Have you noticed how watch collectors seem to refer to their hobby as a disease? Why is that? Many collectors will attest to the fact that no matter how ‘grail worthy’ a new purchase may be, they always seem to tire of it eventually. Why is that? 

It is true, that everyone is always planning for the future. This applies to watch collecting, as much as it applies to life itself. We have goals, in life, and we have them in collecting, whether it is a grail watch, or just a milestone purchase e.g. saving up for a birthday watch. Despite all this planning and scheming, I have rarely, if ever, heard anyone talking about what happens after the goal is achieved. This also applies to life – perhaps you take your company public, and you become a billionaire… then what? What will you buy? Where will you move? How will you live the rest of your life?

The point here, is that even after you reach or acquire your goals, there is still a lot of decision-making and thinking required to amalgamate these things into your ‘life after goal completion’… and people don’t seem to think too much about this stuff. 

If you consider some evidence from the FIRE (financial independence / retire early) community, you will observe there are many people who work hard, minimise expenses, and retire young. Some who who do this are happy, but there many reports like:

Things started out great. But, right now, I’m pretty fucking bored.

I retired at 39. It sucked after about 6 months. I went back to college for a bit and eventually went back to work in a new career. Boredom was the worst.

Been FIRE for 10 months and it’s been extremely challenging for me. I’ve lost my drive to do activities, learn, etc. and I simply feel unfilled. When I was working, I felt mostly satisfied so this is a departure.

The FIRE community tends to advise these folks to be “more intentional” about structuring their lives — Nobody is just “magically happy” after retirement… they have to build a life. So if that is true after retirement, surely it is also sound advice before retiring as well? 

The same is true for watch collecting… in order to maximise our happiness, we have to choose our collecting goals with happiness in mind. This might be considering all the possible options in our future lives, scoring each by how happy they would make us, and then chose the watches which would increase the ‘expected future happiness’. As far as I can tell, almost nobody does this.

So if we are not optimising for happiness… why not? Let us look at the options…

This is nonsense, and people actually do optimise for happiness

As I said, this seems unlikely, but it’s good to be exhaustive lol.

Increasing happiness is actually impossible

Hedonic adaptation refers to the notion that after positive (or negative) events (i.e., something good or bad happening to someone), and a subsequent increase in positive (or negative) feelings, people return to a relatively stable, baseline level of affect (Diener, Lucas, & Scollon, 2006). So basically, it could be that hedonic adaptation returns us to our fixed baseline every time. 

The thing is, hedonic adaptation as a theory is, at best, incomplete. You can find plenty of evidence to support the notion that happiness varies between people (life isn’t fair) but is generally stable over time for most individuals. Besides, we can’t really study happiness scientifically – if you want to know how happy someone is, you have to ask them. So if someone is ‘quite happy’ and then buys a Dufour Duality but remains ‘quite happy’ – is that because nothing has changed, or is it because their standards for what ‘quite happy’ is supposed to look like, have also changed? 

Another interesting angle is from studies of prisoners. These show that prisoners are much less happy – and while this may be an obvious conclusion… the studies show that upon release from prison, their happiness levels bounced back. So if it is possible to cause unhappiness (putting people in prison), maybe it is possible to cause happiness as well?

Either way, even if hedonic adaptation IS true, most people don’t believe it is true (Kahneman, 2000)! On the other hand, if people did believe in hedonic adaptation, then who would bother setting big goals at all?

It’s hard to stop focusing on the small picture

The most popular example to illustrate this point is exercise. Whilst people would probbaly be happier if they exercised, doing so is actually difficult! As people embark on an exercise plan, they have to suffer a short-term decrease in happiness – and this is true for watch collecting too! If you decide to save up for a massive grail, you have to stop spending (as much) money and this might decrease your happiness in the short term… and since some people don’t manage to do this, the argument here is that we remain focused on the ‘small picture’ or short term avoidance of pain. 

Does this even make sense? If this were true, then we would expect people with more self-control to be happier… turns out, this is actually plausible (Cheung et al. 2014)!

The thing is, if this is true, then that would imply that money and happiness should be directly correlated, since it is it’s easy to convert money into a good personal trainer or a grail watch. This happens to be a massive research subject with lots of contradictory results and weird findings like money increasing “life satisfaction” but not “emotional well-being” (Kahneman and Deaton 2010)

This doesn’t invalidate the idea of small picture thinking, but given we are trying to explore the idea of why people don’t try and maximise happiness, I don’t think small picture thinking gives us any new insights or answers. 

And this brings us to the final option…

The hunt!

Perhaps, it isn’t actually attaining or achieving anything which is the cause of happiness, but instead, it is the act of pursuing these achievements or goals which brings us happiness. 

If you think about your own life and picture an ideal day… whether you have achieved or accomplished anything in the past isn’t the key focus at all! Instead, you are likely going to envision working towards some sort of goal.

The same is true for watch collecting too… you don’t really sit back and admire your existing collection as often as you might think about what is coming next. Even when you meet an old collector friend or engage in casual conversation with fellow collectors – they’re always asking “what’s next” … right? :)

Originally published at http://screwdowncrown.com on July 29, 2022.