Tag Archives: Happiness

RICH ENOUGH? A laid-back guide for every kiwi – Mary Holm * THE HAPPINESS EQUATION. The Surprising Economics of Our Most Valuable Asset – Nick Powdthavee.

One recent study suggests that beyond a certain point, people with more money are less happy.

What really matters is how you save.

You don’t have to earn a lot to become wealthy. I’ll show you how to get much more mileage out of what money you have.

WHY DO YOU WANT TO BE RICHER?

Books about money and investing are full of info on how to boost your wealth. But I’ve never seen one that also asks ‘why?’.

At first that might seem a silly question. More money buys us more things and more experiences, and that adds up to more happiness, right?

Not necessarily. Lots of research shows that once we have a certain amount of money enough to easily cover the basics and have some fun, having more doesn’t necessarily make us happier. In fact, one recent study suggests that beyond a certain point, people with more money are less happy. More on this later in the book.

For five years I taught a course on financial literacy to non-Business School students at the University of Auckland. Worried that students might think my main message was ‘the more money, the better’, I asked every student to attend a discussion group where we looked into what made people happy, and the role of wealth in that.

Before coming to the class, the students were asked to do the following (which I dreamt up one day on a long drive). You might want to try it.

1. Write a list of eight individuals or couples you know well.

2. Give each one a score of 1 to 5 for wealth, with at least one getting a 1 and one getting a 5.

3. Give each one a score of 1 to 5 for happiness again with at least one 1 and one 5.

4. See if the high scorers for wealth are also the high scorers for happiness.

Some students found the two were correlated that wealthier people tended to be more content. But many saw no clear correlation, and every now and then someone saw the opposite their poorer friends and relations tended to have a better time.

On balance, though, the students did tend to know more happy rich people than happy poor people. So is the research wrong?

Nick Powdthavee, a UK professor of behavioural science who looked at a great deal of research for his book The Happiness Equation, raises an intriguing question: Does wealth make us happier, or do happy people get wealthier?

He found that happy people:

– tend to be more creative and productive

– have better health which tends to lead to more wealth

– are more likely to be financially successful

It seems that happiness is more likely to lead to wealth than the other way around.

As Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer put it: ‘Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.’

If you start out with a happy disposition, there’s a good chance you’ll end up well off. If you start out grumpy, you’re less likely to do well financially. Of course, you might get lucky with money, but it’s unlikely to change your outlook on life.

So where does this leave you, as you’re starting to read a book about investing? Why try to get richer if it probably won’t make you happier?

Check back to what I said above. While wealth and happiness don’t seem to be highly correlated after you’ve got the basics well covered, many of you will feel you haven’t covered all the basics yet.

Nobody would argue that if you’re struggling to cut credit card debt, or to get together a deposit for a modest first home, or to save up enough to do some fun things in retirement, having a few more bucks wouldn’t be welcome.

Even if you’re financially comfortable, more money gives you more choices. These might include supporting others, from family members to charities.

So, while it may not make sense to put lots of time, effort and worry into absolutely maximising your wealth, it does make sense to take a few straightforward steps to make your money work better for you.

Read this book, take the steps that apply to you, and you’ll have the money stuff sorted. You can then spend less time working and more time getting on with things that will really improve your wellbeing.

What might that be? At the end of the book, we’ll look a little further into some of the fascinating research about what makes people happy. But for now, let’s get on with making you financially strong enough to make the most of your life.

Step 1

START NOW, IT’S EASY

In which we . ..

– Observe that laid-back investing is good

– Compare savvy Sally and slow Suzy

– Also compare the apprentice and the graduate

– See that you’ll have a lot more than twice as much if you save for 40 years instead of 20

– Learn that compounding is a friend for savers, a foe for those in debt

– Discard those ‘You need a million dollars’ messages

People often ask me if I’ve read the latest book about the share market or investing. ‘No’, I reply. ‘There are too many good novels to read. Besides, a lot of what’s written about investing isn’t much and sometimes it’s actually a big worry. It can persuade readers to take steps that will do them more harm than good. When it comes to investing, laziness is good.

That might sound crazy. In pretty much everything else we do, from running marathons to getting promoted fast at work to mastering the piano to creating a magical garden, the more work we put into it the better we’ll do.

But investing is different.

We all know people who put hours into their investments. They read the financial pages, and listen to the economists who tell them, more like guess actually, what’s likely to happen in the next year. Then they read about which investments have done well lately. On the strength of that they choose which shares or bonds to buy or sell, and when to buy or sell them.

And guess what? Most of them end up with less than you will after you’ve read this book, set up your investments and got on with other things. It’s sometimes called ‘Set and forget’.

Let’s not be misleading here. I’m not saying you should never do anything after the initial set-up. Every few years it’s a good idea to do a quick review of your investments. But the changes you might make are easy half-hour sort of stuff. There’ll be more about this in Step 6: ‘Stay cool’, but for now, let’s look at the basics.

Three ways to get more savings

It’s quite simple, really. The three ways to get more savings are:

1. Earn more.

2. Save more.

3. Be smarter with what you do with your savings.

Of course, it’s also great to get a pay rise either in your current job or by starting a new job.

