Evolutionary Success & Individual Experience

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari shares examples of how evolutionary success for an entire species doesn’t always mean positive things for individuals within the species. His conclusion, and the evidence of evolutionary success for humans, livestock animals, and other species, is similar to the Repugnant Conclusion, an idea common in ethical psychology. As a quick summary, the Repugnant Conclusion can be thought of in the following way. Imagine our planet has 10 billion people living, and all 10 billion people would score their happiness at a 7. If you summed up the total happiness of the planet you would get 70 billion. But imagine that our world could support the lives of 100 billion people, but only if each person had a miserable life and rated their happiness level as 1 – just barely worth living rather than not living. If you summed up the total happiness of all 100 billion people, you get 100 billion, an increase of 30 billion in terms of total happiness over the planet with 10 billion fairly happy people.
 
 
Hardly any of us would want to live in the planet where there were more living people, but almost all of them were unhappy, with lives they considered only barely worth living. But evolution doesn’t really care about happiness. Evolution seems to just care about whether lives are barely worth living, and whether genes are being passed along. Yuval Noah Harari would argue that throughout history numerous species have successfully evolved through strategies that seem to follow the Repugnant Conclusion.
 
 
When we imagine evolution, we tend to think of everything getting better. Humans, plants, and animals evolve to become bigger, faster, stronger, and better able to survive. Surely, we imagine, that means that each individual has a better life and experience than the individuals that came before it. After all, each successive generation, per evolutionary pressure, should be a better fit for survival than its predecessors. Unfortunately, we can evolve in the direction of the Repugnant Conclusion, with fitness for survival having nothing to do with actual individual level fitness and happiness. Greater numbers of individuals may be able to survive if they are all a little less happy, require a little less in terms of resources, and can better manage being crammed into a tight space. Harari writes, “this discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution.”
 
 
When we think about evolution, Harari argues that, “we have to consider how evolutionary success translates into individual experience.” Today, there are far more chickens alive than at any other point in history. By evolutionary standards, chickens have done great. They continuously pass their genes along and even have another species invested in the continued survival and population growth of chickens. However, individual chickens have miserable lives, often confined to cages they cannot move around in or stand-up in. Their lives are also very short, very congested, and their deaths can be brutal. The individual experience for a chicken is about as bad as it could be, but the species as a whole is booming. Harari argues that similar things have happened in Human Evolution. We might not all be trapped in cages, but we have had changes in our species that have made the individual lives of humans worse while propelling the survival and continued evolutionary success of the species forward. Evolution does not simply mean better. It means continued survival and change in the face of challenges for survival. Sometimes the experiences of the individuals can improve, but that is not always the case.
Luxuries, Necessities, and Agitated Lives

Luxuries, Necessities, & Agitated Lives

Yuval Noah Harari has taken silent meditation trips and has worked hard to increase his focus and see the world clearly. This helped him while writing Sapiens with taking an objective view of the history of humanity and describing where we were, how we got to where we are, and where we might head in the future. As someone who meditates, it is not surprising to see a criticism of modern life make its way into his book while he reflects on ancient humans.
 
 
Harari writes, “one of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.” Humans are incredibly adaptable, and often this is for our own good. Ancient humans adapted to living in set places, rather than roaming across varied landscapes at different times of the year. We can adapt to climate across the globe, adapt to changing family and tribal structures, and we can adapt to daily routines and expectations in life. This superpower, however, can have a downside. Sometimes we adapt to great new technologies and advances, viewing them not as modern marvels, but as common necessities that we cannot do without.
 
