Defaulting to Distraction

Recently, during a minor surgery for a loved one, I was waiting in the hospital lobby. The main waiting area adjacent to the operating rooms was a tight space with about a dozen chairs. All of the chairs faced an extremely large television. The television was turned on, and the volume was up very high.

I looked around and thought, “Does everyone else around me really want to be watching The Golden Girls at full blast at 7:35 in the morning?”

I suspect the answer was no. No one seemed to be enjoying it (say what you will about how hip Betty White is these days, the humor did not age well). Eventually, I, and almost everyone else waiting in the lobby sought out and moved to quieter areas of the hospital.

It seemed so obviously ridiculous. But it was still happening, and I suspect it probably happens the other 364 days of the year, too. And the same exercise is repeated at hotels, airports, restaurants, laundromats, and other public spaces around the world.

In so much of the public sphere, the default setting is one of intense distraction. And as was the case this morning, sometimes the distraction is loud, in your face, and almost impossible to avoid.

Many of the smartest policy influencers like to think about Nudges and choice architecture, and how that architecture can impact whether we choose to smoke, whether we invest in our retirement, or whether we donate our organs. I’m a fan of this conscious and thoughtful choice architecture as a low-impact, soft, and non-coercive way to influence people’s decision-making.

I know there are some people who have thought about such things, but perhaps this could be a greater point of emphasis. I’m sure the hospital administrators felt they were providing a service by playing the TV all hours of the day and night. I mean, they spent money on the damned TVs, and I’m sure some people like having the noise to distract them. Maybe for some, even the lowest quality, over-the-top distraction is better than being alone with their thoughts, particularly when we know a loved one may be in distress or danger.

But perhaps we can do better for our default social setting than to force-feed 30-year-old sitcoms on everyone around us. Those anxious times in waiting rooms might also be the moments when we could have the most important, tender, and meaningful conversations of our lives. When we could tell the friend or brother that we often take for granted that we love them.

But it’s hard to do that when you have a laugh track cackling at full volume eight feet from your head.

When I was a kid, people smoked on planes. When I was in college, you couldn’t go out to most restaurants or bars without coming home reeking of cigarette smoke. Over time, we decided that second-hand smoke was gross and that the default setting should be a smoke-free environment.

No one decided smokers shouldn’t be allowed to smoke. But we decided we didn’t want to make non-smokers breathe that dirty air everywhere they go. I’m not suggesting we ban The Golden Girls completely (well, maybe). But it’s not strictly necessary to force everyone to watch TV in shared public spaces as a default social norm, either.

Maybe, over time, we could adjust our default settings of distraction. We could decide that the default setting for public spaces could be one with no distractions, and let the TV-watchers adjourn to a TV lounge in some remote part of the building.

Here’s to hoping.

Reflections on the Passing of Anthony Bourdain

I don’t feel envious of many people, but I was definitely a little envious of Anthony Bourdain.

I remember thinking every time I watched one of his shows, “now that guy has the greatest job on the planet.” Traveling around the world to its most beautiful and exotic places, connecting with its best chefs, eating its best food. Meeting many of its most interesting people. And then crafting fantastic and creative narratives around those experiences. His shows were brilliant.

Who wouldn’t have traded places with Anthony Bourdain?

All the epicurean delights this planet has to offer. Status. Success. Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Eudaimonia. PERMA. By what seemed like every external measure of what a person could want, he had it.

Turns out, it wasn’t enough.

I cannot pretend to know his thoughts or his inner demons. But I think it’s safe to say, that at least for him, having one of the best jobs, and one of the most interesting lives, of any person on the history of this planet: It wasn’t enough. But if that life wasn’t enough, what could be?

The answer, sadly, is almost certainly nothing.

There is no thing that will ever satisfy you.

Nothing will ever be enough. There is no thing after which you get that thing that life’s problems will then go away. We just weren’t designed to be happy. We were designed to feel perpetual dissatisfaction and to think what we need and want more. When we see the Instragram photo, Facebook post, or celebrity snapshot of what seems to be a better or more glamorous life than our own, we’ll never know what deep suffering or sadness may be lurking beneath it.

So if I take away one thing from what I believe to be a great man’s passing, it is this: Try not to worry about what you think you want. Let go of the pursuit of the things that are supposed to be the things that will make you happy. They will never be enough.

Who knows if that sentiment could have saved Anthony Bourdain? Probably not. He was well traveled enough where he had likely heard something like that before. We will never know if anything could have saved him.

But what I take from his passing is that all the wonderful things this life has to offer will not be enough to save you, if you are not already at peace with this life.

How Obsession with Success May Lead to Failure

This may sound obvious, but success isn’t generic. To be successful, you have to be very good at some specific thing. 

But there seems to be a burgeoning industry in the study of success as a sort of meta-discipline. As if knowledge of how various people succeed at a variety of things might lead us to become more successful at any given thing.

But it’s all based on dubious premise.

By treating success as an object in itself, we’ve turned an incredibly hard problem, namely, the study of how to achieve at the highest levels in any specific discipline, and we’ve converted it into what strikes me as an nigh-impossible problem, the study of how to achieve the highest levels of success in any discipline.

What makes someone a great basketball player, long-distance runner, venture capitalist, attorney, writer, or pianist is not the same. There is no evidence that obsessing over the meta-habits and traits of people in a variety of disciplines provides any tangible benefit to those looking to outperform others in any specific field.

Achieving the highest levels of success requires a single-minded obsession with craft (or crafts). And then in every discipline, there are people competing over novel strategies specific to their disciplines to achieve recognition and status in those disciplines. Most will never get there. Not because they’re stupid or misguided. Because life is competitive and many talented people compete for status and recognition.

Lebron James is the best basketball player on earth because he’s awfully talented and he continues to hone his basketball skills. Everyone who listens to Tim Ferriss’s podcast knows the habits and routines of the successful people he interviews, but no amount of meta-trait analysis will make them the next Lebron James (or Magnus Carlsen, Richard Feynman, Elon Musk, or even Tim Ferriss).[1]

I suspect that Lebron James, Magnus Carlsen, and Elon Musk, on the other hard, are all totally oblivious about the traits and meta-habits of those who succeed in other fields. It doesn’t matter, because they’re masters in their fields.

Success–like so many things in life–comes indirectly. If you seek out success in general, you’re almost certainly going to be moving farther away from any hopes of success the longer you think that way. You could spend a lifetime obsessing over how to be the best chess-master, programmer, or 800 meter runner, and you probably won’t get there. And if you spend your life obsessing over how to be successful in general, you definitely won’t get there.

Success isn’t a thing you just go and get. It’s a thing that comes sometimes to some people when they get really good at some other thing.

[1] Also, traits that make you successful in one field are often detrimental in others. Not answering emails might help with your focus if you’re trying to write the great American novel but good luck with that approach if you’re a mid-level associate trying to make partner at a major law firm. Getting up at 4:30 am might work well for a former Navy Seal looking to create a media empire, but it’d be a terrible strategy for someone training for a marathon world record. Context always matters.

Why Most Theories Are Like Stories

My high school history teacher had a one-liner he liked to drop into our history lessons. It went something like this:

“Before I had kids, I had two theories about parenting. Now, I have two kids, and I no longer have theories about how to be a good parent.”

It’s a clever turn of phrase, always good for a chuckle with new parents. And it hits at two near-universal truths. First, that parenting is a tough and messy business. Second, that most of our lofty theories, especially the ones that are supposed to guide our behavior, are really just so much BS.

It’s easy to sit in a comfy chair when you have no kids, fully rested, and think it’s best to never yell at your kids. But when your four-year-old is smearing fecal matter on your new carpet or headed straight toward an open ledge, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

The way the joke resonates with people, it shows that at some level we know that most of our theories are kind of BS.

So why have theories at all?

***

A few scholars have taken the position that the best and most honest way to judge human behavior is to avoid theories.

A law clerk named Andrew Jordan recently published an excellent law review article called Constitutional Anti-Theory. If you’re at all interested in the US Constitution and how it is applied I couldn’t recommend it more highly. The basic summary of the article is that sound decision-making in applying the Constitution does not require a coherent theory. What judges and policy-makers do when they apply the Constitution, whether they admit it or not, is weigh certain criteria and values, such as the right to privacy, safety concerns, freedom, the stability of the judiciary and the government, and try to come up with a fair and equitable result based on the facts presented to them. Judges hear facts and apply them to the facts and the law as they understand them. This is what they do. By adding a universal theory about how to interpret the Constitution, this creates an intermediary layer that simply prioritizes one of these values over another.

According to Jordan, there is no reason we should have to do this.

