About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Happiness, the data

Interesting article by Jennifer Senior last week in New York magazine, reporting on recent research on happiness. Seems like psychology is at least in part turning from the study of how to be less miserable (a la Freud) to a more positive approach to help people improve their lives (it's called “positive psychology,” and its the latest rage in academic departments and on bookshelves at Barnes & Noble).

One of the concepts discussed in the article is the difference between people who try to optimize their choices and those who go for what economists and biologists (and now psychologists) call “satisficying.” If you are an optimizer, you are after the best possible solution to a problem, be that an engineering puzzle, choosing a car, or finding a mate. If you are a satisficer, however, you'll establish certain criteria that have to be met, and then stop your search at the acceptable first solution (or car, or mate) that fulfills such requirements.

The trade-off between the two strategies is well-known: optimizing searches can in theory find the best solution made possible by the laws of the universe, but it could also take a time equivalent to the age of the universe itself to actually find the best solution! And satisficying doesn't mean settling for a minimum common denominator: one's bar can be set pretty high, but the point is that you stop the search (and save energy and time) as soon as that bar has been reached by an available solution.

What does have this to do with happiness? Turns out that optimizers are more unhappy than satisficers, because the latter can stop worrying and enjoy what they've got, while the former will keep searching forever, or will settle for something (or someone) out of necessity, and yet feel like they could have gotten a better outcome had they continued the search (as in “the neighbor's grass is always greener,” or “look for the one person who is your soul mate,” and similar nonsense). Moreover, the difference between the two groups is most striking when there are many choices: contrary to what most people seem to think (witness the American obsession with health plans that allow unlimited choice of doctors), too many choices have a paralyzing effect, and start a perennial chain of conterfactual thinking (“had I gone with the other brand of cereal I would have been happier”) that increases frustration and diminishes happiness.

One more note from the article in question: apparently, there is something in common between the experiences of having children and living in New York City. In both cases, people are less happy than people who, respectively, don't have children or don't live in the Big Apple (the study didn't address the particularly unfortunate lot that has both conditions -- In the interest of full disclosure, I have a child, and I am about to move to NYC). The researchers readily found out why this is: despite loud protestations to the contrary, having children or living in New York City is a pain in the neck, because it results in countless daily irritations. Why, then, do people who have children or live in “the” city (as it is known here on Long Island) insist that they wouldn't have it any other way? (Of course, in the case of having offspring there is that little matter of the biological imperative, but we'll leave that aside.) Psychologists have found that in both cases people experience occasional “transcendental” moments, the “whoa” effect, if you will. For example, your child calling on your cell phone to ask you to explain to her the meaning of the word “existentialism” (it has happened to me), or witnessing a sunset over the Brooklyn Bridge (seen that one too). Those rare moments, for most people, are worth the daily crap they have to endure as a result of their choices. Just like drug addicts, we live for the occasional high; it doesn't make us very happy overall, but the rest of the world be damned if we'll let it go!


  1. I think something noteworthy is associated with satisficing which isn't directly mentioned, and that is these people (where I would categorize myself) just seem to be able to let shit go. Optimizers seem to look back at the past with regret, while satisficers have a healthy dose of apathy. That may not be included in the strict definitions of the two, but it is a trait I've noticed from the two kinds of people.

    Furthermore optimizers seem to be very closely related to perfectionists who also are hard to make happy a lot of the time.


  2. Hi there - I just wanted to let as many people know as I can that the new Skeptic's Circle (#39!) is posted and has the best of the web's skeptical writing of the last two weeks. I can be found here. Hope you enjoy it!

  3. I have personally always looked at happiness from the yin yang prespective. That is, reguardless of how miserable one may seem. It is all relative. Making someone else miserable may give them some degree of happiness, or something else most may consider offbeat, but in a typical sense of measuring happiness, those things won't show up. Like the old saying you can't have good without bad. So I guess my own philosophy is that we are all equally as happy. Its just that happiness means different things to different people. So trying to set some type of guideline for what happiness is will obviously make some people seem more happy than others. What is happines? Not Websters version, but what does happiness really mean?

  4. Happiness must come from knowing to a ceratin extent when it is wiser to be the optimizer and when to be the satisficer. That would be being the ultimate "optimizer", no? Or it could be said that, the river of truth (I don't know who originally said this) runs between the banks of the two extremes.

  5. An excellent post, M. P! Lots of food for thought. Having suffered myself from being a rootless optimizer for many years- well into my thirties- I can testify to the virtues of the other approach. And I don't believe it is necessarily an extreme, it is more like Moderation or the Golden Mean, because it ties satisfaction to the real world and its possibilities, rather than a simplistically imagined ideal world.

    A sidenote: much of the meat of your standard recovery program consists of participants comparing notes on this sort of thing, regardless of the religious tinge that these programs may exhibit.

    Second sidenote: I wonder if you are familiar with the writings of Walter Kaufmann, the Princeton philosopher & translator of Nietzsche, in particular his personal rubric of virtues consisting of love, courage, honesty and humbition, where humbition is ambition tempered with an appreciation of reality, and a preference for choice and action over romantic feeling.

    Of course in this, as in all things, one has to be able to execute the precepts in question. But it is never to late to start.

  6. Since there are people who satisficy and optimize, there must be an evolutionary basis for both strategies. Maybe the optimizers were always going a little bit farther to find new hunting grounds, while the satisfied guys were quite content to wait till things improved nearer to home.
    I'm not really sure it's possible for a person to act contrary to his own "happiness" -- if a person doesn't think an action would ultimately have a positive result, they won't act that way in the first place. That so many people struggle to be happy, makes me wonder if the world is biased in favor of unhappiness! But at least the unhappy state of the world leads to progress.


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