Tuesday, October 04, 2005

(***) Happiness: The science behind your smile by Daniel Nettle

Happiness: The science behind your smile by Daniel Nettle

The ways people become afraid today reflect the design features of the fear program [created by evolution]. People today are more afraid of Mad Cow disease and spiders than they are of electrical sockets and cars which statistically is totally senseless. We are much more likely to be killed in an auto accident while driving during in the course of 1 month than we are from eating infected beef in our entire lifetime. But there were food transmitted epidemics in Paleolithic Africa, and no lunatics in Range Rovers. P14

Levels of Happiness:
Level 1 - Momentary feelings: Joy, pleasure – physical
Level 2 – Judgement about feelings: well being, satisfaction
Level 3 – Quality of life: flourishing, fulfilling potential

What’s level 2 happiness? If I usually cut myself shaving twice a day, then I could be happy to have cut myself just once today. However, it is unlikely that I took pleasure [level 1] from the cut. The happiness stems from the subsequent processes that compared the pain I went through with the pain I expected. P19

Joy gradually ebbs away, even if the bringer of that joy is still present. The joy program is there to divert other concerns in order to allow us to concentrate on something good, then it would be pretty dysfunctional if it didn’t have a built in shut-down mechanism after a while. Sooner or later we get hungry or tired or need to avoid a predator, so well designed joy should gradually move into the background and allow other programs to capture attention. P32

In 1 study, experimenters contrived to allow participants to find a dime on the copy machine just before they were asked questions about life satisfaction [level 3]. Participants who had just found a dime reported significantly higher satisfaction with their entire lives! That has to be cheapest and most effective public policy measure imaginable. P34

People will use their current mood unless there is evidence that this is not a good cue to how satisfied they are. People [surveyed about] life satisfaction on sunny or rainy days show this clearly. As predicted, on sunny days people reported higher satisfaction, unless the experimenter drew attention to the weather… Once the weather had been mentioned, people realized that it was a plausible reason for their current mood. P35

Those considering negative recent events reported lower satisfaction than those considering positive recent events. But those considering negative distant events reported themselves as happier than those considering positive distant events. The interpretation of this result is all to do with frame of reference. Those considering recent events included them in their summary of how life was going… Those considering past events used them as a comparison with how their life was now. P37

Olympic bronze medallists report higher satisfaction than silver medallists. For them, the natural comparison is with not getting a medal at all… For the silver winners, the natural comparison is the gold, which they missed out on. P38

A majority of people, when asked, would prefer to earn $50,000 in a world where others earned $25,000, than $100,000 in a world where others earned $250,000. p38

One side effect of adaptation is the so called endowment effect, where we think it would be really hard to get along without something we now have, forgetting that we got along quite fine without it for years. The endowment effect is really easy to elicit. Participants were given a choice between a mug and a sum of money. The sum was about $3.50 on average. Alternatively, participants were given a mug for keeps. They were then asked how much money they would accept to give up the mug. Now they said they would need on average $7.12… The participants seemed to believe that the mug was improving their lives by over twice as much in the case where it was already theirs. P40

The purpose of the happiness program in the human mind is not to increase human happiness; it is to keep us striving. That is why it tells us so clearly that if we just had a $50,000 salary, we would be much happier that we are now on $35,000, but as soon as we achieve that goal, [it] whispers that perhaps it was actually closer to $60,000 that is really needed to guarantee lasting bliss. P43

Most people believe that they are better than average drivers, above average on personality traits, and more likely than average to achieve future life goals. Obviously they cannot all be right! Part of these self-enhancement effects may be due impression management… The truth is that we go through the world in a considerable state of uncertainty. For example, it is really hard to get any kind of decent estimate of what the odds are of achieving some major life goal like a happy marriage or a place on the board. Given that we don’t know what the odds are, we need to base our behavior on a guess. A low guess leads to passivity, for why try if the odds are unfavorable? A high guess would lead to striving, and even though that striving might often lead to failure, sometimes it would lead to success. Since we don’t know what the outcome of life will be, it might be better to behave as if we can get what we want if we try hard enough. P54

No organism should ever be completely satisfied for anything more than a short time, because there might always be some better way of doing things just around the corner… Thus, whatever the circumstances, there should be a small, nagging gap between our present contentment and a conceivably possible super contentment. Into this gap swarm peddlers of nostalgia, drugs, spiritual systems, and all kinds of consumer goods. P58

