When we design today, we isolate problems and then create solutions for them, and we then celebrate those solutions. But in reality we have no idea exactly what we’ve done, because in focusing on any particular problem we have really just ignored everything else. We have failed to engage with the complex realities of our interconnected world, and in our attempts at solutions have only created more problems, the cumulative effect of which can be devastating.
When we really understanding the implications of this idea, we soon realize that in our design of anything, we must consider everything. There is no part of the entire system that isn’t affected by every other part of the entire system. This idea became very clear to me while working in healthcare. You can’t solve for a particular condition in isolation… it interacts in complex ways with the system of rest of the body. When you consider the entire body, and you soon realize that you can’t solve for the health of the individual in isolation… it interacts in complex ways with the social systems, culture, the environment, and on and on. Changes to any part of that system can have dramatic, complex, unforeseen, unintended, and often unknown consequences in other parts of the system.
So what would it look like if we attempted to design with everything in mind? What if we tried to avoid these types of errors of isolation, scale, and scope? What would the design intent of everything be? What is the purpose of everything?
OPTIMIZING FOR HAPPINESS
I believe that the purpose of life is happiness, and that a desire for increased happiness is ultimately the reason we do anything. With this frame I began questioning the design and construction of every aspect of our modern life. I realized that much of our modern world and technology is actually antithetical to our happiness. We optimize pieces of the whole, but with a dangerous failure to understand how all the parts come together, and this is particularly true when considering our happiness. (Below is an early and incomplete draft of my happiness interactions model.)
So for the past year I have been working to optimize my happiness. I started with a perspective of evolutionary happiness, that is, that happiness is an evolved state of body and mind that indicates to us when our needs in terms of survival are being met. I began a series of elaborate self experiments to optimize my happiness. I began measuring my happiness on a daily basis, and then began trying to optimize my basic needs to understand the impact on my happiness. I organized basic needs generally in terms of how quickly their absence would kill me.
I started with the optimization of my air. I learned how to breath. I realized I didn’t really know how to properly breath, and was unaware of how powerful breathing and its effects could be. I learned about indoor and outdoor air quality, and worked to make improvements. Here is an image of an experiment where I wore a mask when walking on the streets to help avoid car exhaust, pollution, and cigarette smoke.
I worked to optimized my water, exploring the right amount, temperature, ph, and mineralization. I stopped drinking soda, sports drinks, and most juices. I also don’t drink alcohol, coffee, or tea.
I attempted to optimized my sleep, going to bed at a regular hour, eliminating screens and lights in my room, lowering the room temperature, waking up without an alarm clock to natural light, etc.
I tried to optimize my diet. I lowered my salt intake, eliminated refined sugars, ate more fruits and vegetables, more fish, whole grains, less red meat, and no processed foods, etc. Here is an example of a typical breakfast, including tomatoes, spinach omlette with pepper, whole grains & milk, oranges, and a banana.
I worked to optimize my movement. I started doing yoga each morning, and added push-ups and planks each night. I moved from a chair and desk to a treadmill where I attached my computer and began walking barefoot between 4 and 16 miles a day while I worked.
OPTIMIZED MATERIAL POSSESSIONS
I explored the optimization of my material possessions. I took an inventory of everything I owned in London and measured its use and impact on my happiness. I found that most things had very little impact. In terms of the design of my happiness, it was complete waste! It was disgusting to think about how much stuff I had. I’m now down to a couple pairs of jeans, a handful of t-shirts, a couple shoes, coats, and have gotten rid of almost everything else. Below is an image of the initial inventory.
I’m continuing to move up through a hierarchy of needs, adding additional experiments while working to maintain existing changes. I’ve currently begun experimenting with social needs, quantifying my interactions with family, friends, and significant other, etc. to understand the impact on my happiness.
At the height of the experiments I was measuring about 26 different daily metrics. And the results of the experiments have been really interesting. I lost 25lbs, and BMI dropped from 24.2 to 21.1. My blood pressure and resting heart rate dropped. The way I satiated with food completely changed. My skin changed. The way I experienced flavors completely changed, with vegetables taking on new notes and fruits seeming so much sweeter. I saw improvements in my cognitive speed. I saw relationships between my self-control and my happiness on a one day lag. I’ve had no colds this year. I gained all sorts of insights about how my body works and how my happiness actually operates. And ultimately I was really happy! I continue to play with the data, and even used an evolutionary computation engine to “solve” for my happiness… the algorithm continues to evolve as I gather more data.
I won’t share many of the details, but I do feel it’s important to include as a part of my experience. In March of 2011 I was diagnosed with a rare form a skin cancer called Dermatofibrosarcoma Protuberans, or DFSP. A year earlier I asked my GP about a small mark on my shoulder that I had noticed and was told it didn’t appear to be worrisome. There were several spots on my shoulder at the time, and it was suggested that the mark was an acne scar. Because this type of cancer is so rare it is quite common for it to go undetected, sometimes even for years. After I had started my self-experiemnets, one of the things that happened is my skin on my face and back very clear and tight, and it was soon apparent that the lesion was something else. It had grown in size and I was noticing a slight ache in the muscle of my shoulder. I returned to the Doctor and he agreed we get it checked out. A biopsy returned the DFSP diagnosis. The cause of this type of cancer is unknown. As far as cancers go this is one of the better ones, as it only rarely metastasizes, and with modern Mohs surgery the outcomes are very good, but it is still hard to describe how intense and sometimes overwhelming the experience was. As a service designer who has worked in health care for a number of years, including while at the Mayo Clinic, I had an intimate knowledge of care delivery models, patient experience, and had spent years in care settings, but going through something yourself is completely different. I had known it, but I didn’t understand. The next few months were filled with lots of research, doctors visits, deciding if I should stay in the UK or return to the US for treatment, eventual Mohs surgery, and several emergency room visits. This while I was trying to finished up school, survive the madness and intensity that is the RCA, and while studying the optimization of happiness.
