A User's Guide to Our Emotional Thermostat (with Adam Mastroianni)
Apr 1 2024

too-happy-300x300.jpg Can you be too happy? Psychologist Adam Mastroianni talks with EconTalk's Russ Roberts about our emotional control systems, which seem to work at bringing both sadness and happiness back to a steady baseline. Too much happiness is--perhaps surprisingly--not necessarily a good thing. They also explore whether our general level of happiness is really related to events in our lives or connected to something much larger than ourselves.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.

READER COMMENTS

Matt
Apr 1 2024 at 10:42am

Nothing makes sense – especially our emotions – except in the context of evolution. See Robert Wright’s “The Moral Animal.”

And then, when we realize that we’re just evolved creatures, his “Why Buddhism Is True.”

Natural selection didn’t design your mind to see the world clearly; it designed your mind to have perceptions and beliefs that would help take care of your genes.

Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.
–Robert Wright, Why Buddhism is True

Lawrence Nilssen
Apr 1 2024 at 6:48pm

You are not wired to be happy.  You are wired to survive.

I think that simple statement has profound repercussions.

Peter O
Apr 1 2024 at 7:43pm

Great episode.  Thank you, Russ. The Buddhism comment about running away is actually the opposite.  It is desire or attachment that is the cause of suffering.  The Judeo-Christian equivalent of the 10 commandments is the “4 noble truths” in Buddhism.  It is worth looking up for a quick read.  I find meditation to be an excellent temperature (emotional) regulator.

Andrew S
Apr 2 2024 at 7:11pm

If I remember correctly he mentioned running away in the context of running away from suffering.

Since the duty with regard to suffering (first noble truth) is to comprehend it, I think Russ’ point was actually in line with that. He’s saying that often we try to run away from our suffering instead of addressing its cause (2nd noble truth).

Desire/attachment (tanha) can express itself in multiple ways, and one of those is vibhavana tanha which is desire for non-becoming which I would say is aptly put as “running away.”

 

Regardless I agree with your point that meditation is a great regulator.

Mark
Apr 1 2024 at 7:58pm

I read a book, Redefining Anxiety, that called anxiety the ‘alarm’, not the problem itself. The author, while not opposed to treating debilitating anxiety per se, argued that focusing only on the emotion was like trying to shut off the fire alarm while doing nothing about the house that’s burning down around you.

I read another book that gave an anecdote about a patient who asked her doctor to reduce her depression medication dose. “Why, don’t the meds work?” the doctor asked. The patient replied, “Yeah they work. But I’m still married to the same alcoholic jerk, it’s just now I’m okay with that.”

I think with emotions we run into Goodhart’s Law when we focus specifically on nudging the dial one way or another. The emotions are signals that are trying to tell us something. Grief, frustration, joy, satisfaction. If any of those signals stayed on all the time they would cease to convey a meaningful message. When we listen to what they’re saying, we can get a useful message about what we should do in the future.

Feel happy because you got that promotion? This signal may spur you to do more of that kind of thing so you’ll get another promotion in the future. Frustrated at a bad relationship? Maybe you need to ruminate/reflect on how to change that. Feel grief at the loss of a loved one? Maybe you feel like the relationship wasn’t a mistake, but now that the person is gone you need to ruminate/reflect on how to soldier on in their absence.

Peter O
Apr 1 2024 at 8:21pm

Nice episode.  Thank you, Russ.

Regarding “running away” and Buddhism, it is actually the opposite.  Desire or attachment is the cause of suffering. It is part of the “4 noble truths” of Buddhism, the Judeo-Christian equivalent of the 10 commandments. Well worth looking up for a quick read.

I find meditation to be an excellent emotional thermostat regulator.

 

 

Todd K
Apr 3 2024 at 5:00am

Mastroianni:

“So, at the beginning of these surveys in 1948, nobody has air conditioning, nobody has a microwave. Not even that many people have a refrigerator. There are still plenty of households that don’t have indoor plumbing or electricity.”

In 1948:

70% of households had refrigerators

65% of households had indoor plumbing

90% of households had electricity

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Consumption_spreads_faster_today.jpg

Shalom Freedman
Apr 4 2024 at 5:07am

Mania is not defined as excessive happiness though this can on occasion be part of the whole complex of feelings and behaviors. Manis involves many different kinds of behavior. Arrogant aggressiveness, exuberant energy, wild fantasy, poor judgment, cruel anger, etc.

This was not discussed here but there is a World Happiness Report which rates societies’ relative happiness. I would be interested in hearing a conversation which discusses and explains Israel’s extraordinarily high rating (In the top ten the last two years) despite its not being very loved by the world and its now living through a collective trauma caused on October 7 2023.

Dr G
Apr 4 2024 at 3:55pm

I worry about over-interpreting Happiness data. Think about polls on how people feel the economy is doing. Typically Republicans think it’s doing better than Democrats if there’s a Republican President. And this will flip after an election if there’s a change in leadership. No one looks at that data and says, “Jeez, the economy must have gotten way worse for Republicans the day after Biden was elected.” Now, it may be important to know how people feel about the it, regardless of what’s happening in the real economy. But we understand there is a cultural/social/political context that the person is answering the question from, and the actual performance of the real economy may not even be that big a factor in the answer.

But there is no “objective” measure of Happiness, so we think of it as a measure of “Happiness”. Of course people put all the caveats into the academic papers on the subject, but I think we tend to forgot how big the role of cultural/social/political (etc) attitudes play in this data.

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AUDIO TRANSCRIPT
TimePodcast Episode Highlights
0:37

Intro. [Recording date: March 6, 2024.]

Russ Roberts: Today is March 6th, 2024. My guest is psychologist Adam Mastroianni. His Substack is Experimental History. This is Adam's fourth appearance on EconTalk, last here in October of 2023, talking about learning and forgetting. Adam, welcome back to EconTalk.

Adam Mastroianni: Thanks. It's great to be back. Thanks for having me.

0:58

Russ Roberts: Our topic for today is your recent essay, "You Can't Be Too Happy, Literally." That blew my mind a little bit. You start with the fact that in surveys of people's happiness in America over time--recessions, depressions, wars, all kinds of things going on--it's pretty flat. Summarize that. Go a little deeper than that--but it's pretty flat.

Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. Gallup has been asking people a pretty broad question about happiness from 1948, and every year you get about the same answers back. And, I know a lot of people get upset about surveys of happiness. Like: How could you possibly measure something like happiness? And, you're one of them?

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I am. But that's okay.

Adam Mastroianni: So, for what it's worth, if you ask the question in different ways, obviously the level of the answers changes a little bit, but you get the same phenomenon that people give you pretty much the same answer this year as they did last year, as they did 10 years before. Meanwhile, lots of things are happening in the United States, obviously. You've got the Korean War, the Vietnam War. You've got booms and busts. Even up until the COVID pandemic. It's pretty hard to find that in these happiness surveys.

And meanwhile, people's lives are getting materially better. So, at the beginning of these surveys in 1948, nobody has air conditioning, nobody has a microwave. Not even that many people have a refrigerator. There are still plenty of households that don't have indoor plumbing or electricity. And by 2020, those are pretty much gone. Even the poorest households have modern amenities. And that also seems to make no difference.

So, there's this funny phenomenon where people go from literally going, in outhouses, in the bitter cold or in the blistering heat to doing their business comfortably inside their climate-controlled houses, while machines cook their food and do their laundry. And they're like, 'Yeah, this is pretty much as good as it's ever been.' And, I just think that's a very funny phenomenon.

Russ Roberts: And, you have much to say about it, but I just want to let listeners know the question that's asked is, quote: "Generally speaking, how happy would you say you are? Very happy, fairly happy, or not too happy?"

The other factor which you would think would matter a lot is the demographics of the country--the age distribution. At various times over this period, there are a lot more young people, older people; and it's just an average across everybody in this survey, which I assume is supposed to be representative of the country as a whole. Pretty flat.

Now, it's a little less flat than it might appear to the eye. You kind of squeeze some of the vertical axis a bit, but still it is pretty flat.

And, even flatter is the curve that asks, I think, a better question, quote: "In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in your personal life at this time?" Where, before you could take the question to mean[?], like, 'Are you a happy person?' And people could say, 'Well, yeah, I see myself as a happy person, and that's just me.' Or, 'an unhappy person, and that's just me.' But, here it's not saying: Overall, are you happy, not happy? It's asking very clearly right now in the middle of the recession, in the middle of the Korean War, whatever is going on, how are you feeling?

And the answer--this was between 1979 and 2023, so, over 40 years--that number is always above 70% for satisfied rather than dissatisfied and below 90. Which you could say that's not so flat, but most of the time it's flat. It's in the low 80s. This is in America over a 40-year period where there's, as you say, an enormous range of stuff that seems to be going on, 80-plus percent of the American people say, 'Yeah, I'm satisfied with my life right now at this moment.'

And then, you look at international data and what do you find?

Adam Mastroianni: The same thing with a few notable exceptions that I think are especially interesting. But by and large, they've asked these questions in dozens of countries. Not quite as long, going back to 1948, but in some cases for decades, and you find the same thing. Yes, some countries report higher happiness than other countries, but within country you get mainly the same answer this year as you got last year, as you got 10 years before.

The exceptions are the places where--if you had to make a list of the places in the world where life seems to have gotten the worst recently, you can pick it up in the data. Which I think is an important thing to find: that it's not just that people say, 'Oh, things are going well no matter what happens.' No. In Egypt where there's a coup where the government falls apart and there's tanks in the streets, there's not enough food on the shelves, you can see people's happiness ratings tanking there. Same thing in Venezuela--is another one--where obviously there's been an economic crisis. People's lives have gotten materially worse, and they say, like, 'I'm not that happy right now.'

But, aside from those extremes, it is also remarkably stable across the world. So, this doesn't just seem to be a uniquely American phenomenon where no matter what happens, we keep our chins up. This seems to be more of a human phenomenon: that, as long as things don't get too extreme, too egregiously bad, people remain at pretty much the same level of happiness.

There are also a few places that have edged up over time, which also makes sense as those countries have developed. That, if you go from the level of poverty where you do really have to worry about whether you're going to have enough food to eat or whether a single injury or illness is going to ruin the rest of your life, as you move into a level of development where you're not rich, but you're not teetering on the brink of disaster every single day, you do also see in those countries that people do report feeling happier after that transition than before.

But, other than those two phenomena--the long slow march of development from abject poverty to sort of moderate wealth, or a quick slide into misery--you don't really see many changes internationally.

7:47

Russ Roberts: The reason this is an interesting piece for me is--I'm not so interested in these national portraits. I am a skeptic of sorts of this kind of research. But I think it's more interesting at the individual level, which is where you take the essay at this point.

And, I think one can look into one's own heart and ask oneself how you as an individual might respond to such questions at various times in your life. And, you know, there are times when you're worried about your job. There might be times when you get a raise or you get a promotion or you're in between work and you're not sure whether you can find work; and your happiness or satisfaction level or wellbeing might vary a little bit. But, I think what you observe--you Adam, not one--what you observe is that for a lot of people our sort of subjective levels of wellbeing are fairly constant over time, invariant to the things that go up and down in our lives. We're ruling out the road rage incident where you go berserk and the pollster says, 'Satisfied or dissatisfied?' Right? These are more general: In a relatively quiet moment in the evening one reflects on one's happiness and wellbeing. It's pretty stable.

And, what you point out that was so provocative for me is that we understand half of that--the sadness part. When we're sad, we try to cheer ourselves up. So, talk about that first and then talk about the part that's a little more mysterious.

Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. I think half of the mystery that--I feel pretty satisfied that we've solved, at least at an abstract level, which is: Well, when bad things happen to people, we have what my dissertation advisor back in graduate school would call the psychological immune system. You get fired from your job and, well, you become motivated to find a different job. And then, when you get that new job, you reframe that previous experience as, 'Oh, I was so lucky, actually, that I got let go. I would have hung on there far too long, and now I've found the job that's right for me.'

