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June 2006

The Health of Nations: Inequality, Stress and Dissatisfaction

Stephen Bezruchka wrote an article in Sunday's Seattle Post-Intelligencer noting the higher average health found in nations with more egalitarian distributions of wealth.  The article, "Economic equality is best medicine" bore the subtitle "Health of societies mostly relies on political and economic policies, not the individual treatment of disease."  Bezruchka notes that Japan has the highest rate of male smokers of any wealthy country, and yet also has the highest average health, based on statistics collected in the Human Development Report from the United Nations Development Programme.  The United States, despite being the world's wealthiest country, is not even close to being the world's healthiest country, on any of the metrics in the report (e.g., it ranks 29th in life expectancy, just ahead of Cuba). 

The distribution of wealth in a country is a challenging thing to measure.  A recent Guardian article, Wake Up: The American Dream is Over (found via Bridging the Income Gap), reports that the richest quintile (top fifth) of Americans have incomes 9.3 times higher than the poorest quintile, up from a multiple of 6.8 25 years ago, and that a higher proportion of Americans (12.7%, or 37 million) are living in poverty than the citizens of any other developed country.  A Wikipedia entry with a List of Countries by Income Equality shows that Japan ranks second in income equality (after Denmark), with a richest to poorest quintile multiple of only 3.4, whereas the United States ranks 92nd (out of 122).

Of course, a correlation between two factors does not necessarily entail a causal connection.  Bezurchka speculates on how and why large disparities in income may diminish the average health of a population:

Intuitively, we can see that not everyone shares the same stress in a bigger-gap society and those lower down suffer more of the slings and arrows of misfortune rained down from above. There is less caring and sharing in society when the gap is in our face.

Another study, "Economic inequality, working-class power, social capital, and cause-specific mortality in wealthy countries" corroborates this correlation ... and much to my surprise, finds a weaker correlation between another difficult to measure concept, social capital, and population health.

Bezruchka suggests that in our quest for better health in this country, we have been asking the wrong people the wrong question.  Invoking the wisdom of Mark Twain -- "It is very difficult to get people to understand something when their salary depends on their not understanding it" (an observation also made by Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, in analyzing why we're not making [more] progress on recognizing and reversing global warming trends) -- he recommends that if we want to address the question of "What makes a healthy society?", we focus our attention on politics and economics: "Economic justice is the medicine we need".  Of course, in a country where recent polls show that 68% of the people support a repeal of the estate tax, which only affects the wealthiest 2% of Americans, this may be very tough medicine to swallow.

I find this poll result counterintuitive -- why would so many people be against a policy that would benefit them?  I wonder if many people (66%) are consciously or unconsciously thinking that someday they may be in the wealthiest top 2%, and thus wouldn't want their future estates to be subject to additional taxes.  This reminds me of some of the observations made by Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness, regarding our generally poor ability to project into the future.  It may also illuminate one of the sources of stress that Bezruchka intuits: dissatisfaction, i.e., many of us are stressed out because where we are (financially) so far short of where we want to be.  This, in turn, reminds me of one of the questions raised by Oriah Mountain Dreamer in the prelude to her book, The Dance:

What if the question is not why am I so infrequently the person I really want to be, but why do I so infrequently want to be the person I really am?

Interestingly, although much of the analysis and recommendations for addressing income inequality may seem rather socialistic, Chapter 4 of the UN report is about "International Trade: Unlocking the Potential for Human Development", which brings to [my] mind Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations:

Adam Smith railed against [the] restrictive, regulated, 'mercantilist' system, and showed convincingly how the principles of free trade, competition, and choice would spur economic development, reduce poverty, and precipitate the social and moral improvement of humankind. To illustrate his concepts, he scoured the world for examples that remain just as vivid today: from the diamond mines of Golconda to the price of Chinese silver in Peru; from the fisheries of Holland to the plight of Irish prostitutes in London. And so persuasive were his arguments that they not only provided the world with a new understanding of the wealth-creating process; they laid the intellectual foundation for the great era of free trade and economic expansion that dominated the Nineteenth Century.

