May 23, 2006

"It's the frequency and not the intensity of positive events in your life that leads to happiness, like comfortable shoes or single malt scotch."

Says psychology professor Daniel Gilbert of Harvard's Social Cognition and Emotion laboratory. (Via A&L Daily.)
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.

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."
(Interesting place to use the phrase "in the long run.")
Is there a better way to predict what will make us happy than using our imagination?

"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."
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.

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.


chuck b. said...

For many unhappy people, being happy is so besdies the point!

But about surrugation, doesn't this approach assume we all experience everything the same way? A mixed blessing for you might not be a mixed blessing for me.

Also, I think unhappy people spend more time thinking about their situation(s) than happy people do. Happy people have fewer insights. Unless they were unhappy first.

altoids1306 said...

I only have one problem with the article - the comparision of happiness studies to optometry is completely bogus.

If you see a fuzzy blur rather than a "C" or "U", you can't give the right answer. Vision has a direct physical cause, and vision can be corrected through physical means (glasses, contacts, laser surgery). I can say whatever I want on a happiness survey, regardless of how I feel. And as far as I know, there's no physical method to induce permanent happiness. (Insert drug/sex joke here.)

Happiness studies are not science.

JodyTresidder said...

If you take Ann's excellent comment: "And will other people reliably reveal what makes them happy or reliably report whether or not they are happy?".

Then add chuck b.'s great point: "But about surrugation, doesn't this approach assume we all experience everything the same way?".. end up making matchwood out of Prof Gilbert's already fragile thesis.

(Which makes me very happy indeed!)

SippicanCottage said...
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Meade said...

Surrugation huh? Hmm... okay, but I can't really say I'm happy with that spelling.

katiebakes said...

I like the quote in the title of your post. The "bad things happen in threes" adage seems to illustrate the reverse.

dick said...


I was wondering if that was the same thing as surrogate or if it was something else. Still not sure. Maybe there is a technical time surrugation that I never heard of?

Meade said...

dick: It appears to have been a typo in the Toronto Star article. Interview with Gilbert

dick said...

Speaking of typos - I meant a technical TERM, not a technical TIME.

Christy said...

Look at what makes other people happy, huh? Assuming they are not faking it for the neighbors, of course.

To quote from Voltaire's The Good Brahman "It is a happiness I do not desire."

Ann Althouse said...

Hmmm.... I just googled the word "surrugation," and there was only one hit. And it was really weird. Is Gilbert just making words up on the spot? I'm concluding it's a misspelling of "surrogation."

Ann Althouse said...

Christy: Thanks. I was just thinking of that very piece. Everyone should read it.

P_J said...

It's interesting, Voltaire's argument: "That poor, benighted woman is happy in her circumstances only because she doesn't know better. I'd rather be smart and miserable."

But are those the only two options? Isn't it possible to be intelligent and contented?

There are people who have their dreams fulfilled and are miserable; others live in very difficult situations with quiet dignity and satisfaction. It's rather arrogant to assert that happy people are necessarily stupid.

How do you explain people who've lived through genuinely terrible difficulties and refused to complain or feel sorry for themselves? Were they just ignorant or deluded?

Perhaps happiness is a choice we can make, and one that has more to do with us than our circumstances.

Laura Reynolds said...

Pastor Jeff: I agree with you. And could not one way to define smart is the ability to make ones self "happy"? Conversely isn't it "stupid" to have gifts (e.g intelligence)and talents (e.g education) and yet still be unhappy?

Ann Althouse said...

SteveR: Deciding to just be happy doesn't produce a deep happiness or perhaps anything but phony happiness. If an intelligent person is turning off his higher intellectual capacities, he's is missing an important dimension of life. He can't become the mentally deficient person who is naturally happy. That's the Brahman's observation.

SippicanCottage said...
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Scott Wickstein said...

Ann, thanks for linking to that Story.. I'd not seen it before.

David Blue said...
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David Blue said...

What I've seen is just the opposite of what this research seems to say: small numbers of life-changing crises that shape happiness or unhappiness for long periods.

Death and divorce are critical. Thereafter, important people are there or not there for many years.

Come out of the crisis OK, and you have one kind of life. Fail, and in the case of children generally fail without ever having had a play on the ball - and you have a completely different and likely much less happy life.

Time does not cure all wounds, or if it does so it works very slowly and mostly by killing off the wounded and making way for a next generation.

While research may say that it doesn't matter what big, dramatic thing happens because you'll soon adjust, and that it's the many little hits of happiness that count, I think that's easier to say about somebody else. (Sure John lost his leg/wife/son/whatever, but he's adjusted: he doesn't complain about it any more.)

I'll illustrate this with something public and easy to comment on: Walk The Line (2005).

There were a few really critical points in Johnny Cash's life. The death of his beloved brother was one. After that, he didn't stop hurting about it, he just stopped talking about it. Many little "happy pills" don't outweigh things like that in the long run. They didn't make Johnny happy.

Again, for the barely noted children of his first marriage, divorce would have been a critical point. After that, there were many things that could never have been put right. (Put right for Johnny, maybe, but not for them.) Would a Snickers a day outweigh that?

Or a single malt scotch each evening (a legal happy pill)? Johnny had lots of drinks. Or good shoes? Johnny had money for good shoes too - are we to assume he bought a bad brand and that was his real problem?

Psychology professor Daniel Gilbert assures us it is so. But I'm irrational enough to doubt it.

A link to another research result showing how potent the impact of devastating inflection points often is: (link) "Life's harsh lessons 'make you more gullible'".

'Adverse life experiences' examined included major personal illnesses/injuries, miscarriage (from the male and female perspective), difficulties at work (being fired/laid off), bullying at school, being a victim of crime (robbery, sexual violence), parental divorce, death of family member and others.

70% of the variation across people in suggestibility can be explained by the different levels of negative life events that they have experienced, the study found.

"The majority of people may learn through repeated exposure to adversity to distrust their own judgment; a person might believe something to be true, but when they, for example, read something in a newspaper that contradicts their opinion, or they talk to someone with a different view-point, that individual is more likely to take on that other person's view.

Does a steady succession of small enjoyments - items for sale, like scotches and shoes - outweigh having one's belief in ones judgment and thus one's ability to stand up for oneself crushed by devastating events?

Would you be willing to test that theory yourself, or would you rather someone you really didn't like had to put that theory to the test?

Match Point (2005) also illustrates what I'm saying. A little good or bad luck at a pivotal point can be all-important.

Mary E. Glynn said...

"If you don't have good manners, pretend that you do."

And keep your hands away from your face until you leave the church, eh Sippster?

SippicanCottage said...
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