Book Review: A Random Walk Down Wall Street

a-random-walk-down-wall-street-review(Note: this review originally appeared on a sister-site I’m building out, Top Financial Advisor, but I’m cross-posting it for readers here, as part of my ongoing book reviews. The last post in this series was the Advertising Secrets of the Written Word review and summary.)

Ah, money. It doesn’t taste good. It doesn’t smell good. It can’t keep you warm at night, and it won’t love you back.

But you can trade it for something that does.

And the most remarkable thing that you can buy with money? More money. Like some sort of broken genie that allows you to wish for more wishes.

Guy at counter: Yeah, uh, I’d like to buy three dollars.
Cashier: Okay, sir, your total comes to two dollars.

Except there’s a catch, and that’s time — you can put in money and get more money out, but you’ll have to wait a while. Like growing a chia pet, instead of water, just add time.

Today’s book, A Random Walk Down Wall Street is about investing: how to find the best risk-reward tradeoff to turn your money into more money. How to buy three dollars with two.

What the book is about

The book is about random walk theory. The author defines a random walk this way: “A random walk is one in which future steps or directions cannot be predicted on the basis of past history.”

Here’s another way to think about it: imagine that you flip a coin 10,000 times. Starting from zero, with each heads, you add 1. For tails, subtract 1.

Then, plot this number against the number of flips.

Except this is 2014 and I definitely do not have the wherewithal to flip a coin 10,000 times, so I wrote a program to simulate it, and here’s what it produced:

random-walk

Remind you of anything?

It looks like a stock market chart, and it sure looks like there is a trend there — you should get in on this when it starts to go up, because there is some momentum. When it goes up, it keeps going up.

Or, at least, that’s the lie your mind constructs. At any point, the next point is decided at random, by a coin flip. There’s no tradeable information in this chart at any time, by construction.

The stock market, the author argues, works in the same way. Whenever you buy an individual stock, you’re betting that the coin will land on heads.

The implication, then, is that an investor ought to buy index funds, because they allow to an investor to gain broad diversification for very cheap. (An index fund is like buying a small slice of each stock.) This diversification increases returns and decreases risk — a point which I plan on addressing in the future, because it’s sorta neat.

In theory, one could gain that diversification by constructing a portfolio from scratch — out of individual stocks, bonds, etc but, in practice, you’ll end up paying a huge premium in fees. This premium compounds over time (less money is initially invested) and can add up to staggering amounts in the long run.

Like I calculated before, a 1% increase in portfolio returns (by avoiding unnecessary costs) could be worth a quarter or a million dollars or more.

The book also has a history of speculation, discusses the correlation between risk and reward, the benefits of diversification, and how you ought to invest at different ages and under varying circumstances. Plus some example portfolios.

My opinion of the book

Price is what you pay; value is what you get. —Warren Buffet

First, I’ll tell you what I didn’t like. Then, I’ll tell you what I did.

Negatives

So, the most annoying bit of the book is the lack of technical details. I’ve seen some reviews that have described the book as either 1) too technical or 2) having enough technical meat to satisfy engineers.

Nope. Graphs were seen but, in general, little technical explanation beyond the standard economic just-so stories. (If anyone has ever told you that raising minimum wage is bad “because supply and demand,” you’ve encountered an economic just-so story. In reality, economists are split on the issue.)

Further, the book uses what is the most annoying rhetorical trick of all time. It goes like this. The author has a theory. They say something like, “There is a moon-sized pile of evidence that supports my theory.”

And then they cite none of it.

Here is a real example: Billionaire Seth Klarman has written a paper, in which he argues that markets are like so inefficient, duh, and that “armchair academics … cling to their theories even in the face of strong evidence that they are wrong. ”

Annnnnd, the paper continues and no strong evidence is seen. WHERE IS THE EVIDENCE, KLARMAN? SHOW ME THIS STRONG EVIDENCE.

To prove that the moon exists, just point.

This is probably not a big deal to most readers but, as disgruntled blogger planning on digging deeper into the available literature, it was pretty fucking annoying.

Beyond this, I would describe the prose as good for an economist but nothing that impressive. An unmotivated reader may have trouble getting through it.

The humor is also pretty weak.

Positives

Okay, with that unpleasantness out of the way, on the whole, I thought the book was very impressive. Indeed, I was most taken with the just how reasonable the author’s opinions and statements were.

I’d expected an ideological barrage about market efficiency, but instead I found a very measured message — along the lines of, “Markets are weakly efficient, such that it’s unlikely that an individual investor can beat the market. But I understand the urge, and if you want to pick individual stocks, here are some guidelines.”

The book doesn’t even argue for the strong or semi-strong versions of the efficient markets hypothesis (EMH), instead conceding that it’s not a perfect random walk, and that there is some momentum — just not enough that someone can trade on it and still beat the market after taking into account fees, and taxes, and all the things that make people say, “Life forever? I don’t want to live forever.”

All the weak EMH requires is that “market participants not be able to systematically profit from market ‘inefficiencies’.” This doesn’t seem absurd to me, but I’m not yet convinced of. There certainly seems to be at least one person who’s returns are not explained by chance. (Spoilers: it’s Warren Buffet.)

And it seems a little galling that aggregating the bets of irrational market participants (ala behavioral finance) should result in rational prices, and don’t give me that law of large numbers “explanation.”

But I’m planning on surveying a lot more related evidence, so I haven’t come to any strong opinions either way yet.

Beyond that, the book is an absurd value (as are a lot of resources when it comes to money.) You can buy a copy for like 11 bucks off of Amazon and, by using the advice contained therein, realize probably an extra 1% in annual returns, which adds up to tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime.

So it’s sorta like trading 11 dollars for 250,000 dollars in the future.

What I’m saying is: this book on investing is a good investment. You should buy a copy.

Review and Summary: Advertising Secrets of the Written Word

411V8V5A7MLI made you a promise. I promised that book reviews were going to become a regular thing around here — you know, in my Born to Run review and summary, where I said: “I plan for this to be the first in a very long tradition of reviewing books, so stay tuned for more.”

Well, now that I’ve published reflections on one month vegan, it’s time to stop procrastinating and make good on my word. Today, I’m reviewing Joe Sugarman’s Advertising Secrets.

Or, at least, that’s what I’m going to call it.

The actual title is Advertising Secrets of the Written Word: The Ultimate Resource on How to Write Powerful Advertising Copy from One of America’s Top Copywriters and Mail Order Entrepreneurs.

To which I’d like to give the award longest title ever. Except it’s not. There’s a book by Nigel Tomm that has a 670 word title. 644 words longer than the title of this book.

So Nigel Tomm has Joe Sugarman beat. Handily.

But back to the review. What’d I think? — wait, wait, more on that later. First I have to tell you what the book is about.

Summary of Advertising Secrets of the Written Word

Joe Sugarman is, ostensibly, a legend. At least according to KISSmetrics, American Writers and Artists, Inc., and creativepublic.com.

In what is, I’m sure, an unrelated, complete coincidence, this is also how the endorsements printed on Joe Sugarman’s books describe Joe Sugarman.

Which is to imply that, if you write a book and describe yourself as a world-renowned Gorilla wrestler on the jacket, well, blogs everywhere will report that you’re a world-renowned Gorilla wrestler.

At which point, you sorta will be a world-renowned Gorilla wrestler, and you didn’t even have to wrestle any Gorillas.

And, if you think that’s bad, just remember: Wikipedia is a collection of facts, some cited, some not, and the good ones, the cited ones, are referring to the equivalent of you calling yourself a Gorilla wrestler on the book jacket.

So there’s that.

But I’m off topic. Joe Sugarman is a legend because he’s convinced people to buy a lot of junk that they don’t need.

I mean, that’s not what people say. They say he’s a “legendary copywriter who started a mail-order business, JS&A Group, through the power of his pen.”

Which translates to him selling people junk. Via magazines, newspapers, mail, you know, via writing. Junk like sunglasses that block the color blue.

The book, then, is about teaching you to write in such a way that you, too, can sell people junk. Or, at least, further your agenda with text, whatever that agenda may be — which is the reason that I picked up the book. I’d like to be able to convince people to do stuff, to take action with the power of ephemeral words.

