THE ECONOMY OF REGARD - Be Proactive - Hacking Happiness: Why Your Personal Data Counts and How Tracking It Can Change the World (2015)

Hacking Happiness: Why Your Personal Data Counts and How Tracking It Can Change the World (2015)



Be Proactive



—Avner Offer



What are the advantages which we propose to gain by that great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition? To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy . . . and approbation, are all advantages that we can propose to derive from it.1


WE ALL HAVE defining moments in our lives. One of mine involves bullies.

I lived next to my school growing up and was always riding my bike or going to the playground. I was on the monkey bars one afternoon when the group of kids who made a career of taunting me showed up. I jumped off the monkey bars and spun around, waiting for my latest dose of vitriol.

It didn’t come. Tom, chief bully of the group, nodded toward the monkey bars and said, “Nice job, Havens. Can you do that again?”

I was confused—was this a form of kindness? Or maybe just recognition? Earlier in the day, Tom and the boys had surrounded me for a sadistic version of the silent treatment where they’d forcibly ignored me yet hadn’t let me leave. Now they were being nice to me?

Of course I didn’t buy it. But then Tom’s toadies joined in on the compliments and seemed genuinely impressed. A wave of joy swept over me. Was my time of being bullied coming to an end? I didn’t genuinely believe that it was, although I wanted nothing more at the time. Call it gullible or wishful thinking; I was just happy to get noticed.

One of the toadies spoke up: “Why don’t you do that again?”

I scrambled up one side of the monkey bars, thrilled at the prospect of an audience. I hiked up my shorts and jumped. As I grunted my way toward the other side, I saw Tom lunge forward in my peripheral vision. Confused, I held on to the bars as he gripped my shorts and pulled them down around my ankles. The force of the pull was strong enough to pull my underwear down, exposing my naked butt.

In the middle of a hot spring day, a full moon.

I jumped off to the sound of bullies howling with laughter. Pulling up my pants with an awkward heave, I swore with rage. While I hadn’t directed it at Tom, he picked up on it immediately—he was a top-notch bully in terms of technique.

“What’d you call me?”

“I didn’t call you anything.” Much like the classic scene from the movie A Christmas Story, where one kid dares another kid to stick his tongue to a frozen pole, rituals around fighting were fairly defined in my elementary school.

“You fucking swore at me, Havens. And now I’m gonna kick your ass.” Tom was going straight from the playbook, so I responded with a classic counterpoint response.

“But there’s five of you,” I pointed out. For emphasis, I added, “And only one of me.”

“Just you and me, fat boy,” Tom replied, the other bullies moving aside like a bully ballet. “Just you and me.”

There it was. The trap had been set, and I’d been forced to spring it. I had one last card left to play, however. When you get bullied a lot, being called a chicken doesn’t really mean anything, since you get mocked all the time. So I decided to feign gallantry and walk away.

“I’m not gonna fight you, man,” I said, and turned to leave.

I took about three steps before I heard someone run up behind me. I began to turn around, but Tom was quicker than I was, and he jumped on my back. His friends howled with laughter as Tom repeatedly punched my face.

I’m not sure how I got Tom off my back and turned around. But I did, and I put him in a piledriver hold—I gripped him around his back like a wrestler while his head was facing the ground. It’s a pretty disorienting position to be in, and as I started running Tom backward, he shouted for me to stop. So I did. But as I removed my arms from his back and he raised his head, I brought my knee up into his face hard, three times. On the last impact, I felt something snap and my leg became covered in blood.

I had broken Tom’s nose. Didn’t mean to. Not proud of it. But I won’t lie: It felt really good.

A central tenet of Hacking H(app)iness is acknowledging that you can’t fully appreciate what makes you happy until you’ve lived through experiences that make you miserable. Extremes provide measures of comparison.

After I broke Tom’s nose, I went home and got him paper towels. When I came back to the playground, he was sitting with his head tipped back, fellow bullies spread around him in a semicircle. I gave him the towels and asked if he was okay. He said he was fine.

And then the strangest thing happened.

I stood there and we just chatted for a few minutes. We talked about our fight like we had watched it on TV. Tom actually complimented me on my piledriver move. The other bullies chimed in as well. And for a fleeting, blissful moment—

I was one of the guys.

Apparently Tom knew he had broken two unspoken playground rules:

1. It’s chickenshit to jump a guy from behind.

2. Sucker punch a rage-infused kid you’ve bullied for months at your own risk.

Tom’s ignoring our rules meant the veneer of our playground world had been broken. And I had never appreciated being paid attention to more than I did in that moment.

Sadly, the next day, we resumed our usual roles, and I sank into my lonely rituals once again. Fortunately, the abject misery I experienced at school was offset by an amazingly wise and loving mother who gave me advice that guided me through elementary school and beyond: “There’s always someone worse off than you. Find them, help them, and you’ll feel better.”

Her solution worked. The desire to lessen one’s suffering is a great motivator for empathy. Ironically, this push to help others was fueled by a powerful need to help myself. It wasn’t an act of selflessness as much as desperation. It was heartfelt, but, by definition, I needed others to remove my sense of isolation.

What I discovered through my playground experiences was what economist Avner Offer calls “the economy of regard.”2 I learned firsthand about supply and demand regarding attention. Being ignored proactively deteriorated my well-being. It’s why I had so much anger built up and why Tom’s septum is probably still deviated to this day.

Adam Smith, father of modern economics, first posited the idea of the efficiency of an impersonal market in his seminal treatise of modern economics, The Wealth of Nations. Typically referred to as “the invisible hand,” Smith’s central idea in the book claimed that people’s efforts to maximize personal gain in a free market benefit society.

