As children we live in the ever-present, and the pursuit of happiness has only one time context. It’s driven by the pursuit of present-pleasure, and it’s a good barometer for happiness across time before we become past/future aware.
There are no doubts, there are no regrets. Bad experiences are forgotten, good experiences are enjoyed. How we experience an event is constant across time because we don’t look back… yet. Life is good… for now.
Unfortunately for those of us who aren’t children, it’s not that simple. As we grow up, we begin to experience the world through the lens of the present, the past, and the imagined future.
As adults, we don’t experience events just once. We can experience them again, and again, and again. Each time we run through a memory is another opportunity to see it from another angle. We can question our experiences endlessly - sometimes uncontrollably. And a new piece of information can change the context, and inflame the cycle again.
We adults have a lot more noise to deal with as we try to make sense of how we fit into the world. This broadened awareness carries a hidden cost, unseen in the traditional present-biased definition of happiness.
Moreover, our consumption-based world has hoisted the same child-like present-focused version of happiness onto us. Presently, we may have our needs met, but across time we are left to join the dots ourselves in assigning meaning to that present. Currency is uniquely suited to solving utility, but it’s entirely ill-suited to helping us derive meaning from our lives.
Critical thinking through a past/future lens subjects our present motivations for happiness to increased vigilance, and it transforms the subjective experience of happiness into a fragile construct.
By acknowledging past/future awareness as additional costs placed upon our present-happiness, it is possible to make radically better choices in cultivating meaningful and reliable happiness across time. In order to do that, we need a deeper, more mature definition of what happiness is.
Combining psychology and philosophy, this long-form piece intends to convince you of the reasons why the pursuit of happiness is making us all miserable. And then I hope to offer a new framework of happiness that will make it’s pursuit more rewarding and sustainable.
Let’s start with the premise. In its simplest form, ‘x’ stands for an event we experience across time:
Present happiness we feel for x is not the same as past/future happiness we feel for x. Our feelings towards x changes across time. Our emotional response to the anticipation, experience and remembering of x are not the same, even though the event itself may not change.
For many of us, happiness has a simple binary meaning; we either feel good or we don’t. Time doesn’t factor into our judgement. Intuitively, we believe the happiness we feel towards an event can be accurately recalled in memory, and used to inform us should that event take place again. Distortions associated with shifting perspectives of time don’t factor into our intuition.
We set future goals by assigning a heavy bias of present feelings, without realising present feelings won’t always be in-sync with future feelings. Similarly, we try to reconnect with experiences from our past, without realising we can never go back to the same conditions we remember. Memories transform over time & the world changes constantly around us.
In practice, you might think of us all frantically trying to pick up the soap in the shower. The moment we think we’re ready to get lathered, the soap bounces another 7 inches down the tub. Thoughtlessly, we assume we can just wait for it to stop before retrieval. But even this fails to capture the struggle, because happiness is a target that never stops. Unlike the soap.
Continuing the analogy, the constant movement of the soap makes it futile to pursue. Instead, we should focus on creating the conditions for the soap to come to us. Understanding how happiness towards x changes across time reveals how these conditions can be met.
“The mind survives by ingesting information” — George A. Miller, American psychologist and founder of cognitive psychology.
If some of that didn’t make sense, don’t worry. There are going to be lots of real-world examples in this piece to explain the ideas. The first story is an adult topic, but the most intuitive scenario I can think of.
You’re in your early 20s and head out for a night on the town with your friends. The night undulates on with your drinking, and at some point you bump into a familiar face.
Although not from your immediate network, you like him/her. Something, something, something. Then you have sex. (In the interest of time, we got straight to the point!)
After climaxing, you experience the most incongruent sensation. You feel enormous regret. In the blink of an eye, you went from immense pleasure to despair. You fell through an unlikely worm-hole in your head. In a flash of passion you’ve become a sudden stranger to yourself. What on earth could account for this extreme oversight in such a short period of time? The answer is right there: it’s time.
It turns out that changing the temporal (time) perspective through which we view experiences can explosively change the perceived implications, and so how we feel about them. Worryingly, going from ecstatic to apoplectic on the flip of a coin is the very definition of bipolar disorder, and while most of us have enough self control to moderate our feelings over time, the threat of self-alienation is always looming.
