Friday, December 06, 2013

Dream Big

And be miserable.

That's one way to interpret what Prof Harari says is the principal result of psychological happiness research. He says that happiness depends more on expectations than on our current situation. If we are better off than we expect, we tend to be more happy. If we are worse off, we tend to be more unhappy.

An eighteen year old ten thousand years ago might have considered himself pretty hot. All he had to compare himself to were the other fifty or so men he knew. In the modern world, he has to compare himself to Hollywood and super models. The modern world tend to make us less happy.

Objectively, Egyptians under Hosni Mubarak were better off than their ancestors in any previous era. But they revolted, because they compared themselves not with their ancestors, but with the people in America or those on television.

Biological research, he says, reaches somewhat similar conclusions from a different approach. Biologists see a biochemical reaction. Winning the lottery does not make us happy, it's the flood of chemicals triggered in our brain in response that makes us happy. Evolution doesn't really want us to be too happy. It likes to keep our happiness level at a point where wanting more happiness will motivate us to do stuff that help us survive and reproduce. He illustrates with examples from sex and other events - we get a temporary jolt, but not enough to keep us from going on to our next item of survival business.

So our happiness system tries to keep us stable - not too happy and not to miserable. Of course we have all somewhat different happiness thermostats.

I think he exaggerates a bit, but the core point is probably valid. Of course the natural conclusion of this logic is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. So why do we find Huxley's vision dystopian? Next lecture: why, and alternative analyses.