Saturday, July 29, 2006

Stumbling on Happiness

I recently picked up a copy of "Stumbling on Happiness" by Daniel Gilbert. Great book! Fantastic information presented in an accessible and humorous way. This one is a gem.

I wanted to write a couple of notes about this book. As I started into this exercise I realized that I was actually going to have to quote pretty big chunks of the text in order to capture the ideas I'm interested in. If you find any of this fascinating I would suggest taking the time to read the whole book as I'm just skimming the surface of a couple of ideas.

I've highlighted my comments in blue throughout the text below. The italics in the text are transcribed from the book. The bold is my editorial emphasis.

Page 125
“I’ve been waiting a long, long time to show someone this cartoon (figure 12), which I clipped from a newspaper in 1983 and have kept tacked to one bulletin board or another ever since. It never fails to delight me. The sponge is being asked to imagine without limits-to envision what it might like to be if the entire universe of possibilities were open to it-and the most exotic thing it can imagine becoming is an arthropod. The cartoonist isn’t making fun of sponges, of course; he’s making fun of us. Each of us is trapped in a place, a time, and a circumstance, and our attempts to use our minds to transcend those boundaries are, more often than not, ineffective. Like the sponge, we think we are thinking outside the box only because we can’t see how big the box really is. Imagination cannot easily transcend the boundaries of the present, and one reason for this is that it must borrow machinery that is owned by perception. The fact that these two processes must run on the same platform means that we are sometimes confused about which one is running. We assume that what we feel as we imagine the future is what we’ll feel when we get there, but in fact, what we feel as we imagine the future is often a response to what’s happening in the present. The time-share arrangement between perception and imagination is one of the causes of presentism, but it is not the only one.”

This idea is the reason that I decided that it was not only a good idea but also necessary for me to leave my last job prior to accepting my next position - or even really exploring the possibilities to any great depth. While working in my previous position I couldn't see "how big the box really is" and I knew that. I didn't always have the words available to me to explain this concept.

Page 109
“Presentism defined: The tendency for current experience to influence one’s views of the past and the future.”

I wanted to include this definition because I believe this is an incredibly useful word and I couldn't seem to remember what it meant. Wirting it down helps!

Page 161
“The research I’ve described so far seems to suggest that human beings are hopelessly Panglossian; there are more ways to think about experience than there are experiences to think about, and human beings are unusually inventive when it comes to finding the best of all possible ways. And yet, if this is true, then why aren’t we all walking around with wide eyes and loopy grins, thanking God for the wonder of hemorrhoids and the miracle of in-laws? Because the mind may be gullible, but it ain’t no patsy. The world is this way, we wish the world were that way, and our experience of the world-how we see it, remember it, and imagine it-is a mixture of stark reality and comforting illusion. We can’t spare either. If we were to experience the world exactly as it is, we’d be too depressed to get out of bed in the morning, but if we were to experience the world exactly as we want it to be, we’d be too deluded to find our slippers. We may see the world through rose-colored glasses, but roes-colored glasses are neither opaque nor clear. They can’t be opaque because we need to see the world clearly enough to participate in it-to pilot helicopters, harvest corn, diaper babies, and all the other stuff that smart mammals need to do in order to survive and thrive. But they can’t be clear because we need their rosy tint to motivate us to design the helicopters (“I’m sure this thing will fly”), plant the corn (“This year will be a banner crop”), and tolerate the babies (“What a bundle of joy!”). We cannot do without reality and we cannot do without illusion. Each serves a purpose, each imposes a limit on the influence of the other, and our experience of the world is the artful compromise that these tough competitors negotiate.”

I love this concept that we have to live in a mix of illusion and reality. We each find out own place within this balance and it helps me to see how different people can have such different impressions of the same thing.

Page 163
“Most of us pot a lot of stock in what scientists tell us because we know that scientists reach their conclusions by gather and analyzing facts…Scientists are credible because they draw conclusions from observations, and ever since the empiricists trumped the dogmatists and because the kings of ancient Greek medicine, westerners have had a special reverence for conclusions that are based on things they can see. It isn’t surprising, then, that we consider our own views credible when they are based on observable facts but not when they are based on wishes, wants and fancies. We might like to believe that everyone loves us, that we will live forever, and that high-tech stocks are preparing to make a major comeback, and it would be awfully convenient if we could just push a little button at the base of our skulls and instantly believe as we wanted. But that’s not how believing works. Over the course of human evolution, the brain and the eye have developed a contractual relationship in which the brain has agreed to believe what the eye sees and not to believe what the eye denies. So if we are to believe something, then it must be supported by-or at least not blatantly contradicted by-the facts.

