A thought about Happiness by way of Math Contests

I swear I’ll stop talking about Happiness soon. It’s getting annoying, even to me. Anyway, the topic of this post: Everyone wants to know about Happiness these days. But when people talk about Happiness, they’re talking about a lot of different things.

A long diversion into high school math contests:

Back in high school, there were math contests. You might have had them too. We had the OML (6 tests x 30 min), the CML (5 x 30 min), the OCTM (1 x 60 min?), and then the big one, the AMC (1 x 90 min?).

Each test had its own little flavor. The OMLs were the most popular, because they were just a half hour and I think most teachers gave you bonus points if you took them. Each test had 6 questions, 2 easy, 2 medium, 2 hard. Your school’s score for each test was the top 5 students' scores that day, so as long as we had 5 6’s, we were golden. Your personal score was your total along all 6 tests. We had a guy named Orest who got a 36 my junior year, I think; the math teachers were pretty excited. (to be fair, some of us kids probably were too, but it’s high school math contests, so you always had to play it cool, like you were just taking them for the extra credit and didn’t really care.) Anyway, at the end of the year, our school would get a little plaque that said “#9 in the state” or whatever. Or did we win that one a lot? Maybe we got #1 in the state a couple years, I don’t remember.

The CML was just like the OML but really nobody cared.

The OCTM was even better: you had to take it on a Saturday! Of course I did, because I was a dork, and about 30 other students ended up going because they were dorks or were getting extra credit. But it was cool, because invariably like 5 of us would do pretty well, so we got to go to the OHMIO, which was in Columbus on another Saturday. (why did I think this was fun? oh right, high school, basing my self worth on mathematical ability. (and you know other stuff but really on mathematical ability)) The OHMIO actually was kinda fun though, because I’d get to hang out with all the senior math guys, some of whom I thought were cool, and we’d all joke about how we didn’t care about this dumb contest. (clearly we, y’know, dragged ourselves to Columbus on a Saturday just to show how much we didn’t care.)

(interlude interlude. At this point in the story, I realized I haven’t mentioned an important character: the B-man. He was that math teacher who wrangled all the math kids to the math contests. He also taught the advanced calculus classes, and his classroom was called “the Math Factory”. Naturally, he was this intense, motivated, Stand and Deliver-type inspirational Math Guy who spurred us all into love of all things numbers, right? Nope. He was very disorganized, not good at teaching, terrible at keeping order in class, likable but out of it, nutty professor. Oh the B-man stories I could tell… but that’s another post. Or series of posts.)

And then there was the GDOTA (Grand Daddy Of Them All): the AMC. You got to get out of your first two classes one day to take the AMC, so that was popular too. 25 questions, multiple choice, where each is 6 points if you get it right, 2 if you leave it blank, and 0 if you get it wrong. 90 minutes. You could take the AMC 10 if you were in 9th or 10th grade, or the AMC 12 if you were in any grade. Also, you could take it twice (the AMC A or B). If you did well on the AMC, you could take the AIME, and that was a trip: 3 hours, 15 questions, each answer is a number between 1 and 999. And then I guess if you did well on the AMC and the AIME combined, you could go to super math camp where they prepare you to duke it out against the Soviets or something at the International Math Olympiad, which is 6 hours, 5 questions.

Nobody from our school ever went on to the IMO; that’s crazy talk. What super nerds those guys must be! … but we all kinda, or at least I kinda, wanted to be the first. And one year I got hella close! I remember I got a 136 on the AMC 12 B, and I think a 9 on the AIME, so my total score was (136 + 9 * 10) = 226, and the cutoff for being a Friggin' Righteous Mathstronaut was 236. I was so proud that year! But besides my winning the AMC school champ’s prize, I didn’t really tell anyone.

So, no Math Uber-champs from our school. But we’d have 5 or 10 kids take the AIME every year, and this one was a real treat. We’d get out of our first like 5 classes one day, sit around in the School Board room with its fancy wood table and leather chairs (private high school…), one of the teachers would bring donuts, and we’d sorta rack our brains for an hour, sit around for 119 minutes, and then pick out random numbers to guess right before the time ran out. I mean, this test was hard.

