5 May 2023. Happiness | Wood
Heaven knows we are miserable now. // Upcycling wood
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Have a good weekend! There’s another public holiday on the UK on Monday—I believe we’ll be tipping our hats, doffing them, or throwing them in the air, depending on the finer nuances of our social status. This means that Just Two Things will be out on Tuesday and again on Friday.
When a Yale University professor runs a course on ‘psychology and the good life’, and attendance by students is off the scale, and she is then interviewed by PWC’s ‘thought leadership’ wing Strategy+Business, you can probably conclude that something is happening. It’s a sign of an idea hitting the mainstream. And at some speed. (The interview is a reprint from 2019, so also pre-pandemic).
The numbers first. Most Yale classes have 30-40 students signing up. Good ones might attract 100. Laurie Santos’ course on ‘the good life’, launched on 2018, attracted more than 1,000 students. She describes the course this way:
what if I put together everything social science says about how to live a better, happier, and more flourishing life?
Since then she’s been interviewed by all sorts of mainstream organisations, and now also runs a successful podcast, The Happiness Lab.
(Laurie Santos. Image: Yale Unversity)
She was surprised by the scale of those numbers, but not by the need for the course. That was based on stats that consistently showed that American students were thoroughly and deeply miserable:
The stats on mental health, especially in young people, are really harrowing. The recent National College Health Assessment shows that over 40 percent of college students reported being too depressed to function. Over 60 percent say that they’re overwhelmingly anxious. Another 60 percent say that they’re lonely most of the time. And over 10 percent say that they have seriously considered suicide in the last year. It’s different from when I was in college. It’s different even from what was going on five, 10 years ago.
I’m guessing that students could reply ‘yes’ to more than one answer. And beyond the student data, there’s also survey data from 2019 suggesting that millennials feel lonely much of the time.
Of course, the fact that the course is at Yale also raises eyebrows, since it is one of the most prestigious of America’s private Ivy League universities. It’s like being surprised that students at Oxford University are miserable. They got in, didn’t they? They’re likely to have been helped along the way by a slice of privilege, or luck, or both. The world is at their feet. What have they got to be miserable about?
And the answer to that question is both quite simple and a little bit complicated. I’ll come back to the simple one, but the complicated one is more interesting. I’m paraphrasing Santos here, but she basically says that our brains lie to us about what is going to make us happy.
Some of this is familiar. We think that money will make us happier, but it only does this up to a certain point, which is around $75,000 a year in the US, according to research by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton—the famous quote about being rich and being poor notwithstanding). We think that material things will make us happier, but they do for only a very short period of time, but then set a new higher baseline.
What does make a difference is free time, and time spent with other people, especially time that is more about other people than yourself.
There’s a lot of research on what scientists call time affluence. Work by Ashley Whillans, a professor at Harvard Business School, shows that the more we give up money to get time, the happier we are… The problem is that we often give up time to get money, so we get it backwards. Another big predictor of happiness is how much time you spend with other people and how much time you spend with the people you care about. There’s also lots of work showing that we’re happier when we’re being other-oriented — caring about others more than ourselves.
In particular, it seems, the brain isn’t very good at seeking out social connections, and our behaviours around technology don’t help. Santos notes in the interview her students’ behaviour:
I remember the dining hall being the loudest place on campus (when I was in school). Now, students sit in the dining hall with these big Bose headphones on, checking their phones. That person who has the headphones on could strike up a conversation with a stranger in the dining hall, but instead they put their headphones on and sit by themselves. In the podcast, we talk about this funny study by Nick Epley, who’s a professor at the University of Chicago business school, where he forces commuters to talk to the people next to them. People predict it’s going to be awkward and really awful. But it turns out they feel much more positively than they predict.
Social media doesn’t get mentioned here, but its use in public settings as a shield against interruption might be relevant here.
And the simpler answer to the question above (what have they got to be miserable about?) is that getting into Yale is such a competitive endeavour that students lose the habit of free time and time with others in the competition to get in.
There’s lots more here, and I certainly didn’t get that deadening feeling I sometime get when reading pieces in Strategy&Business of waiting for the PWC sales pitch to arrive in the article. It reads like the interviewer was genuinely curious about the research and she’s infectiously enthusiastic about talking about it.
The last part of the interview is abut how this might translate into business life. And guess what: it comes down to culture.
Businesses can set up norms (such that) taking time off, relaxing, and mindfulness are part of the company culture. Or businesses can set up the norm that if you’re not on your email at 9 p.m. on a Sunday, something’s wrong. What that second model misses is the fact that lots of research suggests that you’re actually going to perform better if you can give yourself some time off. The research really shows that time famine works a lot like hunger famine, where you’re just triaging everything.
So adding a bit of ‘time affluence’ in the workplace is good for productivity and performance. Which is, of course, exactly what we have also seen in the recent four day week pilot, which I wrote about here. There’s quite a lot of detail in this section on metrics, behaviours and so on.
But there’s also a gapingly obvious point here, which is about the way that 20th century capitalism was constructed, certainly in the richer world, was to ensure that we chased things that made us less happy. I’m not saying that was the intent—we were poorer then, and more material things would have made a difference—but that was the effect. And that effect continued even when we weren’t so poor any longer. Edward Bernays has an awful lot to answer for, as Adam Curtis has argued. While the music is still playing, everyone has to dance.