Jordan’s argument isn’t new. Former Judge Richard Posner, perhaps the most influential jurist over the last fifty years, published another law review article called Against Constitutional Theory over twenty years ago. In it, he criticized Antonin Scalia for making value judgments in the guise of making not making value judgments at all, in the name of Strict Constructionalist constitutional theory. This theory states that we should base all of our judgments of modern-day constitutional arguments based on how the original founders intended the Constitution to have been written. This ran counter to how most judges have interpreted the law throughout history, as a corpus of decisions and precedents that evolve over time. It wasn’t an accident that Scalia was also the most conservative Supreme Court judge over the past half century. By intellectually pushing the judiciary to tether decision-making to a bygone era, this was forcing an anti-progressive stance on the way decisions had to be made.[1]

Posner wasn’t a fan of this approach. He considered himself a pragmatist, someone who looked at the specific facts of the cases presented to him, weighed the harms and injuries suffered by the parties, and then tried to make decisions to deliver the most equitable result. As a high-level appeals judge, almost all of the cases he reviewed dealt with difficult facts and circumstances, and to make the right decision was rarely easy. He argued that what he wanted was more information, more data, and better social science to guide his decisions. Posner wasn’t interested in more theory, but rather a better understanding of the facts.

***

Posner and Jordan notwithstanding, many of us feel inclined to adopt theories. To adopt a rule we deem to be universal that we claim governs our actions.

But if we know that as fallible humans, that our actions are sometimes inconsistent, and that life is always messy, why take this step?

One of the most powerful intellectual tricks you can play (on yourself and) on others is to make a value judgment seem like it is not a value judgment at all, but rather a simple application of a universal rule. That way, it’s not your judgment that’s making a decision against someone’s interest, but rather, there’s something more transcendent at work.

Since the time of David Hume, we’ve known you can’t get an “ought” from an “is.” This is what philosophers call the “is-ought gap.” Value judgments must always derive from other value judgments. Any attempt to proclaim a value judgment “this is the way things should be” from a description of a state of affairs, “this is just the way it is” is just a clever slight of hand trick. When we make value judgments, we’re always applying our values. It’s just sometimes we pretend that we’re not.

This may be one of the reasons why it is useful for people and organizations to enact policies or to publicly state a theory or principle that will guide their behaviors.  These public stances aren’t useful because they’re universal truths; they’re helpful to convince ourselves and others that our actions will be predictable or consistent (even when they’re not). In a way, they’re like stories we’re selling to those around us. In the story, there is an arc of truth and universality. When in reality, principles and policies are just ways to get other people to do what we want them to do.

***

Richard Posner, despite his impeccable credentials and respect among other members of the judiciary, was never nominated to the Supreme Court. Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were. Scalia and Thomas are also brilliant, but the scope and breadth of their intellectual accomplishments never rivaled Posner’s.

Perhaps one explanation for why Scalia and Thomas made it to the Supreme Court and Posner did not, is that Scalia and Thomas were much more predictable. By labeling themselves as Strict Constructionalists, these men effectively sent a signal to their conservative colleagues in the legislative branch that they could be trusted to deliver conservative verdicts. And that’s what they did (and are still doing, in Thomas’s case).

Posner was also a Reagan appointee and a conservative, but he was less predictable from a left-wing/right-wing axis than his Strict Constructionalist colleagues. His pragmatic, detail-oriented approach inspired judges around the world, and his opinions were always deeply concerned with making the right decision based on the facts presented to him. His decisions were rooted in context, not ideology.

And that is perhaps why, despite the fact that was one of the greatest legal geniuses ever, he never made it to the Supreme Court.

***

There’s plenty of evidence that we don’t come to our moral decisions based on reason. Since judges are people, too, it’s safe to assume the same applies to them.

But it’s problematic for judges and other people with authority to admit that their logic is based on moral intuition rather than something greater.

It’s useful for judges, companies, and parents to be able to appeal to something more transcendent than their own judgment. “Because I say so” just isn’t that compelling. “It’s our company policy that we cannot accommodate your request,” is harder to argue with than “I just don’t want to refund your money because then I won’t have your money.” If a judge tells you, “I think what you’re doing is wrong,” that seems arbitrary and unfair, but “I’m simply applying the law,” is hard to dispute. When it’s company policy or transcendent principle, rather than personal judgment, there’s no one individual person with whom you can take up your debate. It’s outside the control of the agents acting out the order.

We may sense that the real motivation for a decision is personal values rather than principled reasons, but the process of depersonalization lends an air of transcendence to any decision, and is a useful tool for persons in power to justify their actions.

***

It is best to view any theory, principal, or policy that would attempt to impose consistency on the way people act with deep suspicion.

Life is all about making hard decisions in context. Theories and principles that purport to guide our behavior independent of context are almost always an artifice, because the human brain is a modular instrument that was not designed for consistency.

There’s an appeal to the idea of intellectual consistency. It’s a nice thought. But it’s just not how we work. If we’re looking for honesty, it’s probably best to admit that we’re fallible creatures trying to our best to make things work in a messy world.

If we’re looking to rise to power, however, it might be in our best interests to tell a different story. All the better if it’s a simple, clear story where you are the author, where you alone know the answers, and everything you say is consistent and universally true.

That’s the kind of story people like to hear.

[1] It’s probably useful here to distinguish between theories such as the Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and Scalia’s Strict Constructionalist Theory. The former two theories purport to predict and explain, and currently do predict and explain better than any other theories, natural phenomena in the fields of physics and biology. What Scalia’s theory is trying to do, on the other hand, is to provide normative guidance on how people should behave. Evolution is true whether people believe in it or not. There is nothing obligatory or necessary about Strict Constructionalist theory. If people decide to stop trying to interpret the constitution based on the literal intent of the founders, then that is a phenomenon that will simply cease to exist. Regardless of whether people are aware of it or believe in it, evolution will continue as long as there are creatures who are living.

A Story about Status and Freedom

I had a journalism career that lasted about two and a half years.

It began when I co-founded a monthly magazine my junior year of college called BLADU. The experience gave me something to focus my energy on, which was good, because most of my college life was dedicated to seeing how high I could get my blood-alcohol content on a budget of $70 a week (answer: pretty high). And running a magazine, even a sophomoric magazine full of typos, was no small task.

The magazine wasn’t great, but it wasn’t the worst thing to come out of the college, either. Some people read it. I know this because we got into trouble with the school’s administration, its fraternities, and nearly every organization on campus that took itself seriously every time a new issue came out.

One of our proudest moments was when we called the school’s president, whose name was Richard, “President Dick,” because he insisted that one of the school’s janitors call him “President [insert last name here].” Our school was tiny and informal. That kind of pretentiousness didn’t sit well with us. So we did our part to keep his ego in check.

The magazine gave me a voice I had never had before. I liked it.

I liked it enough that I decided I wanted to try to do it on a broader scale. So I applied to every magazine and newspaper that had an internship program, and I got rejected to them all, except for one.

The Zephyr was a weekly “alternative” newspaper run out the back of a Sav-A-Buk blinds store in Galesburg, Illinois. When I asked the editor of the paper, Norm Winick, if I could do an internship with him, he responded by email about a half a minute later telling me to come by the store next Tuesday at 5 pm.

That’s when he closed down the Sav-A-Buk blinds store and started editing. At 5 pm, only about 25% of the paper was usually ready to go. By around 11 pm or midnight, save a few crises, The Zephyr was done and ready to send to the printer.

There was no bureaucracy at The Zephyr. With only two to three dedicated staff, along with a few irregulars, things just got done. The process was to write, edit, and then submit. Errors got printed and imperfections happened. But our words made it into print every week, and a few people even read them.

My ambitions exceeded those of The Zephyr, so I leveraged my work at the alternative weekly into an internship at the local daily paper, the Galesburg Register-Mail. Unlike The Zephyr, the Register-Mail had a paid staff of editors and reporters, covering all the local things: high school basketball, Kiwanis club meetings, companies opening and closing.

In Galesburg, they were mostly closing. Though not technically in the rust belt, the term fits. Its population has been in steady decline over the last fifty years. Its economy was and is based on railroads and heavy industry and the late 90s were not a good time for either. It was a sad time in a sad town.

But working at the local daily was a decent job. There weren’t many paying jobs for educated people in Galesburg, so the editors and writers felt fortunate to be working there, even if the pay was terrible. As with all small-town newspapers, there was tension between the publishers and the editorial staff, and that bred a certain cynicism—something that was notably absent from my experience at The Zephyr. But the spirit in the newsroom was mostly positive.

This internship was the last semester of my senior year, and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in Galesburg. So I went looking for newspaper jobs around the country. I applied for jobs in Daytona, Florida, Sandusky, Ohio, and everywhere in between. The end of college came, and I did not get so much as a single interview.

Just as I was about to pack my car and leave for home, the journalism advisor on campus told me about a last-minute internship program at the Chicago Sun-Times. I applied, and somehow, got accepted for an interview. I put on my only clean button-up shirt, my Jerry Garcia tie, and my dad’s old sport coat and left for the big city.

The editor who was hiring for the position was a bit of an eccentric from Mississippi. He did not come from a privileged background, and so he gave negative weight in his hiring process to journalism students from prestigious masters programs at Northwestern and Columbia.

He planned to hire two interns based on a rigorous, three-hour long copy-editing test. He figured you couldn’t bullshit three hours of trap words like restaurateur, minuscule, and Filipino. After three hours of his test, he would know whether you had the chops to copy edit.

I took the test, and my score was the second best (he was very clear about the fact that the top score was much better than mine).[1] Much to my surprise (and as I later came to learn, the surprise of the other copy editors in the newsroom), I got the internship over the piles of masters students who were much more qualified.

