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Post No.: 0613prosperity


Furrywisepuppy says:


We’ve learnt that people frequently exhibit inconsistency and thus irrationality with their own choices – as examined in Post No.: 0576. This isn’t to say that humans are always irrational. Organisms don’t have to make optimal decisions to survive anyway – just decisions that aren’t bad enough to kill or sterilise them and ultimately take their genes out of the gene pool. Thus playing the lottery is irrational if one’s motive is to win money but one won’t die from playing if one can spare the cost of an occasional ticket. Fearing flying more than driving isn’t too harmful because the chance of dying on the roads on any given journey is also low. Irrationality therefore doesn’t necessarily result in mortality (at least immediately in the case of something like drinking too much), and this allows irrational behaviours to persist within a species rather than get selected out.


People can end up following each other to eventual doom – many tribes or civilisations in history have gone extinct before. But it’s not itself irrational to follow the herd or what we’ve always done because it’s likely to be the safer course of action if we’re unsure of what to do. Social norms make for a cohesive society too. Most people consciously or subconsciously follow the precept ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ – people are always looking around them to see what others are doing first, especially in situations of uncertainty. People might eat cereals for breakfast rather than for lunch, wash in the morning rather than at night, or whatever the local norm is. The narratives we tell ourselves for everything we do might be that we ‘drafted up a cost-benefit calculation and made an individual and rational choice’, but these will likely be our post-hoc rationalisations.


One explanation why we seem to have consistent patterns to our own behaviours from one day to the next even though we’re always apparently just reacting to our current environment is that we’re generally in the same environments from one day to the next.


Another hypothesis is that we’re not making isolated decisions from moment to moment because we use stories to organise our thoughts, beliefs and behaviours to give them a sense of consistency and coherency. When we try to figure out what’s in other people’s minds (including fictional characters even though they’re fictional!), we might think ‘it’s that loud music next door hence why they’re feeling irate’ – and we do the same thing with our own behaviours too. We might think we know our own inner minds, feelings and motives but, just as we can make mistakes about other people’s minds, we sometimes make mistakes about our own e.g. we might think that we’re irate because our neighbour’s music is loud but really it’s because we also had a rotten day at work and we’re blaming our feelings on someone else in our current environment. We weave reasons for our decisions and behaviours that sound plausible and coherent, with all the gaps filled in, but they may not be the real or full reasons and we’re making large parts of it up as we go along.


Metaphorically, like our vision, we assume we’re constantly seeing a fully-detailed picture of what’s in front of us – when really only what’s within our foveae is in focus at any given time. We haven’t figured out ‘somewhere deep inside of us’ beforehand everything about our own thoughts, desires and beliefs – we’re creating a story as we go along. (Some will still contest how these stories manage to stay largely consistent without any ‘depth’ to our minds to store and retrieve the ‘chapters that were written before’ from one juncture to another though?)


Stories are how we understand others, the world and ourselves, and if something doesn’t quite match our narrative, like we get an answer to a question wrong that might make us appear stupid but we don’t think we’re stupid at all – we’ll be tempted to bend the facts a little so that they’ll fit our story i.e. we’ll rationalise things away e.g. we’ll believe that we read the question wrong and lacked concentration at the time rather than intelligence.


…Regarding prosperity and happiness – on average, people in poverty-stricken countries are obviously less happy than those in more affluent countries. But beyond a certain level of economic prosperity, the correlation ends – the richest countries (according to GDP) aren’t necessarily the happiest in the world. Beyond a certain prosperity, other things like health, family and leisure time matter more. It’s the same when comparing poor with rich individuals. Also, whether earning $5/hour is decent or not depends on one’s living costs. In terms of economic development – over the short-term, income and happiness correlate within a country; but over the long-term, happiness levels cease to track with income levels.


On average and across the world, economic prosperity has blossomed manyfold since WWII yet happiness levels, according to self-report surveys, have not. Despite most of us in the ‘developed world’ having far more in material terms than the generations before us (although home ownership and the aftermath of economic downturns are issues for some), we haven’t been gradually getting happier and happier with every generation. Modern life does bring new stresses but they’re surely not as grave as the stresses that those in the past faced more of e.g. more infant mortality and fewer medicines. So these surely cannot explain why rises in happiness levels have stalled despite economic prosperity, generally, continuing to rise.


One possible explanation is that, on average, lives are truly getting better as global economic prosperity rises but the measurements of happiness (or really life satisfaction here) are being obscured because everyone’s self-reports are based on comparing themselves to their peers. So when other people’s prosperity has risen faster than ours, we perceive that our own prosperity hasn’t risen at all.


