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January 15, 2004

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Happy scientist Daniel Gilbert. (Staff photo illustration Georgia Bellas, photo Jon Chase/Harvard News Office)

Scientists pursue happiness

Results not too cheerful

By William J. Cromie
Harvard News Office

Happiness is never as good as you imagine it will be, and it never lasts as long as you think it will. But the same also holds true for unhappiness. That's the conclusion of scientists who cheerfully study this elusive state.

"When we try to predict what will make us happy we're often wrong," says Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University. "Researchers all over the world find the same predictable errors, whether the pursuit involves romance, a new car, or a sumptuous meal."

Gilbert uses the results of his study of election outcomes as an example. Many Democrats insist that the re-election of George W. Bush would make them unbearably unhappy. Many Republicans maintain that the election of Howard Dean would send them and the whole country into a deep ditch of discontent for a long time to come. Gilbert compares such forecasts to a 1992 campaign when Bush squared off against Ann Richards for the governorship of Texas. Only one month after Bush won, his supporters weren't as happy as they thought they would be, and those who opposed him weren't as sad.

"People are wonderful rationalizers," Gilbert points out. "They will rearrange their view of the world so it doesn't hurt as much." Anti-Bushers he interviewed said things like: "The governor of Texas really doesn't have much power" and "He wants to be president, so he's not going to do anything too dumb or crazy."

The same holds true for lovers who break up. Rationalization quickly replaces devastation. "She was never right for me," the spurned lover says. "I recognized that when she threw the ring in my face."

Raymond Damadian is a pronounced case in point. He was so enraged about not receiving the 2003 Nobel Prize for medicine for his work in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), he spent thousands of dollars on full-page newspaper ads that explained in detail why he should have gotten the award. That was in October. By December, he told The New York Times, "I feel different now. Having been through what I've been through, I don't want (the Nobel Prize)."

What is happiness?

If psychologists all over the country are studying happiness, there must be a good definition of it. Not necessarily. Gilbert compares it to defining a thing like insanity. "It's hard to say what it is, but I know it when I see it," he says.

Philosophers often give happiness a moral meaning. Aristotle claimed that a happy life is a life of virtue. If you are sinful, you can't be happy. Psychologists don't go that far. "It simply means feeling good," Gilbert says with a smile. The feeling you get when a granddaughter runs into your arms, when you help a lost tourist find her way, when you bite into the perfect hamburger or veggie burger. It's what tickles the sweet spot in the deep part of your brain.

In other words, every happy person experiences the same feeling, but different things bring on that feeling. When a child jumps into a lap, it may be a transcendental experience for grandma, but just a screeching, wet kid for others. Such differences, however, don't go as deep as the fact that happiness joyfully jumps over cultural and species lines.

"We haven't found any society that doesn't laugh," notes Gilbert. "Ninety percent of what makes one person happy makes other people happy. That's no surprise. We share the same brain architecture. And dogs, cats, and other mammals probably experience feelings a lot like our happiness."

That said, happiness is an emotion, and emotions are not meant to be held onto. Fear is an emotion, but you don't want to hold onto it very long.

What we fear is usually clear but we're more often wrong than we are right when we try to achieve happiness. Close your eyes and try to visualize what will make you happy: a luxury car, a vacation in the tropics, a sumptuous meal, the blond hunk in the accounting department. When you project yourself into the future like this, researchers agree that you will make a predictable set of errors.

Gilbert and other happiness investigators have asked groups of people to forecast their feelings about things that will make them happy. Each person assigns a number to how she or he will feel, like on a scale of one to 10. After they obtain that car, vacation, or lover, they rate their feeling again.

"We then subtract the two numbers," explains Gilbert. "If the difference is zero, then they are as happy as they thought they would be. But as it turns out, the difference is almost never zero."

illustration: 5-day happiness forecast
(Staff photo illustration Georgia Bellas/Harvard News Office)

How to be happy

"Is there some surgery, pill, program, or religion to help us avoid this robust and insidious bias?" Gilbert asks. He is a pleasant, talkative, theatrical person, like a good stand-up comedian.

"It turns out to be both the easiest and hardest thing to do," he says. "It's easy because you have the information you need right in front of you. It's hard because people don't want to use it."

Instead of projecting yourself into the future, trying to imagine how you will feel, just ask someone who has had the same experience, Gilbert advises. Ask the person how they enjoyed dating Lynn, visiting that vacation spot, or choosing that school. "It's a more accurate way to get information than trying to guess it yourself," he points out. "But people hardly ever use it."

In one experiment, conducted with graduate student Becca Norwick, Gilbert asked people to predict how they would feel after getting negative feedback about their personality. To help them decide, they could either review information about the feedback process itself, or find out how someone else who got such feedback felt about it. They all chose more information about the process. As a result, they were less able to accurately forecast their own feelings than they would have been had they known how others reacted. Gilbert compares this to relying on a brochure to pick a vacation spot rather than asking someone of the same age how they enjoyed visiting that place.

"People believe they can predict their happiness more accurately without drawing on the experience of others," Gilbert says. "I dare say that living next door to a family with ill-behaved, undisciplined kids never stopped people from having their own children."

So what are the secrets to a happy life? Gilbert recommends starting with the fact that happiness is not a permanent possession. It's a state that you move in and out of. "The fact that you're not always happy is not a problem," he says. "So don't look for a solution when there is no problem."

Next, develop your own philosophy of happiness. Don't accept the consumerism philosophy delivered in ads that tout new cars, more fashionable clothes, or better restaurants. "Look at your own life, and ask what has brought you the most joy," Gilbert notes. "Most times the answer lies in people, in friends and family. It comes mainly from relationships, not from stuff.

"Finally, in trying to determine what will make you happiest, look to others who have already made the decisions you face. Try to honestly figure out how happy they are."

Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College