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, November 21, 2012
Happiness, the data
[It's that time again, Massimo goes on vacation! As a result, we are running "encore" presentations of some of the best essays posted at Rationally Speaking. Enjoy, we'll be back with new material soon!]
[Originally posted on July 19, 2006]
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!