Happiness Is Two Scales

Happiness Is Two Scales

The common way to talk about happiness is as a single scale: unhappy at one end, neutral in the middle, happy at the other end.

I think that model is wrong.

Instead, happiness and unhappiness are two separate, independent scales.[1] A good life requires tackling each one separately.

This dramatically changes how you deal with various life-problems. If someone (including yourself) is struggling with low well-being, it's important to ascertain which of two problems are happening:

  • not enough happiness
  • too much unhappiness

If someone has a lot of unhappiness, they need to get rid of some negative influence in their life. If they don't have enough happiness, they need to add something positive to their life.

What are the actual, actionable upshots of this?

First, you can have any combination of happiness and unhappiness. For example, you can be very happy and very unhappy at once: this often seems to be true for people who are running stressful but autonomous projects (startups, non-profits, artistic projects, whatever).

Equally, you can feel not-at-all-happy but also not-at-all-unhappy. It's a strange kind of feeling, and very distinct from (say) "moderately happy and also slightly unhappy", or "very happy and also very unhappy." [Edit: McKinley Valentine says this is called anhedonia, and writes about it excellently].

Second, a lot of the best changes in your life can end up feeling weirdly neutral in the longer-term: they get rid of something really negative, but the lack-of-negative doesn't actually create a positive, and over time you forget what it was like to live with the negative every day. Removing unhappiness doesn't actually increase happiness, it just.... removes unhappiness, which is good but unrelated.

The single-scale model tries to squash these different feelings onto a single line, and that just doesn't work. Happiness and unhappiness are two separate, independent variables.

  1. this sentence either will or won't make sense to you: In the Big Five system, positive emotion is extroversion and negative emotion is neuroticism. They are uncorrelated. Neither word means the same as its everyday-language meaning. ↩︎

With thanks as always to Jehan and Kaamya.

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