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What truly makes us “happy”, and why are we humans so bad at guessing at it? Daniel Gilbert takes a dive into our psyche and why it is that we repeatedly imagine what will make us happy (more money, getting married, having kids, a new job, a new place to live, etc.) and then find ourselves disappointed when we finally get there and the novelty wears off.
Anxiety comes from anticipating the future. People that cannot anticipate the future, such as people that have had trauma to their frontal lobe, do not experience anxiety. They can only be in the present.
We rob happiness in our present because of thinking about the future.
Part of thinking about the future (prospection) brings us joy and part of it prevents pain, so this is why our brains do it. Part of the joy we have in life is imagining the romance, or the experience of more money, or the experience of losing weight, with experience of being on vacation… And the joy comes from the imagination just as much as it comes from experience. Sometimes the imagination is even better than experience.
The other reason why we want to know the future is because we want to be able to control the experiences we are about to have.
Are frontal lobe gives us the ability to look into the future, we look into the future so that we can make predictions about it, make predictions about it so we can control it. Why not just let the future unfold as it will experience it as it does?
One reason is that we find it gratifying to exercise control. Being effective is one of the fundamental needs with which human brain seems to be naturally endowed.
When human beings lose their ability to control things at any point, to become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed. Gaining control can have a positive impact on one’s health and well-being, but losing control can be worse than never having had any at all.
People feel more confident when they think they control something. Studies show people feel more certain that they will win the lottery if they can control the number on the ticket and they feel more confident that they will win a die toss if they can throw the dice themselves. People will wager more money on dice that have not yet been tossed than on dice that have been tossed but who’s outcome is not yet known and they will bet more if they are allowed to decide which number will count as a win.
The other reason is that we insist on controlling our lives because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain – not because our lives won’t respond, and not because we can’t find our destination, because the future is fundamentally different than it appears when you are prospecting.
We experience three illusions of foresight:
– imagination works so quickly, quietly, and effectively that we are insufficiently skeptical of its products.
– imagination’s products are not particularly imaginative, which is why the matching future often looks so much like the actual present.
– Imagination has a hard time telling us how we will think about the future when we actually get there. We have trouble foreseeing future events, but we have even more trouble foreseeing how we will see them when they actually happen.
Our memories form a “tapestry” of our experience. We create a summary of an experience and then we remember that, not actually remembering all the details of the experience. We do this unconsciously and we think were remembering it exactly as it happened, but were actually remembering a summary and miss the finer details.
“Filling in” The Future And Past
Just as our brains fill in the space where our eyes have a blind spot so that we don’t notice that we actually have a blind spot, so to our brains fill in our memories with what we think we experienced.
Similarly, our brains do the exact same thing with the future. We imagine a given scenario in the future and imagine how we will feel. But we fill in the details, not actually knowing any of the details but filling them in and treating them as truth. So then, when we get to the future, those details may not of actually happened and we’re surprised that we don’t feel as good as we imagined we would.
We tend to think of events in the distant past or future abstractly, considering why they happened or will happen. We think of events in near past or future concretely, focusing on how they happened or will happen.
Things feel more painful work siting in the near future then they do in the distant future. When something is in the distant future, it loses its emotional charge and we think it won’t be that bad.
When we remember something in the past, our brains “fill in” details of what was there, and also omit details. We tend to remember things in the past based on how we feel about them in the present.
Memory uses the filling-in trick, but imagination is the filling in trick. Most of us have a tough time imagining it tomorrow that is different from today, and we find it particularly difficult to imagine that we will ever think, want, or feel differently than we do now.
The same part of our brain is activated weather we are experiencing the sensation of something in reality or imagining something. Our emotions get triggered in the same way. However, if we are experiencing something in reality and trying to imagine something else at the same time, our brains were always default to what’s happening in reality and ignore our imagination.
We can almost always tell whether what we are seeing visually is real or from our imagination (unless we’re on drugs). But this is not the same with emotional experiences. The emotional experience the results from reality information is called a feeling; the emotional experience results from the flow of information that originates in memory is called a pre-feeling. Our brain is really good at mixing up the two.
We cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present. We mistakenly assume that the future is the cause of the unhappiness we feel when we think about it. But it is actually what we are feeling in the present that is causing the unhappiness.
