Pursuing personal happiness

I had a conversation at the pub last night about happiness, empathy and compassion fatigue.

Today, I had HEAPS of law work to do. So I wrote an application to go to Antarctica, practiced some poetry, did the washing up, wrote an article, send out a press release, had two meetings and then browsed the web to find out about happiness instead. Reading about happiness is strangely more entertaining than studying Corporations Law.

I’m not exactly sure the logical end or utility of the thoughts that my 3 hour long Internetgasm provoked, but it all started with a TED talk by Dan Gilbert who basically said:

Happiness is synthesized. We make our own happiness chemically in order to adjust expectations to life events that manifest differently. For example, if you really really want two pieces of art that you’re bidding on at an Art auction and you are out bid on your first choice, but you win option B – after your initial disappointment, statistics show that most people later report that they feel they are more happy with Option B, than they would have been with Option A i.e. they recalibrate their expectations and desires to achieve optimal happiness in their new situation.

Sweet. That’s easy to grasp. It obviously works better in situations where you don’t have free choice (i.e. if you don’t get into your first preference at University but get your second preference, because there are a multitude of options you can take to vary your future experience – you could transfer etc. – the outcomes are a little less black and white because a whole other set of feelings come in like anxiety you’ll make the wrong decision etc.)

In and of itself, I don’t think it’s surprising at all that our brain can synthesise happiness for us to help us adjust to different situations. Most people I think at least theoretically understand and accept that thoughts, feelings, desires, movement all come about because of a bunch of neurons interacting in our brains.

What’s problematic is that the way we make decisions does not reflect an understanding that our brains have the capacity to adjust and generate happiness.

I would suggest it’s problematic because it means we make choices for the wrong reasons. Dan illustrates this with an example we’ve all heard before – In which scenario do you think you’d be happier:

Scenario A: You win the lottery and take $3 million home.

Scenario B: You trip over at Woolworths and become paraplegic.

Instinctively the answer is obvious: Scenario A. We think money is good, and injury is bad. Clearly scientists have been intrigued by this question because there is a significant amount of data collected analyzing exactly this situation and it shows us that after one year the participants, on average, from Scenario A and Scenario B, measured identical levels of happiness.

Obviously this conclusion is based on an average calculated from the individual self-assessments of happiness analyzed in a number of people. There would have clearly been individual variation. But, time and time again, experiments of this nature indicate that winning the lottery made people, on average, no happier and becoming paraplegic, on average, made people no more unhappy.

But this is not the lived reality of how we make decisions. Whether or not we intellectually understand the brain’s capacity to adjust and synthesize happiness – we still bet in the lottery! We bet because we want to win because we believe that winning will make us happy. Even though all the data says it won’t.

So that’s the first important thing. If we truly realised that our brains have the capacity to adjust and that translated into our decision making processes; perhaps we would weight our expected happiness as less important when we make choices, and weight other things higher – like environmental impact or how the girl next door will feel if you do X, Y or Z rather than making anticipated personal happiness the most influential factor.

Another possible consequence of our apparent inability to understand that our brains can synthesize happiness (as opposed to happiness necessarily existing as a discrete phenomenon to be found, or earned) means that we become afraid of making decisions that will lead to our unhappiness because we see happiness as this precarious, illusory and ultimately desirable prize that we compete against the world to attain.

When we relinquish control over our happiness to ‘the big, bad, competitive world’, everyone else becomes the enemy and we become the Aussie battler, struggling against hostility. Perhaps that explains why Australia is such a goddamn complacent country. Perhaps we are so risk adverse because for the middle class with a plethora of choices, the fear of not having X, Y and Z that have been attributed the artificial power of ‘making happiness’ is too great to take a risk that may produce a different sort of reality. Even though statistically, we’d probably be just fine in that different set of circumstances. 

For example:

Opposition to the carbon tax: fear that there will be a rise in electricity costs and so either one’s life style will change, or one will have less money to spend on other things because of the hefty bill and this will compromise happiness.

But, if we changed that paradigm, if we downgraded the importance of this notion of happiness because we understand that expected happiness is not really a logical way to approach our capacity to adjust; maybe we would weight other considerations higher (like the survival of the planet for example).

Obviously, there are language problems with all this. Different constructions of happiness will mean that Dan’s concept can be interpreted in a range of ways. And I’m not sure any of this applies in situations where standards of living are beneath a certain level. However, the point I think I’m making is that the recalibration of what and how we value things might help us make better decisions – and our infatuation with the concept of personal happiness might be one of those things.

My life experience so far sits pretty comfortably with those ideas. I feel like we are taught a few things from a very young age:

  1. Don’t be too ambitious. If it isn’t likely you’ll achieve your goals, don’t go for them because disappointment (i.e. unhappiness) is the worst.
  2. Be content (complacent even) always. You don’t need more than contentment, and anything less is necessarily bad.
  3. Protect yourself first. Your happiness is most important and getting too involved in other people’s lives may threaten that happiness.

Australians have a tendency to look down at their feet when passing the homeless folk by Townhall, but look up at the annual fireworks. We’re happy to be proud of a middle management position, but we love to hate the CEO. We accept that something theoretically should be done about climate change, but not if it involves personal change. I think much of the fear and complacency in this country could be to do with a strange social construct of what it means to be happy.

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