Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Things We Want -- We Want Them

In his popular book Stumbling On Happiness, Dan Gilbert argues that we're pretty bad at predicting how happy and unhappy things are going to make us.

He makes a persuasive case. You might have thought losing your job, or a limb, or going to jail would make you really unhappy, but you'd be overstating the case. After a little time of adjustment, most people go back to being about as happy as they were before these things happened to them.

Conversely, you might have thought winning the lottery or finally hooking up with those Brazilian twins might make you really happy, but you'd be overstating the case there, too.

Interestingly, most people expect to regret action more than inaction, and so take a sort of cautious approach to things. But in fact, people are much more likely to regret inaction (p. 179).

OK. What are we supposed to do with this information?

Here Gilbert gets a little vague. If you want to know how happy or unhappy something will make you, you're more likely to get an accurate answer if you ask someone who has been through a comparable experience than if you just try to project yourself into the future.

But then what? In the beginning of the book, Gilbert makes a case for happiness as the main goal of human life. He implies that not only do we seek happiness above all else, we can't help but do so. To those who say we ought to seek something else, say virtue, Gilbert says the proposal must be that virtue will make us happy, and then happiness is revealed to have been the true goal all along (p. 36).

If you put these ideas together, you get a really surprising and weird set of conclusions, though Gilbert never draws them. What you get is: if you desparately want to keep your job, or your limbs, or not go to jail, well, you're making a kind of mistake. You probably shouldn't worry about these things so much.

Don't worry about marrying the man of your dreams, or about staying healthy. And don't worry about having children either -- people with children tend to be less happy too, at least while the kids are small.

These conclusions make no sense to me. The things we want -- we want them. Not just because we expect them to make us happy, but because wanting is a kind of elemental human activity.

And if we desperately want, say, our loved ones to stay alive, I can't help but feel that we are right to do so. Even if their deaths would, in the long run, not make us much less happy.

Our desperate desires for the continued existence of the people we love, for our own health and security, for our freedom, maybe for children, are good, because these things are worth wanting. If they don't make us happy, the problem seems rather to be with happiness than with wanting.

So I couldn't help but read the whole book as a kind of reductio of the initial premise that the main goal in life must be happiness.

What are the alternatives? Gilbert is a little snippy about philosophers, who he things have muddled the happiness-concept waters. "For two thousand years," he writes, "philosophers have felt compelled to identify happiness with virtue because that is the sort of happiness they thing we ought to want" (p. 36).

This isn't right: almost no philosophers identify happiness with virtue. But they have been going on about wanting and happiness for centuries. It seems to me what they've been trying to do is to figure out whether there's anything interesting to say about the difference between what we do want and what we ought to want. And what it might be.

Gilbert writes as if what we want is happiness, but his examples seem to show that this is false. What we want are new cars, clothes, love, sex, health, and so on and so on, regardless of whether these things make us happy.

So maybe what he means is that we ought to want what makes us happy. To me, the examples seem to show this is false as well: of course we ought to want love, and the health and freedom of ourselves and those around us, whether or not it makes us happy.

I'm inclined to say these reflections show that when you're trying to figure out what you ought to want, reflections on desires are going to be a better starting point than reflections on happiness.

If this is right, the practical advice to trust the happiness judgments of others is misguided.

If you're going to be asking advice, ask what others judge worth wanting, not what makes them happy. The answers will probably be love, health, family, friends, and fun. Maybe sex with Brazilian twins. All the things that Gilbert says won't really make us much happier.

But who cares? They're worth wanting all the same.


Charlie said...

I think humans have many strong forces directing their behavior(which is not exactly breaking news, of course), which leads to the confounding, contradictory, often self-defeating reality of human behavior.

First, there are genetics. Evolutionary psychology is a disputed topic, but I think most people would agree that 'pushing the genes forward' accounts for at least some things people do. To me, that's the most plausible reason why people will so militantly preserve, protect and defend their children's welfare (as well as why they have children in the first place.)

Then you have "happiness." I think humans aren't necessarily programmed to be happy--they are hardwired to survive. So people are basically cautious, suspicious of new things and wedded to what has worked in the past. Even when repeated experience might show the old way won't make them happy.

But human reasoning powers allow human behavior to get out ahead of the genetic curve. We can say "yes, why are we doing this?" even when we feel bodily impulses to do it. So that's why I think pushing the genes forward is an incomplete explanation for human behavior. And why the "pursuit of happiness" plays the relatively large role that it does for people.

I would also add that I agree with Gilbert that "virtue" is really "happiness" in disguise. My basic feeling is that "virtue" is just what people have found works well in the past, and over time it gets infused with some higher meaning that obscures its essentially practical origins.

hithere said...

There's some relatively simple (simplistic?) things to add to this interesting conversation: for one, happiness is v. weird itself, as a concept. I can think of lots of things that make me happy that are very different from each other: short-term indulgence (esp. when long-term contentment is quite different -- "OH GO AHEAD AND DO IT!"), but also triumphing over short-term indulgence ("No! no! in the long run THAT DOES NOT LEAD TO HAPPINESS. -- I avoided it, whew!") But also just the cessation of something painful. Or the near-miss of something painful. Something unexpectedly funny. According to the folks in the neurological labs at the U. of Wisconsin, Buddhist monks who have been celibate and meditating regularly for, say, 30 years, are the happiest people they've ever encountered, at least as the brain-scans identify and light up happiness centers in the brain . . . (I have no idea where these are or how they measure them, except that it has something to do with blood flow to different brain locations.) Another simple-minded query: who defines whether one is happy or not?

Noko Marie said...

Charlie, yeah, it's definitely true that our impulses get in the way of our long-term satisfactions. I agree with Hithere, though, that it's not clear whether impulive pleasures or long-term satisfactions are the more important ingredient of happiness, or when one is and the other is, or whatever, so I'm not sure what conclusion to draw from this.

Hithere, I'm totally with you on happiness, very weird concept. How do you measure? Gilbert tries to address this in his book, and basically he argues that if you ask people how happy something made them, you won't get reliable indicator answers from one or two people, but you will if you ask tons of people. It's not convincing to me -- the same problem you're mentioning seems to arise whether it's a few people or a lot.