Thursday, January 27, 2011

Living Well

As mentioned at the end of the happiness post, all this talk of pursuing happiness seems to be narrow-minded. Are there times when making a decision that is likely to decrease happiness might still be the more noble decision? An article by philosopher Ronald Dworkin in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books ( addresses this question.

This article makes the case for a concept he calls "Living Well".  Living well means navigating life in a way that you can look back on with pride.  "In my own view, someone who leads a boring, conventional life without close friendships or challenges or achievements, marking time to his grave, has not had a good life, even if he thinks he has and even if he has thoroughly enjoyed the life he has had." If you agree with this statement, then you agree that a good life is not just about happiness, but about living life well.

So what does that mean? It's up to the individual. The interesting point is that some of the ways people might consider "living well" are actually counter-productive to happiness. Some possible examples of living well yet reducing happiness: Risking your life for a cause (i.e. David Cato, Ugandan gay rights activist, just murdered yesterday; or fighting for your country). Creating a business can be much more stressful and risky than working for someone else and may lead to unhappiness, but if you're proud of the business then that increases meaning. An artist who devotes his life to his art to his own detriment and without reward. Monasticism.

Rainer Marie Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet recommends to an aspiring poet a life of privation and social isolation in order to explore the depths of the soul and thus improve his poetry. "Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you." In his letters, Rilke recommends the young poet single-mindedly pursue his goal of becoming a greater poet, with no thought to his own happiness. Suffering can be valuable in this pursuit. From this perspective, striving for happiness as a primary goal in life seems a bit vacuous. Similarly, in 1939 Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Maxwell Anderson wrote:
To the young people of this country I wish to say:
If you practice an art, be proud of it, & make it proud of you; if you now hesitate on the threshold of your maturity, wondering what rewards you should seek, wondering perhaps if there are any rewards beyond the opportunity to feed & sleep & breed, turn to the art which has moved you most readily, take what part in it you can, as participant, spectator, secret practitioner, or hanger-on & waiter at the door.  Make your living any way you can, but neglect no sacrifice at your chosen altar.   It may break your heart, it may drive you half mad, it may betray you into unrealizable ambitions or blind you to mercantile opportunities with its wandering fires.  But it will fill your heart before it breaks it; it will make you a person in your own right; it will open the temple doors to you & enable you to walk with those who have come nearest among men to what men may sometimes be.
Capitalist economists traditionally have focused on improving overall wealth as the primary goal for a nation. Some economists have recently proposed focusing on improved happiness as a nation rather than improved wealth (which seems obviously preferable). But what if even this is not the best metric? Is our focus on happiness cultural? Would this focus on happiness as one of the primary goals of life seem foreign to someone from a different era?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Coincidental Beginnings of Agriculture

One question I have always thought interesting is why agriculture cropped up independently in Mesopotamia, China, North America, and central Africa, all between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago. Anatomically modern humans developed in East Africa something like 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. They then left Africa something like 80,000 years ago. For something like the first 100,000 years of our existence, we didn't develop agriculture, but within the past 10,000 years we developed it in at least 4 areas independently. What happened 10,000 years ago that created this shift?

There is no consensus on this question. Here are some relevant facts: 1) While technically the Earth's been in an ice age for the past 2.6 million years, we're currently in the midst of a relatively warmer time called an "interglacial" period. This warmer period began 10,000 years ago. Prior to that, from 110,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago, was a "glacial" period, in which glaciers covered much of Europe and North America.  2) There was a great number of extinctions ("Late Pleistocene Extinction Event") of large animals between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago. These extinctions tend to coincide with the arrival of humans into each animals ecosystem. For the most part these large animals were naive to human hunters and did not have time to evolve to be afraid of those spindly humans. For the most part this did not occur in Africa, where large mammals were exposed to human hunters from the very beginning and were thus able to evolve as the humans' hunting skills improved.

Everything below this  line is pure speculation.