And, I figure, if you can convince someone to read about sunglasses, you can get them to read about anything.

So how do you write great copy?

The Structure of Compelling Copy

The book itself is organized into three sections — the creative process, understanding what works, and ad examples. These sections are then structured around axioms — the author’s main ideas about what sells. Each axiom has about a chapter of text written around it, which is more than enough.

You can probably get most of the value of the book just by reading the axioms.

Joe Sugarman’s Axioms

Joe has 17 axioms, but I’ve deleted the boring ones, and renumbered them. So now it’s extra confusing.

  • Axiom 1: All the elements in an advertisement are primarily designed to do one thing and one thing only: get you to read the first sentence of the copy.
  • Axiom 2: The sole purpose of the first sentence in an advertisement is to get you to read the second sentence.
  • Axiom 3: Your ad layout and the first few paragraphs of your ad must create the buying environment most conducive to the sale of your product or service.
  • Axiom 4: Get the reader to say yes and harmonize with your accurate and truthful statements while reading your copy.
  • Axiom 5: Your readers should be so compelled to read your copy that they cannot stop reading until they read all of it as if sliding down a slippery slide.
  • Axiom 6: Never sell a product or service. Always sell a concept.
  • Axiom 7: Copy should be long enough to cause the reader to take the action you request.
  • Axiom 8: Every communication should be a personal one, from the writer to
    the recipient, regardless of the medium used.
  • Axiom 9: The ideas presented in your copy should flow in a logical fashion, anticipating your prospect’s questions and answering them as if the questions were asked face-to-face.
  • Axiom 10: In the editing process, you refine your copy to express exactly what you want to express with the fewest words.
  • Axiom 11: The more the mind must work to reach a conclusion successfully, the more positive, enjoyable or stimulating the experience.
  • Axiom 12: Selling a cure is a lot easier than selling a preventative, unless the preventative is perceived as a cure or the curative aspects of the preventative are emphasized.

If any of these don’t make sense, they’re expanded on in the book, but they’re really the meat of the content — the rest of the exposition is overkill.

There’s also a bit on the psychology of why people buy, but I think this is much better covered by Cialdini’s Influence: The Power of Persuasion, which I recommend so highly that I bought my mother a copy for Christmas, but that’s a separate blog post.

Review of Advertising Secrets of the Written Word

I thought the text was decent. Not five stars, but not three, either. A solid four star work.

My main complaint is that the prose is sometimes too straightforward. Like when I read Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography a year or so ago, I was… disturbed.

There was no introspection, no reflection, nothing. Like it was written by someone who doesn’t share the painful self-awareness and neuroticism that are endemic in author-and-author-leaning-populations.

Like the non-conscious-yet-intelligent aliens in Peter Watt’s Blindsight except here, now, real, and writing books.

Prime example: Joe is, throughout the text, speaking about selling people stuff, and it’s not great stuff. It’s not stuff anyone needs. It’s junk, really.

Hell, he even speaks about selling a product that promised to reverse aging. A product that he himself used…

— and at no point does he say, “Well, heh, heh, maybe I shouldn’t have sold that one to people, huh? Can’t win ’em all, can I?” There was nothing like that — which was troubling. Like there wasn’t a real person behind the curtain.

But the book isn’t really about that.

But it was still creepy.

So four stars.

Changes to my own writing

What did I actually take away from the book? That’s the question, right? The point of all information is to change one’s actions so, if I read a book on writing, it should change my writing.

Post-reading, there have been two big shifts in my thinking about writing.

The first main take-away: I’ve revised my thinking about on-page elements. Why do we have bold text? To emphasize stuff, right? To tell the reader that this is important. The HTML tags are “em” tags, after all.

It has to be true.

Except, no. The only point of headlines, text, sub-headings, bold, etc. is to make the copy look like an attractive read. Lists? For listing stuff?

Nope.

  • The point of a list is to make this look like something you should read.
  • Don’t these look readable, these pointless bullet points?

And if I put this in bold, doesn’t it look like something you could scan? That was something I didn’t expect. Even the company logo on a page, Joe says, has one purpose: to convince someone to read the first line.

And it makes sense. I buy it. But I didn’t see it coming.

The second main take-away: writing is too damn effective. Think about it: right now, you’re allowing me to take over the voice inside of your head.

Which is a very intimate sort of thing we have going on.

Even with Warren-Buffet-level-resources, I couldn’t invent of a better way to jam a message into your sense of self than this one: your mental monologue mouthing the message.

And, of course, here, on this website, I’m using this power for good, but in an ad? It’s broken: if someone has a concern about your product, just answer it in your ad. They read along, think of the problem, then read the solution in the ad — repeating the words in their private headspace — and then trust that you have it covered.

But what did you give them, really? Words on paper. But since you anticipated that problem, they’re like n times more likely to do whatever it is that you want.

I don’t know. It’s weird. Do you really just want anyone in your head? Some anonymous internet commenter’s dashed-off thoughts?

Maybe the reason for so many an author’s mental illness is that he-or-she let too many conflicting voices in. They read too much, and with too little discretion.

The final thing I took away from it, which isn’t as compelling as the last two, but maybe more important because it’s the easiest to implement: I’ve been making the first sentence short.

Because the first sentence of your copy needs to grab. You need to convince someone to put their mind in gear and read. You need to get the attention train moving.

And the easiest way to write a compelling sentence? According to Advertising Secrets, make it short — like five words. Short like opening a book review with, “I made you a promise.”

Born to Run Book Review and Summary

born-to-run-review

I’m training for a half-marathon. As someone not terribly athletically gifted, it’s been slow-going. Since I was going to spend the 4th of July weekend on the beach, electronically-secluded, I picked up a dead-tree copy of the book, Born to Run.

I’ve seen a lot of people transformed into, well, the sort of runners that run with religious fervor after reading this book and I thought, hey, if it worked for them, maybe it’d work for me.

Long-time readers will note that this is far from my first post on reading, although I don’t have copious direct quotes, like I’ve had in the past. I plan for this to be the first in a very long tradition of reviewing books, so stay tuned for more.

A brief summary of Born to Run

Born to Run’s sub-heading is “A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen” and, as a rare example of truth in advertising, this is sorta what the book is about.

The book documents Christopher McDougall’s (the author) fascination with  ultramarathoning — you know, those, uh, eccentric individuals who aren’t  content to run marathons, and instead run 50 or even 100 mile races, the equivalent of four back to back marathons.

These are the superathletes mentioned in “A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen” — distinguished ultramarathoners like Micah True and Scott Jurek.

And then there’s the hidden tribe part. The author’s ultramarathoning fetish leads him to a semi-mystical people known as the Tarahumara, a Native American people who live in the sheltered depths of Northwestern Mexico. And they drink pinole, which is like water and toasted corn. Which the author thinks is oh-my-god-so-amazing. But I’m pretty sure there’s a reason it hasn’t caught on in the United States and that reason is that it tastes horrible.

What’s most notable about the Tarahumara is that they’ve developed a culture around ultrarunning, sometimes running more than 200 miles in one session. Or like 7.6 back to back marathons. Oh, and did I mention that hallucinations are extremely common among ultramarathons during a race? Yeah. The Tarahumara’s name for themselves, Rarámuri, even translates to “those who run fast.”

This tradition, plus the mysterious and insular nature of the Tarahumara, well,  it was Scarlett-Johansson-level-irresistible to Christopher McDougall, so he decided to track the people down.

Except they didn’t want anything to do with him.

So Chris hunts down this other dude, Caballo Blanco aka Micah True, who tells him that he’s trying to organize a race. And not just any race. He’s going to organize a race between these reclusive Native American runners and the best American ultrarunners.

Oh, and Chris is going to run it, too. Gonzo-style, he’s going to insert himself into the action and then write it up.

This is mostly what the book is about, plus:
* Descriptions of past races Tarahumara have run against outsiders
* Gratuitous ranting against “big footwear” and how barefoot running is divine truth
* And a chapter on persistence hunting — chasing something down until it collapses from exhaustion — and how humans were literally born to run (and our running ability explains our evolutionary success, and maybe even math, but prahhhhhhh-bably not, if you ask me)

Born to Run Book Review

Endurance running hypothesis

game-of-life

I found, and this is reveals more about me than about the book, the chapter on human evolution and the role that running played in our collective success to be the most interesting.

