"Miswanting": Do You Think You Know What Makes You Happy?

Reply Tue 9 Sep, 2003 05:08 pm

Very, very cool article in the NYT Mag:

"The Futile Pursuit of Happiness" by Jon Gertner

I have been trying to summarize the most interesting points, but it is so long, and there are so many of them, that I have just deleted most of what was turning out to be a very long post. I'll just say what came to mind for me when I read it, and will provide some excerpts later if it looks like people don't have the patience to read the whole article.

[quote]''Happiness is a signal that our brains use to motivate us to do certain things. And in the same way that our eye adapts to different levels of illumination, we're designed to kind of go back to the happiness set point. Our brains are not trying to be happy. Our brains are trying to regulate us.''[/quote]

My husband really, really likes to have a clean house. He thinks that he will be blissfully happy if things are absolutely, perfectly clean. The thing is, after about 11 years of knowing him, I have seen that the distance to perfect cleanliness has remained constant, through many variations in actual circumstances. When we were DINKS, with both time and money, we had a stupendously clean house and yard. It was quite a challenge to find any dust, everything worked perfectly, etc., etc. His pressing projects at that time were things like sanding down a few millimeters from the door so that it closed more smoothly. But they were pressing. He HAD to do these things.

Now, we have a kid, we live in an old kinda rickety house, we're incredibly busy, and there are genuine messes. You can find dust without much problem at all, the downstairs bathroom hasn't worked for a while. His level of compulsion to clean is about exactly the same, while there is much more that actually "needs" to be done. And he is "satisfied" (if temporarily) at a level of cleanliness much lower than before.

I have long noted this, when he starts one of his urgent, "We just have to do A,B, and C, and then everything will be fine" lobbies. I say, "If it's actually urgent, fine. But everything is always urgent to the exact same degree, whether it's fixing the bathroom or dusting the tops of the doorways. If we actually do this, you need to be SATISFIED for a while, instead of just coming up with another A, B and C a day or so after we finish this campaign." He recognizes this and agrees with it.

This whole theory brought all of that into focus -- that he thinks he knows what will make him happy, but that incredibly ornery organ, the brain, has different ideas. That we always feel like if we had just ___ more money, we'd be fine, and have felt like that from when we were living on something like $10,000/ year to when we were DINKs making far more than that to now when we're making much less again. "Our brains are not trying to be happy. Our brains are trying to regulate us.''

Definitely read the hot/cold stuff, too.
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Reply Tue 9 Sep, 2003 09:31 pm
It's a great article! I'm tellin' ya!!

Excerpts tomorrow.
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Reply Tue 9 Sep, 2003 09:49 pm
I see that attitude a lot. My sister has it bad. Can't read an article right now, sorry, too tired.
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Reply Wed 10 Sep, 2003 08:33 am
What's Happiness?
Hi Sozobe,
I'm glad that you brought up the topic of Happiness and the futility of its pursuit.
I'm also in the process of changing my concept of Happiness after reading the book "God Part (Of The Brain)" by Matthew Alper in which he states that Happiness is nothing more than the alleviation of pain. When we suffer hunger pains we're "happy" when we have a slice of bread, maybe with some butter. Your hubby is happy when the doortops are dusted clean because his pain of knowing that they were dusty is alleviated (temporarily).
Thanks for your insight,
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Reply Wed 10 Sep, 2003 08:37 am
Hi Dan, and welcome!

Interesting points about what "happiness" really is.

One point from the article (did you read the whole thing? Here's a gold star for ya if you did. Wink) is that it is hard to be in the field (studying happiness) and not lean leftwards politically.

While walking in Pittsburgh one afternoon, Loewenstein tells me that he doesn't see how anybody could study happiness and not find himself leaning left politically; the data make it all too clear that boosting the living standards of those already comfortable, such as through lower taxes, does little to improve their levels of well-being, whereas raising the living standards of the impoverished makes an enormous difference.

