Disentangling objective functions

I am currently reading the book Feeling Great by Dr. David Burns, and am finding it to be very insightful and helpful. In fact, I would highly recommend it to any person that has chanced upon this fetid corner of the internet. I apologize in advance for the self-help nature of the rest of the post.

In Chapter 3, the author talks about a Harvard student who is depressed because she is unable to get good grades and be the academic superstar that she had always been before this. She has been undergoing a lot of mental trauma for months now, and has finally come to her counselor for help. Now imagine that the counselor gives her two options:

  1. There is a “happiness button” that the student has to press, and then all her sadness will go away instantly, although her grades remain unchanged. Let us suspend belief for a moment and imagine that such a button actually exists
  2. The student does not press the happiness button, and continues living her life in pursuit of better grades and circumstances

Which option do you think the student will choose?

On close reflection, you may soon realize that the student will inevitably choose the second option, and not the first one. Although she does want to be happy, she wants good grades even more than mere happiness. She has made her happiness conditional upon academic success.

In life, we often entangle our happiness with our goals or ambitions. We say “if I become very rich or very successful in my field, I will be happy”. What inevitably happens is that we either don’t reach our desired goal, or when we do reach it, we realize that our goals have now shifted. We now want to be better than the other people who have achieved the same goals. Only then will we be happy.

What is perhaps more tricky to realize is that we need not do that. Happiness has nothing to do with achieving goals. Happiness is perhaps being at peace with ourselves and celebrating the present. This can be achieved by reflecting on the miracle of life and the universe, or perhaps injecting morphine into one’s eyeballs for the slightly more adventurous. However it is achieved, it actively has nothing to do with our goals. Hence, we will do well to disentangle our two aims of being happy and being successful. Both of these aims are valuable and worth pursuing. However, they are not related. Our being happy has nothing to do with being successful.

Humans have many objective functions like wealth, fame, happiness, meaning, quality of relationships, etc that they want to maximize in their lives. Maximizing any (or all) of these functions will add great value to one’s life. However, these objective functions needn’t have anything to do with one another. I can be happy without wealth, fame, meaning, etc….much like Sisyphus. I can also be wealthy without fame, happiness, meaning, etc. Entangling these functions can potentially take away value from our lives. For instance, if I entangle my happiness with fame and wealth, which means that I decide that I will be happy only when I’m rich and famous, then I lose out on the possibility of being happy if I’m not able to attain my goals of being rich and famous. Hence, keeping these functions separate and disentangled can only be to our benefit.

Of course, one may think that entangling my happiness with wealth and fame may make them more motivated to attain wealth and fame. Although this sounds convincing, this is not how things work in practice. We can’t “decide” what will make us happy. It is possible (and entirely common) that even when we attain our goals of wealth and fame, we are unhappy. An analogy is you deciding that you will turn 30 only when England wins the Football World Cup. You can’t really decide how and when you turn 30. Similarly, being happy cannot be arbitrarily entangled with any other objective function of your choosing. It has to be pursued and attained on its own terms, independent of other objective functions.

Thus ends my spiel for the day. If you think that I am slowly drifting away from reviewing scientific papers to writing crappy self-help posts, you’re right on the money.

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Graduate student

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