Category: Happiness

The High Price of Mistrust

When we can’t trust each other, nothing works. As we participate in our communities less and less, we find it harder to feel other people are trustworthy. But if we can bring back a sense of trust in the people around us, the rewards are incredible.

There are costs to falling community participation. Rather than simply lamenting the loss of a past golden era (as people have done in every era), Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam explains these costs, as well as how we might bring community participation back.

First published twenty years ago, Bowling Alone is an exhaustive, hefty work. In its 544 pages, Putnam negotiated mountains of data to support his thesis that the previous few decades had seen Americans retreat en masse from public life. Putnam argued Americans had become disconnected from their wider communities, as evidenced by changes such as a decline in civic engagement and dwindling membership rates for groups such as bowling leagues and PTAs.

Though aspects of Bowling Alone are a little dated today (“computer-mediated communication” isn’t a phrase you’re likely to have heard recently), a quick glance at 2021’s social landscape would suggest many of the trends Putnam described have only continued and apply in other parts of the world too.

Right now, polarization and social distancing have forced us apart from any sense of community to a degree that can seem irresolvable.

Will we ever bowl in leagues alongside near strangers and turn them into friends again? Will we ever bowl again at all, even if alone, or will those gleaming aisles, too-tight shoes, and overpriced sodas fade into a distant memory we recount to our children?

The idea of going into a public space for a non-essential reason can feel incredibly out of reach for many of us right now. And who knows how spaces like bowling alleys will survive in the long run without the social scenes that fuelled them. Now is a perfect time to revisit Bowling Alone to see what it can still teach us, because many of its warnings and lessons are perhaps more relevant now than at its time of publication.

One key lesson we can derive from Bowling Alone is that the less we trust each other—something which is both a cause and consequence of declining community engagement—the more it costs us. Mistrust is expensive.

We need to trust the people around us in order to live happy, productive lives. If we don’t trust them, we end up having to find costly ways to formalize our relationships. Even if we’re not engaged with other people on a social or civic level, we still have to transact with them on an economic one. We still have to walk along the same streets, send our children to the same schools, and spend afternoons in the same parks.

To live our lives freely, we need to to find ways to trust that other people won‘t hurt us, rip us off, or otherwise harm us. Otherwise we may lose something too precious to put a price tag on.

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No person is an island

As community engagement declines, Putnam refers to the thing we are losing as “social capital,” meaning the sum of our connections with other individuals and the benefits they bring us.

Being part of a social network gives you access to all sorts of value. Putnam explains, “Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a college education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so too can social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups.” For example, knowing the right people can help you find a job where your skills are well utilized. If you don’t know many people, you might struggle to find work and end up doing something you’re overqualified for or be unemployed for a while.

To give another example, if you’re friends with other parents in your local neighborhood, you can coordinate with them to share childcare responsibilities. If you’re not, you’re likely to end up paying for childcare or being more limited in what you can do when your kids are home from school.

Both individuals and groups have social capital. Putnam also explains that “social capital also can have externalities that affect the wider community, so that not all of the costs and benefits of social connections accrue to the person making the contact . . . even a poorly connected individual may derive some of the spillover benefits from living in a well-connected community.” A well-connected community is usually a safer community, and the safety extends, at least partly, to the least connected members.

For example, the more neighbors know each other, the more they notice when something on the street is out of the norm and potentially harmful. That observation benefits everyone on the street—especially the most vulnerable people.

Having social capital is valuable because it undergirds certain norms. Our connections to other people require and encourage us to behave in ways that maintain those connections. Being well-connected is both an outcome of following social norms and an incentive to follow them. We adhere to “rules of conduct” for the sake of our social capital.

Social capital enables us to trust other people. When we’re connected to many others, we develop a norm of “generalized reciprocity.” Putnam explains this as meaning “I’ll do this for you without expecting anything specific back from you, in the confident expectation that someone else will do something for me down the road.” We can go for the delayed payoff that comes from being nice without an agenda. Generalized reciprocity makes all of our interactions with other people easier. It’s a form of trust.

Putnam goes on to write, “A society characterized by generalized reciprocity is more efficient than a distrustful society, for the same reason that money is more efficient than barter. If we don’t have to balance every exchange instantly, we can get a lot more accomplished. Trustworthiness lubricates social life.” Trust requires that we interact with the same people more than once, or at least think that we might.

Generalized reciprocity as a norm also enables us to work together to do things that benefit the whole group or even that don’t benefit us personally at all, rather than focusing on ourselves. If you live in a neighborhood with a norm of generalized reciprocity, you can do things like mowing a neighbor’s lawn for free because you know that when you need similar help, someone will come through. You can do things that wouldn’t make sense in an “every person for themselves” area.

