Back to Prindle Institute

Why Didn’t God Make Us Happier?

photograph of smiling gingerbread man relaxing in a cup of hot coacoa

Or if you’re an atheist: why didn’t evolution make us happier? There is insight to be gleaned from reflecting on the nature of happiness during a pandemic. There is no doubt that as a society, we haven’t been this unhappy, depressed, and stressed in decades. We may then wonder about the nature and value of happiness — presumably we could be happier, so then why aren’t we? And to be clear, by the term ‘happiness’ I’m referring to the affective state of happiness; the subjective happiness that you experience ‘from the inside.’ This should be clarified because Ancient Greek philosophers had a wider notion of happiness they called eudaimonia: the idea that subjective happiness is only part of human flourishing and well-being, along with things virtue, fulfilling work and relationships, and so forth.

Why think we could be happier? There is evidence from psychology that (subjective) happiness could be ratcheted up and down based on how underlying psychological processes are tweaked. The first is what psychologists call ‘optimism bias’: we have a positively distorted perspective of our lives in the past, present, and future. Sometimes I’m nostalgic for my time in high school, but then remember that those times weren’t that great. This optimism bias distorts what we remember, how we think about the future, and how we compare to our peers, toward the positive. And we find this bias across culture, sex, class, and so on — it seems baked into our biology.

Second, there is affective resilience: baseline affect (how things feel to us ‘from the inside’ across time) is mostly stable across time. We may think winning the lottery would raise our levels of happiness far into the future; but that isn’t so. People tend to return to their prior level of happiness within months; the same holds of the bad stuff too. As the philosopher, Dan Moller, points out:

“The results of empirical investigation thus seem to conflict with a widely held view in our culture that the loss of a partner or spouse is invariably or at least usually an agonizing blow with long-lasting and significant impact. Contrary to this folk view (and certain non-empirical bereavement theories), empirical research seems to show that most people manifest what the author above refers to as resilience in the face of loss: although they are initially traumatized, they quickly recover and manifest little long-term distress. And, again contrary to folk wisdom, this does not seem to be the result of repression or of having had an unfulfilling relationship; most people simply adapt far better to their loss than we tend to believe.”

This affective resilience, while it may dampen the positive, insulates us from the bad; it allows us to carry on in face of defeat, pain, loss, disappointment, and so forth. And with some tweaks to our psychology, we could be happier than we are. It would be hard then to see how we could ratchet up our optimism and affective resilience, we would be much happier. And if we could be happier than we are, then why aren’t we happier?

It could be that there isn’t a good explanation, but there may be a good reason: think about a world where everyone is extremely happy and content; in that world little would get done. Think about yourself when you’re happy and contented; those mental states are nice, but they can rob us of motivation to change, improve, and innovate — to give but a few examples. Pain and discontent can motivate personal growth, invention, and artistic expression. As the Scottish philosopher, David Hume, observed:

“The great end of all human industry, is the attainment of happiness. For this were arts invented, sciences cultivated, laws ordained, and societies modeled, by the most profound wisdom of patriots and legislators. Even the lonely savage, who lies exposed to the inclemency of the elements and the fury of wild beasts, forgets not, for a moment, this grand object of his being.”

There are insights here that illuminate the question we began with: discomfort is motivating, and too much happiness isn’t. Happiness is like knowledge and ignorance: it faces a goldilocks problem in that you don’t want too much or too little. To be too happy, in the subjective sense, would be to undercut the value of other aspects of the good life: creating art, cultivating virtue, inventing a technology, and growing in a relationship. We often think of unhappiness as a problem that needs addressing, but that misses the good of the right amount of discomfort and subjective unhappiness. And it puts pressure on us not to assign too much value to subjective happiness, and instead assign more value to a broader notion of happiness that better accords with the concept of eudaimonia — thinking about happiness in broader terms like flourishing.

Impeachment Hearings and Changing Your Mind

image of two heads with distinct collections of colored cubes

The news has been dominated recently by the impeachment hearings against Donald Trump, and as has been the case throughout Trump’s presidency, it seems that almost every day there’s a new piece of information that is presented by some outlets as a bombshell revelation, and by others as really no big deal. While the country at this point is mostly split on whether they think that Trump should be impeached, there is still a lot of evidence left to be uncovered in the ongoing hearings. Who knows, then, how Americans will feel once all the evidence has been presented.

Except that we perhaps already have a good idea of how Americans will feel even after all the evidence has been presented, since a recent poll reports that the majority of Americans say that they would not change their minds on their stance towards impeachment, regardless of what new evidence is uncovered. Most Americans, then, seem to be “locked in” to their views.

What should we make of this situation? Are Americans just being stubborn, or irrational? Can they help themselves?

There is one way in which these results are surprising, namely that the survey question asks whether one could imagine any evidence that would change one’s mind. Surely if, say, God came down and decreed that Trump should or should not be impeached then one should be willing to change one’s mind. So when people are considering the kind of evidence that could come out in the hearings, they are perhaps thinking that they will be presented with evidence of a similar kind to what they’ve seen already.

A lack of imagination aside, why would people say that they could not conceive of any evidence that could sway them? One explanation might be found with the way that people tend to interpret evidence presented by those who disagree with them. Let’s say, for example, that I am already very strongly committed to the belief that Trump ought to be impeached. Couldn’t those who are testifying in his defense present some evidence that would convince me otherwise? Perhaps not: if I think that Trump and those who defend him are untrustworthy and unscrupulous then I will interpret whatever they have to say as something that is meant to mislead me. So it really doesn’t matter what kind of evidence comes out, since short of divine intervention all of the evidence that comes out will be such that it supports my belief. And of course my opposition will think in the same way. So no wonder so many of us can’t imagine being swayed.

While this picture is something of an oversimplification, there’s reason to think that people do generally interpret evidence in this way. Writing at Politico, psychologist Peter Coleman describes what he refers to as “selective perception”:

Essentially, the stronger your views are on an issue like Trump’s impeachment, the more likely you are to attend more carefully to information that supports your views and to ignore or disregard information that contradicts them. Consuming more belief-consistent information will, in turn, increase your original support or disapproval for impeachment, which just fortifies your attitudes.

While Coleman recognizes that those who are most steadfast in their views are unlikely to change their minds over the course of the impeachment hearings, there is perhaps still hope for those who are not so locked-in. He describes a “threshold effect”, where people can change their minds suddenly, sometimes even coming to hold a belief that is equally strong but on the opposite side of an issue, once an amount of evidence they possess passes a certain threshold. What could happen, then, is that over the course of the impeachment procedures people may continue to hold their views until the accumulated evidence simply becomes too overwhelming, and they suddenly change their minds.

Whether this is something that will happen given the current state of affairs remains to be seen. What is still odd, though, is that while the kinds of psychological effects that Coleman discusses are ones that describe how we form our beliefs, we certainly don’t think that this is how we should form our beliefs. If these are processes that work in the background, ones that we are subject to but don’t have much control over, then it would be understandable and perhaps (in certain circumstances) even forgivable that we should generally be stubborn when it comes to our political beliefs. But the poll is not simply asking what one’s beliefs are, but what one could even conceivably see oneself believing. Even if it is difficult for us to change our minds about issues that we have such strong views about, surely we should at least aspire to be the kind of people who could conceive of being wrong.

One of the questions that many have asked in response to the poll results is whether the hearings will accomplish anything, given that people seem to have made up their minds already. Coleman’s cautious optimism perhaps gives us reason to think that minds could, in fact, be swayed. At the same time it is worth remembering that being open-minded does not mean that you are necessarily wrong, or that you will not be vindicated as having been right all along. At the end of the day, then, it is difficult not to be pessimistic about the possibility of progress in such a highly polarized climate.

California’s “Deepfake” Ban

computer image of a 3D face scan

In 2018, actor and filmmaker Jordan Peele partnered with Buzzfeed to create a warning video. The video appears to feature President Barak Obama advising viewers not to trust everything that they see on the Internet. After the President says some things that are out of character for him, Peele reveals that the speaker is not actually President Obama, but is, instead, Peele himself. The video was a “deepfake.” Peele’s face had been altered using digital technology to look and move just like the face of the president.

