On Happiness: Prospective and Retrospective

To be happy, people desire access to new stimuli – ‘relishes’ as Aristotle put it, or ‘new experiences’ as we put it today.

People prefer working on optimistic ends. They prefer to work successfully to accumulate new stimuli, rather than at planning to prevent negative stimuli, or at planning to conserve resources so that they can preserve the current stimuli.

And they enjoy operating at the maximun that their abilities allow while still succeeding in their plans. The human mind craves something to do. It just wants to do something it can succeed at doing.

Throughout history, any number of people have tried to take ownership of the term ‘happiness’ and to define it according to their preferences. Usually, someone picks a point on the temporal spectrum and claims that ‘true happiness’ comes from either pleasure, freedom from stress, or a life that is retrospectively well lived.

Temporal priority is an important attribute of happiness, because Time Bias (Time Preference) or the tendency for people to pursue outcomes of shorter or longer distance in the future is correlative with social status. These terms below use the temporal spectrum to accommodate the most common priorities.

    ‘Pleasure’ is not the same as happiness. Pleasure is a positive emotional reaction to stimuli. To some degree it is a response to ‘learning’. It is evolution’s way of training us to want more of a good thing. And evolution has given us the ability to experience and to understand happiness.

    ‘Prospective Happiness’ is the presence of opportunity for obtaining stimuli, obtaining social status, obtaining group membership, obtaining mates, and then learning to be successful at obtaining what one desires through the execution of one’s plans.

    ‘Retrospective Happiness’ is the absence of stress, the presence of comforts, welcoming membership in a group, the security of the familiar, and the knowledge that one’s plans and actions, no matter how small, will achieve or have achieved, frequently lead to successful ends.

Happiness is both a reward for our anticipation of the opportunity for stimulation, and our reward for the exercise of good judgement in obtaining that stimuli. The priority that each of us give to these different properties of Prospective and Retrospective Happiness are different, and dependent upon a combination of our abilities and skill at forecasting, planning, succeeding, obtaining group membership, and avoiding stress.

We would all be happier amidst the plenty in the Garden of Eden wherein our basic wants and needs were fully and freely satisfied, and there was little else to do but enjoy one another’s company. At least, we would, until our biological Alphas decided that hoarding the best resources and controlling access to mates was more entertaining than communalism.

But in our real world, we are somewhat challenged in achieving happiness because of the unresolveable conundrum of living not in the garden of eden – which is a place of plenty – but in a universe of scarcity. And having to transform the scarce resources of the real world into increasingly complex products and services through a division of labor and knowledge in which many hands may indeed make light work, but which, because of the many hands, requires cooperation among people of different ages and abilities and interests to make that work light. To coordinate people within such a complex system, we must rely upon the information provided by an uncaring and anonymous pricing system rather than our natural empathy, observable interactions, personal commitments and habituated relationships that constitute the much more limited information system inherited from our tribal biology.

And it is the conflict between our a) tribal instincts and sentiments, the need for belonging to a group, the status signals that come from that membership, and b) the anonymity and confusion that come from our dependence upon the pricing system, that make our prosperity and freedom from the vicissitudes of nature possible. This conflict appears to be an unresolvable conflict that satisfies our pleasures, but limits our happiness. Never in history have so many people had it so well, but claimed so little happiness – except perhaps since the first invasion of north america by modern man.

But it need not be an unresolvable conflict if we separate thinking and acting locally as if we are in a tribe governed by our instincts, from thinking and acting socially and politically as if we are in a market, governed by prices.

Unless we understand that difference, happiness will be elusive. You cannot be happy if want the impossible. That runs contrary to our biological want to have our plans succeed rather than fail.

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