James A. LindsayJames A. LindsayOct 19, 2016

For a Happier Life, Lose Your Opinions

James A. Lindsay -- @goddoesnt

No matter who you are, you should be interested in being happier. One path to happiness involves examining your life and jettisoning anything from it that detracts from your happiness and yet is also unnecessary. In the miserable intersection of "defeats happiness" and "isn't even necessary," you will find most of your opinions. The solution to the problem is clear: lose most of your opinions, and you'll be happier.

Let me start by being clear with what I mean. An opinion is a judgment made about something that isn't necessarily based on fact or knowledge. Observe that an opinion is therefore not something you know, though admittedly, this topic gets a bit blurry.

Now, before anyone gets worked up about how justified they are in not liking ketchup on their hashbrowns (as if that makes sense), we need to distinguish between opinions and preferences. A preference is a statement of knowledge that is objectively true about a subjective agent, usually yourself. If you prefer to have your hashbrowns without ketchup, you're expressing a fact about your tastes which you have unique insight into (and thus probably good evidence for). You are not expressing a mere opinion so much as you're stating a fact about yourself. On the other hand, if you say "nobody should have ketchup on their hashbrowns," that's an opinion, and as you can imagine, it will make you unhappy (at the least because it will invite unnecessary and pointless disagreements).

We all need some opinions, particularly opinions that well-informed (based more heavily on fact and knowledge). Frequently, we do not know nearly enough information to make truly informed decisions at the times when we must make those decisions, and opinions can lead the way. For example, suppose your teenage child comes to you and requests a later curfew. Chances are excellent that you do not possess the relevant information to know whether or not extending her curfew by an hour will be a good idea or a bad one, and even after pondering the matter for some reasonable amount of time, you still probably will not know. A decision will have to be made sooner or later, however, and your opinions about parenting and adolescence will lead the way.

You may hold an opinion that a crucial part of adolescence is experimenting with independence and freedom, and so you may follow that opinion to conclude that extending your daughter's curfew by an hour is worth doing. On the other hand, you may hold the opinion that a crucial part of parenting an adolescent is to provide structured boundaries that aren't necessarily welcomed, as learning to cope with such frustrations is part of life and your child's safety isn't worth risking, and so you may follow that opinion to conclude that extending her curfew is inappropriate. In both cases, you don't really know which is best (as even an expert in such a squishy field as developmental psychology will have to admit that circumstances are myriad and possibly intractable).

The crucial point about these opinions is that, as they are not firmly rooted in facts and knowledge (at best only being partially so), they should be debatable. If you hold an opinion, you should also hold it reservedly, in proportion to a good estimate of how informed you are on the topic. As you'll notice, most people lack this kind of epistemic self-awareness and humility. You'll also realize that true expertise is, rather by definition, tending to have better opinions about a subject, as expert opinions are more firmly based upon facts and knowledge than inexpert opinions are.[1]

In the course of life, because people have different background knowledge, moral intuitions, and means of processing knowledge, we will encounter people who have different opinions than we do. I'm not merely talking about different preferences (liking or not liking ketchup) or being factually wrong (believing the Earth is flat); I mean places where earnest people render different judgments on an area that is legitimately gray, like how best to parent teenagers or who to vote for in an election.

The result of such differences of opinions is either (a) folding, (b) discourse, or (c) discord. While discourse may be profitable and raise your net happiness, feeling coerced to fold typically does not (even when the reason is that the person you encountered is a legitimate expert with a highly informed opinion on the subject), and discord certainly does not. Furthermore, holding strong opinions often leads us to think of wide swaths of people -- those who do not share them with us -- as idiots. I don't know whether it has been studied or not, but I'm pretty confident in a guess that believing large proportions of the people around you are idiots does not contribute to your overall happiness in life. In fact, I'd bet it eats away viciously at it.

Unless you're very careful, then, your opinions will tend to make you less happy, not more, and being "very careful" means something quite specific: being open to discourse, which also involves being willing to revise your opinion as a result (otherwise, it is a false discourse, often known as a "debate" or "argument").

Arguments, being stymied, and discord tend to bring unhappiness. The more convicted we are that our opinions are facts (which is a way of saying the less aware we are that we're being blowhards), or the more righteously we hold our opinions, the more contentious, divisive, and unpleasant these disagreements will be. If we must hold some opinions, then -- and we must -- we should be ready to revise them, to listen to legitimate experts, and to discuss them amicably. This turns out to be true both for living a happier life and for obtaining better opinions over time.

