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At Harvard, the social psychologist Daniel Gilbert is known as Professor Happiness. That is because the 50-year-old researcher directs a laboratory studying the nature of human happiness. Dr. Gilbert’s “Stumbling on Happiness” [see book cover in right margin] was a New York Times paperback best seller for 23 weeks and won the 2007 Royal Society Prize for Science Books.
Q. HOW DID YOU STUMBLE ONTO YOUR AREA OF STUDY?
A. It was something that happened to me roughly 13 years ago. I spent the first decade of my career studying what psychologists call “the fundamental attribution error,” which is about how people have the tendency to ignore the power of external situations to determine human behavior.
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I’d have been content to work on this for many more years, but some things happened in my own life.
Within a short period of time, my mentor passed away, my mother died, my marriage fell apart and my teenage son developed problems in school. What I soon found was that as bad as my situation was, it wasn’t devastating. I went on.
One day, I had lunch with a friend who was also going through difficult times. I told him: “If you’d have asked me a year ago how I’d deal with all this, I’d have predicted that I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning.”
He nodded and added, “Are we the only people who could be so wrong in predicting how we’d respond to extreme stress?”
That got me thinking. I wondered: How accurately do people predict their emotional reactions to future events?
Q. HOW DOES THAT RELATE TO UNDERSTANDING HAPPINESS?
A. Because if we can’t predict how we’d react in the future, we can’t set realistic goals for ourselves or figure out how to reach to them.
What we’ve been seeing in my lab, over and over again, is that people have an inability to predict what will make us happy — or unhappy. If you can’t tell which futures are better than others, it’s hard to find happiness. The truth is, bad things don’t affect us as profoundly as we expect them to. That’s true of good things, too. We adapt very quickly to either.
So the good news is that going blind is not going to make you as unhappy as you think it will. The bad news is that winning the lottery will not make you as happy as you expect.
Q. ARE YOU SAYING THAT PEOPLE ARE HAPPY WITH WHATEVER CARDS ARE DEALT TO THEM?
A. As a species, we tend to be moderately happy with whatever we get. If you take a scale that goes from zero to 100, people, generally, report their happiness at about 75. We keep trying to get to 100. Sometimes, we get there. But we don’t stay long.
We certainly fear the things that would get us down to 20 or 10 — the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, a serious challenge to our health. But when those things happen, most of us will return to our emotional baselines more quickly than we’d predict. Humans are wildly resilient.
Q. DO MOST OF US HARBOR UNREASONABLE NOTIONS OF WHAT HAPPINESS IS?
A. Inaccurate, flawed ideas. Few of us can accurately gauge how we will feel tomorrow or next week. That’s why when you go to the supermarket on an empty stomach, you’ll buy too much, and if you shop after a big meal, you’ll buy too little.
Another factor that makes it difficult to forecast our future happiness is that most of us are rationalizers. We expect to feel devastated if our spouse leaves us or if we get passed over for a big promotion at work.
But when things like that do happen, it’s soon, “She never was right for me,” or “I actually need more free time for my family.” People have remarkable talent for finding ways to soften the impact of negative events. Thus they mistakenly expect such blows to be much more devastating than they turn out to be.
Q. SO, IF WE DIDN’T HAVE THESE MECHANISMS, WOULD WE BE TOO DEPRESSED TO GO ON?
A. There may be something to that. People who are clinically depressed often seem to lack the ability to reframe events. That suggests that if the rest of us didn’t have this, we might be depressed as well.
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Click here to read the entire interview, including Dan Gilbert’s responses to the following questions: “AS THE AUTHOR OF A BEST SELLER ABOUT HAPPINESS, DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE ON HOW PEOPLE CAN ACHIEVE IT?”; “HAVE YOU JUST EXPRESSED A VERY ANTI-AMERICAN IDEA?” ; “SO YOU HOLD WITH THE NOTION THAT “MONEY CAN’T BUY YOU HAPPINESS”?”; and “ARE YOU, DAN GILBERT, HAPPY?”
For a list of other Situationist posts discussing Dan Gilbert’s work on happiness, click here.