The author argues, fairly persuasively, that humans — you and me — were born to run. That running is our birthright. That humans are to running as rabbits are to hopping.

The basic idea is that humans are more efficient at cooling off than, say, antelope and even cheetahs. We may not be as fast as either, but we can maintain a fast enough pace for a long enough time that humans can run animals to death. They’re sprinters. We’re marathoners.

This is the reason, the author argues, that humans out-competed neanderthals and why leaving the trees and standing tall was an advantage. The book even makes the point that the only reason that marathon running is so popular is because it’s hardwired into humans — recreation reveals something about the ancestral environment, basically.

This notion that we humans succeeded because of our endurance has been dubbed “the endurance running hypothesis.”

Now, whether this is true, I have some doubts. Certainly humans are capable of persistence hunting but, as far as I can tell, very few extant primitive peoples actually do any persistence hunting, instead preferring to farm, forage, or hunt-without-running-stuff-to-death. Maybe this is a side-effect of modernity, I don’t know.

However, even if early humans didn’t race deer until the deer collapsed, it still sounds pretty reasonable to posit that humans would jog from place to place. This is what we see, as far as I know, in some African countries.

So, altogether, I suspect the notion that running is a human universal and core part of our shared identity is more true than false.

Barefoot running

Parts of the book read like an extended advertisement for barefoot running — except I’m not sure what there is to sell about barefoot running. Maybe the author is short Nike stock or something.

But, really, these are the most distracting and annoying bits of the book. The author has found religion, and it’s barefoot running. Okay. I got it the first time. Maybe he could have mentioned it twice. Twice is alright. Maybe someone missed it the first time.

Or, hell, just break the barefoot running bits into their own chapter. That might be okay, too, but, as it is, it’s just scattered throughout the text, and not very subtle either. Like if some star athlete enters the narrative, you know how you’re going to know that he doesn’t wear shoes? Or that he suffered literally worse than Hitler level injuries and then switched to barefoot and oh-my-god, they’ve disappeared? Don’t worry, ‘cos the author’s going to tell you.

But, I mean, maybe the guy has a point — shouldn’t we have a strong prior that evolution didn’t mess up something as basic as feet? It seems reasonable to me, except that now we walk on concrete, which isn’t present in the ancestral environment. But that’s not really strong counter-evidence because, as far as I know, we don’t have any evidence that shoes are that great. Plus I think we should have a pretty fucking serious barefoot prior.

So even if we did have evidence for shoes, we should still be like, “Yeah, but evolution. Checkmate, shoe-wearers.”

So maybe the author is right, but this is still the most annoying part of the book.

annoying-and-right### Positive stuff

The book is very well-written. I don’t know how much you can really say about a 100-mile race, but the author manages to make the sections describing ultra-marathons not only entertaining, but compelling — who’s going to win? Will they get injured, or not?

In fact, the author sometimes pushes too far in that direction, to the point where I have to expect exaggeration: was so-and-so really that attractive? Or is Mexico really that dangerous?

But, on the whole, the author’s enthusiasm for the sport is infectious, and I find myself with something new that I’d like to do before death takes me: run an ultramarathon. (But, given that I can barely run for 5 minutes without stopping, it’s going to be a while.)

Should you read this book?

There are a few groups of people that I feel confident recommending this to. You should read this book if:

  • You’re already someone who self-identifies as a runner.
  • You would like to be more enthusiastic about running.
  • You don’t have a regular exercise routine.

Originally, I was going to just recommend this to people in the first two groups but, on reflection, those in the last group have the most potential upside. Maybe you get hooked on running and, as a result, you don’t get heart disease. That seems like a pretty big win. Exercise in general is a big win, and maybe you’re just not inspired. Sounds reasonable. Maybe this book is the one that sets you on your Destined Path as an ultramarathoner.

Hell, the first time I realized that I could be an active person was while reading a biography of Bobby Fischer, of all people, who was apparently quite the sportsman, you know, physically, as well as on the chessboard.

Those are the people who will really benefit from reading this. Or maybe if you’re one of those people who enjoys the writing style that is best-selling non-fiction. I don’t know who you are, but I know you’re out there.

I mean, as far as I’m concerned, the book was a good purchase: the tips I picked up on proper running posture were worth the sticker price alone. The entertainment, additional enthusiasm for the sport, and interesting facts were really just surplus value after that.

So, if you want to pick up a copy, or read more reviews, check it out on Amazon.

Hard Books Are Overrated

Hot air balloons take people on adventures. Books do, too.

Hot air balloons take people on adventures. Books do, too.

Widely used calculus books must be mediocre.
— W. Rudin

I’ve noticed a phenomenon, especially in mathematics, where anyone asking for book recommendations invariably is recommended the least-gentle-but-still-reasonable textbook imaginable. A high school student might ask for an introduction to calculus and someone will tell them to read Principles of Mathematical Analysis. Looking for an introduction to programming? Hey, try Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs — or just read Knuth!

Several possible explanations spring to mind:

  • By recommending a difficult book to someone, you’re signalling your own intelligence.
  • Struggling against a text results in a sort of Stockholm syndrome, where one becomes more fond of it as they sink more hours into it.
  • Recommending an easy book can be socially costly as the receiver might interpret it as an insult. It’s safer to recommend a hard book.
  • When asked for a book recommendation, people mentally grasp the book most representative of that subject, and this leads to a bias towards not-beginner-friendly texts.
  • Hard texts are that much better than anything else.
  • Familiarity with a subject damages one’s ability to judge whether or not a text is appropriate for someone without the same background.
  • Those recommending hard textbooks have not, generally, tried to self-study them, but rather sat through a class that required the text and completed 10% of the problems as homework.

All of these could be true, but what we really want to know is: are hard books systematically overvalued?

Comparing the utility of books

Now, I have no doubt that reading one hard book is more valuable than reading one easy book, but that’s not a fair fight. I could get through The Design of Everyday Things in a couple of days, while working through Knuth’s Concrete Mathematics would take me the better part of a year. If you accept that a book like Concrete Mathematics can take 200 hours while an easy book might take 4, the question becomes: Is one hard book worth fifty easy ones?

Microeconomics

We can consider taking this completely literally. Consider perhaps the most straightforward application of microeconomic theory ever: If two men are selling rugs, but one man is able to sell his rugs for ten times as much, well, customers are deriving more value from his rugs.

50 easy books will, most of the time, cost more than 1 hard book. We might expect, then, that 50 easy books will provide more value to the consumer. I actually have painstakingly collected statistics on my own reading, but there’s no correlation between my rating of a book and its price (alas).

books-price-rating-correlationA stroll through the New York Times’s best seller list also reveals no obvious relationship between how interesting a book looks and its price. A look at computer science and programming books is a bit more compelling. The obviously more valuable books (e.g. The Art of Computer Programming) are selling for more than the nth Adobe Photoshop manual.

So easy books win here, but it’s not clear if this win is worth anything.

Amount learned

Instead, we can take the tack of estimating the amount learned from a book. When going through The Design of Everyday Things, I learned maybe 10 things. Today, I started reading Petzold’s CODE and have taken about 50 separate notes. At this rate, I should end up with something like 300. A significant variance here, but let’s say the average easy text can teach someone 35 new things — more if you’re careful with book selection.

If I consider, on the other hand, a harder text, like Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, the amount available to learn is about an order of magnitude greater. Depending on the number of exercises one wades through, anywhere between one and three thousand seems reasonable.

This one could really go either way. A broad selection of fifty popular science texts will teach a person more than one really hard book, but one hard book will teach you more than fifty so-so spiritual or diet books.

And, of course, all learning is not created equal. Some things really are more important than others.

Possible heuristic: popular science is great for building a broad understanding, while difficult works are great for pushing one to the next level via deliberate practice.

Revealed preference

I can count the number of people I know who routinely fight their way through hard books on one hand. It’s not a normal thing that people do, even curious people. Indeed, curious people are notable for being more willing than most to read a wide variety of texts, not for the difficulty of those texts.

University courses

University professors typically assign more difficult textbooks (although often not truly difficult, a sorta middle ground.) Still, consider the popularity of a book like CLRS versus The Algorithm Design Manual. The first is more popular, the second more readable.

