Jumping To Joy

I recently talked with a Christian college student who had just attended a wild party at another school, and who lamented that while folks there seemed to be having “fun” it wasn’t the “real joy” that she knew.  I’ve heard similar feelings from folks who really like their favorite drug or sex style.  I wonder, what fraction of folks feel smugly superior that favorite way of happiness/pleasure/joy/etc. is intrinsically superior to what most others have found? What evidence would it take for this to be a reasonable conclusion?

I also wonder: why are so many of us (including me) so reluctant to experiment with so many joys with strong fans? After all, fans argue, their suggested drug, sex style, or religious experience would only take a few hours to try, and could give us a lifetime of joy if we liked it.  It seems we see far larger costs than the time for a trial. My guess: we value our current identity, integrated as it is into our job, hobbies, friends, etc.  We fear that if we try new joys, we will like them, and jump to practicing them, which will change us.  We fear that by jumping to juicy joys, we won’t be us anymore.

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  • Peter St. Onge

    In the case of religion, the price of trying it out might be higher if we first have to convince ourselves of the veracity of their supporting worldviews. This would take effort, plus we mightn’t be able to discard the newly accepted worldview if it turned out Hare Krishnas are miserable.

    Drugs seems straightforward; fear of addiction.

    Sex style I’m at a loss, but casual observation at public sex events suggests people refuse scenes (ex-gender pref) out of disgust rather than identity-guarding per se (although the 2 meet in feeling embarassed how they’ll look, but that is in public).

  • Curious

    This reminds me of a (male) friend who used to say:

    “There are two things in life you should never try: heroin and cocks. Just in case you like them.”

  • cournot

    Surely this is a trivial issue for anything that’s either addicting or habit forming. Liking drugs, cigarettes, etc. can make you so habituated that you can foresee your life being worse off while finding it extremely hard to constrain yourself from abstaining after the fact.

    Let’s take it to an absurdum: Imagine that there were some drug that would make you feel immense joy and pleasure if you simultaneously cut off a finger or toe. You’ve heard testimony that this is in fact true and hard to live without after the fact. Would you want to take it?

    All it takes is for you to have meta preferences different from those pointed to by your appetites. Much of socialization, religion, and culture is about constraining our behaviors so that narrow, appetite based preferences don’t interfere with our metapreferences about our life trajectories and overall behavior.

  • asdf

    I feel smugly superior every time I choose to smoke cannabis over any other type of substance. Marijuana, my anti-drug.

  • Monte Davis

    >> We fear that if we try new joys…

    Lewis Carroll to his sister: “Please analyse logically the following piece of reasoning: Little girl: ‘I’m so glad I don’t like asparagus… because, if I did like it, I should have to eat it, and I can’t bear it!’ It bothers me considerably.”

  • Maarek

    The sex part doesn’t seem too difficult, either. If someone says they find killing women deeply cathartic and suggests we try it, I suspect most of us would not seriously consider the idea. Why? Because we believe killing women to be evil. Now you may say that killing women causes harm to people other than ourselves and consenting participants, while sex doesn’t, but the unstated premise is that causing harm to others is evil, so we don’t do it. Some people have a definition of evil which is significantly broader than “causes harm to unwilling participants” and the promise of significant pleasure is not enough to induce them to commit an act they see as intrinsically evil.

    No fear of loss of identity required.

  • Hook

    The reluctance problem may be related to the difference between wanting something and liking something. Currently, we have little desire to engage with a certain novel joy, but there is a fear that if we tried it, we would want to do it again, not because we liked it more than other activities available to us, but because we’d want to do it more than our other activities.

    In other words, those joys with highly vocal fans that we are reluctant to try are those joys we are afraid we would want to do if we tried them, but wouldn’t like as much as our current joys.

  • Marcus

    The rift between people devoted to various genres of music is like this, sometimes inexplicably, however I have a suspicion that since learning to appreciate genres that I haven’t before is related to the intellectual development that appreciating musical styles entails.

