Tag Archives: Happiness

Meaning is Easy to Find, Hard to Justify

One of the strangest questions I get when giving talks on Age of Em is a variation on this:

How can ems find enough meaning in their lives to get up and go to work everyday, instead of committing suicide?

As the vast majority of people in most every society do not commit suicide, and manage to get up for work on most workdays, why would anyone expect this to be a huge problem in a random new society?

Even stranger is that I mostly get this question from smart sincere college students who are doing well at school. And I also hear that such students often complain that they do not know how to motivate themselves to do many things that they “want” to do. I interpret this all as resulting from overly far thinking on meaning. Let me explain.

If we compare happiness to meaning, then happiness tends to be an evaluation of a more local situation, while meaning tends to be an evaluation of a more global situation. You are happy about this moment, but you have meaning regarding your life.

Now you can do either of these evaluations in a near or a far mode. That is, you can just ask yourself for your intuitions on how you feel about your life, within over-thinking it, or you can reason abstractly and idealistically about what sort of meaning you should have or can justify having. In that later more abstract mode, smart sincere people can be stumped. How can they justify having meaning in a world where there is so much randomness and suffering, and that is so far from being a heaven?

Of course in a sense, heaven is an incoherent concept. We have so many random idealistic constraints on what heaven should be like that it isn’t clear that anything can satisfy them all. For example, we may want to be the hero of a dramatic story, even if we know that characters in such stories wish that they could live in more peaceful worlds.

Idealistic young people have such problems in spades, because they haven’t lived long enough to see how unreasonable are their many idealistic demands. And smarter people can think up even more such demands.

But the basic fact is that most everyone in most every society does in fact find meaning in their lives, even if they don’t know how to justify it. Thus I can be pretty confident that ems also find meaning in their lives.

Here are some more random facts about meaning, drawn from my revised Age of Em, out next April.

Today, individuals who earn higher wages tend to have both more happiness and a stronger sense of purpose, and this sense of purpose seems to cause higher wages. People with a stronger sense of purpose also tend to live longer. Nations that are richer tend to have more happiness but less meaning in life, in part because they have less religion. .. Types of meaning that people get from work today include authenticity, agency, self-worth, purpose, belonging, and transcendence.

Happiness and meaning have different implications for behavior, and are sometimes at odds. That is, activities that raise happiness often lower meaning, and vice versa. For example, people with meaning think more about the future, while happy people focus on the here and now. People with meaning tend to be givers who help others, while happy people tend to be takers who are helped by others. Being a parent and spending time with loved ones gives meaning, but spending time with friends makes one happy.

Affirming one’s identity and expressing oneself increase meaning but not happiness. People with more struggles, problems, and stresses have more meaning, but are less happy. Happiness but not meaning predicts a satisfaction of desires, such as for health and money, and more frequent good relative to bad feelings. Older people gain meaning by giving advice to younger people. We gain more meaning when we follow our gut feelings rather than thinking abstractly about our situations.

My weak guess is that productivity tends to predict meaning more strongly than happiness. If this is correct, it suggests that, all else equal, ems will tend to think more about the future, more be givers who help others, spend more time with loved ones and less with friends, more affirm their identity and express themselves, give more advice, and follow gut feelings more. But they will also have more struggles and less often have their desires satisfied.

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Happy Weather

Yesterday the weather was unseasonably warm and pleasant here in Virginia. I opened the windows at home, and felt pleased by the fresh air. I thought I was happier because of the nice weather.

A new paper just took an unusually detailed look at how 11,000 diverse Australians’ answers to the question “‘All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life?” related to the weather at the 96,000 times and places they were asked. The authors found no effects when the word “life” was replaced with any of these: “job overall, employment opportunities, financial situation, home in which you live, feel part of local community, neighbourhood in which you live, how safe you feel, your health, amount of free time.”

But the authors did find effects related to that overall life satisfaction version. There were no effects of rain/snow, temperature, humidity, or windspeed, but people seemed a bit happier on days that were overall sunnier, and happier with lower air pressure, “typically associated with clouds, rain and strong winds.” Men had three times the preference for sunny weather, and when people moved to very different climates, that climate change had no effect on their happiness, controlling for weather at the time of their answer!

