The ending to my psychology course covers the concept of happiness, and most of these details are included here. In general, it turns out that happiness is fairly heritable, but there is of course more to it than that. Here we will talk about some basic nuances that will affect your happiness, and describe how the variability in your happiness is affected by external factors. Finally, trying to connect it to watches, the argument and variability of happiness is largely a function of the company you keep, and what you are exposed to most frequently, but it need not be a source of sadness. We are the architects of our own thoughts after all.
Let’s start with a question: how happy are you? How happy is your life? Although it is a vague question, try to answer it in your head, on a scale from one to ten.
This question has been asked over and over again across many countries and across many thousands of people, and almost nobody answers ten. Most people do think that they’re substantially happier than the midpoint, so common answers are seven and eight.
One study did this across 42 countries, and they found that none of them had an average happiness under five. In this one study, the most happy were the Swiss, the most miserable were the Bulgarians
Your answer to this question seems to have real meaning, but at the same time any single reading isn’t perfectly reliable and could be swayed by small effects. There was an experiment to prove this, where they tested a sample of people but half of the people ‘found’ some money right before they were asked how happy they were – and the the other half didn’t find anything. It turned out when asked how good their life was, the people who found some money were happier.
So, what is happiness? Happiness for an evolutionary psychologist is a goal-state that animals have evolved to pursue. When you’re happy, that means your needs have been satisfied. For instance, hunger is unpleasant, and if you’re really hungry you’ll probably be miserable – hence the term “hangry”!
Steve Pinker sums this up quite nicely. He notes, “We are happier when we are healthy, well-fed, comfortable, safe, prosperous, knowledgeable, respected, non-celibate, and loved”. If you look in your life and you could tick off all of these things, then you are probably going to be happy!
That said, Pinker notes himself that it’s not quite that simple. There are a few facts that should shake your perception that happiness is a simple matter. One is that people right now, are healthier, better fed, safer, than just about any other time in history, but yet don’t seem to be happier. It is not true that people get progressively happier as their status in life increases, not to mention there are individual differences in happiness. We could all be in the same community and all have our basic needs met, but some people are very happy and some people aren’t happy at all.
To explain this, we will look at three key facts about happiness.
Happiness has a set point
Happiness doesn’t change as much as you think, i.e. you have a set point. This is similar to your weight, temperament, or intelligence, where there is a genetically determined range of how happy you are likely to be. This has been demonstrated with studies, for example, on identical twins raised apart in very different environments who tend to be similarly happy. To some extent this is common sense; some people are naturally cheerful, positive, and joyous while others are more reticent, maybe glum and less happy. This doesn’t mean that a miserable person can’t achieve great happiness, or a very happy person can’t become glum.
So, what about life events? Life events will indeed change your happiness one way or another. Imagine the worst thing that could happen to you, and then ask, how much would it change your happiness? Then imagine the best thing that can happen to you and ask, how much would it change your happiness? There have been studies looking at response to different life events including becoming a paraplegic in an accident, or winning an enormous sum of money. It turns out that while these events do have some influence on happiness, it is not a large influence. Surprisingly, even the most influential or intense events like becoming paralysed, only temporarily make people miserable. Sometimes it will last weeks, often months, but then, people tend to get back to where they started from. This doesn’t always happen “perfectly”, but the general idea is we tend to get used to both positive and negative events.
So why does this happen? Firstly, we just fail to appreciate that certain things are irrelevant. To a surprising extent, the things that you might think are incredibly important, don’t actually make much of a difference! If you won £100k today, you’d still have to live your life, deal with kids, do the laundry and face Monday blues. Day-to-day life is often simply uninfluenced by things which seem very important. Secondly, the reason why these events don’t matter very much is the logic of “the set point” where each person has a basic amount of happiness, and then when events happen, they simply adapt to them. Typically you can get used to certain bad things i.e. your life is worse but you don’t always feel it as worse. Weirdly, there are some surprising exceptions to this… you never really get used to a long commute, and you don’t adapt well to background noise – but for the most part, we adapt to bad things and we adapt to good things. Another exception on the positive side is cosmetic surgery for instance, which actually can make you happier (in that it resets the set-point).
How is it that we adapt to bad events? A bad event might be losing your job, losing a great sum of money, a breakup with somebody you love, or becoming paralysed. As discussed above, these events often don’t affect as much of your life as you think they will. A different reason is, we simply get used to it, and that’s called adaptation. The final reason, is defended by Dan Gilbert, who talks about the psychological immune system. The psychological immune system is a psychological mechanism that makes you seek out the good side of things. Gilbert gives many examples of good people to whom, terrible things have happened… and these folks look back and say, “that was the best thing in my life”. Although this may be irrational it seems to make us happier, and make us be able to better bounce back from bad events.
There’s a nice illustration of this in this 3 minute TED Talk by Stacey Kramer entitled “The best gift I ever survived”.
The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heavenJohn Milton
Happiness is relative
The next key fact has to do with the influences on happiness. While there is indeed a set point that restrains the amount of happiness we might have, and while we are able to bounce back from negative events – this doesn’t mean that we aren’t influenced by our world. We definitely are.
For starters, your life situation has an absolute effect on your happiness. The simplest illustration of this is is the happiness of people in different countries – studies show that the richer the country, the happier the people are on average. That said, happiness is largely influenced by how successful you are relative to the people around you, and that is because we think relatively. We are social creatures, hierarchical creatures, and we’re incredibly sensitive to where we stand relative to other people.
