About stupidity

Recently I came across this quote:

“When you are dead, you don’t know that you are dead.It is difficult only for the others… It is the same when you are stupid.” [1]

Isn’t this the best quote ever?

At times when people are voting for Donald Trump, enormous corruption scandals are being unveiled, terrorist attacks are becoming the norm as well as bombarding others’ countries, we all have something to say about stupid people. As unbelievably stupid as others may seem, we need to keep in mind a couple of things:

1. We might appear equally stupid for others as well, and;
2. In the end, we are all just people.

For the sake of not appearing stupid and for reducing the general level of stupidity in the world, let’s try to understand how this happens. Fortunately I am not the first one to ask this question, and much more competent people have studied this before. We should learn from them. In 1999, David Dunning and Justing Kruger ran a series of experiments to test how people assess their own competence at a task. This was inspired by a very interesting fact:

“The study was inspired by the case of McArthur Wheeler, a man who robbed two banks after covering his face with lemon juice in the mistaken belief that, because lemon juice is usable as invisible ink, it would prevent his face from being recorded on surveillance cameras.”

I know… I know… How in the world can a person think that lemon juice would make their face invisible on cameras? And if they thought so, why haven’t they tested it *before* robbing a bank? It turns out that the lack of competence is so big, but so big, that they are unable to doubt their reasoning and think for a second that they might be wrong.

Now, this is an extreme case, of course, but the study has shown that incompetent people were often over confident, and guessed a much higher score than they actualy got. This is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

At this point you might be thinking: “Sure, but I am not a stupid person.”
Aren’t you? Think again. If a stupid person is not able to assess their own stupidity, how do you know you are not one of them? [2] How do I know *I* am not one of them? No one wants to be seen as stupid by other people, so we should really find out.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is observed when unskilled persons have what is called “illusory superiority”. The name is self-explanatory. It is also known as the above average effect (e.g. in a survey, 87% of MBA students at Stanford University rated their performance above the median — something which is mathematically impossible). How can we avoid the self-inflated judgement of ourselves? This being a cognitive bias, it is virtually impossible to get rid of 100% in practice. Nevertheless, I believe there are some things we can do to alleviate it:

Doubt yourself

Whenever you think you know about something, google it. But don’t just take the first link, google also makes mistakes and the results of searches are biased. Make sure the sources you are checking are reliable, and be aware how far your knowledge goes. Inform yourself, check the facts and make sure you are not over simplifying (or maybe complicating!) things. (That is healthy doubting. We do not want the kind of unhealthy doubting that makes us crawl underneath the covers and feel bad about ourselves!)

Challenge your beliefs

It can be very healthy to talk to people that disagree with you, if they are equaly engaged and willing to explain their point (and not ofended by your questions [3]). It is good to understand the other side’s reasoning that led them to a different conclusion than yours, and it is good to explain your reasoning to others. Explaining is a very nice way to sanity-check your reasoning.

Learn from experience

If you are in a situation that others have been before, take a look at the past experiences. How are they similar to what you are going through? How are they different? What actions were taken? What was the outcome? Has someone conducted scientific studies on this before? Learn something from them.

Don’t let emotions get in the way

When someone says we are wrong, our first reaction is to listen to the “you are wrong” part and ignore completely why they think we are wrong. We are humans and we don’t like being wrong, but the moment we start being defensive is the moment emotion takes over reasoning. And emotions tend to make us even more biased. So if you feel your heart beating harder when you listen to something, take a step back, breath, and think coldly what exactly it was that made you startle. You might even learn a thing or two about yourself.

Give information instead of opinions

When you think someone is being stupid about something, give them some information they can reflect on. If they even think you implied they are wrong, they will stop listening to you. If you have ever changed your mind, you know that this is not a straightforward procedure. It takes time and it has to come from within. The best you can do is provide more information so the person can think for themselves.

Good luck and stay wise!

[1] Possibly attributed to Philippe Geluck, but I could not check with absolute certainty.
[2] I am not saying you will put lemon juice on your face and rob a bank. Please don’t be angry. I am not calling anyone stupid.
[3] This happens more often than not, unfortunately.

