I’ve been wondering about why lifestyle design, outside of a few special cases like young, single Western men moving to Thailand, is proving to be so hard for everybody trying to adapt to the Internet era. I think the key is what I call lifestyle rigidity, which can be understood in terms of the (informal and speculative) heavy-tail distribution below.
The central feature of lifestyle rigidity (my informal sociological generalization of the idea of wage rigidity) is what we might call dark energy: the lifestyle energy absorbed by parts of your lifestyle that are illegible to you. My claim is that this energy has increased radically in the last century, making the leap from Industrial Age to Internet Age much harder than the leap from Agrarian Age to Industrial Age. As a species, we’re carrying a lot more baggage this time around.
The History of Lifestyle Rigidity
I first started thinking about lifestyle rigidity several years ago, thanks to a passage in Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class about why shifting lifestyles is hard (italics mine):
…the standard of living which prevails at any time or at any given social altitude will in its turn have much to say as to the forms which honorific expenditure will take, and as to the degree to which this “higher need” will dominate a people’s consumption. In this respect the control exerted by the accepted standard of living is chiefly of a negative character; it acts almost solely to prevent recession from a scale of conspicuous expenditure that has once become habitual.
A standard of living is of the nature of habit…The relative facility with which an advance in the standard is made means that the life process is a process of unfolding activity and that it will readily unfold in a new direction whenever and wherever the resistance to self-expression decreases. But when the habit of expression along such a given line of low resistance has once been formed, the discharge will seek the accustomed outlet even after a change has taken place in the environment whereby the external resistance has appreciably risen.
Veblen’s implicit notion of lifestyle rigidity here is a function of habit-formation to use up the possibilities represented by increasing freedom, along lines determined by class signaling behaviors at a given period in history, and resistance to habit abandonment with freedom decreases.
Veblen’s analysis though, needs some modification for 2013. Lifestyle rigidity has increased a lot, which seems counter-intuitive because superficially, lifestyles seem to have gotten more flexible.
One sign is that there are a lot fewer people heading to Asia to reinvent their lives than there were people flooding into America (and within America, into the West) 100-150 years ago.
Lifestyle Dark Energy
Think of your lifestyle as an information structure described by a long list of variables: where you live, where you work, how much you earn, marital status, visa/citizenship situation, debt levels, kids/no-kids, diet, gym routine, distance (desired and actual) to friends and family and so forth.
As you work your way down the list of variables, in some apparently reasonable-seeming order of importance, you get to increasingly trivial-seeming variables: nearest Chinese restaurant, quality of local coffee, closeness to a water body, quality of nearest major airport, number of homeless people on your block, whether you listen to CDs or Spotify, whether your gym has individual TV screens on treadmills and so on.
Each of these variables is involved in some subset of your behaviors, and absorbs some proportion of your energy. My claim is that there are a lot more variables today than a century ago, and that behaviors involving the apparently unimportant and poorly understood variables absorb relatively more energy.
When we attempt to change lifestyles, we tend to work with the top 10-12 seemingly important variables, but the rest of the variables affect outcomes in two ways. First, the higher the level of dark energy latent in the illegible variables, the harder the problem. Second, couplings and connections between legible variables mediated by illegible ones make outcomes less predictable.
For example, you may not realize that your ability to preserve your sanity depends on being able to go on occasional walks by a water front. You may think that’s an unimportant variable (if you recognize it at all). You move to take a new job that pays a lot more, but then you find you’re really unhappy. Some introspection reveals that your broken routine of walks that ground and center you is the root cause.
Our intuitive sense of which variables are fertile and important to manage can be very misleading. Lifestyles are strange attractors that emerge out of a thousand mostly illegible variables coupled in complex ways, rather than designed situations involving a dozen legible variables coupled in simple ways. A butterfly flapping its wings in your gym in 2013 may cause a storm in your retirement portfolio in 2045.