Basically, it seems like there are actual barometers of happiness having to do with having your needs met -- if you have enough to eat, if you have adequate shelter, if you have adequate clothing -- but once those basic needs are met, it has more to do with your happiness set point than how many perks you have.
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Reply Wed 10 Sep, 2003 08:51 am
I most certainly will read the article you referenced.
You're right on the money about happiness being getting our needs satisfied. However, we must remember that most humans always aspire for either more or something better.
Maslow's Hierarchy Of Needs points out our need for spiritual satisfaction, for example.
Thanks for your welcome message. Great topics here!
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Reply Wed 10 Sep, 2003 08:57 am
Dan, yep, lots of interesting stuff here!

True about spiritual satisfaction. There are more needs, actual needs, than just food clothing shelter. But what the article describes are studies that find that many things that we THINK we need/will make us happy -- a brand-new car, a big house with a big yard -- have a transient effect.

''Happiness is a signal that our brains use to motivate us to do certain things. And in the same way that our eye adapts to different levels of illumination, we're designed to kind of go back to the happiness set point. Our brains are not trying to be happy. Our brains are trying to regulate us.'' In this respect, the tendency toward adaptation suggests why the impact bias is so pervasive. As Tim Wilson says: ''We don't realize how quickly we will adapt to a pleasurable event and make it the backdrop of our lives. When any event occurs to us, we make it ordinary. And through becoming ordinary, we lose our pleasure.''

It is easy to overlook something new and crucial in what Wilson is saying. Not that we invariably lose interest in bright and shiny things over time -- this is a long-known trait -- but that we're generally unable to recognize that we adapt to new circumstances and therefore fail to incorporate this fact into our decisions. So, yes, we will adapt to the BMW and the plasma TV, since we adapt to virtually everything. But Wilson and Gilbert and others have shown that we seem unable to predict that we will adapt. Thus, when we find the pleasure derived from a thing diminishing, we move on to the next thing or event and almost certainly make another error of prediction, and then another, ad infinitum.
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Craven de Kere
Reply Wed 10 Sep, 2003 09:27 am
Very interesting question. Lots of times I have to tell the teeming hordes of wimmenfolk to stop wanting me as I have not the time to satify them all and I want them to be happy.

But at other times I make silly remarks to bookmark a thread.

Ahhl be bahk.
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Reply Wed 10 Sep, 2003 09:35 am
Hey Sozobe, I read that essay on Sunday. It's a good one. You've got the meat of it, too, in one word: "Miswanting" can be a real problem if you let it. It is such a truism that it is easy to ignore.

Of course, we use our determination of what-we-think-we-want whenever we make important life choices (as well as all the little ones). As an aside, I've told my kids is that *if* they can just figure out what they really REALLY want, they will be happy. I think it is the hardest things to figure out. They're influenced by their friends, TV, magazines, the mall, movies. It's an overload of choices -- some that seem unattainable and therefore, maybe even more appealling. Gilbert & Loewenstein's idea that maybe the choices don't make as much difference as predicted is heartening, whether it is that we can't foretell how we'll feel afterwards or we're more adaptable than we imagine.

I wonder how much earlier generations worried about being happy, though the revolutionary right to the "pursuit of happiness" does make me think they did. Our obsession may be genetic, maybe it is the motivator that makes us tick, as they said. But today there are so many more choices: advertisements -- commercials -- email spam, and more that all tell us we're missing out. If only we had this, or that. Geez, go through any issue of the New Yorker and the available routes to "happiness" fill every colored full page advertisement and are along the edges of every text page. It's important, I think, to filter that out. Good to know what is available, but bad to let a clever advertisement influence you.

About the need to have a clean house... remind E.G. of the old saw that nobody wants a gravestone that says "and his house was always clean." (Errrr, there's that predictive element coming into play again.)
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Reply Wed 10 Sep, 2003 09:43 am
I liked the article, too, Soz - where's me gold star?

