Saturday, May 06, 2006

Happiness (and pain): The tricks our minds play

Stumbling on Happiness is a book about a very simple but powerful idea. What distinguishes us as human beings from other animals is our ability to predict the future--or rather, our interest in predicting the future. We spend a great deal of our waking life imagining what it would be like to be this way or that way, or to do this or that, or taste or buy or experience some state or feeling or thing. We do that for good reasons: it is what allows us to shape our life. And it is by trying to exert some control over our futures that we attempt to be happy. But by any objective measure, we are really bad at that predictive function. We're terrible at knowing how we will feel a day or a month or year from now, and even worse at knowing what will and will not bring us that cherished happiness. Gilbert sets out to figure what that's so: why we are so terrible at something that would seem to be so extraordinarily important?

From the guest review by Malcolm Gladwell over at the site. The book Stumbling on Happiness is by Daniel Gilbert (whom we've met before).

Thanks to Tyler Cowen, we have links to two articles on Gilbert's research on happiness. From the first piece:

"People are wonderful rationalizers," Gilbert points out. "They will rearrange their view of the world so it doesn't hurt as much." [...]

The same holds true for lovers who break up. Rationalization quickly replaces devastation. "She was never right for me," the spurned lover says. "I recognized that when she threw the ring in my face."

And, from the second piece:

The problem, as Gilbert and company have come to discover, is that we falter when it comes to imagining how we will feel about something in the future. It isn't that we get the big things wrong. We know we will experience visits to Le Cirque and to the periodontist differently; we can accurately predict that we'd rather be stuck in Montauk than in a Midtown elevator. What Gilbert has found, however, is that we overestimate the intensity and the duration of our emotional reactions -- our ''affect'' -- to future events. In other words, we might believe that a new BMW will make life perfect. But it will almost certainly be less exciting than we anticipated; nor will it excite us for as long as predicted. The vast majority of Gilbert's test participants through the years have consistently made just these sorts of errors both in the laboratory and in real-life situations. And whether Gilbert's subjects were trying to predict how they would feel in the future about a plate of spaghetti with meat sauce, the defeat of a preferred political candidate or romantic rejection seemed not to matter. On average, bad events proved less intense and more transient than test participants predicted. Good events proved less intense and briefer as well.

You might also be interested in this NYTimes article by Sandra Blakeslee about how anticipation of a painful event makes one want to just 'get it over with ASAP'. What might be the implication of this finding?

The research also sheds light on economic behavior, said George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University. According to standard economic models of human behavior, choosing more pain in the short run is irrational, Dr. Loewenstein said: if you know something bad is going to happen, you should postpone it as long as possible, and if something good is going to happen, you should want it right away.

In real life, people often do the exact opposite, he said. They delay gratification to savor a sweet sense of anticipation, and accelerate punishment just to get it over with. The new study sheds light, he said, on how the act of waiting can be used to describe economic behavior more accurately.