On positive psychology, pain, and happiness: Happier Human’s Amit Amin
Earlier this month I posted about research linking meditation and happiness. Browsing through the material I came upon Happier Human, a company devoted to spreading the message of positive psychology. Its founder Amit Amin realized at the age of 21 that most of his assumptions about what makes a life great, were wrong. Last year, he quit his wall street job as a business technology consultant to start this venture. I like how Amit critiques the research on happiness and was curious about his experience of meditation, which he lists as one of the things we can do to increase our level of positive feeling.
Amit shares his views here on the complexity of happiness, self-experiments, start-up owners versus the 9-to-5’ers, and of course meditation.
What made you get into positive psychology?
As a consultant traveling around the country, making great money, learning new things, I ought to have been happy. If there was some hypothetical checklist a job ought to satisfy, this one would have ticked off all of the boxes. And yet… I wanted something more.
I wasn’t the only one, but most of my peers sought the band-aid solution. They moved to a similar job, and with the burst of novelty their switch brought them, they were once again excited and happy. But as the novelty wore off, or as they adapted to their pay raise, they once again sought out a change.
Because of my fibromyalgia, a complex chronic pain disorder I’ve suffered from most of my life, I had received a first-hand indoctrination into the benefits of empiricism. So, feeling unsatisfied with my job, I questioned my checklist and I questioned my assumptions about the kinds of things I thought would make me happy with my work. I studied philosophy and psychology, read blog posts and books, watched videos, analyzed research papers, and after a few months of intense learning, realized that most of my assumptions about what makes people happy were wrong.
The field of study which shocked my assumptions the most, was positive psychology.
In your very honest, personal post about how you started Happier Human, you talk about fighting with fibromyaligia, for most of your life – did positive psychology help?
Positive psychology had nothing to do with helping me conquer my fibromyalgia; empiricism did. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, the founder of behavioral economics, shatters the illusion that humans are rational. Our minds were designed for hunting animals and building huts, not reasoned thinking in a complex world. We do okay – our minds are adaptable and culture is powerful. But do we do great? Sometimes, but sometimes not.
My experience with fibromyalgia exposed me to this reality. The world’s best doctors – folks who are supposed to be the smartest the world has to offer – were unable to help in ways that simple self-experimentation did. Why?
The heuristics and biases which govern our thinking do okay for most of the time. But in the face of complexity – like a complex, poorly understood pain disorder – they fail.
Likewise with happiness and living a good life. For example, secular meditation is awesome. The evidence is overwhelming. Nine out of ten folks who spend a few minutes a day meditating will benefit in ways which more than justify the time spent. So why isn’t it more common? Because happiness is complex.
Because happiness is complex, and because humans often reason poorly when faced with complex information, our intuitive answer to the question of “how can I be happy?” is “satisfy my desire.” Which is completely wrong. How can we overcome our heuristics and biases? Empiricism. The first book I read about positive psychology, Stumbling on Happiness, made this clear to me. I was more receptive to the message than most because I had experienced firsthand how stupid the thinking and assumptions of even the smartest people could be.
Tell us what you mean when you say that empiricism helped you conquer the chronic pain
The resource which inspired me to consider self-experiment, which eventually lead me to defeating my fibromyalgia was the LessWrong sequences, which takes the work of behavioral economics and cognitive psychology and attempts to use it to improve the accuracy of human thinking.
The doctors I went to see had a theory based approach. They would try to guess what was wrong with my body, and then suggest certain drugs or therapies in response. This kind of approach works well most of the time, because most of the time, the doctor’s theory of what’s wrong is accurate.
With a complex, poorly understood condition like fibromyalgia, this approach fails. If the theory about what’s afflicting me is wrong, of course the recommend treatment is also likely to be unhelpful.
This failure is what gave birth to the quantified self movement – tens of thousands of folks around the world performing self-experimentation. With self-experimentation, you stop trying to understand the biological underpinnings of your disease. You simply try one thing after another, until you’ve found treatments that work.