Lifestyle design is a misnomer. We make vague leaps in what we hope are roughly positive directions, navigating by a few variables whose dynamics seem to be obvious. We hope that not too much breaks. More often than we like to admit, such hopes are dashed. Lifestyle design as commonly understood today is authoritarian high modernism applied by an individual to his/her own lifestyle. In general, unless you get lucky or are willing to accept an impoverished lifestyle that is mostly defined by the parts you can model and control, such design efforts are likely doomed. Those who actually make it work are probably doing far less explicit design than they imagine or advertise. Which is why simply copying what they claim to have done rarely works.
Lifestyles trap us, because in attempting to improve a few legible variables, such as geographic location, income and weight, we move dozens of illegible variables in unpredictable ways, generally for the worse. Each such negative consequence is by itself small, but when you add up the effects, the net result is a lowering our overall quality of life.
We experience this worsened quality of life as an increase in friction and lifestyle instability, since the negative changes are usually hard to unpack and analyze. We find ourselves getting constantly derailed. Getting back on track constantly becomes exhausting.
Make enough bad moves and you develop resistance to making any more moves. Or you accept instability as a way of life and keep up a pattern of uselessly random exploratory tweaking. Both are different patterns of being trapped by lifestyle rigidity.
When your energy is getting sucked away as dark energy by variables you don’t properly understand, you end up with general lifestyle fatigue. A feeling of not knowing where and how your time and energy are draining away; a sense of hidden resistance preventing you from arranging your life in ideal ways.
You give in to a tendency to just give up and let natural instability unravel your lifestyle to stable and unfulfilling degeneracy.
Why Dark Energy Has Increased
A lifestyle is a set of thousand little environmental bindings, mostly in the form of sizing and scoping constraints (such as distances within your major movement patterns, square footage, variety of food options). The more complex the environment, such as a large city, the more bindings you have to deal with.
A settled, optimized lifestyle encodes a vast amount of highly specific information about your relationship to your social and material environment. Achieving such a lifestyle is the same thing as achieving high self-awareness. With bounded rationality and increasing environmental complexity, more people fail due to bad luck, insufficient intelligence, or a combination. The information capacity of extant lifestyles becomes mostly absorbed by bullshit: lifestyle bindings that are neither adaptive nor maladaptive, but simply neglected and increasingly entropic.
In general, it seems to take about six months to two years to truly settle into a new lifestyle after a significant shift, such as changed jobs or cities. But this understates the complexity. We don’t actually move from one local optimum to another. We move from one satisficing (and unsatisfying), marginally stable strange-attractor situation to another.
Lifestyle dark energy was less of a factor in Veblen’s day. Life itself was lower-dimensional back then and less heavy tailed. There were many more fixed constants and free variables had fewer possible bindings. Today, many of those constants have turned into variables, and choices for free variables have proliferated.
Our social nature makes things worse. When lifestyles inhabit a space spanned by 10 free and visible variables and 990 locked-down ones, imitation is easy and communities form naturally. When lifestyles inhabit a space of 1000 free but mostly illegible variables, imitation is hard and communities form less easily (this is easy to see mathematically; if you and I each choose two binary variables independently, the chance that we will make the same choices is 1/4, if there are three, the chances reduce to 1/8 and so on).
This lack of community exacerbates the instability and friction of individual lifestyles (probably as the square of degree of extroversion, which you can think of as the degree to which you want your lifestyle to match those around you).
To generalize, culture never stays confined to a degenerate lower-dimensional regime as the number of dimensions increase. Human behavior diversifies to fully occupy the space of freedoms available to our species. The more this diversification happens in illegible ways, the more rigidity is introduced into the social order at large. You cannot easily break out of traps you cannot see.
There is exactly one guaranteed way to solve the problem of lifestyle design: get rich. Money is the only thing that can allow you to buy your way out of having to compute with the illegible variables in your life. Can’t choose between two cities? Buy a house in both. Don’t have time to figure out a fitness and diet routine? Hire a personal trainer and chef to do all the thinking for you. Local airport does not have convenient flights? Buy a plane. Can’t decide whether to emigrate or return to your home country? Adopt a jetsetter global lifestyle spending half the year in each country.
So the ultimate formula for lifestyle design is this: get rich enough so you don’t have to think about it.