Accelerating Future Transhumanism, AI, nanotech, the Singularity, and extinction risk.

27Jan/1112

Happiness Set Point and Existential Risk

Talking to Phil, Stephen, and PJ on FastForward Radio last night, I made a point that I make often in person but I don't think I've ever said on my blog.

The point is a reaction to accusations of doomsaying. People say, "you're so negative, contemplating catastrophic scenarios and apocalypse!" My response is that rather than being indicative of me being pessimistic or depressed, it is actually evidence that I am a happy person. Because I have a high happiness set point, I am enabled to consider negative scenarios without suffering personal depression or momentary sadness. I am immune from the reactive flinching away that most people have when they consider nuclear war or robots destroying all humans. Well, not entirely immune, but certainly more immune than most, and acclimation is part of it.

Because of my high happiness set point, there are greater volumes of idea space that I can comfortably navigate. Try it. Can you consider nuclear war in an entirely objective way, thinking about scientific facts and evidence, rather than fixating on the emotional human impact? For me and some of my friends, nuclear war can be brought up at a casual conversation, without gloominess, simply because it's interesting to work through the probabilities involved. We can be sad and humanistic/emotional about it too, but we have the option to be analytical as well. Others don't have a choice. More choices is good in this situation.

People with an average or low happiness set-point are unfortunately handicapped. They can't think about negative possibilities without feeling sad. Thus, that portion of the memetic state space is blocked off to them. Poor schmucks.

Ironically, their inability to rationally confront existential risks increases the probability that we will all experience a disaster. Unfortunate, because their actions will cause others to suffer.

A corollary of this effect is that when existential risks are brought up at all, it tends to be in a humorous context, because most people are too fragile to consider it in a non-humorous context.

Comments (12) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I don’t think happiness and considering existential risk work as you describe, at least not universally. Though I’m emphatically not a happy person, I have no emotional difficulty examining the technical aspects of nuclear war. (The notion of thinking about anything in an entirely objective way is impossible and/or meaningless.) What evidence do you have for this simplistic theory?

  2. That’s a whole lot of theoretical edifice to hold on that indirectly related idea (of happiness set point). I don’t see how any of it can be seriously believed, beyond being hypotheses worth noticing, unless you have more data that you didn’t mention.

  3. Good rationalization. You are smart and creative.

  4. It’s just a theory, sorry if it’s not immediately persuasive.

  5. If this is a theory you actually believe, you can’t get away with just “it’s just a theory”. If you don’t believe it, and only consider it a possibility worth noticing, don’t confuse your readers by not making that clear.

  6. I’ve plenty of experience that supports this theory. About half of my family has a low happiness set point, while I’m way up high on the scale. I know the results of talking about bad things with them. Bad results. They’re really incapable of dealing with any negativity without collapsing into anxious, sometimes raging heaps. They really need their meds.

  7. “People with an average or low happiness set-point […] can’t think about negative possibilities without feeling sad. Thus, that portion of the memetic state space is blocked off to them. Poor schmucks.”
    Your conclusion here is false. The times I thought most about negative possibilities were exactly when I was depressed. You can check that by reading the beginning of my personal blog (deathrant.net).

    I do not accept mental blocks for myself. Staring down the deepest philosophical abysses has become something like a second nature to me. But that has not made me immune to depression. However, I see my depressed phases as chance for personal growth. Somehow this implicit strategy worked out pretty fine for me.

  8. The times I thought most about negative possibilities were exactly when I was depressed.

    I’ve had the same experience. When you feel you’ve got little to lose, the only thing distressing about nuclear war is the chance you might survive it.

  9. A related question: other things being equal, what is the optimal hedonic set-point – at, above, or below “hedonic zero” – that will minimise existential risk? Thus at one extreme, many of the nearly one million depressed people who take their own lives in the world each year might take the rest of the world too – if they were readily able to do so. This is more than an idle speculation if you agree with Eliezer Yudkowsky: “Every eighteen months, the minimum IQ necessary to destroy the world drops by one point.”

    I think issues of mood control and existential risk may be more closely connected than is normally believed. Most folk would probably assume they are unnconnected.

  10. “Can you consider nuclear war in an entirely objective way, thinking about scientific facts and evidence, rather than fixating on the emotional human impact? For me and some of my friends, nuclear war can be brought up at a casual conversation, without gloominess, simply because it’s interesting to work through the probabilities involved.”

    So your emotions are never involved in the first place? I would say this suggests then that your initial happiness set point doesn’t matter. If you had instead said that you were incredibly high at the beginning of the conversation, and then at the end only mildly positive, we could conclude that having a high happiness set point shielded you from the negative effects of the conversation. But that’s not what’s going on here. Unless you’re saying that being very happy allows you to act with emotional detachment.

    I’m the least happy person I know, and I have no trouble thinking about these things. It doesn’t change my level of happiness at all since I’m effectively compartmentalizing all of my pondering, in the same way that I suspect you are.

    Also, a different but relevant counterargument: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=depressions-evolutionary

  11. The conclusion you make is ridiculous; the two things have absolutely no relationship to each other. If they did, it seems more likely that those with a higher happiness set point would feel ‘gloom’ when such topics were brought up, as their basic tendency is to dwell on the positive.

    As a person with a low happiness set point, I am so used to dwelling on the negative that it is a fun exercise to contemplate nuclear fallout or a zombie outbreak. I don’t think that the ability to contemplate doomsday scenarios has anything to do with happiness; it is likelier that it has to do with IQ and the ability to think of things objectively.


Leave a comment

Trackbacks are disabled.