“If views are acceptable only when they are credible, and if they are credible only when they are based on facts, then how do we achieve positive views of ourselves and our experience? How do we manage to think of ourselves as great drivers, talented lovers, and brilliant chefs when the facts of our lives include a pathetic parade of dented cars, disappointed partners, and deflated souffl├ęs? The answer is simple: We cook the facts. There are many different techniques for collecting, interpreting and analyzing facts, and different techniques often lead to different conclusions, which is why scientists disagree about the dangers of global warming, the benefits of supply-side economics, and the wisdom of low carbohydrate diets. Good scientists deal with this complication by choosing the techniques they consider most appropriate and then accepting the conclusions that these techniques produce, regardless of what those conclusions might be. But bad scientists take advantage of this complication by choosing techniques that are especially likely to produce the conclusions they favor, thus allowing them to reach favored conclusions by way of supportive facts. Decades of research suggests that when it comes to collecting and analyzing facts about ourselves and our experiences, most of us have the equivalent of an advanced degree in Really Bad Science.”

We seem to be able to maintain beliefs even when the facts don't support our conclusion. They just don't blatantly disagree! Come to think of it I'm selecting the sections of this book that support my prefered conclusion and emphasizing them. It's a cruel joke and I admit that I have this universal degree in Really Bad Science.

Page 214-222

“The philosopher Bertrand Russell once claimed that believing is “the most mental thing we do.” Perhaps, but it is also the most social thing we do. Just as we pass along our genes in an effort to create people whose faces look like ours, so too do we pass along our beliefs in an effort to create people whose minds think like our. Almost any time 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 of it more closely resembles our own. Just about every assertion-from the sublime (“God has a plan for you”) to the mundane (“Turn left a the light, go two miles, and you’ll see the Dunkin’ Donuts on your right”)-is meant to bring the listener’s beliefs about the world into harmony with the speaker’s. Sometimes these attempts succeed and sometimes they fail. So what determines whether a belief will be successfully transmitted from one mind to another?

“The principles that explain why some genes are transmitted more successfully than others also explain why some beliefs are transmitted more successfully than others. Evolutionary biology teaches us that any gene that promotes its own “means of transmission” will be represented in increasing proportions in the population over time…Genes tend to be transmitted when they make us do the things that transmit genes. What’s more, even bad genes-those that make us prone to cancer or heart disease-can become super-replicators if they compensate for these costs by promoting their own means of transmission…

“The same logic can explain the transmission of beliefs. If a particular belief has some property that facilitates its own transmission, then that belief tends to be held by an increasing number of minds. As it turns out, there are several such properties that increase a belief’s transmissional success, the most obvious of which is accuracy. When someone tells us where to find a parking space downtown or how to bake a cake at high altitude, we adopt that belief and pass it along because it helps us and our friends do the things we want to do, such as parking and baking. As one philosopher noted, “The faculty of communication would not gain ground in evolution unless it was by and large the faculty of transmitting true beliefs.” Accurate beliefs give us power, which makes it easy to understand why they are so readily transmitted from one mind to another.

“It is a bit more difficult to understand why inaccurate beliefs are so readily transmitted from one mind to another-but they are. False beliefs, like bad genes, can and do become super-replicators…

False beliefs that happen to promote stable societies tend to propagate because people who hold these beliefs tend to live in stable societies, which provide the means by which false beliefs propagate.

“Some of our cultural wisdom about happiness looks suspiciously like a super-replicating false belief. Consider money. If you’ve ever tried to sell anything, then you probably tried to sell it for as much as you possibly could, and other people probably tried to buy it for as little as they possibly could. All the parties involved in the transaction assumed that they would be better off if they ended up with more money rather than less, and this assumption is the bedrock of our economic behavior. Yet, it has far fewer scientific facts to substantiate it than you might expect. Economists and psychologists have spent decades studying the relation between wealth and happiness, and they have generally concluded that wealth increases human happiness when it lifts people out of abject poverty and into the middle class but that it does little to increase happiness thereafter…Economists explain that wealth has “declining marginal utility,” which is a fancy way of saying that it hurts to be hungry, cold, sick, tired, and scared, but once you’ve bought your way out of these burdens, the rest of your money is an increasingly useless pile of paper.