Sobre corrupção

Já que corrupção é o assunto do momento, eu acho que a gente devia começar a esclarecer umas coisas. Eu andei lendo sobre o esquema da Petrobrás (a Folha tem um infográfico explicativo muito didático) e perguntando pra algumas pessoas que trabalham em empreiteiras pra saber direitinho como o esquema funciona. A gente tem que se informar, né? Também li alguns estudos sobre corrupção de acadêmicos da área de gerenciamento e psicologia social [1]. Aqui vão minhas conclusões preliminares sobre o assunto.

Quando esses escândalos de corrupção ocorrem, a reação imediata das pessoas que estão “do lado de fora” é de querer apontar os culpados, e puni-los por isso. A idéia por trás disso é que existe uma meia dúzia de pessoas mal intencionadas, gananciosas e mesquinhas que estão burlando o sistema para benefício próprio. Se livrar dessas pessoas, portanto, iria garantir que não haverá mais corrupção. Muito prático, né? Só que as coisas não são bem assim. Acho que a gente já está crescidinho o suficiente pra entender que não tem dessa de pessoas boas e pessoas más, vilões e mocinhos.

Atos corruptos não são cometidos por pessoas imorais ou com algum desvio de comportamento, mas por pessoas como eu e você (assumindo que você não tem um desvio de comportamento…). Pessoas que vão colocar o filho de castigo se ele pegar alguma coisa do coleguinha da escola sem pedir, que vão achar um absurdo o prefeito daquela cidadezinha que desviou dinheiro pra comprar uma fazenda e que não vão sair de um restaurante sem pagar. Então o que leva uma pessoa que tem bons valores morais a cometer atos de corrupção? Pra mim, esse é o cerne da questão. Se entendermos direitinho como as pessoas são levadas a cometer atos ilícitos, temos uma chance de resolver o problema antes dele começar, de prevenir ao invés de remediar. Nós sabemos algumas coisinhas sobre isso já, felizmente.

A primeira coisa que devemos ter em mente é o contexto. As pessoas tomam decisões em um determinado momento, com uma quantidade finita de informação e muitas vezes sob pressão para atingir um objetivo imediato. As decisões são tomadas sem muita reflexão, sem tempo para analisar a situação como um todo, o que torna tudo muito mais difícil. Naquele momento crucial de decidir se pagamos a propina ou não, se contamos com uma venda ainda não consolidada ou não, se falamos pro cliente que aquela ação vai absolutamente subir ou não, pensamos numa escala pequena. Se não quebrarmos “um pouquinho” a regra, talvez ficaremos sem emprego, talvez muitas pessoas ficarão sem emprego, talvez a empresa não vai cumprir a meta… nesse momento, dadas as consequências, quebrar “um pouquinho” a regra é um mal necessário. Mesmo que, no fundo, no fundo, você saiba que está fazendo algo ilegal. A gente tem uma coisa que chama auto-preservação psicológica, que protege o nosso ego e que nem sempre é muito boa. Ela é responável pela racionalização de atos ilícitos, aquele pensamento de que “foi a coisa certa a se fazer no momento”.

Podemos fazer um exercício pra ver como isso tudo funciona. Vamos usar o esquema da Petrobrás que todo mundo já sabe direitinho como funciona a essa altura. Vamos nos colocar no lugar de cada uma das pessoas e ver como elas podem ter racionalizado suas ações [2]:

– José, diretor da Petrobrás. José foi indicado pelo partido X para ser o novo diretor da Petrobrás. No momento da indicação, ele ficou muito feliz e orgulhoso do bom trabalho que fez durante sua carreira para merecer uma diretoria tão importante. Ele comemorou com um churrasco com sua família e amigos do partido X. Ele foi alertado que terá que seguir “sugestões” do partido X de vez em quando, mas ele confia que seus amigos são profissionais competentes e vão indicar boas empresas. Além do mais, é uma maneira de conseguir verba pro próprio partido que o ajudou a conseguir essa posição importante. Se não for assim, a empresa nunca vai doar tanto dinheiro pra um partido, porque elas são gananciosas e más. E partidos precisam de dinheiro para campanhas. José pensa estar ajudando a todos.

– Carlos, amigo de José do partido X. Carlos apoiou a indicação de José pra diretoria da Petrobrás porque José é uma pessoa de confiança e competente. Carlos se preocupa em conseguir verba pro seu partido para eleger mais pessoas e aprovar projetos que ele concorda que serão bons pra sociedade. Como as empresas não vão doar tanto dinheiro pra campanhas políticas, Carlos pode usar a influência de José na contratação para obras na Petrobrás e forçar um pouquinho esse pagamento. Tudo pro bem da sociedade. O dinheiro não fará falta pras empresas.