I was over the moon; I was certain I had made it.

Chicago seemed impossibly big after four years living in Galesburg. And I was totally in over my head at the internship, and everyone around me knew it. But I learned a lot in a short time. My trajectory, from college magazine editor to Podunk alternative weekly, to small-town daily, to the Chicago Sun-Times, seemed only to direct me skyward. If I had managed this position at age 22, there was no limit to my career.

But after the first few weeks of excitement, I started to cop on to a very different kind of vibe around the newsroom. At the Register-Mail, most of the staff was looking to move on to better places. At the Sun-Times, many of the people working there were likely to be there for the rest of their career. It was a union paper, and it paid reasonably well. Most people who were there were there to stay.

Everyone was always friendly and kind to me, but the prevailing sentiment at the paper was a sense of bitterness. There was a deep disconnect in the vision of the paper that the staff wanted to create and what was actually being produced. Most of the editors and writers wanted to be serious journalists, producing something akin to the New York Times or the Washington Post. But most felt that what the publishers (then Conrad Black, who later spent time in jail for fraud and embezzlement) were driving for was tabloid trash and frivolous puff pieces.

I was having a great time and enjoying the ride. But everyone around me seemed cynical about what we were doing. There was no sense of pride or purpose. Way less so than the Register-Mail or The Zephyr.

This was not what I was expecting.

Still, my goal then was to be a professional writer. The editing was just something I did to get my foot in the door. So when an opportunity presented itself in the newsroom to cover the annual Jimmy Buffett concert, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I didn’t know anything about Buffett and wasn’t a fan of his music, but it was an opportunity to get my first byline at the Sun-Times.

I drove out to the show, which was an hour outside of town, came back home at close to midnight, and then spent the night working on the review, which was due at 10 am the next morning. I didn’t sleep a minute, agonizing over every word. I didn’t know how many chances I’d have to write for the Sun-Times, so I wanted to prove with that first chance that I was worthy.

I’ll always remember my intro: “Jimmy Buffett was born on Christmas day in 1946, which makes sense, because for his legions of boozy and eager “Parrothead” fans, he might as well be the Messiah.”

But the next day, when I opened up the paper and read the first line of my review, instead it said: “Jimmy Buffett was born on Christmas day in 1946. For his legions of fans, his music is a gift.”

And so it went for nearly every sentence in the review. My name was there next to the article, but every bit of energy and personality I had tried to put into the article was gone. Nothing about the finished product was a reflection of me. I had published something that had made its way into a million homes, but it had ceased to be an act of self-expression.

I had moved up the career ladder going from The Zephyr to the Sun-Times, but at a cost of a total loss of autonomy. I wrote a few more articles in the next couple of months, but it was mostly the same thing. The only way to get published was to completely neuter what I had believed was interesting about what I was saying.

And so it was, six months after starting at the Sun-Times, I felt the sense of bitterness and cynicism that others felt working there. I could get published somewhere lots of people would read what I had to say, or I could write what I thought was interesting, but I couldn’t do both.

***

Norm Winick at The Zephyr died about seven years ago. And The Zephyr died with him.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about my experience there recently. Back then, as an ambitious 22-year-old, I thought I knew a thing or two about what I wanted to do and where I was going. About the way I’d be able to shape the world in my career. And I was wrong about almost all of it.

Back then, I thought that it was ridiculous that he ran the newspaper out of the back of a blinds store. Norm would have been hard-pressed to concoct a less prestigious facade for his media empire. But while most people on the surface would probably choose to work at the Sun-Times over an alternative weekly run out of the back of a discount window treatments store in Nowheresville, Illinois, nowadays, I’m not so sure.[2]

Status is nice. Getting recognition for what you do is wonderful. But it’s no replacement for having the ability to direct what you do in your work and in your life.[3]

There are some people who are lucky enough to have status and freedom. To do whatever they want and still get recognized for it. If you can pull that off, definitely do that. That sounds nice. But if you have to choose just one, to choose between status and freedom, the 40-year-old version of me is starting to think that maybe Norm was on to something at the Sav-A-Buk blinds store.

[1] Reading over this blog post after I published, I spotted at least a half dozen errors and inconsistencies. I’m clearly not that good of a copy editor.

[2] Daniel Pink in his book Drive talks about three principles that are usually present when people enjoy their work: Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose. That’s all well in good, but as with most self-help books, it doesn’t provide much guidance in what to do when those aims are in tension. Life is all about the trade-offs. There was greater opportunity for mastery at the Sun-Times than at the Register-Mail or the Zephyr, but the autonomy and purpose were entirely absent.

[3] It’s a little too neat to say that I gave up on journalism when I noticed that I had to give up creative freedom just to make enough money to pay the rent. But that’s mostly true. In reality, I figured if I was going to spend the majority of my time and energy selling out, I might as well actually sell out in a way that makes decent money. And that’s when I decided to become a lawyer.

Addiction, the Principle of Least Effort, and the Freedom from the Pursuit of Happiness

I think the greatest trick the devil ever played on us was to make us think we could—and should—be happy all the time.

But the reality of my life, and I suspect yours, is that sometimes I feel pretty good and other times not so much.

When we try to short-circuit these systems, to try to feel good all the time—to contort our lives into a giant highlight real—that way misery lies.

For many of us, that way addiction lies.

We’d be far better off acknowledging that sadness, boredom, stress, and suffering are inescapable parts of the way it feels to be human. That these emotions are our nervous system’s way of keeping us alive and in good health. But instead of accepting and appreciating that these negative emotions provide a key survival function, many of us try to escape. And since there is no internal mechanism that allows us to escape from our negative feelings, we go searching for external sources of comfort and happiness.

***

Addictions get a bad rap. But people don’t acknowledge enough why addiction is so prevalent in the first place.

Canadian addiction specialist Gabor Mate explains the attraction as follows:

Addiction is a deeply ingrained response to stress, an attempt to cope with it through self-soothing. Maladaptive in the long term, it is highly effective in the short term.” (emphasis added).

To borrow language from a couple of Mate’s patients, ‘“Nothing bothers me when I’m high. There’s no stress in my life,” one person said—a sentiment echoed by many addicted people. “Makes me just forget,” said Dora, an inveterate cocaine user. “I forget about my problems. Nothing ever seems quite as bad as it really is, until you wake up the next morning, and then it’s worse.”’

The reason that addictive substances are popular is not because people are stupid. Addictive substances are popular because, as a short-term solution to negative emotions like stress and sadness, they work.

***

What we know does not work, however, is the obsession with the pursuit of happiness. What research has shown time and again is that the more effort we spend on the idea of being happy, the more unhappy we become. Activities that are fulfilling have a way of capturing our attention in a way that, when we’re doing them, we’re too busy to think about whether we’re happy or not.

The way to get happy is to stop pursuing happiness directly.

***

I think part of the confusion is that we often jumble together unrelated concepts when we talk about the idea of “happiness.”

According to Daniel Nettle, author of Happiness, The Science behind Your Smile, there are three different kinds of happiness. The first level of happiness relates to the pleasurable sensations from food, sex, sunrises, and other immediate events (Level 1 Happiness). These are our immediate feelings and sensations, good and bad. The second level of happiness refers to our mental impressions of those immediate events. A sunrise can be beautiful, but if you’re worried about job stress while you’re watching the sunrise it might detract from your ability to appreciate it. Or, conversely, you might be in prison, but you might be at peace and remain upbeat regardless. Thus, Level 2 Happiness is not our immediate sensory experience, but rather how we process and react to the sensory experience. The final level of happiness is referred to as an overall sense of well-being or flourishing. This ties back to an ancient Greek concept called Eudaimonia, which was the principal focus of Aristotelian ethics. This is what Nettle calls Level 3 Happiness. This is the concept that tends to be the focus of positive psychologists such as Martin Seligman, who is perhaps the leading researcher in the past forty years on various concepts associated with happiness.

***

Working off Daniel Nettle’s three levels of happiness, here’s my theory on happiness:

Level 1 Happiness is mostly out of our control. Sometimes we are happy and sometimes we are sad. We can seek out positive Level 1 Experiences, but those are fleeting, and we adapt and develop a tolerance to them quickly. We can spend our lives chasing beautiful sunsets and the greatest restaurants on earth, but this will lead to hedonic adaptation. When pursued, Level 1 Happiness leads to a feeling of ennui and dissatisfaction. The more we try to make ourselves happy with pleasurable sensations, the less happy we feel.

Level 2 Happiness is the happiness of Stoics and Buddhist (though I suspect Stoics and Buddhists would not consider their philosophies identical). Tomorrow you may win the lottery or receive a diagnosis for terminal cancer. Those events will undoubtedly impact your Level 1 Happiness. But Level 2 Happiness reflects your ability to accept the bigger picture, and remain calm and content regardless of what circumstances happen to you.

Level 3 Happiness is the Eudaimonia of Aristotle, Maslow, and Seligman. The Level 2 Stoic is willing to accept that life may not unfold according to our pre-ordained plans, and can maintain equanimity in the face of it all. The Level 3 Happiness seeker is trying to make life better for himself and those around him. The Level 3 Happiness seeker is the domain of the dedicated activist, artist, or craftsperson.

