More from Daniel Gilbert on the science of happiness

May 23, 2006

Daniel Gilbert, who I just saw speak last night, also published a new article yesterday: The Science of Happiness.

I think he likes taking on controversial topics. Here are a few:

The study of happiness is a science

What does it take to study something scientifically? One word: Measurement. If you can measure something, you can study it scientifically. Can we measure a person's subjective emotional experience? You bet. People can tell you with both words and actions what they are experiencing — what they are seeing, hearing, smelling, thinking, and feeling—and these reports are the essential data on which the science of experience is built. If you don't think such reports are reliable or valid, then you should feel free to discard my research papers.

But just to be consistent, you should also discard your glasses or contact lenses, because optometry is another one of those sciences that is built entirely on people's reports of subjective experience. The one and only way for an optometrist to know what your visual experience is like is to ask you, "Does it look clearer like this or (click click) like this?"

On the basis of your answers, the optometrist is able to create a lens that corrects your vision quite precisely. Indeed, without your report of your subjective visual experience, optometry would be impossible. No "objective test" — no eye test, no blood test, and no brain test — can provide this information. In short, people can reliably report on their subjective experiences and those reports can be objectively collected and analyzed. As long as people can say how happy they are at the moment you ask them, you can build a science of happiness. In fact, there is no other way to build such a science.

People don't care about anything other than being happy

First, people clearly value many things — from the base to the sublime, from Belgian chocolate to marital fidelity — but I believe they value these things entirely because of their hedonic consequences. Plato was very clear about this when he asked us to think about what it is that makes anything good. "Are these things good for any other reason except that they end in pleasure, and get rid of and avert pain? Are you looking to any other standard but pleasure and pain when you call them good?" I'm with the guy in the toga on this score. To my mind, "positive hedonic experience" is what valuing means. We can't say what's good without saying what it is good for, and if you look at all the many things people think are good, you will notice they are all good for making people happy.

There is only one kind of happiness that spans selfish happiness and selfless happiness

Yes, the experience of saving money is not the same as the experience of saving orphans. But both experiences can be described as a set of locations on multiple dimensions, and one of those dimensions is happiness. The two experiences give rise to different amounts of happiness, but not different kinds. The reason the experiences feel so different is that they entail different amounts of happiness as well as different amounts of everything else.

This sounds like a semantic abstraction, and it isn't. It is a deeply important point. Science is an attempt to replace qualitative distinctions with quantitative distinctions. Once upon a time there were two kinds — hot and cold — and it was a huge breakthrough when scientists realized that these two kinds were simply manifestations of different amounts of molecular motion. The same was true when scientists realized that oxygen and iron were not different kinds of stuff, but rather, were different amounts of stuff, namely, protons, neutrons, and electrons. Similarly, different subjective experiences contain different amounts of happiness, which is a basic dimension or basic ingredient of experience. Experiences that have different amounts of happiness can feel as different as air and iron, as different as hot and cold. But if orphan-saving and money-saving feel different, that fact does not invalidate my claim any more than the different rigidities of iron and air invalidates atomic theory.

I admire his willingness to take on controversial topics. The main reason they bristle with our instincts is that they are not initially aesthetic statements. They don't provoke a "ah, that's a warm happy truth" response from most people, except maybe lost souls like us. Some of us take a strange glee in statements that seem cold and brutal, and attack the sacred cows of our own sense of self, and our own desire to live a pleasing and engaging life amongst equals. It's the opposite of soft, happy, marketing, and perhaps we've been trained like Pavlov's dog to respond to information that feels like the opposite of a lie or a trick or an advertisement.

Daniel Gilbert related reading:


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