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The Happiness Hierarchy

As humans, we can’t help but be constantly tracking our position within social hierarchies while interacting with others — it is too encoded in us not to. There are a number of metrics we use to assess our perceived position within hierarchies: looks, wealth, power, intelligence, competence in a given task, fame etc. And our perceived position in social hierarchies often* correlates with our sense of self-worth and wellbeing. When we perceive ourselves to be low on the totem pole our wellbeing may take a hit. When we find ourselves there, what remedies do we have?

The obvious response is to get good at climbing to the top of these hierarchies. However, by the nature of hierarchies, the majority of people can’t be at the top — this dooms many to low feelings of self-worth when they tune into them. Odds are you won’t be able to make it; especially when it comes to metrics such as intelligence and looks, which are largely genetically determined. You either won the lottery or you didn’t and there is no changing your tickets. You may be wasting your time playing a rigged game, or a game too stacked against you.

If you are able to temporarily suspend hierarchical thinking and tune into other aspects of reality on command (because you have the meditative training) this can be very helpful at bringing immediate relief. For example, this could be done by downregulating conceptual thinking and paying attention to more bottom-up processing, such as the raw sights, sounds and sensations of your experience here and now. Or if you have on hand the insight into the emptiness of all thought forms this makes hierarchal thinking lose its sense of veracity and so you no longer really buy into them (for a time being).

If you don’t have these abilities you could try to convince yourself that you don’t care about these hierarchies, but the truth is you would most likely be kidding yourself, as we have evolved to care and pay attention to them. Instead, we can rationalise about which hierarchies we care for and hopefully come to a line of thought in which we happen to occupy a CEO level position in those hierarchies. However, we are not free to rationalise in any way we want. In order to genuinely convince ourselves that we are rightly tuning into a meaningful hierarchy, which we are high in, we need to actually feed ourselves a convincing rationale. I cannot tell myself the story that I am the best human being named Roger to have ever sat in the chair I am currently sitting in and expect this to influence my mood to any great degree (although the silliness of this thought did make me laugh: “Behold, king Roger in his chair! He sits in it better than any other Roger!”). The hierarchies have to be recognised socially and we have to believe they matter.

I’m going to provide a rationale for a new kind of hierarchy, that many don’t often attend to but can become one of the predominant hierarchies that you tune into and care about; and doing so can nullify the emotional weight you give to the other hierarchies. When you see that most other hierarchies are subservient to this hierarchy you mentally exit the others, and thus they lose their hold over your sense of self-worth and wellbeing.

First, let us recognise that the experiential markers which signal to us that we ought to care about our place within social hierarchies are linked to an assumption that being at the top will lead to a greater sense of fulfilment and happiness. There is an explicit or implicit thought in us that if we were to be very high status (by whatever metric you define that by) then our wellbeing would be greater than it currently is. This is not a silly thought and it has some validity. Although, it is no secret that being exceptionally wealthy, or good-looking, or a world champion in some area does not guarantee you the kind of mind that is peaceful and happy most of the time (which is what we really want).

Then we just need to remember: it is not really the high status we want; rather it is actually freedom from suffering and/or high wellbeing. When we remember this (or rather apply this kind of aesthetic lens), we put all other hierarchies into context and realise that the real hierarchy worth paying attention to is the happiness hierarchy. There are people in this world who, for whatever reason, are way happier than most. And those people don’t at all necessary correlate with being high status in other hierarchies. Would you rather be a model or happy? Would you rather be a celebrity or happy? Would you rather be rich or happy? Would you rather be a genius or happy? “Ideally both” you may argue, and that may be feasible for some, but we wouldn’t care nearly as much about the first epithet unless it comes with the second (happiness).

If we maintain sensitivity to hierarchical thinking and assessment (as we must for survival) but recontextualise the whole process in terms of why we care for securing a position at the head of the status table — because it makes us feel good — then we enter a very different game. A game which is omni-win. The happiness hierarchy works under different rules compared to other typical hierarchies. Unlike many other hierarchies, those at the top of the happiness hierarchy are not competing with each other or see each other as rivals; for truly happy people feel compersion (that is delight at other’s good fortune). And unlike other hierarchies, those at the top care for those at the bottom and wish to help others increase their levels of wellbeing.

If you tune into this hierarchy and still rank yourself as quite low on it, then the mere tuning into this will steer you in the right direction. At least now you may be calibrating towards a healthier metric of success rather than money, or number of friends, or how many countries you’ve visited, or some other very arbitrary measure. My advice would be if you find your emotions ensnared in any of these other hierarchies, pause and remember the happiness hierarchy.

*It is possible to acknowledge the existence of certain hierarchies and place yourself very low on them and not have your wellbeing influenced by this. When learning a new skill we may gladly be subordinates to a teacher in order to learn from them. We can enjoy the role of being a student and indeed to take on this humbling position is a great attitude to have when learning how to be happier from the extremely happy.

Addendum Just a quick note on conscious hierarchical thinking and getting away from replicator hierarchical thinking. Hierarchical sensitivity evolved within us not so we could find avenues to make us happier, but rather for the purpose of mate selection and propagating genes. We must be wary of replicator forces hijacking consciousness for its ends. Next to the thought that moving up social hierarchies will make us happier, is the replicator driving thought in us that: ‘moving up social hierarchies will give us more and/or better mate selection.’ The replicator drive co-opts the concerns of consciousness (the amount of negative valance being experienced), and mingles two thoughts together that: ‘more mates or the highest status mate will make us happier.’ If it is not obvious that this thought is ill-informed, consider some counter evidence that some old, celibate monks with no money could be some of the happiest people alive. []

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