It would seem that the almost simultaneous (geologically speaking) development of agriculture at multiple locations around the globe occurring soon after the last glacial period ended is not a coincidence. The changing weather and ecosystems that came with the warmer climate must have somehow led to agriculture. And with hunting becoming increasingly difficult as easy to kill naive large mammals were depleted, humans everywhere likely became increasingly dependent on plants for calories.

Another factor that may have come into play: once humans had spread around the globe, it is thought that human population reached equilibrium  at somewhere around one million people. Equilibrium of course means that humans were competing with each other for limited resources, thus human tribes were likely in close proximity to each other, fighting over territory, some tribes starving to death or being decimated by their neighbors, etc. In such an environment, agriculture would be ripe for development as, once it was developed, it would allow for much higher population densities. It seems that something about the end of the ice age combined with hunter/gatherer humans existing at maximum capacity must have led to the development of agriculture.

Another interesting point that I read about last year in The Economist was a computer model that demonstrated the importance of population density in maintaining knowledge. This model showed that in a non-literate culture, where technology is learned directly from other humans, knowledge will tend to be forgotten over the millennia if there is an insufficient population density to keep that knowledge alive. Thus perhaps the beginnings of agriculture may have developed in many different places at many different times, but couldn't survive to maturity unless it was in a region where lots of humans were living. Thus, it could be that something about the end of the ice age created better conditions for hunter/gatherers in Mesopotamia, China, and the Americas that allowed for higher population densities, thus allowing agricultural technology to mature.

The Contingency of Christianity

Background: I believe that there was likely a creative spirit of some sort, or "God," that created the universe, possibly with the intention of having intelligent life develop. There are two main questions that science is unlikely to ever answer: 1) How did the universe come about?, and 2) Why is it that I, and presumably all humans and most animals, experience "consciousness," i.e. awareness of my existence. Hence I believe in a higher power that's beyond our understanding. However, while I believe in God, I no longer believe in Christianity or any other religion.

One of the realizations that led me away being a Christian is how contingent my being born Christian was on world events. There have been many spiritually enlightened individuals over the course of human history, some of whom created new ways of living and believing. Moses, Jesus, Paul of Tarsus (without whom we would never have heard of Jesus), Lao-Tzu (founder of Taoism), Siddharta Gautama ("The" Buddha, founder of Buddhism), Bodhidharma (one of the fathers of Zen Buddhism), and many more that we've never heard of. The reason the current inhabitants of the United States are mostly Christian is because the US was primarily a British colony. Britain, while initially "pagan," became Christian because it was a part of the Roman Empire.  The Roman Empire was Christian in part because Emperor Constantius had a Christian wife (or concubine, history's not clear on this) who fathered his son Constantine, who, when he became emperor, was sympathetic to Christians since his mother was Christian. (Although it seems Christianity was gaining popularity in the Roman Empire pretty rapidly and probably would have become the dominant religion regardless of Constantine's tolerance.)  The reason Christianity was able to spread through the Roman Empire was because Jesus and Paul were part of the Roman Empire. If Judaea had not been conquered by the Roman Empire, or if the Roman Empire had never developed, Jesus would likely have been forgotten. If China hadn't stopped most of it's maritime explorations in the 1400's, North America might have been colonized by Chinese rather than British colonists. If that had happened the US might be predominantly Buddhist. There are probably thousands of religions in the history of humankind, and certainly more than one of them has important things to teach us. The reason I was born Christian is contingent on many historical events. It's counterintuitive to think that only one religion, the one I happened to be born into, is the only right one. There is no rational reason that one should have faith in a single religion. It seems that the only way to be Christian and still maintain rationality is to take the viewpoint of my Christian friend Peyton Bowman: "It may not be rational to be Christian, but I choose to believe in it because I am a stronger and better person for it."

