Happiness as a…maximizer?

Today, I want to talk about paperclips- I’m not sure I even know enough about that reference to do it justice, but really, it’s not that important. If you get the reference, cool, but if not- I’ll do my best to explore the topic without requiring outside reading.
It’s been really useful for me to come up with baselines by which I can value my own behavior.
Short cuts, to help me clear the clutter in my own brain.
The most crucial came about when I was in high school, though it’s evolved a number of times since then.


There was a moment in time in which I realized I didn’t have an answer to the question: “who am I?”
I started trying to come up with possible ways to figure out an answer to that question- after all, that’s not a thing I could learn from anyone else.
Looking around me, it seemed like everyone had different ideas of what it means to be human. They were real to them, even if I didn’t view the world similarly.
I started trying to figure out how people could have developed such different ideas, such different types of knowledge about the world.
I have heard that it is whether or not a thing is cross-cultural that can be used to determine whether it’s culturally or genetically inherited – humans express emotions in broadly similar ways, across the globe. So, genetic. But religious beliefs? Even scientific understandings- these things are not cross-cultural.
Not genetic, though the processes by which we form these beliefs, might be.
If they are learned- we can dictate the course of that learning.
We can, effectively, choose what meaning we want to find in life.
So. My first step toward trying to find myself, to figure out ‘who I was’- was to decide what I found most valuable to seek in life.
At that time, I decided what was most important to me was making other people happy.
This was limited in scope and ultimately resulted in heartbreak and disaster.
But- it gave me a prime directive.
Once I had an explicit goal in mind- I had something with which to conduct my own assessments of the efficacy, the morality, of my own actions.
I was no longer so in the dark. No longer floundering quite so aimlessly.
The problem with that particular prime directive was that it caused me to skew my analyses. My equations were all off!
I wasn’t taking myself into account.
But when I made happiness my prime directive- happiness in general; my own, valued just as that of those around me… Everything started working, in a way nothing had, before.
I can’t save anyone else from drowning when I am at risk of doing so, myself. I gave beyond my resources. I sacrificed. Which meant I inevitably hit a wall at some point. Things would implode, and I’d cause far more damage than I would have just leaving well enough alone.
When I approach life with the happiness (though I still don’t really like that word, it’s not quite accurate to what I have in my head!) of all as the benchmark-
Well, that political discussion on Twitter recently is a good example.
Sure, people seemed to enjoy engaging.
But people don’t need me to talk about politics. That gets done plenty, without me.
Whatever value people gained from me starting that discussion- it was not enough to make it worth the hurt some of it caused the people it triggered.
I have had a lot of difficulty trying to communicate the equations I do in my head to help me make decisions about how I should act- and I think part of it is that they’re instinctive.
They’re flexible, fluid. And unique to me.
I think we all do these kinds of things, subconsciously (or consciously, for some of you!) – and they’re necessarily going to be different from person to person.
I think that’s okay. I feel like that’s what makes life so beautiful, so endlessly fascinating.
There just isn’t a pat system that everyone can follow, always, to figure out how to be human.
I think it’d get rather dull on this planet, were that not the case.
I believe that the only way we can learn about those differences, is by openly communicating about them.
I like this. Thinking about the “prime directive” (well not the Star Trek kind), the thing to maximize. I’m big on the idea of maximizing sanity.
There’s this Less Wrong expression of “raising the sanity waterline” for the world.
But LW’s culture focuses on “sanity” as the opposite of “irrationality”.
I wish for a much broader definition than that, and a culture of maximizing something like well-being in rational/experimental ways.
And happiness is a central part of that.
I think you have the right idea about the role of communication. We need to have a culture of sharing our efforts, mental differences, and collaboratively understanding the individual differences in our notions of happiness and well-being generally.


I spent three years living on the street in Los Angeles. I came out of that, changed. This is my story.

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