Ultimately, I think you could break down happiness into three categories or thirty categories. These distinctions are arbitrary. But as George Box said, “all models are wrong but some are useful.” This model of happiness strikes me as useful.

***

Most of the intellectual study of happiness focuses on this last type of happiness, Level 3 Happiness. At the forefront of this study of happiness are those in positive psychology. Positive psychology, as defined by founder Martin Seligman, is the “the scientific study of what makes life most worth living.” Indeed, Seligman’s most recent book, Flourish, is what most scholars consider to be the best translation of ancient Greek concept of Eudaimonia.

So how does Seligman believe that we can achieve this “flourishing”? He breaks down the steps with a five-part acronym, PERMA.

  • Positive emotion
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Achievement

The details of PERMA are beyond the scope of this post. I will merely point out that Seligman is cautious to distinguish “flourishing” or the study of “well-being” with the notion of hedonic pleasure. For Seligman, well-being is not about feeling good, but about achieving a sense of life satisfaction.

***

Positive psychologists and self-help gurus focus on Level 3 Happiness. Stoics and Buddhists focus on Level 2 Happiness.

But I think where most people get stuck is in Level 1 Happiness. Ultimately, those are the types of emotions we feel in the moment, from pleasure to pain, to sadness to happiness, to stress and relaxation. For many of us, no matter what books we read and no matter how hard we try to think about elevating ourselves, we get sidetracked by immediate stresses and worries.

We want to feel good about ourselves, but we don’t. And so we reach for things that we hope might make us feel better. And that is for what many of us leads to addiction.

For many people, addiction is simply the pursuit of happiness gone awry.

***

Psychologists, philosophers, and scientists do not agree on a single definition of addiction any more than they do for happiness.

According to Mate:

Addiction is any repeated behavior, substance-related or not, in which a person feels compelled to persist, regardless of its negative impact on his life and the lives of others. Addiction involves: compulsive engagement with the behavior, a preoccupation with it; impaired control over the behavior; persistence or relapse despite evidence of harm; and dissatisfaction, irritability, or intense craving when the object—be it a drug, activity, or other goal—is not immediately available.

Carlton K. Erickson, author of The Science of Addiction: From Neurobiology to Treatment, abhors this open-ended definition:

People flippantly state that they are “addicted” to coffee, sugar, other people, computer games, shopping, tanning booths, or knitting. There is no doubt that over-involvement in any of these activities can sometimes mess up a person’s life, but such widespread use of the term reveals just how ill-defined it is . . . Addiction used in this way is colloquial and not scientific.

Mate’s argument is that “all addictions—whether to drugs or to non-drug behaviors—share the same brain circuits and brain chemicals,” namely, the mesolimbic dopamine system (or MDS). Erickson might respond that while this is true, only certain specific chemicals, such as cocaine, opiates, alcohol, and cannabis, actually create chemical dependence.

From what I can gather, addiction science seems very polarized among people who believe that addiction is genetically inherited, those who believe it is caused by environment, those who believe that addiction is a disease and those who believe it is not.

All of these questions are outside the scope of what I’m writing about here.

What I’m interested in is the generalized phenomenon of people who do not feel good about themselves reaching for something external for short-term comfort.

For the purposes of clarity, we can call the phenomenon of clinical substance dependence, such as drug addiction and alcoholism, “Addiction” with a capital A. We can then call the lesser forms of addiction, like shopaholics, internet obsessives, overeaters, “addicts” with a lowercase a. There are obvious differences between the two, but there are similarities as well.

My opinion, consistent with Mate’s, but probably not with Erickson’s, is that the person who seeks refuge in a whiskey bottle or opioids is engaging in the same general kind of behavior as the person who buys an airstream, quits his job, and decides to wander around the country. Both are seeking to escape the sadness and mundane stresses of normal life and to pursue (Level 1) happiness in something else. Both will be effective for a short while, but after the initial rush of adrenaline and excitement wears off, hedonic adaptation will set in.

Of course, the consequences for the person who seeks refuge in Addictions will be more severe, immediate, and irrevocable than for the person who seeks refuge in an Airstream, but the instinct is the same.[1] The pursuit of Level 1 Happiness is for many tied to the pursuit of something external to bring happiness, which invariably leads to even greater unhappiness. According to Thomas Hora, “The meaning of all addictions could be defined as endeavors at controlling our life experiences with the help of external remedies . . . Unfortunately, all external means of improving our life experiences are double-edged swords: they are always good and bad. No external remedy improves our condition without, at the same time, making it worse.” Beyond the Dream: Awakening to Reality.

And again, Mate: “When you get right down to it, it’s the adrenaline I’m after, along with the precious reward chemicals that will flood my brain when I hold the new CD in hand, providing an-all-too temporary reprieve from the stress of my driven state. But I’ve barely left the store before the adrenaline starts pumping through my circulation again, my mind fixated on the next purchase. Anyone who’s addicted to any kind of pursuit—whether it’s sex or gambling or shopping—is after that same fix of homegrown chemicals.”

***

A person can become permanently addicted to harmful substances because of peer pressure or as a response to trauma. Famously, many servicemen became addicted to heroin during their service in Vietnam. (Robins et al, 1980). According to R. Shanta et al (2003), the majority of hard-core substances abusers come from abusive homes. While not all addictions are rooted in abuse or trauma, many believe that they can all be traced to painful experiences.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for addiction, just as there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for recovering from trauma. Many of those who came back from Vietnam recovered from addiction when they came back home, but many did not. (Robins et al 1980). Some stayed addicted to opiates, others substituted alcohol and other drugs. Others quit completely.

After reading a half-dozen books on addiction science in the past month, the overarching conclusion I’ve come to in addiction science is that there is not much consensus in addiction science.

***

According to most researchers on addiction, stress is the primary trigger for addiction-related problems.

Stress is our nervous system’s way of saying: “This situation is a threat. Do what you can to get out of here.” According to Mate: “What do all stressors have in common? Ultimately they all represent the absence of something that the organism perceives as necessary for survival—or its threatened loss.”

Most stressors are small and may not reflect an immediate threat to survival (financial worries, petty office politics) and then sometimes stressors may very well reflect an immediate survival threat (actual war).

This is why it makes such sense for soldiers in war to turn to substances to drown out their stress hormones: They’re in a situation where their stress hormones are in overdrive, and they are not usually in control of what to do in response to the stress triggers.

But there are many times when stress confers a survival benefit—that’s why stress exists. Sometimes your intense fear of snakes might give you a head start in avoiding a poisonous bite and your gut reaction to a work colleague might help you avoid a toxic situation that could get you in trouble. It’s not a pleasant feeling when your body contorts as it reacts to seeing a snake. But it’s not supposed to be pleasant.

That negative emotion is there to keep us alive. The more intense and undeniably unpleasant the sensation, the better.

People who have congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP) (yes, that’s really a thing) have much shorter lifespans than people who have normal sensitivities. Many die in early childhood. While no one wants to see their child suffer, children who are incapable of feeling pain are in constant mortal danger. Our pain and emotional sensitivities have evolved over hundreds of millions of years to tell us when we are in trouble. And they are very effective at their jobs. If they are absent, or if we try to short-circuit them, our very survival will be in jeopardy.

Again, to quote Mate:

For all their complexities, emotions exist for a very basic purpose: to initiate and maintain activities necessary for survival. In a nutshell, they modulate two drives that are absolutely essential to animal life, including human life: attachment and aversion. We always want to move toward something that is positive, inviting, and nurturing, and to repel or withdraw from something threatening, distasteful, or toxic. These attachment and aversion emotions are evoked by both physical and psychological stimuli, and when properly developed, our emotional brain is an unerring, reliable guide to life. It facilitates self-protection and also makes possible love, compassion, and healthy social interaction. When impaired or confused, as it often is in the complex and stressed circumstances prevailing in our “civilized” society, the emotional brain leads us to nothing but trouble. Addiction is one of its chief dysfunctions. 

Happiness, in its rawest sense, is the emotion that makes us want to attach to something positive. Sadness and stress are the emotions that drive us to want to avoid something negative. But just as most of us conflate Levels 1, 2, and 3 linguistically, our brains struggle to distinguish between activities that will provide long-term well-being vs. short-term reward.

We know that we want to be “happy.” We just aren’t always so great at knowing what will get us there.

***

We know that certain activities that are more likely to lead to sustained well-being. But yet many of us repeatedly engage in behaviors that result in the opposite.

Why?

In 1949, Harvard statistician and linguist George Zipf published a book called Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort.

According to Zipf, the primary principle of human action is the expenditure of the least amount of effort to accomplish a task. Zipf was a linguist, and so he developed this theory in the context of language. As an example of the principle of least effort in etymological action, the word “goodbye” was previously written as “good-bye,” with a hyphen, which is also a contraction of the 16th-century expression, “God be with you!” Over the course of successive generations, the salutation has grown shorter, simpler, and easier to write. So, too, with to-day and today, to-morrow and tomorrow, e-mail and email, and Internet and internet. Over time, we make our language easier to say and to write.

