Intro. [Recording date: October 4, 2021.]
Russ Roberts: Today is October 4th 2021, and my guest is Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology, formerly of Yale University, now at the University of Toronto. This is Paul's third appearance on the program. He was last here in September of 2018 talking about cruelty, and he's back to talk about suffering and his new book, The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning. Paul, welcome back to EconTalk.
Paul Bloom: Thanks so much for having me back.
Russ Roberts: What is the role of suffering in making us happy? It seems a little bit like an oxymoron, perhaps.
Paul Bloom: It does, and that's why I got interested in the topic. I think there's two very different roles that suffering has as part of a good life. The first was what motivated me to write the book, which was: I was very interested in kind of paradoxical pleasures we have, like when we eat spicy foods or lie in a hot bath, or some of us go for a long run, do crossword puzzles, see scary movies, just do things which involve work and effort and struggle and a bit of pain. And, it's such a puzzle why, if we're such hedonists as so many people say, we do such things. So, I was really interested and so I thought I was going to write a book all about it.
And then in the course of it, I started to realize that there's a lot of chosen suffering that doesn't fit in to that more-pleasure paradigm. Thinking about things like having children, taking on a difficult job, relationships, long-term projects, going to war. We do these things too willingly and we know that they're going to bring suffering and they don't bring pleasure in any simple sense, but we see them as part of a full life.
So, this second part of the book is sort of saying suffering does another thing too, which is: it's part of what we think of not as a pleasurable life, but a meaning and fulfilling life. And, to the extent I could wrap the book all together with one moral, it's to claim that we're pluralists. We're motivational pluralists. We don't just want one thing. We want to be happy, we want to scratch where it itches. A nice cool drink on a hot day, nobody would argue against it. But we also have other goals. As I'm saying this to you, I realize whatever else we will disagree on, I think we're pretty much in sync on this.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, for sure. Paul, you confessed before we started recording that you occasionally listen to EconTalk, so you know only too well that I am sympathetic to your viewpoint, but of course will give you a hard time within the bounds of civility.
You write early in the book that you started off very skeptical about research into happiness. I too am skeptical. But, you changed your mind. So, I want to give you a shot at changing mine, so take a crack at that. What do you think of that field now?
Paul Bloom: You stayed skeptical. We both started in the same place and you stayed skeptical.
So, a lot of positive psychology over the last ten, twenty years--I say this with respect to my friends in the field, I've been to conferences, I've given talks--and a lot of this is flimflam. A lot of it is oversold hokum, bunkum, whatever 1950s' phrase I can think of right now. It's that. It is quick fixes based on shoddily done studies designed to get people to publish best-selling books and get TED (technology, entertainment, design) Talks and so on. But, it's not grounded in science and, maybe worse than that, it has a limited and sort of parched philosophy behind it. Often a sort of simple-minded hedonism. So, there: now I'm even harsher than you've ever been.
Now here's where we can talk. There are some wonderful researchers in that area. There are some, I think, brilliant scholars. I think the field has improved. I think now there is a lot of work that is actually very careful to distinguish things like happiness and well-being and morality and some way of fulfillment. I think there are some very good studies. Some done by Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky, some who have followed in his footsteps, that really have told us interesting things. I'm more sympathetic than you are, I think, to some of the research that's done including large-scale polling studies. I think these things tell us--they do well enough at telling us what's sort of common sense that when they give us results that diverge from common sense, we can say, 'Huh. Maybe we should take you seriously, too.'
Russ Roberts: One of the problems I have, of course--we've talked about this on the program--something like, you mentioned having children, which I think may have puzzled some listeners. I think most people assume, with or without children, that it must be a somewhat pleasant experience because people have them. But, as you point out, it leads to a lot of heartbreak and can be incredibly reducing of your well-being on any one day. And yet many people who have children are glad they have them even if they would concede, as I just did, that not every day is a walk in the park, even when you are taking a walk in the park with one of your kids.
And, yet when we ask people about whether they're glad they had children, we get a lot of different results; and I'm not sure there is anything scientific about that. They're very sensitive to issues like, how is the question worded, as you pointed out. Is it about[?] happiness, satisfaction, well-being, meaning and so on. Some of it is just carelessness in terms of building a survey. Some of it may be that we lie to ourselves. I worry about all these factors. Defend it in this particular kind of very complex example.
Paul Bloom: It is a complex example. It is a very important one. It is one a lot of people are interested in, of course--a lot of research on it. A lot of good philosophy on it. My very good friend, Laurie Paul, has talked to you about this and she has a wonderful book, an article and then later a book called, What You Can't Expect When You Are Expecting, where she says that it's not clear that, and we--she and I--have long arguments about this, where it's not clear that science or social science can actually tell you whether or not it is a good idea to have a kid.
But, I would say this, in some way I think maybe it's true for the case of children, just because that's such a difficult on-the-edge case. So, if we had a simpler question like, 'Should I become addicted to heroin?' or 'Should I take an umbrella when it's raining?' Well, the data is pretty clear on that. We could ask people and it's kind of obvious. The first is bad; the second is good. Children are right in the middle. And so, this is a case where I don't think it's a case of inadequacy of our data. It's just because it is sort of a 50/50 proposition. And, also because it is complicated.
So, I think both common sense and empirical date say that having kids, particularly young kids, is rough. It takes away your sleep, it increases marital arguments, it tires you out, and so on. And it's sort of rougher than not having kids at the time, holding everything equal. Maybe this is just common sense but there is also data--data on marital satisfaction, data on day-to-day happiness.
