Happiness Is Elusive

Follow-up to WeDontNeedDrugsToBeHappy?. I think happiness is elusive. Assuming we take a Darwinian model of human behavior, there is no reproductive advantage in long-term happiness because a happy person just sits there and does nothing. Our brain will simply up the ante when we achieve something that makes us happy. And, I think this fits with observations about human nature in general. The rich gripe almost as much as the poor about something or other.
Your nature is up to you. If you care, you can learn and train yourself to get off the merry-go-round. People have been doing it for thousands of years.

There is no one magical solution for everyone. Sure, we find tricks to increase it a little bit, but I am not sure it stays that way in the long run. I suspect we are "recalibrated" eventually, perhaps slowly enough that we don't notice, until perhaps say a mid-life crisis kicks in.

The mind, we have found lately, is quite plastic. You can change it if you wish. From Illusions: Argue for your limitations and they are yours. Everything is not a trick or just temporary respite from ennui.

You sound a bit insistent for somebody who allegedly found the secret of true happiness.


Boredom caused by the need for variety helps us avoid local maxima of happiness.

Perhaps because you were spoiled by too much variety as a kid. In harshly disciplined cultures, often people learn to tolerate repetition and regimen so much that they almost expect it. Not that I necessarily recommend it, though. However, this also suggests that certain expectation levels are set when we are young, and we can deviate from those less as we get older. In other words, perhaps the calibration needle moves slower to "normalize" our mood as we get older. Thus, it is harder to adjust to new environments.


It's funny...just now spending some time reading the comments on this page, then looking up various definitions and historical references to happiness has somehow made me feel happier.


Is it normal to be happy with your lot? I don't consider myself particularly unusual, but I'd say most of the time I'm pretty unhappy. MyMyersBriggsTypeIs INTP (sometimes ENTP) which suggests I should expect this. :)


Happiness is overrated. When you're in the MentalStateCalledFlow, you don't think about whether you're happy or not; it becomes a non-issue. Given a choice, I'd rather seek flow than happiness.


Why should we "[assume] a Darwinian model of human behavior" and try to explain every damn thing in terms of some guess about what its "reproductive advantage" should be? Sometimes such arguments are useful - but even Freud admitted that "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

It tends to fit actual observations. Very few people who get really rich suddenly decide they are satisfied and stop (except possibly near retirement age). Studies of drug addiction also tend to match this view: The "happy centers" sensitivity to "happy juices" tends to diminish over time such that either happiness feelings are lost or a bigger dose of happy juice is needed to keep the same level as before. However, if we want to keep the same level of happiness, then we need an infinitely increasing dose of happy juice, which is not possible. Another way of saying this is that the brain adjusts the level happiness to average "neutral" over the medium-run run. "Good" signals will push it up temporarily, but only temporarily. The more "good" signals it gets in a short period of time, the less sensitive it becomes to good signals and thus settles back to neutral. After a while without "good" signals, it's sensitivity grows back to normal again.

We can look at it in terms of 3 variables over time:

The rules tend to be:

("Sad" events do the same, but in the opposite direction)

Thus, a lot of nearby E's will lower the affect later E's have on H. A high frequency of E's will eventually not be enough to keep H significantly above neutral. H becomes "desensitized" to E's and requires a rest period to return to normal response. A simulation implementation would probably involve running-average kinds of logic and proximity-based curve filters.

-- top

You're making statements about the biochemistry of neurotransmitters and their receptors. (By the way, you don't have to act like you're explaining neuroscience to a five year old - I have actually studied biology, thanks.)

You are (probably) not the only reader here. If I can explain the same concept without introducing terms such as neurotransmitters, it makes it that much more readable. Perhaps I should have put the term in parenthesis or a kind of footnote.

Where's the connection with "Darwinian models" and "reproductive advantage"? It seems to be in vogue these days to claim that such-and-such a behavior has been evolutionarily selected for. (I wonder why... perhaps it's psychologists trying to build up hard-science credibility for their theories by handwaving about evolution.) Humans are great at making up stories to explain "why" something evolved the way it did - and they love to make up these stories, because it makes them think they understand what's going on, and provides a pleasing connection with their own personal "observations about human nature in general" (words of the original poster at the top of the page). Yet these claims are fundamentally impossible to back up with genuine, direct experimental evidence. One might do a study and find that unhappy people fuck more - but this is not evidence that there is an evolutionary advantage to the transitoriness of happiness. The usefulness of a scientific theory does not lie in how well (we think) it explains the observed data. One can always think up plenty of ways of "explaining" some phenomenon, which are to varying degrees pleasing for reasons other than the fact that they fit the data. The real test of a theory is whether it has predictive power, and whether it provides insight beyond "explaining the data". So I guess what I am asking is, what substantive knowledge do we gain by trying to explain things such as happiness in evolutionary terms?

