On motivation

motivation at workplace

Over the past few months, I have been lucky enough to be gifted not one, not two, but three talented people to join my team, and mixed in with the excitement of getting much needed help, I felt the burden of responsibility to get it right, hitting only those buttons that will ignite their passion and fuel their desire to invest in the mission, day in, day out. It is when the word ‘motivation’ started ringing in my head with more volume.

Motivation has always intrigued me deeply. The idea that you can get to the heart of what makes people’s nerves tickle, utterly fascinates me. It is a journey of investigation and discovery, like when you separate an onion from itself and carefully peel one of the thin and transparent epidermal layers that then allows you to examine the individual cells, in all their neatly arranged splendour.

The proposal that the keys to motivation are within our field of vision and our sphere of control is nearly ludicrous. It implies that what we have in our hands is a heavy tool of influence on people’s behaviour. I remember how enthusiastic I was to do the research for my assignment on motivation as part of the certificate in management competence, and how I tried to fit my chosen case studies inside the space of models by Maslow, Alderfer, etc.  

Since then, 20 years have passed, but none of the eagerness has waned. When I think about people and motivation, the first word that jumps around in my mind is ‘care’. The people I would like to motivate are people in my care. Next to that comes understanding. Motivation is all about understanding what it is that makes people willing to leave the comfort of their bed, complete with memory foam mattresses and pillows, their own temperature setting, and the softness of dust dancing on a band of sunlight, to take the hassle-full journey to the famous workplace where they need to compete with everyone else for space, ventilation, the right to complain about the temperature of the air-conditioning, and the luxury of disappearing into blind spots once every so often, away from supervisory eyes.

I turn to evolutionary psychology to answer big questions. To help me with this one, I was reminded of one hot afternoon in the summer of 2017, where, lounged on the sofa after the beach, I was inhaling the wonders that come out of the pages of Edward O. Wilson’s 1978 groundbreaking book ‘On Human Nature’; precisely the one where Wilson says that humans have no particular place to go, because as a species we lack any goal external to our own biological nature.

Before you judge this to be depressing, think again. It means that the key to understanding motivation is to identify those goals that are part of our human nature. That which drives us, biologically. In his brilliant ‘How the Mind Works’, cognitive psychologist Stephen Pinker refers to the Triune Brain theory, and how the Reptilian Brain (the seat of the primitive and selfish emotions) drives the “Four F’s”: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and sexual behaviour. Later though, with his impeccable style, he insists that the goals installed in Homo sapiens are not just the Four F’s – high on the list are understanding the environment and securing the cooperation of others.

We cannot pursue all our goals at once, otherwise we will end up like Buridan’s ass, hungry and thirsty and standing halfway between a stack of hay and a pail of water, unable to commit our body to that single more important goal at a given point in time. And that is the key to why we have emotions – those “programmes” that evolved to solve this problem of coordination, helping us decide how to organise and synchronise things.

With this reasoning, we see motivation as a higher-order coordination system, a superior-type programme that manages the large number of specialised emotions that rage inside our chest like wild birds. It follows that if I were to give you my “top 10 elements for shaping motivation”, having emotional literacy – understanding which emotions drive an individual – would be high on the list.

The key to unlock motivation, therefore, is to aim for alignment, making sure that the person is not only able to ‘fit’ within the organisation with ease and comfort, but is also convinced that the outcome of whatever it is they are doing runs parallel to the goals and sub-goals of their own purpose. Work doesn’t need to be at the core of people’s life or at the topmost of their priorities for them to be motivated to put in as much effort in what it is you do. Our task as leaders, as mentors, and as support centres, becomes simpler – to ensure that rather than conflicting with the individual goals, our organisation’s objectives provide the space and scope for personal synergy and reinforcement. 

And once you get to that delicate awareness – that motivation doesn’t depend on the rough forces of push and pull but rather on a gentler backing and smooth orientation – you also realise that, within this system, energy flows both ways. Consumed as we are with the task of holding the matchbox in our hand, we might think we are the givers and it is only fair to take the credit for the progress that we see, whereas in reality it works both ways. We are receiving a whole lot of esteem that gets injected back into the system, creating a virtuous cycle of motivation where people do things to their heart’s content.

Gifted to be a woman


In the introduction to her book ‘The Hormone Cure’, Sara Gottfried, a hormone expert and Harvard-educated physician-scientist, speaks about what she calls ‘The Unfair Truth’, the fact that women are much more vulnerable to hormonal imbalance than men; e.g., an underactive thyroid affects women up to fifteen times more than men, and women feel more stressed than men.

Contrast this to the title (but not necessarily the content) of my study unit ‘Gifted by Nature: The Science of Being a Woman’ that is part of the University of Malta’s Programme for Liberal Arts and Sciences. The idea behind this study unit is that women have been gifted by nature with some unique talents that enable them to solve problems, offer solutions, and bring about change, and that it is through an awareness of our female nature and the tools we have been given over evolutionary time that we can be empowered to participate with liberty in modern society. The core premise here is that being a woman is not about being the same as a man, but having a mind of your own, a thought that is borrowed with gratitude from the title of the book ‘A Mind of Her Own: The Evolutionary Psychology of Women’ by the great Anne Campbell, British academic specialising in evolutionary psychology.

