Expect Happiness?

by pgbh

An old Less Wrong post contained this quote:

“I’ve never been happy. I have a few memories, early in life, and it sounds dramatic to say, but when I reflect on my life, the best I’ve ever had were brief periods when things were simply less painful.”

Largely this claim fit with my own experience. Life has many good aspects, but even for me (well-off by global standards) it has also contained a lot of pain – frequently and significantly enough to make happiness elusive.

I don’t think I’m so unusual that most would feel differently. But at the same time, if you surveyed others I expect most would disagree. And if I revealed my feelings publicly, I doubt others would think it normal – in fact they would probably be horrified.

But why should people expect happiness to begin with? Happiness isn’t the end goal of human existence – it’s a byproduct of our evolutionary heritage. Happiness is the reward that our genes grant for actions which increase their relative frequency in the population. And withholding the reward is the only way to promote the behavior that genes “want” – if every behavior is rewarded, all outcomes become equally likely.

Given that a steady supply of happiness can’t be expected, why then would it surprise others to call yourself unhappy? Possibly most simply aren’t aware, but more likely others don’t expect much happiness either – given that, calling yourself unhappy only means you’re even less happy than the already low average.