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Podcast 👇 provides 👍 summary of happiness lit.

Imo: a lot of nice anecdotes & empirical results.

But the lit has many problems.

Below, I’ll summarize a 🔑 conceptual-flaw, a bundle of methodological-flaws, and a few perverse-incentives at play.


The 🔑 conceptual problem:

The lit nicely documents 😀 returns to baseline after some time. Almost regardless of improvements/decrements in material circumstances.

(And baseline seems to be largely genetically determined.)
That’s the key finding. The central claim in the lit.

What Santos focuses on in her 1st 2 episodes.

What Gilbert focuses on in his book.

Namely, success and failures don’t really matter. Cause we adjust. Working hard, making 💰, isn’t worthwhile b/c it won’t matter in the end.
The 🔑 question, imo, is *why* do we adjust to circumstances?

Gotta answer that before we start thinking about how to take advantage of this fact.
(More generally, imo, it’s dangerous, albeit often done in social-sciences, to give advice about how to beat our cognitive system, w/o first asking why our system is designed that way. Like removing organs from your body, or parts from your car, w/o knowing what they are for.)
Why do we we hedonically adapt to circumstances?
To Gilbert, this is part of our “psychological immune system.” Just one way we maintain a happy disposition.

Some tricks we play on our own minds, like explaining away our relationship failures, to make ourselves happier.

And we are also bad at simulating & anticipating this.
Which, to me, would be a rather odd way for evolution to design a hedonic system.

Making me quite skeptical of that interpretation.
(Something Gilbert never addresses, afaik. Which, imo, is a common problem w/ social psych, that prevents it from integrating into a coherent scientific enterprise. Science requires not just internal validity, but integration w/ other well known facts & theories, like evolution.)
I prefer the more evolutionarily-plausible explanation for “hedonic adaptation”:

Namely, we adapt to circumstances, because we need to be *motivated* to *change* circumstances, regardless of how good or bad our current circumstances are.
The best way to motivate animals to *improve* their circumstances, is, therefore, not to give hedonics based on absolute circumstances, but instead based on successfully *shifting* circumstances, in the evolutionarily-desirable *direction.*
Thus, *shifts* relative to expectations are what feel good.

Not because this is our best way to exploit our mental machinery for our own happiness.

But because that’s the optimal way to design the hedonic machinery. The best way to motivate “good” behavior.
What implications does this evolutionarily-sensible interpretation have for the self-help advice offered in the lit, and in Santos’ class/podcast?
So the oft proffered advice is:

Don’t try so hard. Or worry so much. You will revert to baseline, either way.

Working overtime for that promotion? Why bother. Worrying endlessly about never finding a life-partner. Meh. Neither will effect your steady state.
But ...

(And this is the 🔑 to my argument.)

If hedonics *just* come from *shifts* relative to expectations.

Improving our circumstances (by gaining real success and long term changes) is *the best we can* do to improve lifetime hedonic experiences.
Those interim spikes of happiness, *experienced during the shifts* in circumstances, are all the happiness we can hope for.

And the downward spikes when circumstances worsen are the worst feelings life has to offer.
Yes, we will go back to baseline after.

But that’s true, *by design*.

The best we can do therefore is to improve those moments between being at baseline.

Which, perhaps, can only be done by actually improving circumstances and avoiding worsening circumstances.
(Which is precisely what evolution wants us to be focused on. Which is why this is such a 👍 design. And a bit hubristic to think we can out-smart evolution. *Especially* if we haven’t thought carefully about her designs, how they work, and what they are meant to achieve.)
So that’s my main conceptual criticism of the literature.

Now onto my methodological criticism...
The lit makes the all-to-common mistake of documenting costs, while overlooking benefits.

My methods concerns revolve around this.

(See 👇 🧵for thorough discussion of this oft seen problem in social-science research, along w/ other prominent examples: )
For instance, showing that people who work harder are less happy than those who spend that time with friends and family, is focusing on the time spent *earning* the $. Not the time spent *spending* the money (Eg paying for those fun outings w/ friends, or the kid’s daycare.)
Any regression, measuring effect of wealth on happiness, which *controls for* time with friends and family (etc), will miss out on the influence of the former on the ability to do the latter.

