to survive even the most degrading and tormenting of circumstances.

Humans, Frankl suggests, find themselves only through creating meaning in the world. Meaning is not something to be discovered – it is something that humans create. They do so by acting upon the world. “Man does not simply exist,” Frankl wrote, “but always decides what his existence will be.”

Hope was, for Frankl, an essential feature of human existence. Not hope in the sense of believing that someone or something will save us, but as an acknowledgement that, whatever the uncertainties, or fear of failure, we have a duty to make choices and to act upon them. That was what sustained the rescue in the Tham Luang caves. It is also what we need to rescue our politics.

 Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

EXPLORE THE BEST FROM: theguardian.com

Pushing the Palestinian ‘right of return’ doesn’t help peace

People demonstrate in support of the Palestinian ‘Great March of Return’ in Rabat, Morocco, 2018. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In the past few months following events in Gaza, I’ve heard voices in the UK, including senior members of the Labour shadow cabinet, supporting the two-state solution while at the same time calling for the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to Israel. As a true supporter of peace based on the principle of two-states-for-two-peoples, the demand that Palestinian refugees “return” to Israel is not only at odds with the very rationale of a two-nation-states solution, but if accepted, would lead to a continuation of the conflict long after the establishment of a Palestinian state. Such a scenario should be rejected by anyone who truly seeks peace in our lifetime.

The shared goal should be to put an end to the conflict once and for all. The solution of two states for two peoples is a just solution because it gives an answer to the legitimate aspiration of both the Jewish people and the Palestinians. It means that each state is the answer for the aspiration of different peoples, each in their different respective state.

Furthermore, the state of Israel was established as a Jewish state on the basis of an international consensus adopted by the 1947 UN resolution. It offered the establishment of a Jewish state and an Arab state to end the conflict between Jews and Arabs that already existed in this tiny place between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea. The state of Israel was established as the nation state of the Jewish people and a democracy granting equal rights to all its citizens. The same day the Arabs who refused the UN concept of two states started a war against the newly born state. The rest is history.

As the state of Israel is, by definition, the answer to the national aspiration of the Jewish people, as Israel absorbed Jewish refugees that came from all over the world, and is the homeland of every Jew wherever he or she lives, the creation of the Palestinian state, by definition, provides the answer for the entire Palestinian people wherever they may be, including Palestinian refugees. This is why, as matter of principle, the claim of a Palestinian refugee “return” to Israel is so at odds with the very rationale of a two-state solution.

Unfortunately, Palestinian refugees have been used as a political playing card for far too long since 1948. Palestinians are the only group since the end of the second world war to have kept their refugee status and to have passed this status down to over four generations, creating a problem of millions of “refugees” that are kept as pawns in a political game instead of solving their humanitarian situation.

This sinister game continues to be promoted from the Gaza Strip even though in 2005 Israel made the tough decision to withdraw from Gaza to the 1967 line, to pull out the army, dismantle the settlements and evacuate its own citizens – including those who had lived there from birth.

Today the Gaza Strip is ruled by Hamas, a terrorist organisation that promotes a religious fanaticism that totally rejects the idea of two nation states. For over a decade, Hamas have been unwilling to accept the Quartet principles and gain legitimacy, namely by renouncing violence, recognising Israel and abiding by previous peace agreements.

Attempts to derail the two-nation-states solution by pushing or supporting the idea of a “right of return” will only exacerbate the conflict and is the antithesis of peace. Instead, let’s work together with those on the Palestinian side who support the concept of two nation states, and offer a solution of peace and security that will create a better future for all.

I believe that peace between Israel and the Palestinians based on the concept of two states for two peoples is an Israeli interest as it is a Palestinian. Today more than ever, we must make the right decisions for the future of our two peoples.

 Tzipi Livni is co-leader of Israel’s centre-left opposition bloc, the Zionist Union. She served as Israel’s foreign minister and chief peace negotiator with the Palestinians

EXPLORE THE BEST FROM: theguardian.com

Songs in the key of strife: the musician putting anxiety centrestage

Reluctant performer … Keaton Henson channelled his anxiety into Six Lethargies. Photograph: Rob Ball/WireImage

One of the truly wretched things about mental illness is that it is very hard to describe what it’s like. Words aren’t enough – even good ones.

But what about music? If the strings in Psycho can make us quail and the warm orchestral resolutions in Cinema Paradiso can make us cry, is there music that can make us understand what depression and anxiety feel like?

Keaton Henson thinks so – and he’s going to try to prove it.

On 20 July, a string orchestra will perform the songwriter’s latest work, Six Lethargies, at the Barbican in London. Some audience members will be hooked up to finger sensors monitoring electrodermal activity and autonomic nervous reaction. The data produced will control the lighting system. The possibilities for feedback are almost endless.

“If I write about how it feels to me, will you feel it, too?” Henson asks. “If you do, then it proves it is not a mental health issue, it’s a physical health issue. It’s so physical that I can show it to you.”

Henson is a slight, restless man who, for all his tortured public persona and heroic battle with anxiety, is charming, wry and even perky at times. He spent months composing the work in his flat while feeling deeply unwell, elaborating dozens of fragments before chopping them together into six 10-minute pieces.

