Hunter-gatherer tribes are usually highly egalitarian (at least if you’re male)—the all-powerful tribal chieftain is found mostly in agricultural societies, rarely in the ancestral environment. Among most hunter-gatherer tribes, a hunter who brings in a spectacular kill will carefully downplay the accomplishment to avoid envy.
Maybe, if you start out below average, you can improve yourself without daring to pull ahead of the crowd. But sooner or later, if you aim to do the best you can, you will set your aim above the average.
If you can’t admit to yourself that you’ve done better than others—or if you’re ashamed of wanting to do better than others—then the median will forever be your concrete wall, the place where you stop moving forward. And what about people who are below average? Do you dare say you intend to do better than them? How prideful of you!
Maybe it’s not healthy to pride yourself on doing better than someone else. Personally I’ve found it to be a useful motivator, despite my principles, and I’ll take all the useful motivation I can get. Maybe that kind of competition is a zero-sum game, but then so is Go; it doesn’t mean we should abolish that human activity, if people find it fun and it leads somewhere interesting.
But in any case, surely it isn’t healthy to be ashamed of doing better.
And besides, life is not graded on a curve. The will to transcendence has no point beyond which it ceases and becomes the will to do worse; and the race that has no finish line also has no gold or silver medals. Just run as fast as you can, without worrying that you might pull ahead of other runners. (But be warned: If you refuse to worry about that possibility, someday you may pull ahead. If you ignore the consequences, they may happen to you.)
Sooner or later, if your path leads true, you will set out to mitigate a flaw that most people have not mitigated. Sooner or later, if your efforts bring forth any fruit, you will find yourself with fewer sins to confess.
Perhaps you will find it the course of wisdom to downplay the accomplishment, even if you succeed. People may forgive a touchdown, but not dancing in the end zone. You will certainly find it quicker, easier, more convenient to publicly disclaim your worthiness, to pretend that you are just as much a sinner as everyone else. Just so long, of course, as everyone knows it isn’t true. It can be fun to proudly display your modesty, so long as everyone knows how very much you have to be modest about.
But do not let that be the endpoint of your journeys. Even if you only whisper it to yourself, whisper it still: Tsuyoku, tsuyoku! Stronger, stronger!
And then set yourself a higher target. That’s the true meaning of the realization that you are still flawed (though a little less so). It means always reaching higher, without shame.
Tsuyoku naritai! I’ll always run as fast as I can, even if I pull ahead, I’ll keep on running; and someone, someday, will surpass me; but even though I fall behind, I’ll always run as fast as I can.
Hmm. I've never had this problem. On the other hand, I have had the problem of my sense of self-worth being based in being naturally talented at things, and so when I don't pick up some new pursuit easily, I tend to get discouraged. Thus, I'm bad at math and don't read enough science papers. It's a hard cost/benefit analysis to choose whether to improve your skill at something you're naturally talented at (and already better than most people at), or some other equally valued skill that you're not very talented at (and well below average in skill). And the pressure of competition, and the psychological problems caused by perfectionism, have to be dealt with.
isn't this the very essence of upward mobility? dissatisfaction with the self, the status quo... and a desire to change everything, where the capacity to change is only limited by the will.
So what exactly is the bias at issue here? There are tradeoffs in social norms that favor or discourage inequality and bragging. Is it obvious that some choice here is the wrong choice?
One wrong choice is to choose mediocrity because modesty is easier when you have nothing to brag about.
Another wrong choice is to choose mediocrity because if you fully exploit your talents then you'll get success that would be inaccessible to people lacking those talents.
This idea of always setting a higher target is not necessarily conducive to happiness and satisfaction. Consider applying it to the field of wealth. We have all heard of wealthy people who, no matter how much money they get, always want more. Such people are not generally considered good role models. Granted, this is something of a stereotype, but I imagine it is based in truth. Perhaps there are other fields where constantly setting higher goals works out better, but it's not obvious that it's a beneficial philosophy in general.
Hal, I wasn't under the impression that tsuyoku naritai was about the pursuit of happiness or satisfaction. On the contrary, it seems to involve some self-abnegation, in that you're sacrificing contentment for accomplishment, trading in mediocrity at the cost of self-criticism. I think this is more about honor and perfectionism than happiness. Both of the former seem to be less fashionable nowadays, but that doesn't mean some people can't put them before happiness.
