By Graham Peterson
Jonathan Haidt discusses in The Happiness Hypothesis a couple of troubling findings in psychological and behavioral economic research. People become quickly overwhelmed with more choices, and the stuff they’re choosing doesn’t confer them greater happiness. It starts to look like maybe we’d all be better off without all these choices and all this stuff.
But the measurement of subjective well being can only measure how happy people are after they’ve made a choice — the measurement assumes that we get nothing out of choosing itself. Haidt mentions — and I think he’s correct — that it’s not the ends that we do our choosing and striving for — it’s the striving and choosing themselves that we enjoy.
In the economic analysis, it’s the weighing of costs and benefits at the margin, and ranking of our preferences in cultural dialogue, that we really enjoy – not the imaginary stream of utility that comes through once the choice problem is solved.
Haidt and other positive psychologists call it the “progress principle.” We enjoy progressing ever forward, and the “flow” that attends to doing so. It’s not the stuff we bring home that we enjoy; it’s the ritual of shopping. It’s not the paycheck we enjoy; it’s the ritual of working. It’s not the kids we enjoy; it’s the ritual of making them.
Now, although you can quickly overwhelm a lab subject with choices, the fact that there are more things in society does not imply that there are more things that individuals have to sort. All the choices in the world don’t go into a single urn from which each person draws their choices. The social division of labor — little friend cliques and church groups and tech startups — bracket complexity into manageable pockets.
Hence individuals don’t get overwhelmed. Individuals, and the sub-groups they belong to, just become more unique and individual. Such a process increases the amount of social and entry and exit from institutions like marriages and jobs, undermining the power of groups over individuals, and increasing our opportunities for striving.
The process of increasing social complexity can go on forever, even though our brains are rather constrained. We share in the task of choosing and creating by doing it in groups. And we experience transcendence in interacting. As such, we shouldn’t be surprised that people continue to march forward, whipped up in the joy and flow of that progress.