Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Theory of Unhappiness

Theory is fun. It’s a lot more fun than dealing with reality. Why go out into the cold, cruel world when you can sit at home and play with your theoretical toys in your theoretical sandbox?

Constructing a theory is like constructing a fiction. You do not begin with reality and you are not going to end with reality. You begin with a proposition, one that seems to be self-evidently true. In fiction, especially in cinema, it's called a McGuffin.

If you are constructing a theory of human economic behavior, you will begin with what appear to be unassailable truths.

For instance, people seek happiness and avoid unhappiness. Or else, people seek pleasure and avoid pain.

Without giving the matter very much thought, you are going to agree with one or both of those propositions.

In truth, I would venture that you know a few people who do not want to be happy in the standard sense of the term, and more than a few who are unhappy but choose to stay unhappy.

We can always say that they are suffering from some kind of illness, but why should they not be able to choose unhappiness.

So, here is one place that reality diverges from theory.

Worse yet, for this theory, is the new research suggesting that women find happy-looking men less attractive than men who have pride and power. Link here.

But then, the inverse is not true. Men find happy-looking women to be more attractive than women who are proud and confident.

Thus, a man might have a reproductive incentive to be less happy while a woman would have a reproductive incentive to be more happy.

At first glance, these facts seem to make a hash of the propositions about seeking happiness and avoiding unhappiness.

If you are in the business of constructing a theory, such caviling does not really matter. You have a larger goal, a higher purpose, namely, to understand what makes us humans tick or run or run away.

I would accept that some humans acquire knowledge for the sake of acquiring knowledge.  Yet, once that knowledge is disseminated, the chances are good that someone will try to use it to control human behavior.

Why would anyone want to control the way other people behave? Most of us have enough difficulty controlling our own behavior.

Simply put, some people like to get their way. And often enough other people are an obstacle to our getting our way. As that great theorist, Jean-Paul Sartre put it: Hell is other people.

If you are among those who resent having to negotiate and compromise with other people, you will look for a theory that will induce other people to act as you wish. If you are in the therapy world you are likely to insist that those who do not follow the theory are not normal.  

Even if theory starts out the same way fiction does, and even if it tries to be as logical and well-constructed as fiction is, it does not have the same goal as a fiction.

Where fiction is designed to provide aesthetic pleasure, theory is designed to tell you how to conduct your life. .

As I was saying, theorists want us to distinguish between behavior that is motivated by the pursuit of happiness and behavior that is motivated by the avoidance of unhappiness.

But, how can you know the difference? Doesn’t it take a mind reader to figure out your true motives? Besides, even if you know the difference, what difference does it make?

Given that most people believe in the pursuit of happiness, whether Jefferson’s or Aristotle’s version, it was inevitable that someone somewhere would theorize that we are really motivated by the need to escape from unhappiness.

Immediately, this feels dubious. If you are merely running away from something, you will not have any real direction. There are many different ways to avoid unhappiness, and there are many different ways to avoid being eaten by a tiger.

Which reminds us of the opening sentence from Anna Karenina: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

If Tolstoy is right, however, this means that if you want to be a true individualist, you would do best to be miserable.

If you do not admit to a direction or a goal, if you are only concerned with avoiding unhappiness, you cannot explain why you are here and not there.

The theorists who see unhappiness-avoidance as the basis for human economic behavior define unhappiness as the inability to satisfy basic human need. If that is true, then we are merely creatures of need, and we should be happy merely to satisfy those needs.

In a recent article John Quiggin summarizes this idea:  “In reality, however, economic activity is largely concerned with the relief of unhappiness. At the subsistence level of economic activity that has prevailed through most of human history, people must work to eat and to be clothed and housed, not so that they can enjoy the happiness that these goods can bring but so that they can avoid the pain of hunger, cold, and exposure to the elements.” Link here.

When you theorize from the principle of unhappiness avoidance, then you would have to conclude that once people reach a certain comfort level they should stop striving for more, because they are basically wasting their time on something that will be of decreasing pleasure.

