What does it mean to have a good life? We’ll get to that. But for now, let’s assume that optimizers actively try to make their life better, whatever a better life means to them.
iPhones have virtual pages of app icons. Some people leave the app icons where they first appeared. But if you’re optimizing icon location, you will move them around. One kind of optimizing is to move the app icons around so that the apps you use pretty often are on the front page, and the ones you use the most often go in the “dock,” where they are visible no matter which page you’re looking at.
When you’re trying to optimize, it might feel like everything is equally important, but when examined more closely, and more scientifically, you find that some things matter much more than others. Figuring this out requires thinking in terms of the magnitude of something’s impact. This isn’t always easy to do, and requires modern tools, data, and ways of thinking that aren’t natural. If you decide things with your gut, or intuition, you won’t optimize very well. Emotions can often draw us to things that antimatter, so using data can help us stay away from having our emotions override reason to detrimental effect.
Sharpening the Saw vs. Cutting
Reading, education, training, and even networking are all ways to sharpen the saw. It makes sense that younger people should spend more of their time sharpening the saw than cutting anything. For many activities, young saws aren’t yet sharp enough to cut much very effectively. Even when they do produce things, they’re not all that good, for the most part, and that’s okay. They are producing things for practice.
But as you grow older, you should spend more and more of your time cutting and less time sharpening. Again, an extreme example is helpful: suppose we have a ninety-year-old man who is too old to travel. He doesn’t know anybody who speaks German, but has always thought he should learn it. Finally, at ninety, he starts learning German. Your first instinct might be to say “good for him!”
But from a productivity point of view it makes no sense to sharpen the saw of someone when they’re not going to have an opportunity to use that skill for cutting anything. There is nothing inherently good about learning German, or any other language. If that old man has sharpened his calligraphy skill for thirty years, he should be producing works of calligraphy, not learning new skills.
How to Hack Your Cognitive System
Acting badly isn’t always caused by a weakness of will. Sometimes you can be “irresolute.” Let’s say you have an intention to avoid cake at a party. You get there, and you find yourself thinking of reasons to eat the cake: you haven’t had cake in a long time, you deserve it, you went on a run that day, it would rude to the host not to have any, the cake was baked by poor people who need the economic support, etc. Eventually you actually believe it’s okay to eat the cake. You’ve talked yourself into it! You can see how being smarter allows you to think of more justifications to eat the cake.
People with more willpower have a lot of advantages. They are better able to deal with stress, adversity, and conflict. They are happier, healthier, make more money, maintain better and longer-lasting relationships, and are more successful in their careers. Willpower is more important to grades than intelligence. Oh, and they live longer, so they can enjoy these things for a longer time.
When you’re under stress, it takes more willpower to do what you want to do, so one way to take better advantage of the willpower you have is to reduce stress, both in the moment and in your life in general. Getting enough sleep is the easiest and most pleasurable way to do this.
Helping Yourself by Helping Others
So when optimizing your life, where does helping others fit in? It might be obvious, to many people, anyway, that if you want to optimize your life, then you should focus all of your energy on getting good things for yourself. When it comes to helping others, people can be categorized according to different “reciprocity styles.”
Broadly speaking, there are givers, matchers, and takers. Takers are always looking out for themselves, and when they do things for others, they do it strategically so that helping others helps themselves. Matchers are always using a sense of fairness. They are good to people who are good to them, and expect kindness returned in proportion to kindness given. Givers seem genuinely interested in others’ welfare, and they do nice things for people to help them, without needing motivation from expected side benefits to themselves. Most people help those they are in close relationships with, without particular concern for whether their kindness is reciprocated to the same amount. People who are givers are like this with many strangers, too
So how do these different people turn out? Givers, in general, earn 14 percent less money, are twice as likely to be victims of crime, and are viewed as being 22 percent less dominant and powerful. However, there’s a great deal of research to suggest that, in the long run, helping the people around you is one of the best ways to improve your lot in life. When a giver gives everything, with no thought to their own welfare, they burn out, have more health concerns, and get walked on. But the givers who also care about themselves rise to the top. Givers of different types are at the top and bottom of success rankings.
There Is More to a Good Life than Being Happy
Our culture’s obsession with the pursuit of happiness sometimes appears to assume that a happy life is a good life, or even that there isn’t anything more to a good life than a happy one. But many have argued that there is more to well-being than being happy
To help appreciate this, suppose someone were to offer you the opportunity to spend the rest of your life high on drugs. Suppose you were confident that with this offer you’d be healthy, live a long life, and be completely blissed out and in ecstasy the whole time. But your experience would not be rich—that is, it wouldn’t feel like you were living a life, you’d just be high and incapable of cognitive function. You’d just be an entity that feels pleasure and does nothing else. If the idea of drugs turns you off, suppose it was non-drug brain stimulation machine instead. Would you do it?
