Happiness vs. Long-term Advancement?


It is a common assumption, being stressed in many religions and political systems, that individual happiness should be sacrificed for the "greater good" (whether of the group, society, humanity as a whole, or some higher-order emergent system such as the planet or the global brain). The logic of preferring global, collective, long-term solutions over local, individual, short-term ones appears inexorable, especially from a systemic-evolutionary perspective. However, the implicit assumption behind  this form of moral reasoning is much less obvious: that individual happiness would be intrinsically inconsistent, or in competition, with the greater good.


What we have learned from studying happiness, both theoretically via evolutionary theory, psychology and cybernetics, and empirically by analysing vast amounts of data on what makes people happy, is that those two perspectives, local and global, are surprisingly consonant. In other words, what is good for the whole tends to be good for the individual components, and vice-versa.


The most fundamental reason is that happiness is an evolved, biological signal that tells us whether things are going in the right direction. If that signal were systematically off-mark, we would be constantly making wrong decisions, engaging in behaviors that are ultimately deleterious for individuals, groups, and species. This means that we would be quickly eliminated by natural selection.


Of course, we all know cases in which biological signals are off-mark, because they were selected for circumstances very different from the present ones. Most extremely, a heroin addict who gets a new shot will get a very strong positive signal of pleasure, even though his habit is likely to kill him in the medium term. However, there is a difference between immediate, short-term signals such as pleasure and pain, and the much broader, long-term "happiness".


Let me emphasize the essential difference between happiness and pleasure. Because of physiological saturation mechanisms, pleasure is a state that cannot be sustained: whatever the pleasure you derive from eating a good meal when you are hungry, once your belly is full, the pleasure dissipates--however much you try to eat additionally. The more intense pleasure of an orgasm is even more short-lived, and cannot be repeated more than once or twice a day.


Happiness, on the other hand, is often defined as the balance of pleasure and pain over an extended period. Another common measure is life satisfaction, i.e. the degree to which you are pleased with your life as a whole. Because of the saturation mechanisms above, there is no easy way to increase happiness by increasing the amount of pleasure you get. Most methods to artificially increase pleasure, such as heroin, overeating, or sex addiction, not only fail in extending pleasure beyond the natural saturation point, they create pain, displeasure or stress as side effects, meaning that the overall balance becomes negative.


Empirical studies find that the successful pursuit of happiness is actually antithetical to such instant gratification. Happiness depends on your overall life or activity pattern, i.e. the way you interact with the people and environment around you. Happy people are those that are autonomous, free, feel in control, are involved in social groups and projects, have a sense of purpose or goal-directedness, feel part of a larger whole, get the material and social support they need... All of these require investment of energy for the long term and broad scale, not immediate, individual satisfaction.


The simplest and in many ways most coherent model of happiness is Csikszentmihalyi's notion of flow, which requires three things: goal-directedness, feedback, and challenges matching skills. However, flow only covers short-term activities, such as playing or performing a sport. What it still lacks is the requirement that the goals should be meaningful or satisfactory in the long term: you can get a lot of satisfaction from playing computer games or climbing mountains, but in the end that hardly  improves your overall situation.


If now you add the empirical criteria that characterize happy societies (health, wealth, freedom, education, equality, social participation, sense of larger purpose, etc.), you get a pretty concrete picture of how you can make individuals happy, but in such a way that society too maximizes its well-being and long term evolutionary fitness.


Indeed, the essence of flow is to continuously increase your skills in tackling problems, so as to be maximally in control in whatever difficulty is thrown at you. There is no endpoint to this process: it is truly evolutionary, focused on continuing self-improvement (or what Maslow calls "self-actualization"). Therefore, maximizing individuals' happiness here and now seems to be a good strategy for maximizing the "evolvability" (to use John Stewart's term ) and cooperativeness of society.


What makes it even better as a strategy is that:


  •  happiness is a very attractive goal that is almost ideal for motivating people to follow the precepts;
  •  happy people simply function better than unhappy people: they live longer, they are healthier, more resilient, more open-minded, more creative, less anxious, more altruistic, more inclined to think for the long term, less inclined to conflict, etc. Therefore, they will be more effective in implementing long-term strategies for global progress.


While this may seem almost too good to be true, it is important to remember the remaining obstacles to achieving this ideal.


The most obvious obstacle is that many people, especially in the Third World, still don't have the necessary material means to satisfy their most basic, physical needs, such as health and nutrition. However, global society is evolving at a quick enough pace to tackle all these problems in a relatively short future. (Actually, we already have the means to tackle them here and now, if only we had the political will and an efficient system of governance for implementing it).


The more difficult obstacle is that most people have not yet understood (and even less implemented) the difference between happiness (in the sense of sustainable well-being as sketched above) and quick gratification. That is why they still invest most of their energy in mindless consumption, competition for status, and cheap thrills (such as most TV programs offer). Csikszentmihalyi and others have convincingly argued that these activities produce the exact opposite of happiness (independently of them moreover being bad for the planet). John Stewart's recent research on the "future evolution of consciousness" addresses this problem, among others by exploring techniques from Buddhism to teach people how to detach themselves from their drives for quick gratification.


Maslow's theory of self-actualization gives us even more reason to be optimistic. It states that as basic needs are better satisfied during childhood, they stop controlling behavior during adulthood, thus enabling and inciting people to explore their "higher" needs of personal development and self-actualization (which are in practive synonymous to happiness as I sketched it). This means that as society further develops economically and especially socially, what John calls "evolutionary consciousness" will come more easily and naturally to people, without the need for them to follow strict disciplines like the ones prescibed by Buddhism...