SPEAKER: This is a production of Cornell University.
CHARLES JERMY, JR: Good evening and welcome to the last of the summer series of lectures. It doesn't mean the summer is over, but it's almost over. First, a quote from a famous cognitive psychologist. "You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose." Anyone recognize that?
AUDIENCE: Dr. Seuss.
CHARLES JERMY, JR: Yeah. The Places You'll Go, the last book published before his death, Dr. Seuss wrote about the value of pursuit. Here's how he said it in another place in that book. "With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you're too smart to go down a not so good street."
Tonight's lecturer, Shimon Edelman, is a professor of psychology at Cornell. Although, he's much too smart to go down a not so good street, if there's a desert nearby, you may actually find his head full of brains and his shoes full of feet there. But that's an entirely different story. Tonight, we'll hear instead about The Happiness of Pursuit. And Shimon will offer thoughts about what can and should be done to promote that.
He has a bachelor of science degree in electronics engineering from Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, and a master of science and a PhD degree in computer science from the Weizmann Institute of Science. From a deep interest in all aspects of cognition, he has written dozens of scholarly publications in theoretical neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and artificial intelligence.
But back to Dr. Seuss. "Out there things can happen, and frequently do, to people as brainy and footsie as you. And when things start to happen, don't worry, don't stew. Just go right along. You'll start happening too. And perhaps I should add, you may even find yourself on the way to happiness. Will you succeed? Yes, you will indeed. 98.75% guaranteed." Shimon Edelman, The Happiness of Pursuit-- Machineries of Joy.
SHIMON EDELMAN: I guess I should say I'm very happy to be here in a talk like this-- opening a talk like this. I guess it has a special meaning. I truly am, even more now that I have my slides.
So I saw that some of the publicity ahead of this talk included a promise to reveal the secret of happiness. So I guess maybe the largest-- the biggest secret of happiness is that it's no secret really. I don't know if one can put what we need to know about the pursuit of happiness or the happiness of pursuit in that space that's left on that device. But I'll certainly try to do it in the next 15 minutes or so.
So let's get down to it. How can a human be happy? I guess it's a question that humans are very into. And I would like to translate right away, from the start, into several questions that would help us-- will help us on the way. So when you say "happy," what do you mean? What does it mean "happy?" That's the first subquestion this translates into.
And then, what does it mean "human"? Which is maybe a bit of a surprise, but we are not done yet, actually. One can pack yet another question here. What does it mean "to be"?
And I don't mean it in that famous sense from 15 years ago or 20 years ago.
These are actually serious questions. And one can trace them at least as far back as Aristotle. Here is a bust of Aristotle. His face looks-- I think he's about my age here. Just graduated Alexander the Great, feels pretty happy. So we can, I guess, take his advice about those matters. And he speaks to the first two subquestions here-- what does it mean happy, and what does it mean human? In his famous dictum that to attain happiness, humans must live a life that befits human being.
I think it's a profound insight, which is getting even more and even better appreciated these days. Aristotle is coming back into vogue, as far as I understand, in the philosophy of morals. But let's see where this quest takes us.
We want, first, then try to figure out what it means happy. So I guess the first distinction one has to make here is between different kinds of happiness. And the one kind has to do with the moment to moment feeling, typically in response in, say, social science survey, a subject would be asked, how happy are you now, give a number on a scale. And this is what expresses, intuitively, our feeling of joy, feeling good, feeling happy at the moment.
And it complements the other side, or the longer term notion of happiness, which is life evaluation, contentment. This would typically come-- this kind of evaluation typically would come in response to a question-- all things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days? This is the major distinction we have to make. It kind of answers the basic concern people have with regard to what do you mean by happiness, do you mean kind of a hyper-state, joy, being maybe in ecstasy.
Well, this is the basic distinction we have to keep in mind. In fact, actually, even the first one, one can translate into separate-- it turns out that people can measurably report separately a feeling of joy and a feeling of being blue, which are kind of independent of one another, which, as usual, signifies that there's much interesting stuff here to be uncovered if you dig deeper. And social scientists, psychologists and sociologists do dig deeper. But this is the basic distinction we have to keep in mind.
So the second question then is, what do you mean by I? What do you mean by human? And of course, this is what the standard philosophical advice speaks to, the exhortation that we hear often that we should strive for self-knowledge. I chose to illustrate this with this drawing by Maurits Escher. It's a self-portrait and he stairs in a kind of-- well, in a mirror, which looks like a perfectly reflecting ball.
And I want to spend a few-- maybe a couple of minutes-- stressing the effectiveness of this approach in driving home, at least for me, the point of the question, what does it mean I? Of course, one can pun on the sound of I. But what I actually mean here is try-- do try this at home. But if you feel at some point uncomfortable about this, just stop the experiment.
