Interview With Daniel GilbertDaniel Gilbert is the Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He has won numerous awards for his teaching and research, and his scientific research has been covered by The New York Times Magazine, Forbes, Money, CNN, U.S. News & World Report, The New Yorker, Scientific American, Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, Psychology Today and others. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Professor Gilbert's new book, Stumbling On Happiness, provides insight into how our minds work and why we are so bad at predicting what might bring us future happiness. In this interview he explains how the limitations of our imaginations may be getting in the way of our ability to know what happiness is.
What is your definition of affective forecasting? You like to say you study happiness—how are the two related?
People make mistakes when they try to predict what will make them happy in the future—a process that Tim Wilson and I have called “affective forecasting.” Anyone who has ever said “I think I’d prefer chocolate to vanilla” or “I’d rather be a lawyer than a banjo player” has made an affective forecast. And anyone who has made an affective forecast has found out the hard way that sometimes they are wrong. Stumbling on Happiness is an attempt to explain how and why our brains are structured to make these mistakes, and what we can do about it.
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Ten or fifteen years ago I was getting divorced, my teenage son was in deep trouble, my mentor died unexpectedly, my best friend and I had a serious falling out, and I was…well, not too bad thank you. Now, if you’d asked me a year earlier how I would feel if any one of these events (much less all four) were to happen, I would have told you that I’d be devastated for a long, long time. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t euphoric, of course, but I wasn’t nearly as distraught as I would have imagined. And that made me wonder whether my mistaken predictions about the emotional consequences of events like these were unique to me or shared by others. So I teamed up with the psychologist Tim Wilson, and together we began to do surveys and experiments to find out. And what we found out amazed us: People dramatically and regularly mispredict the emotional consequences of future events, both large and small. This finding set me on a research trajectory that has not yet ended, and Stumbling on Happiness is a report on what I’ve learned so far. It took me 15 years to answer the question I had asked myself, and I wrote this book so that the next person who asks that question can get a somewhat quicker reply.
What do you hope to accomplish with your studies in the field? Do you see humans, through the continued study of the subject, as eventually reaching a place where we can accurately predict the effect certain choices will have on us?
I’d like to say that I am trying to understand errors in affective forecasting so that we can learn how best to overcome them. The trouble is that forecasting errors are not clearly a “disease” that requires a “cure.” Indeed, some people have suggested that inaccurate forecasts may play an important role in our lives. When we overestimate how good we’ll feel when things go right and how bad we’ll feel when things go wrong, we work harder to make sure the good things happen and the bad things don’t. Anxiety and fear are useful emotions that keep us from touching hot stoves, committing adultery, and sending our children to play on the freeway. Would it really be better if we all knew that in the long run, children and money don’t make us wildly happy and that illness and divorce don’t make us desperately sad? Perhaps, but perhaps not.
With that said, I’m willing to bet that on balance we are best served by accurate estimates of the emotional consequences of pains, tragedies, and embarrassments. If you were driving on a mountain road in a thunderstorm and your passenger asked whether there might be some benefit to turning off your wipers, you’d have to admit that there are some. For example, that horrible squeaking sound would stop. But you’d probably insist that the costs of turning off the wipers clearly outweigh the benefits because when you’re driving it is usually a good idea to see where you’re going. Well, we are all driving toward the future, and thus to my mind the same logic applies. If there are any hidden benefits of affective forecasting errors, I suspect they are offset by the costs.
You asked what I hope to accomplish with my research and I’ve mentioned one practical consequence that it might achieve. But I have to be honest with you: At heart I’m just a guy who is curious about human nature, and what I really want from my research is a deeper understanding of who we are and what we are doing here. If my research has a practical benefit, I’m happy about that. If it doesn’t, I’m not even slightly worried. What is the practical benefit of knowing how the universe began, or of understanding the evolution of the mealworm? I think we make a mistake when we judge the value of knowledge by the extent to which it provides an immediate material improvement to our lives. Knowledge is an end, not a means to an end.
Where do you see the field going in its next decade? Any recent/new findings that you'd like to share with us?
The joy of science is that no one knows where it will take us next. It’s a bobsled with no one steering. If we could say what we were going to discover in the next decade then we would already have discovered it. The only thing I’m confident about is that neither I nor anyone else can accurately answer your question about the direction of the field. The story of science is always told in retrospect.
