Thoughts on Happiness

Dan Gilbert has written a book and given a TED Talk about happiness. His starting point is that humans are the only animals who can imagine future scenarios and develop preferences about which future scenario we want to experience. This is a powerful skill that we have. However, Gilbert goes on to claim that we’re famously bad at choosing futures that will make us happy, even when we’re told that the choice we’re likely to make will make us less happy.

Gilbert reviews a bevy of studies that show we’re bad at choosing future experiences that make us happy. For example, we are generally less happy in situations that we know we could have chosen differently, yet we typically prefer to be in situations that offer the option to make a different choice — even when we know that this will likely make us less happy with our decision. But wait, there’s more: we’re also bad at imagining how happy we’ll be in different scenarios. If we imagine whether we’d be happier in the long run with winning the lottery or being a paraplegic, those of us who aren’t already paraplegic) will almost certainly choose the future in which we win the lottery, but research shows that lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy several months after their respective accidents. Gilbert says we are equally happy after an unexpected tragedy and an unexpected windfall because we have a psychological immune system that works to maintain our long-tern happiness in the face of extreme events. So, we prefer situations we know will make us less satisfied with our choices and we are bad at guessing how happy we’ll be in the face of extremely events. What are we supposed to do now?

Gilbert plays the role of a consummate scientist in his writing and speaking. He doesn’t cop to being a self-help guru, and he goes even further by staying mum about practical applications of his research. He’s simply reporting what scientists have found in their research, how frustrating. Science is famously descriptive. Scientists report their findings, and if they’re feeling generous, they point towards areas of further research. But that is the role of science: to tell us how things work and how events occur as objectively as possible. The problem with this method is that it is easy for people to mistake description for prescription. The misuse of Vilfred Pareto’s discoveries of wealth distribution is a great example. Pareto discovered several situations in which twenty percent of the population owned eighty percent of the assets, and he demonstrated some interesting mathematical permutations on this observation. Subsequently, some writers have taken this observation about statistical distributions as a heuristic for leading one’s life. This is fallacious thinking at its finest: simply because we observe an interesting event over here doesn’t imply that the same event applies or occurs over there too. Gilbert is trying to avoid this kind of self-help scientism by remaining silent on what to do with this information, but simply being told by a scientist that we suck at making decisions about happiness isn’t terribly useful. We still want some help making use of his data.

Fortunately, we have a way around this epistemic void without resorting to new-agey views about science and mathematics:

First, Gilbert explains that we’re bad at making choices about extreme events, which shouldn’t be surprising because extreme events don’t happen very often, so our ability to interpret them based on past evidence will be limited because we don’t have much information available to us. This reasoning is tautological, but a good empiricist ought to know when we don’t have enough information to work with, and when we don’t have enough information, our choices are to change our method or get more data. In our case, changing our methods will get us to a better place with less work. Let me  explain a little more. Gilbert admits we are better at choosing between smaller, shorter-term options about our happiness. Moreover, Gilbert says that our happiness is more affected by more frequent, less extreme events than it is by rarer, more extreme events. This combination of greater effect and better forecasting for more common events implies that we should focus on the small stuff to have a larger impact on our happiness.

The idea that we can better address small problems resonates with ideas N.N. Taleb elaborates in his book, Anti-Fragile. We ought to look at decisions about happiness as making a series of small decisions that compound to a larger result. Because we have more and better experience with small, frequent problems, rather than extreme, rare problems, and if we can decompose big problems into smaller problems, we’ll arrive at a better, more durable solution. For example, rather than focusing on losing twenty-five pounds of fat in a year, it’s simpler and more concrete to focus on changing one’s daily diet and exercising for thirty minutes three times per week. Without even stating a goal of losing twenty-five pounds, simply focusing on improving your diet and increasing your exercise, the goal would likely be realized. And even if you didn’t meet the goal, you’d be a healthier more toned or muscular person regardless of your body weight, no yo-yo dieting required. So, the first step towards happiness is focusing on small, manageable problems.

Second, We can further address the problem of how to be happy by studying psychological experiments about the amount of pain caused by losing versus winning. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky conducted these experiments and Dan Ariely popularized them in his book Predictably Irrational. In essence, we don’t like losing about twice as much as we like winning, which gives us a hint at a practical approach towards happiness: focus on losing less, rather than winning more. In other words, lose less, and lose less often, and you’ll be probably be less unhappy, which is an acceptable start towards being happy, as far as I’m concerned.

Combining these two observations gives us the following maxim:
To be happy, choose to put yourself in situations that make you less unhappy
by focusing on small, manageable problems.
This advice may seem trite and obvious, but it a second look. Browse a social media or news site for fifteen minutes, and you will likely concede that we generally choose to give our f—s to large, difficult to manage problems that we hope will make us happy: worrying about the future president, for example. This is the opposite of my recommendation. So why not give it a shot? Try being less unhappy about the little stuff you can affect: see what comes about.

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