They counsel something that they call stoic forbearance, but they seem really to be pointing us back to mud huts, to a pre-industrial age. They do not, as I read Quiggin’s summary, take account of the fact that in that pre-industrial time, human beings had a starkly diminished life expectancy.

It is worthwhile to understand that not being unhappy is really not the same thing as being happy. But that's for another day.

But, if we humans should be contented with enough goods and services to prevent us from being unhappy, why do we seek out more, why do we want to increase our comfort level?

If we merely want to avoid personal unhappiness, why do we create economic systems that are designed to provide more and more comfort for more and more people?

After all, as economists have pointed out,  the unhappiness-avoidance theory does not really explain why we have recently come to believe in the importance of economic growth.

It is certainly intriguing, as Quiggin reports, that for most of human history people never really thought about growing the economy. Most people contented themselves with subsistence level living, while a happy few lived in extreme luxury.

Doubtless we owe the concept, even the ethical obligation, to grow the economy to Adam Smith and liberal economic philosophers. And we owe the possibility  of economic growth to the Industrial Revolution.

Where once only the privileged few could live in relative luxury, now large portions of the planet can enjoy the same comfort level. And large numbers of people can enjoy longer and happier lives because of the Industrial Revolution.

Clearly, not everyone has been drawn into the Industrial age. But that is certainly not a reason to go back to a pre-Industrial time.

Theorists who seek to cultivate stoic virtues and who want us all to do with less seem really to be trying to talk us back into a pre-Industrial age. Generally, these arguments pretend that this is the only way of saving the environment from industrial pollution. They do not, to my knowledge, explain why we can only find happiness by being environmental purists.


Anonymous said...

Worse yet, for this theory, is the new research suggesting that women find happy-looking men less attractive than men who have pride and power.

But then, the inverse is not true. Men find happy-looking women to be more attractive than women who are proud and confident.

It's quite simple, really: From a female perspective, a happy man is unlikely to be available. Men who are genuinely happy tend to both be in relationships and be unlikely to stray. If nothing else, they don't appear to need anything.

An unhappy man, on the other hand, is a man who needs something. Or someone. Thus, he is available and attractive.

David Foster said...

I think it's a big leap from smiling/not-smiling to happy/unhappy.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I wonder about this idea of happiness, too. I am intrigued by the idea that when a woman sees a happy man she thinks that he is happily married. If this is true why would it be that a man would find a happy women attractive... wouldn't her happiness be a sign that she is happily married?

As David says, it is strange to associate happiness with a big smile. Perhaps a woman's smile is more inviting to a man while a man's smile denotes goofiness to a woman. It seems that women are attracted to strength and pride in men... which are not at all signs of neediness... but which are not expressed with a goofy grin.

Anonymous said...

I may have oversimplified just a bit. You forget, though, that men and women approach relationships from a very different perspective: women, generally, are often looking for a man that can be improved in some way. Men, on the other hand, are looking for someone who'll stay the same. Thus, a happy woman now will hopefully be a happy woman in twenty years. Whereas a man who displays a certain degree of unhappiness is a man who needs a change. Quite possibly of the female variety.

There is more, of course; a man who looks intense is demonstrating focus and determination. He looks like a leader, and like someone who can get things done. Also very attractive qualities.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I am not in complete agreement with your point here. Normally, I think it best for women not to undertake such repair and reclamation projects with men. Most men resent it when women try to change them. It makes them feel like they have been chosen because they need help... which is demeaning.

Even in those cases where women do succeed in changing men for the better, very often the man will take his new-found good qualities to some other women.

Women who change men for the better most often end up losing the men.

Not because of ingratitude, but because the woman who has changed them also remembers how they were before, and, can always play that card to keep them in their place.

Also, if a woman wants to change a man for the better, what happens to her feelings for him when she succeeds? Where does she place her emotional investment when the work has been done?

Those are a few quick thoughts on the topic. Thank you for raising the question.

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