What is happiness? (he said, lighting up his bong)

In this New York Times essay, Jennifer Senior investigates the life of Philip Brickman, the happiness researcher behind one of psychology’s most famous findings — that whether you win the lottery or suffer a terrible accident, your long-run happiness won’t change much.

Brickman’s story is a sad one. Despite his many personal and professional successes, he was terminally incapable of finding happiness. He knew that organizing his life around the “hedonic treadmill” (a term he coined) was pointless, but he couldn’t step off it. He ultimately took his own life. 

Before he did, he distilled his thinking into this clear and beautiful set of statements, published posthumously:

Which is all very well. But what on earth do you live for, if not happiness?

Your commitments, according to Brickman. They were the true road to salvation, he decided, the solution to an otherwise absurd existence. He recognized that they didn’t always give pleasure; they may even “oppose and conflict with freedom or happiness,” as he wrote in his book “Commitment, Conflict, and Caring,” published five years after his death. But in many ways, that was the point: The more we sacrifice for something, the more value we assign to it.

“Happiness,” he wrote, “involves the enthusiastic and unambivalent acceptance of activities or relationships that are not the best that might possibly be obtained.”

I hope Brickman’s words survive being snipped from their original context because they struck me as so exceptionally true. Happiness really does involve the enthusiastic and unambivalent acceptance of activities or relationships that are not the best that might possibly be obtained.

Of course, it’s true for a banal reason, self-evident to anyone who’s ever scrolled through Reddit or Instagram waiting for the perfect meme: “Optimal” doesn’t exist. Optimal is an illusion that keeps us striving, both for good (striving is how we grow!) and ill (striving is exhausting!). And, perhaps past a certain point, worse than exhausting — self-defeating.

If we never tend to our yards, then someone else’s will invariably look greener. It’s only by committing to the suboptimal that we render them, in the end, optimal.

Whoa, man (he said, setting the bong down)

If you accept this proposition, you immediately realize how scary it is.

The Times essay details one principal reason: commitments are fleeting. You can build your life around something — a job, a person, even an identity — only to see that thing disappear. (Fleetwood Mac, noted TikTok celebrities, have a song about this.)

But there’s a more inescapable reason: We’re enmeshed in a world that’s uniquely ill-equipped at fostering Brickman’s brand of happiness. This is true even for the kind of person likely reading this blog (no offense): the professional-class college graduate with reasonable career prospects.

Elite college ideology trains its adherents to amass “option value” (usually a set of high-prestige skills and experiences) above all. The idea is that if you major in economics and work at a consulting firm, never committing to a path until it’s “right,” you’ll ultimately be free to “choose” whatever you want to do (probably Product Management at a large tech company).

All true as far as it goes, but there’s an irony to this logic. For option value theory to work, you must remain hyper-aware of your current path’s “opportunity cost” — all the other jobs you could be working, all the other people you could be working with. At the first sign that what you’ve chosen seems less than optimal, the overwhelming (and probably rational!) incentive will be to bail. Only by bailing can you exercise your option value. Perversely, the more option value you have, the more tempting bailing will be. In the extreme case, you’re incapable of committing to anything enthusiastically and unambivalently. 

Of course, some professional-class strivers become aware of this self-defeating logic and try to cope. They take up knitting or meditation, trying to develop a sense of gratitude for the present moment. But one gets the feeling that these activities are less about cultivating mindfulness and more about ignoring the present moment until the “better” thing comes along. (Adam Sandler, noted Netflix auteur, has a film about this.)

Technology makes things even worse

Since my mind has clearly been poisoned by elite college ideology, allow me to rephrase Brickman’s dictum in financial market terms: Happiness involves willfully and irrationally ignoring opportunity cost. You must become temporarily blind to your relevant alternatives so you can plow ahead.

But, assuming that’s true, our environment poses problems beyond its ideological views of white-collar work. Consider consumer technology, whose implicit design ethos seems to be making us hyper-aware of opportunity cost.

Our apps have made many activities — listening to music, ordering food, finding a date — wondrously frictionless. Any article can be replaced by a thousand others. Any song can be swapped for a thousand substitutes an algorithm thinks we’d like. It’s a well-documented phenomenon that real-world conversation suffers when our phones are in view. But that’s only rational. If our conversation partners can’t consistently hold our interest, why not find one who can?

We’ve all had the experience of beginning a personal project and mindlessly flipping over to email, Facebook, Slack, or (in my case) ESPN.com. We experience this as frustrating, but why? Isn’t it simply our brains being rational? Among the infinite possibilities that might be frictionlessly obtained, there is a 0% chance that the one we initially opted for is optimal. Same with the date sitting across from you and the restaurant you found on Yelp.

We can finally live as homo economicus was always meant to: acutely attuned to whether what we’re currently doing or consuming represents the Best And Highest Use Of Our Time.

Of course, it’s this very rationality that undermines happiness. It stops us from taking the long view that gives our lives meaning.

I don’t mean to imply that all of these problems are a function of modernity or technology or work. Human beings have long had phrases for these concepts: “FOMO”; “the paradox of choice”; “the grass is always greener”; even, arguably, “thou shalt not covet.”

But I do mean to imply that technology and how we’ve organized society have made these problems worse. We must take them seriously so we can reap the benefits of our wealth rather than be driven mad by them.