On Making Comparisons
Wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderfulness wanes with repetition. However, we have two devices that allow us to combat this tendency: variety and time. One way to beat this habituation is to increase the variety of one’s experiences. Another way to beat the habituition is to increase the amount of time that separates repetitions of the experience.
Whether we use variety or time, you only need one and not the other. In fact, when episodes are sufficiently separated in time, variety is not only unnecessary – it can actually be costly.
We make decisions based on relativity, and not absolute magnitudes. For example, we would be willing to drive across town to save $50 on the purchase of $100 radio, but we would not drive across town to save $50 on the purchase of $100,000 car. It shouldn’t matter what you are saving $50 for, it should matter that you are saving $50. But we don’t behave this way. We behave in relativity.
When the price of something increases and we compare prices, we compare based on what we paid in the the past rather then on comparing to other items that can be bought for the same amount.
It is much easier for us to remember the past then to generate new possibilities. Because of this, we will tend to compare the present with the past even when we ought to be comparing it with the possible.
We should be comparing with the possible, because it really doesn’t matter what the item cost the day before, the week before, or decades before. Right now you have absolute dollars to spend and the only question you need to answer is how to spend them in the present in order to maximize satisfaction.
We make comparisons and choose based on the present when were choosing for some future moment rather than considering the way we’ll feel in the future moment. For example the person you might have been making love with is largely irrelevant when you were in the middle of making love to someone else. But in the previous moments when you made the decision to make love with them, you were probably comparing that person with your alternatives.
Another example: we compare the small elegant speakers with the huge boxy speakers in the store, we notice the acoustical difference, and we buy the big boxy speakers. Unfortunately, the acoustical difference is a difference we will never notice again because when we get the big speakers home we do not compare their sound to the sound of the some speaker we listened to a week earlier at the store. But we do compare the big boxy size of the speakers to the rest of our sleek, elegant, and now spoiled decor.
Or when we shop for a new pair of sunglasses, we are contrasting the new ones with our old, outdated ones that we have in the moment. So we buy the new ones. But just after a few days of having the new ones we stop comparing them with the old ones and… the delight the comparison produced has evaporated.
The reason we disagree on price is that neither one of us on each side of the deal realize that the kinds of comparisons we are naturally making as buyers and sellers are not the kinds of comparisons we will naturally make once we become owners and former owners. For example, if I am selling you my old dented car for $2000, I am comparing what it will be like to have my car and then not have my sweet little dented car. On your side of things, you are comparing what it’s like to have $2000 and then not have it and have a dented car in return. But once the transaction is made, I then have the $2000 and my feelings shift because then I can only compare what it’s like to not have $2000.
The comparisons we make have a profound impact on our feelings, and when we fail to recognize that the comparisons we are making today are not the comparisons we will be making tomorrow, we predictably underestimate how differently we are going to feel in the future.
When we have a intense suffering, we naturally look for the positive view of it and try to find meeting or good out of it or humor in it and let it go. But when we have mild suffering, we tend not to work as hard to find the positive and end up suffering more.
We are more likely to look for and find a positive view of things that were stuck with that of the things that were not (e.g. our family, our job, the current president). When the experience we are having is not the experience who want to be happening, we react first by going out and changing it. But if it’s an experience that we cannot change, we then look for ways to change our view of that experience.
Most of us will pay a premium today for the opportunity to change our minds tomorrow.
When we can’t explain an event, it has a deeper emotional impact. The moment we have an explanation, the amazingness goes away and it doesn’t impact us emotionally as much anymore. Unexplained events are rare, and rare events naturally have a greater emotional impact and we are likely to keep thinking about it.
We initially think that we would choose clarity and certainty over uncertainty and mystery, but actually uncertainty and mystery can make us happier in the long run and have a deeper emotional impact.
Almost anytime we tell anyone anything, we are attempting to change the way their brains operate – attempting to change the way they see the world so that their view that more closely resembles our own.
When someone tells us something that is accurate, we adopt that belief and pass it along because it helps us and our friends do things who want to do. Example: when someone tells us where to find a parking space downtown or how to bake a cake at a high altitude, we adopt that belief because it allowed us to do what we wanted to do. Accurate beliefs give us power, which makes it easy to understand why they are so readily transmitted.