Human Evolution

Humans have many traits that separate us from our closest relative, the chimpanzee. Thinking about the differences between chimps and ourselves can give us insight into human evolution. Some differences:
We have much less hair.
We have a shorter gut.
We are better at throwing objects accurately.
We have hooded nares.
We are weaker and slower than chimps.
We don't have fangs like chimps.
We walk on two legs primarily.
We have emotional tears.
We have more subcutaneous fat than other primates, that tend to store more fat around their gut.
We have more complex language and tool use, including fire.
How do we explain these differences? Was it a single niche that brought about all these changes, or a series of different environmental pressures over millions of years?

Everything below is pure speculation:

Our nearest living ancestors live in trees, so the first change in niche for protohumans must have been the transition to living on the ground, potentially in savannas. Chimpanzees are already pretty intelligent, and are known to use a variety of tools, though with their long fingers and short thumbs they have some difficulty with precision tool use. On the other hand, baboons, who live mostly in savannas, have hands that are better able to grasp objects, though do not use tools as often as chimpanzees.  Why not? Since chimpanzees are more intelligent than baboons, the most reasonable conclusion is that baboons aren't intelligent enough to significantly use tools. When protohumans made the transition to living on the ground full time, this allowed the hand to focus on adapting fully to tool use rather than tree-climbing. I think one reasonable conclusion from all these facts is that the major story of protohuman evolution is: There was an intelligent tree-dwelling primate, more intelligent than other primates, that made the transition to living on the ground, developed dexterous hands, and started using more and more tools, thus driving increasing intelligence. It seems likely that this increase in tool use created the pressure for bipedalism, allowing a greater variety of tool use (such as walking with a spear).
Once the protohumans started using more and more tools, many traits likely followed as a result. For instance, the use of fire for cooking is the likely explanation for the shorter gut as it takes less gut to digest cooked food (with cooking we basically externalized a portion of digestion, like a spider who injects digestive juices into his trapped prey). Perhaps our shorter hair is a result of our ability to create clothing out of the hides of other animals and warm ourselves by fire, thus making it unnecessary to spend the calories growing our own pelts. Our ability to throw objects accurately is likely related to hunting, perhaps with spears. We are weaker and slower since we can protect ourselves and hunt using tools rather than spend calories maintaining large muscles. 
There's an interesting theory called the aquatic ape hypothesis. It states that at some stage, protohumans spent enough time in the water collecting food that it affected our evolution in a variety of ways. I think the most clear example of the explanatory power of this theory is our hooded nares, which keeps water out of the nose unless you turn upside down.  Other examples include reduced hair and increased subcutaneous fat, characteristics found in many mammals that spend lots of time in the water (subcutaneous fat is a better insulator than hair when wet).  Some proponents of the theory push it further, saying bipedalism developed to help protohumans wade in water while keeping their head above the waterline (when apes wade across rivers they do so on two legs).
Incidentally, early, anatomically modern humans did often live on beaches. For instance, the first wave of human migration out of Africa around 70,000 years ago or so, moved primarily via the coast of the Indian Ocean, arriving in Australia around 40,000 years ago. The fact that this first migration moved along the coast suggests they were beach-combers. Similarly, some scientists believe that once Asian peoples arrived in the Americas around 15,000 years ago, they rapidly moved down the Pacific coast, then later migrated inland, again suggesting a beach-combing society.
What was the driving force behind language? Perhaps for teaching tool use or planning for complex hunting and trapping maneuvers? And why music? And why does it seem our intelligence is so complex and adaptable, beyond the needs of a hunting/gathering society (able to develop quantum mechanics or play a Rachmaninoff piano concerto, for example)? Why do we laugh at humor?

Monday, January 17, 2011


There's been lots of talk about happiness the past few years: the popular press frequently reports on happiness studies, and I find I'm often discussing the causes of happiness with friends. Here are a few thoughts:

First of all, some interesting results: The best way to spend your money is to buy events (going out to eat, concert, etc.) rather than items.  One of the most enjoyable types of activity is that which is both self-directed and challenging (thus working under close direction from a superior is not ideal, nor is repetitive tasks). There's evidence that sun-exposure, not just to your skin but to your retina, is important for happiness. Six months after winning the lottery, you're likely to have returned to your baseline happiness.  Six months after becoming paraplegic, you're likely to have returned to your baseline happiness.

