Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Do cats understand happiness better than we do?

(Originally posted by Pat in 3/2012)

Have you ever noticed how cats will play with the same toy again and again? It's difficult to bore them, though not impossible. Throw a toy past them, and they will hunt their prey, pounce upon it, then release, so that it might be thrown again. There's something Sisyphusian about the whole affair; how come they don't just catch it and hold it there forever? Why don't they try to eat it—after all, that is what those instincts evolved to achieve?
Are we humans wiser? It's not apparent to me that we are. In fact, in studies of happiness, striving—what Csikszentmihalyi calls flow—plays an extremely central role. Having things done is not a recipe for happiness; doing things is. This is why a video game can be less fun because it is “too easy”; if it requires no striving, the success brings no feeling of reward. So it begins to seem that maybe the cats are doing it right; do the same thing over and over again, never achieving anything, and you will be happy.

That seems a bit wireheaded, doesn't it? It seems like the sort of thing that might well achieve subjective happiness as an emotion, but doesn't actually accomplish the sort of eudaimonia that we're really going for when we speak of making the world a happier place. It's like having a hallucination of a good life and a happy family, instead of actually having one.
One possible escape was suggested by Max Florka some time ago: Part of striving seems to imply striving for something—that unless you actually want to have done something at some point in the future, you're not really doing something at all, you're just going through the motions of doing.
I like this answer in certain cases; indeed, it is what I say as a scientist to people who say that we take the mystery out of life. It's true: We do solve mysteries, most definitely. Why do we do this? Well, because we treat them as mysteries! That's what you do with mysteries, isn't it? You start at “I don't understand” and move to “Now I understand”? If you're not doing that, you're not really treating it like a mystery at all—you're treating it like something beautiful to look at.
Yet it seems incomplete somehow. First of all, why is it that we are happier when striving? Is that a good thing? If we could change it, should we? Maybe that is one of the upgrades the transhuman future will bring: Remove our desire to strive for things, and instead accept what we already have. Perhaps they will run out of places to go and instead decide to stay where they are. (This seems vaguely Buddhist. The biggest difference is that the transhumans will have at their poorest more wealth than our billionaires and at their dumbest more knowledge than our geniuses, and so coming to accept what they have makes a good deal more sense.)
Or maybe we will always want to strive. Maybe we will decide that we always want to have a destination to point to—and then we have to ask, should it be one we can actually expect to reach? Is it better to strive for an attainable goal, or one that is completely impossible? Is it enough to want to actually achieve it, or must you actually have some chance of doing so? How great a chance?
I don't have the answers. But I think we need to be asking the questions.

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