Thursday, May 18, 2006

Will a new 52-inch plasma screen TV make you happy?

Will a new 52-inch plasma screen TV make you happy? For a little while, yeah, says Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, but then you’ll get used to it and it’ll be on to the next thing. Gilbert, along with several other researchers, including a Nobel laureate from Princeton, has attacked the problem of happiness and found it an elusive and fleeting state. His new book, Stumbling on Happiness (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), describes our pursuit of happiness and why we tend to be so bad at it.

Real Change: How do you measure happiness?

Daniel Gilbert: There are many things human beings cannot tell you about themselves. They can’t tell you how they got to be the way they are. They can’t tell you what they want most in life. They can’t tell you whether their children are a source of joy or displeasure, but what they can tell you is how happy they are at any particular moment in time when you ask them.

If I were to look at blood flow in your brain, for example, and see that particular regions were active, most scientists would say, “Ah — this person’s probably experiencing happiness; we know that these regions tend to be activated when people are happy.” How do we know that? There’s only one way: people who had those regions activated in the past told us they were happy. So the brain measurement is only a measurement of happiness because it tells us the same thing that the person does.

The nature of subjective experience is that it is private. In the end, if what you want to do is study subjective experience, you are stuck permanently with the fact that there is only one person stationed at the proper point of view to tell you what it’s like to be them, and that’s that person.

RC: I was struck by your characterization of what most people think of as the path to happiness, which goes something like, “I want stuff, I’ll get stuff. That will make me happy.” When that doesn’t work out, is the issue that people are bad predictors of what will make them happy, or is it just that stuff isn’t really what does it for us?

Gilbert: Let’s use the word stuff liberally to not just include things like new cars and designer shoes. Stuff can be things like promotions, children, the respect of a community…. But whether the stuff is the sublime or the base and material, we find in our studies that people tend to make mistakes when predicting how it will affect their happiness and how long those effects will last. People overestimate both the positive and negative consequences of stuff.

RC: And that is what you’ve termed the impact bias.

Gilbert: Exactly. It’s a tendency to think that stuff, defined quite liberally, will have a bigger impact than it actually does. Every person seems to have an emotional baseline that is a happiness point that they tend to return to after being made extremely happy or extremely unhappy.

RC: The idea of a happiness baseline is really interesting. Is it like a thermostat? Are some people just naturally happy and some people naturally grumpy?

Gilbert: There’s no doubt about it, and a thermostat is a nice example of a homeostatic system that tends to vary around a point and then return to it. And one of the other things that we know about thermostats is yours isn’t set at the same temperature mine is. We have different set points. But our thermostats do the same thing. They keep moving us; as we move too high or two low, they bring us back to that point.

RC: Can you raise the baseline itself? Like, maybe if I want to be happier I should just focus on my health, instead of on specific events?

Gilbert: Certainly one way to have more happiness is to change your baseline. So, no matter what’s happening, you’re always returning to a higher state of happiness. On the other hand, the data suggests that the baseline, the happiness set point, has a very large genetic component, which has to mean that it has a very large biological component.

If you are really pretty much stuck with that as your set point, what you can do is vary from it as often and as far as possible. And that’s really what most human lives are about. They’re attempts to get higher than our set point, and then when we return to it to get higher again. That’s the game of living.

RC: I’ve always thought that money probably does buy happiness.

Gilbert: You’re right.

RC: Do the happiness levels of wealthy people tend to be higher than those of poor people?

Gilbert: Well, there is lots of data on this, so both psychologists and economists have been very concerned with this question for quite a long time. The question of whether money buys happiness isn’t easily answered because the answer is obviously not yes, and it is obviously not no. If you said money doesn’t buy happiness, I’d say go ask a homeless guy. If you said money does buy happiness, I’d say go ask a billionaire. Why does it seem that both answers are wrong?

The answer is: it doesn’t have a linear relationship. It is not the case that each dollar you earn buys you another unit of happiness. What does seem to be the case is that money makes a big difference when it moves people out of abject poverty and into the middle class. When you go from earning $2,000 a year to $50,000 a year, your happiness increases enormously. Why? Well, hello — you have a place to sleep, nobody is going to kill you while you’re sleeping, you can actually count on being able to eat, your children aren’t in danger of being murdered. I mean, these are real human concerns. People are not happy when they’re in those situations.

What is surprising is that it doesn’t keep working. Once you’ve reached something like middle class, there’s a phenomenon that’s a lot like the satiety of hunger. With pancakes, you eat one, you eat two, you eat three and each one makes you feel better and better. And then there comes a point where happiness starts to level off, and another pancake doesn’t make you feel any better. And, in fact, if you eat too many of them they make you feel bad. It’s the same thing with money.

When you earn $200,000 a year, you already have all the happiness money can buy you. So, more money can’t do anything for you.

RC: You talk about how rationalizing and coping are really two sides of the same coin, and how our emotional state tends to follow more from our point of view about it than anything else. That reminded me of Victor Frankl’s insight that we can’t always control our environment, but we can control our reaction to our environment.

Gilbert: Yes and no. We can’t always control our environment, and we can’t always control our reaction to it. Well, maybe I know a Buddhist monk who might be capable of this amazing feat of mental control, but I don’t know any other human beings who could watch their family be murdered in front of them and find a nice spin. So, you really don’t have total control over your point of view, but you have a lot. More than you suspect, and that’s the important thing.

What we find in study after study is a basic premise that people’s emotions respond to their view of the situation, and not to the objective parameters of the situation. That’s why when your wife says take your umbrella, if you hear that as nagging, you get pissed off. If you hear that as caring, you’re really grateful and thankful. It’s the same utterance, you can respond in two ways depending on how you see it.

Your brain is in the business of finding the best possible way to view almost any situation. So when a complex thing happens to you — a promotion or a demotion, a divorce or a marriage — there are lots of different spins, lots of different takes, lots of different ways to think about it, and what your brain is doing is trying them all out, and when it finds one that seems both accurate and positive, it stops.

RC: It seems like there’s a dark side to this, in that we can get used to the suffering around us and become complacent. What about the other side? Does altruism lead to happiness?

Gilbert: We see suffering around us, we see it enough that it doesn’t seem to bother us, and we adapt and we go on. It is a sort of dark side that other people’s suffering doesn’t phase us as much as it might. We have some new data, though, showing that people vastly underestimate how happy acts of altruism will make them, compared to other kinds of acts.

If you give people a choice about doing something for themselves or something for others, they almost always choose to do something for themselves. On the other hand, if they’re forced to do something for themselves or something for others, they like what they’ve done much more if they’ve done something for others. There’s a massive benefit to being altruistic that is hidden from us in prospect. We say things like “I don’t want to get up and go work for Habitat for Humanity, I don’t want to give away my money,” but once that act is accomplished, people are incredibly happy about what they’ve done.

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