But, I think there is something else which holds true. Which is: people find children, typically, they find them very satisfying. They find them very important. If you had to ask me to identify what I am, at a different time in my life I might have said a man. I might have said a professor. But, my kids are now in their 20s, my two sons, and I might answer: first of all I'm a father. And, it is so important to me; it is the most important thing in my life and I don't have a scintilla of regret. But, when I say that, I don't necessarily mean I had more hedons, as a parent, more joys, more utils than if I stayed single. I mean something else--and there is survey data suggesting this--I mean they gave my life meaning and purpose and I--
Russ Roberts: So, I'm going to segue to another observation of the book, using this, because I'm surprised that the claim that when our children are smallest, those are the toughest years. I think those are fabulous years. Not for every parent, not for every child-raising situation. But, whether that's true or not--whether it's true for most people, almost all, or some--I think the pleasure I get from my young children now is spectacular. Looking at old photos of them on the digital frame that we have produces a bitter sweetness. Which is part of the point of your book, right, the sorrow part? I think it's Shakespeare, 'Parting is such sweet sorrow,' I think it's Romeo and Juliet. We've parted from that part of our lives, from that part of our parenting experience. It fills me with a great deal of satisfaction and meaning to think about what they have become; and it is much more complicated, what they've become, than what they were then. But, what are your thoughts on that?
Paul Bloom: I think there's a wise point there, which is: one of the--it may be the major theme of my book--is about the importance of chosen suffering. I have a very different opinion about unchosen suffering, we can talk about that. The importance of chosen suffering is part of a good life, which is, I think the projects that make life worth giving[?] involve suffering. We often know this ahead of time.
And, having kids is such an example. For one thing in having kids, at least for me--maybe I'm prone towards anxiety--is really an experiment in feeling mild dread for the rest of my life. Loving such fragile creatures--and they remain fragile even into their 1920s--it is like there is a hangman's noose sitting around your neck all the time.
And then they will separate from you. If you do it right, if you are lucky and if you'll do it right, these creatures that you love and devoted your life to, will leave you. And, actually, if you do it right they will think a lot less about you than you will think about them. Because[?] they're into their own lives. It's such a perverse project. And I think it's a very human one.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I agree with that, obviously. What you said reminds me of a quote I heard from Elizabeth Stone. It's the following: 'Making the decision to have a child--it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.' I thought that captured that kind of anxiety you're talking about there.
Russ Roberts: But, I meant to bring it back to another theme of the book, which I loved, which is that the order of the suffering and the joy is not just important but essential. So, if you finished a marathon and then suffered and spent four hours in deep pain, it's not as satisfying as doing the pain first and then getting the thrill of finishing the marathon. And, I think children is not unrelated to that. A lot of the pleasures come--there's a lot of investment in the beginning, especially for the mother--but it gets better and easier. And, if it was the reverse I think it would be much harder. But, talk about that--if you want, we can talk about that part with respect to childbearing. But, I think in fiction and in so many things the sequence of the suffering--climbing Mt. Everest--is everything. And I've never heard that point before. I think it's a fabulous point.
Paul Bloom: It's a more general point which applies at the specific level of day-to-day pleasures and also at the broader level of life. We seem to want to get the bad stuff over with, aometimes because we want to free ourselves to experience the good stuff but sometimes because it makes the good stuff so much better.
So, this is a very low-level explanation for why we do things like eat spicy foods or dip into hot baths. Which is: there is pain; but then you have the yogurt or a beer and it cools down your mouth, and the water cools and relaxes you.
It is an explanation for why stories almost inevitably--dramas, particularly--have, on the whole, a bad-then-good arc. There is an obstacle that must be surmounted, and that's bad. That's hard. Without the hardness, it's boring. And then we surmount it.
But, I think it's also more general. I think talking about children is another way of thinking about it. Which is: there is a line from Cicero which I might want to try to quote, but I'm going to mess it up. But the idea is that we choose to have suffering and pain right now so that later on in our lives we can look back upon it and from a distance, while it's in the past, it becomes so sweet.
When I wrote an article in The New Yorker on a similar set of topics, my editor gave me an example of the Shawshank Redemption. It's a wonderful movie. And, not to give spoilers, but the arc of the movie is: this man is falsely accused of a terrible crime. Spends 20 years or so in a horrible prison--
Russ Roberts: And, he never gets out and dies in a terrible tragedy. It's a fabulous--no, that isn't how it ends, strangely enough--but again, spoiler alert you want to skip ahead about 15 seconds here--
Paul Bloom: Spoiler alert--he ends up living the rest of his life with his good friend on a lovely Mexican beach.
And, better pointed out, what kind of a movie would it be if it was flipped? He was enjoying his paradise life on a beach and then spent the rest of it in a squalid prison. That would be no story at all.
So he had--we are temporal creatures, and our suffering and our pleasure and our pain, we like them best in a certain order.
Russ Roberts: When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 after a slight gap between the previous one, which I think was in 1918, I felt bad for some Cubs fans who had not won a World Series since 1945--or maybe not even been in one, I'm not even sure. I apologize to Cubs fans for not knowing that off the top of my head. But, one of the things I would tell them when they would get angry at me and resentful that we had finally broken our curse, I said, 'Yours is going to be all the sweeter for the suffering that you are going through now.' And, of course, it's true--unless you die before you get to see it, which case it's a terrible way things turn out. But, assuming you live to see it, there is something, the delayed gratification makes the gratification that much more pleasurable.
Paul Bloom: There is an amazing study by George Loewenstein--he asked people about pleasurable things. And, one thing he asked them is, imagine you could kiss your favorite movie star--
Russ Roberts: I love this--this is a fabulous part of the book--
Paul Bloom: And, whenever you want, consensual, it's a kiss and it's very nice. And, then they ask people, when do you want to do it? Well, Psychology 101 says you want to do it now because you want to satisfy an urge and delayed gratification is difficult. And--you can correct me--but, Economics 101 says you want to do it now. And people say, 'I want to wait two days.' What, you need two days? Come on, do you need to get a breath mint, comb your hair? But, really? Because they want to savor the anticipation. And that's just fascinating.
Russ Roberts: And, I think very true. But, I want to challenge your claim about that arc, at least a piece of it. I think I'm right--I might be wrong--but I think that ancient art is overwhelmingly bleak. La Boheme, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet--it doesn't end well. It doesn't end with the triumphant overcoming of obstacles. It's just one last obstacle and it's often death.
And, yet in modern art--and occasionally you will get a piece of modern art, the more bleak the ending the more modern and avant garde it is--but popular art doesn't work that way. Popular art, there is always the happy ending. Scrooge is the perfect example--somewhat not modern but perfect example of this again: he overcomes the obstacles, realizes he is a bad person, redeems himself, and so on.
