Tuesday, June 05, 2007


I just finished reading "Stumbling on Happiness" by Daniel Gilbert, which is a serious study of what makes people happy. It seems there has been a lot of research into this topic. Unfortunately, none of us seem to be paying attention. What was delightful about this book was how funny it was - it was the first time I've read psychological research and laughed all through it. Here's a little excerpt from the part where he is explaining how our brains work and how poorly they help us predict how we will feel in the future:

" In the late 1960s, a Harvard psychology professor took LSD, resigned his appointment (with some encouragement from the administration), went to India, met a guru, and returned to write a popular book called BE HERE NOW, whose central message was succinctly captured by the injuction of its title. Now, why would anyone go all the way to India and spend his time, money, and brain cells just to learn how not to think about the future? Because, as anyone who has ever tried to learn meditation knows, not thinking about the future is much more challenging than being a psychology professor. Not to think about the future requires that we convince our frontal lobe not to do what it was designed to do... and it naturally resists this suggestion."

Gilbert says that we treat ourselves like our future children - guessing what will make us happy in the future and then trying to create that for ourselves. But we're doing a terrible job of guessing judging by the number of divorces, moves and job changes. It seems that in spite of our heroic efforts, we have no idea what will make us happy and our future selves suffer as a result.

As examples are the fairly well-known studies that show that more money only makes us happy up to about $50,000 a year. When people make less than that, extra money really improves their quality of life. But over $50,000 it doesn't really make any difference. In fact, in some cases people are more unhappy. But have you noticed that this fact doesn't keep people from striving and making enormous sacrifices to make more and more money and buy more and more stuff? His explanation is that we are programmed by society to do this because people who are focused on money and stuff don't run around making trouble - the lifestyle contributes to a stable society and good reproduction rates. He doesn't think there's any kind of a conspiracy - it just happens because it works.

Hmmm. I guess that means if we decide to opt out of the rat race and run around making trouble instead, we should keep it quiet. Oh wait, I've already been doing that for years.

So, Gilbert says the solution is to ask somebody who is currently experiencing what you're thinking about doing in the future what the experience is like. He points out that no one does this much. If you ask people whether they would rather use their imagination to decide what to do in the future or ask some one, they almost 100% say they would use their imaginations - because everyone thinks he/she is unique. But we aren't. But it's an ego thing. Now he strongly emphasizes that you shouldn't ask somebody who HAS experienced something in the past. He goes into great detail explaining that peoples' memories are very unreliable and they may tell you that law school was wonderful when they actually thought they were in hell at the time. So you should ask a current student.

A thought - there would be a lot of things you just couldn't find out about that way. I'm not sure whether someone would tell you whether a face lift was worth it right after they had the surgery. Also, I guess you wouldn't be able to find out whether someone was good in bed unless you asked right afterward and if he/she was already involved...well that just wouldn't work although I'm sure it's something most people would really want to know ahead of time.

Anyway, I loved this book. It's another "if we can put a man on the moon, why can't we...." thing. Looks like solid information about how to be happy would be a priority. But it doesn't appear to be and even the information we have is pretty much ignored.

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