'Stumbling on Happiness': Joy's Guessing Game

Madeleine Brand talks to author Daniel Gilbert about his new book, Stumbling on Happiness. Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, writes that human beings often can't accurately predict what will make them happy.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. Alex, if you had 10 minutes to live, what would you do?

CHADWICK: Whew. Buy some insurance. I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHADWICK: If I had 10 minutes to live, what would I do? I would call Carolyn and…

BRAND: Carolyn's your wife.

CHADWICK: …try to get together. Yeah.

BRAND: That's a great answer. But that question, Alex, is the very first question of this new book. It's called Stumbling on Happiness. Daniel Gilbert writes the book and he asks, what would you do right now if you learned you were going to die in 10 minutes? And I spoke with him about his book. Gilbert, by the way, is a psychology professor at Harvard University, so he's got credentials. And he wrote this fascinating book called Stumbling on Happiness.

Professor DANIEL GILBERT (Author, Stumbling on Happiness): Opening lines are supposed to grab attention. Call me Ishmael was taken. Mine starts with asking readers to imagine what they would do if this were the end of their life. The forward then goes on to point out that what they're doing right now is probably not what they would do if they only had 10 minutes to live, which simply goes to show you that a lot of what we do during the day isn't in the service of our immediate gratification, it's in service of gratifying our future selves.

BRAND: So if we are constantly living for our future selves and actually never getting to our future self, then how can we be happy in the moment?

Prof. GILBERT: We do indeed get to be our future selves, which is what happens when you collect your paycheck, which is what happens when you go to the dentist and she says, Damn fine job flossing. Oops, I'm sorry, probably no damns on NPR.

BRAND: We can say damn, actually.

Prof. GILBERT: Oh, good. Well, damn, damn, damn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GILBERT: We do indeed inherit the world from the people we used to be, so, you know, I think we split our time between indulging our wants and desires in the present moments and working hard for the people we're about to become. It's not as if we can only do one of the other. I think we do a little bit of both. We put on Vivaldi while we work and the Vivaldi is for us and the paycheck is for the person who we get to be at the first of the month.

BRAND: Two things that people work towards they think will bring them happiness are money and children. You write that those two big life goals do not bring happiness, do not necessarily bring happiness.

Prof. GILBERT: Let's start with money. Money has a complicated relationship to human happiness. When money buys you out of the burdens of sleeping in a doorway, of not knowing where your next meal will come from, of being worried about your safety and the welfare of your children, money can change your happiness dramatically. The difference between earning $5000 a year and $50,000 a year is a world of difference. So when you hear somebody say money doesn't buy you happiness and you think of those examples, you think the person has to be crazy.

The fact is it does buy you happiness when it moves you from the lowest to the moderate levels of income. The problem is, it doesn't keep buying you happiness. As we gain more and more of it, it becomes less and less useful. The best analogy for money and happiness is probably something like pancakes and happiness. You eat a bite of pancake and it's fantastic. The second bite is also quite good. The third bite might not be as good as the second and the first, but it's awfully delicious. But by the ninth bite you've really had enough. And more bites aren't going to make you more happy. Money works the same way.

BRAND: But you also write that aside from material goods, our expectations of nonmaterial items, events such as weddings, for example, vacations, things we really look forward to as something that will make us happy, rarely match our expectations. Why is that?

Prof. GILBERT: What we've found, and many other scientists have found as well, both in the laboratory and in the field, is that human beings tend to mispredict their own emotional responses to future events. And their mispredictions take a particular form. In general, people overestimate both the positive and negative reactions they'll have to good and bad events in the future.

Let me just give you a good example. If you ask most people how they'll feel if their current romantic partner runs away to Morocco with their best friend, they'd say I'd be devastated. I'd be devastated for a really long time. Now why do they think that? Because they recognize that this is a very bad event. And they're right.

What they don't recognize is that the event will transform them. Namely, it will transform them into somebody who doesn't think all that much of their current romantic partner. He and I didn't share many of the same interests. I guess our whole time together was a bit of a lie. This gives me license to go meet new people.

The human brain is magnificent in its ability to shop for new ways to think about situations that pain it. It's not news that people do this. What's interesting to us is that people don't know they will do it, and as a result they mispredict how they will react, particularly to negative events.

BRAND: And what about for happy events? Is it because they're just blown out of proportion, that we just import too much significance to that and so we can't enjoy them when they actually materialize?

Prof. GILBERT: Well, very much the same thing happens with happy events. Happy events have a little bit of a story of their own. It turns out that when good things happen to us, one of the very first things we try to do is explain them. We try to understand why they happened, what their significance is. In evolutionary terms, this is a very adaptive tendency because any organism that can understand why a good thing happened has the power to make that good thing happen again. The problem is, as we've learned, explanation tends to rob positive events of the positive affect it would normally induce.

We had research assistants go to the library and find a random student and hand them a card with a dollar coin attached. In one case, the card had an explanation for why the student was being given a dollar. It said, we're the Random Acts of Kindness Society and we like to perform random acts of kindness. In another case, it didn't have this explanation. And I hope you'll agree that this explanation isn't much of an explanation at all; it really doesn't tell you very much except somebody just gave me a dollar.

About 20 minutes later, a different research assistant finds these students in the library and says, I'm doing a survey on people's emotions and I wonder if you would cooperate and fill out some questions for me. The people all agree and lo and behold, what do we find? We find that people who had a pseudo-explanation telling them why the happy event occurred, are no longer very happy. On the other hand, people who are still puzzled about why the positive event occurred, are.

BRAND: And how will I know if I'll be happy tomorrow or the next day or the next year or 10 years from now after I've made a momentous decision like taking a new job or buying a house or deciding to have a child? How will I know if that will be the right decision?

Prof. GILBERT: Well, of course, you really never know. I mean, you don't know about the future until you get there. What my book, Stumbling on Happiness, suggests is that it's very difficult to make these predictions by using your imagination. All of us are quite tempted to close our eyes and imagine what it would be like to have children or live in Los Angeles or win the lottery or go to work as a construction engineer. That's how we make these decisions. We project ourselves mentally forward in time and try to see what it feels like to be there.

What my book suggests is that this isn't a particularly reliable way to make these decisions, to make these so-called affective forecasts. But it does turn out there is a way that can make you a bit more reliable. That's to find out how people who are experiencing the events that you're only imagining are feeling about them.

One of the very best ways to find out if you're going to enjoy taking a job at a particular law firm is simply to see how happy the people who work there are. That sounds like amazingly simple advice and it really is. We found two things in our studies. One, using this method of making predictions can increase people's accuracy dramatically. Two, absolutely nobody wants to do it. In our experiments when people are given a choice between using their own imaginations or using information given to them by other people who are actually having the experience that they would only be imagining, we find that virtually 100 percent of participants in experiments prefer to use their imagination. And they believe their imagination will lead them to be much more accurate. In fact, they're wrong.

BRAND: What about biology? Are there people who are just naturally happy, they have more happy hormones, more serotonin, for example, than others?

Prof. GILBERT: Anything that's true of human beings is only true of some of them. Human beings differ on anything you can measure, from height to weight to happiness. There is some evidence to suggest that there is a genetic component to happiness. So yes, some people seem to have different baselines than other people. But who cares? That's irrelevant. Your job is to get as happy as you can be, not as happy as any human can possibly be. So it doesn't seem particularly relevant that some people are dour and some people are sanguine, because you've got what you've got and you've got to do with that the best you can.

BRAND: That was Daniel Gilbert, psychology professor at Harvard University. Gilbert's new book is called, Stumbling on Happiness.

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