Amazon is great, but many of my favorite books still come from physical bookstores.
Last month at a Tokyo bookstore, I discovered Tomas Sedlacek’s The Economics of Good and Evil. The book was a surprise bestseller in Czech, but I’d never heard of it before.
The book helped upgrade my thinking around the following question: “Why the heck is it so hard to feel satisfied?”
First, let’s do a quick review of why it’s so hard to be satisfied.
We adapt to almost anything we do or consume. This means that spending more or buying more may be—in the long run—effectively useless for making us happy or satisfied.
Here’s Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman on the subject:
“It’s really interesting to think about whether people are happier now than they were [in the past]. This is not at all obvious because people adapt and habituate to most of what they have. So, the question to consider about well-being and about providing various goods to people, is whether they’re going to get used to having those goods, and whether they continue to enjoy those goods.”
Economists used to think (and many of them still do, I guess) that, when we get rich enough, we’d stop wanting more.
That was a critical mistake, says Sedlacek:
“Some time ago we thought that the more we will have, the less we will need or want. But here is where we made a major mistake. Needs grow with what we have. We will never be satiated. …demand (want, lust, craving) grows larger and larger with every new supply—until, out of oversaturation, we could get into the situation described in Psalm 107: ‘They loathed all food.'”
It get worse. It’s typical to think that having more means needing less. But it may be the opposite—having more means needing even more:
“We thought that consumption leads to saturation, the satiation of our needs. But the opposite has proven to be true. The more we have, the more additional things we need. It’s enough to compare all that we did not need twenty years ago (computers, mobile telephones) with what we objectively need today (ultralight laptops, new mobile phones every two years, permanent and fast connection to the mobile internet). While the rich should have fewer unfulfilled needs than the poor, the reality is turning out to be absolutely the opposite.“
Nothing new here yet. I’ve written about this before. I needed one more idea from Sedlacek’s book to come to an important realization: These problems are really, really old.
One theme of Sedlacek’s book is that myths, stories, and fables capture “truths” about human experience. Take two classic stories that we’re all familiar with: (a) the story of Pandora’s box and (b) the story of Adam & Eve’s fall from paradise.
Both stories, says Sedlacek, tell us about how hard it is to find satisfaction:
“…in both stories it was a desire, curiosity, especially an exaggerated demand and an insatiability, or, if you will, inadequacy that brought evil to the earth. Eve and Adam could eat in abundance of “every tree in the garden,” but that was still not enough for them. … These stories reveal something to us: Even if we have enough of everything and live in paradise, it will still not be enough for us, and we will have a constant tendency … to consume what we do not need to consume…”
In The Tantalus Problem: Why More Cannot Make Us Happy, I also wrote about the story of Tantalus:
“In Greek mythology, Tantalus was punished for eternity to stand in a pool of water that sat under a fruit tree. When he tried to pick the fruit, the branches would rise away from his fingers. When he bent down to drink, the waters would descend down out of his reach.
“No matter how much he struggled, he could not find his reward. Such is the fate of those that fall prey to the lures of wealth, consumerism,power. Happiness is always just out of reach.”
What this means to me is that our ancestors struggled with same problems we did. Pandora opened the box. Eve ate the fruit. For longer than we can remember, our ancestors have struggled with desire, and these struggles were captured in the form of myths and stories. Myths are lies that tell the truth.
That’s when I realized something. If these problems are so old and they’ve been around since the dawn of time, then there’s a chance that the problem can’t be solved.
Sedlacek argues that “insaturability” is a natural part of human nature. It’s a never-ending story that we can’t escape from:
“I do not want to propose here that we give up our possessions but to show that this is a never-ending story. We are naturally discontented—as we have seen, insaturability is something that has been in human nature from its very beginning... It goes against human nature, [The 18th century German philosopher] Kant writes, ‘to stop possessing and enjoying at some point and be satisfied.'”
That’s nice, but it doesn’t satisfy me (har, har). Annoying kids like me always ask: “Why? Why is it part of human nature? Why is the problem insoluble?”
One interesting answer comes from Hurley & Dennett’s excellent book, Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse Engineer the Mind. In it, the authors ask a big question: Why did we evolve with such damaging behaviors like overreaction or addiction? Wouldn’t that be counterproductive?
Here’s what they say:
“Why didn’t evolution provide us with the right emotional constitution to restrain us from engaging in these damaging behaviors? [New environmental challenges are] not the primary reason. Cheating and procrastination are age-old problems. And, though we might just chalk it up to evolutionary oversights … there is another more convincing answer: Because it can’t.”
Ohohoho. Oh boy.
Here’s what I think Hurley is saying: “No, these aren’t problems that, with enough prayers for grant money or enough sessions of intravenous hormone injections, we will be able solve. These problems are insoluble. They’ll always be with us.”
That’s not to say we can’t manage alcoholism or drug abuse. We can. But addictions—in one form or another—will always exist.