Smith’s first work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, seems to contradict this idea of an impersonal market, however. Here’s how Wikipedia summarizes this point:

In the work, Smith critically examines the moral thinking of his time, and suggests that conscience arises from social relationships. His goal in writing the work was to explain the source of mankind’s ability to form moral judgments, in spite of man’s natural inclinations toward self-interest. Smith proposes a theory of sympathy, in which the act of observing others makes people aware of themselves and the morality of their own behavior.3

I never thought of my wanting to help other people as economic in nature. But observing other people’s suffering did make me try to help them, which provided a form of positive social exchange.

In his book The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain since 1950, Avner Offer notes that, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith “described the purpose of economic activity as the acquisition of regard.”4 Regard is also known as approbation, an appreciation between two people that can come in different forms, such as attention, respect, kinship, and acceptance. I interviewed Offer and asked him to elaborate on these ideas.

We try to maximize our well-being by being worthy of other people’s approbation, and we earn it by giving it away. It’s a social exchange in a relationship of equals. A basic resource we all have is self-worth. But you can’t feel self-worth just through bootstrapping—we need the validation of others. That’s the primitive core of the relationship, the idea of reciprocity.5

Reciprocity becomes an essential practice in society because it’s impossible for people to function just through impersonal transactions. Social economics means you can’t always use money for exchange. Traditions like hospitality dictate the giving of gifts based on building a relationship. You bring a bottle of wine to a party or you feel like a jerk. And if you forget to bring something, you don’t offer the hostess twenty bucks. You try to make up for your loss of social capital by repaying her with a kindness at some point in the future.

This economy of regard equates to shared value in the sense that people only feel contentment if everyone benefits. People need to be observant of one another. They need to see one another. Regard is a mutual process where value is only created when two people actively experience each other in real time.

This face-to-face nature of regard has begun to erode in the wake of digital technology. Too much time spent staring at screens can have physiological repercussions on our bodies, where the plasticity in our faces that helps us smile can begin to atrophy. Barbara L. Fredrickson, the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology and principal investigator of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and author of Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become, explains this phenomenon in her New York Times article “Your Phone vs. Your Heart.” Her research shows that when people take each other in, part of how they share a smile or a laugh is physiological in nature. Mirror neurons create micromoments that cannot be exchanged if both parties are not fully present in a moment. These precious exchanges build capacity for empathy and even improve our overall health.6

Apparently the economy of regard doesn’t apply to screens. Oxford scholar Robin Dunbar, an English anthropologist who is an expert on real-world social networks, has also famously noted that, no matter who you are or where you live, no person can hold more than 150 people in their active social circle.7 Apparently attention is a scarce resource—it can only be paid to a finite number of people.

The Pursuit of Provision

I have good news. There’s always going to be someone who needs your help. And in an economy of regard, if you pay attention more than you receive it, you’ll be providing a valued benefit to the people in your life. In the Connected World of augmented reality, it’s going to be easier than ever to only see the people we want to see. We can get caught up in amassing followers and feeding our egos. We can spend all of our attention on ourselves.

Or we can spread the wealth and look outward. Shifting from a consumer to a provider mind-set, we can give Big Data direction and analyze which needs around us can be met with the time and skills we have available. Civic engagement doesn’t have to be just a duty. Paying attention to others feeds our inherent need for approbation in an economy of regard.

In an article for the Atlantic, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of Robert Kennedy, recounts a quote from her father, who was asked by British media personality David Frost about the purpose of life. Kennedy’s answer was remarkably simple, saying if you have enough to eat and survive, your focus should be to help others who don’t have those advantages, and “you can always find someone that has a more difficult time than you do.”8

Townsend’s article also points out how her father critiqued the idea of the gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of national well-being, and how newer metrics like Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness are expanding how the world views value creation. Referring to the quote from the Declaration of Independence, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Townsend points out that the Founding Fathers were, by and large, wealthy and could have avoided helping their communities beyond their core political obligations. But they “believed that you attained happiness, not merely through the goods you accumulated . . . but through the good that you did in public.”9

I interviewed Townsend, who served as lieutenant governor of Maryland from 1995 to 2003, where as part of her work she was the founder and executive director of the Maryland Student Service Alliance that made Maryland the first state in the country to in-clude a high school community service requirement—an act mirroring the Founding Fathers’ focus on doing good for others. I asked her how she felt the GDP and a focus on individualism had affected modern Americans’ views on happiness.

People have been told to think about themselves. And in terms of what do we mean by “happiness” and how do we become happy—people think that simply getting more for themselves makes them happy. I think that’s the message of our consumer society.10

Community comes at a price. By definition, it involves coming together with other people around shared values or needs. Pursuing happiness is a public function as well as a private one. It’s your choice to stay in isolation and only utilize your skills to build up individual wealth. But why keep other people from experiencing your awesomeness? Spread the love.

According to a great number of positive psychologists, you’ll increase your happiness by utilizing skills that you feel bring you the greatest meaning or by participating in an altruistically focused action. The phrase “pursuit of happiness” indicates an ongoing journey, a series of events versus a finite state. Long-term happiness comes as a result of actions taken versus a reliance on momentary shifts of mood.

Ask yourself if you’re contributing to the economy of regard or spending all your time reflecting just on yourself. If, as Avner Offer says, “the currency of well-being is attention,” why not pay it forward and try to help someone else get happy and see what that does for you?