Same thing happens after a breakup. You unrationalize all the things that you rationalized about your partner, and suddenly all their idiosyncrasies seem annoying rather than charming, and you come to love and appreciate the person that you find and spend the rest of your life with.

And, all that is good. It makes sense that that is something that a healthy functioning human would do, that it's not adaptive and it's not useful for your life to stay in bed crying for years after a bad thing happens to you. You should learn from it and then bounce back.

Russ Roberts: But you point out also: it's not just that I rationalize something that I could have interpreted a different way, as a positive thing. I treat myself to an ice cream. I call my mom who says you're brilliant. You list a bunch of things that we do. These are things--for those of us who are blessed to have a relatively narrow range of ups and downs in our lives, we have things in our toolkit. It's not just that psychological immune system to cope with an unpleasant surprise. Right?

Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. I think of these as, at their root, psychological, and some are purely internal and some require some external behavior, as well.

So, internal might be purely reframing. I come to say, like, 'Oh, that job wasn't so good.'

The more external, which is still psychological in origin is, 'Oh, I feel bad. I should seek out my friend and have some fun.' Or, 'I should play some video games and distract myself,' or, 'I should go on vacation and relax.' Those kind of things. All of which are meant to try to restore us to this baseline level of happiness, which for most people is pretty good.

So, that part of the mystery I think makes total sense as to why happiness would be stable. But, there's the other half that I think doesn't make a lot of sense. Do you want to talk about that?

Russ Roberts: Yeah, go ahead.

Adam Mastroianni: So, that makes total sense as to why you would come back up when you're down.

But, that's not the only thing that we observe, both across individuals but also across these large national surveys. It's not just that people adjust to negative things; they also adjust to positive things. Because if they didn't, we should see these happiness levels skyrocketing. There should be a ceiling effect here where people are just so happy all the time. And that clearly doesn't seem to happen. Even when you track someone through, for instance, like marriage. You can find that people are happier, especially for men, right before they get married, the year they get married, a little bit afterward; but then they're back down to baseline.

Well, what's going on there? It makes sense as to why we would have an immune system for the negative things. We would do all these things to make the bad better. But, why does the better get worse? This, I think is the part of the mystery that I think has basically been ignored. You can find people talking about all the ways that we might adjust to bad things, but adjusting to good things is sort of taken as a law of physics: Well, of course; good things happen to us, but the goodness fades over time.

I just think that's not satisfying as an explanation. We like to feel good. Why would there be any mechanism by which we make ourselves feel worse back down to this baseline level of happiness?

13:39

Russ Roberts: And, you raise it, I think, in a more existential way or a deeper way, which I had never thought about, which is: I do lots of things that are kind of downers. I seek them out. I use this example of watching a film about the Holocaust. So, The Zone of Interest has been nominated for best picture. We're taping this on March 6th, right before the Academy Awards. I actually think there is a chance it will win Best Picture instead of Oppenheimer, which is the more likely choice. But it's not an uplifting film. It's an incredibly powerful, unbelievably effective work of art. But, when you walk out, you walk out--and by the way, for those of you who haven't seen it, there's nothing graphic in it. Not a single scene really occurs within the concentration camp of Auschwitz, which is what the movie is about. It's about the commandant of Auschwitz, his domestic life with his family. We watch them going about their domestic life. And, it is done in such an artful and understated way. You walk out of that movie, it's like being hit by the side of the head with a sledgehammer. You're overwhelmed. Or you might be bored; and it doesn't work for everybody. I understand.

But, no one goes into that movie thinking, 'You know, I'm kind of down right now. I think I need a good Holocaust movie to lift my spirits.' No matter how happy you are--and you're suggesting that especially when I'm happy, I might turn to something that might bring me down. And that is strange.

And, there are other things in our lives that we do that are painful, that are poignant, that are bitter. The image that crossed my mind you didn't use is: why are you hitting your head against the wall? Because it's pleasant when I stop. That's not what you're talking about. You're talking about the fact that there might be a natural impulse to walk away from happiness. Not literally walk away, but to bring yourself down in moments of exhilaration and joy. So, you have a metaphor--a very nice metaphor--of the furnace and the air conditioner. Explain it.

Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. So, I think this makes sense in a model of the mind that thinks of a lot of our psychology as basically running control systems, which are just feedback loops with a few gizmos that compare how things are to how things should be and then try to reduce the difference between those two. So, the classic example of a control system is the thermostat in your house. You set it to, say, 70 degrees Fahrenheit. I have no idea what that would be in Celsius. 400. I don't know.

Russ Roberts: Not 400, Adam. Let's just say that. Okay. Keep going, you.

Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. If the temperature is--yeah. You American chauvinist.

Russ Roberts: Exactly. It's a little over 20 [degrees Celsius]. Okay?

Adam Mastroianni: Sure. I'll take your word for it. Basically, if the temperature ever goes a little bit under that, the thermostat turns on the furnace to raise the temperature. If the temperature ever goes over that, it turns on the air conditioning--if you have air conditioning--the thermostat turns on to bring the temperature back down. And, with just these few mechanisms, you can keep a house at 70 degrees pretty much no matter what the temperature is outside, as long as it doesn't become, you know, the surface-of-the-sun temperature or absolute zero. Within a certain range, you can control the temperature. And, this is a pretty good way of keeping things stable.

I think the mind also has to keep many things stable. There are lots of things that we have to do in moderation to survive and thrive.

You need to eat food, but not too much. So, you can't just have a system that goes, 'Eat food' all the time because you'll burst your stomach. You need to have some mechanism for making you eat when you're hungry and stop when you're full. You need to sleep, but not all the time. So, you need some kind of mechanism to make you tired when you need to sleep and wakeful when you need to get up and do stuff. And on and on, even with more complicated things. Like, you need to maintain relationships because if you get exiled from your community, you're probably not going to do very well; but you can't spend all of your time maintaining your relationships because you need to do other stuff as well. So, you need some kind of mechanism to make you seek out the company of others and some mechanism to make you seek solitude when you need that as well.

