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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Mood correction

Yesterday I suggested that our emotions might be out of kilter due to various personal and environmental factors and I mentioned that Guy Kahane had written in a paper that for some people, if not all, our emotional reactions might be awry.

Kahane's view seems to be that the inherited negativity bias and individual setpoints may inhibit our positive emotions.

I won't argue the wider point - because I am confident that for some of us there are various issues which lessen an appropriate positive response to stimuli. Nor will I contest the view about the negativity bias. However, the setpoint theory does seem to have been called into question in recent years.

Briefly, the setpoint theory is that all of us have a mean 'happiness' level to which we will return. We could win the lottery and be ecstatic, but after a few months we'll be back at whatever our mean value is. Likewise we could have an awful accident and become quadriplegic and be devastated... But only for a few months. In time, we'd climb back to the setpoint.

This view gained a lot of traction in psychology, sociology and thus in philosophy but Richard Easterlin is one of the dissenters. His research found that people who experienced certain life problems did not regain their setpoint, while others who had positive life changes climbed well above their previous mean. He claims that health and family are the two factors which supercede this idea of a hedonic fixed value. So, those who became disabled or suffered a permanent health crisis, those divorced or widowed, might not regain their average level of happiness; in contrast, getting married seems to life people to a higher level than their pre-marriage setpiont. Where the setpoint theory proves not to be malleable is in economic matters: so it's true that more money or a worse job will not lead to permanent changes. Easterlin's view is that some goods (family and health) are not negated by hedonic adaptation because they are not related to social competition or comparison. When a person gets richer, they become used to what they have and see others with more, so they become dissatisfied again. In contrast, health and family are part of a 'non zero sum game': having more is just 'good'.

As a result of this, I'm led to wonder if the problem isn't so much that people's emotional responses are not malleable enough as that they are pursuing the wrong things in their quest to be happy. A 'mood enhancer' that enabled someone to feel justifiably good permanently about increased material success might increase well-being, but so too might a changed focus toward spending more time on health and family. Indeed, Easterlin writes:

The failure of individuals to anticipate that these influences disproportionately undermine utility in the pecuniary domain leads to an excessive allocation of time to pecuniary goals at the expense of nonpecuniary goals, such as family life and health, and reduces well-being. There is need to devise policies that will yield better-informed individual preferences, and thereby increase individual and societal subjective well-being.

The justification for mood enhancement (through pharmacology or other means) is to generate higher well-being, a greater sum of happiness, but, as we can see from this research, that could be achieved in other ways.

The question to answer is whether is would be 'better' (ethically) for people to alter their focus rather than take mood enhancers?

One could argue that given the priorities of society as it is (for status and wealth), it might not be likely that people would be willing to devote less time to their careers and consequently, if one wishes to increase well-being as a 'sum total', the practical way to do this is to offer enhancements.

In addition, given that, with society as it is, there will be significant numbers of people who will not be able to generate any happiness through getting rich and successful and it seems 'unfair' that they should be less happy, so, it would be a matter of justice for such enhancements to be available to all, so that everyone could live at or above some optimal or agreed level of happiness.

Now, what's the problem with this? Everyone is happy!

To me, the problem is not entirely the lack of 'authenticity' - that is a controversial point which seems to be much disputed by philosophers and I don't really feel capable of navigating the complexities - though I do feel that it matters that people have the 'right reasons' for their emotional states.

No, my main concern is that what this misunderstanding over the setpoint suggests is that we are not acting rationally and I believe that there is if not a moral duty at least a virtue in acting rationally. Moreover, as we ignore the wrongful focus of our attention, we perpetuate structures that are causal factors in lowering the sum total of well-being. Thus, were we enhancing, we would be essentially enhancing to compensate for our our failures to behave according to reason and simultaneously encouraging the need for further enhancement. Life would become an enhancement treadmill. If, by our enhancements, we could empower ourselves to behave in a more rational way, and thus start to break down the unhealthy societal norms, it would be a different matter: in that case, enhancements would enhance not just sum total of well-being but also the chances of well-being.

I don't think I have explained well.

Basically, if we enhance in order to continue and effectively encourage unhealthy, or less happiness producing lifestyles, then we are making the world a worse place than it could otherwise be.

If we are to make an ethical decision about enhancement, we want the enhancement to play a part in not just making individuals feel happier but in making the world better, by encouraging more happiness-generating actions.

I would suggest that health is a good - whether instrumental or non instrumental - and it is worth encouraging the pursuit of health, rather than compensating for the failure to pursue health.

Likewise, intimate relationships are a good - again, either instrumental or non instrumental - and the same argument applies.

If enhancements lessen the motivation to pursue goods which would generate real and lasting happiness, by creating happiness from goods that produce only limited or short-term happiness, then it seems to me we are lowering the potential for the sum total of happiness by mistakenly taking a short-cut in the quest for greater happiness.

I have similar concerns about all the other reasons why I suggested our emotions might be awry which I will get onto next time. If you can bear any more of these poorly explained arguments.

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