    I have two teenage girls and lately I’ve been practicing not being snobby about the things they like with the thought that if I’m not subtly tearing down their choices then I’ll be a better parent, but also wondering how much it might raise my own capacity for pleasure. My completely non-empiric experience is that my attempt to be receptive to less familiar genres does pay off aesthetically. Doing this is also providing intellectual development that I didn’t expect, there’s a lot of subtlety out there in genres that on the face seem simplistic.

    It reminds me of learning to appreciate durian fruit when I was 16 years old and living in Hong Kong. The stuff smelled like rotten onions to me, being a teenager I figured I could mind-over-matter it ninja style. That worked too. It was formative experience to realize that I could will myself to appreciate something. I think my subsequent over-appreciation of durian at the time was due to confirmation bias from the will-power I invested, but the pleasure experience gained was certainly real.

  • Marcus

    If I could edit comments I would clean my messy paragraphs up, I need to get over this bad habit of commenting directly to a blog without proofing

  • MarcTheEngineer

    Assuming that my personal inclinations are not entirely unique I would argue that there is a subset of people who are on the complete opposite end of the “not my kind of joy” people, joy polygamists if you will.

    I would have a really (and I mean really) hard time figuring out what I get the most joy from.

  • Newerspeak

    Religions feel silly until you invest something in them. Burning bushes, golden calves, worlds churned into being out of an ocean of milk…

    Parallel example: New words. Technical vocabulary gets put together from Latin and Greek. Sometimes a particularly good joke, metaphor, or play on words gets repeated often enough to be useful as a reference. But it would feel silly to say to yourself “from now on I’ll just call it Frip when that happens.”

    It’s plausible that “feeling silly” inhibitions are a high-level guard against too-rapid identity changes. But they might be more fundamental to our thought process, part of a system of heuristics to shrink the space of possible future actions. Or they might be a limitation that we’ve gotten around somehow.

  • HH

    Couldn’t it be even simpler: if you try someone else’s hobby and end up liking it, you’re giving up status to that person as the better judge of what is good and fun.

    • A dude

      Exactly what I was thinking! Not just explicitly acknowledging someone else’s higher status, but also destroying the perception of self-worth we are trying to construct by talking up our own hobbies and worldviews.

      Similar to confirmation bias

    • Anonymous

      Sounds like a good point.

  • Sounds like a bias that each of us needs to be aware of and overcome. Nice short post.

  • improbable

    Lots of good comments.

    For religion, I think that a large part of the “joy” is about belonging, being part of that group. This isn’t a feeling you can join in on for the evening to see if you like it, like trying cocaine.

  • JS Allen

    The shifting identity is the allure of these things. We moderns consume life’s experiences like we change channels (“Let’s have authentic Hakka food today; then soul food tomorrow”), We’re expert at compartmentalizing our lives. It’s like a little kid wearing a spider-man costume to the playground. You can be a securities analyst by day, at the S&M club on weekends, and then sit on the board of a children’s charity once a month — all while tithing faithfully as a Mormon.

    I don’t think anyone is in a position to judge the relative merits of any two popular activities without having given both a fair chance. So if one really wants to be sure, you’ve got to try everything (and sincerely). I wouldn’t recommend it. I made it through mostly unscathed, but most people I knew who attempted to “try everything” got burned. It’s best to just give up on trying to judge the relative merits of various pleasures, and trust the advice of respected old people when deciding what to try.

    In my experience, it’s vanishingly rare that someone is evangelizing a new drug, club, sexual activity or whatever out of a desire to make your life more joyful. The more innocent ones are trying to “normalize” the activity to themselves. As the K’s choice song says, “If you don’t have it, you’re on the other side”, and that’s a powerful psychological force. You want to convince yourself that your side is the “in-side” and not the outside, so you do that by getting more people on your side — people you know and respect, who have similar backgrounds.

    And of course, the less innocent evangelists of pleasure just want/need fresh meat.

    • In my experience, it’s vanishingly rare that someone is evangelizing a new drug, club, sexual activity or whatever out of a desire to make your life more joyful.

      I’m under the impression this is why I do it – how would I put that fond idea to the test?

  • Writers, philosophers, and theologians have long debated the fun versus satisfying distinction. The most common context for it these days is the debate over whether having children makes you happier.