Our relationship with money is interesting, because once we’ve had enough to cover our basic expenses and are moderately comfortable, we’re much happier than we were when we were poor. But people that are extremely wealthy compared to people that are moderately wealthy aren’t that much happier. It’s interesting because if we eat our fill of pancakes, eating more pancakes is not rewarding, hence we stop eating pancakes. But this is not the same with money. We continue to pursue more money in hopes that it will give us more happiness.
Part of this is the result of a fundamental difference between what the economy needs versus what a person needs. The economy needs us to spend more in order to thrive, and so if people hold the belief that doing so will produce more happiness, they will continue to produce, consume, and spend in order to sustain their happiness… Which sustains the economy. (So it’s good marketing on the side of the economy.)
This therefore represents a belief that is not actually true that is been transmitted to us over time. We transmit beliefs that help us, but we also transmit beliefs that don’t.
Another example of this belief – transmission game is the transmission of the belief about the joy of children. Every human culture tells its members that having children will make them happy. When people think about having children they tend to conjure images of cooing baby smiling from the bassinets, adorable toddlers running across the lawn, and handsome boys and gorgeous girls playing trumpets and tubas in the school band.
During the actual time of raising children, it isn’t necessarily the happy time we imagined. (Studies show women feel less happy taking care of their children then when eating, exercising, shopping, napping, or watching TV. Couples tend to be less happy during the time of raising children, and their happiness increases statistically once children have left the home.) However, once the moments have passed and we are looking back on the memories of it, we tend to remember the good stuff and block out the bad.
One solution to all of this is to ask other people that are having the experience we want to have and understand how they are feeling in the moment, versus relying on our imagination or our memory to determine how we will feel when we have that experience.
Imagination’s first shortcoming is filling in the details and leaving out others without realizing it. No one can imagine every future and consequence of a future event, and so we must consider some and fail to consider others.
Imagination’s second shortcoming is its tendency to project the present into the future. How we feel in the present moment influences how we imagine the future will feel.
Imagination’s third shortcoming is its failure to recognize that things will look different once they happen – in particular, the bad things will actually look a whole lot better than they seem initially. For example, if we imagine losing a job, we imagine the painful experience without also imagining how our psychological immune systems will transform its meaning.
When we are deprived of the information that the imagination requires and use others as “emotional surrogates”, we actually can make remarkably accurate predictions about our future feelings, which suggests the best way to predict our feelings tomorrow is to see how others in that situation are feeling today.
If you were like most people, then like most people, you don’t know you’re like most people
Science has given us a lot of facts about the average person, and one of the most reliable of these facts is that the average person doesn’t see herself as average.
We see ourselves sometimes better than average or sometimes less than average. We mostly just tend to think of ourselves as different from others, sometimes for better or sometimes for worse.
We don’t always think of ourselves as superior, but we almost always see ourselves as unique.
Even when we do precisely what others do, we tend to think that we’re doing it for different and unique reasons.
The self considers itself to be a very special person.
– We are the only people in the world whom we can know from the inside. We experience our own thoughts and feelings but we must infer what other people are experiencing.
– We enjoy thinking of ourselves a special. Most of us want to fit in well with her peers, but we don’t want to fit into well. We prize our unique identities.
– We tend to overestimate everyone’s uniqueness – that is, we tend to think of people as more different from one another than they actually are. Social life involves selecting particular individuals to be our sexual partners, business partners, bowling partners, and more. That requires that we focus on the things that distinguish one person from another.
Our belief in the variabilities of others and in the uniqueness of the self is especially powerful when it comes to a motion. Because we can feel our own emotions but must infer the emotions of others by watching their faces and listen to the voices, we often have the impression that others don’t experience the same intensity of emotion that we do.
This mythical belief in the variability and uniqueness of individuals is the main reason why we refuse to use others as emotional surrogates.
As we have seen, ideas can flesh if they preserve the social systems that allow them to be transmitted. Because individuals don’t usually feel that their personal duty is to preserve social systems, these ideas must disguise themselves as prescriptions for individual happiness.
What’s ironic about this predicament is that the information we need to make accurate predictions of our emotional futures is right under our noses, but we don’t seem to recognize it’s aroma. It doesn’t always make sense to heed what other people tell us when they communicate their beliefs about happiness, but it does make sense to observe how happy they are in different circumstances.