Why it’s easier to describe “what makes us happy” than answer the question “what is happiness?”

what makes us happy

A passage from Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide explaining, in part, why it’s easier to describe what makes us happy than answer the question what is happiness.

I can say that I’m happy when I find myself in the company of the people I love, when I listen to Bach or Mozart, when I’m making good progress with my work, when I’m stroking my cat near a nice open fire, when I’m helping someone come out of a period of sadness or misfortune, when I’m enjoying a seafood platter with friends in a small harbor by the sea, when I’m meditating in silence or making love, when I drink my first cup of tea in the morning, when I look at the face of a smiling child, when I’m out hiking in the mountains or strolling through a forest … All these experiences, as well as many others, make me happy. But is happiness simply the accumulation of such moments? And why do these moments give me happiness, when they wouldn’t necessarily make everyone else happy? I know people who hate nature and animals, Bach and seafood, tea and long periods of silence. So is happiness merely subjective, is it realized only through the satisfaction of our natural preferences? And why am I sometimes happy to be living through a particular experience when at other times I’m not—when my mind is preoccupied, my body ailing or my heart anxious? Is happiness to be found in our relations with other people and external objects, or rather within us, in a state of inner peace that nothing can disturb?

Of course, it is possible to live well, and even quite happily, without wondering what happiness is, or what can increase it. This is the case, for instance, when we live in a highly structured world where the question of individual happiness hardly arises, where we draw our happiness from the thousand-and-one experiences of daily life, occupying our places and playing our roles in the community to which we belong, and accepting our share of suffering without demur. Billions of people have lived this way and continue to live this way in traditional societies. You need only travel a bit to realize this. It’s quite different in our modern societies: our happiness is no longer immediately linked to the “immediate data” of everyday, social life; we pursue it through the exercise of our freedom; it depends more on us ourselves and the satisfaction of our numerous desires—such is the price of our insistence on autonomy.

True, we can also, in the modern world, be more or less happy without asking ourselves too many questions. We seek the maximum of things that give us pleasure, and avoid as far as possible the things that are tiresome or painful. But experience shows that there are sometimes things that are very pleasant for a while, but later produce negative effects, like drinking a glass or two too much, giving into an inappropriate sexual urge, taking drugs, etc. Conversely, disagreeable experiences sometimes enable us to grow, and turn out to be beneficial in the long term: making a sustained effort in our studies or in the practice of some artistic activity, undergoing an operation or taking a nasty medicine, breaking off with people we are emotionally tied to even though they make us unhappy and so on. The pursuit of the agreeable and the rejection of the disagreeable do not always give us accurate bearings when we are trying to lead a happy life.

Life also teaches us that we have within ourselves various brakes that check the realization of our deep aspirations: fears, doubts, desires, impulses, pride and ignorance and so on. Likewise, we cannot control many events that may well make us unhappy: a deadening emotional environment or relationship, the loss of a dear one, a health problem, a setback in our careers … While we aspire to being happy—whatever this adjective may mean for us—we realize that happiness is something subtle, complex and volatile, and seems totally random.

Books on Decision Making

Books on Decision Making

At Re:Think Decision Making in February, I asked participants to offer up some books on decision making. (If you’d like to be one of the first to know when I open up registration for Re:Think Decision making 2016 in Austin, TX , join the list.)

The crowd at the event was, in the words of one participants, the finest crowd you’ll find at a public event. These people are paid to make decisions for a living and want to find every edge they can. So when I asked them what books on decision making they read and recommend, you can bet they had a lot to say.

Here’s the list:

Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work
By: Chip & Dan Heath

How to Measure Anything
By: Douglas Hubbard

How to Make Sense of Any Mess: Information Architecture for Everybody
By: Abby Covert

Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter
By: Cass Sunstein & Reid Hastie

The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash A Culture of Innovation
By: Henri Lipmanowicz & Keith McCandless

Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers
By: Dave Gray, Sunni Brown & James Macanufo

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion
By: Jonathan Haidt

Yes or No: The Guide to Better Decisions
By: Spencer Johnson

The Little Book of Talent
By: Daniel Coyle

The Worry Solution: Using Breakthrough Brain Science to Turn Stress and Anxiety into Confidence and Happiness
By: Martin Rossman

