The Problem of Happiness

Imagine for second that you want to go purchase a car. You’ve decided the brand and model you want, and how much you’re prepared to spend. Then you walk into the dealership and leave… with a bicycle.

That story feels absurd because people don’t go out seeking cars and accidentally getting bicycles. However, that is much of the way we pursue one of the things that matters most to us—happiness.

Recently, in my review of Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity, I briefly mentioned what I called the problem of happiness. The problem is that, for a species who claims to desire happiness more than almost anything else, we’re spectacularly bad at achieving it. Sometimes we get our car, sometimes we leave with a bicycle and other times we leave with less than we started, our efforts to achieve happiness leave us more miserable than before.

Since the problem of happiness is one of the biggest practical issues in our lives, I think it deserves a deeper understanding. In this essay, I want to explore evidence that there is a problem of happiness, what the cause is and how various approaches have been developed to “solve” it.

What is Happiness?

First I want to sidestep what might feel like an important issue, but is mostly unnecessary. This is the fact that happiness is defined in many different ways.

For some, they claim they don’t desire happiness, that saccharine feeling of pleasure. Instead, they want fulfillment, meaning, excitement, adventure or even a range of experiences that make life interesting.

Though this may seem like a problem, it really isn’t for the purposes of this essay. The majority of my analysis can substitute the word “happiness” for whatever subjective feeling (or range of feelings) you desire and remain intact.

To see why, imagine that, when hearing a friend lament about getting a bicycle when he wanted a truck at the dealership, you responded, “Well that issue doesn’t affect me, since I’m interested in getting an SUV, not a truck.” The problem isn’t that you wanted something different from your friend, but why this dealership is so hard to deal with.

Let’s avoid quibbling over definitions and just use the word “happiness” to refer to any emotional state, or collection of emotional states, which you desire in your life.

What If Happiness Isn’t The Most Important Thing?

Another tempting, but also mostly irrelevant issue, is that happiness may not be the proper aim for human life. We have duties and obligations that extend beyond our own subjective states. Perhaps these are the real objects worthy of pursuit.

Once again, however, my analysis doesn’t depend on happiness being the sole pursuit of our lives. All that matters is that happiness is important to us at least a little bit, not more important than anything else. If you can say, “all else being equal, I’d rather be happy,” then you agree that our difficulties in pursuing happiness are worth investigating.

Again, imagine coming back to discuss your mishaps at the car dealership with a friend who explains that it isn’t a problem because, as everyone knows, clocks are more important than cars anyways. You might even agree with this clocks-over-cars sentiment, but it still doesn’t change the fact that you still wanted a car and couldn’t get it.

What If I Am Happy?

A final, common, objection is to say that there is no problem of happiness if you’re happy. If I’m happy, therefore, then there is no problem!

However, the “problem” of happiness isn’t that nobody is happy. Obviously this is not the case. Rather the “problem” is that getting happy (or happier, if you’re already happy) is nowhere as straightforward as getting almost anything else in life.

If you go to the dealership, return with a bicycle, and say that it doesn’t matter because you already own a car, that’s beside the point. What we’re trying to look at isn’t why nobody owns cars, but why this dealership doesn’t give people what they ask for.

The Depth of the Problem of Happiness

The best book I’ve read which presents the full weight of scientific evidence to show that the problem of happiness is in fact a problem is Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. I will only very briefly summarize some of the research he points to in the book which shows how bad we are at figuring out what will make us happy.

One issue is that we’re very bad at imagining how events will impact our happiness. Asked to imagine what it would be like to live after a paralyzing accident, most people imagined that life would be unbearably unhappy. Strangely enough, people who have gone through this experience are mostly as happy as they were before.

Our ineptitude extends beyond imagining things that have never happened to us. Even imagining things that we have concrete experience with shows that we’re bad at predicting what will make us happy. Asked to plan meals to a restaurant for trips months in advance, people tend to pick a large variety of meals instead of repeating the few items they like best. People expect to be bored by the monotony, but because the meals are spaced out over time, they actually enjoy it more than too much variety. Our guesses about what tends to make us happy are often wrong.