 
In modern life we are dependent on cars, dependent on smart phones, and dependent on the internet and everything connected to it. Every year we invent something new, improve some existing technology, and create something else that we are excited about, only to see that invention become commonplace. We get used to super fast communication, complain about how long it takes to travel across the country on an airplane, and become frustrated when our high expectations are not met. Increasing quality of life doesn’t seem to increase our life sanctification. Harari might argue that it diminishes it long-term. “We thought we were saving time,” Harari writes, “instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated.” Luxuries become necessities and we become less flexible and patient without them. Harari may have been writing a book about ancient human history, but his views on the modern world, as someone who believes in disconnecting and taking silent meditation retreats, influenced the way he described the progress humans have made.
Delight

Delight

“Delight,” writes Michael Tisserand in his biography of George Herriman, Krazy, “was herriman’s strongest point in a world where most artists had lost it.”
When I was in college there was a spring morning where I went for a run at a local park. I didn’t have a lot going on that day (maybe some classes or work after my run) and I didn’t have to rush home after my workout. The park was up on a hill with a great view of Reno and I was able to sit on the grass and stretch as I cooled down from the run. At the time I was bored, not doing enough to engage with my university or local community, and I had lost a sense of delight with the world around me. As I sat and stretched I thought to myself, “is this really it? Is sitting around stretching after going for a run really all that I am going to do in life? Am I going to be this bored forever?”
It seems to me that as we move through life it is easy to lose our sense of delight. It is easy to become accustomed to the amazing technology of our time, to take something as enjoyable as stretching in park after a run for granted, and to be discontent with lives that by all objective measures are full of enjoyment. Somehow we lose our delight in the marvels of the world, mistaking them as simple, boring, and pedestrian.
George Herriman, Tisserand writes, never lost his sense of delight. His artwork did not turn scornful, sour, or stale. He continued creating comics, continued to brighten the world for others, and never failed to appreciate the position he was in as a cartoon artist.
Keeping delight in our world helps us maintain a sense of presence and helps us approach the world in a grateful manner. If we can be delighted with something as simple as a cup of coffee, a day with good weather, or something funny that a pet does, then we can find something to be happy about and a reason to continue to engage with the world. If we lose our sense of delight, then we risk being overcome with cynicism and selfishness. For Herriman, a man of black and Creole descent passing as a white man in the comics and newspaper industry, perhaps his continually precarious position and the luck and opportunity afforded to him by his light skin color helped him maintain a sense of delight. Perhaps that is what helped him learn to appreciate everything, since he lived a life that so easily could have been denied to him by racism and bigotry.
In my own life I have learned to greatly appreciate the simple moments of stretching in a park after a run, of drinking coffee in the morning, or of walking with my wife and our pup in the evening. These are not exciting moments and are experiences I have almost every day, but by learning to appreciate and find delight in them, I have learned to be more comfortable being who I am and where I am. I have learned to overcome some of my fear of missing out by finding delight in every moment, even if there is nothing remarkable about the moment. I still remember how I felt that day during college, but I look back and appreciate that moment rather than feeling as if my life was not or is not enough.
Biased toward periods of short, intense joy

Biased Toward Periods of Short, Intense Joy

In Thinking Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman writes, “The rules that govern the evaluation of the past are poor guides for decision making, because time does matter. The central fact of our existence is that time is the ultimate finite resource, but the remembering self ignores that reality. The neglect of duration combined with the peak-end rule causes a bias that favors a short period of intense joy over a long period of moderate happiness.”

 

When we think back on a vacation, we remember the beautiful waterfall that we saw, but we forget just how long and awful the drive and steep hike to the waterfall was. When we think about the work we want to do, we remember the highlights of any job experience, and we forget the hours of drudgery that may have gone with the job. We forget time when we think back on what has been positive and what has been negative in our lives, and this gives us a false sense of happiness and a false sense of what we actually enjoy, leading us to make biased decisions for the future.

 

There is research which shows that lengthy commutes and time spent in isolation are among the things that make us the most depressed and least happy. However, because of duration neglect, we don’t remember just how awful these things make us feel when we think about taking a new job or moving to a new house that is relatively far away from friends, work, and family. We put ourselves in situations that make us unhappy because they have the potential to bring us short bursts of joy that will stand out in our memory.

