Tuesday, May 1, 2012

10 Points From Happiness And Well Being Research

I was reading an article about commencement speeches. He does what is typical and talks about how most commencement speeches are useless and his is so much better. As is also typical he is much better at criticizing what others are saying then he is at coming up with something better. Human wisdom is like that. You substitute one opinion for another. But often there is no good reason to believe you are closer to the truth.
In the decades since, I've spent most of my career teaching economics and public policy. In particular, I've studied happiness and well-being, about which we now know a great deal. And I've found that the saccharine and over-optimistic words of the typical commencement address hold few of the lessons young people really need to hear about what lies ahead. Here, then, is what I wish someone had told the Class of 1988:
The key phrase here is "happiness and well-being." What does that mean? Is that what we should be pursuing in life? That is not at all clear to me. It sounds more like big brother has done all the real thinking. All we have to do is follow a few simple steps and all will be well.
1. Your time in fraternity basements was well spent.
The same goes for the time you spent playing intramural sports, working on the school newspaper or just hanging with friends. Research tells us that one of the most important causal factors associated with happiness and well-being is your meaningful connections with other human beings. Look around today. Certainly one benchmark of your postgraduation success should be how many of these people are still your close friends in 10 or 20 years.
What are "meaningful connections with other human beings?" Is that the same as just hanging out with friends? I know I would fail his test of keeping up with my friends from college. But in college I didn't know how to have meaningful relationships. So making that a benchmark of my success would have been quite a mistake.
2. Some of your worst days lie ahead. Graduation is a happy day. But my job is to tell you that if you are going to do anything worthwhile, you will face periods of grinding self-doubt and failure. Be prepared to work through them.
This is good. People need to be prepared for suffering. It happens to us all and we are shocked when it does. A few words to make us a little less shocked are helpful.

3. Don't make the world worse. I know that I'm supposed to tell you to aspire to great things. But I'm going to lower the bar here: Just don't use your prodigious talents to mess things up. Too many smart people are doing that already.
This is seems to be setting the bar low but in reality people can't do even this. In order to do this you need to know what is good and what is evil. Then you need to choose good over evil. Without God's grace you can't do either of these things.

He uses a lot of terms that imply a sense of how people ought to live. But he gives no hints as to how to get such a sense. A commencement is a time to highlight the important things in life. But he does not seem to be willing to say clearly what they are.

4. Marry someone smarter than you are. When I was getting a Ph.D., my wife Leah had a steady income. When she wanted to start a software company, I had a job with health benefits. (To clarify, having a "spouse with benefits" is different from having a "friend with benefits.") You will do better in life if you have a second economic oar in the water. I also want to alert you to the fact that commencement is like shooting smart fish in a barrel. The Phi Beta Kappa members will have pink-and-blue ribbons on their gowns. The summa cum laude graduates have their names printed in the program. Seize the opportunity!
So marriage is about a "second economic oar in the water?" He associates it with doing "better in life." So doing better in life is about money? Marriage should be about money too? He says marry someone smart but he immediately translates that into professional and monetary success. What about love? What about children? What about someone who will be faithful? I feel sad for him and his wife that this is the best marriage advise he can give after 25 years.
5. Help stop the Little League arms race. Kids' sports are becoming ridiculously structured and competitive. What happened to playing baseball because it's fun? We are systematically creating races out of things that ought to be a journey.
He is right about this. Especially for teens there is the idea that you have to play a sport very seriously or not at all. I am not sure how much of that is the parents and how much of that is the teens. Drama, music, robotics, etc. are the same deal. Spend endless hours to be the best you can be or opt out completely. The option of doing a little of everything becomes very difficult at a very early age.

6. Read obituaries. They are just like biographies, only shorter. They remind us that interesting, successful people rarely lead orderly, linear lives.
So life is messy. But should there not be some central guiding principles that guide it? It is good to reflect on what you want your life to look like when you die. But he seems to think the definition of "interesting" and "successful" are obvious.  I think they are anything but. Which biographies or obituaries will you read? The ones of summa cum laude graduates? What about the saints?

7. Your parents don't want what is best for you. They want what is good for you, which isn't always the same thing. There is a natural instinct to protect our children from risk and discomfort, and therefore to urge safe choices.
He continues his aversion to giving any specifics about what is good or great or worthwhile or successful or any of these other value laden words he uses. But he is sure that a person's parents are going to give the wrong answer. Lots of people have complicated relationships with their parents. Some parents discourage risk taking. Some push their kids too hard. Parents are not all the same and they are not always wrong.
8. Don't model your life after a circus animal. Performing animals do tricks because their trainers throw them peanuts or small fish for doing so. You should aspire to do better. You will be a friend, a parent, a coach, an employee—and so on. But only in your job will you be explicitly evaluated and rewarded for your performance. Don't let your life decisions be distorted by the fact that your boss is the only one tossing you peanuts. If you leave a work task undone in order to meet a friend for dinner, then you are "shirking" your work. But it's also true that if you cancel dinner to finish your work, then you are shirking your friendship. That's just not how we usually think of it.
This is an interesting thought. I think we get different kinds of peanuts for different kinds of tasks. But it begs the question, if peanuts should not be the driver then what should be? How do we decide how much time at work is too much and how many dinners with friends is too many or too few? But it is true that many people end up spending too much time at work.
9. It's all borrowed time. You shouldn't take anything for granted, not even tomorrow. I offer you the "hit by a bus" rule. Would I regret spending my life this way if I were to get hit by a bus next week or next year? And the important corollary: Does this path lead to a life I will be happy with and proud of in 10 or 20 years if I don't get hit by a bus.
This puts a lot of pressure on. As a Christian I am glad I can let God worry about how much time He is going to give me and whether it is worthwhile. Trying to make sure my life works out in the midst of huge unpredictable events like getting hit by a bus is just beyond what I can do. If I follow God as best I can and let Him worry about the big picture then I don't have to wonder about regrets or whether I will be happy in 10 years.
10. Don't try to be great. Being great involves luck and other circumstances beyond your control. The less you think about being great, the more likely it is to happen. And if it doesn't, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being solid.
What does greatness mean? St Therese of Lisieux saw it as doing little things very well. God made her great. You can call that luck if you want. But she did the best she could with the situations she was given. I think that is what he means by not trying too hard to be great. Just settling for a humble life and not forcing yourself into the center of the action unless there is good reason to do so.

It helps here to believe that it does not depend on "luck and other circumstances beyond your control." That would be quite depressing to think my life's significance depended on such things. Even having to figure out what defines greatness and significance would be quite oppressive. What if you get it wrong? You can spend your life climbing a big mountain but which one should you choose? This is the question he does not want to address. What if I become a big time lawyer and figure out later I should have spent my life helping the poor in Africa? Does it matter? Why does anything I do matter?

It seems like the research on happiness and well-being has a long way to go. Most of this is pretty much common sense. But it is common sense once you have defined what the center of your life is about. It makes no sense if you don't have that figured out. He does not dare give you any explicit help in that area.

He says he wishes he had this advise in 1988. I wonder what point he would have found helpful. Really it makes me think that contemplating life from a secular, scientific perspective rather than a religious perspective is a waste of time.  At best it is a waste of time. At worst it gives you lousy advise that you hope young people are smart enough to ignore.

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