During my extended OE in the United States, I still recall the excitement of moving from a smalltown Michigan newspaper, the wonderfully named Jackson Citizen Patriot, to the Chicago Daily News. The pay rise meant less than the thrill of knowing I would work with some great journalists. But still, my pay went from something like $US14,000 to $US21,000 a year, not to be sneezed at back then when a dollar was worth a dollar.

Chances are you will get at least one huge pay jump in your life. Fantastic! But that’s not what this book is about. It’s not what you earn, but how much you save that matters. And, perhaps more importantly, what really matters is how you save.

Key message: You don’t have to earn a lot to become wealthy. I’ll show you how to get much more mileage out of what money you have.

Get going

I know the feeling. Practical friends tell me I should get the runners on the sliding door to my deck fixed. I don’t understand much about things like that, and I don’t know who to ask, and it all gets too hard and doesn’t happen.

Maybe you feel that way about your finances. The ‘Don’t Know and Don’t Know Who to Trust’ syndrome finds us doing nothing, week after week, year after year. With my house, it might matter if it all starts falling apart. With your money, there are no ‘ifs’. It will matter. Muck around for a year or two and you can end up retiring with much, much less.

But don’t panic! This book will teach you how to invest your money. It’s not hard I promise. . .

RICH ENOUGH? A laid-back guide for every kiwi – Mary Holm

THE HAPPINESS EQUATION. The Surprising Economics of Our Most Valuable Asset – Nick Powdthavee.

THE HAPPINESS EQUATION. The Surprising Economics of Our Most Valuable Asset – Nick Powdthavee.

What do we do, then? What do we do when our lives are a series of trade-offs between different combinations of ‘what ifs”? What do we do when there is an endless horizon of time and resource constraints constantly telling us that whatever we do, we can’t possibly have it all?

“Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.” Rabbi Hyman Schachtel.

Why is marriage worth £200,000 a year? Why will having children make you unhappy?

Why does happiness from winning the lottery take two years to arrive?

Why does time heal the pain of divorce or the death of a loved one but not unemployment?

Everybody wants to be happy. But how much happiness precisely will each life choice bring? Should I get married? Am I really going to feel happy about the career that I picked? How can we decide not only which choice is better for us, but how much it’s better for us?

The result of new, unique research, The Happiness Equation brings to a general readership for the first time the new science of happiness economics.

It describes how we can measure emotional reactions to different life experiences and present them in ways we can relate to. How, for instance, monetary values can be put on things that can’t be bought or sold in the market such as marriage, friendship, even death so that we can objectively rank them in order of preference. It also explains why some things matter more to our happiness than others (like why seeing friends is worth more than a Ferrari) while others are worth almost nothing (like sunny weather).

Nick Powdthavee whose work on happiness has been discussed on both the Undercover Economist and Freakanomics blogs brings cutting-edge research on how we value our happiness to a general audience with a style that wears its learning lightly and is a joy to read.

Dr Nattavudh (Nick) Powdthavee is a behavioural economist at the University of York (shortly to move to the Department of Economics, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore). Discussions of his work on the economics of happiness have appeared in over 50 major international newspapers in the past five years, including the New York Times and the Guardian, as well as on TV, including Channel 5 News and The Wright Stuff. He is originally from Thailand.

CHAPTER 1

THE PURSUIT

Most of us go through life believing we know exactly what we need to make us happy. For the most part, we believe that all we ever need is to have someone we love loving us back. Or it’s a combination of more money, a good job, a stable marriage and perfect health. Sometimes it’s the little things in life, like a day off work; a clear blue sky on an autumn afternoon; a nice cup of cool mochaccino on a hot day; an hour-long foot rub; a day spent laughing with friends and family; 45 minutes of uninterrupted sex with our partner, and the energy to last for the best part of it.

But unfortunately in the words of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards we can’t always get what we want. At least, we can’t always get what we want all the time. A day off work every so often sounds like a good idea until, of course, we realise that we will become a little poorer because of it. And that’s no good because, according to the abstract idea we have in our heads of what makes a good life, money matters a lot. Okay then, in that case, we’ll put in more hours at work. But wait. That will also mean less time to be spent with friends and family, and that doesn’t seem so good either.

So what do we do, then? What do we do when our lives are a series of trade-offs between different combinations of ‘what ifs”? What do we do when there is an endless horizon of time and resource constraints constantly telling us that whatever we do, we can’t possibly have it all? Well, according to economists, who are supposedly experts on decision-making, what usually happens is that we try to do the best we can with our choices. We gather all necessary information about our options. We engage in rationalisation and mental calculations. We quietly argue and debate within ourselves over the potential impacts of each individual decision on our happiness. We cross-refer them to the rule-book of ‘All the things that make me happy’, put each possibility into an order of preference, and then, subject to both time and resource constraints, choose the best combination of bundles that we know would optimise our wellbeing. Easy.

Bounded rationality

But of course, if that were true if we always chose the best possible combination of options according to stable preference functions and the constraints facing them then the way we led our lives would literally be disappointment-free. Whatever decisions we made, we would know exactly well in advance what we were getting ourselves into. After all, our rationality would have already done the homework for us: we would be getting the greatest reward at the lowest cost.

How could we possibly not be happy with that?