The experiments on memory and happiness are perhaps the most disturbing. Experiments where subjects endured mild pain (placing their hand in ice water) show that following a moderately painful experience with a lesser painful experience makes the memory of the whole experience feel less painful than if the moderately painful experience ended abruptly with no further pain.

Nostalgia is one of those funny edits of our memories to make previous moments seem happier than they might have been. In my case, I often think back to my three month stretch in Korea fondly. I remember the hikes in Seocho Park. I remember studying quietly in the coffee shop and eating kimbab every day.

However, these memories gloss over that much of my time in Korea was unpleasant. I was exhausted trying to speak only in a new language for the fourth time in a year. I was living in a sweaty, shoebox-sized dorm room which had bedbugs. A good friend from home remembers me complaining about the experience over the phone.

So which was correct? Was my time there happy or unhappy? Perhaps both? I don’t know exactly, but what I do know is that I can’t be fully trusting of my own memory of the experience. My nostalgia for some of the positive aspects is perhaps ignoring my past mental state because I’m not currently exhausted, and therefore, the idea of being in Korea feels much more pleasant.

What Causes the Problem of Happiness

While the solution to the problem of happiness is, in my mind, very much an open question—with different philosophical systems struggling for thousands of years in attempts to find a resolution—the reason for the problem actually has a convincing explanation.

The reason the problem of happiness exists is that we’re not designed to solve it.

We are all products of evolutionary design. We evolved hands for grasping, when we still lived in trees. Our eyes are on the front of our faces, rather than on the sides like cows and horses, for better depth perception. Groups of northern Europeans and Africans, independently evolved the ability to drink milk after infancy.

Our minds are just as much a product of evolution as our bodies. Our emotions, language, capacity for reason and abstract thought were all ultimately developed because beings which possessed this software reproduced more and survived better than those who did not.

From this evolutionary perspective, there is a god of sorts, but he is a blind, alien god whose only drive is to make us better and better at reproducing and surviving in a world which contains not only predators and prey, but also other humans who are both allies and competitors. This unrelenting desire to survive and replicate does not include happiness as an end goal. Evolution doesn’t care whether you’re happy or not.

Happiness, (and remember, this applies to any subjective state you can imagine like fulfillment or spiritual ecstasy) is only an instrumental goal. The correct amount of happiness is the one that motivates us to do things that increase our evolutionary prospects. More accurately, the correct algorithm for creating happiness is one that, on average, improved evolutionary prospects more than alternative algorithms.

Why Evolution Created the Happiness Problem

Now consider that you’re designing two different beings:

Being A, is happy all the time. This being requires very little to be in a state of subjective bliss. In fact, even being eaten or starving does little to dampen its enthusiasm for life.

Being B, is happy only when it is successful. This being feels unhappy when in a “bad” state, like being eaten or hungry, and feels contented when in a “good” state like when it has mated or achieved higher status amongst its fellow beings.

Which being, A or B, would do better in the evolutionary game we just discussed? It’s plainly obvious that B is better equipped to survive and replicate than A.

However, now consider a new type of being, C. This being is happy when successful, but only momentarily. It feels happiness and sadness as a response to changes in state, but quickly returns to a neutral baseline. No matter how successful, this creature only experiences an above-average level of happiness for a moment before returning back to neutral.

Would C be better than B? It’s quite possible that it would be. After all, Being B, when it has achieved some success, might become complacent—less motivated to act because it has already achieved some level of success. C, on the other hand, must always be working hard because its accomplishments are continually being reset.

However all of these beings, A, B and C, suffer from a design problem. The happiness that they want, and thus motivates their behavior, is the same as the happiness they experience, and thus rewards their behavior. Wouldn’t it be even better if these two functions could be separated?

That is, imagine a modification of being C, we’ll call it C+. C+ has all the quirks of being C, except that in addition to the transitory nature of happiness, C+’s drives and motivations can be driven separately from happiness. This means that C+ often wants things that won’t make it happy and continues to be tricked again and again.