Shantaram: A Novel
By: Gregory David Roberts

The Art of Living
By: Epictetus

The Education of a Value Investor
By: Guy Spier

Devil Take the Hindmost: a History of Financial Speculation
By: Edward Chancellor

Click: The Art and Science of Getting from Impasse to Insight
By: Eve Grodnitzky

The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics
By: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita

The Back of the Napkin & How to Solve Problems and Sell Ideas
By: Dan Roan

Crossing to Safety
By: Wallace Stegner

Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less
By: Barry Schwartz

Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making
By: Gary Klein

The Social Animal
By: David Brooks

The Laws of Simplicity
By: John Maeda

Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness
By: Richard H. Thaler

Reminiscences of a Stock Operator
By: Edwin Lefevre & Roger Lowenstein

This Will Make You Smarter
By: John Brockman

A more Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas
By: Warren Berger

Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice
By: Bill Browden

The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat
By: Oliver Sacks

Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II
By: Geoffrey Parker

Seeking Wisdom
By: Peter Bevelin

Mastery
By: Rober Greene

Synchronicity: The Innes Path of Leadership
By: Joseph Jaworski

The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business
By: Erin Meyer

Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen
By: Mark Buchanan

Family Fortunes
By: Bill Bonner

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
By: Robert Cialdini

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder
By: Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger
By: Peter D. Kaufman & Charlie T. Munger

The Brain that Changes Itself
By: Norman Doidge

And there you have it — a list of books on decision making that should give you a great starting point.

The Seven Books Bill Gates Thinks You Should Read This Summer

Bill gates
Bill Gates is out with his annual summer reading list and, while longer than last year’s, it’s a great place to kick off your summer reading.

“Each of these books,” Gates writes, “made me think or laugh or, in some cases, do both. I hope you find something to your liking here.”

Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh.

The book, based on Brosh’s wildly popular website, consists of brief vignettes and comic drawings about her young life. The adventures she recounts are mostly inside her head, where we hear and see the kind of inner thoughts most of us are too timid to let out in public. You will rip through it in three hours, tops. But you’ll wish it went on longer, because it’s funny and smart as hell. I must have interrupted Melinda a dozen times to read to her passages that made me laugh out loud.

The Magic of Reality, by Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford, has a gift for making science enjoyable. This book is as accessible as the TV series Cosmos is for younger audiences—and as relevant for older audiences. It’s an engaging, well-illustrated science textbook offering compelling answers to big questions, like “how did the universe form?” and “what causes earthquakes?” It’s also a plea for readers of all ages to approach mysteries with rigor and curiosity. Dawkins’s antagonistic (and, to me, overzealous) view of religion has earned him a lot of angry critics, but I consider him to be one of the great scientific writer/explainers of all time.

What If?, by Randall Munroe.

The subtitle of the book is “Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions,” and that’s exactly what it is. People write Munroe with questions that range over all fields of science: physics, chemistry, biology. Questions like, “From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked when it hit the ground?” (The answer, it turns out, is “high enough that it would disintegrate before it hit the ground.”) Munroe’s explanations are funny, but the science underpinning his answers is very accurate. It’s an entertaining read, and you’ll also learn a bit about things like ballistics, DNA, the oceans, the atmosphere, and lightning along the way.

XKCD, by Randall Munroe.

A collection of posts from Munroe’s blog XKCD, which is made up of cartoons he draws making fun of things—mostly scientists and computers, but lots of other things too. There’s one about scientists holding a press conference to reveal their discovery that life is arsenic-based. They research press conferences and find out that sometimes it’s good to serve food that’s related to the subject of the conference. The last panel is all the reporters dead on the floor because they ate arsenic. It’s that kind of humor, which not everybody loves, but I do.

On Immunity, by Eula Biss.

When I stumbled across this book on the Internet, I thought it might be a worthwhile read. I had no idea what a pleasure reading it would be. Biss, an essayist and university lecturer, examines what lies behind people’s fears of vaccinating their children. Like many of us, she concludes that vaccines are safe, effective, and almost miraculous tools for protecting children against needless suffering. But she is not out to demonize anyone who holds opposing views. This is a thoughtful and beautifully written book about a very important topic.

How to Lie With Statistics, by Darrell Huff.