    • Jess Riedel

      Exactly. The important question isn’t the empirical one of whether type A fun is more enjoyable than type B fun (demanding, therefore, a signaling explanation for why everyone doesn’t try everything), it’s the normative one of whether type A activities should be pursued rather than type B activities.

  • kevin

    The drugs issue is not as simple as some commenters seem to think. Psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin mushrooms, as well as MDMA and marijuana are all non-addictive, yet people are reluctant to try them, in spite of how desirable their effects are.

    In 2006, the United States Government funded a randomized and double-blinded study by Johns Hopkins University, which studied the spiritual effects of psilocybin mushrooms. The study involved 36 college-educated adults who had never tried psilocybin nor had a history of drug use, and had religious or spiritual interests; the average age of the participants was 46 years. The participants were closely observed for eight-hour intervals in a laboratory while under the influence of psilocybin mushrooms.

    One-third of the participants reported that the experience was the single most spiritually significant moment of their lives and more than two-thirds reported it was among the top five most spiritually significant experiences. Two months after the study, 79 percent of the participants reported increased well-being or satisfaction; friends, relatives, and associates confirmed this. They also reported anxiety and depression symptoms to be decreased or completely gone.

  • Anon

    For those that are saying the reasons not to try drugs are fear of addiction, the chance of addiction after a single use of any drug is nada, zero, zip. Alcohol, cigarettes, heroin, cocaine, crystal meth, cocaine, painkillers, crack or anything else can absolutely, positively not create addiction after a single use. The research is dead clear on this. Millions of people, the vast majority who ever try any of these things, dabble and then go on with the rest of their lives. Addiction requires continual, heavy use and is almost always a conscience decision by the addict who realizes as he descends a smooth gradient to addiction what’s happening to him. That’s why so frequently addicts come from severely damaged backgrounds or have severe psychological problems. To them the cost of addiction is worth the benefits of self-medication.

    Not to mention that most of the drugs that Robin’s probably talking about (that people are describing as true happiness) are probably not of the addictive variety. My guess is the most common drug that people say that about is MDMA/ecstasy, followed by psychedelics like psilocybin mushrooms of LSD. There are many reasons (or varying validity) not to drop acid but addiction is not one of them.

    • Doug S.

      I’m not sure this is true. A single exposure to nicotine causes permanent changes to rat brains.

    • anon2

      Your claim is only true of physical addiction (in the sense that there are withdrawal symptoms when the drug is discontinues), if at all.

      I have spoken to a couple of people who have tried heroin once. They say that, having tried it, they never forget the feeling and must make a continuing conscious effort to avoid taking it again. It will be in the back of their mind for their whole life.

      That might not be called “addiction”, but I think it’s a damn good reason to avoid those hard drugs completely.

  • David C

    Certain drugs can in some cases take several days or even weeks to fully recover from after a single use, even if they are no longer in your system.

    A lot of sex fetishes are very specific, and it can be difficult to find a willing partner(s) to try it with; not to mention the risk of permanently doing damage to a relationship by making the suggestion.

    Some forms of religious experiences can be seen as blasphemy to an individual’s present religion.

  • J

    The leading evidence it would be a reasonable conclusion would be the relative frequency of regret following an activity that supposedly brought you joy. Of all the things people say are fun that you see subsequent regret over, sex and drugs (including alcohol) are pretty clearly at the top of the list, the former as a result of the latter being the clear frontrunner.

  • Andr

    Christians and other totalitarians are programmed to believe their way is the only valid way. Having a truncated view of human culture and history preempts the more liberal (and logical) conclusion of “to each their own.”

    • Anonymous

      Why is it logical? You haven’t actually given a reason.

  • Ray

    The amount of people who do not feel smugly superior in their choice of lifestyle is statistically insignificant.

    More to the point of a religious person looking at a bunch of people partying like there’s no tomorrow, that doesn’t really fit in to the same category however.

    It’s not as if a Catholic is looking at a Buddhist, and vice versa, with them both feeling smug about their own lifestyles. That kind of partying is destructive, and unsustainable (as opposed to someone who casually partakes). Rational people see others engaged in such activities, and think smug thoughts at worst, thoughts of pity at best.