These hypothetical beings are all simplified models, but it’s my contention that we’re closer to C+ in design for exactly the same reasons. We experience above-average happiness (and also below-average happiness) typically for short moments. Our circuitry for “wanting” and “liking” are also different, allowing a partial disconnect which allows us to succumb to temptations that don’t actually fulfill us.

Why Don’t We Directly Maximize Evolutionary Fitness?

When I first read about the evolutionary explanation for the happiness problem, one issue didn’t sit well with me. If we were really designed to maximize evolutionary fitness, why wouldn’t we pursue this goal explicitly? Why use this roundabout measure of subjective happiness at all? Why not just make us robots with the direct goal of maximizing fitness, single-minded automatons who have no need for art, love or philosophical yearning?

Interestingly, this too has an evolutionary answer, but it’s trickier than the ones before it. While making creatures who experienced fleeting happiness or whose drives were decoupled from behavior might require some thinking, it is fairly straightforward. Why we would, then, be largely ignorant of these deeper purposes needs a bit more explaining.

The simple answer is that being ignorant about these deeper motivations is strategic. Being ignorant about the deeper reasons for many of our motives actually helps us achieve them better. The reason is that we don’t exist in isolation—we exist in a society which is full of similar beings whose interests do not perfectly align with ours.

To help accomplish this goal, evolution fastened us, not only with an impressive brain for making memories and throwing spears, but also for lying, charming and outwitting our fellow human beings. In fact, many cognitive scientists now argue that consciousness may not be the CEO of the brain that it feels like, issuing orders and organizing behavior. Instead, consciousness may be the spokesperson, explaining and rationalizing behavior to present a cohesive, positive image to other members of society.

Many of our evolutionary drives are selfish and in conflict with other human beings. Presenting yourself completely honestly, however, wouldn’t make you very popular. As social creatures, being popular as an ally and mate is essential for evolutionary success.

One way to avoid this problem is to compromise: be only somewhat selfish. Be just selfless enough so that you can benefit from the popularity it brings you in terms of allies and mates. When being selfless costs you more than it returns, be selfish.

However, there’s an even better (and sneakier!) strategy. This strategy is to convincingly appear to be more selfless than you actually are. If you can give the appearance of being noble, you’ll gain the benefits of popularity, but if you actually work on baser motives, you’ll get the benefits of being privately selfish.

This tension to exaggerate our altruism may explain a division of labor. Make the conscious mind responsible for presenting the best image possible of ourselves, while secretly pursuing more selfish motivations whenever you can get away with it. The best part of this trick is to make the conscious mind unaware of these motivations, and give it the ability to rationalize them as being less ugly whenever possible, so as to reduce the effort to actively lie about them.

Thus the solitary, utilitarian evolutionary principle gets fractured into thousands of different aims and rationalizations. We have feelings of charity, creativity, care and accomplishment. The foundational principles for these motivations get obscured since pursuing them too openly might undermine them.

Note: Much of this section on hidden motives is owed to Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s soon-to-be-published book, The Elephant in the Brain, which I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy.

Summary of the Happiness Problem

To summarize this depressing view of human nature and the problem of happiness is simple:

  1. We’re bad at imagining what will make us happy, making decisions which will result in more happiness and remembering what made us happy in the past.
  2. We’re this way by evolutionary design.
  3. Happiness is fleeting because it avoids the complacency of basing happiness on absolute conditions.
  4. Happiness is largely disconnected from motivation because that allows us to pursue things earnestly even if the rewards don’t justify them.
  5. We’re largely unaware of underlying logic because, by being hidden, we can present ourselves as nobler than we actually are, allowing us to get away with acts of selfishness that would be punished if others were aware of our intentions.

To continue our car example, we struggle to buy a car at the dealership because we’re designed not to have a car for very long, our desire to get a car and the feeling we have when we own one have separate mechanisms and that what we really want instead of a car is selfish, so it’s better to pretend we want a car and be secretly driven by a desire to obtain something else.

