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When nothing makes you happy anymore...

The bulk of my reading in the past three to four months have been directed at understanding the workings of the mind, both from an evolutionary perspective as well as from a biological processes perspective. And I even read a book that extended that concept to treating larger human societies as an extension of an individual mind, only in terms of how they come about and function.

While reading and absorbing all these concepts and theories, I've naturally considered my own thoughts and actions (and that of those around me) in the light of these concepts and theories and tried to deconstruct them to shape them better.

One of these thought exercises has lead me down to explore one of my favourite topics - happiness.

Let's start with a scale for happiness, say from 1 to 10, i.e. anything that any person ever experiences in terms of happiness (and consequently sadness, which is simply the lower end of the scale) is represented as a number between 1 and 10. This range is a completely arbitrary choice. I could just as easily have chosen -1 to +1 or 0 to 100, but I decided to go with 1 to 10 as it makes for more effective and easier story-telling and if I've learnt one thing in the past few months, it's that our minds are all about story-telling.

Now that we have successfully established an arbitrary range for indicating a person's state of happiness, we need to make the next arbitrary assignment. This one is about what the happiness level of a new-born baby is. This comes with a constraint though. That it can be neither 1 nor 10. That's because both those assignments violate the scale. We have evidence that as a new-born baby grows into a kid, a teenager, an adult and eventually an old man or woman (or something in between), it's happiness level can both go up and down from that starting point, hence ruling out 1 and 10 as choices as they would mean that the happiness level of a new-born baby is the lowest or the highest respectively that that baby/person would feel in their entire life which could last north of a hundred years. Other than this constraint, it can be any number in between as that wouldn't violate any practical observations. But, I will choose to assign 5, again simply for easier story-telling.

So, the happiness level of a new-born baby, every new-born baby, is 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, irrespective of whether they are born to Bill and Melinda Gates (the richest of privileged white Americans) or to any of us or to any of the billion people that struggle everyday in the lurches of extreme poverty.

As the baby grows up to be a kid and an adult, like we all have done (and continue to do), large portions of their days are spent at a steady level. For some of us, the steady level comes up to 6 or 7 or 8 while for some others, the steady level goes down to 4 or 3 or 2. Before I dig into how we end up at such different steady levels, I will first elaborate on how and why we end in steady levels at all.

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we live our lives largely in steady states of happiness. Imagine that this wasn't the case for you. In the morning, you wake up feeling depressed about your life, and after breakfast, you are over-joyed about the day up ahead and then by lunch you are back to being depressed and so on. If you were a hunter-gatherer in the jungles 50,000 years ago, such fluctuations in your happiness levels would incapacitate your ability to hunt (or gather) effectively and it would incapacitate your ability to form meaningful bonds with others in your tribe, the two most important skills that you would need to survive and procreate. As a result, evolution would have selected the trait of steady happiness levels over continuously fluctuating happiness levels.

For the same two reasons, spikes (up and down) from the steady level would be a trait evolution would select for. If you felt hungry (or attracted to a member of the opposite sex in your tribe), and the thought of being unable to feed yourself didn't drop your happiness levels, you would continue to sit in your cave and starve. Maybe some members of the tribes back then did just that. The ones who lived and passed on their traits were the ones that had these spikes that prompted them to act.

Which brings me to the next point of actions arising from these spikes in happiness levels that are designed to bring the spiked levels back to the steady levels. Your happiness levels dropped at the thought of dying of starvation which prompted you to go slay a rabbit that you then feasted over which then dispelled further thoughts of dying of starvation, bringing your happiness level back to where it was.

Even today, all our actions are designed to bring our spikes back under control.

So, this explains why we spend large parts of our days at a steady happiness level. Which then leads us to the question of what this steady level ought to be on the scale that we picked initially, 1 to 10. 5? 7? 2?

We can take two approaches here. The first approach is where we look at each individual as having their own scale that can't be compared to the scale of others. That is, if my happiness level is 7 and yours is 8, we can't objectively say that you are happier than I am because we have our own scales that aren't calibrated. While this is an interesting approach and can help in many scenarios where we are dealing with the emotions and actions of a single person, today I prefer to go with the second approach of the calibrated scale.

In the calibrated scale, if my happiness level is 7 and your happiness level is 8, then we can objectively say that you are happier than I am. I choose this because I believe this is indeed true.

Let's try to understand why that is the case with an example. You and I were both at 5 when we were born. I grew up in a middle class family that couldn't afford a lot of luxuries but could still lead comfortable lives, while you were born to a much more affluent family, comparable to Bill and Melinda Gates. While we both started off at 5, if I were provided the opportunities that you can take for granted (the ability to travel anywhere in the world at a moment's notice, the ability to hire private coaches and tutors for anything and everything, etc), the spike I can see in my happiness level is a lot more than what you would see when offered such opportunities (because you can take them for granted). On the flip side, if I were told that I would inherit nothing and have to start building my wealth from scratch after growing up for 25 years experiencing everything that my family provided for me, the dip I would see in my happiness level, while stark, would be lower than the dip you would see under similar circumstances.

This is simply making the point that while we feel that anyone can dream seemingly unattainable things that, should they attain it, will see spikes in their happiness levels hit the roof, the same things if someone else with a lower steady level achieves, will hit an even higher spike. In mathematical terms, if X = 3, Y = 5, Y needs +1000 (attaining that seemingly unattainable thing) to reach 1005 while X needs +1002, indicating that X < Y.

So, in our calibrated scale, we can objectively say one person is happier than another if their steady levels indicate that. But you might say, if a poor man is given a thousand dollars, he is so much more happier than if Bill Gates is given a thousand dollars, despite the fact that Bill Gates is over a billion times richer than the poor man.

And you'd be right, and my calibrated approach accounts for it. The happiness level of the poor man spikes from 3 to 8 upon receiving a thousand dollars, while that of Bill Gates might remain at 7, thus making the poor man who was just handed a thousand dollars momentarily happier than the extremely wealthy Bill Gates. But once he has spent it, or once the novelty has worn off, the poor man's happiness level defaults back to 3 while Bill Gates's happiness level continues to remain at it's default of 7, making him happier than the poor man. If the poor man constantly receives those thousand dollar increments until he catches up with Bill Gates (not the actual amount of money, but his expectations for the life he can have), then he has the possibility of surpassing Bill Gates in the steady level of happiness.

Now, why does all this matter to you and I?

We live most of our lives in steady state. Yet, we evaluate spikes and dips. This is because our minds remember spikes and dips more easily than a steady routine.

I've gone through periods where I've deluded myself into thinking that I'm not all that happy because I don't see a lot of spikes given the steady routine I strive to achieve week after week. But this exploration has shown me that isn't the case at all.

If, like I've felt before, you end up thinking that nothing seems to make you very happy anymore, it is quite likely because you already are.

The closer your steady level of happiness is to 10, the harder it is to find spikes that make you happier and the easier it is to find dips that make you sadder. Nevertheless, we all strive to move ever closer to 10 because we live large parts of our lives in the steady state, despite remembering spikes and dips more vividly.

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