– Eduardo, dono da empresa Y. Eduardo abriu sua empresa ainda jovem, e está orgulhoso de como ela cresceu. Decide entrar finalmente na concorrência pra uma obra importante com a Petrobrás. Durante uma reunião, uma propina é sutilmente sugerida e Eduardo acha um absurdo, a princípio. Depois de algumas licitações perdidas, ele percebe que se não pagar a propina como todas as outras empresas têm feito, nunca conseguirá obras importantes. Um contrato com a Petrobrás é realmente algo grande pra se ter no portifólio da sua empresa. Eduardo faz as contas e vê que valerá a pena pagar a propina nesse momento e que esse contrato pode abrir portas pra sua empresa. Eduardo entra no esquema.

Olhando assim, de pertinho, não parece que eles estão fazendo algo de muito errado. Olhando de longe, como estamos vendo nas notícias, tudo é um grande absurdo, uma roubalheira, imoral, e todos esses adjetivos. A lição que tiramos disso é que atos errados não parecem tão errados num nível micro. Se cada uma dessas pessoas tivesse uma noção do tamanho do esquema pro qual estão contribuindo, como estamos vendo hoje nas notícias, talvez tomariam uma decisão diferente. Mas elas não tem. Nem eu e nem você, se estivéssemos no lugar

Claro que meus personagens fictícios são só os personagens principais. Mas um esquema desse tamanho não se faz com uma pessoa em uma empresa ou instituição. É necessário haver o apoio, ou pelo menos consentimento, de muitos e muitos outros. O que leva à segunda coisa que sabemos sobre comportamento humano: comportamento de grupo e obediência. Se você é uma pessoa dentro de uma instituição, e percebe que algo de errado está sendo feito, você tem duas opções: aponta o erro e arrisca perder seu emprego ou fica calado e vê se alguém vai falar alguma coisa. Como a maioria das pessoas escolhe a segunda opção, o silêncio coletivo te faz pensar que talvez a coisa não seja tão errada assim. E tudo passa a ser ok e você pensa “bom, então é assim que as coisas funcionam por aqui, tudo bem”. E se tudo que você tem que fazer é assinar um papel ou jogar uns números numa planilha ou fazer uma transferência bancária, a sua sensação de responsabilidade em um esquema de corrupção é perto de zero. Afinal de contas, você está apenas seguindo ordens. Na verdade, eu acho que a maioria de pessoas num esquema de corrupção, senão todas, não pensam conscientemente que estão sendo corruptas ou fazendo algo errado (o que não impede que elas paguem pelos seus atos, claro).

E aí? Como fazer pra prevenir essa situação? Ficou difícil agora né? Pois é…
Com certeza existem pessoas trabalhando em coisas que podem ser aplicadas a essas situações. A gente tem que prestar atenção, se informar, e juntar os dois mundos da teoria e da prática pra uma solução de verdade.

[1] A propósito, muito pouca coisa disponível online… Não sei se é por causa de direitos autorais ou se realmente existem poucos estudos sobre o assunto.

[2] A situação descrita é altamente hipotética e serve simplesmente como um exemplo exagerado para fins didáticos.

About corruption

Since corruption seems to be the hip topic, I thought it would be good to clarify a few things. I have been reading about the Petrobras scandal (Folha, a Brazilian newspaper, has a nice info-graphic about it, in Portuguese, sorry…) and asking a few people I know who work in companies to find out exactly how these schemes come about. We must inform ourselves, right? I also read a few papers about corruption from management and psychology academics [1]. Here’s my two cents on the subject.

When corruptions scandals erupt, “outside” people’s immediate reaction is to point the guilty ones, and punish them for that. The underlying idea is that there exists half a dozen of “bad apples”, who are greedy and evil and who cheat the system for their own benefit. Getting rid of these people would guarantee the end of corruption. Practical, right? But wrong. We are all grown ups, and we know very well that there is no such thing as the good guy and the bad guy.