Whenever I start to deliver a new training course, I prepare both students and myself for the excitement that comes along with the experimental nature of something that is fresh out of the oven. What follows is fascinating; the result of an open conversation in which everyone feels free to share and challenge what is being said. One such debate centred around the title, with some asking whether the term ‘gifted’ was in the context of a comparison with men, and whether this in turn implied that women had some sort of advantage in solving everyday problems including situations where it is mainly an issue of competition with males.

This question, transferable from week to week, set a few thinking wheels in motion. From a biased point of view, arguing from the perspective of either men or women, this might well be the case, but from a more neutral position, which is why we choose evolutionary theory as our ground, it doesn’t make sense to compare. When we speak about human nature, what we are talking about, in reality, are two human natures, one male, and one female, a distinction with good evolutionary reasons and clear evolutionary consequences (Matt Ridley, 1993, The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature). The point, then, is not whether the tools you have been given are better or more high-tech, the point is whether they are suited for the task at hand, and that since men and women have faced different problems (this is especially true when it comes to reproduction rather than survival), they have also evolved different adaptations. This is the basis of sex differences.

With sex differences, you are either a fan, or an objector. In a recent episode of ‘The Psychology Podcast’ by cognitive scientist and humanistic psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, American sexologist Anne Fausto-Sterling made a call to end sex differences research. Fausto-Sterling is also the author of the 1993 paper ‘The Five Sexes: why male and female is not enough’. Precisely why I find knowledge on sex differences to be illuminating: it is one of the filters through which we can construct our individual identity as we sift through the many layers that make our core – our human nature; our biological sex; our gender; our personality traits; our desires, preferences, and ambitions, and so on and so forth.

It is also why I find that the research on sex differences provides a robust basis for exploring what it means to be a woman. When my new study unit Gifted was being advertised, I was hesitant to promote it to men, and not out of any sort of discrimination. With the material I had prepared, intended to explore different chapters of a female’s life journey – motherhood, work, mating, aggression, status, sexual conflict – through an evolutionary lens, I felt men would derive much less benefit than women and, in a sense, it would be a disservice to let them in.

Right now, I am in my 8th or 9th lecture, and I have a class of twelve females, one male. It is immense fun for all (or at least I hope it is the right mix of information and amusement). One reason for what I believe is the success of this course is that it provides the space and the opportunity for women of different ages and lifestyles to explore what it means to be a woman. Some of the chapters, like motherhood and sexual conflict, can be uncomfortable to say the least, and this is where the mutual respect for sensitivities is appreciated. In other instances, such as learning what women want in a mate, the atmosphere is lighter and many can relate to the stories on offer.

Back to our original argument on whether women are truly gifted. I say yes. We are gifted with wonderful adaptations that enable us to do marvellous things, like the superheroes. Of course, that might be the more romantic side of me speaking, because back on solid earth we all know that some of these adaptations are incredibly costly (consider, for example, that the placenta is referred to by obstetricians as a “ruthless parasitic organ existing solely for the maintenance and protection of the foetus, perhaps too often to the disregard of the maternal organism”; or that women’s fear of rape redesigns their internal psychology and motivates a suite of tactical and metabolically expensive actions for the sake of vigilance. I say we are gifted because these are the tools we need to navigate the complexities of life and to handle the things we cannot change, the gifts that grant us the freedom to lead our lives with the purpose we choose.

The biology of sex and gender

What it would be foolish to do – and what many WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) people in the 21st century are doing – is to pretend that sex equals gender, or that gender has no relationship to sex, or that either sex or gender is not wholly evolutionary.” These are the words of Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein from their book ‘A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century – Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life’.

Now Bret Weinstein is not a safe choice for a quote on sex and gender. He is considered to form part of the intellectual dark web and his resignation from the Evergreen College in the aftermath of the protests around the Day of Absence is surrounded by controversy. On the other hand, Weinstein and his wife Heying are evolutionary biologists, so they should be pinning their arguments to the evidence. The real reason why I chose to use this quote, however, is that I think there is a lot of truth in it, and that it is through truth that we can try to make sense of the world.

Before Maltese podcaster Jon Mallia invited me to be one of his first guests in April 2021, and to talk about sex differences, I had little interest or motivation to delve into the biological meaning of gender and gender identity. When he popped the question about definitions, and asked me to explain the difference between sex and gender, I felt that I had been taken by surprise because I had forgotten to do my homework properly. In the difficult 3 to 4 minutes that followed, I tried to rely on the wisdom of one of my favourite evolutionary psychologists, David M. Buss, and the introduction to his 2021 book ‘When Men Behave Badly: The Hidden Roots of Sexual Deception, Harassment, and Assault’ in which he explains that whereas sex is defined by the size of the games – males being the ones with the small gametes (sperm), and females the ones with the large gametes (eggs), the term “gender” includes many meanings – cultural, social constructions, and psychological identities.

