The Other Side of Happiness
(HI critiqued: an excerpt from "The Other Side of Happiness Embracing a More Fearless Approach to Living" (2018) by Brock Bastian)

THE HEDONIST’S PARADOX

The basic cultural impulse to maximize pleasure and reduce pain is not only evident in consumerism, but is implicit within many forms of religion, underpins most medical or psychological interventions, and characterizes the received wisdom of the modern-day self-help movement. So pervasive is this assumption, we rarely stop to consider what it would mean if we achieved this goal with absolute impunity.

David Pearce is a British philosopher who believes we not only should, but could, work towards the abolition of all suffering. In ‘The Hedonistic Imperative’, an extended online essay, he outlines a vision for the end of all suffering through the advanced application of technologies such as genetic engineering, nanotechnology, pharmacology and neurosurgery. He believes that these technological advancements will converge to end all forms of suffering among human and non-human animals alike – a project he refers to as ‘paradise engineering’. So strong is his conviction that, on his website, he predicts ‘the world’s last unpleasant experience will be a precisely dateable event’. In a very Huxleyesque kind of way, he suggests that just as anaesthesia has ended physical pain, soon we will have the ability to end mental pain. There are four key reasons why I think we should be sceptical of Pearce’s project.

1. Humans adapt to their environment
One reason endless pleasure is unlikely to be idyllic is because we have an inbuilt ability to adapt to our environments. Through the process of habituation, both pleasure and pain become less intense over time. Whether it is the reward of a massage or the sting of icy-cold sea water, over time (and within limits) we can get used to these experiences. This has allowed our ancestors to be able to adapt emotionally to living in harsh and unwelcoming environments.

Our capacity to adapt is also the reason why spending the rest of our lives in a luxury resort would, over time, fail to provide a great deal of pleasure. It might at first, but it would soon dissipate. Just as jumping into a hot Jacuzzi provides instant pleasure, over time our enjoyment is reduced. We adapt to the heat of the spa, and the only way to get that pleasurable sensation all over again is to exploit the contrasting experience of jumping into a cold pool.

2. Hedonic experiences are relative
How would we ever know what pleasure is if we experienced nothing else? Our hedonic experiences are relative (something that we will return to in Chapter 3), and pleasure and pain are only understood in relation to their opposites. Whether it be sitting in a Jacuzzi, lying on a beach, watching a beautiful sunset, enjoying time with friends … the list goes on, all of these experiences lose any sense of pleasure if they are not contrasted with something else, most commonly work of some kind. It is the strength of the contrast that makes all the difference. Jumping from a lukewarm bath into a hot spa is not as amazing as jumping from a freezing cold pool into a spa. Just as seeing friends after a period of isolation is always more enjoyable. Yet, even here the contrasts can be strengthened: finding someone you thought you had lost, or enjoying a date with your partner for the first time all year because you had been overwhelmed with childcare duties. Our unpleasant experiences provide an important avenue for pleasure and the sharper the hedonic contrast the more pleasure we feel.

Another reason why highs as well as their corresponding lows are so critical for our overall happiness has to do with how we construct our experiences retrospectively. Our global evaluations of events tend to be heavily swayed by the high or low points as well as the end points. This is what Barbara Fredrickson refers to as the peak-and-end rule. Together with Daniel Kahneman, Fredrickson tested this idea in a study where the researchers asked volunteers to view a series of twelve video clips. These clips varied in two ways: they were either pleasant (e.g. of ocean waves) or unpleasant (e.g. of corpses) and lasted for either 30 seconds or 90 seconds. As they watched the clips the volunteers provided moment-by-moment ratings on a sliding meter that allowed them to indicate how positive or negative the clip made them feel. Afterwards they provided global ratings of how positive or negative the clip was overall. What the researchers found was that participants’ global evaluations of each clip were best predicted by their peak ratings while watching the video clip as well as their ratings right at the end. It was not the overall length of the clips that mattered. As the researchers suggest, memory does not take film, it takes photographs, and these photographs are taken at predictable points – peaks and ends.

Fredrickson suggests that we keep track of, and remember, the peaks and troughs of our experiences because they provide two important pieces of information. The first is about the experience itself. It is only by remembering the worst moments of a relationship break-up that we can really know how bad such an experience can get. The second is about our personal capacities to cope. It is only at the extremes (the peaks and troughs) that our personal resources are tested to their limits, and as such it is these moments that show us whether we have the personal capacities for achieving, enduring or coping with a specific experience. This is true of negative as well as positive experiences. Just as an intensely negative experience may require certain character strengths to endure it, intense positive experiences do also. As Fredrickson points out, ‘just as you need to know the maximum height of the sailing boat you are towing before you drive under a low bridge, peak affect is worth knowing to decide whether you can handle experiencing a particular affective episode again’.

Returning to the principle of relativity, we can now see that the shift from pain to pleasure serves to make us happy in two key ways. First, painful experiences increase the intensity of subsequent pleasurable experiences. Secondly, this relative contrast means that we experience more intense peaks as well as more intense lows, and both contribute to a sense of personal meaning in our lives. It is for this reason many of the experiences in life that produce happiness and fulfilment involve both pleasure and pain. From this perspective, it is fair to say that skydiving is likely to contribute more to your overall sense of happiness than sitting at home watching television. The prospect of jumping out of a plane fills us with both excitement and dread simultaneously and this makes it especially pleasurable, meaningful and memorable. If it were not for our innate fear of falling thousands of metres ow positive or negative the clip was overall. What the researchers found was that participants’ global evaluations of each clip were best predicted by their peak ratings while watching the video clip as well as their ratings right at the end. It was not the overall length of the clips that mattered. As the researchers suggest, memory does not take film, it takes photographs, and these photographs are taken at predictable points – peaks and ends.