Hal, which goal would you choose if for some strange reason your choice of goal in life were constrained to these two: maximizing your own happiness and satisfaction or maximizing your own ability to percieve reality correctly? (I would be interested in others' answers, too.)
EDIT: This comment is obsolete.
Well, I think I would prefer to optimize for ability to perceive reality. But I also think that would be more admirable, and I might be telling myself that's what I would do because that's the sort of person I want to be.
Seems like the only use for accurately perceiving reality is maximizing happiness, to me. See Bruce's post below:
"Anyone can easily imagine wanting to maximize perceiving reality correctly IN ORDER TO maximize one's happiness.
But one can't imagine wanting to maximize one's happiness IN ORDER TO maximize perceiving reality correctly."
Time for some necroing. People who suffer from depression are trying to achieve levels of happiness corresponding with reality (maybe not with the express purpose of clearer perception of reality, but still...)
I can imagine a condition causing someone to experience excessive happiness - such person could conceivably want to lower his level of happiness, so he could grieve for the loss of a loved one.
Feelings should be rational - https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/SqF8cHjJv43mvJJzx/feeling-rational
As Carlin said in one of his routines, self-confidence (in relation to achievement) is like the fuel gauge in a car. Turns out, messing with it doesn't actually let you go further (he claimed to base this assertion on studies, so I am sure it's true). Happiness may be similar, serving better as a motivator rather than a terminal value in itself.
In any case, I suspect most people here would not climb in a tub filled with orgasmium.
But if you want to mess with the gauge regardless, I know a stupid method that works: stand with your back straight, shoulders wide, head held high. Smile broadly (showing teeth). Hold this pose for 5 minutes (by an actual clock).
Thinking happy/funny thoughts is optional. Being grateful for the state of (at least relatively) good health and trying to enjoy each breath (you might have a finite amount, after all) are also optional.
With this method, I could be happy during my own funeral. And yet, I am not maintaining MAXIMUM HAPPINESS 24/7. Why? Turns out, constant happiness can be quite boring. Still, the method is not at all useless - sometimes the gauges actually need calibration and I do enjoy the option very much indeed. (And to think some people pay for drugs... What a waste.)
Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal – Happy
Thank you, that was both funny and relevant.
Very good comic, thank you for the share!
Richard, interesting question. I'm not sure it's possible to make that choice, though. Can someone with a strong perfectionist element to their personality be happy unless they get over the perfectionism? Perfectionism involves constant self-criticism and assessment, and thus might be incompatible with happiness in the long term. So in order to choose happiness over perfectionism, they'd have to change their personality substantially. That may not be possible, or effective. Then again, mind-altering agents might help you. OCD medication might be an example of this.
As for me, I don't really have any higher criteria on which to judge between the two options. I don't have any reason to prefer one over the other. Very driven people might not be generally happy, but they do have a certain sense of pride and accomplishment that some might call happiness, and which isn't shared in that form by other people. It's similar to parents of children--they rate their lives as much less happy over the course of their children's lives, but they express more satisfaction and meaning with their life. I can't really judge between the conditions, though I have to say that people often choose child rearing explicitly because of the meaning and accomplishment they think it will bring.
Speaking from personal experience, I am a perfectionist and happy. I find it easy to be happy, living in a wealthy first-world democracy with a good personal standard of living. I can be dissatisfied with myself and strive to improve while being satisfied with the rest of my life. I don't know many other perfectionists, so I can't give a broader sample.
I am also a (usually) happy perfectionist. I achieved this through a similar approach - being dissatisfied with myself but satisfied with the rest of my situation. I do require OCD medication for this to work, though.
The all-powerful tribal chieftain is found mostly in agricultural societies, rarely in the ancestral environment.
Sorry for the confusion, but how does this square with what you say elsewhere about the human revere-the-tribal-chief instinct?
Regarding downplaying accomplishments and such, just look at what can happen when a high school softball team completely demolishes another one:
The winning coach does nothing but talk about how terrible it is, saying, among other things, "If anything positive can come out of this, it's that we can implement some new rules so this never happens again." Sheesh.
