Brock’s research interests cut across a number of broad topics, but these various strands all point toward developing a better understanding of the good life. That is, not only how we can feel good, but also how we can lead a meaningful and fulfilling life. Drawing on his background in social psychology, Brock’s approach is to understand the intersection of the individual within society. This takes seriously the social and cultural contexts within which people live, and seeks to understand how these contexts impact individual functioning. It is from this perspective that he and his colleagues seek to understand why depression is becoming an epidemic or how it is that unethical behaviours can become normalized and legitimized.
Cultural Influences on Well-Being
Depression and other affective disturbances are at an all-time high. Current treatment relies on individual-level psychotherapy and medication, but fails to take seriously the social and cultural causes of our emotional discontent. Just as medical researchers have begun to examine the prevalence of fast food outlets as a cause of diabetes, and the influence of high pollen environments on the incidence of asthma, psychologists need to consider the role of cultural values in understanding the spread of affective disturbance. Currently, 1 in 5 people experience mental illness in any given year in Australia, the most common being depression or anxiety related disorders. Brock and his colleagues examine the influence of cultural values in leading to affective dysregulation and poor well-being.
Paradoxically, Brock and his colleagues have found that it may be the promotion of happiness that is in part responsible for well-being problems. Their work has shown that the felt social pressure to be happy, and in turn the belief that one’s negative emotions are undesirable and of little value, predicts increased levels of depression and reduced satisfaction in life.
The Benefits of Pain
Taking seriously the need to change perspective on what makes for the good life, and the importance of learning to value our negative experiences, Brock and his colleagues have been seeking to understand how negative experiences, such as pain, sadness, or failure, may have a number of positive consequences. These include the tendency for pain to bond people together and build cooperation, or how hardships in life contribute to building resilience and a sense of meaning and purpose.
At the broadest level, Brock and his team have begun to examine whether painful experiences are in fact necessary for well-being. Like Aldous Huxley, they have become convinced that endless pleasure and good times are unlikely to produce much happiness in life, and just as we need darkness to understand light, we need pain in order to experience any pleasure at all.
What is the size of your moral world? Who is included or excluded and under what circumstances? Brock and his colleagues have been investigating this question, examining the consequences of more expansive moral worlds and the motivated reasoning that often leads some things to be excluded while others are included. This work reveals that moral reasoning is anything but consistent, and is mostly motivated by our own needs and perspectives. Rather than painting a hopeless picture of moral inconsistency, however, these insights reveal important inroads into behaviour change.
In this work, Brock and his colleagues invented the concept of the “meat-paradox,” showing that our perception of an animal’s moral qualities is fundamentally motivated by whether or not people choose to eat them, and that harmful interpersonal interactions can be dehumanizing for both the self and others. More broadly, this work aims to understand the various ways in which humans are morally connected to other animals and how even cultural and environmental artefacts have moral significance. By drawing attention to these expansive moral concerns, Brock and his colleagues aim to highlight that extending our moral consideration to a broader range of entities may foster human-to-human trust and cooperation.