So perhaps what we need is an intellectual foundation, perhaps a manifesto, that would promote free trade, competition, and choice for both the creation and distribution of wealth, one that would take into account the modern, technologically-enhanced means of production and [thus] focus more on networks than hierarchies.

Speaking of which, I just picked up The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, by Yochai Benkler ... which I believe may represent just such a manifesto, laying down a new intellectual foundation for a new era of free trade among small parts loosely joined.  I haven't read the book yet, but was inspired and intrigued by an earlier, shorter, paper on the topic, Coase's Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm, which lays out a framework for "commons-based peer-production".  I'm sure I'll have more to say about this in the future.

Circling back to the topic that got me started, the health of nations: on Dr. Bezruchka's Population Health Forum page, he lists six actions people can take to support better health through better political and economic equality:

  1. Fight for JUSTICE to reduce the gap between rich and poor. Being active as a public citizen is good for your health.
  2. Advocate for CHILD-SUPPORTIVE ENVIRONMENTS where children get love, care, and opportunities to develop. Ways of becoming involved center around acting to promote true family values.
  3. Promote SPIRITUAL AND SOCIAL CONNECTIONS in your community. Know and share with your neighbors. Communities where people trust and help one another are healthier than places with less cooperation.
  4. Work to increase WOMEN’S STATUS AND OPPORTUNITIES in society. Where women’s status is higher, everyone’s health is better. When women have a larger role in society, it’s good for all of us.
  5. Strive to end stressful, low-paid WORK. A sense of control and a decent workplace go along with the right to have a union and a commitment to end discrimination at work. We must improve working conditions for everyone.
  6. JOIN the POPULATION HEALTH FORUM. Subscribe to our listserv, join us at our meetings, and consider organizing chapters in your communities. We want to hear your ideas for making the world a healthier place!

Sounds like a good prescription to me!


Why Wiffiti? Wi Not?

NtwrktruthSean sent me a link to the Wiffiti blog last week, and I was immediately intrigued with this new twist on an interactive display in a "third place".  Users can send text messages to a large plasma display installed in a restaurant or bar via mobile phone (SMS) by specifying the screen identifier.  Real-time approximations of what is showing on the real screens -- the most recent 10 messages (the real screens show the most recent 100 messages, as best they can) -- in four locations are shown at the ntwrk truth site.  One of these locations is local, the Hurricane Cafe, and I decided to test it by sending a message, and after a few minutes, it appeared on the screen (a screenshot from ntwrktruth -- taken today, after I sent "Reality leaves a lot to the imagination", a John Lennon quote -- is shown on the left).  The web site also provides for the capability to "Submit a topic" (not sure what this means) and participate in a web poll (current poll: "Best mode of flirtation? IM / text message / Old school phone call" -- curious that "face-to-face" was omitted).

WiffitiathurricanecafeI wanted to experience Wiffiti in situ, so I went down to the Hurricane for dinner that evening.  There were only about ten people in the restaurant section, where the screen is mounted opposite the counter.  I sat at the counter, ordered the blue cheese burger and waffle fries, and watched the animated display, where the text messages slowly migrate around the screen, presumably to attract attention and prevent "burn-in".  No new messages appeared, so I sent a new one (highlighted in yellow in the photo on the left: "Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time", a Bertrand Russell quote).  No other messages appeared, although most patrons -- individuals and groups -- appeared to be paying regular, if intermittent, attention to the display.

Ntwrktruthhistory The ntwrk truth site includes a capability to see a history of the 100 most recent messages sent to the display, with the times they were posted.  The Hurricane is open 24-hours, and the real-time screenshots do not appear to be adjusted for time zone (e.g., my message was sent at 8:22am PST, but was marked as 1:22am in the history list), and there is no date shown in the history log, so it's hard to know exactly when activity is taking place, or how long the gaps are between messages (minutes, hours, days, weeks?).  However, based on the time codes and the interplay between the contents of some messages, it appears that activity tends to be bursty.  From a perusal of the log, it appears that most of the topics are location-specific -- referencing the Hurricane food, facilities, staff and/or [other] patrons -- though some appear to be location-agnostic -- expressing hopes, fears, dreams and disappointments, along with more mundane observations -- following patterns I've observed in the use of physical graffiti.

