Matt Killingsworth: Want to be happier? Stay in the moment

Speaker

As an undergrad, Killingsworth studied economics and engineering, and worked for a few years as a software product manager. He now studies happiness.

Summary

Most people want to be happier, and will seek better jobs, cars, houses because they believe it will make them happier. The paradox of happiness is that once these things are achieved, people do not feel any happier. Scientific studies recently have focussed on happiness itself. While they found education and income can have an effect, it tends to be small. Happiness seems to be about the moment-to-moment interactions rather than lifetime achievements, so Matt devised an iPhone app that would survey people about their happiness at random points of the day. By tracking people’s instantaneous happiness over the day, and asking what they’re doing, who they’re with at the time, we can understand what causes happiness. This gave 650,000 surveys from 15,000 people, from a wide variety of countries, occupations, marital statuses, ages, and incomes.

People possess the ability for their mind to wander – to think about something other than what they are currently doing. This is good for planning and thinking during menial tasks – but is it good for happiness? Perhaps if you think about something pleasant while doing something unpleasant your happiness should increase? To answer this, one of Matt’s survey questions was “are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?”, and whether they were thinking about something pleasant or unpleasant. The data showed that when people’s minds wandered, they were significantly less happy. This was true regardless of what they were doing – even during a less enjoyable activity (commuting). As for what they were thinking about, people thinking pleasantly were slightly less happy than people focussed on the moment. People thinking about unpleasant things were 24 percentage points less than those who weren’t mind wandering. So mind-wanderers are less happy. He also saw that people mind-wandered before being unhappy, showing it is causative.

How often do we mind-wander? About 47% of the time – it is very frequent. So it is a frequently occurring variable in people’s unhappiness.

My Thoughts

Focus focus focus. I enjoy scientific studies, and appreciate the detail Matt went to to draw his conclusions. He argues convincingly that mind-wandering makes people unhappy, regardless of what they are doing or thinking about. However, are these thoughts nonetheless important? Especially when stressing or thinking about unhappy things, is it better to think about and resolve the issues? My thoughts are probably not – usually a mind-wander is unlikely to solve a serious problem, though there are ‘Eureka’ moments littered throughout history (where a new theory comes while taking a bath, or drinking).

After seeing this talk, I will try to focus on the moment more. It has benefits for time management as well – to do a single task rather than trying to conquer multiples at once.

Alain de Botton: A kinder, gentler philosophy of success

Speaker

Alain de Botton is a Swiss-British writer, philosopher, and television presenter resident in the United Kingdom.

Summary

We live in an age where our lives are regularly punctuated by career crises – it is easier to make a living, but harder to avoid an anxiety about what we do. The reasons are

  • We are surrounded by snobbery – people who will imply everything about you based on your career. “What do you do?” is a common question to rank you when you first meet someone. This flows on to a need for material goods – to makes you feel more valued. This is true for a lot of conspicuous consumption – if you see someone with a Ferrari, assume they are vulnerable and in need of love & sympathy, rather than contempt or greed.
  • Expectations are high about what we can achieve – there is no class system, anyone can do anything with a spirit of equality. This clashes with envy – which is felt harder by people who are from similar backgrounds. We have a feeling that everyone comes from a similar background as everyone else, but the result is not equal. By telling people they can do anything, it is linked with low self-esteem.
  • Everyone encourages the idea of a meritocracy – it implies that the most skilled and driven will get to the top. However it also implies that anyone at the bottom deserves to be there – they are the worst. In the middle ages a poor person was called an ‘unfortunate’, whereas now they’d probably be called a ‘loser’.

These result in higher suicide rates in developed, individualistic countries than any other region. How can we change our mindsets to tackle these issues?

  • Meritocracy: We need to recognise it is impossible to create a perfect meritocracy – there are too many random factors in play.
  • Failure: when we fail, we don’t fear the loss of income or position so much as the ridicule. Newspapers are full of stories of people’s failures, and often presented salaciously without sympathy. At the other end of the spectrum is tragedy in art: Shakespeare makes us sympathetic to the flaws of his characters. Hamlet is not a loser, but he has lost.
  • We worship humanity: All our heroes are human, we are excited by human achievements and the concept of a spiritual has started to disappear. It could be why people are now so drawn to nature – one of the few non-human forces left.

