Monthly Archives: September 2016

Thoughts on Happiness

Dan Gilbert has written a book and given a TED Talk about happiness. His starting point is that humans are the only animals who can imagine future scenarios and develop preferences about which future scenario we want to experience. This is a powerful skill that we have. However, Gilbert goes on to claim that we’re famously bad at choosing futures that will make us happy, even when we’re told that the choice we’re likely to make will make us less happy.

Gilbert reviews a bevy of studies that show we’re bad at choosing future experiences that make us happy. For example, we are generally less happy in situations that we know we could have chosen differently, yet we typically prefer to be in situations that offer the option to make a different choice — even when we know that this will likely make us less happy with our decision. But wait, there’s more: we’re also bad at imagining how happy we’ll be in different scenarios. If we imagine whether we’d be happier in the long run with winning the lottery or being a paraplegic, those of us who aren’t already paraplegic) will almost certainly choose the future in which we win the lottery, but research shows that lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy several months after their respective accidents. Gilbert says we are equally happy after an unexpected tragedy and an unexpected windfall because we have a psychological immune system that works to maintain our long-tern happiness in the face of extreme events. So, we prefer situations we know will make us less satisfied with our choices and we are bad at guessing how happy we’ll be in the face of extremely events. What are we supposed to do now?

Gilbert plays the role of a consummate scientist in his writing and speaking. He doesn’t cop to being a self-help guru, and he goes even further by staying mum about practical applications of his research. He’s simply reporting what scientists have found in their research, how frustrating. Science is famously descriptive. Scientists report their findings, and if they’re feeling generous, they point towards areas of further research. But that is the role of science: to tell us how things work and how events occur as objectively as possible. The problem with this method is that it is easy for people to mistake description for prescription. The misuse of Vilfred Pareto’s discoveries of wealth distribution is a great example. Pareto discovered several situations in which twenty percent of the population owned eighty percent of the assets, and he demonstrated some interesting mathematical permutations on this observation. Subsequently, some writers have taken this observation about statistical distributions as a heuristic for leading one’s life. This is fallacious thinking at its finest: simply because we observe an interesting event over here doesn’t imply that the same event applies or occurs over there too. Gilbert is trying to avoid this kind of self-help scientism by remaining silent on what to do with this information, but simply being told by a scientist that we suck at making decisions about happiness isn’t terribly useful. We still want some help making use of his data.

Fortunately, we have a way around this epistemic void without resorting to new-agey views about science and mathematics:

First, Gilbert explains that we’re bad at making choices about extreme events, which shouldn’t be surprising because extreme events don’t happen very often, so our ability to interpret them based on past evidence will be limited because we don’t have much information available to us. This reasoning is tautological, but a good empiricist ought to know when we don’t have enough information to work with, and when we don’t have enough information, our choices are to change our method or get more data. In our case, changing our methods will get us to a better place with less work. Let me  explain a little more. Gilbert admits we are better at choosing between smaller, shorter-term options about our happiness. Moreover, Gilbert says that our happiness is more affected by more frequent, less extreme events than it is by rarer, more extreme events. This combination of greater effect and better forecasting for more common events implies that we should focus on the small stuff to have a larger impact on our happiness.

The idea that we can better address small problems resonates with ideas N.N. Taleb elaborates in his book, Anti-Fragile. We ought to look at decisions about happiness as making a series of small decisions that compound to a larger result. Because we have more and better experience with small, frequent problems, rather than extreme, rare problems, and if we can decompose big problems into smaller problems, we’ll arrive at a better, more durable solution. For example, rather than focusing on losing twenty-five pounds of fat in a year, it’s simpler and more concrete to focus on changing one’s daily diet and exercising for thirty minutes three times per week. Without even stating a goal of losing twenty-five pounds, simply focusing on improving your diet and increasing your exercise, the goal would likely be realized. And even if you didn’t meet the goal, you’d be a healthier more toned or muscular person regardless of your body weight, no yo-yo dieting required. So, the first step towards happiness is focusing on small, manageable problems.

