Optimizing Happiness

I once had an ethics professor who explained Hedonism as being an ethical theory in which the goal was to be as happy as can be (at least I hope that he explained it that way, my mandatory ethics class was a LONG time ago). Contrary to popular opinion, hedonism doesn’t mean abandoning ethics or morality.   Rather it means allowing ethics to come to  result from, or at least harmonize with,  people’s inherent selfishness. For example, people like safety, so they impose laws which punish murder and violent assault. People who enjoy those things will refrain from them because the happiness they gained from the illegal activities would be less than the happiness they would lose from the punishment (e.g. prison). Note the prof didn’t propose this as a system for an ideal world, rather as a framework for thinking about how the world works.

Hedonism has a pretty bad rap in the United States. The word is mostly used pejoratively, which I find ironic. We are after, constitutionally guaranteed the right to pursue happiness (cough). Neo-cons, who are the most anti-hedonist of the lot, are typically social darwinists, and believe firmly in the inherent selfishness of man. They believe deeply that this inherent selfishness can lead to an ideal world. They use this to justify those aspects of a free market which serve their interests. But they think Hedonism is bad. They accomplish this by simply not thinking about it very deeply. Trying to have a good time is bad because the bible tells them so. Well in fact, the preacher tells them the bible tells them so. Even those that bother to read the bible seem to only understand it selectively.  The neo-cons seek to build a society where people are inherently selfish, but not allowed to be happy.  I think this creates a twisted, self righteous, harmful and fundamentally unhappy society.

But I digress.  If we  leave the word Hedonism out of it, I think that most of us agree that, under certain constraints, it’s a good thing to strive to be happy (we may not agree on the constraints, but let’s leave that aside for the moment). I think I can also say, without fear that I will stir a great deal of controversy, that many of us aren’t having a lot of luck being happy.

Now for some of us, this is caused by certain pathological and easy to identify problems. Maybe they are problems we aware of, or maybe everyone can see it but us, but the fact is our unhappiness is our own fault. I couldn’t hazard a guess as to how many people are like this, but I think everyone knows one or two. But a great many of us are unhappy and can’t readily identify a cause, or even a significant variable which we can control. Thus more and more people turn to pharmaceuticals.

One of the most difficult variables to control is stress-levels. In fact, for a great many of us, excess stress is clear and beyond the dominant variable in the equation that determines out moods. For most of us, it’s pretty much impossible to decouple the problem of minimizing stress from maximizing happiness. It may even be possible to frame them as equivalent problems.

The problem is that optimizing happiness is incredibly difficult. If you’re dealing with a person who has their shit reasonably together, and has eliminated all the obvious problems over which they have any control, you are left with many, many significant and interdependent factors. The weather, your family, your lover or lack thereof, your diet, exercise. So if you’re trying to determine if the johaniskraut or the omega-3 fatty acid supplements are making any difference, or if it’s just because the weather has been a bit nicer lately.

So the problem is, once you get to certain point, it’s just bloody difficult to optimize happiness. There are so many significant variables it would be incredibly tedious (and stressful!) to keep track of them all. Beyond that many of the significant factors are terribly difficult to quantify. Mood itself is terribly difficult to quantify. Finally of course, it’s pretty taboo to talk about maximizing our own happiness. Tell someone one of your interests is pursuing enlightenment, see if they laugh.

Nevertheless, I predict that there will be a resurgence in this field of human endeavor. As pervasive-computing becomes a reality, people will begin tracking their own biometric data, and tracking those factors they think will have an influence. Biofeedback therapies will advance. Someone will create an open access database to allow people to freely contribute their data, and we will begin to explore inwardly, using technological tools.

There will be resistance to this. It will be considered hedonism. The technology, data, and human energy involved will be directed towards sex and drugs. Some individuals will see this as a lapsing of morals. It will be an influence which brings society in a more empathic direction, which will threaten the violent, and those who are financially or politically empowered by violence. It will teach us that the pursuit of wealth, and our commercial culture have only limited benefits. So like the counter-culture movement in the 60’s, this movement will be attacked. The attacks will be the same as we always see: cultural (like the ridiculing of 60’s counter culture), legal oppression (e.g. most drug laws), and of course commercial co-option (e.g. the commercial counter-culture movement of the 90’s).

But I have faith because I must have faith. Let’s struggle on my hedonistic brothers! I do actually think, on scale of hundreds of years, things have been getting better. Our only problem now is that our rate of technological advance now dwarfs our rate of social advance. But that’s no reason to give up on technology. Just keep trying to apply it to something that actually matters. Kudos to the man who makes the first biometric happiness tracker! Keep it free please!

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