So try to look at yourself in a mirror. Look yourself in the eyes. We all know, unfortunately, more and more of us know, in more and more situations, we know the feeling of being watched by a camera. Right now I'm watched by a couple of cameras here. I mean, surveillance camera, basically. And sometimes this is an uncanny situation, an uncanny feeling that we are being watched.
Well, how about being watched by what? What is it that looks-- well, that head is what Maurits Escher meant for this painting to express. But what I mean here is to draw your attention to the situation where you're looking at something, it is a picture, and there's something behind that picture. It's actually you. I don't even think I can express properly in words this feeling that I get when I face a mirror in this sense-- in the sense of reflecting back at me something which might seem to be ineffable, but actually, as we shall see in a few minutes, can be expressed in scientific terms.
So self-knowledge is a very common advice in philosophy. You find it in the famous dictum "know thyself." This was engraved over the lintel of the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece-- in ancient Greece. The temple dated to about sixth century BC. And I stress this date, because interestingly enough, in other parts of the world, about the same time, very similar sentiments were being expressed.
So you find this idea in the teachings of the Buddha in India. "Mindfulness amounts to complete self-mastery by means of self-knowledge." Pretty much the same idea expressed a quarter of a way around the world, and even farther to the East or all the way around to the West, if you wish, in the writings in the legacy of Laozi from about the same time you find this notion that "knowing others is wisdom; but knowing the self is enlightenment."
So philosophers seem to agree. The major philosophical traditions-- I would submit, every philosophical tradition, every major philosophical tradition that's out there claims self-knowledge to be important, perhaps even all important.
But self-knowledge and, in general, knowledge, is not what you can really obtain by purely philosophical means. Knowledge about how the world works-- and I am part of the world, you are part of the world. So knowledge how about the world works cannot be obtained by purely philosophical means for a very simple reason. Philosophy is basically a branch of mathematics, or the other way around, it doesn't really matter.
So you have a system of axioms. You have some assumptions from which you start. And then you use very strict logic-- and philosophers are really very, very good at that. And you write some conclusions. Just as in mathematics, you want to prove a theorem, well, you start with some axioms and then you follow the rules of deduction. That's good for figuring out the implications of your conclusions, which might not be trivial. They may be very, very far from trivial. But they are, in some sense, contained in your premises. So no new knowledge as such, not in the scientific sense of the word.
So if you want to get real self-knowledge, you have to go from philosophy to science. So it's a wonderful T-shirt slogan, which you can get from XKCD. "Stand back. I'm going to try in science." So let's see where that gets us.
So science in the service of self-knowledge, what's coming up and what I'm promising you, in just a minute, or maybe less, the evolutionary basis and the cognitive underpinnings of happiness, all in one slide. So maybe it would fit on that wall from which the second part of the secret was torn in that snapshot in the beginning.
So I promise you no brain scans, no pictures, imaging of brains. No talk about neurochemistry, dopamine, neurotransmitters. In fact, no talk about neurons.
And there's very good reason for that. The reason is that the most fundamental questions about the mind reside not on those levels, not on the level of neurons, not on the level of neurochemistry, but on the level of, well, what's the basic question one can ask about something. What is this something? What is a mind? Well, a mind is a bundle of computations.
And minds are for-- they are good for forethought. Minds are good for planning one's behavior in the world. No matter if you are an amoeba, or a mountain lion, or a human being, all our minds are bundles of computations. And ultimately, the use that we put our minds to, or the use that the minds put themselves to, is figuring out what's the best course of action, what to do next.
So these are claims which seem, to some, incomprehensible, and to other, outrageous. I feel I need to justify them. And I'll try to do that. That's the one slide that I promised. So happiness explained in one slide. Not only I'm going to explain cognition in one slide, I'm going to include-- throw in happiness for good measure.
So the first premise, but not in the mathematical sense-- this is not a mathematical axiom. This is an observation about the world, which you can play with and see if it gets you interesting and useful and reasonable answers. And that will be the proof of the pudding in the eating. So computation is fundamental to everything in the universe.
And the way I usually illustrate this, I do actually go out on a limb and I teach-- I used to teach this to sophomores in psychology-- most of them psychology and biology majors. The way I would illustrate this notion would be by dropping a piece of chalk. We don't seem to have chalk here, and I don't want to drop my pointer, but let me risk it.
So here, I just did. What happened is this object just computed the trajectory that it ascribed. It was computing it as it was ascribing it, as it fell into my other hand, as I released it from my right hand. How come? Well, how could it not? Otherwise, if it hadn't computed its trajectory, how would it know-- how did it know how fast to go and when to stop and all that? That's the basic argument.
