What we talk about when we talk about life satisfaction

post by ioannes_shade · 2019-02-04T23:52:38.052Z · LW · GW · 2 comments


  The most satisfying life imaginable
  The most satisfying life, objectively
  The most satisfying life, in practice

Epistemic status: exploring. Previous discussion [EA(p) · GW(p)], on the EA Forum.

I feel confused about what people are talking about when they talk about life satisfaction scales.

You know, this kind of question: "how satisfied are you with your life, on a scale of 0 to 10?"

(Actual life satisfaction scales are somewhat more nuanced (a), but the confusion I'm pointing to persists.)

The most satisfying life imaginable

On a 0-to-10 scale, does 10 mean "the most satisfying life I can imagine?"

But given how poor our introspective access is, why should we trust our judgments about what possible life-shape would be most satisfying?

The difficulty here sharpens when reflecting on how satisfaction preferences morph over time: my 5-year-old self had a very different preference-set than my 20-something self, and I'd expect my middle-aged self to have quite a different preference-set than my 20-something self.

Perhaps we mean something like "the most satisfying life I can imagine for myself at this point in my life, given what I know about myself & my preferences." But this is problematic – if someone was extremely satisfied (such that they'd rate themselves a 10), but would become even more satisfied if Improvement X were introduced, shouldn't the scale be able to accommodate their perceived increase in satisfaction? (i.e. They weren't really at a 10 before receiving Improvement X after all, if their satisfaction improved upon receiving it. But under this definition, the extremely satisfied person was appropriately rating themselves a 10 beforehand.)

The most satisfying life, objectively

On a 0-to-10 scale, does 10 mean "the most satisfying life, objectively?"

But given the enormous state-space of reality (which remains truly enormous even after being reduced by qualifiers like "reality ordered such that humans exist"), why should we be confident that the states we're familiar with overlap with the states that are objectively most satisfying?

The difficulty here sharpens when we factor in reports of extremely satisfying states unlocked by esoteric practices. (Sex! Drugs! Enlightenment!) Reports like this crop up frequently enough that it seems hasty to dismiss them out of hand without first investigating (e.g. reports of enlightenment states from this neighborhood of the social graph: 1 [LW · GW], 2 [LW · GW], 3, 4, 5).

The difficulty sharpens even further given the lack of consensus around what life satisfaction is – the Evangelical model of a satisfying life is very different than the Buddhist.

The most satisfying life, in practice

I think that in practice, a 10 on a 0-to-10 scale means something like "the most satisfying my life can be, benchmarked on all the ways my life has been so far plus the nearest neighbors of those."

This seems okay, but plausibly forecloses on a large space of awesomely satisfying lives that look very different than one's current benchmark.

So I don't really know what we're talking about when we talk about life satisfaction scales.

Cross-posted to the EA Forum & my blog.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Bucky · 2019-02-05T15:26:35.758Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suspect that for most people the reality is that they just anchor and adjust for this kind of question. Typically I'd expect an anchor at about 6-8 out of 10 (few people want to think they're unhappy) and then an adjustment +/- 1-2 depending on whether their current circumstances are better or worse than they think they should expect.

I'd assumed that the vagueness was more of a feature of the question than a bug. If you compare yourself to a billionaire then you will probably rate yourself lower than if you compare yourself to people around you. At the same time, if your instinct is to compare yourself with the billionaire then you probably are less satisfied in life than if you instinctively compare yourself to a more achievable datum. Thus the answer you provide tends to match the underlying reality, if by satisfaction we mean "lack of wishing things were different".

comment by Charlie Steiner · 2019-02-05T22:58:52.438Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the way to make sense of this (And e.g. surveys that ask this question) might be tautological. "It's 0-10 on whatever opaque process I use to answer this question."

This makes the absolute number nearly meaningless, though given human habits you can probably figure out approximate emotional valences of 0, 1-3, 4-5, 6-9, and 10. But depending on how stable the average person's opaque mapping of emotional state to number is, it might still yield really interesting cross-time and cross-population comparisons.