Some of our opinions are necessary because we have to make decisions about topics we aren't entirely informed about. Many of our other opinions, though, are completely unnecessary. I don't need an opinion on whether or not other people should put ketchup on their hashbrowns. Their preferences for ketchup are no concern of mine and, really, none of my business. I also don't need an opinion on effectively anything to do with any Karadashian ever. (This needs no explanation.) In fact, I don't need an opinion on most things, and not only can I live without them, I can live better without having them. If you see unnecessary opinions as invitations to unhappiness -- through argument, being silenced, discord, or thinking other people are stupid or immoral -- then you should want to jettison them because they are an unnecessary net risk to your quality of life.

Mixed into being unnecessary is that many of our opinions are woefully uninformed. What is my opinion on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)? I don't have one, or not much of one, and what little I do have is highly amenable to revision. Why? Because I don't know very much about the TPP or its potential effects, despite having spent some time trying to learn about it.

Even if the TPP is very important, and it surely is, I don't need an opinion on it. Why not? Because I don't really have the capacity to form an informed opinion on it, especially given my (stunning lack of) capacity to influence it, and other issues of political importance have more salience. I am not sufficiently expert in almost anything to do with global trade to form a coherent opinion on something as large and complex as the TPP, so don't ask me for mine. (Notice also that if I did have a strong opinion about it, despite being so uninformed, I would be a blowhard, not an expert, and I shouldn't be listened to about the TPP anyway.)

I shouldn't hold opinions I cannot defend, and if I want to be happy, I should recognize that I can't defend them and get rid of them, thus dodging divisiveness and conflict that doesn't add much to my life. Not having a strong (unqualified) opinion on the TPP has had the benefit of preventing me from being frustrated with all those other people (idiots) who have different strong (unqualified) opinions on the TPP and those people who don't have much of an opinion on it at all.

Many of our big political stories that prove so divisive fall into this nasty category: topics that people have strong feelings on without having anything like an understanding of them. For another example, many people strongly criticize President Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton for their reticence in naming the "radical Islamic terrorism" issue specifically and by name. I don't have much of an opinion on that topic either, although it seems to be one of the most decisive and divisive topics of the current horrible election cycle.[2]

Why not? I recognize that Obama and Clinton have access to classified information and intelligence that I, as an everyday citizen, do not have. If I criticize their very informed opinion that the problem should not be publicly named (or bandied about carelessly or aggressively, as Donald Trump and his supporters seem to think appropriate), then I am attempting to use my inexpert opinion to criticize an expert opinion that is informed in ways I cannot even know about. It's not a hard conclusion to reach that doing so would make me the idiot, not them.

A popular sentiment right now is that our media is intentionally divisive, and to some degree, for some outlets at least, this may be so. More directly true, however, is that our media wants engagement (because our engagement has rewards for them, including in money and reputation). One easy way for our media to garner engagement is to convince us that we need to have an opinion on everything, and then that we have to be ready and eager to defend our opinion merely on the grounds that it is our opinion. Enter the share button and the comments section, tentatively known as the downfall of man. Certainly, we should only hold opinions we can defend (or at least only hold them as strongly as we can defend them), but on most topics, we simply don't need an opinion at all.

Take some time to consider your opinions, especially your strong ones. Be a grown-up and doubt your level of expertise, which is probably actually quite low in most cases. Pause to consider if they're really necessary, or if, instead, they rest upon some kind of manufactured appearance of necessity. Chances are, you can do without a lot of them, and, if you lose them, you stand a good chance of living a happier life.

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[1] Where it comes to expert opinions, there is always the matter of questioning the basis of a field of expertise. For example, if I claimed to be a unicorn expert, meaning an expert on actual unicorns (as opposed to on beliefs, myths, and stories about unicorns), you'd have every reason to think I'm making it all up because we have no good reasons to believe there are unicorns to know anything about. (If I meant that I was an expert on unicorn beliefs, myths, and stories, however, my expertise would be less in question because such beliefs, myths, and stories do exist and thus can be known about.) Certain academic fields and most political fields are loaded with false experts who claim expertise in shaky "theories," and so their opinions can be questioned in that it is only as good as the underlying assumptions of their field. (We call the political brand "pundits.") Their expertise is unlikely to be in question, as one can certainly be an expert in outright bullshit, which doesn't yield better opinions because those opinions are not more informed than others, and in fact are often less informed by virtue of being misinformed.

[2] My opinion on whether Obama and Clinton should be more explicit in naming the problem of "radical Islamic terrorism" more or less starts and ends with the fact that, given the way Donald Trump has been able to exploit it with unqualified strong-opinion-holders, it may have had some political expediency to sacrifice some of a broader strategy about geopolitical concerns to disarm Trump's idiotic carelessness with the phrase.

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