Post No.: 0453
Emotions could be said to be what we experience when we’re not thinking about what we’re experiencing but just experiencing whatever we’re experiencing; whilst feelings could be said to be what we feel when we’re consciously thinking about or reflecting upon how we (think we ought to) feel.
Emotions, or affective experiences, come in a variety of positive (e.g. love, joy, engagement, hope, amusement) and negative (e.g. hate, sadness, anger, shame, worry) forms. Some people go through entire days without experiencing an unhappy episode, whilst a fraction of the population experiences considerable distress for much of their days, whether due to mental and/or physical illness, an unhappy disposition and/or the misfortunes of personal tragedies in their lives.
But although both positive and negative emotions can be present during any given episode of our lives, most moments in life can ultimately be classified according to either positive or negative feelings, or affective reflections, when viewed in hindsight. When we retrieve a past memory in detail, we also relive the (prototypical) feelings that accompanied it. We are essentially empathising with our earlier self, or at least how we remember ourselves back then.
Our mood depends on our overall disposition and health, but at any moment it can fluctuate considerably because it depends greatly on the current situation too. Your mood, such as when at work, depends more on your current or present situational factors (e.g. your co-workers, time pressures (a significant source of negative affect), how comfortable the office is and the immediate presence of one’s boss) than on general job satisfaction factors (e.g. your pay, benefits or status). Our current mood affects our responses to questions about our global reflected feelings too – therefore our own judgements of our own life satisfaction can vary according to what’s currently present on our minds.
Our emotional state is largely determined by what we mentally attend to, except in situations when the quality of subjective experience is dominated by recurrent or distracting thoughts rather than by the events in the immediate time and place (e.g. when joyfully in love, we may feel happy even when stuck in a traffic jam; or if grieving, we may remain sad even when watching a funny film). But these situations are relatively atypical, except for a clinically depressed person.
So in normal circumstances, we draw pain and pleasure from what’s happening in the present, if we attend to it. This means that if we want to enjoy our food, we must pay attention to or be mindful of the activity of eating our food – if distracted from it, our enjoyment will be diluted. We also don’t attend completely to the present when we deliberately reflect or fantasise on our feelings, such as when we’re distracted from the present in order to try to answer the question of evaluating our global (overall) life satisfaction.
This evaluation can be somewhat primed by our current mood too, so our rating for our own global life satisfaction can decrease if we currently think about the lifestyles of billionaires, or increase if we currently think about the things we’re grateful for – hence the benefit of gratitude exercises. Woof!
So our current situation will affect our current mood, which in turn can affect our current life satisfaction if we were to assess it. There’s indeed some bi-directional feedback – our current mood can affect our temporary global assessments, and our global assessments can temporarily affect our current mood, all depending on whatever is currently brought to mind i.e. ‘what you see is all there is’.
However, most of our living is done just living – just getting on with things in life – not in a state of thinking or reflecting about life. Still, both our present happiness and global life satisfaction are important, and we can influence both by improving our health (e.g. exercising), improving our environment (e.g. taking a different job or walking amongst more greenery/nature) and improving our thoughts (e.g. focusing on our blessings). If one tends to ruminate too much on one’s lousy life satisfaction then mindfulness exercises (attending to and accepting the present) can be beneficial.
Directly trying to change one’s thoughts, even via cognitive exercises, is more difficult to do than changing the factors that affect one’s thoughts though (few people can will themselves to have a sunnier disposition) so the main way to improve our happiness is to spend more of our time doing positive, happiness-inducing experiences, such as spending more time with the people we like, and less time doing things we don’t enjoy so much, like commuting. More active forms of leisure (e.g. exercise, socialising – read Post No.: 0300) are better than passive forms (e.g. watching TV), although this can depend on one’s personality.
For society, improving transportation for the labour force, improving availability of childcare for working parents (who are mostly women), and improving socialising opportunities for the elderly, would be good ways to reduce the ‘U-index’ of a population (the percentage of time people spend in negative or unpleasant states) and increase total social well-being. Large-scale analyses have confirmed the importance of positive situational factors, physical health and social contact (particularly spending time with those you love and who love you) for well-being or happiness.
So can money buy happiness? Being poor can definitely make us miserable – but beyond a certain level, money doesn’t tend to improve our experiential or emotional well-being or happiness. Severe poverty amplifies the experienced effects of other misfortunes in life (e.g. illness, divorce, loneliness), and the beneficial effects of a free weekend on our experienced well-being are much smaller for the very poor than for others. Financial resources can somewhat buffer subjective well-being after the onset of a disability too. But there’s a certain level of wealth beyond which the average experienced well-being or happiness no longer increases at all. According to a 2018 paper published in Nature Human Behaviour, this plateau for individuals is $60,000-75,000 per year for emotional well-being. This is still considerable but not ridiculous. This research also suggests $95,000 per year is the plateau for life satisfaction. These are worldwide averages so you might differ, perhaps because of the local and current cost of living or you’re more efficient or profligate with your own money. Well we certainly don’t see billionaires with constant super-massive grins on their faces that proportionally reflect their wealth compared to others(!) The insecurity or discontentment of thinking that one never has enough despite having a lot decreases one’s well-being and life satisfaction itself.