The happiness system has not only to identify better looking alternatives. It has to make us pursue them. Thus it is in its nature to identify things that look like they are associated with status, ease, sex, beauty and other trappings of biological fitness, and tell us that if we only had those circumstances, we would be much happier… The strength of this wanting means that we are quite ready to believe that happiness would be complete if only some set of conditions or other were fulfilled. P62

What matters above all is what one has relative to what everyone else has got… Numerous studies have shown strong effects of relative rather than absolute wealth on satisfaction. P73

One of the clearest demonstrations of the hedonic treadmill is based upon participants in an ongoing social survey of a cross section of the American population who were asked to go down a list of the major consumer goods that people must invest their money in (house, car, TV, travel, pool, 2nd home, etc.). The 1st time they were asked to tick off which of those goods formed part of their ideal life. They were then asked to go down the list again and tick off which of the items they actually had already. The survey was repeated again 16 years later… Over the 16 years, people went from having 1.7 to having 3.1 items, and meanwhile the good life went from consisting of 4.4 items to consisting of 5.6 items. They were still over 2.5 items short of where they wanted to be, just as they had been at the beginning. P77

Although people with acquired disabilities or health problems show very considerable adaptation, the adaptation is often not quite complete, leaving a shadow in their happiness judgments… Another domain where complete adaptation is elusive is exposure to noise. Residents were interviewed 4 months after a new road opened in their neighborhood. They were irritated by the noise, but most felt that they would adapt. 1 year later, they were just as irritated, and become more pessimistic about the possibility of adapting. There is little evidence that people ever do. This is an interesting case because in general people underestimate their own capacity to adapt. P83

One might think that breast surgery could lead to a kind of mammamorphic treadmill, with women who have had alterations immediately as dissatisfied with their bodies as they had been before. [However,] there is some evidence that the improvement in well being is real and lasting. Several studies report increased body and life satisfaction, and decreased psychiatric problems. P84

For non-positional goods, the happiness we derive from them is not predicated on a comparison with what anyone else has. Health and freedom are non-positional goods in this sense. Positional goods have a different psychology. We are satisfied with our income or car in comparison with the incomes and cars we see around us… [Why?] We have evolved in environments where there were numerous possible ways of making one’s living, and our reproductive success would have been dependent not on absolute health, but on relative status. Since it was impossible to know inherently what the optimal behavior in local conditions would be, we evolved a psychology of looking at those around us who seemed to be doing best, and trying to do even better than them. P86

Our implicit theory of happiness will always try to fool us into thinking that amassing more positional goods – keeping up and beating the Joneses – will make us happier in the long run, but objectively this will not happen. On the other hand, health, autonomy, social embededness, and the quality of the environment are real sources of happiness. P87

The best predictor of how happy people are at the end of [a longterm] study is how happy they were at the beginning. It is as if happiness or unhappiness stem in large part from how we address what happens in the world, not what actually happens. Further evidence for this view comes from the fact that people who are happy in their jobs are also happy in their hobbies. If happiness depended mainly upon the objective situation, then you might think that people who found their jobs horrible would develop their hobbies and be especially happy in them, whilst people who loved their jobs would itch for Monday morning to get back to work. In fact, the more enjoyment people get at work, the more they get evenings and weekends too. P92

In pairs of identical twins who had been separated at birth and raised apart [the gold standard for human genetic studies of behavior tendencies], the correlation in happiness was just as high [in separated twins] as those [twins] who had been brought up together… This is powerful evidence that some inherited factors guide our lives powerfully toward a certain level of perceived well being, almost regardless of the environment we live in. p93

Absolutely all personality studies find that a major and reliable discriminator between people is the degree to which they are affected by worry, fear, and negative emotions. A person’s place along this [negative emotion] dimension is not only stable over time but appears to be set at least partly by heredity. P95

It might seem that greater extroversion is an unalloyed benefit, since extroverts report themselves to be happier. However, in recent studies we have found that the restlessness of extroverts makes their family lives unstable in the long term. Moreover, they have an increased risk of serious accidents and hospitalization.

Married people are happier than single people. However, [as a group those that remain married] are also less neurotic, and this is likely to be a cause rather than a consequence of their marital status. We know that neurotic people’s relationships are disproportionately likely to break up, so many of them probably won’t make it into matrimony [or allow them to stay there.] P106 So perhaps marriage doesn’t make you any happier, just that happier people get and stay married more often than unhappy people. And if you’re unhappy and single, don’t expect your happiness to change by finding a spouse – and keep an eye out for that divorce attorney.