Deepfake technology is often used for innocuous and even humorous purposes. One popular example is a video that features Jennifer Lawrence discussing her favorite desperate housewife during a press conference at the Golden Globes. The face of actor Steve Buscemi is projected, seamlessly, onto Lawrence’s face. In a more troubling case, Rudy Giuliani tweeted an altered video of Nancy Pelosi in which she appears to be impaired, stuttering and slurring her speech. The appearance of this kind of altered video highlights the dangers that deepfakes can pose to both individual reputations and to our democracy more generally.

In response to this concern, California passed legislation this month that makes it a crime to distribute audio or video that presents a false impression about a candidate standing for an election occurring within sixty days. There are exceptions to the legislation. News media are exempt (clearing the way for them to report on this phenomenon), and it does not apply to deepfakes made for the purposes of satire or parody. The law sunsets in 2023.

This legislation caused controversy. Supporters of the law argue that the harmful effects of deepfake technology can destroy lives. Contemporary “cancel culture,” under which masses of people determine that a public figure is not deserving of time and attention and is even deserving of disdain and social stigma, could potentially amplify the harms. The mere perception of a misstep is often enough to permanently damage a person’s career and reputation. Videos featuring deepfakes have the potential to spread quickly, while the true nature of the video may spread much more slowly, if at all. By the time the truth comes out, it may be too late. People make up their minds quickly and are often reluctant to change their perspectives, even in the face of compelling evidence. Humans are prone to confirmation bias—the tendency to consider only the evidence that supports what the believer was already inclined to believe anyway. Deepfakes deliver fodder for confirmation bias, wrapped in very attractive packaging, to viewers. When deepfakes meet cancel culture in a climate of poor information literacy, the result is a social and political powder keg.

Supporters of the law argue further that deepfake technology threatens to seriously damage our democratic institutions. Citizens regularly rely on videos they see on the Internet to inform them about the temperament, behavioral profile, and political beliefs of candidates. It is likely that deepfakes would present a significant obstacle to becoming a well-informed voter. They would inevitably contribute to the sense that some voters currently have that we exist in a post-truth world—if you find a video in which Elizabeth Warren says one thing, just wait long enough and you’ll see a video of her saying the exact opposite. Who’s to say which is the deepfake? The results of such a worldview would be devastating.

Opponents of the law are concerned that it violates the first amendment. They argue that the legislation invites the government to consider the content of the messages being expressed and to allow or disallow such messages based on that content. This is dangerous precedent to set—it is exactly the type of thing that the first amendment is supposed to prevent.

What’s more, the legislation has the potential to stifle artistic expression. The law contains exemptions for the use of deepfakes that are made for the purposes of parody and satire. There are countless other kinds of statements that people might use deepfakes to make. In fact, in his warning video, artist Jordan Peele used a deepfake to great effect, arguably making his point far more powerfully than he could have using a different method. Peele’s deepfake might have resulted in more cautious and conscientious viewers. Opponents of the legislation argue that this is precisely why the first amendment is so important. It protects the kind of speech and artistic expression that gets people thinking about how their behavior ought to change in light of what they viewed.

In response, supporters of the legislation might argue that when the first amendment was originally drafted, we didn’t have the technology that we have today. It may well be the case that if the constitution were written today, it would be a very different document. Free speech is important, but technology can cause harm now in an utterly unprecedented way. Perhaps we need to balance the value of free speech against the potential harms differently now that those harms have such an extended scope.

A lingering, related question has to do with the role that social media companies play in all of this. False information spreads like wildfire on sites like Facebook and Twitter. Many people use these platforms as their source for news. The policies of these exceptionally powerful platforms are more important for the proper functioning of our democracy than anyone ever could have imagined. Facebook has taken some steps to prevent the spread of fake news, but many are concerned that it has not gone far enough.

In a tremendously short period of time, technology has transformed our perception of what’s possible. In light of this, we have an obligation to future generations to help them learn to navigate the very challenging information literacy circumstances that we’ve created for them. With good reason, people believe that they can trust their senses. Our academic curriculum must change to make future generations more discerning.