Happiness “Math”



One of the first things thought in schools in the subject of philosophy, is the moral theory of utilitarianism. The trolley problem becomes a crucial component for self-reflective examination of one’s own moral inclinations. Would you rather let 5 people die, or actively sacrifice one, to save the rest? (There are a few variations of this thought experiment). The idea hiding behind this dilemma is the utilitarian principle of aiming for the maximum amount of happiness, formulated by Mill like a mathematical equation:


Happiness = Pleasure – Pain

Every action has N amount of pleasure or pain associated with it (obviously this is very vague, because these attributions are impossible to standardise, for every human, but let’s ignore that for now) Thus, when we count “utils” or “hedons”, there’s more utility to be found in actions that have a higher proportion of pleasure to pain.


Even if we were to assume, that happiness can be calculated by the amount of dis(comfort) we feel because of certain actions; there is an issue with the theory, since happiness in itself, is not as easily definable as Mill (and other utilitarianists) professed.


Particularly, when you consider one very specific phenomenon: the hedonic treadmill. This theory claims that everyone has baseline happiness. A threshold that cannot be influenced or altered in the long term. Thus, resulting in a more or less constant personal state of happiness. Perhaps, one could also call it happiness homeostasis.


If we take this to be true, then the whole idea of subtracting pain from pleasure dissolves into insignificance. Conclusively all changes in happiness (whether negative or positive) will revert to a constant baseline.


Happiness = Happiness.


The main takeaway is that nothing is permanent (except your personal happiness baseline) neither pleasure nor pain. Patrick Watson sings: “Don’t be a fool, nothing is ever supposed to last” (coincidentally my song of the day, while I write this) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEdw0Anl5u4


So, would it be a contradiction for me to say that people are not their happiest when their happiness levels temporarily rise, like blood sugar from a donut bathed in sugar, but actually are happier at a lower state: that of their natural happiness homeostasis. “More” happiness is found in not seeking these easy sugar/happiness highs...


Returning to the trolley problem then:


If you save the lives of five people by killing one, then you have “increased” the potential happiness of those five people and their family and friends, but you have “decreased” that of the one you sacrificed and your own inner peace; saving five cannot make up for the guilt of killing one... but over time you will get used to it, and the other five people will continue to live their lives, perhaps unconscientiously, even forget what had happened to them and everyone will continue to live; some miserable lives, some boring lives, some happy lives, some indifferent lives: all running on their individual treadmills. (This result would look the same if five died instead of one), the arbitrary number of “happier” baseline lives would be the same it is impossible to calculate/foresee the “happier” people in advance.