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Feb 27Liked by Adam Mastroianni

The stable happiness over time is fascinating at the societal level. Maybe moving out of a pure psychological analysis, but what does this say about societal notions of "progress"? If we were just as happy before we had toilets, in what sense can we say the world is getting any better due to technology? Maybe we can say that things that objectively reduce disease and dying are good (because they allow each person to get more time being happy) but is technology that just makes life more convenient or entertaining basically worthless under this model?

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I almost included a section about this, but cut it for time. The short version is: Not everything that matters can be cashed out in happiness points. I'd rather live in a world with more justice, more courage, more good art, even if that world was just as happy, on average. Happiness feels like the universal currency for all value, but that's probably only because it's useful for the happiness-control system (or whatever it is) to make it feel that way.

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I think the issue lies within the word "progress" as currently defined by society. Progress COULD be measured in connections with others, heightened consciousness, personal and societal health (as in, no more obesity, chronic disease, etc.), and the amount of free time available for joyful, active, meaningful pursuits. Instead, it's measured in labor-saving devices and, as you mentioned, convenience and entertainment. THAT'S why, imho, we're not getting any happier. Doing less and consuming more -- of everything -- doesn't make you happier, it makes you inert and surfeit, two sure paths to depression.

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With more labor-saving devices, we should have more free time, and I think we do. Why do you think "we" are not using that time to pursue joyful, active, and meaningful activities? Do you believe we are now more inert and surfeit, and that we are depressed? The statistics in the post above suggest we are no more or less depressed than earlier.

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I would say that much of the free time we have is subsumed by all of the demands on our attention that our devices offer. In addition, many people work two jobs to make what they used to make 40 years ago working one.

I do think we are now more inert and surfeit, but I can't back it up with data. It's just my personal observation, so I understand why you'd question it. :-)

There's also the pharma factor at work here. I think it's possible that more antidepressants = more reported happiness.

What do you think?

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The answer lies in the article itself - we can have too many joyful, active, and meaningful activities. At one point, the brain just says "enough meaning!" and then you want to go watch something that's totally meaningless and vegetate for a while.

It's just how people are - they are inert, then there's too much idling, then they go out and be active until there's too much activity, then they go looking for inactivity again. They are happy until they are too happy, they they go looking to be less happy.

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Yeah, exactly. It means "happiness is not the right metric to measure progress of any sort, whether individually or societally."

Actually, this article has made me skeptical of happiness as a metric AT ALL. If it's all a homeostatically controlled set-point that's built on the architecture of your genes, basically nothing you do can matter by that metric, and you should be following *different* metrics for meaningness and a sense of accomplishment in life, or essentially anything else you care about.

If flush toilets and the internet aren't going to ping the meter societally, *nothing* is.

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What is the evolutionary pressure that created this process and what is the mechanism that controls it?

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so, putting someone from current society back into a place with no toilets etc is likely to make them unhappy (temporarily) -- which let's us define the direction of progress using this Gedankenexperiment, right?

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While fascinating, I see a major problem with all happiness studies.

Back when I did research and treated patients in the field of pain management, we only had one reliable tool to measure pain - a Likert scale from 1 to 10.

How often, in the beginning, did I hear from patients, after telling them "10" is the worst pain ever, "Oh, Doc, mine is at least 11."

It took me a few weeks to find a way to get past this: "Ok, how about on a scale of 1 to 100?" "Oh, well then, maybe 70?"

I always managed to resist the urge to say, "Right, you mean "7" on a 10 point scale?"

It's even worse with meditation research. As much as we like to think, in our age of technological hubris, we can "measure" the results of meditation with brain waves or other tech aids, actually, the only way to know IF a person is meditating much less how well they're doing, is to ask.

I don't know, if you haven't talked with hundreds of people and started to get a sense of how abysmally poor people are at reporting events in their minds, you may not be as skeptical as I am. My sense is of the millions tested for meditation, probably less than 1% are actually "meditating" most of the time (maintaining a continuous, non judgmental, open awareness, without identifying with the passage thoughts, feelings and sensations)

But like pain, what in the world do people think being "happy" means (assuming they could make distinctions related to eros vs agape or some other kind of categorical system).