Now, back to the question: Why can’t we solve the problem?
Well, if you think about it, many of our vices—procrastination, binge eating, gambling, etc.—all originate from emotions & desires that were originally “good”. For example, laziness is good because it conserves energy, but it can turn into chronic procrastination. Eating sugar (in moderate amounts) is good because you need it to survive, but it can turn into overeating. And so on.
What this means is that our emotions and urges are rational. They guide us toward things that promote survival. Curiosity gathers knowledge. Sugar cravings gather calories. Anger warns others that we should be respected.
Emotions are rational, but they also make mistakes. Our eyes do a wonderful job 99%+ of the time but sometimes we see optical illusions. Likewise, our emotions do a wonderful job for most of our life, but sometimes they go crazy.
We can’t avoid mistakes. Why? Because we’re small, weak beings and the world is really complicated. The emotions make “educated guesses” and sometimes those educated guesses go wrong. There’s no way around it.
Or, as the authors puts it (in slightly more sophisticated language):
“The emotions are rational, but the system is a heuristic driver of behavior that operates on incomplete information; so we must accept that emotions will fail us in some ways, such as overreactions and addictions, that are irresolvable.”
Now, on to my favorite part.
If what Hurley and Dennett say is true, then (I think) this problem holds true for all intelligent creatures.
Even if you upgrade yourself into a cyborg, create an AI robot, or meet an alien from another planet, they’re all going struggle with the same fundamental problem—all of us are finite, limited creatures facing off against a world that is bigger, more complex, and impossible to predict.
Aliens will still cheat on their purple-skinned Alien spouses. Aliens will still eat too many bowls of Dippin’ Dots ice cream, and then fail miserably when they go on diets. Aliens will still gamble away their Space Credits at the nearest planetary casino.
Some movements like transhumanism think we can re-engineer the human organism in order to solve many of our most pressing problems.
I’m not as optimistic. Maybe we’ll be able to come up with better solutions—I don’t know. But I don’t think we’ll ever find a cure-all. The problem of desire is something that can be managed but never cured.
So how can we go about managing our desires? There are two ways, says Sedlacek:
“It would appear that there are two ways to be happy in consumption: to permanently escalate consumption (to reach the next unit of happiness, we need ever more consumption material) or to become aware that we have enough.”
In other words, our options are to
(A) Increase consumption, forever and always into the future. Sedlacek calls this “the hedonist program”, for obvious reasons. It’s a hedonic pursuit of more, more, more.
(B) Limit your desires. Sedlacek calls this “the stoic program”, after the therapeutic school of Stoic philosophy that used various techniques to limit their desires.
We’ve already seen a little bit of why (A) isn’t going to cut it. Desires always grow faster than our possessions. Plus, the Earth has limited resources. Growing consumption isn’t sustainable. There’s only one earth and we’re not getting another one anytime soon.
Our best bet, then, is to try our best to limit our desires. What follows are some things that I find useful.
First, just being aware helps. Now that I know more consumption may actually make things worse, I am hesitant to buy things. I shattered my phone a few months ago, but I still use it. I’ve used the same $10 headphones for years and years. I’m okay with an income that is “below average”—more is nice, but I know it won’t revolutionize my life.
Psychological tactics can help too. The philosophies of Stoicism, Buddhism, and Epicureanism are all good places to start. I like Seneca’s letters and Montaigne’s essays, which I read a few pages from each night.
You can also use “environmental” tactics. It’s hard to desire things you don’t know exist, so I try to keep myself ignorant of all the things I don’t have. I live near Tokyo, but I try to avoid going to the city unless I have to. Everybody is too well-dressed, with shiny handbags and expensive haircuts. Plus, there are ads everywhere—on the trains, on billboards, etc—all announcing to me how much I don’t have.
Choosing the right friends is important too. I avoid people who get a lot of self-esteem from achievement—people who can’t feel good unless they earn more than others or feel they are “successful.” Self-help has an ego problem.
But perhaps the most interesting thing you can do, says Sedlacek, is to “redirect” your desires. Our desire for more won’t go away, but we can at least teach ourselves to desire the right things:
“Insufficiency is inherent to man; it is our characteristic, which, according to the story of the Garden of Eden, existed even before the Fall… But we can influence what we begin to lack. And we should pay closer attention to what we choose.”
Lately, I’m pretty obsessed with figuring out how the world works. Despite what Pandora has to say about it, I think boundless curiosity isn’t too terrible of a vice to have.
It’s been 14 months now, and I thought I’d give readers a look into what I carry.
But before we take a look, a word on why.
“Having is not so pleasing a thing as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.” ––Spock
My thoughts on the why behind simplification––
Okay, let’s take a look at the goodies.
What I focus on when purchasing:
|2x Uniqlo Airism Underwear|
|2x Athletic Shirts|
|2x Gym Shorts|
|$10 Shoes / $3 Flip Flops|
|2x Uniqlo Socks|
|Google Fi Backup Battery|