I think I'm over the happiness thing. I think I am thinking that the pursuit of happiness is, well, vacuous. I don't think people are happy or unhappy. Because I think knowing if we are happy would require knowing the meaning of life, or the ultimate goal, or the key to the world, or something that, which really, we are not going to find outside of blind religious fanaticism.
The first thing I have to grapple with, besides having spent the last three years of my life completely enthralled and ensconced in the happiness research from positive psychologists, is if I don't want a happy life, what sort of life do I want?
I think I want an interesting life. Not that I want to be interesting, but I want to be interested. I’m talking about what I think is interesting to me. I want to choose things that are interesting to me over things that would make me happy. For example, this post. I am not sure if I’m right on this, and I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of telling me I’m an idiot in the comments. But it’s going to be interesting.
I think choosing a life that is interesting to us and choosing a life that makes us feel happy are probably very different choices.
For one thing, people who are happy do not look for a lot of choices, according to Barry Schwartz, in his book, The Paradox of Choice. People who want to have an interesting life are always looking for more choices and better choices, and they make decisions for their life based on maximizing choices.
I think this because I've lived in NYC, where people value having a wide range of choices and opportunities over having a life that makes them feel happy. When it comes to self-reporting happiness, New Yorkers report being less happy than everyone else, and they don’t care. And I've lived in Wisconsin, where, I'm not kidding about this, almost everyone will tell you they are happy. But you can trust me on this, Wisconsin does not offer a lot of choices and opportunities.
Now I'm going to preemptively rip on everyone who thinks they are going to comment here about Wisconsin. Wisconsin does have things that are world-class: Football, beer, cheese, PETA-inflaming bioscience departments. And there is nothing wrong with being fine with what is here. I think it is a nice life, and that's why I moved to Wisconsin.
But on balance, Wisconsin is not a place you go to get the best of everything, which is what optimizers do. New Yorkers love that they can get the best of everything – they want that more than they want to be happy. And if you can't understand this you merely reveal how little you know about the world. I have no more patience for people telling me I can get great eyebrows in Wisconsin, there is great shopping in Wisconsin, etc. There simply isn't. And it's okay. People don't live in Wisconsin because of that. People live in Wisconsin because the lifestyle is easy — family is here, personal history is here, things generally are fine. Nothing is fine in NYC. It's very challenging. Every single day.
The fact that I feel compelled to have a tirade about Wisconsin in the middle of this post is interesting to me: People who value choices over happiness never argue about it. They are proud of it. People who value happiness over having a life full of interesting opportunities get indignant over being accused that they made that choice.
I wish I could tell you I am a person who picks interesting over complacency, but problem for me is that life in NYC is so interesting to me, but it’s just plain too hard for me. When I lived in NYC with two kids the year I had $200,000 coming in, I felt like I was living at the edge of poverty. Whenever I write this, people who have lived in NYC with kids are not surprised at all, and people who have not lived in NYC think I'm crazy. So please, if you have not raised kids in NYC, do not comment that you could easily do it on $200,000, okay?
What this illustrates, though is how different the world of lots of choices is. People will pay a ton of money to have a lot of choices, which is what they perceive as an interesting life. (See the average rent per square foot in NYC) but people will not pay a ton of money for a life with relatively few choices. (See the average rent per square foot in Madison). This makes me think that people put a higher premium on choices, because choices make life more interesting.
I recently spoke to Tyler Cowen, professor of economics at George Mason University. His book, Create Your Own Economy, is about how the information flow of the Internet allows us to manage our careers differently than before. For example, people who are focused on information (infovores, as Tyler calls them) but not on face-to-face social interaction can flourish in an information economy.
I suggested to Tyler that it's messed up to value information processing over social interaction because I want to believe that it's social interaction that actually makes us happy.
Tyler says that people who are infovores feel fulfilled by processing information. And he thinks that happiness is an elusive, amorphous goal. Tyler says feeling fulfilled actually gives us a feeling of happiness, and some people gain that fulfilled feeling through interaction with information rather than social interaction (makes sense from Tyler – he writes a great blog, full of fun information.)
But it scares me that this also seems true for me. I don’t want it to be true for me because I want to be as complacent as the people I live with, in Wisconsin. And I want to be a socially skilled as the non-Asperger’s people I try to pass for in regular life.
Tyler’s ideas will resonate in the Asperger community. There is a large contingency that sees Asperger Syndrome not as a deficit but as merely a difference, and these are the people who would love to hear that the idea of happiness is myopic and that fulfillment is a more real goal, and people with Asperger's can feel fulfilled through information processing.
I'm not sure I buy that. I want to buy it. Because I have Asperger's and so do many people in my family, and I want to believe there is fulfillment out there for all of us.