Oh, sampling millions of people makes a difference? I don't quite see how, since if your methodology is not valid on a small scale, I don't quite see how a larger scale makes any difference.

having said all that, I suspect your main premise holds, that barring civil war and other traumas, general resigned, bored contentment (ie the researchers' apparent idea of "happiness") probably doesn't change much.

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I think this all depends on what you ask and what you want to know. If someone tells me, "I feel miserable," I don't respond, "Well, I have no idea what you're actually feeling." I don't know the exact contours of their internal experience, of course, but I can make a pretty good guess. I'm not looking for a peek into their soul; I'm just looking for a rough idea of what it feels like to be them right now. I trust questions about happiness that far.

For meditation, I agree, I think you'd have to talk to someone for quite a long time to really understand what it is they're doing when they're sitting there quietly.

One classic source on this: https://home.csulb.edu/~cwallis/382/readings/482/nisbett%20saying%20more.pdf

And I wrote more about self report here: https://asteriskmag.com/issues/04/the-art-of-asking-questions

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I read both - quite fascinating, and your struggles with formulating questions (and the remarkable about all the stat classes and nothing on formulating questions especially hit the mark). I remember after some 500 sessions of doing pain management, it became stunningly obvious to me that about 1/3 of the patients I saw actually had what I assessed as a major cognitive shift in relation to their experience of pain.

I reviewed over 100 tests to assess cognitive flexibility. I thought all of them were very poorly done (doesn’t seem to be a popular topic for test constructors) so i chose the least worst one. I have to say, I was impressed (either by my clinical acumen or the testing process or both) to see that in my research study, almost exactly 1/3 were assesse as reaching a precise threshold of cognitive flexibility. I also included self report which ended up being extremely helpful in fleshing out my ultimate thesis - that those who had the greatest flexibility showed some level of “non dual” relationship to the pain experience.

But I think there’s a level of amazement at self report inaccuracies that I may have as a clinician, which could be different from your experience as a professor/researcher.

This is just one story but in teh course of doing 3000 evaluations, it’s not at all rare. I was doing disability evaluations at one point, and this guy - your social psych antennae may be up as aI offer this perhaps stereotypical description: Mid 40s guy, from small rural community in SOuth Carolina, white, working class, coming into the office with enormous resistance, pushed to apply for disability by his wife, wearing a hunting jacket.

He’s been sent by his lawyer because along with the severe physical pain he’s expeirence the lawyer believes his depression is severe enough to add credit to his disability application. So as he describes losing touch with his friends and associates, and sleeping much during the day, I ask, “Sir, are you depressed at all?”

A gruff, NO is the response. Now, is he lying? Because already there’s no doubt he’s despressed.

So we go on for another 20 minutes, and he’s talking about feeling bad (he uses the term “bad” - and I check later - yes he does know the meaning of the word “depressed”) - bad that he is no longer interested in most of the hobbies or even TV shows he used to enjoy.

I ask again and get a more irritated, gruffer NO!!

Finally, about 45 minutes into the interview, he looks pensive and says, “Is this what you mean?” He proceeds to describe how, the previous week, he had gotten out of bed around 2 AM, retrieved his shotgun, gone out into the yard, put the butt of the gun in the ground and the other end in his mouth. He had his finger on the trigger when his wife came outside yelling STOP!!!!! WHAT ARE YOU DOING???!

And he says to me, “Do you think this means I”m depressed?”

I don’t say anything, get up quietly, go out of my office, close the door for a few seconds, then walk back in and say, “Ok, let’s start all over again.”

Now he was fully cooperative, but had the most amazingly difficult time describing even the slightest emotion. Was he diagnosable (I forget the disease name, sorry) - is it lexithymia?? The inability to feel emotion? No, not at all. He just didn’t know how to articulate what he was feeling, thinking - and I checked - barely able to describe what he was sensing, which often makes the difference between whether psychological pain management can help at all.

