How Hard is Life? Here’s What the Numbers Say

Scott Alexander just wrote one of the more important posts I’ve read this year (HT Tyler Cowen).

Please do read the full post.

After Scott gave qualitative information about human suffering in America, he ran some numbers to come up with what a random sample of 20 Americans might be dealing with.

Here’s what he came up with (NP = no problem in terms of the narrow ailments he ran):

Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 5.16.50 PM

In sum, only 9 out of 20 Americans have escaped some combination of chronic pain, alcoholism, sexual abuse, domestic violence, unemployment, and depression.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that these people can’t lead happy and meaningful lives (I personnaly am very close with three alcoholics who have kicked drinking and are thriving).

But this is also a narrow list of ailments: I could think of numerous other sufferings that could make life very, very difficult.

A few takeaways, most of which are pretty obvious:

  1. Things were probably harder back in the day. This seems to definitely be true during the agriculture and early industrial ages, and was probably true in the hunter and gather age as well.
  2. The United States is amongst the richest nations in the world. It also has fairly high levels of happiness and meaning rates. So if the numbers are grim here, they are most likely worse for much of the world.
  3. So while things are indeed better, they are not amazing. Declaring that things are amazing is ignorant at best and destructive at worst, as the policy regime for “things are amazing” is likely to be different than the policy regime for “things are still pretty tough for a lot of people.”
  4. Of course, humans brains were not evolved to be happiness machines, so suffering will always be with us so long as we retain our humanness. But I hope there doesn’t need to be this much suffering.

It is interesting to think about what this might mean for education.

I’ll try to tackle that in a later post.

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