Wiffiti is a StreetMessenger application produced by LocaModa, whose intended benefits for site owners include sponsorship and advertising revenue generated via the displays.  The Wall Street Journal has reported on the challenges that MySpace faces in drawing advertisers, due to the sometimes unsavory content posted by MySpace users.  Although Wiffiti appears to have some filtering, there are still implicit and explicit references to people, objects and activities that appear in the history list ... messages that advertisers may not want to be associated with.  This is, of course, one of the reasons that interactive billboards typically don't show text messages sent by users, but rather respond to them in pre-defined, carefully controlled, ways.  Part of the appeal of MySpace -- and Wiffiti -- is that people are relatively free to express themselves. Given the tension between freedom and security, it is not clear that either platform will be able to simultaneously please its users and its [prospective] sponsors ... bringing to mind a quote from Benjamin Franklin:

Anyone who trades liberty for security deserves neither liberty nor security.

I think I'll send this to the Hurricane.


A Lion in the House, Tears in my Eyes: On Cancer, Courage, Honesty and Generosity

Alioninthehouse Leukemia. Children. Families. Doctors. Nurses. I just watched the second half of A Lion in the House. I don't think I have ever had tears in my eyes for as long a stretch as during the last two hours. I feel sadness, gratitude and awe at the inspiring stories that unfolded in this episode of the PBS series Independent Lens. Children with cancer, families who support them, medical care professionals who do what they can ... perhaps made all the more poignant due to our own recent experience with cancer.

My cousin's daughter was diagnosed with Leukemia many years ago, and I'm grateful that she is a survivor. I don't think I really understood what her family went through ... and, actually, I probably still don't, but believe I can better empathize now. A local friend's son was recently diagnosed with Leukemia ... I sent him an email alerting him to the show ... now I'm not so sure it was a good idea (only 2 of the 5 children profiled survived during the six year production).

One of the many things that struck me during the show was the courage, honesty and generosity of the people who were willing to lay their lives bare for the camera ... to share their stories with us, the good and the bad, the beauty and the ugliness of facing a challenge as imposing as childhood cancer. Although it was not easy to watch, I am grateful for their willingness to be open and vulnerable.

At the end of the show, it was noted that childhood cancer rates are increasing ... perhaps an example of yet another inconvenient truth that most people would rather avoid addressing head-on ... reminding me of some remarks I made in an earlier post about losing the war on cancer because we're unwilling to face the real causes, and make the tough choices that might enable us to win:

I'll finish off this update with a link to an article entitled "Cancer: It's a Growth Industry" (an interview of Dr. Samuel Epstein by David Ross, originally appearing in Z Magazine in October 2003), in which Dr. Epstein questions the priorities and highlights the environmental, economic and political factors in our "war on cancer" ... reminding me of questionable priorities in other "wars".

I think this country -- and the world -- could benefit from having more courageous, honest and generous lions in leadership roles.


An Inconvenient Truth, and a Call to Action

Aninconvenienttruthposterthumb For Father's Day, our family went to see An Inconvenient Truth, a movie I wanted to see ... and wanted my children to see.  In the film, Al Gore poignantly highlights many of the disturbing impacts of global warming, including natural disasters, droughts, sea level rise, epidemic illnesses and species extinction.

Gore makes a compelling case for the need to take action, and identifies some of the factors that have impeded action, including denial, despair and disinformation (e.g., by George W. Bush's chief of staff for the Office of Environmental Quality -- and former oil lobbyist -- Phil Cooney ... the term "weapons of mass obfuscation" comes to mind).  He cites a survey in the journal Science on The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change which sampled 928 journal publications that dealt with "climate change" and found that none suggested there was any disagreement on whether human activities are negatively affecting the Earth's atmosphere.  A sample of newspaper and magazine articles found that 57%  suggested there was disagreement about whether humans were impacting global climate change ... reminiscent of another topic of great import in which many members of the press seemed to favor administration viewpoints over all others.  It seems as though we are living in a time of many inconvenient truths.

