Feynman and Self

I was forced to take an Uber today, and the driver was talking about how wonderful it is not knowing what his next ride may bring.  He later says that if he worried, then he would be in a state of paralysis; for he woke up this morning and asked God to take his will.

This has the effect of giving up control which would be interesting to see if it reduces stress to help with happiness and health.  This doesn’t mean that I endorse the belief in God.  Because there are a lot of psychological tricks that we could use to reduce stress.

Feynman’s video on how believing in God is too self-serving to be taken seriously came to mind.  I love the part when he gets emotional and says:

The earth, he came to the earth; one of the aspects of God is that he came to the earth mind you and look at what’s out there; it isn’t in proportion.  [Italics used to point out Feynman’s accentuation.]

Even better is when he says this:

I can live with doubt and uncertainty of not knowing. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything. For instance, I’m not sure if it means anything to even ask why we are here.  I don’t feel frightened not knowing.  Say by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose.  But this is the way it really is as far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me.



Economists, Go Away

Despite our participation in the free market being a positive summed game when we gain wealth, this does not mean that the disparities that unbridled capitalism allow do not have effects on our health and happiness.  [Musings 9/2020]

I started with this quote exactly one year ago, and I am now closer to understanding the effects.  In looking at status as a relative phenomenon and not an absolute one, this turns the economists’ concept of well-being on its head.  First, when economists talk about capitalism being a positive-summed game, they mean when we participate in market transactions that both parties benefit.

When we emphasize “competitive markets,” we lose people who think in terms of zero-sum outcomes. The focus on competition evokes concerns about fairness and empathy for losers, rather than an appreciation that the cooperative outcomes these markets facilitate by providing opportunities for improving everyone’s wellbeing. [Susan E. Dudley]

Of course, when we exchange goods and services we benefit by increasing our utility and satisfaction in life.  Whether or not our well-being increases when we play the game is an empirical question; economists have no business using the word well-being so loosely in order to extol the virtues of the free market.  Short-term happiness is usually increased but not long-term happiness.

Second, economists say that the proverbial pie isn’t fixed and can increase when a nation experiences more economic growth per capita.  Both ideas use the reasoning that capitalism isn’t a zero-summed game and that our well-being improves.  I am making two claims here that well-being depends on how we measure and define it and life’s happiness can’t easily be summed up.

Well-Being Is Abused

If anyone bothers to look at the studies of how happiness is related to consumption, education, and income, then they would realize that happiness comes with interpretation and qualification.  Well-being is usually defined as subjective wellbeing, which is a measurement of life satisfaction, positive affect, and lack of negative affect.  It is a surprisingly reliable and valid measurement.

Economists base all of their well-being studies on “point-of-time” studies and not on “life-cycle” studies.  They do this because increased income from point-of-time studies results in a positive correlation with well-being (happiness).  That is, the more money we make, then the happier we will be.  This has been replicated over and over again.  But this is not so with a life-cycle study.

Mainstream economists’ inference that in the pecuniary domain “more is better,” based on revealed preference theory, is problematic. An increase in income, and thus in the goods at one’s disposal, does not bring with it a lasting increase in happiness because of the negative effect on utility of hedonic adaptation and social comparison. [1]

The quote spells out what a life-cyle-type study reveals.  It reveals that over one’s lifetime we adapt, known as hedonic adaptation, to our set-point of happiness.  That is, we are like on a treadmill, where any gains in short-term happiness, leave us no better off in the long run.  The second point in the quote above is what I’ve been discussing for the past two posts on relative status.

Our well-being, in this case, short-term happiness, is affected after we get an increase in salary, but we adapt to this new happiness because we only create higher standards to compare by afterward.  Furthermore, I always feel better as long as I’m making more than who I compare my income with.  But economists are silent on these factors which usually have the effect of lowering well-being.

We Can’t Sum Life

The idea that there are winners and losers in capitalism is something that we may actually hear from economists.  We do judge one another by how far we have come, but hopefully, this is based on how far we are capable of going.  The point I want to make here is that the economists are misleading us when they link positive-sum games and a bigger slice of pie for everyone with well-being.

Maybe they can get away with “better off” since capitalism has raised our standard of living which is mainly our material living standards.  At this point, I don’t want to comment on health statistics beyond what I have presented on relative risk of death.  But what I do want to do is illustrate further how the concept of well-being that the economists use is impoverished to serve their ends.

If we break down happiness further, then we will see that it is a process.  We feel first—either positive or negative affect—and then we rewrite history convincing ourselves that we are either satisfied or not with meeting some standards.  But then psychologists weigh in and say that that is not enough.  What if we add all of the other factors that affect our well-being as I have laid out below.

  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning and purpose
  • Accomplishment

It is these very parts that give life meaning and purpose, and they significantly affect our well-being.  We are misled into believing that more money will bring us more happiness because, in the long run, we adapt to it.  This illusion causes us to focus an uneven amount of time and effort on money-making instead of meaning-making and relationships.  But I can’t part with my OLED screens.


[1] Easterlin, Richard.  “Explaining Happiness”.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Sep. 16, 2003, Vol. 100, No. 19 (Sep. 16, 2003), pp. 11176-11183

The Wrong Status, II

The last post argues, not from me but from thirty years’ worth of epidemiological studies, that where we are positioned relative to others matters to our health and happiness.  It matters because we will have more control over our lives and social benefits.

Recall that the title comes from the idea that although absolute status matters, say how much income and education we have, for health and happiness, we have forgotten that the status of others affects us too (relative status).  I will assess the statistics here.

