Sunday, April 01, 2007

On Happiness

I just read a really good article about the link between material wealth and happiness.

The crux of the argument is that it's changes to our life situation that we respond to with either happinesor sadness, rather than the life situation itself. Based on my foray into the psychology of rational choice and decision making, there are a number of situations where that's actually the case. For the math geeks, it's the "delta" that causes the reaction.

This makes a certain amount of sense sense, particularly from the material side of the equation. After all, it's not like we're a thousand times as happy as people who live in under-developed nations, despite having over a thousand times as much wealth. Nor are the wealthiest people in Canada 100 (or 1000) times as happy than their poorer counterparts.

However, I don't buy the argument that it's only the change that matters. We also rate our happiness based on our relative achievements (or assets), as compared to those around us. That is to say that someone with $100 to spend when everyone else has $5 is more apt to be happy than someone with $200 who's surrounded by people spending $500.

This may serve to highlight the dark underbelly of the Internet and globalization. Whereas once you could be the best storytellers (or singer, or musician) in your town and make a decent living, now that role is increasingly reserved for a few talented storytellers (or etc.) whose work can be exported around the globe with ease.

In short, all the "small ponds" that the relatively "big fish" used to enjoy inhabiting are now flooding together. For a business-based example, think about all the corner stores that Walmart's put under over the years.

In many ways, our emotions are like compass needles that tell us where we should be going. The compass points towards food when we're hungry and towards bed when we're sleepy. If the needle always pointed towards happy, then we'd pretty much be stuck in the same place, doing the same thing.

From an evolutionary standpoint, we'd probably not still be around. After having outfitted our caves with a few pelts and some mutton, we would've just stayed there forever. That's fine in the short term, but tends to be problematic when the cave floods and the snows arrive. Hence, we have that urge to move ever forwards in our quest towards a better life.

One of the most interesting facts about the human brain is that our mental fuctions are highly localized. That is to say that if you were to lose 10% of your brain, you would not become 10% dumber. Instead, you would lose whatever abilities that 10% was previously responsible for. So, you might lose the ability to control your aggressive emotions or make new memories or tie your shoes or put together simple shapes to make complex objections or any one of thousands of other potential consequences.

All that is to say that our brain is broken down into many semi-separate parts, which all have a specific job to do. This includes the sections related to happiness and sadness. So, in the pursuit of happiness, one should avoid putting all of your eggs in one basket.

Whereas we soon grow complacent with the hardwoodedness of our floors or the number of horses under our hoods that high-powered jobs made possible, we should perhaps ask ourselves if our extra hours wouldn't be better spent improving our relationships with friends and family, reading good books, helping those in need, pursuing unique hobbies that will fulfill our sense of creativity and achievement, and so forth.

In essense, I'm proposing a theory of multiple happinesses (that's so not a word) to stand alongside the theory of multiple intelligences. I'm not even sure what all of these different happinesses are, but I would wager that each have a different half-life, different triggers, and degrade if different ways. So, while the change ("delta") may affect material happiness, I'm willing to wager it doesn't affect social happiness in the same way.

If I had to wager a guess, I'd say that they fell into the following groups:

- Basic needs happiness: "Happy to be warm and full."
- Social happiness: "Happy to have family and friends."
- Romantic happiness: "Happy to be in love."
- Competitive happiness: "Happy to be number one."
- Creative happiness: "Happy to be creating something new."
- Material happiness: "Happy to have nice things."
- Altruistic happiness: "Happy to make a difference in others' lives."

I could see some arguments for certain mergers (ie. overlap between material and basic needs, social and romance), but overall I think this covers all the bases. Bottom line, your overall happiness depends upon addressing each different type of happiness, and cannot be addressed by focussing on a single form of fulfilment.

I'm interested in what people think about this. Please, post a comment if you're so inclined.

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At 7:33 a.m., Blogger Riz said...

Check out this video:

At 7:58 p.m., Blogger Ryan said...


It's giving me an error. Is that the right link?



At 5:34 p.m., Blogger JTL said...

Whereas once you could be the best storytellers (or singer, or musician) in your town and make a decent living, now that role is increasingly reserved for a few talented storytellers (or etc.) whose work can be exported around the globe with ease.

I don't think this is necessarily the case. I can easily find storytellers, artists, writers, etc. from around the world now, which I couldn't have done ten (or maybe ever four) years ago. Audiences are diversifying their tastes, and are increasingly going abroad to find something they like.

The crux of the issue, to me, is that what I find interesting is not what the majority of people might find interesting. Music comes to mind presently... I've found more obscure bands I've really liked from around the world on the Internet than I could've ever dug up even by hitting all the bars and clubs in Toronto. (Minus the Bear, Dungen, Super Furry Animals and Charlie Hunter are four nice examples.)

I recall reading a few months ago about's CD business: something along the lines of, a huge chunk of their albums are purchased in very small quantities from a variety of countries. Defender of the Stain by Hot Piss may not sell really well, but you get a thousand bands that sell a couple of copies a week, and hey, that's 2000 CDs out the door.

So, while it may be a shame that kids in Mongolia are now listening to the same crappy Fall Out Boy songs that pollute our domestic airwaves, the flipside is that the Little Guys can get their music (or poetry, or blog-ramblings in our case) out to an audience when they never would have before.

At 12:07 p.m., Blogger Ryan said...


This is a very good point. It's not necessarily the case, and while it's still a minority of people who are taking the effort to seek out new and diverse artists, this can change if more people challenge the commonly held notion of, "If it's popular, it must be good."

I think the same could be said of the Walmarts of the world, if people are willing to take the time (and expense) of shopping at smaller stores.

It's more difficult for stores, because of the economy of scale. But when you get into digitally delivered content or even a CD, which has a relatively low production cost, then it's much easier to escape the Top 40 trap.

From a happiness perspective, I suppose the question is whether we can apply similar criteria that we use to choose our music as we use to assess our success.

That is to say, it's one thing if we recognize that Top 40 is not the be-all, end-all of music, but what about those people who feel that they're a failure without Bill Gates' fortune and Jessica Alba's abs?

The problem with these social pressures are that they're more personal and more subtle than the pressure to like a certain music.

But, I remain hopeful that people will find ways of countering these pressures, and that the incidence rates of workoholism and eating disorders will decline in the long run.

At 5:21 p.m., Blogger JTL said...

Hell, I'd settle for Bill Gates' abs these days.


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