Do you have any explanation for why so much ancient art at least is so unrelentingly bleak? Now, you could argue it sounds so popular; you could argue life was bleak. I don't know. What are your thoughts on that?
Paul Bloom: I don't know. I , surprisingly, most art is bleak. If you just add it up, most art has a lot of suffering, pain, and struggles. It would be very interesting if it turns out that we have more happy endings now than we used to. I'm not sure. I mean, even Rocky lost at the last fight.
Russ Roberts: You ruined Shawshank Redemption, and you're ruining the greatest boxing--oh, come on, Paul.
Paul Bloom: The thing about the Sixth Sense, I have to add. No, I'm going to stop. You should just beep out all the things.
But, a lot of wonderful movies--and not so wonderful movies, like horrible torture porn and very violent movies--end on a dark note. And I'm not actually sure that these bleak endings exist because this is what people want, as opposed to it is sort of a cheap way to make your film look artistic. Now? I think it may make it look sophisticated. You're not doing one of these ones, like It's a Wonderful Life, with a pat ending. 'Look: the person is going to die at the end.' 'Take that.'
But what this raises is, I think there is a lot of reasons why we like dark, unpleasant, sad art; and only one of them is the arc. Only one reason is that we want to have suffering because of the great payoff at the end.
So, this paradigm works great for revenge films--where horrible things are being done to somebody, to John Wick or whatever, and at the end there is payback. And, the payback is oh so satisfying but you couldn't get the payback if you hadn't had to sit through the rough stuff at the beginning. That's a paradigm.
But, there's so many other attractions to bleak art. One simple one is that it captures our attention. We have what psychologists call a negativity bias. Which is: sometimes the ugly and the shocking and the painful draw us in.
But I think another reason, which I explore in my book and it's not original to me, is that we like to seek out negative futures--to bring our imagination to dark places. Some people see this as a form of play. Some people think of play as a cooperative, friendly, cheerful thing; but a lot of play is play fighting and play aggression. And one way to see this--and not just humans do this, dogs do this, too--is, it's a way of practicing, in a safe way, difficult skills for bad times.
And it could be that a lot of the negative fictions we see--I find myself drawn to movies that show things that I would not want to happen to me. The break up of a relationship, the death of a child, the destruction of the planet, the loss of authority and attack of some invading group. But, I'm drawn to it. And I think one reason why I am drawn to it, whether I know it or not at a conscious level, is: I'm drawn to bad stuff because it's good for the mind to be drawn to bad stuff.
And, one bit of support for this is: it is true for daydreams, too. Most daydreams--and most dreams, actually--are negative. We are drawn to the negative.
Russ Roberts: I was going to ask you to put that in context of your parenting anxiety, which I think every parent has some level of it, and some have a lot more than others. And I think within a couple, the husband and wife have different levels of it, inevitably. But, presumably, we worry about the future as a form of protection: It's good to be prepared. Imagine the worst, so you can be prepared for it. And, yet it is a tormenting gift. It is not the gift that keeps on giving: it's the gift that keeps on taking. It can take away a lot of the pleasure, especially in the moment that you have with your children, or in other situations we could imagine. What are your thoughts on that?
Paul Bloom: I think you're right. Like all of these things, you can do it too much. I worry too much. My partner makes fun of me for this. I am the sort of person who on a whim buys a lottery ticket and then worries that I'll win the money and it will wreck my relationships. And then where will I be? And, when you tell people these worries, they laugh.
But, in general, there's a reason why we worry. Which is: Worry is a way of focusing us on negative possibilities and then making us prepare. If I worry that I am going to drop my baby--a very common worry--I hold my baby tighter. If I worry that one day I am going to leave the house and I've left something on and the house will burn down, I check stuff before I leave the house.
Worry is very motivating. It's aversive. It's aversive because it's supposed to be aversive. If we liked it we wouldn't be motivated to make it go away.
In some way, worry is akin in this way, I think, to grief--which has an evolutionary account, which is: the horrible pain of losing somebody you love makes you work hard not to get that pain. To take care of them.
Now, like everything of the sort sometimes it is going to come to you and there is not a damn thing you can do about it. Sometimes we worry about things we've done already. Sometimes we feel grief for deaths that there was nothing we could do to stop. I think the system works in general because it forces us to think about things that, however unpleasant, are good for us to think about.
Russ Roberts: But, of course, if you worry about heartbreak all the time, either from grief or being jilted or abandoned, the other response is to not give your heart away. So, there's a flip side to this which is very dark--dehumanizing, degrading. There is also the fact that it is hard to enjoy even the good times because you know they are going to end. I think it's an interesting question whether you'd like to have less anxiety in your mental makeup. I think I would.
I see it mostly as the lack of control. If I'm holding the baby and I worry about dropping the baby, for sure; and I'm more careful, and that's good. But there are too many things that happen to my kids out in the world that I have nothing to do with, that I worry about all the time. That's too strong; but I've worried about it various times, and I think that's a shame. It's not unrelated to regret, right? It's not unrelated to the fear of being too cautious and ending up with many regrets because that way at least you will have avoided risk and bad things.
Paul Bloom: I totally agree. There have been times myself where I have said, 'Wow, that's over,' and I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I wasn't so anxious about it. I would have actually took pleasure in it. So, my book is titled The Sweet Spot and I have vowed not to try to insert the phrase, 'the sweet spot,' into every conversation I fall into, because it becomes very tempting.
Russ Roberts: But, it's such a good phrase.
Paul Bloom: But, I'll do this here, which is: regarding these negative thoughts, these worries and everything, there is a sweet spot. Imagine a dial in your head--and I think a lot of you would say, 'I'll turn that dial down.' But, there is a psychiatrist, Nesse, an evolutionary psychiatrist, who points out that a lot of people go to psychiatrists and psychologists to turn their anxiety down. They take pills to turn their anxiety down. But then there are individuals whose anxiety is too far or low down. Where do we find them? Not in a psychiatrist's office: we find them in morgues. We find them in morgues and we find them in prisons, and so on. If you're too cool, then you say, 'Yeah, I'll drive my motorcycle in the rain. I'm not worried at all.' They never see it, they're feeling fine. But, they constantly expose themselves to more risk for themselves and for others. And, in its own way it could be just as terrible.