The all-powerful tribal chieftan is a position, like an office of the President. No matter who occupies the position, it is the position that is given respect. Hunter-gatherer tribes have men of respect (tribal chiefs), and that respect is based only on personal accomplishment, persuasiveness and wisdom, because the tribes are too small for the hierarchy. So, the tribal-chief is not the all-powerful tribal chieftan. One is a man, the other is the position.
It depends a bit on the particular tribe. They're not all the same.
And in a lot of cases you'll find that the extra status and social position afforded to males in these cultures is to offset the fact that, ultimately, they're considered to be expendable. You find far more cultures where the males are expected to die bravely holding off the enemy so the women and children can escape than vice-versa. You only keep them willing to do that by offering high status to the survivors.
Robin, it's easy to see that of the two goals of maximizing either happiness or one's own ability to perceive reality correctly,
Anyone can easily imagine wanting to maximize perceiving reality correctly IN ORDER TO maximize one's happiness.
But one can't imagine wanting to maximize one's happiness IN ORDER TO maximize perceiving reality correctly.
The latter statement makes no sense, or if you force some sense upon it by scenario-making, it still makes a very limited kind of sense.
It seems to me that this proves that maximizing happiness is a higher goal than perceiving reality correctly.
Not one of my own, Aristotle's.
I would not say that maximizing happiness is a higher goal than perceiving reality correctly.
I think maximizing happiness is a goal related to instrumental rationality, while perceiving reality correctly IS epistemic rationality. And epistemic rationality is a fundamental requirement for any intrumental goals.
But it doesnt mean perceiving reality correctly is a lower goal than other intrumental goals right? How do you even rank goals in the first place?
Is it impossible for you to imagine a person who cares for nothing but increasing his ability to perceive reality correctly (his "awareness") and consequently whenever he is rested and alert enough to make a deliberate choice, he will choose awareness over happiness whenever forced by circumstances to choose? (I grant you that in unrehearsed situations without enough cognitive resources for deliberation, the human mind tends to choose happiness.)
Note that since a certain minimum level of happiness is a PREREQUISITE for a creative career of any kind (just as at least in capitalistic countries a certain minimum level of wealth is a prerequisite) he might regularly pick happiness as a subgoal.
For example, if he finds himself feeling sad, he might go down to the cafe and strike up a conversation with a beautiful woman. If that is not enough, he might search for a suitable beautiful woman and tell her that life seems meaningless except when he is with her and so on, which is calculated to lead to intense and absorbing experiences which leave one feeling gratified and elated. If that is not enough, he might complain to his physician that he thinks he is ill or depressed. But these are not circumstances in which he is forced to choose between happiness and awareness: these are circumstances where his choice is optimal for both happiness and awareness because sadness undermines performance in most pursuits (in the modern environment).
I will grant you that for almost all people, happiness is an end in itself. But are you sure that no person exists with a comprehensive and lifelong policy that his happiness is only a means to an end?
Richard and Robin: I wonder if it is possible to settle this disagreement between Richard and I. (I realize this is to change the subject from the disagreement itself to ways of settling it, but it does have some relevance to settling it.)
For it to be possible to settle it, we would have to both desire to settle it. Then we could take various routes.
The Scienceoid route would require us to formulate the question, definition of terms, etc, so that some set of operations could be agreed between us to settle it, and then we'd just have to do the operations.
Or we could take various routes that lead to concluding that solving it is impossible, such as referring to the fundamental privateness of mental life, such that even if I said that my policy was to make happiness be only a means to an end, and that I was successful in doing so, I might be lying or deluded or a robot, etc.
Or we could require unanimity, like the Polish Parliament at one time, with only 1 person being enough to sink the proposition.
Or we could take an 'ordinary language' philosophy route, asking 'what do we mean when we say...' etc.
I'd guess both of us know how to do each of these routes, but how do we choose which route(s) to take?
I'm now going to go into the Confessional Mode, which might be a route for this blog to take, that is, everyone focuses on their own biases, observed introspectively, instead of trying to identify other's biases.
My guess is that I would have a strong tendency to take the route that makes it most likely that I would win, just like a child, a myside bias.
My first impulse was to pick out parts of your comment that seem to favor my side, such as your 'in unrehearsed situations without enough cognitive resources for deliberation...' etc. or 'I will grant you that for almost all people, happiness is...' Then I would say that you really agree with me, and I would refer back to my caveat about 'scenario-making.'