Over the past year, I’ve tested out dozens and dozens of hypotheses. Let me give my favourite example:
Hypothesis 1 – Eating healthy will reduce the intensity of my headache and increase my levels of energy. For three weeks, I ate a Paleo diet. I felt much worse.
Hypothesis 2 – Eating junk-food will increase the intensity of my headache and reduce my levels of energy.
For a week, I shoved my face full of junk-food. I ended up feeling significantly better.
The idea is that the human body is complex. Small changes, even seemingly useless or even harmful changes, can lead to positive change. To summarize the major changes I’ve made – I exercise every day, use a standing desk, consume at least 3,000 calories a day (I chug heavy cream), take my prescription drugs on a rotating basis (to keep tolerance at bay), spend less than an hour a day reading, and spend most of the day wearing ear-plugs.
My doctors suggested zero of those ideas (e.g. they told me to rest, rather than exercise).
This same process can be useful in many other domains. I’m now trying to maximize my mood. Rather than relying on assumptions of what ought to help or not, I form a hypothesis and then test it out. If the science was advanced enough, I wouldn’t have to take matters into my own hands. But it isn’t, so I do.
Do you think most people know if they are happy or not?
Firstly, happiness isn’t binary – something you are or aren’t. It’s a spectrum. You can have more or less of it. Secondly, happiness is multi-component. You can have more or less of one of the components.
Most adults know when they’re depressed or euphoric, but on average, over the years are unaware of or are pretending not to notice that their happiness has, for the most part, stagnated.
Happiness is in fact a spectrum with no upper-bound. You can always be happier. You can always feel more positive emotion. You can always contribute more to the world and those you love. You can always be more engaged in your work. You can always improve your social relationships. Most people come no-where close to a point of diminishing returns.
Perhaps, 100 years from now, a maximally happy human being will exist…someone who can no longer acquire more happiness. Well, that’s 100 years from now.
What’s so complicated about measuring happiness?
Imagine in the future that a virtual reality machine exists. This machine can create for you an extremely happy experience – you save the world, make amazing friends, push yourself to your limits – whatever. Then this machine leads you through this experience again. And again and again.
Is this happiness? No. What’s missing? Novelty.
For every fundamental human desire, there is a corresponding component of happiness. I think the accurate measurement of all the components of happiness is simultaneously one of the most complex challenges facing modern science, as well as one of the most important.
At the moment, happiness surveys and tools are crude and untargeted – like using an axe to perform surgery. Better to chop off a rotting limb than to die, but there’s tremendous room for improvement.
Do you find that people look to positive psychology only when they’ve had to face some difficulty in their lives? Or do you think enough people actually look to it to improve things even when things are going well?
The latter. At a recent workshop I ran, there were 2 folks who were there because they were unhappy and had not found relief from traditional psychology and psychiatry. The rest simply wanted more – either in general, or in a specific domain of their life.
“Positive psychology” is still a fairly new field – how far will it go?
Most of the people I talk to have never heard of positive psychology. Putting together exposure through book sales, workshops, and internet articles, I would estimate that less than 5% of Americans have even a preliminary understanding of positive psychology.
There are two ways in which positive psychology ideas spread. One – directly, through books written by PhDs in the field, workshops they lead, videos they produce, and derivative works, like my blog. Two – indirectly, through positive psychology ideas absorbed by the multibillion dollar self-help industry.
I’m optimistic about the reach and appeal of positive psychology because the milti-billion dollar self-help industry seems to be willing to learn. Many of the readers of my blog work in self-help – as coaches, instructors, authors, and bloggers. They’re excited – they incorporate positive psychology into their work and they share these ideas with their coworkers.
I see only one way in which interest would drop off – something better comes along. Folks want happiness – that won’t change. Either positive psychology will evolve with the times, or it will be left behind, like humanistic psychology, which was the mother of self-help.
You suggest meditation as something people can do to become happier – how did you get into meditation?
After I started developing health problems when I was 13, I started researching as much as I could about health – both physical and mental. I quickly discovered meditation. But because of my fibromyalgia, I was unable to take the practice far.