It would make sense if our moods--if our happiness--were also subject to some kind of control system. Because, the hallmark of a control system is stability despite disruption. So, if you deprive someone of food for a while, they're going to get hungrier and hungrier. Their drive to eat will increase more and more over time until if you let them eat food, they'll eat a lot to come back to baseline. If you feed someone a lot of food, if you force-feed them, they won't be motivated to eat for a long time after that. So, this level of satiation, they're really trying to keep it broadly stable. Even though there's deflections here and there, the more deflection there is, the more the system tries to resist it.

Well, happiness, too, seems to exhibit this characteristic of being stable despite disruption. Like: People's lives get better--they get indoor plumbing--but they go back to being just as happy as they were before. Or their lives get worse. They lose their job, they are less happy, but they go back to just as happy as they were before.

So, it would make sense--or one way to explain this--is that there is some psychological furnace, which is the part we understand really well. When you are sad, there are mechanisms that activate to make you happier. But, that there's also some air conditioner. That when you are happier than your baseline, there are some kind of mechanisms that activate that make you less happy. And these, I think, are the mechanisms that we've basically ignored or treated as they are like laws of physics.

19:51

Russ Roberts: Now, before we go on, it's pretty clear that when it's cold out, we want it to be warmer, but we all understand that if it's too warm, there's a problem. So, there is such a concept--as you mention in the essay--of we could call it the Goldilocks Principle. There's Too hot, Too cold, and Just Right. With heat, we understand Just Right. With food, we understand Just Right; with sleep, we understand Just Right. Why would happiness be one of those things? Because, it would seem to be something, I wouldn't say, 'No; I'm a curmudgeonly guy and I am not too miserable, but I'm not too happy. And that's the way I like it.' Why wouldn't I want to be happy if I could be? You could wonder what the evolutionary impulses here are that would encourage a Just-Right level of happiness. But I think--you have some thoughts without going that direction on why being too happy is a problem. Because you wouldn't think so. Your first thought would be, 'If I could just be jubilant 24/7,'--I mean, that's the goal, isn't it? And, you point out: Not so fast. So, why not?

Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. Yeah. In fact, I can think of two main reasons--which both could be evolutionary in nature. In fact, I suspect that they would be.

One is that if you get too happy, things actually go pretty badly in your life. This state of maximal happiness, psychologists and psychiatrists call it mania. And, the thing about people with mania is a lot of them end up in the hospital because they do things like drive at 120 miles an hour because they feel like they're invincible, or they start a bunch of wacko businesses that could never work because they feel like they're the smartest person in the world, or they start to feel like they have special powers or they're a special person. And so, a lot of these people start to think that, like, 'Oh, I'm the second coming of Christ,' or 'I have special spiritual powers and I need to use them to help other people.' A lot of these people find their way into the emergency room because of the excesses of the things that they do out of their feeling of jubilation.

So, you can read some of the accounts of people who have had manic episodes who describe these things. And, the thing about them is that this state doesn't feel aversive to them.

Like, people who are depressed do tell you, like, 'I wish I didn't feel this way.' They're very clear about that. Even if it's hard to get them the activation energy to do something about it, they don't like being like that.

People with mania like being like that. It's hard to get them to seek treatment. I read one account where this person had, sort of hypomania, moving into what was almost certainly mania for a long time, and had to be tricked into going to the hospital by people who saw what they were doing and were really concerned about them spending all of their money--like, doing things that were really bad for them in the long term. Whereas, they felt like their life had never been better. So, this is a really scary psychological state to be in.

And so, it's not just an unalloyed good to be able to turn that happiness dial up and up and up. Even though people will say they feel great, they're doing things that are clearly bad for them.

So, that's one sense in which it is bad to be too happy and why it would make sense for there to be some kind of mechanism that would prevent this overload to the system.

Russ Roberts: And, what's the second?

Adam Mastroianni: The second is that it's also useful to be able to modulate your mood. There's a lot of research on how people do different things depending on how happy or sad they feel. So, you make someone happier, they're more likely to take risks, to be adventurous, to seek out the company of others. To basically do, like, the up kind of things. The things you do when you are excited. When you feel lower--not necessarily depressed, but when you feel in a lower mood--you do things like reflect or go to sleep.

So, these are also--both of these things are useful things to do at different points. So, you want to be able to calm down and go to sleep at the end of the day. You also want to be able to rouse yourself out of bed in the morning. If you had exactly the same mood all the time, these would be really difficult because it's hard to go to sleep when you feel really excited. It's hard to get out of bed when you feel really sad. You want to be able to modulate your mood, at least somewhat.

This is also true socially. So, I give the example in the piece of: when you're at a wedding on the dance floor, you'd like to be exuberant. You want to let yourself go. You want to be excited. When you are in the pew at a funeral, you want to be sad. Like, that is the appropriate emotion to be in that moment. If you are the glummest guy on the dance floor and the happiest guy at the funeral, you're not going to do a very good job of relating to other people.

This also makes sense why it would be useful to have mechanisms to modulate your mood to fit the situation--which you can't do if you only have a furnace. So, if you only have ways of making yourself sad or make yourself happy when you're sad, you don't have any way of pulling yourself back when it's time to say, 'Calm down and go to sleep,' or time to reflect on some of the mistakes that you've made so you can not make them in the future.

So, those are two evolutionary reasons I think why it would make sense to have mechanisms to move mood in both ways.

25:30

Russ Roberts: You conflated two emotions in that overview, which--I think unintentionally perhaps, but maybe they belong together and you did it either intentionally or it turned out okay--which is: happiness and confidence. They are not the same thing. Right? So, when I've been--I get good news. Something comes along, I get some success at work. Is that when I'm likely to drive 120 and feel invincible? Well, kind of. They are related. Not 120. That could be kilometers, though, for you--

Adam Mastroianni: Yes. That's true.

Russ Roberts: American-centric person, you, Adam.

But, seriously: I don't associate joy with risk-taking. But, they are somewhat related.

I think the tougher question is what's happening below the surface? The interesting thing about a thermostat, of course, is that you don't have to fool with it. You set it, you walk away, and the feedback loops are what takes care of things. Are those feedback loops--you're suggesting those feedback loops--I think you're suggesting they happen unconsciously. In other words--and the reason I ask is the following. When I'm down, when I get bad news, I might wallow in it, but a lot of times I'm going to look for things to cheer myself up. I don't look for things to bring myself down after I've had good news, or I buy the new iPhone and I'm really happy, excited, over a superficial new toy; and it eventually loses some of its charm and excitement.