I guess this is the time for-- by the way, if there are questions or comments which cannot wait till later, I welcome a raised hand or waved hand and I'll try to engage. But this is very important because I think that's the fundamental insight into anything that minds are and anything that minds do. That's the sense in which computation is fundamental to everything in the universe.
So the universe, you can say, is a giant computer, which at all times is computing its next state. That's the sense in which everything computes itself.
And then the second step-- if computation is so ubiquitous, it would have no explanatory value, specifically for psychology, because if everything is computation, well, what interesting things can you say beyond that? Well, there is an interesting thing or two that we can say beyond that. Specifically, cognitive computation-- we can single out some computational systems. This is a very simple one. But there is another one which I might risk, but I think I will not-- which is running inside my head. This is what I mean by representing or modeling the world.
It would actually be even better to have a confederate whom I would call now to the stage, and I would release that and they would catch the thing. And how would they know when to close their hand? Because they would anticipate the position of this object over the next half second, which means they somehow-- they must represent what is going to happen to the object.
So this is the sense in which some computations can be cognitive. So some systems can be cognitive. So this already excludes a whole bunch of systems which we know compute for this very basic reason, which I tried to explain, but do not necessarily compute something which is mind-like. But it's still very inclusive. So cognitive computation under this definition is still very inclusive.
That's what minds are-- computers that represent some parts of the world for what purpose and for what reason? Well, the most useful kind of cognitive computation is learning to predict the future from past experience. That's if you think about what would be the best kind of faculty to have at your disposal, the best kind of computational tool if you are thrown into this uncertain world and you are bombarded by stimuli, by stimulation, by your senses, and you have to contend with all kinds of challenges.
It would be really awfully nice to use your past experience-- actually, in fact, as little as possible, and preferably not fatal experience, because that would not leave room for exercising the knowledge afterwards-- to somehow anticipate the future and to predict what will happen, to anticipate, to foresee. So forethought is the basic function of any mind.
Now, there is a little rider to that insight, which is learning happens from the past and you strive while you learn. You do it so as to perform better in the future. But we live on the cusp of the moment. What about the present time in which-- I think there's a famous Rubaiyat, by Omar Khayyam that points out that the past is gone and future is not yet here, so we should care about the present.
Well, what minds need is to be able to have a facility to have some kind of a mechanism that would allow them to care in the present about the past and the future. So learning from the past and striving for a better future will not happen unless the animal-- and I'm very inclusive here, this goes for all animals, not just human beings-- has motivation to do so in the present. So motivation is a part of any mind, any animal mind and every animal mind that we know.
And from here, it's pretty easy to guess that species whose members are properly motivated would do better. If you're not motivated to care about your future, you get eaten or you just go extinct for some other reason.
And then the last-- I'm out of space on this slide-- I promised you the summary on one slide, no more. And here you go. So present happiness, which is fed by remembering the past and anticipating the future, is evolution's goad that makes us go. So think of-- let's think of ourselves as oxen that are goaded by evolution. And if we are good at it, we survive long enough to give rise to the next generation of oxen.
And happiness is the goad. We feel it, of course, as something pleasurable because apparently it's much more effective to be driven by nice things rather than by nasty things. Again, for reasons which I think can be guessed.
And there's a lot of background arguments that can go behind this slide. But I think as a summary, as a one-slide summary, it's a pretty fair one, which takes us all the way from all matter in the universe, matter and energy, computation which computes its next state, to things that we care about. Well, we care about those things for this reason. So in a sense, this slide is interesting on more than one level.
So this brings me to this notion which I think is actually mentioned in the title of the talk-- the happiness of pursuit. Evolution promotes the emergence of systems that, first of all, are good for the pursuit. They are good at the pursuit of future goals based on past experience. And they stay motivated by rewarding themselves for this in the present.
And it's easy to guess, I think, why the pursuit is a more effective behavior if you want to stay on the good side of evolution. I'm anthropomorphizing evolution as I shouldn't be doing, but we all do that. And it's a convenient rhetorical trick. So to be good in that evolutionary sense, what you don't want to do is rest-- as a species-- is rest on your laurels, because, again, a species that rests on its laurels gets conquered, eaten, driven out of its habitat, driven extinct.
So pursuit and not attainment, because for evolutionary reasons, mere attainment-- what I call here metaphorically resting on one's laurels-- is not an evolutionary sensible or effective strategy. And there's a nice-- well, nice-- there's a useful-- it may be not nice, but that's life. That's what we have to realize. There's a useful realization that comes on the heels of that first one, which is this is why we have ups that are always accompanied by downs.