But Zipf didn’t believe that this phenomenon was isolated to linguistics. He believed it was a universal principle of human action. If there’s a way people can achieve the same aim with less effort, or even if we think there is a chance that we can achieve the same result with less effort, we’ll make a beeline for the lower-energy expenditure option.

This sounds like a “just so” theory without any practical implications, but there’s hard data that shows this might be a universal phenomenon with fascinating statistical implications.

The principle of least effort is like Occam’s razor applied to human activity. If some human organization activity or design doesn’t seem to make sense, ask yourself if it can be explained by the principle of least effort. From the continued existence of the Electoral College to known wastefulness in secondary education to your least favorite road intersection on your daily commute. The reason it probably still exists is that would take more effort to change it than to just leave it as it is.

***

Applying the principle of least effort to the concept of happiness, it may be possible to shed light on why Eudaimonia is so rare, and why addictions are so common.

When we’re unhappy, stressed, or exhausted after a long day of work, we can meditate or work to achieve a state of flow in our favorite pastime. We can engage in healthy, nurturing activities with our loved ones. Or, we can get drunk or high. Or watch an average of five hours of TV a day. When asked about what brings us long-term satisfaction, we may talk about spending time with family or talk about certain childhood dreams, but that’s not what many of us do after a long day of work. Because those things are hard.

It’s just easier to watch TV. And since we are hardwired to find the easiest solutions to our problems, that’s what we do.

Aristotle, perhaps the most famous philosopher in history, wrote about Eudaimonia nearly 2500 years ago, but it seems the little-known George Zipf might have had greater insight into how we chose to spend our free time.

***

Addiction is a short-term positive and long-term negative in the goal toward happiness.

To a non-addict judging the Addict with a capital A, it’s easy to see that the method of happiness-seeking is counterproductive. But with lesser addictions, perhaps the tendency in our own behaviors is not as obvious. Who among us has not over-eaten from the dessert tray, or watched more TV than is healthy or satisfying, or fallen victim to short-term gratification at the expense of long-term well-being?[2] Again, Mate:

I have come to see addiction not as a discrete, solid entity—a case of “Either you got it or you don’t got it”—but as a subtle and extensive continuum. Its central, defining qualities are active in all addicts, from the honored workaholic at the apex of society to the impoverished and criminalized crack fiend who haunts skid row.

***

There’s a lot of money to be made in giving people what they want. Or, at least, what they think they want.

There are the obvious examples: Philip Morris makes about $75 billion a year hawking cigarettes. ABInBev makes $56 billion a year selling booze. And then Nestle and Coca-Cola make $89 billion and $41 billion a year respectively peddling sugar.

But it’s not just about mood-altering substances. Nearly all advertising and marketing targets a central craving at the core of all unhealthy yearnings: namely, the idea that to be happy, you need to buy this thing that we sell. From the luxury sports car commercial that sells the lifestyle of a handsome man in his 30s driving with his model-hot wife to the Airstream advertisement selling the outdoorsy lifestyle of total freedom[3], whenever we see an ad, the sub-text is always, “this is what you need to be happy.”

Says Mate:

Addictions, even as they resemble normal human yearnings, are more about desire than attainment. In the addicted mode, the emotional charge is in the pursuit and the acquisition of the desired object, not in the possession and enjoyment of it. The greatest pleasure is in the momentary satisfaction of yearning. The fundamental addiction is to the fleeting experience of not being addicted.

Indeed, in the last few years, the science of coopting our dopamine systems for profit has become nearly institutionalized.

In the recent highly-reviewed book Hooked, How to Build Habit-Forming Products, Nir Eyal provides a step-by-step process for making addictive software. By studying the science of addiction and playing on the mechanisms of the mesolimbic dopamine system (trigger, action, variable reward), Eyal provides a blueprint for how programmers can get users “hooked” to software.

In Eyal’s defense, he tries to deal with the ethical implications of this, and he tries to frame the book in terms of solving customers’ problems and making the world a better place. But unfortunately the book is too good for that, and there is no evidence that playing to the short-term dopamine reward system is going to really solve people’s long-term problems. What it does do is get people hooked to their computer screens. It gets people looking for one more short-term Level 1 Happiness reward, at the expense of the deeper aspects of well-being (Level 2 and Level 3 Happiness).

***

Addiction is fundamentally a problem of civilization. And I suspect the more advanced the civilization, the more challenging of a problem it will become.

We are born with certain instincts of attachment and aversion. These instincts were designed for one environment and we are now living in an environment that is very different. What’s more, every year, there is more incentive, and more people are competing, to design products and services to coopt these attachment and aversion instincts for profit.

It’s a wonder we’re not all addicts.

According to Randolph Nesse, professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Michigan:

Whether or not selection has shaped some genes that prevent or confer benefits from drug use, it seems clear that we were never designed to cope with ready access to a wide variety of pure drugs. In the ancestral environment drugs were harder to obtain and harder to store and use. Now, every decade brings us new drugs, new methods of transporting them and new routes of administration. In this sense, drug abuse is a disease of civilization. This provides yet another source of wonder that drug use is not far more common than it is. Most young people now assume that normal people can resist addiction and only other weak people succumb. If the public perception was based instead on an evolutionary perspective that we are all designed in ways that make us vulnerable, perhaps this could foster a more realistic view of the risks.

***

This post isn’t about easy solutions, so I won’t pretend to provide any. I’m simply trying to lay out a framework that has been helpful to me in thinking about my own cravings.[4] Without pretending to offer any solutions for anyone else who might be suffering from addiction, I will argue that the first step toward recovery is a simple awareness of the problem.[5] The next steps depend the nature of the Addiction/addiction and the nature of your personality.

For me, I find it useful to adopt a straight-up paranoid perspective toward every business around me: the local brewery, the local dispensary, the local bakery[6], the car dealership, Amazon[7], Facebook, and Twitter. They’re all drug dealers to me. My smartphone is a den of iniquity. My iPad is a crack house. My laptop is an electronic red-light district. I must tread cautiously with all of these things or I will end up with brain syphilis.

They’re all angling to get me in trouble. They’re all trying to get me to part with my hard-earned health, attention, time and money.

I look at myself with deep suspicion every time I take out take out my credit card: What am I trying to avoid? What am I craving? What am I yearning for that probably won’t be satisfied by what I am about to buy?

This an admittedly exaggerated understanding of the concept of addiction. But it strikes me as a useful adaptation in a world that is relentlessly trying to get me addicted, when my brain is always looking for the easy way out.

***

Life is hard, even for those who appear on the surface to be the most fortunate. We all want to be “happy,” but what might on the surface seem to provide comfort and release might be the very thing that takes us away from a life of fulfillment and satisfaction. We all have the instinct to err on the side of lessor effort, even when the easy way out leads us toward moderately unproductive behavior or even lethal addiction.

***

As a final thought, I’ve recently grown fond of the expression, “The freedom from the pursuit of happiness.”

I think many would consider the “freedom from the pursuit of happiness” a rather depressing idea.

But to me, it’s a perfect turn of phrase to describe the healthiest way to approach finding peace. It connotes a letting go of the hedonic treadmill of Level 1 Happiness and the pervasive materialistic culture trying to sell us on the idea that we need some external thing to be happy, even when the last 100 things we bought failed to get us there.

And to the extent that Level 2 Happiness can be achieved, it’s by separating our thought process from the circumstances that require the need to feel good all the time. Level 2 Happiness, the happiness of Buddhists and Stoics, is not an act of pursuit, but rather acceptance and internal transcendence of circumstance.

Finally, the science of Level 3 Happiness shows that happiness cannot be achieved by fretting over our own mental states, but rather by pursuing “flow,” where the last thing on our mind is our own pursuit of happiness. Level 3 Happiness is achieved when we are fully engrossed in some activity, however arbitrary, that liberates us from the perpetual self-consciousness that sabotages our ability to be at peace.

So it would seem that there is much to be gained in the abandonment of the self-conscious pursuit of happiness. The freedom from the pursuit of happiness. The more I think about it, the more that feels right to me.

[1] Mate talks about how every addict in his clinic who abuses hard drugs is also addicted to nicotine. And my own anecdotal experience with addicts (I was a bartender for three years) is that people with the predisposition to get hooked on one thing are also more likely to have issues with other smaller addictions—whether those substances cause actual chemical dependence or not. In the old days of smoking sections and non-smoking sections, waiters always preferred to work with smoking sections, because the smokers invariably drank more and tipped better. Smokers who try to quit smoking tend to gain weight from overeating. Drinkers who give up alcohol tend to crave more sugar. For those with the predisposition toward addiction, the instinct to seek out something to soothe is strong to overwhelming. And when one addiction is removed, the tendency toward finding substitute fixes is nearly universal. This is why Erickson’s definition of addiction is not compelling to me. All of those urges have commonalities, and to deny that those with a predisposition toward chemical dependence also have a tendency toward compulsive behavior with lesser forms of addiction seems to deny reality.

[2] I’m not suggesting that enjoying pleasurable things is always a bad thing. What I’m commenting on here is the phenomenon of consuming more of a thing than we know is good for us, to the point where we regret the overconsumption.

[3] Luxury sports cars have no lure for me, but I’m a sucker for every Airstream ad.

