Chocolate and Gold Coins

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Is Happiness a Zero-Sum Game?

A zero-sum game is one in which whatever payoff one player gets in at the direct expense of the other players. Most games are like that: typically there is one winner and one loser. If I win, you must necessarily lose. My happiness depends on your misery. There’s no way we can both be happy…if our happiness depends on the outcome of the game.

Life is like a game, and we tend to play it like a game. Have you seen the bumper sticker: “the player who dies with the most toys wins”? People want to have a nicer car, a nicer home, a prettier wife, a smarter kid, and a smarter dog than their neighbors. If your happiness depends on that, then you are likely to be disappointed in life because it takes 99 people for every one person who achieves the top 1 percent in something. Odds are, you’ll be one of the 99. And even if you are in the top 1 percent, it will be a hollow victory because its not like if you achieve some meaningless goal you achieve nirvana.

Half Sigma (always an interesting blog) has an older post on status:

The total amount of status is actually fixed relative to the total population. If Uncle Sam gave everyone a check for $1,000, are we really richer? No, because it just creates inflation, the amount of goods and services available to buy don’t change. In the same manner, if we were magically able to give everyone a new Mercedes, would everyone’s status go up? No, because the amount of status in society is fixed. In this case, the Mercedes would instantly become a symbol of having low status because it would represent the default car that everyone, even fast food laborers, drive.


Half Sigma has a post about how television commercials cause unhappiness by making us want things we cannot afford.

I say that TV commercials are a major source of unhappiness because they show us all sorts of things that we can’t afford to buy.

People were probably happier before TV because back then they didn’t know what they were missing out on.

My wife use to watch the Home and Garden TV and she would salivate over the million dollar mansions. It used to irritate me because it would only create desire for things we could not have.

Here is a simple analogy. If you are reading this, you are probably a blogger. You might have the ambition to be a top 100 blogger (I am assuming that you aren’t already a top 100 blogger because why would you be wasting your time reading this?) There are millions of blogs, and only 100 top 100 blogs. You can do the math. Your chances of achieving this goal are tiny. But why would you want to make that your goal? Why wouldn’t you rather blog for the fun of blogging and get enjoyment out of having a few hundred interested people come by and read and comment on your blog? Isn’t that success enough?

The point is that we need to define our sense of happiness in a way that does not depend on the failure or success of others. We should be happy if we have a car, a home, a wife, a child, a dog (if you want one), and satisfying work. I have all that. I’m very happy. I also have a blog that some people read. Would I be happier if more people read my blog? I suppose, but really I don’t want to work any harder on it.

I remember a story that a professor told about the difference between success and happiness. He talked about a friend (call him Hans) who was from Austria but lived in the United States. Someone Hans knew (call him Fred) wanted Hans to contact a company in Austria the next time he visited his homeland so that Fred could negotiate a purchase of some merchandise. So Hans went to the Austrian manufacturer and told him of Fred, the rich American, who wanted to buy lots of his product. The Austrian manufacturer said, “I’ve got a nice house, I can go fishing every weekend, and I can eat out every Friday. If I have to work for your American friend and my Austrian customers, when will I have time to relax? No, I’m not interested.”

The Austrian businessman probably deserved to be driven out of business by a competitor in the long run, but in the short run, you have to admit, he was very happy.

26 Comments:

  • "Why wouldn’t you rather blog for the fun of blogging and get enjoyment out of having a few hundred interested people come by and read and comment on your blog? Isn’t that success enough?"

    nicely put.......though there is a passing moment of joy on the rare day when the site meter moves like a taxicab meter. That's happiness also :-)

    But you've got some very good points there......the King of Bhutan's saying almost the same thing. The country is extremely poor (in GDP terms), many villages don't have electricity or good roads or TVs....but the country is quite happy. Poverty in a literal sense is absent....there's no malnutrition, food scarcity, clothing scarcity, people have houses (however humble), the kids eat and play and go to school, violent crime is incredibly low, suicide rates are amongst the lowest in the world........while right across the border in India or Nepal or Bangladesh, the story is very different. Something there........

    By Blogger Sunil, at 4:31 PM  

  • Hi Sunil
    As for Bhutan, I wish them well. But if China invades them, Gross National Happiness will plummet. On a national level, happiness depends a lot on being able to protect the country. I just think of those unfortunate Tibetans.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 5:01 PM  

  • "You might have the ambition to be a top 100 blogger (I am assuming that you aren’t already a top 100 blogger because why would you be wasting your time reading this?) There are millions of blogs, and only 100 top 100 blogs. You can do the math. Your chances of achieving this goal are tiny."

    I think I have a better chance of making it into the top 100 of the blogosphere than making it into the top 1% of U.S. society.

    Without naming any particular blogs, I'll say that there are several blogs in the top 100 that plain suck.

    Nice post. I may have to write about this topic again. Thanks for the plug.

