Stumbling on Happiness

Daniel Gilbert

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Less philosophy and more psychology. This book discusses all of the mistakes our brains make in accessing whether an action or event will make us happy.


One particularly idiotic question we’d like to ask children is this: “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Small children look appropriately puzzled, worried perhaps, that our question implies that they’re at some risk of growing down. If they answer at all, they generally come up with things like “the candy guy” or “a tree climber.” We chuckle because the odds that the child will ever become the candy guy or a tree climber are vanishingly small. And they’re vanishingly small because these are not the kinds of things that most children will want to be once they’re old enough to ask idiotic questions themselves. But notice that while these are the wrong answers to our question they’re the right answers to another question. Namely, what do you want to be now? Small children can’t say what they want to be later because they don’t really understand what later means.

This frontal lobe, the last part of the human brain to evolve, the slowest to mature and the first to deteriorate in old age, is a time machine that allows each of us to vacate the present and experience the future before it happens. No other animal has a frontal lobe quite like ours which is why we’re the only animal that thinks about the future as we do. But if the story of the frontal lobe tells us how people conjure their imaginary tomorrows, it doesn’t tell us why.

Although imagining happy futures may make us feel happy it can also have some troubling consequences. Researchers have discovered that when people find it easy to imagine an event, they overestimate the likelihood that it will actually occur. Because most of us get so much more practice imagining good than bad events we tend to overestimate the likelihood that good events will actually happen to us, which leads us to be unrealistically optimistic about our futures.

The surprisingly right answer is that people find it gratifying to exercise control, not just for the futures it buys them, but for the exercise itself. Being effective, changing things, influencing things, making things happen is one of the fundamental needs with which human brains seem to be naturally endowed, and much of our behavior from infancy onward is simply an expression of this penchant for control.

Emotional happiness is a phrase for a feeling. An experience. A subjective state. And thus it has no objective referent in the physical world.

The problem is that people sometimes use the word happy to express their beliefs about the merits of things, such as when they say: “I’m happy they caught the little bastard who broke my windshield.” And they say things like this even when they’re not feeling anything vaguely resembling pleasure. How do we know when a person is expressing a point of view rather than making a claim about her subjective experience? When the word happy is followed by the words ‘that’ or ‘about’ speakers usually trying to tell us that we ought to take the word happy as an indication not of their feelings.

Becoming singletons would affect their views of the past in ways they could not simply set aside. All of this means that when people have new experiences that lead them to claim that their language was switched that they weren’t really happy, even though they said so and thought so at the time, they can be mistaken. In other words, people can be wrong in the present when they say they were wrong in the past.

Let’s call this the “experience-stretching hypothesis.” Experience-stretching is a bizarre phrase but not a bizarre idea. We often say of others who claim to be happy, despite circumstances that we believe should preclude it, that they only think they’re happy because they don’t know what they’re missing. OK sure but that’s the point. Not knowing what we’re missing can mean that we are truly happy under circumstances that would not allow us to be happy once we have experienced the missing thing.

If a thing can’t be measured, can’t be compared with a clock or a ruler or something other than itself, it’s not a potential object of scientific inquiry. As we’ve seen, it’s extremely difficult to measure an individual’s happiness and feel completely confident in the validity and reliability of that measurement. People may not know how they feel or remember how they felt and even if they do scientists can never know exactly how their experience maps onto their description of that experience. And hence, they cannot know precisely how to interpret people’s claim.

If everyone claimed to feel raging anger or a thick black depression when their zygomatic muscle contracted, their eyeblink slowed, and the left anterior brain region filled with blood, then we’d have to revise our interpretation of these physiological changes and take them as indices of unhappiness instead. If we want to know how a person feels we must begin by acknowledging the fact that there is one and only one observer stationed at the critical point.

Similarly, if a person tells us that she’s happier with today’s banana cream pie than with yesterday’s coconut cream pie we may rightfully worry that she’s misremembering her prior experience. But if this were to happen over and over again with hundreds or thousands of people, some of whom tasted the coconut cream pie before the banana cream pie and some of whom tasted after, we would have good reason to suspect that different pies really do give rise to different experiences, one of which is more pleasant than the other.

We’re forced to consider the possibility that what clearly seems to be the better life may actually be the worse life, in that when we look down the timeline at the different lives we might lead, we may not always know which is which. We’re forced to consider the possibility that we did something fundamentally wrong when we mentally slipped out of our shoes and into theirs.

Dinner tomorrow evening doesn’t describe an event so much as it describes a family of events, and the particular member of the family that you imagined influenced your predictions about how much you’d enjoy eating it. Indeed, trying to predict how much you’ll enjoy a plate of spaghetti without knowing which plate of spaghetti is like trying to predict how much you’ll pay for a car without knowing which car, Ferrari or Chevy. Or trying to predict how proud you’ll be of your spouse’s accomplishment without knowing which accomplishment, winning a Nobel Prize or finding the best divorce lawyer. You would have been wise to withhold your prediction about spaghetti or at least to temper it with a disclaimer such as, “I expect to like the spaghetti if it is Al Dante with smoked Pomodoro.” But I’m willing to bet that you didn’t withhold, you didn’t disclaim, and that you instead conjured up a plate of imaginary spaghetti faster than Chef Boyardee on rollerblades, then made a confident prediction about the relationship you expected to have with that food.

And yet, without a second thought, you behaved like an unrepentant realist and confidently based your predictions about how you would feel on details that your brain had invented while you weren’t watching. Your mistake wasn’t in imagining things you couldn’t know, that is after all what imagination is for. Rather your mistake was an unthinkingly treating what you imagined as though it were an accurate representation of the facts.

Why would people both select and reject Extremea? Because when we’re selecting we consider the positive attributes of our alternatives and when we’re rejecting we consider the negative attributes. Extrema has the most positive attributes and the most negative attributes, hence people tend to select it when they’re looking for something to select and they reject it when they’re looking for something to reject.

Because when these students imagine the future they tended to leave out details about the things that would happen after the game was over. For example, they failed to consider the fact that right after their team lost, which would be sad, they would go get drunk with their friends, which would be lovely. Or that right after their team won, which would be lovely, they would have to go to the library and start studying for their chemistry final, which would be sad. These students were focused on one and only one aspect the future: the outcome of the football game. And they failed to imagine other aspects of a future that would influence their happiness, such as drunken parties and chemistry exams. On the other hand, the students who had described a typical day before making their predictions were more accurate in their predictions, precisely because they were forced to consider the details.

When we perceive a distant buffalo, our brains are aware of the fact that the buffalo looked smooth, vague, and lacking in detail because it is far away. And they don’t mistakenly conclude the buffalo itself is smooth and vague. But when we remember or imagine a temporally distant event, our brains seemed to overlook the fact that details vanish with temporal distance. And they conclude instead the distant events actually are as smooth and vague as we’re remembering them.

But from the depressed person’s point of view, all the flailing makes perfectly good sense because when she imagines the future, she finds it difficult to feel happy today and thus difficult to believe that she’ll feel happy tomorrow. We can’t feel good about an imaginary future when we’re busy feeling bad about an actual present. But rather than recognizing this as the inevitable result of the reality-first policy, we mistakenly assume that the future event is the cause of the unhappiness we feel when we think about it.

Another way to beat habituation is to increase the amount of time that separates repetitions of the experience. Clinking champagne glasses and kissing one’s spouse at the stroke of midnight would be a relatively dull exercise were it to happen every evening. But if one does it on New Year’s Eve and then allows a full year to pass before doing it again, the experience will offer an endless bouquet of delights, because a year is plenty long enough for the effects of habituation to disappear. The point here is that time and variety are two ways to avoid habituation and if you have one, then you don’t need the other. In fact, and this is the really critical point so please put down your fork and listen, when episodes are sufficiently separated in time, variety is not only unnecessary, it can actually be costly.

The problem is that when we reason by metaphor (think of a dozen successive meals in a dozen successive months as though they were a dozen dishes arranged on a long table in front of us) we mistakenly treat sequential alternatives as though they were simultaneous alternatives. This is a mistake because sequential alternatives already have time on their side. Hence variety makes them less pleasurable rather than more.

The same principle explains why we love new things when we buy them and then stop loving them shortly thereafter. When we start shopping for a new pair of sunglasses we naturally contrast the hip stylish ones in the store with the old outdated ones that are sitting on our noses. So we buy the new ones and stick the old ones in a drawer. But after just a few days of wearing our new sunglasses we stop comparing them with the old pair, and, well what do you know, the delight that the comparison produced evaporates.

One of the reasons why most of us think of ourselves as talented, friendly, wise, and fair-minded is that these words are the lexical equivalents of the Necker Cube and the human mind naturally exploits each word’s ambiguity for its own gratification.

Indeed, in the long run people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did. Which is why the most popular regrets include not going to college, not grasping profitable business opportunities, and not spending enough time with family.

But if we rely on this memory as we plan our next vacation while overlooking the fact that the rest of the trip was generally disappointing, we risk finding ourselves at the same overcrowded campground the next year eating the same stale sandwiches, being bitten by the same surly ants, and wondering how we managed to learn so little from our previous visit. Because we tend to remember the best of times and the worst of times instead of the most likely of times, the wealth of experience that young people admire doesn’t always pay clear dividends.

Apparently prospections and retrospections can be in perfect agreement, despite the fact that neither accurately describes our actual experience. The theories that lead us to predict that an event will make us happy also lead us to remember that it did make us happy thereby eliminating evidence of their own inaccuracy. This makes it unusually difficult for us to discover that our predictions were wrong. We overestimate how happy will be on our birthdays, we underestimate how happy will be on Monday mornings. And we make these mundane but erroneous predictions again and again.

The same logic can explain the transmission of beliefs. If a particular belief has some property that facilitates its own transmission then that belief tends to be held by an increasing number of minds. As it turns out there are several such properties that increase a belief’s transmissional success. The most obvious of which is accuraacy.

“Children bring happiness” is a super replicator. The belief transmission network of which we are apart can’t operate without a continuously replenish supply of people to do the transmitting. Thus the belief that children are a source of happiness becomes a part of our cultural wisdom, simply because the opposite belief unravels the fabric of any society that holds it. Indeed, people who believe that children bring misery and despair (and who thus stopped having them) would put their belief transmission network out of business in around 50 years. Hence terminating the belief that terminated them.

The belief transmission game is rigged so that we must believe that children and money bring happiness regardless of whether such beliefs are true. This doesn’t mean that we should all now quit our jobs and abandon our families. Rather it means that while we believe we’re raising children and earning paychecks to increase our share of happiness we’re actually doing these things for reasons beyond our control.

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