So an up state, a happier state is followed by a less happy state, which makes a lot of sense, again, because if a member of a species or most members of a species would get consistently high on their past achievements, what they would do is rest on their laurels and go extinct. So this is a fact of life, which I think can be, in a way I just sketched, justified in evolutionary terms and thereby understood as a very basic constraint on the human condition. I'll come back to it in a little time.
So then we can say, here, we just heard the good news. The good news is the capacity for happiness is not just a human right, but it's actually a basic, very fundamental part of human nature. That's the good news. But, well, there are other news.
This reminds me of this joke told about Boris Yeltsin, who was the second ruler of Russia just after the USSR came apart and Russia, basically, the economy was going to the dogs. And he was asked, [RUSSIAN] Yeltsin, how would you describe, in one word, our situation now? And he said good. And in two words? And he said, not good.
So the other news is that there are additional factors at play. Our natural tendency to be happy when we deserve it-- and often, we really do deserve it. I mean, happiness is this evolutionary thing, and being deserving of such a thing or not is, in that sense, an objective state. So even when we deserve it, it is counteracted by several factors-- by personal hardship and by socioeconomic factors.
I want to spend a few minutes talking about that. In fact, if I hadn't planned to talk about that, you should help me with Rotten Tomatoes, because I think it would be an affront to a large part of the population of this planet to talk about happiness without mentioning those other factors.
So I want now to show you some data, share with you some plots. And please bear with me. I want to explain. This is the sense in which I promised I'll be talking science, at least to some extent, to you. And I wanted to do it seriously on a level that actually involves data.
So this is a plot of data from a recent paper-- three years ago. The first author is Daniel Kahneman, a famous psychologist-- actually, a Nobel Prize winner. Unfortunately, there is no Nobel Prize in psychology, so he got his Nobel Prize in economics, which makes perfect sense given the topic of this work here. It was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in 2010.
What we see here is the relationship, as quantified by that study, between personal wealth and happiness. So here we have annual income. This is US-based data. So this is for Americans like us. This axis starts with $10,000 per year up to $160,000.
And this is the fraction of population experiencing some of those components of happiness. Remember, there are two. One is the immediate, the joy that we feel on the cusp of the moment. And the other one is life evaluation. So what's called ladder here-- it's this broken line, this one, the thick one-- this is the life evaluation. And the scale runs on this side.
What we should notice is that it starts at some value and goes up and up and up. So people are, in the longer term, more and more and more and more happy with their lives taken as a whole the more they earn during the year. So this is one way of looking at it. It's a very American way of looking at it. People who earn more are happier.
What I want to do is to start on this side and to say-- well, I'm on this side, actually. I'm very lucky. But think about people on that side. See that way-- see the glass half empty. You'll see it actually as more than half empty.
The other three curves here have to do with the immediate, with people's own estimates of their state of immediate moment to moment happiness. We see positive affect. And not blue-- this is the opposite of negative affect. As I told you, this can be separate. And indeed here they are separate.
And stress-free-- another measure of being right now in that particular state. And the scale is here. It's the fraction of population experiencing, well, lack of stress. It goes up, kind of levels off. But notice that these level off-- these other measures of immediate happiness, of joy, level off, if at all, at pretty high levels of income.
So I want to ask you a question. What do you think-- I want an opinion maybe, maybe an informed opinion, or just a guess from the audience. What is the median value of a person's savings for retirement on this scale? Is it on this scale at all? Maybe it's off the scale over there. What do you think? Not yours. Don't tell me any secrets. Just tell me what do you think the median for the US population is.
SHIMON EDELMAN: Hmm?
SHIMON EDELMAN: $100,000. Other guesses?
SHIMON EDELMAN: $2,000. Some revolutionary is out there in the back.
Well, it's not a joking matter, unfortunately. It's very sadly, for people my age, for people-- well, I'm not going to retire in 10 years, but for people who normally would retire in 10 years, the median level of savings is $10,000 here. This is an outrage.
So you know the stereotype, the happy pauper, the happy beggar, the people in the third world presumably happy sitting on dirt and smiling those wide smiles for the tourists. That's a lie. And this kind of data gives the lie to those claims. I mean, this is-- it's kind of a popular notion, but it's also a claim made by-- appropriated and used by-- well, we'll see.
So an accompanying notion here with that kind of claim is that, look, if there's a rising tide, all boats will be lifted. So let's see how true that expectation is. So this is another batch of data. The first author is Ed Diener, one of the most prominent researchers, sociologists into happiness.
So here we see two curves. One for poor nations, one standard deviation below the GDP of the mean, the planet average. And for rich nations, this upper curve, one standard deviation above. So this is one breakdown by the wealth of the nation or the poverty of the nation. And the second within country poor and within country rich. And again, minus one standard deviation, one below the mean and one above the mean.