I picked up this short, easy-to-read book after seeing it on a Wall Street Journal list of good books for investors. I enjoyed it so much that it was one of a handful of books I recommended to everyone at TED this year. It was first published in 1954, but aside from a few anachronistic examples (it has been a long time since bread cost 5 cents a loaf in the United States), it doesn’t feel dated. One chapter shows you how visuals can be used to exaggerate trends and give distorted comparisons—a timely reminder, given how often infographics show up in your Facebook and Twitter feeds these days. A useful introduction to the use of statistics, and a helpful refresher for anyone who is already well versed in it.

Should We Eat Meat?, by Vaclav Smil.

The richer the world gets, the more meat it eats. And the more meat it eats, the bigger the threat to the planet. How do we square this circle? Vaclav Smil takes his usual clear-eyed view of the whole landscape, from meat’s role in human evolution to hard questions about animal cruelty. While it would be great if people wanted to eat less meat, I don’t think we can expect large numbers of people to make drastic reductions. I’m betting on innovation, including higher agricultural productivity and the development of meat substitutes, to help the world meet its need for meat. A timely book, though probably the least beach-friendly one on this list.

Here is the video gates showed explaining the reads:

A Brief History of the To-Do List

to-do-list
The to-do list is something I talked about in my webinar on productivity, specifically, I argued that to-do lists were evil from a productivity perspective. This is something New York Times science writer John Tierney and psychologist Roy F. Baumeister expand upon in “A brief history of the to-do list,” the third chapter of their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

Our failure rate keeps climbing as the lists keep getting longer. At any one time, a person typically has at least 150 different tasks to be done, and fresh items never stop appearing on our screens. How do we decide what goes on the list and what to do next?

“The first step in self-control is to set a clear goal.”

The technical term researchers use for self-control is self-regulation, and the “regulation” part highlights the importance of a goal. Regulating means changing, but only a particular kind of intentional, meaningful changing. To regulate is to guide toward a specific goal or standard: the speed limit for cars on a highway, the maximum height for an office building. Self-control without goals and other standards would be nothing more than aimless change, like trying to diet without any idea of which foods are fattening.

The problem isn’t a lack of goals, however, it’s too many of them.

We make daily to-do lists that couldn’t be accomplished even if there were no interruptions during the day, which there always are. By the time the weekend arrives, there are more unfinished tasks than ever, but we keep deferring them and expecting to get through them with miraculous speed. That’s why, as productivity experts have found, an executive’s daily to-do list for Monday often contains more work than could be done the entire week.

Even the great Ben Franklin fell victim to having too many goals.

Franklin tried a divide-and-conquer approach. He drew up a list of virtues and wrote a brief goal for each one, like this one for Order: ‘Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.’ There were a dozen more virtues on his list— Temperance, Silence, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility— but he recognized his limits. “I judg’d it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once,” Franklin explained, “but to fix it on one of them at a time.” The result was what he called a “course,” and what today would be marketed as 13 Weeks to Total Virtue.

But the virtues were often in conflict with one another.

When, as a young journeyman printer, he tried to practice Order by drawing up a rigid daily work schedule, he kept getting interrupted by unexpected demands from his clients— and Industry required him to ignore the schedule and meet with them. If he practiced Frugality (“ Waste nothing”) by always mending his own clothes and preparing all his own meals, there’d be less time available for Industry at his job— or for side projects like flying a kite in a thunderstorm or editing the Declaration of Independence. If he promised to spend an evening with his friends but then fell behind his schedule for work, he’d have to make a choice that would violate his virtue of Resolution: “Perform without fail what you resolve.”

“The result of conflicting goals is unhappiness instead of action,” Tierney and Baumeister write, arguing the byproduct of this is that you worry more, get less done, and your physical health suffers.

The takeaway? Skip the to-do list and schedule your time. If you must have a to-do list, keep it short.

Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide

"So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed towards attaining it." —Epicurus
“So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed towards attaining it.” —Epicurus

***

Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide is worth reading. Frederic Lenoir explores what the greatest thinkers — Aristotle, Plato, Chuang Tzu, Voltaire, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Kant, and Freud — have to add to the ongoing conversation on happiness.

The question of happiness is forever being discussed: eventually it gets worn down and loses its edge. But although it’s become so common- place, and seems so simple, it’s still an enthralling question, one that involves a whole skein of factors not easy to untangle. … [T]he pursuit of happiness isn’t a pointless quest. We really can be happier if we think about our lives, if we work on ourselves, if we learn to make more sensible decisions, or indeed if we alter our thoughts, our beliefs, or the way we imagine ourselves and the world.

