January 16, 2017

Nota bene #6

Happy new year! May fortune smile on you in 2017! Good luck with your endeavors...

One of the non-obvious consequences of being named Felix is that you end up thinking quite a bit about the semantics of happiness. The name Felix is Latin, and is usually said to translate as "happy", but, as this page notes, it "not only denotes happiness, but also fortune, good luck and success."

In modern English, these are all very different things. Happiness is something we feel; luck is what happens when we frequently find ourselves the beneficiaries of low-probability events; success and fortune are outcomes which many people aspire to and try to work towards. Indeed, "fortune" is mostly used, these days, in a financial sense: a fortune is a very large sum of money.

All these distinctions, however, postdate the Romans, and people like the dictator Sulla who popularized the name Felix. Back in 88 BCE, and for well over a millennium subsequently, to be happy, to be fortunate, to be lucky, to be successful – these were all the same thing. And while I'm all in favor of language evolving to be able to make ever-finer distinctions, the fact is that the Romans were on to something.

It's worth reading Walter Isaacson on Michael Lewis:

The happiest people are the ones who believe they are lucky, rather than entitled or owed their success. For that reason, Michael is one of the happiest people I know. “I get such pleasure out of knowing that I’m lucky,” he says. “It also allows me to assume that I will continue to be lucky. I am creating a narrative of my life, and it makes me braver and less fearful.”

Michael Lewis is a happy person, as am I. (Whether that's nature, nurture, or nominative determinism I have no idea.)

This is me: When I'm watching a movie and it's pretty obvious that they're just building up someone's happiness so that the force of their upcoming tragedy will hit that much harder, I don't tell myself "don't worry, it's only a movie"; instead, I tell myself "hey look how happy this character is, no matter what happens to them in the rest of the movie, at least they experienced this bliss, and that's a rare and wonderful thing". 

This is also me: For all that I know well enough to be terrified by the fact that Donald Trump is going to become the leader of the free world in just a few days, I don't feel the terror, I don't wake up at 5am worrying about how bad it's going to be. There's something hard-wired in me to try to be constructive and to look for silver linings, and it's something I have to consciously try to avoid when I write about Trump.

So, what is it about happy people, anyway? Lewis, for one, is fascinated by them: I can recommend his This American Life essay on Bosnian economist Emir Kamenica, who's a preternaturally happy person even by Lewis's high standards. Kamenica, who has suffered an enormous amount of bad luck and tragedy in his life, goes to astonishing lengths to look on the bright side, and to convince himself that he's actually very lucky. 

Because happy people enjoy life more than unhappy people, they also enjoy success more. They delight in their good fortune, and are unlikely to resent people who are even more successful than they are. Lewis, for instance, is one of the most talented storytellers of his generation, but loves to credit just about anybody else for his success. He understands, for instance, that while his decision to quit his lucrative Wall Street career to write a book was entirely his own and was pretty crazy, on its face, it was also made possible by his fortunate circumstances. So in cases like Lewis's, it's easy to see how the different strands of felicity – the luck, the fortune, the success, the happiness – all come together to reinforce each other.

That's one reason why my priors going in to Davos this year are that we'll see very little in the way of explicit opposition or condemnation of Trump. The rich and powerful and successful men (and a few women) who gather atop this particular alp every year are the winners in the global lottery: fortune has smiled on them, and in turn they tend to smile on the world, especially when the stock market is rising. It's not that they like Trump, or agree with him: he is, after all, pretty much diametrically opposed to almost everything that Davos stands for. But these are the kind of people who have spent their lives successfully overcoming whatever problems the world has thrown at them, and who are therefore biased towards overconfidence and overoptimism. 

Interestingly, Trump himself is a deeply, tragically unhappy man – proof positive that luck and success and fortune are not always associated with happiness. That's a rare combination, in public figures, and a particularly toxic one. Happiness isn't just good for yourself, it's good for everybody around you, too – and the converse is true too. Unhappy people make the people around them unhappy, especially the people they lead, and I think America is going to be an unhappy place for the next four years.

Every year, a bunch of lazy journalists start asking everybody in Davos what The Mood In Davos is, and almost every year it turns out that The Mood In Davos is kinda similar to whatever global markets are doing right now. This year should be an exception: markets are up, but there's every reason to be as worried about the future of the planet as we've ever been. That puts me in the rather odd position of hoping for pessimism. I'll be sure to report back on where I find it.

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