Something I think is true but rarely hear stated (except, oddly, by Plato):
The kind of happiness you describe in your post:
Let’s say you had been doing some really good work, and took a day off to go on a hike. At some point on the mountain path your mind clears, and you feel calm, content and energetic. There’s a warm sensation spreading inside your chest as you look around and find out that you can take in extremely fine details of the landscape, and that its colors seem more vivid than ever. You feel proud of the life you’ll come back to, and overall like you are in the right place in the world doing the right things. That’s happiness.
That is a mild feeling.
It is a positive feeling—it is pure and untainted and feels deeply good—but it is not a loud or intense feeling.
It is not as intensely pleasurable as pain is painful.
It is not as intensely euphoric as a lot of other experiences that are less profound, like recreational drugs or falling in love.
It’s no wonder that people aren’t willing to put in work to be happy. Happiness is a mild feeling. It isn’t the kind of thing you naturally crave really hard. It is a positive feeling—this isn’t some bait-and-switch where an authority tells you “the true happiness consists of obeying my strictures”. Pretty much anybody will honestly point at happiness and say “yep, that feels good.” Living virtuously really does feel good. The problem is that it feels subtly good.
A character in Eve Tushnet’s novel about addiction, Amends, says:
Anyway you do almost get a high from it, from being good to people, making amends, being of service. I mean it’s kind of a shitty high, like Robotripping without the headache if you’ve done that—no? okay—but you get a little warm feeling and it takes you out of yourself for a while. Kind of neat.
I think that might be literally true. Living well is a kind of high, but it’s a shitty high, measured by intensity of euphoria. It’s a hell of a lot more sustainable over time than most other “highs”, and less damaging, and has a subtler texture, and it leaves actual tangible progress in its wake—but as moods go, happiness is really easy to overlook and underrate. Especially if you’re used to pain, you expect happiness to be as loud as pain is but in the opposite direction—and that’s just not what it is.
Why does the happiness research point to kind of boring and benign things as making people happy? Practicing gratitude, going to church, tidying up? Wouldn’t you expect something a little more sybaritic? But then again, the Epicureans were big on simple living too, instrumentally, as a way to be as happy as possible. I think this might be because happiness is actually kind of low-key by its nature.
Plato compares it to a pleasant scent wafting through the air. The smell of a rose is really beautiful—but it’s delicate. You could miss it. It’s not like stuffing yourself with AS MUCH FOOD AS POSSIBLE, which is a very intense feeling but can also give you a bellyache. The rose will definitely not give you a bellyache; it’s just beautiful. Subtly, delicately beautiful. Which is why nobody has ever said “god, I would kill for a rose right now.”
The quoted example is, in all fairness, an example of a mild feeling. However, I only chose that example because that’s what I knew the readers could understand, not because it was a great example of what I was talking about.
Your comment seems to me like it implies between the lines, though never quite says, a claim that all happiness that people can realistically hope to achieve is this or other kind of a mild, subtle feeling. This kind of sneaky not-quite-argumentation is perhaps expecially jarring to me in this case because I directly know the unsaid claim to be false.
On a meta level, I find it alarming that you can produce this kind of well-rounded up comment full of clever rhetorics and references and whatever, while covertly reinforcing/excusing a set of beliefs that is not just false but false and harmful. I need to say here that I respect your intellect and ethics based on what I read on your blog, and find it hard to believe you’d do the thing you just did if you had full awareness of what you were actually doing.
I believed—but could be wrong—that the thing you’re pointing at as happiness is mild. Intense euphoria totally exists and I’ve experienced it many times, but through situations very different than hiking or working. (Usually social or artistic.) I have also gotten euphoria from meditation—but what I’ve done to get there is pretty different from what Buddhists usually say is advisable, and it’s definitely a transient state. Are you saying that it’s possible to get lots of long-term euphoria? Because my model was that brains just aren’t set up to do that.
I don’t want to mislead you by using my own operationalization of your terms, so I’ll just try to give some raw data. This is limited because the only data I’m comfortable quoting is my private experience and there’s high ambiguity due to nature of said data.
My concept of euphoria points at a slightly different thing than extreme levels of happiness. I use euphoria to refer to those very enjoyable mental states which also result in reduced clarity of thought and/or ability to act efficiently. This corresponds roughly to having certain mental dials being out of balance with others. Having some dials at extreme levels makes it harder to maintain balance. I am not sure if by “euphoria” you mean anything specific, or just putting more emphasis on feeling very good.