So, it's a curse to have too much anxiety, but it's also a curse to have too little.
Russ Roberts: You're liberating your inner economist, right? There are trade-offs here, is really what you are saying and I think you are 100% right. You mention grief. We've talked about, on the program, before that this modern idea that 'Grief is terrible; you're not happy so get over it. Here, take some drugs, whatever you need to get back to life.' And, you mention a case in the book of someone who lost a spouse to cancer, I think it was, and how this person was depressed. And yeah, they were depressed. And, that was what they were feeling as part of this life experience of losing a loved one. That's part of life. It's not to be avoided, shunned, tricked through chemicals, maybe. People have different perspectives on it but I think there's a, quote, "optimal" amount of grief. You don't want to have it ruin your life, never live again because you've lost a loved one. But, you also don't want to pretend it was no big deal. So, some kind of, if I may, sweet spot.
Paul Bloom: And, you can talk about it as I have, in economists' terms, which is: What's the right amount of grief or anxiety to make it through your life? You can also talk about it in moral terms--which I think you are alluding to--and the person whose spouse died of cancer thought of it that way. It wasn't just that, 'Well, the decline in efficiency for me suffering from grief is worth it.' It's rather--there's a wonderful quote from Zadie Smith--who herself quoting something else--and it was in response to somebody who was grieving to death for somebody they had loved. And, it's a wonderful line; the line was, 'It hurts as much as it's worth.'
And, it goes both ways. For me to lose somebody I love and not feel grief would be acknowledging to myself and to others that it didn't matter that much. And so, I think suffering in some way--your child dies, you should be ripped apart. It's what the relationship, what the person deserves.
So, in some way--I said earlier that I'm very skeptical about unchosen suffering; but I think there are exceptions to this. I think some sort of suffering that you did not choose--that just comes upon you--you have to acknowledge and you have to acknowledge its value and its importance.
Russ Roberts: It's part of the human experience. When you mentioned 'deserving,' you meant the person that died, not the one who is left behind.
Paul Bloom: That's right.
Russ Roberts: Talk for a minute about children's literature and horror films. I am not into horror films; I don't like them. Children's literature is very dark. It usually involves the death of parents. There is an extraordinary number of great children's books that involve an orphan. Why do you think that is? We've become very protective of our children in modern times so we don't want to expose them to traumatic things. In the old days they didn't feel that way. It was like, 'Let's traumatize them. Let's get them used to life. Let's get them started early.' What do you think about those issues?
Paul Bloom: Children's books are fascinating. My day job is a Developmental Psychologist; I'm very interested in minds of children. I think--certainly, children are in many, many ways more vulnerable than adults. I think they are less capable--I know they are less capable--of shielding the fictional from the real. You could see this most horrible thing and it could shock you, but you just know it's a movie. And it might bother your dreams or occupy your thoughts but you could just say, 'This isn't real.' A young enough child has some problems segmenting all of this.
But, children are dark creatures, and they, like the rest of us, are fascinated by terrible things. They're fascinated by cruelty. No one's ever done an experiment, but I have no reason to doubt that a children's book with a very unhappy ending could still become a very popular children's book.
Now, the orphans is actually something which fascinates me. It's a little bit different. So, this is sort of a double whammy. There is this sort of morbid fascination of a kid for losing his parents--which is the worst thing you can imagine as a kid, perhaps. But, also these stories always have a sort of wish fulfillment. Which is: 'I'm a kid. I'm a normal schmo, growing up in a suburb of Lavelle; I guess my mom and dad are fine, whatever. But, to actually be a prince, maybe I am actually a prince. Maybe I'm actually the person who's going to save the world. Maybe my billionaire family is going to whisk me away.' So, how can I have a story when indulging that fantasy? Goodbye Mom, goodbye Dad; that's real sad news. But, now I get to have my fantasy.
Russ Roberts: That's a fantastic observation, and it comes back to the point about overcoming things, right? You've got the plucky--it's always a plucky hero after the death of the parents, who is stuck in the orphanage, stuck in the hands of the cruel guardian and has to rise above it to become the hero they want to see themselves. I never thought about that. It's a little bit depressing but I think you're right.
Paul Bloom: What child wouldn't want to be Harry Potter?
Russ Roberts: Right. So, true.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about Robert Nozick and Alan Watts, who both posed some interesting thought experiments. The Nozick one we've talked about before, but let's talk about it again. And, then the Alan Watts one is very interesting. Start with Nozick and why you think that is of interest to your exploration.
Paul Bloom: So, Nozick proposed a classic experiment, a thought experiment, called Experience Machine. It's not incredibly far away from what we can imagine neuroscientists doing. And it is a common enough theme. But, here it goes, very simple: You can decide to put yourself in the experience machine. This will sort of stimulate your brain in a certain way. And, for the rest of your natural life that your body will last, you will experience a life of wonder. Of satisfaction, of victory, of great love, great triumph--the best life you could really imagine. You will not be doing a thing, of course: you would be lying inert on a table. You won't actually be having experiences or you think you will be having them.
Now, Nozick says people wouldn't want to be put into this machine. He viewed this as a refutation of a simple hedonism: If all I want is pleasure then I would jump into the machine, push everybody aside, get me in that machine.
And remember, once you are in the machine you no longer remember that you signed up for the machine. So, you believe your life. If your life is good right now, maybe you are in an Experience Machine.
But, Nozick says we do not want such a thing. We don't want to think we climbed Mt. Everest: we want to climb Mt. Everest. We don't want to think people love us: we want people to love us. The experiences only get value because they reflect realities.
Now, if you ask people, 'Would you go into an experience machine?' it actually gets a little bit messy. I think Nozick often wrote, from his stance in life, that, 'Oh, nobody would want to do that.' But, many people say, 'Yeah, that sounds really good.'
