Monday, 12 March 2012

Be thankful that you have eyes to see (your torturer)

I find it annoying when people tell me that I should be glad I'm intelligent (read: can memorise easily enough that exams aren't much of a chore). It's not the statement itself - you should be glad. I'm fine with that. I am glad I don't have to work in school, it means I have more time to sit around and type depressing words onto my blog.  But that's not what people mean when they say that. What they actually mean is "You have a great life, why are you so depressed. Cheer up!". Now while I have a tendency to dive for people's throats when they tell me to cheer up, in this case I don't mind particularly much simply because it's part of a greater misunderstanding. Not my most hated: "You can change your mood easily [last paragraph on this link]. Look I'll try being happy. See, I'm so happy right now! Here, you try", but rather that my utility function has completely forgotten about my quick learning ability. It hasn't. I'd feel a lot more pain if I had to work harder in school, and that would decrease my utility. I didn't somehow manage to leave that concept under a pile of dirty clothes, it IS taken into account automatically. EVERYONE'S UTILITY TAKES EVERYTHING INTO ACCOUNT AT ALL TIMES. This sounds like a stupid thing to say, but in reality, if something is going to make you feel good, it will, and it will contribute to the great big utility melting pot, as will something that will make you feel bad. So trying to remind me of the good things in my life in no way makes up for the fact that my life is crap. And no, that's not my opinion. Feeling bad all the time and not wanting to live is not negotiable, it's a fact. Yes maybe reminding people of the good things in their lives will make an ordinary, not cynical and misanthropic, person feel better for like, a microsecond (if they're barely even scratching the surface of the black abyss), but I doubt it could ever work for more serious cases of negative utility.

Does anyone actually, seriously, truly, believe that saying 'Be thankful' has ever helped anyone by a non-negligible amount? There's the part I mentioned about not being able to have hidden sources of utility in your brain*, and there's also the sad truth that anyone could make themself incredibly happy at any moment by simply going on a treasure hunt for all the things they forgot to throw into the utility camp fire. Feeling suicidal? You have all your fingers intact. Feeling better? I knew you would. Parents dead? You still have siblings, so everything's fine, stop crying so damn much. The fact that something bad has happened means positive utility has been taken away from the utility storehouse, or that negative utility has been added into it. Everything is still accounted for. Nothing was taken out to store more utility, the brain automatically takes everything into account, like a balance weighing hundreds of bees. It doesn't matter how many bees there are, the balance still copes, and weighs them like one massive, human-exterminating uber-insectoid. So too does your brain weigh all your positive and negative utility as one super-utility, which is your utility function.

Being a nicer person 101: Instead of saying "Be thankful you..." try instead saying "That sucks, is there anything I can do to help?". That's my take on things, anyway.

*Repressed child abuse is an exception to this, but in MOST cases you can't do this. You can't 'forget' about your ability to read or hear or see. The fact that you would feel bad if you suddenly became blind means that this utility is already accounted for, no worrying required.


  1. My mother sometimes tells me that I am "blessed"... Right!

  2. Great post, estnihil. Particularly enjoyed the "EVERYONE'S UTILITY TAKES EVERYTHING INTO ACCOUNT AT ALL TIMES." The brain isn't deliberately hiding good information from someone who isn't cheerful. What evolutionary purpose would it serve to do so? Something that the "cheer up" merchants would do well to reflect upon.

  3. First anon, my mother said the exact same thing to me. Never mind she is a headcase herself who has been to the happy halls twice.