Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The List

We all have a list of the things that we think will make us happy.

If only we have the right job, right partner, right car, right children, right house, right neighborhood, right vacation, right friends, right education, right video game system, right brand of deodorant, right locally raised produce, right place of worship, right list of books to read, right movies and television shows to watch, right Internet provider, right computer, right cell phone, right clothes, right fragrance, right pen, right wristwatch, right running shoes, right luggage . . .

It is absurd on the face of it that we could have even a small fraction of these things.

And it also seems obvious that they bring at best fleeting happiness. So why do we spend so much of our time devoted to finding all these right things and experiences? Why are we stuck on the path of having?

I can think of two reasons, both arguably glitches in our human wiring.

First is that each of these "right things" do give us a fleeting sense of happiness. When we are happy, we look around and associate that happiness what what is nearby. And if that is new car smell, then the new car must have caused our happiness. This feeling of true happiness, or desirelessness, is rare, but if you remember BF Skinner, irregular rewards have the most powerful effect. So in a sense, we have been trained to look for happiness through our stuff, because we have gotten just enough rewards for the behavior to get us hooked. In that sense, it is an addiction, just like any other.

Second is that we are afraid to do otherwise. I have talked about the lizard brain a few times. Two of the ways that it is invoked most strongly are when we think we are going to lose something (called "loss aversion"), and when we think we might be violating social norms. Both are strongly present here. Acquisition of stuff is the norm in our cultures. Think of how many conversations we have that are about the latest thing that we bought or did or the vacation we are about to take.

There is nothing wrong with any of this. Except, perhaps, that we seem to think it will bring us happiness, when it is very clear that it doesn't.

Is there another way?


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