On Happiness – A Blog Post Series, Maybe

This is a series on readings on happiness. This is the first post. An index of other posts is below.

I’m currently reading Happiness – Classic and Contemporary Readings in Philosophy which I picked up at the Dickson Used Bookstore in Fayetteville, AR a few weeks ago. I was looking for another book by Cahn that’s been on my Amazon wishlist for quite awhile but this was the only one they had in stock. This book is a collection of writings on searching for happiness. Whether this turns into an actual series of posts, only time will tell but a friend of mine asked for a TL,DR; on it so here we are.

The first reading in the book is from Plato’s The Republic. I read about half of it and decided to move on to Aristotle’s The Nicomachean Ethics. In the past, I’ve found Plato difficult to read and the excerpt here is no different. Aristotle is more straightforward so let’s start small, shall we?

Aristotle’s main theme is that every art, action and inquiry is pointed at some good and that therefore, all things emanate from the good. This portion of The Ethics is looking at what that means, specifically in search for the chief good or the root. My notes here equate this to a graph with a root node, all leaf nodes pointing towards or leading to the chief good. In the 19 page excerpt here, Aristotle comes to the conclusion that reason and a contemplative life focused on truth is the chief good, that the life of philosopher is the ideal focus and that this derives from the gods who, being immortal and without need for bravery, justice or liberality (other goods that humans might partake in), must practice the contemplation of truth as part of what it means to be a god. The contemplative life of man, requiring no actions, must then be as close to divinity as we can be.

The other goods Aristotle mentions are actions, specifically those of bravery or justice or liberality. These are derivative goods that do lead to happiness but not the root happiness. When given a choice of action, we should choose actions that are of these types when possible.

…if this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of soul exhibiting excellence, and if there are more than one excellence, in accordance with the best and most complete. But we must add “in a complete life.” For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy. Book I

The happy life is thought to be virtuous; now a virtuous life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement. Book X

Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle believed that the happy life was a life of exertion, not physical exertion necessarily but exertion of temperance, of choosing reason over amusement. The easy life is defined by easy choices, those closer to our animal desires. I was struck by how much of modern life is the latter, how easy it is to reach for easy amusements today and how much discipline is needed to choose reason instead. Western civilization is based on consumerism and fluff. Is it any wonder we live in an age of anxiety and depression? Happiness according to Aristotle is about the long term and the collection of choices we make aimed at reason and the contemplation of truth.

This idea leads to the derivative idea that mastery is a characteristic of happiness, that we as humans can achieve happiness only through the evolution of our abilities even in our amusements and hobbies. Happiness does not come from consumption because to consume is always the easy choice avoiding exertion. Only production (very generally speaking, not in a specific way of producing things in our work or hobbies) leads to mastery and therefore happiness. Achievements that happen from exertion are always more rewarding and therefore supporters of happiness.

Overall, Aristotle is a good place to start this study. I’ll probably return to Plato at this point because my favorite contemporary philosopher, Iris Murdoch, built a theory of ethics based on Platonism aimed primarily at Simone Weil’s “concept of “attention” to reality, including both other people and a transcendent Good.”

On Change

Cross posted from OT Engineering Blog and added here for when someone deletes that blog

Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.

Mary Wollstonecraft

With Halloween approaching, a horror story seems to be in order. It is often said that change is scary, a cliche that like all cliches originates from some kernel of truth but then evolves into either tautology or is applied in situations that are more nuanced than a cliche can capture. Situations of change are often like that. It is one of the great paradoxes, written heavily about by many of our modern and postmodern philosophers from Marx to Nietzsche, Lefebvre to Pearls Before Swine that while we seem to crave stability, we also crave growth and development. Growth and development require change. While these things can seems scary at first glance, human beings often search them out when they aren’t getting enough in their lives. They find new jobs or new relationships or go on Amazon shopping sprees, all of which are often the easy way out for satisfying the need for change and growth. So if not all change is scary, where does the cliche come from? You know what is actually scary, deep down, bone shaking world altering kind of scary? Cancer.

Narrator: Well that took a dark turn.

