The Quality of Life

by Venkat on July 31, 2013

The idea of quality of life is very twentieth-century. It sparks associations with ideas like statistical quality control and total quality managementIt is the idea that entire human lives can be objectively modeled, measured and compared in meaningful ways. That lives can be idealized and normalized in ways that allow us to go beyond comparisons to absolute measures. That lives can be provisioned from cradle-to-grave. That an insistence on a unique, subjective evaluation of one’s own life is something of a individualist-literary conceit.

I suspect the phrase itself is a generalization of the older notion of modern conveniences, a phrase you frequently find in early twentieth-century writing. It referred to the diffusion of various technologies into everyday pre-industrial life, from running hot and cold water in bathrooms and garbage collection to anesthetics and vaccines.

That conception of the quality of life, as the sum total of material conveniences acquired and brutalities of nature thwarted through technology, seems naive today. But with hindsight, it was much better than what it evolved into: baroque United Nations statistics that reflect institutionally enabled and enforced scripts, which dictate what people ought to want.

***

In 2013, the concept of quality of life is effectively drowning in the banality of self-reported statistical surveys based on unreconstructed concepts overloaded with institutionalized connotations.

Just looking at (for example) the Gallup well-being survey categories – career, social, financial, physical, community – depresses me. It’s not just that the words themselves denote banal categories with which to think about life. You know that they also have the force of committee interpretations by statisticians and economists behind them. Committees that probably included no writers of imaginative fiction or speculative philosophy.

The very consensual familiarity of those concepts, which makes them suitable for designing metrics and assessments, makes them useless in actually figuring out what quality of life means. The idea that you take a survey repeatedly over a long period of time, with thousands of others, to figure out whether you are living a quality life is in the not-even-wrong category. That mental model is suitable for tracking your weight or height. Not for quality of life.

An indicator of the sort of absurdity that results when you take such thinking seriously is the research finding that money does not buy happiness beyond a point. Or more precisely, that subjective self-reported “happiness” does not correlate with income above $75,000 or so, in the US.

Why is the hypothesis that we earn incomes in order to buy happiness from some sort of standard-life-script store even a reasonable one, worthy of research?

How about money as a creative stab at attaining retirement security using something other than a tax-law-incentivized 401(k) plan? Money as planning for kids’ futures outside of colleges? Money as a Plan B for health emergencies that occur while uninsured? Money as flexibility in when and how you can choose to do stuff? Money as a necessary kind of fuel in status races we instinctively engage in? Money as the capacity to spiral into stoned, drunken debauchery? Money as something to blow on a yacht in order to investigate the idea that sailing in luxury around the world might be create meaning in life? Money for individuals to invest in building both useless first-world apps and Mars rockets?

In short, money as freedom to decide what quality of life means to us?

***

To start with the can-money-buy-happiness question is to assume you have a valid framework within which to make sense of what people might mean by a loaded-and-focused word like happiness.

To measure the ability to pursue quality of life in terms of income is to assume the validity of prevailing scripts that classify quality of life as a consumption commodity. Something to be acquired through some mix of direct provisioning by others, and cash outlays within restricted categories.

The problem goes deeper than this artificial separation. How is it meaningful to ask how income correlates with happiness without asking precisely how much control we have in spending it? Could the $75,000 threshold discovered merely be an artifact of enforced consumption rigidity in middle and upper-class scripts, where marginal income dollars above that amount are already earmarked for socially expected and institutionally incentivized expenses (think home-buying and saving for college)? A sort of “cost of doing business” in a particular social class? Do people who flout those norms manage to move the threshold higher? Or are they penalized so harshly that they regret flouting those norms? Do mavericks see increasing happiness levels up to $200,000 instead of $75,000? Or does the threshold drop because of the increased financial burdens that come with breakaway scripts?

Why isn’t the most important financial threshold in the inner lives of many, rich or poor, the subjective notion of fuck-you money, the first thing to study? Why isn’t there a major UN study tracking what people consider fuck-you money? Why aren’t Nobel-winning behavioral economists designing clever experiments to tease out how we think about this quantity? It is, after all, our main subjective measure of how not-free we perceive ourselves to be.

Nobody, other than bureaucrats who fund research and economists, asks the question “how much income is needed to be happy?” We already know that talking about happiness without talking about what trade-offs we are making to pursue it is meaningless. The rest of us real people ask the question “how much wealth is required to be free of scripts that dictate what trade-offs you are allowed to make?”

It does not really matter if you generalize beyond income to various in-kind quality-of-life elements like a clean environment or access to healthcare. If you are not measuring prevailing levels of freedom you are measuring nothing relevant. Until people start answering $0 to the fuck-you-money question across the planet, you can be sure that they do not perceive themselves to be free enough to properly pursue quality of life.

The interesting question is not what money doesn’t buy us that economists assume we do, but what it does buy us that we seek it so obsessively.

***

At the other end of the spectrum from happiness-money and fuck-you-money, we have dollar-a-day politics.

McDonald’s was recently excoriated for daring to actually engage the question of how to live on a minimum wage in the United States.

On the other side of the planet in India, a politician recently found himself in trouble for suggesting that it was still possible to have a hearty meal in Mumbai for Rs. 12 (about $0.20), as part of an ongoing debate to redefine the poverty line at Rs. 33.30 per day (about $0.54).

It isn’t that these suggestions are offensive in and of themselves. I actually found the McDonald’s chart thought-provoking (even though the motives behind it are probably not-quite-best-faith) and the Indian politician’s remark a reasonable enough factoid to throw into the debate.

The problem isn’t specific stupid numbers or specific ideas about how to live on certain incomes. The problem is that we have stupid discussions about numbers because we cannot have intelligent discussions about what quality of life means. Our culture forces us to argue about how others ought to pursue quality-of-life. You there, save for college. You there, buy a house. You there, get your calories and daily protein requirement before you get your psychadelics.

Both McDonald’s and the Indian politician might have sparked far more interesting debates if they had included the local price of pot in their speculations about the budgets of others. But of course, they couldn’t, because they would have faced even greater punishment for tangibly highlighting freedom as potentially being a component of a quality life.