I also considered doing my 'multiple selves' schtick, but rejected it because it didn't seem to 'fit', by which I think I meant it would sound silly.
I do think that using natural language to state and argue about this is making it less likely for us to be able to solve it, because we (I guess by 'we' I mean 'I') are likely to fiddle with the meanings of words, etc., but what is the alternative?
Out of Confessional mode, into Meta mode.
But none of these ways of resolving the dispute satisfies me. I'm wondering if disputes on this blog ever do get resolved. I do think they can sometimes get resolved in science.
But success for this blog seems dependent on being able to make progress, and this seems to require that we can settle things, so we can move on and build on the things we have settled.
Maybe the Confessional Mode is the way to go?
Robin, I know this post is too long, but it is an issue I care deeply about!
Mr Britton, many claim that there is no way to settle this particular disagreement because it is over values. In contrast -- and I realize I am in the minority on this -- I believe that there is an objectively-valid proper ultimate goal.
More precisely, I do not know if there is or not, but if there is not, then life has no meaning, so I assume there is, and do my best to discern it even though any truly satisfactory knowledge of it will probably have to wait for future generations.
Natural selection caused us to feel happiness and decided what types of experiences lead to happiness.
To someone who knows evolutionary psychology, there is nothing surprising about the fact that many people claim that happiness is the proper goal of life. Let's call them "hedonists and utilitarians". But the existence of a causal chain -- in this case a grand one stretching back billions of years starting with the start of life and ending with hedonists and utilitarians -- does not by itself impose on me an obligation to continue that causal chain.
For example, the increase in entropy has been going on even longer than that, yet no one would criticize me for not devoting my life to maximizing the entropy of the universe.
The fact hedonism and utilitarianism are expected consequences of natural selection greatly reduces the probability that I have neglected another, more compelling cause of hedonism or utilitarianism, namely that they are the product of keen observers of reality and keen calculators of reality's ethical implications.
The fact that I used to care about happiness as end in itself is adequately explained by the operation of my genes and by cultural transmission from hedonists and utilitarians.
Natural selection caused massive amount of pain and suffering. The suffering was "unavoidable" in the sense that even if the course of evolution leading to sentience had taken a different path, according to our models, billions or organisms with complex adaptations much like brains would experience mental states much like suffering. I.e., as soon as one has decided the laws of physics and decided that the universe will start with a sterile Big Bang and decided that the universe will be populated with sentient life via natural selection, one has decided that the universe will see massive suffering.
Finally, to enter Confessional Mode a bit, one possible reason I've come to this belief is that I've experienced more than the usual amount of suffering.
Warning! Necropost (for benefit of future readers)!
Unless, of course, it is valid to choose your own meaning.
Careful; easy to fall into a false dichotomy here. They can be a consequence of natural selection and a correct result for a calculation of "reality's ethical implications."
I would even go so far as to say that they are the correct ethical position because they are a result of natural selection. Or, to phrase it slightly better: because our evolution ended up this way, utilitarianism is the correct ethical approach. A species that did not evolve to experience suffering or pleasure would have quite different moral values.
We have evolved to experience suffering and happiness, which I would say are a priori bad and good, respectively; thus, this evolution has caused utilitarianism to be the correct ethical position (by creating bad and good).
Richard, you say you do not know if there is or is not a way to settle this particular disagreement. I too believe there may be a way to settle it, but only if we are explicitly specific about what we mean, and only if we agree to agree about what we mean; then there may be a way to settle it to the satisfaction of both of us. But if we can't be explicitly specific etc. then we can't settle it. My view is quite a standard one; I don't claim it's original. I agree that disagreements that involve values are difficult to settle; I think we would have to agree about values, or agree to disagree.
The arguement I gave was from Aristotle, and I have been unable to find any flaw in it. It seems to compel my assent.
However, others have denied it, most famously Augustine, who said that seeking and finding God is above happiness. That is, God is the ultimate goal, not happiness.
This makes sense to me if I could believe in the existence of God, but usually I can't, whereas I can believe in the terms of my application of Aristotle's arguement ( 'maximizing perceiving reality correctly' and 'maximizing happiness').