Self-alienation: the process of distancing oneself from one’s own feelings or activities, such as may occur in mental illness or as a symptom of emotional distress.
I’ll suggest that this alienation is a symptom of our overly simplistic present-oriented definition of happiness. Remember, unlike the soap, happiness doesn’t stop.
Let’s dive a little deeper.
Generally speaking, the less aware we are of the past/future, the easier it is to feel what we typically associate with happiness in the present. Give a capuchin monkey a grape and all is good in the world. Look at the unfurling joy on a toddler’s face when you pull a silly expression.
But it isn’t like that for us adults, so what gives? It turns out that being able to transcend the construct of time has some small print we should probably get around to reading.
Introducing a broader spectrum of time awareness to our conscious world introduces the opportunity to look at the same scenario in many more different ways. Rather than absorbing, reacting and forgetting experiences passively, we are now strapped into the Clockwork Orange seat with dozens of instant replays streaming into our consciousness in an attempt to make sense of what just happened. Awareness across time makes it necessary to construct a narrative that coheres across time. We call this the inner narrative.
Some of these replays make us feel good, but oftentimes our brain constructs narratives that aren’t so healthy. It’s those narratives we can find ourselves obsessing about, and reinforcing with more negatively biased distortions.
Whatever we’re doing is placed under a lot more scrutiny by our brain when the past and future influence the meaning of our experiences. Obsessive thoughts can become an increased energy burden.
We can make ourselves feel belittled, embarrassed, overwhelmed, and the list goes on. While some regret might be justified, we can also invent details in a compulsive drive to produce a story that our mind considers plausible. This can be called confabulation in psychology. It’s also related to apophenia and pareidolia. (That’s the tip of the iceberg. Seriously, you wouldn’t believe the amount of stuff our brains make up without us knowing!) If we already have low self esteem, we can become self-sabotaging.
As past/future animals, our simplistic notion of present-happiness is automatically overruled in order to consider consequences, expectations and doubts. This occurs automatically (implicitly), but consciousness (explicitly) is partially responsible for the fixation problem. Think of it in the way that children and dogs just seem to let things go while adult humans can find themselves obsessing to the point of punishment.
My thinking about happiness across time started with the book Stumbling On Happiness by Harvard psychologist, Daniel Gilbert. It’s still my favourite book on the topic and I recommend it to anyone who’ll listen. A few years later, I mused on the idea further when reading through Thinking Fast & Slow by Princeton psychologist, Daniel Kahneman. (He would win the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work.) This is another book I strongly encourage people to read. Here’s a brief introduction to both books.
Stumbling On Happiness
One of the central ideas in Gilbert’s book revolves around what he calls affective forecasting. More specifically, our attempts to predict how we will feel in the future.
As it turns out, we’re terrible at it.
When projecting forward, we’re creating a simulation from memories of the past with feelings of the present. We overestimate the happiness we’ll derive from experiences we look forward to, and similarly overestimate the misery we’ll get from experiences we’re not looking forward to. In psychology, this is called the impact bias.
As we’ll learn, this is why it’s so important to infuse experiences with meaning and purpose. In retrospect, meaning and purpose become catalysts for happiness, regardless of whether the event was pleasant or a struggle.
Let’s take the example of winning the lottery; a life-long dream for many. And yet, it so often ends in bankruptcy and social upheavals. As it happens, Gilbert produced a documentary in 2010 (This Emotional Life, PBS) which explored this exact scenario, with the story of John Falcon.
John grew up poor in the South Bronx, New York. The threat of gang warfare was constant and he was often one paycheck away from being homeless. In 1999, after years of fruitless lottery ticket buying, John won $45 million dollars. He was New York’s single largest winner ever.
He moved into a beautiful building, he could buy all the things he’d dreamt of owning, and was ostensibly set for life. Coming from a poor background, the immediate increase in happiness was a positive jolt to the system. Over the consequent months, however, the happiness he felt wasn’t sustained, and John would later concede that, “it takes a lot more work to be happy than it does to be unhappy; to be miserable.”
Gilbert offers some wisdom: “When it comes to happiness, every dollar you earn buys just a little less than the last one.”
The subject of money — and specifically, the act of spending it on ourselves — reveals just how much we’ve underestimated the role of meaning and purpose in what we call happiness, and why it remains elusive for most of us. I’ll explore this in more depth in a separate article and link to it here later. (Give me a follow on Medium to get notified.)