What Do We Do About the Problem of Happiness?

This understanding of the problem is cynical and depressing. Unlike so many lofty philosophies of human nature, this explains the mysteries of our fundamental quests in terms that few people would like to admit. Strangely, this aversion is also by design—if we easily embraced the cynical explanation that would undermine our ability to project loftier desires about ourselves.

At first, I struggled to accept this worldview. Certainly, there must be a mistake? How could you possibly walk around, living life if you honestly believed that this was the underlying foundation?

But, after spending more time with it, I realize that this realization isn’t terribly problematic. Our brain is designed to handle this tension between our loftier and selfish motives quite naturally. As a mental model for viewing reality, this picture has usefulness for solving some problems, but it would be foolish to apply it to all pursuits. The correct approach is to consider this viewpoint as a tool you can apply when a more conventional approach fails.

It’s with this idea that I want to use this viewpoint as a lens, which neatly explains the problem of happiness, as a lens for examining some of the possible solutions, and what might explain some of the successes and problems which they experience.

Side note: This is a discussion for another time, but lately I’ve been moving more towards the idea of something being true by being pragmatic rather than corresponding perfectly to reality. Human beings are good at compartmentalizing contradictory ideas and this is often a feature, rather than a bug.

Solutions to the Problem of Happiness

While I don’t believe there is a better model than this concept of evolutionary design with hidden motives for understanding the problem of happiness, it does not, unfortunately, offer much in the way of a solution.

Fortunately, this problem of happiness has been known for quite some time (if not with this explanation) and there exist many different philosophical traditions for trying to deal with this problem. I’d like to discuss, very briefly, some of these posited solutions and what our new understanding of the nature of the problem might say about their strengths and weaknesses.

Solution #1: Tradition

One solution to the problem of happiness is living in a traditional society, where everyone has the same religion, norms, rituals and beliefs.

Confucius was a strong advocate of this approach, believing harmony in society came from everyone following the rites and practices from ancestral times. Behaving with sagacity was, in essence, knowing exactly which ritual applied in which situation and applying it effortlessly.

This isn’t as silly as it seems. Living according to arbitrary rites and traditions may seem absurd today, but it frees one of needing to have reasons for what one does. Remember, a major part of the problem of happiness wasn’t merely that we experience fleeting joys, detached from our desires, but also that those desires are based on self-contradictions: we want to appear to earnestly pursue higher motives while actually pursuing baser ones. By obviating the need for non-arbitrary reasons, many of these self-contradictions can be neatly avoided.

Unfortunately, such an approach is untenable in modern society. We have too much plurality—too many different religions, philosophies, communities, beliefs and disagreement. Our society demands real reasons for behaviors that must be given a justification. The specter of hypocrisy looms large in modern minds.

It’s also likely that this approach hasn’t worked for some time. After all, if living according to proper rituals and rites was so straightforward, it wouldn’t have needed Confucius as an advocate, and that was over two thousand years ago.

Still, I think this approach is worth mentioning, because the problem of happiness is very likely to be a problem which is difficult to “think” one’s way out of. This makes sense—our hidden motives are in tension with our stated motives, and reasoning here is likely to turn into rationalization.

Solution #2: Fulfill Desires (Self-Improvement, Hedonism)

If tradition won’t work, the next obvious choice is to pursue and fulfill the desires and drives you have. This is the essence of classic self-help, hedonism and even many modern religious approaches (these, however, often have the caveat that true fulfillment occurs after death).

The advantage of these approaches is that they don’t try to deny the foundations of our desires. If we truly are designed by evolutionary fitness, and we achieve this by acquiring wealth, mates, athleticism, social status, prestige and skill, then this approach has us pursuing those aims at least somewhat earnestly.

This approach also has us pursue less selfish motives as well. One can set goals to become a better person, be more creative, friendlier, intelligent, etc. This approach to life doesn’t need to be selfish, but it does tend to follow our desires in a more straightforward way.

