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The (misguided) pursuit of happiness March 15, 2007

Posted by IntimatePower in growth, happiness, psychology, science.
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We all want to be happy, yet some of us keep making the wrong predictions regarding what it is that will make us happy.
What can science tell us about the human pursuit of happiness?

Dan Gilbert is a professor of psychology at Harvard who studies just that: Happiness.

Last year at TED conference, Gilbert gave a talk in which he demonstrated just how poor we are at predicting or understanding what it is that will make us happy. Only 22 minutes long, and highly recommended.


Gilbert suggests that many of our wrong predictions are due to what he calls an “impact bias” which is our tendency to overestimate the impact of future events, such as elections, romances, promotions, college tests, personality tests, medical tests, sporting events, discrimination, insults, infidelities, and others.

“The fact is that a year after loosing the use of their legs, and a year after winning the lotto — lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their life

“A recent study showing how major life traumas affect people suggests that if it happened more than 3 months ago, with only a few exceptions, it has no impact whatsoever on your happiness”

What at first can seem as a trauma can be turned to a vehicle for growth and change. In his book – Stumbling on Happiness – Gilbert expands on this issue and gives the examples of Christopher Reeve (superman turned quadriplegic) and Lance Armstrong (successful cyclist recovers from cancer, regains his championship and becomes a cancer-awareness activist), who said that cancer was “the best thing that ever happened to me”.

Gilbert goes on to explore the idea of synthetic (self-created) happiness:

“[Most people] believe that synthetic happiness is not of the same quality as what we might call natural happiness.
Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted”

“In our society, we have a strong belief that synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind… Why do we have that belief? [because:]
What kind of economic engine would keep churning, if we believe that NOT getting what we want could make as just as happy as getting it!”

“A shopping mall full of Zen monks is not going to be particularly profitable because they don’t want stuff enough

“I wanna suggest to you that synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for”

I resonate with his suggestion.
Consumer culture, through the popular media, tries to persuade us that the key to our happiness is to be found in material possessions and the act of consuming. However, real joy, rather than mere pleasure, can be felt directly through experiences such as falling in love, the birth of a child, or selfless service to others.

Gilbert finishes his talk with an inspirational thought:

“Our longing and worries are both to some degree overblown, because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing when we choose experience”

I’m looking forward to reading his book.

More Dan Gilbert resources

A few excerpts from Gilbert’s book can be found here.

An excellent book review by the New York Times can be found here.

“Affective forecasting…or…the big wombassa” – a (long) talk with Gilbert at the respectable EDGE magazine. I haven’t read it all yet, but it looks promising.

If you have diigo installed, you can read the sections I’ve highlighted directly on these pages, or otherwise, read them here.

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