Honorary Campus Cutie
Dan Gilbert is an honorary Cornell cutie! This Harvard Psychology professor shared his wisdom (and a ton of research!) on affective forecasting and happiness with us in a lecture on April 13. Although Gilbert was born right here in Ithaca and began his psych career as a high school dropout in community college at the age of 19, he went on to earn a Ph.D. in social psychology at Princeton and has successfully contributed to the literature on hedonic psychology, affective forecasting, and cognitive biases like impact bias, or the “tendency for people to overestimate the length or the intensity of future feeling states.”
Professor Gilbert’s lecture explored why we just can’t predict how we’re going to feel in certain situations unless we are in those situations. His focus is happiness. He helps us answer the question of why we can’t predict what will make us happy.
Prior to the agricultural revolution, sanitation, and other societal transformations that increased the average lifespan significantly, the perspective on happiness was living one’s “nasty, brutish, and short” life and being able to accumulate things, says Gilbert. Once we discovered these technologies and were able to satisfy our desires, we saw that people were still unhappy. Thus, there must be more to happiness than simply getting what we want.
The first reason Gilbert posits for why we systematically “mispredict our happiness” is that we don’t pay enough attention to the details. Our “life simulator” is our imagination and it differentiates us from other animals because we can learn from our imagined experiences rather than having to physically make certain mistakes. For example, you can imagine it would be a bad idea to stick your finger in a pencil sharpener without having to have personally learned this from experience.
According to Gilbert, our “life simulator fails systematically and all the time.” This occurs because when we imagine future activities and states, we imagine “the essence” rather than the details of the event. You might think these details are irrelevant, and they are, except that they affect how you’re going to feel and act in a certain situation. At the dentist, for instance, if the receptionist is nice, if the music playing in the office is your favorite, if you end up getting a pleasant cleaning with no cavities and find ten dollars before heading into the exam room, you would be much happier than if none of these things or the opposite (i.e. you lose ten dollars) had occurred. Gilbert emphasizes that even when you fail at something, the end result can turn out for the best.
Gilbert next discusses how we underestimate our tendency to rationalize, especially in ‘ambiguous’ situations. For example, if you glance at the picture of this box, it appears to be angled in one direction, but after prolonged staring, you will see it from a different perspective.
This is because the brain strives to resolve ambiguity. It flips from one direction to the other until it finds the best possible way to understand the world. Gilbert compares this to when you are fired from a job. At first, being fired can feel like a devastating loss; however, life must go on, so your rationalizing tendencies take over and you realize that on the other hand, this is a liberating opportunity to write that novel you never used to have the time to finish.
In our own predictions of our own affective reactions, we forget to factor in the rationalization response. For example, think about how you would feel if you asked out some guy and he rejected you. Right now, it feels like it would be a pretty negative experience, right? But studies show that in a situation in which one judge (ambiguous), as opposed to three judges (unambiguous) reject you, you can rationalize it away. This is just another example of many that Gilbert provides about how we fail at successfully predicting the influence of our tendency to “think away” the problem.
Then Gilbert goes on to tackle marriage, money, and children. Longitudinal studies (those that follow the same people over time) find that marriage actually does make people more happy for an average of twenty years. Divorce, however, does too. Long story short, if you marry the right person, you will be happier together than you were on your own. If you marry the wrong person, you will be far happier after the divorce.
As for money, it turns out that a little money can make you very happy, but after a certain point, more money will not continue to increase your happiness. Gilbert says that a problem here, however, may be that you’re not spending your money the right way to make yourself happy. Studies show that the best way to spend money to increase your own personal happiness is to spend it on someone else.
Want to see what trends in your life make you the most happy? Sign up on www.trackyourhappiness.com, and you’ll get texted on your smartphone at random times to track what experiences make you most happy. Based on the responses to these alerts and other similar studies, charts have been developed mapping our happiest activities: sex, exercise, conversation.
Finally, Gilbert discusses how having children, although it goes against every intuition, is one of the least enjoyable experiences you can have. Based on self-reports like those described above, trends show that people are not particularly happy when spending time with kids. Soon after the birth of the first child, the excitement of pregnancy tapers off and happiness rates fall lower than they were before the baby was born. Gilbert also addresses why despite this observation we think that having a child is so rewarding. He describes how we rationalize all the effort put in to taking care of your children and how that makes us appreciate them more. He compares this to how all the exertion of hazing can make us appreciate our position in the Greek system all the more. In a study in which parents read about the benefits of having children compared to parents who read about the costs of having children, the latter group was far more likely to rationalize and “enjoy parenting” more than the former.
Ultimately, Gilbert makes the case that despite our poor intuition skills, we can still be happy. And after we leave Cornell and the days of rain, sleet, and snow in April, we’ll look back and appreciate our alma mater all the more in an effort to rationalize all the work we put into surviving past graduation.
Lecture in 305 Ives Hall, 4/13/2011