Wednesday, December 8, 2010

My happiness: Shall I decide or shall you?

At the recommendation of a colleague, I read the getAbstract summary for the book Stumbling on Happiness (Vintage, 2007) by Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, whose research centers on predicting one's future emotional state. The book is about why people make cognitive errors in predicting what will make them happy: Our brains, overloaded with memories, take faulty short cuts in which they intersperse a smattering of facts with greater quantities imagination and erroneous perception, resulting in a poor estimation of the future state. The summary states:

Based on extensive psychological research, his book posits that, regarding life's future milestones, most people would do better asking someone else what to do rather than making their own decisions.

Note that I have not read the whole book, so there likely is more to it than the summary relates. However, for me, it boils down to the well-known adage, perception is my own reality, and that perception-reality includes lots of my own imagination.

I don't disagree with the main point made by the author: that imagination (I need to add the qualifier, "alone") is a bad happiness-planning tool. His reasoning:

1. Realism – We think we see reality, but we don't. The abstract states:

Because memories and perceptions are in part fabrications, they are often unreliable guides to future feelings. Yet, people uncritically accept the images their brains provide as true, even when their brains make up or leave out important details.

2. Presentism – How we feel in the present distorts our assessment of future state. The abstract states:

The brain operates on a policy of 'reality first'…if you're imagining a future event and your emotional response to it, your current positive or negative perceptions of the real world will take precedence over what your mind's eye creates. This may distort your feelings about future events.

3. Rationalization – We invent explanations that make us happy even if they are not rooted in fact. The abstract states:

The brain inherently leans toward positive, clear, rational interpretations of events – past, present and future. It provides "psychological immune systems" that keep people's spirits buoyant. Thus, even if an experience is negative…the brain will try to provide a positive perception of it…

Sure, I can buy that. Be aware of the part imagination unconsciously plays in our assessments and estimates. Check.

But where I get stuck is in the assertion: "...most people would do better asking someone else what to do rather than making their own decisions." Hmm…

Okay, I'm a scientist and I love good data and analysis as much as any geek. But abandoning my own personal data and analysis – especially as it relates to constructing a plan about me and my future – in favor of the data and analyses of others having similar experiences? That seems like a fundamentally flawed solution by the author's own arguments (not to mention a convenient way to abandon personal responsibility, which always rankles me). Doesn't it follow that an assessment of an experience by someone who has already gone through it is tainted by the same problems of realism, presentism, and rationalization as they relate their experiences to others?

I'll also concede that in controlled conditions a majority of people can have predictable responses to certain stimuli, but I do not fully support the assertion noted in the summary that "most human beings are alike" – at least, not without a whole lot of qualifiers. People have unique ways of drawing together their individual experiences and (faulty) thinking to construct a response. Maybe that response isn't "reality" in an absolute way, but my response is my reality, even if it is based largely on personal perception. And my perception is intensely related to my personal happiness. Vive la diffĂ©rence!

If you could just assess absolute data and assign cause-effect relationships, understanding human behavior would be so simple that Professor Gilbert would have to find something else to do. (Just kidding.)

I think a better approach to understanding happiness is, in addition to seeking input from the experienced (which is not a bad tip, just an incomplete solution), trying to sort out components of reality vs. imagination as best as possible in our own thinking and then analyze for complexity. Being aware of realism, presentism, and rationalization sure could help in sorting all of that out. (I suspect that, if I read the whole book, I would have excerpts to show that this is what Professor Gilbert is getting at.)

Happiness, I think, is a balance sheet. The return on your investment needs to come out on the positive end. The profits need to outweigh the liabilities. The trouble is that the things that make us happy all have strings attached, making the accurate construction of that balance sheet pretty complicated. It takes some work.

In my experience, if there is a way in which "most human beings are alike," it's that a lot of who we are is seemingly hard-wired, coloring our natural responses to the world. If we seek additional quality input (e.g., asking about the experiences of others), we may be able to modify our responses somewhat:

  • If you are the sort of person who seeks happiness (i.e., relies on that "psychological immune system") and balances it with consideration of the data, you will find a measure of happiness, even if it is not perfect.
  • If you are more radical and disregard the data in favor of blind optimism, your delusion may crumble and you may crash when it doesn't measure up to your perfect imaginings.
  • If your inclination is to see the glass half empty (and I don't mean that in a snide way – some people are just like that) and you balance it with data, you may find avenues leading to some measure of happiness you hadn't considered.
  • If you disregard the data, you may only see a miserable, flawed world in that half empty glass.

It's all about balance.

What do you think?

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Erin said...

Hi Shelley!
Very interesting post. I have at least partially read the book you are citing and I think it is a mixed bag about what resonates with me.

The first is that I too believe that we can make choices about what we perceive and this choice has an impact on our happiness.

But, the assertion that others would be more suited to making decisions for us to get a more "unbiased" result does not float too well.

I find I make most of my mistakes when I don't follow my own council or gut. I often give others too much benefit of the doubt or don't have enough faith in my own data. This usually contributes to my unhappiness in the long run.

Now, do I always get it right? Or, completely understand others and what they mean? I am sure my filters are often wrong--but at the end of the day--who else have I got?

Happiness though, is within reach at most times. I think there are times when "it" eludes us --circumstances can just suck. And, I know, it is all in how you perceive things, but come on, some things are beyond my ability to see the bright side (which is my propensity. Maybe I have not figured it out yet :-).

distortiongirl said...

Thanks, Erin!

I agree. Sometimes happiness is elusive because circumstances beyond our control just suck. There is no bright side to certain events, and I personally think that those who insist on always finding one are delusional. Don't you just want to whack people up-side the head when they tell you, for instance, that critical illness can be the best thing that ever happened to you? On which planet? Because here, on Earth, it sucks. We may learn from it, it may build character, yadda yadda, but there is no way it increases my personal happiness, no way that it is the best thing ever. No way.

But, when I consider my whole lifetime, out-of-my-control suckage is more the exception than the rule. So, even though there are seriously unhappy times (many lately), my personal balance sheet is cumulatively favorable in overall happiness. I'd like to think this is largely due to my own choices and perceptions.

Great statement, Erin: "I am sure my filters are often wrong--but at the end of the day--who else have I got?" Exactly.