We have a lot of ideas about success – that someone successful will be rich or renowned in their field. However, noone is successful in every aspect of their life – someone renowned in one field has sacrificed another. Most people’s ideas of success are not their own – taken from family, friends, marketing. Rather than giving up on success, we need to make sure that the ideas are our own. Because it feels bad to fail to achieve success, but much worse to achieve it and realise it wasn’t really what you wanted.

 

Michael Norton: How to buy happiness

Speaker

Michael Norton is an Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harbard business school.

Summary

If you believe “Money Can’t buy happiness”, then you’re not spending it correctly. When people think about winning the lottery – they think it will make them happy. However they spend it all, go into debt, and all their friends ask for money – their instinct is to get more antisocial and closed off. Winning the lottery ruins people’s lives – but is this because they only spend it on themselves?

Michael ran a test at university of British Columbia – giving students either $5 or $20 and asking them to spend it on either themselves or someone else by the end of the day. The ones who gave their money away were happier, but those who spent on themselves felt the same. Also, the amount of money spent or given away didn’t make a difference. A similar experiment showed the same result in Uganda – a completely different culture to Canada. The magnitude of the gift wasn’t too significant – a girl who bought a gift for her mother felt as happy as a Ugandan who bought life-saving malaria treatment for a stranger.

Michael extended this to the workplace – giving a team $15 each to spend on themselves or an experience for the team. The team ‘pro-social’ events were sometimes silly bonding exercises – like buying a pinata and smashing it together. However, the company got a 72c return in productivity on every 15c spent on team bonding. The productivity return for people spending on themselves is far less – only 4.2c per 15c spent.

The same experiment was carried out with dodgeball teams – and the ones who spent on each other became much better teams. They dominated the league. The teams that spent on themselves stayed the same.

To make yourself happier, don’t think about which product to buy. Find a way to spend it on someone else, or to charity.

 

Dan Gilbert: The psychology of your future self

Speaker

Dan Gilbert is a Harvard psychologist and author of “Stumbling on Happiness”

Summary

Why do people look back at decisions that they regret – that the ideas they embraced 10 years ago they would now rush to reject? Dan looks at a misconception of time – that we have turned into the person we are over time, but will stay as we are now into the future.

People change less as time goes on – the older the person is, the less they change. Dan asks people to predict how much they will change over the next decade and compare it to people of the same age who say how much they changed over the last decade. The finding was that people greatly underestimate how much they will change in the future.

This same pattern can be seen in a number of things – their best friend, favourite vacation, favourite band, their personality traits, their level of success in life. People expect their values right now will persist into the future, while in truth they will change.

Dan suggest this is because it is much easier to remember who we were, rather than imagine or predict what they will become. So because it is difficult, we assume it will not happen.

This leaves us with an illusion that right now is a special moment where we become the person we will always be. Human Beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they are finished.

My philosophy for a happy life: Sam Berns

Speaker

Sampson Berns (October 23, 1996 – January 10, 2014) was an American who suffered from progeria and helped raise awareness about the disease.He was the subject of the HBO documentary Life According to Sam.

Summary

Sam Berns is a 17 year old highschooler with progeria. The rare disease, which has affected only 350 people worldwide, causes rapid aging, tight skin, and heart disease. A while back Sam was interviewed by NPR, and  was asked, “What is the most important thing people should know about you?” His answer? “I have a very happy life.”

Sam says there are three tenants which he follows that help him live a happier and more fulfilling life.

Firstly, be ok with what you ultimately can’t do because there is so much that you can do. But it is possible to put things in the CAN DO category by making adjustments. Sam tells the story of how he very badly wanted to play snare drum with his school marching band. But the drum and rug weighed about 40 lbs, and he only weighed about 50 lbs. He and his parents worked with an engineer to design a custom rig that was only 6 lbs and ended up performing at half time.

Secondly, surround yourself with people you want to be around. Appreciate you family, your friends, and you mentors, as they all can have a very significant impact on your life.

Third, stay in a forward thinking state of mind. Sam says he always tries to have something to look forward to. He doesn’t waste energy feeling bad for himself, he just moves on.

Sam ends his moving, and well spoken talk by adding in a fourth tenant. “Never miss a party.”