Why we persist in pursuing the very things that fail to bring us happiness—a core issue in Buddhism—is also of great interest to researchers like Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University. Gilbert, whose book Stumbling on Happiness will be published by Knopf in April 2006, took time out on the eve of his wedding to talk with Tricycle contributing editor Joan Duncan Oliver about “miswanting” and how it hampers our efforts to be happy.
How do you define happiness?
The simplest definition is “that general positive feeling one gets from all the things that can possibly generate it.” I don’t think the happiness one gets from, say, helping a little old lady cross the street is qualitatively different from the happiness one gets from eating a banana cream pie. They’re the same emotion. If what we call happiness consisted of very different experiences, then they should have very different signatures in the brain. They don’t. The feeling you get from sending a gift to your aunt on her birthday seems to activate the same brain areas as an orgasm or a snootful of cocaine—the midbrain dopamine structures associated with pleasure. That doesn’t mean these experiences are identical. It means they share a basic feeling.
Are we “hardwired” to seek happiness?
We don’t know if these tendencies are written into the DNA or they’re some aspect of our early socialization. But we do know that when the brain interprets the events we call everyday experience—marriage, divorce, a promotion, sickness, a victory, a football game—it looks for the meaning that will bring the most pleasure, peace, enjoyment, contentment.
Your research suggests that we’re not very good at predicting how we’ll feel about future events. But we manage to learn from our experience in some areas—not touching a hot stove, for example—so why do we keep making errors about what will make us happy?
To learn from experience requires that you remember it. One of the things we know about memories of emotional experiences is that they are biased in exactly the same way that forecasts of emotional experiences are biased. We published a study in which we looked at people’s predictions of, experiences of, and memories of the 2000 Presidential election. Before the election, pro-Gore voters thought they would be absolutely devastated if Bush won, and pro-Bush voters thought they would be on Cloud Nine. When we measured the actual experience of these people after the election, the difference between them was not nearly as big as these people had predicted. Some months later, all of these voters were contacted again and asked to remember their experience. What they remembered was that they were devastated or elated—exactly as they had predicted they would be, but not as they had actually felt. We have the same illusions whether we look forward or backward in time, and they reinforce each other.
How does mispredicting or misremembering our feelings lead to “miswanting”—making bad choices?
Our culture, like our own experience, can perpetuate untruths about the sources of happiness. Take the economy. The only way our economy can perpetuate itself is if lots of people believe what Adam Smith called “a deception”—that constant consumption will bring happiness. Economies are an engine, and constant production and consumption are the fuel. So if everybody realized one day that constant consumption and production aren’t a source of happiness—that all they really do is keep the economy going—how many of us would get up on the morning and say, “I know it’s not going to make me happy, but I want to keep the economy going”? We don’t do that. We get up in the morning and say, “What will make me happy?” So the only way we are efficient fuel for an economic engine is if we subscribe to the big cultural myth that stuff makes us happy. We get on our treadmill, metaphorically speaking, and earn money. It doesn’t bring us the happiness we thought it would, so we assume we haven’t earned enough. We probably need to earn more. The Porsche didn’t do it; it must be a Ferrari that will. The old wife isn’t good enough; we’ll get a new one. We keep assuming that because things aren’t bringing us happiness, they’re the wrong things, rather than recognizing that the pursuit itself is futile—that regardless of what we achieve in the pursuit of stuff, it’s never going to bring about an enduring state of happiness.
So if we don’t want the right things to make us happy, what accounts for the fact that most people say they are happy?
Are we just deluded?
Most of our research is on misprediction of reactions to negative events. The biggest error people make is thinking that they will be sad, devastated, annoyed, embarrassed, or frustrated for long periods of time, when it turns out they aren’t. Our research does not say that bad things don’t hurt. It says that however much they hurt, it’s not as much as people predicted. Adaptation—or habituation—is one of the major reasons. Every organism habituates to repeated exposure to the same stimulus.
But why is it hard to override our feelings of the moment in making decisions about the future?
Imagination requires the same areas of the brain that sensory experience is already using. If somebody says, “Hey, how does that song go?” and there’s something on the radio, you have to cover your ears, because the parts of your brain that can imagine a song are already listening to a real song. When people are shown a picture and later asked to close their eyes and remember it, you actually see reactivation of the visual cortex, the very part of the brain that was looking at the picture in the first place. Memory, imagination, and perception are like three different software processes. They all run on the same platform, but only one can run at a time. That’s why it’s hard to imagine being happy when you’re sad.
Another problem is something you call “the pleasure paradox.” What’s that?
Human beings have two basic motives that conflict with each other: to understand everything and to be happy. The mind tends to mull over things it hasn’t fully understood or digested, so part of what makes a positive experience continue to give us positive feelings is that we continue to bring it to mind. If a dozen roses appeared at your door with no card, can you imagine how many years of joy you would get out of those roses? For the rest of your life you would be saying, “And then there was that time… ” We’ve done studies in which all the participants have the same experience but in one case they can explain it, in the other they can’t. We find they’re much happier much longer when they can’t explain it. But here’s the rub. If you ask people, “Would you like to have the experience explained to you?” one hundred percent of the time they say yes.
Is that some inherent perversity—we want to kill the very thing that makes us happy?
It’s because we don’t realize it’s the thing making us happy. Part of the reason we try to understand the causes of our experience is that we believe we can make these experiences happen again. The problem is, understanding also makes the experience less valuable, because we adapt to it. It’s surprising things, uncertain things, things we don’t fully comprehend that seem to bring us the greatest and longest-lasting happiness.
So is happiness all about the pursuit?
That’s too strong, but I would say there are many experiences in which almost all the joy is in memory and anticipation and very little is in the experience itself. George Loewenstein, another happiness researcher, is a mountaineer. A point he makes about mountaineering is that you look forward to it for months and talk about it later for years, but the fact is, while you’re doing it, it’s hot and sweaty and uncomfortable
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