Sufficiently good hedonism

Trade-offs between limited time, limited cash and limited imagination, toward the most happiness

June 23, 2020 — April 4, 2024

bounded compute
making things
Figure 1

The Good Life as far as I recognise it. Or: Training myself to recognise good lives.

Spending money in a way that actually brings happiness is surprisingly hard because we lack insight into our own happiness, and are bad at spending time to achieve it and what even is happiness anyway? And what version of human happiness can explain the fact that we are a species who watches product unboxing videos on youtube?

So, here are some notes.

1 Hedonic treadmills

Why Utopia Fails

I don’t think utopias are dull because of lack of conflict per se, but because of what tends to lead to conflict: agency and stakes. … Belief in utopia, like thinking that just getting that promotion or buying that car/house/whatever is going to make us happy forever, comes from a mistaken model of our own psychology. We’re not happy when things have become good, we’re happy when they’re becoming better, and especially when we’re actively and effectively making them better ourselves. This is illustrated by the way our dopamine system works—levels spike when we’re approaching and achieving a goal, and plummets afterwards, because it’s been depleted, and we need to achieve again to eat tomorrow, and the next day. Lasting improvement means a higher baseline and need for another lasting improvement, tomorrow and the next day. We’re not wired to be happy unless we’re making progress, again and again, towards greater heights.

2 Comfort traps

See comfort traps.

3 Bingeing

When we binge are we getting optimal enjoyment (Karmakar 2015)? Danielle Page, What happens to your brain when you binge-watch a TV series. C&C Mashable’s Binged.

4 Which utility?

What even is happiness? Revealed preferences versus experienced happiness as a measure of utility?

Dolan and Kahneman (2008) argue that we are crap at evaluating even our own subjective goodness over time:

we are rather pessimistic about the use of decision utility to generate QALYs, although our critique of decision utility may prompt others who are more sympathetic to this interpretation of utility to refine and develop the methods of preference elicitation. In Section 5, we argue that more elaborate studies designed to elicit decision utilities cannot overcome the fundamental problem with such utilities, which is that they do not accurately represent the utility streams associated with different health states. We therefore suggest that economists should instead look towards developing measures that focus more directly on experienced utility, and we provide some suggestions about how this might be done. Our recommendations, which involve eliciting proxy values for utility as it is experienced moment-to-moment, will also provide economists involved in estimating the welfare effects of non-market goods besides health with an alternative to existing revealed and stated preference methods.

Distraction disrupts pleasure (Bernecker and Becker 2021):

“It was always thought that hedonism, as opposed to self-control, was the easier option,” says Bernecker. “But really enjoying one’s hedonic choice isn’t actually that simple for everybody because of those distracting thoughts.”

Adventure people are aware of this trade-off.

5 The fun hierarchy

Figure 2: The fun scale by Sketchplanations

For an adventurer, the fact that we remember stuff as being fun which was awful at the time is a feature not a bug

This is another akrasia issue, I think. What we want to do now is different to what we want to have done afterwards, which is different again to what we are enjoying doing while it happens. Which of these do I want to maximise? It seems that it is feasible to have a time which is minute-to-minute usually unpleasant but which I remember fondly. Do I want to maximise minute-to-minute happiness or happiness that looks good when I remember it, or scroll back to it on instagram?

Pat Corden explains

We were wet, tired, cold and at times, desperate. Type 2 Fun is generally achieved when you are outside your comfort zone. Somewhere in this space between comfort and agony, learning is accelerated. You don’t just learn skills, you’re forced to grow and push your boundaries. You might not enjoy it at the time, it’s challenging and goes beyond your regular routine, but ultimately, it extends you as a person.

6 Play

What is play now?

7 Friends

8 Good money-happiness ROI

Figure 3

Putanumonit’s Shopping for happiness summarises Dunn and Norton (2014):

Happy Money lists five principles of happy spending:

  1. Buy experiences
  2. Make it a treat
  3. Buy time
  4. Pay now, consume later
  5. Invest in others

Or, in podcast form, Elizabeth Dunn on the You Are Not So Smart podcast.