[4] I will confess that my interest in addiction is more than academic. I tend to extremes in all activities, from running to eating to board games. From college to my early 30s, that also applied to drinking. Let’s just say it is much easier for me to abstain than to moderate. That said, I am happy to report that over the last five years or so, I have achieved a healthy equilibrium in my consumption habits. I’m not perfect, but I feel like I’m getting healthier almost every day.

[5] For me, daily meditation has helped with this in more ways than I could quantify. I now meditate an hour or so every day. I believe it’s the most important thing I do for my health.

[6] Actually, the owners of the local bakeries are super nice. And their treats are mostly harmless, reasonably priced, and delicious. They don’t belong on this list. I will continue to frequent their fine establishments.

[7] This particular drug dealer tends to get about 15% of my monthly income.

Reasons for Overcoming Reasons for Pessimism

If there is one conventional belief that I find difficult to grasp, it’s the belief that right now life is at an all-time level of misery. This isn’t just a mistaken belief: It’s flat-out wrong. And so I figured I’d write a quick post explaining why I think it’s easy to overcome some of the easy ways to be pessimistic today.

Reason for Pessimism #1: The World Is Going to Shit 

Donald Trump, hypersensitive PC college kids, the Alt-Right, the NCAA, Brexit, Justin Timberlake’s half-time performance at the Super Bowl. Things have never been worse.

Reason for Optimism #1: Actually, Things Are Getting Better.

Reason for Pessimism #1 couldn’t be less true. By nearly every measure of prosperity, life is getting better. Whether we’re measuring human longevity, access to clean water, infant mortality, economic well being, murder rates, or nearly any other objective measure of what it means to live a good life, we’re now living in the best time ever to be alive.

So much so, that the average life expectancy today in every country is better today than it was in any country in 1800 (Source: Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies).

The reason things feel bad is because of availability heuristic. We’re mainlining negative media stories 12 hours a day through our various screens and devices. Things aren’t worse. We’re just being led to believe that they are.

Reason for Pessimism #2: Human Nature is Bleak

The other day I watched this video by the brilliant Christoper Boehm where he explained something I had never heard before: Ethnocentrism is a human universal.

According to Boehm, all humans (particularly the males) in their default setting are racist and violent. All humans, given the right conditions, can be prone to acts of murder, violence, and even genocide. What’s also interesting is that we are uniquely violent. The only species that are known to engage in conspecific acts of coordinated violence are us and chimpanzees, our closest relatives. And this has been going on for about six million years, since the days of the earliest proto-humans. That’s a long history of murder and mayhem.

Reason for Optimism #2: Modern Culture Is Making It Better

Murder rates in the US right now are 5.3 out of every 100,000 people, or .0053%. That’s horrible for the victims of those crimes, but a drastic improvement over recent history and even more so over pre-history.

In some modern late Pleistocene-appropriate cultures (modern hunter-gatherers), adult death rates from murder or warfare are as high as 35%! (Hill, Hurtado, & Walker, 2007). What we can infer from these data is that we are perhaps four orders of magnitude less likely to die a violent death than our pre-modern-cultural ancestors were. Or, stated another way, our lives are about 10,000 times safer than they used to be.

Reason for Pessimism #3: Our Institutions Are Rotten

It’s easy to cherry pick ways in which our political institutions are ineffective or worse. Any episode of the Daily Show or John Oliver will show you as much. From excessive punishments for petty crimes to perverse incentives in finances to failure to approve drugs that we know can save lives, there are many ways our institutions are flawed.

Reason for Optimism #3: Our Institutions Are Better than Almost All Institutions Ever

But we’re trying to make them better. We’re trying to make laws more inclusive and accepting. We have laws to help the poor, the downtrodden, and minority groups. Throughout most of history, no one bothered. Traditionally, if you were a small tribe next to a big tribe, the likely result was utter annihilation and extinction.

If you compare our laws today to what they were a generation ago, we’re doing better. If you compare our laws to our laws a little further back, we’re doing way, way better. As Theodore Parker once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Reason for Pessimism #4: There is Human Misery Everywhere, Every Day

With more than seven billion people floating around on this blue orb, someone is going to be suffering at all times. As I wrote last year:

There are about 400,000 murders a year, which averages out to more than 1000 every day. It’s safe to say that at nearly all moments, someone is either killing someone else or in the process of making it happen. That’s a sobering thought. Probably too much for the human brain to fully comprehend or absorb while still functioning. If we did choose to focus on that fact all the time, it would be hard to get motivated or feel good about anything.

Reason for Optimism #4: There Has Never Been Greater Innovation in How to Make Life Better

Today, kind-hearted people are innovating as never before to seek out and find those who most need help and then to design effective ways to help them. Those that want to make a difference have better resources to do it than ever before.

None of this is to say that life isn’t better today for some than for others. Nor is it to say that we shouldn’t work harder to make it better. But it isn’t said often enough that in the aggregate, the evidence shows that life is getting better.

Regardless of what you read, there are more reasons for optimism today than pessimism. The question is: where are we going to direct our attention?

For further reading:

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature

Geoffrey West, Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies

Robert Wright, Nonzero, The Logic of Human Destiny

Contra:

Thomas Piketty, The Economics of Inequality

John Gray, The Soul of the Marionette

On Convergence and the Value of Figuring Things Out for Yourself

A world constructed from the familiar is a world in which there’s nothing to learn … (since there is) invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas.

— Eli Pariser

Back in college, I did the study-abroad thing in Europe. I was living in Barcelona, and I used my Eurail pass to go to Genoa, Italy. I went to Genoa because it seemed like it might be less touristy than other parts of Italy. The first trip every kid with a Eurail pass did was Rome and Florence, so I wanted to try something different. Genoa was on the water, near Cinqueterra, not too far from Barcelona, and judging from the pictures I had seen online, looked like whatever the 20-year-old version of me imagined to be authentically Italian.

I brought with me my Let’s Go Europe guidebook. I ripped the pages out of the section on Genoa and stuffed them in my pocket, so as to not stand out too much as a tourist. I was self-conscious about not wearing clothes that stood out as too American-y, so when I arrived, I tried to blend in to the bustling if not somewhat grimey city that was Genoa.

Of everything I read on Genoa in Let’s Go, what I was most excited about was this small, super friendly, cheap, hole-in-the-wall family-run pasta place, with Mom serving the pasta, and with Dad and Grandma making it in the back. Pasta was my favorite food growing up, so going to a real Italian pasta place sounded like the coolest thing on earth to me. I had to check it out.

The restaurant was nowhere near the hostel I was staying, and so I had to navigate three buses to get there, getting lost multiple times on the way. It was early May, but unseasonably warm and humid. The buses were crowded. I was sweating on those around me and they were sweating on me.

The restaurant was at the top of a steep hill and then down an alley. It was as close to a literal hole in the wall as any restaurant I had ever been. I opened the door, tried to mumble a few words of half-Italian, half-Spanish, and a surly-looking woman pointed me to a table. I peered around the room, and of the ten tables in the restaurant, probably eight of them had a Let’s Go book.

In my quest for an authentic Italian dining experience, I had trudged across Europe, to a remote part of a dingy Mediterranean town, taking three buses, only to find myself in what must have been the only restaurant in the city whose patrons were mostly American college kids.

***

In the last five years I’ve probably read a dozen books that mention the famous split-brain experiments on confabulation. A few examples include Sam Harris’s Waking Up and Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s new book The Elephant in the Brain.[1]

The split-brain confabulation studies are fascinating and fun. But that’s not what I’m questioning. What I’m questioning is how, in my efforts to learn new and different things, I keep converging on books that talk about stuff I have already read.

***

A little more than month ago, I had never heard of Jordan Peterson. And then I heard about him in this article by Conor Friedsdorf of the Atlantic. And within days, I saw a few people posting about their own 12 Rules for Life, riffing off the title of his new book. And then I figured I’d write my own version. And then I noticed a friend writing about him on his blog, and how he was reading about Jordan Peterson everywhere, too.

In a matter of days, Jordan Peterson went from someone I had never heard of, to someone who was everywhere I looked online.

Kudos to his publicist.

***

If you come here often, you may have noticed that I occasionally post links to other sites.

I take articles from my favorite sites and blogs, including Kottke.org, the Browser, 3 Quarks Daily, the Legal Theory Blog, Semi-Rad, Crooked Timber, Marginal Revolution, Slate Star Codex, Shtetl-Optimized, and Calculated Risk. I’ll copy and paste whatever I find into Evernote and then write about them here.

And then I kept noticing that the links I was saving were appearing on my other favorite sites. Somehow, in my quest to find new and interesting links to share with people online, I had converged upon the same articles everyone else thought were interesting and worth sharing.

***

I live in a town near lots of running, biking, and hiking trails. In the last few years, an increasing number of apps provide descriptions of the trails, and users rate the trails based on their experiences. With so many trails, only a few get the best reviews. One of those here is the Monarch Crest Trail, which is considered among the best biking trails in the country. But it’s also more crowded than parts of Central Park in NYC every weekend from late June through October.

But then, there are also lots of other trails that are only slightly less beautiful than the Monarch Crest Trail where you can spend a holiday weekend and often not see another soul.

