Praesidium

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Secret to Happiness

Scott Adams (here) considers what he calls the 'happiness conservation theory', viz.:

"everyone is born with a set amount of happiness. The only thing that is variable is how that happiness is allocated over your life... According to my theory, the best predictor of a long and happy adult life is a miserable childhood."
He invites people to comment, rating their childhood and adulthood happiness out of ten, seeking to back up the theory. I can't give my life a happiness rating out of ten, so I'm not even going to try.

There does seem to be some support for the theory, but I think it's deceptive. It might be nice if we all had some equal 'happiness quota', and we could be sure good and bad would even out over a life like some kind of cosmic karma. Unfortunately, I think a low/high or high/low pattern may be better explained by adaptive preferences.

Those who have good childhoods get their hopes up, only to often fail to meet their expectations in adulthood. Those with bad childhoods learn not to expect much from life, so reach higher subjective levels of contentment far more easily as they get older.

It's ironic that I think the best way to be happy (at least for any given amount of external stuff) is to set your standards low - learn to be Stoical and happy with what you've got - and yet the best way to do well, measured by objective, external standards (winning competitions, promotions, resources) is to set one's standards high - that is, set ambitious targets, and perhaps to some extent create self-fulfilling prophecies.

I wonder which does best overall?

Low aspirations - low achievement, but more content at lower levels.
High targets - achieve more, but dissatisfied with it.

How do we make ourselves happy? Well, if I knew that, I'd be laughing... Although in my experience, loud music and your football team doing well always help!

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