Scott Alexander, famed author of the Slate Star Codex blog, recently put out a survey on moral philosophy. He asks about what choices we would make in some very unlikely situations. It's good fun, and if you plan on taking it you should probably do so before you read what I have to say about one of the questions.
One of the questions is broken -- specifically, missing an important answer. I am paraphrasing, but essentially the question is "Given a population of happy people, is it better to double the happiness of living people, or to create new people who are just as happy as those currently living?" But the answers are only: A. These are morally equal; B. It is better to make the living happier; C. I don't want to answer. (There are also two other answer choices that are subtle variations on these answers).
I'm not sure if this is a typo, or if he honestly does not think that anyone would think that it is better to create new people than to increase the happiness of existing people. If the latter, this suggests that his model of happiness is very different than my own, and since many other people seem to make this same sort of error, I'll try and put my own model into words.
If I am currently 100 happy, then doubling my happy would make me 200 happy. I don't know what this means, because I cannot picture happy on any sort of linear model, but at least I have a concept of 100 happy down, and I don't have any trouble with the idea that there is generally some point that is significantly better or worse. But while I'm not sure what exactly 200 happy is, it really sounds like too much. I don't want it.
As far as I can tell, this is very different from most people's stated model of happiness, but I suspect that it probably isn't very far off from their actual models. When people talk about wireheading they don't tend to sound wistful. Most people don't talk about the wonders of a future when opium derivatives are free to all and side-effect free. Nor do people in love generally wish that they were twice as much in love, and people don't bite into their favorite food and think "gosh, if only it were twice as good!".
I think this this is a case of equivocation, where 'happy' just means 'magic!'. I honestly don't think that when most people talk about happy they mean anything very specific -- just like you can be all for justice without knowing all the laws and punishments that justice has to actually entail, or you can talk about the value of art without having to work through all the twiddly little edge cases. It's something that you can talk about safe in the knowledge that no one will ever ask you to define it or question whether it is good, so we simply don't have mental models that are any better than "get more of that!".
So right now, if I were wishing for ways to be happier, I would want my legs to be slightly less sore, the cat to back away from the computer when I am typing, and maybe for a cup of coffee. That would get me maybe as high as 105 happy. Anything more than that would distract me from writing this, and I don't want to be distracted from writing this. I could easily find things that would make me more happy, but I don't want to. I'll have plenty of time for those things later, if I decide that I want them.
So back to the question: It would be way better to have another human doing things that they want to do, rather than to distract me from things that I want to be doing just so that I can be more happy.
As it happens there is a thing that I value in more or less the same way as most people seem to value happiness; flow. (I didn't pick the term, and it's too late to change it now. I wish it had been labeled something like 'doingness'). I like it when I get into doing something, and get very involved in doing it. I would like more of it, and it is not always easy to get into.
But it makes no real sense to want "double the flow", except in the sense of duration. It is not an open-ended way to soak up infinite utils. I have never found anything that allows me to increase utils for any extended amount of time without also being annoying in some way -- for example, being a bit exhausting.
I think that many people experience something like this; if not exactly flow, then sitting and listening to music (you don't want another orchestra to start playing, that would just be annoying); or dancing (going twice as fast will not necessarily be twice as much fun); or that other thing that you've already thought of and are slightly disappointed that it wasn't the first thing that I mentioned.
I do not have any real way to judge if the standard model of happiness -- that it is something that you obviously must want more of -- is as imaginary as I perceive it to be. Most people who talk about happiness as an open-ended good do not seem to be happier than I am, but then, people who wants lots of money are not necessarily richer than I am, either. Psychologist talk about things like the hedonic treadmill resetting levels of happiness to a normal level over time, but that's not a statement about what is desirable, it's just a description of what we have to work with.
I am curious to know if my experience of happiness is an alien viewpoint to most readers, a familiar viewpoint to most readers but consistent with open-ended desire for happiness, or their default viewpoint... or something else.