Incidentally, I also liked the story about Clay Cockrell, a therapist who works with people who are worth more than $50 million—which, incidentally, sounds like grim work, even if very well-paid:
(H)e says all his clients are miserable. One of the reasons they’re miserable is they feel really guilty. They’re like, “I’m super, super rich, and I’m still unhappy. How do I not feel fulfilled?”
If we’re going to crack the sustainability and climate and biodiversity problems, we’re almost certainly going to need some significant materials innovation, both to replace existing materials and to make better use of existing materials.
So I was interested to read a couple of different stories about Woodoo, a French company that is pioneering more effective ways to use wood as a substitute for other materials. The stories, in Techcrunch and Agfunder News, were prompted by news that Woodoo has raised $31 in finance from investors.
There are several interesting things in the story. The first is the types of products that Woodoo is able to substitute for. The second is the range of companies it is already working with—this isn’t exactly a start up. And the third is the founders’ view of VC investment, although maybe I’m reading between the lines here.
Effectively the Woodoo proposition is that it can create composite materials based on wood that can substitute for other potentially more problematic materials, including glass, leather, and steel.
Woodoo’s founder Timothée Boitouzet started his career as an architect, which led him to wondering about the prospects for lower-impact, higher performance materials. That led him to wood. The problem with wood is this:
While it’s abundant, affordable and it naturally absorbs carbon emissions, “it burns, it rots and you can’t build very high buildings because it’s not very rigid,” Boitouzet said.
But almost all of these problems are caused by lignin, which holds the wood fibres together. If you can replace that, wood becomes more attractive as a material. And so:
(U)sing a proprietary soaking process, Woodoo selectively removes most of the lignin from fast-growing, low-grade or even diseased wood (Beech, Birch, Aspen, Pine) leaving behind a scaffold of cellulose and hemicellulose. It then fills in the gaps with bio-based fillers, which could be from a range of sources including agricultural waste, depending on the application.
The outcome, according to the AgFunder story, transforms wood into a rot-proof, ultra-strong, but light-weight material with a wide range of applications. After five years of development, the company is focused on three areas, with a whole raft of patents sitting behind them:
SLIM: Translucent (see-through) recyclable wood that can replace glass in applications such as touchscreen interactive displays on car dashboards or digital wooden displays.
FLOW: An animal-free replacement for leather.
SOLID: “Twice as strong as aluminum, and twice as light,” SOLID is targeting the construction market, and has a significantly lower carbon footprint than aluminum or steel, claims Woodoo.
An animal free replacement for leather made from wood has to be a better plan than using mycelium, as various high-end designers have been playing with.
(An animal-free replacement for leather. Image credit: Woodoo.)
Woodoo says it can apply its processes to any type of wood, and also upgrade diseased or damaged trees. Its first industrial site is at Troyes, which is a centre of poplar growing:
“Either (poplars) are not exploited, or they are exploited for wood energy or materials with very low added value,” Boitouzet said. “But these are species that grow very fast, so they store the most CO2.”
The market drivers for these products, the company says, are a combination of superior performance, a lower environmental footprint, and aesthetics. The treated wood still looks good.
The company has been self-financed so far, and already has contracts with substantial international companies, including LVMH, in the luxury goods sector, Volkswagen, where they are working on car interiors, and Garnica, which specialises in wood for construction. The company says it already has an order pipeline worth millions of dollars, and the purpose of the fund-raising round was (reading between the lines) to invest in capacity.
Asked how challenging it has been to raise money in the current environment, Boitouzet told AFN: “It’s not for VCs to figure out if your technology is viable and if there is a market. We have already demonstrated both of those elements, and we’re using VC money to accelerate our business, so we didn’t have trouble raising money.
The funding round, which was over-subscribed, was led by Lowercarbon Capital—new to me, but probably shouldn’t have been. The front page of their website says:
Lowercarbon Capital backs kickass companies that make real money slashing CO2 emissions, sucking carbon out of the sky, and buying us time to unf**k the planet. Fixing the planet is just good business. Shame and guilt won’t get us there, markets will.
There’s a few things to argue with in this strong claim, but there is also an interesting list on their website of businesses doing different things with materials.
Of course, I learnt as a young financial journalist that there’s a big gap between something that sounds interesting, and something that is ready to scale, but the combination of five years of development work, actual patents, an extended period of self-finance (so no real dependence on the VC finance) and some actual customers suggests that this has a chance of working. Increasing the cost of carbon would also help.
Notes from readers
Thanks to a couple of readers for their comments to me this week. Just after my piece earlier this week about technology regulation, Edmund Wilkinson pointed me to a piece in Benedict Evans’s newsletter about the different ways that the US and Europe were sidling towards regulation of AI:
A group of US regulatory agencies issued a joint statement on generative AI, and Reuters reports the the EU is scrambling to write a new law. Neither of them seem clear on what they’re regulating, though: the US statement basically just says ‘be good because we’re watching!’ and the EU story says 'we need a law!’ It’s worth noting a philosophical difference, though: the US and UK tend to start from the assumption that you create regulations when there is a problem that you need to solve, where much of Europe starts from the assumption that if something is big and important then it should be regulated ipso facto - that things are regulated by default, not by exception.
And thanks to Peter Van der Wel, who noted to me, in response to my mention of the derivation of the word ‘company’, from the old French compagnie:
Compagnie. Com = together. Pagne = bread. People who share their bread.
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