All the notes were taken directly from the source mentioned.
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Marie Kondo became rich and famous by telling people to throw away possessions that don’t spark joy, and many would see such purging as excellent life advice in general.
Under the right circumstances and in the right doses, physical pain and emotional pain, difficulty and failure and loss, are exactly what we are looking for.
It turns out that the right kind of pain can set the stage for enhanced pleasure later on; it’s a cost we pay for a greater future reward. Pain can distract us from our anxieties, and even help us transcend the self. Choosing to suffer can serve social goals; it can display how tough we are or, conversely, can serve as a cry for help.
Tyler Cowen, who recently wrote: Pluralist theories are more plausible, postulating a variety of relevant values, including human well-being, justice, fairness, beauty, the artistic peaks of human achievement, the quality of mercy, and the many different and, indeed, sometimes contrasting kinds of happiness. Life is complicated!
Pinker is careful to note, better than it used to be does not mean fine. Pinker doesn’t deny that the lives of many people are terrible.
It’s an even greater truth one so obvious that hardly anyone talks about it that the good life is much easier to achieve if you are in physical and emotional comfort. It’s hard to be joyous and satisfied if your children are starving to death or you are in agony because of an untreated illness.
And, no matter how you slice it, the happiest countries turn out to be just those you would expect, such as the Nordic nations of Norway, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden, as well as Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. They are high in income, with good life expectancy and strong social support. The citizens of these societies report high levels of freedom, trust, and generosity.
Liberal policies, such as progressive taxation and a strong welfare state, predict happiness. But so do the factors that conservatives emphasize, such as some degree of economic competition (communist countries do poorly on happiness).
There has been a great decline in the rate of suicide worldwide (38 percent since the mid-1990s), but the trend in the United States is the opposite American suicides have shot upward by about 30 percent since 2000.
Brooks and others see the core problem here as a crisis of meaning, associated with the decline of religious faith, loss of overall purpose, and alienation from flesh-and-blood communities.
Frankl studied his fellow prisoners, wondering about what distinguishes those who maintain a positive attitude from those who cannot bear it, losing all motivation and often killing themselves. He concluded that the answer is meaning. Those who had the best chance of survival were those whose lives had broader purpose, who had some goal or project or relationship, some reason to live. As he later wrote (paraphrasing Nietzsche), Those who have a ˜why’ to live, can bear with almost any ˜how.’
A lot of researchers who say that bad experiences in life are actually good for you these researchers speak about post-traumatic growth, an increase in kindness and altruism, increased meaning in life.
This book defends three related ideas. First, certain types of chosen suffering including those that involve pain, fear, and sadness can be sources of pleasure. Second, a life well lived is more than a life of pleasure; it involves, among other things, moral goodness and meaningful pursuits. And third, some forms of suffering, involving struggle and difficulty, are essential parts of achieving these higher goals, and for living a complete and fulfilling life.
Much of what we are told about happiness and the good life should not be trusted.
Some scholars I’ve been influenced by include (and this is a partial list): Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, David DeSteno, Edward Diener, Daniel Gilbert, Jonathan Haidt, Daniel Kahneman, Sonja Lyubomirsky, and the founder of the field of positive psychology, Martin Seligman.
Spicy food, hot baths, frightening movies, rough sex, intense exercise,
They can increase the joy of future experiences, provide an escape from consciousness, satisfy curiosity, and enhance social status.
You may have heard of congenital analgesia. People who suffer from this can feel themselves being cut or hit, but they don’t register these experiences as pain, and so have no intrinsic motivation to avoid them. Most people with this condition don’t live past their twenties, and this illustrates the importance of pain, both in preventing injury and allowing injuries to heal.
Ursula K. Le Guin
Land of Omelas,
People want to be happy. The problem isn’t that this claim is mistaken. The problem is that it’s too vague to be helpful.
A question like How happy are you? can refer to your experience right now (I am very happy: I am eating M&Ms!) or your assessment of a large portion of your life (Not that happy; I feel like I’ve been drifting for the last year or so).
Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues tried to pull apart these different senses of happiness. Consider first what they call experienced happiness. This is your experience of the psychological present; it’s how you feel right now.
Now consider a different judgment one can make, what we can call satisfaction. This is a more contemplative assessment, looking at what you think about your life as a whole, not immediate moments.
