Although we humans have the capacity to imagine what will make us happy lodged in our well-developed frontal lobes, we are not good at it. It's the way we consistently err that fascinates the professor.(Interesting place to use the phrase "in the long run.")
His researchers at Harvard interviewed voters before and after recent U.S. elections who said they would be extremely unhappy if George W. Bush won and would likely move to Canada — but who reported after the vote that they feel just fine.
"In prospect it always seems so dire," he says.
The Harvard researchers have also done extensive interviews with sports fans who just know they'll never smile again if their team loses but, of course, recover speedily after a loss.
"The human brain mispredicts the sources of its own satisfaction," Gilbert says, "and the reason is that we fail to understand how quickly we will adapt to both positive and negative events. People are consistently surprised by how quickly the abnormal becomes normal, the extraordinary becomes ordinary. When people say I could never get used to that, they are almost always wrong."
Gilbert believes we have an emotional immune system that helps us regain our equilibrium after catastrophic events...
"I am not saying that losing a leg won't change you in profound ways. But it won't lower your day-to-day happiness in the long run."
Is there a better way to predict what will make us happy than using our imagination?Quit thinking you're so special and start surrugating! If you want to be happy, check out what makes other people happy, and do that.
"Yes," he says, "but no one wants to use it. It's called surrugation, and it circumvents biases and errors. If you want to know how happy you'll be if you win the lottery, ask a lottery winner — it's a mixed blessing. Will having children make you happy? Observe people who have them."
Ah, but do you really want to be happy... if it involves doing what those people do? And will other people reliably reveal what makes them happy or reliably report whether or not they are happy? People who have what is supposed to make them happy -- a marriage and children are prime examples -- are likely to say these things are making them happy. People who are happy in situations that are generally viewed as grim or pitiful may not want to let you know they are in that situation.
It's not really all that easy to surrugate, is it?
UPDATE: Based on questioning in the comments and a little Googling, I'm convinced "surrugation" is not some technical term or some Canadian word, but a misspelling of "surrogation."
YET MORE: In the comments, Christy reminds of the "Story of a Good Brahman," Voltaire poses the classic question: "Aren't you ashamed to be unhappy at a time when right at your door there is an old automaton who thinks of nothing and who lives happily?" The Good Brahman says "I have told myself a hundred times that I would be happy if I was as stupid as my neighbors and yet I would want no part of such a happiness."
In support of Gilbert's idea, I should point out once again something I was talking about in my 49th podcast, this quote from Benjamin Franklin. Of his role in providing for street sweeping and streetlamps, he said:
Some may think these trifling matters not worth minding or relating; but when they consider that tho' dust blown into the eyes of a single person, or into a single shop on a windy day, is but of small importance, yet the great number of the instances in a populous city, and its frequent repetitions give it weight and consequence, perhaps they will not censure very severely those who bestow some attention to affairs of this seemingly low nature. Human felicity is produc'd not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day. Thus, if you teach a poor young man to shave himself, and keep his razor in order, you may contribute more to the happiness of his life than in giving him a thousand guineas. The money may be soon spent, the regret only remaining of having foolishly consumed it; but in the other case, he escapes the frequent vexation of waiting for barbers, and of their sometimes dirty fingers, offensive breaths, and dull razors; he shaves when most convenient to him, and enjoys daily the pleasure of its being done with a good instrument.And don't forget the comfy shoes and the single malt scotch.