But comparisons are the nature of our experience – our perception is our reality and is all that matters to us. Thus if we don’t feel happier then we don’t feel happier. If people are experiencing more stress, depression and anxiety than ever before then they are. Our self-reports are the truth of our own experiences. We cannot tell someone else that they’re really feeling like a 9/10 when they honestly feel like a 4/10. And if happiness levels aren’t improving then all this economic prosperity appears pointless unless we reduce inequality.


There exist absolutes like absolute zero temperature, but is a 50% efficacious vaccine good or bad? 100% or 0% sound absolute, but things can be better or worse than that e.g. a procedure that’s 0% effective and gives nasty side-effects of varying degrees. Relativity is the basis for the theory of relativity (albeit this is less about human perception and more about spacetime).


Without comparing something with something else, it’s impossible to say whether it’s great or not, hence why scientific experiments with drugs need suitable control groups to compare to.


When considering something from ‘1 to 10’ – what’s a ‘10’ depends on what we’re comparing to. There could feasibly be two communities that are internally egalitarian and are totally unknown to each other, where in one the residents all earn $1,000/year and rate themselves 7/10 in happiness, and in the other they all earn $100,000/year and rate themselves 7/10 too – but if they one day meet each other, those in the first community could suddenly start to rate themselves 2/10 in happiness, all because they now realise how much less they’ve got compared to some others.


Beyond a certain prosperity, our happiness isn’t dependent on the objective features of the materials we possess or cash in our accounts – it depends on a relative comparison to what those around us have. (This suggests that people in dictatorial but internally egalitarian regimes can feel satisfied as long as they have their needs comfortably met… unless they see what freer regimes are like and begin to compare with those who live in these places. This presents the pros and cons of not knowing any differently.)


A standard modern family car has more gizmos, is safer, more reliable and could even be faster than the best luxury car that existed a century ago. But if we compare our car to a better one our neighbour has today then it suddenly won’t seem so amazing. It’s intuitive for us to compare to others – in particular our peers, those most proximal to us or whoever’s presently brought to mind (this is a problem with constantly checking out the possessions and lifestyles of rich people on social media) – but I suppose it doesn’t have to be this way. Comparisons are always just a matter of perspective – we can compare to those who have fewer creature comforts than us instead. And if our happiness is affected by such perceptions or judgements then is there nothing more to being happy than just thinking we are? Woof!


How much pain in the form of electric shocks we’re willing to accept for a certain amount of money will depend on whether that pain is being compared to a greater or lesser pain and whether that amount of money is bounded within a high or low range e.g. from $0.00 to $0.40, or from $0.00 to $0.80. Therefore we don’t have a fixed trade-off between money and pain – it’s an ad hoc judgement that depends on the options that are being offered and what’s relative to what. Although not always, it’s as if we’re comparing each current stimulus with only the one before it or at least recently. This questions how a utilitarian society can be achieved if there are no absolute measures for pain or pleasure? Our fickle, unstable preferences would keep on changing how we calculate what the ‘aggregate maximised state’ is. Direct economic measures of happiness might also face similar problems.


Who we consider attractive is based on relative comparisons too. When people pick their life partners, the vast majority don’t draw up absolute lists that they’re checking everyone against until they find the optimum person to share their life with(!) And even if people can name a list of desirable attributes if asked, they can end up finding attractive someone who doesn’t quite fit that list, or vice-versa. Love isn’t guided by only what’s, or all that’s, rational. Well it’s evidently too common how capricious people can be, with wandering eyes regarding whom they most fancy from one moment to the next, leading to much infidelity!


Winning big then losing lots of small bets will feel worse than losing big then winning lots of small bets, even if the net financial result ends up identical. The same if leading a match for ages then having to settle for a draw compared to coming from behind to salvage a draw in the last minute. The destination is always death so life is really about the journey and probably the best journey is one that gets a little bit better year-on-year in a sustainable fashion. So try not to peak too early otherwise it’ll feel like downhill from thereon by comparison.


Summarising – the reason why happiness in society doesn’t keep increasing overall is because we keep comparing what we have with ever newer stuff that’s apparently better, and because we keep comparing ourselves with those who have more. And this chase for ever more stuff and these social comparisons will never end. We hedonically adapt to things, get used to them, hence desire can endlessly escalate. We don’t naturally judge things in absolute terms – because we can’t – hence arguably the solutions are to learn to compare what we possess with things that are worse and compare ourselves to those who have less. And to stop our insecurities we must stop chasing what’s just ‘stuff’ at the end of the day.


Woof. We, again, actually need to seek contentment. It’d be more environmentally sustainable too.


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