Editor: Let’s wait and see where he’s going with this.

Why is cancer scary? Leaving aside the very visceral reaction one feels upon hearing about cancer and the assumptions of impending death, when we operate at a more philosophical level, cancer is scary because it represents chaotic change. It is uncontrolled growth, irrational at its core, with cells turning on each other in a race to destroy the organism even though they may not know they are doing this. Irrational, chaotic change is scary. When faced with this kind of change, humans, ill-equipped to deal with it rationally, turn to narratives, story making and rumor. We want change but we want to understand it. We almost always want the change agent to understand why things are the way they are before embarking on a radical new path. We need to assess the reality in which we operate in before changing it.

So how do we (specifically those of us operating in the technological fields) navigate times of change in a way that doesn’t involve narrative tales of impending doom and instead fulfill the very human and sociological need for growth and development? The very first thing, prerequisite before all, is to come to terms with the fact there are no purely technical systems anymore. All systems upon which and within which we operate are sociotechnical in nature, meaning they have the dual components of being sociological and technical. It is critical if we are to achieve any success in our desire for change to understand how systems work, how they are designed and operated by the humans that built them and for what reasons they exist.

Then, assuming we have the necessary understanding of systems, we can walk through the steps for successful change. The first step, as Chesterton so eloquently put 100 years ago, is to understand why things are the way they are. This is rather hard work and almost always skipped when it comes right down to it. It involves understanding and discussion and research and is messy and painful and very much on the “socio” side of the sociotechnical continuum. Often, agents of change come into a situation with their own historical context and they try to make their history the current history. This only leads to resentment and antagonism because in almost all situations, the existing system was built for important and meaningful reasons by people who were just trying to do their best to get along within the system that they operated in. To cast all of that aside with the brush of a hand and say “I know this better way” is to guarantee failure without knowing it.

Then, with a proper historical context, one must assess the reality on the ground. What is this system doing right now? What are its goals and incentives? Where are its constraints? What are its areas of leverage? What are its feedback cycles? Again, this is all quite hard. It involves many of the same steps as the discovery of historical context while closely watching the system in operation, tracking its changes and its outcomes.

Next, look to the networks, the flows of communication and how the system gets work done. Think through how changes will fit within the organizational structure. Conway’s Law is a harsh mistress and not easily subverted. Again, this third step is sociological in nature, not technical. So many agents of change believe mere technical solutions will solve everything when in fact the technical parts are typically quite straightforward and provide no benefit without the accompanying sociological work which is much different and often harder. Without looking at the networks of communication flow and organizational design, the best case is that the change takes much much longer as it works through the gates and friction built into the system. At worst, the change becomes something else as the organizational design necessarily dictates the outcome, not the architecture we design (did I mention Conway’s Law is a harsh mistress?)

Finally, after all that work is done, the change can be introduced in the form of small, perhaps tiny, experiments meant to lightly pull the levers within the system and analyze the results. In systems with high leverage, large changes will almost always result in the wrong behavior as feedback cycles you aren’t aware of take over and spiral out of control. In our business mythology, we have giants who tell stories of radical overhaul that resulted in incredible outcomes. Leaving aside the fact that history is written by the winners, it is more likely that the radical overhaul was either excruciatingly painful for a great many people or was actually implemented in a decidedly non-radical way. By coming up with and executing small, continual experiments that are analyzed to make sure their outcomes drive towards the system we want, we can, over time, improve things with minimal pain as we make feedback cycles shorter and areas of leverage less dependent on others.

Perhaps a better cliche is that successful change is hard and requires a deep understanding of systems thinking, sociological interactions and communication flow. Change is possible and almost always good. But it is a continuum and contextually specific and requires a deft hand to navigate successfully. Each situation is different and there are no easy solutions. To build something different than what we currently have, rather hard work is required. But if we put in the work, successful change is possible and deeply rewarding. It just always takes longer than anyone realizes.

Note: This essay is really just a summation of Esther Derby’s excellent book 7 Rules For Positive, Productive Change. I’ve said nothing new here and if you are interested in change, you can do worse than starting with Derby’s work.