Interview: Daniel Gilbert

What will make you happy? A social scientist explains why it’s so hard to predict

WEB EXCLUSIVE - Extended Interview

In Stumbling on Happiness, just released in paperback, the Harvard psychologist explores why we human beings are poor "affective forecasters," or predictors of future emotion.

Let's do a test: How do you think you'll feel at the end of this interview?
Approximately the way I feel now. That's almost always a good guess about how you're going to feel in the future. Most events have a small impact that doesn't last very long. More than one person who's gotten married or moved to California to change their happiness has found that it stays about where it is. My research has made me care much less about which of my possible futures I end up in. When I went to buy a house, I was much less concerned about which house to buy, because I knew from the data that whichever one I bought, I would probably be happy with it, and would quickly become convinced that I bought the only good house on the market.

When did you first realize that people were bad at forecasting their emotional states?
It first occurred to me about 15 years ago. I was watching myself go through some very difficult times of life and realizing that, by and large, I was doing much better than I would have predicted if you’d asked me a year or two ago. Being a scientist, I went right to the scientific literature to see what I could learn about this interesting phenomenon. What I found was, there wasn't scientific literature on it. So my colleague Tim Wilson and I teamed up and decided to do a couple little experiments to see if most people were as bad as predicting their emotional future as I had been. Turns out they were. The effect was very robust and what become quickly interesting was not whether this happened, because obvious it does, but why.

So, I'd guess negative events don't affect us as much as we think they do.
Human resilience is really quite astonishing. People are not the fragile flowers that a century of psychologists have made us out to be. People who suffer real tragedy and trauma typically recover more quickly than they expect to and often return to their original level of happiness, or something close to it. That's the good news—we are a hardy species, even though we don't know this about ourselves. The bad news is that the good things that happen to us don't feel as good or last as long as we think they will. So all that wonderful stuff we're aiming for—winning the lottery, getting promoted, whatever we think will change our lives—probably won't do it after all. We're resilient in both directions. We rebound from distress but we also rebound from joy.

But people do know what will make them happy, don't they?
If you ask people whether they would rather have gallbladder surgery or a weekend in Paris, they get the answer right. What they're wrong about is knowing just how bad or how good these events will be, and how long those feelings will last.

Can this behavior be changed?
Affective forecasting errors are very hard to avoid, and nobody has come up with a magic pill or a special mantra that can turn you from a bad to a good forecaster. But there's another way to get a sense of how you would feel in some future circumstance: other people's experience. For example, lots of people have won the lottery and put their happiness, or lack thereof, on public display. Rather than closing your eyes and imagining how wonderful it would be to win the lotto, you could find out how past winners actually feel. But we tend not to do that. Why? Because we all believe that we're unique and that other people's experiences are a poor guide to our own. But it turns out we're not nearly as unique as we think—at least when it comes to emotional responses to events. Which is why everybody likes a wedding more than a funeral, or chocolate more than gum surgery.

People have been imagining their futures for millions of years. Wouldn't it make sense that we'd be good at it by now?
You're quite right when you say millions of years if you mean two or less. The part of the brain doing this trick is the newest part of the brain—it's the prefrontal cortex, part of the prefrontal lobe. I think your question is really one about evolution weeding out imperfections in our cognitive processes. If we are making mistakes, why is it the case we're not get better over time? Why aren't the people who are horrible at this falling off the face of the Earth leaving only the perfect affective forecasters to procreate a race? The answer, I think, is affective forecasting errors stop us from maximizing our happiness, but they don't necessarily interfere with our reproductive ability, and that's the only think natural selection selects for.

You say there are several types of happiness.
I use happiness in a broad sense. I believe happiness is an attribute of any emotion, an attribute of any psychological state. The best analogy is probably something like wealth. You could have stock, you can have real estate, and you can have jewelry. They're three different things, and we can show you they're three different things. And yet they can all be measured on a scale called "wealth," and arranged as to which is more and which is less. We might say about all three they have the attribute of value or wealth. I think the same is true of happiness.

Why does it seem we're hard-wired to want to feel happy, over all the other emotions?
That's a $64 million question. But I think the answer is something like: Happiness is the gauge the mind uses to know if it's doing what's right. When I say what's right, I mean in the evolutionary sense, not in the moral sense. Nature could have wired you up with knowing 10,000 rules about how to mate, when to eat, where to seek shelter and safety. Or it could simply have wired you with one prime directive: Be happy. You've got a needle that can go from happy to unhappy, and your job in life is to get it as close to H as possible. As you're walking through woods, when that needle starts going towards U, for unhappy, turn around, do something else, see if you can get it to go toward H. As it turns out, all the things that push the needle toward H—salt, fat, sugar, sex, warmth, security—are just the things you need to survive. I think of happiness as a kind of fitness-o-meter. It's the way the organism is constantly updated about whether its behavior is in support of, or opposition to, its own evolutionary fitness.

Well, we've come to the end of the interview. How are you feeling?
About the same as I did before. Then again, maybe I'm just telling myself that so I can believe that, for once in my life, I made an accurate affective forecast.

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