He also investigated the importance of music as a communication tool, meeting with cognitive neuroscientists such as Jessica Grahn to understand more about how music affects us.

Henson came to understand some peculiar things about this most ancient and universal of human instincts. “It turns out that a sad note is a sad note, whatever the culture,” he says. “A rhythm makes us feel at one – we dance around campfires or in clubs, our heart rates sync up. It has bonding power.

Henson says: “Harmony and melody is the emotional side. Everyone understands that speaking in a low way, in a monotone, with notes going down, means it’s unhappy,. What music can do is, it is a direct line to empathy.” Even the briefest fragment can access a back door to the brain, he says, bypassing reason, judgment and critical thought.

The 30-year-old Londoner discovered this at the few shows he used to play each year to support his new albums. For someone who says he finds buying a pint of milk in a supermarket a public torture, performing to 3,000 people was a particular kind of agony. Henson is the definition of a reluctant star.

As a coping mechanism, he fixated on the emotional charge that his spare paeans – think Jeff Buckley meets Nick Drake – and awkward stage persona would have on the audience. “I could write a song about a breakup and they just got it.” From there, it was but a small step to see if there were other things he could make his audience feel.

‘A sad note is a sad note, whatever the culture’ …Keaton Henson’s studio. Photograph: Sophie Harris-Taylor

Henson has changed his approach to songcraft. For the third movement (subtitled Trauma in Chaos) of the Six Lethargies, he uses atonality and other devices such as Shepard tones – an aural hallucination that sounds like a constantly rising note – to suggest the wheels coming off. The fifth movement is called Depression – After the Collapse. It is written in G minor (has anything joyful ever been written in G minor?), a sombre evolution of 10-note piano chords building and subsiding, whole tone intervals resolving briefly before the next dissonance emerges.

Composing an orchestral work for someone else to play marks a departure for the singer-songwriter, and one he seems to be enjoying. Why, he muses, do we expect music creatives to be on-stage legends, too? “You don’t expect novelists to be master orators. By nature they are considered introverts. But we expect songwriters to perform.”

This week, he will look on as a string orchestra performs the work and polymath Brendan Walker conducts the biofeedback experiment. (Subsequent performances will take place in Sydney and, hopefully, the US.)

Walker, who describes himself as a “thrill engineer” and digital artist, will arrange for several audience members to be monitored. The more anxious people get, the more the lighting will feed that back at them.

“We are going to find out a lot, not just about the pieces but also about how people experience them,” says Walker. Often employed by amusement parks to help design rollercoasters, he has a long track recordof trying to quantify human experience: how thrill and emotion can be measured by heart rate, pupil dilation, the opening of the pores on the fingers. The upshot, Walker says, will be a numerical analysis of the audience’s emotional trajectory through the evening.

Don’t let that put you off. Henson is adamant that his project puts art first and experiment second. “It’s a night out – people have paid money for it,” he says. “I want them to be left with the feeling they have after watching a moving film. I don’t want them saying, ‘God, I feel awful.’”

EXPLORE THE BEST FROM: theguardian.com

‘The fisherman in Sarajevo told tales of past wars – and warned me of ones to come’

Sarajevo was besieged for four years during the Bosnian War, with many districts left in ruins

We spotted him at the end of a path beside the River Miljacka, bending over the rail with a fishing rod, staring at the fast-moving, shallow waters with a rare intensity, frowning – angry, I thought – the sort of guy you might avoid if you weren’t a journalist on a glowering, rain-spitting day, walking with a translator and ready to approach the down-and-outs of this gloomy city.

I’ve never found Sarajevo a cheerful place, not just because it endured the longest siege in modern history, but because its new tourist shops and tat, and its dodgy reputation as a restored symbol of ethnic unity, are undeserved. Besides, it sent my own father to the trenches of the First World War. It lives off that, too, turning political assassination – in this case, of course, that of the Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince and his wife in June 1914 – into a holiday haunt. Come and see where Gavrilo Princip fired the fatal shot. There’s a museum on the corner and a spanking new four star hotel on the same street and just round the block a Lebanese restaurant – I kid thee not – called ‘Beirut’.

The fisherman, when I found him, was standing just across the river, scarcely fifty metres from the spot where Princip shot Franz Ferdinand in the jugular and Sophie in the abdomen a hundred and four years ago. And the fisherman’s story, too – obliquely – was a tale of murder most foul. He talked in snatches and his face was congealed into a mask of fury and contempt. He was 57, he said, but he looked at least ten years older, nearer seventy. Was he here in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, I asked?

EXPLORE THE BEST FROM: independent.co.uk

No Need For Nato

A NATO summit approaches that brings Donald Trump to Europe and then on to these shores, and brings the usual clamour for more of the taxpayers’ money to be given to arms manufacturers.

Yet NATO is a demonstrably useless institution. It’s largest ever active military deployment, for 12 years in Afghanistan, resulted in military defeat throughout 80% of the country, the installation of a pocket regime whose scrip does not run further than you can throw the scrip, and a vast outflow of heroin to finance the criminal underworld throughout NATO countries.

