Scott Cawelti

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.

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  • Happiness in South Carolina?

    • Posted on Dec 27, 2010 by Scott Cawelti
    12-27-10

    Just last week I moved from the 31st happiest state to the 8th.   That is, from Iowa to South Carolina for the holidays.   Now I’m happy, right? 

    A recently published “Happy States” research report ranks Iowa as the 31st happiest state, and South Carolina as the 8th.  

    As the report states,  “results are based on an examination of two data sets, one that included personal reports of happiness for 1.3 million Americans and the other that included objective measures, such as how crowded that state is, air quality, home prices and other factors known to impact quality of life.” 

    I have to admit that ice-free walkways and highways of South Carolina have cheered me up.  And not having to wear four layers has contributed mightily to my sense of well-being.  

    But it’s not enough to make me permanently leap for joy.   

    Happiness doesn’t work that way. Anyone over ten years old knows that happiness remains elusive, like the snark or the Loch Ness monster.  Some days it’s there, other days it’s out of reach.  

    Heaven knows it won’t be photographed.  

    After getting that toy you always wanted and learning that it only made you happy for a few hours or days, you learn:  Happiness doesn’t come from things. 

     And after your friends move away or stop speaking to you, you learn that happiness doesn’t come from people.  Certainly not as much as we’d hoped, anyway.  
     
    And after you learn how little credit you get from all your good works you learn still again:  Happiness doesn’t come from doing good, at least not like we thought when we began volunteering. 

    Granted, flashes of happiness do in fact come from doing good, from people you love and who love you back, and from getting that long-desired toy.  But it passes.  
    Happiness seems to be an inside job.  But where does it come from?  And can we keep it around permanently?  

    These questions are pondered at length and actually answered, somewhat, in Jonathan Haidt’s 2006 book “The Happiness Hypothesis.”   

    Haidt offers several insights into humanity’s holy grail of pursuits, and it’s full of surprises.  Among them:  

    *Humans believe they’re in control of their own behavior and thoughts. It’s one of our most persistent illusions. In fact, our minds sit atop our bodies like a small rider on an elephant, meaning our life habits, needs, proclivities, and built-in attitudes."

    The elephant goes where it wants, and the rider can only coax, advise, and hope our big lumbering pachyderm doesn’t stumble over a cliff.  Most of the time we’re along for the ride.  That’s why happiness seems random.  Our elephant’s mostly in charge. 

    Genetics determines more of our lives than almost any other factor, including who raises us, our friends, and where we grow up.  So much for the happiest states.  
    Moving to Louisiana, the number one happiest state, probably will only make you homesick.  Incidentally, that  “happiest states” research was completed before Katrina, so Louisianians since then may have discovered something about hurricanes and happiness.  

    ”Set points” determine one’s overall outlook, and they’re built in.  Some of us 
    are born pessimists, sighing and complaining all our lives. Others are born optimists, grinning and bearing everything.  You know who you are. 

    Set points can be changed, but not by changing your mind, friends, or location.  Haidt claims that Prozac, meditation, cognitive-behavioral therapy can actually change one’s in-born set points.  Chronic complainers probably need to try one of these, unless they enjoy their dark miseries a la Woody Allen.  He’s the original misery man, but seems to get a kick out of it. 

    H=S+C+V.    Believe it or not, this happiness formula makes sense.  Happiness grows out of a set point (S) plus life conditions (C) plus voluntary activities (V) which we do control.  I know it seems simple, but finding happiness has never been rocket science.  Just elusive.  

    This formula seems to describe the pursuit accurately.  

     For my part, I resolve in 2010 to try hard to keep my blundering elephant from going awry. Oh yes, and to stay in South Carolina as long as possible.

     Not that it makes me any happier, understand.       





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  • Time for Contemplation Before the New Year Begins: 2011

    • Posted on Dec 26, 2010 by Scott Cawelti
    12-26-10

    The last week of any year marks a time for reflection, for tackling Big Questions.  

    The turning of the year brings long thoughts, at least for those who remain curious about themselves and their place in the universe.   

     I don’t mean questions that you can Google and get something that seems satisfactory, such as:  What is the nature of matter?  Answer:  All matter is composed of atoms, which in turn are composed of neutrons, electrons, and protons around a central nucleus.  

     Unfortunately, questions that really, uh, matter are those for which Google is useless. 

     Real contemplative questions stretch the mind, take it into areas beyond comfort zones, beyond what minds can even comprehend.  They’ve troubled brains ever since gray matter grew large.

     Here are five, along with starter answers: 
    1.  Who are you?  

     James Hearst asked this question in the opening lines of his 1977 poem “Who, Who?”  “Do you ever stop to wonder, say right now this morning, what you’d see in the mirror with your mask off?”  

    Take off that everyday (metaphorical) mask and ask who you are.  You inevitably conclude, as Hearst wrote,   “My God, you’re a stranger.”  

     If we’re truly honest, we’re strangers to ourselves, full of inexplicable surprises.  

    2.  Why is there something rather than nothing?  
    There’s no reason for the Big Bang to have resulted in big brains, after all.  The universe could just as easily have become gaseous clouds floating in a void.  

     But there’s something instead.  Why?  Is there a force behind everything that purposefully made something?  

     In other words:  
    3.  Is there a God?  
    It depends on what you mean by “God.”   Ask someone to define God, and they often begin with a kindly sky-father in heaven who knows all.  

    Yet that definition comes smack up against a seemingly random universe where stuff happens interminably that makes no sense in terms of divine guidance.  Think major extinctions of all life, which has happened several times right here on earth.  Think natural disasters killing thousands of innocents in the blink of an eye.  

     The Buddhists say god is a spirit, a no-thing.  Pronounce that “nothing” if you want trouble with believers.   Yet that answer makes more sense than something, since a spirit can’t be something.  

     Yet it gets even stranger. Stephen Hawking asserts in Grand Design that emerging evidence points to infinite parallel universes beyond our wildest imaginings.  So far beyond, in fact, that we can only gape in wonder. It’s a bottomless mystery that won’t be solved by creating more mythical stories.  

    4.   Why do bad things happen to good people?  And good things to bad people?  
    Past lives, a.k.a. karma, makes sense as one answer to this question, but Christianity and its cousins Islam and Judaism reject reincarnation.  

    So we’re left not knowing why millions die from natural disasters, diseases, accidents.   Call it luck and hope you find some good and avoid some bad, though it’s notoriously hard to control.   Life becomes both infuriating and heartbreaking for all of us.    

     Everything happens for a reason?  Dream on.  Everything happens, period.  

    5.  Do people actually change for the better?  Or do they just become more like they were all along, New Year’s resolutions notwithstanding?

     I’ve known formerly obese people who lost it all and formerly thin people who became permanently huge.  I’ve known drunks who got sober and sober folks who became drunks.  

    Lovers who fell out of love, criminals who went straight, straights who went gay. Did they really change or were they closet gays all along?  I think the latter, but evidence is inconclusive.  All we know for sure is that everyone changes, in ways small and large, all of the time.   

     Now, about that Google question above. That simple-sounding answer contains a mystery:  the nucleus of an atom isn’t just a tiny little nut of matter.  It’s both solid and a wave, and it alternates constantly. 

     That bit of knowledge came as a surprise to physicists, who still don’t quite know what to make of it.  

     In other words, we don’t know what matter really is, and we’re all composed of it.   

     Happy New Year, wispy solids.  

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