But, if I have good news, you'd think unlike the down case, I do not consciously try to say, 'Oh, I'm too happy. I better look for some bad news in my life.' I don't do that.

Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. This is a section that I had in the piece and eventually took out because it got too long.

But, there's this mystery here where we are all conscious of the furnace. We're very aware when we've activated the psychological furnace of making ourselves happier. There's a clear conscious component to that, where you go, 'I feel sad. I don't want to feel sad, so I'm going to do these things to make myself happier.'

I don't think anyone has the experience of, 'I feel too happy. It's time to turn myself down.'

Which seems strange, even though people clearly do this. There were these studies that track people over time, like, 'How happy are you and what are you doing?' And, pretty consistently, when people were happier, they were much more likely to then do something that would reduce their mood. And, when they were sadder, they were much more likely to do something that would increase their mood. Which suggests that people are trying to do this regulation. It's just that one side of that regulation feels much more conscious and obvious than the other side. So, why might that be?

I don't know for sure, but a few ideas that I had in this section that I cut, one might be: Well, if you think in terms of the furnace and the air conditioner, depending on where you live in the world, you're going to use one much more than the other. If you live in Alaska, you're going to need a furnace a lot more than an air conditioner. If you live in Panama, you need the opposite. So, it might be that the situations that we encounter in the world are much more likely to require the action of the furnace than the air conditioner. So, it might be that we need to make ourselves happier more often than we need to make ourselves sadder, is one possibility.

Another is that every feedback loop has some kind of conscious and unconscious component. So, like, the components for hunger, clearly some of them are unconscious. The idea of food starts to pop into your head almost unbidden when it's almost lunchtime, and the feeling of its time to stop starts to pop into your head almost unbidden. These are more of the unconscious parts. But then, there's also the conscious parts of, 'Oh, I'm going to be hungry in a couple of hours. I should really make sure that I have food then.' Or, 'I shouldn't eat too much because I don't want to feel bloated.' It might be that if indeed this air conditioner exists, that much more of it is unconscious rather than conscious: that it doesn't require the same level of conscious interference to do its work. Which might be because it doesn't have to work as hard. Because it's more likely that we are too low than too high. Or it might be that it is easier to accomplish its goals with less conscious interference.

So, you can think of when you get a new TV or a new phone, you feel pretty good. Or I feel this anyway. Every time I get a new phone, I'm, like: Oh yeah, my new phone, everything's cool. All that it would take to make me feel less good about my phone is to pay less attention to it. And, actually paying less attention requires less consciousness rather than more.

So, rather than this air conditioner having to make me be, like, 'Well, actually no, my phone isn't that good,' that's not the experience I have. I just stop thinking about it.

And so, it might be that rather than adding more conscious attention, one way that this mood-lowering system works is by directing attention away. And, I imagine similarly when you get that new job, the thing that makes you go back down to baseline isn't that you start to go like, 'Well, that actually my job isn't that good.' It's just that you move on. You stop thinking about it. You go, like, 'Well, okay, now I have to think about all the things I'm going to have to do in my new job.' Which is a useful thing to do. If you spent your whole time in that new job thinking about how great it is, you would never actually do that work.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's a staple of self-help books that occasionally on this program talk about savoring the smaller delights of life--because they're always around, by the way. The new phone is only there when it's new. It very quickly becomes an old phone. But, the flowers always are marvelous and the birds are beautiful, and there are things in day-to-day life that one can savor.

31:40

Russ Roberts: And, this would be a good time to mention Buddhism, I think. I am not an expert on Buddhism. Read a little bit, interviewed Robert Wright about his book on Buddhism. I've gone to some meditation retreats where there were themes of Buddhism.

In the Buddhist view as I understand it--and please correct me out there, listeners or Adam, if you know more about it than I do--suffering comes from trying to avoid the unpleasant parts of life. Not their actual unpleasantness, but running from them. And, one way to think about this--and there are some of these themes in Judaism as well; perhaps in Christianity--you don't hide your demons because the more you try to hide them and push them down, the more excited they are to burst through into your brain. So, you welcome them in. You don't pretend that they're not demons. You don't lie to yourself. But, somehow by welcoming them, rather than trying to constantly ignore them or shove them out, their sting gets lighter.

And similarly, when good things happen--in this view--you try to hold onto them. But, they're transitory. The new phone will be less exciting. People die, bad news comes along. But, we're so desperate to hold onto the good times that that also can cause suffering.

I don't know if you've thought about how that interfaces with the way you're thinking about the brain as a control system, but it seems relevant.

Adam Mastroianni: Oh, yeah. I'm really guilty of this--whenever something good is happening, I go, 'Oh, I sure hope it lasts a long time.' Like, 'Oh no, it's running out.' This beautiful Saturday with friends, I'm really sad that it's going to end eventually. Which, of course, all things have to end eventually. Which feels to me like an overactive air conditioner. That it is resisting this positive deviation. Not because I want it to. A lot of the control systems that I'm subject to feel like they work without my desire for them to work, much of the time. But, this is something that makes a lot of sense to me only in the light of there being some mechanism for bringing mood down. Because this isn't like me wallowing in sadness. This is me refusing to accept something good for as long as it happens. It is a problem of something working too hard rather than something not working hard enough. So, it feels like a system that turns on to resist what's good rather than the system that turns on to resist what's bad.

Russ Roberts: Do you think we can do anything about this, if we don't like our own personal air conditioner and furnace? To some people, it feels like their air conditioner is on all the time. They're blue. No matter what good news comes along, they can't enjoy it. There's always a dark lining to the silver cloud. And so, one has a temptation, I think in those situations, to lecture people. Like, 'Snap out of it. Just stop thinking about the bad stuff for a little bit.' And, that is remarkably unhelpful in my experience. So, this is interesting to me. Does it have any--it's more than interesting. I think it's fascinating. But, does it have any practical implications for how I should look at my own ups and downs?