I have learned that the new thingy does not make you as happy as you thought for as long as you thought through experience - but, I must say, that many of my "thingies" DO make me pretty happy for a long time!

My view, for instance, is a joy whenever I see it - the joy does not diminish, unless I am really sad - but even then it helps!

My bits and bobs of art, and my sculptures and such remain a joy whenever I look at them.

Driving my better than ever before car (before it was stolen) gave enormous pleasure - and its not quite as good replacement continues to do so. (It is 11 years old - so you will see that I am very easily pleased in this regard!)

Good coffee, nice food, weather, skies, smells give much pleasure - consistently. Perhaps I don't adapt as much as many?

I DO over-estimate misery from adversity, though - very clearly - and give myself needless angst.

I, like you, found the politics of happiness research interesting - at least to see it tabulated was - I think it is one of those things we know.
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Reply Wed 10 Sep, 2003 09:45 am
Well, many of us do!
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Reply Wed 10 Sep, 2003 09:56 am
Babbling on..... you know, as a very weelowan, I noticed that lots of adults (and more poised and sophisticated little kids than I was - I have just never done poise - though I wanted to) became blase to lots of things that gave me great excitement.

There was a particularly painful incident, when I was 10, when a uni student daughter of friends of my parents offered to take me and a friend of mine to the zoo.

Delighted, I bounced and frisked my way around the place - having a long calling conversation with a puma, managing to get my hands in to scratch the chins of the wild dogs and generally being my manic self. My friend walked sedately, behaved in a mature and sensible manner, kept clean and was a general angel.

My horror, humiliation, and anger was intense when I discovered the whole thing was a set-up - that she was doing an essay for her psychology course on the behaviour of ten year olds at the zoo!

Mortified, I compared my childish behaviour with the maturity and sophistication of my friend! As I thought about it, though, I decided that I had had a lot more fun - and that blase-ness was the enemy of joy - I decided that I would, to the best of my ability, not "get used to" things that I had delighted in. And I haven't!!! Perhaps, though, I was not constitutionally prone to habituation and accommodation - and it can work negatively too. However - I love that I take the joy I do in simple things.

God - I'm boring!
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Reply Wed 10 Sep, 2003 10:12 am
Ah, well, Our Dear Wabbit, you've a talent for babbling on, and it usually makes good reading.

Miss Bunny has brought up an issue which i have pondered long, if not well. That is "artificial innocence." I long ago decided that one can decide to suspend wonder, or suspend scepticism. I would have been delighted to have accompanied the WeeLowan to the zoo, and have enjoyed her enjoying herself. We can choose to resurrect our sense of wonder, of silliness and non-reflective joy.

I'm with the Wabbit, to hell with bein' serphisticated and blase, lets get silly . . .
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Reply Wed 10 Sep, 2003 12:08 pm
I think the techniques for pursuing happiness may change with age. I'm in my 60's, closer to wisdom than to folly, and find more pleasure in eliminating irritants and adjusting my perspective than in purchasing happiness tools.

(Of course, I'm eagerly awaiting my September paperback shipment from Amazon, but circumstances alter cases.)

Once upon a time there was a peasant whom we will call Ms. P, Perhaps she was Irish, perhaps Jewish, perhaps a woman of the Southern mountains. In any case she was a simple woman with a good man and wonderful children and a house with a roof that kept out the rain and kept in the warmth of the fire.

Still, this house was small.

So Ms. P. fussed and fretted and her nerves were all a-twang with wanting.

After spending time in misery, Ms. P. went to the priest/rabbi/minister/Wiccan adept for advice.

Ah, said the Generic Wise One. "Go home and move the cow inside."

And she did.

Week after week she complained and every time she asked the Generic Wise One for advice, another beast or two were brought in from outside and given shelter under the rooftree. There was a pair of sheep and a trio of pigs and a flock of active chickens......

Finally, at her wit's end, Ms. P cried, "Enough! I've had enough of wise advice!"