Russ Roberts: He's no longer with us; and in 2021 his claim seems a little bolder than it did when he wrote it.
Paul Bloom: Yes. And, keep in mind a lot of people block themselves out with drugs like heroin. That's an experience machine, too, just not as efficient or clean.
And, so, I like the thought experiment; I think it is very telling. I think the fact that many people, including me and I would bet including you, would not take that machine.
Russ Roberts: Correct.
Paul Bloom: Suggests we don't just want pleasure. We want accomplishment, we want satisfaction, we want to do good in the world.
But the fact that many people would go into the machine forces me to sort of respect, well, the moral pluralism part where we have many motivations. Where some people would rank pleasure and satisfaction more than other things.
And, then, of course, there is also the context. So, I'm living a life which I am very satisfied with. If I was in a maximum security prison for the rest of my life, I would give everything I have to retreat into the machine. So, if your life is misery the machine is very tempting.
Russ Roberts: I want to add two things to the Nozick from your book, for you to talk about. One is, I want you to talk about Alan Watts first. So, Alan Watts has another thought experiment which I had never heard. It's quite provocative.
Paul Bloom: So, when you're writing a book like this you kind of have your eyes out for everything. And, I was with my partner waiting to watch the last Avengers movie, Avengers: EndGame, at a large cinema. And they have these commercials before. And, they have a commercial of these couples walking down the beach, and then there's a voice. And, the voice says, 'Imagine you could dream.' And, I'm thinking, and I'm listening, and I say, 'What in the world is this?' Because, it's kind of beautiful. I'm listening to the whole thing, transfixed. It turns out to be a commercial for Scotiabank or something, a hedge fund or something like that. But, I go home, I remembered enough keywords to go home and it turns out this is something from Alan Watts, one of the great people that brought Buddhism to the West.
And the story goes like this. He says: Imagine you could have a dream--he didn't use the word--but a lucid dream, where you find you could live whatever life you want. And then he basically said: you would choose pleasures. All sorts of sensory and sensual pleasures and have this wonderful, wonderful, wonderful time and live 80 years like that. You wake up the next day; and then you have another night--you fall asleep, and you have the same opportunity. What he said is: Sooner or later you would get bored, and what you would do is you would throw obstacles in front of yourself. You would have your dream that you would try something but you might fail. You might be disappointed, you might be hurt, you might work at something to no end. But, ultimately you would choose a life of difficulty and struggle.
And then, the punchline is, and then he says: Maybe, perhaps, that is the life you are now living.
And, it struck me as very wise. It struck me as even on a hedonist's own terms--'I want to have the best time I can have'--you would quickly get bored with simple pleasures, and you would want a life of difficulty and struggle and pain. That could be your best life.
Russ Roberts: Now, an economist would answer that, I think, rather facilely--but we would answer easily: 'Well, sure, you would take some suffering and pain, some obstacles. But, that's so you can enjoy, get even more utils, more utility, more pleasure when the later thing comes. So, it's all about pleasure.' Do you agree? I know you don't. I don't either anymore. I used to but I don't anymore.
Paul Bloom: So, of course, writing this book thinking about[?] these issues, you encounter hedonists and people who want to defend--'we were always after the utils'-business. I'll name him because he has been such a good help for me to write the book: Dan Gilbert is a social psychology professor at Harvard. And he thinks I'm totally wrong about everything in my book.
Russ Roberts: And, that's my third example, I was going to ask you to add into the Nozick, is his story. So, you can get there eventually or you can--whatever. Go ahead.
Paul Bloom: So, Dan, basically he says, 'This is just an illusion. Whenever we say we're doing something for meaning or for morality or for purpose, all we basically mean is: it gives us more pleasure to do it than not to do it.' And so, if I leave my scrumptious dinner to help this old lady across the street, and I say, 'Look, it's not just pleasure, I am trying to do good,' Dan would laugh at me and say, 'No, you just like helping a person across the street more than you like your dinner.' So, put that in that broad way.
One problem with this is that it is so vague as to be in some way uninteresting. Whenever somebody has this sort of argument where they can use no matter what you say, you wonder, 'Are you saying anything interesting?' And even then, I think, would agree we have multiple motivations. Morality, meaning, pleasure. He just thinks they all sort of have a common currency.
He's not entirely wrong. If you choose to do a favor for a friend rather than to have an enjoyable swim in your swimming pool, that means that somewhere in your head you put value upon those two options, and the favor to the friend outweighed the pool. There has to be a common currency. I don't think I would call it 'pleasure' but it does suggest that pleasure and morality and purpose, the relationships between them, they can't be as distinct as somebody like me would say. There has to be something that they have in common.
Russ Roberts: Jerry Bentham--I was going to call him Jerry Bentham; it was a misquote--but Jeremy is actually his name. I doubt that anybody called him Jerry. He's kind of a serious, intense kind of guy.
Paul Bloom: I wouldn't think he is a Jerry or Jer.
Russ Roberts: Jeremy Bentham would agree with that and he spent his life trying to find that common currency. He tried money for a while. Economists adopted that common currency--not in the sense that people want money but the idea that you could put a dollar value on different pleasures and thereby weigh them accordingly. Or you could ask what would people be willing to pay for something even though it wasn't a monetary pleasure or related to work or commerce. You could ask what they would be willing to pay to go help the old lady; and what they would pay in helping the lady is they gave up the dinner--the opportunity cost which you write about in the book. And, therefore, we know that they value helping the old lady more than the dinner.
I think that's wrong. It's not a--listeners have heard me talk about this before; I'm going to leave it alone for now. I just think it's wrong. It's also depressing: It's a bleak view of human nature as automaton, as utility maximizer, as this machine to rack up the utils. It's not how we behave. It's not how we think. And, in fact, if you're having that dinner with a beautiful person that you're romantically interested in and you give up that opportunity to go help the person cross the street, or it's an incredibly important job interview--I think it's a little more complicated than saying, 'Well, it was worth it.' I think there is angst; there are worries about the right thing; there's a lot more going on than just, 'Well, I put it on the scale and I picked the one that was the highest.' I've become a skeptic of my own profession in that area. But, talk about--you can react to that, but I also want you to talk about Dan Gilbert's thought experiment which I found repugnant to be honest, but go ahead.