It is easy to dismiss such ideas as the  criticism of hard-working bureaucrats in thankless jobs by first-world residents working the top of their Maslow hierarchy of needs. Perhaps those navigating the bottom of the hierarchy of needs in Africa benefit from hard-nosed attempts to reduce poetic thoughts about freedom into clean-edged models and metrics.

The problem is, this approach doesn’t work in Africa either. And it is paternalistic to suggest that it does.

***

The basics. It is perhaps the favorite phrase of aid workers working to bring modern conveniences to the millions who lack it, starting with the basics, such as clean water and early childhood healthcare.

It is not that the act of providing the basics is itself a paternalistic act. But the notions of quality-of-life informing the act can make it so, and radically affect the structure of societies that start to emerge as the provisioning mechanisms harden into institutions. We know this because over a century, that is precisely what happened in the “developed” world that so many are miserable in today.

The disturbing paternalism in the idea lies in the implicit assumption that those who lack clean water can be treated as desperate water-seeking zombies with no higher aspirations. That when water is the immediate priority, it is the also the only priority and the most important priority. That it would be somehow wrong of a poor person to choose to spend money on a temporary escape by watching a movie for instance, before prioritizing clean water. That it would be even wronger for that person to succumb to hopelessness and find solace in getting stoned for a while.

When you actually meet people living in tough conditions, you realize that they don’t exactly make up dreams for their lives in some UN-approved sequence; water first, food next, healthcare third, money fourth, philosophy when I am rich, alcohol and marijuana never. With “democracy” injected somewhere along the an S-curve from pre-industrial squalor to post-industrial anomie.

Humans are capable of nurturing rockstar dreams even while they are schlepping their twenty-miles-a-day to fetch water. There is a reason there is music and art in all societies, not just the privileged ones.

Basketball — hardly a “basic” —  has arguably done more to help the Black community in America heal the scars of slavery and overcome the tribulations of life in violent ghettos than clumsy efforts to provide the “basics.” In India, I suspect denial of access to street cricket and Bollywood music would cause riots faster than turning off the water supply. We are willing to trade running tap water for a mile-long walk if the alternative is to give up TV.

Even for those literally living on less than a dollar a day, the quality of life is about more than a hard daily scramble for the “basics.” Humans strive to live full lives whatever their situation. This requires freedom. 

Fear of this fact is at the root of all authoritarian attempts to model and measure the quality of life.

***

I sometimes get the feeling that benefactors who set out to help others navigate by their own notions of what constitutes unsightly and smelly squalor in their lives rather than what counts as quality in beneficiaries’ lives.

We are afraid that if we allow those with less the right to choose what quality of life means to them, they may make choices that lower the quality of our lives. If a slum-dweller chooses to use resources to buy a TV rather than address the squalor that intrudes on the visual and olfactory lives of the rich, there is a problem. A problem to be addressed by taking away cash and offering in-kind “aid” in the form of housing and sanitation projects that conform to the aesthetic priorities of the rich.

Worse yet, a minimum-wage worker might find balanced quality-of-life by doing her work at a fast-food chain with visibly sullen reluctance, and finding relief elsewhere. A problem to be solved by offering motivational seminars in the workplace and requiring fast-food workers to sport duchenne smiles and pieces of flair while they are visible to the rich.

And perhaps worst of all, the slum-dweller, once basic needs are taken care of, might use his next few marginal dollars to feed his now-foregrounded resentments with radical literature rather than spend money on showers, haircuts and turning his shanty into less of an eyesore.

I suspect the fear of such choices is what makes us fearful of simply giving the poor money rather than solutions to what we perceive as the problems in their lives. Money has its problems as a proxy for freedom, but it is better than offering a sandwich to a homeless person because you suspect he might use the equivalent amount of money to buy a beer instead.

The free response of less privileged individuals to perceptions of relative deprivation is not always what the more privileged hope it will be. If I were poor, and had to choose between eating more protein and escaping the hopelessness of my life for a few hours a day by watching TV while stoned, I’d probably choose the stoned TV-watching. Like millions of actual poor people seem to. Along with their $75,000+ middle-class peers.

This should tell us something: whatever its definition, quality of life cannot be a partial notion that focuses on “basics” and tables questions of freedom and self-actualization for future discussion when all participants are well-fed, watered, bathed, clothed and clean-shaven. Because people don’t define or seek out quality piecemeal, let alone in a sequence.

As Macaulay once noted: “If men are to wait for liberty till they become good and wise in slavery, they may indeed wait forever.”

***

So the search for meaning in life does not wait on the satisfaction of basic needs. Any notion of quality of life that starts with a breakdown and classification of quality of life into more and less basic needs is starting in the wrong place. Any model that conceptualizes development as a progressive fulfillment of needs in a predictable sequence, and offers aid constrained by that sequence (or worse, penalizes attempts by beneficiaries to break out of the sequence), is headed for a very quick unraveling.

You need music and literature even when you are hungry and ill. There is a reason middle-class revolutionaries stir up popular passions among the hungry and dispossessed with theology, philosophical rhetoric and self-actualization narratives rather than narratives driven by the logic of access to basic resources.

Prisoners in California currently on a hunger strike to protest solitary confinement policies illustrate the poverty of such linear-sequential approaches to quality of life. I know nothing about the issue or the merits of various positions in the debate. What interests me is the undoubted symbolic significance of refusing satisfaction of a “more basic” need in order to protest non-satisfaction of a “less basic” one. Though I am not a Gandhi fan, he understood the power of such signalling. It is the most basic way to undermine the mental models of those who presume to dictate what “basics” ought to mean to you and whether you are competent to decide for yourself.

***

We vastly underestimate the degree to which humans will prioritize recognition and honor, even under the most extreme of conditions.

To provide the basics in order to allow the recipients of charity to make more choices as they see fit is to understand quality of life.

To provide the basics as the first step in a fully scripted development path, deviation from which invites withdrawal of the basics, is to be paternalistic about it. In a way, it is our modern version of the medieval idea that the needy should “know their place” and “not forget their station.”

I don’t know much about the history of civil rights in America, but I remember a lecture explaining the difference between the views of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois in precisely these terms.

