Opposites Distract

A Tale of Two Lives

My grandma Ann was a sporty, almost athletic woman who loved to swim. She had learned home economics in an exclusive boarding school and was a highly professional housewife. She knew the nutritional content of every staple food by heart and spent all morning cooking and straightening the house, aided by a maid. The afternoons were for looking after the kids and/ or paying and receiving calls. Her husband, my grandpa, worked long hours in his own law practice. I am not sure how much time their lifestyles left for joint leisure. On Sundays there was mass – which my grandma enjoyed and grandpa didn’t. And a bit of joint paying and receiving calls, according to a code that is no longer in use. (The maid would bring three business cards on a tray to announce a visiting couple: one from the wife and the husband each for grandma, and one from the husband for grandpa. Because a lady would not call on a gentleman.) My grandparents’ marriage project did not include a big plan for joint spare time; that was a secondary question if a question at all. They were from the same broader region but otherwise not very much the same. If they had something you could call hobbies, grandma loved doing sports with the kids, and churchy things. Grandpa went deer hunting with his buddies.Their tastes and views differed in books, music, politics and culture more generally. I know for a fact they voted for different parties all their lives. Opposites had attracted each other very much, they married young. It was more important for them to economically complement each other; grandma’s perfect running of the household including all nooks and crannies allowed grandpa to rise in his career, gain some notoriety in his profession and thereby build modest wealth for his family.

My other granny’s story is quite different. After secondary school, she had learned a trade that would earn her money. She worked several years as a commercial and legal secretary, and ended up running the front office of a regional court. Having turned down several marriage proposals, she may have started to worry parents and acquaintances with her insistence to marry for love alone. Finally, at the (then mature) age of 29, she accepted my grandfather who swept her off her feet. This marriage was two birds of a feather flocking together. Her teacher husband loved soft classical music, historic books and endless conversations with friends at least as much as she did if not more. They were both deeply religious; they also voted for the same party. The part time nature of their work allowed them to spend some leisure together and many family photos show the two of them with the kids. They took vacations and loved adventurous outings on their two huge motorbikes before the war did them part.

Love and technological change

What happened in the few years between my two grannies’ marriage dates? How come one follows a more traditional and one a seemingly more modern pattern? According to a paper by Lundberg and Pollak in 2007, two fundamental technical developments changed the lives of families in the first half of the 20th century: the surgence of household machines, and the pill. Before the advent of the machines, it was useful for partners to specialize, that is, for the husband to work and for the wife to look after the house and any children. Different skills sets and possibly different personalities in either half of the couple would allow this arrangement to work best. Tastes and likes were secondary, as Gary Becker’s seminal work on family economics underlines.

Household machines alleviated a housewife’s workload. A washing machine, even an antique one, allowed to handle multiples of the load that one could do with a scrubbing board on a basin. Coffee machines freed up one soul in the household to do something else for twenty minutes. This meant, that once the kids were in school, the woman could also go to work outside the house. Rewarded work made sense for women, and it made sense for their parents to invest in an education that would prepare for it. The pill (or other accessible forms of family planning) supported this trend as women could complete a full cycle of education well into their childbearing years. (On this one, also see Raquel Fernandez’s work.)

Women grew into a position to earn and to look after themselves. They did not need a breadwinner but won their own bread. In these circumstances, marriage was no longer a must. There were viable outside options for a young woman, at least economically; if probably at a social cost.

Love and leisure

Marriages became more of a choice than a necessity. They needed a joint fun component, and a leisure component. Joint leisure was made possible by the technological revolution in household machinery. In this world, husband and wife want to spend time together that they both enjoy. They want to have conversations for the sake of them, not because they are needed. To this end, it is recommendable to choose a partner that is similar in education and tastes. A partner that likes to do the same things in his leisure rather than a partner that occupies himself most efficiently in a complementary manner while his other half is also efficiently occupied in her job. The more salient joint leisure is in your life, the more opposites distract.

Social atavism?

