The Joy of Delusion
STUMBLING ON HAPPINESS
Which raises another question: If people who we think should be unhappy are not, is it also possible that some people are happy and don't know it? (Clinically speaking, yes. There is a syndrome called alexithymia in which a person experiences the same physiological response associated with an emotion as a normal person, as recorded by an M.R.I. scan, but is unaware of having the emotion.)
Gilbert is an influential researcher in happiness studies, an interdisciplinary field that has attracted psychologists, economists and other empirically minded researchers, not to mention a lot of interested students. (As The Boston Globe recently reported, a course on "positive psychology" taught by one of Gilbert's colleagues is the most popular course at Harvard.) But from the acknowledgments page forward, it's clear Gilbert also fancies himself a comedian. Uh-oh, cringe alert: an academic who cracks wise. But Gilbert's elbow-in-the-ribs social-science humor is actually funny, at least some of the time. "When we have an experience . . . on successive occasions, we quickly begin to adapt to it, and the experience yields less pleasure each time," he writes. "Psychologists calls this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility, and the rest of us call it marriage."
But underneath the goofball brilliance, Gilbert has a serious argument to make about why human beings are forever wrongly predicting what will make them happy. Because of logic-processing errors our brains tend to make, we don't want the things that would make us happy — and the things that we want (more money, say, or a bigger house or a fancier car) won't make us happy.
Happiness is a subjective emotional state, so when you and I say that we are "extremely happy" we may mean completely different things. Most people would find the idea of being a conjoined twin to be a horrible fate. You couldn't possibly be happy in that condition, right? Then how come conjoined twins rate themselves as happy as nonconjoined people, Gilbert asks. Is that because they don't know what "real" happiness is? Or are you wrong to think that you couldn't be happy as a conjoined twin?
Not knowing what makes other people happy is one thing. But shouldn't we be able to figure out what will make ourselves happy? No, Gilbert argues, for the same reasons we can't imagine accurately how happy we would be as a conjoined twin. For one thing, we change across time; the person you are when you are imagining what it would be like to have that fancy new car is not the person you will be when you actually have that fancy new car.
"Teenagers get tattoos because they are confident that DEATH ROCKS will always be an appealing motto," he writes. "Smokers who have just finished a cigarette are confident for at least five minutes that they can quit and that their resolve will not diminish with the nicotine in their bloodstreams." For another, as Gilbert shows through a series of logic games and diagrams meant to dupe the reader (they worked on me), we misperceive reality — as philosophers since Kant have recognized — and then use those misperceptions to build a mistaken view of the future.
Events that we anticipate will give us joy make us less happy than we think; things that fill us with dread will make us less unhappy, for less long, than we anticipate. As evidence, Gilbert cites studies showing that a large majority of people who endure major trauma (wars, car accidents, rapes) in their lives will return successfully to their pre-trauma emotional state — and that many of them will report that they ended up happier than they were before the trauma. It's as though we're equipped with a hedonic thermostat that is constantly resetting us back to our emotional baseline.