Happiness Summarized

As a supposed “expert on happiness” (try googling expert on happiness for fun), I am often asked to summarize what I have learned from the books and articles I have read and have written about. For all you lazy bums out there, here is the condensed version 🙂

Most people, through a combination of education and genes, have a set level of happiness. While circumstances may change that level, we usually revert back to our mean.

Despite that, there are 10 things you can do to improve your mean level of happiness. They sound artificial, but they work.

So the 10 things are:

1. Be grateful for what you have – as bad as you may think you have it, by the very fact you are reading this you are better off than 95% of the population of the world – if not more. You are likely healthy and have great opportunities. Try the following: every night before you go to sleep write down 3 good things that happened to you that day. It’s artificial but it works. You will sleep better and be happier.

2. Be optimistic. Even if slightly delusional, you will lead a happier life. Optimism breeds confidence.

3. Maintain a few close and meaningful friendships. We only exist to the extent that we exist in the eyes of the people we care about. Have acquaintances (after all we human are social animals). Invest the time you need to have deep friendships with your family, friends, etc.

4. Minimize your commute. It’s a variable out of your control (traffic, strikes, etc.) and it can take time away from personal time and/or work. If you do commute, use it as an opportunity to indulge your interests, for example listen to NPR, read the economist, learn a language … sing.

5. Give your body the sleep it needs: you will function better, think better, be happier. Of note: some sleep studies suggest people feel better rested when they wake up at the same time every morning.

6. Have dreams and aspirations. It’s the journey that matters, not the destination. Dreams provide direction. They can be as big or small as you want. If you achieve them, get new ones.

7. Don’t confuse money with happiness. Contrary to popular belief, we adjust very well to a lower standard of living. However, as we adapt to our current comfort level we may become materialistic and more risk adverse. Money is like pancakes – one tenth of a pancake leaves you starving, but after 4 or 5 you do not crave more.

8. Find love – from your puppies, friends, family, and/or significant other.

9. Exercise a lot: the adrenaline, endorphins and opiates released are great for you.

10. Have lots of sex. You will be happier for longer than you anticipate. Happiness extends beyond the coital period to the next day.

One last point: You might think that being happy makes you smile but reverse causality holds too: smiling makes you happy. Individuals receiving botox report improvements in self esteem, and happiness. Because they cannot frown- even subconsciously, they are perceived differently by others and unlearn frowning for months beyond the effect of the drug.

That’s it 🙂 It’s now in your hands so go ahead and be happy!

I really liked “My Best Friend” (Mon Meilleur Ami)

I am a Daniel Auteuil fan in general, but this movie struck a chord. As a formerly (or is it merely recovering?) self centered, arrogant, harsh, introverted, shy and conservative person with few friends myself, I could understand the main character’s plight of not understanding the meaning of friendship.

Francois’ path to understanding friendship is both comic and tragic and his experience with Bruno is profoundly touching. Go watch the movie.

Gladwell on Genius

Over the past year, I blogged a few time about the importance of deliberate practice in achieving high performance (A Star is Made, A Star is Made – Part 2) and how one of the two types of geniuses are “experimental innovators” relentlessly working on a problem and ebbing at it through trial and error (What Kind of Genius are you?).

At a recent conference organized by the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell described the different types of geniuses. He suggested that given the complexities of the problems we face, stubborn and deliberate innovators who collaborate with others are much more likely to be the leading innovators of the 21st century.

His recounting of how Andrew Wiles solved Fermat’s last theorem was a case in point. It took Wiles years of work, collaboration with multiple mathematicians around the world and resulted in a 200 page proof.

As Gladwell points out, it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become good at almost any activity. The good news is that you can become good at almost anything you set your mind to. The problem is that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is about 10 years of practicing 3 hours a day.

He suggested that as a society, we are not giving people the right incentives. We often reward intelligence, but ignore stubbornness which is arguably more important.

He also points out how there are extreme differences in how individuals capitalize on their potential. If you take otherwise identical groups of white American and Chinese American – groups with the same IQ – 60% of white Americans end up in elite professions, while 78% of Chinese Americans end up in elite professions. In other words, the dominant ethnic group in this country does not do a good job at capitalizing on the potential of its members. We would have millions more people to throw at complex problems if we capitalized more effectively.

