Does it look like it’s all about happiness?

Humanity’s obsession with status and money is often attributed to a misguided belief that these will bring the happiness we truly hunger. Would be reformers repeat the worldview-shattering news that we can be happier just by being grateful and spending more time with our families and on other admirable activities. Yet the crowds begging for happiness do not appear to heed them.

This popular theory doesn’t explain why people are so ignorant after billions of lifetimes of data about what brings happiness, or alternatively why they are helpless to direct their behavior toward it with the information. The usual counterargument to this story is simply that money and status and all that do in fact bring happiness, so people aren’t that silly after all.

Another explanation for the observed facts is that we don’t actually want happiness that badly; we like status and money too even at the expense of happiness. That requires the opposite explanation, of why we think we like happiness so much.

But first, what’s the evidence that we really want happiness or don’t? Here is some I can think of (please add):

For “We are mostly trying to get happiness and failing”:

  • We discuss plans in life, even in detail, as if the purpose were happiness
  • When we are wondering if something was a good choice we ask things like ‘are you happy with it?’
  • Some things don’t seem to lead to much benefit but enjoyment and are avidly sought, such as some entertainment.
  • We seem by all accounts both motivated in and fine at getting happiness in immediate term activities – we don’t accidentally watch a TV show or eat chocolate for long before noticing whether we enjoy it. The confusion seems about long term activities and investments.

“We often aren’t trying to get happiness”:

  • The recent happiness research appears to have fuelled lots of writing and not much hungry implementation of advice. eg I’ve noticed no fashion for writing down what you are grateful for at night starting up. Have I just missed it?
  • Few people get a few years into a prestigious job, realize status and money don’t bring happiness, declare it all a mistake, and take up joyful poor low status  activities
  • Most things take less than years to evaluate
  • I don’t seem to do the things that I think would make me most happy.
  • It seems we pursue romance and sex at the expense of happiness often, incapable of giving it up in the face of anticipated misery. Status and money have traditionally been closely involved with romance and sex, so it would be unsurprising if we were driven to have them too in spite of happiness implications.
  • Most of the things we seek that make us happy also make us more successful in other ways. People are generally happy when they receive more money than usual, or sex, or a better job, or compliments. So the fact that we often seek things that make us happy doesn’t tell us much.
  • Explicitly seeking status, money and sex looks bad, but seeking happiness does not. Thus if we were seeking sex or status we would be more likely to claim we were seeking happiness than those things.
  • Many people accept that lowering their standards would make them happier, but don’t try to.
  • We seem, and believe ourselves to be, willing to forgo our own happiness often for the sake of ‘higher’ principles such as ethics

It looks to me like we don’t care only about happiness, though we do a bit. I suspect we care more about happiness currently and more about other things in the long term, thus are confused when long term plans don’t seem to lead to happiness because introspection says we like it.

20 responses to “Does it look like it’s all about happiness?

  1. “Few people get a few years into a prestigious job, realize status and money don’t bring happiness, declare it all a mistake, and take up joyful poor low status activities”

    It is common for women in high status occupations to drop out of the work force for childbearing and rearing.

  2. Happiness is not all that well-defined. The best I’ve read so far was Rawls’. According to Rawls, happiness is about having a plan for life and working towards it. To him a purposeful life is a happy life. I tend to agree.

    The trouble with status seeking is that it depends on two fickle factors. One is relative achievement which depends among other things on initial endowment and- let’s not be coy- sheer luck. It is not only about how hard-working and committed you are. The second is ‘perception’. Status is not given to objective achievement but to how that achievement is perceived.

    This is why I think that status-seeking is a happiness destroyer almost by construction. This is why a lot religions (the Judaism, Christianity and Islam complex, Taoism, Hinduism) and some ancient philosophies (stoicism) teach people to avoid status-seeking. Those who want to be great “in the eyes of people” are bound to end up neurotic.

  3. “Another explanation for the observed facts is that we don’t actually want happiness that badly;”

    I think that’s essentially right. The following is crude but I think close. Happiness is the absence of unhappiness. Unhappiness is dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction is the difference between what one has and what one wants. Dissatisfaction is a mechanism built into us to act; without it we die (just as a rat might die if you directly stimulated its pleasure center – it might lose all motivation to do anything but whatever it takes to keep the pleasure coming, e.g. press a button).