***

I’ve always prided myself on trying to be different in what I do. When I travel, I like to seek out experiences that aren’t super touristy. When I read, I like to learn stuff that’s different from what everyone around me already knows. When I go outside to play, I’d rather it not be at the Grand Canyon on a holiday weekend.

But clearly, try as I might to be different, I still kind of suck at it.

***

The problem is, I don’t want experiences that are just different: I also want to find some cool stuff. I want to find some places that are nearly as spectacular as the crowded spots, but nowhere near as crowded.

I’m looking for the hidden gem, the spot that’s beautiful, pristine, and I have all to myself.

But places that are crowded tend to be crowded for a reason. The Grand Canyon is so damned crowded is because it’s one of the most awe-inspiring places on earth. So even though it’s usually super crowded, it’s still absolutely worth going there (you just have to be picky about when and how you do it).

The reason the Italian restaurant in Genoa was full of Americans is because another American college kid published a snippet about it that inspired everyone else to follow her there.

We converge on things that come highly reviewed. I get it.

The question is whether there’s a way to find the hidden gems while avoiding both places that are unpleasantly overcrowded and places that are, well, not worth visiting for a reason.

***

Eli Pariser coined the term “filter bubble” in 2010. According to Pariser, the filter bubble is caused by algorithms that lead us to have our own opinions and biases confirmed in our interactions with the internet. The sites we visit collect data on what we like, and then gives us back more of what we like every time we use it. The algorithms at Netflix, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, predict what we will like in the future based on what we have consumed in the past.

It’s good to get more of what we like. But getting future experiences based on our past experiences means we’re stuck in a feedback loop. According to Pariser, these algorithms “close us off to new ideas, subjects, and important information.”

There is growing data that these recommender systems are leading to convergence in the way we learn and what we like, not just ideologically, but for simple tastes and preferences as well.

If you enjoy one book that talks about split-brain patients in the context of Buddhism and spirituality, it would stand to reason that you might like another that talks about split-brain patients in the context of mixed motivations. But the same algorithm that correctly predicts that you’ll like “X” because you liked “Y” starts to feed you more and more of the same crap. And then everything starts to feel, taste, and sound the same. If you use Netflix, Amazon, Google, Facebook, or Twitter (do you know anyone who doesn’t use any of these?), then, unless you alter the default settings, your life will reflect this convergence.

Twitter doesn’t suggest that you follow someone whom only a few people think is interesting, but most people think is a weirdo. Netflix doesn’t suggest that you watch shows that a few people think are great, but most people think are bad. You’re being directed to the same media that appeals to everyone else (with your same age, gender, socio-economic status, and ideology cohorts).

***

I suspect another part of the explanation for this convergence is a sort of winner-take-all effect of popularity. The top .01% of 1% of influencers are all connected to each other through mutual contacts and by sheer force of mutual influence. They leverage each other’s platforms to expand their influence and promote their work. If I were influential, I’d do the same. But there is a limited circle of people with a big enough following to create this effect, and so they start to converge on each other. People who like Tim Ferriss’s podcast pick up on Jocko Willink’s podcast and Sam Harris’s podcast (and James Altucher’s and Debbie Millman’s) and then the same guests appear on each other’s podcasts and then everyone has podcasts where, after a few episodes, you can easily predict what’s going to happen next. And then those people talk about the same few books, topics, and habits, and then all of those things converge on each other. And since those people collectively influence so many people, all of those people converge on each other, too.

***

I think there’s something to be said for reading the blogs of weirdos and outcasts. For checking out podcasts that don’t already have millions of downloads. For going to the library and picking up a book by an author you’ve never heard of.

People who are successful are usually successful for a reason. But there are a lot more people who are talented than there are people who are famous. It’s worth spending some time on your own searching for them.

***

Maybe it doesn’t matter much if we’re all reading and thinking about the same things. But to me it feels off—like we’re losing forms of intellectual and cultural diversity. Count me in the group that believes that diversity is a critical precursor to growth. And so I think it’s worth the effort to take extraordinary efforts to try to do different things.

***

The thing about critically acclaimed, highly-reviewed hidden gems is that they don’t tend to stay hidden gems for long. Once the word gets out, you’ve probably already missed your window.

Markets in experiences, books, places, and restaurants all tend to self-correct. If everyone wants to find a delicious, cheap, not-too-crowded, authentic Italian restaurant, and publishers, writers, and food critics are highly motivated to find those restaurants and to share them, then the critically acclaimed, highly-reviewed delicious, cheap, not-too-crowded authentic Italian restaurant is going to be about as easy to find as a $20 bill on the ground. We might stumble upon $20 bills on the ground a few times in our lives, but maybe not even that often.

***

Don’t get me wrong: I still think there are hidden gems. I just don’t think you’re likely to find out about them on Tripadvisor or on All Trails.

I think you just have to go and figure that shit out on your own.

The expression, “you have to kiss a few frogs to find your prince charming” is sexist and stupid, but I think there’s some value to thinking that way with life experiences—specifically, acknowledging that you have to have shitty experiences if you also want to have rich, novel experiences.

Without the prior filter, we’re wandering into the unknown. With the filter bubble, we’re picking a known quantity. But so is everyone else.

***

If you base all of your choices on other people’s previously cultivated experiences, (and on your own prior cultivated experiences), your life just won’t be that interesting. It’s just becomes a copy or a copy of a copy.

If I had wandered around Genoa back then and eaten at any restaurant that seemed popular with the locals, I’m sure my experience would have been better than the one I had. Genoa didn’t have that many tourists in 1998. So nearly anywhere I could have eaten would have been a novel experience for a 20-year-old kid. Instead I chose the safe route to eat where the most popular guide book for college kids suggested I eat. By trying to rely on someone else’s advice for what was authentic, I got the opposite.

***

A few years back, I met a guy on the island of Ometepe in Nicaragua, and this was how he traveled: He got off the plane, and he talked to people. And he asked them what they were doing. If what they were doing sounded like fun, he asked if he could join them. If what they were doing sounded boring, he went and talked to someone else.

My wife and I only had two days on the island of Ometepe, and so on the last day we were there, we were going to hire a taxi driver to take us around the island. He struck up a conversation with us at a crowded hostel bar, and that’s where we told him about our plan. He said that sounded like fun and asked if he could join us. We said sure.

He was a fun and interesting guy. And though he traveled less frequently and on a tighter budget than my wife and I did, it sounded like he had better stories to tell.

***

If you make all of your decisions the same ways everyone else does, your life will end up exactly like everyone else’s.

I’m not saying we all need be exactly like the guy I met in Ometepe, but I think most of us would benefit from more of that tendency.

With globalization and the emergence of a handful of companies (Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, Netflix) that influence nearly all aspects of how we collect and process information, pre-filtered life is growing increasingly homogenous. That might be more true today than ever before.

Better to get offline and get analog with experiences. It’s ok to let algorithms, critical consensus, influencers, and public opinion shape your decisions some of the time, but probably best not to let them do it all of the time.

Sometimes it’s better to just wing it, even though sometimes this will suck. You might get food poisoning. You might find out too late you’ve gone camping next to a swamp with an infestation of mosquitoes. Sometimes you will meet unpleasant and uninteresting people.

I do not have it all figured out. But I’ve come to believe that even crappy experiences like that are worth something if it feels like you came up with the crap on your own.

Better to live my own life badly than spend my whole life living someone else’s seemingly well.

Breakthroughs, Skills, and Adaptations

Two of my favorite writers are Tyler Cowen and Cal Newport.

Tyler Cowen is one of the most influential bloggers on earth. In addition to being a Harvard-educated economist, he’s created a multi-media intellectual empire for himself at George Mason University, with a podcast, blog, lecture series, online university, columns at Bloomberg, and tentacles all over print and audio media. As an example of the scope of his influence, reading Cowen’s blog is the first part of Malcolm Gladwell’s morning routine.

Cal Newport is one of the youngest tenured professors at Georgetown University, where he teaches computer science and is widely published on topics that are far beyond the scope of my intellect. But that’s not how I know about him. I know him from two of his books: So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work, both of which I consider among the most important books on how to approach work that I’ve ever read. Whenever I meet anyone who seems to be in a professional funk, if I suspect they might be open to suggestion, I do everything I can to steer them to Cal Newport’s books. Reading his first book was essential to helping me choose a path for my business, and reading the second has been equally helpful me to get it where I want it to be.

Tyler Cowen is an information omnivore (he wrote a book about just that topic, actually, called Age of the Infovore), consuming insane amounts of information from diverse print and online sources. He often cites as one of the keys to his success the fact that he is incredibly responsive to email. According to Age of the Infovore, he checks his email every five minutes. And despite having a massive online following, he answers every single email he gets.

Cal Newport’s approach is about as different from Cowen’s as you could get. He might be described as a borderline Luddite who teaches computer science. More specifically, he thinks that social media, email, and instant messaging apps are intellectual scourges to be avoided at all costs. According to Newport, to create work that has real value, you need to concentrate for long periods of time. Every time we check Facebook or email, it completely destroys our concentration, causing us to shift our focus in a way that is impossible or nearly impossible to retrieve. Newport thinks the best way to succeed is to purge our lives of the constant hum of pings, notifications, and feeds trying to steal our precious attention resources. To succeed in a modern economy where attention is a scarce resource, we must create and cultivate an environment every day where true, deep work is possible without interruption.

