Happiness vs. Unhappiness – Which Can Be Stronger?

Happiness vs Unhappiness

We all live through moments of happiness and unhappiness, each varying in intensity. Which experience, would you say, can be the stronger of the two?

Before you answer, let’s clarify first what “strength of an emotion” means. In accordance with the definition of happiness in a previous post, I propose that one “happy moment” is of equal strength to one “unhappy moment” if we would be indifferent to re-living both of them (if offered as a “package”), i.e. the positive moment exactly compensates the experience from the negative one. 

With this in mind, I believe most people would say that being in a state of maximum unhappiness (which would most likely be a state of severe pain) can considerably outweigh maximum states of happiness (be it sexual pleasure, feelings of success, etc.) of same duration. Do you agree?

Evolutionary Perspective

We may also try to explain this subjective assessment from a more “objective” and evolutionary perspective. As both pleasure and pain are nature’s tools to motivate us to do what is best for our (genes’) reproduction, the question is: Does nature steer us more by telling us what not to do (punishment), or by actively rewarding us for what nature understands as positive actions or happenings?

This post does not aim to provide a comprehensive answer, but rather seeks to look at the intensity of the emotions, and the question: Which can be stronger? And here a phenomenon comes into play which may be regarded as one of the most unfortunate for humanity (and for any other species capable of feeling pleasure and pain): Negative happenings can be much worse for reproduction than positive ones can be beneficial.

For example, the act most clearly directed at reproduction, having sex, is only one “shot” 😉 at reproduction. On the other hand, negative events which may lead to death (i.e. getting wounded) pose a potential threat to all our future reproduction efforts. In this light, it would be logical for nature to develop stronger punishment mechanisms than those for reward.1

Of course, nature may also reward us (i.e. positive emotion) for avoiding negative events. For example, if we build a house and feel protected from weather and enemies, it may give us a feeling of security, which is a good feeling. However, as we are primarily concerned with the intensity of emotions here, I believe these positive emotions cannot reach the same level of intensity compared to those where nature is very “sure” they have a direct negative impact on our reproduction chances.

The Uneven Happiness Scale

The implication on the “happiness scale” put forward in the mentioned earlier post would be that the positive part of the scale (“happiness”) is shorter than the negative (“unhappiness”). For example, if we assume for a minute that a moment of maximum pain can be compensated by 5 moments of maximum joy, the scale would look like this:

The uneven happiness scale_small

Does this mean that on average we are more unhappy than happy? Not necessarily, as we may be longer positivitive than negative states (the scale only reflects one moment of a set duration). However, it’s true this scale does not make the picture look more positive…

Is this thinking correct?

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1) Another way to demonstrate the potentially higher strength of the negative emotions may be by combining the “good” and the “bad” experiences, and seeing which is stronger. Taking the example from above, if we get stabbed in the back (“bad”) while having sex (“good”) to me there is no question as to what emotion the mind focuses on… unless the sex is really good 😉 (just kidding).

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