 

I think it is very troubling that a moderate level of happiness will become our background and will fade in our memories. The experiencing self can be quite content moment to moment, but the remembering self will seek out periods of intense joy, even at great costs to the experiencing self. This disconnect can lead people to behaviors and situations that seem like obvious miscalculations from the outside.

 

This seems to be part of what is at play when a man who is in a happy but unexciting marriage has an affair. I recognize that there are many factors at play, but part of the decision-making process can probably be explained by the brain seeking a short period of intense joy via an affair over the continued moderate happiness of a stable but somewhat boring marriage.

 

Our tendency toward short periods of intense joy is also probably a major factor in our decisions to make many of the purchases that we make. The instant we buy something we are happy, but ahead of our purchase we don’t think about all the time we have to invest in the the thing we buy, whether it is a car that needs maintenance, Christmas lights and decorations that we have to put up, take down, and box up for storage, or a fish tank that is going to require ongoing cleaning and maintenance on a regular basis.  Our decision making is influenced by how we remember the past, and those memories forget time. They also discount moderate happiness in favor of intense joy, even if the intense joy is fleeting and doesn’t actually contribute to a happy and meaningful life as much as our base level of moderate happiness would.
The Focusing Illusion Continued

The Focusing Illusion Continued

I find the focusing illusion as described by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow to be fascinating because it reveals how strange our actual thinking is. I am constantly baffled by the way that our brains continuously and predictably makes mistakes. The way we think about, interpret, and understand the world is not based on an objective reality, but is instead based on what our brain happens to be focused on at any given time. As Kahneman writes, what you see is all there is, and the focusing illusion is a product of our brain’s limited ability to take in information combined with the brain’s tendency to substitute difficult and complex questions for more simple questions.

 

In the book, Kahneman asks us to think about the overall happiness of someone who recently moved from Ohio to California and also asks us to think about the amount of time that paraplegics spend in a bad mood. In both situations, we make a substitution. We know that people’s overall happiness and general moods are comprised of a huge number of factors, but when we think about the two situations, we focus in on a couple of simple ideas.

 

We assume the person from Ohio is happier in California because the weather in California is always perfect while Ohio experiences cold winters. The economic prospects in California might be better than Ohio, and there are more movie stars and surfing opportunities. Without knowing anything about the person, we probably assume the California move made them happier overall (especially given the additional context and priming based on the weather and jobs prospects that Kahneman presents in the example in his book).

 

For our assumptions about the paraplegic, we likely go the other way with our thoughts. We think about how we would feel if we were in an accident and lost the use of our legs or arms. We assume their life must be miserable, and that they spend much of their day in a bad mood. We don’t make a complex consideration of the individual’s life or ask more information about them, we just make an assumption based on limited information by substituting in the question, “How would I feel if I became paralyzed.” Of course, people who are paralyzed or lose the function of part of their body are still capable of a full range of human emotions, and might still find happiness in their lives in many areas.

 

Kahneman writes, “The focusing illusion can cause people to be wrong about their present state of well-being as well as about the happiness of others, and about their own happiness in the future.”

 

We often say that it is important that we know ourselves and that we be true to ourselves if we want to live healthy and successful lives. But research throughout Thinking Fast and Slow shows us how hard it can be. After reading Kahneman’s book, learning about Nudges from Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, and learning how poorly we process risk and chance from Gerd Gigerenzer, I constantly doubt how much I can really know about myself, about others, or really about anything. I am frustrated when people act on intuition, sure of themselves and their ideas in complex areas such as economics, healthcare, or education. I am dismayed by advertisements, religions, and political parties that encourage us to act tribally and to trust our instincts and intuitions. It is fascinating that we can be so wrong about something as personal as our own happiness. It is fascinating that we can be so biased in our thinking and judgement, and that we can make conclusions and assumptions about ourselves and others with limited information and not even notice how poorly our thought processes are. I love thinking about and learning about the biases and cognitive errors of our mind, and it makes me pause when I am sure of myself and when I think that I am clearly right and others are wrong. After all, if what you see is all there is, then your opinions, ideas, and beliefs are almost certainly inadequate to actually describe the reality you inhabit.
The Happiness of the Moment

The Happiness of the Moment

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes, “remember that neither the future nor the past pains thee, but only the present.” He also writes, “if though holdest to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with thy present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which though utterest, though wilt live happy.”

