Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Toward the Life Well-Led: The Meter

Many people believe that The Goal is happiness.

That trivializes life's meaning. You could fill your life with activities that make you happy: sex, favorite foods, movies, a Lexus, a beautiful house, hell, I'll even throw in a front-row seat at a Lady Gaga concert. Yet you would die leaving the world no better for your presence. And the extent to which you have left the world better is, in my view, the only valid criterion for assessing whether you've lived a worthwhile life.

It helps us live that life well-led if we use The Meter: -10 (selling crack to kids) to +10 (working to cure cancer) every time we're deciding what to do next. We simply need ask ourselves, "What could I do that would score high on The Meter?"

On my radio show Sunday, I discussed that approach to the life well-led with a leading public intellectual, Richard Posner. He raised objections:
  • It's too joyless. I stipulated to that but argued, as above, that making the world better is more important than an individual's pleasure.
  • Most people don't want to deprioritize happiness, even if, in the abstract, they believe that happiness should be subordinated to contribution. My response: the perfect is the enemy of the good. As with most philosophies and religious principles, they are ideals to aspire to. Because we are human, we will never achieve perfection but better for even a few additional people to strive toward an admirable benchmark than for them to live the life unexamined or in the service of less worthy goals.
  • Most people can't make enough of a difference to make it worth sacrificing pleasure. I disagreed. Take, for example, an accounts-payable clerk deciding on Saturday whether to watch a football game or to pay the bills he couldn't finish paying on Friday. If he chooses to pay those bills, he ensures the recipients have their money to spend when they're supposed to have it. If instead, the clerk elects to watch the football game, the recipient suffers unfairly. So even in this example of a relatively impotent person, his selecting the activity that would score higher on The Meter makes a significant difference. Multiply that by the clerk's countless such decisions and by all the people who might choose to use The Meter, and the total benefit is large.
  • The lack of recreation would hurt their health thereby, net, resulting in their doing less good for the world. In fact, working at what one does well is usually less stressful than are many recreational activities. For example, many sports game watchers' and video game players' blood pressure likely rise more than when they're doing pro-social work. Even a lauded activity such as taking care of one's child is often more stressful and less beneficial than more pro-social work. Fighting with children to clean their room or do their homework is more stressful and less likely to make less of a difference to the world (the research is getting ever clearer that parenting has far smaller impact than commonly believed) than to spend more time, for example, ensuring even that bills are paid, let alone if it's a cardiologist seeing patients on Saturday, a policymaker taking extra hours to optimize consumer-protection legislation, or a cancer researcher deciding to try another research avenue rather than to play Monopoly with his kids.
Let's say you accept my definition of the life well-led: spending as much of life as possible making the biggest difference possible. If so, key to accomplishing that is simply to keep The Meter top-of-mind: Every time you're deciding how to spend the next chunk of time, ask yourself, "What would that score on The Meter?"

Dear readers, I welcome your comments.


Anonymous said...

I completely agree that working hard and having the goal to "make the world a better place" brings tremendous satisfaction. Activities such as watching a marginally, interesting movie tend to leave an empty, hollow feeling.

I honestly believe that people want to have a purpose in life, a reason to get up in the morning. But I also think the dilemma is identifying what that purpose is.

Marty Nemko said...

For the vast majority of people, there is no ONE purpose. Just do productive things, of a variety of stripes, especially those that use your natural or acquired abilities or skills.

For example, in supermarkets, I ask the clerk thought-provoking questions. I answer ALL my emails, including the many that ask for free advice. I write this blog. I volunteer to host an advice-giving radio show. I even, while walking the dog in a dog park, use my doggie bags to pick up the poops left by other dogs.

Annabel said...

I would add doing loving things (in the larger sense of the word) of all stripes in addition to productive things. Not all loving things are "productive," such as taking the time to listen to a lonely elderly person or helping a neighbor, but they do contribute to making the world a better place.

Marty, I'm curious as to what sorts of thought-provoking questions you ask the supermarket clerks.

Marty Nemko said...

Annabel, I've asked such questions as, "What are you thinking about today?" or if the clerk asks me, "Did you find everything you were looking for?" I answered, "Everything but the meaning of life. Do you know where that is shelved?" That triggers a little chat about the meaning of life.

ST said...

I'll say that maybe tilting toward that direction would be the best way to go, versus tilting the other way and wasting a lot of time watching mindless TV, for example.

Sort of related ... I was struck at work the other day that several people were "wishing Friday were here", and that they needed another travel vacation to "get away from it all" (my last travel vacation was in spring 2007, whereas these people had just done something either last summer or even later).

I replied that they were wishing their lives away, regardless if it was work they were wishing away or not. They insisted "they have a life outside of work", but to me wishing the week away just to live for the life outside of work is not a life well led, either. For me, I enjoy the entire process of getting to and doing work. I also enjoy my stuff outside of work, but sometimes they seem to blend together for me. Then, again, many people I work with really don't like what they do for their jobs, and I do, so I'm sure that's a big difference.

Jackie W said...

I like and understand The Meter; however, there is a built-in prejudice in the two poles (selling crack and working to cure cancer). Namely, both ends of the spectrum are completely social, i.e. as opposed to private or personal. One end is a public "evil" and the other a public "good".

"Pleasure", on the other hand, is usually conceived as private or personal, as opposed to public or social. The Meter spectrum doesn't measure this at all.

The rest of the article juxtaposes personal pleasure (private good) and social usefulness/utility (public good), arguing that the latter is superior to the former.

However, it does not follow that the "good" of serving a public need outweighs the "good" of private pleasure. They are essentially apples and oranges. Personal and public. Private and social. Not good and evil. Not ends of a ethical spectrum, like The Meter simile would have you believe.

I expect that "good" does not necessarily need to be public, certainly not in the broad sense of "social". I'm certain that good is done all the time at the local/community level, family level and interpersonal level... just as evil or harm is done. Even at the personal level, one can do good or evil to oneself, I suspect.

So, The Meter is a nice idea to measure how much social good (vs social evil) you are doing in your life. But it does not prove that the wider your social impact or influence, the "better" you are living your life.

On the contrary, it may well be that our most valuable, significant and lasting contributions to humanity are interpersonal, one-on-one, or even personal.

But that's another topic...

Marty Nemko said...

Jackie W,

Thank you for your intelligent response to my post.

For me, it matters not whether you label a good as personal or social. What matters is the extent to which you make the world better.

Of course, a genius who works in the White House will have a greater potential for doing good and evil than does a pauper with an 80 IQ living in rural Bangladesh. who may have interactions only with his parents. The former, of course, has a larger sphere of, and potential for, influence.

But each of them can choose to live much more worthwhile lives by consistently making the choices that yield the greatest good for their sphere of influence, their world--whether their world is small or large. The Meter is a way to keep that top-of-mind.