Book Summary: Happiness: Lessons from a New Science

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<p>This is my <a href=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)


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

How To Spot Important Problems In The World Today

If you do not work on an important problem, it’s unlikely you’ll do important work.

Richard Hamming, You and Your Research

How can you distinguish important problems from those which aren’t? A problem’s importance is determined by the amount of good that work on it produces.

What’s Good?

On all plausible theories, everyone’s well-being consists at least in part in being happy, and avoiding suffering.

Derek Parfit, On What Matters

The essence of “what is good” is the extent to which something reduces suffering and increases happiness. This is not to claim that these are the sole factors that determine goodness, but rather that any theory of the good would be incomplete without them.

More Good is Gooder

That is wise. Were I to invoke logic, however, logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

It’s better to save two lives than one. The more people that work on a problem helps, the more good that work does and the more important that work is.

Hard Problems

Work on impossible problems is not important. It will not lead anywhere. The human condition will not be improved. The more likely it is that work on a problem will do a lot of good, the more important that problem is. It is better to work on something where you have a 95% chance of saving a million lives than it is to work on something where you have a 5% chance of saving a million lives.

Working on something hard is not in and of itself virtuous. People working on research in pure mathematics are working on hard problems, but given how disconnected pure mathematics is from reality, just donating money to a charity is probably more important than working on the millennium problems.

You might think, “Yeah, but sometimes pure mathematics does have important real world consequences.” I agree. This is not a real objection, though. We are again talking about the likelihood of doing a lot of good.

One could argue, for example, that you might have some kind of powerful insight into many of the world’s greatest ills by setting the record for most olives eaten in a single sitting. The chance is negligible. You would have a higher likelihood of success by working directly on solving world hunger, etc.

If Not Me, Then Who?

It has always appalled me that really bright scientists almost all work in the most competitive fields, the ones in which they are making the least difference. In other words, if they were hit by a truck, the same discovery would be made by somebody else about 10 minutes later.

Aubrey de Grey

It is important to consider context when deciding whether or not to work on a problem. Consider two scenarios:

  1. Curing a rare disease that will save 20 lives per year. Discovering the cure is an active area of inquiry within your discipline and there is a 90% chance that someone will discover a cure within the next year regardless of your contribution.

  2. Curing a rare disease that will save 5 lives per year. The disease is absent from the academic literature and most researchers have no idea that it exists. Those that do know of its existence are not interested in finding a cure. There is less than a 1% chance that someone will discover a cure within the next year without your contribution.

You should work on the second problem.

This has an odd implication. Most people believe that Isaac Newton’s discovery of calculus and Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone were important. However, all of these were discovered by other people: Leibniz (among others) discovered calculus at the same time as Newton. Elisha Gray filed a patent for the invention of the telephone on the same day as Alexander Graham Bell. The infamous formula \( E=mc^2 \) was chanced upon by Henri PoincarĂ©, Olinto De Pretto, Paul Langevin and, of course, Albert Einstein.

It’s useful here to make a distinction. I’m not claiming that the discovery of calculus or the invention of the telephone were not important. Rather, my point is that the individual work of Alexander Graham Bell and Isaac Newton was less important than it first appears. The world may have been better off if they had invested energy in some other pursuit.

Our aim should be an efficient distribution of intellectual resources among problems so that we maximize the amount of good accomplished. One aspect of reducing waste is to prevent duplicated work, such as two people inventing the telephone. By taking into account the amount of work that other people are doing on a problem before you begin working on it, you can maximize the amount of difference you can make as an individual.

Recognition and Reproduction

Doing important work doesn’t always feel important and is often not recognized as such. Important work is distinct from recognition for doing important work. When we think of doing groundbreaking research, we think of Albert Einstein and how great it would be to be like him.

This is a focusing illusion. We only hear about important work when it has been recognized. Important work without recognition is invisible. We have no memory of it because we’ve never heard of it. Who knows how many important discoveries have been ignored?

A significant amount of the appeal of doing important work is connected to the social status that we expect to gain as a result of doing that work. In this sense, then, aspirations of being a great researcher are not much different from dreams of being rich and famous. Our monkey brains want desperately to maximize their reproductive fitness.

