Friday, May 27, 2011

The Unified Theory of Happiness - Part Two

I would like to share a thought experiment of mine on the subject of happiness. It goes like this. Let's say we imagine you in a year's time. In fact, let us imagine tomorrow your life takes one of two possible paths, both of which end up with you in exactly the same situation a year down the track. In both these possible lives, you are a half million dollars richer in a year than you are today. But in one scenario, you are miserable; in the other, you are happy. In every external respect, your life is identical in these two variations, but emotionally the results are completely opposed. What explains the difference? Surely, if your life is the same, you should be equally happy. But consider: in one life version, you win $500K in a lottery. In the other, you win ten million dollars in the lottery, and, through a bad investment, lose all but the last half million of it. In the former situation, you're overjoyed because you perceive an expansion of your life's possibilities. In the latter, you're shattered by the contraction, even though your situation is significantly better than it was a year before.

It's not hard to imagine variations of this thought experiment. For example,you lose the use of your legs, but a miraculous new medical procedure restores your mobility. Now the mere fact of being able to walk brings you untold joy. It's all about the set point of 'normality' and the movement of our circumstances in relation to that point. It's about the story we tell ourselves about where we should be - the dynamic tension of having, desiring and losing - that determines our satisfaction, not the actuality of what we have. Consider the successful business men who commit suicide when their businesses collapse. They may still be far richer than you or I, but the massive readjustment of their set point and, more significantly, the attachment of their identity to this wealth, is more than they can take.

It seems to be the movements up and down the snakes and ladders of life that make us happy or miserable much of the time, not how far advanced we are on the board. Because wherever we are on the board we want to be further on, and fear falling back. For this reason, even though we kind of know that those with more than us aren't necessarily any happier, we still aspire to be in their shoes. We mistake the thrill of going up for the thrill of being high. And we always tend to focus on what we don't have than what we do. If you are the number two tennis player in the world, you don't lie awake at night thinking about the six and a half billion people you play tennis better than. No, you think about the one guy who still beats you.

I sometimes think about the wealth I possess today and take for granted as a person of average means in modern Australia: iPhone, flat screen TV, modern car. Any one of these items would be considered a miracle to a person of fifty years ago and would be beyond price, if somehow one could fall through a worm-hole to that earlier era. Yet it's precisely because these things are available to everybody that we take them for granted and don't recognise how truly extraordinary they are. What we consider wealth is a completely relative, social construct. It's all about the comparison with others, not the actual, intrinsic value of what we have. (For argument's sake, I'm deliberately overlooking the question of what constitutes poverty and lack - there is a real, absolute point of hardship).

Can we really talk about things having an 'intrinsic value'? I'd like to argue that we can. Otherwise we are forced to the conclusion that the value of a thing is merely the value we consciously place upon it, which runs counter to our frequent experience that 'you don't know what you have until you lose it.' It may be impossible to quantify, but I believe there is a value in everything we have, and this value is often best measured by what we experience when we lose it. Sometimes it turns out that a thing we valued highly leaves us merely relieved when it is taken away. Other times, something we didn't recognise as being of any value at all turns out to be of the deepest importance when we face the risk or the reality of its loss. Grief is the truest measure of value.

What I'm arguing is our moods and our feeling of satisfaction with our lot is generally tied to fluctuations around our 'set point', our 'normal', when we should be attuned to the real value of everything we have. An analogy that has occurred to me is ice in Antarctica. This ice seems cold to us, but in fact it contains a huge amount of heat energy. On average, this ice is -17 degrees Celsius, or approximately 260 degrees above absolute zero. Consider the difference between zero and 260 degrees Celsius - it's a lot of heat! Analogously, when we feel like we have lost everything, when we feel completely empty and like nothing we have is of any value, we still possess a huge amount. In fact, what we possess by merely being alive: our senses, our minds, our capacity for love and wonder - all these things carry a huge unseen value that dwarfs the difference between being rich and being poor.

This is the insight that many people have reported achieving in the act of unsuccessful suicide. People who have survived leaps from bridges invariably report that in the moment of certain death, the value of everything they have becomes clear to them, and they regret the jump. Almost as if the act of suicide reflects a kind of spiritual immaturity - a throwing away of what we have because of the hurt of losing something else. We all remember having done that, and how terrible it felt afterwards.

Here's the challenge then: to stay always mindful of the true depth of what we have rather than being hitched to the endless ups and downs of fortune. Not that it's easy. My initial thought experiment overlooks the significance of grief. To make it clear, imagine we hadn't won and lost the lottery, but found and lost a lover, or birthed a still-born child. Our different reaction to those scenarios reflects a recognition of the reality of loss, and our intrinsic awareness of what is of real value in life - not money or things but people, love. How do we becomes large enough in our hearts for the losses we will have to bear? Jonathon Safron-Foer's searingly memorable quote comes to mind: 'In the end, everyone loses everyone'. Everyone and everything, except perhaps our souls.

I'm going to come back to that in my next post - the remainder that is left when everything else is cancelled out - but for now let us acknowledge that life and everything in it is ephemeral. We can't, if we acknowledge the deep value of life in all its particularities, avoid the fact and necessity of grief. The project of happiness cannot deny sadness. But we can - and I know this because it is increasingly, if not always, in my grasp - live in gratitude for and awareness of the beauty of what is: this granted, extraordinary moment and all that it contains.


mandala44 said...

I agree with your fundamental idea of happiness relative to a set point (or range :) ). A helpful insight, thanks! Not sure about 'intrinsic value' though - something we consciously put value on, but the very unconsciousness (or put-to-the-back-of-our minds) value placing we do, that then leads to grief if the valued thing disappears or dies? I'm a relativist at heart, I suppose, so tend to think of value as always imputed not embodied. Thanks for re-introducing me to philosophical thought.

Pierz Newton-John said...

I kind of agree there mandala - in that as I wrote out the thoughts, I became aware of the debatability of that point. But to get into that discussion would have diverted too much from the central idea. You could substitute for 'intrinsic value' the 'value things have to us without our realising it'. There are also questions about the idea that grief measures value, but again, the water gets very deep very quickly, so I leave out that discussion. Thanks for reading, and for commenting.