The reality, however, is that our lives are too often filled with disappointing and regrettable decisions, whether big or small. The holiday we went on last summer; that antique car we bought; or even the job or college degrees we picked. The following anecdotal evidence from a chance meeting between two economists and a dentist makes it all too clear.

Two economics professors and friends, John Bennett and Chuck Blackorby, were attending an economics conference. On the first evening, they met a dentist at the hotel bar who was at an annual conference for dentists just next door to them. After a brief introduction and a couple of drinks, Chuck, who was known for his sometimes brash and direct manner, decided to ask the dentist, by then a little tipsy, a somewhat personal question.

‘So, tell me, are you very happy being a dentist?’

‘Happy? I’m miserable as a dentist’, replied the man.

Chuck smiled to himself. ‘What? If you’re so unhappy, why on earth did you choose to become a dentist in the first place?’

‘I didn’t choose to become a dentist.’ The man took another swig of his drink before delivering the final hammer blow. ‘It’s that stupid kid eighteen years ago that chose to become a dentist. Not me.’

And even when we’re not too disappointed; when we actually think we’re fairly satisfied with the choices we made, sometimes there’s just no way for us to know for certain whether or not we would have been happier if we’d gone with the alternatives. Take having children, for example. For most parents, a natural and genuine response to the question, ‘Would you be happier without children?’ would be a screaming ‘No!’ However, there’s no real way of knowing precisely what life would have been like if these parents had decided not to have their little David or Sarah simply because the childless alternative didn’t take place for them. The same argument holds true for partners who choose not to become parents.

One of the main reasons why we aren’t always able to choose the best options for ourselves is that our rationality is often bounded by the amount of information it possesses, the cognitive limitations of our brains, and the finite amount of time we have to make a decision. According to the so-called ‘bounded rationality’ concept, we human beings are only partly rational and downright irrational in the remaining part of our actions. While economists believe that all human beings are approximately Homo economicus (economic man), rational and broadly self-interested by nature, the reality is that we are just as likely, if not more likely, to let emotions overrule rationality and completely dictate the way we behave.

That we are not wholly rational is shown by studies that have identified two distinct sides to our brains: one that is rational controlled, slow, deliberative and deductive; and one that is emotional automatic, rapid, associative and affective. The mesh between the two is extremely complex, and one does not always dominate the other. And while economic theories of decision making have tended to emphasise the operation of the rational side of our brain in guiding choice behaviour, it’s often the case that, when making decisions under pressure or under conditions where information is incomplete or overly complex, we tend to rely on simplifying heuristics or ‘gut feelings’ rather than extensive algorithmic processing. These ‘rules of thumb’ are far from perfect, and it’s precisely why we sometimes spend too much money on food when we go grocery shopping with an empty stomach, or find it increasingly difficult to walk away from a bus stop the longer we have been waiting for a bus to come even if it would have been a lot quicker to walk than to wait for that damn bus to arrive.

The adaptive unconscious and past experiences

But maybe it’s not always such a bad thing to trust our emotions. Research carried out by psychology professor Timothy Wilson suggests that, in situations where we have had a lot of experience, decisions made without thinking (those made on impulses and gut feelings) can often lead to better and happier outcomes than if they had been made under a strict rule of optimisation, simply because this is when the emotional part of our brain works best at detecting that something is out of the ordinary even if we may not know ourselves what that something is at the time and alerts us in the form of emotional alarm bells such as sweaty palms and butterflies in our stomach. And it’s in these scenarios that practice really makes perfect. It’s also where thinking too much about our past experiences can actually hurt rather than help us.

The question is: Why?

One reason. According to psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, the cognitive part of our brain tends to suffer from what he called the ‘peak-end’ effect, which is the tendency to judge past experiences both pleasant and unpleasant almost entirely on how they were at their peak and how they ended.

Kahneman and his colleagues illustrated the core concept of the peak-end theory in a series of experiments, most notably that involving hospital patients and the very painful colonoscopy procedure. While undergoing a colonoscopy, the patients reported their level of discomfort every 60 seconds throughout the procedure. Afterwards, the patients were asked to remember how unpleasant the procedure was, using several different scales including a ten-point scale, and also about the relative unpleasantness of the colonoscopy compared to other unpleasant experiences such as stubbing a toe, or an average visit to the dentist.

What Kahneman and his colleagues found was astonishing. While there was almost zero correlation between the duration of the colonoscopies that different patients experienced and the global rating of the procedure, the relationship between the peak-end average (the average of the peaks and how the patients felt at the end of the procedure) and the global rating of the procedure was simply undeniable. In other words, we are more likely to remember our experience of a colonoscopy as being awful if the peaks of unpleasantness were very high or if it ended awfully for us, than if the entire procedure itself took a long time to finish. What matters is not the duration of an experience; we hardly ever think about it when we try to recall and judge how happy or unhappy we were in the past. It’s how we were feeling at the peaks and at the end of our experience that count the most.

What about frequency? Surely having experienced something often can teach us to repeat only the things that we remember with pleasure and fondness, and avoid those that we remember with embarrassment and regret? The trouble is, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, we are just not very good at remembering them correctly. He illustrates his point by prompting the readers of his book Stumbling on Happiness to think about where they were, whom they were with, and what they were doing when they first heard the news about the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

Okay, that sounds easy enough. Closing my eyes, I can still remember that I was standing at one of the check-in counters at London Heathrow airport, trying to get on the evening flight to Bangkok. Sitting behind the Finnair counter was a man in his late 50s who, as I recall, spoke with a very thick Glaswegian accent.