I’m not sure who wins this round: on the one hand, university textbooks are harder to read than what’s on the New York Times bestsellers list. On the other hand, most university courses are not requiring books like Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, instead opting for something gentler.

Plus, these medium difficulty textbooks are often little more than props for a class, something to accompany lectures and provide exercises. Still, on the whole, it seems more honest to call this a win for difficult books.

Comprehension, amount retained

On difficult texts, one Less Wrong commenter wrote this:

I found that when a text requires a second or third reading, taking a lot of notes, etc., I won’t be able to master it at the level of the material that I know well, and it won’t be retained as reliably, for example I won’t be able to re-generate most of the key constructions and theorems without looking them up a couple of years later (this applies even if more advanced topics are practiced in the meantime, as they usually don’t involve systematic review of the basics). Thus, there is a triple penalty for working on challenging material: it takes more effort and time to process, the resulting understanding is less fluent, and it gets forgotten faster and to a greater extent.

Success

If we live in a world where hard books were clearly superior to easier ones, I would expect that the reading habits of successful people would center around difficult books.

This isn’t the impression that I get, in general. CEOs fill their reading lists with biographies, not textbooks. If you looked at the reading habits of Bill Gates, you’ll see that it’s filled with popular non-fiction rather than hefty technical works.

Closing remarks

All of this suggests a heuristic: to decide what to read, ask yourself, “What’s the easiest book I could read that will teach me a lot?” Or, alternatively, “What’s the easiest book that will move me towards my goals?”

For reading broadly, popular works seem like a clear win. I think it’s best to save difficult works in a field until you’ve reached diminishing returns on easier texts. If you’re not learning much, then you ought to move onto something harder.

Ideally, the process of reading through easy texts on a subject before tackling harder ones transforms once difficult books into easy ones. This pattern of reading looks more like a slow progression than a violent struggle — small steps instead of leaps.

Further Reading

Categories for the Working Philosopher

Elaine Landry is working on putting together a book, Categories for the Working Philosopher. The list of topics that various contributors are working on is broad, including model theory, special relativity, quantum mechanics and ontology, biology, computer science, foundations, and more.

John Baez has posted an excellent abstract of his planned contribution. It talks about what happens when we attempt to formalize intuitive notions of equality. Some exciting relationships fall out, such as understanding equivalence as a path between two points in a topological space.

In short, by formalizing the concept of sameness using isomorphisms instead of equality, we bring group theory, geometry and topology closer to the foundations of mathematics, giving them a kind of inevitability that they might not otherwise seem to possess. We also see that these three subjects are tightly connected. A lot of important mathematics, and also theoretical physics, flows from this realization.

I recommend checking out the entire thing. John mentions in the comments that there is a (less exciting) paper in the same vein here, and all of this ties into the recent work on homotopy type theory.

Book Summary: The Pursuit of Happiness

This is a review anPicture of the book cover of David G Myers's book, The Pursuit of Happiness.d summary of David Myers’s The Pursuit of Happiness.

General Thoughts on the Book in General, Generally

The book is pretty good. I gave it a four out of five stars on Goodreads. If you’re looking for an answer to the question, “Who is happy?” and are not interested in reading more rigorous texts, then this is a good place to start. If you’re interested in the more pragmatic question, “How can I become happier?” then I would suggest you start with Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness.

It is, however, a bit dated. Specifically, more recent results suggest that the disabled are significantly less happy and satisfied than the book would lead you to believe (although they are still better off than one would naively suspect), the theoretical foundations of Pennebaker’s work on trauma-writing have advanced significantly and focus on the benefits of sense-making and its mediating role in cognitive accessibility, most people adapt to marriage within two years, negative affect peaks in late adolescence, etc.

Myer’s has a tendency to use anecdotes, which work well stylistically, but are probably too easy to believe, which is to say: readers may come away convinced of the truth of more than they would based on a careful review of the evidence.

The Pursuit of Happiness: Summary By Chapter

What is well-being?

Fewer than one in ten rate themselves as more dissatisfied than satisfied.

People over report good things. There is more reported voting (extrapolated from surveys) than actual voting, many fewer cigarettes smoked than actually sold, less tax evasion than known to occur.

As they begin college, only 2 percent of students say there is a very good chance they will drop out, even temporarily. Only about half of the students entering a four-year college or university graduate within five years.

To discover who is happiest, and why, we need only assume that those who say they are “very happy” or “completely satisfied” do experience greater well-being than those who say they are unhappy or dissatisfied.

Wealth and well-being

The correlation between income and happiness is modest, and in both the United States and Canada has now dropped to near zero.

When subjects of countless experiments speak or write on behalf of some point of view, they come to believe it more strongly.

A satisfied mind

Indeed, a recent Gallup poll offered the astonishing result that people with incomes of under ten thousand dollars give 5.5 percent to charity, and those earning fifty to sixty thousand give a stingier 1.7 percent.

In a 1990 Gallup poll, Americans readily applied the label “rich” to others. The average person judged that 21 percent of Americans were rich. But virtually none–fewer than 1/2 of 1 percent–perceived themselves as rich. To those earning $10,000 a year, it takes $50,000 to become rich. To those making $500,000 a year, rich may be $1 million income.

Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed. You cannot, therefore, get away from envy by means of success alone, for there will always be in history or legend some  person even more successful than you are. Bertrand Russel

The demography of happiness

Most men in their early forties do not experience a dip in well-being, that is, a mid-life crisis.

Adult moods (compared to adolescents) are less extreme and more enduring. Emotional intensity decreases with age.

Middle class housewives who feel less free–whose lives feel full and rushed rather than free and easy–express greater feelings of happiness and contentment.

Myer’s writes here that women experience more intense emotions than men. I’m skeptical of such claims but, on reflection, it strikes me as possible that women are more likely to indulge in their feelings, which does intensify moods. Why do I believe that women are more likely to indulge in and cultivate emotional states? Because society promotes the stereotype that women are emotional, illogical creatures, which encourages greater emotional expression, while portraying men in an opposite way.

Men are more likely than women to say that their best friend is their spouse, and four in five women say their best friend is another woman.

Statistical digests of many dozens of studies credit race and education with less than 2 percent of person-to-person variance in well-being.

Reprogramming the mind

Argue for your limitations and sure enough, they’re yours. Richard Bach

Astrology doesn’t work. Subliminal persuasion doesn’t work.

The traits of happy people

Every time we act, we amplify the underlying idea or tendency.

Do we wish to change ourselves in some important way? A potent strategy is to get up and start doing that thing. Don’t worry that you don’t feel like it. Fake it.

Going through the motions can trigger the emotion.

If we wish to conquer undesirable emotional tendencies in ourselves, we must assiduously, and in the first instance cold-bloodedly, go through the outward motions of those contrary dispositions we prefer to cultivate. William James

“Flow” in work and play

In fact, the less expensive (and generally more involving) a leisure activity, the happier people are while doing it.

Among the college students I have spent twenty-five years working with, few behaviors strike me as more irrational than self-destructive sleep patterns, with resulting fatigue, diminished alertness and, not infrequently, failure and depression.

Those sleeping seven to eight hours a night were half as likely to be depressed as those sleeping less (or more).

One astonishing recent result even found that daily meditation boosted longevity. Seventy-three residents from nursing homes were assigned either to a meditation or no-meditation condition. After three years, one fourth of the non-meditators had died, while all of the meditators were still alive.

The friendship factor

When Pennebaker surveyed more than 700 college women, he found one in twelve reported a traumatic sexual experience in childhood. I think it’s easy to become jaded and ignore these kind of self-report measures and just continue to systematically underestimate the amount of sexual abuse people, especially women, continue to endure, that is largely invisible to the rest of us. I have a tendency about this kind of thing and react with, “well, that’s bullshit”, but I have heard enough independent measures reporting surprisingly high results to convince me otherwise.

Myer’s speaks here about Pennebaker’s research and the importance of self-disclosing traumatic events to other people or a diary. Newer research on trauma writing suggests that it is not so much telling someone about the event, as it is constructing a narrative to explain what happened. That is, the key factor involved is making-sense-of.

Compared to American students, university students in Hong Kong talk with half as many people during a day, but for longer periods.

