Lies, damn lies, and statistics

Statistics seem to have a bad rap in popular culture. And for good reason – far too often, official-sounding statistics are quoted in the service of promoting an agenda. Sound familiar? “9 out of 10 dentists recommend xyz.” (Which 10 dentists? A carefully-selected — aka biased — sample can give you any result you want.)

Bad usage aside, statistics is a wonderful branch of mathematics that tries to detect patterns, and with great responsibility, to make predictions. As anyone that has studied statistics will tell you, predictions are made with a degree of “confidence”. Meaning they are educated, informed guesses – limited by the available data, and our ability to understand it.

And while statisticians will go to great lengths to ensure their predictions are not misunderstood to be the “truth”, we are far more likely to use data at our disposal (all the collective actions we take) and not just predict, but expect an outcome as a result of those actions.

Getting there (exactly) on time

Have you ever really gotten somewhere exactly at a given time? You are far more likely to arrive before or after, but arriving exactly at a time is pretty darn hard. There’s too many random variables – traffic, weather, who you run into, spraining (or not) your ankle, outdated GPS data, cell-phone battery running out…

So while we may accept that getting somewhere exactly on time is hard, we recognize that we still need to take action: we need to leave in reasonable time, make due efforts, etc. Absent those actions, we’ll have no chance of getting there (on time or not).

So there’s the point: You must take action, and the outcome is not in your hands.

The illusion

Yet we live out a great illusion that the outcome is in our hands. We do things for others, therefore, the outcome is gratitude. We take great effort at work and home, therefore, the outcome is happiness. We provide guidance for the benefit of others, therefore, the outcome is that it will be followed. We are careful about hygiene, therefore, the outcome is good health.

Every day, we see this pattern failing to play out. There’s little gratitude, and little happiness. Our advice is not really followed. We fall sick.

Yet we continue to believe, day in and day out, that we own the outcome. We seem to be blind to our own experience to the contrary.

This illusion, combined with our never-ending wishes makes it hard to find contentment. And that’s precisely what makes finding happiness compelling.

To be able to see the illusion for what it is, and enjoy life.


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