Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Chasing Sunlight

Sunlight is a rare gift in Oxford for three reasons: we’re very far north, it rains a lot, and even if it’s noon and sunny, the sun is often too low to make it into the narrow stone alleys [1]. So when I do see sunlight, my first instinct is that there’s something wrong with my eyes, and my second instinct is to soak up as much as possible. Others have shared this impulse, according to this very old cartoon which I swear I am not making up; note the caption at bottom:

I wanted to write about my Oxford experiences chasing sunlight and what they’ve taught me about happiness. Recently I was walking down Oxford’s main street when the sun suddenly came out from behind clouds. I found a patch of sunlight and took out the book I’d been reading: The Opposite of Loneliness, by Marina Keegan. Marina was killed in a car crash when she was 22 years old, five days after graduating from Yale, and her parents compiled her unfinished pieces into The Opposite of Loneliness. The story I opened to was about a bunch of people in a submarine that breaks, leaving them trapped at the bottom of the ocean in total darkness. They have food for six months and spend most of the story arguing about whether to commit suicide. I finished this story about all this darkness by an author who died too young and stood there in my tiny patch of sun. I’m a stats nerd so metaphors aren’t my speciality, but even I couldn’t miss the overlapping images here.
The following day, I was sitting in a cafe with my tea studying some data on the Ferguson protests, which was of course depressing, when the sun hit my cheek. Instinctively, I turned and closed my eyes to soak it in. It was so peaceful there, with the tea and the babbling British, thousands of miles from the epicenter of Ferguson’s chaos. I felt very lucky.
These experiences made me wonder: if sunlight makes me so happy, why don’t I go back to California? Two reasons. The first is the famous paper showing that, although people expect the Californian sunshine to make them happier, Californians do not in fact report higher life satisfaction. But the second reason is more interesting: even if I would experience more moment-to-moment happiness in California, that isn’t necessarily a reason to return, because I don’t live to maximize happiness. I should clarify that by “happiness” I’m referring to an emotional state -- “feeling warm and fuzzy”, maybe -- as opposed to a broader philosophical notion of fulfillment/flourishing/eudaimonia. Here are four reasons I don’t think I maximize happiness.
  1. There are other desirable emotions. At Oxford I frequently argue with people who force me to see the world in a new way, and while this feeling isn’t exactly happiness, it’s definitely something I want. I go to cocktail parties at which I’m uncomfortable, but the nervousness I feel preparing to walk into those glittering rooms is also something I want to experience. Ditto with hearing music so beautiful it makes me cry or falling down exhausted after a long hike or getting really angry over something I want to change in the world. There are also positive feelings which require longer-term effort to achieve, like self-respect or a sense of purpose.
  2. Happiness is hard to control. My happiness comes in random bursts, small pieces of glittering mica in a long stretch of cement. My happiest moment today was when I was playing piano and my kitten suddenly jumped up and started playing with the strings (also, when he jumped into my lap and we danced for a while to “Sweet Caroline”. Maybe happiness isn’t that unpredictable: the rule is, get a kitten.) In general it seems frustratingly difficult to manipulate happiness, since things you might think would do it, like winning the lottery or becoming paraplegic, often don’t produce long-term effects.
  3. I work too hard on things which have too small an effect on my happiness. I put hundreds of hours into perfecting a paper, and when it gets published (or rejected) I’m on to the next thing within 5 minutes. I have always been driven not by happiness, but desire -- to know/build/win something new. As an often romantically unsuccessful teenager, I realized that, while I was happier if my crush returned my interest, even unrequited desire could give me something exciting to think about and a reason to wake up in the morning. (Requited desire gets you into bed, but unrequited desire gets you out of it. Jane Austen said this less crudely.) Now that I’m older, I apparently still approach my science like a love-starved teenager.
