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!

 

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!

 

Emotionally unavailable?! 3 Steps out of The Rut

You know what the words mean, I am sure. But let me briefly illustrate.

Thelma is an attractive woman in her late thirties. She has had several boyfriends, but always something was missing. She has been going out with Jack for nearly two years – exclusively but without any physical expression of love. Not even holding hands. Jack, a successful 45 year old, is also still living with his parents in their large house and has a hard time contemplating moving out. – Sensibly,  Thelma left before they hit the two year mark. The only people she has been attracted to since were still in a relationship.

What is going on here? Well, Jack is not really available for an exclusive relationship; his heart is safely parked at his parents’. But Thelma neither: she unconsciously picks people who could never offer a full, durable, emotional relationship. Where there’s no relationship, none can be broken. True risk safely avoided.

What do economists make of this? What is an ’emotionally unavailable’ person doing in economic terms?
She is not on the market. She is not buying, let alone investing. Keeps her money safely in a low or no interest savings account, while she goes through the motions of shopping. We are talking about an extreme risk aversion here, that for tops is unconscious. The aversion is so high it keeps you out of any chances of a substantial return on your investment. Risk averse people want insurance. Thelma and Jack insure against the essential risks of amorous relationships by keeping healthy amour out; the true mutual connection.

How doe we get the amour back in? What can be done?

  • Step 1 would be to make the process conscious. Instead of unconsciously avoiding productive risks, Thelma and Jack would consciously avoid them. Nothing wrong here, if that makes them happy.
  • If it doesn’t make them happy, then in the medium run, step 2 would mean a realistic assessment of the risks of investing. Are they sizeable? Certainly. But not higher for oneself than for others. (Thelma needs to reality check her self esteem. And correct upwards. One way to do this is to avoid people that drag us down with reproaches and criticism. Sometimes this means creating distance to formerly close chums. And creating more proximity with friends that lift us up and appreciate us.)
  • Step 3 would finally entail some stepwise and careful and proactive risk taking. Without inbuilt insurance. But with the option to dial back at any step if needed.

There are no guarantees. You may be hurt.

Or you may bond forever.

Holidays without A Better Half? – A 5-Step Survival Plan

I am not quite sure I should be writing this. After all, I am *everything but* without a better half. I have the world’s hunkiest husband, who is currently playing with two adorable little wild beasts on the corridor.
But, boy, do I remember how it was without him. In fact, it is a recurring nightmare that I have: being unmarried and having to decide among a bunch of unpalatable ex-es. These are nightmares that feel quite real. During the dream I genuinely forget that I am married. It’s scary and lonely. And the options look between dour and unfeasible. A group of friends and family that stand around, bewildered and without understanding, does not help.  – And then I wake up next to The Man and feel like singing Handel’s Alleluia, multi-voice.

In other words: dears, I know what I am talking about. Been there. You are not alone. From the vantage point of someone in safe haven, but with a good view of the ups and downs of single-hood, here comes my survival plan for your holidays:

1 – Read the biography of a great single man or woman. (There are MANY. Composers, writers, poets, politicians, successful entrepreneurs – each century has had a few, of both genders.) Take a step back from the couple focus.
2 – Promote this idea to your family: not everyone needs to have a partner. You may use evidence from the biography you are reading. (You don’t have to believe this yourself, but the real bunch that you want to take a step back is your family.)
3 – Focus on yourself. Pamper yourself, become yourself – just better. Train the muscles you’d wish you had, or the skill you’d like to have. Schedule a makeover with a pro, or a friend whose taste you trust. Beautify your best side.
4 – Be the person that is missing from another person’s life. This need not be ‘somebody’s partner’, but another helping hand at the family dinner, or with your cousin’s little wild kids, the community activities of the season, or in the places that lack staff during the holidays but are bitterly needed: hospitals, soup kitchens, hospices, nursery homes, orphanages. You will never know how much you are appreciated till you try.
5 – Number three and four should keep you busy already. But if you have some downtime left: dream. Sit down with yourself and make your personal wish list for the next year. Stick to a maximum of three wishes total if possible. If that includes a partner, work on it and be specific: what are his/her five non-negotiable traits. Promise yourself you won’t accept a second date with someone that does not meet them. After all, dating is about spending one’s time wisely and economically for best results. That’s called optimization.

