Sep 4, 2013

Optimizing for Happiness

I like using the concept of "optimization." Optimization is central to any serious endeavor. For example, in competitive long-distance hiking and cycling, one must optimize a lot of different things simultaneously: gear weight, gear functionality given probable risks and wear and tear, personal conditioning, diet, habits of energy expenditure and personal upkeep (both physical and mental/emotional).

But there is one category of optimization that trumps the rest: optimization of time needed to get from start to finish. One may choose to take slightly heavier equipment if it cuts down on maintenance time, if the sleep quality will be better, if it will improve emotional well-being and resilience, etc., because each of these things in turn will have an effect on the total time needed to reach the finish line.

One may avoid going "all out" in favor of a pace that is right at the threshold of sustainability. One may look for just the right amount of sleep that allows one to walk or cycle as long as possible while still retaining most of the restorative benefits of sleep. And one will develop habits that keep all systems functioning at a sustainable level without significant dips in performance that would require a longer restorative period and thus hurt the finishing time.

In our lives we also try to optimize many things at once: health, fitness, attractiveness, professional success, finances, quality of childcare, acquisition of important skills, relaxation quality, relationship health, and general life satisfaction.

Each of these things is very important. But is there one category of optimization that trumps the others, as in competitive sports (finishing time, points, etc.) or big business (the balance sheet)? I believe there is — or can be, — and that is to optimize for happiness.

In the past I've written about the somewhat conflicting goals of pursuing happiness versus pursuing biological success. I've found it useful to view biological urges and various personal tendencies as being important to happiness, but as having a life of their own. If given free reign, they quickly become destructive (lead to unhappiness), but if too tightly controlled, another kind of unhappiness results. The way to find the happy medium and optimal expression of one's different parts and mechanisms is to make maximizing happiness one's goal.

What would your life look like if you optimized for maximum happiness? Where and with whom would you live? Where, how, with whom, and how much would you work? What, where, and how would you eat? How would you balance your needs for privacy, companionship, and community?

These questions might sound reminiscent of mundane questions like "what would your dream job be?" or "if you could do anything and get paid for it, what would it be?" The answers to questions like these tend to be things like "travel the world" and "work on a laptop from a Bali beach" and other things that people commonly dream of.

But is what you dream of what would actually make you happy? Psychological research suggests not. People are notoriously bad at predicting how different events will affect their contentment. I suppose people's dreams are more geared towards achieving some variety of biological success than towards happiness.

Now imagine you are participating in a competition. A massive prize goes to the person who achieves the highest average happiness level over a year-long period as measured by some objective metric. You have now turned into a professional happiness seeker; instead of being one of many things you are trying to achieve at the same time, achieving objectively measurable high levels of happiness has become your single most important goal.

Now how would you approach the pursuit of happiness? I'll bet you'd obtain some kind of "happiness meter" and keep track of it on a regular basis during the day. Maybe you'd take notes on what things seem to cause the peaks and valleys. Perhaps there are some tricks to avoid the dips in happiness you are used to experiencing. Maybe, with an idiosyncratic set of tweaks arrived at by trial and error, you can maintain your happiness at a consistently high level over a long period of time.

Somewhere up there is your theoretical personal happiness ceiling, determined by genes and psychological makeup. "Extreme" happiness levels probably express themselves quite differently in different people.

This is just a thought experiment, but I think this is a worthwhile pursuit — perhaps the most worthwhile pursuit a person can undertake. I suspect that most of the things that make us happy are quite close to home and can be achieved with some important tweaks here and there.

Something to think about: do happy people reproduce as much as those who pursue biological success?