Thursday, October 4, 2012

Happiness Sauce

I was listening to a TED Talk about Happiness.  The speaker broke the concept of Happiness down in a different way, one that I had not considered before.  Since I seem to be stuck on the topic of Happiness, I thought I would share the comments of this speaker and see if there is a way I can work them into my own narrative.

Happiness was defined as being the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of regret. The concept of pleasure was explored in the context of choices and the many ways we struggle in making a choice of one thing among a field of many similar things.  An example used was spaghetti sauce in the grocery store.  Prego and Ragu have a history of selling sauces that they thought were what people wanted to buy, but through a rather straightforward process of showing people different kinds of sauces it turns out that over 25% of us like extra chunky spaghetti sauce, a type that was not even offered until this study was commissioned.  Our happiness was being thwarted through our own inarticulate purchasing preferences.  Prego figured this out and made over $66 million in the 1980's by cornering the Extra Chunky sauce market. 
Interestingly, the "ideal" Italian sauce is not chunky.  As originally conceived and practiced in southern Italy, the sauce is smooth and without chunks, and passes through the pasta when you ladle a dollop on top of the pile.  The idea of a chunky sauce that sits up on top is something new and doesn't even really fit with the concept of a spaghetti sauce as invented by the Italians.  If Happiness is about eating things that give you pleasure, then your tastes have moved beyond traditional sauces and choices are what you need to fulfill your Happiness craving.
Regret is a two parted concept that is the antonym of Happiness.  The two parts are these:

1.     Faced with a plethora of choices for any particular decision, a person is required to sort and select through the choices to arrive at a single one.  In so doing a set of expectations is used to anticipate the outcome of any of the choices.  The person making the choice develops these expectations and these expectations are independent of any inherent property of the things being chosen.  The anticipated outcome of making the choice is a projected future that has been influenced and improved by the choice.  So, the first part of the regret process is Choice.

2.    Regret is the emotion a person feels when the outcome actually achieved was not the one desired.  It may be less than, or simply other than the expected outcome of making the choice.  The regret may be that another selection would have been better.  It may be that making no decision would have been better.  In any event the outcome of Regret is the emotional backlash of making any Choice among several  alternatives.

One logical outcome of this analysis is the understanding that without Choice you can never have Regret.

Another implied concept is that we may be equally happy in an environment where the choices are not made clear to us.  In the case of the spaghetti sauces people bought smooth sauces that they knew from their childhoods thinking that these were fine and sufficient for making spaghetti, and that nothing really needed to be changed to make them happy about that experience.  Once educated about a new choice, the Extra Chunky option, a significant number chose that over the traditional selection, apparently making themselves Happier than they would have been but for that one new choice.  Had Extra Chunky not come along, would they have been equally happy?  Studies on this sort of thing seems to indicate they would have been.  Choices for the sake of choice do not make us inherently happier.  Have you checked on salad dressings at the grocery store lately?  By some accounts there are 175 different dressings on the shelves, not counting the combinations of olive oil and balsamic vinegar you might like to employ for yourself.   With that much choice how can anyone not be happy about the way their salad dressing tastes?  Or do you suffer decision regret that you used Green Goddess when you wish you had chosen Extra Chunky Blue Cheese instead?

Is Happiness related to choice? Is the Pursuit of Happiness somehow similar to the Pursuit of Many Choices?  And if choice leads to regret, would the lack of choice mean that a person might actually be Happier with fewer choices, or no choice at all?  (This is the Henry Ford Color Choice, "People can have any color of Model T they want, as long as its black!")

A corollary might be that things seemed happier in the past when the choices were fewer.  It may have literally been true, that limited circumstances meant that people's lack of choice led to lower expectations and hence less regret.  I don't believe it, but this is what the concept might logically lead us to.

The speaker I listened to concluded that Happiness was maximized when people had low initial expectations and life's experiences then exceeded their expectations.  How can one regret a past decision when the present has worked out well and you can't imagine a set of decisions you could have made to have it turn out except as it has?  Reverse thinking to be sure, but something to consider.