The coupling of similar people is a feature we observe strongly in contemporary marriages. This so-called assortative mating has increased over time, and keeps increasing still. Partners are now usually close in education and wage, and also height, weight, and age. High-flying athletic lawyers tend to marry high flying athletic lawyers.  This does not mean that a regression on the social evolution over the generations is impossible. Opposites do find and attract each other sometimes, and it is not always clear where likeness ends and opposite-ness begins. In this day and age, however, there can be a tension between the economic reality and a traditional relationship model. Marriages between opposites last less long, on average, than those between well assorted mates.

(Second) Spring, Fertility and Happiness

Despite the ever changing weather, I hear birds chirping outside. Beams of sunlight come and go, as do bees that are kept at the local elementary. The daffodils have not given in to the rain and the mosquitoes have not arrived yet. Perfect spring. New green life is piercing through frosty soil, and a somehow larger family of Easter bunnies gathers on our lawn. A good moment to think about how human families form and grow and pursue happiness. I have witnessed this lifecycle building best in my immediate friends, such as Beth (not her real name).

Beth has been married for over ten years now. She confided to me that her wellbeing had changed markedly since she first partnered with Jack. Getting married and moving in together nudged up her happiness. Trying for a child and getting pregnant brought an even deeper contentment and feeling of security, also for Jack. The actual birth of the first baby was life changing and laborious. But at the same time deeply rewarding and instilling pride. Beth and Jack felt like family. Both of them older than 36, they also saw a long held wish materialize, and at a time where their biological clock could have decided otherwise. In spite of the hard work that followed and would eat up part of their leisure for good, they were happy.

Mikko Myrskylä und Rachel Margolis mined the extensive data from British and German household panels and found that the birth of a child normally increases the parents’ happiness. This is strongest for the first child and a bit milder for the second (and non-positive for the third). The effect is temporarily very strong. As they write, “happiness is, on average, 0.3-0.5 units higher (on 0-10 scale) when a child is born compared to the baseline 4-5 years earlier. This magnitude is comparable to the effect of divorce (-0.49) or going to from employed to unemployed (-0.47).”

Happiness gets a boost around the birth of a child, with 2-3 years anticipation before the birth and lasting 1-2 years thereafter. The happiness increasing period before birth may reflect partnering, marriage and getting pregnant; and the post birth decline possibly a realization of the permanent loss of spare time.

And, wait for it. You better have your kids at a mature age. Older parents, above 35, as well as the highly educated have a stronger happiness surge, and even when happiness drops around 2 years after the birth, it still stays above the long term average. So for these groups, parenthood increases their happiness sustainably. Younger parents (below 25) can see their happiness decline long term. This may reflect that younger parents typically have fewer resources available, and also that they still have a – now unfulfilled – need to enjoy life and leisure on their own. Older parents likely have had their partying years and can let them go.

Looking at all this it is understandable that more and more people decide to have their children later, and to limit their number. Parenthood in the second springtime of life lets the new happiness last.

Memento mori

“Memento mori – remember you are mortal.” This is really not big news, all our lives will end. But we are most of the time too good at ignoring it.

See, I have to write about death and mortality today because I am seeing too much of it. The Brussels and Ivory Coast hate attacks, people surprised by a diagnosis of terminal illness, young top-of-the-crop talents taking their own lives, car accidents, and again, diverse health struggles lost, heroically. Always untimely. Sorry for not coming up with a more uplifting topic, but bear with me. Because first, it is Good Friday and death is for a while the theme, and second, because by the end of this blog, I will try to extract some beauty from the setting. Somewhere.

Likely, none of us knows for when God has ordered the taxi, or who the driver is. And we repress thoughts about it successfully. We live as if we live forever. We love as if our relationship will last forever and beyond. It is easy to value today as if we had lots more of them coming, and value it barely more highly than tomorrow. Economists call this intertemporal preferences, or discount rate. For example, with a low rate we don’t discount the future strongly because we are convinced we have lots left. Or we are good at waiting. There are advantages to a low personal discount rate, such as willingness to save, invest, delay gratification, to work hard today for a better tomorrow. Most education aims at instilling these values in children.