Fredrickson suggests that we keep track of, and remember, the peaks and troughs of our experiences because they provide two important pieces of information. The first is about the experience itself. It is only by remembering the worst moments of a relationship break-up that we can really know how bad such an experience can get. The second is about our personal capacities to cope. It is only at the extremes (the peaks and troughs) that our personal resources are tested to their limits, and as such it is these moments that show us whether we have the personal capacities for achieving, enduring or coping with a specific experience. This is true of negative as well as positive experiences. Just as an intensely negative experience may require certain character strengths to endure it, intense positive experiences do also. As Fredrickson points out, ‘just as you need to know the maximum height of the sailing boat you are towing before you drive under a low bridge, peak affect is worth knowing to decide whether you can handle experiencing a particular affective episode again’.

Returning to the principle of relativity, we can now see that the shift from pain to pleasure serves to make us happy in two key ways. First, painful experiences increase the intensity of subsequent pleasurable experiences. Secondly, this relative contrast means that we experience more intense peaks as well as more intense lows, and both contribute to a sense of personal meaning in our lives. It is for this reason many of the experiences in life that produce happiness and fulfilment involve both pleasure and pain. From this perspective, it is fair to say that skydiving is likely to contribute more to your overall sense of happiness than sitting at home watching television. The prospect of jumping out of a plane fills us with both excitement and dread simultaneously and this makes it especially pleasurable, meaningful and memorable. If it were not for our innate fear of falling thousands of metres through the air, skydiving would not be especially enjoyable. It also would not provide much insight into the limits of our personal resources, and therefore would not be especially memorable. Critically, however, we recall the act of skydiving as fun, enjoyable and something that made us happy. Our memory tends to focus more on the excitement than the dread.

3. Pain and pleasure are two sides of the same coin
Another reason to be sceptical of David Pearce’s project is that pain and pleasure are linked at the physiological level (another point covered in detail in Chapter 3) and, therefore, numbing our pains may have the side effect of numbing our pleasures. This was demonstrated in an experiment by a group of researchers from Ohio State University. Across two studies, 167 undergraduate volunteers were either given 1,000 mg of the painkiller acetaminophen (paracetamol) or a placebo. After waiting an hour for the medication to begin working, the experimenters showed the volunteers forty pictures, ranging from extremely unpleasant to extremely pleasant. Their task was to rate the pictures on a scale from -5 (extremely negative) to +5 (extremely positive). They then viewed the same forty pictures again (in a different order) and were asked to rate how emotionally aroused they felt when viewing each image, on a scale from 0 (I feel little to no emotion) to 10 (I feel an extreme amount of emotion). In one of the studies, the experimenters also had the volunteers rate the pictures a third time on the extent to which the colour blue was present in the image, using a scale from 0 (the picture has zero colour blue) to 10 (the picture is 100 per cent the colour blue). Results showed that overall the volunteers who had taken the painkillers were less extreme in their emotional response to the pictures than participants who had taken the placebo, and this was the case for both positive and negative images. In both cases these differences were more pronounced for the more extreme stimuli – extremely positive and extremely negative pictures both had less of an impact on volunteers who had taken the acetaminophen. The researchers noted these differences were not apparent for judgements of colour, indicating that the painkillers specifically reduced the positivity and negativity of the pictures (their pleasantness and unpleasantness) and emotional reactions to their content, but did not affect perception of other elements.

This goes to show that when we reduce our experiences of pain we are just as likely to reduce our experiences of pleasure. Killing pain narrows our emotional bandwidth in life. We experience less intensity, less emotion, and therefore our ‘hedonic tone’ becomes restricted and less variable. We experience fewer troughs, but we also experience fewer peaks.

4. Our inner experiences are paradoxical
Another reason to be sceptical that we can achieve endless pleasure has to do with the paradox of hedonism. This concept was first explicitly noted by the philosopher Henry Sidgwick in his work The Methods of Ethics. The basic idea is that true happiness cannot be acquired directly, it can only be acquired indirectly. In this way, happiness (like many of our emotional states) does not appear to operate in the same way as other things in the world because you cannot directly seek happiness like you can seek riches.

One way to make sense of this is through understanding the psychology of goal pursuit. When we set a goal for ourselves we tend to assess our progress towards that goal. Because important goals take time to achieve, there will be many occasions when, upon reflection, we realize we have not yet attained all that we want to. It is at these moments we feel a sense of disappointment, but this sense of disappointment can be valuable as it serves to motivate us to work harder towards attaining our goal. The paradox of hedonism arises when we set emotion goals such as the ideal of feeling happy. This was illustrated by Jonathan Schooler from the University of California in a 2003 paper.11 He and his colleagues noted that when we reflect on our progress towards important emotion goals, the feelings of disappointment we experience along the way play into our goal attainment differently. Rather than motivating us to work harder to achieve our goal of happiness, our feelings of disappointment directly interrupt our efforts. Rather than feeling happier than we were of colour, indicating that the painkillers specifically reduced the positivity and negativity of the pictures (their pleasantness and unpleasantness) and emotional reactions to their content, but did not affect perception of other elements.

This goes to show that when we reduce our experiences of pain we are just as likely to reduce our experiences of pleasure. Killing pain narrows our emotional bandwidth in life. We experience less intensity, less emotion, and therefore our ‘hedonic tone’ becomes restricted and less variable. We experience fewer troughs, but we also experience fewer peaks."

(excerpt from "The Other Side of Happiness Embracing a More Fearless Approach to Living" (2018) by Brock Bastian)


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