So on the face of it-- first of all, this is the expected thing that richer nations have higher-- people who live in richer nations have higher life evaluations. So this curve is consistently above this one. But of course, again, you can see the glass is half empty, which is rich or poor nation, the poorer people, people who are worse off, just by one standard deviation, are significantly worse off on the subjective life evaluation scale.
So this kind of work is very important because it ties objective economic figures to subjective feelings, subjective evaluation. Of course, the all important thing is how we feel about things, not objectively how many cars we drive or how many teeth we have pulled because we can't afford dental insurance.
So with the rising tide lifts all boats, what happens if we just all pitch together, pitch in and work on raising, say, this country's GDP? This is exactly what happened in the years between the 1970s and about 10 years ago. This is a time series look at what's going on, which is complementary to the previous one here. It's a snapshot in time.
And here, it's a look year over year. And we see that in the United States, the gross domestic product per capita rose by a factor of more than two in those three decades, but happiness pretty much stagnated. It's a point of much contention in sociology in this corner of social science. And one can ask about the causes of this. And believe me people are asking, are working very hard trying to figure out the causes of this.
And there's much primary literature, and, in fact, I guess what one could call secondary literature, which does a very important job of reporting the formal findings to the general public. In The New York Times, there is a series called "The Great Divide." It has been running for, I think, more than a year now, which reports on this kind of stuff.
So not really-- so rising tide wouldn't really lift all boats. And one can ask why. And there are several parts to the answer, and one part has to do with the snag of inequality. So here is another batch of data published a couple of years ago in Psychological Science, one of the leading journals in my field, in psychology.
This is mean happiness. So we know what this is about. One of those measures of subjective well-being. And this is the so-called Gini coefficient, which is a quantification of the inequality in a country. So basically some standard formula which has been adopted by everyone. And although people are prone to arguing about the interpretation of data-- this is social sciences, people argue a lot. But everybody accepts this as a good measure of inequality.
See what happens-- each point here is a year. So in the years in which the inequality was low, happiness was higher. You see the trend line has been conveniently for us drawn in this plot, which shows the relationship-- there's a correlation between the inequality, as it rises, happiness in the country goes down.
So inequality is a factor that plays into this equation. And it gives the lie to the claim that trickle down approach to bettering people's lot works. It doesn't work in wealth and it doesn't work in happiness either. And this is-- inequality is just one of the reasons for which it doesn't.
I think it's nicely illustrated by this cartoon, one of my favorites from The New Yorker. The big guy here says to the little guy, "Now, no class warfare, OK?" And throws him a coin, or more likely a pebble.
So let's try closer to home. This is an item from today's times. This is today's New York Times. A feature under Education. The author looked at some recent data about the amount of money that leading-- meaning very hard to get into-- colleges in this country-- the degree to which leading colleges support poor income, low income students who get admitted into their programs.
And the one comparison-- the study is based actually on publicly-available data. You just click on the link and get to the primary data for this study. And the one explicit comparison that was made in this article was between Vassar and Washington University in St. Louis. And I immediately got curious about, well, Vassar is nice. It's New York State place. Wonderful school. But what about Cornell?
So in Vassar, 28% of the admitted class receive federal aid. That's this line here. I just magnified this figure. At Cornell, 15%. So we do a bit better than Washington University in St. Louis, which has 12% here. But-- hmm-- I have tenure, so I think I cannot be fired for showing you this.
But I think it's a powerful piece of data. And what this does is perpetuate inequality. So we have this other trope in this country which says, what are you complaining about? It's a level playing field. OK, think about it. We just give everyone the same opportunity.
And we heard that last election cycle many, many times. But even just in this one example of college admissions and aid that is being given to students of low income, think about what this translates into and whether or not it makes sense. Just about as much sense as this lion, or whatever, saying to the rabbit, "What are you complaining about?"
I mean, let me give you another example that comes to mind. Suppose we just equalize everything, really level playing field, and we give each citizen a sum of money and do with it whatever you want, invest it for your retirement or whatever. What would happen? I know I would be immediately left behind because I'm really no good with finances. And in no time, it will be lions and rabbits all over again.
So the level playing field trope is a lie. And what really annoys me in those situations is-- I mean, when things like social responsibility come to be discussed is that often you hear-- first of all, you probably guessed where this is going, right? I mean, this part of the talk. I'll get back to happiness--
--as opposed to financial unhappiness a bit later. But the corporate state. And I heard just the other day-- I read a piece advising the readers-- maybe it was in the Atlantic-- I mean, in a venue you'd think of as almost as good as The New Yorker-- advice, you don't like that corporation, disinvest from it. Disinvest from it.
