The Long Game 56: Optimism & Longevity, Happiness vs. Income, Personal Best, Solving Problems

🇧🇩 Bangladesh, Flying Cars, Social Media, Shortages, Spain in Africa, Alfread, and Much More!

Hi there, it’s Mehdi Yacoubi, co-founder at Vital, and this is The Long Game Newsletter.

In this episode, we explore:

  • Optimism & Longevity

  • Happiness vs. Income

  • Personal Best

  • Solving Problems

  • The minds of psychopaths

Let’s dive in!


🥑 Health

♾ Optimism & Longevity

This week I read a study exploring optimism in association with exceptional longevity. It’s so good that it’s worth sharing. Here’s the abstract:

Most research on exceptional longevity has investigated biomedical factors associated with survival, but recent work suggests nonbiological factors are also important. Thus, we tested whether higher optimism was associated with longer life span and greater likelihood of exceptional longevity.

Data are from 2 cohorts, women from the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) and men from the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study (NAS), with follow-up of 10 y (2004 to 2014) and 30 y (1986 to 2016), respectively.

Optimism was assessed using the Life Orientation Test–Revised in NHS and the Revised Optimism–Pessimism Scale from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 in NAS. Exceptional longevity was defined as survival to age 85 or older. Primary analyses used accelerated failure time models to assess differences in life span associated with optimism; models adjusted for demographic confounders and health conditions, and subsequently considered the role of health behaviors. Further analyses used logistic regression to evaluate the likelihood of exceptional longevity.

In both sexes, we found a dose-dependent association of higher optimism levels at baseline with increased longevity (P trend < 0.01). For example, adjusting for demographics and health conditions, women in the highest versus lowest optimism quartile had 14.9% (95% confidence interval, 11.9 to 18.0) longer life span. Findings were similar in men.

Participants with highest versus lowest optimism levels had 1.5 (women) and 1.7 (men) greater odds of surviving to age 85; these relationships were maintained after adjusting for health behaviors. Given work indicating optimism is modifiable, these findings suggest optimism may provide a valuable target to test for strategies to promote longevity.

Here’s the significance the researchers found:

More generally, I find these types of results and studies fundamental. Longevity and great health are extremely impacted by things like social connections and the different mindsets people adopt through life. We don’t understand this perfectly yet, but in the meantime, stay optimistic and contribute as much as you can to the longevity space!

While we’re talking about optimism: Dan Wang’s Definite Optimism as Human Capital is a must-read.


🌱 Wellness

💸 Happiness vs. Income

I read this great report on happiness and life satisfaction. The correlation between happiness and income is fascinating to me. People in richer countries tend to be happier, and within all countries, richer people tend to be happier.

It’s still surprising to see on the graph below that many countries see the self-reported happiness decreases while the income increases. It’s the case for Morocco, Singapore, the UK, the US, and more. Why is this happening?

Generally speaking, countries experiencing economic growth also experience happiness growth:

An important point to note here is that economic growth and happiness growth tend to go together on average. Some countries in some periods experience economic growth without increasing happiness. The experience of the US in recent decades is a case in point. These instances may seem paradoxical given the evidence—we explore this question in the following section.

This paradox is the Easterlin Paradox. It looks into why economic growth doesn't always lead to happiness growth. One of the explanation is inequality:

if we look more closely at economic growth in the US over the recent decades, one fact looms large: growth has not benefitted the majority of people. Income inequality in the US is exceptionally high and has been on the rise in the last four decades, with incomes for the median household growing much more slowly than incomes for the top 10%. As a result, trends in aggregate life satisfaction should not be seen as paradoxical: the income and standard of living of the typical US citizen has not grown much in the last couple of decades. 


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🧠 Better Thinking

🥇 Personal Best

I loved this piece from Atul Gawande, the surgeon, and author of many masterpieces, among which Being Mortal. He explains his philosophy behind self-improvement as a surgeon and the importance of having a coach even when you reach a very high level.

Athletes and singers have coaches. Why doctors and entrepreneurs shouldn’t also get coached to reach new heights?