Paul Bloom: So, Dan--this is actually from email correspondences I have had with him. Plus he has an unpublished manuscript and he was very generous both to comment on my book and let me include--
Russ Roberts: He's a fine human being, even if he is totally wrong. It's okay. And, Dan, I'm just teasing. If you want to come on the program I'd love to talk to you about happiness. Go ahead, Paul.
Paul Bloom: Dan would be a wonderful guy for you; you would have so much to disagree about.
He says: Look, there are psychologists like Danny Kahneman, that talk about two kinds of judgements we make; and one is day to day pleasure. Imagine you're in the swimming pool and it's the nicest pool in the world and it's a cool pool, hot day, your belly is full, you have friends waiting for you, you're having a good time and everything is so nice. You spend 90% of the day like that, 95%. But, 5% of the day you leave your pool, you dry yourself off, you're sitting before you fall asleep and think, 'My life is a failure. This is a terrible way to live a life.' And, one traditional answer which is common and for many reasons[?], which is[?] mine actually, say, 'Well, change your life. You're messing it up.'
But, Dan's response is: That's so unfair. You're taking two individuals, one of them, call it the pig, which just likes pleasure. One of them, call Socrates, which likes wisdom and value and everything like that. You're letting Socrates have a say but you're dismissing the pig for no fair reason. It is just unfair to sort of let the rational, deliberate complaining part of your life hold sway over the majority part of life.
And, there's kind of a trick, which is whenever you think about it--Gilbert points out--Socrates pops into mind. Like, I say, 'I wonder if I'm happy,' and now I am sort of contemplative-philosopher-Paul and I say, 'No, I'm not I'm not maxing out on these goals I want to and everything.' But, most of the time, when I am happy--but it's like the illusion that the refrigerator light is always on because whenever you open it up, it lights up. The subjective feeling that, when we ask ourselves if we're happy, we then trigger a self that is very different from our everyday self. And, to rely on that is simply unfair. It is simply we are spoiling ourselves out of our own life.
Now, to make the point, Gilbert makes an argument, which for me backfires. He says, forget about yourself. Imagine your son--[?] think of one of my sons--was living that life, 95% pure pleasure and 5% doubt is he living a good life, and so on. Would I want him to do that or would I want him to flip it, where he is 5% sort of thinking I'm living the right life and 95% in physical misery? The answer is I would not want to flip it. But, I also actually don't want to have a son who is, in a philosophical sense, a pig. If one of my sons was saying, 'I am so happy 95% of the time because I lie on the sofa and I watch Netflix and I smoke a joint. I am as happy as can be.' I would say, 'Get a job.' And my complaint here is, I think, moral. It's a bad way to live a life. You're not helping other people, you're not making a difference, you're not engaged in longterm projects.
I think it was John Stuart Mill who called the hedonic self 'the pig.' You're being a non-human animal because you are not aspiring to any good things.
I'm not sure how convincing that is to somebody who doesn't already believe some of these premises, but I think a lot of the argument about the life we should live isn't going to be settled through psychological research and survey studies. It's going to be in some way, developed or settled through moral arguments.
Russ Roberts: Well, I think it matters. And, I'm thinking about Laurie Paul and the vampire problem: The idea that, befor your are a vampire it looks disgusting; but when you're a vampire it's great, and you look back on the poor mortals who are out in the daytime and they don't realize how bad their life is. So, the pig looks at Socrates, and says, 'Boy is he missing out on the fun.' And, Socrates looks at the pig and says, 'The unexamined life is not worth living.' I don't think anyone wants their offspring to be wastrels. They don't want their kids to be, quote, "unhappy." But, meaning matters, I think, for most of us.
There's a--we've talked about this movie before--I think it's okay to put a Spoiler Alert on this one; it's okay to spoil it, it's not in the same class as some of the others. But, the movie Sabrina--in the original version, William Holden is the playboy, having a good time, no responsibilities. And he has a blast. He is happy as a clam or a pig. And, Humphrey Bogart puts his shoulder to the grindstone--whatever it is, his nose to the grindstone--and he keeps this business going that he thinks is important and seems rather focused on the achievements of the business rather than the money. He doesn't enjoy much of the money, doesn't have much of the pig in him.
Now one way to look at it is to say, 'Well, they're just two different people, different things float their boat. We should just be agnostic about it: they're both fine, it's just whatever you feel like.' I don't know. I don't find that very appealing. And, much of Western culture, you could argue, at least through most of its history, was to try to remind people that there is more to life than being a pig. I don't know.
Paul Bloom: And, there's some weak empirical support for this way of talking. I'll lay out the experiment; you tell me what you think of it. You ask people how happy you are and how much meaning you have in your life. And these correlate. It's really good news, you could be high in one and high in both. But they also separate. So, there is a population of people who say, 'I am very, very happy but my life has no meaning,' and then the converse.
And, it turns out there are different kinds of people. Happy people have, as you'd expect, pretty low anxiety--low worry, low conflict. People with meaningful lives have a lot of anxiety, a lot of worry, and a lot of conflict. But, the key difference here is that happy people focus more on themselves. They don't try to make the world a better place, while people who say their lives have meaning, it's often outer-directed. You look at the jobs that are most meaningful, that people say they get the most meaning from, it's jobs like being in the clergy, being a social worker, being a physician. They're not--
Russ Roberts: Teacher--
Paul Bloom: Teacher? Yes, teacher. And it cuts across different kinds of teachers. A post-secondary teacher actually is pretty high. These jobs are not necessarily high status. They don't necessarily pay well; and they're hard. But, they leave the people doing them with the feeling that they are making a difference; and I think we could step back and say, that's a good way to live your life. You should want to make a positive difference to other people. The world is better off with people leading lives of meaning than lives of happiness, if they had to choose one or the other.
Russ Roberts: But: 'You shouldn't be a sucker and give up the chance to sit in that pool all day, working for other people. Come on, get in the pool.' Right? It's a problem. I think most of, certainly, religion to a large extent and until recently culture was trying to push people in the direction of getting out of the pool now and then to make those sacrifices.