If your set point of happiness is determined by your temperament, it seems to imply that it doesn’t much matter what you try to do. Your level of happiness will remain stubbornly unmoved for more than a few feeble days… However, there are techniques in which [high neurotics] can train themselves that seem to have quite a marked effect on how they deal with this vulnerability, which can make a great deal of difference to their being in the world. The [neurotic] may need to consciously remind himself that these things are sources of pleasure. His capacity to enjoy them once he has done this can be just as strong as anyone else’s. He just has to work at initiating them… pp 111-113

If the current [to the brain’s pleasure center in lab animals] is made to depend on pressing a lever, the animals will spend most of their time and energy on lever pressing. In fact, they press the lever 3000 times [in a row to release a single] volley of stimulation. Working for this reward, they will ignore sexually receptive members of the opposite sex, food and even water in their single minded quest for the hit. P124

The dopamine system interacts with a class of brain chemicals called opiods, because of their similarity to opium. Opiods do seem to be directly involved in pleasure… Opiates and opiods are also powerful pain killers. This is a very interesting phenomenon… The function of positive emotions such as pleasure is to make you ignore conflicting demands and continue with an activity that is doing you good. Thus is makes sense to have opiods, which are released by pleasurable activity, dampen down other signals [like pain] that may be competing for your attention. When you are finally getting intimate with the mate of your dreams, you don’t want to be thinking of your bruised knee. P127

A study of hospitalized heroin addicts [shows how the wanting and liking systems are linked]. The participants could work to receive an injection, which in some conditions was [a full dose of] morphine, [or a tiny dose of morphine], and in some conditions saline. To get the solution, they had to press a lever 3000 times in 45 minutes [remember our friends the rats?]… At moderate doses of morphine, participants rated the injections as pleasurable, and worked the lever to get them. In the saline condition, they rated the injections as worthless and no good, and wouldn’t press the lever. At a very low concentration, they still rated the injection worthless and no good, but they worked just as hard at lever pressing… In other words, the low concentration did enough to activate the wanting system, but not enough to activate the liking system. P128

Low ranking individuals [monkeys] have high levels of stress hormones, and relatively low concentrations of serotonin. High ranking individuals have lower stress hormones, and higher serotonin. And in troupes with no alpha male, a subordinate given Prozac will rise to alpha status. This puts a new perspective on the function of serotonin…For low ranking monkeys, it is optimal to shift the balance towards negative emotions. They have more to worry about, and if they are not careful, they will end up dead or ostracized from the group… They need reallocate resources from long term problems such as social grooming and tissue repair to the immediate issues of remaining intact. Stress horomones mobilize the body’s resources in this way. There are some human parallels to this situation. Moving from one social group to another is very stressful… The lower people are on the socio-economic hierarchy, the higher they score on scales of anxiety and depression. P131-2

There are 3 kinds of psychological changes that deliberate manipulation can bring about. The first is reducing the impact of negative emotion; the 2nd, increasing positive emotion; the 3rd is changing the subject.

The Life/Dinner problem as viewed from a Cheetah and a Gazelle:
From the gazelle’s perspective, it needs the fear program to motivate it to keep running to the end, to devote all resources to running however much the muscles protest, to treat the situation as essentially catastrophic, because if it stops, it would be a catastrophe. The cheetah on the other hand is presumably motivated by desire. From the cheetah’s perspective, you would want the desire program to keep running for a while, but be prepared to stop if it felt a bit stiff [tired, hurt], because there is no point getting lame for a plate of gazelle-tartare. The evolutionary legacy of this asymmetry is that negative emotions are potent at capturing our full consciousness and invading all our thoughts, long after the equivalent positive ones would have given up and faded away… p147

The things in modern life that cause us fear, shame, and sadness are really by and large not as threatening as a large carnivore. No one in western societies dies of starvation. The homocide rate is very low. Our social groups are fluid and flexible, so if we fall out with the people in one social network, we will find others. Thus our negative programs, designed as they were to cope with real, ugly, Paleolithic emergencies, go off on needless rumination of fear and worry. P148

