Tag Archives: philosophy

How To Be Happy

Here are my notes on a talk that I attended this weekend at Harvard Law.

The talk, entitled Positive Psychology: The Science of Positive Potential, was given by Shawn Achor, an expert on “Happiness”…sounds like a pretty sweet job to me.

The basic idea is that we can impact our own happiness with a few mental tricks. This newfound happiness should help our health, well being, how attractive people think we are, and pretty much every aspect of our lives.

Positive Psychology: The Science of Positive Potential.

He first got interested in happiness when he told his sister that she was a unicorn…and it worked to cheer her up.

Dogs and Learned Helplessness

  • Authors gave a shock to dogs thinking that rewards and punishments will predict behavior.
  • However, after the training, 2/3rds of dogs just sit there when shocked.
  • They accidentally taught the dogs helplessness…behavior has no effect on negative consequences.
  • People do the same thing: why put effort in if nothing will change?
  • However, we should notice 1/3rd of dogs kept jumping. They were animal optimists.
  • Optimism can be *learned* just like other stuff. We can shape our lens.

Importance of A Positive Lens

  • Happiness makes is more intelligent, better perception of success, career opportunities, attractiveness, etc.
  • Harvard Undergrads are sad: They have less than 1 romantic relationship and less than 0.5 sexual partners…24 percent don’t even know if they are in one.
  • Lawyers are more alcoholic, fat, and likely do drugs. 53 percent are clinically depressed.
  • At Harvard Law: Upon entering – no depression. Months later up to half.
    Symptoms: start none…pessimism seeps in within 2 months.
  • As students we should change the dialogue – don’t talk about stressful stuff all the time. Instead talk about making positive changes in our life.
  • We have a negativity bias. We look at the stressful view of the world.
  • Data shows that happy students are not determined by grades and performance. GPA does not correlate with happiness.
  • It is the lens through which we see these evaluations.

Why are you smiling?

  • People have a positive lens have greater endurance and more success.

Why so serious?

Negativity bias.

  • Brain causes a natural reaction, chemicals released.
  • We process fear at a high level. News highlights this – always a crisis. No one wants to hear good news.
  • Relationships. A famous observer could predict up to 90 percent accuracy whether the relationship would succeed after 5 minutes of watching – based on the positive or negative vibe
  • We need 5 positive things to weigh out every 1 negative things.
  • We start to bring in a number of negative things to reinforce negative thinking.
  • No matter what, we have a deluded view of the world – either too positive or too negative.

Happiness is relative.

  • Delayed planes, sometimes over-stare at bad stuff…but all other flights got cancelled.
  • You could have Paranoia – fear of everyone conspiring against you or Pronoia + world is conspiring in your favor. The key is comparison point.
  • We need an anchor point to determine our current state.
  • Counterfactual of dying makes shot in arm good.
  • Is positive psychology lying to yourself? You *pick* your counterfact.
  • But what is reality? We can choose what to see. Like in the beginning of the movie Love Actually…people in the airport could be seen as rushing around, or as smiling and making connections.

Affective forecasting.

  • We predict how happy we will be.
  • If I just get X done, *then* I will be happy.
  • We are terrible at predicting our future happiness.

Emotional immune system.

  • We should strengthen this as well.
  • What are you *doing* about it?
  • Our immune system moves us back to our baseline of happiness
  • Having some stress and failure is good. Like an innoculation.
  • Why will stress make me better? It will build me up for the future.
  • When you step on campus, you feel the stress. We pick up on non-verbals all the time
  • When you look at someone smiling. You can’t help smiling.

The Soprano Effect.

  • Mirror neurons…we react when dude gets hit hard in a football game on T.V.; same thing when u see needles on tv.
  • Our brains are dumb – put a pen into your mouth – it will make you happier.
  • Being happy and positive makes u more attractive and trustworthy.

2 parts of nervous system: Sympathetic and parasympathetic.

  • Sympathetic – adrenaline rush – super-human for a moment. We want it all the time.
  • But these rushes are catabolic – very hard on your body.
  • Parasympathetic – calms you down
  • Activated when you are happy
  • We are addicted to sympathetic.

Tony Soprano.

  • He is forced to break down. Having panic attacks. Chronically activating sympathetic nervous system.
  • We do this to ourselves: I have way too much to do, I’m way to stressed and busy, etc.
  • Our challenges become a threat.
  • Challenge: we think we have resources, our breath is deep, our bloodflow is better, etc.
  • Threat: we don’t, the opposite happens.

What Should WE Do to be Happy?

  • Smile and laugh
  • Exercise
  • Stop playing broken record of job stuff, etc
  • Self-control/self-discipline is a muscle.
  • If we keep saying: I’m so stressed, I’m so tired, etc – it impacts us.
  • Our self-discipline is a muscle. We only have so much effort to expend. You need to rest this muscle as well.
  • Have variation. Write in a journal 5 minutes a day. Write down 3 things you are grateful for.

Training your brain

  • Change the way you *talk* about it.
  • Talk about the positive things.
  • Tiger Woods: I think about the times when I got through it. Focused on the positive.
  • Consciously talk about the positive stuff all the time
  • Give up complaining for 7 days straight.
  • Introduce positive counterfact.
  • If someone taps their foot and looks at watch other people will.


  1. Re-craft our conversations to focus on positive
  2. Rest, do other stuff
  3. Pick positive counterfactuals (ie worse options)
  4. Behavior for 30 days: Write down in journal for 5 minutes a day; Do 5 random acts of kindness, Write down 3 things you have to be thankful for every night

Dealing With Really Bad News

  • The Stockdale Paradox: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
  • Admiral Stockdale, an American hero, discussed here: (James Stockdale)
  • The Key: Have a realistic assessment of reality with an optimistic outlook for the future.