“So once we’ve earned as much money as we can actually enjoy, we quit working and enjoy in, right? Wrong. People in wealthy countries generally work long and hard to earn more money than they can ever derive pleasure from. This fact puzzles us less than it should…Once we’ve eaten our fill of pancakes, more pancakes are not rewarding, hence we stop trying to procure and consume them. But not so, it seems, with money. As Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, wrote in 1776: “The desire for food is limited in every man by the narrow capacity of the human stomach; but the desire of the conveniences and ornaments of building, dress, equipage, and household furniture, seems to have no limit or certain boundary.”

“If food and money both stop pleasing us once we’ve had enough of them, then why do we continue to stuff our pockets when we would not continue to stuff our faces? Adam Smith had an answer. He began by acknowledging what most of us suspect anyway, which is that the production of wealth is not necessarily a source of personal happiness.
  • “In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, [the poor] are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.”
That sounds lovely, but if it’s true, then we’re all in big trouble. If rich kings are no happier than poor beggars, then why should poor beggars stop sunning themselves by the roadside and work to become rich kings? If no one wants to be rich, then we have a significant economic problem, because flourishing economies require that people continually procure and consume one another’s good and services. Market economies require that we all have an insatiable hunger for stuff, and if everyone were content with the stuff they had, then the economy would grind to a halt. But if this is a significant economic problem, it is not a significant personal problem. The chair of the Federal Reserve may wake up every morning with a desire to do what the economy wants, but most of us get up with a desire to do what we want, which is to say that the fundamental needs of a vibrant economy and the fundamental needs of a happy individual are not necessarily the same. So what motivates people to work hard every day to do things that will satisfy the economy’s needs but not their own? Like so many thinkers, Smith believed that people want just one thing-happiness-hence economies can blossom and grow only if people are deluded into believing that the production of wealth will make them happy. If and only if people hold this false belief will they do enough producing, procuring, and consuming to sustain their economies…

In short, the production of wealth does not necessarily make individuals happy, but it does serve the needs of an economy, which serves the needs of a stable society, which serves as a network for the propagation of delusional beliefs about happiness and wealth. Economies thrive when individuals strive, but because individuals will only strive for their own happiness, it is essential that they mistakenly believe that producing and consuming are routes to personal well-being…This particular false belief is a super-replicator because holding it causes us to engage in the very activities that perpetuate it.

“The belief-transmission game explains why we believe some things about happiness that simply aren’t true. The joy of money is one example. The joy of children is another that for most of us hits a bit closer to home. Every human culture tells its members that having children will make them happy. When people think about their offspring-either imagining future offspring or thinking about their current ones-they tend to conjure up images of cooing babies smiling from their bassinets, adorable toddlers running higgledy-piggledy across the lawn, handsome boys and gorgeous girls playing trumpets and tubas in the school marching band, successful college students going on to have beautiful weddings, satisfying careers, and flawless grandchildren whose affections can be purchased with candy. Prospective parents know that diapers will need changing, that homework will need doing, and that orthodontists will go to Aruba on their life savings, but by and large, they think quite happily about parenthood, which is why most of them eventually leap into it. When parents look back on parenthood, they remember feeling what those who are looking forward to it expect to feel. Few of us are immune to these cheery contemplations. I have a twenty-nine year-old son, and I’m absolutely convinced that he is and always has been one of the greatest sources of joy in my life, having only recently been eclipsed by my two-year-ld granddaughter, who is equally adorable but who has not yet asked me to walk behind her and pretend we’re unrelated. When people are asked to identify their sources of joy, they do just what I do: They point to their kids.

“Yet if we measure the actual satisfaction of people who have children, a very different story emerges. As figure 23 shows, couples generally start out quite happy in their marriages and then become progressively less satisfied over the course of their lies together, getting close to their original levels of satisfaction only when their children leave home. Despite what we read in the popular press the only know symptom of “empty nest syndrome” is increased smiling. Interestingly, this pattern of satisfaction over the life cycle describes women (who are usually the primary caretakers of children) better than men. Careful studies of how women feel as they go about their daily activities show that they are less happy when taking care of their children than when eating, exercising, shopping, napping, or watching television. Indeed, looking after the kids appears to be only slightly more pleasant than doing housework.

“None of this should surprise us. Every parent knows that children are a lot of work-a lot of really hard work-and although parenting has many rewarding moments, the vast majority of its moments involve dull and selfless service to people who will take decades to become even begrudgingly grateful for what we are doing. If parenting is such difficult business, then why do we have such a rosy view of it? One reason is that we have been talking on the phone all day with society’s stockholders-our moms and uncles and personal trainers-who have been transmitting to us an idea that they believe to be true but whose accuracy is not the cause of its successful transmission. “Children bring happiness” is a super-replicator. The belief-transmission network of which we are a part cannot operate without a continuously replenished supply of people to do the transmitting, thus the belief that children are a source of happiness becomes a part of our cultural wisdom simply because the opposite belief unravels the fabric of any society that holds it. Indeed, people who believed that children bring misery and despair-and who thus stopped having them-would put the belief-transmission network out of business in around fifty years, hence terminating the belief that terminated them. The Shakers were a utopian farming community that arose in the 1800s and at one time number about six thousand. They approved of children, but the did not approve of the natural act that creates them. Over the years, their strict belief in the importance of celibacy caused the network to contract, and today they are just a few elderly Shakers left, transmitting their doomsday belief to no one but themselves.

“The belief-transmission game is rigged so that we must believe that children and money bring happiness, regardless of whether such beliefs are true. This doesn’t mean that we should all now quit our jobs and abandon our families. Rather, it means that while we believe we are raising children and earning paychecks to increase our share of happiness, we are actually doing these things for reasons beyond our ken. We are nodes in a social network that arises and falls by a logic of its own, which is why we continue to toil, continue to mate, and continue to be surprised when we do not experience all the joy we so gullibly anticipated.”

This helps me understand why I'm no longer driven by $. I got to the point in my last position where increases in pay didn't make much difference. Sure, the provided more disposable income which was fun, but it didn't generate more happiness. Now that I'm unemployed the balance has shifted again and I would expect that the first paycheck from my next job will produce a very different emotional response.

Regarding children and how they bring us happiness. I'm one of the few people that don't buy into the notion that children bring happiness. Sometimes I feel like a humbug for this feeling but reading this section of the book helps me to see how I came to this belief. I don't know what I'm going to do with this as I'm not sure I accept the idea of sharing the fate of the Shakers. But this helps me to see why I often feel at odds with the rest of society when it comes to my feelings about children.


Anonymous said...

Children don't bring happiness, although my observation of people with children make me think that they are like a large, very satisyfying, 20 year project--kind of like buying a fixer-upper and pouring all your time, money and effort into it.

I think a few more people could stand to view children through something other than rose colored glasses and at least explore other opportunities for procuring them than the original method.

Regardless, just because you don't believe in children, doesn't mean you share the Shaker their attitude or their fate. Society won't dwindle (more's the pity) just because a few of us have better things to do that churn out babies.

Anonymous said...

Today is a slow day at work and I read your post on "stumbling on
happiness" and would really like to discuss. I am particularly
interested (as it seems you are) about the pursuit of money and
children. Both have been on my mind frequently as of late. I haven't
read the book so I can't provide any really thoughtful commentary, but
what was not addressed in your post and came to my mind were thoughts
like: does having children make you less happy than individuals without
children (e.g. would you replace the "hard work" of children with other
non-so-fulfilling activities), does the experience of raising a child
make you able to appreciate a set of things that can lead to greater
happiness (many of my friends discuss how their
perspectivine/understanding of the human mind has been drastically
impacted by parenthood), how much of the belief is transmitted as a
belief and how much is hard-wired (what are the similarities and
differences in isolated cultures), and as markets have evolved is more
happiness (or choice for that matter) is available to us. Just some

Also, does authenticity matter. SO would you ever opt for a slightly
better "virtual" life, or continue to choose the real deal.