National Opinion Research: “Looking over the last six months, who are the people who you discussed matters important to you?” Compared to those who could name no such intimate, those who named five or more such friends were 60 percent more likely to feel “very happy.”

I’d just like to point out how absolutely weird that last statement is. It takes the people on one end of the scale and compares them to those with the most social resources and says, “Hey, look how important social relationships are!” I could take income and do the same thing. The completely destitute and homeless are way less happier than the average billionaire! Look how important money is to happiness! But, of course, no one does this, which begs the question: why do people want to believe that social relationships are paramount to happiness?

People report greater well-being if their friends and families support their goals by frequently expressing interest and offering help and encouragement.

Love and marriage

In the United States, almost two thirds say their marriage is “very happy.”

In one study, researchers Stephen Strack and James Coyne observed that “depressed persons induced hostility, depression, and anxiety in others and got rejected. Their guesses that they were not accepted were not a matter of cognitive distortion.”

95 percent of Americans over age forty have married.

“The real proportion of those marriages that were successful… may well have been under a fourth.”

The gap between the happiness of the married and the unmarried seems to be shrinking.

For couples living apart (because of dual careers, military service, or imprisonment) absence does not make the heart grow fonder. Such couples have double the normal rate of divorce.

Those who cohabitate before marriage are more likely to get divorced.

The number of premarital sexual partners correlates with marital unhappiness.

75 percent of divorced people remarry — half within three years.

Although second marriages have a 25 percent greater risk of divorce, remarried people are virtually as satisfied with their marriages as those in first marriages.

In a 1988 Gallup survey, nine in ten Americans said they had not had sex with anyone other than their spouses during their present marriage.

Those who married out of romantic love experienced a diminishing of romantic love after five years. In contrast, those in arranged marriages reported more love as the years went by. In fact, a decade after marriage, love was more abundant in arranged than love-based marriages.

Virtually every couple that had sex more often than they argued were happily married; no couples that argued more than they had sex rated their marriage as happy.

Thoughts on this chapter

I’m convinced that most authors are too optimistic about the benefits of marriage. Myers ought to be commended for the sheer amount of disturbing evidence that he presents in this chapter.

He still seems optimistic, though. There doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason for such optimism. If an alien visited Earth, knowing nothing about marriage, and was presented with all the studies on marriage, would he be as optimistic as most authors are? I don’t think so.

Books on happiness ought to be counseling people not to get married at all. Texts will often speak at length about all the problems with marriage, the downsides, and then talk about how you, with effort, can maybe prevent that from happening. Odds are you won’t beat the odds. That’s why they’re the odds. Your marriage will be unhappy. Don’t get married in the first place. You’ll be better off.

This is all a little tongue in cheek. I’m not certain that people really shouldn’t get married. Maybe with a little knowledge, most marriages would be worth it. The idea that maybe marriage isn’t worth it deserves serious consideration, though, in light of what we know. Authors need to stop assuming that the answer to the question, “Should people get married?” is yes, and start thinking.

Why are most authors so optimistic about marriage? Probably because they themselves are married.

Faith, hope, and joy

Economists were more than twice as likely as those in other disciplines to contribute no money to private charities. In laboratory monetary games, students become more selfish after taking economics courses.

Concluding thoughts

Okay, that’s my summary. If you enjoyed this The Pursuit of Happiness summary, you should really check out the book! Definitely worth the read.

Book Summary: The Psychology of Happiness

A picture of the cover of Michael Argyle's <em>The Psychology of Happiness.</em>This is my The Psychology of Happiness summary. The book is by Michael Argyle.

Notes on notes

I didn’t bother taking notes on parts of the book that contained information covered more thoroughly elsewhere or where the author’s claims struck me as dubious. I also spent a while hunting down citations and then quit about half way through, figuring blogging ought to be fun.

The Psychology of Happiness Summary By Chapter

Introduction

Happiness and meaning in life were rated as much more important in producing the good life than moral goodness and going to heaven.1

Happiness has sometimes been measured by an answer to a single question, but this has led to some very improbable results.

According to one survey, there are 17 papers on depression for every one paper on happiness.

Well-being is different from subjective well-being in that well-being usually considers objective measures of things such as health or income.

Argyle believes that the main causes of happiness are relationships, work, and leisure.

The main motivation of leisure activity is often to enjoy social relations, real or imaginary.

Watching television can have positive effects for the socially isolated.

Soldiers expect more fear of a difficult parachute jump than actually happens. Dental patients expect more pain from a procedure than actually happens.

People say that money is not important to happiness and they are correct. However, their behavior suggests that they think money is very important.2

Social skills training is an effective intervention for depression and for improving social relationships among the non-depressed.

Increased exercise can improve the happiness of both depressed and normal populations.

Smaller organizations with flatter hierarchies and more employee input on decisions have greater well-being.

How to measure and study happiness

Brandstatter (1991) using experience sampling found that people are in a positive emotional state 68% of the time. (pg. 8)3

Single question job satisfaction correlates .67 with longer scales. (pg. 9)

The Oxford Happiness Inventory has better retest validity than the Beck Depression Inventory, correlates with rating by friends, and has strong and predicted relations with personality dimensions, stress, and social support. (pg. 11)

Andrews and McKennel (1980) found that happiness correlated more affective factors than cognitive factors (satisfaction).4

Suh et al. (1998) reported that the average correlation for affect balance and satisfaction was .41, but higher for individualist nations, where it was over .50.5

Positive affect and negative affect correlate at about -.43. (pg. 14)6

Headey and Wearing (1992) found that depression and anxiety correlated at .50, suggesting that negative affect consists of separable components. (pg. 14)7

Most people are well above average happiness, 6 or 7 on a 9 point ladder. (pg. 17)8

Most people in Britain say they are happily married, but half will get divorced. (pg. 17)

Life satisfaction has been found to correlate with measures of self-deception.9

Austria and Nigeria had the same level of subjective satisfaction, but Austria scored 71 and Nigeria 30 on the Quality of Life Index. (Diener and Suh 1997a) (pg. 19)10

Clark and Oswald (1996) found that satisfaction with income had no relation to actual income, but satisfaction was greater for those who expected less. (pg. 20)11

Unemployment affects mental health and mental health affects likelihood of unemployment, but causation is stronger in the direction of unemployment-mental heal. (pg. 21)

High levels of well-being increase extraversion. (Headey, Holmstrom, and Wearing, 1984). (pg. 21) 12

Joy and other positive emotions

People have a number of negative moods, but really only one positive mood, joy. (pg.23)

Emotions can be plotted on two axis: happy-sad and excited-calm. (pg. 24)

The intensity of positive emotions correlated with extraversion at .41 and the intensity of negative emotions with neuroticism at .64. (pg. 26)

Thinking about and talking to others about positive events produces positive meed’s (Argyle and Martin, 1991).13

Seven emotions can be reliably discriminated by others in most cultures. (pg. 28)

Monkeys reared in isolation can recognize happy versus angry. (pg. 28)

It is an increasingly widely held view that there are a limited number of basic emotion, perhaps seven, that have been hardwired into the brain by evolution. (Ekman, 1982) (pg. 28) 14

In Japan there is a rule about not showing negative faces in public. (pg. 29)

Smiles and frowns leads to enhancement of the corresponding moods. (pg. 29)

Facial expressions may express emotions, but their real purpose may to be to communicate with others. Facial expressions occur when people are alone, but they are much weaker. (pg. 29)

Voice tone leaks more emotions than the face. (pg. 30)

There is no particular body posture corresponding to joy. (pg. 30)

Frequency of contact with friends, and of sexual intercourse, come out strongly related to happiness. (Veenhoven, 1994). 15

The most common sources of joy (pg. 31): * Eating * Social activities and sex * Exercise and sport * Alcohol and other drugs * Success and social approval * Use of skills * Music, the other arts and religion * Weather and environment * Rest and relaxation

Social activities and sex are the most common sources of positive emotion. (pg. 31)

Exercise is the easiest and most powerful way of inducing positive emotion in experimental conditions. (pg. 32)

People are in a better mood when the sun is shining, it is warm but not too warm, and humidity is low, 16, but there is a high degree of adaptation to the weather. (pg. 33)

Larson et al. (1984) found that alcohol produced positive emotions along all the scales they used. (pg. 36) 17

Satisfaction

Cummins (1998) concluded that most studies report an average of 70% of the maximum of the satisfaction scale. 18

The effect of life satisfaction on job satisfaction is stronger than vice versa. (Diener et al., 1999), (pg. 44) 19

In one study, asked if they would choose the same profession again, 91% of mathematicians and 82% of lawyers said they would, compared with 16% of unskilled steel workers. (pg. 44)

Widows are about four times more likely (42% vs 10%) to be depressed than the married. (pg. 44)

Leisure satisfaction has been found to be more related to total satisfaction than any other domain in some studies. (pg. 45)

Watching TV is sometimes found to have a negative relationship with satisfaction, probably because those watching TV have nothing better to do. (pg. 45)

Adams (1997) found that objective indicators for Black Americans declined from 1980 to 1992, but life satisfaction increased. 20 (pg. 46)

Strack et al. (1990) found that being with a handicapped confederate who seemed to be on a kidney dialysis machine increased the well-being of real subjects. 21 (pg. 46)

For individuals with the same income, living in a richer or poorer area had no effect on subjective well-being.