Second, We can further address the problem of how to be happy by studying psychological experiments about the amount of pain caused by losing versus winning. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky conducted these experiments and Dan Ariely popularized them in his book Predictably Irrational. In essence, we don’t like losing about twice as much as we like winning, which gives us a hint at a practical approach towards happiness: focus on losing less, rather than winning more. In other words, lose less, and lose less often, and you’ll be probably be less unhappy, which is an acceptable start towards being happy, as far as I’m concerned.

Combining these two observations gives us the following maxim:
To be happy, choose to put yourself in situations that make you less unhappy
by focusing on small, manageable problems.
This advice may seem trite and obvious, but it a second look. Browse a social media or news site for fifteen minutes, and you will likely concede that we generally choose to give our f—s to large, difficult to manage problems that we hope will make us happy: worrying about the future president, for example. This is the opposite of my recommendation. So why not give it a shot? Try being less unhappy about the little stuff you can affect: see what comes about.


We don’t study what we’re good at

(Dear Grammar Nazis, never mind the preposition hanging off the end of that title. We’re going for colloquial English today.)

I’ve spent most of my life attending and working in educational institutions, which has given me lots of time to observe academic professionals. While many of them are experts in their fields, I’ve found something ironic: academics don’t study what they are good at, or perhaps, academics aren’t good at what they study. In other words, the subjects that interest people aren’t those that they feel they have mastered. This is precisely why people study those subjects: they want to improve at something they don’t fully comprehend yet; they want to know more about something. Of course, people tend to improve, and even become accomplished, at something they spend a lot of time practicing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re “good” at it.

A couple examples might help illustrate my point. First, there are many professors of communication studies where I work. One would assume that these professors are good at communicating. After all, they have been studying communication long enough to earn a Ph.D., yet many of these people are famous for terse, cryptic replies in emails, or no reply at all after they ask for assistance. In short, there are experts in communication studies who have communication problems. There are also misanthropic anthropologists, unreasonable philosophers, racist ethnic studies professors, and I’ve also worked with a Ph.D. computer scientist who couldn’t accurately diagnose a networking problem.

Second, in the movie Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams has a great monologue about Freud doing enough cocaine to kill a small horse, hinting that at least one psychiatrist has some addictive tendencies as well as some pretty colorful theories about the human mind. We’ll assume that Williams’ monologue is scientifically accurate for our purposes here, or at least anecdotally useful. Freud’s colleague, Jung also had some unusual ideas about human consciousness, as well as several extramarital affairs and possibly a mental disorder. Certainly, Freud and Jung have contributed much to the fields of Psychology and Psychiatry, but if their personal histories are any indication, they may not of have been the best examples of mental health.

What is going on here? Why are experts apparently inept at practicing what they preach, so to speak? The answer, I submit, is that we don’t study what we’re good at. Rather, we study what interests us, and along the way, we might gain some proficiency in our chosen course of study. However, there is a difference between knowing something well and doing it well. For example, having a deep understanding of music theory doesn’t let me immediately pick up a saxophone, trumpet, or guitar and play them like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, or Jimi Hendrix — even being able to write music for those instruments doesn’t ensure my ability to play them. Conversely, some musicians don’t understand music theory, yet they can play their instruments better than folks who know how to play that instrument and know music theory. In other words, performance and knowledge aren’t the same thing: knowing how to play the piano, i.e. pushing appropriate white and black keys in rhythm to create music, is different than being able to apply that knowledge. There is a similar situation going on with the communications professors and psychiatrists. These people know a great many things in the fields they study, but performing that knowledge is a different task entirely.

This is where Aristotle’s concept of wisdom might be useful. Aristotle distinguishes two types of wisdom, theoretical and practical. To paraphrase Aristotle’s point, theoretical wisdom is knowing facts about the world, and practical wisdom is knowing how to live well. We might say these two categories of wisdom are ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’. The professors and psychiatrists from earlier have theoretical wisdom and little practical wisdom: they know a great many things, but they don’t seem to apply that knowledge very well. Practical wisdom is knowing what to do at the right moment: talented musicians who play their instruments very well without knowing the theory behind their performance possess practical wisdom without much theoretical wisdom.

This two-headed wisdom monster presents a problem: how do we have both practical and theoretical wisdom? Philosophers have been bickering for millennia about wisdom, so can we even trust that they know what they’re talking about? This isn’t a question I’ll pretend I can answer, especially in a single blog post, but it’s interesting food for thought. It’s something to strive for.