Is social media killing the art of conversation?

Ready for a digital diet in 2012? In this article just published in the Independent on Sunday – and based on my new book The Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live – I argue why we need less electro-chatter and more thoughtful, face-to-face conversation. (You’ll also find out why Dr Samuel Johnson is the most disastrous conversationalist in British history.)

There is a crisis in the art of conversation, and it’s making us hungry. On the one hand, we face a famine of quality conversation in our relationships. The typical British couple spends more time watching television together – on average, 55 minutes a day – than talking to each other. And the most common reason given for divorce in the West is wives complaining that their husbands don’t speak or listen to them.

On the other hand, thanks to technology, we are awash with superficial talk. Think of all the staccato texts and Facebook posts sent last year – how many of those words really added depth and meaning to our lives? We’re stuffing ourselves with chatter, but ending up starved of the quality conversation that Socrates savoured.

So should 2012 be the year to put ourselves on a digital diet, as several self-help gurus have suggested? Is it time to worry less about inches on our waistline and more about our hours online?

Read the full article here.

New Book! THE WONDERBOX by Roman Krznaric

My new book, THE WONDERBOX: CURIOUS HISTORIES OF HOW TO LIVE (Profile Books), will be in bookshops from December 22 –  just in time for a last-minute Christmas stocking filler.

It’s about what the last three thousand years of human history can tell us about better living, and explores twelve universal topics, from work and love to money, creativity and empathy. What might we learn from the Ancient Greeks about the different varieties of love, from the industrial revolution about changing career, or from ancient Japanese pilgrims on the art of travel?

‘The Wonderbox is a cornucopia of delights. Completely fascinating, beautifully written and brimming with insights that challenge our entrenched and predictable ways of seeing and doing, it draws on an amazing range of stories from the history of human culture to explain how we can find true meaning in life. Every thinking home should have one!’ – Michael Wood, historian, broadcaster and author of The Story of England

Find out more about the book here. You can buy it from Amazon here.

The book is being launched with a series of five talks at The School of Life, Life Lessons from The Wonderbox, starting January 11 with ‘The Six Varieties of Love’.

Best wishes and happy reading!


How to be a Muslim, a Hindu, a Christian and a Jew

There is an intriguing thesis at the heart of Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. The Harvard psychologist argues – contrary to popular opinion – that humankind has become progressively less violent over the past few thousand years. We might feel surrounded by terrorism, civil wars and gun crime today, but murder and warfare is in fact on the decline. And the reason? One of Pinker’s key explanations is the rise of empathy as a force for social change: we are now more likely to look at the world through other people’s eyes, and consequently take action on their behalves. Continue reading

Why every city needs an Empathy Museum

Just as the world’s major cities now have Holocaust Museums, it is time they all established Empathy Museums too. Their purpose would be nothing less than generating a new global culture of empathy by creating adventure spaces where you can explore how to view life from the perspective of other people.

A typical Empathy Museum would not house dusty exhibits inside glass cases. Instead, it would be an exciting and intriguing playground rivalling the finest galleries and tourist attractions that the city has to offer. On rainy Sunday afternoons you might wander through the Empathy Museum with a few friends or your mother-in-law. During the week it is likely to be filled with children on school excursions and inquisitive visitors from countries where the ideal of empathy remains embryonic. The Empathy Museum will ignite the imagination just like the first public museums in the seventeenth century, whose collections of curiosities revealed the wonders of nature and human civilization for the first time. Continue reading

What a philosopher, certified insane, thinks about his doctors

I live around the corner from one of the world’s most remarkable streets, Cowley Road in Oxford. It’s a hive of different cultures – Bangladeshi, Moroccan, Chinese, Ukranian – and has a vibrancy that cannot be found in the cobbled medieval lanes of the city centre. It has even been the subject of a fabulous book, Isolarion: A Different Oxford Journey, by James Attlee, in which the author wanders up Cowley Road philosophising about the sex shops and curry houses. But if there is one thing that makes Colwey Road truly remarkable, it is Alan Human. Continue reading

Plato's Symposium at the Latitude Festival

The School of Life's recreation of Plato's Symposium at the Latitude festival

I don’t wear a mauve toga very often. But it was my fashion item of choice at this year’s Latitude Festival, the annual extravaganza of music, theatre, comedy and literature held deep in the Suffolk countryside. On behalf of The School of Life, I hosted one of the more unusual events on the programme – a recreation of Plato’s Symposium, the first great conversation in the history of the art of living. Continue reading

Election Special: Empathy and Immigration Policy

Jamaican immigrants to Britain in 1948 arriving off the ship Empire Windrush, which carried the first large group of West Indian immigrants following World War Two.

The upcoming British general election on May 6 raises the possibility for a new dawn in empathy-based politics. Or not. My review of the election manifestos of the major parties – Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green – reveals that the word ‘empathy’ is not mentioned a single time in any of them (out of a total 356 pages of text). This is rather different from the last US presidential election, when Barack Obama mentioned ‘empathy’ in almost every speech he made. Continue reading

The Empathy Top Five: Who are the greatest empathists of all time?

The moment has finally come for the Outrospection blog to put its cards on the table and boldly declare who are the greatest empathists of all time. Our selection committee has been painstakingly deliberating over the choices for several months, and you might well be surprised by the results. No, Barack Obama does not appear in our top five, even though he believes ‘the empathy deficit’ to be the greatest scourge of modern society. And not even famed empathetic individuals such as the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa or Jesus Christ have shown what it takes to make the grade. Continue reading

Should you empathise with your father's killer?

Jo Berry (right) standing next to Pat Magee, the man who killed her father.

One of the greatest challenges of leading an empathetic life is trying to step into the shoes of people who we consider to be ‘enemies’ or whose views and values are very different from our own. If you’re on the receiving end of a racist comment from someone at the pub or a torrent of unfair verbal abuse from your boss, the idea of trying to empathise with them would probably be the last thing on your mind. If you came face to face with the person who had recently burgled your house, could you overcome your anger to see the crime from their perspective, and understand the circumstances that may have driven them to it?

Empathising in such instances might seem like wishful thinking. But consider the case of Jo Berry. Continue reading

Five ways to expand your empathy

It is usual, at this time of year, to make a series of earnest New Year’s Resolutions which – by tradition – you resolutely fail to keep. Why not try promising yourself some New Year’s Explorations instead and widen your personal horizons.

Expanding your empathy might offer just what you are looking for. Empathising is an avant-garde form of travel in which you step into the shoes of another person and see the world from their perspective.  It is the ultimate adventure holiday – far more challenging than a bungee jump off Victoria Falls or trekking solo across the Gobi desert.

Here are my five top tips for transforming yourself into an empathetic adventurer over the coming months. Continue reading