Schulz and Decker (1985) found, in a study of 100 disabled individuals, reported satisfaction was lower than the general population 20 years after the accident. (pg. 48) 22

The disabled are less satisfied than those who acquired their injuries at birth or early in life. (Mehnert et al., 1990) (pg. 48) 23

Strack et al. (1985) found that asking subjects to think about pleasant events in the present or recent past, but for past events there was more effect on well-being from thinking about negative events. Past events are used to contrast, while present events are used as evidence of well-being. (pg. 50) 24

Humour and laughter

Finding things funny happens about 18 times a day, most often in spontaneous response to situations in the presence of others. (Martin and Kuiper, 1999) (pg. 54) 25

There are different kinds of jokes, but so far no agreed classification of them. (pg. 54)

Ruch and Carrell (1998), using 263 American and 151 German adults, found very high correlations, .80 or more, between a cheerfulness inventory and Ruch’s sense of humor scale. (pg. 54) 26

Extraverts laugh more. (pg. 54)

Houston et al. (1998) found that a laughter-inducing sing-song in an old people’s home led to reduced levels of anxiety and depression. (pg. 55) 27

It seems that only in the apes that have had a lot of human contact and been taught sign-language can something like humor can be seen. (pg. 55)

Most adult humor contains sexual, aggressive, or hostile components. (pg. 57)

By age 6 there is a gender difference; boys tell more jokes and fool about more than girls. (pg. 57)

The central feature of events that makes them funny is incongruity. (pg. 58)

Extraversion is usually found to correlate with sense of humor as measured by the 3WD test, and extraverts like sexual jokes the most. (pg. 60)

Humour makes young people more attractive to one another. (Lundy et al. 1998) 28

Keltner et al. (1998) found that in romantic couples teasing led to increased flirtation and positive affect. (pg. 62) 30

For males who laughed a lot, stressful events led to an increase in positive affect. Kuiper et al. 1992 (pg. 62) 31

Children who initiate a lot of humor have often experienced a period of rejection early in life. (pg. 65)

Jokes were found funnier when they esteemed a subject’s own group or one with which he identified, and when they disparaged groups to which he did not belong or identify with. La Fave et al. (1976) 32

Jokes may be an indirect way of expressing hostile attitudes. (pg. 66)

Graham (1995) asked pairs of stranger to talk for 30 minutes; a strong sense of humor led to reduction of social distance between them. (pg. 68) 33

Grammer (1990) found that young men indicated their sexual interest by laughter combined with bodily posture. (pg. 68) 34

Decker and Rotondo (1999) found that job satisfaction as greater when supervisors were rated as having a good sense of humor, especially female supervisors. (pg. 68) 35

When humor is used in public speaking, the speaker is liked more, the audience are in a better mood, and the speech is found more interesting. (pg. 69)

Teachers are like more if they use humor. (pg. 69)

The key to most humor is entertaining two versions of events, or stories, where the second and unexpected one is less worthy, e.g. ruder, than the first. (pg. 69)

Social relationships

Infant monkeys rared in total isolation start to discriminate friendly and threatening faces at 2 months, so this ability must be largely innate. (Sackett, 1966) (pg. 74) 36

Lu and Argyle (1992b) found that extraverts gave more social support than introverts did. (pg. 74) 37

Weiss (1973) found that to avoid loneliness people needed a single close relationship and also a network of relationships. (pg. 75) 38

Wheeler et al. (1983) fond that a number of students who had plenty of friends and spent a lot of time with them were still lonely because they talked about impersonal topics. (pg. 75) 39

Friendships were most often lose by individuals breaking such “third party rules” as keeping confidences and standing up for friends in their absence. (Argyle and Henderson, 1985). (pg. 75) 40

The best predictor of not being lonely is the frequency of interaction with women; time spent with men made no difference. (Wheeler at al. 1983). (pg. 75)39

Extraverts are more assertive and more cooperative, making them able to manage their relationships better (Argyle and Lu, 1990). 41

Ross and Mirowsky (1989) found that social support led to less depression, but that intimate conversations about problems made things worse since this meant talking about problems, or complaining, rather than solving them. (pg. 76) 42

Bereavement is more damaging for men than women. (pg. 79)

Being in love is good for health. Smith and Hoklund (1988) found that Danish students who were in love had a higher white blood cell count, and had fewer sore throats, colds, or afters-effects of drinking than those not in love. (pg. 80) 43

The overall effect of having children on the happiness of their parents is zero (Veenhoven, 1994). (pg. 82)15

There are two bad periods for marital happiness: when there are very young children and when they are adolescents. (pg. 82)

Favorite cousins in later life are those who were childhood playmates (Adams, 1968). (pg. 84) 44

Couples with children live longer. (Kobrin and Hendershot, 1977), (pg. 84). 45

Headey (1999) found that only 11% of those who had dogs were on some medication compared with 19% of those with no pets; the pets owners went to the doctor less too. (pg. 85) 46

Hall and Nelson (1996) found that the well-being of a sample of patients depended on the percentage of women in their networks, providing social support. (pg. 86) 47

Argyle and Furnham (1983) found that the spouse was the greatest source of conflict as well as of satisfaction. (pg. 86) 48

Work and employment

In a survey of 7000 workers from nine European countries, Clark (1998a) found that 42% reported having high job satisfaction. (pg. 89) 49

The overall correlation between pay and job satisfaction is low, typically .15 to .17, so pay is not an important cause of job satisfaction. (pg. 91)

Those doing voluntary work ares sometimes found to enjoy their work as much or more than paid workers (Furnham and Argyle, 1998). (pg. 91) 50

A meta-analysis of job status found a rather modest overall correlation of .18 with job satisfaction (Haring et al., 1984). 51

For European workers, having “good relations” at work, with management and colleagues, was the strongest predictor of job satisfaction. (pg. 93)

There is a U-shaped curve to job satisfaction, such that the young and the old tend to be more satisfied with their jobs (Clark et al., 1996) (pg. 95). 52

Arvey et al. (1994) studied 2200 pairs of twins and found that 30% of the variability of in job satisfaction could be explained by genetic factors (pg. 96). 53

Furnham and Schaeffer (1984) found there was more satisfaction if an individual’s profile of needs matched the profile of rewards offered by the job. (pg. 96) 54

American surveys have found that 10-12% of the unemployed described themselves as “very happy” compared with 30% of the general population. This effect is causal. (Warr, 1978) (pg. 103) 55

Clark et al. (1996) conclude that the effect of job loss on general mental health is worse than that of divorce. (pg. 104)52

Murphy and Athanasou (1999) carried out a meta-analysis and found that starting work led to increased mental health with an effect size of .54, while losing a job led to deterioration with an effect size of .36. (pg. 104) 56

In Britain it has been found that income explains less than a quarter of the reduction of GHQ scores for the unemployed (Clark, 1998b). 57

Unemployment creates more distress for those high in neuroticism (Payne, 1988), introversion, and for type A personalities. (pg. 105) 58

The unemployed structure their time less (Feather and Bond, 1983) 59 and this is a cause of lower psychological health (Wanberg et al, 1997). 60