Anyway, why do I tell you about all this? Well, 1. because it’s interesting. What a weird, cool, nerdy, nervous subculture we had! There were clearly a few Math Guys, and we’d all take these math contests that were pretty fun, but we’d never admit to them being fun. Or maybe some of us were just there to get out of class, I don’t know, but I at least quite enjoyed them. We’d celebrate our OML victories, but only a little bit; we’d never all go out together or meet up at any time besides math contests. The B-man really enjoyed all this, and he’d do stuff like get OML sweatshirts printed (no lies), but his enthusiasm wasn’t contagious. Well, maybe a little bit. But the whole thing was a little warped– repressed nerdy math kids taking math contests so the Grown-Ups can give us gold stars and we can further develop our identities as “just the smart kids”.

But 2. because I actually have a point out of all of this. Okay. So I’d always notice on the statewide scores for Ohio math tests (any of these, but particularly the AMC), I’d find my name, and it’d be in the top 100 or whatever somewhere, and always a bit above it would be this other kid, Jason Juang. I never met him, I don’t know why I picked out his name, but kid was good at math. Even on the tests I did well on, I’d go up the list a bit, and there he was. This bugged me! I’d always say, man, if only I were as smart as that guy. I could win statewide contests, instead of just school-wide. I’d be actually smart, not just kinda smart.

(in my super-year when I fell just shy of math stardom, I did beat him on the AMC 12 B. But he beat me on the AMC 12 A. Meh.)

Anyway, I don’t know why his name popped into my head this morning, but I got to wondering, what’s he up to now? (I might have googled him. err, creepy? yes. sorry. ooh, I hope my pagerank is high enough that this post shows up when he googles himself. Hi Jason!)

Uhh, me-being-creepy aside, I got to thinking, what do I mean by “what’s he up to now?” I wonder that about people sometimes, and it’s never really clear what I’m wondering. I guess it’d be kinda interesting to look back at my 6th grade class, say, and see who’s the most rich and famous, but I don’t even care. It’d also be kinda interesting to gawk at who totally burned out, but again, I even more don’t care.

It’d be really interesting to go back and see who’s the happiest.

And here’s where I get back into my original post. Happiness. Everyone’s talking about it, and I think we just have a big issue of word choice failure. There’s a lot of things people talk about when they talk about Happiness, especially these days. Shooting for “happiness” has become like shooting for “goodness”- almost a tautology. Of course you want to be happy, because you define “happy” as the thing you want to be.

There’s experienced happiness, and there’s remembered happiness. Daniel Kahneman gave a great TED talk (is there any other kind?) about this. People think vacations are better than they actually are, because when they remember vacations, they only remember the good parts. Which do you want, happiness seeker? Do you want to maximize experienced happiness or remembered happiness?

How about fulfillment? Maybe I’ll be happy today if I play video games all day. But tomorrow, I’ll feel like I wasted today, and that will make me unhappy indeed.

There’s comfort, too, and I think this is what this post (“you can either be happy or interesting”) is all about. I don’t buy the “you can either be happy or interesting” argument. (Penelope Trunk would then say “then you must not be interesting. interesting people don’t mind that they can’t be happy.” But that’s some kind of logical fallacy, some reductio-ad-you-can’t-argue-with-me circularity. Assuming the consequent?) You can be either comfortable or interesting, maybe. And comfort is nice; even Kahneman above says, if you want experiential happiness, spend time with people you like. Easy enough.

And then there’s mindfulness, or transcendence, or whatever it is that supermonks have. I bet Matthieu Ricard (another 20-min TED talk, sorry) isn’t “happy” the same way I’m “happy” when I go to the pub with some friends. In fact, it’s demonstrably not the same: delta waves, left prefrontal cortex, n’at.

So there’s a few, to get started:

Or, maybe some are subcategories of others: experienced happiness includes comfort and transcendence, remembered happiness includes fulfillment.

What am I leaving out? Help me out here. And which of these is most worth pursuing? Ah, now that’s a good question.

Finally, while we’re still talking about this, I’ll leave you with another talk, this one by Srikumar Rao, in which he posits that unhappiness comes from concentrating on the results of something; happiness results from enjoying the process. Nothing really new, at least to me, but it’s fun to watch because he’s really into it.

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