It is the difference between quality of life as an affordance to be provisioned and quality of life as a freedom to be protected. 

In America itself, the conception of quality of life itself started with a very shaky idea, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is the contradiction between the second and third elements of that phrase that is the problem.

In order for a definition of quality of life to be meaningful, it needs to include a mechanism that allows it to be challenged and reconstructed by individuals. Happiness in America has become such a loaded signifier of entrenched scripts that it is less than useless to talk about it.

We should be thinking in terms of life, liberty and the pursuit of fuck-you money. The last element is not a restatement of the idea of liberty. Liberty, understood in the traditional sense, is freedom from having others arbitrarily beat you up, lock you up, or kill you. Pursuit of fuck-you money is much more than that: the right to seek resources to script your own definition of quality.

***

So to repeat, the Maslow pyramid isn’t some sort of sequential script for life. Once truly acute stressors — we’re talking being chased by lions right now – are removed, the quality of life is a function of the whole pyramid, not just the level you happen to be navigating at that moment. Life isn’t a video game. You never really complete a level and move on. You don’t need to complete a level before being afforded a glimpse of the next one. You don’t need to tackle the levels in a set order.

Heck, you don’t need to go to Africa, India, American prisons or the home of a McDonald’s worker to appreciate how we pursue quality in life. Just look at your own. I, for instance, happen to be royally screwing up all sane notions of “retirement security” in order to pursue some sort of self-actualization through writing. At an age — 38 — when Fidelity is emailing me notices informing me that the investment choices in my retirement portfolio are “not appropriate for [my] age.”

It is easy to let yourself believe that the “middle class script” that we all like to criticize these days is merely some irrational pattern of individually chosen behavior that exists purely in culture and persists because we adopt it through mindless imitation. Gemeinschaft stupidity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Imitation is actually not a particularly important force. In fact, as an expression of free choice, it is entirely defensible as a way of picking a life-script.

The problem is that there is more than imitation at work here.

The script is hard-wired into the institutional landscape in ways that make it nearly impossible to break out of. From government programs that navigate by statistical models of quality of life to retirement planning infrastructure like the 401(k) program in the United States, to appropriate-behavior cues that are relentlessly reinforced in a million little ways, ranging from paternalistic emails from Fidelity to regulations that make it vastly simpler to seek paychecks than business income.

The justification for such mechanisms is usually conflict pre-emption. The systems are supposedly designed to ensure that your pursuit of your idea of a quality life does not get in the way of others pursuits.

That supposition does not hold up to scrutiny. But I won’t go there today.

***

When UN economists celebrate some book-keeping milestone towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals, nobody really feels like joining them. Most have no idea what precisely is worth celebrating. When you get to more ambitious constructs, like the Happy Planet Index, you get greater absurdity, not greater insight.

Human life, modeled by economists, measured by bureaucrats, and celebrated by statisticians, seems to miss the point in some deep way. If we need those sorts of experts to tell us what constitutes a good life, and whether or we’ve achieved it, something is already very wrong.

The industrial approach to the quality of life is less about actually ensuring subjective quality of life via increasing freedom, and more about achieving stabilizing conditions via more complete provisioning. Conditions under which nobody is acutely distressed enough to disrupt a prevailing social order. Ensuring “happiness” or anything else is not the point. Reducing the urgency of the desire to define happiness for yourself is the point.

And so we are told that money does not buy happiness above $75,000 a year via a conjuring trick of a question that allows us to believe that our own definitions of happiness are in play. It is a lie in the same category as the ones parents tell their children when they cannot grant freedoms, or do not want to do so, you don’t really want to go to Disneyland, there’s nothing there really, our local theme park is much better. 

Money does not buy happiness not because it cannot, but because the freedom to spend it intelligently is locked away in institutionally advantaged scripts that make irresistible claims on marginal discretionary dollars above that amount.

Which is why fuck you money is the right term for aspiring to more. To reach for $75,0001 while rejecting the approved list of ways to spend the extra $1 is to say fuck you to somebody else’s notion of a happiness-and-well-being script.  Incentives to conform to said script be damned.

***

A deep truth about the human condition as captured in the Maslow hierarchy is that it is much easier for humans to help each other with acute needs at lower levels of the hierarchy. For all non-acute needs, and acute needs in the upper levels, the only defensible way to help others is to increase their freedom of action. Whether they choose to make themselves happy or miserable with that freedom is up to them.

So how did we get ourselves into a situation where institutions, politicians and economists are trying to tell us what quality of life ought to mean? How did we get to the point where arbitrary ideas like home ownership and a college education have been inserted into the script of oughts and shoulds?

In a way, the King of Bhutan is to blame for this state of affairs. When it was first introduced in 1972, the idea of Gross National Happiness seemed like a farcical idea from a pristine Buddhist Eden far from the concerns and constraints of modernity.

And it was farcical, but only visibly so because of the pre-industrial context. Industrial-era happiness scripts have been pulling a King-of-Bhutan on large populations since about 1900. The good king lent such macro-scale script engineering efforts a kind of hippie-Buddhist legitimacy that they were unable to achieve on their own.

Four decades later, with the rise and fall of positive psychology and the rise of Tony Hsieh style corporate cultural engineering, the Big Idea from Bhutan idea seems serious in a way it never did before.

Whether it is a UN committee or a Buddhist king doing the defining doesn’t really matter. To the extent that freedom is a central element of it, happiness defined is happiness denied.

In an episode of Yes, Minister titled “The Quality of Life” that aired in 1981, at the dawn of the Thatcher-Reagan era, Jim Hacker, the hapless minister decides to tilt at some Bhutanese windmills. Troubled by the ugly skylines of modernity, Hacker takes on the cause of a struggling urban farm at the heart of London, convinced that preserving a little patch of nature for urban kids would be a moral victory of sorts. He gets his victory, but it is a Pyrhhic one. He finds himself manipulated into supporting a property developer’s agenda elsewhere, in order to preserve the farm.

The fictional farce of Yes, Minister has turned into the genuine tragicomic farce that is the kerfuffle over Hayes Valley Farm in San Francisco.