Even though the richer one gets, the more one can afford many, and many different, pleasures, there’s a natural limit to possible experiential happiness – due to our basic dispositional bounds of happiness (our ‘set point’ of happiness), and because of ‘hedonic adaptation’. If one is physically healthy then one is physically healthy enough, plus we quickly habituate to greater states of material wealth. It’s like one may have enjoyed playing on a fifth or sixth-generation videogame console when young roughly as much as one enjoys playing on an eighth, ninth or whatever generation console today. We’ve got more polygons today but we’re not necessarily having more fluffy fun. There’s usually a transient feeling of greater joy whenever we get more stuff, but then this feeling soon habituates back down to our natural set point, hence our average joy isn’t elevated in the long-run. Indeed, a direct playing comparison now may make the older console seem far inferior but the point is that one’s experiencing self didn’t feel this way back then. Moreover, a twentieth-generation console will come out someday but one isn’t currently thinking that the current generation of consoles are rubbish and not worth playing, even though the exact same game will always be objectively the exact same game.
When we’re happy, we’re happy! When we laugh, we’re laughing! There’s a maximum level of experiential joy we can all personally feel, and you’ve hopefully experienced it many times before. There’s no ‘super laugh’ that only the super-rich get to experience(!)
Social comparisons and new generations of products can only reduce the experiential pleasures of previous sources of pleasure, not increase our experiential pleasures per se. So we’re trapped into buying new things just to essentially maintain a certain state a pleasure, not increase it – and we must crucially note that existing sources of pleasure don’t degrade until/unless one personally tastes and habituates to something considered greater i.e. habituating to the high-life but then losing it feels far worse than having never habituated to it at all (albeit one will habituate to this new ‘lower’ lifestyle again eventually).
We don’t experience (or remember) the world objectively but relatively and subjectively – finding pleasure in using a product today won’t necessarily mean finding pleasure in the exact same product in the future; even if it’ll be new to you in the future (e.g. most children today don’t find Space hoppers interesting even though they’ve never personally played with them before, which confirms that newer ‘more fun’ products only reduce the experiential pleasures of previous sources of pleasure; not increase experiential pleasures for people per se).
So apart from things that relate to improving our health (e.g. medical advances), our levels of pleasure haven’t increased despite ever-increasing materialism. Also, a higher income is possibly associated with a reduced ability to enjoy the small pleasures in life (e.g. priming people with the idea of wealth reduces the pleasure their faces express as they eat a bar of chocolate!) Likewise, pains are also limited to reducing them to zero. We cannot go below feeling numb. Moreover, we need some pain to understand what pleasure is since our experiences of pleasures and pains, although real, are relative.
A smile can only go so large. A laugh can only get so hearty until it actually starts to physically hurt! xD An orgasm is said to be the ultimate limit of pleasure – and for those with disorders that mean that they constantly orgasm, their experiential life is actually one of hell, so we can evidently start to have too much of a desirable thing. It’s like being ‘too healthy’ is simply unhealthy because one’s behaviours have become extreme.
…Understanding all of this, the greater mystery is why so many people naturally assume that more money will always result in greater happiness? Maybe this is down to crude instincts, which evolved more optimally for a time and place (of genuine scarcity and hardship) when the oversimplistic heuristic of ‘more always equals better’ worked fine. It’s a similar instinct that causes many people to become overweight or obese (to the detriment of their own health and ultimately survival) even though food in their current environment is plentiful and an impending famine is highly unlikely for them today (although there are other reasons for overeating too). The planet doesn’t appreciate our excessive consumerism either.
The experiencing self (happiness) isn’t necessarily more important than the remembering self (life satisfaction), or vice-versa – they’re just different things entirely. So perhaps ever-greater relative status assessments, and in turn subjective life satisfaction assessments, could be reasons why many people will still want more and more. Well to counter this interminable status competition, we should simply not measure people’s statuses according to their wealth.
Society-wise, reducing human suffering and progressively raising everyone’s living standards up towards the ceiling of experiential well-being (i.e. by always focusing on raising the welfare of the worst off in society) would logically, and according to scientific research, be the most effective way to maximise and optimise total social well-being in the world, because there are little to no gains to be made in society for the rich to get even richer, due to this ceiling. Ever-expanding inequality is also a (or the) major problem in socio-economics today.
Woof! Continually lifting the living standards of the poorest and most unfortunate, and dealing with low socio-economic status, poverty and depression, should be our rational national political priorities.