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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

You Can't Always Know What You Want

Are you happy? Before you answer this, consider how long you have, or have not, experienced what you consider to be happiness. Is happiness something you possess all the time because you know how to consistently seek things that make you happy? Or, does the majority of your happiness depend on brief and fleeting experiences that seem to occur at random?

And, what makes you happy, anyway? You don't really know? Now, how in the hell can you possibly expect to find happiness if you don't know what to look for?  And, if you can identify what makes you happy, how can you make sure that happiness is part of your future?

Happiness is something you desire, but something you seldom consider in terms of rigid understandings. You might be surprised to learn about some recent research concerning happiness.

Daniel Gilbert, researcher and professor of psychology at Harvard University, compares trying to define happiness to defining a thing like insanity. "It's hard to say what it is, but I know it when I see it," he says."It simply means feeling good."

According to Gilbert, happiness is what tickles the sweet spot in the deep part of your brain. In other words, every happy person experiences the same feeling, but different things bring on that feeling.  

Through his research, Gilbert concludes that happiness is never as good as you imagine it will be, and it never lasts as long as you think it will. But the same also holds true for unhappiness.

 Daniel Gilbert

What Does Gilbert Say About Happiness?

Daniel Gilbert -- along with the psychologist Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia, the economist George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon and the psychologist (and Nobel laureate in economics) Daniel Kahneman of Princeton -- has taken the lead in studying a specific type of emotional and behavioral prediction. In the past few years, these four men have begun to question the decision-making process that shapes our sense of well-being: how do we predict what will make us happy or unhappy -- and then how do we feel after the actual experience? (Jon Gertner, "The Futile Pursuit of Happiness," The New York Times, September 7 2003)

Daniel Gilbert reveals the following findings about happiness:

1. When you try to simulate future events that will make you happy — and to simulate your emotional reactions to those events — you make systematic errors.

2. The main error is that you vastly overestimate the hedonic consequences of any event. Neither positive nor negative events hit you as hard or for as long as you anticipate.Gilbert calls the gap between what you predict and what you ultimately experience the ''impact bias'' -- ''impact'' meaning the errors you make in estimating both the intensity and duration of your emotions and ''bias'' your tendency to err. 

3. Mistakes of expectation can, and do, lead directly to mistakes in choosing what you think will give you pleasure. Gilbert calls this ''miswanting.''

4. Even when you find things that bring happiness, you do adapt to them, but you seem unable to predict how you will adapt. Thus, when you find the pleasure derived from a thing diminishing, you move on to the next thing or event and almost certainly make another error of prediction, and then another, ad infinitum.

Holy Smokes, How Are You Supposed To Choose Something To Make You Happy?

It turns out that you should ask someone who already has experienced your dream of happiness. You should not hesitate to ask a complete stranger about their actual feelings. According to Dan Gilbert, the experience of that person is likely to help you make up your mind and predict your future reactions. 

"If you want to know how much you will enjoy an experience, you are better off knowing how much someone else enjoyed it than knowing anything about the experience itself," says Gilbert. (Daniel T. Gilbert, Matthew A. Killingsworth, Rebecca N. Eyre, and Timothy N. Wilson. "The Surprising Power of Neighborly Advice." Science (20) March 2009)

Gilbert finds that people do not understand how useful another person's opinion can be because they wrongly believe that every human being is different from everyone else. However, in reality "an alien who knew all the likes and dislikes of a single human being would know a great deal about the species."

This process is known as surrogation, and it is nothing new. The 17th century writer François de La Rochefoucauld suggested that rather than mentally simulating a future event, people should consult those who have experienced it. "Before we set our hearts too much upon anything," he wrote, "let us first examine how happy those are who already possess it." La Rochefoucauld was essentially suggesting that forecasters should use other people as surrogates for themselves, and the advantages of his "surrogation strategy" are clear: Because surrogation does not rely on mental simulation, it is immune to the many errors that inaccurate simulations produce.

The Secrets To Your Happy Life?

Take heart. You may just find happiness. Gilbert recommends starting with the fact that happiness is not a permanent possession. Your happiness is a state that you move in and out of. "The fact that you're not always happy is not a problem," he says. "So don't look for a solution when there is no problem."  (William J. Cromie, "Scientists Pursue Happiness," Harvard University Gazette, Harvard News Office, 2007)

Next, you should develop your own philosophy of happiness. You shouldn't accept the consumerism philosophy delivered in ads that push new cars, more fashionable clothes, or better restaurants. "Look at your own life, and ask what has brought you the most joy," Gilbert notes. "Most times the answer lies in people, in friends and family. It comes mainly from relationships, not from stuff."

Gilbert concludes, "Finally, in trying to determine what will make you happiest, look to others who have already made the decisions you face. Try to honestly figure out how happy they are."

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