 

Aurelius is a foundational Stoic thinker. A key part of stoicism is remaining in the present moment, focused on where you are now, what you are doing now, and how you can best use your current time. Worrying about what will happen in the future and feeling regretful of what has happened in the past only distracts from the present moment, bringing anxiety to situations that on their own do not cause any negativity in our lives.

 

The stoics, it turns out, were largely correct about finding happiness in the present moment. Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow, writes, “Our emotional state is largely determined y what we attend to, and we are normally focused on our current activity and immediate environment. There are exceptions, where the quality of subjective experience is dominated by recurrent thoughts rather than by the events of the moment.”

 

Happiness is generally an emotion we feel when we are present. By refocusing our mind on our present activity and finding constructive and useful outlets for our attention, we can find happiness, even if our past has been a nightmare or if we are afraid of what will come in the future. It is important to learn lessons from the past and important to plan for the future to be successful and maximize our opportunities to meaningfully engage in the world, but when we spend all our time allowing recurrent thoughts to dominate our mind, we will diminish our overall happiness. If we constantly think about something embarrassing from the past, if we are always worried about an upcoming deadline, or if we only think forward to vacations and what we would rather be doing, then we won’t be happy in the moment. We won’t make the most of our current situation, and we won’t be content where we are. By focusing on the present and attending to a single present task or activity (even if it is just our breath), then we can root ourselves to our current state, and allow the regret and fears from our past and future to begin to melt away.

Happiness, Well-being, & Money

A question that is always asked and played with in movies, at family dinners, and in our popular culture is can money buy happiness? We will all say that the answer is no, especially when we hear about a wealthy person who commits suicide or has their life unravel in a public manner. Nevertheless, we all pursue a relatively high level of wealth and income, and we recognize that having more money would mean that we could eat out more often, take more vacations, and buy more things. There does seem to be some level of happiness that can be achieved through more money.

 

Daniel Kahneman shared research on the question in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. He writes, “an analysis of more than 450,000 responses to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, a daily survey of 1,000 Americans, provides a surprisingly definite answer to the most frequently asked question in well-being research: Can money buy happiness? The conclusion is that being poor makes one miserable, and that being rich may enhance one’s life satisfaction, but does not (on average) improve experienced well-being.”

 

Kahneman’s quote is incredibly helpful because it splits apart happiness and well-being, particularly our experienced happiness and general well-being. The part of our brain that reflects back on our life and our overall happiness is not the same part of our brain that actually lives the experiences we have. As Kahneman showed earlier in the book, asking students how happy they are and then asking them how many dates they had in the last month gives you two separate responses with no correlation, but ask the questions in reverse, and suddenly those students who haven’t had many dates tend to respond that they are less happy. The reflecting part of our brain will experience happiness differently depending on the frames you place it in. The same thing seems to happen with happiness, well-being, and money.

 

When we think about how happy we are overall, we pause, reflect on our living condition, think about our relative success compared to others, and remember the fun events in our lives. Our happiness is improved when we are more sure of ourselves based on our relative social status and as we have more enjoyable and memorable experiences. However, this doesn’t mean that we are more happy than other people in our experienced well-being from moment to moment.