    By Anonymous Half Sigma, at 7:31 PM  

  • Hi Half Sigma
    Well if you ever do make it to the top 100 blogs, I can tell everyone that I knew Half Sigma when he was a virtual unknown. And that might impress someone for some reason. I'll be able to deduct a little happiness from others because they know nobody.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 8:02 PM  

  • Nice post.

    We should be happy if we have a car, a home, a wife, a child, a dog (if you want one), and satisfying work.

    How about:

    We should be happy if we have a car (if you want one), a home (if you want one), a wife (if you want one), a child (if you want one), a dog (if you want one), and satisfying work (if you want one).

    By Anonymous Anand, at 1:23 AM  

  • Nicely put - you snatched the words from my thoughts. But here is a question - if you blog and no one reads it, does it still exist?

    By Blogger venkat, at 1:47 AM  

  • er, not thoughts..I meant mouth. *sigh* Fridays...

    By Blogger venkat, at 1:48 AM  

  • Happiness IS a zero-sum game.
    Happiness is a business cycle.

    By Anonymous Domo Econ, at 1:54 AM  

  • Marvelous post! I like! I like!

    By Blogger Rahul, at 2:20 AM  

  • i have a dog who's not very smart, but i'm happy; and i have a cat who's a genius. now i'm very happy...

    oh, and that's a wife/husband/significant other (if you want one) i guess :)

    By Blogger uma, at 2:35 AM  

  • Hi Anand and Uma and everyone else
    I agree complete. I wanted the wife - I got that. I wanted the child - I got that. I wanted the house - I got that. I wanted the car - I got that. I'm happy. And you'll be happy if you can keep your list of wants short and attainable.

    But I have to admit, my wife is pretty than my neighbor's and my child is smarter and nicer than my neighbor's, and I would be lying if I said that doesn't add to my happiness. But everyone should think their spouse and their child is special. Aren't they?

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 5:46 AM  

  • totally :)

    By Blogger uma, at 9:00 AM  

  • On the Bhutan Point - wouldn't it be even better for them if they can have all that they have right now and also have enough money to pay off some other country to protect them!

    By Anonymous lswswein, at 9:33 AM  

  • On the Bhutan Point - wouldn't it be even better for them if they can have all that they have right now and also have enough money to pay off some other country to protect them!

    Actually...Bhutan does have another country protecting them, India. Bhutan has a "special status" agreement with India, since it was a British protectorate, came under India till 1948 (autonomous), and was given full independence in 1948 (a year after India's independence). But Bhutan wanted to "look inwards", so decided that most aspects of defence and foreign relations will be through India.
    Michael....this was something Tibet never had :-))

    By Blogger Sunil, at 12:36 PM  

  • Hi Sunil
    No wonder the people of Bhutan are so happy!

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 12:38 PM  

  • LOL! you are absolutely right about "wanting more people to read your blog". It is sorta an inherent need to get the word out and almost a vicious circle. But as long as you are happy doing what you are doing, don't worry.

    Regards that last anecdote, this is always a conflicting mental dilemma I go through every few months. I like to place myself in the Austrian businessman's place and reassess the situation. Sadly, I have no definite answer as he does. Nice post!

    By Blogger Patrix, at 6:07 PM  

  • "Well if you ever do make it to the top 100 blogs, I can tell everyone that I knew Half Sigma when he was a virtual unknown."

    This is based on the assumption that having blog #100 would somehow make me "known." I doubt it very much.

    It's not an elite club like being the in the top 100 CEOs, or the top 100 baseball players.

    By Anonymous Half Sigma, at 6:16 PM  

  • Hi Half Sigma
    You just can't compare these things. I have the perfect anecdote for you. William Falkner, the greatest American author circa late 1940's was in Hollywood for a film adeptation of one of his novels. He was invited to lunch with America's greatest movie star at that time: Clark Gable.

    What did they talk about? Well, Mr. Gable didn't read much. He asked Mr. Falkner: "What is it that you do?" Mr. Falkner explained that he was an author. Then he asked: "Mr. Gable, what is it that you do?"

    Making it to the top 100 in anything is impressive, and we might as well be smug about if it does happen. And yes you're right, you might get that annoying question "What is it that you do?" but now you know how to throw that right back at them!

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 8:29 PM  

  • There is an interesting anecdote about Bhutan. Apparently after the satellite tv technology descented on the sub-continent, the cable TV boom swep through Bhutan. Within a short period of time people started wanting soaps, fashionable clothes, new shoes etc. Young women started prostituting themselves to earn money for their new 'needs'. It is all good!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:05 AM  

  • Life's greatest happiness is to be convinced we are loved. This is a quote by Victor Hugo and I firmly believe in it. Yours is a nice blog.

    By Anonymous BRAD FLETCHER, at 6:52 AM  

  • If you observe a really happy man you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his garden. He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that has rolled under the radiator.

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