/ Inequality, Rationality, and… Happiness

Inequality, Rationality, and… Happiness

The following clip is one of the best examples of how deeply ingrained and deeply felt unfairness is. It’s 1 minute and 30 seconds long. Let’s watch and then discuss.

Capuchin monkey fairness experiment

In my opinion, the most obvious takeaway (the pain of inequality) is striking but not particularly helpful or insightful. There is so much more to learn beyond this superficial observation.

Worse Off

Did the monkey on the left (let’s call him Thomas) have a rational response? He had an understandable response and we can sympathize with him, but we should not say that he had a rational response. By being rewarded with less, he was worse off compared to the monkey on the right, but, by being emotional, he made himself even worse off. Instead of ending up with cucumber (which under different circumstances he would have been perfectly happy to receive as a reward), he ended up with worse than nothing: no food and lots of frustration.

The rational response would be to not just accept the cucumber but to do so gratefully.

Doing so requires responding rationally to reality: Thomas can do nothing to get the grape, so he’s better off getting the cucumber. And, is it better to be futilely frustrated or to be happy? If he could choose to be happy with what he has, that is the smartest response: he would end up with food and happiness.

Relative Deprivation

As noted by the researcher, the monkey on the left (Thomas) was only unhappy because he got less than the monkey on the right for the same task. The same psychological phenomenon happens in humans, but we call it “the principle of relative deprivation.” Unless actually starving or severely deprived, people are not necessarily happy or unhappy with what they have; they are happy or unhappy with what they have relative to those around them.

For example, if Bob is a millionaire and lives in a middle-class neighborhood, then (all else being equal) he is likely to be very happy. He drives through his neighborhood every day grateful that he is so well off and happy because he sees that life could be worse. But, if he lived in a neighborhood of billionaires with skyscraper mansions, then he’s likely to be much less happy as he drives to his dramatically smaller home. He is likely to see what he does not have, to be daily reminded of it, and to focus on what he does not have instead of on the blessings that he does have. Same person, same amount of money, much different level of happiness.

But that is Bob’s fault. While we should always strive for excellence, Bob (and all of us) should have the rationality to, in all circumstances, be happy and grateful for what we have.


Your happiness is solely your responsibility. You have no one else to blame if you are unhappy because most of a person’s happiness has nothing to do with other people or with one’s circumstances. Most of a person’s happiness depends on a person’s outlook, and your outlook is solely within your control. Some people have very difficult lives but are very happy. Some people have lives of luxury but are very unhappy. So, in most cases, it’s not about how good or bad your circumstances are; it’s about how good or bad your outlook is.

And, most people underestimate just how much control they have over their own lives and how much they can control their circumstances.

If a person has an “external locus of control,” they believe that the circumstances of their life are controlled by fate, others, etc and not primarily by themselves. These people are usually quite unsuccessful: why try if you think trying will do you no good?

If a person has an “internal locus of control,” they believe that they have significant control over their lives. These people are much more likely to be successful because they believe that their hard work will pay off, so they are much more likely to work hard.

Reality is mixed. Some things are, despite what we do, out of our control, such as if we get an unpreventable cancer or get hit by a bus that jumps the curb while we’re on the sidewalk. But most things are more in our control than most people imagine. One of my clients demonstrated an unbelievable audacity to try to talk with the CEO of a billion-dollar company to try to get his personal problem with the company solved. I thought he would quickly fail and realize the folly of such an attempt. Within one day he got a phone call with the CEO who solved his problem. That day taught me a lot about how the world works.

Since then, I have found that the same audacious belief that I have extreme control over my life is more true than false. I now correspond with some of the foremost economists in the world. How? I emailed them. They emailed back. But, if I believed they would not have responded, then I never would have reached out in the first place.

If you believe that you can shape your life and circumstances, then you can do so. Granted, it might take an immense amount of hard work to substantially change your circumstances, but the choice to do so or not do so is still up to you.

Pain and Mountaintops

We also need to acknowledge the pain that people go through. I’m not saying just brush it off. We are very emotional beings. But I am saying try to be guided by your rationality and let it shape your perspective and, ideally, actions. In a talk to Stanford business school students, the founder of Nvidia, Jensen Huang, discussed the importance of resilience, which can only be developed through perseverance. He said, “I don’t know how to teach it to you except that I hope suffering happens to you.” Notice that he isn’t wishing bad things upon them. He’s actually wishing challenges upon them so that they will have more good things and be more successful. Thus, we can also (as best we can) reframe a lot of pain and challenges that we experience as ultimately positive for us in the long run. When my wife or I have a tough day, have to deal with a rude person, etc, one of us usually tells the other: “This is good practice.” Honestly, it helps a lot. It reminds the other person this difficulty and this pain are usually ultimately worth it because learning to deal with and overcome them will make us better and stronger people.

Thus, so often we can only reach higher mountaintops by persevering through more pain, so it depends how high you want to reach — that pain might actually be necessary for you to do so. So much of life is perspective.

Be Different

Some people react with disgust that a person should be grateful for what they have, even when they are being treated unfairly. It’s understandable to be disgusted by inequality and by people who experience it with grace.

Again, though, those people who react by continuing to work hard and to be happy under any circumstances are taking the smart, rational approach. It doesn’t mean that they are pushovers. It means that they are demonstrating a rare mastery over their emotions and using rationality.

Even take the example of Thomas, the capuchin monkey on the left. Let’s say all other capuchin monkeys in the experiment refuse to do the task when treated unfairly. If Thomas continues to do the task when treated unfairly, then he’s the outlier. That will spark intense intrigue. How does Thomas, unlike all of his peers, end up with food and happiness? What is so different about Thomas? One would imagine the researchers would put Thomas in more experiments, take better care of him, and probably even try to breed him to see if they could get more of this amazing type of capuchin monkey. Thomas would have won in every way: better care, the continuation of his genes, food and happiness, etc. So, even a capuchin monkey in a cage could exert control over its circumstances if it could choose to respond rationally. How much more so can human beings exert control over their own lives by doing so?

The person who keeps working hard even when treated unfairly will be able to move up in the world relative to their initial position, will be entrusted with more responsibilities, will gain more leverage to ensure that they are treated fairly, and can choose to be happy in all circumstances.

The rational response to life: work hard, exert control to make your life circumstances better, be grateful, be happy.


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