The following is a note I sent to a friend this morning on this topic.
As it happens, I have thought a lot about the way in which our degree of choice influences happiness, and why it seems that to an extent at least, the more choice we have, the more unhappy we are. I have not read the “Paradox of Choice” by Schwartz that you referenced, but several of the other books I have read recently deal with that topic. I cannot recommend “The Happiness Hypothesis” highly enough. It is the best single summary of the way in which our behavior, and the choices we make, relate to happiness as well as the extent to which happiness makes sense as a life objective.
For example, the topic you have raised is dealt with at pages 101 in 102 of that book. The author, Jon Haidt, refers to Schwartz’s book on page 102. He distinguishes between maximizers and satisficers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satisficing), which goes back to the philosophy of polymath Herbert Simon, though that is not mentioned in the book. Haidt does not explicitly indicate a solution to this “problem”, but that can be inferred from other things he has to say, as well as from other reading I have done. See for example,Â http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.why%…starting on page 6.
Daniel Dennett also deals with this in “Freedom Evolves”. The idea in a nutshell is that we are still maladapted to our own consciousness, and our freedom. The environment that creates our freedoms evolves. Our consciousness evolves in large measure in response to that environment. Therefore, our consciousness is well behind the environment. The tension Schwartz and others describes is part of what causes our consciousness to continue to evolve.
We should not expect to evolve into a state of comfort with our own consciousness, and the environment it still dimly perceives. A state of comfort in that regard would be inconsistent with our basic evolutionary nature. However, we can choose our own filters to help limit the choices we need to make and therefore make ourselves more comfortable. We each do this in different ways. While we were chatting at the conference, I described one of my daughters and her friends to you. The clubbing oriented social environment in which they feel comfortable is radically more complex than the environments in which you and I feel comfortable. They have developed choice limiting algorithms that we do not need. And, they did that at a young enough age that it happened automatically for them. I hasten to add, as I mentioned when we were chatting, that I do not think this environment is particularly healthy. I don’t understand many of my daughters behaviors. I don’t encourage them. However, I realized some time ago that oncemy children reach about the age of 15 or 16, my choice is either become their cheerleader and therefore remain there confidante, or to cut myself out of their lives. For obvious reasons, I have chosen the former.
In any event, for you or me to attempt to transition into the kind of complex environment with which my daughter and her friends are comfortable would be extraordinarily difficult. This is kind of like learning a language — you have to start young in order for the brain to be plastic enough to learn how to do it really well. The older we are, the less our ability to become fully fluent in a language. Social fluency appears to be governed by similar principles.
However, you and I have developed efficient choice truncating algorithms of our own that relate to our environment. Everyone does this with regard to the decisions with which they need to regularly deal. As the environment becomes more complex, new algorithms develop to the extent the brain is capable of developing them. People who present data to us and try to get us to do things like buy products design some of these algorithms. We come up with others on our own. See “Goodbye, Lenin!” for an artistic take on this process in East Germany, just after the Berlin wall came down. This movie, in German with English subtitles, touched me so deeply a few years ago that I wrote an extensive review. You can find that by googling my name and the title.
For example, I had the opportunity to choose between a large number of law firms, across Canada and internationally, when I graduated from law school. This, of course, occurred long before I had any idea with regard to the kind of things we are now discussing. As I look back at the way I made that decision, it seems clear to me that I was unconsciously groping toward a manageable, satisficing choice. I had an interest in international affairs and business, and so my first selection criteria was that the firm needed to have a substantial international business law practice. In order to maximize the probability that I would continue to be a faithful Mormon, I had decided not to move to any of the large financial centers, and to stay somewhere near my family. This limited my choices to law firms in Calgary and Vancouver. The combination of these two selection criteria cut the number of firms to below 10. This created a manageable decision making process. Had I needed more decision-making criteria to get the number down to a manageable size, I believe that I would’ve invoked those additional criteria. If you think about your own life, and look at the way in which other people you know make decisions, I believe that you will see this pattern — add selection criteria until the array of alternatives becomes manageable.
All of us to an extent rely upon upon social institutions and dogmatic beliefs to simplify life. While this is unavoidable to an extent, I think that most people would find life feeling better if they made more choices and become more conscious of those choices. That is, I think that we will be far better off encouraging people to make conscious decisions with regard to how they will satisfice than allowing dogmatic social institutions to dictate to them.
I do not believe that the changes in young adult behavior we were discussing have much to do with this point, however. You might find the literature at www.worldvaluessurvey.org interesting in that regard. See in particular the data related to the “post-materialist generation”. The causal factors are difficult to discern. It is likely that they relate to a relief of necessity. This trend is, overall, healthy. Our earth does not need more production and consumption. This may be the ultimate driving factor. I hope that somewhere in our unconscious is the concept that we need to slow down — reduce the energy in the cauldron. One way to read the axial age is consistent with this. See Karen Armstrong’s wonderful book “the great transformation”. I summarize my thoughts in this regard atÂ http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.star… starting at page 74. It is possible that meta factors of this type are slowing down the most advanced, wealthy part of humanity. Ihope this to be the case.
Another concept that has come into focus for me during the past couple of years relates to the desirability of happiness itself. You would probably find Darrin McMahon’s book “Happiness — A History” interesting in that regard. The idea, for example, that “men are that they might have joy” only came into existence a few centuries ago. That is one of the many things that brands the Book of Mormon as a 19th century, as opposed to a meridian of time, piece of literature. But I digress.