Studies on lottery winners suggest there’s one important predictor that can dictate whether newfound wealth sustains happiness, or makes our emotional life even worse than before our winnings.
Psychologist Ed Diener from the University of Illinois has built a career on the study of happiness. He reveals in the documentary how lottery winners who spent substantial winnings on other people were typically happier than those who spent the money predominantly on themselves. Money spent on friends, family and the local community was a healthier use of funds over selfish shopping sprees and drug-fuelled parties.
Fortunately for John, although he spent money on himself he was never foolish.
“The thought came to me, oh my goodness I’ll be able to send my niece and nephew to college. And I got weak in the knees,” John says.
Lottery winning does not come with a financial and emotional education as far as I know, so many winners aren’t so fortunate over the longer run.
Thinking Fast & Slow
Summarising Kahneman’s contribution, he divides happiness into two separate ideas; experienced happiness and remembered happiness. The former resides in the present, and the latter in the past and forecasted to the future. (Memory helps us predict the future.)
We’ll be diving into a number of ingenious experiments designed by Kahneman throughout this article so I’ll leave the introduction to a short story that demonstrates some of his ideas.
Let’s say that you’ve attended a concert. Throughout the entire evening the performance has been flawless. Until, that is, the pianist played a duff note in the final sequence. For most of the evening, the dulcet tones had slipped you into a timeless reverie. But now all you can think about is that A minor. Goshdarnit.
Your experienced happiness was that of pleasure throughout most of the evening, but your remembered happiness has now tainted the entire evening with a twinge of regret. That single split-second ending has tarnished the entire memory! You might see parallels here to our night-on-the-town story.
Same experience, different time perspectives, and yet polarising results. Time transforms the present experience of happiness into a fragile construct as new information informs us on how to feel about events, irrespective of their duration.
It’s almost as if pursuing happiness in the present is a fool’s errand, when it’s so easily blindsided by past/future awareness. Imagine living in a 2D world and being smited by a 3D nemesis. You wouldn’t see it, but you’d feel it. Such is the plight of our modern definition of happiness.
The Present: Pleasure & Sacrifice
Let’s now explore how we can assign more depth to the meaning of happiness, while not losing those more innocent and trivial pleasures that help us get through the day. It starts by making a distinction between them.
To fix the fragility of present-happiness, let’s redefine what we generally label as happiness into the apparent contradiction of pleasure and sacrifice. What was once a related spectrum of good feelings we called happiness is now representing many more feelings which seem to range from good to bad in the present-perspective.
Now we’ll introduce time into the equation. With the past and future in mind, sacrifice takes on a whole new potentially positive meaning. This will become the source of a more sustainable and resilient form of happiness.
Let’s define 3 important terms before moving forward:
Pleasure pertains to the present — and feelings derived from present experiences. Pleasure comes in two broad forms: pleasure derived from past/future-aware sacrifice that carries meaning and purpose (the good kind), and pleasure limited to the present only, that doesn’t have past/future contextual meaning. (The bad kind.) Simply put, pleasure that acknowledges the past and future can feel earned given the context. Pleasure locked to the present can feel good for a time, but cannot survive the incessant discriminations of past/future perspectives. For example, a child with only present awareness can have fun going down a slide. A parent can have fun going down a slide even with past/future awareness, because the child gives the activity meaning and purpose. However, a lone adult going down a slide without the child for context becomes ridiculous. Although it could be fun briefly before the past/future discriminations come.
Sacrifice also pertains to the present but provides a defence against the critical onslaught of past/future awareness by providing context. Present sacrifice is inextricably tied to the past/future, providing an individual has autonomy. Indeed, the only way for present-sacrifice to make sense is for it to be the result of a past/future event. Think back to when you last saw someone working really hard. It’s likely that you didn’t decide they were idiots for not pursuing present-pleasure like a child. You probably assumed that providing they were working towards a goal of their choosing, they were living with the past/future in mind. As we meander between disparate thoughts and perspectives across time, looking for holes in how we’re conducting ourselves, we stand a better chance at flattening the emotional curves through present-sacrifice than present-pleasure. Meaning and purpose is a critical component of a healthy and sustainable present-wellbeing. It gives us a greater implicit sense that our lives have purpose.
