A paradox of well-being

What would make you better off? A naive answer to the question might be “getting what you want,” but anyone with much life experience knows that this can’t be right just by itself. We have all had the experience of getting what we wanted and finding then that getting it didn’t leave us with much of a sense of well-being. (A fortunate but probably smaller group among us have had the occasional experience of getting something we didn’t want and being pleasantly surprised about how it did make us happy.)

A better answer to the question of what would make you better off would be “getting what you would want if you were fully informed about what getting different things would be like.” That answer is a good deal more respectable; it at once recognizes the value of knowledge in making decisions while at the same time leaving breathing room for individuality. After all, we are clearly not all constituted so as to want the same things.

There is a tiny problem, though. Nothing is going to just hand you what it is that you would want if you were fully informed about what it would be like to get the things you would want under conditions of full information. (And indeed, many people would not want to be just handed such things. They would like to deliberatively choose them, actively pursue them, vigorously strive after them, virtuously work for them, etc. Or at least, so they say…) So they would have to possess, inside their own heads, the knowledge of what would be like to have different things. So you can’t win without that knowledge; the less you have of it the more you’ll blunder stupidly after one object and then another, likely disappointed in most.

But if they actually do have such knowledge in their heads, what a sorrow life would be, at least as long as life were finite, for everything that one chose, one would have to be aware of a vast number of things not chosen and foregone, many, many of which would also be good. For everything you chose, there would be a great and oppressive sense of opportunity cost,” as the economists put it. For everything gained you would know of a thousand things that you lost. And we mourn the loss of things we know well.

So you can’t win with knowledge either. What a melancholy conclusion!

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