Happiness is a Heuristic

by [anonymous]4 min read16th Aug 200916 comments

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Hedonism
Personal Blog

Whenever the topic of happiness is mentioned, it's always discussed like it's the most important thing in the world. People talk about it like they would a hidden treasure or a rare beast - you have to seek it, hunt it, ensnare it and hold it tight, or it'll slip through your fingers. Perhaps it's just the contrarian in me, but this seems misguided -  happiness shouldn't be searched for like the holy grail. Not that I don't want to be happy, but is that really the purpose of my life - to have my neurons stimulated in a way that feels good, and try to keep that up until I die? Why don't I just slip myself into a Soma-coma then? Of course, anything I do boils down to a particular stimulation of neurons, but that doesn't mean there's not something better to aspire to. To pursue happiness as an end itself I think, is backwards. It wasn't built into our brains because evolution was being nice - it's there because it increases our fitness. Happiness is designed to get us somewhere, not to be a destination in itself.

Fortunately, we're not obligated to follow evolution's whims. But this confusion might be the reason that, in general, we're crappy at predicting what will make us happy. A few data points:
-In an oft-quoted study, lottery winners are less happy than they predicted a year afterwards, and parapalegics are more happy.[1]
-People tend to enjoy potato chips the same amount despite predicting (after being primed) that they'll either love them or hate them.[2]
-Both assistant professors who do and do not receive tenure over-emphasize the impact the result will have on their happiness.
Our wanting system is seperate from our liking system[3], and, contrary to intuition, we don't seem to be wired to pursue things that will make us happy. Rather, we seem to be wired to pursue things, and then get a fixed amount of happiness from whatever we end up with. We try to get what we like, but we tend to end up liking what we get. Dan Gilbert refers to this as 'synthetic' happiness, and posits it as the reason people who miss big opportunities tend to say that "it worked out for the best." It's tempting to assume this is just a rationalization technique, but there's evidence it happens on a subconscious level. When amnesiacs are given a painting as a gift, later they tend to pick it as their favorite out of a group of paintings, despite not being able to remember owning it.[4]
Where this system seems to get derailed is when we have to make extensive use of our higher brain functions. When have to make a complex decision or deliberate over a choice, we tend to be less satisfied with it. A few more data points:
-People are more satisfied with chocolate when they are choosing from six different kinds than when choosing from thirty different kinds. [5]
-People are happier with a photo when they have to immediately choose the one they want than when they're given three days to make their choice.[4]
-People who simply rated a group of posters on a scale of 1-9 (and then received their favorite one) were happier than people who had to list the reasons they liked the posters first. [6]
-When given a choice of jams, people are more likely to make a purchase when choosing from six than when choosing from twenty-four.[7]
Happiness is tied to affect, the subconscious system responsible for our 'gut' reactions. It's much easier (mentally, anyway) for us to make a choice and then decide it was the correct one than to weigh all the options and then be happy with whatever is 'best'. Barry Schwartz refers to this as "the paradox of choice".  When we can't rely on a gut reaction, or are forced to supercede it by consciously deliberating, our happiness seems to suffer.
Though it's usually refered to as one emotion, 'happiness' is just an umbrella term for a variety of positive emotional states. These tend to fall into two groups - hedonia and eudamonia. Hedonia is pleasure - pure sensory stimulation. Eating a cookie, buying a car, having an orgasm are all hedonic pleasures. Hedonia comes from external stimulation, things outside ourselves that we pursue. Because we're wired to pursue things regardless of how much we already have, hedonia doesn't get sated. We quickly adapt to changes in our environment, always wanting more - more money, more food, and more sex. We get caught on a hedonic treadmill [8], needing more and more stimulation to produce the same amount of pleasure. Since we quickly return to our hedonic set points, this pleasure never lasts - nor should we expect it to. The ancient humans who were satisfied with what they had all got outcompeted by the ones who wanted more. But that means for sustained happiness, you have to look elsewhere.
Eudamonia, on the other hand, does produce lasting happiness. Eudamonia is 'well-being', and it comes, according to Martin Seligman, from identifying your strengths and orienting your life around them. Eudamonia isn't based on pleasure per-se, but on orienting yourself so you interact with the world in a positive way. For example, having fulfilling social relationships - being the type of person that cares about others - is consistently one of the best predictors of happiness.  More data points:
-People who get married tend to be happier than single people.[9]
-Spending twenty dollars on a gift for another person produces more happiness than spending twenty dollars on yourself.[10]
-Writing a long, grateful letter to a person to whom you're thankful, visiting them, and reading it outloud produces extreme increases in happiness even months afterwards.[10]
Other eudamonic states are Csíkszentmihályi's flow state [11], and the states of happiness reached by buddhist monks [12]. All come from not from pure pleasure, but from constructing your life in a way that matches what's most important to you. It's eudamonic changes that center our lives around our values that are capable of raising our hedonic set points. And so, in the rich tradition of scientific studies being boiled down to aphorisms, "happiness comes from within".
Perhaps it's tacit knowledge of this that makes us suspicious of supposed extreme happiness offered by an external source. People generally reject eternal happiness if it means taking Soma for the rest of your life, or being locked into an experience machine, or being reduced to an orgasmium, or any one of a myriad of possible ways to max out those pleasure neurons. I don't see this as a bug - I see it as a feature. It means our desire for happiness is conflicting with some higher value. The solution to a conflict like this is, I think, straightforward - go with the higher value! Happiness is designed to help you achieve what's imporant to you -  to take you somewhere your brain thinks you're supposed to go. A conflict means that your subconscious doesn't like where it's headed. And if you don't like it, you don't have to go there. [13]
The happiness heuristic seems to drive us to the best possible future outcomes, by motivating us to seek resources (hedonia) and have a life that fufills what's important to us (eudamonia). Our brains don't assign happiness intrinsic value - it has delegated value, in that acquiring it lets us acquire other things. Seeking happiness seems to be unnecessary; if you orient your life around your desires and values, happiness will generally follow one way or another.

