Would you trade years of life for happiness?

Cross-posted from “Sacramento Street Psychiatry

The New York Times blog called “Well” recently asked: “Will Olympic Athletes Dope if They Know It Might Kill Them?” The answer is surprisingly clear: Many would if they could.  In bi-annual surveys conducted from 1982 to 1995, researcher Bob Goldman asked elite athletes whether they would take a drug that guaranteed them a gold medal but would also kill them within five years. Again and again about half the athletes said yes, they would accept such a trade-off.  This question has come to be known as the Goldman dilemma, and for most of us the high rate of acceptance is shocking.  In contrast, a 2009 study asked the same question of the Australian general public, and only two of 250 respondents reported they would accept this Faustian bargain.

Sports success obviously matters more to dedicated athletes than to the rest of us.  But what about success in general?  Or happiness?  Would you give up years of life in exchange for more happiness, in whatever form that may take?

I imagine many of us would say no, especially if the choice were posed concretely (e.g., blissful happiness for five or ten years, then death).  We live life “for better or worse”; it feels like our duty to accept what life deals out.  Yet nearly all of us engage in activities that make us happier in the moment at the possible cost of a shortened lifespan.  From tasty but unhealthy foods to exciting but dangerous extreme sports, from alcohol to tobacco, our actions seem to show that longevity is not our highest priority.  Memorable experiences are a particularly cost-effective way to buy happiness, but many of these experiences carry risks.

One factor that colors our willingness to trade longevity for happiness is how we deal with probability.  The Goldman dilemma is posed as a sure thing, whereas the risks we face in real life are likelihoods.  Genuine satisfaction in the moment is weighed against potential risk later on.  The latter does not feel quite real, even if its likelihood is very high.  We rationalize our choices by imagining we will be lucky.

Even more important is that we choose without consciously choosing.  No one decides, cigarette by cigarette, how many minutes of life to trade away for each puff.  Motorcycling and skiing would lose their luster if sober calculations of risk were undertaken before each run.  We maximize our happiness by means of selective inattention.

The most shocking thing about athletes’ acceptance of the Goldman dilemma is that they admit, out loud, a value that the rest of us share only silently, awkwardly, and ambivalently: We often do value quality over quantity in life.  A life devoted exclusively to safety and longevity strikes many of us as unsatisfying.  Perhaps we will make better — not necessarily safer — choices if we consider consciously the trade-offs we already make.

Would you trade years of life for happiness?  Chances are excellent that you already do.

Illustration: Happiness and Longevity (Fu Shou).  Calligraphy by Tao Gui, Ming dynasty (1547), China.

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