***

I’ve been making a lot of fun in recent months of those who frame social evolution as a dialectical conflict between a human notion of the quality of life and an industrial notion of what it takes to sustain it.

I make no apologies for that. I find first-world artisans, Jeffersonian small businesses and other sorts of small-and-local ideologues funny. Funny because of the cluelessness of their underlying understanding of how the world does or could work.

But I do sympathize with the motives driving such behaviors. In a way, such behaviors constitute a rejection of industrial-age notions of quality of life developed by statisticians, bureaucrats and economists, and attempt to recover a more meaningful notion.

Right problem, wrong approach. Not aesthetically or ideologically wrong, but physics wrong. But still, it is better than the not-even-wrong approach of UN economists.

So it is a start. We have asked the right question. What does it mean to live a quality life today? 

If the answer is sought via a survey, or measured via an economic indicator, it is wrong. If the answer is philosophically different for Africans without access to the “basics” and privileged San Franciscans fighting to preserve an urban farm, it is wrong.

An objective, defensible notion of quality of life must exhibit, at the philosophical level, a certain context-independent universality  that reflects the shared human condition embedded within technological realities.

At the same time, at the subjective level, it must start with a freedom to define quality-of-life in more tangible, non-philosophical terms, for oneself.

Yes, paradoxical, I know, like those recursive acronyms computer programmers like.

The two must harmonize. The neo-Jeffersonians do have a word for it. They call it empowerment. The ability to decide what quality of life means to you, and pursue it.

Where they go wrong is in becoming attached to a fixed notion of what it means to be human. That it is an ideal created and promoted by a grassroots culture that romanticizes pre-industrial realities, rather than economists or Bhutanese royals, does not make it any less confining.

Sadly attachment to a pre-industrial notion of human means regress, not progress, which is perhaps worse than being told by the UN whether you are living a quality life.

***

In a way, it’s like the eighties and cyberpunk never happened.

We regressed from the adult appreciation and acceptance of technological realities that became widespread during that decade, to an unreconstructed revival of 60s and 70s idealism, repackaged in the language of social media and tyrannical #Occupy collectivism.

Rather than evolve to what Oliver Wendell Holmes called the “simplicity on the other side of complexity” we are regressing to the simplicity on “this side of complexity.”

Like Holmes, “I would not give a farthing for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

The journey requires us to make sense of the hump in the middle, technological modernity, and reconstruct our notions of quality of life, individually and collectively around it.

I recently encountered a manifesto that’s been doing the rounds, the accelerationist manifesto, that does slightly better than neo-Jeffersonian romantic dreaming. Unfortunately, while it valiantly attempts to scale the mountain of technological complexity and get to the other side, it ultimately fails because it too remains attached to a 1960s notion of what it means to be human (as best as I was able to understand that document).

It frames an impossible problem: pursuing an idealized human notion of quality of life while acknowledging technological realities.

***

If the humanists of both Jeffersonian and Accelerationist persuasions fail to reconstruct their identities around technological modernity, another promising group, the liberaltarian technologist crowd, gets a little bit farther. Not far enough, but well beyond humanists of any stripe.

The operating categories of this crowd — entrepreneurship, PUA, passive income, 4-Hour Body, online communities  – suggests a mental model of quality of life that is not radically different from the one informing the Gallup well-being survey or the UN Millennium Development Goals. It’s still career, social, financial, physical, community.

The difference though, is that the base constructs have been loosened to the point that there can be significant individual autonomy in figuring out at least locally viable referents.

There is not much appreciative engagement of technological realities, but there is certainly highly competent instrumental engagement. Unlike the humanists, the liberaltarians can and do hack the planet to mine freedom for themselves.

But ultimately, a failure to appreciate one’s condition via abstractions becomes a failure to change it in more aggressive ways. This is a failure of imagination. The liberaltarians are not attached to romanticizied notions of human. But they are not able to offer alternative notions of being that rise above particulars like SEO consultant in Bali. 

The consequences are immediate in their own lives. The big, dark secret of the lifestyle design movement is failed relationships (or failure to even form relationships). When you cannot construct shared explicit meanings, your social possibilities narrow to those who make similar choices and therefore share tacit meanings with you.

Nature abhors a conceptual vacuum. Where new appreciative constructs are lacking, old ones get resurrected in repackaged ways. Any day now, I expect some lifestyle designer in Bali to collaborate with a quantified-self bro-scientist in San Francisco and come up with a notion of minimum-viable lean life. And then the UN will turn that into a survey and include an entrepreneurship metric in its models.

Freedom is not the same as access to entrepreneurial modes of being. That is still provisioning with an element of gambling.

But at least we’ve made another small improvement. From not even wrong questions and answers to right question, wrong answer, we’ve arrived at right question, workable starter answer. 

We are getting somewhere. Frustratingly slowly and painfully, but we’re moving.

It’s a start.

Note: this essay is a sort of companion piece of sorts to one that appeared in Aeon Magazine a couple of weeks ago, that you might also enjoy. That piece explores the specifics of how quality of life exists as a provisioned set of affordances rather than a set of freedoms. 

Eli Schiff July 31, 2013 at 6:32 pm

You raise some interesting points about the way we define wealth, and that self-actualization and a respite from the stressors of life are often perceived as more valuable by the individual than bourgeois indicators of wealth, regardless of income. This is important for us all to recognize. Still, I think that the truly wealthy (not in the $75,000 range) know this all too well and encourage us to be falsely satiated by the abundance of distractions and debt-funded pleasures that you mention: drugs, technology/media, public spectacles, bread and circuses etc. I also am unsure that we will make it past the entrepreneurial delusion towards more global, non-insular political/economic movements for self-actualization, because the prospect of changing the economic paradigm seems much less practical than life-hacking our way to an ‘alternative’ script of happiness.

On one hand, we in the lower and middle classes shouldn’t resign ourselves to the default scripts of banal wage-slavery. On the other hand, does seeking temporary subjective freedoms, whether within our means or not, over paternalistic ‘quality of life’ measures make for better life prospects in the pursuit of self-actualization/fuck-you-money status? I fear it may not, and may serve to distract us from the aim of building a society capable of affording the freedom of post-scarcity mentality to the masses. Of course it’s not an either/or scenario. A combination could potentially be better, though I suspect not. I’m of the mind that a third way is necessary. I’m just not aware of what that would entail at the moment.