Let them eat cake, right? They're hungry. No bread. Let them eat cake. So we have-- in our country, we have this-- in our, what I call here explicitly, corporate state, we have this newspeak in which freedom means freedom to be homeless, and unemployed, and hungry, and without health care. This is a picture of a homeless person's-- well, a veteran of a war, which itself was completely unnecessary, back at home in Colorado, camping out under the stars next to the American flag because he cannot afford housing.
Why are things this way? So here is where I make the transition back to, I guess, to happiness. So maybe by the way of this wonderful quote from Virgil, "Happy is he who knows the causes of things." And we can ask ourselves-- and I'm sure you're just as good at that as I can be-- asking yourself the reasons for which the situation is outrageous in so many different respects.
I will not go there. I'll just offer you a tool for thought, a tool for thinking about those things. And it actually comes from ancient Roman jurisprudence. Ask, cui bono? Who profits? Who profits? Who do you think would profit from having an infinite pool of people who are willing to work for minimum wage?
So what can be done to make things better? And we can distinguish here-- although these levels are interconnected, we can distinguish between the societal level and the personal level. So on the societal level, the authors of that paper about inequality, which I showed you the graph, the one with the Gini coefficient, that's where that graph is from. They write in the conclusion, "If the ultimate goal of society is to make its citizens happy, then it is desirable to consider policies that produce more income equality, fairness, and general trust."
This is the kind of work that people in the Congress, the majority, is trying to get defunded as they try to defund much other social science research, well, because it's too political for their taste. So unless something is done about keeping the funding for the NSF for social sciences, I will not be able, with my tenure and all, to share such things with any audience in the future because there will be no data and no papers that dare make such conclusions from their data in the future.
I want, actually, to tell you here, with regard specifically to trust, an interesting, I think, anecdote from a conference I was at, which was about happiness, and one of the other presenters was a social scientist from Denmark, which is at the top, really, of the list, one of the happiest countries in the world. And he described how they tried to run this experiment in the Copenhagen central train station to see how good people would be at returning a lost wallet to the owner.
So there would be a researcher dressed as a regular person, going down in the crowds and dropping a wallet. And someone would observe from the side and see what proportion of the cases the wallet would be returned. They couldn't get any meaningful data because the wallet was returned 100% of the time.
So this is personal trust. I guess you can just basically throw your wallet and it'll come back like a boomerang in Denmark.
But what I want to focus here, just for a second before I move on to the next slide, is would you do that with your Congressman?
So on the societal level, then, there's a way to translate to expand a bit on this question of, what does it mean human? We have to figure out what does it mean "we"? It's not just "I." It's the "we" that contributes to our happiness on a societal level.
And now it's time to move to the last part here, which is what it means to be. So we had a one-slide summary of life universe and everything, how the mind works, all the way down to happiness a short time ago. Now consciousness and the human condition, again, in one slide. In fact, I don't even need the whole space I have on the next slide because it's pretty simple.
So consciousness, just like with happiness, you can discern between different components. By the way, it should be clear why consciousness is tied to happiness. The organ of happiness is the mind. And if a mind is unconscious-- I mean, if I'm out cold or even asleep, I don't feel happiness. So there's a natural tie there.
So we need to understand consciousness. So in consciousness, just as in happiness, there are several components. There's one component, which is most people intuitively perceive to be the central one, which is self-reference. So the self, the prominence of the "I" in the equation. So I'm conscious right now, which means I am here. I am looking at you. You're looking at me. So the "I" kind of figures very prominently here.
But that's not the most fundamental kind, because it's the kind that involves reflection. It's a much more basic kind of consciousness, which I would call maybe awareness, like phenomenal-- the basic phenomenal awareness-- which we share with all creatures that have senses, with oysters, with scallops.
Scallops have those, depending on the species, 20 or 50 little eyes around the mantle. And they can see to some extent. So they have this phenomenal impression of their visual surroundings, which may not be as detailed and rich as ours because we have those wonderful eyes and big brains behind them. But nevertheless, they do.
So my phenomenal state right now consists of precisely these components. I right here involves-- but actually it's these three components and no more. I don't think we need any more over and above this to explain the phenomenal fields. In my field right now, the light impinging on my eyes, the feel of the wood beneath my shoes, the feel of me filling my shoes, just to quote again Dr. Seuss.
That feel is, first of all, telling apart. So this light is different from this darkness on this side. So light versus darkness is telling apart. Discernment of that kind. This solidity, as opposed to maybe the carpet, if I jump down there. Again, discernment. All the sensory ways in which we can discern one way of feeling the world from another. So no telling apart, no consciousness of that kind, no awareness.
And then giving a damn, motivation. You can say my camera-- I have one in this laptop looking at me right now. It's not active. Or the camera over there. They also record light and dark and all that. They, though, are not wired to be motivated about what they see. But all animals are. In fact, all animals have senses precisely so that the senses can feed into their motivational systems. I mentioned already motivation as a key component of being a mind before. So here, it crops up again.
