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:

This is the formula that Daniel Gilbert (Harvard professor and author of Stumbling on Happiness) told us was the centuries old formula for doing precisely the right thing at precisely the right time. I guess people had more noble ambitions back then.  Every gamble, risk, action, goal, or even thought has an expected chance of happening and an expected value if that thing actually happens. The premise of his talk yesterday was that though the formula seems simple, the brain is unfortunately pretty awful at doing these calculations in real life.

Errors of Odds

We don't store odds in our brain very easily. Instead of storing something like "there's a .001% chance of being struck by lightning" the brain stores "I can remember 2 stories of people being struck by lightning within the last 2 years". Events or information that is easy to recall will have inflated odds (disasters, news stories, and other information that is easy to recall, like words rhyming with "at") while events and information that is difficult to recall will have deflated odds (death by boring events like asthma, drowning in a pool, etc, stories that aren't good news, and other information that is difficult to recall like words that have an "r" as the third letter).

Your ability to predict the possibility of something happening is going to be wrong almost all of the time due to the way our brain stores odds. We are designed to overaggressively seek or avoid memorable events and information while being blind-sided by unmemorable events and information.

Errors of Value

As bad as we are about storing odds, we are even less skillful at predicting how much something is worth. We think we will be happier when our goals are realized than we actually are, and we think we'll be sadder when fortune fails us than we actually are. This is because we make decisions of value through comparison rather than by trying to determine objective value. We go to the coffee shop that serves the cheapest or the best coffee and never consider if it is actually worth its price. What does "worth its price" even really mean? Much more powerful than the idea of how much $1.89 is worth is the idea that $1.89 is less than the $2.25 that coffee costs across the street, and much less than the $3.50 that it would cost to get a mocha. We are therefore getting a deal. This is easily manipulated by well known tricks of retailers who put "aspirational brands" near commodity brands in order to make people more comfortable with purchasing the high-end commodity brand.


I came away from this talk (actually, it was the second time I saw the talk… I also saw him speak in Austin at SXSW this year) with a couple questions, the most articulate of which is "So what?"  An error is an error only if it causes us some strife.  One obvious form of strife is that if we aren't consistent in our ability to make decisions, then people will exploit the inconsistencies of our decision making.  Which we know is pretty much the case with the current state of the media and advertising.  But, an error is also only useful to point out if there is some way to correct our behavior by rooting out the error and making better decisions.  Daniel Gilbert side steps this question and offers no simple keys to happiness and good decision making.  One leaves with a sense of urgency… we need to figure this out, and soon!  Before we reach the inevitable end of our collective poor judgement calls… a world of misleading advertisements, lotteries, casinos, disasters, and debt.  He warns us that we're the only ones with the ability to control our fate, by predicting the future and altering the present… and if we as a species fail to do so, it will be a result of this poor decision making.  He sure has a funny way of stumbling on happiness.

Just found an interesting article from a few months ago that nicely summarizes some of the current ideas and studies that are being done to find out just how useful it is to "think problems through":

In a study I conducted with Dolores Kraft, a clinical psychologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and Dana Dunn, a social psychologist at Moravian College in Pennsylvania, people in one group were asked to list the reasons their relationship with a romantic partner was going the way it was, and then rate how satisfied they were with the relationship. People in another group were asked to rate their satisfaction without any analysis; they just gave their gut reactions.

It might seem that the people who thought about the specifics would be best at figuring out how they really felt, and that their satisfaction ratings would thus do the best job of predicting the outcome of their relationships.

In fact, we found the reverse. It was the people in the "gut feeling" group whose ratings predicted whether they were still dating their partner several months later. As for the navel gazers, their satisfaction ratings did not predict the outcome of their relationships at all. Our conclusion? Too much analysis can confuse people about how they really feel. There are severe limits to what we can discover through self-reflection, and trying to explain the unexplainable does not lead to a sudden parting of the seas with our hidden thoughts and feelings revealed like flopping fish.

It goes on to talk about how overanalyzing a problem when we're currently feeling down is especially damaging.   Self-reflection just makes you more depressed because the activated part of your brain is a negative filter, and will have no problem coming up with more and more things that are going wrong, some that aren't related at all to the current problem, and it will send you into a downward spiral.

Read the whole article here: Don't think twice, it's alright