Adam Mastroianni: Yeah, I think so. So, in the extremes, one thing that gave me this idea in the first place was this idea that people who are very depressed seem like they have a thermostat that's set too low. Because, when you look at the behavior of a person with depression, they seem to do a lot of things that keep them depressed. Which isn't to say that this is their fault, but this does seem to be part of the process of feeling very bad all the time is well, you keep thinking about your flaws and how life is hopeless and miserable. You disengage from other people. You stay in your bed all day. All of these things that if you were to force someone to do them, would almost certainly make them feel less happy.

And so, one basic treatment for depression is to try to get people to do the opposite of the thing that they feel motivated to do, which is: to get out of bed rather than stay in it, to seek out other people rather than keep to themselves, to not spend all day thinking about how worthless they are. And so, I think this is basically trying to resist the action of the air conditioner. And so, I think for the person who isn't clinically depressed, but who maybe has a hard time appreciating the good things in life, I think it actually requires less action rather than more.

I find myself to be one of those people of when something good happens, I'm happy for about six minutes, and then I'm, like, 'Well, now I have to go on to all these things.' Actually what I need to do is to do less. There is not some additional thinking that I need to do. I just need to do the opposite of what I feel motivated to do, which is to start worrying about the next thing. That, like, actually if I stop and sit there, I can feel the radiance of this good thing and just sit with it for a while.

So, that's why I think about this as a system that's working too hard. I am working very hard against the good things that are happening almost as if to bring myself back down to this place where I feel like my mental thermostat is set. And so, in those cases, I think the solution is doing less.

There might be other cases where actually the solution is doing more. And in those cases, what I actually need to do is to do less. The problem is an excess of activity rather than a lack of activity. And I think that, if this is true--I mean, all this is pure speculation--but, it could be that there are two very different ways to become sad. One is through a system working too hard--the air conditioning--and the other is through a system that's not working hard enough, which is the furnace. And, the kind of person who maybe has a good life but can't accept the good things or is always worrying about the bad things or always focusing on the bad things seems to suffer from an excess and would perhaps benefit from doing less.

But, there are kinds of people who suffer from not enough. Right? They don't seek out enough social stimulation. They don't push themselves hard enough to achieve, because they think that they'll never succeed. They actually need to do more.

And so, this might be a way of splitting people into the mechanism by which they keep themselves sad; and in fact, they might have to do opposite things. Because I feel like I'm very much on one end of the spectrum. What I need to do is less, not more. I'm doing plenty right now, but a lot of what I do is conspiring against my own satisfaction.

39:01

Russ Roberts: So, let me take this in a slightly different direction, which is thinking about economics. Economics is a discipline of human behavior and trying understand what people do. And then, I'm going to bring it back to part of what you just said. I'm not going to be able to do that thoughtfully, so you'll just help me out and figure out what I was thinking of.

Adam Mastroianni: Sure.

Russ Roberts: Thank you. So, in economics, the claim is we want to be as happy as possible. In fact, the only thing that limits our happiness is that we don't have infinite resources. So, I've come to despise this particular twist of the economic model of human behavior, which is: it's stuff in the worst interpretation. It's stuff that gives us utility, wellbeing. And, since we don't have infinite income, we can't have infinite stuff; and so we're limited.

Now, that is clearly a terrible descriptive summary of the human experience. It might be a good summary of why people buy what they buy. But, it's not a very good description of the entire mental landscape of a human being.

But, what it causes you to think about is that--let's say I observe a stranger in 2024, a stranger in 1954, and a stranger in 1904. And I have footage of their lives, and I see all kinds of things happen to them. They might get beat up in a street fight, they might be celebrated at work, get fêted at a party; they fall in love and have wonderful romantic outings with a partner.

So, you know, imagine this footage, which I have access to as this omniscient being. So, I know everything about lots of strangers, say, but I don't have any access to their inner life because they're human beings. But, I do see what physically happens to them. They get the new car, they get the new house; they have a child, the child gets sick, God forbid the child is hurt. Tragedies. The human experience unfolds, and we see it other than our own. We see it from the outside. But, we could imagine seeing a lot of it. Right? And we call our modern problems, often, in the West, 'First World problems,' because the horrible things we would have seen in a film--the footage of the 1904, the 1504 person would have terrible things. Work accidents that we can't imagine. You get a limb taken off by a wild animal. I mean, they're just--most of human history is full of dire and miserable things. And yet that even-keeled level of well-being is somehow happening under the surface.

And, I want to suggest a slightly different approach. Or maybe it's the same approach. You tell me. Which is that our happiness is really remarkably unrelated to our activities. Like, this whole conversation is about how, 'Well, good things happen to you. Shouldn't you be happier and happier and happier? And, bad things are just sadder, sadder sadder?'

But we know that's not true from our own introspection, our own armchair.

In fact, what's going on in our lives are two things. Things are happening to us and we initiate things. We take new jobs, we get married, we have children, we get fired, we buy a new house, we buy a new iPhone. But, while all that's going on, I've got this crazy thing in my head called 'my thoughts,' and you don't get any access to that Mr. Social Scientist. Nothing. You've got none of it except your own, for armchair theorizing. But, I don't have yours, and I don't have the person in Norway or Finland or Germany or Peru. I could ask them and they tell me something. But, if I want to understand that, it does seem sensible that it's not what happens to me. And it's not just how I experience what happens to me. It's this other thing, the conscious flow of thoughts. This comes back to the Buddhism idea, which is: you know, your brain is working all the time. And, when you got that six seconds of joy from your new iPhone or the promotion, or you saw your hit counts on your latest essay and you're feeling good, your brain--you're not a utility machine. Your brain is doing--it's working all the time, and you have limited control over it.

The whole idea of meditation and mindfulness is to try to separate that flow of consciousness from yourself. That you think that's you, is the claim. It's not. Those are just your thoughts. And for most of us--well, my thoughts are kind of me. I'm kind of attached to my thoughts.

We're not going to debate whether Buddhism and meditation are useful or not. But my point is, is that it seems to me that our inner lives drive, obviously, our sense of well-being much more than our outer lives. And, those outer lives can never be the main show. It's always what's going on in my head.

