The Good Life Quantified

by Jacob Falkovich5 min read11th Dec 20203 comments


World OptimizationRationality

Cross-posted, as always, from Putanumonit.

Rob Wiblin writes at 80,000 Hours, a site for systematically thinking about how to have a positive impact for the world through your career. The site tends to an analytical approach, with explicit models for comparing global priorities on three axes of impact or planning your career with an explore/exploit structure. It’s a lot like Putanumonit for people who care about improving the world instead of just about, uhh, getting laid and buying soap.

This summer Rob recorded a podcast with Russ Roberts of EconTalk, and even though Russ is sympathetic to the Effective Altruism project, he is less sympathetic to 80,000 Hours’ approach of putting numbers on improving the world. He starts by discussing some failures of applying the systematic/quantitative approach to philanthropy, such as deworming charity recommendations that were based on an RCT that has since been called into question. He then expresses a broader skepticism of the applicability of the quantitative approach to life in general:

Russ: In principle, that all sounds great. But, I don’t really actually think it’s the right way to think about how to live your life, or how to live your career. So, let me try to suggest some things I find troubling about it.

So, you mentioned a whole bunch of factors. They’re all reasonable. Any one of them is extremely reasonable. You should tackle an important problem. You should tackle a problem that people have not successfully solved, that you might have a chance of improving, that you might have an impact. It’s a variation really of expected value theory to me. […]

So, when I think about that enormous range of trade-offs within economics, and then I think about, ‘Oh, but I didn’t have to be an economist. I could have been, say, an English professor,’ would you conclude that I did the right thing? I happen to like economics now, but at the time I also liked fiction. If I had devoted my life to helping 25 students a class and maybe a hundred students a year to become deeply devoted to the fiction of William Faulkner, or to the poetry of Alexander Pope, would that have been an inferior life or a better life to the life I’ve chosen? I don’t know how to answer that question. I don’t think anybody could answer that question. Do you? […]

I think that kind of [broad utilitarian] calculus is just not obviously correct.

I’m somewhat sympathetic to Russ’ view. He’s saying that math promises clean and final answers, and fails to delivers. The numbers are questionable, the sense of uncertainty is inextricable, and who can write an equation for “the good life” anyway? Russ is also a professor of economics, a field that may be uniquely plagued by an overuse of mathematics.

I think that Russ is somewhat confused about what the proponents of the systematic / analytic / quantitative / Putanumonit approach are saying, and how much we expect anyone to listen. I hear this criticism all the time when I presume to put a number on anything outside the narrow list of areas approved for quantification (like economics). This post is a brief defense of a life putanumed.

Using an analytic approach to anything at all is extremely rare and frowned upon. If you google “dating advice”, “career advice”, or “life advice” you’ll find zero math and a lot of narrative. Here are the first few quotes pulled from the first few results for each query:

Boundaries are important… awkward moments are fine… if they’re looking for something different call it off… never tone it down, be as bold or as soft-spoken as you feel”

Don’t take yourself too seriously… every person you meet is a potential opportunity… don’t be afraid to speak up… work hard and be nice to people”

Take time to know yourself… show up fully… in order to get, you have to give… don’t be afraid”

The advice that fills the first several pages of search is the opposite of quantified. How to measure the trade-offs between enforcing boundaries and accommodating others? How long should you explore a relationship before calling it off? What happens if you show up 73.8% and not fully? Questions like these are anathema to most producers and consumers of life advice.

Reminder: when I told the person who writes about real estate for a living that my wife and I used a spreadsheet with numbers to compare apartments, along with a plan for acting on the results, she was so impressed that she wrote us up in the New York Times. Using the smallest amount of systematic thinking to help with dating got me a cover story in The Economist’s long-form magazine. Putting numbers on things is so rare it looks like magic to most.

Good advice should be applicable as the foundation for a plan. Plans require assessing trade-offs between scarce resources, measuring progress, building a model of the world that makes predictions and be falsified if it fails. All these things could use numbers, or analytical thinking more generally. Without it the advice is not a plan, it’s just a mood. Unless you’re a blessed Buddha-Chad who surfs life on a wave of pure vibe, you may want to occasionally make plans that work.

Instead — narrative. This “advice” is mostly a story, one that goes something like this: I, the writer of this advice listicle, think of myself as a confident and hardworking person who is kind to others without being subservient. You should be like me! Often, it’s a story about being the sort of person who deserves to get laid or hired or be seen as sexy and successful. It’s not a guide to actually obtaining these things.

Advice like this spreads memetically, not because it’s productive to follow up on but because it’s fun to write, read, and share on your feed. And even more importantly, because it’s socially appropriate to write and share. It reinforces stories we want to believe are true, for example that career success comes to those who are nice and work hardest, as opposed to those that are necessarily true.

This is even more of an issue for advice about values, such as what it means to live a good life, than advice about achieving particular goals. The values that spread through society memetically are very rarely the ones you would choose for yourself on objective reflection.

One can spin tales with numbers too, of course, but it’s always easier to lie without numbers than with. Numbers can be checked, numbers can be compared, and, most importantly, numbers are not intuitively compelling to most people. Whether the capacity to be moved by numbers is a sign of intelligence or just a particular nerdy bent, it is certainly quite rare.

To channel Russ’ colleague at George Mason, Robin Hanson, when Russ asks how numbers could tell him whether he should have become a teacher of English of economics, I think his main worry is not at having made the wrong choice. His subconscious worry is that if he used an explicit decision process, such as maximizing utility, he could be blamed for having made the wrong choice. Someone else could run the numbers and get a different answer, but no one can criticize Russ for saying that he just vibed with economics and thought it cool and impactful.

That numbers make you legible and thus open to social/political attack is true (and a topic for a whole post). To use a recent example: if I invite some friends over because I’m lonely and one of us gets COVID, it’s an unfortunate mishap. But if this happens after I explicitly calculated the COVID risk then people will be outraged at my hubris, even though calculating the risk didn’t make my friends any less safe.

But if the drawback of using numbers to guide your life is legibility to others, the big advantage is legibility to yourself.

As I’ve written at the time, the main benefit of comparing dates with a spreadsheet is not the answer Excel spits out. The simple act of coming up with attributes to compare your dates on makes you think for yourself, perhaps for the first time, what you personally value in relationships instead of what you’re supposed and expected to care about. It makes you face the reality that dating someone is always a trade-off and always a bet with unknown outcomes, not a neat linear story.

No one runs their life based on number and explicit models. Not I or Rob Wiblin or the people who read us. The analytical approach we promote offers a rare reprieve from the memes and the narratives, an opportunity to make a plan that you can hold yourself accountable to.

Numbers can open the door to regret, making bad decisions you’ve made more obvious and harder to weave into a story of how it was worth it in the end. Russ Roberts is 65, and with most major life decisions already behind him he may feel the sting of possible regret more acutely. But numbers also make it easier to make good decisions in the future, to pick good trade-offs, to be consistent with your deep values. So even if you have to do it in secret to avoid criticism, putting a number on the good life will only make it better.


3 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 5:18 PM
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Actuaries have the best life outcomes along a variety of metrics. So some people do, in fact, do the thing. You just don't hear from them because the need to loudly win actually indicates that something is wrong.

That's interesting, do you have a link so I can read more about that?

I don't know of a centralized source. Just a variety of 'life outcomes by profession' type studies show actuaries as a positive outlier.