Being friendless is rough, so it’s a lot better to have one friend than no friends, and better to have two rather than one… but you wouldn’t expect the same sort of jump when you have twenty friends and get one more.
What about the effects of money on satisfaction? Just as with experienced happiness, money is related to satisfaction, and again there are diminishing returns. But here’s the difference: While there is a threshold after which experienced happiness levels out, there doesn’t seem to be one with satisfaction.
Taken as a whole, these findings suggest that when we think about our overall lives, we tend to compare ourselves with others and when it comes to social comparison, the sky is the limit.
Along the same lines, Kahneman and Deaton find that health matters a lot for the experience of the present moment (there is something about being healthy or sick that affects you in a day-to-day way, regardless of the health of others), while degree of education matters more for satisfaction (which is consistent
It’s pleasure, which is why those who argue for the centrality of pleasure are called hedonists.
Self-deluded! responds the psychological hedonist. After all, wouldn’t it be a positive experience for me if these things come to pass and a negative one if they don’t? Well, yes: part of what it means to want something is that you are pleased when it happens. But this isn’t an argument for hedonism, because it doesn’t show that the pleasure is the goal itself, as opposed to a by-product.
I PROPOSE THAT there are multiple independent drives that normal humans possess. Some are hedonic. This includes sexual pleasure, the satisfaction of hunger and thirst, and even the right sorts of relatively low-level pain. Others are moral, including a desire to do good, to be fair, to seek justice. A third, related class of motivations has to do with meaning and purpose. (The proper term for this is eudaemonic, but it’s an awful word to write and to say and I’ll try to use it as little as possible.) This includes the pursuit of goals such as going to war, climbing mountains, and being a parent. These motivations are plainly compatible.
To sum up, happy people tend to be healthy and financially well-off, and to have lives with a good deal of pleasure. Those who find their lives meaningful might have none of this; they set ambitious goals, and their lives have more anxiety and worry.
Kathleen Vohs, a coauthor on the original article, writes, The results revealed that happiness is about feeling good, avoiding feeling bad, and having one’s own wants and needs met. By comparison, meaning in life was predicted by behaviors and feelings reflecting concern for others and outcomes, as evidenced by arguing, worry, and stress.
The happiest countries were the usual suspects: Norway, Australia, Canada, and so on. They are wealthy, secure, peaceful, with good social support. This survey, like the others, found that life satisfaction is strongly correlated with GDP per capita.
The poorer the country, the more likely people were to say that their lives had an important purpose or meaning.
Adam Alter suggests that perhaps because poverty strips people of happiness in the short term, it forces them to take the long view to focus on the relationships they have with their children, their gods, and their friends, which become more meaningful over time.
Alan Watts, the British philosopher and popular interpreter of Zen Buddhism. Watts begins by asking you to imagine that you are able to dream about whatever you want, with perfect vividness. Given this power, you could, in a single night, have a dream that lasted seventy-five years. What would you do? Obviously, he says, you’d fulfill all your wishes, choose every sort of pleasure. It would be a hedonistic blowout. And then suppose you can do it again the next night, and then the next, and then the next. Soon, Watts says, you would say to yourself: But now let’s have a surprise, let’s have a dream which isn’t under control, where something is gonna happen to me that I don’t know what it’s gonna be. And then you would continue to gamble, adding increasing risk, uncertainty, ignorance, deprivation. You would put obstacles in your way, obstacles that you might not be able to overcome, until finally, as Watts says, you would dream the dream of living the life that you are actually living today. Is your life right now with its difficulty and struggle, worry and loss the best that life can be? Probably not. But Watts’s fantasy is close enough to the truth to be profound.
One of my favorite books is Pictures and Tears. It’s by the art critic James Elkins and it’s all about paintings that make people cry.
Think about experiences of humiliation, loneliness, regret, guilt, and so on. The function of all of these is to guide you away from certain activities by helping you anticipate the consequences (If I say this I will feel awful, so I’d better not say it) and to teach you a harsh lesson if you transgress (That was terrible; I never want to do it again).
And so one of the joys of immersing yourself in certain activities, such as hard exercise or a difficult puzzle or being whipped, is that you lose the feeling of being conscious of yourself. You just are.
Control and consent are morally essential and experientially critical.
Borrowing from animal research and evolutionary psychology, some scholars suggest that many of our reactions, tastes, and behaviors are best understood as ways to advertise positive aspects of ourselves to other people.