Now, maybe I can learn to play with that a little better or to be responsive to it in a different way. But, maybe this is a different way of saying that the air conditioner and the furnace, they're running in the background all the time. And, it's not just a simple feedback loop. It's lots of other things going on. It's really messy. That's a long rant. I'm not sure--it's not so coherent, but do what you can with it.

Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. Well, so if you had a big hard drive with a video of every person's life, but you had no access to their inner life, what you would need to make sense of it is some kind of theory about what things feel good and what things feel bad. And, I think those theories--not that they would be totally wrong, but they would be so wrong so much of the time.

For instance, a friend of mine encouraged me to read this book Endurance about Shackleton's Antarctic expedition, which goes horribly wrong, immediately. They're stuck in ice. And, what I didn't know about getting stuck in ice when you're in a ship is that the ice starts to exert pressure on the ship. It's basically crushing the ship. And so, they have to chip away at the ice. And they have all these misadventures. They're about to die in every moment. And, when you read their diaries, they're so happy. They write about how excited they are all the time. And, you could think, 'Oh, well, they're delusional.' I don't know. But, this is their subjective experience that they're reporting on. And, it seems like, well, they had a mission. They had a clear goal that they wanted. They were working with people that they liked. They were definitely in the moment in a way that I feel so rarely that I have something so obvious that I need to do like chip away the ice so that the ship doesn't get crushed and me and all my friends die. And so, if you were watching the video of this, you would go: 'These guys are probably miserable because they're about to die in every moment.' And, what you wouldn't know is those are some of the happiest people on earth right then.

And, people do this even with themselves. There's a study that I like where they ask people: In general, how happy are you on these different days a week? How happy are you on Saturdays? And, what people give you is the theory that we would all have, which is, 'I'm not very happy on Monday.' That's the back-to-work day. 'I get happier as the week goes on and I'm getting closer to the weekend. And, when Saturday comes around, I'm feeling great.' And when you actually survey people on those days, it's pretty flat. Monday isn't nearly as bad as people think that it is. Saturday isn't as good as people think that it is. That these are the theories that we have about what makes us happy and what doesn't make us happy, which turn out to very easily diverge from reality.

I mean, not in a crazy way. Right? Like, nobody says, 'Oh yeah, getting hit in the head with a baseball bat is the greatest pleasure on earth.' And, like, 'Getting my dream job makes me miserable.' But, both of those things can and do happen to people. So, even these very strong theories that we have about ourselves and about how humans work don't work, often. They don't match up to people's experience.

48:04

Russ Roberts: I thought you were going to say that your friend gave you the Shackleton book because you were down, and your friend thought, 'Boy, you think you have it bad: just read about these guys.' But, that wasn't the case.

And, it reminds me of--I think I've mentioned this before on the program--a wonderful--I think this is where I saw it--it's a documentary about World War I. I think it's called "They Shall Not Grow Old" or "They Will Not Grow Old." And, it's about what it was like in the trenches in World War I. And the answer is: Horrible. Absolutely horrible. Rats, infections in your feet because they're wet all day. Just grotesque. Horrible. Amputation. It's unbearably bad. And when you ask people--and they do--and, they interview them: 'How was it?' Of course, these are the ones who lived. It's a selection problem by sample. But the ones who survive it, just like Shackleton, they say, 'Oh, I kind of enjoyed it. It wasn't so bad.' These are Brits, of course. They're never going to tell you, probably, it was horrible because they don't.

But, I think there's no doubt--and again, this is sort of another meta-level of the human experience--it's obviously not just what happens to us and the goods we buy and the experiences we experience and consume, but it's what they're part of.

And in this case--in the case of Shackleton, in the case of the World War--being part of something larger than yourself dominates the moment-to-moment pluses and minuses in your utility calculator.

The idea that--and, I write about this in my book, Wild Problems--the idea that if somehow the number of bad days with your children exceeded the number of good days, that therefore having children is a mistake would be a weird way to look at a fundamental part of human life. Just for starters, the magnitudes would matter. And then, how do you think about that and how do you compare over time? And, recent pains and pleasures are different than ones that are long ago; and etc. and so on.

I think part of what I'm trying to say--very badly--is that what makes us happy and makes us sad is clearly not merely what happens to us or what we buy or consume. And, it's also not just what we think about it. But, it's set in a much larger context of meaning, if we're lucky, and purpose. And, I think that's obviously going to make a big difference, at least on how we look back on it. Right? Moment-to-moment there is plenty of misery in the world, and that's not to be denied.

Adam Mastroianni: Speaking of looking back on it: I mean, one thing that makes me trust the Shackleton data, which is what it is, is these are contemporaneous diaries: I spent all day chipping away at the ice; and at night I write in my diary I had such a great day averting death.

The thing about interviewing people after a war is now you're asking about their memory. I just wrote about this meta-analysis of a bunch of studies that do exactly this. They ask people, 'How happy did you used to be?' Or, 'How good is your life now? How good did your life used to be?' And, what you generally find is people go, like, 'I have arrived at my best life now. It was all leading up to this.' By the way, when you ask them, like, 'What about other people?' They go, 'Everybody else is arriving at their worst life. It's getting worse for other people; it's getting better for me.' Which cannot be the , of course, on average, because the people that we're talking about are also the people doing the reporting. And also isn't the case when you look at surveys of happiness over time. People give you the same answer each time you ask them, but they tell you, 'But my answer this year is better than my answer last year.'

And so, we're also constructing a story about the direction that our lives are going in and making sense of the experiences that we've had. And, the sense that we make tends to be--not for every person in every situation--but for most people in most situations, of: 'I worked really hard to create this life and now it's good. My life previously wasn't as good because I hadn't worked to make it this way.' But, if we had asked you back then, you would have said, like, 'I've made my life the way it should be now.'