So just sees the costs. And not the benefits. Of “over” working.
And if measuring *momentary happiness*, *in the act* of hanging w/ friends or spending the weekend in the office, you won’t pick up on the *long term effects of each*.

So, again, just see the costs, not the benefit, of “over” working.
There is also the fact that certain things feel good, maybe even extremely good, but not in your typical moment, but only in very rare moments. And these methods are going to miss such hedonic “spikes.”
Spikes that may matter *a lot* for what motivates us. What we care about. And rightfully so, if the spikes are high enough.
But such spikes will be missed (& the behaviors that yield such spikes unfairly maligned) by methods that only pick up on *ordinal* differences in happiness, and only measured during *typical* moments. Or are easily over-looked when evaluating your “life as a whole.”
Spikes like the 😍 we get when we, perhaps quite rarely, sit back and 🤔 the legacies our over-work helps us generate.

And the highly rewarding sense of meaning that comes w/, but only when we sit back and 🤔.

Again, a benefit of over-working over-looked by existing methods.
Spikes like those we get from simple pleasures, like tasty but expensive chocolates or fine champagnes.

Things we, even if we can afford them, spend few of our waking moments consuming.
And thus, another benefit of 💰 over-looked by existing methods that are not liable to pick up on and properly weigh these extremely pleasurable, but expensive moments.
Oh, and, I hate to say this, but one thing over-working gets you is status. And one thing status gets you is more mating opportunities. Which also provide, umm, spikes of pleasure.
Speaking of mating opportunities, the literature focuses on the benefits of healthy stable relationships, like marriage friends and family. Which obv I don’t mean to denigrate. They provide some of the biggest and lasting joys in life.

But people obviously *also* enjoy cheating.
You wouldn’t know this from the literature, which makes it seem like cheating is a hedonic mistake.

Cause it risks ruining those hugely valuable relationships.

But is it? Hard to say, given that the benefits of cheating are hedonic spikes, missed by current methods.
Which brings us to some of the perverse-incentives (presumably, not-at-all consciously) at play.
Perverse incentives among academics, “science” journalists, podcast hosts, and those curating undergrad curricula.

That might be biasing which research gets pursued, which arguments make it to the fore, or which wholes in the argument get overlooked.
One obvious such perverse-incentive is the motive to promote pro-social behavior. You know, like not cheating.
Any research that “shows” cheating is bad is liable to be all-too-readily accepted. Cause we all want to promote honesty, integrity, and healthy relations. And want to signal to others we know better than to cheat.
Chocolates, wines, one-night-stands, and other “consumable goods” are also not exactly socially-desirable. They are all short term personal boons, w/ no obvious benefits to society.
People also like simple fixes. That might require daily “mental exercises” or changes in mindset, or pleasant sounding adjustments to how one allocates one’s time and money.

But don’t require the hard work needed to actually improve circumstances.
And are also nicer to hear, and makes your work seem more pertinent than “Well the system is sufficiently well designed to not be easily game-able.”
Every researcher (subconsciously!) wants their work to be more pertinent than it is.

And, all else equal, prefers to get away w/ as little hard thinking as required.
Which makes us all all-to-quick to spell out the practical ramifications of our work, while overlooking the methodological constraints, and not bothering to think bout conceptual-soundness. So long as we can get away w/ a plausible case.
(Doesn’t help if the peer-reviewers are literal peers, or come from within the field, or science journalists primarily cover that field, creating aligned incentives, and preventing a crucial check.)
To summarize:

1) 🔑conceptual flaw:

Hedonic adaptation doesn’t imply we shouldn’t bother.

An evolutionary 👁 would have seen this.

B/c, by design, chasing the interim spikes, btwn our “adapting,” is basically the best we can hope for, and can only really be got by real gains.
2) 🔑 methodological flaw:

Well-being measures oft document cons but miss pros.

Like the things 💵 helps you do, the rare but potent pleasures status, legacies, and consumables offer.

Leading to more unfounded advice.
3) the 🔑perverse incentives:

We are all motivated to oversell our work, to not bother w/ tough conceptual and methodological issues, and to sell easy, impactful and socially-desirable practical implications.

Helping motivate & sustain 👆 errors.

(Related 🧵 , on some peculiar features of our hedonic system, like why people whose live’s seem objectively fine may nevertheless be driven to suicide: )
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