The model I have presented here is not about maximizing reproductive fitness. If that is your goal, you would be better served by donating to a sperm bank or studying seduction than by setting out to do important work. This model is concerned with doing important work regardless of whether or not one achieves recognition for it.

Would you be content with improving the world even if someone else received credit for it? If the answer is yes, then you are interested in defining important work as I’ve presented here. If not, you are interested in something else and ought to be focusing on that goal instead.

Further Reading

  • Robin Hanson explores some similar themes in this post.
  • For more multiple discoveries, like the invention of the telephone, Wikipedia has a list.
  • The idea that one should choose whatever will do the most good is standard consequentialism, which you can read more about here.
  • The dependence of a problem’s importance on the probability of solving it is an expected value calculation, which Wikipedia covers here, and is related to the concept of comparative advantage in economics.
  • The failure to take into consideration a decision’s context is termed “system neglect.” You can read more about it in this paper.
  • The observation that unrecognized things are invisible is what Donald Rumsfeld called “unknown unknowns” in a 2002 speech.
  • Daniel Kahneman has a great paper on a relevant focusing illusion, the relationship between income and happiness.
  • The intimate relationship between goals and reproductive fitness is described in this paper.

Predictions for 2014

  • The One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge goes unclaimed.
  • The price of an ounce of marijuana in Colorado drops to under 150, half of what it’s going for today.
  • The twin prime conjecture is proven.
  • First mainframes, then desktops, then laptops, cell phones, tablets. This year we will see an influx of wearable computing devices.
  • Rights for gays continue to improve with at least one more state legalizing same sex marriage.
  • Pat Quinn wins the 2014 Illinois gubernatorial election.

I Hate My Phone

I read an interesting interview with Matias Duarte, Android’s head of user experience, this morning. The article was pretty good, but that’s not what I want to talk about. This is what I want to talk about:

“What we heard from everyone we talked to in the study was that they love

these things (smartphones), they are a part of their lives. They’re incredibly

passionate about them. They can’t live without them. That was awesome. But we

also heard a lot of things we didn’t like to hear.”

This makes me sad because I feel like I’m supposed to love my smartphone, and I don’t.

See, I’m a geek — or a nerd or a technologist or what-have-you — and my life is fundamentally centered around interactions with computers, but here’s the thing: I don’t really a give a shit about my smartphone. My relationship with my smartphone is just plain shallow, decidedly so when compared with how I feel about my desktop or MacBook.

Actually, you know what, I hate my smartphone.

Before you start foaming at the mouth, gentle reader, my smartphone is running Android and not iOS, but — before owning an Atrix — I owned an iPhone 3G, and I hated that, too. This isn’t about iOS vs Android. I hate them both.

Now, I’m not saying that my smartphone isn’t useful. It is. My computer, though, isn’t just useful. It changes the way I interact with everything. If I felt the same way about my computer as I do about my Android device, I would be thinking “well, at least I don’t have to use the phonebook to look this up.”

I love computers, but hate my smartphone.

It’s not that I don’t know how to use my smartphone. It’s true that I don’t know the full potential of the device: all the touch gestures, useful applications, power user stuff, but, really, what is there to it? You can call people, browse the web, take photos, send text messages, and play Angry Birds.

The block that I have is: I can’t do anything useful with a smartphone! I can’t do work with it. Text input is just a huge pain and the screen is too small to do any useful reading. It’s portable, sure, but I’d always rather use a PC or laptop than a smartphone, if given the option.

When I’m sitting on the couch, I don’t pull out my smartphone. I open up my MacBook. When I want to browse the web, I use my MacBook. If I’m going to do some writing, like this post, I don’t use my smartphone, I use my MacBook. When coding or listening to music, I use my desktop.

I do use my smartphone to browse the web, on occasion, so there’s that, but it’s whenever I don’t have my laptop or desktop handy. I only interact with one site at a time, and it’s just not very pleasant. It feels very limited, not at all empowering.

The rest of the ways that I interact with my smartphone, they’re all social and, as an introvert, it just doesn’t hold a whole lot of appeal for me. My text messaging skill and finesse, especially when compared to my typing ability, it’s pathetic. I hate trying to input text on the device, especially complex passwords: what a pain!

The least excusable failing of Android and iOS, I’ve realized while writing this, is that I can’t move from what I’m working on with my MacBook or desktop and then to my smartphone. That would be great, even if the transition between form factors would maybe be a little awkward. Imagine if you could just resume your browsing session on your laptop or desktop from your phone.