    In order to live, we must act. In order to act, we must be dissatisfied to some degree, i.e., unhappy to some degree.

    In the immediate aftermath of getting what we want, we are happy because what we have and what we want are equal. But we must stop being happy in order to continue acting – in order to survive. So our happiness ebbs and there is once again something that we want but we do not have.

    Happiness is not a biological goal. Happiness is merely the (always temporary) absence of unhappiness, and unhappiness is necessary to survival. Unhappiness has a function; happiness is merely the absence of unhappiness. Unhappiness is food and happiness is feces. It is no coincidence that one feels happy immediately upon having taken an enormous pewp. Happiness accompanies the end of digestion and unhappiness accompanies activity of digestion.

    But isn’t a person happy when a delicious ice cream is placed in front of him and he is about to eat it? That action has not taken place and yet he is already happy. But he is only happy in a certain respect: an action that he desires has just completed (the ice cream was placed in front of him). All you have to do to test whether that is enough is place a clear glass between him and the ice cream, and see how long he keeps smiling. Happiness becomes unhappiness, unhappiness produces the removal of the glass, and then happiness returns.

    Let’s stay with the ice cream example. The ice cream is placed before the person, and then he is happy. Is that his goal? Has he reached his goal? Stop him from eating the ice cream – unhappiness returns. He has been cheated. But if the goal had been the feeling that he felt upon having the ice cream put in front of him then he was not cheated! After all, he felt that happiness. If that was the goal, he arrived at it, so he was not cheated. Well, he was cheated, because the happiness that he felt was not the goal. The goal was to eat the ice cream.

  4. From an evolutionary perspective it seems like it’s useful to have happiness as a motivator which basically means:

    a.) That happiness be pleasant and that we believe that achieving it correlates with things that will increase our reproductive success

    2.) That we not be happy too often. Ie That there be regular incentive to seek out those things that make us happy.

    So doesn’t it seem possible that we do want happiness but that we are deliberately built to not realise what will bring us lasting happiness?

    Or is that just a silly speculation based on ignorance of how such things work?

  5. It’s possible the conscious part of our minds think they want happiness and indeed does, but some other parts of our mind are designed to pursue other goals and often succeed in pushing us that way.

    Helpful to use the “coalition of interests” model of the mind here.

  6. The fact that we watch TV and eat chocolate shows we like pleasure, but seems less clearly evidence we like happiness. People often choose pleasure that makes them less happy in the long run.

  7. I think most people, especially utilitarians, use happiness as a catch-all term for desired states of mind. Clearly we like many different flavours of positive affect and I don’t know anyone who would say that ‘happiness’ defined narrowly is the only one we work to achieve.

  8. The idea that it’s all about happiness is similar to the idea that it’s all about selfishness. You may know the routine: the most generous person in the world gives to charity because it makes him (the giver) feel good, so his ultimate goal is to make himself feel good. An example of this line of thinking is Mark Twain’s essay, “What is Man”.

    Against this, I would argue that the mere fact that B follows A does not mean that B is the goal of A. We can discover whether B is the goal of A in the following way: suppose we offer the person a way to obtain B without the necessity of obtaining A. His response would reveal whether B was in fact the goal of A.

    For example, suppose that I am walking home from somewhere. My next door neighbor offers to give me a lift, allowing me to obtain B (reaching home) without the necessity of obtaining A (walking all the way). Assuming there are no other significant factors affecting my decision, then my response will reveal whether the purpose of the walk is entirely to reach home, or whether the walk has some other (maybe additional) purpose, such as to get exercise.

    To cut to the chase, then where B is happiness and A is some accomplishment that produces happiness, for many values of A which are important, people would refuse a shortcut to B. This demonstrates that, even if happiness is sometimes the goal, it is not always the goal. I’ll give one example.

    Suppose you are a parent and your child is very ill. Your doctor offers you two options. He can either save the child, which will make you happy, or he can perform a subtle operation on you which will make you be happy that the child is dead. Either way, you will be happy. Surely most any parent will choose the first option, and this reveals that happiness is not the parent’s goal.