Gore argues that global warming is not simply an environmental or political issue, but a moral one, about which we have to take action ... and soon.  The film concludes with a number of actions we can take to reduce global warming, and he shows how the cumulative effects of the proposed actions can reduce CO2 emissions to below 1970 levels by the year 2050. 

Anyone who lives in Washington State can also take action by supporting renewable energy through signing the petition -- and/or collecting others' signatures -- for ballot initiative I-937.  Another action is to encourage others to see the film -- so if anyone is reading this, I recommend that you see this film ... and take [more] action(s)!

[Updates, 06-Jul-2006: Seth Borenstein at the Associated Press reported that the nation's top climate scientists are largely confirming the accuracy of the movie (Wikipedia has a more extensive entry detailing the facts), but President Bush has said he will not see the movie and his EPA Administrator, Steve Johnson, has not found the time to see it either ... not that this administration has shown a particular predilection for facts, especially not inconvenient ones.  My biggest concern about the movie is that only people who are already concerned about global warming will see it and/or be influenced by it.  A politically conservative friend of mine, who I otherwise have great respect for, said he wouldn't see the movie because he's heard it's "just fearmongering" ... which I find odd, given that the current administration traffics in fear, and he is a supporter.  My fear is that the increasing polarization of the American political landscape will diminish prospects for influencing anyone who doesn't already believe in the problem of global warming ... and it seems odd to even be referring to faith vs. reason on a topic about which so much science is known.

On a more positive note, we collected enough signatures to put the I-937 renewable energy referendum question on the Washington State November ballot!]

[Update, 2006-07-10: Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, has posted a blog entry on An Inconvenient Truth, entitled It's the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine, which includes a copy of his LA Times op-ed article on If Only Gay Sex Caused Global Warming.  The article lists four factors that make help explain why more people aren't more concerned about global warming:

  • There is no human or group, e.g., a brutal dictator or evil empire, that is consciously trying to harm us
  • Human societies have not, generally speaking, evolved moral rules about atmospheric chemistry (unlike, say, gay marriage)
  • The negative impacts are too far in the future, and not generally perceived as a clear and present danger
  • The changes are happening too slow for our brains to register (think: boiling frog)

Al Gore addresses the last three points in the film, but I don't believe that anyone would fill the role for the first point Dan Gilbert raises.  The impending harm is largely due to mass unconsciousness, and despite my misgivings about the numbers of people who aren't already conscious -- and concerned -- about global warming seeing the film, I do hope that Gore's film will help to promote consciousness and concern.  As Gilbert notes:

Global warming is a deadly threat precisely because it fails to trip the brain's alarm, leaving us soundly asleep in a burning bed.  It remains to be seen whether we can learn to rise to new occasions.]

[Update, 2006-08-06: Much more eloquent pessimism about the prospects for Al Gore and his message in An Inconvenient Truth are provided at Whiskey Bar, which includes a broader range of threats:

But if extinction, or a return to the dark ages, is indeed our fate – or our grandchildren’s fate, anyway – I think it will be a Hobson’s choice as to which cultural tendency will bear the largest share of the blame: the arrogant empiricism that has made human society into an instrument of technological progress instead of the other way around, the ignorant prejudices of the masses, who are happy to consume the material benefits of the Enlightenment but unwilling to assume intellectual responsibility for them, or the cynical nihilism of corporate and political elites who are willing to play upon the latter in order to perpetuate the former, which is, after all is said and done, their ultimate claim to power.

Talk about inconvenient truths ...]


Social Entrepreneurship at NWEN: Doing Well by Doing Right (via Flexcar)

Lance Ayrault, CEO of Flexcar, gave a great talk at the Northwest Entrepreneur Network (NWEN) Venture Breakfast at the Bellevue Harbor Club yesterday on the topic of social entrepreneurship (a topic near and dear to my heart ... and blog).  Flexcar is an interesting exemplar of a non-traditional social venture, in that they are a for-profit company, hence our subtitle, "Doing Well by Doing Right".  Because we were running a bit behind in setting up for the talk, I skipped over some of my planned introductory remarks, so I'm going to take this opportunity to expand a bit on those here before sharing some notes on the insights and experiences Lance shared during his presentation.