Both Cowen and Newport are writers and intellectuals at the absolute pinnacles of their fields. But their approaches seem diametrically opposed to each other. So who is right? Which approach is better—deep work or constant, unrelenting media consumption?

I.

I’m reading a book right now called What Works for Whom? It’s by a couple of English academics that specialize in psychotherapy research. The book digs into which types of psychological and psychiatric interventions work for which types of psychological problems. Here’s an excerpt:

Summarizing quantitative review of outcomes for MDD [Major Depressive Disorder], it seems clear that psychological therapy has benefit over no therapy, though when active therapies are contrasted, differences between them are less clear. Although there are indications that CBT [Cognitive Behavioral Therapy] is superior to less structured forms of psychotherapeutic intervention, it is worth noting that this conclusion appears less robust when the contrast treatment is credible and theory-grounded.

The overarching lesson I’ve taken from the book is that the aggregated data show that techniques that work for one type of problem do not necessarily work for others. Not exactly a Eureka! insight, but worth noting.

CBT and inter-personal therapy work well for depression but have not shown to be effective as a treatment for substance abuse. What works for anxiety is not an effective treatment for anorexia. And so on.

II.

Have you ever finished a book or a TED talk and thought to yourself: “This is it! This is the key to what I’ve been looking for! If I just do X or don’t do Y, all of my problems will go away!” And then after a few hours or days, the magic solution fades from memory and life goes on as normal?

III.

There’s no shortage of people out there who are in the business of selling us on breakthroughs.

A breakthrough is an event or realization that forever changes your life. Before this moment, you were one, lesser version of yourself. And after this moment, you’re a better, improved version of yourself.

If a weekend or a conference or a person were truly capable of making you a better person, it’d be hard to quantify just how much money that would be worth. But if they were real, the sellers of breakthroughs could probably just name their price. And even if it might be real, plenty of people would be willing to take a gamble and spend a small fortune on the off chance that it might do the trick.

IV.

Last year, I found this blog on fake insights by David Chapman. It’s wonderful. For me, it was a breakthrough on why most breakthroughs aren’t really breakthroughs.

Most of the time, according to Chapman, when we are sold on the idea of having an insight it’s because we’ve been tricked into finding an easy solution to what seemed like an artificially hard problem. By solving an easy problem masquerading as a hard problem, we are tricked into believing that we have somehow achieved mastery with relatively little effort. Perhaps all it took was a slight tweak in direction or mindset.

Ultimately, most breakthroughs are an artificial sleight of hand. The ability to solve one problem doesn’t necessarily mean that you have the power to solve another, unrelated problem. There is no magic key that lets you open all doors.

V.

I’ve spent most of my life searching for simple, overarching rules that might help me live a better life. An intellectual golden ticket, of sorts.

And the more I read, the more convinced I am that there are no one-sized-fits-all formulas for how to live your life—no perfect plans for how to shape your schedule, your work-life routine, or pretty much anything else. No life hack works for everyone equally well. For each of us to maximize our talents, we must maximize self-knowledge by paying attention to our own internal signals, while incorporating lessons from those around us to the extent they might be helpful. And even then, we still have to adapt to every new wrinkle that life throws at us. And this will never end.

VI.

If you look up directions on Google Maps, there are usually three or four different options for how to get to your destination. Google will point you to the fastest way and then give you options for alternative routes. Perhaps you want to pick a more scenic option or avoid the highway. But if you go pretty much anywhere else other than those three or four routes, you’re going to end up going the wrong way. There is more than one way to get where you want to go, but there are infinitely more routes that will take you the wrong way.

VII.

I think life is like this, except to date there is no Google Maps service that is able to provide objective directions for how to get where you’re going—and where not to go.

There are lots of books and videos and Ted talks and inspirational seminars where people sell you on the idea that they can tell you how to live your life.

But as is obvious when you read books like What Works for Whom? neurodiversity is a real thing. There are plenty of 500-page academic treatises that will send your mind spinning with details of how effective strategies in one arena will be totally unsuccessful in another. Effective strategies for beating markets won’t help you in your family life. Warren Buffet’s wife left him to be with her tennis coach.

So it goes.

VIII.

A few years ago I ran a couple of 100-mile races. I’ve heard some other people who have run 100-mile races say that after they have run a 100-mile race, it makes everything else they do in life much easier. As in, after running 100 miles, they know they can accomplish anything.

I’m skeptical of this. After I ran 100 miles, I just knew that I could run 100 miles. I didn’t find it easier to find meaning and purpose in my work. I didn’t find that my relationship struggles had changed. The problems I had in life before I had run 100 miles were more or less the same problems I had after I had run 100 miles.

IX.

A while back I wrote this piece called “Metarules for Games,” wherein I tried to come up with a set of overarching practices for how to approach new games. I re-read it recently, and I think it’s interesting and useful for people who like to play games, at least up to a point. It’s an exercise in how to think about games generally, but if you read it, at best, it might only provide a marginal advantage in games over someone who had not read it.

Reading “Metarules for Games,” won’t make you a chess master. To do that, you would need a base level of intelligence, plus many thousands of hours of practice and intense study. Being a chess master isn’t about breakthroughs. It’s about developing skills over years of work and then making successful adaptations during individual games. In the same vein, reading “Metarules for runners” won’t make you a 4-minute miler. Reading “Metarules for investors” won’t make you a billionaire (or a millionaire or even a thousand-aire). That’s just not how it works.

X.

There are popular writers—Tim Ferriss in particular comes to mind—who specialize in studying and decoding habits of success. The idea is that if we learn certain overarching rules, certain patterns for how to organize our lives, that we might find a shortcut in a path to success and high status.

This sounds to me like the business of selling breakthroughs.

This type of study breaks down when we look at people like Tyler Cowen and Cal Newport, whom I mentioned at the beginning of the post. The habits that caused Cowen’s success are the habits Newport looks to avoid. If the one habit—the practice of constantly checking email, and its opposite pair, the practice of consciously avoiding email because it is a distraction from deep, focused work—both can serve as a path to success, then perhaps we can deduce that there’s no magic breakthrough to be made just by picking one habit or its opposite. Perhaps there is relatively little utility in obsessing over the anecdotal meta-habits of intellectual titans.

Tyler Cowen is highly skilled at processing massive amounts of information. Cal Newport is highly skilled at focusing on complicated tasks that most people—even very intelligent people—could not. Both have adapted to modern circumstances to find success. Cowen has succeeded by navigating the waters of information overflow better than anyone else, and Newport by avoiding the currents and staying on shore. But, despite opposite approaches, both have found a way to make it work.

XI.

I think, in retrospect, I’ve spent far too much of my life searching for breakthroughs. It’s tempting to look for one pattern or a set of patterns that will light the way for all times and places. But that’s probably not a thing. As I hit the juicy part of middle age, I think when it comes to breakthroughs,  they are more about flash than true light.

What is far more useful is the simple cultivation of skills. Work skills, physical skills, interpersonal skills, relationship skills—super-nichey skills in your chosen field that most people can’t even pronounce but you know better than anyone else on earth. The more skills you have, the more you can help people get things done. In short, if you want to be valued, be good at a lot of things that people find valuable.

Then, it’s about adapting those skills to different environments. The world today is not the same as it was five years ago and will not be the same as it will be in five years. You might be in a wheelchair or get cancer or win the lottery, or most likely, none of the above. So each of us must constantly adapt whatever skills we possess to new environments.

Learn and cultivate skills. Adapt them to whatever new environment you might find yourself in.

Rinse, repeat. How’s that for a breakthrough?

[1] Tim Ferriss’s book is called, “Tools of Titans,” which is a way better name than “Metarules for Success.” That’s why he’s Tim Ferriss.

Justin Timberlake and the Decline of American Football

Nearly six years ago, Kevin Grier and Tyler Cowen wrote a piece on the now-defunct Grantland called, “what would the end of football look like?” It seemed far-fetched at the time. But it predicted a world where upper-class Americans would no longer cultivate a love of the sport, because of the increasing data about brain damage caused by football. Upwardly mobile middle-class Americans would emulate the upper class, leaving only the poorer regions of the country to care about football (Texas, Oklahoma, the SEC).

In 2018, many if not most American elites now have a visceral disgust at the idea of their children playing the game. If you won’t let your kids go near it, why celebrate it on TV? It only seems a matter of time when football is exclusively associated with the poor and the uneducated.

Mihir Desai on the trouble with optionality. The basic thesis is that when we defer making choices in the guise of giving ourselves choices, we end up accidentally making non-ideal choices. This resonated with me, in that I also went to law school partially because I was attracted by the idea that it gave me “options.” But it turns out after going to law school I ended up a lawyer, just like almost all of my peers. Not that I don’t enjoy what I do (I do now, but I didn’t always); it’s just that the optionality aspect of going to law school was a farce.

Nature article on how ecology and evolution interact on observable time scales.