Humanity’s obsession with status and money is often attributed to a misguided belief that these will bring the happiness we truly hunger. Would be reformers repeat the worldview-shattering news that we can be happier just by being grateful and spending more time with our families and on other admirable activities. Yet the crowds begging for happiness do not appear to heed them.
This popular theory doesn’t explain why people are so ignorant after billions of lifetimes of data about what brings happiness, or alternatively why they are helpless to direct their behavior toward it with the information. The usual counterargument to this story is simply that money and status and all that do in fact bring happiness, so people aren’t that silly after all.
Another explanation for the observed facts is that we don’t actually want happiness that badly; we like status and money too even at the expense of happiness. That requires the opposite explanation, of why we think we like happiness so much.
But first, what’s the evidence that we really want happiness or don’t? Here is some I can think of (please add):
For “We are mostly trying to get happiness and failing”:
- We discuss plans in life, even in detail, as if the purpose were happiness
- When we are wondering if something was a good choice we ask things like ‘are you happy with it?’
- Some things don’t seem to lead to much benefit but enjoyment and are avidly sought, such as some entertainment.
- We seem by all accounts both motivated in and fine at getting happiness in immediate term activities – we don’t accidentally watch a TV show or eat chocolate for long before noticing whether we enjoy it. The confusion seems about long term activities and investments.
“We often aren’t trying to get happiness”:
- The recent happiness research appears to have fuelled lots of writing and not much hungry implementation of advice. eg I’ve noticed no fashion for writing down what you are grateful for at night starting up. Have I just missed it?
- Few people get a few years into a prestigious job, realize status and money don’t bring happiness, declare it all a mistake, and take up joyful poor low status activities
- Most things take less than years to evaluate
- I don’t seem to do the things that I think would make me most happy.
- It seems we pursue romance and sex at the expense of happiness often, incapable of giving it up in the face of anticipated misery. Status and money have traditionally been closely involved with romance and sex, so it would be unsurprising if we were driven to have them too in spite of happiness implications.
- Most of the things we seek that make us happy also make us more successful in other ways. People are generally happy when they receive more money than usual, or sex, or a better job, or compliments. So the fact that we often seek things that make us happy doesn’t tell us much.
- Explicitly seeking status, money and sex looks bad, but seeking happiness does not. Thus if we were seeking sex or status we would be more likely to claim we were seeking happiness than those things.
- Many people accept that lowering their standards would make them happier, but don’t try to.
- We seem, and believe ourselves to be, willing to forgo our own happiness often for the sake of ‘higher’ principles such as ethics
It looks to me like we don’t care only about happiness, though we do a bit. I suspect we care more about happiness currently and more about other things in the long term, thus are confused when long term plans don’t seem to lead to happiness because introspection says we like it.