With a fixed happiness “baseline,” what’s the point in trying?

One of the most striking findings from the booming new field of happiness research has been that people have fairly sticky baselines. With only a few exceptions, people tend to return to the same level of happiness over time, regardless of what happens to them — even extremely good events like winning the lottery, or extremely bad events like becoming a paraplegic, only seem to bump people’s reported happiness up or down for a limited time, before they start to drift back to their baseline. (Dan Gilbert is one of the leading happiness researchers right now; I highly recommend his book, Stumbling on Happiness. Here’s a NY Times review of it that discusses some of the relevant issues.)

That leads to a puzzling question: If people seem to end up just as happy when things don’t go as they wished, then why knock ourselves out striving for the outcomes we think will make us the happiest? Why not just shrug and say “que sera, sera,” abandoning our pursuit of our goals, on the reasoning that we’re going to end up roughly as happy no matter how things turn out?

Giving up certainly seems like a bad idea, intuitively. But how do we reconcile that with the evidence? I’ve been able to come up with three possible reasons why it’s still a good idea to keep striving for happiness despite the empirical evidence that it doesn’t make much difference:

(1) It’s possible that the people who say they’re equally happy even though their circumstances seem objectively worse are not, in fact, equally happy. That is, maybe they have lowered their expectations of what maximum happiness is, so that even when they rate their happiness an “8” their scale is actually squished compared to the scale of better-off people who rate their happiness an “8”.  Illustration:

So let’s say Person A seems to be worse-off than person B, but they both rate their happiness an 8. Well, person A’s 8 is roughly equivalent to person B’s 5.5, but person A doesn’t know it because she thinks the maximum level of happiness possible is roughly what person B would consider a 7.

(2) It’s also possible that the reason why the people who didn’t get what they wanted are just as happy, on average, as the people who did get what they wanted, is that a lot of people are wanting the wrong things. If you reason more carefully than the average person does about what’s going to make you happy, then it makes sense that when you get what you’re pursuing you actually will be happier than other people are when they get what they were pursuing. For example, I am pretty confident that I wouldn’t be much happier with an income of $200,000 than I would be with an income of $60,000. The evidence suggests that’s true of most people, and yet most people don’t realize it — so there are a lot of people out there making sacrifices for a higher income that isn’t actually making them happier.

(3) There’s a lot of evidence that your happiness immune system (the one that convinces you you’re happy even though you didn’t get what you want) only kicks in when you’re stuck, when you don’t have any chance of changing the situation anymore. For example, in one of Gilbert’s studies, he allowed photography students to choose one of their photos to turn into a framed print. Half of them were given the option to change their mind later; the other half were told their choice was final. The latter group was significantly happier with their choice than the former group.

Or to use another of Gilbert’s examples:

“The psychological immune system works best when we are totally stuck, when we are trapped. This is the difference between dating and marriage, right? I mean, you go out on a date with a guy, and he picks his nose; you don’t go out on another date. You’re married to a guy and he picks his nose? Yeah, he has a heart of gold; don’t touch the fruitcake. Right? You find a way to be happy with what’s happened.”

Knowing you have the option to switch means that you’re always wondering if the grass might be greener on the other side of the hill; having no option to switch means your natural happiness immune system kicks in and reassures you that, no, the grass probably wasn’t greener over there anyway. So if I were to give up striving for any particular outcome, my back-up system might not kick in, because I would always have the uncomfortable knowledge that I could improve things if I tried.

14 Responses to With a fixed happiness “baseline,” what’s the point in trying?

  1. Joe says:

    Old saying, not sure the origin… “Happiness is not a destination, but a way of travelling.”

  2. Cory Albrecht says:

    Perhaps the striving may not be the issue, but the accomplishing? If you set your goals too high, then even if it’s attainable it takes longer to reach it before you can move on to the next goal. It you set more reasonable goals, however, you accomplish them faster, move on to the next one sooner, you have more successes. E.g. if my goal is to be come the CTO of where I work and I eventually accomplish that, that’s one success. But what my goal is to move from tech support rep to senior rep and I accomplish that goal? Then my new goal is engineer, I accomplish that, senior engineer, director, etc… I have a whole string of successes, not just one. No bemoaning “why am I not the CTO yet?” and kicking myself for not succeeding yet ( == failure).

    Though overall the result would be the same end point, would the research show that it is the number of successes rather than the size of them which makes the difference in our happiness?

    As for ceasing to strive, are you quiting because is a hill you’d have to cross or is it the Himalayas? I would guess that makes a difference as to whether your happiness immune system kicks in. Yes, you may always be able to improve things, but at what cost, and is that cost worth it?

