On the Impossibility of Happiness: Part 3, Akrasia

We've discussed Reason #1 and Reason #2 about why happiness is so elusive: We don't know what we want and even if we did know we frequently choose the wrong things.

But let's say you choose wisely. Let's say you know what you want and you've chosen well. Your goal, if reached, will make you happier.

So far so good. And congratulations! Few people ever get this far. But I'm not done with you yet.

Having successfully gotten past the first two obstacles you now run into a third:

Even if we know what we want and have chosen well more often than not we give in to short term craving/temptation, thwarting our long-term objectives.
Most of the goals that lead to happiness (e.g., being healthy, more organized, devoted to spiritual disciplines, maritally faithful) tend to be long-term projects. Few short-term gratifications bring lasting satisfaction. In fact, that's generally what temptation is all about. We go for immediate gratification at the expense of a longer-term and more worthy goal. We can take dieting and exercise as a paradigmatic example of this. The long-term goal of being healthy is often thwarted by short-term temptations: This piece of cake or skipping this morning's workout. And it's not just about dieting. Almost every moral, spiritual or happiness failure is driven by this dynamic: Short-term gratification at the expense of long-term joy.

In short, even if we know what ultimately will make us happy we often torpedo the effort by giving into to our short-term cravings.

Why does this happen? Why can't we delay gratification to reach these more worthy, albeit more distant, goals?

The answer seems to have to do with how humans discount the future. As they say, a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush. An immediate reward is often perceived to be more valuable than a delayed reward, even if that delayed reward has a higher absolute value. For example, let's say I offer you this choice:
Choice A: $100
Choice B: $200
Which would you choose? Any normal person would pick the $200 as it is more valuable than the $100. So in a straight up choice $200 is more valued than $100. But what about a choice like this:
Choice A: $100 right now
Choice B: $200 a year from today
In research tests most people take the $100 right now. Why? People discount the future. Although the $200 in this example is, in absolute value, more than $100 it is not as valuable in relative terms because it is one year in the future. The $200 has been discounted and is now perceived as less valuable than the $100.

How much less? Well, that is an important psychological question and the answer explains why we often given in to short-term temptation. The issue rests upon how steeply humans discount the future. Let me try to illustrate this. Choice A is $100 right now. Next, I'll offer a variety of variations for Choice B, each at a different time horizon. Look through the list and decide when you'd move from Choice A ($100 right now) to one of the following:
Choice B:
a) $200 a year from today
b) $200 six months from today
c) $200 three months from today
d) $200 one month from today
e) $200 two weeks from today
f) $200 one week from today
g) $200 three days from today
h) $200 one day from today
i) $200 12 hours from now
h) $200 one hour from now
i) $200 30 minutes from now
j) $200 one minute from now
h) $200 right now
At what point, (a) through (h), do you pick Choice B?

As we noted, at time offerings around (a)-(c) people would rather just take the $100 than wait so long for $200. That is, we discount the future. However, when we look at time offerings around (i)-(j) it seems pretty easy to wait a bit for the $200. As the time horizon for the offer approaches the present the discounting is less and less. We see the $200 as $200 and, thus, prefer it to $100.

In short, time and value are inversely related: Immediate payoffs are more valuable than distant ones. As the offer moves away from us in time we increasingly discount it. As it approaches us in time the discount decreases.

The question psychologists have been examining has to do with the shape of this "discounting curve." When, in the movement from choice (a) through (h), do we make the shift from consuming the less valued outcome immediately (taking the $100 now) versus waiting for the more valued ($200) outcome?

Simplifying greatly, the discounting curve can take one of two shapes. It can be either exponential or hyperbolic in shape. That jargon isn't helpful, but difference between the exponential and hyperbolic discounting curves is simply this:
If people start moving to Choice B early in the example above--in the (a)-(d) range--then they are discounting the future, but not very much. The discounting curve is shallow (i.e., exponential).

If people start moving to Choice B very late in the example above--in the (e)-(h) range--then they dramatically discount the future. The discounting curve is steep (i.e., hyperbolic).
The sum of the matter is this: If humans are exponential discounters then we can wait, we are "future-biased." If we are hyperbolic discounters then we can't wait, we are "present-biased."

So here's the bad new for happiness: The scientific consensus, from scores of studies on this topic, is that humans discount the future hyperbolically. We are present-biased. We struggle with waiting. We prefer a bird in the hand to two in the bush. Smaller and immediate rewards are seen as more valuable than larger more distant rewards.

It is this hyperbolic discounting curve that sits behind what the Greeks called akrasia, "weakness of will." We find it difficult to reach our long-term goals because we discount the future so steeply. We give in to short-term temptations even when we know that the short-term payoff is less valuable and ultimately less-satisfying than the long-term goal. It's all driven by the hyperbolic discounting.

(Why, it might be asked, are we so weak-willed? Why do we discount hyperbolically? Answers vary, but a prominent one goes back into our evolutionary history. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that a hyperbolic discounting curve would have been ideally suited to life during human pre-history, an era characterized by food scarcity, famine, and a lack of food preservation technology. In those stone age cultures if a large food source was found--a mammoth kill, berries in season--then gorging yourself had a kind of adaptive logic. Tomorrow the food will be either gone or spoiled. In that world, a bird in the hand was truly better than two in the bush. Consume the resources now while you have the chance. Who knows what tomorrow might bring? As the descendants of these people we've inherited their stone age tendencies, one of them being hyperbolic discounting, their present-bias. The trouble is, that bias was adaptive in an age that lacked refrigeration. But it's not very adaptive in the age of Krispy Kream.)

Psychology aside, the end of the matter is this. We might know what we want and we might even have chosen well, but we frequently shoot ourselves in the foot by caving in to short-term temptation. Our tendency to hyperbolically discount the future makes us suckers for immediate gratification at the expense of our futures. That's Reason #3 why happiness is "impossible":
Why is Happiness Impossible?

Reason #1: We don't know what we want.
Reason #2: Even if we did know what we want we'd want the wrong things.
Reason #3: And even if we did want the right things we'd ruin it by giving in to short-term temptation.

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