The Situationist

The Situation of Happiness

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 23, 2007


In May, the American Psychological Society (APS) held their annual conference (drawing 3000 psychologists to D.C.) at which numerous prominent social psychologists gave presentations. The latest issue of Observer, the APS magazine, contains articles summarizing a few of those presentations. This is the second in a series of posts (for the first post, click here) by the Situationist excerpting and supplementing those articles. Below you will find excerpts of Eric Wargo’s excellent summary of Dan Gilbert’s presentation on happiness.

* * *

APS Fellow and Charter Member Daniel Gilbert, director of the Hedonic Psychology Laboratory at Harvard University and author of last year’s bestseller, Stumbling on Happiness (2006), managed not only to enlighten a packed audience of psychologists and their loved ones but also, with his great wit, made the crowd, well, happy.

Dan Gilbert - Boston Globe Image by Dina RudickAffective Forecasting
For most of human history, Gilbert said, happiness wasn’t much of a secret — everybody knew that happiness is just “what happens when you get what you want.” Getting what you wanted seldom happened back in the day, when people’s lives were nasty, brutish, and short. So people pretty much lived in a world of perpetual wanting. In modern society, our basic needs are much more easily attainable — yet, as Gilbert pointed out, we still live in a world of want.

What’s wrong? Gilbert, an expert in the study of affective forecasting — how people predict their emotional reactions to future events — says the problem has to do with how we aim at happiness. “We might not be aiming very well,” he said.

. . .

Multiplying the odds of an outcome by how much you’ll value it sounds like basic math, not rocket science. So economists scratch their heads when people don’t actually follow this easy formula in making decisions, and instead make choices that often lead them to further unhappiness. Why do people fail to act rationally when it comes to their happiness?

One would easily imagine that . . . it is . . . [in calculating] the odds you will get what you want . . . that trips people up. But according to Gilbert, “what’s really hard, in gambling and in life, is to figure out how much you’re going to like it if you get exactly what you’re aiming for” — in other words, affective forecasting.

Comparison Shopping
One of the best ways to study how bad people are at doing such forecasting is to watch what makes them pull out their wallets. “Money is nothing more or less than a happiness storage device,” Gilbert explained. “It’s a great tool for finding out how much people think they’re going to value things in the future.”

Sale!He showed a slide of a DVD marked down to $14.99 from $19.99. You could almost sense the audience reaching for their back pockets. “These are the most magic words in marketing,” Gilbert said: “Price Cut.” When it seems like its price has changed in a favorable way, it raises the value of that DVD: “That change in price is a delight, and I’m gonna buy it.”

Economists say that what smart decision makers should do, before any purchase, is ask what else they can do with that same amount of money — in other words, compare with the possible. What psychologists like Gilbert have found, though, is that because it’s so hard to compare with the possible, we compare with the past instead. “This can get us in all sorts of trouble.”

Why do we compare with the past and not with the possible? “The human brain is, at every level, a change detector,” Gilbert explained. Change, not stable qualities, is what the senses are attuned to. Eyes don’t see objects, for instance, but changes in objects, so they constantly jiggle in order to keep the visual world in motion. Or take smell: That smelly guy on the subway doesn’t smell himself, Gilbert explained, because “three weeks ago he ripened to perfection; his smell isn’t changing so he can’t detect it.” It’s the same way when evaluating the value of things like DVDs or cars or jobs — the brain looks for comparisons.

One of the things that gets people in trouble with this approach is that our bases of comparison often shift.

Gilbert asked the audience to imagine the following scenario: On the way to the theater tobroadway-tickets.jpg see your favorite play, you have two $100 bills in your wallet, but you lose one of them on the way. The theater ticket costs $100. Would you spend your remaining bill on the theater ticket? Most people say they would.

But alter the terms slightly: You have already purchased your $100 ticket; you are on the way to the theater with just $100 in your pocket, as well as your ticket, but you lose the ticket. Would you then spend your remaining $100 on another ticket? Most people say they would not.

An economist would say that both situations are equivalent, and thus shouldn’t produce different actions. Yet people do feel differently about these two scenarios. In the second scenario, it feels like the price of the ticket has gone up — doubled. And just as people love to feel like they’re paying less for something than they might have, they hate to feel like they’re paying more for something than they should have.

Shifting comparisons leads to major errors when predicting how much we will like something when we get it, however.