When voluntary workers are compared with paid workers doing the same work, the voluntary workers have been found to have higher job satisfaction (Pearce, 1993). 61

On average the retired are happier than those at work. (pg. 107)

American studies find no difference in mental health before and after retirement (Kasl, 1980). 62

Leisure

Several studies have found a negative relation between TV watching and happiness. (pg. 112)

Thayer (1989) found that a 10-minute brisk walk resulted n less tiredness, more energy, and less tension 2 hours later. Other studies found that after an hour’s exercise, such as aerobics, those involved felt less tense, depressed, angry, tired or confused, and had more vigor, for the rest of the day and, in some, for the next day (Maroulakis and Zervas, 1993). (pg. 113)

Paffenbarger el at. (1991) followed up 17,000 Harvard alumni over a period of 16 years and found fewer heart attacks for those who did more exercise. Thirty minutes a day was enough to give maximum benefits. There were 31% fewer deaths. (pg. 115)

Former athletes have been found to live longer than non-athletes (Shepherd, 1997). (pg. 115)

Koneci (1982) fond that playing simple melodies at a low volume led to insulted subjects being less aggressive. (pg. 121)

People listen to about 1.25 hours of music a day on average. (pg. 121)

There is no evidence that music can create enduring happiness or satisfaction. (pg. 121)

Watching videos of wilderness has been found to lower blood pressure. (pg. 122)

A number of leisure activities were thought to satisfy social needs that are not obviously social, such as serious reading and meditation. (Hills et al., 2000), (pg. 126)

There is a strong correlation between intrinsic motivation and positive affect. (Graef et al., 1983) (pg. 128)

Zuckerman (1979) found that those who engage in dangerous sports are high on his sensation-seeking scale, which correlates with extraversion and psychoticism. (pg. 129)

Eyesneck et al. (1982) found that successful sportsmen have a special personality, they are high on extraversion and psychoticism. They do particularly well at, and presumably enjoy, rough sports because they don’t mind injuring other people. (pg. 129)

Money, class and education

Campbell et al. (1976) in their Quality of American Life study found that “financial situation” was rated 11th out of 12 possible sources of life satisfaction. (pg. 131)

King and Napa (1998) found that their subjects estimated money as worth one-fifth of the effect of happiness and one-sixth of meaning as components of the good life. (pg. 131)

Kessler (1982) analyzed data from eight American surveys with 16,000 subjects. He found that for men income, especially earned income, was the strongest predictor of depression; occupational status was much weaker. For women education was a stronger predictor. (pg. 134)

For men the benefits of income leveled off at $75,000, but for women the richest were more depressed than those in the next lowest income band. (West, Reed, and Gildengorin, 1998). (pg. 135)

Blaxter (1990) found that the poor were in much worse health than the better off, but there was an upturn in bad health for the very rich, which she concluded was mainly due to drinking too much. (pg. 135)

Clark (1996) studied data from 9000 British adults and found that job satisfaction was greater for those who had the largest pay raises during the past year. However, their data suggested that the gains in satisfaction were in the short term only, and some kind of habituation sets in. (pg. 138)

It looks as if suddenly acquiring large sums of money does not make people very happy. (pg. 138)

In 1987 Americans wanted $50,000 per annum to fulfill their dreams, in 1994 they wanted $102,000 (Schor, 1998) (pg. 140).

With income held constant those with the lowest expectations had the highest job satisfaction. (Clark and Oswald, 1996) (pg. 141).

Berkowitz and his colleagues (1987), in a survey in Wisconsin, found that inequiity was the strongest predictor of (low) pay satisfaction. (pg. 141)

Do people compare their present situation with the past, are they happier if their financial situation has improved? There are immediate effects, but these do not last very long, and there seem to be no reliable effects of comparisons with the past. (pg. 141)

The effect of education on happiness is greater in poorer countries. (pg. 146)

Personality, age and gender

Argyle (1994) found that the socially unskilled avoid many situations that others enjoy. (pg. 149)

Headey et al. (1985) found that good social relations over a period of time produced increased levels of extraversion, and this in turn led to increased well-being. (pg 149)

Watson and Clark (1984) concluded that the relation between neuroticism and negative affect is so strong that the two variables can be regarded as equivalent. (pg. 152)

Self-esteem correlates with measures of well-being more strongly than extraversion. (pg. 154)

Internal control has consistently been found to be a predictor of happiness. (pg. 155)

Positive affect increases with age and negative affect decreases, at least through early and middle adulthood. Mroczak and Kolanz (1998) found that increases in positive affect held only for male introverts, while the decline in negative affect in women only held for those who were married. (pg. 160)

A meta-analysis carried out by Wood et al. (1989) found that women were on average a little happier than men. (pg. 161)

Religion

The benefits of church may due to the social support it provides. (pg. 167)

Poloma and Pendleton (1991) found that peak experiences and prayer experience were the best predictors of well-being, especially existential well-being. (pg. 167)

Existential well-being is the aspect of SWB most influenced by religion (e.g. Charmberlain and Zika, 1988). (pg. 167)

Kirkpatrick (1992) suggested that the relation with God via prayer, private devotions, and religious experiences, can be experienced in much the same way as relations with humans, and and can give similar benefits. (pg. 167)

The effect of religiosity on subjective well-being is strongest for Black Americans. (pg. 167)

The benefits of religion on objective health (e.g. longevity) are largely due to church members abstaining from risky behaviors and increased social support as a result of church attendance. (pg. 170)

Booth et al (1997) carried out a careful longitudinal study of 1005 married people and found that over a 12-year period increases in religious activity did not lead to increased marital happiness or decreased conflict. (pg. 173)

Intense religious experiences usually occur in isolation. (pg. 173)

Pahnke (1966) induced religious experience by means of drugs and the effects on positive outlook were still there 6 months afterwards, described as “joy, blessedness and peace”.

Prayer produces enhanced happiness and existential well-being. Poloma and Pendleton (1991) found that this was greatest when religious experiences occurred during prayer, and these were brought on by meditative prayer. (pg. 173)

In Jerusalem a number of visitors become emotionally disturbed simply by the strong religious presence of holy places and religious symbolism, and end up in the hospital ward kept for those with “Jerusalem syndrome.” (pg. 175)

Intrinsic religiosity may reduce the fear of death. (Osarchuk and Tate, 1973). (pg. 175)

National differences in happiness

Collectivism is beneficial for poor nations, while individualism is beneficial for rich nations. (Veenhoven, 2000). (pg. 185)

Overall freedom correlated with national happiness .49, but for the poor countries is was non-significant. (Veenhonven, 2000) (pg. 186)

It has been suggested that the high satisfaction and happiness scores in the US are due in part to the social norms that demand the appearance of cheerfulness. (pg. 189)

The Ifaluk tribe live on a small Pacific island. In this culture, looking happy is not socially acceptable. (Lutz, 1998) (pg. 190)

Lists of objective indicators for well-being appear to be very arbitrary. Becker at al. (1987) found that for 329 American cities, 134 of them could come first depending on different weighting of the indicators. (pg. 192)

Happiness enhancement

Exercise is one of the easiest and most effective methods of inducing positive moods. (pg. 202)

Forms of cognitive therapy have been used for normals with success. Lichter et al. (1980) devised a course of eight 2-hour sessions over 4 weeks, focusing on improving insight and understanding and correcting irrational beliefs. Those trained in this way improved in happiness and satisfaction. (pg. 210)

Depressed patients and many other mental patients have been found to display defective social skills such as low rewardingness (Hollin and Trower, 1986). (pg. 212)

The effects of positive moods and happiness

When positive moods have been induced in subjects, they feel very sociable. (pg. 215)

Happy people have higher quality social interactions. (pg. 215)

When people are in a positive mood they have a less cautious social style. (pg. 215)

Couples coming out of a happy movie, or who had seen one in the lab, evaluated their relationships more positively, and reported greater admiration for each other and more self-disclosure than those coming out of a sad movie. (Forgas et al., 1994) (pg. 216)

Those in positive moods are sexually aroused more readily. (pg. 216)

Happy people like others morel they are also more liked by others, who will spend more time with them, sit nearer, say they would like to meet them again, compared with depressed individuals for example (Howes and Hokanson, 1979) (pg. 216).

