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Daniel Gilbert on why it’s so hard to know what makes us happy

Daniel Gilbert, Harvard professor and author of “Stumbling on Happiness”, is someone I enjoy listening to even if I’ve heard his talk several times before. I’ve blogged his studies on happiness previously, but I’ll always catch his talks because he’s an astoundingly good presenter. (I had a chance to talk with Gilbert before his talk. I asked him to be brief, repetitive and boring so he’d be easier to blog, as I was recovering from writing 2500 words about Jason Clay’s talk. He didn’t oblige.)

His talk is called “The Four Answers”, and the answers are to the question, “Why are people so bad at knowing what makes us happy?” He reminds us that the US Declaration of Independence establishes as “self evident that people have inalienable rights; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The founding fathers thought that pursuit of happiness was difficult, but not complicated. Life in colonial times was hard: you got up in the morning and tried not to die. “Happiness is what happens when you get what you’re aiming for – and it doesn’t happen in this lifetime.” You weren’t assured the right of happiness, but the right to pursue it.

The world has changed very quickly. The agricultural, industrial and technological revolutions have transformed our reality, and now large populations have everything they could possibly need. And yet, Gilbert tells us, they’re not happy. “Happiness can’t just be getting what you’re aiming for,” or we’d all be happy. Or we could draw another conclusion, the one Gilbert argues for: “We must be aiming for the wrong things.”

The problem stems from our ability to imagine. Every animal learns from experience, from the single-celled up. Unfortunately, this can be a very expensive way to learn – the mouse that gets caught by the cat doesn’t live long enough to benefit from the lesson. Human beings are able to learn through a more sophisticated method than trial and error. We can imagine, and conclude whehter courses of action without actually engaging in them. This capacity is so important, it radically changed human anatomy, expanding the size of our heads three-fold, so we could grow huge temporal lobes, the brainspace we use to imagine.

Gilbert asks us to imagine a raw steak banana split. “Ben and Jerry’s didn’t have to make it to realize it was an error.” He offers the observation that “We are the only animal on the planet that learns from mistakes we haven’t personally made, because “imagination is a life simulator.”

There’s bad news: this simulator “is new, and still in beta testing”. Our life simulator fails in predictable ways. People make systematic series of errors when they try to predict how they will feel about the future. The heart of the talk are these four errors, the four answers to the question of why we’re so bad at knowing what makes us happy.

What we don’t imagine matters more than we imagine it does.

Who ends up happier? Assistant professors who get tenure, or those who don’t. We’d assume that tenured professors are much happier. Actually it turns out not to matter very much at all – a few years after the tenure decision, both the tenured and untenured turn out to be pretty sucessful. And “as it turns out, everyone is happier than assistant professors.” But in the moment before a tenure decision, assistant professors predict that the tenure decision will have a massive impact on their lives.

Gilbert calls this “a failure of the life simulator”, something that happens in study after study. To explain, he asks us to imagine buying a newspaper. Then he asks us for details: “What paper did you buy? What day of the week? What bill did you use? Where did you put the change?” None of us know because we imagine the central feature of a thing, not the inessential details. These inessential details matter a great detail. The professors are imaging the consequences of a tenure decision, but not other aspects of their lives, their relationships, where they live – these details have a profound effect on whether they end up happy or not.

Would you be happier in California. Everyone says that they would. And Californians tell us that they’re happier than the rest of America. But there’s no reliable correlation between California and happiness. When we imagine California, we imagine beaches and bikinis – we omit inessential details like smog, traffic and earthquakes.

You can improve the accuracy of people’s prediction of their happiness by asking them to imagine details. Gilbert explains a study where a group of football fans are asked how they’re going to feel after their team wins or loses a big game. They predict big swings, positive or negative, in happiness. Another group is asked the same question, but also asked to list things they’ll be doing the day after the game. This leads to a much narrower – and more accurate – range of emotional swings. This is a “wide focus” effect – if you ask someone to broaden their focus beyond the football game to their wider experience, considering those “inessential details”, they’re less error-prone in making predictions of their future happiness.

We can’t forsee what we’ll see once we’re seeing it

Gilbert shares some quotes from the New York Times, quotes from people happy and satisfied with their lives:

“I don’t have a minute’s regret. It was a glorious experience.”
That quote was from Maurice Bickham, who served 45 years in prison for fighting back against a KKK lynching attempt, and was eventually released.

“I am so much better off, physically, financially, mentally and in almost every way.”
That’s Jim Wright, years after he was forced to resign from Congress in disgrace.

“I believe it turned out for the best.” That was Harry Langerman, a man who’d had the opportunity to franchise McDonalds, but wasn’t able to borrow the money. He became a middle manager in the Black Angus chain of steakhouses… and seems pretty happy about it.

The most astounding of these examples is Pete Best, the drummer thrown out of the Beatles. He’s been recently quoted as saying, “I’m happier than I would hae been with the Beatles.” This seems crazy – it’s not like Best went on to become a restauranteur – he’s a session drummer. Who would want to be a footnote to musical history when they could have been part of the greatest band of all time?

Gilbert explains that our brain is wired to resolve ambiguity. He shows the Necker cube, an optical illusion that can be interpreted in two ways. Stare at a Necker cube, and you’ll see it shift between orientations. If a researcher provides even a modest reward – a gentle, approving “Mmm” when you announce that you see the cube in a particular orientation, you’ll lose your ability to see the cube in another orientation within two minutes.

Given an ambiguous situation – being thrown into prison or out of the Beatles – we’ll shop amongst interpretations and pick the one that feels best. Did Best lose the gig with the Beatles, or gain a great chance to spend more time with his family? “Our brains are good at finding the best way to see things.”

Gilbert posits a situation in which we might face rejection – we ask a girl out on a date and she says no. This is an ambiguous situation. Maybe she thinks I’m ugly, he offers. Or maybe she’s an anti-semite. Or perhaps I’m a lousy conversationalist. Or maybe she’s a lesbian. Given the ambiguity, we’ll conclude she’s an anti-semitic lesbian before we conclude our own unattractiveness.

Unambiguous rejection is much harder for humans to handle than rejection from a single person. Gilbert details an experiment in which students are invited to apply for jobs as ice-cream testers. They’re invited to taste ice-cream flavors and offer names for them. In the experiment, everyone is rejected, some by a single judge, others by a panel of judges, where each rejects the applicant. Before the test, students are asked how badly they’d feel if they didn’t get the job – they all predicted they’d feel pretty bad, because “rejection sucks and it will hurt”. But the students rejected by a single judge felt only a little bad, while those rejected by a whole panel felt truly lousy. It’s one thing to reject an ambiguous defeat – that judge didn’t like me – but unambiguous setbacks are far harder for the brain to rationalize.

In the future, we will live in the present
Another optical illusion shows us how a solid-colored grey bar can look like a gradient when shown against a gradient background. It’s a simple contrast effect – things change when you compare them to other things.

If you’re visiting a friend’s house for a dinner party, which bottle of wine are you going to buy? Given four choices, you’re doing to buy the second-least expensive bottle of wine – you’re not a cheapskate, who’d buy the least expensive, but you’re not going to buy the most expensive either. Wine stores get you to buy the $33 bottle instead of the $27 by adding a bottle of $115 “aspirational” wine. No one ever buys this wine, he argues – it exists solely to increase your chances of buying a slightly more expensive wine, which doesn’t look so expensive in comparison to the very expensive wine.

If that doesn’t ring true for you (it should – even Homer Simpson has verified the theory), Gilbert offers evidence from a study that shows that people will choose to get paid $90,000 a year if their peers are paid $80,000 rather than being paid $100,000 while peers are paid $110,000. We can’t resist making comparisons, and guessing at future happiness based on these comparisons.

There’s another lab study to demonstrate the phenomenon. Researchers invite students to estimate how much they’re going to enjoy eating a bag of potato chips. They then eat them and report how much they actually enjoyed them. Simple enough. But the experiment has a twist. One group is asked to estimate their enjoyment of potato chips while there’s also a plate of chocolates on the table. They tend to give lower estimates of potato chip enjoyment. On the other hand, a group making an implicit, unstated comparison between potato chips and Spam give high estimates of potato chip enjoyment.

Here’s the thing – when students actually eat the chips, they pretty much enjoy them at the same rate. “Once you eat a potato chip, it doesn’t matter what you’re not eating. No one ever says, ‘Man, this is so not Spam.'”

“How often do we have thoughts like ‘I could have had a V8’? Or ‘maybe I should have gone to a different lecture?'” Almost never, he tells us. We compare in our imaginations, but it reality, we live in the present and evaluate our happiness based on what we’re experiencing.

Your mother doesn’t know everything.

Gilbert tells us that his mother offered him the same advice everyone’s mother offers – find a good job, get married and have kids. Is Mom – and conventional wisdom in general – right or wrong?

Marriage, as it turns out, is an extremely good predictor of happiness. Married people make more money per capita, eat better, live longer, have more sex and enjoy it more. In terms of comparisons of happiness, you’d need to be making $100,000 more as an unmarried person to be as happy as a married person. (On average, and your mileage may vary, of course. And please, keep in mind, this is Gilbert talking, not me.) Is this a causal relationship? Maybe happier people are simply more likely to get married? That’s true, but studies over time reveal a very common pattern – people are less happy before marriage, experience a happiness peak shortly after marriage, and become slightly less happy a few years into marriage, though remain significantly happier than before marriage.

