What makes us happy

I am re-reading Dan Gilbert’s excellent Stumbling on Happiness.  I was actually quite surprised to find out that he’s a full on academic, working as Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, and has a long list of Journal articles and psychology textbooks to his name.  That’s because this book is a really great read, his writing style is very charming, and the ideas accessible.  I just assumed he was another journalist that investigated and compiled these clever ideas from other individuals.  Turns out I should really read the author biographies too!

Stumbling on Happiness explores the limitations of our human minds when it comes to estimating how happy we will be with future occurrences, and how that leads us to mistakes when making choices today.  Like deciding to become a lawyer, because you think you’ll be happy with all that money, and then it turns out that you’re desperately unhappy anyway.  Or in my case, charging into a BSc in Biomedical Science, and on completion deciding that actually, I’d rather be programming….

Happiness has a base level, and we tend to revert to that level no matter what happens – good or bad.  The paraplegic is basically as happy as the Lotto Winners (For various reasons: humans rationalise unhappy outcomes to make them more acceptable, and more freedom of choice can actually make you unhappy in the case of the Lotto winner with suddenly increased purchasing power).

Unfortunately the book is not a self-help guide on how to become more happy, it just points out the flaws in what you *think* will make you happy in the future.

His Ted Talk is also very informative, he explains that we have a “psychological immune system”, which tends to produce artificial happiness.  This is the real deal, even if it was manufactured by our brain, since we can’t tell the difference!  He shows an example where participants were asked to rank various Monet prints, from their least to most favourite print.  They were then offered to take a print to keep, from either their 3rd or 4th favourite option.  When asked several days/weeks later to repeat the ranking, the print they chose went from 3rd favourite to 2nd favourite, and number 4 went down a ranking to number 5.  In other words, their brain decided the print that they chose was actually much nicer, and the one they didn’t choose was favoured less. This is the “artificial” happiness that the brain creates.

A second example shown is a study where photography students were allowed to choose between 2 photographs to keep, the other one going towards their “course results”.  One group was allowed to change their mind over the next few days and swap, the other group was not allowed; the students were told the photograph was being sent immediately to central headquarters.  Evaluations several days/weeks later showed that the students who could change their mind were significantly unhappy about their photograph, and the students who couldn’t were overall very happy with their choice.

Another highly interesting and amusing Ted Talk by Mr Gilbert, is “Why we make bad decisions“:

It starts with this equation : Expected value = Odds of gain x Value of gain

Sounds simple, except that we are terrible at estimating the odds, and the value of a choice.  He gives some reasons why we make errors in estimating the odds of gain – for example, unusual events come quickly to mind because of their rarity, so disasters seem more probable to happen, than something ordinary like dying of asthma or drowning.  The Lotto is another example of making bad estimations – we see all the winners and think there is a chance for us to win as well, when the odds are fantastically small.

For errors in estimating value – one of the reasons we make mistakes, is because value is compared to the past instead of the possible.  The act of comparing changes how we perceive something’s value.  For example, the comparison made when choosing between items at the store, based on prices, will not really impact our enjoyment when we’re actually using the item.  Comparing eating french fries with eating cake, makes you think that you’ll enjoy the fries less, than if you compare eating Fries to eating spam.  But when the act of eating fries is actually measured, both groups enjoy the fries equally.  So the experience doesn’t change, but the prediction of how much you will enjoy something changes depending on what you’re comparing it with. It explains the strange phenomenon of why people are blissfully ignorant of high investment fees in their portfolios, up to 2 or 3% but will go to a lot of trouble to clip coupons to save a few cents.  Or why we keep going on camping trip holidays, thinking that we will thoroughly enjoy them, only to be disappointed when yet again, we are bitten by sand flies, burnt by the sun, eaten by ants, and freeze during the night.

To finish off, I’ll leave you with this thought : our brains evolved in a very different environment than we exist in today – we lived in small communities, and our daily priority was hunting, eating and reproducing.  We now live in a global environment, with huge “monkey spheres”, and our immediate needs for most first world citizens, is very easily met through steady employment.  No wonder we are such an unsatisfied lot!

More on Stumbling on Happiness in later posts, once I’ve read through it again!


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