Look at this chart closely, and marvel at the fact that the NATO occupation began in early 2002.In invading Afghanistan and boosting the heroin warlords, NATO countries destabilised themselves

NATO’s second biggest military operation ever was the attack on Libya, where NATO carried out an incredible 14,200 bombing sorties using high explosive munitions and devastated Libya’s infrastructure and entire cities. Here is Sirte after NATO “liberation”.

The direct result of the devastation of Libya and destruction of its government infrastructure has been the massive untrammelled exodus of migrants, especially from West Africa, through Libya and across the Mediterranean on boats. This has not only led to the appalling exploitation and tragic death of many migrants, it has fundamentally weakened the governments and indeed governing public ethos of European NATO member states and led to a right wing populist surge throughout much of the EU.

In short, in destroying Libya, NATO members destabilised themselves.

The direct result of NATO’s destruction of Libya.Now NATO is focusing once more on the original “threat” it was supposed to combat, a Russian invasion of Western Europe.

Russia has absolutely no intention of invading Western Europe. The very notion is ludicrous. It does not require NATO to deter a threat that does not exist.

Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia alone have a combined GNP as big as Russia. On a purchasing power parity basis, if you add in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania those Eastern states still match Russia economically. On a PPP basis, the combined GDP of all NATO states is 12 times that of Russia.

Russia does have disproportionate military power for its size – but not that much. Russia’s defence spending is one sixth that of NATO defence spending, though it is slightly more efficient because, despite corruption, less of Russia’s defence spending goes into the pockets of arms company shareholders, lobbyists, politicians and other fatcats than happens in the West. But that cannot outweigh Russia’s massive economic disadvantage. Nothing can. Russia is very well placed to defend itself, but in no position to attack major powers.

Russia’s foreign policy successes – in Crimea, Syria and Georgia – have been based not on massive military strength – the NATO powers far outweigh Russia there – but simply on much better statecraft. And NATO, for all the trillions western taxpayers spend on it, has been unable to do anything about it, despite the fact that Russian actions in Crimea and Georgia have been illegal in international law.

In fact if anybody has not worked out by now that our famed nuclear arsenal is a chocolate teapot, then they have not been paying attention. In none of the recent foreign policy crises – including the North Korean nuclearisation issue – nobody, anywhere, ever has mentioned Trident missiles as part of the solution. They are utterly worthless.

The threat of a Russian attack on NATO itself is non-existent. The EU is not officially a military alliance but the idea that any part of EU territory could be subject to invasion without the rest of the EU reacting is a political impossibility. It is very plain that Vladimir Putin’s policy is to reincorporate into Russia those bordering pockets of ethnic Russians in former Soviet states. But this has been approached piecemeal and avoiding major confrontation. There is no practical threat to the Baltic states whose security is already de facto guaranteed by EU membership.

So NATO’s role of defence against Russia is otiose, and its wider military adventures have been a total disaster.

Finally, a thought about China. I cannot think of a parallel to China these last two decades, where any country in history has obtained so much economic pre-eminence in the World and shown so very little interest in military expansion. The invasion of Tibet occurred before China’s economic flowering, and the South China Sea dispute is hardly the invasion of Iraq. I do not claim any expertise in Chinese culture or thought, but they appear to realise that dominance can be achieved by more subtle means than the sword. It is going to be a fascinating few decades as China rapidly overtakes the USA in the superpower stakes.

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Keeping Microbes Away or Wasting Your Day?

The team at the BBCs programme Trust Me I`m a Doctor have been working with Northumbria University to understand how disinfectants are used in our homes. The results are very interesting and perhaps not quite what you would expect…

I am sure many of us are familiar with antibacterial wipes, the handy solution for a quick clean and the added reassurance of a germ-free kitchen: or maybe not?

The Trust Me I`m a Doctor team measured the bacterial load found on three kitchen worktops following a thorough clean with antibacterial disinfectant wipes. The families involved were asked to avoid using these worktops but, otherwise, to continue daily life in the kitchen as normal.

Just an hour after the disinfectant was used, there was evidence of both bacterial and fungal growth on the worktop. By 12 hours post-clean microbial growth had increased dramatically to a significant level.

So, if the disinfectant effect can’t even last for one hour, how do we reduce the growth of harmful bacteria in our homes?

The missing link: 24-7 protection

When incorporated into a surface, Biomaster becomes an integral part of the material, providing round the clock durable protection for the lifetime of the surface.

Biomaster silver ion technology inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria. Unable to produce energy or replicate, the bacteria landing on the surface can`t survive.

Perfect for that in-between clean protection, Biomaster is non-leaching and entirely safe technology.

You can’t see, smell or even taste Biomaster!

Biomaster protection for your home

Biomaster have partnered up with Sealwise, a company leading the revolution in recycled PVC alternatives to MDF board.

Available with Biomaster antimicrobial protection, and in range of colours, the easy clean surface provides a technologically innovative kitchen worktop solution.

Just one example of how Biomaster protection can be used in the home.

Visit the Biomaster Protected Partners page for more information on the antimicrobial products available for your home.

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