‘So you’re off to Thailand then, eh? Ah, what a beautiful country! Lovely food, gorgeous beaches, very pretty women!’ His eyes twinkled as he said this.

I smiled politely, acknowledging his appreciation of my country of birth. I knew he was just trying to be friendly in what seemed to be a surprisingly empty airport on a Tuesday afternoon.

‘Okay, sir. Here’s your boarding pass. Have a nice flight. Oh, and have you heard? Two planes hit the World Trade Center not half an hour ago. Probably a terrorist attack. But since you’re flying to Finland first, I’m sure you’ll be just fine.’ He ended with a beam while I stood there, rigid as a board.

Like me, most people will be able to remember in fine detail what they were doing when they first heard the news. But, Gilbert added, would the same people also remember precisely where they were, whom they were with, and what they were doing on the morning of 10 September 2001, one day before the attacks?

I personally couldn’t, of course. And I’m confident enough to bet that not many people could either, a fact that is also true for most Americans.

The main reason why it’s relatively easier for us to recall the exact details of 11 September 2001, but nearly impossible to remember what happened a day earlier, is because momentous events like the 9/11 attacks do not happen frequently in our lifetime. While 11 September 2001 defied our every sense of normality, 10 September, by contrast, was like almost any other day. And unless we religiously keep a diary of everything that ever happened in our lives, any other day is nothing more than a blob in our memory bank.

Daniel Gilbert’s message is clear: it is the infrequent and unusual experiences that are most memorable. These are the ones that stick like glue to the clipboard of our memory cortex. Not the other way round.

Conventional wisdom and imagination

There are two lessons we can draw at this stage. The first is that, in situations where we have had a lot of experience, it’s perhaps better to trust our instincts when it comes to making a decision. And the second lesson, related to the first, is that it seems important not to rely completely on emotions in situations where we have had little or no prior experience. The explanation is simple: in these circumstances, the emotional part of our brain will not have had enough chances to adapt and learn from our past experiences, which will inevitably make it impossible for it to distinguish which decision is better for us.

That sounds perfectly reasonable. All we need to do now is follow any great professional’s advice and just practise, practise, practise. Then afterwards, we can sit back in situations where we have had a lot of these experiences and just make snap decisions without having to think too much about the best outcomes.

Two problems, though. First, how do we know when we have had enough practice doing something? How do we know when we can let the rational brain take a back seat and the emotional brain do all the work? Will 10,000 hours of doing something repetitively be enough? Or will it take a lifetime of experience? Second, what about other, more novel situations? How do we know that we will be happier being married than staying single? How do we know whether we will be happier in a job that pays less but is nevertheless much closer to home? How can we be sure that rationality will not fail us when we have to face dilemmas that we have never faced before?

So now we’ve come full circle: economists’ description of how the world works though somewhat incomplete actually turns out to be useful advice on what we should do in situations where we have had little or no prior experience. According to theories on rational choice, there are perhaps two essential ingredients to successful decision-making when a degree of rationality is involved. The first is time. Unlike the emotional part of our brain where all decision-making is done instantaneously, the rational part of our brain needs time to think things over, to mull over the information. The second ingredient is getting the right information. It’s important that we have perfect awareness of all relevant information regarding the outcome of our choice before making a decision, especially one that could change our lives.

Since we can often find time to think things over before coming up with a solution for many of our life problems, could it just be the case that we don’t always have the right information about the choices we plan to make? Going back to the unhappy dentist, could it be possible that he decided to obtain a degree in dentistry on a whim or, worse, on a dare? Maybe. Nevertheless, considering the potentially life-changing impact of choosing the right career, it’s perhaps more likely that he did try to seek all the available information about how happy a career in dentistry would make him in eighteen years’ time. How could he then have been so wrong?

There are usually two ways of getting the information we need about the potential impacts of a novel experience. First, we can do some research about the experience. So in the case of the unhappy dentist, his decision to study dentistry could have been influenced by what he was expecting to get objectively from becoming a dentist, such as financial return, or by other people’s accounts of their subjective experiences as dentists, or even by conventional wisdom passed down from generation to generation.

Second, if all else fails, we can still use our imagination to conjure up the information we need to undertake a decision. We can try, for example, to picture ourselves in the future: what life would be like being married, or having kids, or having so much money we don’t know what to do with it.

. . .

from

THE HAPPINESS EQUATION. The Surprising Economics of Our Most Valuable Asset

by Nick Powdthavee

get it at Amazon.com

Success. Or, the paradox of happiness – Susi Ferrarello Ph.D. – Judged, The Value of Being Misunderstood – Ziyad Marar.

The moral qualities of someone are as important as their expected competence.

A robust sense of self isn’t really possible except as reflected in the eyes of those whose views we care about, whether parents, friends, colleagues or other audiences.

What we really want, but can’t ever ask for, is to be judged well. And we can’t ask for that, because wrapped into that wish is a vulnerable hope that you will not find me wanting.