So I call it-- the shorthand is giving a damn. So we have telling apart, and we have the giving a damn, and we have remembering. Because to actually to be able to tell apart this from maybe the kind of lighting that usually is around in an auditorium where I teach my class, to tell this apart from that, I need to remember that.
So no memory of some kind-- again, doesn't have to be explicit, doesn't have to be mere ruminating about those past states. Just remember them in a way that's enough to compare the present to the past. No memory, no consciousness, no awareness. So these are the three components of phenomenal awareness, the three basic components of consciousness.
So this gives us an answer to the question that-- the third question with which I opened, which is what it means to be. So to be is to be alive and awake in that sense, in this sense of those having those three components. Those are processes, by the way. These are not instantaneous states. So
Discernment is a process. Motivation is a process. Remembering is a process. You freeze time, you cannot have awareness. So it's all processes that run over time. It's an important, I guess-- for me, especially important observation because I actually work-- one of my lines of research is precisely on these aspects of the mind.
But I guess, in general, it's useful to realize how dynamic our minds are. It's not what's happening-- well, we cannot even express, we cannot even imagine what it would feel like for a time to be frozen, precisely because we are made of time that rolls and gives rise to those processes in this sense.
So this has-- this observation, this insight-- I don't want to say definition. It's an insight into what it means to be alive. This insight has repercussions for happiness. So recall what I said earlier. Because of evolution, there are no ups without downs.
So what if you don't like it? What if you are hell bent on avoiding the downs? You're just averse to downs. You want to be happy all the time. Well, or what? So as far as I can see, there are three options if you don't like it. You can resort to one of the three options.
The first one has to do with less telling apart. So I call it-- I call it the Eden option. I'd rather not know the difference between, say, day and night, or-- this is where the Eden comparison comes in-- the good and evil. No discernment. I don't want to know. The second option-- and of course, if there's no discernment, well, this will feed into your state of apprehension, your state of resonating to the world.
The second option is less giving a damn. I call it the Nirvana option. I realize I might be getting into hot water here with some religious folks. But I'll run the danger, I guess, because-- actually not just with regard to this, with regard to any of those observations, a lot is to be said in filling in the little gaps and completing the picture.
So if you feel this is strange, this sounds strange to you, talk to me after the talk. I'd rather not care because caring hurts. So caring hurts. I just want to do away with the caring.
And the third option is less remembering, the Lethe option. I guess what the ancient Greeks were afraid would happen to them. After death, they would be erased and they would just forget the previous lives. Well, we're afraid of, or looking forward to, depending on your particular orientation-- there were some interesting sects that claimed that they could teach you to avoid forgetting. The forgetting that is the first-- the dipping into the waters of the Lethe River as you get to the underworld. So I'd rather just forget the whole damn thing and just go get drunk.
And what strikes me with regard to those options is that they correspond precisely to settling for less of each of those three ingredients of being conscious, of being alive and awake. Less telling apart, less giving a damn, or less remembering.
So I want to ask you-- and this is only a semi-rhetorical question-- would you settle for being less alive? That's what you have to face, that's the question you have to contend with if you don't like being in situations where ups necessarily are followed by downs.
Speaking for myself, I wouldn't. I would not settle for less of any of that. I like to be alive. And I like to be alive in the full sense-- giving a damn, telling apart, and remembering. In fact, if I could have more of each of those three ingredients, I would. And maybe the pursuit of the combination of those ingredients is that secret which some people tell you lurks in all those heaps of data in consciousness research.
So this is what I guess I mean by the happiness of pursuit. If you don't settle for being less alive than awake, you still have-- well, still-- not the right word. You have the consolation and the thrill of pursuit. And I want to motivate it-- I want to motivate this sentiment by this quote from The Leaves of Grass. This is Whitman's book-- Walt Whitman's book.
From the chapter, which is called "The Song of the Open Road." "You but arrive at the city at which you are destined. You hardly settle yourself to satisfaction, before you are called by an irresistible call to depart." I think this is-- as you can also judge by the title of the chapter-- this is what-- well, I hope that's what Walt Whitman had in mind-- this thrill of pursuit when he was writing those lines.
And here's another observation to the same effect. William Blake, who lived about 100 years before Walt Whitman-- again, for those who would not settle for less of anything, but yet are looking out for some usable advice. So here's a piece of advice.
A song called "Eternity." The entire song is here. The poem is four lines here. "He who binds to himself a joy does the winged life destroy. He who kisses the joy as it flies lives in eternity's sunrise."
