Flow, Happiness and the Pursuit of Significance

I’ve just been reading Deirdre McCloskey’s article on “Happyism” in The New Republic. While there are a number of points I could pick at in the article, I question her specific example of statistical significance and I think she’s oversimplified a number of the philosophical points, there are a lot of interesting thoughts and arguments within the article.

One of my challenges in connecting with my students is that of making them understand what the benefit is to them of adopting, or accepting, suggestions from me as to how to become better as discipline practitioners, as students and, to some extent, as people. It would be nice if doing the right thing in this regard could give the students a tangible and measurable benefit that they could accumulate on some sort of meter – I have performed well, my “success” meter has gone up by three units. As McCloskey points out, this effectively requires us to have a meter for something that we could call happiness, but it is then tied directly to events that give us pleasure, rather than a sequence of events that could give us happiness. Workflows (chains of actions that lead to an eventual outcome) can be assessed for accuracy and then the outcome measured, but it is only when the workflow is complete that we can assess the ‘success’ of the workflow and then derive pleasure, and hence happiness, from the completion of the workflow. Yes, we can compose a workflow from sub-workflows but we will hit the same problem if we focus on an outcome-based model – at some stage, we are likely to be carrying out an action that can lead to an event from which we can derive a notion of success, but this requires us to be foresighted and see the events as a chain that results in this outcome.

And this is very hard to meter and display in a way that says anything other than “Keep going!” Unsurprisingly, this is not really the best way to provide useful feedback, reward or fodder for self-actualisation.

I have a standing joke that, as a runner, I go to a sports doctor because if I go to a General Practitioner and say “My leg hurts after I run”, the GP will just say “Stop running.” I am enough of a doctor to say that to myself – so I seek someone who is trained to deal with my specific problems and who can give me a range of feedback that may include “stop running” because my injuries are serious or chronic, but can provide me with far more useful information from which I can make an informed choice. The happiness meter must be able to work with workflow in some way that is useful – keep going is not enough. We therefore need to look at the happiness meter.

McCloskey identifies Bentham, founder of utilitarianism, as the original “pleasure meter” proponent and implicitly addressed the beneficial calculus as subverting our assessment of “happiness units” (utils) into a form that assumes that we can reasonably compare utils between different people and that we can assemble all of our life’s experiences in a meaningful way in terms of utils in the first place!

To address the issue of workflow itself, McCloskey refers to the work of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi on flow: “the absorption in a task just within our competence”. I have talked about this before, in terms of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development and the use of a group to assist people who are just outside of the zone of flow. The string of activities can now be measured in terms of satisfaction or immersion, as well as the outcomes of this process. Of course, we have the outcomes of the process in terms of direct products and we have outcomes in terms of personal achievement at producing those products. Which of these go onto the until meter, given that they are utterly self-assessed, subjective and, arguably, orthogonal in some cases. (If you have ever done your best, been proud of what you did, but failed in your objective, you know what I’m talking about.)

My reading of McCloskey is probably a little generous because I find her overall argument appealing. I believe that her argument may be distilled are:

  • If we are going to measure, we must measure sensibly and be very clear in our context and the interpretation of significance.
  • If we are going to base any activity on our measurement, then the activity we create or change must be related to the field of measurement.

Looking at the student experience in this light, asking students if they are happy with something is, ultimately, a pointless activity unless I either provide well-defined training in my measurement system and scale, or I am looking for a measurement of better or worse. This is confounded by simple cognitive biasses including, but not limited to, the Hawthorne Effect and confirmation bias. However, measuring what my students are doing, as Csíkszentmihályi did in the flow experiments, will show me if they are so engaged with their activities that they are staying in the flow zone. Similarly, looking at participation and measuring outputs in collaborative activities where I would expect the zone of proximal development to be in effect is going to be far more revealing than asking students if they liked something or not.

As McCloskey discusses, there is a point at which we don’t seem to get any happier but it is very hard to tell if this is a fault in our measurement and our presumption of a three-point non-interval scale and it then often degenerates into a form of intellectual snobbery that, unsurprisingly, favours the elites who will be studying the non-elites. (As an aside, I learnt a new word. Clerisy: “A distinct class of learned or literary people” If you’re going to talk about the literate elites, it’s nice to have a single word to do so!) In student terms, does this mean that there is a point at which even the most keen of our best and brightest will not try some of our new approaches? The question, of course, is whether the pursuit of happiness is paralleling the quest for knowledge, or whether this is all one long endured workflow that results in a pleasure quantum labelled ‘graduation’.

As I said, I found it to be an interesting and thoughtful piece, despite some problems and I recommend it to you, even if we must then start an large debate in the comments on how much I misled you!

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