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The Paradoxical Effects of Pursuing Positive Emotion (2013) [pdf] (berkeley.edu)
69 points by brahmwg 30 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 17 comments



Desires themselves are imbued with negative affect. As Naval Ravikant tweeted, "Desire is a contract that you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want." More fundamentally, I think the very mechanism of how desires work is through negative hedonic tone. Contemplating and actually fulfilling the desire is associated with positive hedonic tone. The gradient between the negative hedonic tone of the desire and the positive hedonic tone of its fulfillment is how motivation emerges.

Long-term meditation is often associated with a lessening of the influence of desire, and greater happiness.


I agree. There is also a learned mindset; to treat desire as a lack or as a vision of fulfillment.

Personally, I think the role of meditation and happiness is in creating emotional/cognitive distance between one's self and the observed desires, not the lessening of desires, per se. Though it depends on one's path, I suppose.


I think you have to go deeper and ask yourself the timescale and extent of "happiness". Because a different definition may mean actually "fulfilled" rather than "happy".

And it's different for different people (and at different stages of life).

Some people are optimizing for physical and mental happiness hour by hour. Sometimes, that produces good short term outcomes, but you may have self-gratified at the expense of not achieving long term things (which often require being momentarily unhappy). An example might be: I want to live in a Sprinter van and see the US in my 20s, work itinerant jobs, and experience amazing sunrises, sunsets -- versus my sad friends who are slave to the corporate finance life.

Others put long term fulfillment above momentary happiness, find themselves hour by hour sometimes miserable, but suffering through it to achieve some goal that fulfills them deeper than a momentary dopamine fix. The corporate finance drone sits through a "boring" job, but maybe gets the option to maximize "moments" later in life, having postponed gratification.

I'm sure for everyone it's a weighted combination of these, depending on their inclination and upbringing.

I also suspect that it's generally people who grew up relatively privileged who tend to view optimizing happiness as a choice or option.


> you may have self-gratified at the expense of not achieving long term things (which often require being momentarily unhappy)

At 43, having achieved a few things that even most people at this relatively high level have not, I wonder if I have not accepted too many times that the delay of gratification, was, in and of itself, evidence that the action would take me further toward my goals. Unfortunately, I don't know any way to learn how to recognize suffering-for-the-sake-of-suffering except by getting caught in those traps now and again. I have read philosophy, law, psychology. It doesn't really seem to have made a difference. Maybe it has and I simply can't perceive the mountain for all the gravel.


This is interesting, because I was just thinking the other day how easily I can summon various emotions. I can think about my family and the people I love, and feel happiness and warmth. I can think about the cruel things humans have done to each other and feel despair. I can think about people I have lost and feel sad.

I actually find it quite easy to choose the emotion I want to feel.

I guess the difference is that I am not 'pursuing' positive emotion so much as summoning it by my thinking.


Pursuing harmony is a classical (Plato/Confucius) alternative to pursuing happiness. Happiness is a very individualistic. Harmony is hierarchical -- harmony in self, harmony with others, harmony in world. Harmony isn't sameness -- it is diversity in unity. So, it's pursuit isn't just "positive emotion" but a kind of integration of parts into greater wholes.


People think thinking positive thoughts is hard (and you should strive to be positive).

But thinking negative thoughts when you are positive is equally hard as its counterpart.

Trying to not go in the path your mind is directed towards is the difficulty - mind doesn’t care about + or -, just whether or not the emotional response is appropriate (according to its learned/perceived set of beliefs and circumstances).


I find that practicing cynicism, starting with myself and working outward, has been the thing that has led to more of a positive outlook than I have ever previously attained. I was angry and depressed for decades until I stopped taking firstly, myself and secondly, the rest of society, so damn seriously.

We have created a fiction called 'the human'. And we have then endowed it with all the best qualities from our myths, legends and stories. We then spend the rest of our time attacking ourselves and those around us, for not measuring up to something that was never actually real in the first place.


Yeah if we stopped taking everything so seriously we would get more things done.


What's interesting is that part of this report is that the monitoring of one's emotional state causes unhappiness. I can't say I fully agree with this statement- if someone has constant emotional patterns that are negative, it's important to recognize them and understand them and then behave around them. eg. Someone who is abused with explosive yelling as a child may feel unhappiness and fear at projected assumptions that someone is angry with them. Without understanding and monitoring one's responses, it becomes difficult to understand the difference between reasonable and unreasonable emotional responses.


'Happiness' is an overloaded construct; not only does it mean something different to each one you ask, most are confounding it with other concepts such as 'joy' 'contentedness' 'peace' 'excitement', 'fulfillment' etc

The term itself is unique to the English language and is related to the verb 'to happen' and the concept of 'happenstance'

While we use it to mean 'positive' even 'saccharine' things, happiness is more about having a healthy relationship with what's happening around you and being mindful and present in the moment -- it's possible to be sad and happy believe it or not: sadness is an emotion, happiness is a state of mind, they are not mutually incompatible and certainly not polar opposites on some kind of emotional scale (think of the fear and love continuum from Donnie Darko, another example of mixing two unrelated ideas in pseudo polar orbits)

This article already gets off on the wrong foot from the outset by implicitly defining happiness to mean that other thing everybody thinks it means which nobody can agree upon

Even the concept of positive and negative emotions is antiquated, emotions are simply human sensory perceptions that form a heuristic basis of one's environment in non-rational but highly valuable ways, I think of emotions as the human equivalent of IRQ's


Could causation be an issue here? I mean people who are already generally unhappy are more likely to be pursuing happiness while generally content people are unlikely to have the pursuit of happiness as one of their goals. Perhaps it isn't the pursuit of happiness causing unhappiness but unhappiness spurring on people to search for happiness.


This is the way I think about it: Happiness is an excellent experience, but a terrible goal.


What goals are more desirable to you than happiness?


Pursue behaviours which encourage happiness in others. Be stoical, and help other people, and you will find you achieve happiness as a side effect.


From this, I immediately wonder if having the pursuit of happiness listed up front as an unalienable right in the US Declaration of Independence, has therefore led to less people being actually happy.


It depends rather I think on how you go about pursuing happiness. Some things like gratitude journals or making friends seem to work in the research.




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