Societies and groups with a norm of generalized reciprocity maintain that norm through “gossip and other valuable ways of cultivating reputation.”

When people are linked to each other, they know that news will spread if they deviate from norms. If one member of a bowling league cheats and another member notices, they’re likely to discuss it with others, and everyone will know to trust that member a little less. Knowing gossip will spread enables us to trust our perceptions of others, because if something were amiss we would have surely heard about it. It also nudges us towards behaving well—if something is amiss about us, others are sure to hear of that, too.

But with the decline of community participation comes the decline of trust. If you don’t know the people around you, how can you trust them? The more disconnected we are from each other, the less we can rely on each other to be good and nice. Without repeated interactions with the same people, we become suspicious of each other. This suspicion carries heavy costs.

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Rising transaction costs

In economics, a “transaction cost” refers to the cost of making some sort of trade within a market. Transaction costs are the price we pay in order to exchange value. They’re in addition to the cost of producing or otherwise providing that value.

For example, when you make a credit card purchase in a shop, the shop likely pays a processing fee to the card company. It’s part of the cost of doing business with you. Another cost is that the shop needs people working in it to ensure you pay. They can’t just rely on you popping the right money in the till then leaving.

Putnam explains later in the book that being able to trust people as a result of a norm of generalized reciprocity in our social lives leads to reduced transaction costs. It means we can relax around other people and not be distracted by “worrying whether you got back the right change from the clerk to double-checking that you locked the car door.We can easily be honest if we know others will do the same.

With the decline of social capital comes rising transaction costs. We can’t rely on other people to treat us as they would like to be treated because we don’t know them and haven’t built the opportunities to engage in reciprocal relationships.

Much like trusting trustworthy people has great benefits, trusting untrustworthy people has enormous costs. No one likes being exploited or ripped off because they assumed good faith in the wrong person.

If we’re uncertain, we default to mistrust. You can see the endpoint of a loss of trust in societies and groups which must rely on the use or threat of force to get anything done because everyone is out to rip off everyone else.

At a certain point, transaction costs can cancel out the benefits of transacting at all. If lending a leaf blower to a neighbor requires a lawyer to set up a contract stipulating the terms of its use, then borrowing it doesn’t save them any money. They might as well hire someone or buy their own.

We don’t try new things when we can’t trust other people. So we have to find additional ways of making transactions work. One way we do this is through “the rule of law—formal contracts, courts, litigation, adjudication, and enforcement by the state.” During the period since the 1970s when Putnam considers social capital to have declined, the ratio of lawyers to other professions increased more than any other profession: “After 1970 the legal profession grew three times faster than the other professions as a whole.”

While we can’t attribute that solely to a decline in social capital, it seems clear that mistrusting each other makes us more likely to prefer to get things in writing. We are “forced to rely increasingly on formal institutions, and above all the law, to accomplish what we used to accomplished through informal networks reinforced by generalized reciprocity—that is, through social capital.”

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The high price of mistrust

The cost of mistrust doesn’t just show up in the form of bills from lawyers. It poisons everything we do and further drives us apart.

Mistrust drives us to install remote monitoring software on our employees’ laptops and ask them to fill in reports on every tiny task to prove they’re not skiving off. It drives us to make excuses when a friend asks for help moving or a lift to the airport because no one was available last time we needed that same help. It drives us to begrudgingly buy a household appliance or tool we’ll only use once because we don’t even consider borrowing it from a neighbor.

Mistrust nudges us to peek at the search history of a partner or to cross-reference what a child says. It causes us to keep our belongings close in public, to double-lock the doors, to not let our kids play in the street, and a million other tiny changes.

Mistrust costs us time and money, sure. But it also costs us a little bit of our humanity. We are sociable animals, and seeing the people around us as a potential threat, even a small one, wears on us. Constant vigilance is exhausting. So is being under constant suspicion.

One lesson we can take from Bowling Alone is that anything we can do to increase trust between people will have tremendous knock-on benefits. Trust allows us to relax, delay gratification, and generally be nicer to everyone. It makes for a nicer day-to-day existence. We don’t need to spend so much time and money checking up on others. Ultimately, it’s worth investing in trust whenever possible, as opposed to investing in more ways of monitoring and controlling people.

That’s not to say that there was ever a golden utopia when everyone trusted everyone. People have always abused the trust of others. And people on the fringes of society have always been unfairly mistrusted and struggled to trust that others would act in good faith. Nonetheless, whenever we go to install some mechanism intended to replace trust, it’s worth asking if there’s a different way.