Why are children in elite high schools taught Latin, Greek, or even Sanskrit? Some people will insist on the importance of this knowledge, but the signaling theorist will say that it’s the unimportance that matters here. Having your children spend valuable time on material of no tangible utility announces to the world that you are free of material need; poor children have to learn useful material,
Cry, which is a universal distress signal.
The function of nausea is its role in expelling toxins you may have ingested; the awfulness of the experience, and the persistence of the awful memory, keep you from ingesting them again.
The story of boredom, Elpidorou argues, is similar. Boredom is a cue that needs aren’t being met. It’s a signal that your environment lacks interest, variety, and newness. Just as the pain of a burn tells us where the damage is and motivates us to respond appropriately, boredom motivates us to seek out intellectual stimulation and social contact, to learn and engage and act.
Masochism pain to escape boredom.
Struggling through difficult texts can be an engaging challenge, and it can also be a mark of status. You enjoy your Stephen King and Dean Koontz; I’ll just be sitting here with my Kierkegaard and Knausgaard. I wouldn’t be the first to say that taking pleasure in difficult and boring literature can be yet another form of signaling.
Humans are blessed with the power to conjure up worlds that don’t exist and might never exist.
Seeing the world through the eyes of others is essential to many acts of kindness.
Our altruism and kindness are grounded in the capacity to imagine the world as others see it.
Without the imaginative capacity to depict these nonexistent futures, and to mark them as unreal, we are trapped in the present; we just have to choose an option, see how it works out, learn from our experience, and try to do better next time.
So far about the use of imagination as a substitute for certain real-world pleasures… Reality Lite.
Less than half of the mind-wandering experiences were positive, and more than a quarter were reported as unpleasant.
By contrast, Hume thinks that the pleasure of such experiences is in proportion to one’s experience of anxiety, sorrow, and the like. To put it in modern terms, for Hume, the negative emotions are features, not bugs.
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin says that the most foundational and basic advice for story construction is to present a formidable obstacle.
Without this, the stories would have no dramatic tension and would be boring.
The idea here is best summed up by Stephen King: We make up imaginary horrors to help us deal with real ones. It’s the tough mind’s way of coping with terrible problems. We are drawn to tragedy and horror, then, because they are creative representations of worst-case scenarios, such as being attacked by strangers, being betrayed by friends, or experiencing the deaths of those we love.
Most of the searches are for physical features and body parts and sex acts that pretty much overlap with those that people would like to look at or experience in real life.
For instance, cartoon pornography is quite popular. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz tentatively suggests that this reflects an obsession with childhood along Freudian lines. In support of this, he also notes that babysitter is a keyword commonly searched for by men.
Then there is incest. Of the top one hundred searches on Pornhub by men, sixteen were incest themed at the time of Stephens-Davidowitz’s study. The most common topic of these searches involved mothers and sons. For women, incest comprised nine out of the top one hundred searches, and the most common involved fathers and daughters.
I suspect, then, that the popularity of incest porn might reflect an interest in the taboo, the shocking, and the inappropriate, mostly by people who have become jaded by more vanilla pornographic scenes.
In Stephens-Davidowitz’s study, fully one-quarter of female searches in straight porn emphasize suffering physical and psychological with search terms including words such as brutal and painful. (Five percent of searches were for rape or forced sex, even though these are banned on Pornhub.) Despite the fact that men are, in the actual world, far more violent and more likely to commit sexual assault, these searches were at least twice as common among women than among men.
So why the fantasy? One theory is that it might be a way to imagine sexual pleasure without the stigma or guilt of choosing to engage in sex.
What about the play-as-practice idea I just sketched out? Women are more vulnerable to sexual assault it is something deadly serious that they have to contend with so perhaps they prepare for it through fantasy.
One typically doesn’t get sexual pleasure from mulling over the worst-case scenario; nobody gets aroused thinking about having their credit cards stolen. Sexual fantasy is different; it is pleasant and arousing. So there is a poor mismatch here with practice theory.
Once again, the pleasures of fiction in this case, the desire to see justice done are also the pleasures of reality.
Often, they want the person to suffer and to know why they are suffering, to have justice done and to see justice done.
The costly signals of human courtship often involve money, but they’re ultimately about sacrifice, so sustained effort will certainly do the trick.