  • Tom Crispin

    Maybe Tyler Cowen’s post that Robin mentioned a few weeks ago is relevant? It’s more important to be interesting than to be happy.

    The alternative pleasures are generally and correctly regarded as time sinks. However much hedonic joy they bring, observation of others experiencing that joy shows them to be less interesting.

    Perhaps you can argue that “being interesting” is part of your “identity” but I think that stretches both concepts a bit too much.

  • Hrm

    RE: addiction and smugness. Though some would say that being
    smug is unwarranted or pointlessly self-congratulatory, there is a
    single good reason to feel smug in many of these cases:
    the feeling of freedom. If you’ve voluntarily chosen to behave in a
    way that leads you to addiction, knowing full well what the results are likely
    to be (not everyone does, so smugness about their behavior
    is not included in this), and someone else hasn’t, they can feel smug
    because they, unlike you, still have choices.

    You’ve entered a cage that you cannot get out of (easily)
    and they haven’t; perhaps they’d pity you, but it’s hard to because
    you entered of your own volition, knowing that the door would
    slam shut.

  • Slumlord

    As a fairly clean conservative Catholic, I’ve often wondered what life on the other side was like. Even though I believed, It always sounded like the hedonists were having much more fun. But having a job which lets me see their lifestyle quite intimately, I’ve no doubts anymore. Not that I’m going to convince anyone.

    A state of pure bliss is impossible on Earth, and while it may be captured momentarily with drugs it always seems to be balanced by an even lower “low”. Honestly, the people who convinced me most about the “rightness” of Christianity was the behaviour of the heathens. Even when drowning in the joys of the brothel, they all seemed terribly alone.

    • Doug S.

      Well, I’m sure there are plenty of miserable, lonely Catholics, too. 🙂

  • Brian Shelley

    It’s all about social norms. Many of the acts at the “wild party” are probably not terribly enjoyable unto themselves. It’s more the elation of breaking taboos or social norms being facilitated by alchohol or drug use. An outsider, who perhaps has convinced himself of the value of those social norms probably doesn’t see the point in breaking them.

    The alternate “joy” probably makes more references to intimate bonding with friends, family, and a mate. Wild parties aren’t terribly conducive to building those sorts of relationship.

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  • Jordan

    All these comments about ego and addiction confuse me. It’s pretty simple: I don’t try things that people insist elicit great amounts of joy, pleasure, or satisfaction when I can assert that even if they did, I would still not want to partake. Marijuana is a great example; regular marijuana users are the happiest people I have ever known, and also the most ineffectual, the most prone to biases wildly divergent from reality, and the least likely to accomplish nothing in their life to bring mankind out of the darkness. They are walking, talking, living proof – to me, at least – that there’s more to life than happiness.

    • Jordan

      derp least likely to accomplish ANYTHING. I should proof-read these things.

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  • It’s not just that we worry about losing ourselves; I’d argue it’s even more that we’re worried what others will think when we abandon our previous pursuits to partake of new hobbies and ways of finding pleasure.

    The way you receive pleasure from life is a key to your identity, so if you change that then you run the risk of appearing unbalanced or without foundation–like you’re looking for yourself.

    Most older people–especially when they’re established–don’t like appearing that way.

  • Anonymous

    The idea that people fear “not being themselves anymore” seems to have the flaw that a majority didn’t start defining themselves by their psycological traits until the modern era. (Curing multiple personality disorder, for example, was considered a given if possible)

  • Brandon

    I think the reasons why people are afraid to experiment with ‘new joys’ are also the reasons they use to reinforce their old choices and not experiment with anything new in general.

    I do believe identity plays a part when making up their minds. A person carefully cultivates their identity over a long period of time in response to their own personal experience and it becomes an anchor to who they are. When faced with new choices they convince themselves that “This isn’t me”. This is perhaps done out of fear that they would dislodge themselves from the comfort of their identity that they’ve come to accept as true.

    But i feel that a mindset of “finding your own bliss” is more useful and rewarding. The joy that a person derives from any activity is subjective. If you truly enjoy something then do it, irregardless of what other people think