This Numerical Life

On a scale of 1 to 5, how happy are you? Do you immediately jump to a 5, totally confident that you are the happiest person in the known universe? Or do you linger around the 3 – noncommittal either way? Do you sit yourself firmly at a 1 with a pessimistic tendency? Using the same scale, how popular are you? How alive are you?

You can blame Rensis Likert for every survey question you’ve ever had to answer.

I hate to break it to you (in case you didn’t already know) – but happiness, popularity, life is so much more complicated than a Likert scale. These ideas are so nuanced, so transitory that it would be impossible to evaluate them in such simplistic terms. But that’s never stopped anyone from trying. We live in a data-drive culture. We have developed an infatuation with numbers – hard data is the gateway to a factual understanding the world. If you can measure it, it must be true. Numbers are a good thing.

Or are they? Sure, numbers allow us to conceptualize the universe. One million of something is a lot more specific than “a lot” of something. And when 99% of people agree on something, we can pretty easily call that a consensus. Numbers can even tell us the quality of something – a 5-star review of something generally means its going to be good. But what happens when that something is a person?

We spend an inordinate amount of time trying to boil ourselves down into statistical datapoints, and we expect that this new, quantitative understanding of life to revolutionize the world. When our lives are written in numeral form, it gives us a value. It’s not subjective – it’s fact. For example:

How Popular Am I? At this precise moment on Facebook, I have 563 friends. On Twitter, I have 260 followers. On Instagram, I have 143 followers. Since I’ve started writing this blog, it has been viewed more than 8,500 times and 53 people are subscribed to it. Of course, some of these numbers represent people I have never met and people I will likely never speak to again – but I have 563 friends!

Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 8.10.43 PM
This is a very misleading summary because I happened to have a tweet retweeted by Chuck Palahniuk in this timeframe… I don’t normally have 14,000 people care about my twitter account. Who do I think I am, Rosie Fletcher?

How Smart Am I? So far this year, I’ve read 27 books – which comes out to be about one book a week. In 2016, I will have completed 6 online courses with at least a 3.0 GPA. My high school GPA was a 3.89. Don’t get me started on my College GPA – that’s a whole mess of conversions between different grading systems. I can also recite Pi to the 27th decimal place.

I even measure the battery percentage of my phone!

How In Shape Am I? So far in 2016, I have run 8 5K races. I’ve taken more than 100,000 steps in July, amounting to a little more than 14 miles so far. This is down from a high of 400,000 steps in March when I was working a less sedentary job. My average pace per mile is somewhere between 11 and 12 minutes, which is embarrassingly slow, but I can maintain this pace for at least 4 miles. I weigh 215 pounds, which is an increase of about 15 pounds since January 1.

These are all facts – measured and verifiable. But after reading all that, what do you actually know about me?

Sure, I’m slow and I read a lot. I’m good at memorizing strings of numbers and I have a perfectly average number of social media connections. My blog isn’t going to win any Pulitzers, but at least someone is reading it.

What these numbers don’t tell you is that the enjoyment I get from running is just slightly less than the enjoyment I get from eating pizza – which of course leads to the increase in weight. They also don’t tell you about the handful of friends that I have a deep connection to – and that not all of them realize how often I think of them. You won’t understand what the books I have read have made me feel or made me think. None of that is quantifiable.

I have had this song stuck in my head the whole time I was writing this post.
I have had this song stuck in my head the whole time I was writing this post.

More than anything, these numbers allow us to attempt to view ourselves objectively and compare ourselves to others more easily. We can leverage new technologies to give us personal data about nearly ever aspect of our lives, which should give us the ability to be more reflective. Instead, it often allows us to be less forgiving and less considerate of ourselves. When our lives are represented as concrete numbers, it becomes easier to simplify failure. Even success is muted when we can point to another person whose success is a multiple higher. We take the subjectivity out of life – but life itself, all its successes and failures, every second of every day, is subjective. Subjectivity, context, these are just other words for personality, soul.

This is not to say I’m going to go cold turkey on data – I love me some graphs. But I’m doing everything in my power to remind myself every day that numbers aren’t who I am. That’s not even the biggest part of me or the truest part of me. On a scale of one to five? Yes, I’m happy. Mostly. But I am definitely, definitely alive.


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