If pleasure was all there were to life, there’s no reason not to. Life satisfaction is valuable but in the pleasure machine you wouldn’t have low life satisfaction, either. You’d be too drugged up to have any opinion about your life at all.
Some people might get in the machine, but many would not, including me. We value something about experiences, not just the pleasure or displeasure they bring.
What’s Actually Right and Wrong
Being as good as you can be means thinking big, and magnitudes matter even more when we think big. Suppose you are considering where to put a homeless shelter. There are two candidate locations. You have lots of information to inform this decision, including costs to your organization, the proximity of the location to other services street people might need, and the impacts of the shelter on property values. You might have moral rules, like helping people when you can, and not letting people get hurt, but how do you use these rules to come up with a decision?
Well, putting a shelter in either location will cause harm to the property owners in the area by lowering their property values. Also, putting the homeless shelter here rather than there will help some street people and not others. So it appears that placing the shelter in either location is technically immoral, if you’re thinking purely in term of rules, as it’s harming people no matter what you do. And if you try to avoid doing anything bad by doing nothing, then you don’t help anyone at all, which (depending on your rule set) also breaks a moral rule.
When you’re thinking about how you act in your day-to-day life, it’s easier to think about rules that are or are not broken, rather than magnitudes of good and bad. This isn’t all bad. The “user interface” of morality has practical importance. If mores are complex, and hard to understand and remember, compliance will suffer. We use rules of thumb to guide us, because figuring out what’s right and wrong can be complicated.
How to Mobilize People to Be Good
What about getting other people on board with being good? One obvious way to try to motivate people to help with some of the big problems the world is facing is to convince them of how bad these problems are. Unfortunately, this can backfire. It is much more effective to offer them solutions to the problems: what they can do to help.
HOW PEOPLE GIVE, HOW PEOPLE DONATE
An experiment wanted to test what kinds of pitches people would respond to when asked to donate money to a charitable cause. One group was told a single child needed a drug that cost $300,000 to make. This group saw a picture of a child and was told her name and age. Another group was told that $300,000 was needed to help eight children, and they got names, ages, and pictures, too. Who gave more? The people who thought they were only helping one child.
The accepted answer is that stories of single individual people trigger our empathy more than groups of people. In fact, the more people a charity reports it will help, the less money people will give. The sad truth is that sometimes doing the most good is at odds with what will warm our hearts the most.
ENCOURAGING OTHER PEOPLE TO REDUCE ANIMAL SUFFERING
When people eat unethical meat, it contributes to animal suffering. One way to get people to reduce their harm to animals is to encourage them to change their diets. But the evangelical vegan is an oft-mocked stereotype.
It’s probably better to get people to reduce the amount of animal products they consume, rather than trying to convince them to be completely vegan. Convincing two people to cut their meat consumption in half does the same amount of good as convincing someone to be vegan, and it’s probably a hell of a lot easier. Not eating any meat at all is hard. It’s so hard that even most self-identified American vegetarians regularly eat meat.
That is, most people you know who you classify as vegetarians probably eat meat sometimes. This is because veganism is viewed as a radical, extreme position, and it’s tough to convince someone to live by something they view as radical and extreme. Being completely vegan has social costs that being a reducetarian does not. Nobody mocks people who try to eat less meat.
Are Humans Good for the World?
If humans were to vanish somehow, the ecosystem would rapidly replace us with other living things. To the extent that the existence of humans is bad because of the suffering of wild animals needed to support our species, removing us, while leaving the rest of the world intact, likely won’t make a dent in wild animal suffering.
But even if we are causing more harm than the animals that would replace us, it could be that were passing through a stage, and when we come out of it, everything will be much better. But only some form of intelligent life will be able to get through this stage. So even if humans are doing things that right now, on net, make the world worse, we might reach a utopian stage for all beings at some point in the future. If humans were to go extinct then the wild animal suffering, for example, would continue for a very long time, and might only change if some other animal evolved to become intelligent, like raccoons or something, and they might go through the same phases that we are going through right now. So at least we have a head start.
Are humans the right ones to do this? Well, there’s a window of time for life on Earth. We’re about three-quarters of the way through it, and eventually the Sun is going to fry the Earth and it will be no more life here. There very well might not be enough time in that window for another intelligent species to arise and develop the capacity to substantially reduce suffering. Given that humans have enjoyed some amount of moral progress over time, we have a head start on morality over any potential new species and might be the best bet for goodness in the future.