I could be missing your point about the cluelessness of those who seek industrial notions of quality of life/happiness vs. those who seek human notions of it, but all in all I fear that promoting an individualistic sense of human happiness only furthers to mystify the inequity of freedom to self-actualize between the strata in society, so I’m not sure the libertarian/entrepreneurial philosophy is actually a step in the right direction.

(By the way, I love the reference to cyberpunk.)

Rick Barber July 31, 2013 at 7:51 pm

The Easterlin Paradox is far from settled science, but it’s something that really wants to be true.

They are using the Gallup World Poll which uses this as a measure of well-being:

“Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. Suppose we say that the top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you, and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?”

The New Stylized Facts About Income and Subjective Well-Being
with Daniel Sacks and Betsey Stevenson
Emotion, 12(6) 1181-1187, December 2012.
Economists in recent decades have turned their attention to data that asks people how happy or satisfied they are with their lives. Much of the early research concluded that the role of income in determining well-being was limited, and that only income relative to others was related to well-being. In this paper, we review the evidence to assess the importance of absolute and relative income in determining well-being. Our research suggests that absolute income plays a major role in determining well-being and that national comparisons offer little evidence to support theories of relative income. We find that well-being rises with income, whether we compare people in a single country and year, whether we look across countries, or whether we look at economic growth for a given country. Through these comparisons we show that richer people report higher well-being than poorer people; that people in richer countries, on average, experience greater well-being than people in poorer countries; and that economic growth and growth in well-being are clearly related. Moreover, the data show no evidence for a satiation point above which income and well-being are no longer related.

http://users.nber.org/~jwolfers/papers/NewStylizedFacts(Emotion).pdf

Josh W July 31, 2013 at 10:57 pm

There’s a certain fascinating engineering thinking that goes on when people try to consider the minimum standards under which poor people can live. It’s very similar to the protein packs and recycled body fluids of the space program.

The thing that makes it grotesque rather than inspiring is that rather than pushing against engineering considerations to create variety and options for the crew, as has been developing in space travel over the last 40 years, people dealing with the poor are trying to crush down to that merest biological level that the space program started with.

On the one hand, I think aid and engineering that deals with this basic biological and infrastructural level is important: Because (as I think you have observed before) although coping strategies and normal human life require a spread of everything from hobbies to love to exercise to gossip to protein, you can get substantial benefits across a range of domains by dealing with certain basic and less dramatic things.

It is to an extent paternalistic to assume that you can see these variables when others can’t, but when the resources of people are absorbed in small scale multi-variable optimisation of an existing pattern of lifestyle, they can often be too busy just living to be able to pull off these improvements, or not be able to put in enough money or effort at a time to pull them off.

For example, although parents need their children to work with them on their farm, and the children gain satisfaction in a number of ways doing this, becoming educated can produce a step change in the possibilities open to those children. Children working with their parents is often an efficient mix of parenting, cultural transmission of expertise, labour etc. just not very free.

So paradoxically, focusing “on the basics” can be exactly about breaking a restriction to similar lifestyles caught in familiar recreation of needs.

The details become very important though, as although projects can become fundamentally disruptive in a positive sense, offering a kind of breathing room from basic demands, they can also replicate the flaws of our culture, such as absurd prioritization of becoming qualified over becoming skilful, or lack of consideration of local or open repair.

And on the other hand, in the absence of a framework of development, thinking of basic needs can become a kind of life support culture, an attempt to subvert the bargaining position of the other by analysing their cost structure.

I would say that a fair and reasonable “generic life” is actually one defined by the absence of optimisation; optimisation is always a trade off between specificity and various costs, the extent to which your optimisation is generic, and can be externally derived, is the extent to which your freedom of lifestyle is being constrained. Of course, in practice, optimisation is very important, as people save on certain things in order to be able to specialise in others, but if a life can hit all those various variables and be wasteful or indeterminate? Then you have something approaching prosperity.

This is why I find Veblen style leisure class waste so annoying, because although in theory you could show your wealth by performing a generic lifestyle really really badly, you could instead use that flexibility to do interesting things, trading in the status of the generically wealthy for the self-satisfaction of the specialised and strange.

Also I’ll note (although this should be obvious to most) that an absence of optimisation is not precisely about waste, it’s about how controlled the variables have to be for success to be achieved. If someone’s doing splurges of conspicuous consumption backed up by extremely stringent cost control of various other areas, that’s both wasteful and poor! Conversely, things that enable a greater variability of life for a given set of resources would increase prosperity.

Venkat August 5, 2013 at 11:29 am

I really like the absence of optimization idea.

Craig August 1, 2013 at 1:48 am

Fantastic essay.

Too long to read at work but to compelling to click “Read Later(Never)”…. so I read it any way.

The seeds of future popular movements are being sown.

Stefan King August 1, 2013 at 4:31 am

“The big, dark secret of the lifestyle design movement is failed relationships (or failure to even form relationships).”

Touché. But then who has relationships that are up to the standards of old? What if freedom + relationships can’t be done? Strong ties beyond family simply don’t exist for most people, non-lifestyle designers included. In the case of nomadic minimalists, they tend to import the monk, ronin, or brigand archetypes in their personality. The residual (entrepreneurial) loneliness is sedated by getting drunk together in the usual lifestyle hot spots.

It’s part of a fundamental trade off. As Hugh MacLeod said, “The price of being a sheep is boredom. The price of being a wolf is loneliness. Choose one or the other, with great care.”

Non-lifestyle designers can only choose between having a family or being recluse. If you get a family before having ‘fuck you’-money and sowing your wild oats, you have UN-style happiness at home but are forced into loser deals that kill the fire inside. This is really zombie-scary to watch. These people have actually dead eyes. Being recluse could also waste your life in a different way.

When you start hacking the script you see the ugly truth that relationships are floating on a deeper, mostly subconscious transactional reality. The economics of it used to be obscured by traditional values but (post)-modernity forces everyone into the marketplace. The effects of this have been explored by PUA bloggers and novelists such as Michel Houellebecq and Brett Easton Ellis.