The authors suggest that life satisfaction answers differ from the others because “cognitive demands of assessing overall life satisfaction lead respondents to apply heuristics that are based on contemporaneous transient factors.” I think this means that we use weather to guess our happiness, when in fact we aren’t any happier. The authors support this by noting that these differences reduce as people get more experienced answering surveys, though I didn’t find that result very compelling.

Other interesting results include that people report being happier when someone else is sitting next to them while they answer the survey, that they get progressively less happy over the course of a day, and that they are no happier on weekends. Married people were happier, but people with more dependents were less happy. Middle-aged folks were less happy, and also it seems were mid-education-level folks, controlling for age and income. Here is the paper’s main regression: Continue reading "Happy Weather" »

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Should You Kiss Ass?

Consider two possible work strategies. One strategy is just to try to do a good job. The other is to try to kiss ass and please your boss any way you can. Of course you can try either strategy, both, or neither. Which makes four different kinds of workers. Now ask yourself, of these four kinds of workers, which ones do you think achieve the most career success? Which ones have the most job and life satisfaction?

I came across a fascinating paper (ungated here) from 1994 that asked exactly this question. Looking at 500 ex students of industrial relations, they compared the effect of ass-kissing to doing a good job on success and job satisfaction.

Supervisor-focused tactics … include: agree with your immediate supervisor’s ideas; praise your immediate supervisor on his or her accomplishments; agree with your supervisor’s major opinions outwardly even when you disagree inwardly. Job-focused tactics … include: make others aware of your accomplishments in your job; try to take responsibility for positive events even when you are not solely responsible; arrive at work early in order to look good in front of others.

The result: workers who try to please their boss are more successful in their careers, and workers who try to seem good at their jobs are less successful. Boss-pleasers are also more satisfied with their job and life, while good-jobbers aren’t any more or less satisfied.

The only other thing that predicted satisfaction: being married. Other things that predicted job success: being married, being on the job many years, working more hours per week, and not having a PhD.

We like to act like we just want to do a good job, and would rather not have bosses breathing down our necks. But what if, we actually like kissing ass?

Please speak up if you know of any more recent that might confirm or disconfirm these results.

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Middle-Age Is Near

Tali Sharot says we are optimistic because we under-respond to bad news, an effect weakest for the middle-aged, explaining why they are more pessimistic:

People of all age groups changed their beliefs more in response to good news, and they discounted bad news. Even more surprising was the finding that kids and elderly people both showed more of a bias than college students. …

From about the time we are teenagers, our sense of happiness starts to decline, hitting rock bottom in our mid-40s. (Middle-age crisis, anyone?) Then our sense of happiness miraculously starts to go up again rapidly as we grow older. …

Andrew Oswald … controlled for people being born in better times, marital status, education, employment status, income: The age pattern persisted. Even more surprising, the pattern held strong even though Oswald did not control for physical health. … Oswald tested half a million people in 72 countries, in both developing and developed nations. He observed the same pattern across all parts of the globe and across sexes. …

While women reach the bottom of the happiness barrel at 38.6 years on average, men reach it more than a decade later — at 52.9 years [but 44.5 in the U.S.] … Americans have been growing less happy since 1900. In Europe, however, happiness has been increasing steadily since 1950, after 50 years of decline. (more)

OK, but that just pushes the question back: why do middle-aged folks respond the most to bad news? An obvious functional explanation comes to my mind: In the tradeoff between (near) beliefs that support good personal decisions and (far) beliefs that present a good image to others, personal decisions matter more for the middle-aged. In general, good personal decisions matter more for those who who are more dominant, more in the productive prime of their life, and more past the early ages where long term bonds are formed, and before elderly dependence on others.

This explains the later male unhappiness peak, the US/Europe trends matching their rising/falling world dominance, and also why pretty people are more selfish and conformist. After all, happy is far, and conformity is near.