The judgements we dispense on a daily basis are flawed in many ways and are unfairly distributed because they are driven by seIf-serving, hypocritical and skewed perceptions of each other.

It is hard to admit we want to be judged well, because we need to achieve that happy state without being seen to be seeking it.

You succeeded, so you must be happy, right?

It is somewhat curious to think how we arrived at considering happiness as a byproduct of success. Even in such disparate groups as my clients and my students have come to the same conclusion: that successful people must be happy because they reached what they wanted in life—money, power, social status, public acknowledgment.

This means that since happiness seems a reasonable goal to pursue my students and clients tend to imitate those models to chase that success.

My suspicion is that this attitude leads to the opposite result, especially if we do not define the word happiness precisely but rather define it only by its means.

Psychology Today

Judged

The Value of Being Misunderstood

Ziyad Marar

So, did you judge this book by its cover? Or were you intrigued by the title? The subtitle? And now you encounter these lines are you drawn in or put off by this attempt to engage you directly? It’s complicated now I think of it. As I write, I’m conscious of different audiences who might want different things and equally that there is no way to deliver on such a wide range of expectations.

Are you judging me? There is a quick heat in the question which is revealing. Implicit in my tone is chagrin and accusation. ‘Don’t be so judgemental’, I’m saying, in a quite judgemental way. To call someone ‘judgemental’ always seems like a negative judgement, doesn’t it? After all I wouldn’t say it after a round of applause, or a compliment. Those more positive appraisals just don’t have the same impact. When it comes to judgement, criticism weighs much more heavily than praise.

Calling you ‘judgemental’ is a defensive move on my part, an accusation that you are being critical and asks you to explain yourself. My question, ‘Are you judging me?’ is loaded with the discomfort of being scrutinized and found wanting and invites me to judge you in return as a form of protective retaliation. I’m asking what your status is in relation to me and what relevance my actions have to you. ‘Who do you think you are anyway?!’

But do I really want you to stop judging me? Sure, right there and then, I do. I want to avoid negative appraisal, so I’d like it to stop. The safer language of ‘live and let live’, ‘each to their own’ is where we turn when we feel exposed to the harsh glare, and wish to escape scrutiny.

But true escape from judgement is a fantasy. How can we live meaningfully without being judged at all? Even criticism is necessary to living well. Without it we’d be playing tennis with the net down. Other people are necessary for our survival on many levels. They are sources of pleasure, goods, information, but most of all they shape our self-image and self-esteem. While it can be painful at times, the judgement of others is also a source of significance and a necessary path to feeling justified. A robust sense of self isn’t really possible except as reflected in the eyes of those whose views we care about, whether parents, friends, colleagues or other audiences.

Alongside the tribulations and unfairnesses of critical judgement lies the tentative hope for kinder appraisals. Raymond Carver, in the poem ‘Late Fragment’, written at the end of his life, concluded that he got what he wanted from this life, namely ‘To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.’ With Carver we want to feel beloved or at least admired, or respected or just recognized. So, what we really want, but can’t ever ask for, is to be judged well. And I can’t ask for that, because wrapped into that wish is a vulnerable hope that you will not find me wanting, quite independently of that hope. I don’t want your charity, or sympathy, or to turn you into a puppet or to generate mere canned applause. It is hard to admit we want to be judged well, because we need to achieve that happy state without being seen to be seeking it.

The psychoanalyst Leslie Farber describes our attempts at willing what cannot be willed. His examples (I can will knowledge, but not wisdom; going to bed, but not sleeping, eating, but not hunger, meekness, but not humility . . . ) are troubling enough. But this is worse. In the case of receiving good judgement, even if I could will it to happen, the judgement resulting wouldn’t be worth having. If there is no attendant risk of receiving bad judgement, then the good judgement we receive loses its value. Judgement worth having needs to be fraught with the possibility of painful failure if it is to matter. And this is why we feel so deeply ambivalent about it, and will often pretend to wish our need for it away. It is really why my question contains emotional heat.

By ‘judgement’ I’m thinking of the social and moral judgements we make of each other in different forms, mainly evaluations of character or action, including the appearance and status, of another person especially around their competence or motivation. These ways of seeing each other pepper our interactions, whether through barely perceptible flinches and gut feels through to more conscious assessments, sometimes negative and sometimes positive, but judging all along. Throughout this book I’ll be exploring how this capacity, while necessary, is often partial, inconsistent, self-serving, skewed and for these reasons unevenly distributed. And that this unreliability applies as much to how we judge ourselves as it does to how we judge each other.

The unreliability of our judgements ensures that the understanding we have of each other is similarly limited, which is why no one will ever truly understand you. Much of this book is an exploration of the limits to the knowledge we can have of each other and the corresponding feeling that most of us, for much of the time, can feel unknown, alone and other.

When I was nearly 10 years old, my family moved from Beirut to Purley in south London. We had left after the civil war in Lebanon started in 1975 and headed to be near my mother’s parents in Croydon. Our first British summer was the famously hot drought of 1976, with temperatures up in the 30s and people needing to ration water. This at least gave us all, my brother, sister and me, some familiar context in what felt an otherwise very unfamiliar country, a country with people who only had one pair of shorts! We all struggled with the adjustment in various ways, my Jordanian father tackling the idiosyncrasies of ‘British middle management’ and having to commute to and from the Middle East for work, my mother after fifteen years abroad finding us schools and somewhere to live. The primary school we went to was just up the road from our house in Purley, so an easy commute at least. But it was a disorientating experience nevertheless, not least because the teachers, seeing that I had a Christian middle name, decided to call me Paul, and I didn’t have the courage to correct them for over a year.