With regard to my own recent findings…well, I have a brilliant collaborator (Tim Wilson at the University of Virginia) and each of us has a lab full of brilliant graduate students, which means that every month we have some new finding that makes everyone excited. (Not as excited as we thought we’d be, of course, but pretty damned close). For example, we’ve just finished several studies that suggest that people value almost anything more when it is in the future than when it is in the past. So, for example, when jurors learn about an accident victim who underwent 6 months of pain and suffering they don't award her as much insurance money as they award to an accident victim who will be undergoing 6 months of pain and suffering in the future. Similarly, when people buy a bottle of wine to thank a friend for letting them use a vacation home, they buy a more expensive bottle if they intend to use the vacation home next week than if they used it last week. People want more compensation for work they will do in the future than for work they did in the past. And so on. This is a very strong and unusual “temporal asymmetry” and no one yet understands why it happens. But we have several hypotheses and we’re already exploring some of them. Stay tuned.
Your studies are not only scientifically sound, but a lot of fun and seem to have a good sense of humor about them. How do you go about designing your experiments? Any special Gilbert methodology you're willing to share?
For every moment of delight and discovery in science, there are several thousand hours of sheer drudgery. That’s why you really have to love an idea to study it. My first methodological rule is that I won’t study something unless just thinking about it tickles me pink, leaves me breathless, and several other clichés. Once I’ve found something that I know I want to study, I then have to design a clever experiment that has just the right combination of analytic rigor and rhetorical panache. To do this I follow my second methodological rule: Call Tim Wilson.
Okay, let’s cut to the trillion-dollar question: how do I find happiness?
People have been writing books that promise to answer that question for roughly two thousand years, and the result has been a lot of unhappy people and a lot of dead trees. What makes my book different is that I don’t even try to answer that question. Stumbling on Happiness is not an instruction manual that tells you how to be happy in four easy steps and one hard one. It is not a self-help book that will transform you into the Dalai Lama with a better haircut. Rather, my book describes what modern science has to tell us about how and how well the human brain can imagine its own future, and about how and how well it can predict which of those futures it will most enjoy.
The main point of this book is to show just how bad we are at predicting what will make us happy in the future, and to explain how and why our brains are structured to make the mistakes they do. Modern people take the ability to imagine the future for granted, but it turns out that this is one of our species’ most recently acquired abilities—no more than three million years old. The part of our brain that enables us to think about the future is one of nature’s newest inventions, so it isn’t surprising that when we try to use this new ability to imagine our futures, we make some rookie errors. These errors come in three basic flavors, and that’s what the book is about. The book does end by describing an alternative method for predicting future happiness, but ironically, research shows that while this alternative method produces much more accurate predictions, people generally refuse to use it.
You show through the example of the twins how the experience of happiness is different for every individual—but then your research reveals that every individual makes the same misconceptions where happiness is concerned. Doesn’t this seem like a strange paradox?
As I explain in the book, defining and measuring happiness is pretty tricky business, and I walk readers through all the problems, paradoxes, and pitfalls that any attempt to define and measure happiness must confront. Some of these are mind-bending, and I illustrate them with everything from sci-fi stories to card tricks. In the end I conclude that while we can’t define and measure happiness with great precision, we can define and measure it well enough to do scientific studies that teach us a lot. The common claim that you can’t measure a feeling is just plain wrong. You do it every time you ask your partner “How do you like it when I do this?” Scientists have slightly more sophisticated techniques, of course, but the essence of the enterprise is the same. People generally know how happy they are at the moment they are asked, and if you ask them, they will usually tell you. If you can quantify their answers (and we can), you can investigate happiness scientifically (and we do).
Being a cynic, as so many of us are these days, I imagine that everything that can go wrong in a situation will. What does your book have to say about the low-level anxiety most of us experience?
You probably think it would be good if you could feel perfectly happy at every moment of your life. But we have a word for animals that cannot feel distress, anxiety, fear, and pain: The word is extinct. Negative thoughts and emotions have important roles to play in our lives because when people think about how terribly wrong things might go, they often take actions to make sure those things go terribly right. Just as we manipulate our children and our employees by threatening them with dire consequences, so too do we manipulate ourselves by imagining dire consequences. Sure, people can be so anxious that their anxiety is debilitating, but that’s the extreme case. For most of us, anxiety serves a purpose. It is what keeps you from sending your nine-year old to the rough part of town one night for a loaf of bread. If someone could offer you a pill that would make you permanently happy, you would be well advised to run fast and run far. Emotion is a compass that tells us what to do, and a compass that is perpetually stuck on NORTH is worthless.