THE LAW OF least work makes sense for physical work because bodies can be damaged by overuse. It’s not that the physical constraints of the body actually make one stop working.
Rather, the experience of physical exhaustion reflects, at least in part, the output of a system that monitors stress to the body if you overexert yourself, you can cause damage, so it makes sense to have a system in your head to say Slow down and then Stop when the strain is too much.
This limited-resource theory of willpower has been influential. It has spawned best-selling books, including one by Baumeister and John Tierney called Willpower. One piece of advice they offer is that one should be careful not to use up one’s willpower on unnecessary tasks.
The simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions.
The claim about glucose is the weakest part here. It is unlikely that the exercise of intellectual effort reduces glucose levels in the brain in any nontrivial way.
Jeremy Bentham talked about the pleasures of mastery,
There are all sorts of reasons why this is so. Many jobs have degrading conditions, perceived unfairness, and lack of autonomy. In the language of David Graeber, many people spend much of their waking life doing bullshit work on bullshit jobs work that feels pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious. At the moment-to-moment level, there is little engagement or flow; at the broader level, there is a lack of meaning and purpose.
It turns out the most meaningful job is being a member of the clergy. This is followed by serving in the military, being a social worker, and working in a library.
I often think about this line while reading about meaning and purpose. The problem isn’t usually that I disagree with what I readit’s that it’s too fuzzy and vague and general to take seriously.
What drives humans to do something as dangerous and difficult and seemingly useless as trying to climb Mount Everest?
Excellent climbing documentaries and reenactments such as Into Thin Air, Everest, North Face, and Touching the Voidand
One of the benefits of certain activities is the respect and admiration you get from others. This relates to difficulty and risk and ability in an obvious way. If climbing Everest were pleasant and easy, nobody would be impressed that you did it.
Part of this appeal is the feeling of belonging. European recruits to ISIS are often recent immigrants; they are typically friendless and separated from family. There is a real hunger to be part of a community that embraces you, particularly if you have nobody else in your life.
One study finds that older fathers actually get a happiness boost, while it’s young parents and single parents, male and female, who suffer the greatest happiness loss.
They found that the extent to which children make you happy is influenced by whether there are childcare policies such as paid parental leave. Parents from Norway and Hungary, for instance, are happier than childless couples while parents from Australia and Great Britain are less happy.
Why don’t we regret our children more? One possibility is that it’s memory distortion. When we gauge our own previous experiences, we tend to remember the peaks and forget the 99 percent of mundane awfulness in between.
The attachment one has to an individual can override an overall decrease in the quality of a person’s life, and so the love we usually have toward our children means that our choice has value above and beyond whatever effect they have on our happiness.
When I say that raising my sons is the best thing I’ve ever done, I’m not saying that they gave me pleasure in any simple day-to-day sense, and I’m not saying that they were good for my marriage. I’m talking about something deeper, having to do with satisfaction, purpose, and meaning.
Just like mountain climbing and going to war, then, raising children is an activity that has an uncertain connection to pleasure but has the potential to enhance meaning and purpose.
A meaningful life, at least to some extent, has to do with what one does and how one affects people.
I have a lot of philosopher friends, some of whom think all the time about deep questions of meaning and purpose, and while I do love philosophers, they don’t seem to be better people than the non-philosophers I know, and I’m not sure that there’s any interesting sense in which their lives are more meaningful than everyone else’s.
Some people engage in meaningful pursuits, and this, I argue, makes their lives better. But people don’t have to think about meaning for this to work.
Expressed by Viktor Frankl: To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world? There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment.
In 1932, the historian and philosopher Will Durant published a book called On the Meaning of Life.
Emily Esfahani Smith talks about how in 1932, the historian and philosopher Will Durant published a book called On the Meaning of Life.
Smith discusses the responses and summarizes them as follows: Each of the responses to Durant’s letter and Life’s survey was distinct, reflecting the unique values, experiences, and personalities of the respondents. Yet there were some themes that emerged again and again. When people explain what makes their lives meaningful, they describe connecting to and bonding with other people in positive ways. They discuss finding something worthwhile to do with their time. They mention creating narratives that help them understand themselves and the world. They talk about mystical experiences of self-loss.
