This is a toy psychological theory which tries to explain why gratitude practices and stoicism have good effects.

Your "need-set" is all the things you need. More specifically, your need-set is the collection of things that have to seem true for you to feel either OK or better.

Broadly, we have two kinds of motivation: positive and negative. Positive motivation is when you want something and try to move towards it. Negative motivation is when you want to avoid something and try to move away from it. Positive motivation is much more detailed in its targeting and tries to do as well as it can. Negative motivation is often faster and scrambles to find any acceptable solution to the problem. From the inside, positive motivation often feels relaxed or enthusiastic, while negative motivation often feels frozen or frantic.

When you have everything in your need-set, you generally experience positive motivation. Here, you pursue things that are not in the need-set that are just nice-to-have. Conversely, when something in your need-set is missing, you generally experience negative motivation. When something you really need is missing, you may not care so much how you solve the problem, just that it goes away.

The need-set expands and contracts adaptively. When you have something good for a long time, and it seems very reliably there it often gets added to the need-set. This is called "taking things for granted". When you lose something in your need-set and finally, after attempts to get it back, give up, the thing drops out of the need-set. This process often gets called "grieving". Of course, this is oversimplified; these are not the only processes whereby things enter and exit the need-set.

In the modern world, negative motivations are overused. This is partially because the environment we evolved in is far harsher than the one we find ourselves in today. As such, negative motivations seem, to a significant extent, selected for running away from lions, avoiding getting killed by the other tribe members, and the like. However, in the industrialized world, we have basically no remaining natural predators (the ones we see tend to be locked in cages for our amusement) and violence is at very low levels. As such, because of our (comparatively) vast wealth and cushy lifestyles, we have many opportunities to take things for granted, thereby creating opportunities for negative motivation.

A subtler psychological peril is that pleasant false beliefs can linger and then enter the need-set. The resultant sort of negative motivations to protect false beliefs seem to be the source of a fair number of cognitive blind spots and egoic defense mechanisms.

For these reasons, greater psychological health can be obtained by shrinking the need-set or by preventing it from growing unnecessarily, because shrinking it would result in more states of the world invoking positive motivation rather than negative motivation. Stoicism, with its negative visualizations, wards off taking things for granted; even a visualization counts towards not taking something for granted.

Gratitude practices may do a subtler version of this. While the visualizations may be pleasant, saying one is grateful for something seems like it may (at least subconsciously) involve comparing it to a world in which that thing does not exist. Additionally, by cultivating good feelings about the things one already has, it may aid with the grieving process; the process is likely to be set up to struggle less when letting go of a supposed need, the more positive feelings one experiences. That said, there are also non-need-set related positive effects gratitude practices have. For example, I think they also put one more in touch with one's positive preferences.

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I'm still mulling this post over. As I said on the facebook version of it, I find it a nice crystallized model, if even it's oversimplified.

The part that made me go "hmm, this seems promising" was the integration of motivation and grieving. I've found myself thinking a lot about grieving lately. Unfortunately I don't have anything concrete to add to the discussion but I have this can't-quite-put-my-finger-on-it sense that there's something important there I want better integrated into the rationalist skillset.

I've been working on something similar myself. I've identified four qualitatively different categories of "things of value" that we humans seem geared toward:

  • Experiences - Disneyland, for example, sells both the experience of riding the rides (which can be had at any amusement park or carnival midway) and also the experience of entering a world of stories and imagination.
  • Esteem - Every culture and subculture has a preferred form of esteem, usually expressed in measures of respect granted to people. The desired flavor of esteem can be signaled via clothing and/or body language when in mixed company such as walking down the street.
  • Agency (which is to individual choices what wealth is to currency)
  • Resources - anything which can be used to reach a goal or fulfill a purpose.

All products and services on the market can be described as a mix of these, or in terms of avoiding their loss. Economics is the study of human motivation toward things of value and away from their loss, either for one's self, one's ingroup, or for hire.

More concretely, "wants" are emotions inclining the feeler toward things of value and "needs" are emotions inclining the feeler away from their loss. It's a simple binary, and we can construct the "forest" of economics by zooming out from our focus on individual "trees".

Example: I want to eat, to gain the experience, and I need to eat, to avoid hunger and eventual harm from lack of food (starvation). Eating at a fast food restaurant alleviates the need for me to cook in order to eat. I perceive myself purchasing convenience, which is at once a resource (savings of time and energy in cooking and cleaning up after cooking), a measure of esteem (I pay a group of servants to cook my meal), an experience (I sit in my car waiting and listening to the radio and don't have to experience the moment-to-moment vagaries of cooking for myself), and a measure of agency (I am able to do all of the above, free to make this decision which affects my future in the short and long term, as long as I can pay to do so). Therefore, when hungry or craving, I see fast food as a net positive thing of value.

Grieving, consequently, is the process of processing and limiting the loss (in the present, potential future, or remembered past) of things of value. Grieving occurs when needs aren't met.

The categories are good, but I feel that the list is incomplete. Where would you put, for example, stability?

Stability's value is as a loss-prevention or expense-prevention resource: a status of being predictable or being resistant to immediate entropy in some way. It's such a broadly applicable concept that its benefits are practically ubiquitous, and it adds all the types of value to various circumstances.

Stability of a situation, as in the expectation of not having to anticipate much change, allows you to conserve resources you might otherwise need to devote toward anticipation of contingencies; you can also thus experience the opposite of anxiety.