And it seems possible that you are seeking something that is kind of like what other people mean by God, specifically I get this from your 'if there is not an objecively valid proper ultimate goal, then life has no meaning' and your willingness to 'step outside the causal chain' and your concern with suffering; these all remind me of talk about God. The suffering of sentient beings has a Buddhist flavor.
So maybe our disagreement has to do with you being able to believe in this God-type idea, and me not. Could this be it?
If Aristole's argument exists on the net and you send me a pointer, I will read, then reply.
I was writing elliptically and did not flesh out my paragraph about suffering. The elliptical conclusion to that paragraph: most people believe it is an intrinsic good to ameliorate suffering, but my position is that amelioration of suffering is only an instrumental good. The Earth has seen 100s of millions of years of suffering. What is it about the physical structure of the Universe that makes 560,000,000 years of suffering followed by no more suffering a win and 560,001,000 years of suffering followed by no more suffering a loss? (I believe that all intrinsic goods flow from the physical structure of the Universe.) I can't see how preventing suffering is (even in part) the ultimate goal of existence.
In other words, the fact of suffering was decided long before we came into being and nothing we can do can alter that fact.
No I do not believe in God. God is silly.
Warning! Necropost (for benefit of future readers)!
In my other comment, I explain I believe the physical structure of the universe - the structure of humans, in particular - has caused suffering to be an evil and happiness a good. Thus, the former minimizes the bad, which is closer to a win than any alternative.
This may be worth pointing out. If you know of one person who is a perfectionist and others who aren't, you may have the tendency of thinking that the perfectionistic person is unhappy due to their perfectionism. In reality the person may be unhappy for other or diverse reasons, and you're projecting the perfectionism as the reason because you perceive that you would be unhappy if you had such a level of self-analysis. You may have also been right that this person is unhappy to a significant degree from the perfectionism, but that doesn't necessarily mean that being less perfectionistic would help them. They may be equally miserable and come to find out that they needed to manage their high drives better. The conclusion to all of this is that it is irrelevent to comment upon the causal relationship between level of perfectionism and level of happiness in other people, especially since these ideas are gross oversimplifications of the concepts they represent. Having said all of that, I would like to add my two cents that I think there is a strong determinant of how satisfied we are with our existence coming from how we evaluate ourselves compared to others. Along that thinking, if a person wants to be happier, he or she should try to find ways to surpass others in all ways. The article astutely points out that there is an egalitarian bias against this desire and I would point out that this bias has been on the rise over the last ten years. Never have I seen a time that it was considered as undesirable to dominate others and have them know that you are better than them. That's what human life is really all about.
This seems like a really, really important question of fact, because it bears on to what extent we can construct societies where everyone is happy. I lean towards the idea that we're wired for non egalitarianism, that we need other people below us to be happy. Not sure though. Any citations?
If "pursuing happiness" is an incentive for modern societies, pursuing something else - improving oneself I suppose - would become an incentive when most of population have achieved "happiness" (and misery should present itself to the world with a brave new meaning?). To my perception, that is, tsuyoku implies "always pursuing" while happiness achievement implies an end of the line.
Interesting connotation. "Below us" implies we' re already there, and by some sense of altruism we desire unhappy people to be happy? Or is it a different classification?
But what if this resolve to always be stronger gets one to be overstrained, and end up in depression? Is there not an upper limit to motivation? Or is depression just manifested by doing it the wrong way?
I think it depends on the motivation. If you're trying to become stronger by following shoulds/oughts (ie: external motivation), you'll most likely burnout and may (incorrectly) assign the blame to yourself.
Example: let's say you're trying to lose weight. If the motivation for doing so is because you feel you ought to be healthy or to try to gain the approval of others, then you'll most likely fail. Try to remember previous times in which you attempted to achieve something with the use of external motivation. Did you succeed then? If not, why not?
Let's compare that example with being internally motivated to lose weight. What first has to be asked genuinely is: why exactly do you want to lose weight? Let's say you love the taste of food and believe only unhealthy food tastes great. Then exposure to a healthy-eating cooking class may help you realize that eating healthy is not a substitute for eating great-tasting food. Finding the right motivation is dependent upon being exposed to the right information that is unique to your situation. If the desire to change is not genuine, then you'll never become stronger. So yes, I agree with you that "depression [is] manifested by doing it the wrong way."