The Great Unsubscribing, Car Culture, and the Good Life: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From how we get our news to how we find happiness, we learned a lot in the last seven days
We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.
Happiness in its purest form is Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor dancing in "Singin' in the Rain."
Being a happiness guru sounds like it’d be stressful, turning your grumpier days into both personal and professional failures. But my friend Arthur Brooks wears the mantle with all the good cheer and manic energy you’d expect of someone distilling the wisdom of the good life into actionable advice. Whether it’s for high-strung readers of The Atlantic or the overachieving strivers of Harvard Business School, Brooks has won a devoted audience by tapping into everything from Aristotle and Zen Buddhism to brain science and cognitive psychology. His Harvard course Managing Happiness—which you can take for free via edX!—is one of the most popular at HBS, and it’s not hard to imagine why. We live in a culture that treats happiness with suspicion, that assumes the contented among us are blinkered, uncaring, or selfish. Brooks takes the opposite view, arguing that you’ll be a more effective agent for change if you start by reforming your own sense of wellbeing.
“You don’t have to leave your happiness up to chance,” he writes in an April Atlantic piece listing some of the most potent happiness advice. “No matter where you live or what you do, you can manage your own joy and share it with others.” A lot of this will sound obvious—spend time in nature, move and exercise, prioritize real human relationships over abstract accomplishments—but how many of us actually design our lives for maximum happiness? It’s one thing to know exercise is good for you; it’s another to follow Brooks’ more practical take on how to keep your mind and body on the move: “If you like to keep things simple, just try to walk for an hour and read for an hour (not for work!) each day.” One of my favorites is to socialize with colleagues outside of work, creating genuine friendships with the people who occupy so many hours of your day. At the heart of Brooks’ project is a desire to show that all of this obvious advice about our wellbeing has deep roots—philosophical, religious, evolutionary, cognitive. Serious people have been interested in happiness for a long time, and it’s OK for you to give it some serious study, too. —Stefanie Sanford
The one thing the Twitter firehose might be good for: putting out a burning newspaper.
No News Is Good News (But Really Bad News)
A month or so ago, I finally pulled the plug on my Twitter account. I ditched Facebook years ago, but I held on to the tweets because, in classic addictive bargaining, I convinced myself I needed them—to stay informed, to be entertained, and, finally, for my work. Like so many of my media colleagues, I saw Twitter as a necessity, even if our readers aren’t really there. And even though I had this gnawing feeling I was abandoning news (all app notifications are off on my phone, so Twitter felt like my direct connection to the ticker) I needed a break—from the firehouse, the trending topics, and the vitriol and shallowness. As it turns out, my decision to reassess my relationship with news isn’t unique. “Engagement with news content has plunged during the first half of this year compared to the first half of 2021 and in some cases has fallen below pre-pandemic levels,” a recent Axios article reports. “Americans have grown exhausted from the constant barrage of bad headlines that have replaced Trump-era crises, scandals and tweets.” (Tell me about it.) This disengagement has hit all media, but social networks have seen the steepest dropoff. The data speaks to a larger trend that our friend Amanda Ripley highlights in her Washington Post op-ed. “Last month, new data from the Reuters Institute showed that the United States has one of the highest news-avoidance rates in the world,” she writes. “About 4 out of 10 Americans sometimes or often avoid contact with the news—a higher rate than at least 30 other countries.”
Ripley’s piece, “I stopped reading the news. Is the problem me—or the product?,” is an interesting frame on this development. She uses her experience of news burnout and avoidance, and how she created a new and improved relationship with media consumption, to suggest ways for all of us to improve our relationship with news of the day, or the minute. (Ironically, her piece went viral.) But what I found particularly enlightening was her focus on the deficiencies in the product: “Maybe there is something wrong with the news. But what? A lot of people say the problem is bias. Journalists say the problem is the business model: Negativity is clicky. But I’ve started to think that both theories are missing the most important piece of the puzzle: the human factor.” She then adds something that has needed to be said for a while: “Today’s news, even high-quality print news, is not designed for humans.” I spent a decade in digital media as the twin obsessions with cheap traffic and gaming algorithms sank the industry deeper into the content mines and closer toward self-immolation. It seems to get worse all the time, driving more people away from the product, perversely strengthening the business case for those bad habits. It’s a trap. But what Ripley—and the data—demonstrate is that there are people who want something new and ways to realize it. They’re (mostly) unproven, but so was digital publishing once upon a time. “The business model for news requires clicks. And the easiest way to get attention is through a fire hose of outrage, fear and doom,” she writes. “But how do we know people won’t click—or subscribe—if the news were designed for humans? How do we know, if hardly anyone has tried?” She goes into quite a bit of detail about what trying could look like (for my money, solutions journalism and memberships are keen options) and you should carve out time to engage with her piece and ideas. It will give you something to chew on, and, if you’re like me, spur you to demand—and create—a better relationship with news. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
Actual archival material demonstrating our ancient sculptures painted their work.
Having graduated college with a degree in history, my studies included plenty of time spent on the Roman Empire and emperor Caesar Augustus. When I picture him, it’s usually that famous statue, Augustus of Prima Porta, which was created during his reign and is now in the Vatican Museums. While the nearly-seven-foot-tall marble statue cuts an impressive figure, it comes off a bit soulless, thanks to its completely white exterior—especially the space where the eyes should be. But like other Roman and Greek statues, it was originally painted in vibrant colors. Vox explored this fact a few years ago in a fun video essay “The White Lie We’ve Been Told About Roman Statues.” It showed chromatic sculpture from the unearthed city of Pompeii, and a mural of a Roman artist painting a statue. The sad fact is time and the elements have bequeathed us now-colorless ancient statuary.