The only way past this is to have a society where relationships don’t have a default, built-in risk of a hustler/sucker dynamic. That takes scripts with stable sets of shared values that are perceived as fair. A new kind of tradition that spells out to everyone what’s what in relationships. Similar to medieval times when people didn’t question their place. Until then it’s either being a wolf or a sheep, and relationships are a luxury for those with enough resources (fuck you money) to pay for them.

Venkat August 6, 2013 at 2:09 pm

Yes, there is an interesting trade-off here: stick to an old script that is more widely shared, or move to a new one that is less shared and creates relationship risk.

It’s like an early adopter problem in jumping to a new technology.

G August 18, 2013 at 10:48 am

Relationship risk is nothing like early adopter technology risk, and it’s somewhat disconcerting to see you compare them as if similar.

If you’re in a position to early-adopt a technology, then you’re also in a position to discard it if it doesn’t work for you, and choose something else (the obvious exceptions being life-saving medical tech and whatever tech is a condition of your employment). I went through that a number of times across a pretty wide spectrum of technology, and in the end, those choices were solely mine, both when they were ahead of the curve and when they resisted trends and when they were orthogonal to trends.

Not the same for relationship outcomes of lifestyle choices. There the choices are not solely one’s own: your choices are half of a relationship, the other person’s choices are the other half, and both must find a sufficient degree of common ground for a relationship to exist. There is always the risk that one might end up isolated and chronically lonely, and the fear of that outcome is a powerful motivator for conformity. The path of the independent thinker is not for those with high field-dependency, but for those who can conceive and find satisfaction in solitude and solitary pursuits, thereby thwarting the fear of isolation, and at the same time selecting for a new possible set of relationships (though admittedly a much smaller set).

The plain fact is that the more unusual your path, the smaller is the possible set of persons with whom to form relationships. Consider the situation of a gay black man who enlists in the Army, goes into an MOS having to do with countermeasures to biowarfare, develops a love of biochemistry, and returns to civilian life to earn a PhD in that field and go to work for a major pharmaceutical company. Consider someone who in their 20s starts building a small business in an obscure or specialized field, that ultimately becomes modestly successful (in other words a fairly conventional small biz success story rather than the hyper-hyped Silicon Valley myth). Both of these individuals are on highly individual paths that absorb most of their time and attention during the period when “mundanes” are frantically dating and mating and preparing to “settle down” (interesting phrase, that) into the normal consumer/commuter lifestyle. One is a minority within a minority by nature (gay and black), the other is a minority by choice (small business), and their ranges of potential friends and partners reflects those realities.

I would hypothesize that the reason that those of us who think for ourselves and choose idiosyncratic paths are able to do so with any degree of success, is that the satisfactions and goals of doing so are stronger for us than the mating instinct and the desire for societal approval of our choices (for me the creative drives are approximately a decimal place stronger than the sex drive). That does not nullify the risk, it just makes the potential downside less aversive than it is for the majority, and the potential upside sufficient to justify the risk.

Tony Pace August 1, 2013 at 11:41 am

I’m unsure of why it’s unreasonable to expect people to feel happier if they have fuck-you-money. I’m more inclined to the position that it’s a mirage that dances out of sight whenever you arrive where you last thought it was. The fantasy of fuck-you leads to the reality of getting used to the taste of shit.

It would be interesting to see what people at what income levels thought it was how much, though.

I’m an expatriate teacher in Taiwan, and I see a fair number of lifestyle designers about. Taiwan is comfortable, inexpensive to live in, and has pretty girls. Tim Fenriss started his schtick here.

They seem to hang around in bars they can’t really afford and act a lot like Jim being clever, or at least thinking he’s clever. There’s a tendency for them to start scamming their peers when they’re in financial trouble – or maybe just hoping to find their fuck-you money (but 20 000 $ at a time?). I look at it as crowds of aspirational sociopaths without any ‘there’ to ground things. The value at stake is minimal.

The game seems to be trying to cast others into the roles of clueless and loser, usually with minimal success. Once people with a sociopathic self-image start to feel this happening to them, they simply leave, maybe to try again elsewhere, maybe to become an aspirational loser. Another lifestyle designer arrives and the game begins again.

Greg Linster August 1, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Venkat,

I think most members of the Jeffersonian middle-class – as you call them – are not as clueless as you think they are about economic logic and efficiency. I find myself being able to identify with Jeffersonian middle-class to some degree, which I think explains where my sympathy comes from. Economic efficiency is valuable up to a point, but the chief value in becoming efficient at some things is that it enables you the luxury to be inefficient with others. This freedom to determine what is and isn’t worth being inefficient at is the chief benefit of ‘fuck you money’. If that means making pickles in your basement, who am I to judge? I also associate the idea of the Jeffersonian middle-class with antifragility. In addition to the beautiful aesthetics of an artisanal world, there are other benefits as well when you think on a larger scale (e.g., political benefits). If a small community or nation were to specialize too much, they would risk being fatally harmed by any exogenous shocks to the production of certain items, especially during a time of war.

Giggletree August 2, 2013 at 11:07 am

No mention is made of the human being’s insatiable craving for status and the incredible costs associated with the appearance of high status and “saving face”. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Africa, where I live. The most humble, ragged gardener might not have enough to eat, but he has a cellphone. The most put-upon middle class worker will buy a new car every few years. The costs of funerals and weddings are astronomical, while people live out their lives in shacks. Saving face with the family and looking successful is more important than the freedom that comes from having no debt. Happiness in this part of the world comes from other people’s envy and admiration, whether it’s based on reality or not.

Nuno November 12, 2013 at 3:05 pm

I think that is precisely the point of the whole text: you are regarding that as the “wrong” thing to do because maybe you wouldn’t do it. You know what? I wouldn’t either. Personally I would stay out of debt but that’s because I share your view. However, why shouldn’t THEY be free to have theirs?

jld August 2, 2013 at 11:40 am

LOL, lots of words for a much simpler point: Is the there any reason for “happiness” to have the same meaning for everybody?
As well as for any other “philosophical” concept BTW, and then any norms or statistics about these is pretty futile.