Corrupt actions are not committed by immoral or unethical people, but by people like me and you (assuming you have a sense of moral and ethics…). People who will ground their kids for taking materials from school, that will be outraged by politicians’ money laundering and who will always pay their bills. So how come otherwise moral people end up so corrupt? For me this is the ultimate question. If we understand how people are led to commit illegal acts, we have a chance of solving the problem before it starts, preventing instead of treating. Fortunately, we know already a thing or two about that.

The first thing we should keep in mind is that it is all about context. At the point of the decision making, people have limited information and are usually under pressure to solve an immediate problem. Decisions are made without a lot of reflection, with no time to analyse the situation as a whole, which makes the matter that much harder. At that moment when we need to decide whether to bribe or not, to count with that sales or not, to sell a bad product to a client or not, we think small. If we don’t bend the rules just a little bit, maybe we’ll be without a job, maybe many people will be without jobs, maybe the company will not reach its goal… at that moment, given the consequences, bending the rules is a necessary evil. Even if, deep deep down, you know this is something illegal. We have a thing called psychological self-preservation that does wonders for that and protects our egos. It is responsible for our rationalization, at the time of the decision making and afterwards, that we made the right choice given the conditions.

We can try an exercise to see how this works. Let’s use the Petrobras scheme since it is in vogue. Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of each player and think how they could have rationalized their actions [2]:

– Jose, Petrobras director. Jose was nominated by party X to be the new director of Petrobras. He was very happy and proud of himself and all his hard work that led him to be trusted with such an important position. He celebrated in a barbecue with his family and friends from party X. His friends warned him that he should follow some “suggestions” every now and then, but Jose trusts his friends and he knows they will suggest good companies for the job. On top of that, it’s a way for Jose to pay back to the party who nominated him, helping them get money for campaigns. If it weren’t like this, the companies would never give so much for electoral campaigns because they are greedy and evil. And political parties need the money. Jose is only helping.

– Carlos, friend of Jose and member of party X. Carlos supported the nomination of Jose for Petrobras’ board of directors because the former trusts the latter. Carlos is worried about getting funding for campaigns so that his party has more representatives in the government and can approve more laws which he deems are good for the people. Since companies do not donate a lot for electoral campaigns, he can use the influence of Jose when hiring them for Petrobras’ jobs to give it a little push. All for the good of society. The companies can surely afford it.

– Eduardo, owner of company Y. Eduardo opened his own company as a young entrepreneur and is very proud of how it has been growing. He decides to enter the competition to win a contract with Petrobras. During a meeting, there is a subtle mention of a bribe to get the contract and Eduardo is outraged at first. After losing all the contracts in a few years, he realises that the only way of getting in is accepting the bribe. A Petrobras contract is really something to have on your company’s portfolio. Eduardo does the math and see it will be worth it. Eduardo is in.

Looking so closely, it does not seem they are doing anything wrong. Looking from far, as we see today on the news, it is outrageous, unethical, immoral, and all the proper adjectives. What we learn from this is that wrong-doings might not look so wrong from up-close. If any of these people had an idea of the size of the scheme, as we are seeing it today, maybe they would make a different choice. But they didn’t. And neither would have me or you, if we were in their shoes.

Of course that my fictional characters are just the protagonists of the whole story. A scheme such as that does not maintain itself with only a handful of people in an organization. Many others must support, or at least consent with, the whole thing. This leads to the second thing we know about human behaviour: group loyalty and obedience. If you are a person inside an institution and you realise there is something wrong going on, you have basically two choices: speak up and risk your job or stay quiet and hope someone else will say something. Since most people choose the second option, the collective silence makes you think that  maybe it was not so wrong to begin with. Everything becomes ok and you just think “well, that’s how things are done around here then, very well”. And if all you have to do is sign a paper, put some numbers on a spreadsheet or transfer some money, your sense of responsibility in a great corruption scheme is minimal. After all, you are only following orders. Actually, my guess is that most people in those schemes, if not all, are not conscious of the fact that they are corrupt or doing something wrong (which should not keep them from being punished, or course).

Well… how to prevent this? The problem is much harder now, right? Yeah…
I am sure there are people working on things which could be applied to this situation. We need to pay attention, inform ourselves, and bring the worlds of theory and practice together for a solution.

[1] By the way, not many things available online… I don’t know if it is because of copyright issues or if there are not many studies about corruption.

[2] The described situation is highly hypothetical and serves the purpose of being an exaggerated example for making a point.