Eu_banner2005My very first taste of entrepreneurship came at NWEN's Entrepreneur University in November 2004, and the very first talk I saw at EU 2004 was by Guy Kawasaki, author of The Art of the Start, which I immediately adopted as my bible of entrepreneurship, and not just because he was the first speaker I encountered on the topic of entrepreneurship (i.e., baby duck syndrome), but because he made sense in his prescription to make meaning:

Artofthestart [T]he best reason to start an organization is to make meaning – to create a product or service that makes the world a better place

  • Increase the quality of life
  • Right a terrible wrong
  • Prevent the end of something good

... making meaning is the most powerful motivator there is ... [and] if you fail, at least you failed doing something worthwhile.

Guy made sense with all of his other prescriptions for being a successful entrepreneur, but this idea of making meaning, in particular, really inspired me ... especially as I'd just left a position where I was no longer making meaning, and was exploring the path of entrepreneurship as a way of opening up the blockages I'd experienced, and enable me [once again] to work on something I deeply believed (and still believe) will make the world a better place.  Guy, and the other speakers at EU 2004, helped me decide to take the plunge -- or perhaps leap -- into entrepreneuria.

Shortly after deciding to become an entrepreneur, I joined the NWEN Venture Breakfast committee, hoping to contribute some of the lessons I'd learned in organizing academic / research conferences (CSCW 2002 and UbiComp 2003) to these monthly business networking -- and education -- meetings.  Speakers at subsequent NWEN events have [also] been inspiring (and educational), but most have focused more on how they have successfully faced the challenges of raising financial capital (making money) and less -- if at all -- on how they have raised social capital (making meaning).   

Newheroes Last summer, I was inspired and humbled in watching the PBS series The New Heroes, a four-hour series hosted by Robert Redford, which tells "twelve dramatic stories of social entrepreneurs who bring innovative, empowering solutions to the most intractable social problems around the world."  [The producers also note that "Becoming a social entrepreneur takes both a vision for revolutionary change and the gumption to do something about it" (italics mine).]  I wanted to share some of that energy with the other members of NWEN, and thus proposed to organize a breakfast presentation on social entrepreneurship.  There was some concern expressed by some members of the committee about whether enough NWEN members would be interested in stories, or lessons learned, by ventures whose sole purpose was to make the world a better place.  It's not that NWEN members don't care about efforts to solve large-scale social problems, the question was whether they would be able to apply what they might learn from social ventures in their own entrepreneurial endeavors (and, having been on the entrepreneurial path for over a year now, I recognize -- better than ever before -- the importance of making money, in addition to making meaning).  Thus, I was advised to see if I could find a venture -- and a venturer -- who was addressing social problems in a way that might be instructive to as broad a spectrum of NWEN membership as possible ... and so was delighted when Lance Ayrault agreed to come talk about his experiences with Flexcar.

FlexcarFlexcar is a Seattle-based for-profit company that provides a car-sharing service in several metropolitan areas, offering residents in these communities the opportunity to save money on their transportation costs while simultaneously reducing other transportation costs -- such as air pollution, traffic congestion and parking problems -- in those communities.  In my initial conversations with Lance, I was surprised to learn two things: companies that promote social wealth have access to financial and logistical resources not available to other for-profit ventures, and such companies have to find and maintain a delicate balance in marketing its products and services, so that its messages address individual needs and community improvements, while not alienating potential customers who may associate "green" with "expensive" and thus be unwilling to pay the perceived cost of achieving greater social value for the community.

During Lance's presentation, I learned a great deal more, including:

  • the average cost of car ownership is $760/month (18% of an average household's expenses)
  • the average car is used less than one hour per day
  • the average speed on Los Angeles freeways on workdays is 17 miles per hour (and expected to decrease to 14 mph)

Flexcar charges an annual membership fee of $25, and then $10/hour to "borrow" a car.  Thus, the average cost of car sharing is approximately $300/month, less than half the average cost of car ownership.  One might expect that these economic savings would be very appealing to individuals as well as organizations that maintain a fleet of [owned] cars, but Lance said that his biggest challenge is an educational one -- most people have no idea how much their transportation costs are ... and car ownership is a deeply ingrained tradition in the American psyche. 