The cow and the sheep and the pigs and the chickens went back to the byre and the cote and the sty and the coop. Ms. P. gave a great sigh of relief and set about cleaning her spacious house.

Only 15 years ago I noticed that while I complained bitterly about nasty, rainy weather, I didn't devote nearly as much time to relishing brisk, bright days with sunshine.

I've also accumulated some useful tag phrases:

This, too, shall pass.

Least said, soonest mended.

'Tis an ill wind that blows no good.

There is nothing, good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

Every cloud has a silver lining (although I'm never sure and certain about the differences between silver linings and sour grapes.)

When all else fails, I can pick up a good book and escape.

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Reply Wed 10 Sep, 2003 04:43 pm
Great article. I'll be back.

Just one thing, for starters: the brain is not a tool for happiness, or for knowledge; I think it isn't either a "regulator", but a tool for survival.

We've learned through culture, that living and surviving two quite different things.
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Reply Wed 10 Sep, 2003 04:47 pm
When yer happy and ya know it clap yer hands!
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Reply Wed 10 Sep, 2003 04:56 pm
However, Fbaezer, one of the tasks of the healthy brain IS emotional regulation - a skill we learn, if we are lucky, in our infant years...
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Reply Wed 10 Sep, 2003 05:01 pm
Another phrase I liked was "psychological immune system." That's perfect -- I do things to strengthen my PIS (hm) and there are things that weaken it, and if something happens when it's weaker, it is more likely to have a major (negative) impact.

Great responses so far! Would like to comment in more depth, am in type feverishly and run mode... one thing I can say for sure, committees do NOT tend to contribute to happiness... Evil or Very Mad
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Reply Wed 10 Sep, 2003 06:36 pm
I'll go little by little. The easy parts first.

dlowan: emotional regulation skills are survival skills, aren't they? The target is survival, not regulation.

On the "leftist" side of happiness search.

There used to be a BIG discussion about it among theoretical economists in the late XIX Century, after "indifference curves", who theoretically measured levels of satisfaction, were invented.

For to purchase any commodity, any person has to get more satisfaction from consuming that commodity than from keeping the money. Obviously, it should seem, the more you consume, the less extra satisfaction you get from each extra amount of purchase (the first loaf of bread would give you, and your hungry belly, more satisfaction than the second one, even if both loaves have the same price).
If you follow, through logic, that line of reasoning, an equitable income distribution would maximize overall social satisfaction.
But there are some nuances:
"What tells me that I do not derive more satisfaction from this smoked salmon than the peasant does from his loaf of bread? If I am more sophisticate and knowledgeable I can get an incredible amount of satisfaction by owning a Picasso. You cannot just add personal satisfactions of people with different tastes and different levels of emotional reaction! Why should you give more money to the poor and less to me?" -complained the rich man.
He was given a confortable answer by Wilfrido Pareto, a Swiss economist-philosopher: Since you cannot add personal satisfactions, overall satisfaction will grow only when one society member gets more satisfaction and no other member gets less satisfaction. That is called the "Pareto Optimum".
Modern (non keynesian) economics is founded on the Pareto Optimum pillar.

The logic of modern economics (and our economic system) turns its back on happiness.
"They always promise a jar of marmalade for tomorrow, never deliver marmalade for today", said Keynes (more or less).

So fellers, spend your life industriously, and don't dwell on silly thoughts, threads and sites like mine, sozobe's and craven's.
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Reply Wed 10 Sep, 2003 06:54 pm
I'm reading the article now - not done yet - but one of the first things that springs to mind is how this research, in part, seems to explain why people move into other relationships when they're already in decent, but no longer exciting, relationships. The next one, he'll make me happy. The one after that, he'll make me happier. The one after that will make me happiest, and it will be forever.

Isn't this research a cousin of 'the grass isn't always greener' ? Or maybe it's greener, but it turns out green doesn't really matter that much in the long run.

An interesting area of study.

Off to read more.
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