The ingredients for trust are simple. We need to repeatedly interact with the same people, know that others will warn us about their bad behavior, and feel secure in the knowledge we’ll be helped when and if we need it. At the same time, we need to know others will be warned if we behave badly and that everything we give to others will come back to us, perhaps multiplied.

If you want people to trust you, the best place to start is by trusting them. That isn’t always easy to do, especially if you’ve paid the price for it in the past. But it’s the best place to start. Then you need to combine it with repeat interactions, or the possibility thereof. In the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, a game that reveals how cooperation works, the best strategy to adopt is tit for tat. In the first round you cooperate, then in subsequent rounds do whatever the other player did last.

How might that play out in real life? If you want your employees to trust you, then you might start by trusting them—while also making it clear that you’re not going to fire them suddenly and you want them to stick around.

Mistrust is expensive. But trusting the wrong people can sometimes seem too risky. The lesson we can take from Bowling Alone is that building trust is absolutely worthwhile—and that the only way to do it is by finding ways to get out there and engage with other people.

We can create trust by contributing to existing communities and creating new ones. The more we show up and are willing to have faith in others, the more we’ll get back in return.

We Are What We Remember

Memory is an intrinsic part of our life experience. It is critical for learning, and without memories we would have no sense of self. Understanding why some memories stick better than others, as well as accepting their fluidity, helps us reduce conflict and better appreciate just how much our memories impact our lives.

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“Which of our memories are true and which are not is something we may never know. It doesn’t change who we are.”

Memories can be so vivid. Let’s say you are spending time with your sibling and reflecting on your past when suddenly a memory pops up. Even though it’s about events that occurred twenty years ago, it seems like it happened yesterday. The sounds and smells pop into your mind. You remember what you were wearing, the color of the flowers on the table. You chuckle and share your memory with your sibling. But they stare at you and say, “That’s not how I remember it at all.” What?

Memory discrepancies happen all the time, but we have a hard time accepting that our memories are rarely accurate. Because we’ve been conditioned to think of our memories like video recordings or data stored in the cloud, we assert that our rememberings are the correct ones. Anyone who remembers the situation differently must be wrong.

Memories are never an exact representation of a moment in the past. They are not copied with perfect fidelity, and they change over time. Some of our memories may not even be ours, but rather something we saw in a film or a story someone else told to us. We mix and combine memories, especially older ones, all the time. It can be hard to accept the malleable nature of memories and the fact that they are not just sitting in our brains waiting to be retrieved. In Adventures in Memory, writer Hilde Østby and neuropsychologist Ylva Østby present a fascinating journey through all aspects of memory. Their stories and investigations provide great insight into how memory works; and how our capacity for memory is an integral part of the human condition, and how a better understanding of memory helps us avoid the conflicts we create when we insist that what we remember is right.

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Memory and learning

“One thing that aging doesn’t diminish is the wisdom we have accumulated over a lifetime.”

Our memories, dynamic and changing though they may be, are with us for the duration of our lives. Unless you’ve experienced brain trauma, you learn new things and store at least some of what you learn in memory.

Memory is an obvious component of learning, but we don’t often think of it that way. When we learn something new, it’s against the backdrop of what we already know. All knowledge that we pick up over the years is stored in memory. The authors suggest that “how much you know in a broad sense determines what you understand of the new things you learn.” Because it’s easier to remember something if it can hook into context you already have, then the more you know, the more a new memory can attach to. Thus, what we already know, what we remember, impacts what we learn.

The Østbys explain that the strongest memory networks are created “when we learn something truly meaningful and make an effort to understand it.” They describe someone who is passionate about diving and thus “will more easily learn new things about diving than about something she’s never been interested in before.” Because the diver already knows a lot about diving, and because she loves it and is motivated to learn more, new knowledge about diving will easily attach itself to the memory network she already has about the subject.

While studying people who seem to have amazing memories, as measured by the sheer amount they can recall with accuracy, one of the conclusions the Østbys reach is “that many people who rely on their memories don’t use mnemonic techniques, nor do they cram. They’re just passionate about what they do.” The more meaningful the topics and the more we are invested in truly learning, the higher the chances are that we will convert new information into lasting memory. Also, the more we learn, the more we will remember. There doesn’t seem to be a limit on how much we can put into memory.

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How we build our narratives

The experience of being a human is inseparable from our ability to remember. You can’t build relationships without memories. You can’t prepare for the future if you don’t remember the past.

The memories we hold on to early on have a huge impact on the ones we retain as we progress through life. “When memories enter our brain,” the Østbys explain, “they attach themselves to similar memories: ones from the same environment, or that involve the same feeling, the same music, or the same significant moment in history. Memories seldom swim around without connections.” Thus, a memory is significantly more likely to stick around if it can attach itself to something. A new experience that has very little in common with the narrative we’ve constructed of ourselves is harder to retain in memory.