For most people, when they close their minds to the outside world and pay attention to their inner sensations, they feel peace and comfort (and boredom!). For me, I felt only pain. I needed the stimulation of the outside world to keep my attention away from the pain generated by my fibromyalgia.
Now that I’m once again healthy, I’ve picked the practice back up. I do two types of meditation – breath meditation, and loving-kindness meditation. I’ve noticed that my ability to diffuse annoyance and anger and replace it with empathy has gotten much better.
Where do you want to take Happier Human long term?
I’m not sure where I want to lead Happier Human. One part of me wants to take it easy and grow the company into a lifestyle business. Lead some workshops, coach a few clients, sell my video course – make enough to live comfortably, and then spend the rest of my time exploring the world, learning new things (like meditation!), and socializing.
Another part of me wants to grow Happier Human into a startup. For example, for my upcoming video course, I’ve coding together two basic technologies – one to track your well-being, and another to stimulate a vibrant gratitude journal. If I could, on my own or perhaps with venture funding, turn these and other ideas into world-changing technologies, I could improve the well-being of millions, rather than thousands. But there would be a sacrifice – meaning and accomplishment at the expense of positive emotion.
“meaning and accomplishment at the expense of positive emotion” – do you mean that if you push Happier Human as a big business that you will sacrifice happiness? In what way?
Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. Are those who run startup companies happier than those who work 9 to 5?
On some dimensions, startup founders are significantly happier. We all have a drive to accomplish – the startup founders are pushing their abilities to the limit. 9-to-5? No so much. We all have a drive for meaning, to impact or even improve the world and leave a legacy. Most fulfill this drive by having children. But successful startup founders are impacting the lives of millions. That’s lots of meaning.
On other dimensions, startup founders are significantly less happy.
Past a certain point, happiness decreases with work achievement. According to a recent meta-analysis of eight studies which cumulatively surveyed over 100,000 people, those who are 5 out of 5 happy on average make less money than those who are 4 out of 5 happy. Why? They devote more of their energy to social achievement – making new friends, deepening their relationships, helping their community, and so on.
What kinds of factors correlate strongly with positive emotion (that we typically associate with being happy)? Love and relationship satisfaction, time spent socializing, religiousness, health, and genetics. Most startup founders sacrifice on these – building a successful startup company is hard and takes extreme focus. All of that additional time spent at work takes away from time spent on meditation, gratitude practice, making new friends, deepening relationships, exercising, and so on. Those are all things which fight against hedonic adaptation and increase baseline levels of positive emotion.
So on the one hand, building a big business would increase my sense of meaning and accomplishment. On the other, my average mood would be lower. If your objective is maximizing positive emotion and feeling as good as possible as often as possible, launching a startup is not the way.
What in you opinion is the best “online test” out there to measure happiness?
The annoying fact – and something which makes both happiness research and our intuitive judgments about happiness so often wrong – is that our memory is not unchanging and 100% accurate, like a computer record, but changing and often incorrect, like a picture getting redrawn every day.
Surveys are useful, but there is something even better – a happiness measure that doesn’t rely on your memory – the experience sampling method. This technique randomly surveys you throughout your day, asking how you’re feeling and what you’re doing. If you have an android, I recommend EmotionSense. If you have an iPhone, I recommend Track Your Happiness.
The best books in the field?
My four favorite positive psychology books are Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert, The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt, Flourish, by Martin Seligman, and Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.
And finally, tell us what’s keeping you busy right now
I’m trying to get my video course ready before the end of the year. The current plan is 4 hours of video, plenty of exercises, and two apps – a happiness tracker and a gratitude journal supercharger. I’m condensing the positive psychology resources, exercises, and information I’ve found most useful with some technology. I want to create a packaged solution for folks who want a guided deep-dive through the discoveries made by positive psychology.
Adiba: Thank you Amit
 I specifically liked how he pointed out that having a waitlist control group is not as effective for this type of research as active control groups.