Links (note: if anyone can provide a link to the actual studies referenced, rather than just newspaper articles, I'll replace them)
1: http://education.ucsb.edu/janeconoley/ed197/documents/brickman_lotterywinnersandaccidentvictims.pdf
2: http://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/getArticle.cfm?id=2188
3: http://wireheading.com/pleasure/liking-wanting.html
4: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_we_happy.html
5: http://www.dynamist.com/articles-speeches/forbes/choice.html
6: http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2007/02/post_14.php
7: http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2007/06/the_paradox_of_choice_internet.php
8: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedonic_treadmill
9: http://www.apa.org/releases/married_happy.html
10: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/martin_seligman_on_the_state_of_psychology.html
11: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)
12: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/libby_purves/article1136398.ece
13: http://lesswrong.com/lw/wv/prolegomena_to_a_theory_of_fun/

 

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16 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:47 PM
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The summary of happiness research is good, and the links are good. But one or two parts, mostly the 1st paragraph, seem cliched and preachy.

How, exactly, do I avoid this pitfall of seeking happiness? Should I deliberately take a boring job instead of a fun one? Spend money on things I don't want rather than things I do? The end of the article seems to rephrase this as "seek happiness from eudaimonic pursuits instead of hedonic pursuits, because you get more of it that way", which I would be more on board with.

One thing that bothers me about some happiness research is the very muddled definition of happiness; it seems to switch from "pure pleasure" through various emotions all the way to "utility" at times. In fact, the whole happiness-utility relationship is one I've never seen fully clarified (though this thread makes a really good start). Talking about how much better it is to "live life in accordance with your desires and values" could mean that people should care about utility more than happiness, that utility is equivalent to some kind of happiness, or that increasing utility automatically leads to increasing happiness.

[-][anonymous]12y 1

Thanks for the critique. You're definitely right about the first paragraph - rereading made me cringe a little bit. And overall, the level of analysis is fairly weak, something I probably prevented myself from seeing before because I was tired of writing the damn thing. I probably bit off more than I could chew trying to analyze an entire field of psychology in a 1000 word essay, but at least I learned not to do that for next time.

There's a lot of counterevidence to most claims about X making people happy.

For example 1:

Most people were no more satisfied with life after marriage than they were prior to marriage [...] Study results, for example, showed, spikes in respondents' happiness levels both before and after marriage, but the increase was minimal—approximately one-tenth of one point on an 11-point scale—and was followed by a return to prior levels of happiness.

Also 2 (which is mostly about children of single vs married parents, but the same story - getting married doesn't improve anything).