MS August 2, 2013 at 11:53 pm

I loved your Aeon piece, and enjoy your blog in general, but I thought this piece was really quite hopelessly bad, because you refuse to recognize that living life well is not up to the *individual*, it’s fundamentally social. People are social animals, we can’t even exist without a social template implanted in us before we are old enough to function independently, and as adults we are physically, socially, and psychologically dependent on our surrounding community. So we will not make progress on improving human happiness until we ask what collective institutions are necessary to support it, and how we can act collectively to achieve those institutions. The glorification of autonomy (a fantasy) and dumping on collectivism (the starting point of reality) here just short-circuits clear thinking. Any notion of ‘autonomy’ as lived out in particular lives is a social product of a particular set of collective institutions, and if you want to improve the lived quality of your particular autonomy-fantasy you need to start by working on those institutions. There is no escape from politics.

June Gorman August 3, 2013 at 2:24 pm

Thank you, MS. This seems to me such a fundamental “miss” in this very interesting piece, even though Venkatesh glances by this fundamental truth in all human societies (and many animal ones) when he states about the “libertarian technologist crowd” that:

“The consequences are immediate in their own lives. The big, dark secret of the lifestyle design movement is failed relationships (or failure to even form relationships). When you cannot construct shared explicit meanings, your social possibilities narrow to those who make similar choices and therefore share tacit meanings with you.”

That is indeed a “big, dark secret” that forgetting this natural primacy of people as “social animals” as you so clearly state MS, creates a big, dark hole in most people that they then need to fill with the other “things” and mind-numbing drugs Venkat suggests are equally as viable. Personally, this has been most obvious to me in meeting and seeing the lives of the very “rich” and very “hole-y” libertarian technologists I have met and known, many who when rich “enough”, try to spend that money in buying back their social relationships at an ego-maniacal level, at the status of unelected “King”. (Bill Gates anyone?) The misery for the rest of society caused by this deep inequity (which history and not just the UN has always found to be the number one determinant of a society’s social health — the obscene, unfair gaping disparity of wealth in any society) is more evident, but so it seems to me is the emotional emptiness and often failed relationships of further growth, in this exalted group. Emptiness and loneliness are thus often aligned, and thus being “poor” is often mitigated far more by the rest of the social relations in a group or society, than having access to numbing TV or drugs or “fuck-you money” (that phrase alone says an awful lot about the emotional health underlying that desire).

Even Bhutan addresses this necessary social-emotional reality, as do many indigenous groups and spiritual societies. Few would argue for a “healthy” result and potential for happiness, in those who fail to see it as a basic human value anymore, at all.

Inez Mond November 1, 2013 at 6:07 pm

You’re setting up a false dichotomy: either you promiscuously form emotional connections with every member of your community, or you neglect all human relationships. As Venkat points out in his Authoritah post, you get to make an individual choice about every potential relationship: is this person a tool or an interesting human being with whom I want to bond? Two people can plan an unusual lifestyle that suits both their needs because they can talk at length about what they want and what sacrifices they’re willing to make. Twenty people can’t all share that kind of deep connection, so they have to resort to a one-size-fits-none compromise lifestyle that leaves everyone trapped and dissatisfied.

In addition, your assertion that being poor is mitigated by strong relationships isn’t supported by most of the evidence I’ve seen. Read “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” about the sabotage and distrust among slum dwellers in India, check out this NYT article about the disconnection and cynicism among young working-class adults, or consider that stable nuclear families are vastly more common among college-educated adults compared to high school graduates and below.

MS August 3, 2013 at 12:01 am

Or, to be clearer about the conclusion there — individuals can evade politics, finding means of escape determined by the collective institutions they are evading (like an animal’s life is shaped by niches left available by its ecology), but if *we* want to make progress we need to take on institutional change. That involves learning from the forms of supposedly antiquated ‘collectivist’ thinking that you start this essay by mocking.

Josh W August 3, 2013 at 7:48 am

Hmm, the thing is though that things like autonomism or communism form practical ideals; ideas that depend for their rhetorical and cognitive force on being real alternatives to the current “practical” situation even if as some infinite limit.

In other words, if we just treat autonomy as a fantasy, and interpret all social meanings and structures in terms of societies, discourses etc. then although you may have some of the tools to produce change, you loose sight of your objective.

That’s not likely to happen because of those people who hold onto the ideal of autonomy, but in order to make practical steps towards it, you’d have to work out what autonomy entails on it’s own terms, not axiomatically preclude it’s success.

Equivalent problems exist with “the good society” too.

Daniel Silveyra August 4, 2013 at 9:18 pm

I read this immediately after posting. My point exactly. Would delete own post if I could.

Daniel Silveyra August 4, 2013 at 9:16 pm

Hello,

As far as I understood it, this post is about eudaimonia. Specifically, the author (VR)’s criticism of notions of eudaimonia embedded in existing wellfare measures and related public policy. Given that even the absence of measures/programmes is itself a policy choice, I would assume that VR has a prescriptive notion of eudaimonia as well. This article only describes that notion in the negative – i.e. what it is not.

I would like to see VR’s proposal for eudaimonia stated in more detail – at least enough to describe implied public policies. I can’t put one together from the text that isn’t a caricature of libertarianism, or that would add much to Amartya Sen’s well-developed capabilities framework.

This is not to say that criticism of the status quo is useless. However, things to get muddy when one goes from theory to practice.

Thanks for a thoughtful read. – Dan S.

Inez Mond November 1, 2013 at 6:19 pm

My understanding of Venkat ‘s point is that is there is no universal definition of eudaimonia. Each individual has to decide for themselves what has meaning and what to sacrifice when two desires conflict. He’s quite clear about his ideal policies: get rid of the prescriptive bureaucracies that decide a.) who deserves aid and b.) what kind, and instead give people direct cash transfers they can use to satisfy whatever need they think is most pressing, be it pot or a college education. In practice – and here I’m extrapolating – it sounds he’d support a basic income guarantee.

