comment by Alicegibb ·
2018-08-02T20:34:13.593Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
I think your post is thoughtful and there is a lot of truth in what you say, I would agree with a lot of it, and think it is an important and interesting discussion. This is something I have been thinking quite a lot about recently, and have come to similar conclusions.
I think that positive feelings like, joy and engagement, and other feelings of happiness are important because they can give us more emotional energy and drive, and a sense of confidence, and greater self esteem. I think that positive psychology techniques such as gratitude, mindfulness and savouring the good things in life, can be really helpful and important to help us to notice the good, and train our brain away from always focusing on the negative and help us to be less anxious. However I don’t think that using positive psychology techniques and a Stoic attitude are mutually exclusive ways of being or training your mind. I would say that I use both approaches and that both are helpful.
I think problems occur when we become too attached to being happy or to positive feelings, and then are constantly striving to create more of these same feelings. I think that this can actually create a lot of anxiety about when the next thing is going to be that will generate these happy feelings again. I also think that if you are too attached or too used to being happy all the time then you become less able to tolerate negative states of mind, and less able to face up to difficulties and challenges in the world and your own life, so this is actually quite a fragile way of being.
"But the state of happiness has the down side of getting addictive and lose the ability to handle unhappy states. In order to not freak out every time the next horrible thing is happening one needs to learn to accept the consistency of change"
I completely agree with this. The book ‘Staying Sane’ by Dr Raj Persaud is a bit old, but I have found it very interesting and helpful. Some interesting quotes from book:
“It seems that those prone to intense happiness are also prone to more intense unhappiness, suffering from spectacular highs and lows… Happiness based on the pleasure which follows from external events is always likely to be fragile, as pleasure is usually fleeting…. Maintaining and improving mental health seems more strongly linked to this satisfaction component of happiness than to that of momentary pleasure… I would go further than saying that the pleasure part of happiness is not synonymous with positive mental health and argue that many people’s rather desperate pursuit of happiness is symptomatic of poor mental health… mentally healthy people often find themselves strengthened by negative events and are less likely to suffer a breakdown should another crisis follow on the heals of the last. In other words, mentally healthy people are able to learn emotionally from whatever life throws at them..
Evidence from medical research indicates that the incidence of depression is increasing, whilst sociological research suggests that levels of happiness have not fallen..
- Happiness is not the opposite of depression, and therefore the pursuit of happiness is not the same as the avoidance of depression
- The chase for happiness, in particular intense happiness, will in all probability render depression more likely
- The attempt to enhance mood in some permanent way is usually doomed to failure because of intense mechanisms built into our mood systems which lead eventually to us getting used to improvements in our lives, with the effect that they no longer make us as happy as they did at the beginning
- Contentment is possible, but only by employing some strategies that do not always include the avoidance of personal difficulties
- Mental health is best established by aiming for mood stability rather than extreme happiness”
Being able to accept our states of mind as simply changing states of mind and also accept situations in our life and in the world and not panic is important and builds strength and resilience. I think that the western culture can be quite unhealthy because in my opinion a lot of people prioritise feelings of happiness too much, and are constantly striving towards this, and there is social comparison about how happy other people are, and then anxiety about whether other people are more happy or having more fun than you are, an approach which is bound to lead to unhappiness and emptiness.
I think that being ‘too happy’ can be problematic and research has found that people who are very happy are more likely to engage in impulsive and risky behaviours (the extreme end of the scale is to be in a state of mania) . research has also found that usually people are overconfident about their abilities, but depressed people are more realistic, and I think that the happier you are the more likely you are to be overconfident but also perhaps unrealistic, and the extreme end of this is to lose touch with reality and to become delusional about your abilities.
There was an interesting study by a Professor of Psychology, Oettingen that showed that being really optimistic can actually hinder the achievement of goals and that the best way to achieve goals is through a process of ‘mental contrasting’ which is about being optimistic/ believing that you can achieve your goals but also recognising and working on the challenges and barriers that will occur on your progress towards your goals.
And I also think that feeling very very happy is not that healthy and as you said you risk being less able to tolerate negative emotions or situations in your life, and perhaps this is what happens in people with bipolar disorder when they swing from one extreme to the other.
I think the trick is to be able to feel positive emotions and to use them to our advantage to improve our energy and drive, and optimism about life, but too not become too attached to those feelings in themselves, and to not get too carried away with them, but to keep our feet on the ground and ourselves grounded, for which we need a continued sense of mindfulness and an awareness that there are difficulties and challenges, and uncomfortable feelings in life that we need to deal with. This is about emotional regulation and is an important quality to build, in order to build strength, resilience and cope with setbacks and negative events in our lives and the world.
Also, Having a strong sense of purpose has been shown to lead to many positive psychological benefits, and I think that we should use different psychological techniques , and generate positive states like joy and optimism, not really for our own pleasure but to aid us in the pursuit of our purpose.
These are the principles that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is based on, which can be really helpful – to think of your values driving you forward in life, rather than constantly being caught up in your momentary thoughts and feelings. https://www.actmindfully.com.au/
I think that effective altruism can be beneficial in giving people a strong sense of purpose, but I have also wondered the same thing as what you said here
"I question that, because I very much believe being classic altruistic (if at all), and not effective altruistic, has way more potential to gather positive feelings."
I think that being altruistic can lead to a lot of happiness, but have also wondered myself whether being a classical altruist would lead to more happiness and less distress, because part of the philosophy or way of thinking of effective altruism is about ‘maximising’, wanting to achieve ‘the best’, always wanting better, and striving for more, and often being sceptical and dissatisfied with a lot of altruistic actions that you could take and feel happy and satisfied about, but if you are constantly thinking about whether your altruistic action is very effective and if there is a more effective way of doing something, then you are just going to be dissatisfied with yourself and experience negative feelings. Having a maximising tendency when making choices in life has been found to lead to more anxiety and depression, and less satisfaction in the end when you have made the decision. I really think that this is something the effective altruist community needs to look at, because there is a risk that people think like this too much, and experience poor mental health and too much stress because of this way of thinking. https://hbr.org/2006/06/more-isnt-always-better
In my opinion the EA community needs to look at this, and supporting people when they are using this ‘maximising tendency’ because it can potentially be a more unhealthy and distressing way of thinking.
In my opinion we should also not really be striving to improve ‘happiness’ in the sense of ‘pleasure’ in the world or in the EA community but should be working on improving mental health, satisfaction with life, and happiness as a sense of contentedness.