Meaning & purpose can be implicit or explicit. Implicit meaning has a depth that we are not fully aware of, but can feel. It’s the culmination of every experience we’ve had throughout life that can’t simply be labelled into an idea we can raise to conscious awareness. It’s an important component of happiness across time, but can’t be measured explicitly and can be diminished through over-thinking. Explicit meaning pertains to the ideas that are concise and simplified enough to be understood consciously in our working memory. Explicit meaning is valued because it has become truncated into coherence, but by creating coherence we lose much of the implicit meaning that makes life worth living. This is the realm of the inner narrative you speak to yourself with. Alone, explicit meaning can feel unfulfilling — material goods are great examples of this. But when combined with implicit meaning over time, that’s when we feel a sense of purpose.
Let’s look at an example. Wellbeing can be derived from buying the new iPhone, as well as going on a special 3-week holiday. However, residual happiness experienced over time is not the same because there’s a deeper bed of rich implicit experiences associated with the holiday. You’ll likely feel the benefits of the holiday for decades, but the iPhone will be forgotten. If implicit meaning is the journey, extrinsic meaning is the destination. Although the destination provides a fleeting thrill, it won’t be remembered favourably without first experiencing the journey.
The use of meaning & purpose throughout this article is going to be referring to the implicit rather than explicit type.
Implicit meaning evades much of our awareness, and that has the positive side-effect of also evading our mind’s bombardment of exhaustive questions and doubts. (Although an overly obsessive mind can still overwhelm meaning derived implicitly.) Ask a genuinely, consistently happy person why they are happy and they won’t be able to tell you accurately because it can’t be pin-pointed into a single thought. They may confabulate a relatable pleasure as the source, demonstrating the explicit awareness. They might even offer something more realistic like the love they have for their family. But still this will be stripped of it’s implicit depth. It can be felt, but cannot be translated into explicit awareness without losing the thing that makes it valuable in the first place.
Pleasure: Becoming A Prisoner To The Present
By taking a time-sensitive approach, we’ve already added nuance to our understanding of happiness. Having an opposing combination of terms gives us greater latitude in arranging our thoughts in the present.
Let’s put it to the test with another example.
After a long day at work and managing the kids, you slip into a soapy, aromatic bubble bath. The door is locked and the lavender lulls you into a lazy stupor. Anyone not privy to your inner thoughts would think about this scene as pure, unadulterated pleasure. But although you look relaxed, you don’t feel relaxed.
Pleasure without past/future context can exist, but to be sustained it demands a childlike orientation that limits awareness to the ever-present. Drugs and alcohol can be an unsustainable gateway for adults to this form of pleasure by altering our state of mind to remove past/future awareness.
In its strictest form, pleasure is the product of neuro-chemical responses responding in real-time to the objective world around us. For a split second, only the present exists. As healthy adults, however, self-awareness across time allows us to inhibit the child-like behaviours of presentism. The part of the brain for decision-making and planning in the context of the past/future lags behind slightly, while calculations are made for us to take action on. (Speed of thought can be abstracted to Kahneman’s two modes of thought: system 1 and system 2.)
This area of the brain is called the frontal cortex and is the last area of the brain to mature during our 20s. It’s one reason why teenagers make so many bad decisions as they’re given more responsibility in life. They don’t yet have the faculties to think carefully about how the past/future relates to the present.
The frontal cortex has been identified as what makes us uniquely human.
The mind of a young child is a passive consumer of reality. Experiencing, Feeling and adapting. At a young age, we don’t question, we don’t doubt, we don’t obsess about the past and future. Some children progress faster than others but the present is effectively all-encompassing; at least consciously. This changes as we enter the teen years, and go on to adulthood.
Pleasure is an effective motivator, but it’s effectiveness also depends on it’s infrequency. If switching on pleasure mode was easy, we wouldn’t forage for food, defend ourselves from predators or seek out a mate.
For a case-in-point, we can recall what happened when Britain flooded China with opium in 1840. From the mid-18th century there was a lot of demand for Chinese luxury goods such as silk, porcelain and tea. China had a trade surplus over Britain, which increased tensions. To counter, the British East India Company began to grow opium in Bengal and allowed private British merchants to sell opium to Chinese smugglers for illegal sale in China. This influx of narcotics multiplied the number of opium addicts inside the country, reversing the Chinese trade surplus and draining their economy of silver.