You’ll Get Nothing, and You’ll Like It
Gilbert described a study done by himself, Carey Morewedge, Kristian Myrseth, and [Situationist Contributor] Tim Wilson, in which student participants sat down with a bag of potato chips and estimated how much they thought they’d like the snack. The participants then ate the chips and rated how much they actually did like them. It seems straightforward, but for a little detail: Some students made their judgments in a room that also contained other appetizing foods like a chocolate bar (“A Snicker’s bar is far and away the best thing you can put in your mouth without asking permission if you are under 22 years old,” Gilbert noted); other students performed the task in a room that contained less appetizing items like sardines and a can of Spam.

Spam, Chips, & Snickers

Although students were not told to consider the other items in the room, these implicit comparisons had a big effect on their predictions. Those in the “Spam room” predicted liking the chips much more than did those in the “chocolate room.” But crucially, the other foods present had no effect on participants’ judgment of the actual experience of eating the chips. “We use different rulers for experiencing and prediction,” Gilbert explained.

Shifting comparisons causes us to routinely “misimagine our futures,” Gilbert said. Which is why we shouldn’t let things like discounts factor into our decisions — whether it comes to DVDs or major purchases like cars. . . .

This is true, even when it comes to major life turnarounds. Gilbert cited a study comparing the happiness of paraplegics with that of lottery winners. One year after the accident or lottery win, respectively, the two groups were about equally happy. “When you imagine these things you’re comparing to your present state. But that’s not what you do when it becomes your present state.” For the same reason, things like career advancement (e.g., achieving tenure) actually have a negligible impact on happiness even if, beforehand, our happiness seems like it will completely hinge on them.

The Kids Aren’t Alright
So can psychological science provide any kind of roadmap for attaining happiness?

To answer this small question, Gilbert showed a slide of his mother, who had advised him that, to be happy in life, he should get married, earn a decent amount of money, and have children — a standard triumvirate when many people imagine what will make them contented.

Gilbert said that the science shows his mom to be only partially right (at this point, one could hear the anxious mooing of sacred cows being led to slaughter).

“What she was really right about was marriage,” Gilbert said. Studies have shown that people who are married are happier than people who are unmarried or cohabiting, suggesting there is a “marriage advantage” when it comes to life satisfaction. Mom’s second requirement, a good paycheck, is known to be much less important. Research shows that money has diminishing marginal utility: “Anybody who says money can’t buy happiness has never met someone who lives in a cardboard box under a bridge,” Gilbert said. “But anybody who tells you money buys happiness has never met a very very rich person.” Money makes a big difference when it moves you out of poverty and into the middle class, he explained, but it makes very little difference after that.

But the biggest blow science dealt to Gilbert’s mother, and received wisdom, is when it comes to kids. Children have a negative overall effect on happiness. “The more children you have, the less likely you are to say you are satisfied with your life,” Gilbert said. Studies that monitored how much satisfaction people got from their everyday activities showed that women were less happy when interacting with their children than when doing almost any other activity. The pleasure of being with their children was actually comparable to that of doing housework.

“Contrary to what the popular press tells us,” he said, “the most common symptom of empty-nest syndrome is smiling.”

Why, then, are children regarded as one of life’s greatest rewards? “We believe we get more pleasure from the things for which we pay the most,” Gilbert explained. . . . “When people sacrifice, when people hurt, when people pay, they come to value things more. … One of the conclusions we draw from how much we do for our children is that they must be tremendous sources of happiness.”

Gilbert — himself a father — likened raising children to a no-hitter in baseball, in which your favorite team finally hits a game-winning home run at the bottom of the ninth. The long, event-free innings are incredibly dull to endure, but the game will be remembered as a great experience afterward because of that one punctuating moment of delight. “That’s how memory works: One of its funny foibles is that it remembers things that are extraordinary or unusual.” This is the “illusion” that can cause parenthood to seem so rewarding when, after an exhausting day of tedium taking care of a child, the child finally beams up at you and says “I love you, Daddy.”

The Principle of Shifting Comparisons
Anticipating the protests of the mothers in the audience who would corner him after the talk and insist that their children are the best thing in their lives (it was the “Bring the Family Address,” after all), Gilbert again invoked the principle of shifting comparisons: Children are the best thing in a parent’s life, he agreed, “but only because they tend to get rid of every source of joy we had before they came along.”

When it comes to shooting for happiness, our intuitions . . . often aim us the wrong way . . . . This is nobody’s fault but the rapid pace of history. “This device [the brain] was created for an environment that it no longer knows how to navigate.”

