Posts tagged with happiness

[F]or leaders, it’s important that people know you are consistent and fair in how you think about making decisions and that there’s an element of predictability. If a leader is consistent, people on their teams experience tremendous freedom, because then they know that within certain parameters, they can do whatever they want. If your manager is all over the place, you’re never going to know what you can do, and you’re going to experience it as very restrictive.

[Employees should be saying that] the manager treats me with respect, the manager gives me clear goals, the manager shares information, the manager treats the entire team fairly.

I loved being a rifle company commander. Having the responsibility for 211 men. Being totally in charge of their welfare and their training. That was the happiest period of my life, professionally, looking back on things.

The purpose of a family is the enhancement of the individual pursuits of happiness … in the overall … preservation of the family as a whole.

—from Family Wealth
Is this a logical sentence, or not?

The purpose of a family is the enhancement of the individual pursuits of happiness … in the overall … preservation of the family as a whole.

—from Family Wealth

Is this a logical sentence, or not?


Girl in an expensive American city tells me to travel often and quit my job.

Chuck Palahniuk holds a gun to a man’s head and makes him promise to follow his dreams.

Paul Ryan Spending Final Day Of Campaign Reminding Homeless People They Did This To Themselves

(As I tried to submit this to @pastabagel, I saw an ad by an institute of higher learning suggesting that I further my career by giving them money. A nice coincidence made possible by the fact that ads for higher degrees are more ubiquitous than weight-loss ads.)

(Beware: some of the images beyond “Read More” are violent.)

Read More

  • "I wanted to be pissed about my breast cancer"
  • "They wanted to be angry about being laid off"
  • "It’s untrue that a positive attitude boosting the immune system increases the odds of withstanding cancer" "I have a Ph.D in cellular immunology"
  • Quantum physics become an excuse to mock all of science
  • "I didn’t come out of cancer more spiritual or a better person. If anything I’m a little meaner and more cynical"
  • There is no “real world”, there’s the real world through my positive mood and the real world through my bad mood.

Smile or Die by Barbara Ehrenreich

1,159 Plays

[W]e are getting nowhere. And that is a pleasure. It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else.

Mushroom Haiku, excerpt from Silence (1972/69) by John Cage

[also: here] via until a single soliton survives


The universe is receding behind you every second. One of the lessons of special relativity is the −ct term:
(− + + + )

  • you can stand still where you are,
  • you can run away as fast as you can,
  • you can stop and go and wander around,
  • you can focus like a nail and pound deep into something,
  • you can get bored or be excited,
  • you can build something & raise the Lagrangian or veg & leave it low,

time is still flowing past you, that metric subtracting −ct ticks at a rate of one tick per tick.

I think about the Eagles song Desperado.

"Your prison is walking through this world all alone"

In other words, freedom and independence, too, have a cost, perhaps exactly equal to the cost of

  • never leaving your village
  • or spending your “best years” raising children instead of “achieving” career-wise.

A tumbleweed sees more but also less than a tree.

The Taking Tree

old man sitting on the tree stump, even in death the giving tree still gives and he takes, takes, takes, takes...

If you want to think about lifetime as being a fixed length (ignoring that its length comes from a probability distribution, which itself is conditional on your choices) then you can derive my favourite equation:


the tradeoff between work, leisure, and wealth. That idea as well is symplectic. And many other such tradeoffs ∃. Symplecticity is the theoretical basis of all budget constraints. It’s another way of talking about all the tradeoffs that make choice meaningful and also unavoidable (even not-choosing is a choice). You can strain and strive as much as you want, all you will do is slide amongst alternatives and never do everything.

economic decision paradigm

If you want to use a picture of the form of Christopher Alexander’s


and just substitute in names of various other things that you want—then the “metric signature”, due to time flowing over and beyond us like a river always, is in so many of the pursuits one might like to do, such as

  • making money
  • learning algebraic topology
  • spending time with kids
  • learning to do a backflip
  • travelling in Asia
  • playing guitar
  • starting a(nother) business
  • writing an opera
  • living so you get to Heaven after this life (ok, I said I wouldn’t bring in any probability distributions but I had to cheat on this one. It’s an interesting measure theory question, isn’t it? If there is even a finite chance of getting an infinite payoff, then unless the utility function becomes flat above a certain payoff, then the only logical thing to do is make 100% sure you get the infinite payoff. OK, /rant)
  • making the sex, many times. Or, not:

Sure, sometimes one lucks out and there is a positive association between two things, like learning mathematics and being a quant—but the magnitude might be less than you expect. (Pure maths alone is insufficient and unnecessary to finance.)

In terms of the 10,000-hours-to-expertise paradigm—despite some complementarities (+)—there are only so many 10,000-hour blocks in your life. And the Type A personality who squeezes out the most 10,000-hour blocks, gets the most toys or becomes the world’s best cyclist or visits all the countries, learns the most languages, or whatever, still miss out on something.

Leaving aside that the human encyclopedia and Tony Hawk also will turn back to dust, just even evaluating only the finite path [0,1] life , that busy body necessarily misses out on

  • the down moments,
  • the still time,
  • the zoning out,
  • the chilling,
  • the doing nothing and being OK with it,
  • the taking in instead of forcing out,
  • and perhaps those have some value as well.

In English it sounds so obvious to be trivial: you can’t do everything, because nothing is also something and if you’re doing something you can’t be doing nothing.

Naoya Hatakeyama, courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery

But the mathematical language, in addition to sounding more exotic and smartypants, adds something real, at least for me—which is the sense of those signs attaching me to everything. Every time I do something, I’ve lost some other opportunity. Every person I become, I drift further away from the possibilities of who else I might have been. Every commitment loses a freedom and every freedom wastes a commitment. Every nothing wastes a something and every something forgoes a nothing. Everything is receding, decaying, entropying, with or without me, until eventually the waters will cover my head and I never surface again.

Raistlin's eye 

Sufficiently convolved with the


all the paths sum to a constant and that constant quantity eventually runs out.

Matt Ridley has written an entertaining book: The Rational Optimist, detailing all the ways in which life is great for rich people. (By rich people I mean the fraction of humans who make ≥5 figure salaries in $.)

For example Louis XIV had a hundred chefs make him 100 meals and throw away the 99 he didn’t want, but nowadays a New York City “peasant” has even more choice of dinner consumption, without needing to be king. (I’m not sure if this applies to the poorest person in NYC or the poor ones who can’t make it in … which is why I’m restricting the statement to ≥$10000 earners. Although maybe Mr Ridley would argue that even a subsistence farmer today has it better than Les Hommes de Cro-Magnon.)

But so, uh, why is this an interesting book? Nobody writes a book called Hey, did you know the sky is blue? Except at sunset when it’s pink or when it rains it’s grey. Isn’t that interesting?! Because everybody already knows that. The fact that Mr Ridley can sell a "provocative" book full of amazing facts and viewpoints about how prosperous we are sends a grave message the opposite way.

Why is it that we need a book from Mr Ridley to remind us how good we’ve got it?

What do you do if the type of person you attract—or are attracted to—isn’t the type of person who makes you happy?

Asking for a past life.

I chose to go to university at the age of 18 because I thought heaps of useful knowledge was stored there. I thought to myself: Old people know a lot of stuff. I want to learn what they know. Because I will probably face challenges similar to the ones they have faced and I would rather learn from their mistakes than have to make them myself.

So I was surprised, after spending a number of years there and graduating, that I didn’t really learn a lot of practical life advice. I learned a lot of interesting scholarly things like the propositional calculus, fuzzy logic, decision trees, quantum mechanics, slack vectors, regressions; learned about other cultures, writing, constitutions,—and read and pretended to understand Ulysses. (update: check this outAnd I still admire and appreciate the people who taught me those super-interesting things.

But to me, the most basic question: How can I think about life in order to be happy? was not answered. Actually it was barely even broached.


Why not?

My sense is that people think: “Well, happiness, that’s not really a scientific subject is it?” Here’s my response: It’s only not scientific because we don’t apply science to it.

We live in a time of unprecedented respect for science.



Let’s not underestimate the power of 1,000 scientists, given resources + time, to answer questions about human happiness and its causes. We have statistics, we have double-blind experiments; we have causal graph models, topological machine learning, functional data analysis, robust algorithms; we have item response theory, sampling theory, supercomputers in our pockets, and worldwide communication networks. We have tens of billions of dollars every year already funding science research. We have machines that can look inside of people’s brains, for Chrissakes. I think we can do this.

Yup, that is a brain.

Yep, that is a brain.


In economics, happiness research is treated like a subfield of behavioural economics, which is itself a subfield. But the utilitarian philosophy that justifies cost-benefit analysis, the Lagrangian model of microeconomics, and ultimately the entire financial system is undergirded by this very weak understanding of “utility”, the pursuit of which is supposed to be the whole point of capitalism.

No wonder people outside the econ/finance intelligentsia keep saying “We need a [financial system | economic theory] for humans.” Other than the vague idea that health, wealth, and freedom are worth attaining (except maybe not always), our scientists really don’t know many specific consejos about the pursuit of happiness.

Out of all the broad-topic, cross-category departments in universities:

  • business (= how to do stuff),
  • history (= what happened),
  • archaeology (= stuff we dig up),
  • physics (= things that occur)

— why isn’t there room for one called How to make decisions and think about life?

Behavioural economists and psychologists who do study this kind of thing have indeed come up with practical advice:

How about we quantify the benefits of

  • meditation
  • volunteering
  • feeling like you have a high social status
  • making other people laugh
  • diminishment of ego
  • thinking about people who are worse off than you
  • (or conversely, the dis-benefits of envy / jealousy of people who are better off than you)
  • playing music
  • sex (my only evidence that people care about this is that it seems to appear on covers of Cosmopolitan)
  • listening to comedians
  • TV
  • gardening
  • number and kind of friendships
  • sport
  • prayer
  • chanting Hare Krisna
  • programming (obviously many of these would require casewise time series to quantify; not just one number)
  • marrying the wrong person
  • infidelity
  • polygamy
  • charitable donations (lump-sum or many chunks?)
  • knowledge of category theory
  • time spent philosophising or … blogging
  • eating according to a moral regimen (vegetarian, kosher, halal)
  • working hard now for enjoyment later vs. living in the present (some kind of Ramsey-respecting tradeoff, of course)
  • drawing & painting
  • fishing
  • careers outside an office
  • actually obtaining your ideal career (e.g., quant) versus learning humility and accepting what you can actually get paid to do (e.g., wash dishes)
  • getting sun on your bare skin
  • frolicking
  • having children
  • staying out late vs not being tired at work the next day
  • eating pizza
  • smoking cigarettes
  • hiking
  • eating bland food every X days to fight the hedonic treadmill
  • or—I’m sure there are a jillion hypotheses about strategies to be happy from self-help books?

and how about we spend money funding people who are going to come up with or test ways of thinking and acting in life that are going to make people happier? I mean we fund research on quantum communication. Isn’t happiness research possibly more important?

Forget the research money that goes to the engineers extending the battery life on my Handy. People complain about sitting on the runway and I’ve become so accustomed to 2 billion clicks per second on my computer that I get angry and throw it out the window whenever my YouTube videos won’t load.

Forget a trillion dollars wasted on development efforts that ends up going to fund despotic regimes instead. Rather than guessing whether it’s mosquito nets, dams, or pure cash that poor people need most, maybe we should be investigating how to be happy with what you have—just in case, you know, the direction the rich world has gone is not the best direction to go.


Think about how detailed a knowledge we have about a scientific topic like materials. There are, like, many 1000-page manuals with detailed measurements like the optical properties of tungsten-rubidium alloy at 13,000 kPa and 2700°C. Imagine if we had that kind of detail about, like, life choices. Picture this: Career Engineering Handbook. Tables of days spent in a depression doing psets by INTJ realist mechanical engineer, contrasted with payoffs and path dependence of the later-life happiness.  I’m sure any kinds of conclusions would be disputatious — that’s how science moves forward, isn’t it? — but if Happiness Studies were acting like science, those disagreements would be based on lots of measurement, data, facts, observations—rather than “A girl my brother knows said she regrets being a lawyer, so I guess I shouldn’t do that and start an organic egg farm instead.” Which is pretty much how it works now.

According to my logic, this should be a top research priority. Not that medical technologies or knowledge of asteroids that might hit us aren’t good, but seriously—3 centuries since the Enlightenment and we still haven’t figured out some good advice to tell 18-year-olds?

You can take a personal finance class in school, but you can’t get the very most basic kind of advice about life. That seems messed-up to me.