Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

Some research suggests that people are happier when they have fewer choices (less opportunity for second guessing and regret). For example, see these TED talks.

I think what happens is that whatever it is that we cannot change about our circumstances gets internalized (perhaps subconsciously — see anterograde amnesia paintings experiment) and sets the baseline.   People living in a poor neighborhood with few career opportunities aren’t comparing themselves to Bill Gates and feeling unhappy.  I suspect that they’re comparing themselves to:  (1) themselves in the recent past; (2) their counterfactual selves, living in the same circumstances, who could have made different decisions; (3) their peers (friends/family).  Even people who are abused, oppressed or starving might report being happy.  The key is for those conditions to feel fixed.  If you have always had a place to live but suddenly find yourself homeless, you will probably be quite unhappy for a while (until you’ve been homeless long enough where you have internalized it).

Robustness of subjective well being has benefits.  From a fitness perspective, the ability to feel happy in a wide variety of living conditions gives one more motivation to survive and reproduce.  For example, if someone who lived in very difficult conditions was unhappy, they might not want to bring new people into this world.  Feeling happy, regardless of circumstances, causes one to feel like ‘life is good’ and want to create more life and continue living.  And of course, people would rather be happy, so it benefits people to have this robust ability.

Someone might ask “as long as people feel happy, isn’t that all that matters?”  Not if our subjective well being mechanism is flawed.    The person who has been homeless for years might feel happy (because subjective well being is relative to your own baseline), but they might have been much happier (higher baseline) if circumstances had been different.

If people feel happy even in oppressive conditions, they might be less likely to fight for change.  Similarly, economically privileged folks who see that poor people smile might be less likely to care about disparity.

Thus, while happiness data are useful, the robustness of happiness is a short-sighted adaptation.


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I’m going to use the word ‘desire’ to mean something that you wish for that did not result from some thought process (unconscious desire).  I’ll use the word ‘want’ to refer to something that you wish for after having thought about it.

For example, if an attractive person walks by, you might immediately feel lust for them (a desire), but not actually want to have sex with them (perhaps you are in a monogamous relationship).  I don’t think these are standard uses of the terms, but it’s how I’m going to use them.

It is much more difficult to control what we desire than it is to control our behavior.  If what we want in terms of behavior gives us what we desire, then life is easy.  If, instead, what we desire is in opposition to what we want, then life is more difficult.

Here are two examples.

The alcoholic desires alcohol.  However, they might want to be sober.  They might know that alcohol is bad for them.  When they think about it, they can come to the rational conclusion that alcohol will do them more harm than good.  What they want is to not desire alcohol.  If they choose to not drink, they are going against a strong desire.  That can make for some unpleasant times.

Some people have a strong sexual attraction to children (pedophilia).  They desire to have sexual relations with kids.  They might, however, not want to have sex with kids. Rationally, they might know it’s unethical.  They want to not desire sexual encounters with kids.  To go against these strong desires, however, is probably very difficult.

In both of the above examples, I’m assuming the desire is very strong and the harm is substantial.  In less extreme examples, say, desiring a doughnut but not wanting it for health reasons, the implications are less severe.

I wonder about the extent to which happiness level is correlated with having healthy (ethical) desires.

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