Happy Is Far

Happy is far, and far stereotypes more, pays less attention to detail, cares less, and feels higher status:

Very high levels of positive feelings predict risk-taking behaviors, excess alcohol and drug consumption, binge eating, and may lead us to neglect threats. … Those who early in their lives reported the highest life satisfaction (for example, judging it at 5 on a 5-point scale) years later reported lower income than those who felt slightly less merry when young. What’s more, they dropped out of school earlier. … A group of American college freshmen who in 1976 claimed to be very cheerful. Surveyed again when they were in their late 30s, they earned, on average, almost $3,500 a year less than their slightly less cheerful peers. …

When we are sad, we think in a more systematic manner. Sad people are attentive to details and externally oriented, while happy people tend to make snap judgments that may reflect racial or sex stereotyping. … Those in a happy mood were more likely to find a fellow student named “Juan Garcia” guilty of beating up a roommate than one identified as “John Garner.” The control group was pretty much equally divided between “Juan” and “John.” … Some of the students received a picture of a middle-aged, bearded man; others of a young woman in a T-shirt. Even though the essays were identical, those students who had been induced to feel happy judged the man’s work more competent than the woman’s. Their non-induced colleagues declared both essays to be of equal quality. …

Cheerful people are easier to deceive, couldn’t detect lies as easily as those in negative moods and couldn’t tell a thief from an honest person. … Feeling good makes people more selfish (if asked to divide raffle tickets between themselves and others, they’ll keep more in their pockets than sad people) and worse at defending their opinions (they produce weaker, less detailed arguments). (more)

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  • Lord

    I wonder which is more preferred and whether they would wish it any different.

  • …Yay?

    (for those who can’t read my mind, the joke is that this suggests it’s often good to be unhappy – a depressing but helpful conclusion)

  • Dremora

    This is bad news, actually. It implies happier agents are less functional. If there is a systematic reason for this, rather than, say, a psychological confound that happens to exist in current humans, then it would predict that selection effects tend to favor naturally less happy agents. In that case, either the correlation has to be broken somehow, or selection effects have to be mitigated, or the future belongs to the depressed.

    • Doug

      Well as a first order approximation there has to be a tradeoff between any intelligent’s agent’s happiness and motivation. If we think about intelligence far outside human brains consider Watson or the Netflix algorithm.

      Certainly these systems have computational complexity somewhat on the order of lower vertebrate if not at the level of dogs. So it’s not conceptually absurd to speak of their “happiness.” At their core both systems use boosted ensemble methods across a variety of base classifiers. The systems are optimized to minimize some classification loss function.

      I think you could say the Watson/Netflix are happy when that loss function is small/decreasing. A day when Netflix gets a high proportion of movie ratings correct probably “feels” like a good day to that system in the way that a day when we get a raise or go out on a good date.

      From this perspective though most complex problems (ones that you would need to build an intelligent agent for) have very heavy loss functions. R-squared in the vast majority of real world statistical problems even with very sophisticated algorithms rarely exceeds 20%. Netflix and Watson misclassify far more often than they classify correctly.

      So must this imply an asymmetry of pain vs. pleasure? Or does Netflix internal state correspond to a “greater feeling of happiness” on a correct classification than the “sting of pain” on a misclassification?

    • Poelmo


      There is a downside to being unhappy: being less confident means being less attractive and stress is not conducive to good health. Maybe constantly overthinking stuff wears down the body as well, with greater cognitive during depression being similar to the greater strength and speed provided by adrenaline release caused by fear (sure, greater strength and speed sound good but prolonged adrenaline release will wear your body down).

      It’s also possible the differences in cognitive capability only became relevant in our modern world (with all its intricate deceit, crime and scams) while it being happy doesn’t influence a hunter-gatherer’s ability to hunt and gather.

      Lastly, the results could be influenced by culture. Perhaps children are taught flawed ways of thinkin about the world and judging people and it is those flawed ways of thinking that are vulnerable to happiness.

      • Someone from the other side

        There is probably (as is so often the case) that you have an inverted U with happiness / longevity / success in life.

        At the depression end you do not get anything done, suffer physically and may even commit suicide. At the eternal bliss end you do not do anything either (and thus are likely not to be much of a success / live a healthy life) so slight unhappiness that gives you drive forward is probably not such an absurd optimum state?

    • Great Filter?

    • David

      I don’t think you fully appreciate how selection effects work. Someone disposed to “risk-taking behaviors, excess alcohol and drug consumption, binge eating, and … neglect[ing] threats” is exactly the sort of person that blunders into parenthood. The richer, soberer, slightly more realistic and melancholy person… not so much. Being smart, successful and rational decreases your evolutionarily fitness. Fertility statistics don’t lie.

      • Dremora

        Fair enough. Except that, if there’s a positive selection effect, you’ll end up with an entire population of bad decision-makers.

        Great Filter? 🙂

  • Chris

    Cheerful and Happy are shared with relative I.Q. levels in the people in subjected to this testing. This “study” isn’t saying anything with only “Happy” as a metric.

  • Seeing how this is a thread on being happy, and one of the goals of some people is to maximize total happiness, here is a cautionary tale.


    • Dremora

      Cute. But it’s useless as an actual critique. Felix is a utility monster, and humans aren’t utility monsters. If Felix existed, the computer would authorize scientists to abduct and study him so that his neurological phenotype could be replicated as many times as possible.

      • I don’t know, if government policies keep favoring the most wealthy, then taxing everyone else to give tax cuts to the richest 0.00000001% would do it.

      • Dremora

        If a utilitarian computer gave that advice, I would ask why, since the most wealthy usually don’t derive that much happiness from tax cuts. Maybe there’s a point about economic efficiency somewhere. Or specific types of innovation that are driven mostly by the most wealthy investors and that would make the world a lot better.

        However, I would not predict a functional utilitarian machine to output such policy advice. From the total set of available policies, it’s hard to see how further resource inequality is the best one to maximize total happiness.

  • If you’re happy and you know it, clank your chains!

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