But they may not be entirely realistic. In the long run, we are all dead, as Keynes wisely observed. We live moving towards death.
Some people get the news about God’s taxi, its driver and the approximate departure years in advance. It is still shocking news. It changes one’s outlook completely, and often quite painfully. Arguably the more painfully, the less prepared one is. There is a sudden realization of the strength of the will to live. An anger with fate or a higher power, sometimes turning one’s faith bitter. And the fear that the driver may be really unpleasant. And of the radical good-byes. (Radical, but not terminal, I believe.)
Even when the taxi is announced at a point in life that one could consider rich in years, and fulfilled, more often than not it pulls the emotional rug from under people.

My lesson from observing this is to get prepared. To live life, love, friendships, faith and work knowing the road will once end. To cherish every day, to worry a little less, to breathe more deeply, to savor food more, to spend more time with your kids, to give more and hoard less, to hold on to good memories and let go of grudges, to care for one’s time wisely and abstain from things, people and situations that drag.
To take liberties and forget others’ approval. To indulge all those who don’t know this. Simply, to put things into perspective. Many annoyances lose their weight in front of the fact that our stay on earth has an expiry date.

It is still fine to work hard and invest in tomorrow. But it is wiser to plant Lutheran apple trees and take joy in the planting rather than doing it only for the harvest. The apples may well be our offspring’s to enjoy without us, which is also worth it.

The Growth Mindset for Relationships

These days, The Growth Mindset is all the rage as a recipe for success, and for raising successful children. What does it mean?

A Growth Mindset, as discovered by Stanford professor Carol Dweck, is the inner belief that intelligence and talents can grow by effort. A Growth mindset lived out in practice means attributing successes and failures to one’s actions and effort rather than one’s fixed abilities. The opposite would be a fixed mindset.  In education, it means praising children for effort rather than ability such as smartness. A child that is praised for effort will invest in effort. A child that is praised for smartness will stagnate and rely on existing abilities only.

What use is this for relationships? Well, I would like to think that a Growth mindset can be applied to about everything. For example, to the extent to which partners are well suited to each other. A fixed mindset would take this as given, a  growth mindset would believe that a couple can be well matched today and better matched tomorrow. Personal affinity can grow. So can closeness.

On a sidebar, shhh, it can be a good way to influence your spouse. Praising his or her efforts…

For now, this is all theory. I challenge economists and other empirical researchers to test the effect of a growth mindset on relationships. Let me know what you found.


New Year Special: 6 Things To Make The Joy Last

Do you still feel the holiday warmth? Our house for sure still breathes hot chocolate, cookies, spiced goose, gifts, generosity and good company. I love it, and would like it to linger.

Can it? Over the years I have found that what can last without boredom is the inner part, the family ties, the altruism, the generosity – non-material would be too simple an expression; family ties can be very material. But transcendental nonetheless. The consumption aspects grow stale far too quickly. I mean I lurrve chocolates. Really. But I can’t look at them right now. Not even the finest brands – which I usually crave all year.

Another phenomenon came up this holiday, and everyone, including president Obama apparently, is going gaga about Fates and Furies. I also enjoy the read. Being still in the first quarter of the book, it’s kooky and a little bit crazy, a tasty and lighter bite after Crime and Punishment, which my book club wormed through earlier.

The new book, as many of you may know, dwells on marriage. How it can be something altogether new even after a string of relationships. The book marvels, almost like a distant perplexed observer, about how marriage can last, about passion that lasts.

But it can. Yes it can.

Psychologists have found that the kind of passion that typically a new love brings can indeed last decades. In very long-term couples that report still being madly in love, MRIs find brain activity that suggests new love next to other feelings commonly found in older companionate marriages, such as trust, familiarity and a feeling of kinship.

I am actually not surprised. In fact, I am rather happy that someone else provides a good argument-ology to my anecdotal observations and doesn’t let me look like a doe eyed dreamer when I claim the same.

So what makes the joy of marriage last? There are six attitudes you need to hold on to and cultivate, according to this research. Hint, we are onto our seasonal theme again: inner values matter. Intentionality matters. Having friends matters.