I know this is a super long substack comment, so sorry. I’ll close with a quick thing: I just read yesterday about a woman with a near death experience who, during surgery, floated above her body, and came back to consciousness with an irrefutable psi experience - she noticed, while floating near the ceiling, on the very top of a very high shelf, a quarter.

Clearly, nobody in the operating room knew about this, so it wasn’t spoken and then filtered into her unconscious brain. It was checked out after she reported and indeed, teh quarter was there. Now, to my mind, given the thousands of similar cases that are perfectly valid, the only possibility nowadays of psi skepticism is pure religious-level fear and dogma regarding the so called “laws of nature.”

So if you look at thousands of years of “self report” literature among say, the most advanced contemplatives, there’s no doubt that of all means of knowing inner experiences, that of teh truly TRAINED contemplative is far beyond any other.

But that’s hte keyword - training. If you compare the reports of the best contemporary mindfulness teachers with the various stages of meditation from Buddhaghosa or Kamalasila or similar writers, you can see why so much of contemporary research involving self report has such significant limitations.

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Feb 28·edited Feb 28

In case the point wasn’t clear about teh connection between psi abilities and introspection, clearly, since telepathy, remote viewing, psychokinesis and precognition have been - according to the most vehementally skeptical psychologists alive - irrefutably proven, this suggests to me there’s a level of mental skill in concentration and self and other-knowledge which suggests that training can be crucial (the kind of training that leads to skill in various areas of psi) in determining the accuracy of one’s account of one’s inner experience.

I”ve been working for years on finding ways to train people to retain full awareness in the transition from waking to sleeping. I remain convinced, despite years of failure, that this ability would - if sustained sufficiently over time - radically change not only all of psychology but all of science (and more, even).

[on the other hand, I"m guessing you're a psi skeptic. If so, i'd love to hear a materialistic explanation for the sighting of the quarter, and one that doesn't ask us to give up all our knowledge of statistics by declaring the sighting to be "mere coincidence"

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Feb 27Liked by Adam Mastroianni

Thought-provoking post. What if the reason happiness has been so stable over these decades is not because of the air-conditioner within our minds, but because of the air conditioner our society has built?

As technology got better and as quality of life improved increasing happiness (the furnace), maybe other things like the stress of wanting to maintain this quality of life, our access to seeing the larger problems of the world increased, political division, etc. (the air-conditioner) All those things decrease happiness, so perhaps people’s happiness remains the same is because, as a society we make no effort to increase it, which I think we could accomplish if we wished.

Unfortunately much of our effort goes to increasing money, (this has been the case for hundreds of years) so happiness and other things get left behind. This is what I think though, could be something else.

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I think this same effect could be accomplished within an individual mind––you only worry about a war on the other side of the world when there isn't one in your backyard.

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What might the societal mechanism be for this? Why would the system of society build this in? How would the control system operate?

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Feb 27Liked by Adam Mastroianni

Excellent thought experiment. And I love the AC/Furnace metaphor for control systems.

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Feb 27Liked by Adam Mastroianni

You always make me see in new ways, Adam, thanks…this essay made me happy!

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Feb 27Liked by Adam Mastroianni

Very nice thought experiment. So if there are two halves to the control system, one pushing hotter and one colder, then possibly either one (or both) could be out of whack. Like you said for depressives and neurotics.

Should there be a different control system pair in the brain for every stasis point? Too much/little CO2, water, sugar, sleep, food, happiness, sex, etc etc? Isn't the brain (and otherwise in biology) good at reusing things that work? So should there be a single control system with sets of inputs? Or replicated control rods all over the place? You have a ton of brain experiments waiting to happen here.

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I think there is some overlap in that every (?) control system seems to cause unhappiness when it's far enough out of whack. Being extremely hungry, tired, lonely, etc. also usually makes you unhappy. But it's not 1:1––there are cases, for instance, where people with severe depression feel way better after sleep deprivation, then bad again once they sleep.

