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Nov. 4, 2009

Vol. 110, No. 4

Features

Professor Happiness

Daniel Gilbert *85 explains why we seek satisfaction in all the wrong places

By Rachel Lieff Axelbank ’06
Published in the November 4, 2009, issue


CJ Gunther/The New York Times/REDUX

Fifteen years ago, you’d have thought that Daniel Gilbert *85 would have been disconsolate. Daniel Gilbert certainly did.

In the mid-1990s, Gilbert experienced a confluence of endings. Both his mother and his mentor passed away. He and his wife got divorced. He and his best friend suffered a falling-out. His son left for college. One day, he found himself telling a friend over lunch, “If you had asked me a year ago how I’d feel if these things had happened, I would’ve gone, ‘God, I’d be devastated,’” he recounts. But, he continued, “I’m actually pretty OK.”

“Why do people make that mistake?” his friend wondered aloud.  

Gilbert replied, “You know, that’s a good question.”

It was so good a question, in fact, that Gilbert has spent most of his time since then in pursuit of the answer. He ­hasn’t found it yet, he says, but his search has earned him a   superstar status that has spilled over the walls of academia and into the mainstream. He has penned an award-winning New York Times best-seller, appeared on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report, recently begun a gig on PBS, and continued as “Professor Happiness” at Harvard, where he has taught since 1996.  

In his lab and writings, Gilbert ponders the subject that is known, thanks largely to him, as affective forecasting — the how and why and error of human perceptions of time, value, reward, sorrow, and, yes, happiness. Just as we often recall the past as we’d like to remember it instead of as it was, so do we predict incorrectly what the future will be like, including our emotional responses to it. This is important, he says, because it influences our attempts at planning — and we do it again and again.  

Employing a combination of cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and humor, Gilbert lays out these theories and a lot more in his 2006 book, Stumbling on Happiness. For his efforts, he won the Royal Society Prize for Science Books, the paramount science-writing honor bestowed by the United Kingdom’s academy of science. Gilbert says clearly that he has not written a “how-to” manual on finding happiness. Rather, he writes, his work “describes what science has to tell us about how and how well the human brain can imagine its own future, and about how and how well it can predict which of those futures it will most enjoy.” And that, Gilbert says, is not well at all.  

What’s responsible for our self-deception? According to Gilbert, blame imagination, because its forces and flaws distort our predictions and our recollections. Imagination works powerfully and quickly, he explains, but it tends to make us believe that the future we envision will be a lot like the present we are experiencing. And when we imagine an event in that future, he explains, we humans consistently overestimate the length and intensity of our emotional response to it. As he writes: “Teenagers get tattoos because they are confident that DEATH ROCKS will always be an appealing motto ...”

Reading Gilbert’s book, we learn that, upon buying a car, a person frets more over the new ride’s imperfections if the purchase contract includes a return period than if she is stuck with the vehicle, but nevertheless, most of us choose the escape clause. We find that “intense suffering triggers the very processes that eradicate it, while mild suffering does not,” which means you ultimately might get over your spouse’s infidelity but still be annoyed by the dishes he or she leaves in the sink (even though the infidelity hurts far more at first). We see how side-by-side comparisons can distort our decision-making — a fact understood by merchants who display an extremely expensive item alongside the moderate-priced item and the inexpensive one. Choosing among three options, the typical consumer is likely to pick the middle one; with only two options, he’d buy the cheaper one.

We learn that not much of anything — be it being jilted at the altar or securing an annual salary of $5 million, losing or triumphing in football — makes us as happy or as sad as we expect it to. Humans have a unique ability, Gilbert says, to readjust, recover, and ultimately synthesize happiness in the face of not getting what we thought we wanted.  

To learn more, Gilbert and researchers in his lab invite people to “track your happiness” on an iPhone. After registering online at www.trackyourhappiness.org, participants answer periodic inquiries about what they’re doing and how they’re feeling. These reports provide data for the researchers and a “happiness report” for each participant. “The goal of the project is nothing less than understanding what it is that truly affects people’s happiness,” says Matt Killingsworth, one of Gilbert’s senior graduate students.  