  • If you view it as completely external, could be bad. But if it is internal, it can create power/happiness.
  • People with a high internal locus (it was my fault). Have more likelihood for success.


  • Our brains are scanning the environment all the time.
  • Gratitude brings your attention to the things you appreciate.

Is it lying to yourself?

  • Totally negative or totally positive are equally as pessimistic.
  • Positive people are better in almost every way. Its not what you do. It is your lens.

You can learn optimism.

On Language And Decision Making

Decision Making

After a week of meeting new people in short spurts of mutual analysis (read: interviews), I am starting to realize that we suffer from an intractable problem: our decision making is only as good as our data and our data is necessarily limited.

Whether this be in the context of making decisions about where to work, what to eat, who to befriend, or what stock to invest in, we are very often evaluating our options.

In order to help us come to the “right” conclusion we have shortcuts like information labels, reputational filters, and other mental models that we trust.

For example, when meeting someone new, one often asks where they are “from” and what they “do”. Although perhaps not consciously, as the responses to these questions start coming back, we immediately start to categorize based on our past associations with these places and professions.

A similar phenomenon occurs when evaluating a stock: we look at the company’s performance, compare it to similar companies, try to put these thoughts into a framework we trust, and then make an evaluation.

We Are Like Machines.

This process – data input, association, analysis, action – is central to any form of decision making, even for a computer.

The beauty of computer programming languages is that the decision-making operates within a bounded system. In object-oriented programming, one can create hierarchies of linguistic complexity, but there literally is no data that could be within the system which is incapable of categorization because the inputs are defined. Of course programs are thusly limited in their scope of operation, but everybody knows this.

You can’t use a Blackberry to transmit temperature, but when I press on the letters of this keypad, the machine “knows” exactly how to interpret these actions and how to respond.

Similarly, we humans are limited by our data inputs and representational frameworks. I can’t parse radio waves, and at least my human brain doesn’t have the capacity to digest 6 dimensional objects.

We Are Not like Machines. Our Language Is More Complex.

However, unlike the programs we create, we humans have a much richer set of tools with which to do our analysis.

I believe it is the linguistic element of this toolkit that is the most powerful.

In other words, because we have a common language, we are able to categorize and communicate in rich and powerful ways. When I say ‘Texas’, the person in front of me is able to grasp ‘greatest State’, ‘humble citizens’, and the various different concepts she has grown to associate with this word. Unlike a computer program, her associations can be loose or strong, they can change over time, and here is the key: they are different for all of us.

It is this aspect of our language, and as a result our decision making, that is both powerful and troubling.

Our Language Is Open At The Periphery.

A simple visualization of what I am talking about comes in the form of a venn-diagram:

Venn Language

When we communicate (and also when we process data on companies, food and anything else), there is an overlap of commonality, but there are also areas of disagreement. For example, if the above diagram represents three different people’s understanding of ‘Texas’, person A, B, and C might all agree that the state is ‘great’, but each might independently associate other concepts with the word.

Unlike a venn diagram, our linguistic frameworks are much more hazy, complex and full of not only linguistic connections, but also emotional and physiological connections.

If you don’t believe that language is affiliated with these more complex responses consider words like: ‘rape’, ‘stain’, ‘caress’, ‘love’, etc.

And if that wasn’t complicated enough, these linguistic structures are influenced by our unique personal experiences and our common historical experience.

An example of the latter is how the word ‘hope’ has become hijacked by the recent presidential election and now contains a number of associations it previously didn’t – for better or for worse.

So What? It Matters For Investing…And Life.

The implications of all of this are that we are left with a process that is at the same time both powerful and imperfect.

It is powerful in the sense that we can theoretically accomplish a lot of communication and analysis in a short period of time.

With the addition of representational and processing aids like the machine I am using to write this message, we can tap into the power of language to reach out and interact with our worlds in ways like never before.

We can use this increased power to make more decisions, about more things, more quickly and more “accurately” than ever before.

However, as a brilliant investor once told me: we should never forget that mental models are not reality…they are just models.

In other words, in a world where we bound along from mountaintop to mountaintop aided by the clouds of our linguistic meta-structures and the tarzan-ropes of our communication aides, we often forget that the system is at best one of approximations and at worst one filled with errors. Part of the reason why our “venn diagrams” don’t completely overlap is because the words we use are incomplete and inadequate depictions of the world we experience.

Do: ‘sunset’, ‘heartbreak’, ‘healthy’, or any of our words really represent the things about which we seek to communicate?

The arrogant research analyst in the crowd might try to argue that stocks are different because there we are using ‘numbers’ instead of words. But that is a massive over-simplification.

The numbers on your screen represent a ‘value’ arrived at by people who, using some common language and their own understanding of the world, crafted representational frameworks of entities called ‘companies’ that are really an amalgamation of people, stuff, and mutual understandings.

These representational frameworks are supposed to encapsulate not only the current state of affairs but also the future trajectory of these various different actors.

If you don’t recognize the inherent inaccuracy in such a system then either: a) I am not being clear (which is likely) or b) you are probably smart enough to be dangerous, but not smart enough to know your limitations, which is a really bad combination.

It is this kind of necessary arrogance that leads us through life making decisions with necessarily imperfect and inaccurate information. We don’t have any other choice.

The best we can hope for is that enough of us will have the humility to recognize these limitations that we will collectively band together in support of our failures as they occur. We can also help one another to communicate and learn about the various different aspects of the world that matter.

The sun is rising on the horizon. A new day awaits.