Sunday, October 26, 2003

The Happiness Paradox

My friends know that I've been preoccupied lately with the nature of happiness. This morning, my Powell's Review-A-Day subscription brought me a review of The Happiness Paradox by Ziyad Marar. The meat of the argument:

Underlying the question of whether I am happy are two more fundamental questions: "what do I really want?" and "how ought I to live?". Marar takes the first of these to be about freedom; the second has to do with morality and what Marar regards as the basis of morality, namely "justification" -- ie, approval, trust and love.

The paradox of happiness is that we want both freedom and justification, but the freer we become the less we depend on the approval of others, and the more we want the approval of others the less free we become. This would suggest that freedom and justification are mutually exclusive, and that happiness is elusive precisely because it poses this apparently intractable dilemma. ...[deletia]... the desire for happiness consists in the desire for freedom and for approval and this is why happiness is paradoxical. We can live with this paradox only by having the courage both to face the judgement of the audience and the courage to be independent of its judgement and risk humiliation. But courage does not make us happy: it is merely the motor which keeps us going. Happiness is not a goal, but a process: "It's a retreat from security and an advance towards risk, while being a retreat from risk and an advance towards security -- a perpetual oscillation".

All interesting enough; and superficially similar to stuff that I've been thinking and writing recently.* However, I'll be completely unfair to Marar (by rushing to judgment without reading the book) and say that I find this explanation deeply unsatisfying, for the same reason I find nearly all philosophy unsatisfying: namely, it's extraordinarily arbitrary.

OK, sure, we want freedom, and we want justification, and there's a conflict between these urges, but why should this conflict be the key to the nature of happiness? Why should the central problem be the conflict between those two particular urges, and not, say, the desire for sex versus the desire to avoid death? Why not the desire for pleasure versus the desire for power? Why not the desire to have a slice of cheesecake versus the desire to lose weight? I can pick nearly any two desires and observe that they come into conflict. What makes one desire more fundamental than any other?

If you really want to know about the nature of happiness, neurology is a far better place to look than philosophy. Why is happiness elusive? The answer's terribly simple: happiness is a brain state caused by certain stimuli; our brains are built out of neurons; and neurons are learning devices that learn to become accustomed to any given stimulus. We therefore become acclimated to feelings of approval or independence or anything else. If we hacked our neurons not to become acclimated, we might very well be entirely satisfied with our current level of approval, and independence, and everything else too. (We'd probably also be extraordinarily lazy.)

One might claim that, compared to the plain truths uncovered by neurology, Marar's explanation has more respect for the mysteries and confusions of the human condition; but I think this claim is basically a form of masturbatory, pseudointellectual mystification. Keats was wrong; unweaving the rainbow doesn't destroy its charms, unless you're so small-minded that the only charm you can appreciate is the veil of your own ignorance.

And, as for courage:

Daniel Gilbert, Professor of psychology at Harvard, calls the gap between what we predict and what we ultimately experience the "impact bias" --- "impact" meaning the errors we make in estimating both the intensity and duration of our emotions and "bias" our tendency to err. The phrase characterizes how we experience the dimming excitement over ... any object or event that we presume will make us happy. ... Gilbert has noted that these mistakes of expectation can lead directly to mistakes in choosing what we think will give us pleasure. He calls this "miswanting."

... [deletia] ...

[George Leowenstein] goes on to describe the "empathy gap", the difference between how we behave in "hot" states (those of anxiety, courage, fear, drug craving, sexual excitation and the like) and "cold" states of rational calm. This empathy gap in thought and behavior --- we cannot seem to predict how we will behave in a hot state when we are in a cold state..."These kinds of states have the ability to change us so profoundly that we're more different from ourselves in different states than we are from another person." ... He also adds that a better understanding of the empathy gap --- those hot and cold states we all find ourselves in on frequent occasions --- could save people from making regrettable decisions in moments of courage or craving.

This doesn't mean we ought to ignore every moment of courage or craving, but to me this sort of empirical research says far more about the real nature of courage than most philosophy (and certainly more than the gloss on Marar's philosophy rendered in the review quoted above).

* I think the difference between Marar's thesis and what I wrote earlier is that I think happiness is an instrumental good which motivates you to achieve your various ultimate goals. Marar assumes that happiness is the ultimate good, and furthermore that achieving this state requires an oscillation between two particular instrumental goals (freedom and justification).