There's this famous memory patient with extreme anterograde amnesia--can't really make new memories. And, if you give him a diary, he will write, 'I'm waking up for the first time,' and then cross it out. His name is Clive Wearing. And then, he will write, 'I'm waking up for the first time,' again and he'll cross it out. Then he goes, 'Now I'm awake for the first time.' And he'll cross it out. It gives me goosebumps every time to think about that. I mean, it's a profoundly sad reality for him; but I think it's also a very poignant way of thinking about humans. I think this is the experience that we have: that we are always just waking up for the first time of, like, 'Now I've got it. Now I've figured it out.' And, 10 years from now we'll go, 'No, no, no. The previous version of me didn't have it figured out. This version of me has it figured out. I am awake for the first time now.'

And I don't know whether to think--I think that's either sad nor happy. I just think it's a thing about humans: that it feels like we're always just arriving.

53:43

Russ Roberts: I mean, that's a--it's raised a whole bunch of deep things. This came up a little bit in the episode with Brian Klaas, and I've written about it recently in an essay on forgiveness. And, the question--one way to think about it--is: Is it meaningful to have regrets? Because, to have a regret is to say: I wish I had done something differently at that moment. And, we can think of whole different types of regrets. I'll pick a few. Cruelties I did to another person. Decisions I made that I look back on and think, I wish I'd done the opposite. Bad things that happened to me because I wasn't prepared. Right? We can think of all the range of what we usually call mistakes.

And I think, for many people--I don't know how many--but, for many people, and I'll qualify it with for many people who like themselves. I like myself. And, I know that's not universal. But, I like myself; and I recognize that had I made different decisions when I was younger, either last week, last year, or when I was 20 years old, I wouldn't be me. And I like me--to quote John Candy, Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I like who I am. Like you say: I have come to a--I have a full appreciation of so many things now. And if I'd made those different decisions, I wouldn't be me. And I like me. I wouldn't reverse any of them. And, that's a weird thought-experiment, I think, once you start to work on it. Is it simply because it's a coping mechanism that I don't want to have to feel bad about something I can't change--which would be the past? Or is there something profound there about how I see my life, a narrative I tell myself about my experience? I mean it's really--yeah. I'll stop there. Do you want to say something?

Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. Regret is a funny feeling because it's a desire for a better past. Which you can never have. You don't get one. It only really makes sense as a motivation to act differently in the future, but that's not usually the way that it feels. You feel regret about breaking up with--I found the right person, but I let them go and I can never get them back. This maybe feels like it almost by definition has to be a misfire of the system. Like, these kinds of systems would only make sense for motivating future behavior, and so they are going wrong when they are trying to motivate past behavior.

Like, I don't know any other way of making sense about them. I mean, just like any control system can't keep things in check when external situation, like, gets too extreme--like, your thermostat can't work when it's 400 degrees outside, nor can it work when it's minus a hundred degrees outside--it could be that these more extreme missteps, mistakes, like the rational thing to do is go, 'Oh, I shouldn't do that again in the future.' But, when it's too big, you get stuck on, 'I shouldn't have done that thing in the past.' It just doesn't seem very useful.

Russ Roberts: When you reference the poignance of the 'I'm waking up for the first time,' I do feel that I'm actually wiser than I was 25 years ago. It's unpleasant to think that might be an illusion, a comfort that I take because I wouldn't want it to be otherwise. It certainly feels like I have a better self-awareness and awareness of the human comedy around me than I did when I was younger. I have more data. Right? I've lived longer. I have more experience. Coming back to one of our other conversations about how we learn. So, in theory, I've accumulated more opportunities to grab reality, and so I have more data.

But it doesn't naturally follow that I'm better at parsing it. In fact, my brain doesn't work as well as it used to. I'm pretty clear about that, too. So, maybe I'm just fooling myself. Am I getting smarter, Adam? Wiser, not smarter.

Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. I don't think that it's possible to feel the opposite, because if you thought that you were smarter--wiser. If you thought you were wiser, if you believed more of the right things and acted more in the right ways when you were 25, you would do those things now. It is impossible to think that, like, 'Oh, I knew the right things, but now I believe the wrong things.' I'm reading this book right now called Being Wrong, by Kathryn Schulz, who points out--like, there is no state--it's like psychological state--of like, 'Oh, I'm wrong about this thing.' There's the state of I was wrong about this thing.

But, like, when you change your mind, there's no, like, interstitial part where you sit in the train station and wait to arrive at your new belief. You switch from the wrong thing that you used to believe to the right thing that you believe now. And so, like, you can't have this feeling of, 'Yeah, I should go to the beliefs and values I had when I was 25.' You would just go. That's not true for everything about being 25. You can wish that you had the same physical abilities or the same memory that you had when you were 25. And, those are things that you don't get to turn the dial back and be like them. But, if you thought your 25-year-old self knew something that your current self doesn't, I think you'd be more like him.

Russ Roberts: But, it does raise the possibility, as I suggested, that--I've rejected a bunch of my 25-year-old views because they were wrong. And I've accepted a few of them because they were right from the beginning and they're still right. But I really don't have any evidence that I've picked the right ones. So, it may be a total illusion.

Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. Yeah. It might be. We certainly hope, and I know I experience this sense of, like, I expend effort every day trying to make myself wiser and better, and surely it must pay off. I can't be going in the wrong direction because I'm trying to go in the right direction. Like, yeah. I don't know. It might be wrong, but what better system do we have?

Russ Roberts: Yeah. That's perilously close to the labor theory of value, which I think is false. That the more effort I have, obviously the better off--the more productive--I am. That's not true. But, go ahead.

Adam Mastroianni: Yeah. I just think about writing in the sense that there is--it's like baking a loaf of bread. There is the appropriate amount of baking. It's not just more baking is better. Eventually you burn the bread. But, when you're writing a piece, you need to work it. You need to knead it, you need to put it in the oven, and then eventually it is as good as it's going to be. And, if you continue to work it, you mess it up. You start to break the proteins that give it that right crunch, you start to burn the edges. It's not the case that the things that I've worked the longest on are the things that turned out the best. Yeah.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Sometimes--most of the time--we're searching for just right.

Adam Mastroianni: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Adam Mastroianni. He writes at Experimental History, a substack. I strongly recommend it. We touched briefly on his recent essay, "I Come from the Aisle of Ghouls," which is also of interest. Adam, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Adam Mastroianni: Thanks for having me.