Since then, I have had the opportunity to deepen my understanding of the relationship between sex and gender and what this means to different individuals. One of these occasions was the conference ‘Gender 360° – A Multidisciplinary Approach Towards all Genders’, organised by the mental health and counselling service Willingness in March last year, where I delivered a workshop entitled ‘The Biological Roots and Truths of Sex, Gender, and Equality.’ This is where I talked about sex role and gender expression as the behavioural expression of sex; how the usual rules of sex roles are ones of male display and female choosiness – males tend to put more effort into what happens before sex, as opposed to females who are more invested in what happens afterwards; and that as humans and compared to other animals we are able to ‘switch’ gender, or change our sex role (our gender) much more easily. I guess this is where the terms ‘fluid’ and ‘gender fluidity’ come from.

Here, with no camera or videographer in the hall, in front of an audience of people who had willingly chosen to sign up for this workshop, and secured by the thickness of the stone walls at Razzett Antik in Qormi, I was still not entirely in my comfort skin. The idea for this workshop was to present some of the ‘biological realities’ – such as that in humans, fertilisation occurs internally within women, that it is women who carry the metabolic costs of pregnancy, and also women who have breasts capable of lactation – and then use these fundamentals to illustrate what I called the three inequality chapters:  inequality in parenting, in working, and in sexual mating strategy. So when one of the participants – a highly-qualified person with years of experience in academia – remarked that although they agreed with what I said and felt it was all very true, they would not dare repeat any of this stuff elsewhere, it felt as if my fears were being confirmed.

This is the fear of saying something that sounds dangerous, and that can be propagated heavy with the burden of misunderstanding, irrespective of whether the original message is supported by science and has been shared with noble intent.

Frankly, I get the sensitivity around sex and gender identity. Together, these two speak of who we are at our deepest core, that intimate space which we guard with force.  I also understand the conflict that comes from wanting, on one hand to keep such signatures private, and a desire on the other to express ourselves and signal to other people.

What I do not understand, however, is how it be can convenient or beneficial to ignore the biology, disconnect either sex or gender from their biological basis, or to confound the relationship between sex and gender. Let me give an example. The first question that you provide on a survey looking into the determinants of mental health at the workplace is titled ‘Gender’ and you can choose from 1) male; 2) female; 3) prefer not to say; and 4) other. I’m assuming that in a study of this sort, what you are really interested in is the sex, because that will help you analyse the data in a meaningful way and address the gap in data and in research. I’m also assuming that you are not really interested in the respondents’ behavioural expression of sex, but if that were the case, it would be good to have a separate question.

This is why I feel it is time to at least start the conversation about the biological truths of sex and gender. It is not because I believe that biology is the only truth. I think that, as for other aspects of our human nature, biology is an essential part of the equation without which we will have trouble constructing a coherent narrative of our life and our identity. Biology, along with the realities it relays, is a powerful element that shapes our story and gives us the confidence to thrust ourselves into the world with pride and positivity.  

Keith and the mismatch around food

I have been meaning to write about the famous evolutionary mismatch for quite some time now. Let me be more precise. I have been meaning to write – anything – for a good amount of time, but the disparity between the ideal designs in my head and the chaotic reality of everyday routine is quite significant. Then Keith Demicoli happened.

What has Keith, creative communications specialist and TV presenter, got to do with evolution and with the great mismatch? It’s all a matter of coincidence. Let’s rewind to the point where I meet Keith and his expansive talent for the first time, and to be honest, I can’t remember when that was. It’s like I knew him even before he had the opportunity to impress me as moderator of our panel discussions – the seminar on sustainability in the food business sector; the conference on gender issues and the gap in STEM on the occasion of International Women’s Day; the interview on his early morning show on TVAM on the occasion of World Food Day; and very recently the conference on food markets organised by the Malta Food Agency. All very elegant shows of skill and preparedness.

But before I continue to throw the basic ingredients of this story, like eggs and flour in a simple recipe for a home-baked cake, let me say something about the evolutionary mismatch itself. The best way to explain it, perhaps, is to turn to Steve Stewart-Williams, author and psychology professor, who, in his brilliant and highly entertaining book The Ape That Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve, tells the tragic tale of one hedgehog. While out on one of his foraging adventures in the night, this hedgehog steps on the road and comes face to face with what he describes (if you can imagine a hedgehog describing anything) a noisy metal monster with bright eyes; and instead of running as fast as he can, he simply rolls into a ball. The hedgehog is squished dead. The end.

It’s not hard to understand why, instead of escaping danger, the hedgehog paralyses in the middle of the road and waits for his end. It’s not his fault. The hedgehog was simply acting upon his best instinct for survival. Rolling into a spiky ball is certainly a very good strategy of defence when the enemy is a predator who is trying to figure out whether you’d make a juicy meal for breakfast, but with cars it doesn’t work that way. The reason for the hedgehog’s inappropriate reaction is that there is a huge difference between the environment in which the hedgehog and his instincts evolved and the modern environment. This gap is the evolutionary mismatch.

Let’s go back to Keith. In an interview for the magazine The Sunday Circle of June 2021, Keith had explained how the discovery of what is now his favourite book – Thom Hartmann’s A Hunter in a Farmer’s World, had completely changed his outlook. Here was an eye opener to the fact that in their different ways many individuals struggle to fit in the modern world simply because it does not correspond to the ancestral one inhabited by hunters. Long story short, this is how I was aware that Keith had introduced himself to the subject of evolution and the mismatch between things.