 

The rich person may feel isolated, may be insecure about losing their wealth, or may have the same family and social problems that anyone else has. The momentary emotional status of an individual is not impacted by wealth as much as our reflective happiness. Kahneman’s quote helps to pull these two aspects of happiness apart to see what is happening and understand the role of money. Kahneman continues to write that experienced well-being stops increasing as dramatically once an individual’s household income reaches about $75,000 in high cost areas. Subjectively, in the course of our lives, money doesn’t make us happier from moment to moment once we have received a high, but relatively reasonable income.
Experienced Utility - Joe Abittan

Experienced Utility

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman presents an interesting situation. Imagine you need to receive a series of injections, and the pain for each injection each time is always the same. Suppose in one situation, the series of injections is 20 shots, and in another situation the series is 6 shots. If you were to imagine that you were in each series, would you pay the same amount to have the total number of shots for the series reduced by 2? In one situation you would go from 20 to 18, and in the other from 6 to 4.

 

Kahneman found that people were more likely to pay more to reduce the injection load if the total number of shots for their series was 6 rather than 18. In Kahneman’s eyes, this thinking process is an error. He writes, “at least in some cases, experienced utility is the criterion by which a decision should be assessed. A decision maker who pays different amounts to achieve the same gain of experienced utility (or be spared the same loss) is making a mistake.”

 

Experienced utility is the overall happiness, usefulness, or enjoyment (more or less) that we get out of life, a product, or an experience. In the situation I described above, each injection is equally as painful. The first shot is not any worse than the second, the sixth, or the 15th. So whether you are getting 6 shots or 20 shots, you are still having a similar reduction in the overall amount of pain that you are avoiding when you get two fewer shots. In pure experienced utility, there is no difference between reducing the shot count from 20 to 18 or from 6 to 4. It is two fewer shots, the same reduction in pain, in both instances.

 

But when we imagine ourselves in each situation, it is the low total shot count where we decide we would spend more to reduce the overall level of pain we experience. We are violating the terms of equal experienced utility and instead making a relative comparison. Two is 1/3rd of six, and reducing our pain by 1/3rd is relatively much better than reducing our pain by 1/10th which is what we would do when we moved from 20 to 18.

 

This problem reminds me of sitting first class on an airplane. Sitting on your own couch is much more enjoyable than sitting first class on an airplane. You have a larger TV to enjoy, you don’t have to pay extra for WiFi, and you have an entire kitchen and pantry of snacks available to you. But if someone asked you how much you would pay on any given day for the privilege of enjoying your living room you would look at them and laugh.

 

But we are all willing to pay huge amounts for smaller and less comfy chairs, to have to turn our phones off, and for overpriced alcoholic beverages in first class on an airplane. We are making a similar mistake in terms of experienced utility by making relative comparisons. First class is substantially better than coach, but much worse than our own living room. When we fail to recognize our experienced utility, and instead open ourselves up to paying for relative utility, then we risk making inconsistent decisions and paying far more in some situations than we would dream to pay in others. The relative frame of reference that we adopt could be manipulated by actors for their own ends, to convince us to pay more for things than what we would in another frame of reference.
Evaluating Happiness

Evaluating Happiness

If you ask college students how many dates they have had in the last month and then ask them how happy they are overall, you will find that those who had more dates will rate themselves as generally more happy than those who had fewer dates. However, if you ask college students how happy they are overall, and then after they evaluate their happiness ask them how many dates they have had, you won’t see a big difference in overall happiness based on the number of dates that students had in the last month.

 

Daniel Kahneman looks at the results of studies like this in his book Thinking Fast and Slow and draws the following conclusion. “The explanation is straightforward, and it is a good example of substitution,” he writes. Happiness these days is not a natural or an easy assessment. A good answer requires a fair amount of thinking. However, the students who had just been asked about their dating did not need to think hard because they already had in their mind an answer to a related question: how happy were they with their love life?

