A theory on happiness

A few years ago, someone I am very close to sent me an eye-opening psych paper on happiness, which you can read here. In this article, the author posits a relatively pragmatic theory of happiness that has stayed with me.

They outlined what are called “first-order” and “second-order” desires.

‘First-order’ desires:

  • I want to sleep
  • I want to smoke a cigarette
  • I don’t feel like showering today
  • I want to go out drinking with friends
  • I’m hungry. I want some pizza (OK, this is one I can relate to)

‘Second-order’ desires:

  • I wish I wanted to do more productive things rather than sleep
  • I wish I didn’t crave my next unhealthy cigarette
  • I want to enjoy grooming myself so that I can be a more attractive to all
  • I want to WANT to stay in so that I can save my money
  • I wish I wanted to eat healthier food

See the difference? While our first-order desires comprise our immediate, carnal needs, our second-order desires represent our fundamental stance on what we WANT those carnal needs to be.

For example, a chain-smoker who craves another cigarette may not actually WANT to crave it, perhaps due to health reasons (the “unwilling” addict). Conversely, a similar addict who for some reason enjoys being a smoker may actually WANT to want another cigarette (the “willing” addict). In both cases, our first-order desires represent our immediate needs, while our second-order desires represent our standpoint on what we WANT those needs to be.

What does this have to do with happiness?

Frankfurt, the author of the above paper, makes an interesting proposal: to maximize our happiness, our first-order and second-order desires must be in alignment.

In the above example, the willing addict (chain smoker who wants another cigarette, and WANTS to want it too) in theory leads a happier existence than the unwilling addict (chain smoker who wants another cigarette, but doesn’t WANT to want it) – all else being equal.

So next time you find yourself indulging your first-order desires (sleep, cigarettes, Netflix, beer, pizza), think about how your second-order desires (wishing you would go to bed early, or would quit your smoking habit, or would eat healthier) might align with these needs. How can you gradually shift these desires to be more in sync? Practice? Positive reinforcement?

Here’s something that worked for me (YMMV): Try making a concerted effort to eat healthier, and then see how you feel. Do you still feel those first-order cravings for an unhealthy cheeseburger as often after throwing in lots of veggies for three weeks? Do you feel healthier and happier? Is this reinforcement helpful in re-wiring your brain? Do some experimentation. Gradually establishing a positive feedback loop may be helpful in aligning these needs, and establishing a better harmony with yourself.

Some food for thought.

a pizza slice (credit: stockphotos.ro)