So here you go:

  1. Have some money, but spend it frugally and don’t care if your partner is rich. The couple should have solid earnings (i.e. more than $125k for the household). But only little should be spent on the engagement ring and the wedding, and neither partner should care if the other is rich.
  2. Don’t care too much about looks either. People who report caring about the looks of their partner are more likely to divorce.
  3. Go to religious worship regularly. This one is now well established in the research, and no wonder. Common values bond, a network of friends with the same values supports, and the whole thing is transcendental and non-consumerist = the essence of durability.
  4. Date 3 or more years before engagement. It sure helps to know each other well, to weed out any remaining information asymmetry, and to have weathered some ups and downs together. But to be honest, this one is a bit of a trade-off with the previous habit. The religiously observant, for whom ‘time before engagement’ often means abstinence, will not be thrilled by the length of this time. Religious people tend to have shorter pre-engagement and pre-marriage times.
  5. Have lots of friends at the wedding. People with bigger (but not more expensive) weddings are less likely to divorce. This one may be a proxy for ‘have lots of friends’ generally. People with lots of friends are probably not dramatically difficult to get along with, plus they have networks for help (with kids, the house) and emotional support. The appreciation of friends for the bride and groom is essential also because its absence would mean that partners would sometimes have to choose whom to spend time with, friends or spouse.
  6. Go on honeymoon. People who went on honeymoon are significantly less likely to divorce than people who did not. This probably means, don’t be too stressed or too workaholic to have a honeymoon at all. Or, in other words, be able to rank your relationship more highly than any other gainful occupation.

In the hope that every reader’s joy may last during 2016 and beyond. Happy New Year!


Happy Halloween – Why A Little Thrill Is Good For your Love Life

In the early 70s (probably bored by the first oil price crisis) psychologists Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron conducted a series of experiments. First, they sent a group of men down a rickety, wobbly bridge across a scary river. On the bridge, a woman asked them to complete a projective test that involves making up narratives about ambiguous pictures. A similar group of men was sent across a safe and sturdy bridge across a small creek and presented with the same test.

Guess what. The men who experienced the scary bridge produced narratives that were much richer in sexual content than the men on the safe bridge. Also, they called the female researcher back much more often (9 out of 18 vs. 2 out of 16 men). The results were corroborated in a laboratory setting with scary shocks, where the men anticipating shocks produced more sexual narratives and reported being more attracted to a female also present.

Hm. It looks like our hearts and minds are not very good at distinguishing where flutters and butterflies come from. Scary can mean hot. The nearest potential partner becomes more attractive. Feelings get a boo – st.

What can we do with this? Well, as wobbly bridges are rare these days, I would advocate you ride a roller coaster with your love at least once a month. And take advantage of the current season: check out the neighborhood’s scariest displays. No dodging the haunted houses…

Mothers In Law Are The Best Thing For Marriage

How the emergence of grandmothers helped build monogamy

You may remember the saving moment when granny arrived on the scene, a few days after the first baby decided (your) sleep was overrated. Grannies still know how to hold and soothe a baby, and many of them cannot think of anything that makes them happier. Grannies also, conveniently, biologically need sleep a little less than younger women.

While in modern times it can feel like they save young parents’ lives, in ancient times, they actually did save lives. Families who had a grandmother around, that is, a woman who would no longer bear children but could look forward to another twenty-odd years of life, had better survival chances. Granny could look after older children while mummy had a new baby at the breast, and daddy was free to go hunting. Families whose genes supported such a lifecycle, i.e. the end of female fertility during healthy years, were favored by evolution.

A recent PNAS article explains in more detail that an increase in life histories involving grandmothering had another beneficial side effect. In societies with active grandmothers as described above, fertile males would naturally outnumber fertile females. And as mentioned previously here and here, this also means, (fertile) women had higher bargaining power than men. Men needed to compete for fertile females; the latter could choose and thereby call the shots.

In a world where women call the shots (also see here), a couple of things happen to relationships and family life. You have empirically a higher incidence of monogamous marriage, higher earnings for men and higher wealth for young parents. – All symptoms of men working hard to obtain the favors of women.