So when, in the middle of the panel debate on the evolution of markets in the food sector, Keith turns to me and drops the one question that would fix the chain, “Sonya, how can we address this mismatch between what the consumer wants and what the producer offers?”, I was unprepared but not surprised.

Good thing I am not a hedgehog and the conference hall seemed like a safe space. I said something about revolutions, evolutions, and how the modern consumer is demanding food that is equally convenient and authentic, but I got nowhere close to addressing the gap. I needed more time to reflect and to ruminate, and the feeling of having ninety-nine pairs of ears waiting for my solution did not help.

What is the answer, then? Do we have a mismatch in the food sector today because consumer preferences have evolved in unrecognisable ways, or because producers are not listening hard enough to consumers’ demands?

In our policy-making around food and the need to address both security and sustainability (a mammoth task), we speak about the need to drive a long-term shift in food culture, tackling food waste, inequity, and issues such as nutritional deficiencies and obesity. But I think it is more fundamental than that. We need to be reminded of our basic instincts for food. The ones where food comes to satisfy hunger; pass the tests of all our senses (seeing the right colours, smelling the best aromas, and tasting texture and flavour); and serve to unite us in celebration with our friends and family. This is the world in which we knew how to choose healthy because anything toxic was bad news; the world in which food evolved from being a means for survival to something of pleasure to be shared with others.

More than a mismatch, the problem we have is one of disconnect. A separation from nature and our basic instincts; a misunderstanding of what people as consumers want and need to have from food; and a divide between the benefits of what’s being offered and what the real thing should look and taste like.

Yes, Keith, there is a mismatch and it starts to form in early childhood when busy mums like myself give their infants pureed carrot rather than the crunchy thing. They say that eating a ripe juicy peach that has just been picked from the tree is one of the rare pleasures of natural living. The solution to our mismatch is not found in educating those who cannot eat anything that’s not excessively sweet and ultra-processed. The solution is that we need to rediscover the joy, right from the very beginning, and for that we can rely our wonderful senses to do the job. Now, when can we have a moderated panel discussion on that?

Anxiety and depression: a beginner’s recipe

It is not appropriate to write about anxiety and depression at a time like this. Not with Christmas, with its promise of hope and renewal and togetherness, knocking on the door; not with the images of wild celebrations over Argentina’s win of the football World Cup still vivid in everyone’s minds. It is not easy to write about the suffering that anxiety and depression bring, and yet I was inspired by the courage of one person who dared speak out loud about these two partners in crime, first as a brief mention, then as recurring problem, and later, with increased boldness, as the elephant that has been standing quietly in the room and needs to be looked at, straight in the eye. And the best part is, it was all so very genuine, like pure rain from pregnant clouds.

Let’s start by introducing the pair who do not need much introduction. In evolutionary terms, anxiety and depression are emotions, best described as biological adaptations that evolved to serve a function that should, at least in theory, serve our interests well. Anxiety, like fear, is a normal defense mechanism that is triggered by the risk of losing something valuable, and should help us deal with the danger.   

Depression, on the other hand, is the emotional reaction to the actual loss of something biologically valuable, precious things like our health, our loved ones, our standing in society, our main source of wealth, and important relationships. As cruel as it sounds, depression is the emotional programme that shuts down all other programmes. It’s the mind’s way of saying: “listen, I’ve tried, I’ve been trying, I’m not sure there’s anything else I should try, so I think it would be a good idea to just give up and stop trying”. At this point depression feels like the thing that has pushed you into a deep pit in the middle of nowhere on a night with no moon.

What is the way up, then? At the mention of anxiety and depression, a lot of people come up with all sorts of tips and tricks, even if they don’t have the knowledge or the first-hand experience. The reason why I find evolutionary psychology to be liberating, so to speak, is because the emphasis is on the understanding of the phenomenon, down to its roots. You might say that this is not a method for a solution, and that by the time you’ve become an expert in evolutionary reasoning, you are still paralysed with nerve-wrecking anxiety on the couch, or that you are still unable to throw a life-saving rope to your best friend down the hole.

Let’s give it a try, shall we? One of the first things to understand is that there is a very big difference between anxiety and depression. When possessed by anxiety, you are in a state of preparedness, always alert and fully loaded to act in defense. You are fueled by a strange energy, the type that consumes you rather than drives you to a safe destination. It is a horrible feeling, like being in a forest (already not good news if you don’t like forests) but the trees are live electrical wires, swerving violently in gale-force winds. Depression is different. You are imprisoned, you are weak from a severe lack of appetite and sleep deprivation with a mix of nightmares, and the worst part of it is that this is all the result of an attack by your own system. 

Having understood the difference, the next step is to realise that, in the grand scheme of things, it is not important to make the distinction between the two. What is important, and perhaps a little bit urgent, is that you crawl your way out of whichever tunnel you happen to find yourself in.