Straightforward Statistics

I view statistics as a way to manipulate the concerns of others, so I will try to pick apart the flagship study from epidemiologists.  We can see that the data is presented as relative risk and not by an odds ratio, which is more intuitive.  However, relative risk exaggerates the significance compared to absolute risk.  But there is not much room to massage things and no statistical inference.  The question then becomes is income, education, or income and education causing the risk of death to change.  The authors conclude that the cause is what income and education bring, which is to increase control and social benefits in our lives.

Explaining the Bar Graph

Figure 1: Adapted from data in McDonough (1997)

The above plot is taken from the book “The Status Syndrome” by Michael Marmot.  It is data collected from 1972 to 1991 of a sample size of 8,500 men and women and adjusted to 1993 dollars.  Focusing on the grey bars, the household income of greater than $70k (2021 ~ $140k) was assigned the arbitrary relative risk of death of 1 while, for comparison, the income between $15-$20k (2021 ~ $30-$40k) had a risk of death of 3 times that of the $70k group.  The data are adjusted for age, sex, race, period, and family size while the black bars are adjusted for education.  When we adjust, this means that those things can’t affect the risk of death.  The only thing that is left is education and income—that is, the more status we have, the less risk of death.

For Experts in Statistics

I have real-world experience with uncertainty and accuracy measurements but not with descriptive and inferential statistics from the social and behavioral sciences.  So if anyone does, it would be helpful to understand how the corrections are done to take into account age, sex, race, and education.  I do realize that these are confounding variables or covariants that affect the measurement.  If we want to focus on the relationship of fewer variables affecting the measurement, then we must find a way to correct the data.


[1]  Marmot, Michael. The Status Syndrome. Henry Holt and Co.

The Wrong Status

This post is on the conclusions that epidemiologists have come to after three decades of research: the Joneses are very important.

What a good time to be alive. Except that it is better for some than others—considerably so. Where you stand in the social hierarchy is intimately related to your chances of getting ill, and your length of life.  And the differences between top and bottom are getting bigger, and have been for a generation. [4]




I just finished a book on social status written by an epidemiologist, and I believe it presents the missing evidence that liberals need to use to argue against unbridled capitalism.  Liberals intuitively know that there has to be something wrong with how status is distributed in the world because they can feel either hate for those that have it better or compassion for those that have it worse.

Those emotions are there for a reason and shouldn’t be discounted, but they must be backed up by arguments.  To be sure, there is a corrosive effect to social hierarchies which is the result of unequal distribution in status.  In fact, it is relative status and not absolute status that matters to people’s health and happiness.  Although I’ve hinted at this, I was ignorant of the research [4].

In other words, I will be more healthy and happy if I have more status than the Joneses do.  Status is much more than just income, education, and possessions as it is also valuable attributes such as beauty, smarts, likability, knowledge, and talent.  We compete to bestow value on one another with these attributes and those that have more of it relative to others have more control and influence.

Absolutely Relative

When we talk about absolute status, then we are not concerned with how the status of others affects us or vice versa.  One of the arguments for capitalism is that it brings people out of poverty, but it doesn’t matter much because it’s all relative.  In fact, researchers were perplexed as to why households that made more than enough to be healthy and happy still had a higher risk of death compared to other households that had a slightly higher income and education level.  Education and income, however, can only help with so many good decisions and can only provide so much superior health care because of the law of diminishing returns.

Then what else is causing the unequal health and happiness measurements amongst families that otherwise have enough income and education?  It is what we all know and think; it matters how and where we are positioned relative to others.  This should create tension to any ideology although some would settle for “tough luck” to the bottom feeders.  But even that isn’t accurate because it is a health gradient that where anyone on the status continuum is positioned lower than another, all else equal, they will be worse off.  When we understand status as being on a continuum, it makes the categories of rich versus poor meaningless.

Happy and Healthy

So how does status work to help our health and happiness?  At the very least, we know that income and education help us to maintain a certain level of status that prevents absolute deprivation, which is starvation, dysentery, and malaria—anything associated with poverty.  But I explained above that absolute status that is associated with education and income can’t explain why anyone on the status continuum will be worse off than anyone that is above them all else equal.  To understand why it matters what others have relative to us as well as how it affects us, we must first understand the two measurements of health and happiness.

The health metric can measure the amount of heart disease, diabetes, and mental illness within a given population, which are no longer thought to be “rich-man” diseases but due to how the status of others affects us.  Of course, getting mental illness and heart disease involves other factors as well such as genetics and access to health care.  This post explains that once we correct for those things (i), why is there still a health and happiness gradient amongst people of differing status after an absolute threshold is met.

The answer that is given by the author is that the degree of control and participation that we have in society is directly related to how we are positioned relative to others.  The more autonomous and free that we are, then the more control we have in our lives.  Think about how free we are at the workplace where management on a whim can make us feel fear of losing our positions.  It is anxiety and rumination that directly taxes the mind to produce a stress reaction that makes us more susceptible to heart disease and mental illness.  It is that last line that so much recent research has been devoted to and that I will focus on in the next post.


i) The data on the next post shows that these things aren’t corrected to predict how relative status affects our risk for death.  It does, however, correct for age, family size, sex, and race.


[1]  Deaton, Angus. The Great Escape. Princeton University Press.

[2]  Gilbert, Paul.  Subordination and Defeat: An Evolutionary Approach To Mood Disorders and Their Therapy. Taylor and Francis.

[3]  Jonathan’s Musings. “Chomsky on Playing Fair

[4]  Marmot, Michael. The Status Syndrome. Henry Holt and Co.