Monthly Archives: July 2013

Happiness vs. Meaning

Happiness and meaning are both good things to have, and are arguably similarly important. But happiness gets the vast majority of attention in psychology, economics, philosophy, and policy. Why? One clue is that happiness tends to be near, while meaning is far:

His own study found a slight negative correlation between the number of times people in a study spontaneously mentioned “goals” and their happiness. … The most intriguing finding from an array of studies on file at the database is the lack of correlation between seeing meaning in life and being happy. (more)

The more time people reported having devoted to thinking about the past and future, the more meaningful their lives were — and the less happy. The more people reported imagining the future, the more meaningful their lives were, but the less happy. … Being focused on the future and being long-term oriented were more strongly associated with meaning than with happiness. In contrast, being short-term oriented went with happiness more than meaning. Happiness was moreover rated as considerably more short-lived and fleeting than meaningfulness. Conversely, meaningfulness was rated as much more lasting and permanent than happiness. … Self-rated happiness was quite consistent across the month from the first to the third time point. (Other data show happiness to be remarkably stable even across many years). Our participants’ rated impression that happiness is fleeting and unstable is thus incorrect. (more)

A new study … asked nearly 400 Americans … whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. … People who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry … [and] is associated with selfish behavior. …

The study participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group. … Having more meaning in one’s life was associated with activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing. … They also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people. Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life, … but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents. … People who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy. Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life. (more)

The strong academic emphasis on happiness over meaning suggests that we tend to think of happiness as more what people really want; meaning is more what people pretend to want in far present-a-good-image mode. Of course the crusaders who talk the most about trying to increase the world’s happiness are mostly talking in far mode, and they mainly use that cause to create meaning, not happiness, in their own lives.

So there is a bit of a tension here between the meaning that crusaders choose for themselves and the happiness they try give to others. They might reasonably be accused of elitism, thinking that happiness is good for the masses, while meaning should be reserved for elites like them. Also, since such folks tend to embrace far mode thoughts more, and tend less to think that near mode desires say what we really want, such folks should also be conflicted about their overwhelming emphasis on happiness over meaning when giving policy advice.

I don’t think it works to have the main meaning in most people’s lives to be to try to get more meaning for other people’s lives. Something else must also be importantly meaningful, such as insight, exploration, artistic achievement, etc.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as:

Suspecting Truth-Hiders

Tyler against bets:

On my side of the debate I claim a long history of successful science, corporate innovation, journalism, and also commentary of many kinds, mostly not based on personal small bets, sometimes banning them, and relying on various other forms of personal stakes in ideas, and passing various market tests repeatedly. I don’t see comparable evidence on the other side of this debate, which I interpret as a preference for witnessing comeuppance for its own sake (read Robin’s framing or Alex’s repeated use of the mood-affiliated word “bullshit” to describe both scientific communication and reporting). The quest for comeuppance is a misallocation of personal resources. (more)

My translation:

Most existing social institutions tolerate lots of hypocrisy, and often don’t try to expose people who say things they don’t believe. When competing with alternatives, the disadvantages such institutions suffer from letting people believe more falsehoods are likely outweighed by other advantages. People who feel glee from seeing the comeuppance of bullshitting hypocrites don’t appreciate the advantages of hypocrisy.

Yes existing institutions deserve some deference, but surely we don’t believe our institutions are the best of all possible worlds. And surely one of the most suspicious signs that an existing institution isn’t the best possible is when it seems to discourage truth-telling, especially about itself. Yes it is possible that such squelching is all for the best, but isn’t it just as likely that some folks are trying to hide things for private, not social, gains? Isn’t this a major reason we often rightly mood-affiliate with those who gleefully expose bullshit?

For example, if you were inspecting a restaurant and they seemed to be trying to hide some things from your view, wouldn’t you suspect they were doing that for private gain, not to make the world a better place? If you were put in charge of a new organization and subordinates seemed to be trying to hide some budgets and activities from your view, wouldn’t you suspect that was also for private gain instead of to make your organization better? Same for if you were trying to rate the effectiveness of a charity or government agency, or evaluate a paper for a journal. The more that people and habits seemed to be trying to hide something and evade incentives for accuracy, the more suspicious you would rightly be that something inefficient was going on.

Now I agree that people do often avoid speaking uncomfortable truths, and coordinate to punish those who violate norms against such speaking. But we usually do this when have a decent guess of what the truth actually is that we don’t want to hear.