During attacks from anxiety, panic, fear, or any of its close relatives, your body feels helpless because your mind is too captured by the threat to give instructions. This is why we feel that we have absolutely no control over things. It is also why the key to overcome this feeling, slowly and until you can also face the danger lurking in the shadows behind, is to do other things that give you a sense of power, however small they might be. And here comes the warning: do things with your body, not your mind, because it is through your body that you can heal your mind. That means maintenance works, either at your house or at a friend’s (who will be grateful), any form of sparring/kick-boxing sessions, some hard labour at a local farm (all the better if it’s harvest season), or any other activity that does not need you to focus and will make you sweat your pores out. At least, you’re guaranteed to sleep from a sweet exhaustion.

Tackling depression is undoubtedly more difficult, because your tank is on empty, and you need to rely on someone else to give you that first push (and many others). The magic ingredient is value, that which we have lost in one area of our lives, and need to find in some other. Remember, we are looking for value of very small proportions, starting as small as possible and saving up. If I remember well, in her book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Sheryl Sandberg says that even making your own cup of coffee seems like a big feat but if necessary this is where you need to start. Be of value, to yourself, and to others. Start by doing small things, like giving someone a ride, preparing a single-ingredient soup and serving it to others, accompanying a colleague for a presentation and waiting in the corridor outside, etc., until, eventually, you feel confident and courageous enough to handle bigger jobs and bigger responsibilities, such as volunteering, where you can give a little value and earn so much more in return.

If all this sounds a little bit too simplistic, it’s probably because that’s the way it’s meant to be, just like the recipe for a beginner’s Christmas cake. It might not be as complex and as full of flavour as the real thing, yet this version is the gift that I hope brings a touch of warm comfort to your hearts when you need it.

At Christmas-time, and throughout the year.

The Maltese and their anger


The news article reporting that the ‘Maltese are the angriest and most worried people in EU’, makes me angry. Without having participated in Gallup’s study of the world’s emotional temperature, I became part of the story, the one in which 24% of Maltese people stated they had experienced anger.

I am angered because I feel that the study and the reporting do not do justice to the issue, its complexity, and the narrative that can be woven around it.

Let’s start with the numbers. It is reported that “a quarter of Maltese … had experienced anger …and that “this rate, which Malta shares with Poland, was the third highest in Europe after Turkey and North Macedonia”. If you click on the interactive map for anger on the Gallup website, you will confirm that 24% of Maltese people had felt angry the day before being surveyed, and that we share the same cabin as the Polish on this. But if you move the mouse over to Turkey, you will notice that the percentage of angry people there stands at 48%, double ours, and definitely a huge leap up from third place.

There’s also the part where we are compared with the countries at the bottom of the list, our so-called fellow EU countries Finland, Estonia, Portugal and the Netherlands. I’m sure I’m not the only one asking what it is that we share in terms of position, quality, or condition, with either Portugal, where one can visit Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of continental Europe, or Finland, whose population density is 76 times less ours.

It doesn’t stop there. You look at spacious Spain and smaller Austria, and their rate stands at 22%, meaning the difference between the angriest people in Europe and another two EU Member States is extremely small. Not to mention Germany, where even the Bratwurst and the beer are not enough to calm people down, because 21% still manage to get angry and dutifully report it.

And yet, the part about numbers is only a very short chapter of the entire story. I am angered because we need to revisit the belief that emotions are simple programmes that come with an ‘On’ and an ‘Off’ button, that they are either wrong or right (and can be mapped as negative or positive experiences) and that anger is to found on the bad list. In his brilliant bestseller ‘How the Mind Works’, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker describes emotions as “mechanisms that set the brain’s highest-level goals” and demonstrates, with unusual examples such as the supposedly emotionless Mr Spock, that “each human emotion mobilises the mind and body to meet one of the challenges of living”. That includes anger, the emotion that protects us from being vulnerable to the exploitation of others. It follows then, that once an injustice is discovered, the aggrieved person feels furious and is motivated to respond with aggression. This is also why, according to many psychologists, anger is one of the moral emotions and is almost always righteous.

The idea that people who get angry easily do not think twice before they react also rests on shaky grounds. In his excellent book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom’, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains this perfectly when he says that “reason and emotion must both work together to create intelligent behaviour, but emotion does most of the work”.

In our case, could it be, for example, that with the increase in population, and the lack of space in which to roam, the Maltese are coming in contact with each other more frequently and more closely, and that this triggers our anger? Can we agree with Nigel Camilleri, president of the Maltese Association of Psychiatry, that the Maltese environment, with all its noise, traffic, and hectic lifestyle, is what triggers anger in people? Should we be mindful of cultural differences in the expression of anger, as psychologist Gail Debono points out?

The answer to these questions is probably yes, yes, and yes. But I’m more interested to move beyond the triggers outside our mind (and that is not the noise or the traffic themselves but the people causing these disturbances through their lack of respect and the desire to push their agenda at the expense of yours) and to explore whether and to what extent anger is a beneficial tool that drives us in the same direction as our purpose.

It would be interesting to know, for example, how many of those angry people learned to recognise situations in which they will be harmed by others unless they take their precautions. It would be useful to know how many disengaged, changed tactics, or even took corrective action based on this knowledge and awareness. It would be fascinating to know how many people extracted value from the unpleasant feeling of anger and stored this information in memory for future use, what we would call learning your lesson.

In reality what we are trying to investigate here is whether people are sufficiently sensitive to wrongdoing, whether they are mentally strong enough to process the circumstances and relate them to their values, whether they have the openness to change course, even if that means giving up on an aspiration or trying something completely new, and whether they will mature, emotionally and psychologically, as a result of this episode.

In short, whether people who experience anger are more likely to be psychologically resilient, emotionally robust, and morally empowered.

Now that would have been a more fitting title for our story: the Maltese are the most morally empowered people in the EU.

Stop chasing happiness


As a conclusion to the study unit ‘The Biology of Struggle: Evolutionary Insights into Everyday Problems’ which I have been delivering to satisfied students as part of the University of Malta’s Programme for Liberal Arts and Sciences, comes the evolution of happiness. There’s a reason why it sits quietly at the end of the line, waiting for its turn after a trip through topics that are both more interesting and more of a match to the title of the course – things such as the great struggles of life, getting a grip on emotions, facing problems with parenting, understanding the male-female sex divide, figuring out to what extent personality traits shape people’s behaviour, and the very modern problem of eating the right type of food – and that reason is that I secretly hope to run out of time and not be able to discuss it.

Luckily for everyone involved, this tactic didn’t work the last time we ran the course, because when I asked students to choose topics for a tutorial session, there came a request for happiness that I couldn’t refuse. Let’s start with what this topic is all about. Basically, this is where we take a look at how the same evolutionary perspective that sheds light on the nature of our troubles and anxieties can also offer insights on the major obstacles that stand between us and happiness.

In reality, there is nothing very new or surprising. One of these barriers comes from the famous ‘evolutionary mismatch’, the discrepancy between the modern environment, this strange world in which we are surrounded by straight lines, rigid schedules, angry mirrors, mobile cameras, and bright cities, and what we romantically call the ancestral environment, the Pleistocene savannah, or the home of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. This evil mismatch, in case you were wondering, is the culprit behind some of our odd behaviour, including irrational fears, uncontrollable addictions, and our obesogenic, carcinogenic, diabetogenic, and cardiovascular-disease-ogenic diets.

Another impediment to finding happiness is our baggage of psychological tools, including things such as anger and upset, sexual jealousy, the many varieties of anxiety, and ultimate depression, the programme that shuts down all other programmes when things fail. Viewed from an evolutionary angle, these are all adaptations that have been designed to solve one problem or another, but because nature does not care for our happiness, the way they work is by producing distress, so we might be rid of one problem but lumped with the unhappiness, or worse, still troubled and unhappy in one go.

Evolution has produced another big obstacle on our way to happiness: competition. This one is easy to understand: one person’s loss is another person’s gain. It is precisely the reason why we often mistake interpersonal strategic interference between males and females at work for a conflict that belongs in the more aggressive battle of the sexes, and also why we take a few steps back to wonder what’s wrong with people who do not, under any circumstances, try to gain advantage at the expense of others, or take pleasure in the misfortunes of others, that type of feeling that is best captured by the German word ‘Schadenfreude’.

There are other barriers to happiness, but I risk running out of space, so I’ll skip some of the darker chapters and pass straight on to evolutionary recipes for happiness. As you can imagine, some of the remedies involve undoing the previous wrongs – things such as minding the gap between the modern and the evolutionary environment; reducing distress; and managing competition. The other method is a bit more intriguing because it offers a broader range of possibilities, and this is the fulfilment of our desire for valuables such as health, friends and family, professional success, intimacy, personal safety, romantic partners, food that tastes great, resources (mostly money), and aesthetic pleasures. I have produced advice about some of these pleasures before, including tips on how to extract joy by for example, making sure to meet a friend after 6 pm so you can drink wine rather than coffee; taking pictures of clouds on your way to work and then testing different filters; immersing yourself in a mist of your most expensive perfume for that boring Monday meeting; having an intellectual conversation with your dog; smelling soil and leaves (not necessarily after the rain); sorting and cooking vegetables by colour even when you’re not posting on Instagram; and getting yourself a precious gift on your birthday and also on a perfectly random day.

The truth is, we are not designed for happiness, we are designed to solve problems, which is why most of the natural adaptations we possess are intended to do just that. And if solving problems, for which we have been shaped, is hard work, just imagine what finding happiness entails! To begin with, you need to understand the source of your misery – and whether it is inherited, inevitable, ill-conceived, or a mix of the above – and then after peeling back the layers of misfortune one by one, you need to fill the void with ‘good things’. I guess there’s a reason why people over the age of 40, even when they’re supposed to begin life, continue to insist that ‘life is too short’ to be wasted on fruitless adventures.

Why we should stop chasing happiness should be clear by now, the next obvious question is what to chase instead. This is something I have thought about deeply myself, often in times of trouble, and in those moments when I fear the happiness gained will be lost on a soft whistle by the wind. I’m proposing we chase benefits – the benefits of treasured friendships that are forged in fire and that can carry you through a storm like a sturdy ship; the benefits of caring for children, irrespective of whether they are the ones living in your house; the benefits of nature, with its harsh edges and soft heart; the benefits of learning as a map to unlock the mind, and of physical training as a means to strengthen the body and sharpen the senses; the benefits of good food, whether prepared at the end of a long day or by one of the world’s most talented chefs; the benefit of staring at indescribable beauty until your eyes hurt; the benefits of discovering yourself and the power within; the benefits of becoming familiar with risks, dangers, and the smaller monsters of the jungle; the benefits of a life partner with whom you can exchange support and excitement; and the benefits of money, which you can either donate or use to buy additional benefits.