Smith organizes her own book, The Power of Meaning, around four themes that show up in this summary: Belonging: connecting to and bonding with other people Purpose: finding something worthwhile Storytelling: narratives that bring order to life Transcendence: mystical experiences of self-loss
Michael Steger talks about three features of meaningful activities;
Coherence: making sense, fitting into a narrative Purpose: directed toward a goal Significance: worthwhile, having value, and importance
In an article called Beyond Bentham: The Search for Meaning, George Loewenstein and Niklas Karlsson present their own list of features, which include: A resolution of purpose or goals: figuring out what you are aspiring toward An expansion of the self through time or across persons: binding oneself to a broader group of people or to past and future generations An interpretation of one’s life: the creation of a narrative of one’s life
Here is my own attempt to integrate the ideas so far, looking first at meaningful activities. A meaningful activity is oriented toward a goal, one that, if accomplished, would have an impact on the world and this usually means that it has an impact on other people. This activity extends across a significant portion of one’s life and has some structure it’s the sort of thing that one can tell a story about. It often connects to religion and spirituality and often connects to flow (leading to the experience of self-loss) and often brings you into close contact with other people and is often seen as morally virtuous but none of these additional features are essential.
You’ll notice that suffering is not one of the criteria here. But given that meaning involves the pursuit of significant and impactful goals, meaning will inevitably come with suffering with difficulty and anxiety and conflict and perhaps much more. When one chooses to have a child or go to war or climb a mountain, one might not wish for or welcome suffering. But it always comes along for the ride.
Rituals are cultural inventions.
If society A has practice X and society B doesn’t, and if, because of practice X, society A does better, then you are more likely to see society A along with practice Xin a hundred or a thousand years.
Jonathan Haidt puts it, Religions… work to suppress our inner chimp and bring out our inner bee, releasing our hive morality, in which the group is all that matters.
Rituals might also provide some benefit to the individuals who engage in them, not just to the groups to which they belong. This is particularly true for painful rituals: choosing to engage in them can signal commitment to the group and display courage and virtue.
Daniel Gilbert talks about the psychological immune system, a part of our psyche that recovers from negative experiences by giving them meaning.
This is explicit in the New Testament: Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined and everyone undergoes discipline then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Religions often claim that it is morally good to suffer.
Commencement speech by Chief Justice John Roberts, from 2017. Now, the commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s nice phrase, anti-fragile. This is expressed in the famous aphorism of Nietzsche: That which does not kill us makes us stronger.
SOME AMOUNT OF suffering in life might be a good thing, increasing resilience and kindness and bringing people together.
Here’s a Taoist story you may have heard: [There was] an old farmer who had worked on his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. Such bad luck, they said sympathetically. May be, the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. How wonderful, the neighbors exclaimed. May be, replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. May be, answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. May be, said the farmer.
Vollhardt offers some explanations for how suffering might have this effect. Helping others might distract sufferers from their own problems and might even cheer them up. Helping others might put our own suffering in a different light; when you interact with people as bad off as yourself or even worse, your own problems might seem smaller. It might make you feel more competent and efficient. It might better integrate you into a social community. Most of all, building on the ideas of Viktor Frankl, helping others might give your own suffering more meaning and value; it might infuse it with purpose. There is a big difference between This terrible thing happened, and I suffered and that’s it and This terrible thing happened, and I suffered, but then, because of that, I ended up helping others and made a positive difference in the world.
Theoretically, all of this makes sense. But there is little actual evidence that sufferers are kinder than they would have been had they not suffered.
Mancini and his colleagues point out that this is a feature of events like mass shootings: A key aspect of a mass trauma is that it afflicts large numbers of people at once and therefore can mobilize mutually supportive and cooperative behaviors on a broad scale. This is different from individual traumas, such as rape or assault, that don’t mobilize communities and might actually leave the victims feeling isolated and alienated.