I won’t share the images here as they were pretty brutal. The lesion was larger and deeper then anticipated leading to 11 hours of Mohs surgery which left a large defect in my upper back/shoulder that went down into the muscle. They closed with a skin flap, leaving a very large V shaped scar. Recovery was tricky, as you quickly realize with every movement that every part of your body seems to be connected to your shoulder. But the scar has healed surprisingly quickly and remarkably well, I’ve lost no movement in what is my bow arm (which was one of my fears as a cellist) and I’m well! I’m ever grateful to family, dear friends, and professors/classmates who supported me, and the kind nurses and doctors who cared for me. It put so much of life into perspective, and I am humbled to think of others who go through so much more than this. It has been another part of my year that taught me a great deal about how happiness really operates, the power of our choices, and that ultimately we are in control of our happiness, our circumstances are not.
The experience has completely changed the way I think about happiness. We often think of happiness as this sort of fuzzy feeling, difficult to understand and harder to grasp. We tend to seek happiness through the acquisition of material possessions and belief in and application of new technologies. We tend to have these complex higher order social and cultural constructs of happiness, but might much of happiness actually be quite simple? Might we experience a type of profound happiness through the optimization of our evolutionary basics, along with which happiness evolved? I’ve come to believe that the answer is yes. It’s not that these higher order pursuits are not interesting, its just that why would we even think to considered them before solving for these fundamental elements of our life. It becomes a critical question of our priorities.
Imagine months of perfect sleep! Imagine a perfect diet each day! Imagine perfect air + perfect water + perfect sleep + perfect diet + perfect movement, etc, etc… imagine how that feels! (It feels really good. I talk to so many people who realize they can’t remember ever experiencing anything like. If this is the case there is something wrong about how we are doing things.
It’s crazy to me that this is all stuff that we know! We know as a society we should sleep more, we know we should eat better, we know drinking isn’t good for us, etc, but we don’t act on this knowledge. I quickly realized how hard it is to live in our modern world and optimize for our evolutionary basics. In many ways we’ve actually created a world that is antithetical to happiness!
Think about the precision and engineering that we enjoy (and even demand) from the technologies and systems around us. It’s breath taking. And yet, if I ask you what you ate last week, or how many minutes of sleep you had, or what your resting heart rate is, etc. you probably have no idea! Our lives are so hap hazard and unconsidered. It’s almost a joke, but sadly not funny! It’s pathetic how little we understand, how little we care about, and how little we manage the systems that contribute most to our happiness.
I’ve also developed a kind of healthy skepticism for everything that has begun to guide a lot of my thinking around happiness. I’m not at all anti-technology, but I’m cautious. We know that anything new will have an impact on our lives, but we really don’t know how. And our typical vetting process is quaint. 1 year? 10 years? 1000 people? 10000 people? In many ways most of our technologies haven’t been around long enough for us to understand their total impact on the system. I’ve become more and more interested in evolved technologies, things that have been around for millions of years. In a way I can trust them because they sort of play nicely with everything.
What started as an experiment has become a new way of life, and an entirely new way of looking at the world.
This experience has been so profound that I’ve formed a company that will allow others to explore happiness in this way, to begin measuring their happiness on a daily basis and then experiment with the optimization of their evolutionary basics.
Through this company I’ve begun to explore what the world might look like if we were to consider everything in the design of anything. What happens if truly began to consider the total impact of ever action, activity, and interaction? What happens when we design everything with the optimization of human happiness in mind? What happens when we truly consider the complexity and computational irreducibility of this world? Now I acknowledge that the consideration of everything is impossible, but the very attempt dramatically changes our design decisions. I created Masamichi Souzou (正道想像, Japanese for “correct path”, “imagine” or “create”), a company that works to optimize human happiness through the consideration of everything. In a world where nothing exists in isolation, no idea, system or domain falls outside its purview.
Masamichi Souzou allows people to begin measuring their happiness on a daily basis, and then guides them, step by step, through the optimization of their evolutionary basics. Over time working up and up through the hierarchy of needs, eventually leading to the design of the entire system for optimized happiness.
Many companies today promise happiness through the purchase or use of their goods and services. But these groups don’t care about us… at all. They don’t care about our happiness. They optimize for profit. Apple would happily sell you an iPhone, regardless of your situation. They don’t care if its your last $400 in your pocket. They don’t care about your relationship with your mother, or if you had a square meal for lunch, or a good nights sleep. They don’t care about any of the things could possibly have a much bigger impact on your happiness. Companies maximize profit by optimizing very small pieces of the system without consideration for the whole. Masamichi Souzou acts as a sort of curator, protecting you from these companies and their messages, and helping to point out and guide you into interactions which will impact your happiness in meaningful ways.