Gilbert has said that on an imaginary happiness scale of 0 to 100, humans tend to place themselves around the 75-point mark. Regardless of our baseline happiness “level,” a setback will drag us down the scale or some amazing stroke of luck bump us up, but only briefly — within a matter of months from the “life-changing” event, we’re pretty much right back where we started.  

“Basically, the death of your entire family is the kind of event it takes to have a major impact on you for a very long time,” he says.  

Can money buy happiness? Sort of. That is, a little more money can buy the poor a lot of happiness, but only a lot more money can buy the rich even a little happiness. Material wealth has, as Gilbert says, “very diminishing returns.” A far more reliable indicator of a person’s happiness is his or her wealth of personal relationships.

Gilbert’s own existence and joys confirm this.  

Asked what makes him happy, he says, “See those little girls?” and indicates a pair of framed photographs of his granddaughters, positioned for constant visual access from his computer chair. But he goes on to explain that while both seasoned parents and parents-to-be will indicate their offspring (be they grown or but a twinkle in the eye) as their greatest source of joy, real-time measurements indicate that people are actually less happy while raising their children than they are before or afterward. “The only known symptom of empty-nest syndrome,” Gilbert writes, “is increased smiling” — a fact that applies to women even more than to men. Only when the children leave the house do people begin to regain the high satisfaction with married life that they had as newlyweds.

So, how can we predict whether a particular development will make us happy? The best method, Gilbert says, is to ask someone with experience. That should not be someone whose experience is long behind him, though — ask someone to whom it’s happening “right now.” For while we like to believe that we are special, the truth is that people’s emotional reactions to events are similar. We overestimate differences, and so we think that people are more varied than they actually are.

Gilbert does much of his thinking in an office on the 14th floor of a white marble monolith on the edge of Harvard’s main campus, where the requisite overflowing bookshelves are punctuated with curious tchotchkes: the picture of Richard Gere holding Gilbert’s book; the baseball autographed by a former Chicago Cub; a vase filled with small plastic GI figures; the plush, cartoonish doll of the father of psychotherapy (Gilbert: “When you’re a psychologist, people give you Freuds”). He will chitchat about his life and his work for hours, and then, chortling, he will tell you that his friends think he talks too much.  

It is easy to conclude that Gilbert, by virtue of knowing all about happiness, is somehow above the dilemmas the rest of us face.  

Not so, it seems.  

“You can study gravity; you still fall down,” he points out. Nevertheless, his posture is the full embrace of a life he never expected to lead; he’s adamant that it was all a happy accident and might have gone just as well, or better, any number of other ways. To think otherwise, he says, is to fall prey to “the myth ... that there was some unique confluence of events and we were predestined and here we have arrived in just the right place.”  

The early ’70s found Gilbert with a serious case of the hippies, having, by age 17, dropped out of high school, married a woman named Windflower, sired a son named Arlo, and begun pursuit of his dream to spend the rest of time hitchhiking around the country, playing and listening to music, reading philosophy, waging peace, and making love, man. But this compulsion eventually waned, and there to take its place were literary aspirations and a plan to enroll in a ­creative-writing course at the local community college.  

The bus ride to the college was long, he says, and then the course was closed; loath to ride back without anything to show for it, he signed up for psychology. And he thought, “College is a lot more fun than high school.” He secured a GED, enrolled at the University of Colorado at Denver, emerged as valedictorian, and set about deciding among a stack of acceptance letters from top-tier Ph.D. programs in psychology.  

“I picked Princeton for all the wrong reasons,” Gilbert says. These turned out to be not so bad after all — friendly fellow students and graduate housing that offered a place for young Arlo to play — and they ultimately led Gilbert right into the single bit of fate that he will say, with neither caveat nor irony, changed his life.  

Upon visiting Princeton, once charmed by the nice dorms and cool people, Gilbert was told that he could train under a professor who was on leave at the time. He shrugged and signed up; come fall, he found himself sitting in the office of Edward “Ned” Jones, one of the most celebrated social psychologists of the 20th century and “the most amazing, wonderful, doting, brilliant psychologist I could have trained under.” Jones studied “attribution” — how people explain events and behaviors — and Gilbert was hooked.  