However, there are significant social costs to the individual use and ownership of transportation vehicles that rely upon fossil fuels, including

  • traffic congestion (roadways)
  • land congestion (parking places)
  • air congestion (CO2 and other air pollutants)
  • other pollutants (just thinking about gas and oil leaks from old and/or poorly maintained vehicles)

Among the societal benefits that may accrue from a shift from car ownership to car sharing (in addition to reducing some of the dimensions of congestion and pollution listed above) are

  • Improved public transportation (car sharing fills a gap in the overall "mass transit lifestyle" among other options such as walking, biking, busing or taxiing)
  • Expanded mobility options for more people (e.g., low-income and elderly)
  • Support for local merchants (because Flexcar charges by the hour, people tend to run errands in the local neighborhood rather than travel further for products and services)

Lance shared a number of other lessons he has learned through the Flexcar experience, that apply more broadly to entrepeneurship in general:

  • Government grants can be a blessing and/or a curse, so it's important to know what strings are attached and be willing to say "no" (similar to what I've heard about working with angel investors)
  • One of the advantages a startup has over a government agency is that it can move more quickly (advantages that startups often enjoy over large companies: passion, endurance and speed)
  • One of the biggest challenges Flexcar faces is redefining the value proposition (similar to what Vern Raburn said about Eclipse Aviation ... which might be seen as a "jet sharing" venture)
  • "Believe in what you are doing or go home" (coming full circle back to Guy Kawasaki's exhortations to make meaning)

Earlier this week, a friend told me that Lance is also speaking at the Eastside Executive Forum meeting next Tuesday in Bellevue.  So anyone [local] who wants to hear more about Lance's insights and experiences can see him there ... or get copies of his slides and an MP3 audio recording of his talk from the NWEN "breakfast notes" site when we post them (probably sometime next week).


Stumbling on Happiness: Simulation, Surrogation, Attachment and Service

StumblingOnHappiness_DanielGilbertDan Gilbert gave an inspiring talk at Microsoft Research recently (before heading into Seattle to present to a larger audience at Town Hall), sharing some insights from his book Stumbling on Happiness.  Dan provided numerous opportunities to experience "learning through laughing" as he guided us through an engaging, enlightening and often delightful exploration into how well we tend to predict our own happiness (short answer: not very well).  I've been thinking (and blogging) a bit about happiness lately, and I find his diagnosis of the problems of misremembering the past, misperceiving the present and misimagining the future to be very compelling.  However, I don't find the solution he proposes to the problems of happiness to be entirely satisfying ... but will try not to let that disappointment taint my memory of the book or the talk.  Instead, I will invoke some other perspectives on the prospects for happiness, and muse a bit on how Web 2.0 provides tools that may help us stumble toward happiness.

Dan weaves together themes from psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy and behavioral economics -- complemented by numerous quotes from Shakespeare -- to support the following four claims regarding the way most of us approach, or stumble on, happiness:

  • Much of what we know is dead wrong
  • Much of what we predict is dead wrong
  • Much of what we learn from experience is, at best, extremely compromised
  • There is another strategy, but few are willing to adopt it

What we "know" is based on our memories, and the way we both store and retrieve memories is prone to bias.  Rather than store full-length feature films of our experiences, our brains extract relevant features -- typically, aspects that are unusual or unexpected, and involve strong emotions -- and store those.  When we later remember an experience, our brain acts as a "talented forger" and fabricates the missing pieces -- retrieving and reweaving -- which may or may not correspond very closely to the actual experiences.  Add to that the bias of feature selection that occurs when memories are stored, and one might reasonably question whether we really know anything at all (indeed, it was just this question that led me to abandon my study of philosophy toward the end of my college career in favor of computer science, a field where the problems seemed more tractable).