It becomes a cycle for fun.  

Just try it.

Agriculture – from revolution to evolution


This is an island of intense emotions. That is why no one was surprised that the social media post by the Commissioner for Animal Welfare on the occasion of World Milk Day, pointing out that the dairy industry relies on artificial processes that interfere with the natural instincts and normal behaviour of animals, triggered such an overpowering mix of feelings.

Even before the reactions started popping up, this post instantly reminded me of a more personal debate that takes place between the two minds inside my head, that of a scientist with a special interest in agriculture and entrepreneurship who actively promotes the benefits of technology even if this often comes at a cost to domesticated plants and animals, and that of the same scientist with a profound passion for evolutionary biology who advocates respect for nature and sentient beings.

I did not choose to work in agriculture. It chose me. Like that time when, after picking analytical chemistry as the study area for my undergraduate dissertation, I was invited to investigate the levels of micronutrient metals in animal feeds, and, one thing leads to another, this is how I was introduced to the milk sector, to the people who work in the industry, and to the gentle dairy cow.

Then there was the time when, fresh and happy out of my B.Sc. final year examinations, I entered the graduate trainee programme with a placement at the Department of Agriculture, then headed by the beloved Franco Serracino Inglott, who, with his vision and composure, offered me a bench at the chemistry laboratories. This is where it began – my fascination with how the soil holds everything in her arms and feeds the world. From then on, it was a matter of what one would call the organic evolution of things.   

Throughout the many years that followed, and as my understanding of evolutionary science deepened, I have had to bring together conflicting insights on the same table. On one hand, there is the knowledge that the agricultural revolution, initiated some 10,000 years ago, is all about the manipulation of a few species of plants and animals for human benefit. When you think about how humans revolutionised the way they lived by deciding to sow seeds, water plants, pluck weeds, and lead sheep to pastures, instead of continuing to hunt wild animals and gather wild plants like their ancestors Homo sapiens and those from Homo erectus and Homo ergaster had done before them, you will be right to intuit that this new way of doing things, farming, comes with its set of tradeoffs.

On one side of the coin, the agricultural revolution is one of our greatest stories of progress and success, made possible thanks to the intelligent human who managed to figure out how to design and control the growth of plants and animals for his comfortable consumption and satisfactory lifestyle. In another version, it is what Yuval Noah Harari calls history’s biggest fraud, because rather than make life easier for farmers, it burdened them with the dangers of disease and starvation linked to the inevitable explosions in populations. Not to mention some of the losses, such as the wisdom of foragers, who knew the secrets of nature and its wild plants; the secret lives of pigs who with their inquisitive brains and matriarchal societies suffer at the hands of domestication; and the best kept secret of all, the story of wheat and how it has domesticated humans; how a wild and insignificant plant, originally confined to a small range in the Middle East, today covers an area almost ten times the size of Britain.

One form of consolation, so to speak, comes from the gene’s eye view because it is through domestication that these plants and animals have implemented a very successful strategy of survival and reproduction. It is then up to us to carry the ethical responsibility to make sure that these animals do not suffer unnecessarily and are as free as possible to express their mental abilities and sociable nature.

In moving forward, even if it is with experimentation, I think we should not try to reverse things. Nature does not work by going backwards. What we can do instead, on top of respecting nature and all its manifestations, perhaps, is to respect history and to respect the people who make it.

Back to the island, an island with a big heart of emotions. Which is why it should not be a problem to accommodate different interests with respect. A respect for nature as the ecological system that supports us; a respect for the animals who willingly share this living home with us; a respect for history, and the way that things evolved, sometimes organically, sometimes by disruption, throwing a revolution in our faces like a mega brand; and respect for the people who with their hard work carry it all forward in time, so that our children may sustain the rapid revolutions and the gradual evolution in the future.

When the truth is beautiful

I’m all for the idea that the truth’s worth it. Some people find that extremely harsh. Very few open their arms to listen to it. Most people struggle with the truth and with the meaning that it imposes on their lives.

I believe we cannot (and should not) try to escape from the biological realities that shape our destiny. But much depends on how we narrate our story as the interplay between what we inherit (our genes), the conditions we find ourselves in as we travel along the way (our environment), and the direction we choose to take, every single day.

I feel this is where we can rely on the more romantic side of our human nature, complete with elaborate language and beautiful poetry. It’s not just a matter of choosing not to be offensive, or retelling the story through a different angle, it’s a celebration of the natural wonders that fill our lives and our hearts.

This is an example of how you can connect the dots – in this case, the personality traits – to paint a thing of immense beauty. And the best part about it is that it’s real.

It is truth that’s worth knowing.

Some people touch your mind. They are the precious humans from another world who only made it here by accident because the Universe has let them escape from its possessive grip. Their openness of mind is of a different category: flexible, magnetic, creating an out-of-the-box space that pulls people in with gradual charm.