Observação

Observar faz bem. Escutar, refletir, pensar. Artes perdidas nesse nosso tempo de conectividade e posts e compartilhamentos. Falar ficou muito fácil, dizer qualquer coisa que está na sua cabeça, mostrar fotos, anunciar onde está ou o que está fazendo. No meio desse caos, ninguém pára pra observar mais. Filosofia é uma arte perdida, até para os filósofos.

É uma pena. Um pouco mais de reflexão e discussões (relevantes) cairía bem no mundo. Quando observamos, percebemos coisas certas, coisas erradas e o quão subjetiva é a distinção entre certo e errado. Entendemos outros pontos de vista e fica mais fácil encontrar um meio-termo. Mas para isso, é preciso haver silêncio. Silêncio interior. E uma página em branco. Precisamos ser capazer de ver o mundo sem pré-concepções. Só assim as questões relevantes são perguntadas. E precisamos escutar as respostas, e refletir. Mas não há mais tempo para perguntar, escutar, refletir. Só há tempo para falar, gritar, compartilhar.

Uma discussão na qual todas as partes estão escutando é bastante frutífera. Não concordamos sempre (nem ao início, nem ao final), mas aprendemos bastante, e é isso que importa. As pessoas não devem discutir para convencer os outros da sua opinião, mas para aprender sobre as outras opiniões. Tentar resolver problemas juntos, apesar das discordâncias. Hoje todos parecem muito preocupados em se impôr. Você *precisa* ter uma opinião formada, você *precisa* rebater os outros argumentos contra, você *precisa* dizer aos outros em que lado você está. Isso virou sinônimo de inteligência.

Quando estamos tão anciosos para falar, não estamos escutando. Se não escutamos, não aprendemos e não evoluímos. E estamos precisando tanto de uma evolução…

Escutar é inteligente, refletir é inteligente, perceber que não podemos ter uma opinião bem fundamentada sobre tudo é inteligente. Ou talvez eu deveria dizer sábio.

An observation

Observing is good. Listening, reflecting, thinking. Lost arts in our time of connectivity and posts and shares. It is too easy to speak, blurt out anything on your mind, upload pictures, announce your position or current activity. In the midst of the mess, no one takes their time to observe any more. Philosophy is a lost art, even for philosophers.

It is a shame. The world could use a little bit more reflections and (fruitful)
discussions. When observing we see right things, wrong things and the blurry line between right and wrong. We learn other points of view, it becomes easier to find a middle ground. But for that, there needs to be silence. Inner silence. And a blank page. We need to be able to see the world without preconceptions. Only then the relevant questions are asked. And we need to listen to the answers, and reflect on them. There is no time anymore. No time for asking, listening, reflecting. Only time for speaking, shouting, sharing.

A discussion where all parties involved are listening is very rewarding. We don’t always agree (neither on the beginning nor the end), but we learn a lot, and that is the important thing. People should not discuss to try to convince the others of your point of view, but to learn about the other side. To try and solve problems together, in spite of disagreeing opinions. Nowadays everyone is too worried about imposing themselves. You *need* to have an opinion, you *need* to refute quickly the other side, you *need* to let other people know your opinion. This is the new smart.

When people are so eager to talk, it means they are not listening. When we don’t listen, we don’t learn and don’t evolve. And we are so much in need of some evolution…

Listening is smart, reflecting is smart, realizing you cannot have a well-founded opinion for everything is smart. Or maybe I should say wise.

Identity crisis

I have to fill in a form now to renew my passport and I should put my occupation. It sucks that they have an exhaustive list with 50+ occupations, including specific stuff such as “Music and precision instruments assembler”, and I have to mark “Other occupation not previously specified”.

GUADEC 2014: the aftermath

It’s been more than a week since I am back from GUADEC in Strasbourg, and I must say it was an amazing experience! I went there in the middle of a chaotic time: I had just finished my PhD defense, was helping organize a huge logic conference and, because of this conference, had many friends around and even one at my place. This did not leave me much time to think, which was in fact good. Because if I stop to think about it, I was going to this place I did not know, alone, to meet people I met only over the internet. It sounds like something my parents would strongly oppose, if it was 1999. But it was not, and so I went.

