Happiness rules

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“The Constitution only guarantees you the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.”

— Benjamin Franklin

In the 2485 years since the birth of the iconic Athenian philosopher Socrates, people have struggled with the question of how to live a good and virtuous life. What can the digital age contribute to answering this question?

Quite a lot, believes a Rhinebeck resident who is sort of an expert in the emerging cross-disciplinary science of human happiness. Here’s how Pamela Pavliscak, owner of a firm called Change Sciences, explains on Linked In what she does: “I collect stories about how people engage with technology. My work is part ethnography, part data science, part behavioral psychology. Right now, that’s usually called user experience…Lately, I’ve been trying to understand that very human experience we have with technology through data of all shapes and sizes. It’s a bit like archeology, sifting through traces left behind to better understand how we live with our devices.”

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Most Madison Avenue “research” is used to manipulate people into spending their money on products and services only indirectly related to their needs. Ironically, there’s a possibility that data analytics, increasingly available to mine the unfathomable depths of big data, has the capacity to level out that playing field. Everybody can monit  or every aspect of their own lives they wish to. If people want to maximize their own happiness, reasons Pavliscak, they ought to be able to tweak the dials so they can do just that.

Who would not want to do so? “Is not happiness precisely what all seek,” asked St. Augustine rhetorically in his Confessions 870 years after the birth of Socrates, “so that there is not one who does not desire it?”

The early-19th-century utilitarians, like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, posited what Bentham called a felicity calculus for the pursuit of happiness. Bentham is credited with the dictum that the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of the world’s morals and legislation.

Mill explored gradations in happiness. “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied,” Mill famously wrote. “And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their side of the question.”

More recent utilitarian thinkers have explored many other aspects of behavior, including altruism.

 

“So much attention is focused on how technology makes us sad, lonely, addicted, lazy and maybe a little stupid,” wrote Pavliscak in March. “At the same time, we know that technology also makes us feel smart, whole and connected. What if we could intentionally design technologies for positive emotions and outcomes? This is at the heart of positive design.”

Happiness leads to positive behaviors. The world has evolved, she wrote, from a focus on productivity to a phase of “optimizing experiences for persuasion and engagement.” It’s now ready to take the next step. The next phase, positive design, is “not just about solving problems but creating possibilities.” Oriented more toward broadening options than narrowing them, positive design is grounded in research that shows happiness leads to positive behaviors.

As Steve Jobs always made abundantly clear, what’s important is not only the data, the content, but also the design and feel of technology. Positive design, Pavliscak argues, makes us feel better about ourselves, each other, and the world. And that isn’t likely to be a bad thing.

Pavliscak was one of the speakers at this week’s special meetup session sponsored on the SUNY New Paltz campus by the Hudson Valley Economic Development Corporation and the Hudson Valley Tech Meet-Up.

 

Pavliscak has a master’s degree from the School of Information at the University of Michigan. Much of her working life has been spent in New York City. Like a number of mid-Hudson residents, she has taught at Parsons, The New School of Design. She worked for a startup called T3 Media which offered cloud-based storage, access, and licensing for video libraries. And she worked for a while for the New York Public Library.

For the firms that employ Change Sciences and at the many events at which Pavliscak speaks, one of her roles is as a tech scout. She tells her clients and audiences what she thinks is hot and what is likely to have an impact on the future. She also warns against fads and misconceptions, to which the world of large organizations seems particularly vulnerable. “Make sure data is sensitive to the complexity of the human experience,” she urges.

She believes in both quantitative and qualitative data. Designing with data has to go beyond analytics, she says. Qualitative, she says, is still data (anthropologists agree). “Small numbers, or thick data, still count whether they remain as narrative or are quantified,” she maintained in a recent paper. Data should be used to illuminate everyday experience.

Pavliscak is no technology doomsayer. If anything, she’s close to being a technology Polyanna. Her unshakeable contention is that the Internet is great territory for creative self-expression — and that through design user-generated content, authentic, in-the-moment and human-centered, will be embedded in more and more experiences. “The future belongs to technologies that promote human well-being,” her website declares.

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