Happy Holidays!

Love from your Economist.

Power, Commitment and Dating: 5 Lessons from Jean Tirole

Jean Tirole recently received the prize in memory of Alfred Nobel for Economics, for his work on firms’ market power. Understanding how his sharp insights translate into the world of dating took me considerable mulling over, although it now feels obvious upon hindsight.

You probably all remember a beau that casually dated many women at once, “stringing them along” without making up his mind on who he should become exclusive with. Or a woman that nourished many admirers’ hopes for a long time, without settling with any one, but also without letting any one of them pursue another woman. Such is the nature of power in the dating market. And Tirole’s insights are highly relevant (and make for wicked strategies, actually).

Here are five key lessons:

1. People with power in the dating market can effectively ward off competitors. For a description of what that might look like, see above, and dig in your high school memories.

2. You can tell commitments from non-commitments, even in a powerful person. True commitments are actions that are hard to reverse. For example, if she moves house to be near you, that would be a commitment. As would be a publicly announced engagement, or, of course, marriage. Declaring the relationship exclusive to close friends, and to any admirers or former dates probably also counts. However, spending time with you, being intimate, and/or being generous with you, is no commitment. It can be stopped at will.

3. Dating market power is hard to maintain. Warding off a competitor is costly; it will take time and effort to string along that one woman that is already turning her head towards someone else, or that one admirer that is about to give up.

4. But power can be broken. If put under the right kind of pressure, the monopolist beau or belle will behave as if powerless. If the above described effort to maintain power is altogether more painful than losing that person from one’s circle of influence so to speak, then the powerful dater will let his subject move on. So the trick is to push the boundaries: if you are the competitor, i.e. the dating market entrant that would like to snatch one worthy date from the circle around the beau, just keep the lady of your intentions as busy and entertained as you can. It needn’t be with dates; if you have other avenues to meet her or engage her along her interests, even without you being involved (sports clubs, work, volunteering, your friends etc), do so. Make sure the monopolist beau will have a hard time keeping up (or finding spare minutes in her calendar). If she is not his favorite, he will let go.

5. Building up that kind of dating power from scratch can be a ton of work. Obtaining uniqueness in the dating world, to the extent that one can exercise market power, is comparable to  investing until securing a patent. What could those investments look like in the dating world? Building up a network, organizing social events, fun activities and gatherings, attracting and hosting interesting conversations…are all activities that enhance popularity and thereby dating power. It might also help to hit the gym three times a week until in ship shape. In some cases Miss or Mr monopolist may have a huge advantage on these accounts; too huge for anyone to follow. If a potential follower fails to realize (aka be impressed by) the size of the task, a stiff competition can ensue and the leader effectively be leapfrogged. Ha!

No guarantees when you apply any of this in real life…

There Is Just No Man!

I don’t know about you, but I have just met one beautiful and accomplished single woman too many. There are three, no, wait, four, acquaintances on the top of my head, spanning the twenties to the forties, who are stunningly gorgeous, pleasant characters, academic and professional high achievers – and single. And it’s not that they want to be; they just happen to be single. They would love a man that is a good match for them, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone eligible around.

What is happening here? Well, Your Economist has three theses on what’s going on. And three antidotes.