When we forget about those who drop out, we risk succumbing to survivorship bias. The best illustration of this bias is the story about the American military in World War II. They wanted to add armor to the planes to protect the pilots, but they also had to minimize the weight of the planes, so they needed to add the armor only where it would do the most good. The officers in charge inspected the planes that returned from air battles, looked at where the bullet holes were, figured that these were the areas where the planes tended to get hit the most, and recommended that the armor be placed there. When I read the story and got to this part, I thought it made perfect sense. Which means that I’m nowhere as smart as the statistician Abraham Wald, who told them where their logic was wrong. The planes they were studying were those that had returned. This means that being riddled with bullet holes in certain places is actually not a bad thing. It’s the other locations that you should put armor on, because apparently if you get hit in some of these places, you don’t come home. The logic here is more general. Suppose you have a psychology graduate program where many students drop out. You look at the students in their final year who are struggling the most and discover that they are, say, poor in statistical skills, and decide that it’s a top priority to improve these skills. This is a mistake. It is putting armor in the areas where there are bullet holes in the planes that return. You should actually make the opposite inference apparently, you can make it to the end of the graduate program with bad statistical skills, so this can’t be what’s most important.
Survivorship bias and are cognizant that, by excluding those who are the most damaged, we will exaggerate any positive effects of the experience.
Still, under Mancini and his colleagues’ own theory, it wasn’t the event itself that caused any improvement. It was the mobilization of social services, all the love and attention, that was associated with the event. Suppose you are in a mild car accident, go to physiotherapy, and, as a result of getting some treatment, start to exercise more, eat better, and take better care of yourself. This doesn’t mean that car accidents are good for you.
There is some evidence from prospective studies that collect data before and after the traumatic event that there is some improvement, after a traumatic event, in self-esteem, positive relationships, and mastery. There is no growth in the categories of meaning and spirituality. But these effects are just as powerful after major positive life events as after major negative events. And they probably have nothing to do with the events themselves. Many studies don’t have control groups; they don’t compare what happens after the positive or negative experience with what happens if there is no event at all. When the authors of the review looked at the studies that had control groups, they found that most show no effect. That is, people tend to say that they got better in some regard after a major life experience, but they also say that they got better during the same time period if there was no experience at all.
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones, writes Richard Dawkins. After all, we’re the ones who got to exist in the first place.
Animals that believe true things do better, on the whole, than those who don’t. If there is a cliff to your right, if your tribe is getting sick of you, if there’s something biting your leg, it’s good to know about it. This is what eyes and ears and other sensory organs are for, along with big chunks of our brains. Your primate competitors in the past who weren’t as good at forming true beliefs didn’t make it to the next round.
But somehow humans and only humans have done something astonishing. We can transcend our limitations. We have developed science, technology, philosophy, literature, art, and law. We have come up with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; we’ve been to the moon. We use contraception, deliberately subverting nature’s goal of reproductive success so that we can pursue other goals. We give some of our resources (nowhere near enough, but some) to strangers, overcoming our biological drive to favor family and friends.
WE’VE TALKED ABOUT truth and goodness, but what about pleasure and meaning? How do these capacities fit into this picture of our evolved natures?
The details of how our emotions and feelings serve adaptive purposes can be found in countless evolutionary psychology analyses, most of which focus on short-term pleasures linked with reproductively relevant goals, such as nourishment and status and procreation. But long-term moods like happiness can be seen in the same way. As Steven Pinker writes, We are happier when we are healthy, well-fed, comfortable, safe, prosperous, knowledgeable, respected, non-celibate, and loved. Compared to their opposites, these objects of striving are conducive to reproduction. The function of happiness would be to mobilize the mind to seek the keys to Darwinian fitness. When we are unhappy, we work for the things that make us happy; when we are happy, we keep the status quo.
A hard truth arises from this. We are not built to be happy. Evolution doesn’t want us to be in constant bliss any more than it wants us to be pain-free. Pain is information about what’s wrong and an inducement to make things better. Sadness and loneliness and shame play similar roles.
Robert Wright notes, Modern life is full of emotional reactions that make little sense except in light of the environment in which our species evolved. You may be haunted for hours by some embarrassing thing you did on a public bus or an airplane, even though you’ll never again see the people who witnessed it and their opinions of you therefore have no consequence. Why would natural selection design organisms to feel discomfort that seems so pointless? Maybe because in the environment of our ancestors it wouldn’t have been pointless; in a hunter-gatherer society, you’re pretty much always performing in front of people you’ll see again and whose opinions therefore matter.
Fortunately, we are not stuck with our initial settings. We can game the system. Just as we can recognize that our eyes are limited in their powers and build telescopes, just as we can worry that our morality is biased and so work to establish impartial procedures of justice, similarly, we can also grow frustrated with the carrot-and-stick nature of our feelings and try to do better.
This view is a fallacy. There is no logical connection between This is how things are and This is how things should be.