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Middle-aged not miserable, just too busy to answer surveys

I have read several times that there is evidence of a U-curve in happiness over an individual’s life. People are happy in their youth, and happy again after retirement, but suffer from a serious malaise in between as they grapple with their finances, careers and family life. Seeing as how I’m about to embark on this part of my life, that isn’t a particularly appealing idea! Today I was glad to find some evidence that the U-curve is just a statistical illusion. Australian economists Paul Frijters and Tony Beatton have analysed large panel data sets from Australia (n>10,000), the UK (n>25,000) and Germany (n>20,000) and produced the following trajectory for happiness as people age:

Happiness is nearly flat from 20 through 50. Frijter’s explanation for the disagreement with the existing literature is that,

previous studies severely underestimated the degree to which miserable people in middle-age were over-represented in these datasets: happy people in middle age are busy and don’t have time to participate in lengthy questionnaires, leading previous studies to erroneously think there was a huge degree of unhappiness in middle-age. When you actually follow people over time, no such ‘middle-age blues pattern’ can be found, at least not in Australia or the UK and only to a mild degree in Germany. … we found that there were severe data problems in Germany, with only quite miserable people in middle-age prepared to partake in the sample and respondents becoming markedly more honest (and miserable) as they answered the happiness questions year after year.

Those of us with active lives need not fear! There are familiar selection problems later in life as well. Unhappy people do not live as long, and may become less able or willing to answer surveys than their healthy and cheerful counterparts. By tracking the same participants for 10 years or more, Frijters claims to have “dealt with both issues,” presumably suing their initial responses to by forecast their missing responses later in life. Some day I should choose carefully where I decide to retire and perhaps return to my homeland: “life in old age is clearly relatively better in Australia than the UK, perchance because of the better weather, more generous public pensions, and more space.”

Another, more depressing, paper on happiness recently caught my attention. Probably due to its early use of twins to investigate the causes of happiness it has landed over 900 citations, despite a limited sample of separated twins. It finds a remarkably high correlation between the happiness of twins who share all of their genes, but very little correlation for twins who share half of their genes:

Happiness or subjective wellbeing was measured on a birth-record based sample of several thousand middle-aged twins using the Well Being (WB) scale of the Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire (MPQ). Neither socioeconomic status (SES), educational attainment, family income, marital status, nor an indicant of religious commitment could account for more than about 3% of the variance in WB. From 44% to 53% of the variance in WB, however, is associated with genetic variation. Based on the retest of smaller samples of twins after intervals of 4.5 and 10 years, we estimate that the heritability of the stable component of subjective wellbeing approaches 80%.

For the 48 DZ [fraternal] pairs, this cross-twin, cross-time correlation for WB was essentially zero (.07) while, for the 79 MZ [identical] pairs, it equaled .40, or 80% of the retest correlation of .50. The MZ data suggest that the stable component of wellbeing (i.e., trait-happiness) is largely determined genetically. The negligible DZ correlation suggests that this stable and heritable component of happiness is an emergenic trait (Lykken, 1982; Lykken, Bouchard, McGue, & Tellegen, 1992), that is, a trait that is determined by a configural rather than an additive function of components. Emergenic traits, although determined in part genetically, do not tend to run in families as do traits that are polygenic-additive.

A similar result was reported in an earlier study of 217 MZ and 114 DZ pairs of middle-aged Minnesota Registry twins, plus 44 MZ and 27 DZ pairs who were separated in infancy and reared apart (Tellegen, et al., 1988). The best estimate of the heritability of WB in that study was .48 (± .08) and, as was true here, a model involving only additive genetic effects did not fit the data.

Myers and Diener suggested that people who enjoy close personal relationships, who become absorbed in their work, and who set themselves achievable goals and move toward them with determination are happier on the whole than people who do not. We agree, but we question the direction of the causal arrow. We know that when people with bipolar mood disored are depressed, they tend to avoid intimate encounters or new experiences and tend to brood upon depressing thoughts rather than concetrating on their work. Then, when their moods swings toward elation, these same people tend to do the things that happy people do. This is undoubtedly a James-Lange feedback effect: Dysfunctional behavior exacerbates depression, whereas the things happy people do enhance their happiness. We argue, however, that the impetus is greater from mood to behavior than in the reverse direction. It may be that trying to be happier is as futile as trying to be taller and therefore is counterproductive. (HT Jim Savage)

My impression – which I would be happy to have corrected – is that later research finds a smaller, but still significant impact of genetics on happiness.

That result brought to mind something John Stuart Mill wrote in his autobiography: “I am now convinced that no great improvements in the lot of mankind are possible until a great change takes place in the fundamental constitution of their modes of thought.” I imagine Mill had education and cultural shifts in mind, and the consistent difference in reported subjective wellbeing between South America and Eastern Europe show culture makes a difference. But if genetics plays such a large and limiting role, the only way to drastically alter our ‘modes of thought’ will require that we learn how to tinker with our minds directly.

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