All posts tagged happiness

Book review: Deep Utopia: Life and Meaning in a Solved World, by Nick Bostrom.

Bostrom’s previous book, Superintelligence, triggered expressions of concern. In his latest work, he describes his hopes for the distant future, presumably to limit the risk that fear of AI will lead to a The Butlerian Jihad-like scenario.

While Bostrom is relatively cautious about endorsing specific features of a utopia, he clearly expresses his dissatisfaction with the current state of the world. For instance, in a footnoted rant about preserving nature, he writes:

Imagine that some technologically advanced civilization arrived on Earth … Imagine they said: “The most important thing is to preserve the ecosystem in its natural splendor. In particular, the predator populations must be preserved: the psychopath killers, the fascist goons, the despotic death squads … What a tragedy if this rich natural diversity were replaced with a monoculture of healthy, happy, well-fed people living in peace and harmony.” … this would be appallingly callous.

The book begins as if addressing a broad audience, then drifts into philosophy that seems obscure, leading me to wonder if it’s intended as a parody of aimless academic philosophy.

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Book review: The Life You Can Save, by Peter Singer.

This book presents some unimpressive moral claims, and some more pragmatic social advocacy that is rather impressive.

The Problem

It is all too common to talk as if all human lives had equal value, yet act as if the value of distant strangers’ lives was a few hundred dollars.

Singer is effective at arguing against standard rationalizations for this discrepancy.

He provides an adequate summary of reasons to think most of us can easily save many lives.
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Book review: Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, by Brene Brown.

I almost didn’t read this because I was unimpressed by the TEDx video version of it, but parts of the book were pretty good (mainly chapters 3 and 4).

The book helped clarify my understanding of shame: how it differs from guilt, how it often constrains us without accomplishing anything useful, and how to reduce it.

She emphasizes that we can reduce shame by writing down or talking about shameful thoughts. She doesn’t give a strong explanation of what would cause that effect, but she prompted me to generate one: parts of my subconscious mind initially want to hide the shameful thoughts, and that causes them to fight the parts of my mind that want to generate interesting ideas. The act of communicating those ideas to the outside world convinces those censor-like parts of my mind to worry less about the ideas (because it’s too late? or because the social response is evidence that the censor was mistakenly worried? I don’t know).

I was a bit confused by her use of the phrase “scarcity culture”. I was initially tempted to imagine she wanted us to take a Panglossian view in which we ignore the resource constraints that keep us from eliminating poverty. But the context suggests she’s thinking more along the lines of “a culture of envy”. Or maybe a combination of perfectionism plus status seeking? Her related phrase “never enough” makes sense if I interpret it as “never impressive enough”.

I find it hard to distinguish those “bad” attitudes from the attitudes that seem important for me to strive for self-improvement.

She attempts to explain that distinction in a section on perfectionism. She compares perfectionism to healthy striving by noting that perfectionism focuses on what other people will think of us, whereas healthy striving is self-focused. Yet I’m pretty sure I’ve managed to hurt myself with perfectionism while focusing mostly on worries about how I’ll judge myself.

I suspect that healthy striving requires more focus on the benefits of success, and less attention to fear of failure, than is typical of perfectionism. The book hints at this, but doesn’t say it clearly when talking about perfectionism. Maybe she describes perfectionism better in her book The Gifts of Imperfection. Should I read that?

Her claim “When we stop caring about what people think, we lose our capacity for connection” feels important, and an area where I have trouble.

The book devotes too much attention to gender-stereotypical problems with shame. Those stereotypes are starting to look outdated. And it shouldn’t require two whole chapters to say that advice on how to have healthy interactions with people should also apply to relations at work, and to relations between parents and children.

The book was fairly easy to read, and parts of it are worth rereading.

[An unimportant book that I read for ARC; feel free to skip this.]

Book review: Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Already Taken: Transform Your Life with the Power of Authenticity, by Mike Robbins.

This book’s advice mostly feels half-right, and mostly directed at people who have somewhat different problems than I have.

The book’s exercises range from things I’ve already done enough of, to things I ought to practice more but which feel hard (such as the self-love exercise).
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I’ve substantially reduced my anxiety over the past 5-10 years.

Many of the important steps along that path look easy in hindsight, yet the overall goal looked sufficiently hard prospectively that I usually assumed it wasn’t possible. I only ended up making progress by focusing on related goals.

In this post, I’ll mainly focus on problems related to general social anxiety among introverted nerds. It will probably be much less useful to others.

In particular, I expect it doesn’t apply very well to ADHD-related problems, and I have little idea how well it applies to the results of specific PTSD-type trauma.

It should be slightly useful for anxiety over politicians who are making America grate again. But you’re probably fooling yourself if you blame many of your problems on distant strangers.

Trump: Make America Grate Again!

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I started writing morning pages a few months ago. That means writing three pages, on paper, before doing anything else [1].

I’ve only been doing this on weekends and holidays, because on weekdays I feel a need to do some stock market work close to when the market opens.

It typically takes me one hour to write three pages. At first, it felt like I needed 75 minutes but wanted to finish faster. After a few weeks, it felt like I could finish in about 50 minutes when I was in a hurry, but often preferred to take more than an hour.

That suggests I’m doing much less stream-of-consciousness writing than is typical for morning pages. It’s unclear whether that matters.

