10 Oct But the problem is that it is hard to understand one’s own emotions (Daniel Cohen)
Television and advertising play on an essential aspect of human nature: the pathological need to compare oneself with others. A person can genuinely cry at the misfortune of someone else, and yet simultaneously be envious of the person who succeeds better than he does. In a laboratory experiment where people are asked about their preferences, the students at an American university respond that they would prefer to earn $50,000 when their fellow students earn $25,000, rather than earn $100,000 when the others earn $200,000. The results of this experiment are observed in real life. Happiness depends on comparisons that each person establishes with a reference group, whether friends or colleagues. In American families, an astonishing observation has been made: a wife will have a greater probability of working if her sister’s husband earns more than her own husband. In effect, she must compensate for the lack of earning power she feels vis-à-vis her own sister.
But fortunately human rivalry does not extend across all dimensions. It disappears in leisure, for example. The same American college students were asked to choose between two options: (1) you have two weeks vacation and your colleagues only one, or (2) you have four weeks vacation and the others eight; they all chose the second option, that of spending four weeks on holiday. No mimetic behaviour is being observed here. Rivalry bears only on visible traits of social success. The silent happiness of others – here about free time – does not sharpen competitiveness.
The economist Bruno Frey has proposed a very useful classification to understand the mechanisms at work when people compare themselves to others. He suggests distinguishing between ‘extrinsic goods’ and ‘intrinsic goods’. The former relate to status and wealth: these are the external signs of social success, the social heritage that is accumulated over the course of time that marks everybody’s place in society. Intrinsic goods are linked to the affection of others (relatedness), to love, to the feeling of having a purpose in life. These are experiences ‘in flux’, which change with passing time. Extrinsic goods sharpen social rivalry, while intrinsic goods augment wellbeing, but silently.
Unless you are a saint or a socialite (Schopenhauer said: without being either ‘Stoic or Machiavellian’), both kinds of goods are certainly necessary in order to be happy.
But the problem is that it is hard to understand one’s own emotions, and we systematically underestimate the benefits of intrinsic goods. Many people dream of a mansion and therefore choose to move out of the city centre to find a better ratio between quality and price in real estate. But they forget the psychological cost of commuting and often end up (without wanting to admit it) regretting their choice.
Why is it so hard to understand what is good for you? Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist by training who got the Nobel Prize in economics, has taken up this question. He shows that we tend to retain only two moments: the most intense and the last. Of vacations, I remember the farewells when going home and the most exciting day. Everything else vanishes in the halo of life that is past. This ‘peak/end’ model makes us forget intermediary moments.7 Doing so, projecting into the future, people tend also to ignore experienced duration. They project themselves into ‘peak’ experiences to the detriment of others in the ‘strong flow’. Memory has a hard time retaining the silent emotions of ordinary days. Marcel Proust’s genius in his novel In Search of Lost Time is to show the struggle in oneself to get beyond the ordinary propensity to retain only the outstanding moments. ‘Lost time’ has the double sense of past time that you think you have forgotten, and the time you think you lost in doing futile things that are nevertheless essential.
Homo Economicus: The (Lost) Prophet of Modern Times