Good Reads: 'purdah' culture in India, born good, finding purpose, a Jedi response

This week's good reads includes a young woman's perspective on India's 'purdah' culture, the morality of babies, on whether a life's purpose brings happiness, and an unusual petition to the White House for building a Death Star.

Altaf Qadri/AP
Female staff members of a luxury hotel exhibit their skills after a 10-day self-defense course initiated by the hotel management and Delhi Police women’s wing in New Delhi, India, Jan. 17, 2013. A brutal rape of a 23-year-old student last month has sparked a national debate about the treatment of women and the inability of Indian law enforcement to protect them.

“My first sense as a young girl of sexual menace came from my Indian grandfather. Let me be clear: He never even remotely sexually threatened or molested me. But he made sure I knew that the world in which I, a girl, was growing up was innately perilous to women.”

So starts an illuminating first-person recollection of an American learning the rules of purdah – or concealment of women from men – on visits to relatives back in India. Her grandfather upbraided her for uppity talk and anything but simple dress, to teach her that the more invisible she was, the more safe she would be.

Mira Kamdar, writing on the Asia Society website, connects these lessons to the recent gang rape of a young woman on a bus in Delhi: “It is clear ... that a purdah mentality still dogs Indian society. A woman who can be seen is seen as a woman available for violation.” But, at the same time, “[r]apid modernization and urbanization in India have made women, especially young women, visible as never before.”

Babies born good

Parents, it turns out that your bundles of joy could also be described as budding altruists. Writing for the Smithsonian magazine, Abigail Tucker writes on a heartwarming new area of research that’s finding babies showing preferences for “good guys” over “bad guys” and a proclivity to help and care for others.

“These findings may seem counterintuitive to anyone who has seen toddlers pull hair in a playground tunnel or pistol-whip one another with a plastic triceratops,” notes Ms. Tucker.

But a series of cleverly designed experiments at Yale and Harvard universities are seeing an orientation toward the good long before parents would seem to have had much chance to shape behavior.

The eureka moment for one researcher came while passing a ball back and forth with a toddler. The ball got away from the scientist, and rather than get it, he faked an inability to reach it. Seeing his struggle, the toddler got up to retrieve it for him. Other experiments involved puppet shows in which one color puppet is shown helping or hindering another. Eye-tracking tests found infants as young as 3 months old preferring the helper. 

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of meaning

Whether we are born with it, or taught it, altruism looks to be key to our well-being as adults.

Emily Esfahani Smith, writing for The Atlantic, highlights a new psychological study that suggests “a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different.” Researchers interviewing 400 Americans found meaning in life to be tied up with being a “giver,” while happiness was more linked with being a “taker.” Meaning is also found in contemplating the future and the past, while happiness is fixated on the present – and is consequently more fleeting.

From the nation’s foundational documents to the self-help aisles of bookstores, Americans are famously in pursuit of happiness. But that’s something of a mug’s game: “Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research,” Ms. Smith writes.

The magazine goes on to cite data that roughly 40 percent of Americans have not found a “satisfying life purpose.”

There will be no Death Star

A group of Internet pranksters raised the 25,000-plus signatures needed to get a response from the White House on their petition to have the US build a Death Star. The White House, to no one’s surprise, replied that the country would not be building the moon-shaped space station from the “Star Wars” films that could blast planets into space dust. But the wording of the response, glorious it was.

“Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars” – $850,000,000,000,000,000, according to one study – “on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?” wrote Paul Shawcross, chief of the Science and Space Budget at the White House Office of Management and Budget, and arguably the best communicator to emerge from the intersection of space science, accounting, and the federal government.

This smooth-talking Jedi then went on to highlight the gee-whiz stuff the government and the private sector are doing in space.
“[W]e’ve got two spacecraft leaving the Solar System and we’re building a probe that will fly to the exterior layers of the Sun. We are discovering hundreds of new planets in other star systems and building a much more powerful successor to the Hubble Space Telescope that will see back to the early days of the universe.”

In other news, the White House has just upped the signature threshold for a response to 100,000.

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