The obvious downside of this approach is the problem of happiness itself. We may work hard on goals only to experience fleeting happiness. We may reach a new station in life and find out it is filled with new, but equally unpleasant, pains and frustrations we sought to avoid.

Solution #3: See Through Desires (Buddhism, Stoicism)

Interestingly, both the West and East independently came to similar observations about the problem of happiness and advocated a particular solution. Both Buddhism and Stoicism advocate for seeing past the illusions of many of our desires.

The approach advocated in both philosophies is similar. Practice temperance or asceticism and avoid the lure of temptation. Recognize that pleasures and pain are opposite sides of the same coin and don’t try to chase one and run away from the other. Practice presence in the moment and meditative control over attention.

The differences between the approaches to the problem of happiness are minor, even if the ethics and metaphysics differ substantially. Differences in method are more of a different flavor than substance. Stoics advocate building mental toughness through facing hardships and pursuing logic. Buddhists advocate awareness of difficulties and exposing contradictions that dispel illusions of selfhood and duality.

The strengths of this approach is that they attack the problem of happiness directly. The downside, of course, is that, in doing so, they may be fighting against human nature itself.

Another downside of these approaches is that they are based on the same kinds of loftier principles that we like to appear to possess, but not actually pursue. Therefore, when one imagines a Buddhist monk or Stoic scholar, we might want to be seen as embodying such a wise appearance, but that we don’t actually want to be that way. This can create the same kind of self-contradictory approach that leads to consistent failure to live up to higher ideals.

I see this self-contradiction in many people, including myself, who are very interested in these approaches to life, but struggle to implement regular meditation or consistently adopt this attitude.

Solution #4: Radical Acceptance

A final solution (non-solution?) to the problem of happiness is simply to accept it. Not only accept that desires are fleeting and life is transitory, but also to accept that human nature is built out of competing tensions.

We have the tension between our loftier pursuits and our baser motives. Tension between our ability to enjoy and drive to acquire. Tension between our socially constructed selves and our ephemeral consciousness. This tension is the state of nature, so perhaps it is best to accept it completely.

I’ve seen Buddhist thinkers advocate something along the lines of radical acceptance, or oscillating between solutions #3 and #4. Perhaps it is simply a sign of my own ignorance that I don’t appreciate how the two are actually the same?

This final approach denies a problem, not by ignoring it, but by accepting it completely as the way things are. This approach would argue that the sun being hot or world being round are also not “problems” but facts of nature that have value judgements simply because of our view of them.

The benefit of this final stance is it also permits a non-intellectual approach to the problem. Since it is thinking that exacerbates the tension between our hidden and stated motives, Zen scholars who believe that the correct stance cannot be intellectualized, may have the correct attitude to the problem.

Evaluation of Potential Solutions

While the problem of happiness can be fairly clearly understood, a solution seems much more fraught with potential difficulties and contradictions.

Pursuing desires outright placates the evolutionary machinery which wants them to be pursued, but falls prey to the frustration that lasting joys and happiness are not to be found in satisfying our hungers and whims.

Renouncing or moderating our drives may dispel the illusion, but there are powerful reasons to believe that this is something many of us would want to appear to be doing rather than actually do, and thus many of our attempts in this direction are ultimately self-defeating.

A non-intellectual approach may be promising, but it can often be as paradoxical and confusing as the original situation.

I make no claims to a resolution to the problem, but my current stance is somewhat of a mixture of all the suggested approaches. I believe in pursuing my ambitions and desires, but in moderation and with an understanding that they won’t lead to sustainable increases in happiness. I believe adopting some kind of regular meditative, non-intellectual perspective can offer insight into the nature of the problem.

The problem of happiness is perplexing and challenging, but I also think it is worth understanding deeply. Everything else I write about, whether its how to improve your career, learn better or build new habits, implicitly depends on it. An incorrect perception of the problem, I think can create more suffering than almost anything else. And, while I don’t believe that a solution is immediately apparent, I think whatever you do with an understanding of the problem is probably better than with total ignorance of it.