But just because I am always chasing new things doesn’t mean I should be. Perhaps I push forward to avoid confronting the fact that I’m not happy where I am. My high school had a lot of hypercompetitive, overstressed kids who tried to earn perfect grades so they could go to Harvard so they could go to med school so they could ... and I imagine you’d see a similar effect among Goldman Sachs investment bankers working 90-hour weeks. For my own part, I’ve definitely been lonely on a Friday night and written some code to distract myself. But I’ve also walked out on parties, including several I hosted, because I had some code I wanted to finish; you’re judging me, whatever, but the point is that my desire to code is sincere and not merely a means of denying existential angst. (To continue the love metaphor above, the person in bed next to you, like my habit of coding at parties, may be totally crazy and annoying all your friends, but as long as you sincerely desire them it’s okay.)
Maybe, you say, you’re working really hard so you can maximize your long-term happiness: you’ll achieve some goal and be satisfied. But I’m pretty sure if you gave me a Nobel Prize tomorrow (I prefer medicine but I’ll take peace, physics and, if you really have to, econ) I would wake up the next day and write code.
  1. While I spend almost all my time coding and writing, I feel just as much (or more) happiness doing other things. A few months ago I drove down the California coastline with some friends; by day, we drank beers by the breaking waves, and at night we drank strawberry moonshine and stargazed among the redwoods. (Strawberry moonshine is better than it sounds, and I’m not an alcoholic.) Budgeting $100/day for such an epicurean lifestyle, an average tech worker could spend like eight months a year on vacation. So if I want to maximize my moment-to-moment happiness, there’s no need to go to grad school. A few years ago I did semi-seriously consider this path: I had just eaten a spectacular chocolate chip cookie and had a lovely time with someone I knew I could not seriously date, and heart attacks and heartbreak aside, the pleasures of the moment were seeming pretty good. My plan was to buy a keyboard and drive up and down California playing for tips -- “In the redwoods I'll play Rachmaninoff; by the sea, Debussy. I will eat chocolate chip cookies and foie gras, and at night i'll sleep under the stars...this is a world to be explored by tongue and fingertip, eyes closed, cerebrum sleeping.”
There are pretty obvious responses to this, like “you would get bored” or “just eating cookies and ignoring the world’s problems makes you a bit of an asshole”. The former is just true [2], so let’s talk about the latter. If I can do work that touches the lives of thousands of people, that seems more important than my moment-to-moment happiness, or maybe even the happiness of those close to me. (I have a friend who, on this basis, once vowed not to have children because it would take time from his research.) The most frequent disagreement my boyfriend and I have concerns the fact that I wake up too early; he wants me to stay in bed and talk, and I want to get up and work. But if I can make an essay a little bit better, and thousands or millions of people read it, surely that matters more than whatever conversation we were going to have.
Maybe. But this sounds self-important. If my average reader is like me, they’re reading quickly, so they may totally misinterpret what I say, ignore it even if they understand it, or quickly forget it even if they don’t ignore it. The internet in theory connects you to tons of people, but your capacity to affect each of them is tiny. You really can make a million stars tremble by shaking your fist at the sky (gravity) but we don’t fancy ourselves galactic overlords. Given our impotence at the center of this spiderweb, maybe a little humility is warranted, and some preferential attention to those whose happiness we really do have great power to affect: ourselves and those close to us.
My code always calls me, but I doubt anyone dies wishing they had spent more time coding. And if I stay in bed a little longer, I can walk with my boyfriend to get iced coffee with cream and fresh mint. The air will smell like honeysuckle and the sun will make diamonds through the leaves. In a world where a 22-year-old girl who wrote better than I do can be killed in a car crash, such pleasures do not feel like small things.

[1] On average there are 1.7 hours of sunlight / day in December.

[2] I was initially going to argue that lots of people really do just want to drink and relax, as evidenced by their retirement plans, but the suggestions I found for “things to do when you retire” suggest that even in old age, people want more than Miami and Mai Tais.


  1. I just wrote an entire comment and clicked on preview. The text disappeared and I simply do not have the time to replace that. In any case I was praising you for being the first to study Times comments and saw you at Kristof. Will copy this brief comment to make sure it does not get lost.

    1. Haha, I hate it when that happens. Thanks very much!

  2. Emma, You have my congratulations on being a women who can be herself and hold heart and soul towards our Sun. Thanks for all your time/efforts. Blessings, Jean

    1. Thank you! It is sunny in Oxford today :)

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