I must say that, coming from a very technical conference, the talks at GUADEC were refreshing. There I was, a complete newbie, able to follow a lot of interesting stuff. But what made me most happy was in fact the people. You know when you are among a group of very cool people and everyone is so nice to you that you just think “I have to be part of this!”? This is how I felt. I got there and I did not know one soul, still people were very friendly and integrating. There was always company for lunch and dinner, and there were always programs for the evening. And in the meantime, I could even program 🙂

Evince’s hackfest on the days before GUADEC was very cool. Not only did I meet my mentor and all the other evincers, but also had progress on the annotation handling. I have a branch now on which annotation works, and we are currently working on optimizing it and organizing the code. Since I found out KaL is the only maintainer, I am trying to make my patches as easy to understand as possible to try and facilitate his work. It is almost certain that these will not be ready to be pushed to master by the end of gsoc, but honestly, I don’t even see this as gsoc anymore. I will continue working on it until it is ready, then I will go trolling for other bugs 😛

It’s funny how things happen sometimes… I enrolled on gsoc because of a career mishap on the beginning of this year. I wanted to prove something, for myself, at least. I listed some projects, some more academic, and gnome, just because I thought it would be so cool to contribute to something I have been using freely for years. My head was already full of science stuff, so I decided to go for gnome. Although academia-oriented people would say it is a waste of time, I do not regret one second. It was a very fulfilling experience, that went way beyond the point I wanted to prove, whatever that was. Maybe it took me some time from research, but I feel like I was doing something that mattered. I felt useful. It feels good 🙂
I wouldn’t like to let that go.

I hope to see you all in Sweden next year!

Or maybe you should.

A few weeks ago I had a job interview. Yes, ladies and gentleman, I seriously considered moving to the dark side of the force. Seriously. I went through the interviewing process and everything. Unfortunately, they turned me down… That hit me harder than I expected. Before getting the result I thought that, if they said “no”, things would just go back to what they were. That’s not really how it went… They said I had not enough software engineering experience. Well, of course I don’t. I am a PhD student, in *theoretical* computer science… What did they expect? I do take part in some small and medium size projects, but this was not enough. They need some more technical experience. All I have for me is the ability to understand really freaking hard problems, and try to come up with solutions. But it’s not like the subject of my thesis will help me with anything else than that. Also, my advisor recently admitted that the problem was harder than he had expected, and it’s ok that I have only partial results in the thesis. It’s disappointment all around.

In any case, this rejection unleashed a chain of reactions that I am still trying to make sense of. At first I was really considering getting a job in industry, and getting this damn experience that I am lacking. I checked companies I like and projects I think I’d be happy working for. Then I started thinking what is that I like to do. What would make me happy? And I made a list because I like to make lists. They help me organize myself. Here it is:

– solving puzzles
– programming
– mathematics
– music

It’s not very helpful though. What I need to know is what kind of job will give me that, and at the moment I don’t know. I am in academia for a while, and I know I can get the first three things at least. But it seems they have not been enough. Maybe it’s because I am reaching the end of my PhD, because I’ve been working for three years in some problem nobody understands and getting only partial results nobody will ever use, but I am sick and tired of this research already. If in the end I decide to stay in academia, it’ll really do me some good to change research topics to something more applied. What about industry? Is there some kind of job that will require me to work on things of this list all the time? The job announcements I saw in the companies I selected claim so. But it just seems too good to be true. I’ve had jobs before and I know how boring it can be. How so not challenging. But then again, I didn’t have a real job in one of these cool companies that claim to have cool jobs. You see my dilemma?

In the middle of despair I took two career tests to see which careers fit me the most. The result of both was basically that I have the profile for research, programming and engineering. Really? Well, *that* I knew already! I am not trying to decide whether I should study literature or computer science.

Anyway, in the end I decided to explore possibilities… Learning about new research topics and about bigger projects in industry (as an intern, employee or volunteer, there are few possibilities I checked). But I am really focusing on getting this mysterious software engineering experience, either in academia or in industry. I learned over the years that you cannot tell me I can’t do something. That’s probably one of my biggest motivation triggers. And they told me I could not get the job… you shouldn’t have done that.