I remember one afternoon getting the results of a maths test. I had got nine out of ten on the test and should have been pleased with that. Unfortunately, the mark I lost was because I had written the correct answer in Arabic. The answer was six, which written in Arabic is indistinguishable from an English seven. Rather than just let it lie, I decided to mention it to the teacher during the lesson. Too seIf-conscious to put my hand up, I can remember walking up to the front of the class and leaning over to whisper to him what had happened. He looked at me with disbelief, and clearly thought I was trying to cheat. I felt embarrassed, and falsely accused during my slow walk back to my chair, my ears reddening with shame. I could hear sniggering. The sense of alienation I had in this new terrain was thus underscored, and I gained a painful insight that is expressed well by the writer and psychotherapist Adam Phillips in his book Monogamy:

“We work hard to keep certain versions of ourselves in other people’s minds; and, of course, the less appealing ones out of their minds. And yet everyone we meet invents us, whether we like it or not. Indeed nothing convinces us more of the existence of other people, of just how different they are from us, than what they can make of what we say to them. Our stories often become unrecognizable as they go from mouth to mouth.

Being misrepresented is simply being presented with a version of ourselves, an invention that we cannot agree with.”

My maths test episode stays with me as just one example of being misunderstood in this way. The story being told of me was unrecognizable to me. Yet I still internalized enough of the criticism to judge myself harshly for having made a fuss, and being foolish enough to get out of my chair. Pathetic! This kind of vivid example is thankfully relatively rare. But misjudgements, misunderstandings, misrecognition on a more banal level, are very common. Slight crossings of wires, mismatches in assumptions, desires, social missteps, all create a web of miscomprehension that shadows, and isolates us within, our daily lives. Even when written in lighter ink, these experiences of misjudgement and misconstrual, it seems to me, are a central feature of what it is to be human.

While this is a sobering thought, I’ll be arguing later that the story is not necessarily a bleak one. There is something hopeful that can come from our misapprehensions. In fact the gaps in knowledge between you and me often provide creative spaces in which our protean selves can develop and grow. Too much knowledge would be claustrophobic, predictable and bland. As Leonard Cohen puts it in the chorus of his song ‘Anthem’, a message echoed in the cover of this book,

“Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Judging in the digital age

If you want to see how the terrain of judgement has become more complicated in recent years, just look at how much time and effort we invest in expressing ourselves online. And those who think we have become anti-social with an addiction to screens have got it backwards. As my daughter Anna once reminded me when I complained, ‘it is called social media, Dad’.

In presenting ourselves through digital lenses, only seemingly locked away from everyday life, we are instead locked into networks of others who communicate with and assess each other’s presentations of ourselves in a quite intense way. This is not always easy to see. We may focus on connection, relationships and gathering information as we communicate this way but this view tends to require we avert our gaze from how online performances are often set out with the hope we will be assessed well by others, who in turn respond in a similarly deliberate way, creating a hall of mirrors of mutual, hopeful, selfconscious reflections. It is hard to feel good about yourself when you now have a window on to a world of people presenting themselves in their best light, for comparison.

The way self-esteem is fed or starved through this medium can be seen with the rising rates of self-harming and online bullying alongside the everyday flow of selfies, gossip and the growth of tools like Instagram and Snapchat. And, of course, there can be harmful consequences for people who have yet to find out there is no delete button on the internet, who might say and show things they later regret.

Our culture has been so permeated by new forms of communication that we are no longer shocked to hear numbers that would have left us openmouthed in disbelief a decade ago: two billion people on Facebook consume 500 years of video every day; 350,000 tweets are produced every minute and 650 million blogs are written each day. And all of them adorned with metrics that give you some basis for comparison. You can count how many friends a person has, or how many ‘likes’ their post receives, their followers and subscribers, their retweets, Tumblr re-posts and YouTube views. And much as we deny the significance of such simplistic measures of success, it is very likely they have some kind of skewing effects on most people’s behaviour.

When you get out of an Uber you are invited to score the driver by clicking on one of five stars, but you need to remember that they are scoring you too. The first episode of Black Mirror, season 3, by Charlie Brooker takes this mutual scoring into a satirical dystopia in which people whose scores are constantly changing and constantly visible to all, panic as their rating falls below 4.2, which then limits their access to highstatus goods. Those who have fallen catastrophically to under 2 become the underclass. The power of the programme comes in echoing the ubiquity of digitally mediated social judgement that has so quickly become part of contemporary lives.

Take Twitter. Who can honestly say they have no idea how many followers they have? Who won’t feel a little blip of satisfaction to see new followers or re-tweets appearing under that little blue sign dubbed ‘notifications’. And who doesn’t send out a tweet wondering whether it will get acknowledged in some way? Why tweet at all unless you hope to be noticed and acknowledged? Three hundred and fifty thousand tweets per minute adds up to over half a billion attention-seeking messages every day.