When individuals have had a lot of positive life events they become more extraverted, which in turn makes them happier, as Headry and Wearing (1992( found in their longitudinal study in Australia. (pg. 216)

O’Malley and Andrews (1983) found that 47% of subjects who had been put in a good mood by recalling happy past event offered to give blood, compared with 17% in a control condition. (pg. 216)

Isen and Levin (1972) found that children who had been allowed to win at bowling gave three times as much to poor children. (pg. 216)

Weisenverg et al. (1998) found that after seeing a humorous film subjects could stand more pain, 51 minutes with a had in cold water, compared with only 31 minutes after a sad film. (pg. 220)

Conclusions

Social relations are probably the greatest single cause of happiness and other aspects of well-being. (pg. 224)

Friends are very important but how do we find and keep them? Part of the answer lies in social skills training, part of it lies in joining leisure groups. (pg. 225)

Purpose in life and a sense of meaning can be generated by commitment to goals. (pg. 225)

Intelligence has almost no effect on happiness. (pg. 226)

It is sometimes said that you can’t seek happiness, it has to come as a by-product of other activities. But depressed patients certainly seek happiness for themselves, and mental health workers seek it for them, successfully, and there seems to be no objection to that. (pg. 229)

Okay, that’s my The Psychology of Happiness summary. If you enjoyed this, consider buying a copy of the book.

Sources


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Book Summary: Happiness: Lessons from a New Science

Picture of the cover of <em>Happiness: Lessons From a New Science.</em>

This is my Happiness: Lessons from a New Science summary.

Happiness: Lessons from a New Science Summary

What is the problem?

Jeremy Bentham was a shy and kindly man, who never married and gave his money to good causes. He was also one of the first intellectuals to go jogging – or trotting as he called it. (pg. 4)

From his experiences in Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl concluded that in the last resort “everything can be taken from a man but one thing, that last of human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” (pg. 8)

What is happiness?

People can say at any moment how they feel. (pg. 12)

Most people find it easy to say how good they are feeling, and in social surveys such questions get very high response rates, much higher than the average survey question (pg. 13)

Layard defines happiness as feeling good and states that the book is concerned with increasing people’s average happiness over time. (pg. 17)

By using very powerful magnets it is possible to stimulate activity in the left side of the forebrain, and this automatically produces a better mood. Indeed, this method has even been used to alleviate depression. Even more remarkable, it has been found that to improve the immune system, which is heavily influenced by a person’s mood. (pg. 19)

When different people are exposed to good experiences, those who are naturally happy when at rest experience the greatest gain in happiness. And when they are exposed to nasty experiences, they experience the least increase is discomfort. (pg. 19)

When people are exposed to a painful experience, their subjective pain reports are highly correlated with the different levels of brain activity in the relevant part of the cortex. (pg. 20)

It is not possible to be happy and unhappy at the same time. Positive feelings damp down negative feelings and vice versa. So we have just one dimension — running from the extreme negative to the extreme positive. (pg. 21)

People who achieve a sense of meaning in their lives are happier than those who live from one pleasure to another. (pg. 22)

Oscar nominees who won went on to life four years longer, on average, than the losers. (pg. 24)

Are we getting happier?

When people become richer compared with other people, they become happier, but when whole societies have become richer, they have not become happier. (pg. 31)

When we look at the same people over their lifetimes, we find they got no happier, even though they get much richer. (pg. 32)

A group of Chinese students were asked to answer a happiness survey in both Chinese and English, with two weeks between the two events. The students reported almost exactly the same average level of happiness in both Chinese and English, and the answers in the different languages were highly correlated across the students. (pg.34)

In Switzerland most people speak French, German, or Italian, but all these groups give similar replies to the question about happiness. (pg. 34)

Most evidence suggests that clinical depression has increased since the Second World War. (pg. 35)

In any one year about 6% of people in the United Sates experience a major depressive episode. (pg. 35)

In the United States over a quarter of young white men say they have already experienced problem with alcohol. This compares with under 15% of men over sixty-five who say they have ever experienced such problems. (pg. 36)

In Europe, the number of people dying of cirrhosis of the liver is up since 1950 in every country except France. (pg. 37)

Youth suicide has increased in almost every advanced country. (pg. 37)

If you’re so rich, why aren’t you happy?

Since 1972 Americans have been asked whether they are satisfied with their financial position. Although real income per head has nearly doubled, the proportion of people who say they are pretty well satisfied with their financial situation has actually fallen. (pg. 42)

The only situation where we might willingly accept a pay cut is when others are doing the same. (pg. 44)

At the extreme we have the Russian peasant whose neighbor has a cow. When God asks how he can help, the peasant replies, “Kill the cow.” (pg. 45)

If I work harder and raise my income, I make other people less happy. But when I decide how much to work, I do not take this “pollution” into account. so I will tend to work more than is socially efficient — and so will everyone else. (pg. 47)

A dollar rise in experienced income causes a rise of at least forty cents in “required income.” (pg. 49)

People do underestimate this process of habituation: As a result, our life can get distorted towards working and making money, and away from other pursuits. (pg. 49)

Among rich countries, people in the United States work the longest hours. In most countries and at most times in history, as people have become richer they have chosen to work less. Over the last fifty years Europeans have continued this pattern and hours of work have fallen sharply, but not in the United States. (pg. 50)

So what does make us happy?

Despite these problems you will still hear that some trait is x% “heritable,” meaning that x% of the variation is due to the genes. In most cases the figure given is an overestimate, because it includes as a genetic effect any effect of experience when this is positively correlate with the effect of the genes. (pg. 58)

As adoptees progress through life, the effect of their adoptive parents fades and the effect of their genes increases. (pg. 59)

Among humans, controlled experiments to improve parenting have been shown to have lasting effects on the children. (pg. 60)

For many reasons mothers treat one twin differently from another, and even by the age of seven we can see that the favored twin behaves much better. (pg. 60)

What’s going wrong?

Bhutan is small Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas. In 1998, the king announced that the nation’s objective would be the Gross National Happiness. In 1999, the country’s ban on television was lifted. Crime increased, families dissolved, and drug use rose. (pg. 77)

Unmarried parents are on average twice as likely to split up as married parents. (pg. 79)

In 1950, 20% of U.S. mothers went out to work. Now it is over 70%. (pg 82)

Given that the rate of divorce has soared over the past 50 years, one would expect that the remaining marriages would be happier, but marriage satisfaction has actually fallen. (pg. 85)

Over a lifetime a typical Briton spends more time watching television than doing paid work. The figures are much the same in the United States. (pg. 86)

Richard Layard believes that television increases violent behavior. Two days after heavyweight prize-fights in the United States, there is 9% more homicide than otherwise. And after a reported suicide in a television drama, more people actually take their lives. (pg. 87)

Researchers measured the change in children’s aggression in the two years that followed the introduction of television. This showed conclusively that the introduction of television increased aggression.

The more television people watch, the more they overestimate they overestimate the affluence of other people. (pg. 89)

Since television has a negative impact on your perceived position, it is bad for your happiness. (pg. 89)

On one estimate an extra hour a week watching television causes you to spend an extra $4 a week on keeping up with the Joneses. (pg. 89)

Can we pursue a common good?

On average, people with a strong moral sense do better than others, even economically. (pg. 102)

People who are given thirty minutes beforehand to talk to other strangers are quite good at forecasting how the others will behave in the ultimatum game. (pg. 104)

The evidence also shows that when one spouse does something and the other spouse reciprocates, the first gets less satisfaction than when no direct reciprocation occurs. (pg. 105)

At this point in the text, Layard writes at length about utilitarianism. His analysis is aimed at a popular audience and will not be of much use to anyone who has taken an ethics course or read a few articles on Wikipedia. However, Layard does mention two books that argue against utilitarianism, Utilitarianism and Beyond and Utilitarianism: For and Against. This sort of information is very useful to utilitarians, as reading these will help correct for confirmation bias.

Can we tame the rat race?

For example, in 1996 the Eurobarometer survey asked employed people in each country whether in the last five years there had been a significant increase in the stress involved with your job. Nearly 50% said it increased, while 10% said it diminished. (pg. 158)

Conclusion

That’s all, folks! If you enjoyed this, consider buying a copy of the book.