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We Don't Know How Happy We Are

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Some philosophers argue that introspection is infallible. Is it possible to be mistaken about how happy I am presently feeling?Indirect measurement is one of the two methods used to measure people’s level of happiness. The most commonly used indirect measure of happiness is self-reporting, also known as introspection. Some philosophers argue that introspection is direct and unerring because happiness is a kind of conscious experience, no one can better understand that feeling than the person itself, hence introspection is infallible. However, I will argue that the argument is unsound, for most of us do not have a firm grasp of our life experiences and happiness than we expect. My argument then ramifies the different errors of self-assessment: we should be concerned about our competence in assessing happiness accurately and hence this should undermine the philosophers’ argument that introspection is infallible. I will begin by breaking down the different types of Affective Ignorance (AI), then demonstrate how extensive it is, followed by the implications of AI and ending this argument with my conclusion.

Firstly, elusive affect is when moods or mood-like states such as anxiety, tension, boredom or even the general feeling of unwell lurks in the background without the person noticing. Such elusive moods may sour the person’s experience without the person knowing. To illustrate, imagine your child has been ill for the past week and your spouse is staying at home taking care of him. You are certain that your child is in good hands, so you tell yourself not to worry. However, the fact is that your child has been ill for a week and has not recovered, would you really be completely stress-free? You go through your work without much awareness of the anxiety sitting at the back of your mind. Unbeknownst to you, mood states such as anxiety had soured your time in the office, at least in its milder form. You might not enjoy your time in the office and will mistook this feeling as boredom, but truth is anxiety from your child being ill for a past week is causing you the unpleasant experience. With regards to the elusive. The sceptics might argue that anxiety may serve to make a person more vigilant and hence improve the quality of his work. They are correct only to a small extent because quality work is often a result from uninterrupted thoughts. With the constant feeling of anxiety, I wish to point out that while the elusive affect will cause a person to be easily irritated and unable to concentrate in his work without the person knowing.

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A person experiencing the elusive affect might think he is doing well, but the fact is he might have an unpleasant mood which he is not aware of at the back of his mind. This proves that the elusive affect might be unnoticed and the person performing introspection might think he is doing well and not notice the impeding anxiety in the back of his mind. Secondly, we adapt to things over time. What was once pleasurable might now seem mundane and what was once highly irritating is now a part of the background. To illustrate, imagine your electric wall fan has been giving out a wheezing sound which you might find irritating in the first few minutes but after that, you fail to notice it until the sound ceases. Similarly, this sound had been causing an unpleasant experience for you without you knowing it. There is some empirical evidence to back up my argument, in a recent study of office noise, the participants who had worked in an office with low-intensity noise showed elevated epinephrine levels compared to those who worked in a quiet office. The participants who have higher epinephrine levels were seen to have less persistency in efforts to solve difficult puzzles afterwards. While the opposite might be true where the participant is introduced to an irritating object on his desk, he might get used to the visual irritant and is able to proceed confidently with his work. I wish to rebut this statement as the visual irritants is trivial compared to the noise because the participant may choose not to look at the visual irritant where as that is not possible for the noise. Even after adapting to the noise, participants experiences are soured by the irritability but despite already adapted to it.

Lastly, another AI that is significant is the expectation effects. Our honest self-report may not be how we are really feeling but rather what society expects the answer to be. We might even reach the stage that we find it difficult to judge how we really feel and instead rely on our expectations concerning how we should feel. A groom on his wedding day may be overwhelmed with a complexity of different feelings but would claim that his happy either way because society had embedded in him that a couple’s wedding day is a joyous and biggest day of their lives. On the other hand, a person who had just lost his family pet might overrate his grief even though he does not spend much time with the pet, because he is now in a position which he should be miserable.


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