Friday, October 21, 2005

Happiness and utility

"Happiness is not achieved by the conscious pursuit of happiness; it is
generally the by-product of other activities."

"The value of that which is sought to be maximised in any situation
involving a choice."

Happiness and utility go hand in hand, i.e.: the more utility you get out of something, the happier you become.

I disagree with Aldous Huxley’s comment that in a conscious pursuit of happiness, one cannot achieve it. This is because when one consciously increases their utility, they derive more pleasure from it and subsequently become happier. Why else, if not to have more because it pleases you (hence happier) would one pursue more activities (which increases their utility)?
The basic underlying assumption here is that we wouldn't mindlessly pursue activities that don't confer some sort of benefit (there may be exceptions).

I think that happiness is a complex emotion. It revolves around relative – not absolute – equilibria. The theory of relative wealth provides a good example. It suggests that we are all wealthy as long as we are on the same wealth level. The instance an individual/society is proved to be wealthier, then despite that fact that our own wealth remains unchanged, we feel poorer/worse off.

Similarly, happiness revolves along the same axis; we feel happy but when we discover others who appear to experience "higher levels" of happiness, we then subconsciously engage a "relative scale" in our brains and we immediately compute that we can be happier because we see others whom we deem to be happier. Conversely, when we see others who don't appear to be as happy as we are, we compute in our minds that we have arrived.
My opinion is that if you want to be happier, you have to do things that make you happy and that invariably involves increasing your utility. If eating crisps or drinking beer makes you happy, then you pursue this to the nth degree. But naturally (the law of diminishing marginal returns) the more you consume of a particular item, the less utility you derive from it. By the time you’ve had your 10th beer, you will not be enjoying it as much as your 9th beer or 8th, right down to your 1st. Another example is, most people find that listening to the same piece of music over and over again during a day implies that each additional hearing is less pleasant than the previous one, at least after the initial stage of gaining familiarity with the piece.
This then implies that you should be engaging in other parallel activities that provide utility over prolonged periods of time and hence provide pleasure, joy, and happiness over a longer period. Such a pursuit is continuous and once it stops, we feel less happy (e.g.: consider a time when you pause to remember the "happy" times or the "good old days").

I think that those in the rural parts of poor countries probably have the purest and longest lasting kind of happiness. Why? Because their "relative scale" doesn’t change much over time, hence they are happier over longer periods. This contrasts sharply with we fickle westerners and western-minded folk. One item is barely in fashion before it becomes unfashionable to own it and with the quick turnover of what is fashionable so comes multiple opportunities for our happiness to remain intact or diminish somewhat. Some people are affected more than others but in extreme cases, children try to emulate fashion models to the point of self destruction. Of course all this is subconscious and it takes a lot of effort to consciously manage one’s own relativite positioning and crucially, what it means to us.


Blogger S.P. Ming said...

Excellent blog! I agree with you. Diminished happiness seems to be an addiction that keeps Americans euphorically high. Too bad, isn't it?

Thursday, November 24, 2005 9:17:00 pm  

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