Just as being doped up, too much pleasure without past/future context is not a sustainable and productive means to an end. In moderation, however, it is a component of a balanced life.
Although we won’t have time to explore it in this article, a state of mind known as ‘flow’ is a powerful example of how present-pleasure can in exceptional cases be both rewarding and productive. It can be a state of mind where time just melts away; a welcome return to childhood as well as an escape from reality. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi labelled this experience flow in his book of the same name.
To return to this state of mind as an adult (without the side-effects of alcohol and drugs) requires a commitment; a degree of competence and perceived safety in order to quieten your paranoid, surveilling past/future brain long enough for you to lose yourself in what you’re doing. Mastery of a discipline is a highly rewarding but time-consuming example. Routines and rituals are also effective avenues that don’t require as much time.
I’ll explore this in more depth in a separate article and link to it here later. Give me a follow on Medium to get notified.
The advice I’ll share in this article for improving present-experience can be summed up in the age-old observation: ‘everything in moderation’.
More specifically, avoid planning ahead for pleasure to avoid the risk of it coming under fire from your past/future brain. (Forming unrealistic expectations is one example.) Instead, feel grateful for the serendipitous and fleeting pleasures that occur as a consequence of living a life in the pursuit of implicit meaning.
Remember, the soap doesn’t stop for us to pick up with a hand. That would be an intuitively explicit approach to happiness, and we’ve already outlined why that’s failing us.
Instead of going directly like children, we need to go indirectly as adults. And that’s what I’m going to show you how to do next.
Sacrifice: The Virtue Of Delayed Gratification
Sacrifice as a present preoccupation is the most important idea in this article, so I’ve included extra case-studies for clarity.
I mentioned earlier the importance of infusing experience with meaning and purpose, and how these feelings can become catalysts for experiences we previously enjoyed or struggled with.
Perhaps more striking is that the happiness derived from past struggles can often contribute even more meaning and purpose to our lives than past pleasures; at least in retrospect. This is important for ongoing residual happiness.
Struggle is usually more resonant than pleasure. It represents a greater portion of the journey, providing more to reflect on and develop into a coherent story that we can attach more of our identity to. While struggle can be unpleasant in the present, if we survive it, the ongoing residual happiness can be rich and rewarding.
Meaning and purpose are good equivalencies for happiness. Increase one, and you increase the other. In my mind, meaning and purpose are not optional in authentic happiness. This goes some way to reconciling the glamour of enviable Instagram galleries while loneliness and misery continue to grow unabated. (Particularly among iGen/Gen Z born after 1995.)
This is the reason I believe happiness isn’t qualified as an exercise of extrinsic meaning.
The inner narrative wants to reduce the world to readable data; to quantify the unquantifiable. Dispassionately, it actually has to in order to understand what it’s working with. But it’s impossible to quantify the implicit meaning felt from a vast set of experiences we’ve had over time, most of which we can’t remember, but have been affected by. Our inner narrative wants to reduce our past into easily available soundbites; understood but stripped of richness. And it will do that, even if it means being complicit in convincing us out of our innocent, intrinsic happiness, for the sake of comprehension.
Inner narrative is the realm of the left hemisphere; ruthlessly detail oriented, and unable to see beauty in the collective (or the gestalt). The left hemisphere cares for the destination, not the journey, and our left-hemisphere dominant society reinforces this philosophy. Unfortunately, that means it also has a strong influence in narrative generation.
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” — Albert Einstein.
So this is what sacrifice is about. It’s about sacrificing wellbeing in the present, in the pursuit of meaning and purpose that can placate our past/future questioning. As a result, we produce a lasting, residual form of remembered happiness instead of a fleeting present-pleasure that is less likely to survive the inner narrative across time.
Core Study #1: Having A Baby, Across Time
Sacrifice as an indirect route to happiness isn’t an intuitive one, so let’s have another story. We’ll learn what the perception of pain from the perspective of the present vs the future reveals about how our feelings towards x changes across time.
A study carried out at the Rabin Medical Centre in Tel Aviv demonstrated that the remembered experience of labour among mothers centred around the peaks and end-point. Kahneman would coin this the ‘peak-end rule’. Curiously, however, labour duration had almost no recall value at all.
In a separate study, 2,428 Swedish women were asked to recall their experience of labour 2 months after the fact. Only 28.5% described it as the ‘worst pain imaginable’, while 90% reported the experience as ‘positive’ or ‘very positive’. And even then, recalling the experience as painful did not preclude it from also being viewed as positive.
In the days and weeks following birth, the hormonal system secretes cortisol and beta-endorphins to accentuate the positive. Our long term memories, far from being organised filers of pre-rendered sequences, are ruthlessly biased in favour of experiences that have meaning to us over time.
We can leverage those organic processes in our own lives to help make a life story that works for us rather than against.
Core Study #2: Cold Hands, Not So Cold Hands
So we know that difficult experiences in the present can provide happiness if only they are assigned meaning afterwards.
This is promising, particularly as adversity visits us all at some point. But the following experiment by Kahneman demonstrates why this logic is so difficult for us to grasp.
In part 1 of a 3-part study, a volunteer is asked to place a hand in a container filled with 14°C water for 60 seconds. 14°C is approaching painful after 1 minute. In part 2, the volunteer is asked to place their other hand into another 14°C water container, but this time for 90 seconds — 30 seconds longer. They weren’t told how long the experiments would be.
Afterwards, the volunteer is informed they will have to repeat either part 1 (60 seconds) or 2 (90 seconds) again, and that they should choose the option they found less painful.
As it turns out, 80% of volunteers selected the 90 second option, even though of course, it was 30 seconds longer.
So what’s going on here? Why would volunteers perceive the longer experiment as being less painful?
I left out one key part of the experiment in order to highlight the different durations. After 60 seconds in part 2 of the experiment, warm water was secretly added to the container. This took the temperature up to a subtly more comfortable 15°C. The last ~30 seconds of this experience was less painful than the first 60 seconds. Volunteers chose to repeat part 2 of the experiment because what mattered looking back was not the duration, but the ending.
What this tells us is that the appeal of present-pleasure is so strong that it’s difficult for us to derive happiness from sacrifice unless we’re forced into the situation — ala giving birth. When in control, we have a tendency to settle for smaller rewards in the present. (See present bias.)
It’s an impediment to present-sacrifice, but not a dealbreaker.
The other lesson here is the importance of endings, as we also learnt with the story of the pianist. Endings matter a lot for our remembered happiness because it’s a peak event.
If you imagine a timeline of intermittent dots along a line, we remember the dots but forget the line. And rather than acknowledge vast blindspots, our brain automatically fills in the gaps between the dots with a narrative that makes sense to us. We imagine the line still exists.
This is just one example of our perceptive hardware cutting corners. Compromises are tested throughout evolution and survival is the test. It might also be the reason our brains can weigh 3lbs rather than 12lbs.
Core Study #3: Marshmallows & Happiness
From an experiment that reveals the challenge of living a life in present-sacrifice over pleasure, I will attempt to interpret the following experiment through the lens of happiness. Realising the challenge of avoiding temptations of pleasure, I hope to convince you of why the present-sacrifice mindset is invaluable even beyond increased happiness alone.
The marshmallow test of delayed gratification is one of the best known experiments in social science. Let’s have a quick recap of it’s history, because it’s become another victim of the replication crisis.
A child sits in a room alone, a researcher enters the room with a single marshmallow. The researcher informs the child that they can have this single marshmallow now, or — if they wait patiently with nothing — they can have 2 marshmallows in 15 minutes when the researcher returns.
It was conceived as a test of willpower, and believed to be a strong indicator of future potential. If the child can wait for two marshmallows, they have demonstrated the ability to delay gratification, and so have a better chance at achieving future goals. That was the theory, at least.
As it turns out, a new study has turned that idea on its head.
The ability to wait for a second marshmallow reveals more about a child’s socio-economic background than it does about how shiny their future is. If a child grew up in an environment without food scarcity, they are able to wait more patiently for food. There’s less anxiety associated with waiting because the next meal comes reliably.
If they grew up in poverty, however, they will likely opt for short-term rather than long-term rewards in order to offset the risk of not having food later. Waiting for the second marshmallow is a measure of wealth, not willpower, and our backgrounds can have a profound influence on how we pursue and define happiness today.
Being such a well known experiment, I wanted to briefly trace the history so we have an accurate context as I want to relate it to happiness.
The marshmallow experiment reveals that those who can delay gratification have a predisposition towards living a past/future life. These people can, in theory, work up to bigger rewards over the long run.