As a result of our continuing discomfort with our own recently evolved consciousness, living so as to maximize happiness is probably a bad idea. That would, in and of itself, disconnect us from reality.
You are probably aware that mild depression correlates strongly with accurate perception. It is difficult to discern the direction of the causal arrow in that regard, but the correlation is clear. This brings us to Socrates question as to whether it is better to be ignorantly happy, or somewhat more sorrowful but attached more securely to reality. He reasoned to the conclusion that the latter is a far more desirable state. Recent survey data indicates that most people agree with him. I would be in that group.
The research with regard to habituation, which Haidt nicely summarizes, indicates limits to the extent we are capable of experiencing happiness. For example, when people ask me if I am happier as a post-Mormon, on the rare occasion when I decide to give a real answer, I end up talking about habituation. The first few months after leaving Mormonism were like the first few months in a new intimate relationship. I was intoxicated with my new sense of freedom and choice; once every few weeks I spontaneously teared up as a result of a profound sense of joy; I was consumed with a desire to learn and consumed more exciting, productive information on a weekly basis than at any other time during my life. In fact, I consumed hundreds of times more information of this kind during this period on a weekly basis than at any other time during my life. Those months will without question stand out as among my most memorable. Then, I habituated to my new state. That is the way life goes. No matter how wonderful, or how bad, anexperience we tend to habituate to it. The research indicates, surprisingly, that we deal better with significant tragedy than minor, ongoing, irritation as a result of the way in which we habituate.
While habituating to my newfound sense of freedom and opportunity, I also had to deal with a sense of loss with regard to many family relationships and friendships, as well as a sense of insecurity as a result of being outside the embrace of by far the most important social group in my life, while realizing that I had been retarded in many ways as a result of the encompassing nature of that embrace. In this difficult state, I simply soldiered on. I quickly came to understand that what I was feeling had to do with breaking old, and bad, neural habits and allowing my brain the time and opportunity to develop new neural habits. The angst and pain I felt gradually subsided. My circle of interests gradually expanded. My circle of friends gradually expanded. My life gradually became more complex, and nuanced. My understanding of how life works radically improved during this period of time. My ability to predict how I will feel in certain circumstances, and how satisfied I will be with my decisions, radically improved. But am I much happier? Clearly not. Am I better off? I believe so.
True to the research Haidt and other people have summarized so well, I don’t believe that right now my sense of happiness is any different than it was throughout most of my career as a Mormon. This has to do with what the research indicates is a set range for our happiness. For some people this is higher than for others. There does not appear to be much we can do beyond lives so that we will approach the upper end of our own set range.
Thankfully, there is much more to the good life than happiness. For example, I believe that right now there is much more symmetry between the various layers of my consciousness than was the case while I was Mormon. At page 142 – 144, Haidt summarizes some of Dan McAdams research, which I’ve found profoundly helpful in this regard. His field is narrative psychology. He talks about three levels of human personality. He calls them “basic traits”, “characteristic adaptations”, and “life story”. Basic traits are due to a combination of genetics and early conditioning. In Haidt’s terms, this is about the elephant. Characteristic adaptations, on the other hand, have more to do with basic values, goals and that kind of thing. This is part elephant, and largely due to the influence social institutions have on us. The life story or life narrative is all about the rider. This is our consciousness attempting to explain the way we live, and so reconciling tensions between our basic traits and characteristic adaptations, and often helping us to find ways to change our characteristic adaptations.
One of Haidt’s points, drawn from McAdams research, is that the resolution of tension between these three levels of our personality brings a sense of authenticity, stability, etc. to our existence that does not register on the happiness spectrum. Happiness is an elephant trait. That is why it has a set range. That is why it is subject to habituation. Its mechanisms are mostly below the conscious waterline.
Most of McAdams work has to do with the way in which people rewrite their own narratives, recharacterize or change their characteristic adaptations, and explain their basic traits as they become more conscious of various aspects of themselves. Some of his most interesting work has to do with people like Orthodox Jews who become aware of their homosexuality, and as a result engage in a fascinating process of rewriting their script. Those who attempt to remain Orthodox Jews are the ones who end up with the most creative rewriting. Many analogies can be found within the Mormon community in that regard.
I have not done a good job of summarizing a massive literature. But I’m out of time for this morning and so will have to leave this where it stands.
The bottom line, from my perspective, is that while happiness will of course continue to be one of our objectives, it should not be the dominant objective. Being connected to reality is more important in some ways. Some people will have a greater ability to tolerate tension between our perception of reality and our need for happiness. These people will tend to be more conscious than their peers. Artists tend to be this way. I have some theories as to why that may be the case. SeeÂ http://mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs.art%…. People who tend to perceive life more through the right side of the brain are also more accurate perceivers of reality. I do not know if there is a correlation between artistic ability and depression, but I suspect that this is the case.
The more I think in terms of McAdams three levels of human personality and encourage myself to learn more about my basic traits (if you want to get to know your elephant, see Harvard’shttps://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit…), become more aware of my characteristic adaptations, and encourage myself to rewrite my life narrative, the more authentic and secure I feel. This is odd in some ways. The more I appreciate the uncertainty of life and the tenuousness of both my personal position within it and the ephemeral nature of humanity itself as a feature of life, the more secure I feel. Grasping even a difficult, harsh reality is comforting. Life is riddled with irony of this type.