It’s life, and life only

Each Sunday I like to do non-economic posts.  Those coming here for monetary analysis will probably want to skip these.

I will be participating in a seminar on “the good life” this fall.  And that got me thinking about what it means to think about the good life.  And the more I thought, the more convinced I became that the human mind is not capable of thinking about life in its entirety.  It’s too big.  Everything we’ve done or thought or read since day one is a part of life.  Life is everything.  Perhaps it’s one of those topics like consciousness, or why is there something and not nothing.  We are too close to it, and can’t see it from any “perspective.”  Life?  Compared to what?

You might be thinking “but surely some lives are better than others, and we can talk about the reasons why.”  Yes, but in that case I don’t think we are talking about life, but rather specific aspects of life.   We can talk about the best way to change one’s oil.  Nick Rowe can give us advice on that.  We can talk about what sort of world music to listen to.  Tyler Cowen can give us advice.  We can talk about how to raise children, and Bryan Caplan can give us advice.  We can discuss which flavors of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream to buy.  Or when to break a promise that you’ve made to a friend.  Or when a country should re-neg on a gold clause (which turns out to be very similar to the discussion of when should you break a promise to a friend.)  But an expert on “life?”  Don’t make me laugh.

Because life is such a big topic, I think people make the mistake of trying to reduce “the good life” to a few parameters.  People will say “It’s all about family and friends.”   “It’s all about being yourself” (including Jeffrey Dahmer?)  “It’s all about finding inner peace.”  No, inner peace won’t help me figure out how to change my oil.

In On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts, Thomas DeQuincey wrote:

A golden mean is certainly what every man should aim at. But it is easier talking than doing; and, my infirmity being notoriously too much milkiness of heart, I find it difficult to maintain that steady equatorial line between the two poles of too much murder on the one hand and too little on the other.

That’s going a bit too far for even me.  But I wonder whether most discussions of the good life make the opposite mistake–by denying the complexity of life.  Would we be better off in a world without vice?  It’s hard to say.  That would presumably mean a world without the works of Shakespeare.  On the other hand I am reluctant to encourage vice, and once again DeQuincey gives a good reason:

For, if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing, and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop.

2.  My mind has a mind of its own

When considering how to live a good life, I constantly run into two problems.  The first is deciding whether I am currently living a good life.  For instance; am I happy?  Am I moral?  That’s hard to say.  Some days I think I’ve had a good life, and other days I look back on my life as almost unrelenting misery.  How can I trust either perception?  Even worse, these perceptions are highly correlated with meteorological conditions.  On sunny days, it seems like I’ve lived a good life, on cold drizzly days it seems miserable–I can hardly remember having any enjoyment at all.  (I plan to retire in LA.)

And how can I trust my decisions?  As I look back on life I wonder why I did certain things that now seem like a monumental waste of time.  Around 1981-83 I spent hundreds of hours reading Bill James, and then pouring over obscure baseball statistics.  What was that all about?  I have no idea.  I imagine on my death bed I’ll suddenly recall that I “forgot” to read Shakespeare’s sonnets, or listen to Beethoven’s late string quartets.  And then I’ll think back to Bill James.  Should I trust the mind that instinctively leads me toward certain activities at certain ages, or the mind that tells me that something’s a waste of time?  I suppose I should use Freudian terminology here–but that’s another book I “forgot” to read.

I think many of us see the good life in terms of setting goals and going for it.  But another recent book I read casts doubt on that straightforward American credo.  Robert Walser wrote a series of essays/stories on tiny pieces of paper, while in a Swiss mental asylum for the last 20 years of his life.  They are very short, mere fragments.  One story is called The Demanding Fellow.  It begins with a solitary man, who enjoyed consuming sights and sounds:

Splendid was the way, for example, that interesting building which had played a role in history were mirrored in the still,color-suffused water of remote canals.  This, as well as other things, struck him as lovely and charming enough to devour.

Then he met the woman of his dreams:

He idolized her, bedecked her with precious robes and bejeweled her hands with ornaments, obeying his own demanding nature, which to be sure was a form of egotism, something like an unchristian act.  In any case he was standing, as he found he had cause to confess, upon the pinnacle of the fulfillment of his desire.  And yet for this individual who constantly longed for something out of the ordinary, the happiness he achieved was a sort of calamity, such that he gradually came to regret finding himself so abundantly satisfied.

All his longing, how he longed for it again.

It’s always seemed to me that happiness is the expectation of future happiness.  Thus:

Ut = Et (Ut+1) = Et(stuff, leisure, love, fame, etc, in period t+1)

But Ut is not equal to (stuff, leisure, love, fame, etc, in period t)

Does this mean that to be happy we must continually fool ourselves?  Or do I belong in an insane asylum with Robert Walser.  I’d be interested in your thoughts on either question.