As this relates to happiness, people raised in secure environments have a higher level of faith that things will turn out okay. This has a positive effect on the automatically-generated inner narrative.
Unfortunately, wealth and the disparities that come with it can also stack the cards against us. An environment of scarcity growing up can have a profound effect on the health of our default inner narrative, and how willing we are to sacrifice in the present to create a more meaningful and happy life for ourselves in the future.
We now know that conditioning is a better predictor of behaviour than the ego-satisfying notion of will power. By knowing this information it is possible to compensate, or at least further explain why you’re as happy, or not, as you are. Designing your environment to be more past/future aware is a way of nudging behaviour in the right direction. After all, willpower is overrated, as we learned.
The less tolerant you are of delaying pleasure, the harder you’ll find it to assign meaning because you’ll be more focused on the present, and so struggle to build the implicit foundations that come with time.
A lack of meaning can lead to the paradox of miserable pleasure as we struggle to fit it into a satisfying narrative that coheres across time. It’s a possible explanation for how one can be posing for an enviable Instagram photoshoot, and yet still feel unhappy.
Life’s purpose rests in our mind’s spectacular drive to extract meaning from the world — Guillaume Thierry, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, Bangor University
Core Study #4: Parenting & Contempt
Our final example is a controversial one, but it’s perhaps the most poignant reason yet for living a past/future life over a present one.
Is it true the children don’t bring us happiness?
A number of studies have shown parents to be less happy than their childless peers, particularly when money remains a going concern. If true, primal instincts and cultural pressures that lull us into parenthood may be doing us a disservice for happiness.
Fortunately, it’s not the complete picture. By defining happiness over time, rather than in the present, we gain new insights.
In 2019, Christoph Becker at Heidelberg University in Germany tackled parental happiness with an interesting twist. Rather than studying parents with children still living at home like the other studies, Becker shifted the timeline forward to parents whose children had already grown up and moved out.
This small change totally altered the results. Parents now reported themselves to be more happy than their childless peers; a complete 180°. He concluded that having children did indeed make you happier, but only once the kids had moved out.
Different time perspective. Entirely different results. Time matters.
This particular story, however, reveals yet another subtle advantage of living with the past/future in mind (present-sacrifice), and that’s our ability to feel in control.
Haynes: “Familiarity breeding contempt is the problem, you need to ration your contact.”
Jack: “Ration how? She’s running through my head like a goddamn tune I can’t shake.”
This is a scene from the Black Mirror episode, Black Museum. The scene in question is a man posing as a relationship therapist trying to help a character struggling with his inner narrative.
It’s important to note that this is a fictional story. The voice in his head is the implanted consciousness of his comatose wife! (Gotta love Black Mirror.) But it does have parallels to the challenges many people face with their inner narratives in the real world.
If you’ve ever struggled to shut up the voice in your head, here’s where it gets interesting.
In psychology, there’s an area of study called construal level theory (CLT), which explores the relationship between different types of psychological distance:
- Temporal (time)
For example, if we feel cold towards something (social), it’s understood as being far away. (Spatial.) The intuited distance is related.
The general idea is that the more distant an object is from the individual, the more abstract it will be thought of. While the closer the object is, the more concretely it will be thought of. In CLT terms, the inner voice is highly concrete, which means temporally we’re talking about the present.
If managing the inner narrative across time is the path to happiness, it’s yet another reason why present-sacrifice should be considered over present-pleasure. Present-pleasure increases the risk of familiarity breeding contempt (with yourself).
Let’s look at this in terms of the present vs the past.
I see it in terms of friction. In building an inner narrative, the present introduces more pushback than the past/future simply because it’s outside of our head and not within our control. It’s harder to form a satisfying narrative in the present that doesn’t unsettle us from what we thought we understood about the world.
Realistically, we can’t control how we perceive present events out of our control, but as we’ve explored, present-sacrifice can help us stay grounded by keeping the past/future in mind.
By focusing more on the past/future our imaginations become a shield from the bombardment of the overwhelming present. What’s more, in the interest of coherence our imagination doesn’t even need to be especially realistic.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of ‘necessary fictions’; beliefs that can’t be proven to be true and sometimes can be proven false, but are nevertheless necessary to sustain life and sanity. Without them, it would be impossible to feel like the world coheres. Belief systems are not presentations of the objective world, they are re-presentations after the brain has condensed the world into a more manageable format.
In this case, happiness comes with the cost of objective truth, and by acknowledging our limits we might be able to go a little more easy on ourselves in the pursuit of feeling good about our place in the world. As people become increasingly intolerant of belief in fictions, this is not a trivial point.
What is objective truth if we don’t have a brain big enough to avoid cutting corners? We already experience a distorted world. The question here is one of managing data flow. Forming a coherent identity will always be a simplified abstraction, and there isn’t any immediate reason why a simplified understanding of one’s place in the world should compromise the scientific pursuit of objective truth.
What Have We Learned?
- The focus of this article has been the idea that the present occupation of happiness lies in sacrifice if it is to survive the rigamarole our inner narrative puts it through, with its awareness of the past/future. That is, by living with the past/future in mind, we offer ourselves a more resilient and sustainable — though simplified — narrative to carry us throughout life.
- At the same time, we need to remain aware of our inner narrative’s health and try to encourage ourselves to delay gratification in order to build a stronger tapestry of implicit meaning on which to feel happy.
- Meanwhile, we should not explicitly sabotage progress by trying to define what makes us happy, too clearly.
- And then by living with more past/future awareness we focus less on a world we can’t control (the present) and more on the world we do (our imaginations). These necessary fictions allow us to make sense of a world we will never realistically understand in the present. (Even though our inner narratives will nevertheless give that impression).
By proactively avoiding present-pleasure for the pursuit of meaning and purpose, we replace shallow pleasures with richer happiness. This doesn’t remove pleasure from our lives, it just becomes something that we don’t actively pursue. Pleasure in the present becomes a coincidental product of our pursuit of meaning.
Pleasure can be pursued almost instinctively without thought, and indeed that’s our bias. This places present-sacrifice at a disadvantage. But the importance of meaning in life shouldn’t be underestimated. It allows us to counter-intuitively derive happiness even from present-struggles. Victor Frankl put it best in his book, Man’s Search For Meaning:
“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”
Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, but better known as a Holocaust survivor. His book is based on the unthinkable adversities he faced in Auschwitz, as well as Theresienstadt, Kaufering and Türkheim according to Wikipedia.
By pursuing meaning over pleasure, we give ourselves a greater opportunity for personal growth, for overcoming adversity, for making a contribution to society, and for a deep-seated sense of happiness that satisfies our mind’s relentless interrogations on how we’re spending our time.
With that in mind, it’s helpful to consider your upbringing to identify possible biases for your inner narrative. If you found that basic needs weren’t met growing up, you may be more vulnerable to finding immediate satisfaction in the present over the future; a future which seems more uncertain and threatening to you than others. Fortunately though, with this knowledge you can begin to compensate for your disadvantages by making changes to your environment that nudges behaviour towards more past/future living.
I’ll finish with an invitation to you. Instead of asking yourself whether you’re happy, start asking yourself whether you have implicit meaning and purpose in your life. (That’s not happiness you can explicitly label, remember. It’s happiness that feels like it’s always there; a foundation that keeps you above water no matter what happens in life.)
This forces you to start thinking about happiness as a deeper practice of lifestyle vs a present-biased term that has been commercially debased and culturally gutted. It will take effort to go against the grain of present-pleasure seeking, but if what you’re doing today isn’t working, you may just have the reason you need to make the change. I actively keep these ideas in my mind every day, and am now at a point where I don’t feel I’m missing pleasures by sacrificing. (Writing in this case.) Pleasure without meaning, after all, would make me miserable.
- See the work of neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga: “Gazzaniga calls the left hemisphere our left-brain interpreter, driven to seek causes and explanations — even for things that may not have them, or at least not readily available to our minds — in a natural and instinctive fashion." — https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/literally-psyched/our-storytelling-minds-do-we-ever-really-know-whats-going-on-inside/
- Imagining the Future Is Just Another Form of Memory — https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/10/imagining-the-future-is-just-another-form-of-memory/542832/
- See the work of psychiatrist Iain Mcgilchrist: The Divided Brain — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFs9WO2B8uI
- The intense world theory of autism holds that autistic people experience the world in extreme ways. They perceive the world as so intense that it can become difficult or unbearable at times — https://autism.wikia.org/wiki/Intense_World_Theory