Thursday, September 13, 2007

Breaking out of the Relative Happiness Trap?

Reading Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms, I was impressed (see comments in the link) by his thoughts on the relationship between wealth and happiness. Basically, it is a zero-sum game, but it takes place within societies rather than between them. Human happiness, then, is relative. On page 16, Clark writes:

It is evident that our happiness depends not on our absolute well-being but instead on how we are doing relative to our reference group. Each individual--by acquiring more income, by buying a larger house, by driving a more elegant car--can make herself happier, but happier only at the expense of those with less income, meaner housing, and junkier cars. Money does buy happiness, but that happiness is transferred from someone else, not added to the common pool.
That provides insight into many of life's vexing problems, like why wealthy executives such as Andrew Fastow risk everything else in their lives for an even bigger payout, or why stars like Kurt Cobain or Owen Wilson see suicide as an escape from misery. Call it the C. Montogomery Burns' syndrome:

Homer: You know Mr. Burns, you're the richest guy I know [but not the richest guy Burns knows]--way richer than Lenny.

Burns: Oh yes, but I'd trade it all for a little more.
I would add physical health into the mix, although comparisons there may similarly be tied to peer groups (eg, the success of support groups like Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous).

It isn't only seen at the upper echelons of society. It provides a window into why winning a local little league championship can send the team's coach into ecstasy, or why WoW players will throw everything they have into being the first to reach level 80 come next January.

From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. Achieving a state of perpetual happiness does not serve a species well. A continual competitive drive, made unending by the almost infinite upward and downward mobility that can afflict people in the modern world, propels the population forward.

But it means that even as all boats rise, the dispositions of their captains are not so uniform in their ascension. What's good for the species isn't necessarily embraced by the individual member of that species, with death being the most obvious example. Death allows for mutations and selection to occur. Without it, there would be stagnation, overpopulation, and likely eventual extinction (recombinant DNA and other forms of genetic engineering aside).

Might the virtual world allow humans to break out of this happy-neutral trap? As virtual competitors become increasingly realistic and complex, will beating them raise overall happiness? Less along the lines of Second Life, with a similar competitive dynamic (it's a virtual world, but the significant characters you interact with are other actual people, so that if you outdo one of them in chess, the happiness shift occurs as it does in the real world) than of World of Warcraft, where the avatars defeated in raids are not tied to any real person they represent. When beaten, they absorb some unhappiness (expunging it from humans), and give up happiness in return, which enters humanity when it is transferred to the victorious players (who are real).

For now, real-life competitors are more satisfying to beat, but that's because artificial intelligence isn't human enough, yet. We're getting there, though.

I had been out of the virtual entertainment world for several years, but have recently jumped back in with Dragon Quest VIII for the PS2. It was released three years ago, but the universe is enthralling. It's complex, intimate, and emotionally arousing. As I gain on the archvillain, I become happier in a way that is not merely superficial. Trying to stop the archvillain from murdering a defenseless abbot in the game doesn't increase my adrenaline as much as trying to stop a real-life murder from taking place would, but the gap is narrowing.

Is there a corresponding unhappiness that comes with this? Maybe, in that when I lose, there's a deadweight loss as my transferred happiness is squandered on the fictional. But most of the time, I win.

The virtual antagonists must be formidable enough for me to derive satisfaction in beating them. If they are pushovers, I derive no happiness from outdoing them, just as Burns' extending his affluence relative to Lenny doesn't do for him what overcoming Warren Buffet does. But to gain happiness from the endeavor, I must win most of the time. It can't always be the military academy:

Lisa: I can't do this, Bart. I'm not strong enough.

Bart: I thought you came here looking for a challenge.

Lisa: Duh! A challenge I could do!

The creators of these virtual unhappiness-absorbers need to challenge me, but it has to be a challenge I can do.

The danger of this solipsistically-realized happiness goes back to the contrasts between what benefits a species and what benefits its individual members. The competition, in which there are winners and losers, propels us forward. When the losers are created for no other reason than to lose in the end, the rewards for winning against them do not equip humanity with much to blaze forward with.

This humorous excerpt from a Futurama episode demonstrates the species-individual conflict well, with the corrupting influence being not unhappiness-absorbing nemeses, but bots absorbing something else.

Being rewarded with the ultimate prize is great for the individual, but the eternal struggle to grab that reward builds civilization! If everyone has the reward at hand, and there are no real losers (and hence no need for individual members to compete with one another to propel the species forward), we're in trouble.


Anonymous said...

Maybe far-fetched, but interesting!

MensaRefugee said...

If the topic of happiness interests you, give Charles Murray's "In Pursuit of Happiness...and Good Government" a go.

He explains what the creators of the US meant by "Pursuit of Happiness" and makes a very good case on how the government is reducing the net level of happiness today.

Random Questions that got my attention in the first few pages of the book:

"If we have a society where every young man knows the offspring he sirs would be taken take of, would that be a good world in which to be a child?"

"If we have a society where the government will pay for the needs of all children, is that a good world in which to be a parent?"


John said...

No and no, but not especially because its bad for the net public subsidy receivers; what about the net taxpayer? Since the topic is competitive happiness and standing relative to one's reference population, here is a possibly foolproof suggestion: one is at the pinnacle of the relevant status hierarchy by not wanting to be a dhimmi and not accepting the move towards that as valuable. It is that way, since those who want to be dhimmi's to the moslem are by definition hopelessly second-class. Don't believe it? Try it next time someone tries to put you in some lower ranking even by insinuation, ask them whether they want to be dhimmi's to the moslem or if they would accept restriction and reversal of Islamic immigration, and see how easy it is to put them in their place.

Audacious Epigone said...


I've read it. I'd offer a qualified 'yes' (that is, it would have to be a magical world where every man knows his child will be taken care of because he'll be doing the caretaking, along with his wife) to the first question, a 'no' to the second.


Those on the right are consistently found to have a higher level of self-reported happiness than those on the left.