There is a fallacy called the post hoc fallacy (more accurately post hoc ergo propter hoc) which, when translated into English states “after this, therefore because of this.” It refers to any self referencing experience that generates a causal connection between two things whose only relationship is that they occurred very close together in time. It is an error in logic that many human beings and beings in general will make.
Classical conditioning is an example of the post hoc fallacy in action. Recall that we can get a dog to begin to salivate at the sound of a ringing bell by first ringing the bell immediately before presenting the dog with food. The bell has nothing to do with the food but the dogs brain doesn’t know that. All it knows is that in and around the time the bell rings, food is given. After a few pairings, the sound of the bell and the food are linked so that the sound of the bell is sufficient to get the dog to response as though it had just encountered food. So after the bell therefore because of the bell.
It isn’t just dogs that can be classically conditioned. It works with humans and in many cases, it works much better with humans than other animals in that the conditioning in more sticky and that an actual reward does not even need to be received. Vicarious reinforcement allows human beings to observe someone else getting rewarded for a behaviour and for the conditioning to occur in both people (the observer and the person who receives the rewarded). And there doesn’t even need to be a reward to conditioning to occur. The thought of a reward is sufficient. In fact, human beings learn most things this way vs. hands on.
Given the ease at which classical conditioning happens with humans, the post hoc fallacy is not a surprise. We can learn to associated two completely unrelated things simply because they occur in a similar time frame. There is a good reason for us to make these types of errors. The quicker we can see a connection between two related things, the greater the chances are that we will be able to use that information in the future. For reward things, it doesn’t really make much difference in terms of staying alive. But for punishment or dangerous things, the ability to see pairing does serve a survival benefit. So much so that false connections do matter. It is better to create 100 incorrect pairing than to miss one pairing.
You don’t believe me? Why do you notice and feel something when a loud room suddenly goes quiet? It doesn’t necessarily mean something, but it can. We’ve learned to notice that when attention is directed towards something, things get quiet, so when a room suddenly goes quiet, our brain has been trained / conditioned to stop what it is doing and begin to search for the cause of everyone going quiet.
So what does this have to do with feeling good not being the same thing as being happy? For me and for a lot of my clients, we committed the post hoc fallacy with these two things. A lot can go wrong, or at least not go the way you want, when you pair feeling good with being happy. Most of the things that make us feel good do not lead to sustained happiness or happiness at all.
All the people who are alive today came from generations of people who only ever had an abundance of scarcity. There was never enough food, enough shelter, and enough safety and security. It wasn’t until a few thousand years ago and the invention of agriculture that food insecurity began to disappear. That isn’t long enough for our genetic code to adapt to the abundance. This means that all of us are still running the code that triggers the brain to release dopamine and endorphins when sugar and fat containing food hits our pallet. These molecules are high calorie and the body can easily transport them into the fat cells for consumption at some point in the future. Dopamine is the primary reward chemical while endorphins reduce pain, and when the pain has been suppressed or is not present, to feel pleasure.
Our ancestors would hunt and gather what they could. They would not necessarily eat as soon as they got food, but they would stop looking for it. Whatever motivated them to hunt in the first place would be gone. It’s safe to say that anxiety played a role motivating people to seek out food and once food was present, the anxiety would disappear. What is the opposite of anxiety? I’m not sure it is happiness, but the contrast between anxiety and no anxiety when it is eliminated is something like happiness.
We’re running the same code, so the pairing anything that feels good with happiness, or pairing the feeling that arises with the elimination of anxiety with something that feels good isn’t a Pavlovian stretch. Doing so might even be innate although it doesn’t make any material difference given just how often feeling good and feeling happy over lap or occur simultaneously. But it is a pairing of two separate and distinct sensations / states / feelings.
This mis-pairing is an easy thing to do, I have done it and most of my clients have done it to some degree. In fact, only a very small number of people I have worked with have not done it. Maybe 15 percent of the people have identified that it is the opportunity to do things that feel good that makes them happy and not the feeling good itself. Some of my more driven clients would put off eating junk food or treat meals for weeks in favour of achieving a body composition goal more quickly. They had found happiness in not feeling good because they had identified that by putting off the reward, they would get to the thing they wanted more quickly.
The rest of us, well, saying no didn’t make us happy and it didn’t make us feel good. But neither did saying yes.
It gets even worse when we consider the implications of the opposite – that doing things that feel bad will not lead to happiness. When this mis-pairing occurs, people stop doing anything that doesn’t feel good on the mistaken belief that it cannot lead to happiness. They no longer delay gratification and they begin to get addicted to anything that cause the release of reward chemicals. They become a slave to their devices, to seeking out food, sex, drugs, sloth and anything else that causes a dopamine spike. The outcomes here are abysmal. Lives are wasted and potential is squandered.
But what if happiness is the goal and if feeling good is seen as an independent variable? The realization that they are not the same thing sets in motion a different possibility. Instead of reward behaviours, the individual will get clear on the behaviours that make them happy and they will begin to do more of these. With willpower and diligence, they will quickly become free of the addiction. They will gain control over their life because they will have the freedom to do what they know they want in place of what they believe they want. Life will become easier, things will become more simple, and getting what they want will be inevitable.
Who am I to say that feeling good is a bad goal? No one, but that is not what I am claiming. There is nothing wrong with wanting to feel good just as there is nothing wrong with wanting to be happy. There is however something wrong with seeking one when you actually want the other and it is very easy to believe that they are the same thing. We are in fact, almost programmed to make this mistake.