***
On why there is no recipe for happiness:

Another difficulty arises from the notably relative character of happiness: it varies with each culture and each individual, and, in every person, from one phase of life to the next. It often takes on the guise of things we don’t have: for someone who is ill, happiness lies in health; for someone who is unemployed, it’s in work; for some single people, it lies in being a couple—and, for some married people, in being single again! These disparities are heightened by a subjective dimension: artists are happy when practicing their art, intellectuals when handling concepts, romantics when they are in love.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, shed considerable light on this point when he noted in Civilization and Its Discontents:

In this, [the individual’s] psychical constitution will play a decisive part, irrespectively of the external circumstances. The man who is pre-dominantly erotic will give first preference to his emotional relationships with other people; the narcissistic man, who inclines to be more self-sufficient, will seek his main satisfactions in his internal mental processes; the man of action will never give up on the external world on which he can try out his strength.

***
The origins of the word

In Greek, the word for happiness, eudaimonia, can be taken to mean “having a good daimon.” These days, we would say “having a guardian angel,” or “being born under a lucky star.” In French, bonheur comes from the Latin bonum augurium: “good omen” or “good fortune.” In English, happiness comes from the Icelandic root happ, “luck” or “chance,” and there is indeed a large element of “luck” in being happy, if only because happiness is, as we shall see, to a large degree based on our sensibility, on our biological inheritance, on the family and social environment in which we were born and grew up, on the surroundings in which we develop and on the encounters that mark our lives.

***
The philosophical journey and the path to wisdom

We are conditioned but not determined by various factors to be more or less happy. So, by using our reason and will, for example, we have the ability to increase our capacity for happiness (though the success of our quest is not thereby guaranteed). Because they shared this conviction, many philosophers have written books purportedly on “ethics,” devoted to what will encourage us to lead the best and happiest lives imaginable. And isn’t this philosophy’s main rationale? Epicurus, a sage from Athens who lived shortly after Aristotle, points out that “in the study of philosophy, pleasure accompanies growing knowledge; for pleasure does not follow learning; rather, learning and pleasure advance side by side.” This quest for a “good” or “happy” life is called wisdom.

[…]

So it is a philosophical journey, in this broader sense, that I would like to propose to the reader. There is nothing linear about the route, which won’t be following the chronological order of the authors’ lives or the emergence of concepts: this would be conventional and boring. It is, instead, a ramble, the most exciting imaginable, with many questions and concrete examples on the way.

***
The intellectual distrust of happiness

The essayist Pascal Bruckner offers another view: “I love life too much to wish to be permanently happy.” Indeed, there is a movement against the pursuit of happiness, which I’ve discussed before. Lenoir, however, adds to this conversation and speaks to a reason for the intellectual mistrust in happiness: vulnerability.

I think that there is another reason why certain academics and intellectuals mistrust this theme and are reluctant to tackle it—a reason that they find difficult to admit to: to discuss it properly, we have to expose ourselves on a personal level. We can discourse ad nauseam about language, hermeneutics, the theory of knowledge, epistemology or the organization of political systems without this necessarily involving us intimately. Things are completely different when it comes to the question of happiness, a question that, as we shall see, affects our emotions, our feelings, our desires, our beliefs and the meaning we give to our lives. It’s impossible to give a lecture or a talk on this subject without a member of the audience asking, “What about you? What’s the meaning of your life? What system of ethics do you follow? Are you happy? Why?” A lot of people find these questions embarrassing.

In the end, happiness is a philosophical pursuit. Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide is a great place to start your inquiry.

Louis Gerstner: An Elementary Management Lesson

IBM CEO Louis Gerstner

Louis V. Gerstner Jr. is a pretty shrewd psychologist.

In this excerpt from Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?, which details how he turned around IBM, Gerstner echoes Warren Buffett.

I’ve had a lot of experience turning around troubled companies, and one of the first things I learned was that whatever hard or painful things you have to do, do them quickly and make sure everyone knows what you are doing and why. Whether dwelling on a problem, hiding a problem, or dribbling out partial solutions to a problem while you wait for a high tide to raise your boat— dithering and delay almost always compound a negative situation. I believe in getting the problem behind me quickly and moving on.

This is a short post but one that I feel is worthy of reflecting upon. There is a lot to unpack in there.