A medical patient who is stable is in less danger of dying; this kind of stability is a resource both to the patient's continued existence (agency, experience, utility to society as a resource) and to their medical team who don't need to expend resources to immediately and actively maintain the patient's life medically.

Being seen as a stable person by the standards of a given group grants you esteem from that group, because you're predictable and will not cost them sudden, unexpected loss of things of value such as their group's esteem in the eyes of whichever society they esteem. A person being perceived by police as mentally stable and/or morally stable (in the sense of being unlikely to commit assault or other crimes) grants the police a sense that you're predictable and thus not an immediate danger that needs to be violently subdued. In other words, you have the esteem due a member of the law-abiding community.

Stability of government gains a country more opportunities for international trade (resources) and gains its citizenry and businesses a credit rating (which is a resource based on how much one is esteemed as a reliable payer of debts by lenders).

Stable isotopes, which are not radioactive, are radiologically safe to touch or handle. However, this doesn't mean it's entirely safe! Lead is not safe to touch because even though it's stable enough to be used for radioactive shielding, it has neurotoxic chemical effects. For low-energy purposes such as home-building, stable chemicals and elements are more valuable resources; for high-energy purposes, such as weapons or manufacturing, unstable chemicals or elements are more valuable resources.

That was a lovely example, thank you!

First point: I was quite surprised when you said that

the environment we evolved in is far harsher than the one we find ourselves in today

Our ancestral environment was harsher in terms of providing fewer means to satisfy our need-sets, yet the modern environment seems to me harsher in terms of the overall level of unhappiness. Perhaps the reason for this unhappiness is that as our need-sets grow, we become more and more entrenched in anxiety and depression as we are negatively motivated more and more of the time. I think you said some of this yourself in the post. Would you agree with this synopsis?

Second point:

When you have everything in your need-set, you generally experience positive motivation

I think we experience negative motivation not just when something is missing from our need-set, but also when we anticipate losing something that is in our need-set. If this is true then a larger need-set would lead to more negative motivation due to there being more ways for something we think we need to be taken away from us.

1. Yes, I agree with the synopsis (though expanded need-sets are not the only reason people are more anxious in the modern world).

2. Ah. Perhaps my language in the post wasn't as clear as it could have been. When I said:

More specifically, your need-set is the collection of things that have to seem true for you to feel either OK or better.

I was thinking of the needs as already being about what seems true about future states of the world, not just present states. For example, your need for drinking water is about being able to get water when thirsty at a whole bunch of future times.

If this is true then a larger need-set would lead to more negative motivation due to there being more ways for something we think we need to be taken away from us.

Yes, exactly.

If this is true then a larger need-set would lead to more negative motivation due to there being more ways for something we think we need to be taken away from us.

Yes, exactly.

So the solution is for us to give up those "needs" in the need-set that aren't actually needed for us to do what must be done, yes? We might believe that we need a cushy mattress to sleep on, a netflix account to entertain us, and a wardrobe of clothes to wear. If we simply satisfy these needs by acquiring all these things then we don't really become happy because now we're just afraid of losing it all. On the other hand, if we see that these "needs" are not literal needs at all, and we actually deflate our need-set, then we become happy.

Would you agree?

I broadly agree. Though I would add that those things could still be (positive motivation) wants afterwards, which one pursues without needing them. I'm not advocating for asceticism.

Also, while I agree that you get more happiness by having fewer negative motives, being run by positive motives is not 100% happiness. One can still experience disappointment if one wants access to Netflix, and it's down for maintenance one day. However, disappointment is still both more hedonic than fear and promotes a more measured reaction to the situation.

While the visualizations may be pleasant, saying one is grateful for something seems like it may (at least subconsciously) involve comparing it to a world in which that thing does not exist.

Are you trying to say that it should work similarly to a desensitization therapy? But then, there might exist the reversed mode, where you get attached to things even more, as you meditate on why are they good to have. Which of these modes dominates is not clear to me.

Additionally, by cultivating good feelings about the things one already has, it may aid with the grieving process; the process is likely to be set up to struggle less when letting go of a supposed need, the more positive feelings one experiences.

I don't think I get this. Doesn't this apply to any positive thing in life? (e.g. why single out the gratitude practise?)

Are you trying to say that it should work similarly to a desensitization therapy? But then, there might exist the reversed mode, where you get attached to things even more, as you meditate on why are they good to have. Which of these modes dominates is not clear to me.

I think you make a good point. I feel I was gesturing at something at something real when I wrote down the comparison notion, but didn't express it quite right. Here's how I would express it now:

The key thing I failed to point out in the post is that just visualizing a good thing you have or what's nice about it is not the same as being grateful for it. Gratitude includes an acknowledgement. When you thank an acquaintance for, say, having given you helpful advice, you're acknowledging that they didn't necessarily have to go out of their way to do that. Even if you're grateful for something a specific person didn't give you, and you don't believe in a god, the same feeling of acknowledgment is present. I suspect this acknowledgement is what pushes things out of the need-set.

And indeed, as you point out, just meditating on why something is good to have might increase attachment (or it might not, the model doesn't make a claim about which effect would be stronger).

I don't think I get this. Doesn't this apply to any positive thing in life? (e.g. why single out the gratitude practise?)

I expect most positive things would indeed help somewhat, but that gratitude practice would help more. If someone lost a pet, giving them some ice cream may help. However, as long as their mind is still making the comparison to the world where their pet is still alive, the help may be limited. That said, to the extent that they manage to feel grateful for the ice cream, it seems to me as though their internal focus has shifted in a meaningful way, away from grasping at the world where their pet is still alive and towards the real world.