In short, the emergence of grandmas has very likely helped couples form a strong and stable bond (as desired by -the newly powerful- women.)

With this in mind, a warm thanks to all grandmothers, and well wishes to all grandparents, on the occasion of National Grandparents’ Day, 13th September!

How To Heal A Broken Heart? A 5-Step Program

“We broke up”. “It’s over.” “No more.” It can sound so easy. But the hard work sometimes begins right there. If you are done with listening to Sinead O’Connor and a good dose of mourning, and can suffer some humor again, and maybe a fresh outlook, then this article is for you.

What on earth would economists know about this, you may be asking. I must admit, a broken heart is not a topic I would have thought of by myself, but it is one that many friends bring to me these days. So I dug around in the treasure chest of empirical literature and found a few tissues helpful pointers. (Most of them come from Daniel Kahneman’s seminal article in the AER (2003)).

1 Gain perspective. It is not quite as bad as it seems. Human beings experience loss aversion. I.e. we feel a loss of a certain importance more strongly than we would feel a gain of equal importance. In plain English: your sadness without her is bigger than your happiness with her would have been. (Sounds about right?) This is how we humans work.

2 While an end with pain is better than pain without end, your perception may get this wrong. I know it’s hard to believe, but empirically, patients judge the pain of a procedure by the pain they feel at the end. A short procedure that ends with a sharp sting of pain is judged as worse than a much longer procedure with several stings of pain and two sharp stings in the middle. Look back critically: how much *pain* was there already in your time together, which your memory now tries to dismiss?

3 Good riddance indeed. You know, the opportunities you missed while dating your now lost love are likely a bigger loss than losing him now. It will not feel like it. But this is just another way our intuition plays tricks on us. Economists would coldly say ‘out of pocket expenditures are more painful than opportunity costs’. What it really means is that it hurts more to lose an actual mate than missing a good potential mate – even if objectively the latter is the bigger loss. Bottom line: rejoice; you are free to revive the opportunities you had missed in the meantime.

4 Replace the adrenaline and cortisol with endorphines. This advice is not from behavioral economists, but from doctors and experience. Adrenaline and cortisol are hormones caused by stress, such as fear or anger or sadness. Exercise can reduce their levels. Physical activity makes you less stressful. Difficult issues are easier to handle. What is more, exercise produces endorphines that create a sense of peace and pleasure. (Some people call this “runner’s high.”) To be precise, endurance sports are best for this effect: running, rowing, biking, aerobics, for example. For good balance, you may want to throw in something to wind down every other day, such as yoga or pilates.

5 Keep trying. Your past loss has no control over your future success. Meeting good people is a bit like waiting for a taxi, don’t you find? They pass by at rather random intervals. Sometimes you wait and none arrives, sometimes there are lots in parallel lines. The only thing you can predict is that the arrival and departure of one taxi is completely unrelated to the next. In nerdy terms, taxi arrivals follow a Poisson distribution. One arrival (or departure) is no predictor whatsoever of when (or how) the next one will arrive. I would venture that it’s quite similar with dates. Let go of your current pain; it has nothing to do with the next mate.

Love Advice from A Beautiful Mind – 5 Rational Dating Strategies

Rest In Peace, John Nash, hero of the movie ‘A Beautiful Mind’ and of many an economics student’s a-ha experiences, who died end of last month. Nash received the economics Nobel Prize in 1994 for his findings in game theory. Game theory, which studies interaction and negotiation, is one of the best fields within economics to consult for dating. I thought, within the wealth of Nash’s publications, his paper on “Two-person Cooperative Games” sounded about right for our theme; and indeed it offers a wealth of lessons from both its assumptions and conclusions. While his assumption that people are rational gave me pause, it actually turns out very useful if you wish to err on the side of caution in your strategies.

But let’s begin. Here are 5 essential lessons from Nash’s work for daters.