[-][anonymous]12y 4

Getting married doesn't make you happier; being the type of person who gets married (and stays married) correlates with being happier. From the linked article:

Data from the 15-year study of over 24,000 individuals living in Germany also indicates that most people who get married and stayed married are more satisfied with their lives than their non-married peers long before the marriage occurred.

I've heard somewhere that after you exclude divorced and widowed people, the correlation between being married and happiness entirely disappears. I tried regoogling it without success, but maybe more effort will get you the original research.

FWIW, this seems inconsistent with the evidence presented in the paper linked here, and most of the other work I've seen. The omitted category in most regression analyses is "never married", so I don't really see how this would fly.

Interesting. All the other evidence I've seen suggest that committed relationships do make people happier, so I'd be interested to see how these apparently conflicting findings can be resolved.

Part of the difference could just be the focus on marriage vs. stable relationships more generally (whether married or not): I'm not sure there's much reason to think that a marriage certificate is going to make a big difference in and of itself (or that anyone's really claiming that it would). In fact, there's some, albeit limited, evidence that unmarried couples are happier on average than married ones.

I'll try to dig up references when I have a bit more time. Don't suppose you happen to have one for the actual research behind your first link?

"All other evidence" being? I a priori doubt all the happiness research as based on silly questionnaires and naive statistics (and most other psychological research). Is there any good metaanalysis showing anything like that?

Sorry for the delay in getting back to you (in fairness, you didn't get back to me either!). A good paper (though not a meta-analysis) on this is:

Stutzer and Frey (2006) Does Marriage Make People Happy or Do Happy People Get Married? Journal of Socio-Economics 35:326-347. links

The lit review surveys some of the other evidence.

I a priori doubt all the happiness research as based on silly questionnaires and naive statistics

I'm a little puzzled by this comment given that the first link you provided looks (on its face) to be based on exactly this sort of evidence. But in any event, many of the studies mentioned in the Stutzer and Frey paper look at health and other outcomes as well.

Thanks.

By doubt I just mean it's really really easy to get it spectacularly wrong in a systemic way in too many ways, so I'm only going to believe the result if it's robust with wide variety of tests and situations. Not that there's no value in it.

Fair enough. My impression of the SWB literature is that the relationship is robust, both in a purely correlational sense, and in papers like the Frey and Stutzer one where they try to control for confounding factors like personality and selection. The only major catch is how long it takes individuals to adapt after the initial SWB spike.

Indeed, having now managed to track down the paper behind your first link, it seems like this is actually their main point. From their conclusion:

Our results show that (a) selection effects appear to make happy people more likely to get and stay married, and these selection effects are at least partially [emphasis mine] responsible for the widely documented association between marital status and SWB; (b) on average, people adapt quickly and completely to marriage, and they adapt more slowly to widowhood (though even in this case, adaptation is close to complete after about 8 years); (c) there are substantial individual differences in the extent to which people adapt; and (d) the extent to which people adapt is strongly related to the degree to which they react to the initial event—those individuals who reacted strongly were still far from baseline levels years after the event. These last two findings indicate that marital transitions can be related to changes in satisfaction but that these effects may be overlooked if only average trends are examined.

we tend to end up liking what we get.

Disliking something less than expected is not liking it.

[-][anonymous]12y 1

Hey, you know how we have happiness set points? Mine is about average, and I was thinking: Wouldn't it be nice if my set point were a little higher?

One solution I am going to try is to take Adderall once or twice a week, because it makes me more productive as well as making me feel great for the day.

What do you guys think?

Instead of replacing links to popular sources with links to academic publications, I would add the latter and retain the former.

[-][anonymous]11y 0

I think part of the problem with hedonia is it has a shorter duration, and after it's over you're usually not better off for all your efforts. Eudamonia gaurantees future happiness and brings more of a sense of accomplishment.

[-][anonymous]12y 0

Good summary of happiness research and good links, but I don't know about the hedonism versus eudaimonia part. Unless I've missed lots of hedonists, the position is mostly a straw man, and although people make a token attempt to define "eudaimonia" (and this is less a criticism of you than of the field in general) it's not a natural category. More of a matter of calling short-lived shallow kinds of happiness we disapprove of "hedonist" and long-lasting kinds of socially acceptable happiness "eudaimonia" (okay, there are some things that fit squarely in one category or another, but also a lot of gray area). That makes a declaration like "eudaimonia is better than hedonism" less interesting than it might otherwise be.