After all, the desktop and laptop markets, they’re going to go the way of the workstation (and the dodo). They might remain in certain niches but, fundamentally, those markets are going to be disrupted by more portable options. The desktop market is already disappearing, cannibalized by laptops. That’s why IBM got out of the PC market.

We’re going to keep the laptop form factor for a while, I believe, but I think that they’ll just be shells that you plug your smartphone into. The keyboard as input is still the best tool for the job, thus far, and there will always be a market for devices with screens larger than 4.2″, so it doesn’t make sense for that form factor to disappear.

That’s where Android and iOS should be headed: integration with the OS, empowering users, providing the means to create meaningful works on these devices. Computing isn’t just consuming media and talking with your friends!

Why You Should Start Blogging (Again)

I have this theory: inside of every person there is a blogger trying to get out. Everybody has the potential to maintain a blog with, at the very least, weekly updates. I do not care how busy you are. There’s no excuse not to do it.

The benefits of blogging are many.

Blogging facilitates powerful introspection.

In my years of blogging, I have found that writing in general, and blogging specifically, are great ways to discover truths about yourself. When you sit down and distill your thoughts into the written word, you are forced to cut out all of the junk.

Now, I don’t know about everybody, but I naturally tend towards introspection and analysis, so when I start distilling my thoughts into a blog post, I get curious. I start asking myself: “Why is it that you think that? Is this thought part of a pattern? Does your personality influence this thought or does this thought influence your personality?” Then, I start to analyze the analysis, and so on. It’s turtles all the way down.

What I’m getting at is: when you blog, you’re presented with a great opportunity to learn about yourself, and knowing about yourself is a very good thing because you will a) become aware of your strengths and weaknesses and with this awareness you will become resilient to attempts by people to exploit your weakness and you will gain the ability to exploit your strengths, and b) you will be able to make future decisions faster and with more confidence since you will be aware of why you have come to such a conclusion.

Blogging crystallizes thoughts and thought processes.

When you set about writing a blog article, your ideas and feelings about the topic in question may not be clearly defined. By the time you have finished your blog post, your thoughts and thought processes will have become clearly defined, crystallized. This is a necessary byproduct of writing about your ideas.

When you set about communicating an idea, in our case through writing, you must do so with a certain level of clarity — otherwise, no one will be able to understand your ideas. Personally, I always try to present an idea as clearly as possible by making my writing, first and foremost, unambiguous and, also, as simple as possible. This maximizes communicability: the effectiveness of getting your idea across.

Since you are forced to present your ideas with clarity, you must refine them. You have to sit and think “how would I express this idea in words?” Through this refinement, your ideas become concrete, crystallized and you gain something important: understanding.

Blogging improves your ability to express yourself.

Blogging is a form of communication and the benefits of being able to effectively communicate should be self-evident. Think about it. What is society based on, if not communication? Imagine living without the ability to effectively express your ideas and emotions. Want to tell that special someone how you feel? I hope you’re able to communicate effectively or it will come out all wrong.

Communication and expression are literally fundamental to every aspect of being human. There are few, if any, skills more valuable than effective communication. Think of all the great men throughout history and consider where they would be without the ability to effectively communicate. Would we even know Einstein’s name if he hadn’t been able to communicate so effectively, to explain mass-energy equivalence in such a way that even a layman can grasp the power of the idea?

When you blog, you are honing your ability to express yourself. You’re practicing. How effectively you manage to communicate in your blog, that’s not super important, unless you plan on becoming mega-popular, but when you’re interviewing for that job you really want, I’ll bet you’ll be glad that you’ve been practicing expressing yourself effectively.

People will enjoy your creation.

It took me a long time to realize this, but people enjoy reading blogs, even blogs about nothing. That’s why blogs are so popular. When you write a blog post, you’re creating something of value, something that people enjoy. That’s really powerful! It’s a good thing to think about now and again. It will help keep you motivated.

Whatever you write, I’m sure people will find it entertaining or informative. When I was 12, I kept a blog just about my daily life and people loved it. They just ate it up. A 12 year-old kid blogging about his day, and they loved it!

Just think about it: you have the power to create something that other people will enjoy.