If if were just bad in general to encourage more accurate expressions of belief, then it seems pretty dangerous to let academics and bloggers collect status by speculating about the truth of various important things. If that is a good idea, why are more bets a bad idea? And in general, how can we judge well when to encourage accuracy and when to let the truth be hidden, from the middle of a conversation where we know lots of accuracy has been being sacrificed for unknown reasons?

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: , ,

Bets Argue

Imagine a challenge:

You claim you strongly believe X and suggest that we should as well; what supporting arguments can you offer?

Imagine this response:

I won’t offer arguments, because the arguments I might offer now would not necessarily reveal my beliefs. Even all of the arguments I have ever expressed on the subject wouldn’t reveal my beliefs on that subject. Here’s why.

I might not believe the arguments I express, and I might know of many other arguments on the subject, both positive and negative, that I have not expressed. Arguments on other topics might be relevant for this topic, and I might have changed my mind since I expressed arguments. There are so many random and local frictions that influence on which particular subjects people express which particular arguments, and you agree I should retain enough privacy to not have to express all the arguments I know. Also, if I gave arguments now I’d probably feel more locked into that belief and be less willing to change it, and we agree that would be bad.

How therefore could you possibly be so naive as to think the arguments I might now express would reveal what I believe? And that is why I offer no supporting arguments for my claim.

Wouldn’t you feel this person was being unreasonably evasive? Wouldn’t this response suggest at least that he doesn’t in fact know of good supporting arguments for this belief? After all, even if many random factors influence what arguments you express when, and even if you may know of many more arguments than you express, still typically on average the more good supporting arguments you can offer, the more good supporting arguments you know, and the better supported your belief.

This is how I feel about folks like Tyler Cowen who say they feel little obligation to make or accept offers to bet in support of beliefs they express, nor to think less of others who similarly refuse to bet on beliefs they express. (Adam Gurri links to ten posts on the subject here.)

Yes of course, due to limited options and large transaction costs most financial portfolios have only a crude relation to holder beliefs. And any one part of a portfolio can be misleading since it could be cancelled by other hidden parts. Even so, typically on average observers can reasonably infer that someone unwilling to publicly bet in support of their beliefs probably doesn’t really believe what they say as much as someone who does, and doesn’t know of as many good reasons to believe it.

It would be reasonable to point to other bets or investments and say “I’ve already made as many bets on this subject as I can handle.” It is also reasonable to say you are willing to bet if a clear verifiable claim can be worked out, but that you don’t see such a claim yet. It would further be reasonable to say that you don’t have strong beliefs on the subject, or that you aren’t interested in persuading others on it. But to just refuse to bet in general, even though you do express strong beliefs you try to persuade others to share, that does and should look bad.

Added 4July: In honor of Ashok Rao, more possible responses to the challenge:

A norm of thinking less of claims by those who offer fewer good supporting arguments is biased against people who talk slow, are shy of speaking, or have bad memory or low intelligence. Also, by discouraging false claims we’d discourage innovation, and surely we don’t want that.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,

Adam Ford Interview

Late on a freezing grey afternoon last December, Adam Ford filmed me outside in front of Oxford’s Christ’s Church, me all bundled up a coat, scarf, and cap. Youtube says Ford has 506 videos (and more at Vimeo), almost all talking to futurists, so he’s pretty experienced at this. He edited our talk down to 31 minutes; these were our topics:

  • Morality Tales, The Future, And You
  • Future Thinking Near & Far Modes
  • Utopia
  • Whole Brain Emulation
  • Dystopia
  • Mythology
  • Escapism
  • Nature & Progress
  • Acceleration & Change
  • Risks & Growth Trajectories
  • The Road Ahead

Other recent short videos of mine: TEDx Tallinn talk (19min), my BBC Interview (4min).

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: , , ,

Me On Big Picture Science

I’m the first of four folks interviewed for the “Meet Your Replacements” episode of the SETI Institute’s Big Picture Science radio show. The topic:

There’s no one like you. At least, not yet. But in some visions of the future, androids can do just about everything, computers will hook directly into your brain, and genetic human-hybrids with exotic traits will be walking the streets. So could humans become an endangered species?

Be prepared to meet the new-and-improved you. But how much human would actually remain in the humanoids of the future?

Plus, tips for preventing our own extinction in the face of inevitable natural catastrophes.

My part is with Seth Shostak, and 9 minutes long. I talk about ems, naturally. The other three guests are Luke Muehlhauser, Stuart Newman, & Annalee Newitz.

It is a pretty good show; I think I was told it has 150,000 listeners. They say they are “supported in part by Sami David, Rena Shulsky David, and the NASA Astrobiology Institute.” My thanks to them as well.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,

Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss relevant topics that have not appeared in recent posts.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: