Common Sense


            Common sense is not common.  That is, it is not frequently found in ordinary people.  Common sense really does not arise from any direct sensory experience.  What is common about common sense is that it arises from our common experience, not a body of highly esoteric or technical knowledge.  The “sense” in “common sense” is that it is sensible.  That is, it is not based on complex logic, rather it is a product of observing the consequences of decisions in terms of the resulting pleasure and pain.  Common sense is pragmatic, not theoretical or philosophical, and it includes, albeit often intuitively, the idea of relative risk.  Historically, in the very beginnings of civilization, common sense may have been the only trustworthy source of life guidance.  It was soon replaced with religion, superstition, pseudo-science, and tradition.  As mankind advanced, true science and technology replaced much of the credibility of religion, superstition, and tradition.  In large measure, in recent times, common sense has been relegated to the lowly position of a default approach to life decisions when tradition, religion, and science provided no guidance.

            What often passes as common sense is, in fact, merely tradition.  The distinction between common sense and tradition is thought and contemplation.  Common sense reflects the impact of contemplation on acquired experience.  Some traditions do embody common sense because they arose from someone’s historical application of common sense.  Other traditions are a product of religious guidance or an historical wisdom which has no current application.  If one is guided by tradition, rather than LGDs arising from common sense, they are essentially taking a path of passivity in life.  In the long run, passivity is almost always harshly punished in the real world.

            Happiness is the product of taking an active, or proactive, approach in forming your personal future.  Oddly, notwithstanding the adaptive value of actively choosing your life’s direction, there seems to be an almost universal preference for passivity.  Indeed, the majority of people do not even conceive of themselves has having a myriad of critical decisions in their own life.  The experience of acknowledging and experiencing real choice seems overwhelming, and, accordingly, many elect to reconstruct their experience, such that, moment to moment, they feel like they are simply doing what they must do or have to do.  Most people construct a prison of “have-tos.”  “I have to this, and I have to do that, and therefore I also have to ….”  This have-to deductive process is unconscious and reflexive, and, ultimately, life destroying.  Some of these have-tos are trivial.  “I have to go to the market before I go home.”  Some are momentous and profound in terms of their influence on life events.  “I have to get married and have children.”  Not surprisingly, this distinction between trivial and profound issues marks one of the central tenants in developing critical life directives.

            But what is it that allows us to recognize common sense or life wisdom.   The answer lies in the application of the pleasure principal.  Happiness is achieved when one has optimized the pleasure they derive from life.  The pleasure principal acknowledges that one must always view and balance pleasure, measuring both the long and short term consequences of a life choice. 

For example, let us take a high school student having to choose between going to bed early before taking the SAT and going to a late night party where there will be many attractive opposite sex participants and lots of fun planned.  It is not difficult to see that if your goal were to maximize pleasure in the moment, the party is where you’re going.  A possible consequence to this choice, however, is the following sequence of events:  The student’s score on the SAT is significantly lowered; The student is rejected from the best colleges; The student ultimately graduates from a lesser college; The student looses out on the better job opportunities because of his lower credentials; The student makes less income and enjoys a less successful career; The student, as a result, is less happy.  This fictional scenario, involving many assumptions and possibilities, suggest that the pursuit of immediate pleasure may, in the long run, remotely, actually produce a large net reduction in pleasure. 

This analysis, of course, would lead to very different conclusions if the student was planning a career as an artist or professional athlete, where the quality of his or her education may not be an important ingredient of success.  Alternative, if the test was not the SAT, but rather a minor quiz, yet another outcome would arise from the analysis.  Indeed, there are always a myriad of uncertainties in this kind of thinking.  Maybe the party will result in a police raid and a terrifying arrest.  Maybe the student, having under-performed on the SAT, ends up going to an easier college with lessened competition, thereby performs superbly, and with his new heighten self esteem achieves more after college. 

Utilizing the pleasure principal, i.e., attempting to strike a reasoned balance between immediate and delayed pleasure, may not be an exacting science, but it is still crucial to achieving happiness. 

            As you view your life, you may discover your personal tendencies, natural biases, in applying the pleasure principal.  Some people are prone to be governed by immediate gratification.  They often are underachievers and have to live with the unpleasant consequences of their controlling impulses.  But, they do have fun.  Others unrelentingly focus on the future consequences of their choices.  They become experts at delaying gratification, and, more importantly, they become experts at seeing and exaggerating every hidden risk in immediate pleasure.  These impulse controllers often are overachievers and live lives barren on fun.  For them, the future, when the net pleasure could be taken, never comes because they are busy planning yet new future.  Understanding your own biases will facilitate your keeping a wiser balance in managing the timing of gratification.  It the end, it is balance that produces happiness.