    But this leaves us with a puzzle. If happiness is not the parent’s goal, then why is the parent’s choice one which will, as it happens, produce happiness? Is this mere coincidence? I don’t think it’s a coincidence. But if not a coincidence, then what is the non-coincidental relationship between the parent’s choice and the parent’s happiness? There is, in fact, a relationship or two between choice and happiness, but it is not (or not always) that the purpose of the choice is to produce happiness. One relationship between choice and happiness is that happiness reinforces behavior going forward, and we end up engaging in behavior which was reinforced. The current instance of the behavior in turn once again produces happiness for the same reasons it did before, whatever they were, but the happiness that results from the current instance of the behavior need not be the goal of the behavior; the behavior is after all already reinforced, and engaged in because of that. Another relationship between choice and happiness is that we sometimes make choices by first imagining the outcome of a given choice, and then making the choice on the basis of our current emotional reaction. So, applied to this example, we imagine ourselves hating our child and being glad that it is dead. This imagined future horrifies us (right now) and so we decide against it.

  9. Re happiness as motivation: it is surprising to me that depressed people don’t seem to do a lot of change their circumstances, while happy people are some of the most active ones I know. On the surface it seems happiness/depression are not very effective at motivating useful behaviour, so I think I must be missing something.

    • Robert – A depressed person is not merely unhappy, but more specifically, is impaired in his ability to become happy, to enjoy activities. The problem with a depressed person isn’t merely that he is unhappy at a given moment, but that it is very difficult for him to become happy. Since depression is connected with lack of motivation, this suggests in fact that there is a link between the ability to be happy and motivation.

  10. A few weeks ago, Louisiana popped up as the state with the most “Happiness” (survey taken pre-Katrina).

    I grew up in New Orleans, but I haven’t lived there in years and years. Apparently where I’m living now isn’t nearly as happy, but NOTHING would get me to move back to Louisiana.

    Maybe I want to feel like I’m growing, and not that I’m happily stagnate.

  11. Katja: It is probably useful to distinguish happiness and pleasure. Many people would claim that the life filled with the most pleasure isn’t the happiest life.

    Some of the lack of rational pleasure seeking could be explained by irrationality and weakness of will. Note that people don’t act to maximize long term sex/romance/status/money either.

    Robin: according to the DRM studies watching TV doesn’t even give that much short-term happiness.

    Rob: The point of depression might precisely be to foster inactivity, according to the rank theory of depression.

    • Not sure I know the difference – if I’m going to differentiate mental states more than positive vs. negative there seem no particular boundaries to do it by. Maybe my mental experience is just strange.

      • Yeah, I equate them myself – I’m a hedonist about happiness. But the concept “happy” is used in many different ways. And many people, perhaps most, have non-hedonistic conceptions about happiness.

        Happiness need not even be a mental state. Some would not consider a person enjoying sadistic pleasure, or pleasure based on false believes as happy. Other include objective elements like preference-satisfaction or meaningfulness as components of happiness (see eg

        Further, many happiness researchers have non-hedonistic theories of happiness. Seligman for instance believes that happiness has three components: pleasure, meaningfulness and flow.

        Personally, I prefer speaking about things like pleasure and pain rather than happiness because that way one can avoid a lot of definitional and taxonomic work.

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  13. Katja, did you happen to see Yvain’s post to Less Wrong on Liking vs. Wanting? It seems to dovetail nicely with yours.

  14. Personally I would define happiness as basically “satisfaction”, and distinct from pleasure. But then you can maybe define it as happiness/satisfaction causing pleasure, so there’s again the question of which is the goal.

  15. Seems that human nature is the product of evolution. What we want is that which contributes to the perpetuation of the genes, acquiring things and status enhances survival and reproduction. The conscious mind’s concept of happiness is nice, but as pointed out in the article is not what we really do. Why not? Maybe because the conscious happiness is not the fundamental urge that motivates us.

  16. “we don’t accidentally watch a TV show or eat chocolate for long before noticing whether we enjoy it.”

    I think that people do all the time.

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