About happiness

This has been a recurring theme in the past few weeks on my random walk on the internet (maybe not so random). It started with an article on the BBC Travel about the cities to visit in the happiest countries in the world, which led me to this report: http://unsdsn.org/files/2013/09/WorldHappinessReport2013_online.pdf

It is a nice report, and I wish I had time to read it all, but the first chapter alone gives a nice overview of the document. It you’re curious, here are the top 10:

1. Denmark
2. Norway
3. Switzerland
4. Netherlands
5. Sweden
6. Canada
7. Finland
8. Austria o/
9. Iceland
10. Australia

This is interesting, because whenever I say I come from Brazil, people imagine that I come from a place where everybody is going to the beach and dancing and smiling all the time. And we are advertised as very happy people… And you’d think that countries that have the sun and wonderful beaches would have the happiest people, right? But it’s just the opposite. Nine out of the top 10 countries do not have wonderful beaches, on the contrary. Lots of them have a harsh winter and are sometimes labelled as places with high suicide rates because of the winter depression. So how did this happen??

After reading and watching videos on the subject here and there, I found out that we tend to overrate how happy we will be because of something (or how sad as well). So you might think that winning the lottery will make you the happiest person on Earth when, in fact, studies suggest that it doesn’t. Or you might think that becoming paraplegic will make you miserable for the rest of your life, but studies also suggest the contrary. This happens because we have a tendency to adapt to whatever situation life brings us, it is called hedonic treadmill. There is a very interesting TEDTalk on that. Actually, the experiment the guy mentions towards the end of the talk, reminded me of another very interesting TEDTalk about how we are actually less happy when we can choose over lots of options. This is a curious effect, that haunted me as I was a kid. Turns out I was really bad at choosing stuff, really simple stuff, like new shoes. I would rummage over and over again which shoes would be better for me, or what I liked the most, without ever being able to decide. I remember even feeling a bit nauseous in a few situations. And after deciding on something, I would sometimes regret it. I guess the message of the second video is exactly this: if you have too many choices, the choosing process is so stressful that you cannot really enjoy the thing you chose. And there will always be that mean little voice in the back of your head: “what if I exchange?”. This is what happens when there’s too much space for freedom. When you make a choice and you’re supposed to keep it, our adaptation thing kicks in, and you feel happy with what you got. This reminds me of the Indian arranged weddings… At the time, I could not really wrap my head around the whole concept. How is it that you can have a good life with someone your parents chose for you?? What if you don’t like this person (divorce is not really an option)? Well, they learn to like each other. They adapt, and they are just as happy as someone who dated 20 people before settling down (maybe happier!).

So what does this have to do with the countries there?? I am not sure actually… If we tend to adapt to all situations, what is it about the happiest countries in the world? I can think of two things: (1) quality of life and (2) the need to cooperate to survive.

If you look at the full happiness ranking of the countries, you will notice some relation between quality of life and happiness (not all of the time, of course). In the top ten countries, people don’t have to worry about mobility, health issues, education, security, and this makes an enormous difference on one’s life. I can tell by personal experience. You don’t see poor people begging for money, mothers with sick kids in every block or families living in shacks that are about to fall down. I think this affects us. So I would guess it’s one of the reasons why people in wealthier countries are happier. Not because of the money, but because of social security.

The second thing is more subtle. When winter comes, there’s no such thing as someone living on the streets. They will die if nobody gives them shelter, for sure. So there is a social responsibility of taking care of others, just because, if they don’t, the consequences are too tragic. And as this TEDTalk* suggests, we are happier when we are helping others than we are when helping ourselves.

A third thing just came to my mind. In these countries the seasons of the year are really noticeable. There’s a huge change in temperature the whole year, and as one season comes and the other goes away, we are remembered what is good about each one, and we can enjoy each season’s particularity. I came from a tropical country, but I was never so happy to see the sun as I am in summer here in Austria. After three months of cold, you really appreciate the first rays of warm light again. In Brazil, the sun is shinning the whole year, so you don’t really pay attention to that… It becomes normal and it is no more a source of happiness.

I think the bottom line to all these things is that happiness comes from our actions, and not our stuff. We learn to enjoy everything we choose, so don’t worry too much about choosing. Just be nice to people, smile and they will smile back. And meditate, one of the sources of happiness 🙂

* In the end of this TEDTalk, the guy advertises one of the most interesting charity campaigns I have ever seen. You should check it out too: http://www.donorschoose.org/

Hummingbird

I haven’t had much time to write these past few days… But I came across this video and thought it was worth posting it even without explanations 🙂