Saturday, March 10, 2007

Most of us acknowledge we have limited skills in many areas, including brain surgery and spaceship construction. But there’s one thing we think we know like the back of our hand: our inner selves. We’re pretty sure we know exactly what brings us happiness and contentment, right?

Wrong, says Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University.

“We think we know ourselves. We think it’s a matter of just closing our eyes and looking inward,” says Mr. Gilbert, who studies emotional predictions. “Yet we make big mistakes when we try to predict what will happen in the future, and we make even bigger mistakes when we try to predict how we will feel when we get there.”

For example, ask young people if they think they’ll get married.

“They’ll say, ‘I don’t know.’ But they will also say that if they do get married, they know they will like it,” says Mr. Gilbert, author of “Stumbling on Happiness.”

Science suggests, though, that it’s the other way around. The odds are good that they will get married, but not so good that they will like it, he says. Just look at the divorce rate.

But how about money? Certainly, a little extra cash would put a smile on our faces?

Only in certain circumstances, Mr. Gilbert says. If the cash helps bring you out of poverty, then yes. If it’s gravy, like going from an annual income of $5 million to $500 million, there is little evidence that the extra cash will make you any happier, he says.

“It’s just a useless pile of paper,” he says and makes the following pancake analogy:

“Eating that first one, even a second one is great. But by the time you’ve had seven pancakes, it’s not going to make you any happier,” he says.

Human beings are also dreadful at predicting the intensity and duration of future feelings, says Tim Wilson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who also studies emotional predictions.

We tend to overestimate the intensity and duration of our feelings — whether good and bad — he says. We might think, for example, that buying a fancy car will bring us long-lasting happiness. But, most likely, it won’t, Mr. Wilson says.

“If we think a major consumer purchase is going to make us happy for a month and it only makes us happy for a week, then aren’t we spending our money unwisely?”

The same goes for bad feelings. Mr. Wilson did surveys with college students about how they would feel if their football team lost. Most predicted they would be devastated for quite some time. But after their team indeed did lose and post-game Monday rolled around, the students actually were fine, he says. In other words, they overestimated the intensity and duration of their bad feelings.

“I’ve never failed to be surprised at how quickly we can adapt to a new situation. We quickly find ways to dampen the impact,” says Mr. Wilson, who has studied emotional predictions for the past 15 years, at times together with Mr. Gilbert.

One way to dampen the impact is to rationalize the outcome of an event. Say, for example, that you get fired. You might say to yourself, “I never wanted to be in accounting anyway, and this will give me a chance to write that best-selling novel.” Or something along those lines. This rationalization helps you get over and through your bad feelings quickly.

So, the question is, if we’re so bad at predicting our future emotions, including happiness, why don’t we just live in the present?

“That’s not possible. You’d almost have to be a goldfish,” Mr. Gilbert says. The way our brains have evolved, daydreaming, reminiscing and imagining is what we do most of the time, he says.

“Our default state is a time-travel mode. We’re constantly reminiscing on what happened and imagining what will happen,” he says. “It’s only when we’re needed in the present — like when we have to cross the street — that we have to come back to the present.”

There are also practical aspects to planning and predicting.

“Not planning for the future can be very risky,” Mr. Wilson says. “Like not saving for retirement. That would be unwise.”

So, if living in the present is not an option for achieving happiness, then what is?

Well, part of what makes us so bad at predicting future happiness is that we rely on selective memories (we tend to remember the best day of the vacation instead of the average day) to predict the future.

“We tend to remember the best of times and the worst of times instead of the most likely of times,” Mr. Gilbert says.

For example, when we look back at a vacation with the children, we remember the smiles and harmony, not the screaming and fighting.

“This certainly compromises our ability to learn from our experiences,” Mr. Gilbert says.

But maybe we do this deliberately since it makes us happy to think about good memories and maybe even happier to look forward to a — what we predict — will be a great wedding or dinner party?

“It’s true that sometimes looking forward to the wedding is a bigger source of happiness than the actual wedding,” Mr. Gilbert says.

Mr. Wilson calls this “savoring.”

“There is a value in savoring that is certainly true,” he says. We prefer, it turns out to schedule a dinner at our favorite restaurant a week or two out instead of immediately in order to “savor” or look forward to it.

But the downside is that basing predictions on our imagination and selective memory also means many of us dread future events.

“Sometimes illusions are comforting, but some people spend their lives in fear of what might happen,” Mr. Wilson says and adds he would gladly trade in happy daydreaming if that meant losing the dread.

“I think being perfectly calibrated would be good,” Mr. Wilson says. “That would allow me to make better decisions,” he says and chuckles.

Which brings us self-betterment. How do we make better predictions about our future happiness if all our mind does is play tricks on us through faulty imaginations and selective memories?

Mr. Gilbert answer is simple.

“We should use other people as surrogates for ourselves,” he says. “Other people’s experiences have a lot to teach us. We would do well to instead examine the happiness of the people who have been in the futures than merely contemplating our futures on our own.”

In other words, if we want to know what it’s like to be 65 years old, we should ask a 65-year-old. If we’re considering going to law school, we should talk to law school students and lawyers. If we’re considering marriage, we should ask people who are married.

But most people, Mr. Gilbert says, reject this idea because they think they’re unique and nobody else can feel what they feel.

“… If you are like most people, then like most people, you don’t know you’re like most people,” Mr. Gilbert writes in the humorous “Stumbling on Happiness.”

In truth, though, people are very similar, he says, which is why we can learn from each other.

Mr. Wilson agrees.

“I argue against navel-gazing introspection,” Mr. Wilson says and adds. “I think another path is to become a better consumer of one’s own behavior. Become more skeptical.”

We can’t turn off our selective memories or imagination, though. We have to live with them.

“But maybe we can come away saying that we should be a little less confident about what we’re imagining and seek other sources of information, information that didn’t come from our imagination,” he says.

That’s a novel and a little scary thought; that other people — the 65-year-old, the lawyer, the married couple — know more about our future selves than we do.

“It would be wise to consider that they are right and you are wrong,” Mr. Gilbert says.

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