Happiness vs. Meaning, Continued

I re-wrote my post last week on meaning vs. happiness in a more succinct form for LinkedIn. Pasted below. Also, here’s Chris Yeh’s rebuttal post.

The things that make you happy (low stress, good health, sex) are not the same things that make your life seem meaningful (sacrifice, service, goals). Compare the effect that staying at a luxury hotel has on you (happy!) versus the feeling of training really hard for a marathon and completing it (satisfying and meaningful!).

Adam Alter, in this recent online New Yorker piece about whether the poor have more meaningful lives than the rich, noted that if happiness was all that mattered, people wouldn’t do ultramarathons or Tough Mudder events: “Some of the most rewarding life experiences are popular because they favor meaningful hardship over simple pleasure.”

According to the research, if you ask someone who’s crazy busy, sleep deprived, and anxious about the future about whether he’s happy, he might well answer no. But if you ask him to zoom out and reflect on his broader life satisfaction and ask whether he thinks he’s living a meaningful life, there’s a better chance he’ll answer yes. Especially if his busyness and stress and sacrifice is serving some greater good (or what he perceives as the greater good). That’s because having goals, sacrificing for the future, and being part of something bigger than oneself all lead to a sense of meaning.

What does this mean when thinking about your career?

1. There are certain career paths that seem to lead people to neither feel happy nor create meaning. Stereotypical lawyers and bankers fall into this camp. There’s the obvious stress that reduces happiness; you make money but don’t have time to spend it; and all the while, there’s no sense of broader aspiration or sacrifice for something bigger.

2. There are certain career paths that don’t offer much day-to-day happiness but do promise meaning. A classic example is working at an NGO or non-profit in a tough place in the world (rural Africa, for example). Many tech entrepreneurs also have low happiness, high meaning. The tech entrepreneurs I know who are striving for big world-changing outcomes are not actually happy most days. But the long term change they believe they’re enacting, and the personal legacy that it might create, adds a sense of meaning. That makes the journey worth doing from their perspective.

3. Finally there are career paths that offer happiness but not meaning. An easy, low stress job — like being a highly paid social media analyst at a large company — is going to have you feeling good day-to-day, but won’t leave you feeling purposeful.

If you had to pick whether to prioritize happiness or meaning, my advice would be: choose a career that’s meaningful, but weave in happiness habits as much as possible. By “happiness habits” I mean the small tactical things — like keeping a gratitude journal — that’s proven to lift your mood day-to-day.

Another approach would be to embrace the fact that life is long, people evolve, and that you ought to emphasize different values at different times. For example, perhaps there are stages in life when you want to consciously focus on meaning and stages when you focus on happiness. Early on in your life you seek meaning with audacious career goals and sacrifice and travel; later in life you optimize for day-to-day happiness with a lower-stress, family-oriented job.

Do you buy the difference between happiness and meaning? If so, which do you optimize for you in your career and in your life?

Life is Not a Highlight Reel

The economist Tyler Cowen once told me a test for whether a couple can be happy in a relationship is whether they can go to a drug store together with a shopping list, pick out the right items, pay, and leave the store, without once getting in an argument. His point, as I understood it, was that when you’re in a relationship you need to get through the day to day trivia and tedium of life — such as picking up extra toilet paper at a Rite Aid — with a kind of communal contentment.

A romantic relationship is not about the “highlights” you see on Instagram or Facebook of international trips or fancy dinner parties. Those things are nice but necessarily infrequent. Most of the time is downtime, and if you can’t love the downtime, you’ve got a problem. As Kramer in Seinfeld once famously mocked, conversation with a spouse tends to be repeated discussion of very ordinary days.

Relationships, like life in general, consist mostly of ordinary moments, not extraordinary ones.

In David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon, he notes that our day-to-day lives are full of tedium. For example, suppose after you work you need to pick up some food: “You will go to the supermarket. At the supermarket you will get a cart. The cart will have three functional wheels, and one wheel that spins out all curvy in a weird direction. That wheel – and thus the cart – will drive you mad. If you let it.”

Wallace’s point: How we choose to respond to things like the supermarket cart that can’t roll straight, and the million other daily hassles, in part defines who we are.

The minimum response, I think, is to simply tolerate the trivia, in some Zen kind of way. Accept the trivia for what it is and don’t get too depressed by it. Simple, but not at all easy.

The more ambitious response, as articulated by various sages over the years, is to aspire to find sacredness in, and have compassion towards, the ordinariness around us. Even if said ordinariness seems maddening or utterly banal on the surface. As Abraham Maslow put in: “…the sacred is in the ordinary…it is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends, and family, in one’s own backyard.”

Indeed, some of the happiest people I know find joy in the smallest of pleasures and find amusement in what are usually inconsequential inconveniences.

And to Tyler’s point, some of the happiest couples I know are at their best when it’s just the two of them on the couch looking at YouTube videos on their iPad, or taking their dog for a walk together.

So, as I’ve come to see it, the reality is this: For the most part, life is one damn mundane thing after another.

The choice that determines sanity is whether you let the little things drive you bonkers, or worse yet let the little things foment existential angst — or whether instead you can find a way to tolerate it all peacefully.

The choice that determines higher wisdom or enlightenment is whether you can learn toappreciate the little experiences — most of them trivial, indeed — as the precious, joyous stuff.

As the writer Dani Shapiro has noted, if you wait for the special, the extreme, the extraordinary to happen — you may just miss your life.

If You’re Hot and Smart You Can’t Be…

Many years ago, when I was writing my first spec for a software product, an engineer told me: Your software can be good, fast, or cheap. Pick two.

It crystallized the idea of tradeoffs very powerfully in my brain.

Ever since, I’ve noticed the “pick two out of three” rule applies in a broad set of contexts. Tradeoffs abound when traits are inversely correlated or simply rare in combination.

Here are some other examples some friends and I came up with. Pick two out of three.

  • Products generally: easy to use, secure, private
  • Your significant other: hot, smart, emotionally stable
  • Vacations: exotic, relaxing, cheap
  • Non-fiction: original, entertaining, short
  • Meals made at home: tasty, nutritious, easy to make/cleanup
  • Shoes: comfortable, durable, stylish

And as I learned in compiling this list:

  • Blog posts: honest, politically correct, concise

Reciprocity and Lust, Built Into Our Brains

Richard Dawkins explains the similarity between reciprocity and sexual lust:

The selfish gene accounts for altruism toward kin and individuals who might be in a position to reciprocate your altruism.

Now, there is another kind of altruism that seems to go beyond that, a kind of super-altruism, which humans appear to have. And I think that does need a Darwinian explanation. I would offer something like this: We, in our ancestral past, lived in small bands or clans, which fostered kin altruism and reciprocal altruism, because in these small bands, each individual was most likely to be surrounded by relatives and individuals who he was going to meet again and again in his life. And so the rule of thumb based into the brain by natural selection would not have been, Be nice to your kin and be nice to potential reciprocators. It would have been, Be nice to everybody, because everybody would have been included.

It’s just like sexual lust. We have sexual lust even though we know perfectly well that, because we’re using contraception, it is not going to result in the propagation of our genes. That doesn’t matter, because the lust was built into our brains at a time when there was no contraception.

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Here is my earlier post on reciprocity titled Why Are We Kind to Strangers?

The Materialism Trap

In an interesting profile earlier this year of Rajat Gupta, the former head of McKinsey who was caught up in the insider trading scandals on Wall Street, there’s this:

Bankers and private-equity founders, like Pete Peterson, were getting extraordinary paydays by taking their firms public. Speaking at Columbia University around this time, Gupta reflected on his new ambition. “When I look at myself, yeah, I am driven by money,” he said. “And when I live in this society, you know, you do get fairly materialistic, so I look at that. I am disappointed. I am probably more materialistic today than I was before, and I think money is very seductive.” He continued: “You have to watch out for it, because the more you have it, you get used to comforts, and you get used to, you know, big houses and vacation homes and going and doing whatever you want, and so it is very seductive. However much you say that you will not fall into the trap of it, you do fall into the trap of it.”

The last sentence caught my eye. Self-awareness of the phenomenon isn’t sufficient. People say they won’t, know they shouldn’t, and yet still do.

Would You Rather Enjoy Today, or Have Great Memories Tomorrow and Forever?

Would you rather enjoy today, or have great memories tomorrow and forever?

Should you optimize decision making in life to have great experiences in the moment or to create great memories to look back on later?

They are not the same thing; to get one you may have to trade off on the other. In other words, oftentimes if you want to maximize the likelihood of experiencing pleasure in the present means you minimize the likelihood of creating a great memory to look back on in the future.

Travel illustrates the choice. Sit on a beach in Mexico for a week and you’ll almost certainly enjoy a decent amount of experienced, in-the-moment pleasure. But it’s not likely to lead to many memories, especially if you’ve sat on a lot of beaches before. On the other hand, wind your way through the streets of Cairo for the first time and you’ll likely experience some harrowing and maybe not altogether very fun moments, but you’ll be telling stories about your journey years later.

There are merits to both styles of travel. The experiencing-self enjoys being able to be in the moment on the Mexico beach; to be mindful, meditative, and attentive; to feel each sensation. To have a great meal in a low-stress situation, say. The remembering-self (to use Daniel Kahneman’s terminology), on the other hand, wants memories. In an article about his trip to Tasmania, James Fallows said, “I judge travel by the density of the memories it creates.” Why? Because memories underpin meaning.

It’s when I take stock of my life as a whole — “as a whole” being a trigger phrase for memory — that I feel most deeply satisfied. It’s when I look back on all that I’ve experienced that my life feels most meaningful. I revel in the sweep of nostalgia. Ultimately, I think memories matter most. We are the stories we tell ourselves, says Joan Didion. Yet, unless we’re on a strong diet of self-delusion, we can only tell stories about things we remember.

Practically speaking, I’d argue most people underinvest in memories. Here some tips:

Prize novelty. Novelty leads to memories. Seek bulk, positive randomness. Mix things up. New food, new people, a new route home from work. Steven Johnson wrote about slowing down time by moving to California from New York. A new place forces you to pay attention and take in new complexity—denser memories result. As we get older, by default, people experience less and less novelty. I sometimes hear people who turn 50 remark that their 40 birthday felt like just yesterday. I’ve never heard somebody who turned 30 say the same about turning 20. We generate fewer and fewer memories in late age. Unless, that is, we do something about it, by prioritizing novelty. Here are 50 specific ways to invite newness into your life.

Take on challenges; endure struggle; feel intense lows and highs. You remember what you have to overcome. As Oliver Burkeman says, an awe-filled life is about feeling more intensely — experience lower lows, like during a mighty struggle where you’re totally exhausted, and revel in higher highs when you make it to the finish line.

Do things with people. And use people as a key variable. Great memories usually involve other people. Relationships matter. But think of people as a variable that can easily layer novelty on top of the tried-and-true. New people, old places. Or old people, new routines. Go to Mexico every year for Christmas, but with a different group of friends each time. Or go on a different hike every week, but with the same friend.

Seek novelty, yes, except when novelty itself becomes routine. Non-stop travelers no longer see a new hotel or city as new. Instead, they process the novelty in terms of their past experiences. The new hotel is worse/better/different than last night’s hotel, instead of being evaluated on its own terms. Meeting new people from different backgrounds becomes a chore instead of an exciting quest to understand the variety of human nature.

Review and re-live memories soon after the fact. Go to the Sunday brunch after the Saturday night wedding. Walk down memory lane with your colleagues after a big week at the office. As I’ve written, doing this systematically can significantly increase an experience’s meaningfulness – in part by solidifying the memory.

If you consciously focus on creating a great memory in the moment, it sticks. A friend writes: “I once had a passion fruit Pisco sour in Lima, Peru that was so great I quipped: “Just the memory of the drink would have been worth the $7.” Something about making that statement has made the memory of the drink stick much better in my mind. I can still almost taste it and I especially remember the thick, velvety texture. Perhaps just a coincidence, but I do see some potential in focusing consciously on how great certain memories will later be.”

You want to both enjoy today and have a rich memory?

The wise approach seems to be to optimize for both the experiencing-self and the remembering-self at the same time. You want both in-the-moment pleasure and memories.

Witness the balancing act in this regard at weddings. To create memories, couples spend a fortune on wedding photographers. The couple’s logic is, “In the end, all we’re left with are the photographs of the day.” At a recent wedding I attended, the photographers popped out of a curtain behind the couple as the couple was reading their vows. It was distracting; it hurt the moment that was being experienced by everyone at the time. But it no doubt led to some especially intimate photographs that will be enjoyed for years to come.

But elsewhere at the wedding, present-experience optimization prevailed. The couple didn’t stop during the vows and hold a pose for the photographer. They didn’t re-do certain lines for the benefit of the photographer to capture them at just the right angle with their mouth open just so. They selected the flowers, tables, and music primarily with the experience-self’s experience in mind, not caring what was going to show up best for the photographs and videos that the remembering-self would enjoy later.

Optimizing for both is good guidance for life decisions more generally. Thus, the bottom line…

Bottom Line: Have a few key areas of non-novelty; put everything else on the chopping block. Do have a long-term significant other. Do have a “home” that doesn’t change every year. Do maintain some traditions and routines. Cherish these routines. (Put them in a lockbox that only you and Al Gore have the key to.) Then, experiment widely, take chances, and kill your status quo everywhere else – you’ll be investing in your memory bank, slowing down time, and increasing the meaning you feel when you take stock of your life.

(Thanks to Stephen Dodson, Charlie Songhurst, Tyler Cowen, Nathan Labenz, Michael McCullough, David Zetland, and Brad & Amy Feld for their useful feedback on this topic.)

(Photo: Prathima Pingali. Originally published on LinkedIn.)

“Self-Absorption is Actually the Most Boring Game in Town”

World Picture Journal posted a fascinating exchange between John David Rhodes, Jane Elliott, and Adam Phillips on topics including: the vagueness of the word ‘happiness’, why trying to neuter desire in the Buddhist sort of way will lead to depression, the value of frustration, escaping self-absorption, and psychoanalysis. Thanks to loyal blog reader T.C. for sending this to me a couple months ago. Favorite parts excerpted below.


John David Rhodes: In various places in your work there’s clearly a kind of skepticism about aiming to be happy or choosing that as a kind of goal, and so, as a place to start, I wonder if happiness is the wrong word for a lot of other things we talk about—like contentment, or pleasure, or joy, equanimity—and if we might be better off calling those things by what they are and disentangling them from this larger term.

Adam Phillips: Yes. I think the risk is that it’s a kind of dead word because it does too much work, and that, in a way, it only becomes talkable about if you do precisely what you’ve described: break it down into all the things that it might involve for individual people at any given moment, otherwise it becomes so vague in a way, it becomes the sort of thing that no one would encourage anybody not to be, and yet, you don’t know what you’re doing when you’re encouraging them to be happy, exactly, because it contains a multitude of sins…

Jane Elliott: One of things I’ve been thinking about is that although there is so much of a drive for happiness, obviously, in popular discourse—that we should always be wanting the next thing—there does seem to be at the moment some kind of counter-discourse that’s about somehow attenuating or getting away from one’s desire. I’m thinking of the Oprah culture, things like meditation, and yoga. As if happiness is sort of inversely proportionate to desire. It’s maybe a bastardized understanding of Buddhism, in a way. It’s as if we can somehow stop looking for the object, then we can be happy. It’s almost as if getting out of the time of desire, where you are constantly looking to the future, is going to solve things, because you can just “be in the moment.” So I was wondering what you think of this counter-discourse. Does it seem to be doing any useful work, or is it just another way of saying the same thing?

AP: It seems to me a good thing that people want to have conversations about the problems attached to desiring. I think what can’t work is being a sort of Buddhism tourist. I don’t think one is going to be able to simply appropriate, in a sort of supermarket-y way, other world religions as a solution to these problems. But I do think—and presumably the credit crunch has something to do with this—that it’s been very weird living as though there’s no such thing as scarcity, when in fact, in a way you could think there’s only scarcity. I think that people being able to have an ironic relationship to their own desire and also be aware of the fact (or what seems to me to be a fact anyway) that we don’t want what we want, in one sense, and also that we’re always going to want something else, and that satisfaction is not the answer to life, so to speak. Partly because there isn’t an answer to life, but partly because satisfaction isn’t always the point. So I think what people should be talking about is…people should be trying to produce more eloquent, persuasive accounts about the value of frustration, not the value of satisfaction. And I think that the equation of happiness with forms of satisfaction is the problem.

JE: We were discussing earlier how when you read some of these accounts of “being in the moment,” it actually sounds like what is being described is depression. Because when I think of having no object of desire, that’s like being dead.

AP: It is. Yes.

JE: It’s a strange utopianism.

AP: Yes, I agree. There’s also a strange logic to it, as well. The question is whether the problem in desiring is the object of desire. Now, logically, you think it must be. So what you’ve got to do is remove the object of desire from the picture and then we’ll be okay. But in a way, you’re left with more of the problem. Because you can’t get around the fact that you’re a desiring creature. You may have different ways of relating to an object of desire, but you can’t, it seems to me, evacuate objects of desire. It’s all about the way in which one approaches them, or what one thinks one wants from them.

JE: In a way, the inverse of thinking that the next object will fix things is thinking that getting rid of the object will fix things.

AP: Yeah, exactly.

JDR: The object, even if it’s a mistaken object, needs to be there. There needs to be an object, because it’s what happens in the movement towards or away from it that’s important.

AP: Yeah.

AP: There’s a very interesting idea that has unsurprisingly fallen out of circulation that Ernest Jones had, which was the idea of aphanisis, which is loss of desire. His idea was—and it seems to me a good one, and it’s one that psychoanalysis for some reason has dropped—is the idea that the individual’s terror is the absence of desire, and that desire might be something like the thing that Miles Davis said—that he woke up for years and years with music in his head and then one day he didn’t. Desire might be something that we wake up every day with, but one day we might not. The question would be then whether there are desireless states that aren’t depression, or that don’t need to be pathologized as a way of managing them. Because it would seem to me that it’s as though the fundamental terror that capitalism exploits is that we might not want anything. That’s the thing that we’ve all got to talk each other out of. That we really want things; in fact we want loads of things. I think, in that—the fervor of that—happiness gets recruited.

JDR: I guess what I wonder is what is the relation among pleasure, happiness, and desire, what is in that triangulation?

AP: When you said that, what I thought was that, for me anyway, pleasure has to do with absorption, and it has do with absorption in something that is at least nominally outside oneself. And absorption is the prior thing, I presume, that’s pleasure-driven, so to speak, even though the pleasure to be derived from it may not be clear at all. And happiness may be a consequence of states of absorption, but it may not be. So it would seem to me that happiness is the thing that may or may not occur, but that as an object of desire, it’s a radically misleading one. But it may be one of the good things that happens as a consequence of states of absorption.

JE: Is absorption so frequently pleasurable because it has to do with release from consciousness?

AP: Yes. Or release from consciousness as self-preoccupation. I think the project is—and actually, I think the project of psychoanalysis really is—to free people not to have to bother to be interested in themselves. What people—some people, anyway—are suffering from is self-absorption, and it’s actually the most boring game in town. There’s nothing in it, actually. The only interesting things, it seems to me, are outside oneself. Not because one is altruistic, but just because there’s nothing to be interested in in oneself, actually. Obviously it’s related to what’s going on inside oneself, but it’s to do with the external world. Happiness, if it’s going to be useful, is related to the sort of free loss of interest in oneself.

AP: …we should just accept the intractability of this, that we are creatures who hope, that the more in despair we are, the more we will hope exorbitantly, and the more there is the potential for catastrophic disillusionment. The acid test in anything is always going to be, how people deal with catastrophic disillusionment, which we’ve all had an experience of, without taking refuge in cynicism or bitterness or vengefulness. If that’s possible, then something can happen. And usually it isn’t.

“Sadness is a Lucky Thing to Feel”

Over the past couple years, I’ve become a huge Louis C.K. fan. I’m almost done with Season 2 of his show Louie, which is amazing. 20 minute episodes packed with comedy and real insight.

In his recent Rolling Stone interview (paywall), he says this:

I don’t mind feeling sad. Sadness is a lucky thing to feel. I have the same amount of happy and sad as anybody else. I just don’t mind the sad part as much; it’s amazing to have those feelings. I’ve always felt that way. I think that looking at how random and punishing life can be, it’s a privilege. There’s so much to look at, there’s so much to observe, and there’s a lot of humor in it. I’ve had sad times, I’ve had some hard times, and I have a lot of things to be sad about, but I’m pretty happy right now.

Agreed. Observing how you feel, not judging it or immediately trying to change it, is a powerful habit to develop. It’s the lynchpin of the Vipassana meditation I practice.

“Negative” emotions like sadness can deepen you. Suffering deepens you. These feelings can be instructive. They can inspire empathy. They can be darkly hilarious. And ultimately, they’re impermanent. As Goenka says, all sensations arise, pass away. Arise, pass away.

Wise people seem to know this: when bad shit happens to you, experience it. Don’t run from it. Don’t run from grief or pain or suffering. Accept it. Observe it. And then observe it leave your body, over time.

My 2007 post Do Only Negative Emotions Count for Depth? covers this theme, and the comments there are excellent. In the five years since, I’m still not sure whether joy really stretches and deepens you. But I am as convinced as ever that sadness does.

“When have you felt really sad?” is an interesting question to ask someone.

Why Are We Kind to Strangers?

The puzzle that is being altruistic and cooperative when it does not serve our self-interest. Why do humans over-tip to a waiter they’ll never see again? Why are people nice to strangers?

Because life is about succeeding in the “repeated games” that are interactions with friends, family, and co-workers. In those games, altruism pays. It pays to be generous, to do favors, to go out of our way–we will see those people again, and the altruism may come back to help us. So, when we are in a “single shot game” — for example, deciding on how much to tip the waiter at the diner on the side of the road in a city far away from home — this cooperative instinct spills over. Our moral intuitions spring from the repeated games that matter most and we inadvertently channel them to all games/situations. We forget when we’re in a one shot game; we forget we could get away with leaving no tip and it not harming us in the slightest. We forget, that is, until we start to think hard about what the tip should be. In one study, people who start reflecting actively on an appropriate level of altruism (say, the size of the tip) tend to end up less altruistic in single shot games, because they take the time to realize their self-interest calls for them to be…selfish.

This is the argument advanced by David G. Rand, who helped conduct the studies, in this excellent Bloggingheads episode with Joshua Knobe. They cover why humans are selfish or cooperative, among other topics in the annals of human psychology and evolution.

You Learn From People Who Mostly Agree With You

There is a romantic idea about conversation, learning, and open-mindedness: “Joe and I don’t agree on much, but we respect each other, and learn a heck of a lot from each other.” If you want to learn and grow, get out of your comfort zone and spend time talking to people who disagree with you and who will challenge you. Right?

Wrong. In fact, you learn more from people who mostly agree with you.

On the Econtalk podcast, I heard this insightful argument made by David Weinberger, which I’ll summarize and riff on here.

The premise: Rarely is your worldview turned upside down in a single conversation over lunch. Rarely is your mind truly blown in an hour. Instead, most learning happens on the margins. A nugget here, a nugget there. Brick by brick you assemble a house of knowledge; you iteratively form and evolve a worldview.

The question: With what kinds of people do you have conversations that lead to an iterative, valuable insight?

The answer: People with whom you agree on 99.9% of issues already.

In order to even have a coherent conversation with someone, you need to share a language, basic values, assumptions, conversational norms. A Creationist learns little about the origins of the world from an Evolutionist. A lab scientist working on a vaccine doesn’t learn much from someone who thinks vaccines cause autism. Nobody learns anything if civility isn’t mutually valued. If these basic table stakes aren’t met — 98% of the game, in my view — there’s no productive conversation to be had.

When you have broad foundational agreement, learning in conversation happens best when there’s still further agreement on the next 1% of possible agreement. Two internet company CEOs who both speak English who are both convinced of technology’s wonders will have no problem at all breaking bread and having a lively conversation. But for learning’s sake, it’d be even better if they agreed on a number of industry-specific beliefs. If they’re aligned on the booming future of mobile devices, for example, then they can dive deep and explore possible disagreement on how to, say, best serve ads to users on an iOS device.

As Weinberger says, “It’s how culture advances. It’s how knowledge advances.” And it’s how individual intellectual growth advances, too. Some of my best, most mind-expanding conversations have occurred with good friends who agree with me on almost everything–but not quite everything.

Bottom Line: Want to learn and get smarter by talking to people? Seek out those who agree with you on 99.9% of things, and then push, push, push at the niche-y, hyper-specific areas of disagreement. It’s not about groupthink; it’s not about confirmation bias. It’s about learning on the margin.

(Photo: Search Engine People blog, Flickr. This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.)