  1. Make sure you can talk honestly with your date about everything of importance to you. If you want to cooperate at all, if you want to negotiate a good time together and maybe make some agreements, it is indispensable that the communication is open and honest. Otherwise, your agreements will be incomplete, or shaky, i.e. unreliable.
  2. It is important that you can make agreements that work for both. It almost goes without saying, but after all I hear and see happening to many friends that are dating, I am not sure we can take this one for granted. Nash himself felt he needed to point it out as a key assumption before modeling cooperative games. You need to be able to agree on something, so that both of you understand what is meant by the agreement, and understand it in the same way. You also need to able to comply with and fulfil any agreements made. Given that we are talking dating, these agreements can range from the light (like, agreeing on a time to meet to go to the cinema) to the serious (agreeing to go exclusive, or, eventually, marry…). The ability to fulfil agreements implies:
  3. None of you should have outside commitments that interfere with the relationship. Again, it should go without saying, but I am writing up some rational strategies here, based on a level-headed rational economist’s work. And from that perspective, anything can happen. Better check that your date does not come with baggage none of you is able to deal with. Neither should you. Incompatible outside commitments include, for example: being married, having another exclusive dating relationship, or having existing financial or time commitments that leave no money or no time worth mentioning for a new relationship.
  4. Don’t take altruism for granted. It is safer to assume that your counterpart will go as far as he/she can without losing you. Better assume this first and assess any degree of altruism well before agreeing to, like, go steady. (Hint: you want a lot of altruism, while being mindful that all that looks too good to be true probably is.)
  5. You may need an accountability framework. It is great if you can just blindly trust yourself and each other. But this is neither granted nor, possibly, as frequent as we’d like it to be. Nash suggests ‘something like an umpire’ to enforce agreements. Now, as this can prove complicated in dating, what about the following proxies: (i) a joint network of friends that knows or gets to know both of you well, and with whom you are willing to share where you stand dating wise; and (ii) for the younger or the more conservative among us: parents who are kept abreast of essential agreements. The accountability thing is naturally a small circle affair; I don’t advise publishing on facebook. It also should not be something that locks you into a relationship, but rather a trusted group that is in the know but otherwise neutral.

If this sounds too businesslike for love, ask yourself when you last held someone to these standards? If anything, your dating life deserves much more.

All this with the grain of salt that we are sometimes too irrational to apply the rationally obvious. But try and let me know how it goes!


‘Darling, I don’t have time’. – Dating in the times of Piketty , part III

I have already speculated about the trends that Thomas Piketty is foreseeing, here and here. More precisely, about their impact on our private and love lives.
It does not look good.
But several of the things I am gloomily musing will come from the inequality gap opening will unfold gradually, slowly. They will probably take a bit of time to manifest themselves globally.

Here’s a third impact that we are already feeling.

Couples today spend an average of two and a half hours a day together, including on weekends, according to a time use survey from the UK. And what do we do when we’re alone with our loved ones? Watch TV (one third of all the time spent together), eat (30 minutes) and do housework together (24 minutes). Ouch. We don’t have time to date. If we have a relationship, we don’t have time for it. And we fill the time together with must do-s or a complete intellectual switch-off (TV).

What does that have to do with Piketty’s findings. Let’s see.
The global wage bill is shrinking. This is one result of capital harvesting more of the available growth returns than labor. It means people need to work more to make ends meet. The self employed need more hours, part timers need to go full time, potential retirees need to keep working. What about those on a fixed salary, where hours’ relationship to salary is not straightforward?

Here a second time trend is relevant and interacts with Piketty’s predictions. Unionization is decreasing. Employers are gaining in relative power. They have an incentive to widen working hours beyond what is contractually agreed. And some people feel obliged to do this on their own, setting new (non-contractual) standards for all. This latter one is already happening and has been happening for a while, across the economy. Do you know anyone that works the 45 hours stated in their contract? I struggle to think of a single one. Everyone works more. It has been so ingrained in the culture that it makes people smile if you think aloud about it. Your commuting time is your leisure, even if you are on a device for work. Should it be?

Our hope is that the millenials will take the role of unions and negotiate for good working hours. Arianna’s Thrive movement is also promising.

For the time being though, I am just watching and wondering.