The gaps in memory are exacerbated when we use our past to predict our future:

If the past is a wall with some holes, the future is a hole with no walls. Memory uses the filling-in trick, but imagination is the filling-in trick.

And so, we often unconsciously rely upon our subjective experience of the present to project (or simulate) how we are likely to feel about possible futures.  And our projections of possible negative futures do not take into account our psychological immune system, which enables us to be very creative in fabricating positive new perspectives in the face of what may have earlier appeared as devastating misfortunes: "when we can't change our experience ... we change our view of the experience".

Our inability or unwillingness to appreciate this resiliency leads us to avoid risks.  I'm [often] reminded of Oriah Mountain Dreamer's poem, The Invitation, in which she asks:

I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool
for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.

Dan applies a more academic analysis to this question:

... most people think they will regret foolish actions more than foolish inactions. But studies show that nine out of ten people are wrong. Indeed, in the long run, people of every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did.

In addition to our tendency to err in our assessment of future risks, we also err in our ability to learn from past experiences.  We tend to remember rare and unusual experiences, and then generalize based on the unusual aspects of infrequently occurring events ... ignoring ordinary or frequently occurring events ... and not taking into adequate account the range of events that have not occurred.  This may help us identify potential risks and rewards, but leaves us poorly equipped to assess the actual likelihood of those risks and rewards.

This brings me to one of the areas I disagree with the book: its warning about the "troubling consequences" that arise from "unrealistic optimism".  Imagining positive futures can lead people to overestimate the likelihood that positive events will occur, but I don't see why that is troubling, nor did the book shed more light on the negative consequences.  In fact, other psychological studies have demonstrated that visualizing success can be instrumental in achieving that success. 

I asked Dan about this after his talk, and he said that optimism is a matter of degree, and that an outlook that is slightly more positive than warranted is probably ideal.  However, given all the foregoing about how little we actually know about ourselves, correctly determining the correct level of optimism that might be warranted would seem to be problematic.  In another section of the book, Dan notes that

The brain and the eye may have a contractual relationship in which the brain has agreed to believe what the eye sees, but in return the eye has agreed to look for what the brain wants.

So if the brain wants happiness, it seems that the best policy may be to err on the side of positive extremism ... or to adapt a quote from Barry Goldwater, extremism in the cause of positivism is no vice.

After highlighting the many problems inherent in trying to simulate our future happiness, Dan proposes an alternate approach, based on the idea of a surrogate: rather than relying solely on our selves (and our fallible memories) to imagine how happy we will feel in some future state, we should capitalize on the experience of others by inquiring about the happiness of those who are already in the future state we are considering.  Of course, then the problem is figuring out which others we ought to consult in estimating our future, an objection that Dan anticipates, and responds to by noting that we tend to overestimate our uniqueness, and so are often unwilling to believe that others' experiences of happiness or unhappiness would readily translate into our own.

On the one hand, I wholeheartedly endorse the notion that our commonalities are far broader and deeper than our differences.  I also believe that focusing on differences reinforces the us vs. them (and, in particular, the U.S. vs. them) mentality that makes it easy to be hard on others.  And one of my favorite quotes is "strangers are simply friends who haven't met yet".

All that said, there is still a part of me that is attached to the idea that there are important differences in what makes each of us happy.  Dan notes a study in which a group of stuffed volunteers were asked to predict how much they would enjoy eating potato chips the next day; those who based their predictions on a report from a random potato chip eater (someone who had been there, done that) were more accurate than those who relied solely on their own imaginations (and stuffed bellies).  Unfortunately, I consider potato chips to be a poor surrogate for analyzing how one should make choices about bigger decisions regarding where to live, where to work, and whom to marry (or partner with).

Rather than get random reports from others who are experiencing the future states we are considering, we are increasingly able to get more specialized reports from the future by people who are like us in interesting and useful ways.  For example, the vast majority of media productions -- books, movies, television, music -- do not bring me happiness, and yet there must be critical masses of other people who do feel happy as they consume them.   If I were to make my media consumption choices based on random sampling, I do not believe I would be very happy.  Instead, I want to know what media people like me like.