As we get older, our new memories tend to reinforce what we already think of ourselves. “Memory is self-serving,” the Østbys write. “Memories are linked to what concerns you, what you feel, what you want.

Why is it so much easier to remember the details of a vacation or a fight we’ve had with our partner than the details of a physics lesson or the plot of a classic novel? “The fate of a memory is mostly determined by how much it means to us. Personal memories are important to us. They are tied to our hopes, our values, and our identities. Memories that contribute meaningfully to our personal autobiography prevail in our minds.” We need not beat ourselves up because we have a hard time remembering names or birthdays. Rather, we can accept that the triggers for the creation of a memory and its retention are related to how it speaks to the narrative we maintain about ourselves. This view of memory suggests that to better retain information, we can try to make knowing that information part of our identity. We don’t try to remember physics equations for the sake of it, but rather because in our personal narrative, we are someone who knows a lot about physics.

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Memory, imagination, and fluidity

Our ability to imagine is based, in part, on our ability to remember. The connection works on two levels.

The first, the Østbys write, is that “our memories are the fuel for our imagination.” What we remember about the past informs a lot of what we can imagine about the future. Whether it’s snippets from movies we’ve seen or activities we’ve done, it’s our ability to remember the experiences we’ve had that provide the foundation for our imagination.

Second, there is a physical connection between memory and imagination. “The process that gives us vivid memories is the same as the one that we use to imagine the future.” We use the same parts of the brain when we immerse ourselves in an event from our past as we do when we create a vision for our future. Thus, one of the conclusions of Adventures in Memory is that “as far as our brains are concerned, the past and future are almost the same.” In terms of how they can feel to us, memories and the products of imagination are not that different.

The interplay between past and future, between memory and imagination, impacts the formation of memories themselves. Memory “is a living organism,” the Østbys explain, “always absorbing images, and when new elements are added, they are sewn into the original memory as seamlessly as only our imagination can do.”

One of the most important lessons from the book is to change up the analogies we use to understand memory. Memories are not like movies, exactly the same no matter how many times you watch them. Nor are they like files stored in a computer, unchanging data saved for when we might want to retrieve it. Memories, like the rest of our biology, are fluid.

Memory is more like live theater, where there are constantly new productions of the same pieces,” the Østbys write. “Each and every one of our memories is a mix of fact and fiction. In most memories the central story is based on true events, but it’s still reconstructed every time we recall it. In these reconstructions, we fill in the gaps with probable facts. We subconsciously pick up details from a sort-of memory prop room.

Understanding our memory more like a theater production, where the version you see in London’s West End isn’t going to be exactly the same as the one you see on Broadway, helps us let go of attaching a judgment of accuracy to what we remember. It’s okay to find out when reminiscing with friends that you have different memories of the same day. It’s also acceptable that two people will have different memories of the events leading to their divorce, or that business partners will have different memories of the terms they agreed to at the start of the partnership. The more you get used to the fluidity of your memories, the more the differences in recollections become sources of understanding instead of points of contention. What people communicate about what they remember can give you insight into their attitudes, beliefs, and values.

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Conclusion

New memories build on the ones that are already there. The more we know, the easier it is to remember the new things we learn. But we have to be careful and recognize that our tendency is to reinforce the narrative we’ve already built. Brand new information is harder to retain, but sometimes we need to make the effort.

Finally, memories are important not only for learning and remembering but also because they form the basis of what we can imagine and create. In so many ways, we are what we remember. Accepting that our vivid memories can be very different from those who were in the same situation helps us reduce the conflict that comes with insisting that our memories must always be correct.

You’re Only As Good As Your Worst Day

We tend to measure performance by what happens when things are going well. Yet how people, organizations, companies, leaders, and other things do on their best day isn’t all that instructive. To find the truth, we need to look at what happens on the worst day.

“Anyone can steer the ship when the sea is calm. ”—Publilius Syrus

We laud athletes on a winning streak, startups with a skyrocketing valuation, hedge funds seeing record-breaking returns, and so on. But it’s easy to look good when everything goes according to plan and circumstances are calm. Anyone can succeed for a while, even if it’s just out of pure luck. It’s no great feat to do well if you’re not being challenged or tested. Watching what happens during a downswing is far more instructive.

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Products and services are only as good as they are when they break, not when everything is functioning fine.

When a program stops working, do you face a baffling error message with no further guidance or clear instructions for how to get help? Is customer service quick and easy to access at any time or does it require you to jump through endless convoluted hoops? Even if you’ve had a positive view of a product or service for years, a problem that takes forever to fix or a hostile response when you ask for help will no doubt make you take your business elsewhere.

From a customer standpoint, companies are only as good as how they behave in a public relations crisis.

Do they shirk blame and try to pin it elsewhere or do they take responsibility? Do they try to cover up what happened or do they come forward with the full truth? Do they ignore any damages or do they promise to make things better for everyone affected—no matter the cost? Reputations are fragile. One incident of bad behavior will linger in the minds of customers for a long time.

From a financial standpoint, companies prove their worth when they show how they cope when something fundamental changes in the market or there’s a financial crisis.

Do they keep persisting with the old business model under the illusion that what worked before should work again or do they reimagine their approach? Do they fire staff to preserve CEO bonuses or do they play the long game to ensure they’ll be able to attract top talent in the future? Do they crumble when there’s a powerful new competitor or do they rise to the challenge? Like companies, investors might be able to perform well in ideal conditions due to luck. But when the market crashes and there’s blood in the streets, very few will know how to cope or be prepared. Only the smartest will know how to survive or even profit.

Leaders are only as good as how they lead during times of uncertainty and fear.

Do they hide away from public sight or do they serve as a reassuring, sympathetic presence that brings everyone together? Do they do what’s defensible or what’s best for everyone in the long run? Are they forced to react in the moment or were they already prepared? Ask anyone to name the finest leaders in the history of their country and they’re not likely to name those who were in power during calm, peaceful times. They’ll name those who were at the helm during wars, economic crises, pandemics, natural disasters, and so on—those who never wavered from a vision and whose consistent, empathetic appearances gave people a sense of hope.

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As individuals, we tell people the most about who we are when everything goes wrong. These times are also when we stand to learn the most about ourselves.

Your kids might not remember how you behaved on a relaxed, sunny Saturday when work went well all week and you had little on your mind beyond playing with them. But they’re sure to remember how you behaved on the day when you’d lost your job due to a recession, you’d just had an argument with your partner, an unexpected bill arrived in the mail that morning, and then someone spilled spaghetti sauce on the couch. That’s the day when your behavior has the most to show them about what to model in the future.

Your partner might not remember how you treated them when you were lying on a beach on holiday together with all of your worries far away and a good book in hand. But they’re sure to remember how you treated them when you had your worst disagreement ever, over a problem that seemed insurmountable and involved complex emotions. That’s the moment when they might well make a decision about whether they’re in this for the long haul.

Your boss might not remember the work you did on an average week when everything went to plan. But they’re sure to remember the time when you stepped up, stretched the limits of your abilities, and delivered what seemed impossible at short notice while everything around you was on fire. That’s what they’ll recall when thinking about what you’re capable of.

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You’re only as good as your worst day. Not because what you do the rest of the time doesn’t matter. Not because you should be expected to be perfect under immense stress or to behave according to plan when everything goes awry. But because what you do on your worst day is impossible to fake. It’s honest signaling. There’s little time for posturing or stalling. On your worst day, you reveal whether you’ve been planning for the possibility of disaster or just coasting along enjoying the good times. Your plans and preparation (or lack thereof) show how much you really care about the people who depend on you. You get to build and strengthen bonds in ways that will last a lifetime, or you risk destroying relationships in moments. You get to build trust and respect or you might break what you have irreparably.

Your worst day is a chance to show your best qualities, to stand out, and to learn an enormous amount about yourself. Very few people plan or prepare for what they’ll do and how they’ll act during those times. Those who do might well end up turning their worst day into their best.

Explore Or Exploit? How To Choose New Opportunities

One big challenge we all face in life is knowing when to explore new opportunities, and when to double down on existing ones. Explore vs exploit algorithms – and poetry – teach us that it’s vital to consider how much time we have, how we can best avoid regrets, and what we can learn from failures.

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“Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love’s day . . .

Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.”
—Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress

Of all the questions life demands we answer, “To explore or to exploit?” is one we have to confront almost every day. Do we keep trying new restaurants? Do we keep learning new ideas? Do we keep making new friends? Or do we enjoy what we’ve come to find and love?

There is no doubt that humans are great at exploring, as most generalist species are. Not content to stay in that cave, hunt that animal, or keep doing it the way our grandmother taught us, humans owe at least part of our success due to our willingness to explore.

But when is what you’ve already explored enough? When can you finally settle down to enjoy the fruits of your exploration? When can you be content to exploit the knowledge you already have?

Turns out that there are algorithms for that.

In Algorithms to Live By, authors Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths devote an entire chapter to how computer algorithms deal with the explore/exploit conundrum and how you can apply those lessons to the same tension in your life.

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How much time do you have?

