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 out) And 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.
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.
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:
- Happiness increases (ceteris paribus) as the log of personal income.
- Except maybe country-wide economic growth doesn’t increase happiness and only being richer than your within-country peers makes you happy. Hmm. This sounds like an argument whose resolution we should be funding.
- Buy things with cash instead of plastic.
- I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X
- Experiential goods have a more lasting effect on happiness than property.
- Happiness-now and happiness-reflecting-on-your-life are distinct (not equal).
- We can maybe separate happiness into 6 causes—with health, wealth, and inherited genetic setpoint being the top 3 causes.
- Hedonic adaptation reduces the satisfaction derived from material consumption. But hedonic adaptation does not reduce satisfaction derived from spending time with people you care about.
How about we quantify the benefits of
- 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
- number and kind of friendships
- chanting Hare Krisna
- programming (obviously many of these would require casewise time series to quantify; not just one number)
- marrying the wrong person
- 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
- 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
- having children
- staying out late vs not being tired at work the next day
- eating pizza
- smoking cigarettes
- 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.