The Internet is making it easier to find such people, explicitly or implicitly.  For example, the explicit ratings and reviews found on Amazon.com make it one of my favorite places to go for making my media purchase decisions.  While the Amazon recommendations, based on implicitly matching my explicit purchase history with others' purchase histories, often miss the mark, I have found that similar kinds of collaborative filtering techniques enable MovieLens to recommend  movies I typically am interested in seeing and MusicStrands to recommend music tracks I typically want to listen to.

Web 2.0 is ushering in an era where we can reveal much more about ourselves than our media consumption patterns (not to diminish how much these patterns do reveal about us -- I am always interested in scanning the bookshelves and CD collections of people I meet).  By offering more people greater opportunities to express themselves in words, photos and videos, we are in a better position than ever before to discover people who are like us, and thereby to find the people like us who have already had experiences that are outcomes of choices we are currently considering.

Dan makes many insightful observations -- often phrased in pithy ways -- throughout the book.  In fact, one of the challenges I've faced in trying to post a few notes on his book (and talk) is in selecting just a few of the observations to focus on.  One of the most illuminating observations identifies the importance of feeling important:

Being effective -- changing things, influencing things, making things happen -- is one of the fundamental needs with which human brains seem to be naturally endowed, and much of our behavior from infancy onward is simply an expression of this penchant for control. ... Impact is rewarding. Mattering makes us happy. ...  We want -- and we should want -- to control the direction of our boat because some futures are better than others, and even from this distance, we should be able to tell which are which.

I'm reminded of M. Scott Peck's observation that for an infant, it is natural to defecate in one's pants, but that most of us eventually learn unnatural responses to this basic human urge.  I think most of us (myself included) do not progress very far beyond this urge to control, to influence, to matter.  However, as noted above, Dan shows that people are able to adapt to and be happy in the face of a broad range of previously imagined "worse futures", leading me to question how much all this striving for happiness -- or trying to matter -- really matters.  Maybe the key -- or a key -- to happiness is to learn not to focus so much on controlling or influencing outcomes, but to live without attachments.  Don't try to be happy, be happy.

Oriah Mountain Dreamer, in her audiobook Your Heart's Prayer, echoes this sentiment, telling us that to be happy, it doesn't really matter what we do, only how we do it, and that bringing all of who we are to everything we do is the best path to happiness.  She also notes that alleviating the suffering of others figures prominently in the paths to happiness of many people.  This notion of being in service to others does not figure prominently in Dan's analyses, and yet helper's high seems to be highly correlated with happiness in many people.

Perhaps this can be easily accommodated within Dan's proposed solution to happiness by simply expanding on his notion of surrogation, and make it a two-way orientation.  In addition to seeking assistance from others who are already where [we think] we want to be, we can offer assistance to others from where we are now.

I don't know if any of the foregoing will be of any use or assistance to others, but I do know that I feel happy to have finally processed some of the thoughts and feelings that have been floating around my head and heart since I first encountered this book on happiness.

[Update, 2006-06-17: BoingBoing posted a link (via Avi) to an MP3 of Dan Gilbert's talk at SxSW entitled How to do Precisely the Right Thing at All Possible Times.]

[Update, 2006-07-10: Dan Gilbert has a blog!  While reading his book, I sensed that he and I shared a number of things about which we feel happy, e.g., Kauaii sunsets, Talisker scotch, Bordeaux wine, Starbucks coffee, Monty Python, Frank Zappa and Miles Davis.  Now it appears that we also share a keen interest in An Inconvenient Truth -- not that we feel happy about it -- and I highly recommend his blog post on It's the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine, which includes a copy of his LA Times op-ed article on If Only Gay Sex Caused Global Warming.]

Here's a video of Dan Gilbert talking about "Why are we happy? Why aren't we happy?" at TED 2004:

In his TED talk, he closes with the following quotes; the first from William Shakespeare, the second from Adam Smith:

'Tis nothing good or bad
But thinking makes it so.
The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another... Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others: but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardour which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice; or to corrupt the future tranquility of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice.