Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Stumbling on Happiness (Summary and Applications)

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness (New York: Vintage Books, 2005).

Many of our money decisions, both investing and spending, involve imagining how these decisions will pan out in the future. Many of our plans and decisions are made by asking the question, "What will make us happy?" But how accurately can we predict what will make our future selves happy? Will working a different job, living in a different location, or trading in our present family for a new one really make us happy? Harvard Psychologist Daniel Gilbert contends that our brains often fool us into choosing wrong paths to our future happiness. By better understanding how our minds work to construct our often skewed visions of future happiness, perhaps we can aim better at finding true happiness. As Gilbert puts it:

"By the time you finish these chapters, I hope you will understand why most of us spend so much of our lives turning rudders and hoisting sails, only to find that Shangri-la isn't what and where we thought it would be."

Gilbert is a great writer, entertaining as he educates. Almost every page gives me something to smile about. Often I find myself laughing aloud. Sure, he does his homework, pulling together research from psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, and behavioral economics. But then he presents it in a captivating, humorous style. That's my kind of book!

So far (I'm on p. 178) he's big on describing the problems but short on suggesting solutions. I'll concentrate on my proposed solutions to the problems.

Here are my takeaways:

1. Happiness is one of, if not THE, most fundamental want in people's lives. p. 36 - "Everyone who has observed human behavior for more than thirty continuous seconds seems to have noticed that people are strongly, perhaps even primarily, perhaps even single-mindedly, motivated to feel happy. If there has ever been a group of human beings who prefer despair to delight, frustration to satisfaction, and pain to pleasure, they must be very good at hiding because no one has ever seen them. People want to be happy, and all other things they want are typically meant to be means to that end. Even when people forgo happiness in the moment - by dieting when they could be eating, or working late when they could be sleeping - they are usually doing so in order to increase its future yield."

Freud put it this way, "What do they (humans) demand of life and wish to achieve in it? The answer to this can hardly be in doubt. They strive after happiness; they want to become happy and to remain so."

Blaise Pascal said, "All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves."

I'm trying to explore the many and varied implications of this. Here are a few:

  • Educators, employers and parents have tremendous leverage to use here! We can't assume that every child wants to be a great athlete, great intellectual, amass great wealth, be married, or have a nice house in a nice subdivision. Assuming that these ends are desired and trying to motivate on those bases will make you miss your motivational mark. "But I don't want to have a big house," many youth will mentally object when you try to use that end as a motivation to do their homework or save their money. But we CAN assume that they want to be happy, so find studies and people stories that connect doing homework or saving money to finding happiness and you just might have their attention!
  • Study and analyze and debate about and reflect upon the things that lead to happiness and misery. Isn't this, in the final analysis, more important to our future success than memorizing the presidents of the United States or Kings of England?
  • Find ways to put our understanding of happiness into handy acrostics and hook them to devices that embed them in our minds and make them easy to apply.
  • Take specific lifestyle issues that we want to influence people about and reflect upon them with relation to the ultimate happiness. Example: many studies show that the best sex happens in the context of a secure, committed, long-term relationship - what we traditionally call marriage. Early sex with multiple partners can put a lifetime of good to great sex in jeapardy, with the threat of STD's, etc.

2. Acquire a healthy skepticism about my assessment of past events. In order to save brain space and allow us to make quick decisions, our brains tend to assign a title to an experience and save that title rather than the entire experience. Thus, if I heard an orchestra and thought afterward, "It was generally good but I felt it ended poorly," I might remember only that it was second rate. I can't rewind to experience it again and retrieve all of my original feelings.

Thus, when I say that "I hated Middle School" or that "my high school years were the best of my life," I've probably wiped out huge blocks of experience which, if I could bring them back, would cause me to reassess.

Additionally, we tend to remember past emotions and events in the light of today's emotions. When college students changed their minds about an issue due to a persuasive speech, they "remember" that they always felt that way about the issue.

3) People can experience high levels of happiness in seemingly difficult circumstances. Lori and Reba Schappel are Siamese twins, joined at the forehead. Yet, they are joyful, playful, and optimistic. They say emphatically that they do not wish to be separated. That's not weird among Siamese twins. An exhaustive search of the medical literature reveals the "desire to remain together to be so widespread among communicating conjoined twins as to be practically universal." They truly enjoy being together and don't pine for privacy.

You might object, "But they don't know what it's like to experience independence and privacy. If they experienced it, they would realize that they're not nearly as happy as they could be."

Gilbert argues against this view, saying, in part, that although Lori and Reba can't know what privacy would be like, neither can we know the depth of communion and sharing that they experience. They certainly show every outward sign of happiness, with Reba having recorded an award-winning country music album and Lori being "outgoing, wisecracking" and following her dreams as well.

4) New experiences can influence our future assessment of happiness. Gilbert first smoked a cigar in high school. Although he doesn't smoke regularly, he can't get the full blast of pleasure out of kicking back and relaxing in a lounge chair at a beach resort without having a cigar in his mouth. It makes one wonder...had he never experienced a cigar, could he experience the same amount of happiness at the beach without one? It reminds me of alcoholics, or any fans of alcohol, who can't imagine a social event without a drink in their hands. Are they really having more fun than the others at the social, or have they simply acquired a habit that they now have to continue in order to experience the level of happiness that others are experiencing without the alcohol? The bottom line? Be careful what you experience even once!

5) Question my ability to picture my ideal future. Every day we're making big and small decisions based on what we think will give us the greatest amount of happiness. "If I can win 'Teacher of the Year' I'll be happy." If I marry her, I'll be happier than if I marry her. If I order the Big Mac, I'll be happier than if I order the Quarter Pounder." "I'd be happier as CEO than as a labor union activist."

Gilbert puts that last statement to the test with a real-life example. Adolph Fischer's labor union challenged Chicago's powerful industrialists and he found himself facing a hangman's noose as a result of trumped-up charges. He surprised everyone by declaring with his last words, "This is the happiest moment of my life."

George Eastman became one of the richest men in the world by developing the revolutionary Kodak camera. "On March 14, 1932, the beloved inventor and humanitarian sat down at his desk, wrote a brief note, neatly capped his fountain pen, and smoked a cigarette. Then he surprised everyone by killing himself."

Before Eastman's suicide, how many people would have longed for his life of super-wealth and success. Apparently, our dream of what life would be like in his situation doesn't match what life was actually like in his situation.

"Mr. Destiny" is one of my favorite films. James Belushi plays Larry Burrows, a man who married a sweet by slightly dingy girl who can't seem to keep enough of his favorite cereal in the cupboard. His working class home and working class wife and working class job and working class friends are OK, but he blames his mediocre existence on one event: the day he struck out on the last play of the biggest game of the season in front of a crowd that contained everybody that was anybody. "If I'd only hit that ball," he often found himself musing, "my life would have turned out differently."

So the controller of destiny mixes up a drink that puts Larry into the other life - the one he would have lived had he hit the ball out of the park. He married the homecoming queen, who's dad made Larry the CEO of his company, which allowed him to live in a mansion with all the toys and cars he could dream of.

At first, Larry was ecstatic. But soon he found downsides to his new life. His workers hated him, including the best friend and wife from his former life. A power-hungry associate was out to destroy him. Rich folk's wines sucked in comparison with his "Brewski" beer.

When he got the life he always wanted - the one he always envisioned bringing him the ultimate happiness - he discovered that the new circumstances didn't bring about the expected happiness.

Solomon once said that we never know another man's joys or sorrows. How apt! Before you envy the CEO, the movie star, the guy all the girls like - remember that you see a small portion of that person's life. If you saw the whole, you might thank God daily that you don't have that life.

So how do we recognize the potential flaws in our dreams and tweak them to make them more accurately represent what would really make us happy?

6. Understand how my dreams of the future get skewed. (more to come)

One More Thing I'd Like to Know

The books I've read on this issue (how our brains fool us) often summarize studies with statements like, "people in this study tended to be more optimistic than their available facts warrant." That's interesting, but I'd like to know what percentage of the people were too optimistic. Fifty-one percent? Ninety-nine percent? Both percentages could be described by the statement that people "tended to be more optimistic," but it makes a huge difference in how I assess the extent of the problem. Surely some of us are more objective about our abilities and assessing our futures than others. If not, shouldn't we all assume that we're being too optimistic when we assess the odds of our new business succeeding? If so, we should all adjust our expectations accordingly when making decisions.


Anittah N. Patrick said...

Great summary and thank you for taking the time to write it up. Definitely makes me want to check this book out sooner than later. Esp. appreciated the insights re: conjoined twins.

J. Steve Miller said...

Thanks for the input, Anittah! When I'm able to complete the book, I'll put up more about it.