What we talk about when we talk about life satisfaction

Epistemic sta­tus: ex­plor­ing. Pre­vi­ous dis­cus­sion, on the EA Fo­rum.

I feel con­fused about what peo­ple are talk­ing about when they talk about life satis­fac­tion scales.

You know, this kind of ques­tion: “how satis­fied are you with your life, on a scale of 0 to 10?”

(Ac­tual life satis­fac­tion scales are some­what more nu­anced (a), but the con­fu­sion I’m point­ing to per­sists.)

The most satis­fy­ing life imaginable

On a 0-to-10 scale, does 10 mean “the most satis­fy­ing life I can imag­ine?”

But given how poor our in­tro­spec­tive ac­cess is, why should we trust our judg­ments about what pos­si­ble life-shape would be most satis­fy­ing?

The difficulty here sharp­ens when re­flect­ing on how satis­fac­tion prefer­ences morph over time: my 5-year-old self had a very differ­ent prefer­ence-set than my 20-some­thing self, and I’d ex­pect my mid­dle-aged self to have quite a differ­ent prefer­ence-set than my 20-some­thing self.

Per­haps we mean some­thing like “the most satis­fy­ing life I can imag­ine for my­self at this point in my life, given what I know about my­self & my prefer­ences.” But this is prob­le­matic – if some­one was ex­tremely satis­fied (such that they’d rate them­selves a 10), but would be­come even more satis­fied if Im­prove­ment X were in­tro­duced, shouldn’t the scale be able to ac­com­mo­date their per­ceived in­crease in satis­fac­tion? (i.e. They weren’t re­ally at a 10 be­fore re­ceiv­ing Im­prove­ment X af­ter all, if their satis­fac­tion im­proved upon re­ceiv­ing it. But un­der this defi­ni­tion, the ex­tremely satis­fied per­son was ap­pro­pri­ately rat­ing them­selves a 10 be­fore­hand.)

The most satis­fy­ing life, objectively

On a 0-to-10 scale, does 10 mean “the most satis­fy­ing life, ob­jec­tively?”

But given the enor­mous state-space of re­al­ity (which re­mains truly enor­mous even af­ter be­ing re­duced by qual­ifiers like “re­al­ity or­dered such that hu­mans ex­ist”), why should we be con­fi­dent that the states we’re fa­mil­iar with over­lap with the states that are ob­jec­tively most satis­fy­ing?

The difficulty here sharp­ens when we fac­tor in re­ports of ex­tremely satis­fy­ing states un­locked by es­o­teric prac­tices. (Sex! Drugs! En­light­en­ment!) Re­ports like this crop up fre­quently enough that it seems hasty to dis­miss them out of hand with­out first in­ves­ti­gat­ing (e.g. re­ports of en­light­en­ment states from this neigh­bor­hood of the so­cial graph: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

The difficulty sharp­ens even fur­ther given the lack of con­sen­sus around what life satis­fac­tion is – the Evan­gel­i­cal model of a satis­fy­ing life is very differ­ent than the Bud­dhist.

The most satis­fy­ing life, in practice

I think that in prac­tice, a 10 on a 0-to-10 scale means some­thing like “the most satis­fy­ing my life can be, bench­marked on all the ways my life has been so far plus the near­est neigh­bors of those.”

This seems okay, but plau­si­bly fore­closes on a large space of awe­somely satis­fy­ing lives that look very differ­ent than one’s cur­rent bench­mark.

So I don’t re­ally know what we’re talk­ing about when we talk about life satis­fac­tion scales.


Cross-posted to the EA Fo­rum & my blog.