I’ve been a surgeon for eight years. For the past couple of them, my performance in the operating room has reached a plateau. I’d like to think it’s a good thing—I’ve arrived at my professional peak. But mainly it seems as if I’ve just stopped getting better.

It’s surprising to me that so many jobs (especially knowledge workers) don’t have a culture of performance. I love this question from Tyler Cowen is:

“What is it you do to train that is comparable to a pianist practicing scales?”  If you don’t know the answer to that one, maybe you are doing something wrong or not doing enough. Or maybe you are (optimally?) not very ambitious?

It’s sad to see people getting complacent with their skillset and performance. Atul Gawande sets the example for surgeons:

Not long afterward, I watched Rafael Nadal play a tournament match on the Tennis Channel. The camera flashed to his coach, and the obvious struck me as interesting: even Rafael Nadal has a coach. Nearly every élite tennis player in the world does. Professional athletes use coaches to make sure they are as good as they can be.

But doctors don’t. I’d paid to have a kid just out of college look at my serve. So why did I find it inconceivable to pay someone to come into my operating room and coach me on my surgical technique?

Generally speaking, the concept of getting an education for a few years and then being basically good to go for your whole life needs to go. We need to implement systems for lifelong learning and improvement. In the case of doctors, I know many doctors who stay up to date and learn constantly, but I also know doctors who don’t, and it’s a shame.


⚡️ Startup Stuff

🚂 Your Job is to Solve Problems, Not to Avoid Them

Your only job as a founder is to solve problems, and there will never be a period without any problems. Just embrace it. It doesn’t seem like an essential point, but to me, understanding this was life-changing.

Similar to this idea, stay away from trying to optimize everything if you’re an early-stage founder. Premature optimization is the root of evil.

Finally, I know it’s funny coming from me, but stay away from the mental models, frameworks, and so on! It’s ok for a few minutes here and there, but it’s a distraction from the actual work in 95% of the cases. Open your todo, look at the most annoying/important task there is, and do it.

I’m still reading What You Do is Who You Are, and will talk about the book next week.


📚 What I Read

🚗 Book Review: Where's My Flying Car?

Where’s My Flying Car? is on top of my reading list, but I haven’t read it yet. This book review is a great introduction.

Three hundred years ago, we burned wood for energy. Then there was coal and the steam engine, which gave us the Industrial Revolution. Then there was oil and gas, giving us cars and airplanes. Then there should have been nuclear fission and nanotech, letting you fit a lifetime's worth of energy in your pocket. Instead, we still drive much the same cars and airplanes, and climate change threatens to boil the Earth.

“The Baby Boomers—my generation—split into two cultures which, as far as I can see, not only didn’t agree on values but which fundamentally couldn’t even understand each other. Ask any Boomer what was the greatest, most pivotal event of 1969. Half of us will say the Apollo 11 moon landing. The other half will say Woodstock. Both sets, hearing the other’s opinion, will emit an honestly uncomprehending “Huh!?!?”

📱 The warped self

Social media makes us feel terrible about who we really are. Neuroscience explains why – and empowers us to fight back.

Social media is a spectacularly effective method for warping our generative models. It overloads them with bad evidence about both the world around us and who we are. The space between being and appearing is potentially vast – with a few swipes, we can dramatically alter our appearance, or retake the same picture 20 times until our face exudes precisely the calm mastery of life we wish to project. As social media platforms develop features that allow us to present ourselves inauthentically, those platforms become all the more powerful bad-evidence generators, flooding the predictive systems of their users with inaccurate information, telling us that the world is full of impossibly beautiful, happy people, living wonderfully luxurious and leisurely lives. Typically, in the offline world, our generative model and expectations are encoded with information incoming from the immediate (unfiltered) environment, which means that most of the time the model accurately reflects the world. However, in cases of regular and heavy engagement with social media, incoming information about the world is carefully selected, curated and altered – we’re potentially engaging with a fantasy.

🇧🇩 Bangladesh is the new Asian Tiger

I wasn’t very much aware of anything related to Bangladesh, and this article about Bangladesh's recent economic success surprised me. It’s worth reading, especially for people involved in the economies of developing countries.