PS.  Off topic, but I’m barely old enough to remember what pop culture was like in 1964.  Recently I listened to a Bob Dylan concert CD from that year, where he played the song that I got this post’s title from.  I can’t even imagine the reaction of a 1964 audience to this (and Gates of Eden.)  I’m guessing it would have been like my reaction to seeing 2001 as a 12 year old.  Dylan’s real breakthrough wasn’t going electric, it was the acoustic side of Tyler Cowen’s favorite Dylan album.

Here’s some more lyrics from that CD:

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

If only.



20 Responses to “It’s life, and life only”

  1. Gravatar of q q
    17. July 2011 at 17:24

    thanks — sweet post.

    you might try reading shakespeare’s sonnets, at least the famous among them.

  2. Gravatar of Philo Philo
    17. July 2011 at 17:45

    Shakespeare? Beethoven? Don’t be such a snob!

    Bill James’s stuff is wonderful. And as an economist you ought to be interested in the kind of the mileage that can be got out of statistics.

    (Admittedly, Shakespeare and Beethoven are wonderful, too.)

  3. Gravatar of Cliff Cliff
    17. July 2011 at 17:46

    I am not sure how to find happiness, but I know misery is around just about every corner. Thanks for the post.

  4. Gravatar of onliberty onliberty
    17. July 2011 at 17:51

    lol there was a lot of economics in this “non-economic” post.

    I guess you can take the tiger out of the jungle…

    “Does this mean that to be happy we must continually fool ourselves?”

    This is a great question! This is one I need to wrestle with before answering.

  5. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    17. July 2011 at 20:47

    ‘(Admittedly, Shakespeare and Beethoven are wonderful, too.)’

    And, as we learned a while back, there is a lot of economics in Shakespeare too.

  6. Gravatar of Daniel Daniel
    17. July 2011 at 21:04

    Without “t” the equation breaks down. T is created by a continual (or discrete if you want) separation of subject from object. If the two somehow became one then time would be irrelevant as would the concept of expected utility. Just another reason to stop the war on drugs.

  7. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    18. July 2011 at 07:34

    Thanks q.

    Philo, You said;

    “Shakespeare? Beethoven? Don’t be such a snob!”

    I agree, my other mind is an insufferable snob. Why did I let him write that post? Bill James is wonderful.

    Cliff, Yes, misery seems easier to find.

    Thanks onliberty.

    Patrick, Yes, who did that study of the economics in Shakespeare?

    Daniel, Yes, that’s a good point about t. One idea I didn’t mention is that evolutionary psych has on on a sort of hamster-like treadmill. Those who keep striving for the carrot succeed in an evolutionary sense. Those who kick back and enjoy life didn’t succeed and got weeded out of the gene pool.

  8. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    18. July 2011 at 09:00

    Interesting post. Given your weather-mood connection, Los Angeles is an excellent choice (I live here, but I was born here. But having lived other places, I would choose Los Angeles or Santa Barbara. However, my wife is Thai, so I will soon end up in hot and humid Thailand).

    Having Northern European blood is a challenge, and I am only a half-blood. I am not Latin, and I envy their ability to enjoy life and rest easy.

  9. Gravatar of Shane Shane
    18. July 2011 at 11:05

    I think that “what is the good life?,” as you note, is one of those questions about some absolute, infinite quality like “why is there something rather than nothing?” or “what is consciousness?”

    So I think we should outsource it to the thinker of the absolute par-excellence, Hegel: “the consummation of the infinite End consists merely in removing the illusion that makes it seem yet unaccomplished.” Or: “the Absolute Idea may be compared to the old man who utters the same creed as the child, but for whom it is pregnant with the significance of a lifetime.”

    But what does that mean? Hegel thought comedy was the form of art that dissolved the kinds of contradictions that generate the appearance of some “infinite End.”

    So we should, in turn, outsource this to Monty Python. The meaning of life is: “Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

    As the character who says this points out, it’s “nothing very special.” What makes it a true “answer” to the question is that it comes at the end of the film, at that point when the response of a child takes on the profound wisdom of a respected elder.

    As Hegel notes, the answer to such questions is not really the “answer” to such questions–when we actually hear them, we see that they are akin to the responses of children–but rather the answering of such questions.

    So the utility of seminars on the good life–which is really just, I suppose, what all Freshman seminars are–consists, I suppose, primarily in helping us realize the significance of the very simple answers, rather than actually generating new answers.

    In other words, I think you should definitely show Python’s _The Meaning of Life_

  10. Gravatar of James James
    18. July 2011 at 12:41

    I’ve always thought that happiness is more about the first derivative of consumption / good things happening than the current level.

  11. Gravatar of Charlie Charlie
    18. July 2011 at 13:05

    I think you would like this TED talk from Daniel Kahneman. It is about the current state of happiness research and the theme is the two selves we have. One self experiences life (approximately every 3 seconds) the other remembers our experiences. Your post seems heavily influenced by the remembering self, whereas the experiencing self may have written a much different post.