    If your utility function isn’t properly calibrated, if your coefficients are wrong, then the slope of that hill is steeper than you were expecting and the reward turns out to be not worth the energy to climb it. How’s that for a mixed metaphor? 🙂

  3. Michael Vassar says:

    I bet you would find, in line with more up-to-date research, that you were slightly happier with a $200K income, if you didn’t feel guilty about it or something. Financial security, the ability to not consider expenses and to make some problems (like being overcharged by cellular carriers) go away by just ignoring them, the ability to be a bit more generous, etc. Resentment by friends could be a cost, but hopefully not. Obviously, working a worse job to get more money could involve costs.

    Anyway, you don’t need an ‘immune system’ to be protected from bad decisions. Just identify with your decision system and only assign utility to available actions. Alternatively, embrace virtue ethics. It works too for this purpose.

    Finally, regarding ‘why bother’, life’s not just about happiness. If it was, most people would live very differently.

    • Julia Galef says:

      @Michael — Yeah, you’re right, i’m sure I would be a little happier with $200,000. At the very least, I’d be happier in those possible outcomes in which there was some emergency and my $60,000 salary wasn’t enough to manage it. But I’d also probably be slightly happier in everyday life, just knowing I had that added security. So I was exaggerating a bit. What I should’ve said was that the difference wouldn’t be nearly big enough to make up for the extra time I’d have to spent working (or the sacrifice I’d have to make in terms of taking a job I didn’t enjoy as much).

      Re: “life’s not just about happiness” … well, I guess that’s true in the sense that people care about other people’s happiness, not just their own. But a lot of what we do is intended to improve our own happiness, and it’s those efforts whose value I’m questioning in this post.

      • Max says:

        With more financial security, you could afford to donate more money to charity, if that makes you happy.

  4. Max says:

    Where’s the happiness immune system for patients with chronic pain?


    According to the American Pain Foundation, about 32 million people in the U.S. have had pain lasting longer than one year.
    From one-quarter to more than half of the population that complains of pain to their doctors are depressed.
    People whose pain limits their independence are especially likely to get depressed.
    If you have to care for children or work full time, chronic pain may make your life seem too challenging. The overwhelming feelings can lead to irritability, depression, and even suicide for those who feel no hope for relief is in sight.

  5. Max says:

    Are animals happy in factory farms, especially if they never see the grass on the other side?

    • Julia Galef says:

      I think the research shows that there’s a quality-of-life threshold beneath which your psychological immune system simply can’t help you. If you were in terrible pain your whole life, you’re not going to be happy even if you have nothing else to compare it to.

  6. David Pearce says:

    Max, we know that chronic, uncontrollable stress lowers hedonic set-point – both in humans and in non-human animals on factory farms. However, many humans and free-living non-humans don’t suffer chronic uncontrollable stress and yet they still have a comparatively low (un)happiness baseline.

    I don’t think the existence of a typical hedonic set-point is reason to give up. Rather we need to use biological interventions that elevate our default happiness baseline.
    For example, if we want to have children who are temperamentally happier
    ( and also temperamentally kinder
    http://www.reproductive-revolution.com/comt-altruism.pdf )
    we might choose the benign variant of the COMT gene via preimplantation diagnosis even today. This procedure isn’t even an “experiment” since no genetic engineering is involved – just choosing for our future offspring what Nature has already generated “naturally”. Either way, there is no reason why the “baseline” happiness of our children and grandchildren should be as low as our present default settings. In future, our adult baseline of (un)happiness can be elevated both by designer drugs and autosomal gene therapy. Presumably much more radical options will shortly be feasible too. I think a higher biological baseline of happiness is worth striving for collectively as a civilisation – not just futilely running faster and faster on the hedonic treadmill.

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  8. I’m going through a bad time now and I really find it so tough to have a positive mindset though I am really trying hard to do so.It’s effin painful when you know it’s hopeless for a change.I just hope I can manage to go through it and be happy as I was once.

    • Max says:

      There there. When I go through a bad time, I think about the people who have it worse than I.

  9. Stephen says:

    The viewpoint that there is a set happiness level that changes little if at all over time makes little sense, since both environmental/external and genetic/inborn influences powerfully influence people’s level of well-being, and the former influences can change significantly over time. I myself have become significantly happier after getting therapy to help me adapt and succeed as an adult, after a childhood in which I was severely physically abused and unhappy.

    My experience makes me very skeptical both of the idea that there is a fixed, relatively unchanging happiness baseline, (I think there is one, but one’s actual level of happiness is quite changeable over time based on positive or negative experience and relationships), and skeptical of the idea that those who don’t seem to match set-point theory are rare exceptions. I believe most research “scientists” like Seligman and Haidt are not doing in-depth, long term studies of people over many years or decades under changing environmental conditions, and therefore I take their work with a grain of salt.

    Here is an article with some research evidence supporting this idea – http://www.livescience.com/10783-worry-happiness-levels-set-stone.html

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