Gilbert noted that psychological science has a unique role to play — namely, “telling us that our intuitions can be wrong,” and counseling discipline and rational thinking in its place. “If our species has any hope of walking sure-footedly into a future, it is going to be because we have begun to understand what makes us stumble.”

* * *

To read the entirety of Eric Wargo’s article, click here. Dan Gilbert’s research has been discussed quite a bit on The Situationist; for a sample, go to “The Unlucky Irish: Celtic Fans and Affective Forecasting,” “The Heat Is On” (including a terrific exchange between David Friedman and Dan Gilbert), and “Think You’ve Got Magical Powers.” For a sample of Situationist posts on happiness, go to “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “Alone Together – The Communter’s Situation,” and “The Economist Flirts with Situationism.” Finally, to a veiw an superb 20-minute presentation by Dan Gilbert (from 2005), click on the youtube video below.


7 Responses to “The Situation of Happiness”

  1. eric said

    It is interesting to contemplate the relationship between Gilbert’s finding about the negative correlation between number of kids and parental happiness, and the data on differences (or lack thereof) between only children and children with siblings.

  2. Of course, I’d have to see Gilbert’s methodology on this one, but I read about this on his blog a while back, and I really have to wonder at the assertions he’s making about children and happiness. I think his measure of happiness is off; he’s measuring in-the-moment satisfaction rather than overall reported life satisfaction, and something that does not provide one can provide the other. For example, the minutiae of my job do not make me happy, most of the time, but the overall result of a job well done and the structure it lends to my life do.

    It also seems from this article that he’s measuring WOMEN’S happiness in relation to children, not men’s. There’s a simpler explanation for that – what if sexism and its effects on parenting roles is what makes women unhappy? I think my partner enjoys his time with our son in part because I buy our son’s clothes, wash his clothes, make his lunch, make his dinner, take care of all the doctor’s appointments, do most of the daycare pick up and dropoff, do most of the diapering, stock the diaper basket/bag, dress him, grocery shop to make sure we have food for him, do most of the childcare, research preschools, stay home with him when he’s sick, make sure his shoes fit, take him on trips, pick up his play area, wash his dishes, etc. etc. etc., in addition to working full-time myself. A lot of my time spent with my son ends up being multitasking, transportation, or mealtime/diapers, and I’m not at all unusual in this. It’s not my son making me unhappy, it’s everything else I have to do and how tired I get and how little time I have to myself! Most women I know end up doing even more of the “work” part of childcare than I do, and mothers who stay home do almost all of it, without the variety, stimulation, and adult interaction that a job outside the home provides.

    I hate to say this, but my immediate reaction was, “Only a man would decide it was the kid’s fault without thinking about ingrained power imbalances!” You want a situation? Let’s talk about the situation of ingrained gender roles and systemic power imbalances.

  3. Doug S. said

    For most of human history, Gilbert said, happiness wasn’t much of a secret — everybody knew that happiness is just “what happens when you get what you want.”

    Buddhists would disagree, and Buddhism is a very old philosophy.

  4. […] The Situation of Happiness […]

  5. […] 20th, 2007 We have examined the topic of happiness on multiple occasions, including in “The Situation of Happiness” and most recently in “Situating Emotions.” In addition, Situationist friend Dan […]

  6. Winston said

    I recently spotted a young chemistry professor (I know this isn’t the humanities department, but stay with me) walking down the corridor carrying an infant. His life doesn’t appear to be on hold. Or he could not have kids and his life would still have its share of headaches. Parents may not be “unhappy” so much as they are not engaged, since, after all, starting at 5, or too often at 4, the state begins to act in loco parentis. You don’t raise your kids, a certified stranger does. You don’t raise your kids, mass schooling does. The first thing kids learn in school is to seek out and have contempt for weakness in others. Their growth is headed off at the pass by busy work. By the time they’re teens they’re childish adults, trained in cruelty and rudeness and boredom, and after spending their natural childhoods inside a building somewhere, their parents ask, “why are my teens like strangers!?” What are parents? People who keep kids in their house in the evening and over night, who must work to feed them and must sign report cards. The state is to take care of the rest. It’s not really your job to think about what it means to be a parent, to be competent, responsible… just park them in front of the tv – it’s not your job to know what’s good for them (beyond getting them xmas presents), that’s the job of a certified school person. Just saying – the situation is more complicated than what is presented in this article…

  7. […] completamente feliz, por recibir dos cosas que no esperaba ni pensaba merecer y hacen que la vida valga la […]

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