Money’s a little trickier – they’re related, but the relationship is asymptotic. Earning more money doesn’t give you much of a happiness boost after an inflection point. There’s an argument about where that inflection point is, but it’s lower than you think – somewhere between $40,000 and $100,000 a year in the US, less in developing nations.

Gilbert tells us that an economist friend reacted to this set of research with the quip, “If money isn’t making you happy, you’re not spending it right.” That may be true. People often make bad choices enabled by more money. If you get a raise and move into the country, you’re going to have a commute to work – that’s a daily negative effect that may well counterbalance any happiness effect you get from the fresh air and starry skies.

Comparative money is far more important than real income. He offers another quip: “Happiness is proportional to your salary divided by your brother-in-law’s salary.” He offers another useful observation – money given away almost always leads to happiness. In an experiment, students are given $20. One set is instructed to go out and buy something for themselves; the other set is instructed to buy something for someone else or give the money away. The first group comes back slightly happier than they were before, but the second group comes back beaming. (Did I mention that Global Voices is a non-profit organization and that we accept donations online?)

Here’s the tough news for those of us contemplating parenthood: people with children tend to be less happy than married couples without children. Parents with young children are even less happy. Again, perhaps there’s a self-sorting effect – perhaps happy people decide not to have kids. But time studies suggest a curve where couples are pretty happy, get very happy when anticipating a baby, get significantly less happy when the baby arrives and don’t really recover until the kid goes to college. Gilbert shows us a study in which mothers were asked several times a day to rate their happiness by being called on a phone at random – they reported what they were doing and their happiness levels. They reported being happiest when talking with friends or eating, less happy when shopping for groceries and least happy doing housework. Time they were with children ranked between housework and grocery shopping.

Gilbert acknowledges that none of us believe these studies. He asks, “What do we do when data shows us something we don’t feel?” He offers three hypotheses that might explain the phenomenon, each with a catchy analogy:

Happiness is Armani socks
If you buy a $250 pair of Armani socks, you’re probably not going to keep this fact to yourself. You’re likely to tell people how wonderful they are, how great they feel. “We value things a lot when we pay a lot of money for them… or suffer for them.”

Happiness is heroin

“Heroin is a great source of joy,” Gilbert tells us. The problem with heroin is that it crowds out other joy, lowering your average happiness. Children might have this tendency as well, crowding other things out of life that previously were sources of pleasure. These pleasures – travel, dining out, playing loud music that your kids hate – tend not to return until the kids leave home. “Empty nest syndrome is not a DSM category. It doesn’t exist. The only known symptom is smiling.”

Happiness is baseball

A Cubs and Sox fan, Gilbert knows something about how baseball and suffering can be correlated. But he postulates a near-perfect baseball fantasy: a day game at Fenway, Becket on the mound against the Yankees, a complete-game shutout, with a 0-0 tie finally broken by a Youklis walk-off in the bottom of the ninth. You’re going to tell everyone what an amazing game you saw. The truth is, shutout baseball is pretty damned boring. If we asked you moment to moment, you’d likely be bored through most of the game and thrilled at the very end. But our memory tends to record peak moments and eliminate the routine ones.

Parenting, he offers, is like this. You have a tough day with your kid, but you get a wave of love and affection when your kid tells you he loves you. “It wasn’t a great day, you had thirty really good seconds. Transcendent happiness wipes out the moment of drudgery.”

Gilbert has obviously talked to his mother about these issues and offers her response: “Maybe as parents we fail to get the right amount of joy out of parenting.”

As the audience is now ready to immediately get married, stop seeking a raise at work and put off having children indefinitely, Gilbert reminds us that “we’re designed to pursue happiness, not to find it.” Finding happiness is a really tough task, one where “we need to outmanuever our own brains which are designed as machines for their own replication,” not for making us happy.

6 thoughts on “Daniel Gilbert on why it’s so hard to know what makes us happy”

  1. Did Gilbert mention any people who actually were happier when with their children? What I’m wondering about is whether children can give you more immediate happiness, but that most people approach parenthood incorrectly. Is there a way to effectively parent without all the worrying and crowding out, while still finding ways to enjoy the time with your children?

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  5. I think that there is a lot of interesting points made in your blog. Happiness is definitely a goal that is difficult to obtain yet we know the things that aren’t necessarily going to make us happy like the superficial things. I think friends, family, and loved ones are crucial as is someone who loves us unconditionally(something I still search for). I think also it helps if you the time to learn new things as I am with learning a new language, French to be specific. In any case, I hope that we never stop trying to find it and enjoy the ride along the way.

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