Of course, you could argue part of what religion does and part of what culture does is try to make you feel good about making those sacrifices so they do become self-interested. A point that Dan Klein made on this program in his conversation about Adam Smith. And I think it's a deep insight. It may be the case that now many of us do things that we think are so-called altruistic out of self-interested, feel-good self-satisfaction, so on. But, it wasn't always this way and I don't think it comes so naturally to us.
Paul Bloom: The religion point is a good one. A lot of what religion wants you to do for different reasons is get you out of the pool. Sometimes they try to get you out of the pool by saying, ' Look, yeah, you're going to give up on a little bit of pleasure now but, man, the pleasure you're going to get at the end of it is going to be amazing.' Religion also at its best, reminds you that there are other virtues than happiness and tries to nurture these within you.
Russ Roberts: I want to ask you another question about morality and culture. I think a lot of your book is talking about the evolutionary value of various things that we are interested in. Sometimes it's suffering, sometimes it's pleasure. Obviously that's not an easy circle to square, square to circle, but you do it pretty well. But, you don't give much credence to culture. I want to go back to the example about horror movies. There's a mini-series on TV I watched for a while called Daredevil. It was a Marvel character I loved as a boy and it was fun to see Daredevil brought to life; and it's a very clever, clever script. The dialogue is fantastic; it's just really well done. The violence was so creepy in it for me, after a while, that I just stopped watching it because I found myself, like, after watching it, in a bad mood. 'Why would I?--Oh yeah, I just watched that show.'
Another example would be The Americans, which I watched from start to finish. I stopped watching Daredevil, but The Americans is a pretty gruesome mini-series. And, it's so spectacularly great in terms of dialogue and character and moral dilemmas; and I loved that show. But, I wondered if it was somewhat degrading. There's a lot of really bad death in that show. I worried that it was not, quote, "good for me." That's a very 19th-century attitude of mine. I think most people would say, like, 'It's fun.' You write about it in the book: We need it, we like it, we crave it, we like watching violence. You want to talk about that? I find that interesting. I think we do like to be scared. But, isn't there a possibility it's not so healthy? Or do you want to be agnostic on that?
Paul Bloom: Not agnostic but conflicted. This is far less interesting than the question you raise, but you probably know there's long been a debate over whether video games and violent movies make kids more violent. And the results seem to be a wash. There's some short term effects, but it doesn't seem to have a big effect. But, that's not really what you are talking about. You're not talking about whether if you see The Americans you are more likely to dismember a body and put them in four suitcases--you saw that scene. It's more like it just may be bad for you. And, I can't deny that that is true.
If we are going to argue--and I would argue--that some of these can be good for you; that, some TV shows that I watch and love I think make me better by putting me in a mindset in morality which is different from my own in a superior way--then, you've got to say that there are moral risks watching The Americans or a Sopranos or a Secession--all shows that I love. But, all shows that have--not only do they have odious characters, but they put you in a moral view where bad behavior is good behavior.
Here's a very mundane, schoolmarmish example, which is: There's a lot of sitcoms I used to watch when I was a kid where there would always be a smart aleck kid who would, like, insult his parents; and then the laugh track would roar and it would be treated with affection. So, you watch this as a kid and you think this is plainly the right thing to do. You should make fun of your parents because your dad is fat and your mom is slow and everything. And it's funny; and they like it. And it gives you a moral view.
So, it's not really the fact of the Sopranos is that you are going to leave thinking that you can whack your academic enemies. But, you watch the Sopranos and it carries a certain attitude for how you should treat your friends, and how you should treat women. And, how to carry yourself as a person. And, it's impossible not to absorb that.
I just watched, with my partner, a very short-lived TV series called Clickbait. And, Clickbait revolves around a murder and accusations of infidelity. In Clickbait, infidelity is seen as the worst thing in the world. It destroys families, it leads to death, it is--and they show the pain of it and everything like that. And, that's a moral view. I have seen other shows where infidelity is seen as a laugh. And: No big deal, our main character does it; but he's a great guy, and so on.
Shows carry moral views. The moral views we're exposed to shape how we see the world. It can't help but have an effect, either good or bad.
Russ Roberts: Well, you write at one point about anti-heroes and I've often thought about what a modern phenomenon the anti-hero is. The person, whether it's the cad--to use a very old fashioned word--the rogue--to use another--these used to be villains. Now they're kind of heroes. We call them anti-heroes, but they are heroes with different moral values than the heroes of the past. And I don't know why--you know, I'm living in Israel now, and Israel is a very different place culturally. You may have seen the show Shtisel, which is the story of an ultra-orthodox Jewish family and a neighborhood of Jerusalem called Mea She'arim. It's got worldwide interest. It's not just watched by Jews. I'm not sure ultra orthodox Jews like it at all. But, a lot of people are interested in it who aren't Jewish, who aren't religious. And, one of the charms of the show is that everybody in the show has the same problems everybody has who isn't religious. They worry about are their kids going to get married, they worry about making money and putting food on the table. They're human beings; and so there's a charm to the show like that.
But, I think the other charm of the show is that the people in the show--and they have many flaws--but, they don't have the flaw of irony. They're very innocent: they're almost naive. And, it's such a breath of fresh air for a modern viewer to have heroes who are innocent and naive. They're not pure, they're not good, many of them are flawed. They do bad things, they do selfish things, they make mistakes. But, they are different from the sort of person we've come to find charming in, say, The Americans or Breaking Bad or the Sopranos. There's nothing like that. There's nothing like that at all. And, I just wonder--first of all, I am fascinated by why anti-heroes have become the cultural norm, and I wonder whether it matters. You're suggesting it does matter. It affects us in some way. What are your thoughts on that?
Paul Bloom: I'm suggesting it does. I mean, just taking it further, I think there is some wisdom that you become like the people you hang out with. And, I spend a lot of my time hanging out with people on TV and in the movies.