My usual way to roughly quantify overall happiness is by the initial peak and the half-decay time. (Note that putting all of “happiness” on one axis makes me cringe and loses a lot of data, but I grudgingly do it anyway in the interest of communication.) Define Y3B (year’s third best) as the peak subjective intensity of positive exprerience of the third highest separate “happiness trip” in one year. Half of Y3B still feels pretty damn intense, and I think it easily meets the criteria of “euphoria” (in the non-specific “super intense feeling good” sense of the word).
Using the concepts above, my personal data:
Typical consistently achievable half-decay times: 12-24h (synthesized from a large number of data points); outliers as high as 2-3 days. (2 data points)
Typical consistently achievable saturation: 90-100% of one day above 0.5 Y3B (on the order of 10 data points) and ~50-70% of one week above 0.5 Y3B (~3 data points). Longer time periods not sufficiently tested.
Thanks for quantifying!
Yep, I can do that too.
I believe that it is possible for some people to get significant amounts of sustainable euphoria. My school’s position is that no one has actually figured out why some people are able to do this and others aren’t, and thus only poor predictive models of who meditation is especially worth it for.
Realistically? How many times do you expect to reach euphoria in the time that is left you? I agree with the “mild feeling” POV—and I would not kill for a rose.
TL;DR Extracted quotes of what I see as the key points:
[The] human activity [of] “pursuing happiness” [...] seems to be in the same category as other common activities such as “acquiring education”, “helping people”, “talking to friends” (or should I say “talking” to “friends”) and so on. Which is to say, people do them in a way which is outwardly convincing enough to allow everyone to keep up the social pretenses. This is way different from what you’d see people do if they actually cared. The simple matter of fact is that the human brain is a kludge, [...]. Almost anything they claim to be doing isn’t for real. This is true even when they themselves know about this. The best you can do is gradually nudge yourself in the right direction, gaining new footholds in consistency and consequentialism painstakingly and precariously.
[...] I have felt levels of happiness which are far above the upper limit of your mental scale. I know exactly how to be happy. And yet I find myself not consistently applying my own methods. Do you realize how impossibly mind-twisting this situation is? What happens in reality is that I enjoy and see great value in happiness when it happens, but when it doesn’t I only work on it grudgingly. It’s like with exercise, which is great but I’m rarely enthusiastic about starting it. The problem is not that I don’t value happiness enough. The problem is rather that there is no gut-level motivational gradient to get actual happiness. There are gradients for all sorts of things which are crappy, fake substitutes. Once you know the taste of the real thing, they aren’t fun at all. But you still end up optimizing for them, because that’s what your brain does.
Okay, so the obvious question here is, is this a hypothetical thought experiment, or do you claim to actually have figured out such a method?
If it’s the former, I cautiously believe that this is largely accurate. If it’s the latter, I would like to see a description of it.
From a former post of him I trust that he actually figured it out for real. It’s mainly about meditation. I have made a comparable experience (actually with much less effort than even learning swimming, though not teachable but basically by luck). And I can tell you it is true. I can also make myself happy by small mental effort. But what for? All the complexity of human experience gets lost if you just switch on one part of it without the rest.
If you think you actually care about this (haha), take a 2 week vacation on the Canary islands and I promise that I’ll spend this time telling you what I know and meditating with you.
Have you read http://slatestarcodex.com/2017/09/18/book-review-mastering-the-core-teachings-of-the-buddha/ this post and/or book about meditation? The post itself made me decide that meditation should be promoted really cautiously and it is not a unviersal solution, so I’m curious what you would say about it.
There are at least several interesting directions you can pursue in meditation, and they have their benefits and their dangers. It is obviously wise to know what you are getting info, and not feed unaware people instructions that could be dangerous. Meditation is not, by itself, a “solution” to anything.
I actually care about this, and if I knew of such a method with reasonably cheap implementation and a reasonable prior I would / will try.
Traveling 3800 km is not reasonably cheap.
If you really have motivation but no money to spend, try following my (partially written) instructions here and see where you can get. Also, flights might be cheaper than you think these days if you look for a good deal.
+1 to the linked model. My guess is that this is why yoga shows suspciously high effects on happiness. I think it, unlike other such suspicious effect sizes has a good chance of replicating. To the degree it doesn’t replicate I would have priors on poor/watered down instructions that no longer do the thing.
This kind of illustrates the point, right? We only profess to strive for happiness, but actually don’t care that much. Just kidding. I guess proper estimates of likelihood of success vs cost I probably also wouldn’t make the travel. But what you could do is try meditation. A rationalist starter can be found e.g. here.