I've been very focused over the past couple years in optimizing my happiness. And while this has been productive, I wonder if I'm too narrow in my focus. In his article in the NY Times in October (, philosopher David Sosa argues for the separation of the terms "pleasure" (the internal state of mind) and "happiness" (which is feelings of pleasure in response to something positive in the external world). For example, suppose there were a drug that provided unlimited highs without any negative internal side effects such as withdrawals or hangovers. The drug user would be said to be experiencing pleasure but not happiness. Happiness would be reserved for feelings of pleasure associated with our relationships with others or other events in the real world, such as laughing with friends or succeeding at a chosen goal.

My friend Bob told me about a study showing that the average parent acknowledged being less happy when they became parents, but then the vast majority of course said they did not regret having kids. So why have kids? I think this might help demonstrate the difference between "pleasure" and "happiness".  A successful parent, I imagine, feels a deep sense of happiness from time to time as their child matures, achieves certain things, returns their love. In this TED lecture (, the founders of a parenting blog describe the happiness curve after having a child as becoming intensely sinusoidal, with lots of highs and lows, as opposed to the relatively stable contentment they experienced during their DINK years (dual-income, no kids). This idea that it can be preferable to experience extremes of emotion rather than stable contentment reminds me of the Tennyson quote: "'Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all."

In what way is money related to happiness? Here are some relevant facts:
Scientists who win a Nobel prize live longer than those who were candidates for winning but didn't. British bureaucrats live longer the higher they are in the bureaucratic hierarchy. In a study in rural China, one's income relative to fellow villagers was twice as important as absolute income in determining happiness. I recently heard a quote from a super wealthy financier who said that acquiring wealth became primarily about keeping score in the global financial game. These ideas highlight the importance of out-competing one's peers to happiness. Once a certain degree of basic needs are met, it seems that further increases in income affect happiness primarily through a sense of out-competing one's peers rather than purely enjoying the increased size of your house or quality of your car as things in themselves.

I think this is nicely illustrated by people living in NYC being accustomed to living in small spaces: the wealthier you are the larger, more convenient space you're able to afford in NYC. Yet even people making millions of dollars a year live happily in spaces with less square footage than a lower middle class person might have in a rural area. And yet the lower middle class person may find himself wishing he had a bigger space, not appreciating that his desire is really just relative; that one can be very happy living in a small space if you're able to avoid comparing yourself to your peers.

It seems that this competitive aspect of happiness could be overcome. If your happiness is negatively affected by your lack of wealth, it might help to re-orient your self-esteem so that it's measured by things more important than your relative wealth.  For many people, lack of wealth is a great source of unhappiness, and can lead to credit card debt, divorce, working too many hours per week, working in a job you dislike. Almost no income level is immune from this condition. Even people in the top 5% income bracket can experience stress regarding their finances, which is a shame. One of the most important things that wealth provides is a sense of security in not having to worry about money. But by spending too much on a home, a car, expensive hobbies, one can end up just as stressed about money as someone in a lower income bracket.

If you have lots of wealth, might it be considered unethical to flaunt it too greatly? By displaying your wealth you're not only pandering to your own competitive spirit, but also inspiring envy in your peers, and reducing their happiness? And wouldn't you consider the happiness gained by driving a Porsche every day more in the category of "pleasure" rather than "happiness"?

Addendum: After writing this article, I still felt I hadn't captured a nagging feeling: that focusing a life on pursuing happiness is a bit near-sighted, that at times happiness should have to be sacrificed for something greater. This article ( in the New York Review of Books answered that nagging feeling. I've addressed this in the post "Living Well."