Wednesday, September 16, 2009


September 15, 2009, 9:30 pm
The Long and Short of It
By Paul Bloom

Is it better to be a happy pig or sad Socrates? How should one choose between happiness and other values, such as wisdom, morality, and piety? You have an angel on one shoulder, the devil on the other — who do you listen to?

One of the insights of modern happiness research is that these are questions we often don’t have to answer. While happiness can clash with other ideals, the surprising finding is how often they go together. One usually doesn’t have to decide, for instance, whether to be happy or to be good. We are constituted so that simple acts of kindness, such as giving to charity or expressing gratitude, have a positive effect on our long-term moods. The key to the happy life, it seems, is the good life, a life with sustained relationships, challenging work, and connections to community. You can be happy Socrates.
We shouldn’t underestimate the short-term self Sometimes the long-term self should stay out of its way.

But what about short-term pleasures, like eating cake, drinking beer, or having sex? Here there is often a clash. These feel good, but if your long-term goals have to do with dieting, sobriety or chastity, you might regret them later. So there is a different dilemma: Do you live a good and happy life or do you satisfy your immediate appetites? Is it better to be Happy Socrates or Happy Homer Simpson?

You can see this as an internal battle between two individuals residing in the same body: one who wants to be thin, sober and chaste, the other who wants to eat, drink and fornicate. It’s the long-term self who is probably reading this now; this is the self that chooses to go to the therapist and read self-help books, working to thwart the short-term self when it comes to life in the presence of temptation.

We shouldn’t underestimate the short-term self, though. It is not necessarily evil and not necessarily stupid. Sometimes the long-term self should stay out of its way.

Admittedly, intervention does sometimes make sense. People who succumb to short-term impulses often do awful things, such as driving drunk or beating up their children. They would better off if their long-term selves had control, and could block and distract these short-term choices. But often the situation is flipped, and it’s the long-term self that’s misguided. It can become committed to belief systems that have immoral consequences. Terrorism and genocide, for instance, are typically deliberate choices, not acts of passion; it’s the long-term self that’s the guilty one. Indeed, people often have to force themselves to commit terrible acts; they have to work to defy the natural and legitimate moral impulses of their short-term selves.

Even putting aside atrocities, sometimes we deprive ourselves of perfectly good pleasures, including those involving love and companionship, because of the decisions of the long-term self. Think of the workaholic who never sees his children, or the anorexic who denies herself the pleasure of food.

What motivates the short-term self? Some of its pleasures are easy enough to explain: sex and food and friendship are evolutionary no-brainers, we enjoy them because they motivate us in adaptively useful ways. But others are more mysterious.

As a psychologist, one of my favorite puzzles is the motivation to experience pain and unpleasantness, something the psychologist Paul Rozin has called “benign masochism.” The best examples here are the pleasures of the imagination. There are millions who pay to see movies that terrify them, including those with scenes of imaginative and horrific torture. Others prefer sadness to fear. They are drawn to the suicidal prince, the young mother dying of cancer, the school bus and the cliff. Hundreds of years ago, David Hume marveled at the “unaccountable pleasure” that spectators of a tragedy feel from sorrow, terror, and anxiety: “The more they are touched and affected, the more they are delighted with the spectacle.”
Even seemingly perverse pleasures have meaning; they have been shaped by natural selection to solve problems that we might not be consciously aware of.

Why would we get such delight from unpleasantness? Could this be some flaw in the system, a perverse mis-wiring of our brains? Some scholars believe in catharsis — that negative experiences build up, and ultimately burst out, leaving us feeling sated and purified. But this is a lousy theory. Water pressure is a poor metaphor for intense emotions, and it’s not just true that they have this sort of cathartic effect. Most people don’t walk out of horror movies feeling calm and safe; tragedies don’t leave us giddy and uplifted. Negative emotions don’t burst out of us; they simmer within.

A better idea, I think, is that these pleasures reflect a form of safe practice — or, to use a more common term, a form of play. Some play is physical: It is a useful skill to be able to attack and defend yourself skillfully, and you get better at it the more you practice, but real fights are risky and painful, and so certain animals, including us, are constituted to take pleasure in play fighting, going through the moves of combat with someone we like, holding back so that nobody is hurt.

Then there is imaginative play. We use our minds to explore alternative worlds, an indispensable skill when it comes to planning for the future. From this perspective, the appeal of horror and tragedy doesn’t lie in the specifics. It’s not that we have to prepare ourselves for the rise of the undead or our father being betrayed by the Queen. We are drawn to horror and tragedy because they are creative representations of worst-case scenarios, situations that we really need to worry about, such as being attacked by strangers, betrayed by friends, experiencing the death of those we love, and so on.

It’s a fascinating question to me how far this “safe practice” theory can be pushed, whether it can explain other masochistic behaviors, including social and sexual ones. But if it is right at all, it would show that being a hedonist is more complicated than it looks. Even seemingly perverse pleasures have meaning; they have been shaped by natural selection to solve problems that we might not be consciously aware of. Simple pleasures aren’t that simple after all.

This doesn’t mean that we should be indulging in them—perhaps there are better things to do today than go to a horror movie. But it does suggest that we should hesitate before dismissing such desires as selfish or irrelevant. Perhaps the good life doesn’t require constant warfare. Perhaps people are better off if their multiple selves establish a truce, respecting one another’s different strengths, and working together to satisfy shared goals.

Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, is the author of “Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human.” His book “How Pleasure Works” will be published next year.