“Every thought I think today has his fingerprints on it still,” Gilbert says. “Up until meeting Ned, I was wandering from one thing to another, and I was the beneficiary of a lot of good luck — instead of wandering into traffic, I wandered into Princeton. Ned showed me how to focus my talents ... how to think like a scientist, how to use the experimental method to answer the very questions I’d set out on a journey with my thumb to answer.

“His office wasn’t just another lucky place I stumbled into,” Gilbert says, “it was a place that made me somebody I would not have become had I not come across him.” Gilbert went on to receive the Porter Ogden Jacobus Fellowship — Princeton’s highest academic award for a graduate student — in 1985. Still, he says, “It’s not some attribute of me that uniquely steered me to psychology ... It was just a happy accident.”


After graduation and 11 years on the faculty at the University of Texas in Austin, Gilbert was lured to Harvard by a compelling academic offer and his wish for a fresh start following his slew of sad events, including the death of Jones in 1993. And so, seeking to learn why he’d remained buoyant, he shifted his academic focus from a study of how individuals explain events to the field that put him and his collaborator, University of Virginia psychology professor Tim Wilson, on the academic map.

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, an emeritus Princeton professor of psychology and economics, describes Gilbert and Wilson as the absolute authorities in affective forecasting. Kahneman explains that Gilbert’s theories can be considered “extreme” in that they tie happiness very solidly to in-the-moment experience, and therefore accord little weight to retrospective satisfaction.  

Nick Epley, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and a former Harvard colleague, says that Gilbert’s chief contribution to psychology has been a timely elucidation of the mechanisms underlying our judgment and prediction biases. In doing so, Epley says, Gilbert has opened up a new domain of research in a way that has attracted loads of new talent.

In Epley’s view, a psychologist’s potential for impact lies in his or her ability to illuminate that which occurs in daily life but still eludes notice. “Most psychologists walk around with candles,” he says. “Dan walks around with a piece of the sun.”  

Having brought his piece of the sun to bookshelves around the world (Stumbling on Happiness has been translated into 20 languages), Gilbert now is tackling the small screen. Sometime early in 2010 — as of press time, the exact date had yet to be determined — PBS will run a six-hour mini­series titled This Emotional Life, featuring Gilbert as host. Over the miniseries’ three episodes, Gilbert explores social relationships, psychopathologies (such as fear, anxiety, and phobias, among others), and the science of happiness itself, interviewing scientists as well as laypeople.

For Gilbert, who rejoices in the writing process and relishes the agony of deciding between this word and that, filming a television miniseries is quite the tedious beast. He gets bored by saying a sentence 100 times when he knows it will appear on the screen once. But he also has learned how to relate to a video camera (“you have to look right into the camera’s eye and talk to it very intimately ... and it’s an inanimate object”), discovered a new kind of collaboration (“you don’t get your way”), and been enlightened as to his own unconscious physical habits (“I tend to tilt my head at the end of my sentences — but not anymore, I don’t!”).  

Academia still represents his zone of choice, though, and he asks a student to wait for a few minutes so that he can give a visitor a proper tour of the work nest he has created. Queried about the fortune-telling Magic 8 Ball on his ­windowsill, he seizes it from its spot and examines it thought­fully, but refuses to disclose the question he is posing ­silently.  

Then, while knowing better than to speculate about his future, he rolls the ball over again and again until he gets the answer he wants, the answer that makes him happy. 


Rachel Lieff Axelbank ’06 is an M.F.A. candidate in the creative-nonfiction writing program at Sarah Lawrence College.

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1 Response to Professor Happiness

Michael Otten '63 Says:

2009-11-04 15:10:21

Great to hear about happiness in a methodical way, since so much of our lives is devoted to trying to maximize it.
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CURRENT ISSUE: Nov. 4, 2009
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Video: Pursuing happiness
Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert *85 talks about his theories of happiness with Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert.