A few weeks ago I wrote a philosophical post for my HinesSight blog: Stoic guide to happiness: want the things you already have. Here's an excerpt from the talk by William B. Irvine that I transcribed.
The ancient Stoics came up with a way to get off the hedonic treadmill. The trick, they said, is to want the things you already have, to love the life you happen to be living.
To better understand this trick, let’s turn our attention back to the gap theory of happiness. The Stoics agreed that the presence of a gap between what you have and what you want will make you unhappy. Their insight was to realize there’s a second way to close the gap.
You can also close it by wanting what you already have. Let me restate that. Instead of working to get the thing you don’t have, spend your efforts learning to want the things you already do have.
The Stoics would argue that the person who embraces the life that he happens to be living, even though the life is quite basic, is vastly better off than the millionaire who, despite living in a mansion, is convinced that he would be lastingly happy if only he replaced his Ferrari with a newer model.
Or perhaps replaced his wife of several decades with some young model. This millionaire, by the way, will likely be envied by many people. They will imagine that if only they were living his life, they would at last be happy. All their problems would disappear, and no new problems would arise to replace them.
These people are as deluded as the millionaire is. The primary difference between them and the millionaire is that the millionaire is on a more expensive and extravagant version of the hedonic treadmill than they are.
The Stoics said that one way to want what you already have is to practice negative visualization, where you imagine losing something in your life that means a lot to you. Even brief periods of negative visualization can lead you to value more highly what you already have, rather than longing for something more and better.
After writing that post, I bought a book by Irvine, The Stoic Challenge, that I've written one blog post about. I'm enjoying it.
Today I read a couple of chapters about anchoring and framing. These are psychological concepts that pertain to the Stoic approach to happiness. Anchors are notions that sink into the subconscious mind where they affect subsequent speculations about the world.
An example cited in the book is a store that has two options for selling shirts.
Plan A is to price the shirts at $32 each. Plan B is to price the shirts at $40, then have frequent 20% off sales. The benefit of Plan B is that the $40 price gets anchored in the minds of customers. Then when the shirts go on sale, customers think they're getting a good deal if they pay $32 for one.
Framing is related to a Stoic adage, "What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgements about the things." Meaning, we have a choice in how to frame or look upon a situation. Irvine gives the example of a doctor telling you that you have the choice between two medical procedures.
One has a one-month survival rate of 90%. The other has a 10% mortality rate in the first month. Obviously both are equally risky, but most people find a choice framed in terms of survival more attractive than a choice framed in terms of death.
Though I've got about half of Irvine's book left to read, it seems pretty clear that negative visualization, anchoring, and framing all point to the view that, as noted above, what keeps us dissatisfied with life isn't so much what is objectively happening with us but how we subjectively look upon our situation.
As you might expect, given my strong atheist leaning, I feel that most religions, mystical paths, and supernatural forms of spirituality are harmful to lasting happiness -- even though they admittedly can produce short-term satisfaction by making grandiose promises about returning to God, enjoying heaven, basking in unending bliss, and such.
The problem with putting such lofty goals in the minds of believers is that the goals serve to raise expectations about what is possible to achieve, even though there's no evidence for God, heaven, or unending bliss.
Once we view life through the frame of "this world sucks but a better one awaits," we're akin to someone with a decent middle-class income who falls prey to a huckster who promises much greater riches by following their illusory recipe for wealth.
From being happy with what they have, they now look upon their life as seriously lacking. This is similar to Christian missionaries who tell previously content members of a so-called "primitive" tribe that they are filled with sin that has to be washed clean by believing in the sacrifice of Jesus.
Suddenly their contentment is reframed as ignorance of their fallen nature that must be redeemed by embracing Christianity. This same game is played by gurus who proclaim that they've been sent to save souls, leaving aside the not-insignificant fact that evidence for soul is lacking, much less the need to save this nonexistent entity.