One of the most important factors in determining whether to continue exploring or to exploit what you’ve got is time. Christian and Griffiths explain that “seizing a day and seizing a lifetime are two entirely different endeavors. . . . When balancing favorite experiences and new ones, nothing matters as much as the interval over which we plan to enjoy them.

Time intervals can be a construct of your immediate circumstances, like the boundaries provided by a two-week vacation. For a lot of us, the last night in a lovely foreign place will see us eating at the best restaurant we have found so far. Time intervals can also be considered over the arc of your life in general. Children are consummate explorers, but as we grow up, the choice to exploit becomes more of a daily decision. How would your choices today be impacted if you knew you were going to live another five years? Twenty years? Forty years? Christian and Griffiths advise, “Explore when you will have time to use the resulting knowledge, exploit when you’re ready to cash in.”

“I have known days like that, of warm winds drowsing in the heat
of noon and all of summer spinning slowly on its reel,
days briefly lived, that leave long music in the mind
more sweet than truth: I play them and rewind.”
—Russell Hoban, Summer Recorded

Sometimes we are too quick to stop exploring. We have these amazing days and magical experiences, and we want to keep repeating them forever. However, changes in ourselves and the world around us are inevitable, and so committing to a path of exploitation too early leaves us unable to adapt. As much as it can be hard to walk away from that perfect day, Christian and Griffiths explain that “exploration in itself has value, since trying new things increases our chances of finding the best. So taking the future into account, rather than focusing just on the present, drives us toward novelty.

“Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.”
—William Shakespeare, Sonnet 60

There is no doubt that for many of us time is our most precious resource. We never seem to have enough, and we want to maximize the value we get from how we choose to use it. So when deciding between whether to enjoy what you have or search for something better, adding time to your decision-making process can help point the way.

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Minimizing the pain of regret

The threat of regret looms over many explore/exploit considerations. We can regret both not searching for something better and not taking the time to enjoy what we already have. The problem with regret is that we don’t have it in advance of a poor decision. Sometimes, second-order thinking can be used as a preventative tool. But often it is when you look back over a decision that regret comes out. Christian and Griffiths define regret as “the result of comparing what we actually did with what would have been best in hindsight.”

“Does the road wind uphill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.”
—Christina Rossetti, Up-Hill

If we want to minimize regret, especially in exploration, we can try to learn from those who have come before. As we choose to wander forth into new territory, however, it’s natural to wonder if we’ll regret our decision to try something new. According to Christian and Griffiths, the mathematics that underlie explore/exploit algorithms show that “you should assume the best about [new people and new things], in the absence of evidence to the contrary. In the long run, optimism is the best prevention for regret.” Why? Because by being optimistic about the possibilities that are out there, you’ll explore enough that the one thing you won’t regret is missed opportunity.

(This is similar to one of the most effective strategies in game theory: tit for tat. Start out by being nice, then reciprocate whatever behavior you receive. It often works better paired with the occasional bout of forgiveness.)

“Tell me, tell me, smiling child,
What the past is like to thee?
‘An Autumn evening soft and mild
With a wind that sighs mournfully.’

Tell me, what is the present hour?
‘A green and flowery spray
Where a young bird sits gathering its power
To mount and fly away.’

And what is the future, happy one?
‘A sea beneath a cloudless sun;
A mighty, glorious, dazzling sea
Stretching into infinity.’”
—Emily Bronte, Past, Present, Future

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The accumulation of knowledge

Christian and Griffiths write that “it’s rare that we make an isolated decision, where the outcome doesn’t provide us with any information that we’ll use to make other decisions in the future.” Not all of our explorations are going to lead us to something better, but many of them are. Not all of our exploitations are going to be satisfying, but with enough exploration behind us, many of them will. Failures are, after all, just information we can use to make better explore or exploit decisions in the future.

“You know—at least you ought to know,
For I have often told you so—
That children are never allowed
To leave their nurses in a crowd.
Now this was Jim’s especial foible,
He ran away when he was able,
And on this inauspicious day
He slipped his hand and ran away!
He hadn’t gone a yard when—Bang!
With open jaws, a lion sprang,
And hungrily began to eat
The boy: beginning at his feet.”
—Hilaire Belloc, Jim Who Ran Away from His Nurse, and Was Eaten by a Lion

Most importantly, we shouldn’t let our early exploration mishaps prevent us from continuing to push our boundaries as we grow up. Exploration is necessary in order to exploit and enjoy the knowledge hard won along the way.

Appearances vs Experiences: What Really Makes Us Happy

In the search for happiness, we often confuse how something looks with how it’s likely to make us feel. This is especially true when it comes to our homes. If we want to maximize happiness, we need to prioritize experiences over appearances.