Depressed people often have automatic negative thoughts, recurrent ideas pop into their heads that have no real basis. By identifying what they are, and discussing their baselessness, the client can counter their impact on mood when they arise. Negative emotions also make us exaggerate and catastrophize, that is a assume because one thing goes wrong everything we do is disastrous. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) identifies these distortions and false inferences and provides [rational] counter arguments.The therapy is in a way a conversation between the [lower] emotional system and the our more rational [higher] cognitive system. P149

Natural selection doesn’t give a fig for our happiness. It just wants us alive and making babies, miserably if need be. – Randolph Nesse

CBT, even if successful, doesn’t make you more happy so much as less unhappy… In certain cases, that may be enough. The negative emotions are peculiarly debilitating and can stop you attaining any kind of perspective and direction in life. A slight lack of pleasure, on the other hand, doesn’t stop you getting on with things if you have other sources of direction in life. [Think about the life/dinner problem] p151

How could it possibly be the case that something so simple as asking people to do pleasant things more often would make them happier, and why hadn’t they long ago discovered this for themselves? The answer may be to question whether people’s decisions are really driven by happiness… Our minds are equipped with a dopamine drunk wanting [not liking] system that draws us to compete for a promotion or a higher salary; a larger house or more material goods; an attractive partner or 2.4 kids. It draws us to these things, not because they make us happy, but because the ancestors who got the stone age equivalents of these things are our ancestors, and those who did not were biological dead ends. Although we implicitly feel that the things we want in life will make us happy, this may be a particularly cruel trick played by our evolved mind to keep us competing… All the evidence suggests that you would probably be happier not caring about your promotion and doing volunteer work [or pursuing your hobbies]… It is quite possible that people could be so preoccupied with wanting things that they could forget to do things they enjoy. Naturally this will make them dissatisfied, though they will quite possibly be successful by all orthodox and evolutionary criteria. P152

The wanting [striving] system is supposed to enslave you, to make you maximize your reproductive success. The negative emotion system is supposed to be hyperactive, because suffering ten false alarms is better than getting killed. P154

The more complex a person’s self image is, the less their happiness in life swings up and down when they do well or badly at something. The reason is very clear; if I am just an academic, and I have an academic setback, then my whole self seems less efficacious and worthwhile. However, if I have many other facets to myself, then the effect of the setback on my identity is much less severe. P156

A large body of work over the last 2 decades has shown that writing regularly about one’s experiences clearly has beneficial effects on well-being and health. It even makes a measurable difference on immune function. Writing seems to have its healing effects whether the experiences are positive or negative… I suspect that writing itself allows us to become more mindful of our thoughts, and at the same time take distance from them, replicating in a way the effects of CBT. P158

Evolution should never make us completely happy, and make us quickly adapt to the baseline of best thing we have at the moment, and focus on the possibility of getting something better in the future, even if we don’t know what that is yet…
If the environment is difficult but can’t be changed and affects everyone else just as badly, turn off extreme unhappiness. If something really and permanently bad for fitness happens, use the emergency responses, but damp them down over time and return to the set point. This viewpoint makes sense of the many finding in this book:
  1. The vast majority of people say they are more happy than unhappy; irregardless of poverty, employment, disability, bereavement, etc.

  2. Very few people say they are completely happy. Most people feel that they will be even happier in the future.

  3. Happiness with domains like income and material goods is relative to what others around are getting.

  4. People adapt quickly to positive changes in life

  5. People become very unhappy after seriously negative life events, but in most cases there is substantial adaptation to the new conditions. P165-6

Evolution’s purposes are served if it can trick us in to working for things that are good for our fitness. It can do this by making us believe that those things bring happiness, and that happiness is what we want. It doesn’t actually have to deliver the happiness in the end… In other words, evolution hasn’t set us up for the attainment of happiness, merely its pursuit… We don’t necessarily learn from experience that this is a trick, because we are not necessarily designed to do so… This view makes sense many of the other findings reviewed in this book
  1. People are fascinated by the idea of happiness and will follow any system that seems to promise it [ah, what does that make the readers of this book then?]

  2. Wanting and liking are partly dissociable.

  3. We make many behavioral choices that probably bring no pleasure [working long hours for a raise]

  4. People make quite inaccurate judgments about the effect of goal attainment on their happiness

  5. People sometimes require training to make them do things that they actually enjoy. P169-70

The social scientists who foresaw the age of leisure failed to see that human motivation is driven by wanting rather than liking… The vast majority of people do not make these choices [of pursuing leisure]. Instead, their positional psychology drives them to work harder and harder to amass greatly increased range of material goods. [And thus we have America.] p179

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