Finally, I can now justify this part of the title of my talk-- machineries of joy. This quote now, the last one for today, is from a short story by Ray Bradberry, a science fiction fantasy writer. He passed away a few years ago. The story was titled The Machineries of Joy. And this is a part that appears towards the end of the story. This is spoken-- this part is spoken by a Catholic priest, hence the mention of the Supreme being. But I think it's a wonderful, wonderful sentiment.
So it goes, "Somewhere did Blake not speak of the Machineries of joy? That is, did not God promote environments, then intimidate those natures by provoking the existence of flesh, toy men and women, such as are we all? And thus happily sent forth, at our best, with good grace and fine wit, on calm noons, in fair climes, are we not God's Machineries of Joy?"
And I want to leave you with the very same sentiment expressed in the picture. This is from my last one of many, many-- the latest, but not the last. A trip to Death Valley. You climb out of the Valley to the summit. You get to the cairn. And you're about to enjoy the view. Well, you deserved the view. You deserve to enjoy it. But don't linger for too long, just for long enough to have time to eat this nice apple and then move on. Thank you.
I would be happy to try to address a question or two.
If you're content but not joyous, you're happy to the extent that you're content.
How technology affects happiness? I think this is part of-- it plays, I think, very nicely into this notion of rising tide. So Richard Easterling, who actually coined this-- well, it was called the paradox of rising GDP, but level happiness was called-- it's called after him-- notices that tremendous changes in just the material well-being happened over the past 200 years. That most people now live in a way that royalty lived-- well, maybe not 200 years ago, but definitely 2,000 years ago.
Even people who live in dreadful places in shantytowns these days are in some ways better off than people who lived a couple thousand years ago. So in that sense, technology is good. It does lift. It does make the tide rise. But in itself, it's certainly not an answer to anything and definitely not to the question of the problem of well-being, which is something I guess you could have anticipated I would say.
On one graph, there was an apparent indication of the rise in happiness with the GDP. In the very next one, well, maybe not so much. That's exactly Easterling's paradox. The point is that those graphs look in different ways of the data. I actually said that much. I said-- well, it was very quick. I said one is an instantaneous snapshot and one is a time series.
So this is one explanation, which is technical. But more to the point, there are factors which mitigate the effects of the rising tide, so to speak, the rising wealth, which cannot be seen in instantaneous snapshots. So in that sense, that graph is just a partial glimpse of the very complex picture, which is being studied.
There are-- as I said, there are any number of debates about those things. And we are, I think, slowly but surely we are getting closer to the truth of the matter. And the truth of the matter will not be simple. Minds are not simple, even if the nature can be expressed in just one slide, that go on in minds, and especially in societies of minds, are very complex.
But I think even Easterling himself, who brought this paradox to the fore of the public's attention, would agree that the more you study those things, the better the insights can be. I think even here at Cornell-- I mean, here at Cornell, we have people who are making input, probably as we speak now.
There was a paper by Bob Frank, I think, from maybe a year ago from economics who fed some arguments and data into that debate. So it's a great observation, which basically means there was not enough time for us to see all the relevant data.
I would actually invite you to sit in on my course. I'm going to offer a seminar this fall for the first time-- inequality, power and happiness. But it's full I'm afraid. And the room is small. [LAUGHS] But you're all very welcome to look at the reading list and see the breakdown. This is exactly one of the issues we'll try to contend with to understand what's going on there, taking not one hour but I guess maybe 20, 25 hours to do so.
Yeah, so the question is, does the relationship between income and happiness level off or does it continue? This depends on the country. I think I would say that most data sets actually point at the lack of saturation. So the relationship seems to continue. And in that sense, you could say that would be a gross oversimplification that money buys you happiness. But of course, if one utters that, as I just did, one has to either precede it or follow it by a bunch of explanations.
Maybe one last question, then we let people go who want to go. Yes. OK, so I'm being asked to second-guess the founding fathers.
AUDIENCE: Only after the current election.
SHIMON EDELMAN: Wow. [LAUGHS] So first of all, thank you for the trust. I think only Antonin Scalia can speak to what the--
--found fathers have in mind. I can only hope they would be on my side.
Thank you. Thank you again for your attention.
SPEAKER: This has been a production of Cornell University on the web at cornell.edu.
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In this lecture, Cornell psychology professor Shimon Edelman talks about happiness--its evolutionary basis, cognitive mechanisms, and social dynamics--and offers some thoughts about what can and should be done to promote it.
The author of
The Happiness of Pursuit and Computing the Mind, Edelman was born in the USSR and emigrated to Israel, where he earned a bachelor's degree at Technion and a master's and Ph.D. at Weizmann Institute of Science. He is interested in all aspects of cognition and has written dozens of scholarly publications in theoretical neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and artificial intelligence.
Sponsored by the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions as part of its free summer events series.