Happiness

Sep 2, 2014

Happiness is a calculation — a quotient. Happiness equals experience divided by expectation.

The word didn’t come up until the last five minutes of a two-hour conversation. Eugene social psychology researcher Paul Slovic isn’t a fan of the “happiness” movement that has taken over many best-seller lists and self-help shelves. 

For more than a half-century, Slovic has focused his research on the underbelly of humanity, from addictive gambling to genocidal dictatorships. More precisely, he has concerned himself with how people respond to the atrocities, hoping to learn better ways to convey vital information to motivate people to act.

After fifty years, you could call Slovic a happy warrior, except for his deep disdain of war and his scholarly skepticism of happiness.

Slovic recently helped his colleague Dan Kahan articulate what they call Identity-
Protective Cognition Syndrome, seeking to explain why information doesn’t always help people make better decisions about huge, looming catastrophes like climate change.

Simply put, belonging trumps knowing.

It’s important to respect the internal logic. While it may be true that shopping, showering, and driving less will reduce my carbon footprint, the actual change on the environment from changes I can make is vanishingly minute. At the same time, the social ridicule I may fear or feel could be visceral, immediate, and measurable.

If the people around me don’t believe in doing something about climate change, the felt cost for my actions outweigh the consequences of inaction. Resisting change makes sense.

In an April 12, 2014 Op-Ed piece, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman made reference to O power, a Virginia company that helps people see the “carbon footprint” consequences of their choices, but then also showing how their consumption habits compare with those of their neighbors.

Putting a face on better choice options — especially a familiar face who walks his dog past your house every day — allows the information to become meaningful and motivating.

Bridging that gap between information and meaning has been Slovic’s life’s work.

Consider what he calls “pseudo-inefficacy.” It works like this. Show a photo of a hungry child and ask people to give money. A certain percentage of people will give. Show that same child’s photo alongside a photo of the village (showing others who will not be benefiting from the act of generosity), and the response rate goes down.

We know it shouldn’t, but it does. The generosity still accomplishes exactly the same amount of good, but the reminder that there’s much more to be done drains the motivation for whatever good we can do.

This is how happiness snuck into the conversation. Wouldn’t Slovic rather study what brings people joy? Maybe, but not so long as there are global horrors that must be addressed. 

But what about his own choices? Is he happy?

The word gives him pause. “Satisfied” isn’t quite right. Neither is “contented.” He sleeps well at night. He accepts that his general emotional state cannot be reduced to a single word. Fair enough.

“I’m doing the work that’s been asked of me,” he reflects. “And I’ll continue doing that work until it doesn’t need doing or until I can’t do it any more.”

Meanwhile, others are using what’s being learned about human behavior and motivation for exactly the opposite purpose. Slovic knows this first-hand because he has served as an expert witness against tobacco companies. He’s read their internal memos.

Advertising peddles “happiness” — hoping you won’t notice the quotes around that commodity. In fact, happiness is not a thing. Happiness is a calculation — a quotient. Happiness equals experience divided by expectation.

Yes, you can add more and better experiences to achieve happiness, but if you simultaneously increase your expectations, you won’t be happier. Oftentimes, the euphoria that we call “happiness” is nothing but a temporary jolt, followed by deepening misery. It leaves you needing another jolt.

Reducing our expectations is a surer path to happiness, especially if those around us share in the effort. Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, study buddies, work-out partners — each adds belonging to knowing.

We must learn to align our desires with our motivations. Slovic and others want to help us pull personal meaning out of all-too-abundant information. You could call that happiness, if you like.

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.