What are the most common things people think will make them happy that really, at the end of the day, don’t? Why do we continue to think these things are the root of happiness?
One of the ideas I discuss at some length in my book is that societies have a vested interest in deceiving their member about the sources of happiness. For a society to function, many things must happen. For example, people must buy each other’s goods and services, people must reproduce and raise their children, and so on. Of course, people won’t do these things for the good of their societies because people are typically interested in doing things for the good of themselves. So societies develop essential myths such as “Money will make you happy” and “Children will make you happy,” and these myths motivate their members to do what the societies need them to do. But research shows that neither of those things actually makes people particularly happy. Money has only minor and rapidly diminishing effects on happiness, and parents are generally happier watching TV or doing housework than interacting with their children. (Sorry, kids, but that’s what the data show). So that’s one answer to your question. But there are others. For instance, in my book I describe research showing that people tend to misremember how happy they were in the past. In one study, Democrats predicted they’d be devastated if Bush won the last presidential election, they were not nearly as devastated as they predicted (I know because I measured them myself), and yet several months later they remembered being just as devastated as they had expected to be. It turns out that this is a very common pattern of memory errors. So how can we learn from our mistaken predictions if we don’t even remember them?
Until I read your book, I thought variety was the spice of life. Should I really have the glazed doughnut every time I go to the donut shop? I think it’s my favorite—but what if I am missing something?
Glazed? Are you crazy? Those chocolate cake ones you can dunk are clearly the best. No wonder you aren’t happy!
But seriously, research shows that people do tend to seek more variety than they should. We all think we should try a different donut every time we go to the shop, but the fact is that people are measurably happier when they have their favorite on every visit—provided the visits are sufficiently separated in time. Those last four words are the important ones. If you had to eat 4 donuts in rapid succession, variety would indeed spice up your experience and you’d be wise to seek it. But if you had to eat 4 donuts on 4 separate days, variety would lower your overall enjoyment. As I describe in the book, the human brain has tremendous difficulty reasoning about time, and thus we tend to seek variety whether the donuts are separated by minutes or months.
Why all the Shakespeare quotes? Are you suggesting that art can tell us more about ourselves than looking through a microscope?
I open every chapter with a Shakespeare quote, and I do this for two reasons. First, throughout history there have been wonderfully insightful people who have made shrewd guesses about how the mind works. Modern science allows us to decide which of these guesses was right and which was wrong. Shakespeare has a pretty good track record of being right, so I decided to let him kick off each chapter. The second reason is that I am an ordinary low-brow guy who prefers action movies to sonnets and Tater Tots to paté, but in my daily life I impersonate a Harvard professor, and I always have this nagging feeling that to play this role properly requires that I be a refined snob who sits around reading Shakespeare while eating little sandwiches without crusts. That’s not me, but the quotes will fool everyone—provided you don’t rat me out.
Are our lives so complicated with choices that we’ve lost some primal ignorance that would have kept us happy? IS ignorance bliss? And if so, will moving to a hut in the woods really help?
No, no, no. Did I mention no? Every generation has the illusion that things were easier and better in a simpler past. Dead wrong. Things are better today than at any time in human history. Our primal ignorance is what keeps us whacking each other over the head with sticks, and not what allows us to paint a Mona Lisa or design a space shuttle. We have great big brains that can foresee the future in a way that no other animal ever has, and in a way that our own species could not just a few million years ago. Foresight isn’t twenty-twenty, and sometimes it seems to be legally blind, but in general it allows us to glimpse the long-term consequences of our actions and to take measures to avoid the bad ones and promote the good ones. The “primal ignorance that keeps us happy” gives rise to obesity and global warming, not Miles Davis or the Magna Carta. If human kind flourishes rather than flounders over the next thousand years, it will be because we fully embraced learning and reason, and not because we surrendered to some fantasy about returning to a world that never really was.
Author photo © Marilynn Oliphant
Published with permission of the publisher.