Homo homini rodentius est

How to be happy

bowl of cherriesDan Gilbert isn’t your typical Harvard egghead (though his balding pate does bear a striking resemblence to this morning’s hard-boiled breakfast…). His [website], which identifies him as the head of the Harvard Hedonic Psychology Lab, contains the expected lists of academic credentials and awards, but also links to a video entitled “The Hand Puppet Dance”; shows his impressive and august Curriculum Vitae, as well as a section on how to “Control A Man in A Chicken Suit.” As you may guess, Gilbert is exceptional in many ways, not least in that he can write — clearly and humorously — about very important things. Like Happiness.

If you stroll through Barnes & Noble you may find his book [Stumbling on Happiness] sitting uncomfortably in the Self Help section. It’s in the wrong place — this isn’t a Deepak Chopra exercise in better living through purple prose. Rather, like Freakonomics, this book belongs to that rare collection of popular science books that are so well-written and go down so easily you may not even realize your understanding of the world has changed profoundly until you finish the last sentence.

First, what this book is not: it’s not an examination of pathology related to happiness, mania or depression. Nor is it an ethical examination of what should make you happy. There is just a brief mention in the Afterword about what science has to say about the utility of identifying pursuit of money with happiness. Instead, given whatever it is that we are seeking in order to be happy, it examines the mental methods we use to make judgments and where they (often) go wrong.

Basically, the tools that evolution has dropped into our laps for making predictions about what will make us happy or not are memory and imagination. For the vast expanse of human history these two have worked well together to help us make decisions and follow courses of action. But they work best when the challenge is relatively simple. For example, Craig the Caveman sees a banana in a tree. He remembers that he once ate a banana and “Banana good.” He imagines what it would be like to retrieve the banana and eat it and the thought generates an emotion in him very much like the one he remembers. It’s a done deal, moments later “Banana still good.” The problem arises when the object of our decision is multifaceted with possible outcomes: Should I attend grad school for Economics? Should I marry Fred? In these situations, our happiness predictor breaks down because it turns out that memory is not a reliable gauge of what happened in the past and imagination is lousy at considering the future.

Through relentless accumulation of experimental evidence, Gilbert shows how memory is influenced too much by present thinking and imagination is unable to consider sufficient possible outcomes. Rather than a photocopy reproduction of past events and moods, memory is a narrative — that is often colored, twisted, filtered and fictionalized to rationalize current needs. Where it does represent the past, it is subject to salience errors — exceptional events from our past loom large in memory, even though, according to the laws of probablility, they should not. For example, you’ve met thousands of friendly dogs in your life — but once, 20 years ago, the dog next door used your ankle as a chew toy and now, every time you think of dogs, there she is again. The reverse happens, as well. Some happy memories are over-weighted when they shouldn’t be. If you’ve ever wondered why your thrice-married neighbor is heading to the altar yet again while you’ve been avoiding dates following that breakup 7 years ago, this helps explain it. Your neighbor is discounting the probability of a bad outcome while you are discounting the probability of a good one. But, interestingly, she may end up happier than you.

One of the more fascinating findings presented in the book is that our brains have a self-defense mechanism designed to keep us on an even keel in the event of bad experience: rationalization. Turns out that people can process negative results of their actions very effectively. What they have trouble doing is processing the regret from action not taken. This explains a story I once read about the writer Scott Turow who, early in his legal career, was struggling with the decision about whether to be a lawyer or writer so much it drove him to a shrink. The shrink didn’t ask him what he wanted more, he asked him what he would regret more if he didn’t choose it. The rest is history.

Gilbert is so effective at demolishing our cherished beliefs in our ability to know ourselves and make rational decisions that near the end of the book I was ready to hang it up and call the Psychic Friends Network to find out what I was having for dinner. But he comes through with some prescriptions for how we can dramatically improve our ability to make right choices. Of course, in the memory department, we can supplement our faulty brains by relying on journals and other peoples’ memories to get a fuller picture of how we experienced past events. And there is one sure-fire method for avoiding the problems of imaginative projection into the future that is remarkably obvious once you know it and, paradoxically, almost impossible for most people to guess. Want me to tell you what it is?

Sorry. I wouldn’t dream of denying you the pleasure of finding out for yourself.

Too cruel? Alright, here’s a hint: as individuals we are not nearly as unique as we think we are. Off you go.

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