We have all become broadcasters and now can reach much larger audiences with a click of a button than would have been possible for anyone outside of the media industries only a few years ago. And this leaves us open to much faster judgements if we get it wrong. The intensity of judgement is refracted brightly through a digital lens and makes it quite clear that those who thought the internet was a place to express yourself privately got it completely wrong. When Emily Thornberry MP sent out a tweet including an image of a house in Rochester swathed in England flags she was immediately judged harshly for the apparent sneer she was directing at a patriotic working-class voter.

This led to her resigning her post as shadow attorney general within days.

I’ll advised comments made can now race around the world in a Twitter storm as happened to Tim Hunt, the Nobel laureate, whose career was ended within days of making sexist remarks during a conference in Korea.

Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been (Publicly) Shamed works through many cases of disproportionate punishment meted out to witless Twitterers who have crossed a line. The digital world may have intensified our proneness to judging and being judged in return. But it didn’t create that need, it just feeds ancient appetites. Rather like cheap fast food, so ubiquitously available today, that satisfies ancient evolved cravings for sugar and fat, we now can access mechanisms on a scale never seen before that feed the deep yearning we have for giving and receiving social judgement.

I was caught by a simple question recently, from a man who lives in difficult conditions in Zimbabwe. ‘Why do people in the West ever commit suicide?’ he asked. The question asks how it could be that life could seem unliveable when the profound hardships and deprivations that so many in the world still face have been so abundantly overcome. But we also, despite a culture that encourages us to fill up on luxuries, sense that consumption and material needs met do not ultimately satisfy. This observation also invites us to think about the comparisons we make with others and the standards we are then set by which we might see ourselves as failing. The internal judge of ourselves, based on such comparison, is often the hardest critic we face. In looking at and judging others’ lives, we can value our own by those lights, and this can lead to imagining their judgements of us in return. This in turn can lead to internalizing those verdicts, and often to finding ourselves so wanting as to make life seem worth less. Far from the optimistic assumption that our needs become more optional as they move from the primitive basics of food, clothing, shelter and ascend into the more abstract domain of self-esteem and recognition (as Maslow’s pyramid suggests), the need to feel justified in our lives, however physically comfortable, is just as profound as the need to thrive on a more basic level.

There is something poignant in Samuel Johnson’s observation that ‘every man, however hopeless his pretensions may appear to all but himself, has some project by which he hopes to rise to reputation; some art by which he imagines that the notice of the world will be attracted’. It is poignant because we can picture such hope with no guarantee that it will be well met. Or maybe that we picture it will be met with harsh critique or possibly worse indifference; the vulnerable hoper is exposed callously to the depleted language of being ‘a nobody’ instead of ‘a somebody’, let alone a VIP.

As with economic and other resources, the judgement of others is very unevenly distributed. Some are rich with recognition, applause, goodwill, trust, reputation and others are starved of a good word. This would be bad enough if this uneven spread of good judgement were based on something approaching a fair and rational set of assessments. The courts dispensing ‘blind justice’ claim to be the emblem, if not the reality, of this ideal. But the worst of it is that the judgements we dispense on a daily basis are flawed in many ways and are unfairly distributed because they are driven by seIf-serving, hypocritical and skewed perceptions of each other, as I will explore in detail in this book.

This unequal distribution is intimately tied up with other kinds of inequality. Recent newspaper articles have talked about how the middle classes create a glass floor for their children. They have resources to ensure no child of theirs falls below a certain level of attainment and expectation in life no matter their lack of intellectual or other merits, and crucially this is because they have opportunities to increase their confidence in the world: their preparedness to expect to be well judged. As the acutely observant sociologist Erving Goffman commented over fifty years ago:

“In an important sense there is only one complete unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual, Protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight, and height, and a recent record in sports . . . . Any male who fails to qualify in any of these ways is likely to view himself during moments at least as unworthy, incomplete, and inferior.”

By this account the vast majority of people are stigmatized one way or another. They have ‘spoiled identities’ in Goffman’s language. I don’t imagine this inequality will change any more easily than other entrenched unfairnesses that plague our society, but there may be benefit in exploring the strange texture of social judgement so as to avoid at least some of those pitfalls. In this book I want to explore the mechanisms of social judgement which happen every day so as to better understand the uncomfortable outcomes we seem to take for granted. And one of these uncomfortable outcomes is the feeling of isolation arising from the uneasy sense that people don’t truly understand us.

A tour of this book

When assessing claims it is understandable to ask for the evidence, and this often means scientific evidence. Evidence and argument are critically important in supporting claims, and it is thanks to this scientific principle that we can distinguish between effective medicines and magic, between bridges that will carry the weight of traffic versus those that will not. But these are relatively ‘tame’ problems. The scientific method will not always offer satisfying explanations of more complex phenomena, which are not so tame. By contrast many of our concerns in social life have instead the characteristics of ‘wicked problems’. ‘Wicked problem’ is a term used to describe a problem that does not have right or wrong answers (though hopefully better or worse ones); it is usually so uniquely set in a context that you can’t easily generalize from it; and the attempt to identify the dense array of underlying causes changes dramatically depending on what frame of reference you are using.

Many of the major social concerns of our times, such as inequality, good relationships, satisfying work or general well-being fall into the category of ‘wicked’. If you want to understand why unhappy families are unhappy in their own way (as Tolstoy said in the opening line of Anna Karenina) the sources of evidence and the nature of the argument will be a much wider array than falls within the ambit of experimental science.

And so it is with judgement in my view. Our ambivalent relationship with judgement, our often partial and unreasonable mechanisms for deploying it, and our flawed dreams of escape from that kind of scrutiny certainly can be illuminated by the work of experimental psychology. And I will be drawing on this work throughout the book. But this is also true of the more qualitative insights to be gleaned from philosophy, psychoanalytic traditions, anthropology, sociology, as well as those other deep repositories of human knowledge, popular culture and literature.

To deny this is to resemble the drunk man who leaves a pub one night and goes to the carpark to find his car. On his way, he realizes he has lost his keys. So he goes over to the nearest lamppost to search around for them. A policewoman looking on starts to help him, but after a few minutes of fruitless searching asks whether that’s in fact where he lost them and the drunk answers, ‘No, I lost them over there’, pointing over to an area in the surrounding darkness. The policewoman, puzzled asks him, ‘Then why are you looking for your keys here, if you lost them over there?’, to which the man replies, ‘Ah, because this is where the light is good.’ It is understandable to look for more certainty than can be had when investigating a phenomenon, and this ‘streetlight effect’ is a tendency to rely on what is more measurable than what might be more insightful even if harder to explore rigorously. Wicked problems often require that we peer into the dark.

Experimental psychologists nevertheless can help us see some features of human nature that generalize across human experience, and shed light on this by arranging the world to show up these daily illusions. They ask people to imagine a stone being dropped from a plane and then to guess where it would land. By showing the gap between our guesses (straight down) and the reality (miles ahead, we overlook the fact the plane is moving so fast), they can skilfully illuminate the biases and preoccupations that can fuel our outlook on the world. But in looking for such common features it is easy to overlook the very particular experiences that we as individuals encounter every day. An ultra-social animal trades in judgements because reputations are of the highest importance, but the particular experience of such judgement is highly contextualized and unique to the setting in question. To develop some insight into these it is valuable to look to films and novels and other forms of popular culture which tell particular stories set in a particular context. To understand the choices involved in developing a reputation we might turn to the compelling and specific story of Walter White in the hit TV series Breaking Bad as much as to generalizable experimental data. As the psychologist Dan McAdams puts it, ‘As artists we each fashion a singular, self-affirming life. As scientists, we notice how the life we have fashioned resembles certain other lives; we detect similarities, regularities and trends.’ Emphasizing the general over the unique, psychology tends to lump while literature splits.

In the spirit of a multi-level approach I draw on these diverse sources to build a picture that I hope more faithfully reflects the complex, ‘wicked’ reality, rather than to boil it down merely to what can be determined in the lab. I hope that this diversity of enquiry will also make for a more interesting read and help to justify the judgement you made in picking this book up in the first place.

I start with a tour of the social minefields in which we operate. As we tiptoe our way through convention and expectation, the threat of being judged ill plagues us and exposes us to many forms of social pain. Anxieties about awkwardness, embarrassment and guilt, shame’s fellow travellers, police our behaviour in profound ways, leading us to find ways to cope by hiding; by veiling our speech and our behaviour. People vary in the skill and knowledge they can use to develop good enough technique. Most of us move somewhere between seeming cool or chic on the one hand, and awkward and gauche on the other, micro-managing impressions as best we can along the way.

Zoom out from the micro-analysis of impression management and you start to see how reputations rise and fall over time. This is the subject of the next chapter. Reputations are some of the most valuable assets a social animal can accrue. In particular, the best reputations need to manage an unlikely tradeoff between being seen as well motivated on the one hand, and as competent or skilled on the other: both moral and able, to put it simply. But no one builds a reputation in isolation. It is granted. Whether you are deemed moral or able, both or neither of these of course lies in the eye of the beholder.

Unfortunately, the beholder’s eye is an unreliable one; the subject of Chapter 3. The lessons learned about how we deploy social and moral judgements on each other are sobering. We are laden with implicit biases, moral flinches and yuk reactions, alongside self-serving and hypocritical judgements which are coloured by the group allegiances to which we subscribe. Recent research in social and moral psychology, which I’ll explore in this chapter, reveals the scale of these tendencies. Our judgements of each other are far from a fair-minded and neutral assessment, however much we might persuade ourselves to see them in that light.

. . .

*

from

Judged, The Value of Being Misunderstood

by Ziyad Marar

get it at Amazon.com

The surprising things you do when you’re happiest. 

In a new study published in the journal ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ researchers find that, contrary to popular belief, we actually don’t spend all of our time going after activities that make us feel good. In fact, it’s at times when we’re feeling our best that we tend to gravitate toward doing the least pleasurable tasks on our lists, like laundry and chores. So maybe we forgo things that’ll make us feel happy immediately, like happy hour, for duller things that have the potential to make us feel satisfied in the long term, like housework. The findings could have big takeaways for our understanding of happiness and motivation.

“Our positive emotion, perhaps, can be seen as a resource. When we don’t have enough, we need to replenish it, but as soon as we have enough, we can potentially use that to get things done.” WeForum