It feels like devoting an hour per day to morning pages ought to be costly. Yet I never observed it crowding out anything I valued (except maybe once or twice when I woke up before getting an optimal amount of sleep in order to get to a hike on time – that was due to scheduling problems, not due to morning pages reducing the available of time per day).
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Book review: Happiness from the Inside Out: The Art and Science of Fulfillment by Robert Mack.

This easy to read book describes many of the approaches I’ve used to make myself happier. That makes me somewhat tempted to believe the rest of his advice, but he seems to exaggerate enough that I have some doubts.

Being less concerned about what others think of me is an important part of his advice. But it seems implausible that I can be completely unharmed by other peoples opinions of me. He seems to believe that it’s possible to have a romantic relationship without risking being disappointed by one’s partner. I can somewhat reduce my emotional reaction to a partner not acting as I expected, but complete detachment would seem to make it hard for me to sympathize with a partner when appropriate.

There’s plenty of peer pressure for people to claim to be less susceptible to peer pressure than they actually are, so many people will be unaware of how to reduce those influences. This book’s focus on optimism is likely to distract people from such unflattering insights. You should look elsewhere for awareness of your desires for status, and choose wisely which status hierarchies you want to care about.

His paints a misleadingly gloomy picture of long-term happiness trends in the U.S., by selective evidence such as rising teen suicide rates, but not the fact that overall suicide rates are lower than a few decades ago.

His discussion of the genetic influence on happiness is unnecessarily discouraging. He mentions height as a stereotypical trait influenced by genes. I suggest thinking about hair color – it’s probably more influenced by genes than happiness, yet people who decide their hair should be purple often succeed quickly.

His claim that “Happiness is a particularly personal journey and no amount of data or research can tell you what will bring you happiness” is somewhat misleading – see the book Stumbling on Happiness for a very different perspective.

There has been a fair amount of research suggesting that beyond some low threshold, additional money does little to increase a person’s happiness.
Here’s a research report (see also here) indicating that the effect of money has sometimes been underestimated because researchers use income as a measure of money, when wealth has a higher correlation with happiness.
There’s probably more than one reason for this. Wealth produces a sense of security that isn’t achieved by having a high income but spending that income quickly. Also, it’s possible that people with high savings rates tend to be those who are easily satisfied with their status, whereas those who don’t save when they have high incomes are those who have a strong need to show off their incomes in order to compete for status (and since competition for status is in some ways a zero sum game, many of them will fail).

Book Review: Happiness: The Science behind Your Smile by Daniel Nettle
This book provides a fairly good, but not very novel, description of what does and does not influence happiness, the problems with measuring it, and some bits of evolutionary theory that hint at why it is hard to achieve lasting increases in happiness.
The claim I found most important is that “If you control for social class, there is almost no relationship between income and life satisfaction.” This seems to have important implications for what kind of social equality we ought to be encouraging. I’m disappointed that he doesn’t say enough about this for me to determine how robust this conclusion is to the way it’s measured.
I’m disappointed that he ends with some misleading arguments for an alarming trend of increased distress among the least happy. He reports that suicides have increased among the young in recent decades, but fails to note that overall suicide rates in the U.S. have declined over that period. He claims “People are as hard as they ever have”, but cites no references for that, and Robert Fogel has reported research that reached the opposite conclusion in The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death.

This book is a colorful explanation of why we are less successful at finding happiness than we expect. It shows many similarities between mistakes we make in foreseeing how happy we will be and mistakes we make in perceiving the present or remembering the past. That makes it easy to see that those errors are natural results of shortcuts our minds take to minimize the amount of data that our imagination needs to process (e.g. filling in our imagination with guesses as our mind does with the blind spot in our eye).
One of the most important types of biases is what he calls presentism (a term he borrows from historians and extends to deal with forecasting). When we imagine the past or future, our minds often employ mental mechanisms that were originally adapted to perceive the present, and we retain biases to give more weight to immediate perceptions than to what we imagine. That leads to mistakes such as letting our opinions of how much food we should buy be overly influenced by how hungry we are now, or Wilbur Wright’s claim in 1901 that “Man will not fly for 50 years.”
This is more than just a book about happiness. It gives me a broad understanding of human biases that I hope to apply to other areas (e.g. it has given me some clues about how I might improve my approach to stock market speculation).
But it’s more likely that the book’s style will make you happy than that the knowledge in it will cause you to use the best evidence available (i.e. observations of what makes others happy) when choosing actions to make yourself happy. Instead, you will probably continue to overestimate your ability to predict what will make you happy and overestimate the uniqueness that you think makes the experience of others irrelevant to your own pursuit of happiness.
I highly recommend the book.
Some drawbacks:
His analysis of memetic pressures that cause false beliefs about happiness to propagate is unconvincing. He seems to want a very simple theory, but I doubt the result is powerful enough to explain the extent of the myths. A full explanation would probably require the same kind of detailed analysis of biases that the rest of the book contains.
He leaves the impression that he thinks he’s explained most of the problems with achieving happiness, when he probably hasn’t done that (it’s unlikely any single book could).
He presents lots of experimental results, but he doesn’t present the kind of evidence needed to prove that presentism is a consistent problem across a wide range of domains.
He fails to indicate how well he follows his own advice. For instance, does he have any evidence that writing a book like this makes the author happy?