Okay, the evolutionary connection is indeed a lot of speculation. However, it does not make evolutionary sense even if we approach from a simpler standpoint, like a fish hunting for food, to have a condition of long-term happiness. Put another way, I don't see a working model of a lasting happy fish or human. If you can propose one, that would be great. I am simply comparing the available models. To motivate the creature to acquire yet more even after a few satisfactory hunts, their H levels would have to drop soon after digestion is finished. Evolution would result in rather greedy creatures that are never satisfied. The biggest fish would still want to get bigger because there is no evolutionary advantage to stopping after reaching a plateau (an oversimplification because sometimes there is a practical limit, such as a fat gazell not being able to run from lions). Note that greed does not necessarily have to be about things, but can also be about gaining social status in more socially-dependent creatures.

Of course a well-fed fish still has an upper size limit (see below), but if we move the model to humans, then there are other things besides food in which to expand into. This includes more social status, more "stuff", and in some societies, more wives.

Back to the well-fed fish, it would probably focus more on avoiding predators than finding food, which still can be a time-consuming task. The fear of being eaten then becomes the primary motivator for not doing nothing. It can roughly be modeled as a queue of priorities. If one item ceases being a priority, there is always a next one. (There is a term for this in sociology that escapes me right now. Anybody?)

[Note to self: I need to refactor this]


Watching nature films, it appears that alpha males do relax a bit after they reach alpha status. Number-2 does seem to try harder. However, whenever the alpha-male's status is at risk of being challenged, he tends to become more active and more aggressive. But in human societies, almost nobody is an alpha male (except maybe in their minds). For all practical purposes, there's always somebody better or with more status.

But I agree that above model may need some fine-tuned adjustments for cases where "coasting" may be economically advantageous to an individual. But these are merely case-specific adjustments to the model.

Keep in mind that "resting" is also often driven by pain ("tired") as much as "being satisfied". In a tired bear, the reverse incentive ("pain") signal may simply be overwhelming the "find food" desire, and thus the bear rests for a while.


I propose the following: The devil is in the definition. How does one define the undefinable? Happiness is not a state of being as one might suppose, but rather a moment (short or sustained) of realization. When one realizes that things are good, that equates to happiness. Too often people are confused by what happiness is. The best description I can muster is: "good". I say good, because most of society wants euphoria or perfection to be the definition of happiness, but these are incorrect. Happiness is simple, not complicated, just as good is simple and not complicated. Perfection and Euphoria are very much complicated and very subjective, and certainly not sustainable. One does not have to be constantly pushing forward, or constantly looking for some new thing that will bring happiness, but quite the opposite really. Often times people have to have comparison in order to have realization. Experiencing or witnessing something horrific, will often lead to the realization of happiness. Settle for good, and you will find that you will be happy when you realize what you have is not bad. My conclusion is that happiness is not elusive at all. What is elusive, is the ability to recognize it.

I attempted above to build a kind of mechanical numerical model of happiness to avoid definition issues. It is meant mostly to study a concept and perhaps may not reflect reality very well because happiness is difficult to measure and thus difficult to test against a model. However, the model is based on general concepts of natural selection. Long-term happiness may not increase reproduction. Males are always hunting for new ways to get sexual jollies, for example. This is why the porn industry keeps making money off new content despite large existing libraries. (Porn kind of short-circuits evolved tendencies by "cheating" the sensory system.)

["Males are always hunting for new ways to get sexual jollies, for example."]

[I find porn completely unsatisfying, like "driving" a cardboard car or going on "holiday" by looking at vacation brochures. It's easy to have sex with real women, and far, far, far more enjoyable than movies and pictures. The problem, I suspect, is that the average male is so self-absorbed, or so uninteresting and repulsive (i.e, obsessed with sports, violence, etc. -- note that appearance is largely irrelevant) to females that there's no hope of mating.]

This almost sounds like bragging: "if you were wonderful like me, you wouldn't have that problem". Marriage, religion, and fear of disease can also play a role. And maybe some of us are rather repulsive; "computer people" are not known for their general personal appeal. But these are digressing from the original point. In general, men prefer variety and new partners and/or stimulation.

[It should, I think, be considered highly worrying when mentioning something entirely natural, normal, and pervasive, which any healthy individual should expect -- i.e., having sex with another of a preferred gender -- is considered bragging. Fear of disease is a reasonable rationale, but it's especially worrying when marriage and religion appear to be used as a justification for "enjoying" pornography. I hope I've misinterpreted something.]


The biggest problems that keep people from happiness are: "taking things for granted"; "unrealistic expectations", and "not knowing what ones purpose is". The talk of sexual gratification, sexual gratification is only temporary bliss, no matter how one achieves it. Real happiness is doing what nature intended us to do, which is procreation and then protecting and teaching that which we procreated. KeepItSimpleStupid like: does one have food?; does one have shelter?; does one have safety?; does one have someone to share life with? When one gets older, then "has one done something good for the world that will make a difference (offspring plays into this, if one has improved over one's self)? Is one raising successfully one's children to be better then themselves? Sometimes we do not realize all that we have/are achieving, because we are always being hit by the next big crisis/hurtle.


CategoryPhilosophy

EditText of this page (last edited November 9, 2009) or FindPage with title or text search