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Hi Adam! Great post :) I find the questions you end with fascinating (i.e. why do we watch movies about the Holocaust), but I don't think the answer is because we are driven to feel bad sometimes. I took a class on tragedy and lots of the literature in that field asks similar questions. Why do humans, dating back to 500 BCE, choose to watch fake pain and suffering? One common explanation is catharsis - we like to read/watch/listen to sad things so that we can release all of our pent up sadness. The explanation I like a lot better is about inoculation. In the same way we inject ourselves with a small bit of a disease in order to protect our bodies from succumbing too much to the real thing, we watch tragedies so that, when we inevitably experience pain and suffering, we are better able to roll with the punches. We don't go to the theatre because we want to feel bad; we go because we want to feel better, whether now or in the future.

My FAVORITE explanation for why we seek out sadness, however, comes from Susan Cain's book, Bittersweet. She believes that humans aren't ever driven to feel bad, they're driven to find meaning - and the most meaningful parts of our lives contain both happiness and sadness. Why do we cry during our child's graduation? Because we are proud of them but are going to miss them. Why do we listen to breakup songs? Because they remind us of the pain of losing a loved one, but also the joy we felt when we were with them. I think the reason we have both a furnace and an air conditioner in our heads isn't just because it's dangerous to be too happy or too sad; I think it's because we are always searching for meaning, and meaning requires both.

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Another way of looking at this pattern is in terms of interest/meaningfulness versus apathy/pointlessness. It’s always seemed to me that one part of depression as a disease is a feeling of apathy, lack of interest in anything, the pointlessness of life; while mania is connected to the idea that everything is meaningful, interesting and important. In everyday life it also seems that being happy involves having interests and things that are meaningful, while when we are sad our interests fall away.

This division has a natural homeostatic component : if everything is interesting then everything is confusing and nothing is particularly meaningful (and so we’ll try reduce our level of interest and calm things down) while if nothing is interesting we’ll try, in the end, to change things up and find something new. If we say that people are happy when they have the right level of interest in the world around them (enough to learn from experiences and find meaning, but not so much as to overwhelm the ability to learn and give meaning), then we’d expect happiness to be a constant.

This also explains why we don’t just eat gummy worms all the time: the first few worms are interesting and new, but after a while they are boring and there’s no point in eating any more.

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The idea of humans being universal pleasure maximisers and pain/suffering minimizers *unless mentally ill* is so OBVIOUSLY untrue that it's always amazed me that it's so universally accepted. Being a sadist (and thus interacting a lot with masochists) obviously helps with seeing this, but you don't need a paraphilia/fetish type sexuality for that, because from consuming morbid or grim cultural products to pretty much ANY serious sport (but especially endurance sports -- have you ever heard long distance runners talk about the "cave of pain") the human frequent and active non-maximising of pleasure is everywhere.

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I think we use our mental control systems to maintain the environment we encountered as children. If it was chaotic, you are drawn to chaos. If it was happy and loving, you work to maintain that. Excellent post, Adam.

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Or maybe the opposite. If it WAS chaos, one might be strongly conditioned to avoid chaos as an adult.

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Look, you're a good kid, and I admire your optimistic spirit that shines through with every piece, so take the following as coming from a supporter, not some aggrieved troll:

1) Pooping in a climate-controlled bathroom makes you UNHAPPIER. It's true. Everyone prefers to "go to the bathroom" outdoors except in extremely cold conditions. Furthermore, people who have windows in their climate-controlled bathroom that overlook nature (trees, a lake, etc) are happier than those who don't.

2) Washing machines, dryers, etc. also make people UNHAPPIER. Helen Keller wrote a brilliant piece about this back in the 1920s. Basically, "automation" is isolating while previously, these "household chores" were a group effort. Plus, having household machines roar their engines assaults your ears with noise pollution. It's 100x more relaxing to sweep with a manual broom than it is to use a vacuum cleaner.

3) Starting these surveys in 1948 overlooks two enormous events - WW2 and the Great Depression, which would've shown some serious dips if they'd been included. Every single country on that post-1948 list was industrializing and growing more urban during the time of that survey. Conduct that survey in NON-industrialized countries such as Fiji, Marshall Islands, PNG, Samoa, and Maldives (esp Chagos islanders) and you'll get a FAR FAR different result. You might note that these are all island countries hint hint.