India has outgrown Bangladesh overall since 1980, but its growth has been less even, and looks to be hitting a serious slump in recent years. Pakistan is mostly stagnant, languishing in poverty (I’ll write a post about Pakistan’s dysfunction later). But Bangladesh has that smooth, even curve.

But challenges aside, the fact of the country’s recent success can’t be denied. Make no mistake — this is still a very poor country, with a per capita GDP (PPP) of only around $5800, similar to that of Ghana or Honduras. It’s going to be many decades yet before Bangladesh can reach developed-country status, and it’s sure to hit setbacks along the way. But it has already proven two crucially important facts about the modern world:

  1. The traditional strategy of export-led, manufacturing-based development, starting with light industry, still works.

  2. Countries outside of East Asia and the European periphery are capable of using this strategy.

That’s a huge deal. It should give a massive amount of hope to people and governments in other populous poor countries — Egypt, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and so on. The traditional model of development may not work forever, but for now, it looks like it’s holding up.


🎙 Podcast Episode of the Week

Crypto episodes for this week to celebrate Miami Crypto Conference from afar!


🍭 Brain Food

🧠 The Minds of Psychopaths

I recently started Mindhunter on Netflix, and I highly recommend it. It’s a fascinating exploration of the minds of serial killers. It got me interested in the broader topic of psychopathy, and this article from the New Yorker is a great complementary read.

Kiehl is one of the world’s leading younger investigators in psychopathy, the condition of moral emptiness that affects between fifteen to twenty-five per cent of the North American prison population, and is believed by some psychologists to exist in one per cent of the general adult male population.

So what is psychopathy?

Psychopaths don’t exhibit the manias, hysterias, and neuroses that are present in other types of mental illness. Their main defect, what psychologists call “severe emotional detachment”—a total lack of empathy and remorse—is concealed, and harder to describe than the symptoms of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. This absence of easily readable signs has led to debate among mental-health practitioners about what qualifies as psychopathy and how to diagnose it.

The causes of this disorder are still debated, but scientists agree that psychopaths are more likely to come from neglectful families than from loving, nurturing ones.

Another important point is the lack of funding to study psychopathy:

Kiehl is frustrated by the lack of respect shown to psychopathy by the mental-health establishment. “Think about it,” he told me. “Crime is a trillion-dollar-a-year problem. The average psychopath will be convicted of four violent crimes by the age of forty. And yet hardly anyone is funding research into the science. Schizophrenia, which causes much less crime, has a hundred times more research money devoted to it.” I asked why, and Kiehl said, “Because schizophrenics are seen as victims, and psychopaths are seen as predators. The former we feel empathy for, the latter we lock up.”

With more research, we could potentially find a cure for this mental disorder.


🎥 What I’m Watching

📦 Why There Are So Many Shortages?

What happens when companies try to optimize their processes without understanding the real meaning of optimization? Not expecting the unexpected inevitably leads to serious problems. It is a great video to understand how big industrial companies apply The Toyota Way without truly understanding its founding principles.

🇪🇸🌍 Spain Makes Grand Plans for Africa

After decades of small international ambition, Spain plans for a comeback on the international scene, with Africa this time.


🔧 The Tool of the Week

📚 Alfread — Read the Articles You Save

If you are like me, you have hundreds (if not thousands) of saved articles waiting to be read. They will most likely never be read… but Alfread is trying to do something about this. It connects to Pocket or Instapaper, lets you set a realistic goal of how many articles you want to read per week, and then reminds you at the right time to push you actually to read what you saved.


🪐 Quote I'm Pondering

Love is an activity, not a passive affect; it is a “standing in,” not a “falling for.” In the most general way, the active character of love can be described by stating that love is primarily giving, not receiving.

Erich Fromm


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👋 EndNote

Thanks for reading!

If you like The Long Game, please share it on social media or forward this email to someone who might enjoy it. Podcast reviews are also gratefully received. You can also “like” this newsletter by clicking the heart just below this, which helps me get visibility on Substack.

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Feel free to email me or find me on Twitter if you have any feedback or questions.

Until next week,

Mehdi Yacoubi

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