The Vox essay incorporates video by Vinzenz Brinkmann of his research on ancient statue color, which was done using photographic and spectroscopic tech. Brinkmann leads the Department of Antiquity at the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection in Frankfurt am Main. The statue color recreation efforts of Brinkmann and his archeologist wife, Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, are now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York’s Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color, on view through March 2023. Visitors can get a closer look at re-colored replicas of Greek statues, including vibrantly realized highlights of a sphinx and crouching archer. Turns out the quest for regaining Greek statue polychromy has extra incentive for The Met going back more than a century. Edward Robinson, who from 1910-1931 served as the museum’s third director, was present at the excavation of the Athens Acropolis and saw how painted statues, covered for centuries with protective dirt, began to shed their remaining color within days of exposure. Thankfully, the Chroma recreations can be safely viewed by visitors in a museum atmosphere without fear of fading. —Christian Niedan
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Ranking member Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), center, speaks to an aide as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) looks on before testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on December 4, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Whatever you make of Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony to the January 6 committee, it revealed at least one truth that powerful people in Washington are eager to keep hidden: the country is run by people too young to rent a car. “The capital’s power centers may be helmed largely by the geriatric set, but they are fueled by recent college graduates, often with little to no previous job experience beyond an internship,” writes Annie Karni for the New York Times. “And while many of those young players rank low on the official food chain, their proximity to the pinnacle of power gives them disproportionate influence, and a front-row seat to critical moments that can define the country.” Aides like Hutchinson, who was 25 when she served as an indispensable shadow to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, carry out much of the behind-the-scenes work that keeps the gears of government turning. They write talking points, prepare research memos, coordinate meetings, and perform an unbelievably important task that every high schooler strives to master: taking good notes, which effectively means setting the agenda by deciding what was important enough to write down.
“Aide—from the 17th-century French military term ‘aide-de-camp’—is a squishy label,” writes Dan Zak in the Washington Post. “The aide’s responsibilities can be vast or pinpoint, consequential or quotidian. But even at a lower rank, even with modest experience, an aide has a source of formidable power: proximity. The aide sees and hears and knows, because they are, simply, around.” I remember visiting friends in Washington when I was in my 20s, people I’d known in college who now had titles like legislative assistant, staff secretary, or policy analyst. They worked long hours, sat in cramped cubicles or closet-sized offices, and often had to perform dignity-straining tasks like preparing a lunch salad exactly as their bosses preferred or calling airlines to check on the exact legroom in business class. But in the same week—same day or hour, even—they also got to ghostwrite op-eds that ran in major newspapers, comment on major policy initiatives that crossed their bosses desks, or make crucial decisions about who got access for a meeting and who got shut out. “For ambitious young people, government jobs in Washington have long offered a jet-fueled rise to power that the private sector, however lucrative, can’t compete with,” Karni writes. Just keep those meeting notes close. —Eric Johnson
Chaiyun Damkaew/Getty Images
An open road, no other cars in sight, and an amazing setting—now *here* is a happy place.
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Road Trips
I took my first real long-distance road trips after college. A group of my friends drove from Colorado through Utah, Arizona, and Nevada, stopping at national parks (and Las Vegas) along the way. I'll never forget my awe-inspiring first look at the Grand Canyon. (It’s huge!) Shortly after that, I drove from my childhood home in Indiana to my first job in New Orleans, spending a few days in Nashville and Memphis along the way. Now, I'm an expert in long-distance driving. I've done the drive from New Orleans to northwest Indiana in a day. I’ve driven back-and-forth from northwest Indiana to South Carolina helping my parents move. More recently, during the pandemic, I drove from my current home in Washington, DC, to South Carolina multiple times. Ross Douthat attempts to capture the feeling of long road trips in his recent New York Times’ piece ”What Driving Means to America”. He refers to author Matthew Crawford's idea that humans can use cars to move purposefully through the world, giving them freedom and mastery over a complex landscape. Douthat suggests that this contrasts with our current virtual world where we're stuck in our respective bubbles. The open road instead gives us new context and feelings of empowerment that come with time to think and different physical locations that we can experience in the car.
I really grappled with Douthat's commentary. In some ways, I agreed with him. I'll never forget singing my heart out on rural Indiana roads when I was a teenager shortly after I got my driver's license—a feeling that, in many ways, seems very American. Seeing the wonders of America—whether the Grand Canyon or Memphis, Tennessee—helped me understand the beauty and culture of the United States. But at the same time, Douthat's piece left me with many questions. With gas prices what they are, it's not exactly practical to set off on a cross-country journey of exploration. I also can't deny the impact the auto industry and its supporters have had: on stifling the growth of robust and reliable public transportation, on the destruction of urban cultural and business centers to make way for highways, on the environment. Plus, owning a car, let alone driving across the country, takes time and money. And paid time off, for those lucky enough to have it, is a precious commodity. So, what to do? How can we explore and understand our country and respect the environment and preserve our finances? Almost 1,000 people shared their opinions in the Times’ comments section. Many opined on the frustrations of daily commuting or feeling trapped into owning and using a car due to the lack of public transportation options. But some comments brought hope. Readers suggested beautiful train rides, bikes and e-bikes, RVs, and simply digging into the community in which they lived—truly understanding its history, quirks, and streets. Their comments left me with a deep feeling that it is time to move beyond 1960s car iconography into a more nuanced and varied understanding of transportation and the American ethos. —Hannah Van Drie