We focus on elite universities; but if future innovation is going to come from groups of stubborn smart people working together instead of the lone genius, then we should making sure schools like Penn State are good.

You should watch Gladwell’s speech at:
http://www.newyorker.com/online/video/conference/2007/gladwell

Ethics, spirituality and religion: a debate on torture

A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure of attending a small salon on ethics, spirituality and religion. I was humbled by the intelligence and insight of the attendees: public intellectuals, authors, a professor of religion, and numerous successful executives and entrepreneurs.

It was one of the few intellectual discussions I have attended where the atheists were balanced by an equal number of theists. A few brief presentations by keynote speakers included Girard’s explanation of religion (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ren%C3%A9_Girard), the taxonomy of the religious debate, and the relevance of religion in the 21st century.

By far the most heated debate surrounded one theologian’s question: “Is it ever ok to do evil for good purposes?” and its corollary — a debate on torture. Instinctively, most people in the audience were against ever committing an act of torture. However, they recognized that Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler failed, and that the International Community could have limited genocide in Rwanda via the use of force. We would condone torture if the stakes are high enough, the outcome clear enough. In other words, most of us will “do evil” if we are sure it is “for good purpose,” such as saving a family member from imminent demise

As we tackled the theologian’s question on the merits of torture, we came to realize that our moral center is relative and highly dependent on the circumstances.

1. Framing & Ethics

If people are told: “There is an out of control train. It is about to run over 20 people. If you press this button, you divert the train and kill 1 person.” Most people press the button. If instead you say: “There is an out of control train. It is about to run over 20 people. If you push this 1 person in front of the train, you slow the train down enough to save the 20 people.” Most people do nothing. Yet the potential outcomes are identical in both cases.

2. Legality & Ethics

The definition of “torture” in international law differs from the definition of “torture” in domestic law,. Article 17 of the Third Geneva Convention states: “No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.” The United States has adopted a more permissive definition of torture; it “must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.”

Perspective also influences the relevant ethics of torture. An individual may draw the conclusion that it is okay for them to do evil for good purposes. Simultaneously they may insist it is wrong for a society to legalize evil acts with a positive outcome. To illustrate, most individuals would engage in torture if they believed that the result would save family members from a certain demise. Yet a much small group would provide the government a carte blanche to institutionalize torture. Torture may be an example where personal ethics does not harmonize with a legal edict governing social conduct.

3. Efficacy

The most astute comment on the debate on torture came from one of the public intellectuals in the audience. He questioned whether the debate on torture should instead be a debate on efficacy rather than ethics.

He argued that we are uncomfortable with the use of torture because we are not convinced it works. We are not convinced the individuals we torture are guilty. We are not convinced that the people inflicting torture will necessarily extract information or instill fear. Moreover, even if we only torture guilty parties and effectively apply torture as an instrument, the very fact that we conduct torture publicly eviscerates our perceived respect for human rights and may actually be counterproductive to our long-term security.

Our ethical boundaries and beliefs were challenged. We left simultaneously enlightened and confused but at least having attempted to question the basis for our beliefs. And so the night ended.

Heresy: The best Windows Vista Notebook is an Apple MacBook Pro!

I should start with a foreword. I have never owned a Mac or considered owning one. I got my first PC in the early 1980s and have been using them ever since. I never thought I would ever consider getting an Apple computer, but when Apple switched to Intel processors and then released Bootcamp, it became a possibility.

In general, I like notebook PCs with a 17” screen and 1920*1200 resolution to display more information, have more open windows and play games. The downside of notebooks with 17” screens is that they have a tendency to be heavy (10+ pounds with the AC adapter) and have short battery lives. When the MacBook Pros came out a year ago I considered getting one but the graphic card was way too underpowered for playing PC games and I settled for a Dell Inspiron 1705. When the Dell died (my notebooks die often as they get roughed up in all the travel I do), I ordered a Dell 1720 mid-June. However, Dell kept pushing the delivery date back. It was first delayed to July 17, then August 1 and then on August 1 they said the delivery would be in September. Annoyed, I cancelled the order and started looking for alternatives.

I looked at all the alternatives: Sony, Toshiba, Gateway, Alienware, but could not find a 17” notebook that had made any progress on weight and battery life. I am not even sure why I ended up looking at the Apple website, but was surprised to see that the new MacBook Pro 17” notebooks had Nvidia 8600M GT cards. I would have preferred an 8700 card, but the 8600 is good enough for most of the games I play. I ordered my first Apple. I got the high resolution glossy screen (most online reviews suggest glare is not an issue, in fact it might be better than their matte screen for glare) and 7,200 RPM hard drive. Two days later, the computer arrived.

Setting up Vista Home Premium was extremely easy. You download Bootcamp from Apple.com, install it, burn a CD of Apple drivers for Vista, install Vista and then run the CD that you burned. Everything worked perfectly. I installed Office, all my applications and games and it worked like a charm. With a 2.4Ghz Core 2 Duo processor, the 7,200 RPM drive and 2Gb of Ram, it’s very fast. At under 8 pounds, it’s the lightest and most stylish 17” notebook on the market. Battery life has also been impressive at over 2 hours of continuous use in Power Saver Mode (I could barely get 80 minutes on the Dell).

At first, the lack of right mouse click and the fact that many keys were not working as expected were annoying, but then I found Input Remapper. This software allows you to use fn + left mouse click to get a right mouse click and gives you all the traditional Windows keyboard functions: alt-F4, delete, etc. Ever since I installed it, the MacBook Pro has truly become the best Windows notebook I ever had! You can download Input Remapper at: http://www.olofsson.info/index.html?inputremapper.html

Now I am hooked. It would not surprise me if all the future notebooks I get are made by Apple. Apple should really offer a Windows Vista pre-install option on its notebook. I heard the counter argument that it would allow for unfavorable side by side price comparisons with Dell, but I don’t buy it. Apple computers are more expensive than similarly powered PCs. Everyone knows it. My MacBook Pro cost 33% more than the equivalent Dell, but it does not matter. It’s stylish, light, well designed and I am willing to pay a premium for it. I am convinced they would sell millions of those if they had Vista and Office pre-install options.

Regardless, I am now a fan!

What Kind of Genius are You?

In a recent article I wrote how most successful entrepreneurs were not innate geniuses but got their success from relentless trial and error. As several of you pointed out, my description did not account for all of entrepreneurial successes out there. You were right. A recent study by the economist David Galensen suggests that creativity comes in two distinct types: quick and dramatic or careful and quiet.

“Conceptual Innovators” make bold, dramatic leaps in their disciplines when they are young and rarely ever reach again the success they had in their youth. These include Pablo Picasso, Orson Welles, Scott Fitzgerald, Wolfgang Mozart and Paul Samuelson.

“Experimental innovators” progress through trial and error and usually do their important work much later in their careers. These include Mark Twain, Paul Cezanne, Alfred Hitchcock and Ludwig van Beethoven.

You can read the full article on Wired at:
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.07/genius.html

Mercadolibre’s IPO, eBay, Argentina and the Internet Auction Market

Mercadolibre

Mercadolibre is the Latin American eBay. It went public last Friday on the Nasdaq (Ticker: MELI) and the stock increased 58%. Its path to IPO is interesting.

While I was working at Aucland, a McKinsey friend of mine introduced me to a Latin American team of smart, passionate people looking to do something on the Internet. We decided to partner to conquer online auctions in Latin America. Deremate was born. As an aside, Alec Oxenford, my co-conspirator in OLX, was the heart and brains of the project and led Deremate from inception to its sale in November 2005. He is a witty, intelligent, worldly Argentine who spent his formative years at BCG and HBS.

Numerous companies launched at the same time to go after the Latin American online auction market, including Mercadolibre. As the best managed and funded companies, Mercadolibre and Deremate largely split the auction market in Latin America, except in Brazil where Mercadolibre was the clear leader. Interestingly enough, when eBay bought iBazar, Aucland’s largest competitor in Europe, they sold the Brazilian entity to Mercadolibre in exchange for a 20% stake in the company. It’s that transaction that made Mercadolibre so dominant in Brazil – arguably a transaction eBay should not have done given the value it created for Mercadolibre.

The Internet auction market is usually a winner take all business. If you are selling a unique good, you can only sell it on one site given the obligation to sell to the winning bidder if only to avoid a negative rating. Rapidly sellers flock to the site with the most buyers and vice versa. In Latin America, Deremate and Mercadolibre could not tilt the balance enough to become the clear leader. They exhausted their teams, venture capital money and limited their potential by competing on price.

