A few research findings gleaned from STUMBLING ON HAPPINESS, by Daniel Gilbert (NY: Knopf, 2006):
Absences are difficult to perceive, thus difficult to imagine.
“Distance” in time, like spatial distance, smoothes out and erases details.
What we feel in the present, we expect to feel in the future.
Looking back, we regret inaction more often than action.
We remember highlights more vividly than slogs.
We remember how things ended better than the overall course.
Our imaginations exaggerate differences and overlook similarities.
We think we are much more different from other people than we really are.
It’s hard for us to benefit from the experiences of others because we think our experience will be different.
For all the reasons above (the foregoing is by no means an exhaustive list, but I skimmed over a lot of information in the book that wasn’t new to me), over and over, human beings misjudge how much future happiness or unhappiness a particular event or course of action will bring them. Gilbert is a psychologist, and a lot of what’s in this book is the kind of thing found in behavioral economics, that fascinating intersection of psychology, economics, and philosophy (ethics).
For the stubborn reader who will tend to brush aside research findings, toward the end of the book (following the last three points I’ve put in boldface above) Gilbert provides this kicker:
Because, if you are 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. Most students see themselves as more intelligent than the average student, most business managers see themselves as more competent than the average business manager, and most football players see themselves as having better “football sense” than their teammates. Ninety percent of motorists consider themselves to be safer-than-average drivers, and 94 percent of college professors consider themselves to be better-than-average teachers. Ironically, the bias toward seeing ourselves as better than average causes us to see ourselves as less biased than average, too. As one research team concluded, “Most of us appear to believe that we are more athletic, intelligent, organized, ethical, logical, interesting, fair-minded, and healthy—not to mention attractive—than the average person.”
This tendency to think of ourselves as better than others is not necessarily a manifestation of our unfettered narcissism but may instead be an instance of a more general tendency to think of ourselves as different from others—often for better but sometimes for worse. When people are asked about generosity, they claim to perform a greater number of generous acts than others do; but when they are asked about selfishness, they claim to perform a greater number of selfish acts than others do. [Etc., etc.]
As a species, then, we are not all suffering from delusions of grandeur. (That’s a relief!) Asked to rate oneself on an easy task, most people say they’re superior to others, but asked how they would perform a difficult task, they generally rate themselves worse than others. As the author says, “We don’t always see ourselves as superior, but we almost always see ourselves as unique.”
And each of us is unique in our own experience, since our own experience is the only experience we ever have! Gilbert believes, however, that if we take scientific findings seriously, we’ll find plenty of reasons to learn from the experience of others, experience we never had or could have. To do so demands only that we recognize how much like other people we are.
On Monday morning, I heard the beginning of a story on NPR about a new smart phone app that would plug the user into an individualized research study on happiness. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, when the alert comes on you are asked to answer a number of questions, including what you’re doing, how you feel, and whether or not you have to be doing what you’re doing. (I forget the other questions. You can probably find this information somewhere online if you want to search for it.) The thing is, I was bustling around the house, getting ready for my day, and those questions alerted me to the fact that the radio voices were goading me into hurrying when I didn’t need to hurry. Summer’s over! Monday is a day off for me now! And I didn’t have to have the radio on, so I turned it—snapped it!—right off and instantly slowed down and felt more relaxed. Do I need an app to guide me to happiness? I don’t think so. Awareness is all that’s needed.
Later that day, when David and I (with Sarah in the backseat) had wandered and meandered our way deep into Benzie County, taking an unplanned, one-day vacation, I couldn’t help thinking about my mother’s report on the autumn trip she and my father took one year to New England. She said it was the most beautiful fall color she’d ever seen, and she never expected to see anything to equal what she saw then and there. Into my thoughts then came the distinction between ‘maximizers’ and ‘satisficers,’ the latter an awkward word that nevertheless captures pretty well my own approach to life, I think. Perhaps if I traveled to New England in the fall, the color there would so far exceed that of Michigan that Michigan would fall on my experiential rating scale from a 10 to a 7 or 8. The thing is, I am so perfectly satisfied with Michigan autumn that I feel no need to go in search of something better.
Similarly, on a trip out West one spring, David and I found ourselves on a winding mountain highway with views that took our breath away. The beautiful, inhuman immensity of the landscape went on and on until our souls were dizzy! We were and are, I guess, fully prepared to believe that the Grand Canyon experience, which we’ve never had, would eclipse that day’s revelations, but we felt more than completely satisfied with the experience we did have.
Then there were last winter’s ice caves out past Gill’s Pier. We didn’t go out on Lake Michigan to see them. Thirteen years before, there were ice caves out at the lighthouse, and we were fortunate enough to stumble out there by chance... to find all of Northport gathered at the shore... to be able to explore, right at the shoreline, caves of blue ice large enough to stand up in.... I know that last year’s caves were larger and more extensive and more varied and lasted longer. They were also much farther out on the frozen lake and harder to get to, and, since news of them had gone national, there were much bigger crowds. Everyone who went out said it was “worth it,” and I’m sure it was. At the same time, I’m satisfied to have had the ice cave experience I had.
And now all of this is reminding me of what so many people have said over the years in books about New York and Paris: “Oh, you should have been here [there] x number of years ago!” My father firmly believed that my Paris experience could never be as wonderful as his, and how many people have told you similar things about all kinds of places? “You should have been there then!” They were there then; you, poor thing, can only go now or in the future, i.e., too late!
Belief in a Golden Age of the past is one of mankind’s dearly held myths, difficult to demolish because it is immune to experience. Gilbert would say it depends on the second of my boldfaced points above. When I imagine myself living in 18th-century America, I focus on those aspects of life that appeal to me, forgetting all the difficult mundane, everyday details I would encounter should I be able to transport myself back in time. Woody Allen captured this belief brilliantly in his film about Paris that has the writer protagonist transported back to the postwar period he so longs to have known, only to find people there longing for the earlier Belle Epoque, and so forth.
In the past year I’ve seen friends lose jobs, lose houses and businesses, go through bankruptcy and divorce and chemotherapy, and the way they’ve met those challenges has been very enlightening. They go on. They find happiness in unexpected places, sometimes from surprising sources. Gilbert’s research confirms this. Imagining future losses, we believe we will be devastated, but the truth is that we human beings are more resilient than we imagine, and that’s a good lesson to take away from this book, from our own experience, and from the experience of others.
For the record, I'm happy that my parents each had a chance to see Paris (they were there separately, at different times) and that they were able to make a trip together to see fall color in New England.