Venkat August 6, 2013 at 2:07 pm

This new Atlantic piece is apropos: Meaning is Healthier than Happiness

Kay August 7, 2013 at 12:42 am

Meaning = altruism = good = healthy.
Happiness = egoism = bad = sick.

I only wonder what was the intention of the choice of the image of the laughing Buddha? Should it discredit Buddhism as self-indulgent nihilism, just like Christians are used to do, who celebrate the excess of meaning over life in the figure of Christ “who died for all of us”?

From the article:

Does happiness lie in feeling good, as hedonists think, or in doing and being good, as Aristotle and his intellectual descendants, the virtue ethicists, think?

Aristotle believed that virtue is key to happiness but goods like health and wealthiness are also required. They contribute to a good life. His position wasn’t far off from modern materialism. On the end the hedonists leaned towards a moderation of desires and drawing pleasures from asceticism. So not quite the ( Dionysian? ), sex, drugs and rock’n roll life style which is abhorred by conservatives of all shades who are fascinated by that sort of evil to no end.

G August 18, 2013 at 11:36 am

Exactly where I was planning to go in comments. Quality of life measures very often seem to miss out on:

= Sense of meaning in relation to something greater than self. (Sometimes this is specified in conventionally religious terms, but doing so misses those of us who don’t match up with conventional religious categories.) (Interesting that the Atlantic piece uses almost the same language for this that I do.)

= Circumstances conducive to curiosity and the ability to seek viable answers to questions. (Access to a connected device is useful up to a point, as libraries and encyclopedias were in the 20th century, but beyond a given point additional resources may be needed to enable hands-on exploration and learning.)

= Ability to exercise one’s creative capabilities in a manner that produces tangible results (this could be as simple as storytelling or singing with friends around the fire, or as complex as filmmaking or civil engineering).

Other: I take strong issue with the phrase “fuck you money.” It directly denotes a stance toward others that is at once aggressive and defensive, and thereby reactive rather than creative or proactive. A more neutral term, with wider range of application, would be “independence money,” meaning sufficient money to enable making choices such as to change relationships (e.g. exit an abusive marriage), change jobs, gain free time, and broaden one’s horizons in whatever way (e.g. education). Defining freedom as the ability to say “fuck you” is also an exercise in exactly the kind of 1960s / 1970s reactionary radicalism and politics of “against” that you declaim.

This reminds me of the parable of the two Buddhist monks who were walking alongside a river, when they saw a young woman who was distressed at being unable to cross to the other side lest the fast water shred her dress. One of the monks offered the woman a ride across the river on his back, which she happily accepted. An hour later the other monk said “You know our order is strict about casual contact between the sexes. Why did you pick up that woman?” The first monk replied, “I left her on the other side of the river. Why are you still carrying her in your mind?”

Being able to say “fuck you” defines your choices according to that to which you’re saying “fuck you.” Liberation is in not having to say “fuck you” in the first place, but just making your choices based on your own true nature, un-swayed by reactions to circumstances.

Sean Murphy August 18, 2013 at 10:59 pm

G: have always thought that “fuck you money” was more about looking back and getting even but this is a much more thorough outline of why it’s a poor framework for entrepreneurial ambition. Please contact me at http://www.skmurphy.com/contact I would like to use this as a point of departure for a blog post. If you turn this into a blog post elsewhere please let me know where that is, this is too insightful to leave buried in the comments.

G August 19, 2013 at 12:33 am

Thanks, I’ll get in touch from the same address I post here, which starts with G and ends in .net, and I’ll use a relevant subject header.

In relation to business, the same principle should apply: start with an original idea of whatever kind, with intrinsic motivation and expertise, and then assess the likely business conditions (market, competition, startup costs, etc.) to decide whether to pursue it. Starting out by trying to second-guess where a trend will be and then position oneself to catch the trend, is reactive rather than proactive, and can lead to going into a field in which one lacks intrinsic expertise and motivation. As a generalization, start with the empirical and experiential facts on the ground, and then form testable hypotheses, and then choose and act.

It may be that one of the experiential facts on the ground is that one has a strong emotional reaction to a circumstance, and a desire to “get even.” OK, but then one exercises mindfulness and deliberate choice as to whether to allow that feeling to determine an outcome: and usually on reflection, that particular feeling (“get even”) is not one that should determine an outcome. I call this “accepting the data but not the conclusions.” The experiential data are real: one feels X and Y and Z. But the conclusion implied by any of those feelings, is not determinate. One can choose. (Nor should one waste time condemning oneself for having feelings that are at odds with one’s principles: acknowledge the feelings (subjective data) but make deliberate and principled choices.)

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foo August 11, 2013 at 1:01 pm

“I would not give a farthing for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

This wonderful quote reminds me of my longstanding wish for a sort of HaikuWiki – where everything in the world is explained in 25 words or less.

Matt August 12, 2013 at 10:08 pm

If you haven’t already, you should read “You Must Change Your Life,” by the great German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. He argues that religions are ultimately elaborate self-perfecting regimens. One might think of the concept of quality of life in the same way–a system of measuring how close to perfect a place or a mode of living can be.

I argued in an essay on Houston (my hometown) that the typical metrics for rating livability in cities often actually miss the mark. We think of things like picturesqueness or walkability, but miss other, less tangible criteria such as ease of access, abundance of resources, etc.

Sean Murphy August 17, 2013 at 6:58 pm

Do you have a a citation for the book, essay, or speech where Holmes says
“I would not give a farthing for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

I used a variation that is commonly found in quotation books in my January 2011 round up of quotes for entrepreneurs http://www.skmurphy.com/blog/2011/01/31/quotes-for-entrepreneurs-january-2011/

“I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity;
I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of complexity.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

but I was never able to find the original passage in his writing or speeches.

Venkat August 17, 2013 at 10:49 pm

No, I wasn’t able to trace the original.

Kay August 18, 2013 at 1:26 am

Even more quality of life you’ll gain from glossing over those maps which explain the world in seemingly intuitive categories: friendly to foreigners, racial tolerance, emotionality, Anti-Americanism, getting love yesterday, … and all those goes through the quality journalism of the Washington Post. Give up, Venkat.

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