An Unusually Technical Perspective about Happiness

I’ll preface by saying this is easily the most technical article I’ll ever write for this blog. I do, however, think that having an empirically proven model of why we feel certain ways can be grounding, helping us better understand our mental health and care for it properly. 

A while ago I was reading this book, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard Thalen. I didn’t really know anything about economics when I picked it out, but the term “behavioral economics” just seemed like a fancier way of saying the psychology of decision making – something that sounded really interesting – so I gave the book a shot. Of the many topics covered in the book one of the most interesting things (unsurprisingly, since the research on it won a Nobel prize) is something called “prospect theory.”  What’s that? Take a look at the graph below.

Boyce, Paul. “Prospect Theory Definition and Examples.” BoyceWire, 24 Oct. 2020, boycewire.com/prospect-theory-definition-and-examples/.

It looks surprisingly logical for something renowned as a revelation in the field. You can see that as you gain things, like money, you also gain utility, which can be thought of as happiness. The same goes for losses. The more you lose, money and otherwise, the more utility you lose and the less happy you feel. 

But why am I bringing this up on a mental health blog? Well, gains and losses aren’t just monetary, they happen all the time in our day-to-day life. Getting a compliment and eating your favorite food are both neat gains, but stubbing your toe on a table or realizing you hit reply-all to an email can be quite unfortunate losses. Now, if you take another look at the graph you’ll notice that there’s a difference between how gains and losses impact your happiness – the curve isn’t symmetrical. A loss of $50 loss will make you feel more disutility/pain than a $50 gain will make you feel utility/happiness (the photo uses dollars, but the general idea is that the gain is the same size as the loss, money or otherwise). This is a way of proving that people hate to experience losses more than they love to feel gains.

This is something I like to keep in mind for when things aren’t going my way. Let’s say I’m at Costco and I pick up a free sample of tortilla chips in a little cup. Yay! By some marginal value, that gain just made me happier. Now, let’s say before I can actually eat any chips, I drop them. Rats! I, like many others, will feel much more unhappy about that loss than I was about getting those chips in the first place. This can apply to life, not just free samples. It’s worth acknowledging that supposedly negative stimuli in life have larger and lingering effects. It’s why our bad moods and slumps can seem so much more prominent than our good moods and highs.

Another thing to notice about the graph is something called diminishing sensitivity. Notice that gradually, as gains or losses get larger and larger, they start to have a smaller impact on utility. It’s like giving a $100 dollar bill to an employee working minimum wage versus giving $100 to Bill Gates. The person who’ll value the money more is the former. The same concept applies to yourself. The things we do to care for our mental health, eating foods we like, going for walks, etc. are much less impactful when we’re actually feeling good. We just don’t care as much about the increase in utility they offer us, which is why it’s so easy to neglect consistent self-care practices when we’re feeling good overall, even if we know they’re good for us. On the contrary, if you’re in a negative rut and nothing seems to go your way, theoretically it’ll become increasingly difficult for any stimuli to make you feel worse. That’s like a parallel to people in debt comfortably making small loans. Furthermore, I think it’s worth noting that when you’re in a hypothetical state of negative utility, any gains you experience will be increasingly impactful on your happiness until you reach a state of equilibrium.

One final thought – none of this is proved to be true in the context I’m describing it. Prospect theory has been tested and evaluated tons of times, but (to my knowledge) never in the context of mental health. I simply have drawn a parallel between the social sciences and how I see mental health, happiness, and life in general. I think it makes sense, but I could be wrong and you’re free to disagree with me. I don’t mention this to invalidate my whole position about gains and losses and whatnot. I just think that it’s important to take a lot of mental health information with a grain of salt. Not all advice you see online will work well for you, and not all the facts you see are accurately presented. I’d say it’s most important to try things out, learn from them, and develop your own unique mental health world-view that serves your own best interest. 

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