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Most of us try to make decisions intended to bring us greater happiness. The problem is that we misunderstand how our choices really impact our well-being and end up making ones that have the opposite effect. We buy stuff that purports to inspire happiness and end up feeling depressed instead. Knowing some of the typical pitfalls in the search for happiness—especially the ones that seem to go against common sense—can help us improve quality of life.

It’s an old adage that experiences make us happier than physical things. But knowing is not the same as doing. One area this is all too apparent is when it comes to choosing where to live. You might think that how a home looks is vital to how happy you are living in it. Wrong! The experience of a living space is far more important than its appearance.

The influence of appearance

In Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, Charles Montgomery explores some of the ways in which we misunderstand how our built environment and the ways we move through cities influence our happiness.

Towards the end of their first year at Harvard, freshmen find out which dormitory they will be living in for the rest of their time at university. Places are awarded via a lottery system, so individual students have no control over where they end up. Harvard’s dormitories are many and varied in their design, size, amenities, age, location, and overall prestige. Students take allocation seriously, as the building they’re in inevitably has a big influence on their experience at university. Or does it?

Montgomery points to two Harvard dormitories. Lowell House, a stunning red brick building with a rich history, is considered the most prestigious of them all. Students clamor to live in it. Who could ever be gloomy in such a gorgeous building?

Meanwhile, Mather House is a much-loathed concrete tower. It’s no one’s first choice. Most students pray for a room in the former and hope to be spared the latter, because they think their university experience will be as awful-looking as the building. (It’s worth noting that although the buildings vary in appearance, neither is lacking any of the amenities a student needs to live. Nor is Mather House in any way decrepit.)

The psychologist Elizabeth Dunn asked a group of freshmen to predict how each of the available dormitories might affect their experience of Harvard. In follow-up interviews, she compared their lived experience with those initial predictions. Montgomery writes:

The results would surprise many Harvard freshmen. Students sent to what they were sure would be miserable houses ended up much happier than they had anticipated. And students who landed in the most desirable houses were less happy than they expected to be. Life in Lowell House was fine. But so was life in the reviled Mather House. Overall, Harvard’s choice dormitories just didn’t make anyone much happier than its spurned dormitories.

Why did students make this mistake and waste so much energy worrying about dormitory allocation? Dunn found that they “put far too much weight on obvious differences between residences, such as location and architectural features, and far too little on things that were not so glaringly different, such as the sense of community and the quality of relationships they would develop in their dormitory.”

Asked to guess if relationships or architecture are more important, most of us would, of course, say relationships. Our behavior, however, doesn’t always reflect that. Dunn further states:

This is the standard mis-weighing of extrinsic and intrinsic values: we may tell each other that experiences are more important than things, but we constantly make choices as though we didn’t believe it.

When we think that the way a building looks will dictate our experience living in it, we are mistaking the map for the territory. Architectural flourishes soon fade into the background. What matters is the day-to-day experience of living there, when relationships matter much more than how things look. Proximity to friends is a higher predictor of happiness than charming old brick.

The impact of experience

Some things we can get used to. Some we can’t. We make a major mistake when we think it’s worthwhile to put up with negative experiences that are difficult to grow accustomed to in order to have nice things. Once again, this happens when we forget that our day-to-day experience is paramount in our perception of our happiness.

Take the case of suburbs. Montgomery describes how many people in recent decades moved to suburbs outside of American cities. There, they could enjoy luxuries like big gardens, sprawling front lawns, wide streets with plenty of room between houses, spare bedrooms, and so on. City dwellers imagined themselves and their families spreading out in spacious, safe homes. But American cities ended up being shaped by flawed logic, as Montgomery elaborates:

Neoclassical economics, which dominated the second half of the twentieth century, is based on the premise that we are all perfectly well equipped to make choices that maximize utility. . . . But the more psychologists and economists examine the relationship between decision-making and happiness, the more they realize that this is simply not true. We make bad choices all the time. . . . Our flawed choices have helped shape the modern city—and consequently, the shape of our lives.

Living in the suburbs comes at a price: long commutes. Many people spend hours a day behind the wheel, getting to and from work. On top of that, the dispersed nature of suburbs means that everything from the grocery store to the gym requires more extended periods of time driving. It’s easy for an individual to spend almost all of their non-work, non-sleep time in their car.