Some people touch your moral instinct. They wear conscientiousness like the first skin that works as a barrier to prevent harm. They plan and prepare for what might come, because they know too well the cost of chaos and the price of error.

Some people touch your senses. Their extroversion is balanced – cool and cautious – joyful in company, measured in extent.

Some people touch your heart. It is nature’s way of saying, I admit I can be harsh, but I also make sure you cross paths with people who are kind and compassionate (and it’s not because I have dosed them with my oestrogen).  It is said that agreeableness defined itself by looking up to these warm-hearted people.  

Some people touch your psyche. Like most of the rest of us, they struggle with neuroticism but carry it with style and a special smile that spreads from cheek to cheek and eye to eye. It is with generosity, not regret, that they share their lessons learnt.

Some people touch your mind, your heart, and everything in between. It is life’s way of saying, sure, I can be cruel, but I can also deal you extraordinary gifts.”

Correcting the gender corrective mechanism

women parliament

As much as I tried to shut my senses to the commotion around the gender corrective mechanism that has been tried and tested, for the first time, a few weeks ago following Malta’s 2022 General Elections, I still felt I could not miss this opportunity to speak my mind. Roughly a year ago, when the mechanism was about to be introduced in Maltese law, I had reasoned that pushing women into parliament is the right thing to do, because, based on the understanding that men and women are different, and bring with them different propositions, it pays to give women an advantage because ultimately this will translate into benefits for society.

Having said that, I continued to harbour my doubts. The fact that, whenever the subject comes up in private conversation, I always hear strong objections, from both men and women, adds weight to only one side of the balance. We all know how persons in the public domain reacted. Criminal lawyer and former PN MP Dr Franco Debono declared that the mechanism had failed; ADPD candidate Mina Tolu stated that it had backfired; Gżira mayor Conrad Borg Manché said that the mechanism made no sense; and newly elected PN MP Eve Borg Bonello, who at the tender age of 18 entered Parliament on the gender ticket, does not agree with the mechanism, and suggested that it actually penalised women.

It’s clear that there is a strong opposition to this mechanism. I’ve heard people insist that competent women do not need any help to get elected, and that it is humiliating to be given a privilege in this manner. I’ve heard men complain that this mechanism is discriminatory and an insult to those who put in the hard work to get elected on their own merits, and that it was women themselves who withdrew their support and chose not to vote for female candidates. All very valid observations. And judging by the feedback, it would seem that the predominant feeling is that the mechanism is not fair.

Which is why, when I came across this passage from ‘The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure’ by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, it resonated loudly:

Most people want individuals to be treated well, and they recoil from cases where individuals are treated unfairly in order to bring about some kind of group-level equality. This is why quotas generally produce such strong backlash: they mandate a violation of procedural justice (people are treated differently based on their race, sex, or some other factor) and distributive justice (rewards are not proportional to inputs) to achieve a specific end-state of equal outcomes.”

The way I see it, there are three layers to the issue of having women in parliament: the why, the what for, and the how. The first one is purpose and this is where we take a good look at why we should have women occupying seats in parliament. It is what motivates and also justifies any action we will need to take to make it happen, irrespective of whether it ends up being labelled as affirmative, positive, corrective, or even discriminatory.

The second layer holds the objective. If the general aim is to have ‘gender equality’, a concept that has different meanings to different people, you will inevitably trigger different expectations, between those who will be satisfied only if there is an equal (or close to equal) representation of men and women inside the building, and others who are quite happy if the doors of opportunity are open to all, regardless of sex.

Finally, we can focus on the famous mechanism that has grabbed so much attention, and start by questioning why it’s called a gender corrective mechanism when in reality it’s intended to address inequalities on the basis of sex. My point here is that if we choose to correct for inequalities of representation by gender, we need to be using a far more complicated mechanism that enables people of different genders to be elected to parliament, and I’m sure that means more than two categories.

I had written about purpose, and I think my viewpoint remains valid. The idea is that you have a mix of problems to solve in modern society; women might be better suited to handle some of these problems (in the same way men might be better suited to handle others); and it therefore makes sense to want females to be part of the global solution. This part is simple.

As we move on to equality, things start to get a little rough. It is very difficult to have an honest conversation about gender equality without risking to offend many people with all the misunderstandings. Previously, in debates and in my writing, I have asked whether gender equality is really the problem we need to solve, and whether it would make more sense to have a set of more meaningful targets around it, such as working towards progress in the social, commercial and political domains, respecting human nature and personal choices, supporting collaboration between the sexes, and empowering women in leadership and entrepreneurship.

This leaves us with the need for a tool that brings about the change we wish to see. As it is, the gender corrective mechanism might have delivered some results, but it clearly didn’t pass the test of fitness. Which means that, if we go back on our steps and agree that, yes, we need to have women taking political decisions, and this is because we believe they can make a difference, but no, we don’t need to impose on ourselves the rigidity of an equal outcome, and for this we need a mechanism that does not violate justice, then we can work together to transform a corrective mechanism into a selective one, having a process that rewards people primarily on the basis of their inputs while also taking into account other criteria, including sex.

I’m sure the data from this General Election can be used to test and design a mechanism that gives us results and is fair and acceptable to most.