The anti-heroes thing is very interesting. In some way, you could simply see it as a mark of sophistication. So, simple comic books have good guys and bad guys. They describe themselves as good guys and bad guys. There is a brotherhood of evil mutants, they are evil so they name themselves as evil, and they just want to do evil. And, that's a terribly simplified view of morality.
And, so, the sort of creation of the anti-hero is in some way a mark of better TV, better literature which is: to recognize that somebody could be roughly good but also have bad parts in them. And, that somebody who is evil could have families they love and don't think of themselves as evil, and so on. So, in some way I think it's good. But, I think it gets taken to an extreme.
And, I'm so glad we're discussing television, because it's my favorite thing. Tony Soprano is a wonderful example. So, Emily Nussbaum coined the term 'bad fans.' And the bad fans of Tony Soprano--who was a mobster, violent mobster--where, the people who didn't see him as an interesting, complex character who does bad things but rooted for him, decided he was not--anti-hero though he was, for them he was pure hero. And they would root for him.
And it was exactly the same problem with Walter White in Breaking Bad. There were certain scenes where Walter White would interact with the woman playing his wife, Schuyler, and she would basically say, 'You should stop killing so many people.' And, he would say, 'You're such a drag. I'm Walter White. I want to kill a lot of people.' And, then, the actress who played Schuyler White would get hate mail from people furious at her for wanting to stop their hero character from doing what they want. And, I think what people have done there is they bought into a skewed moral vision.
And, I think also part of the thing--I never thought I would mention this twice in one conversation but we talked about Harry Potter--this is a different sort of wish-fulfillment. Which is: I am, I think, a reasonably civilized, nice person and I say please and thank you, and I answer my emails promptly, and everything. And, what a kick would it be to be somebody to inspire fear? who had the power of life and death over people? Who was a real menace. You know: Walter White, Tony Soprano, Hannibal Lecter even. And so, I think there is a fantasy in that, too.
Russ Roberts: I think that's a deep insight. I think it's also a deep insight--although I don't know if it's true--which is that certainly we tend to be like the people we hang around with. A lot of your book--we haven't gotten to this part yet and we probably won't given the time--but you write a lot about imagination. We talked a little bit about it earlier. Living vicariously through--you know, Walter Mitty, James Thurber stories--is an early example of this. But, imagining yourself as Tony Soprano has got to be part of the appeal of these shows. I like to say the veneer of civilization is thin. That underneath, most of us--scratch a little below the surface--there's a very dark side of us that wants revenge. That wants to crusade. Not just for good things, but sometimes for just the point of crusading. These shows tap in to that in a way I have never thought about.
But, this idea that by hanging around with them--and we hang around with them quite a bit. It's one thing to watch a two-hour program. I spent, I guess, I want to say The Americans, it's seven seasons? It's dozens of hours. And, forget the fact that I'm a religious Jew. I hang out with Shtisel; I think this family is probably a little better for me. The other thing I love about that show, by the way, is it does not romanticize religion. There is almost no religion in the show. There's no glorification of the religious observance of the characters, or romanticization of, what say, Shabbat, is like for them, or the Sabbath. And I think that's part of the other reason it's a charming show. But, the idea that--that, even though it's fake and it's fiction, by immersing in those worlds as we do when we binge-watch especially, it somehow colors us. Is that plausible? Do you want to defend that? I don't know if it's true. I'm worried about it.
Paul Bloom: It is plausible I think, in a subtle way. Again, I don't think you're going to be able to see how often people watch a show and whether they're willing to commit a crime or whatever. But, there are subtle ways.
I often find that, when I am watching a show it affects my speech patterns. It affects how I talk. It affects what I find funny. The characters live with me for a while.
And, again, this could be for the best. I think that TV and movies are very, very moral: Regardless of their intentions, they present moral views where some things are right and some things are wrong. Every TV program, every detective show, for instance, which shows the good detective beating up somebody to get a clue to save somebody's life is transforming the moral message that this is okay. Every detective show which has the main character being rude to a woman or not paying child support says, 'This is okay.'
And, you know, artists should be able to do what they want. Maybe they think it's okay. Maybe--and--conversely, every movie or TV show which has the evil character or the rapist smoke a cigarette is saying, 'It's [?] cigarette smoking that's bad.'
One day we are going to have this evil character who is a serial killer and he is not--he's going to refuse to use people's preferred pronouns. And, that will tell us a message. And this happens all the time. I think it's foolish to say we are immune to these messages.
Russ Roberts: It's an interesting question, right? It works on us in ways we certainly are not always aware of. I'm sure a lot of people have more Yiddish in their vocabulary now because of Shtisel and they use it unthinkingly.
Russ Roberts: Let's close with what it was like to write this book. It's a very wide-ranging book on many different aspects of the human experience: the role of suffering, what is really important about happiness--is it--how important is meaning, how meaningful is meaning? Did it change your day-to-day activities in any way that you're conscious of? You know, it could be just that it's your latest book project; but you spent, kind of like the binge watching, you spent a lot of time reading and thinking about these issues. Has it affected how you choose to live your life in any way? You added some more suffering, taken some away, watched more horror movies?
Paul Bloom: I think it helped me add some more of the right sort of suffering to my life.
So, one of the catalysts of the book, although I didn't know it at the time, was I read this book Flow by Csikszentmihalyi, a long time ago. And it had this radical thesis, which is that people are better off when they are engaged in serious, intense work than when they are on vacation. They're actually more satisfied--you know, being focused on something.
And to me this was an epiphany. I always thought I was an oddball. I'd always, like, go on trips and leave all my work behind because I'm here to have fun; and I'm not having so much fun because, weirdly, reading and thinking was my fun in a sort of odd way.
So, I had forgotten this to some extent. And writing the book reminded me. I've started to go to a gym where it's a 50-minute of a rather painful experience of throwing around weights and going there every second day. And, trying to, in fact, cultivate a verse of activities[?] that I think will satisfy me on a deeper level.
So, this book is--however this might pain my publicist to hear this--not a self-help book. This is an exploration. But I got something out of writing it.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Paul Bloom. His book is The Sweet Spot. Paul, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Paul Bloom: Thank you so much for having me.