Commuting is, in just about every sense, terrible for us. The more time people spend driving each day, the less happy they are with their life in general. This unhappiness even extends to the partners of people with long commutes, who also experience a decline in well-being. Commuters see their health suffer due to long periods of inactivity and the stress of being stuck in traffic. It’s hard to find the time and energy for things like exercise or seeing friends if you’re always on the road. Gas and car-related expenses can eat up the savings from living outside of the city. That’s not to mention the environmental toll. Commuting is generally awful for mental health, which Montgomery illustrates:

A person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 percent more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. On the other hand, for a single person, exchanging a long commute for a short walk to work has the same effect on happiness as finding a new love.

So why do we make this mistake? Drawing on the work of psychologist Daniel Gilbert, Montgomery explains that it’s a matter of us thinking we’ll get used to commuting (an experience) and won’t get used to the nicer living environment (a thing.)

The opposite is true. While a bigger garden and spare bedroom soon cease to be novel, every day’s commute is a little bit different, meaning we can never get quite used to it. There is a direct linear downwards relationship between commute time and life satisfaction, but there’s no linear upwards correlation between house size and life satisfaction. As Montgomery says, “The problem is, we consistently make decisions that suggest we are not so good at distinguishing between ephemeral and lasting pleasures. We keep getting it wrong.”

Happy City teems with insights about the link between the design of where we live and our quality of life. In particular, it explores how cities are often shaped by mistaken ideas about what brings us happiness. We maximize our chances at happiness when we prioritize our experience of life instead of acquiring things to fill it with.

What You Truly Value

Our devotion to our values gets tested in the face of a true crisis. But it’s also an opportunity to reconnect, recommit, and sometimes, bake some bread.

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The recent outbreak of the coronavirus is impacting people all over the world — not just in terms of physical health, but financially, emotionally, and even socially. As we struggle to adapt to our new circumstances, it can be tempting to bury our head and wait for it all to blow over so we can just get back to normal. Or we can see this as an incredible opportunity to figure out who we are.

What many of us are discovering right now is that the things we valued a few months ago don’t actually matter: our cars, the titles on our business cards, our privileged neighborhoods. Rather, what is coming to the forefront is a shift to figuring out what we find intrinsically rewarding

When everything is easy, it can seem like you have life figured out. When things change and you’re called to put it into practice, it’s a different level. It’s one thing to say you are stoic when your coffee spills and another entirely when you’re watching your community collapse. When life changes and gets hard, you realize you’ve never had to put into practice what you thought you knew about coping with disaster.

But when a crisis hits, everything is put to the real test.

The challenge then becomes wrapping our struggles into our values, because what we value only has meaning if it’s important when life is hard. To know if they have worth, your values need to help you move forward when you can barely crawl and the obstacles in your way seem insurmountable.

In the face of a crisis, what is important to us becomes evident when we give ourselves the space to reflect on what is going to get us through the hard times. And so we find renewed commitment to get back to core priorities. What seemed important before falls apart to reveal what really matters: family, love, community, health.

“I was 32 when I started cooking; up until then, I just ate.” 

— Julia Child

One unexpected activity that many people are turning to now that they have time and are more introspective is baking. In fact, this week Google searches for bread recipes hit a noticeable high.


Baking is a very physical experience: kneading dough, tasting batter, smelling the results of the ingredients coming together. It’s an activity that requires patience. Bread has to rise. Pies have to cook. Cakes have to cool before they can be covered with icing. And, as prescriptive as baking seems on its surface, it’s something that facilitates creativity as we improvise our ingredients based on what we have in the cupboard. We discover new flavors, and we comfort ourselves and others with the results. Baked goods are often something we share, and in doing so we are providing for those we care about.

Why might baking be useful in times of stress? In Overcoming Anxiety, Dennis Tirch explains “research has demonstrated that when people engage more fully in behaviors that give them a sense of pleasure and mastery, they can begin to overcome negative emotions.”

At home with their loved ones people can reconsider what they value one muffin at a time. Creating with the people we love instead of consuming on our own allows us to focus on what we value as the world changes around us. With more time, slow, seemingly unproductive pursuits have new appeal because they help us reorient to the qualities in life that matter most.

Giving yourself the space to tune in to your values doesn’t have to come through baking. What’s important is that you find an activity that lets you move past fear and panic, to reconnect with what gives your life meaning. When you engage with an activity that gives you pleasure and releases negative emotions, it allows you to rediscover what is important to you.

Change is stressful. But neither stress nor change have to be scary. If you think about it, you undergo moments of change every day because nothing in life is ever static. Our lives are a constant adaptation to a world that is always in motion.

All change brings opportunity. Some change gives us the opportunity to pause and ask what we can do better. How can we better connect to what has proven to be important? Connection is not an abstract intellectual exercise, but an experience that orients us to the values that provide us direction. If you look for opportunities in line with your values, you will be able to see a path through the fear and uncertainty guided by the light that is hope.