<click on me to go home

Posts /

The Dual Optimization Problem of Happiness

15 Apr 2024

preamble: I haven’t done a blog post in a while, and I actually haven’t even looked at my blog in a long time. I like my writing from back then. I used to pride myself as a thinker, and like to write. No matter how good or bad you think those are, I’m proud of writing those and really enjoyed it. Here’s a brief one! Hope to revamp my website soon, maybe this summer.

tl;dr: I think solving for happiness is an optimization problem. Here’s why, and what we can learn from math. Thank goodness I took all those classes

For a long time, I hated my technology addiction. I’ve probably spent 2-3 whole years of my lifetime on Youtube.com, maybe add another for Reddit.com. I’ve tried so many times to reduce it from a framing of “self-control”: I need to minimize the amount I watch these things, because they’re so addictive and I probably shouldn’t be doing them. And not doing these bad things will enable me to be happy. Never worked.

For reasons we don’t need to go into today, in December 2023 I started to journal a lot. I’ve burned through a notebook since then, and may finish my second by the end of the summer. In the beginning, I generated a list of questions that I wanted to regularly reflect on. One of those is the following:

What things in my life bring me fulfillment and joy?

Only a handful of things come to the top, in the form of memories and experiences. Road trips with friends and family easily top the list. In freshman year I organized some friends to do a Tough Mudder in LA; I spent months training for it and was in one of the best shapes of my life, and had a blast at Venice Beach, the getting muddy with my boys, introducing friends to other friends (and buying alcohol for the first time). Times with friends grinding on projects together, discovering new passions at SynBioBeta (Kenny this changed my worldview), discovering new sights in SF with Annika (and even adventures on my own), training for the half-marathon with my roommates, … water polo (oh how I miss you).

I realized that ultimately a couple of things bring me very deep fulfillment and joy. Strong relationships, where I feel connected, understood, engaged. Meaningful work that ideally is interesting. And exploration - of the self, of the world, of others. Writing this itself is extremely fulfilling as I continue to develop my understanding of myself and my humanity. These are the things that I want to define success in my life, the kinds of memories that I’ll smile about on my deathbed, the kinds of things that make me glad to be human and alive. You should read Man’s Search For Meaning if you haven’t already.

I realized that in going about evaluating my decisions and trying to make better ones, I’ve stumbled on two directions:

  1. Self-control framework: I should avoid this action because it causes me pain and regret.
  2. Living well framework: I should do more of this action because it causes me fulfillment and joy

While there’s an avenue to contextualize this with the psychologist’s punishment-reward framework, the retired mathematician in me realized that this looked like a problem of duality! Duality is a concept in optimization that tells us that when we’re trying to mimizing X, we can usually also find the same solution by maximizing the inverse of X. While it may seem trivial, I remember that it was actually quite powerful for generating proofs for the following reason: sometimes it is easier to solve for the dual(min(-X)) than it is for the primal (max(X)). In this context, minimizing the regret and maximizing the fulfillment of a decision are the primal and dual form, respectively, of the optimization problem that is successful decision making.

For a long time I have been trying to harness the Self-control framework - to minimize the self-harm and regret that I would cause myself. Ultimately with that I faced failure after failure. Recently I’ve found a lot more success in the second framework, the Living well framework. Specifically, I internalize decisions and experiences with the following criteria: does this action maximize my fulfillment and joy? This question naturally cascades into other ones which have been helpful to reflect on. What brings me fulfillment and joy? What do I want my relationships with my friends and family to look like? What do I want my relationship with technology to look like? What do I need to do to build fulfilling relationships and experiences, and what do I do that undermines this (eg. being too shy to say hi to someone I think is really cool and want to be friends with)? …..

In other words, towards optimizing my decision making, I have found it easier to maximize my fulfillment (the dual), rather than minimize for my regret (the primal). In hindsight, it seems clear why - there’s a lot more meaning in optimizing how fulfilling, beautiful, and happy my life is than there is optimizing the number of times I feel regretful after binging youtube.

Here’s to a more fulfilling and joyful life