Category Archives: Happiness

My favorite books of 2017

I felt this was a pretty weak year for books. I don’t know why. I only really loved three books that came out this year.

Especially with regards to work, I found I learned a lot more by doing rather than reading. I’m curious if this trend will continue.

That being said, the best books was incredibly good: because of the first two books below, I’ve tried to up my meditation to 40 minutes a day and reduce social media to under 30 minutes a day. I’ve also done a lot to reduce iPhone screen time. I’ve also spent much more time contemplating the nature of the self. My meditation practice is a little less tactical and includes more philosophical exploration.

I feel more in control of mind than I have in years.

Why Buddhism is True by Robin Wright

Robin’s thesis is:

  1. Our brains were mostly built during hunter and gather times.
  2. The modern world has hijacked useful desires (for food, sex, stimulation, and status) so that they are no longer that useful (we over eat, watch too much porn, constantly check our phones, etc.).
  3. There is no CEO in your brain. Your brain is made up of a bunch of competing desires / modules. And whichever you feed and reward will grow stronger.
  4. Meditation is a technique that can reduce the power of the feeling -> action sequence. Desires need not be orders if they are observed with distance and objectivity.
  5. The idea that there is no CEO of the brain also fits Buddhism’s core philosophical tenet that the self is an illusion.

I think arguments #1 through #4 are correct. Robin surveys a mounting body of scientific case evidence that makes this case, from evolutionary psychology to neurobiology.

I think #5 is directionally correct, but that ultimately humans do not have a brain that is powerful enough to make hard claims about these types of metaphysical conditions.

iGen – Jean Twenge

Jean’s thesis is that:

  1. Socio-economic conditions (in part families having increased wealth and less children) has led to a lengthening of childhood. High school is the new middle school.
  2. The iPhone has fundamentally altered how teens interact.
  3. Taken together, changing socio-economic conditions and the smartphone has led children to be more tolerant, less risk taking (sex, alcohol, and driving are down… marijuana is up), more insecure, less happy, less religious, more concerned with wealth, and more politically independent.

I’m not an expert in the field, but I found her found her argument compelling.

This generational shift is a striking example of how productivity and technology can combine to change societal values.

For you parents in the crowd, she gives thoughtful parenting recommendations at the end of the book.

The Dark Forest Trilogy

I previously reviewed the books here. Some of the best science fiction I have ever read.

The series is premised on this logic path:

  1. The primary goal of each civilization is to survive.
  2. There are finite resources and space in the universe.
  3. Civilizations tend to expand.
  4. Civilizations tend to advance technologically.
  5. You have no way of truly knowing whether an alien species is peaceful or hostile.

If this ends up being true in our reality, we will likely be destroyed by more technology advanced aliens.

Post Vacation Reflections

1-Gothic Mountain_sized

I just got back from vacation. Despite some bouts of unfortunate weather, I climbed Gothic Mountain – or, more accurately, 98% of Gothic Mountain – the last 2% was a little too risky for my tastes.

Some reflections below:

1. Less Twitter: I’m going to try and cut back from Twitter. While it is an extremely valuable source of information, it also encourages shallow thinking, tribal affiliations, and consumption of information that will be meaningless in a day or two. Out on the trail, I could feel my mind slowing down – there was less speed, more curiosity, and deeper thinking. I was also shocked to see how not much had changed in the week I was offline – Clinton did that, Trump did this – and life goes on…

2. Less Caffeine: Caffeine, like Twitter, speeds up the mind and, in my case, makes me a bit anxious. Before going on vacation, I was “on” caffeine for most of the day, which I think led to less rigorous thinking and more snap judgments. I’m going to try and move one cup of coffee in the morning and 1 cup of green tea in the afternoon.

3. Deeper Reading: I read a lot. And at my worst all I am doing is scanning headlines and abstracts for information that confirms my beliefs or hunches. I need to spend more time deeply thinking through less sources of information.

4. Getting My Head Around the Corner: I feel like I have spent the last 3-4 months trying to peak around the corner of where the next 20 years of education are heading – and how this aligns to my current work. It is unclear to me that I’m operating with the right long-term strategy; or, rather, perhaps what I’m working in is an important part of the puzzle but I can’t yet see the full puzzle, which is frustrating.

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):

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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.

Explain the Correlation: National Happiness Rates and Anti-Depressant Use

I found the following interesting: the happiest countries in the world take the most anti-depressants.

Top 10 Countries Ranked by Self-Reported Happiness Surveys 

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OECD Countries with Most Anti-Depressant Use (ranked from least to most)

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Possible Explanations

1. Nothing to see here: it’s just a random correlation.

2. Anti-depressant use is correlated with something else that makes societies happy: More societal awareness and openness of mental well-being? Better healthcare systems? More trust between citizens? Wealth?

3. Anti-depressant use has a multiplier effect: If emotions are “contagious” – perhaps helping relieve the mental suffering of people who struggle with depression not only helps these people but those around them – and so on.

4. Happiness surveys are meaningless: Different cultures respond differently; scale rankings don’t tell us much about objective emotions; etc – so we should be very hesitant in using survey data to draw causation to anything.

5. High ratings of happiness increase depression: You could imagine a happiness status / inequality effect, whereby, due to social comparisons, sad people in really happy countries feel worse than sad people in moderately happy countries.

Related, Speculative Thoughts

Between now and the time the robots take over, how to mentally thrive in material abundance may end up being the major issue for most of humanity. Of course, global poverty is still a massive, massive problem, but that could end over the next couple hundred of years.

If it does, the chief concern of humanity may move from material well-being to mental well-being.

My instinct is that the science of positive psychology will continue to illuminate the foundations of meaning and happiness, but there will be genetic limits to what we can achieve.

At that point, the effectiveness of mental drugs may be the only source for increased meaning and happiness.

As such, in three hundred years, it would not shock me if there exists high levels of causation between mental drug use and happiness.