Don’t Worry, Be Happy

I Worry, Therefor I Am

Our brain is a simulator for experience. Try to imagine the taste of liver and onion ice-cream. I can guess the face of disgust you’ve just made. Have you ever tried any? You haven’t. Yet you know it is a terrible idea. You can simulate the taste in your mind.

We don’t drive the simulator*. It just buzzes in our heads. In many situations, it breaks down. So we skip ahead to the first thing that comes to mind. And we convince ourselves we were so clever.

*In Soviet Russia, the simulator drives you.

The BigCo Fallacy

After a few years at BigCo, I’ve managed to earn the title of a free electron. As a free agent, untied to any particular project, I was allowed to choose what I want spend my time on. That’s a sweet job if ever you can get any.

Anyway, convinced I can single handedly code BigCo into greatness, I’ve decided to build a framework for data visualization. Clients were really hot after this type of feature, yet almost none of our products had any visualization. It just wasn’t on the road-map for any of the upcoming releases. If no one has time to develop this, I thought, I should do it. For four months I coded at my desk, testing and documenting a generic framework for a feature nobody asked for. In order to increase chances of adoption, I focused on ease of integration. If it’ll be easy enough to use, wouldn’t they just add it to the next release as a bonus? And it really was easy. You could literally integrate with it and get it working in ten minutes or so.

So, I started showing it to people. A lot of them were very excited. One project manager listed visualization as a feature, until the project missed a milestone and the feature was cut out. With a couple product managers I’ve built demos for use cases, but couldn’t get them to document their excitement as features. This happened a few times and, finally, I abandoned the framework.

A few months ago, I got a phone call from someone in BigCo. Two years after I wrote it, my little framework finally made it to production.

The moral of the story is that we can’t predict the future. We waste a lot of mental capacity worrying about the future, but usually we’re really bad at predicting it.

The Pursuit Of Happiness

There is nothing stopping us from being happy, if we choose to be. Happiness is not a game of outcomes. It’s a game of process. Apparently, there are two types of happiness:

  • Natural Happiness, when we get what we wanted and
  • Synthetic Happiness, when we don’t.

Our society tries to convince us Natural Happiness is more real, but in fact research shows Synthetic Happiness is just as real and enduring. This short talk by Dan Gilbert, changed my perspective about life. It caused me to completely change how I look at decisions.

The Influence Of Decision Making

A few tips for predicting the future and staying sane:

  • You are overestimating – in many cases, the difference between outcomes of a decision are smaller than you imagine. Your mind is geared for life-and-death situations. Run-or-fight. Modern life, not so much.
  • Limit choices – the more options you have, the more likely it is that you’ll stall the decision. Having more options doesn’t make you happy. It makes you frustrated. Since outcomes are not critical for your (psychological) well being, limit choices as often and as soon as you can.
  • Decisions are temporary (but action speaks volume) – once you have made up your mind, don’t second guess. Act. When you wait, you learn nothing. When you act, you learn plenty. Correct your course when new information comes in.
  • Focus on what doesn’t change – the long run is what matters. 37 signals said it best: focus on what doesn’t change. You may be unhappy with your job in half a year, but at no point will you ever be sorry for not having cancer. Focus on the constants (work out, eat healthier, earn enough but don’t fret about optimizations).
  • Don’t worry, be happy

Bonus Track

Bobby McFerrin, singer of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, demonstrates the power of expectation.