You can try this as a thought experiment. Would you rather make 100,000 if everybody else in your office makes 90,000; or 90,000 and everyone else in your office makes 60,000? While a lot of people would simply choose the larger absolute number, I think to some extent we’d be swayed by making absolutely less, but making much more relative to other people.
The happiness literature suggests that one measure to predict how happy somebody is, is not merely through their absolute income or absolute status in the world, but where they stand relative to other people.
Our judgements about pain and pleasure of past events are skewed
The final key fact on happiness isn’t really an insight on happiness per se, but more to do with short-term pleasure. This area is the work of Daniel Kahneman who was a famous psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economics for his work, including this topic.
As an experiment, here’s a question… What would you like better – A) a medical procedure that’s very painful for an hour then it stops? Or B) the same, exact same medical procedure, very painful for an hour, then the same procedure continues for five more minutes and it’s only mildly painful… then it stops.
Now this might seem like the dumbest question in the world of course. A is better. The only difference between A and B is that B has more pain in it, so of course you’d rather have A. It turns out, Kahneman did this research in all sorts of ways, including testing people who really were undergoing painful medical procedures, and they find that B leaves a better memory.
Why would it do that? When we look back on past events and assess their pleasure and pain, we tend to do so not by just summing up the amount of pleasure and pain that they experience, but instead focusing on peaks and endings. You remember the extremes, the biggest moment of pain, the greatest moment of pleasure, and you also remember how it ends.
So this leads to a valuable finding, that if you had to distribute pain and pleasure across time, you’re much better off putting the pleasure at the end and the pain everywhere else. Compare a party that’s hugely fun at the beginning but it ends badly. with an awful party, which ends really well. You might think if you carefully calibrated the good and the bad, that the good party would be much much better – but in the real world that is not quite so. Endings matter so much that a good ending can override a whole lot of bad and a bad ending can destroy a whole lot of good. Endings really do matter!
Tying it all together in relation to watches
Yet again, this is a vast topic and I am trying to create tangents to an area of interest to me and my hobby. As most of you reading this will be aware, there is always an insatiable desire to buy more watches, to experience the ‘new watch alert’ feeling once more – as we believe this will make us happier. The truth, as many will admit (and many will not!), is that the feeling doesn’t last forever – and as the theory suggests, we revert to our set point over time.
Now there are a few ways to look at this; one is that we don’t really care about fancy watches and complications at all. If you think back to a time when you didn’t collect watches, you were not necessarily sadder than you are today. Another view, is that we don’t really need to have several watches to be happy – we could simply see one particular watch as sufficient for our needs, and this will tick one of the boxes to keep us happy permanently (with regards to this need, just like food will tick the hunger box). Yet another view, is the aspect of relativity; where we have created connections and friendships with people who have better watches than our own, which, by definition means we are lower in the hierarchy of collection – thus leading to a lower level of happiness (with our own collection).
I am sure there are many other lenses with which to view watch collecting in relation to happiness, and this post isn’t intended to be a revelatory essay – what is important here is to be better able to accurately gauge one’s own circumstances. The hardest part is to avoid the problem of relativity, and the assessment of one’s own collection as a comparison within your social group.
It is also worth remembering that whatever your set point might be – you’ll inevitably revert back to this level soon after a new watch purchase. I would however argue that this isn’t true for all purchases. I have said before that we should evaluate each purchase on the basis of its own merit – so it must therefore be true that each new purchase when done with perfect information and research, is filling a very specific need in your collection. This might lead to a ‘set point reset’ – similar to the circumstances described with cosmetic surgery.
That being said, it isn’t likely to be the case with all purchases simply because no research is perfect, and we often don’t really have access to complete information – a simple example is when you’ve done all your research on a watch, and simply cannot find a way to see it in person and try it on – you might still pull the trigger and upon receipt, realise that as perfect as the piece might have been on paper, it simply isn’t for you (or vice versa).
So what’s the point then? What is there to take away here? For me, it is that there are very few watches which will truly change your happiness set point, i.e. reset your baseline level of happiness upwards, due to the acquisition of a new watch. All the other new watches will provide only short-term spikes in happiness, which will inevitably decline back to your set point. The characteristics of those ‘defining’ pieces, I think, will be down to your social circles and collector friends – if you hang out with people who exclusively collect Dufour and Journe, you’re probably never going to ever be happy with your own collection if it doesn’t match up to the stuff you see all the time. That being said, it doesn’t NEED to be this way!
Why not? The reason is, you are the one with the power to decide how you feel about these things. Just like the aforementioned TED talk – You could see the positive side of having friends with amazing watches. The truth is, not everyone gets to see, let alone handle (or borrow) 6 figure watches too often. I own an F.P. Journe and outside of a Redbar event, I have never seen any Journe watches in the wild… yet, among my friends, we own several! This is something I choose to see as a privilege, rather than something to be sad about just because I don’t own them. What’s the big deal with ownership anyway? I have a bunch of watches but only get to wear one at a time – I see folks with several dozen ‘true grail’ watches and often wonder what the point is – all of these beautiful watches are spending 99% of their lives in a safe or a vault, not being used or enjoyed as the maker intended it – how sad is that? Sure, maybe this is what I tell myself as my ‘psychological immune system’ protects me from feeling sad about not having such a large or beautiful collection – and if that’s the case, so be it! I take comfort in being happy, but also being happy for those who have more – as this allows me to live vicariously through my friends and fellow collectors!
What are your views on this?