4) Depressives suffer from unrealized anger - think of it as stuffing your fist down your throat when you want to shout. Neurotics suffer from deep childhood trauma and are "erecting walls" to prevent themselves from being ever being hurt again.

5) Bhutan is the only country which has seriously studied happiness, but since they're not an industrialized country, they're outside your (your = the collective Western academic world) limited scope of awareness.

6) Go ahead and match the suicide rates in each of those countries from the happiness survey and you won't see a flat line. The survey misses these respondents for obvious reasons, thus skewing the results. The truly unhappy people exit the scene, so to speak, while anyone left to answer a survey has to have found some measure of happiness in order to keep enduring the monstrosity that is modern-day capitalism.

Keep up the good work! Sincerely :)

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Makes one think the entire program of technological and economic endeavor is kinda pointless and misguided, doesn’t it? If subjective well being is made worse due to maladaptive environment and lifestyle, it’s a loss. If subjective well-being is unaffected by it (as the article suggests), it’s a monumental loss of time and effort.

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While you are at it, how about tackling a related question: why are some of the most creative people chronic depressives? My personal guess is that chronic depressives (myself included) tend to have a ruminative behavior. This can be helpful in cases where a particular problem is pretty gnarly and the average happy person gives up after a while. But the chronic depressive won't let it go. But this does pose the question: why do depressives brood about their woes and troubles, but happy people don't? In terms of art, the results are obvious. The depressives give us great art such as the blues. The happy people give us bubblegum music.

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Interesting insights as always. The "maximizing positive affect" or "maximizing happiness" seem to be the shorthand for a utilitarian framework that underpins capitalism. It may also be why economists are always befuddled when people act differently from a "rational" decision maker. I wonder if you've ever considered writing about psychological assumptions underlying economics research and whether they hold up to scrutiny?

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This is what I understand so far:

1. Happiness is a fairly inclusive term, but there are at least these two kinds: the cheerfulness we feel consciously and the instinctual, somewhat unconscious drives that Mother Nature put into our brains to motivate our ancestors to do things that increased the chances of their genes being passed into future generations.

2. This evolutionary process rewarded behaviors that helped our ancestors eat, avoid predators, find shelter, mate, and raise offspring successfully until they raised offspring in turn.

3. Number 2 above required some degree of seriousness, purpose, and caution. In tougher environments (e.g., excess cold, food shortages, predators), those genes that coded for better survival and reproduction were especially more likely to stay in the gene pool.

4. The seriousness, purpose, and caution that improved competitive genetic success would have been aided by a balance between joyfulness and attention.

5. The balance against joyfulness was passed down through evolutionary psychology to us as what we call anxiety. This is what limits our happiness set-point today.

Please discuss.

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The complicated thing here is that the way we measure this seems powerful and accurate--and incidentally, a serious challenge to mainstream microeconomics, in that it suggests we are not in any way utility maximizers--but it's also challenged by other ways of measuring happiness and unhappiness. For example, growing "deaths of despair" among people who might in other data report homeostatic satisfaction, or similarly sharp increases in suicide rates within particular populations who don't otherwise report sharp changes in perceived unhappiness. Or less drastically, consumers who report that they're basically happy with their current material circumstances but who also report acute anxiety about the health of the economy to the point that they are making economically meaningful changes in their spending behavior, their job-seeking, etc.

E.g., depending on where you look, you can see evidence of increased unhappiness at a large scale or within particular populations, and even, in some historical cases, evidence of an overall growth in happiness within particular groups, communities, etc., despite the fact that studying their reported state of mind and associated data suggests a sort of constant 'return to average'.

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What about the cultural differences? Some countries are happier than others. Immigrants are presumably happier in their new country. Fascinating questions. But also I’ve read happiness goes up by income (until it hits a certain level then the effect disappears) not surprisingly being poor makes everyone less happy.

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