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Stumbling on Happiness

 Daniel Gilbert 

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A very interesting book summarizing some research on happiness. This is not a self-help book, and the general theme is that people are terribly bad at predicting what will make themselves happy and terribly bad at recalling what actually did happen and whether they were happy or not. This somewhat resembles the judgment and decision literature on recurring judgment errors, but with an emphasis on the errors that affect our happiness.

An Evolutionary Critique

To establish our stance, we will present a general criticism of the overall argument before going on to discuss the numerous interesting results that he introduces. We feel that his overarching narrative misses the point and casts a lot of murk on the subject because he takes a purely psychological viewpoint, and does not consider what Evolutionary Psychology has to tell us about why people want to control their future:

There are two answers to this question, one of which is surprisingly right and the other of which is surprisingly wrong. […]

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 naturally endowed. […] It makes us feel good to do so – period. […]

We want – and we should want – to control the direction of our boat because some futures are better than others, and even from this distance we should be able to tell which are which. This idea is so obvious it barely seems worth mentioning, but I'm going to mention it anyway. […] What looks like an obvious idea is, in fact, the surprisingly wrong answer to our question. We insist on steering our boats because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain – not because the boat won't respond, and not because we can't find our destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope.

To an evolutionary psychologist, noticing a human behaviorial disposition such as a desire for control is the starting point of investigation, rather than the ending point. You can't just stop there – human nature is what it is for a reason, and generally the reason is that behaving in certain ways results in more grandchildren.

Though there may be other evolutionary explanations for human prospection, and especially for the biases in prospection, we feel certain that the obviously right answer is in fact broadly right. The favored obviously wrong answer (instinct) is a correctly identified proximate cause, but the ultimate cause must be that our anticipation and planning benefits us often enough for it to be worthwhile.

However, he does correctly argue that there are numerous ways in which our understandings about our future, our past and our strivings are wrong:

  • We are not nearly as good as we think we are about predicting what will happen in the world. When we are wrong, we tend to show Positive Illusions.
  • We are terrible at predicting how we will actually experience the events that do occur. We strive for things that we think will make us happy, but generally gratification is fleeting. When terrible things happen it has surprisingly little effect on our happiness. Overall we tend to have a happiness setpoint that is little affected by anything that happens.
  • Though we are wrong about what will happen and wrong about our experiencing of what does happen over and over again, we just don't learn. We pick ourselves up and do it all over again.

What he is missing is two key understandings:

  • It's difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. This is not just a human cognitive peculiarity, it's a straightforward consequence of the laws of physics. Though we may fail more often than we succeed, even rare successes may be valuable enough to offset the cost of our big brain.
  • It's not about happiness. This is the most crucial insight of evolutionary psychology. Happiness is a carrot that the rider hangs from a stick in front of the horse's nose. The horse thinks he is pursuing the carrot because he will get to eat it, but really he is pursuing the rider's goal. Though the horse is briefly happy when he gets the carrot at the end of the day, this ultimately only increases the desire for more carrots. We may be deluded that our goals will result in happiness, but this doesn't mean the goals don't serve an evolutionary purpose.

Human Uniqueness: daydreaming and worry

He argues (probably correctly) that Humans have a capability unique among animals for imagining the future and planning based on what we imagine. He contrasts this with the simpler sort of prediction that most complex animals do, anticipating what is likely to happen next here-and-now. He calls this nexting, to contrast with the human prospection.

The human prospection capability seems to be associated with the pre-frontal lobe. Humans with pre-frontal damage often lose the ability to plan or anticipate the future, and interestingly also become much calmer because they don't worry anymore.

Typically about 12% of people's conscious thoughts are about the future. Although prospection is almost by definition the mechanism of worry, most thoughts about the future tend to be daydreaming about generally positive possibilities:

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. For instance, American college students expect to live longer, stay married longer, and travel to Europe more often than average. They believe […] they are less likely to have a heart attack, venereal disease, a drinking problem, an auto accident, a broken bone, or gum disease.

He goes on to say that these Positive Illusions are present in Americans in general. Even in countries where there is general pessimism about the future, people expect to do better than their peers.

The Psychological Immune System

One of his interesting ideas is the “Psychological Immune System”, which is the way that normal people tend to rationalize whatever happened to themselves as all to the good. This is one of the things that serves to implement the happiness setpoint that has been seen in numerous studies. This works even for being paralyzed from the neck down, which is why (after a surprisingly short time) people who have been paralyzed are almost as happy as they were beforehand.

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books/stumbling_on_happiness.txt · Last modified: 2012/05/13 00:00 by ram