  12. Gravatar of Jeff Jeff
    18. July 2011 at 17:56

    Do I have a good life?

    A few days ago I went to my daughter’s house a couple of miles down the road. I sat on her couch with laughing grandchildren climbing all over me as they pleaded “Play with us, Grandpa Jeff!” During the ensuing twenty minutes of pure silliness, the question just never came up.

  13. Gravatar of Kelvin Kelvin
    19. July 2011 at 04:33

    I love your work (really glad you have resumed blogging) but seriously, retire in LA? California?

    I read Thomas Sowell a lot too, and it seems like Ca’s not a very intelligent choice of terminus for an economist of your standing. The place appears to be totally dysfunctional with its tax and spend ethos.

    Come “Down Under” to Oz. You’ll be most welcome and we need someone with your knowledge and growing stature to help straighten out our current “Californian Style” government.

    Hope to see you here, Kelvin.

  14. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    19. July 2011 at 08:27

    Benjamin, Unfortunately I am 100% moody Northern European.

    Shane, You said;

    “So we should, in turn, outsource this to Monty Python. The meaning of life is: “Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.””

    That’s a good start.

    James, That too.

    Charlie, Thanks, I have read a lot of happiness research, and do agree that there are multiple minds.

    Jeff, Yes, but at other times?

    Kelvin, Yes, I’d prefer Australia (I once lived on the Gold Coast.) But I’m not the only one who has a say in the decision.

  15. Gravatar of onliberty onliberty
    21. July 2011 at 07:34

    Okay I’ve thought about it. No we don’t need to fool ourselves. Well, I think we fool ourselves into thinking that we must fool ourselves in order to be happy.

    This question has been in the back of my mind for the last week or so. Then last night my dog came up to me to be petted. He was so happy. That’s all he cares for in life is to be loved and caressed by his family. He truly was in heaven. So what does my dog know that I don’t?

    This world is incredibly simple, despite how complex it is. In economics, some of the most robust theories are the simplest ones – how friggin simple is comparative advantage? Yet it explains an incredible amount of what we see around us. It explains a lot with a little.

    A another example, despite how advanced we get in economics, it seems it can always come back to simple supply and demand. Also, it’s amazing how understanding such simple concepts such as sunk cost and opportunity cost can revolutionize one’s thinking.

    Too often we get so bogged down in trying to understand everything that we end up understanding nothing. We think that this world is so complicated that, in order to understand it, we must rack our brains and construct a complicated formula. Then, when we still don’t understand, we think our formula wasn’t complicated enough, when in fact it was too complicated.

    You said, “I think people make the mistake of trying to reduce ‘the good life’ to a few parameters. People will say ‘It’s all about family and friends.’ ‘It’s all about being yourself’ (including Jeffrey Dahmer?) ‘It’s all about finding inner peace.'”

    While I agree that, the way you have it framed, this doesn’t equal happiness, I disagree that reducing things down to a few simple core themes, ideas or models is a bad idea (I’m assuming you think it’s a bad idea).

    I think there are some simple, universal truths out there, and if we pursue them, we’ll find that this big scary, complicated world isn’t as big or scary or complicated as we thought. For me and my dog at least, that brings peace love and happiness.

  16. Gravatar of RobF RobF
    21. July 2011 at 14:56

    These are such big and open questions — the kind we spend lifetimes exploring. I’m not sure what I can offer in under 200 words, but here is a modest practical suggestion: Keep a journal. This will serve a couple purposes. First, it will give you an opportunity to regularly refine and reinforce your thinking on these topics. Think of it as another blog, “The Happiness Illusion”, with you as your only follower. Second, the journal will fill in some crucial missing data so that you won’t be stuck with TodayScott’s imperfect memory of LastMonthScott’s state of well-being. LastMonthScott will be able to speak to you directly.

  17. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    22. July 2011 at 12:47

    onliberty, I’m happy for you and your dog.

    RobF, I like the title “The Happiness Illusion.” Regarding the journal, what if I find out I’m unhappy 80% of the time? Should I just blow out my brains?

  18. Gravatar of onliberty onliberty
    22. July 2011 at 15:41

    lol you weren’t convinced?

    Well, at least you’re “happy!”

  19. Gravatar of RobF RobF
    26. July 2011 at 18:05

    If you find that you are unhappy 80% of the time, then you will (hopefully) also find that you are happy 20% of the time. If you take good notes, you might eventually see some correlations. What was it about those 20% days that contributed to your happiness? A good night’s rest? Some exercise? A day without internet access? The nut of my point is that learning the unique drivers of harmony in one’s life is a worthwhile pursuit, and to that end is worth applying the same basic study rigor that we might bring to learning macro-economics.

  20. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    27. July 2011 at 07:59

    RobF, A day without answering comments makes me happy. 🙂

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