La Nacion, one of Argentina’s leading papers, bought Deremate in November 2005 and sold most of it, except the Argentinean and Chilean operations, to Mercadolibre. The merger increased the liquidity for users, stopped the destructive competition and set the company on its path to IPO. This was a clear case of 1+1=10!

eBay

What is interesting is that at various points in the past few years, eBay could have bought either company, or both for much less than $100 million. Even after the merger was complete, it could have bought Mercadolibre for much less than $500 million. eBay management thought it was too high a price to pay. At the current market capitalization, it would cost at least $1.4 billion.

If I remember correctly, something similar happened with Paypal. eBay could have bought the company for much less than it ended up paying for it, but could not get comfortable with the valuation so they waited until Paypal went public. Paypal is the best acquisition eBay ever made, but they probably could have paid much less for it.

I would argue the same thing happened with QXL Ricardo. QXL Ricardo is the leading auction site in Poland and Switzerland. eBay could have bought it for less than $200 million a few years ago but is now worth over $1 billion. It’s also worth noting that QXL bought Aucland and the entire QXL platform runs on the Aucland technology.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20 – we now know those companies are successful. Nonetheless it seems that the benefits of acquiring the market leaders in yet undeveloped but relevant markets should have exceeded the potential costs.

Buenos Aires

That brief non-sequitur on eBay aside, I am happy to note that Buenos Aires is now emerging as a successful hub for running an Internet company. It’s only 1 hour ahead of New York from a time zone perspective. There is still a decent pool of available labor. Costs are low.

Google just setup an office there. Mercadolibre is run out of Buenos Aires. Hopefully this is a good augur for my two Buenos Aires based businesses: Dineromail and OLX.

Fingers crossed!

The Bourne Ultimatum is phenomenal!

Threequels are usually not very good, but this movie is an exception. The Bourne Ultimatum is fun, smart, fast paced and thrilling from end to finish. I was not bored for a second!

The gritty hand to hand combat sequences are amazing and are so much more gripping than the over the top action in Die Hard 4. I liked Die Hard 4, but I loved Bourne!

The storyline also comes to a fitting end. I hope they only make a fourth if they find an amazing story. I also hope the next James Bond movie will continue down the gritty more “realistic” path.

Passion and love at the end of the age of innocence

It all started with an innocent question.

The conversation had a reached a point where it was perfectly logical to ask, “Are you Jewish?” Little did I expect the outpour of raw emotion that followed. My friend was brought up in an ultra-orthodox Jewish family on the East Coast. His anti-secular upbringing had become both the source of his rebellion and sadly, his father’s downfall.

Upon reading the auto-biographical account he had written, I was struck by the vivid passion that came through in his writing. His story was genuinely touching. Being the self- centered individual that I am, it reminded me of my own writings many years back – not in content but in the purity and strength of emotion.

This triggered a trip down memory lane. I re-read the letters I wrote to others and myself many years ago. For all its naiveté, the passionate expression of my love, longing and fear rendered me slightly nostalgic. When I was younger, I was terrified of social expectation, judgment, and harbored a fear of rejection. In part, such fears drove me into social isolation, and it was in that isolation that I developed true independence, which in turn led to greater creativity and drive. Did I lose something in the process of conquering those fears?

It’s amazing how much easier life is when one is older. We are more experienced, confident and financially independent and come to realize that most of the things we once feared do not actually matter. After all, if you approach a girl and get rejected, you have lost nothing. Yet it seemed such a risky and momentous step at the time.

My hunger and drive have in no way abated, but is that because of habituation? Maybe it’s just what I do and who I am. While I still feel a fire burning inside of me, it is a canalized and more logical form of passion. Arguably it’s the longing and need to succeed that have disappeared – the “je ne sais quoi”, “zazazu”, and butterflies that make the experience magical.

Is fear of rejection requisite to falling in love? I have loved, but have not been in love in years. Even when I consciously wanted to, the invisible protective barriers of my subconscious seemed to refuse it.

It might also be why most entrepreneurs are one hit wonders – young men in their twenties who no longer feel as much of a need to compete after they succeed. It is natural to become more risk averse once you have something to lose.