  1. Don’t be too modest. Many beautiful high achievers, I am sure, have been told from an early age to be humble and self-effacing. To counteract the stunner effect with an overdose of modesty, so their classmates and relatives can bear the sight and sound of them. That trick may have worked for social integration, but it is a killer on the dating market. Robust evidence shows that popular and outgoing girls are asked out the most. So, darling: get yourself on that pedestal. Be the one to announce the student union activity, the new task force at work, or the new charity project at church. You want to be that girl behind the mic that has all the eyes and ears on it for a moment.
  2. Cast your net widely. If you are ‘rare’ on any trait (rare beauty, rare intelligence, rarely sporty, rare height…) whoever matches you will be equally ‘rare’. If there are not enough eligible people where you roam, roam in other places: go online, visit that aunt on the other coast, let your friends set you up. Let go of the thought that the internet and blind dates are for losers. They are not. They are for choosers.
  3. Make. Time. If you live a lifestyle that only works for a childless single, then that’s what you’ll end up being. If you work endless hours and weekends; if your scarce leisure time is planned out without flexibility, then where will a partner and maybe a family fit in? When will your radar be relaxed and clean enough to register Mr. or Mrs. Right, and recognize them as such?

No guarantees. But these three potions should let an eligible man or two appear.

Germany: Flirt like Champions

3 Teutonic Techniques To Consider

The soccer championships were a joy to behold. Well, mostly. And most media outlets agreed that the right team won in the end, pointing out new and old reasons that might have made the German Mannschaft strong. The media’s love affair with Germany is not yet over; suddenly the country is supposed to be good at about anything. So what about dating?

A solid tradition of romanticism not withstanding, Germans aren’t exactly famous as lovers. One reason may be that they don’t really flirt. It may feel too light weight in a country where every puddle has depth. So this is what Germans do when approaching a relationship. (Caution, the claims of this entry are based on a selected sample of barely 30, including interviewed friends and personal anecdotes. My own passport confirms the qualification to comment, by the way.)

  1. Be an open book. As the Spiegel once eloquently analyzed, Germans signal interest by opening up about themselves, their experiences and views – the more personal the better. This can happen pretty fast, also in completely sober persons, and strike the uninitiated as emotionally incontinent. But Your Economist approves. It cleans up the information asymmetry early on and lets you know what you are in for.
  2. Expect mutuality, and forget double standards. If you want to date a German, you need to e.g. let go a little of the ‘man pursues, woman responds’ notion. German men will expect women to call or write about as regularly as they do, or otherwise assume there is no interest. Your Economist approves. Mutuality makes for a well negotiated pareto optimum.
  3. Prefer action over words. When the time is right to initiate the relationship, most cultures use some form of declaration, i.e. one side or both put their feelings into words. This is true for most Latin cultures, both of the Americas and even Scandinavia if you believe Knausgaard. But not Germany. Most Germans reveal their feelings as (subtle) actions first.  – From the Economist’s perspective, this is a double-edged sword. It is efficient, for sure. But actions can carry many meanings and thus be misunderstood, probably to a higher extent than language. The more transparent contract may be the one with words.

Bottom line, these three principles will help you score a few goals. But improvement is always possible.

Dating in the Times of Piketty – part II

This is the second part of our musings on dating in a more unequal world. As we discussed in part I, we have a few relevant case studies, both historic (feudal Europe) and contemporary (countries with largely Western culture and relatively high inequality, say parts of Latin America). Still, both sets of cases do not fully reflect the situation developed Western nations are gliding into according to Piketty.

Let’s see what is different and what that means for us.
Different from feudal Europe:

  1. Agency of women. In contrast to Jane Austen’s times, women now have voting rights, full property rights, can marry and divorce as men can, and are active in politics and business. The first born daughter may well end up running the family business. (No need to smash the entail, Lord Grantham.) We also know that women, on average, tend to be more left leaning in politics than men. Summing up, this means on the one hand, that hypergamy will likely be an attractive option for both genders (see part I) and courtship patterns may change. Not only will we see groomed young women queuing and trying to prove their virtues to the Mr Darcys, we will also see groomed young men queuing and trying to prove their virtues to, say, Paris Hilton. On the other hand, women’s agency has shifted the political center to the left. This makes it more likely that the bottom 99 percent will oppose an unequal world and vote for a politician that can offer a credible route out of it. Finally, it will also mean that men and women overall have more occasion to meet and mix, at university and work, say.
  2. Wealth is mostly represented by capital, not land. Capital can grow; land only up to a limit. So overall, social mobility in Piketty-land should not be quite as restricted as in Austen-land.
  3. Internet, social media. Any return to inequality will be well documented and well known. The fact that Piketty stirred up the world in so short a time, even the fact that I can write and share this very blog, are witnesses to this change. The average people can see the rich people’s life style more easily, more completely and can choose to covet or to criticize it. Facebook is not exactly a paragon nexus of social mobility, but certainly more so than an Austenian ballroom. The fact that average yours truly is facebook friend with some royalty, as well as heir/esses gives reason for hope. Mrs Bennet’s duty is still valid, but got a little easier. The wealthy networks are more infiltratable.

Different from both feudal Europe and quasi-feudal contemporaries:

  1. Smaller families. This should, on average, make it a bit more difficult to spread inherited capital widely. There are simply fewer heirs and heiresses to marry off.
  2. Longevity. The overall life length is of relatively little interest. What matters is the length of productive life, which seems to expand only slowly or not at all. A longer productive life would give more opportunity to run business risks and thereby accumulate wealth; more opportunity for social mobility. Still, longevity alone already means a longer time span in which heirs need to stand on their own two feet, before cashing in.

Despite all these differences, our main prediction from part I remains. Marriage will be more important a means to access wealth than it is now. And wealth will therefore play a larger part in choosing our partner. The downside is, obviously, that loveless marriages are likely to become, once again, a distinct and accepted possibility.

Who’s in Your League?

Charlotte is an extremely attractive woman in her late 30s. She is college educated, compassionate, sporty (good skier) and her beautiful craftwork could make Martha Stewart envious. No kidding. It would be easy to write her ad without any exaggeration. She has never had a want of suitors since the age of 13, when I first met her. – Still, she has been just as extremely unlucky in love. After several broken relationships, she is just about to give up on the couple thing. One thing that did puzzle me was her choice of partners: while honest and friendly, they were quite average in about everything else including looks, education, interests and effort.

Charlotte, for all I can see, has never held out for somebody in her own league. I would rather place her film star looks, bright mind and exquisite taste next to a hard-working, highly educated overachiever. A category that neither of her former partners inhabited.
This prompts me to plough the literature for 5 facts to keep in mind when choosing your own league:

  1.  You need to set your own standard and search for it. If you don’t find the quality you are looking for where you are, (also if you don’t really know how good things can get) you need to cast your net more widely. This means online dating, singles groups and, why not, the classic matchmaker. It also means pursuing your values. Fighting for a cause, whether in politics, an NGO or in your neighborhood community will unearth people who think on your wavelength.
  2. Men tend to overestimate, women to underestimate their attractiveness. (And within each gender, more attractive people underestimate, and less attractive ones overestimate their prowess.) Says this research. What is more, men become especially overconfident with attractive women. In the light of this, ladies and gentlemen (and stunners and wallflowers) kindly adjust your earlier assessment of yourself.
  3. Your league is relative. It can always be higher than you thought, in the right environment. As several speed dating studies found, your dating opportunities depend largely on circumstance. So choose your circumstances wisely.
  4. People in your league tend to like the same things as you. Taste is a good proxy for education, and education and effort are reasonable proxies for achievement. Moreover, it is good to choose a partner that likes the same things as you and enjoys doing them together; this will enhance relationship quality later on says research quoted here.
  5. Your confidence signals who you are. Check here. In a world where people don’t know you yet, they will go by the signal you send yourself. If it places a high value on yourself, that is the value people will assume.