PBS Tackles Happiness In 'This Emotional Life'

Daniel Gilbert is the host of the new PBS series This Emotional Life. The three-night program, which starts Monday night, examines the biological and social science behind human emotion and social interactions. Gilbert tells Madeleine Brand that scientists found that interpersonal relationships are especially important in developing and sustaining human happiness.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Want to know the secret to happiness? A lot of us do. We Americans spend billions of dollars on self-help books that promise to let us in on the mystery. Well, for free, you can find out by tuning into a TV series, beginning tonight on PBS, called "This Emotional Life." No relation to a certain public radio show, I don't think. "This Emotional Life" is hosted by Daniel Gilbert. He's a professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of the book "Stumbling on Happiness."

Throughout the series, you have celebrities giving what they think contributes to happiness, one of whom is Larry David, who is a co-creator of "Seinfeld." Here's a piece of tape when he's asked what the secret is to happiness.

Mr. LARRY DAVID (Co-Creator of "Seinfeld"): I don't think it's that much of a mystery. If you don't have a job that you like and you're not having sex, you're just not going to be happy.

BRAND: So is it that simple, really?

Mr. DANIEL GILBERT (Host, "This Emotional Life"): It's certainly that simple for him. If you're not doing something with your time that's reasonably satisfying, your happiness is going to be lower. Well, duh, yes. He's exactly right. We all know that, and science certainly attests the truth of what he's saying.

Now, when he says if you're not having sex, I think he's probably injecting some of his own personal values there. But if we could read that liberally as, if you're not involved in a relationship, then indeed, we see that people who aren't in romantic relationships are less happy than those who are.

So with a little modification, the great philosopher Larry David is not far off.

BRAND: However, you do say that satisfaction ebbs considerably, the longer you're married.

Mr. GILBERT: Well, I don't say that because if my wife hears it on the radio, I'm in trouble. But scientists do say that, other scientists who don't value their marriages like I do.

BRAND: You're on tape now, yeah.

Mr. GILBERT: It really is true that if you look at the happiness of people's marital satisfaction over time, you'll see that the day people get married, they're extremely satisfied with the relationship, and it kind of goes downhill from there. Relationships usually are the gateway to hard work: the hard work of raising children, establishing a household, et cetera. The good news is it begins to go up again once children have grown, and according to most studies, it reaches its initial level, or at least very close to it, when the children leave home.

BRAND: So I can blame my kids for my unhappy marriage. Is that what you're saying?

Mr. GILBERT: Well, they're blaming you for everything.

BRAND: I'm not saying I personally. I'm just saying - Joe, if you're listening to this...

Mr. GILBERT: I might substitute something kinder for the word blame, but it probably is true that without children, your marriage might be happier in the sense that you would report more daily satisfaction. People are surprised to find this, because they value and love their children above all things. How can my children not be a source of great happiness?

Well, one reason is that although children are a source of happiness, they tend to crowd out other sources of happiness. So people who have a first child, often find in the first year or two that they're not doing many of the other things that used to make them happy. They don't go to the movies or the theater. They don't go out with their friends. They don't make love with their spouse. All the things that used to be sources of happiness are no longer there.

So yes, the child is a source of happiness. On the same hand, it may be that average happiness goes down.

BRAND: You end this series with a surprising finding - at least for me - and that is that older people - and a lot older people, elderly people - are happier, in general, than younger people, even though they may have illnesses, even though they may have lost their looks and aren't as prized by society, they seem, on the whole, happier. And research bears this out.

Mr. GILBERT: It certainly does, and it's a finding that every year older I get, the more I appreciate. The fact is that when you measure happiness, if you hold constant physical health, people only get happier over time. This is very important. When we think of old people being unhappy, we're almost always thinking of old people whose health is failing.

But it turns out, when your health fails at any age, you're unhappy. Older people tend to be unhappier than younger people only because they're in poorer health. As long as they aren't in bad health, they're actually happier.

BRAND: You also delve into the multibillion-dollar self-help industry, and you interview a woman who is the - I guess the dean of it. Her name is Louise Hay, and this is what she says is the secret to happiness.

Ms. LOUISE HAY (Self-help movement founder): Happiness is choosing thoughts that make you feel good. It's really very simple.

BRAND: What is your response to that?

Mr. GILBERT: Well, I agree with her that happiness has something to do with choosing thoughts that make you feel good. I don't agree it's very simple. Long before Louise Hay, this is the basis of cognitive behavioral therapy, the most widely practiced kind of psychotherapy, that if we can change our thoughts, change our cognition, then we can also change the way we feel about the world.

I had to part company with Louise Hay, though, because she has more extreme beliefs than I do. She believes, for example, that we can cure illnesses like cancer, AIDS, leprosy, simply by changing the thoughts we think. And I don't see any evidence whatsoever for that. When I asked her about how she felt about the scientific evidence, she said she didn't think that much of science. So we have to part ways there, too.

BRAND: Um-hum. You have written a book on happiness. You study this professionally. You are a psychologist. Is this an obsession that is largely a Western obsession, or an obsession with people who have a lot of material goods?

Mr. GILBERT: I don't believe so. I mean, if you look at happiness with a small h, the world over, the desire for feeling better appears to be universal. Americans are much more willing to talk about it. Remember that although we are guaranteed life and liberty, we're only guaranteed the pursuit of happiness. We're not actually guaranteed we're going to get it. We're just guaranteed the right to go chase it. And as Americans, that's exactly what we do.

And so we have a reputation for being obsessed with happiness because we chat about it all the time. There's many places where, if you talk about happiness -France, Russia, for example - you seem to be an idiot. Well, I don't believe for a minute that the people who live in Russia or France would prefer pain to pleasure, that they'd rather be alone than with others. Every culture cares about essentially the same basic human need, and that's to feel happy.

BRAND: Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, he's the host of the new PBS series, "This Emotional Life." Thank you very much.

Mr. GILBERT: Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

I'm feeling happier already Madeleine. Thank you very much.

BRAND: You should. You'll be even happier when you tune in tonight to see "This Emotional Life." It runs tonight through Wednesday on PBS, and it examines the social and biological science behind human emotions.

I am happily listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite of music)

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