Suppose a genie appears and gives you two choices. The first option is that he will give you $10 million dollars, but everyone else you know will get $20 million apiece.
Choice two: You get $5 million, but no one else gets anything.
As a bonus, the genie offers to erase your memory of having made the choice, so guilt will never be a factor. You will simply wake up the next day in the new situation.
Which option do you choose to maximize your personal happiness?
This might seem like an easy choice. You take the $10 million and your friends will get $20 million each. Everyone wins. Unfortunately, I don’t think humans are wired that way. Happiness is based on the direction your life is heading (better or worse), and what you have compared to what you think you should have.
If you take the genie’s $10 million option, over time you will start feeling like the poorest person you know, since everyone else has $20 million apiece. You will wonder what you did in a past life to deserve this shabby treatment from the universe. The ugly truth about humans is that your happiness might be maximized by screwing everyone you know while screwing yourself half as much.
If you buy this premise, it has interesting implications for personal relationships. For example, it means that one way to cheer up an unhappy friend is to put yourself in a bad situation, thus resetting the reference point. The splinter in your finger only makes you unhappy when you’re not talking to someone who has a railroad spike through his head.