Because of evolution, we are driven by attachments and passions; we worry, obsess, and plan. Our perception of the world is colored and clouded by our desires.
My last book was called Against Empathy, and I argued there that emotions such as empathy are too biased and innumerate and parochial to be good moral guides; we are better off, when making important decisions, with a more distanced approach, what I called rational compassion.
Rational compassion seems antithetical to being a loving parent, friend, or romantic partner.
One implication brings us back to motivational pluralism. There is a classic contrast between pleasure and meaning, hedonia and eudaemonia. Which should we choose? It turns out that one can have both.
Given that we expected both eudaemonia [meaning] and hedonia [pleasure] to contribute to well-being in life, and that we did not see them as mutually exclusive, we expected their combination to be linked with particularly great well-being. We found good support for this prediction. People who pursued both eudaemonia and hedonia reported higher levels of most well-being variables than people with neither pursuit.
In particular, it turns out that one can screw up being happy by trying to be happy or at least by trying to be happy in the wrong way.
There are studies that look at the extent to which people are motivated to pursue happiness, by asking them to rate themselves on items such as Feeling happy is extremely important to me and How happy I am at any given moment says a lot about how worthwhile my life is. The people who highly agree with such items are less likely to get good outcomes in life and more likely to be depressed and lonely.
Now, the usual worries about direction of causation apply here. Maybe it’s not that trying to be happy makes people depressed and lonely maybe it’s that depressed and lonely people are more motivated to try to be happy.
Maybe when you pursue happiness you set unrealistically high standards for success, setting yourself up for failure. Or maybe the self-conscious pursuit of happiness makes you think a lot about how happy you are, and this gets in the way of being happy, in the same way that thinking about how good you are at kissing probably gets in the way of being good at kissing.
The most plausible explanation, and the one they stress the most, is that people aren’t accurate about what makes them happy.
One meta-analysis, summing up more than 258 studies, found that respondents report less happiness and life satisfaction, lower levels of vitality and self-actualization, and more depression, anxiety, and general psychopathology to the extent that they believe that the acquisition of money and possessions is important and key to happiness and success in life.
Money does make you happy; it’s the trying to make money that makes you sad. The trick is to get money in the course of other, meaningful, pursuits or, if you can manage it, to be born into wealth.)
John Stuart Mill: It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.
Gilbert is unpersuaded by these reactions. He points out that in his pool example, there are two different sorts of conscious experiences, which we can see as akin to two different people. There is the Experiencer, who feels the cool water and the warm sunshine and who is happy. And there is the Observer, who passes judgment on the life as a whole and who is disappointed.
Imagine a young woman who has a deep romantic and sexual relationship with another woman and gets pleasure and satisfaction from it. But she had a fundamentalist upbringing, and when she talks to her parents, she becomes ashamed of her life. Or imagine a man who enjoys spending time with his children, his partner, and his friends, but every once in a while he thinks about his career and how others are more successful than him and make more money, and he is upset with himself for his lack of ambition and pledges to spend more time at the office. In each of these cases, the Experiencer is happy and the Observer is not. Is it so obvious that the Observer is correct?
Long-term difficult projects, for instance, provide opportunities for novelty and excitement; they avoid one of the big problems faced by hedonists: boredom.
Everything happens for a reason implies that people get what they deserve what goes around comes around.
It can also lead to apathy and indifference. If there are no accidents, and everything is ultimately in the service of some higher good, why work so hard to make things better? If discrimination and oppression reflect the workings of a deep plan the meek shall inherit the earth, after all why worry about it?
We end up judging the merits of an act not just in terms of its intent and consequences but also by considering how much suffering the do-gooder went through.
Sometimes, altruistic acts that make the world better also make the altruist happier, and even richer. When people get upset at someone who makes money while improving the lives of others more upset at him than at someone who does nothing at all they are discouraging actions that will make the world better.
Still, chosen suffering in the right way at the right time in the right doses adds value to life.
And suffering can enhance many of these. Chosen suffering can lead to great pleasure; and it is an essential part of experiences that we deem to be meaningful. It can connect us to others and can be a source of community and love. It reflects deep sentiments of the mind and feelings of the heart.
At the very least, it shows us that simple theories of what we want are mistaken. We are complicated beings, with a variety of motivations and desires that can be satisfied in surprising ways.
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