From this evolves another interesting paradox. When I was younger, in an attempt to be taken seriously by adults, I avoided behaving as a child. I was always studying, reading, deferring to authority and generally being shy and conservative. As I no longer fear disappointing others, I have become a lot more relaxed and playful. I have no qualms rolling in the mud with my puppies or admitting that I love video games, remote control boats and helicopters, paintball and games of all genres. I am arguably more of a kid today than I was then. Yet from the same process that allows me to be childlike came the loss of poetic longing and fear that have inspired so many throughout time.

Despite this, as I turn 33, my recently discovered youth leaves me hopeful about the future. My motivations are now self- driven and no longer dependant upon the approval of others so perhaps something greater has actually been gained. As for love, who knows, the discovery of quasi-childish innocence may yet retrigger those seemingly lost feelings.

Rest of my life: here I come!

Create a back-up copy of your immune system

Reposted from New Scientist:
http://www.newscientist.com/channel/health/mg19426094.400?DCMP=NLC-nletter&nsref=mg19426094.400

IMAGINE having a spare copy of your immune system on ice, ready to replace your existing one should you fall victim to AIDS, an autoimmune disease, or have to undergo extensive chemotherapy for cancer.

An Anglo-American company called Lifeforce has received permission from the US Food and Drug Administration to do just that. The firm collects 480-millilitre samples of blood from healthy individuals, extracts the white blood cells and stores them as an insurance policy against future disease. The service comes at a price, though: around $800 for taking the initial sample then $25 per month for storing the cells at -196 °C. “That sample would have the complete repertoire of all your white blood cells,” says Del DelaRonde, co-founder of Lifeforce in Newport, UK.

By taking some of the stored cells and exposing them to natural growth factors such as interleukin-2, whole new armies of white blood cells could be grown in the lab and reinfused into the patient. Many people with cancer undergo similar “adoptive” therapies using immune cells extracted before they have chemo- or radiotherapy, which can destroy immune cells. But there is a risk that the cells won’t work optimally because of previous cancer damage, DelaRonde says. “Instead, we can send them their ‘pristine’ system from 25 years ago.”
“Whole new armies of white blood cells could be grown in the lab and reinfused into the patient”

In the case of HIV, which progressively destroys immune cells, the process could be repeated perhaps once a year, by multiplying up and re-storing fractions of the samples.

“These things might be possible,” says Francois Villinger of Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia. He previously showed that the progression of SIV infection, the monkey equivalent of HIV, could be delayed in macaques by using a similar approach. Whether it will work in humans is unknown, he says.

Also, some types of white blood cell, such as macrophages, may not survive freezing as well as others, meaning there may be a limit to the number of cells you could regenerate from the samples.

Last month, Lifeforce also won permission to expand its UK operations.

From issue 2609 of New Scientist magazine, 23 June 2007, page 8

Geni.com is awesome!

I suppose like most of us, I am a little curious about my family history, but not enough to spend time or money researching it. That’s where Geni.com comes in.

Most of you probably know it, but just in case check it out. It’s a Wikipedia type site where members of your family fill in the genealogy tree. It’s only as good as the family memory, but that’s usually as good as it gets from an accuracy perspective.

The site is incredibly viral. I just filled in the name of a few relatives who are then invited to take a look at the tree and a few days later the tree had over 100 detailed entries.

I am not sure what business model they are going to implement, but as a user it’s a lot of fun to use and see your family tree grow with no effort.

Who’s Minding the Mind?

There is ever more evidence that we humans are extremely primitive. Psychologists are demonstrating time and time again how easy it is to prime us. In a recent example, college students were asked to assist someone carrying to many items by holding their cup of coffee. The cup was either hot or iced.

Handing them that cup of coffee was all it took to influence their judgment. The students who held the iced coffee rated a hypothetical person they read about as being colder, less social and more selfish than the students who held the warm coffee.

It has become clear “we” are not alone in our decision making process. We have an invisible partner who influences us and whose instincts are at least as likely to be wrong as they are to be helpful.

You can read the latest article on the topic in the New York Times:
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/31/health/psychology/31subl.html?pagewanted=1&ei=5087%0A&em&en=8624aae3fea5a2f0&ex=1186113600