 

This example is interesting because we are often placed in situations where we have to make a quick assessment of a large and complex state of being. When we buy a new car or house we rarely have a chance to live with the car or house for six months to determine if we really like it and if it is actually a good fit for us. We have a test drive or two, a couple walk-throughs, and then we are asked to make an assessment of whether we would like to own the the thing and whether it would be a good fit for our lives. We face the same challenges with voting for president, choosing a college or major, hiring a new employee/taking a new job, or buying a mattress. Evaluating happiness and predicting happiness is complex and difficult, and often without noticing it, we switch the question to something that is easier for us to answer. We narrow down our overall assessment to a few factors that are more easy to evaluate and hold in our head. More dates last month means I’m more happy.

 

“The present state of mind looms very large when people evaluate their happiness,” writes Kahneman.

 

We often judge the president based on the economy in the last months or weeks leading up to an election. We may chose to buy a home or car based on how friendly our agent or salesperson was and whether they did a good job of making us feel smart. Simple factors that might influence our mood in the moment can alter our perceived level of happiness and have direct outcomes in the decisions we make. We rarely pause to think about how happy we are on an overall level, and if we do, it is hard to untangle the things that are influencing our current mood from our perception of our general life happiness. It is important to recognize how much the current moment can shape our overall happiness so that we can pause and adjust our behaviors and attitudes to better reflect our reality. Having a minor inconvenience should not throw off our entire mood and outlook on life. Similarly, if we are in positions we dislike and find unbearable, we should not put up with the status quo just because someone flatters us but makes no real changes to improve our situation. Ultimately, it is important for us to be able to recognize what is happening in our minds and to be able to recognize when our minds are likely to be influenced by small and rather meaningless things.
Performance and Mood

Performance and Mood

We are in the middle of a global health pandemic, but it comes at a time when companies are starting to radically re-think the work environments they set up for their employees. I worked for a time for a tech company based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, and saw first hand the changing thoughts in how companies relate to their employees. Every day wasn’t a party, but companies like the one I worked for were beginning to recognize how important a healthy, happy, and agreeable workforce is to productivity and good outcomes as whole. The pandemic has forced companies to think even more deeply about these things, and some blend of remote and office work schedules will likely remain for a huge number of employees. Hopefully, we will walk away from the pandemic with workplaces that better align with the demands placed on people today, and hopefully we will be more happy in our work environments.

 

Research that Daniel Kahneman presents in his book Thinking Fast and Slow suggest that adapting workplaces to better accommodate employees and help them be more happy with their work could have huge positive impacts for our futures. Regarding tests for intuitive accuracy, Kahneman shares the following about people’s performance on tests and their mood:

 

“Putting participants in a good mood before the test by having them think happy thoughts more than doubled accuracy. An even more striking result is that unhappy subjects were completely incapable of performing the intuitive task accurately; their guesses were no better than random.”

 

Our mood impacts our thoughts and our thinking processes. When we are happy, we are better at making intuitive connections and associations. If we need to be productive, accurate, and intuitive, then we better have an environment that supports a relatively high level of happiness.

 

If our work environment does the opposite, if we are overwhelmed by stress and must deal with toxic culture issues, then it is likely that we will be less accurate with our tasks. We won’t perform as well, and those who depend on our work will receive sub-par products.

 

There is likely a self-perpetuating effect with both scenarios. A happy person is likely to perform better, and they will likely be praised for their good outcomes, improving their happiness and reinforcing their good work. But someone who is unhappy will likely have poor performance and is more likely to be reprimanded, leading to more unhappiness and continued unsatisfactory performance. For these reasons it is important that companies take steps to help put their employees in a good mood while working. This requires more than motivational posters, it requires real relationships and inclusion in important decisions around the workspace. In the long run, boosting mood among employees can have a huge impact, especially if the good results reinforce more positive feeling and continued high quality output. Changing work schedules and locations as forced upon employers by the pandemic can provide an opportunity for employers to think about the demands they place on employees, and what they can do to ensure their employees have healthy, safe workplaces that encourage positive moods and productivity.