The pleasures of no imagination

[18 January 2006]

By Rob Horning

As someone who champions the drab clothing uniform, I was cheered by this story from Sunday’s New York Times, which reports that people may derive more satisfaction from routines than from constant variety and the endless pursuit of novelty. “Happiness researcher” Daniel Gilbert has found that “people who indulge in ‘false variety seeking’ - that is, incessantly trying something new for variety’s sake - are generally less happy than people who stick to their tried-and-true favorites.” In other words, we should not try to cure boredom with a spasmodic pursuit of something new and distracting, but rather through an intensified return to the things we already enjoy. Boredom doesn’t mean we’ve exhausted the potential of the things we know; it means we have lost our focus, probably because so many corporations have so much at stake in our losing that focus, in our embracing novelty for its own sake, in our chasing after fashion and feeling perpetually anxious and dissatisfied. And an entire industry exists to convince us that we should be dissatisfied with what we have and expect more. Or it means that we have lost the ability to process the massive amounts of variety we have access to. We can’t organize ourselves in the face of it; we can’t keep up. It reminds me of my friends and their unweildy music collections; they spend the bulk of their time catagorizing it rather than listening to it; trading the deep pleasure of music appreciation for the shallower pleasures of sheer ownership. (Am I wrong to call one deep and one shallow? Can the distinction be sustained?)

But Gilbert’s remark about his cargo-pants uniform can serve as a kind of motto: “My life is full of decisions, and any time I can eliminate one, I feel I have scored a victory.” Choice for its own sake is not satisfying; it is not an increase in freedom—in fact, it can feel like bondage to be burdened with decisions that involve no problem solving or creative thinking, with decisions that feel forced upon one but capricious changes and the whims of others.

It ties in to the “hedonic treadmill” problem—the fact that we immediately adjust to whatever level of comfort we’ve attained and become disappointed in it—and the invidious comparison problem, which makes happiness a relative matter. We are happy and satisfied only if we have what our peers have, not because we actually are getting some sufficient degree of satisfaction from goods themselves. It doesn’t matter what we have if we’re bitter that someone else has more. When these kinds of comparisons are harder to make, less obvious, not instigated by the opulance typically evoked in the media and advertisements or by the vast amount of information we have available to us through the Internet, people tend to be happier, and people will be freed to concentrate more on the goods themselves than what status they signify. You can listen to that Dylan bootleg rather than wonder if your friends already have it, and have more.

This is one of the more compelling arguments for leveling the distribution of income—when the gaps between haves and have nots are smaller, everyone is happier despite the fact that material wealth for some will be reduced. Money doesn’t make one happy; security and belonging do. Krugman, in one of the columns in The Accidental Theorist, argues that “American society in the 1990s is an engine that maximizes achievement yet minimizes satisfaction”—in other words it foists corporate goals of growth on to individuals and leaves them with little means to switch the priorities back.

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