The art of frugal hedonism:

It is easy to use spending money as mental confirmation that something of value is being obtained. We can equally choose to relish and recognize value in experience, atmosphere, sensuality or company. The more we make such choices, the less urge we have to treat ourselves by ‘buying something nice’ when life feels hard. That urge might be transformed into a yen to go lie in the park on a blanket and watch clouds for an hour. And before you protest that such experiential pleasures take time that most modern humans don’t have, let us remind you that time is exactly what you can choose to have more of when you spend less money.

Eight ways you can get more enjoyment from the same activity – Spencer Greenberg

  1. Attention: focus on every detail of the experience much more intently than normal.
  2. Savoring: try to extend and enhance enjoyable moments by using “metacognition” – become aware of how much you’re enjoying the thing and how great you feel it is, even as you’re experiencing it.
  3. Collaboration: team up with a person you really like and work together on that activity as a team.
  4. Obsession: do it with someone who DEEPLY loves that thing.
  5. Gamification: turn the activity into a game.
  6. Adventure: turn the activity into an adventure. You need (i) a well-chosen team that is up for anything, (ii) a goal that is challenging enough that the team could fail at it, and (iii) a setup that will (safely and consensually) push the boundaries or comfort zones of the group, or that has a substantial perception of risk but without any substantial danger (see Jon Levy’s The 2 AM Principle for great ideas about how to turn things into an adventure.
  7. Novelty: find a way to do or experience that thing in a way you haven’t done so before.
  8. Re-pricing: imagine that you spent $1000 on this experience and that it is rightly considered the very best of its kind in the world. Try to engage with the experience from that perspective.
Figure 4

Or, more radical, consider What Are Some Good Do-Nothing Jobs For The Lazy And Non-Ambitious?, wherein ways to ascend the exterior faces of Maslow’s pyramid of needs are detailed.

I recommend just being a plain bum. Hang out at the library all day. collect any welfare you can get. Build out a little wilderness squat on the outskirt edge of the public transportation routes. Get a folding solar panel to charge digital devices. Those Anker brand chinese ones are like $50 now. You can pick up weed trimming work one month a year and just listen to podcasts and bullshit with other trimmers, that should cover your expenses for the year. You will meet a few kooky geniuses that live on the streets and some street punks to have fun with, help out a food not bombs chapter. Go to a rainbow gathering make connections find all the free places to live, go chill with some hippies, get sex. Find a nice beach somewhere.

I have done this shit for over 10 years. Having a job reduces your standard of living. Once you get into the underground you will find there is a whole invisible layer of people living outside the system that help each other out.

Do an apprenticeship with an old train hobo, learn to tap springs in the mountains and build water filtration systems for spontaneous wilderness villages that appear in the national forests in secret festivals, learn to make synthetic drugs, or just figure out what areas and homeless shelters have the best food

Fascinating. But not my jam.

9 Investing

See money and trading.

10 Optimising considered harmful

Is satisficing (Simon 1956) not only efficient but more pleasurable?

11 Housing

Is buying housing a good use of time/money? This question is a little bit special in Australia which has a massive state social and financial engineering program to prop up a quasi-landed gentry system. Not sure how other places compare, but generally I think land economics is cooked.

12 Leaving on a high note


13 Incoming

14 References

Bernecker, and Becker. 2021. Beyond Self-Control: Mechanisms of Hedonic Goal Pursuit and Its Relevance for Well-Being.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Bernheim, and Rangel. 2009. Beyond Revealed Preference: Choice-Theoretic Foundations for Behavioral Welfare Economics*.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics.
Bloom. 2021. The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning.
Dolan, and Kahneman. 2008. Interpretations Of Utility And Their Implications For The Valuation Of Health*.” The Economic Journal.
Dunn, and Norton. 2014. Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending.
Edelmann. 2022. Values, Preferences, Meaningful Choice.”
Karmakar. 2015. Viewing Patterns and Addiction to Television among Adults Who Self-Identify as Binge-Watchers.” In.
Lembke. 2021. Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence.
Schwartz. 2016. The Paradox Of Choice: Why More Is Less, Revised Edition.
Simon. 1956. Rational Choice and the Structure of the Environment.” Psychological Review.
Tawney. 1926. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.
Yang, and Chiou. 2010. Looking Online for the Best Romantic Partner Reduces Decision Quality: The Moderating Role of Choice-Making Strategies.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.