Could you paint a more detailed picture of what you mean by happiness? There is a wide range of things that can be called happiness, and I assume you only mean some of them. In particular, I don’t think you mean the happiness you feel when you get a reward, because that’s what we are actually optimized for achieving.
A lot of people asked this, so I’ve added a note at the end of the post.
That particular scenario sounds more like “contentment” than “happiness”; I find that I tend to chase excitement more than contentment, and my strongest natural highs have come from entering a tense situation, going into a flow state, performing at the highest level I can, and succeeding. For example, one time when I was in high school, I performed a piano solo at a school concert and totally nailed it. I’ve also gotten this feeling from doing well in large Magic: the Gathering tournaments.
Happiness, to me, is a lot more like what Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is doing in this clip: https://youtu.be/ItjXTieWKyI
The word proud points to an emotion that’s valued by people who are in misery but it’s not considered valuable in many spiritual traditions. Even in the more practically minded NLP community proudness is often not considered to be a desireable emotion.
From my vantage point I wouldn’t expect you to reach for that emotional state even if your goal would be what I understand to be happiness.
I agree to the fact we need a definition to what is “happiness” in the context of your article.
Also, I would be curious about knowing what this techniques relies on. If your claim is to have grasped some sort of tool/equation that could possibly repeat itself an indefinite amount of time, to achieve the same response over and over, I would like to hear more about its functionning.
Knowing about brain plasticity and the fact you can rewire your responses to given stimuli, or even the fact that your response system will adapt according to the number of occurences of a given stimuli, I would like to see what said formula is about.
The method involves non-fake meditation which let’s you rewire your brain quite directly, which is faster than the automatic rewiring and you can be smarter about it so basically you can keep winning and it’s not even hard.
Almost all discussion is liable to break down unless we define happiness.
However, on a gut-level, I think I know what is meant. I would ask this: if this is not a thought experiment, have you made a habit of experiencing this happiness? Ie. have you trained yourself to expect the happiness? If not, it might “simply” be your ingrained habits reasserting themselves, and the happiness/unhappiness difference not being great enough to jolt you back to happiness.
I think there can be several possible reasons for why people do not do the thing that they know will make them happy, and here the definition of happiness really does become crucial.
This is a fair point theoretically, but in practice I feel happy most of the days and extremely happy sometimes so it’s not like the thing is very far away. It’s not viscreally motivating even if it’s very close.
While it’s not really the point being made, is happiness all we ever want? Aren’t there feelings that are sometimes more “correct”? (In terms of optimizing for a vaguely defined notion of “life satisfaction” — maybe something like aggregated happiness.)
For instance, I can’t imagine a life without some sorrow, some melancholia or without some crisis or another that pushes me to question myself to a level that I would otherwise not have.
Heraclitus: “Always having what we want may not be the best good fortune. Health seems sweetest after sickness, food in hunger, goodness in the wake of evil, and at the end of daylong labor sleep.”
Maybe we need some “texture” to our life, some trials to make the moment of triumphant happiness all the more meaningful?
By the way, I don’t think the correct answer is to just get dragged along. In fact, it might be possible to understand and exploit precisely the balance between hardship and fortune. I’m just saying that I don’t need my subconscious to think that an all-time happiness high is not something I long for.
I have felt levels of happiness which are far above the upper limit of your mental scale. I know exactly how to be happy. And yet I find myself not consistently applying my own methods. Do you realize how impossibly mind-twisting this situation is? What happens in reality is that I enjoy and see great value in happiness when it happens, but when it doesn’t I only work on it grudgingly. It’s like with exercise, which is great but I’m rarely enthusiastic about starting it. The problem is not that I don’t value happiness enough. The problem is rather that there is no gut-level motivational gradient to get actual happiness. There are gradients for all sorts of things which are crappy, fake substitutes. Once you know the taste of the real thing, they aren’t fun at all. But you still end up optimizing for them, because that’s what your brain does.
It sounds like you’re describing akrasia. Do you think your meditation-based methods are insufficient to overcome akrasia, or you just haven’t applied them to this end yet?
Yup, that’s the word. No, the situation described in the post was with not making any attempt fight akrasia. This will sound silly but somehow I thought I had been fighting akrasia in all the other cases because ultimately I wanted to be happy. So faced with happiness as the direct outcome, I’ve somehow been expecting akrasia to not apply. Duh.
So now that you’ve realized this, do you think you’ll be able to use meditation to overcome akrasia?
anecdata: my conscientiousness went up on the big five from one year ago to today (very significant investment in a practice program + retreat over the year).