Thursday, 15 January 2015

On happiness

This is a long-ish post containing thoughts prompted by Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness. If that sounds like the sort of thing for you, then carry on after the break.

I should start by saying that I enjoyed the book and recommend it: if you enjoy books like Predictably Irrational and The Righteous Mind then you should also read this one. My only warning is to be prepared for relentless but largely endearing jokeyness.

One of the premises of the book, established by a series of arguments and thought experiments early on, is that people's answers to the questions 'how are your feeling right now?' are the best evidence of whether they are happy or not. So, for example, you can measure their hormones and categorise their facial expressions by way of supporting evidence, but this sort of evidence is ultimately derived from people telling researchers that they are happy and the researchers noting which hormones/expressions/etc are apparent at that time. Gilbert spends a fair amount of time persuading the reader of this. The fact that he did so slightly puzzled me at the time, but  ... well, let me carry on.

One of the main subsequent strands of the book is that we are bad at predicting what will make us happy. This is true of both matters large and small: if you're feeling full, you underestimate how much you will enjoy a future meal; you always want to know the truth, but often you'll happier remaining in ignorance; you think that moving to California or having children will make you happy, but it won't.

Another strand is that we are bad at remembering whether we were happy. You look back to the holiday (particularly if prompted by the photos) and recall the wonderful afternoon at the beach, but not the too-hot drive there, the over-priced lunch, the ice-cream that the seagull stole and its replacement that fell on the sand, or a dreary evening clearing out the sand from the car.

Gilbert illustrates both of these strands with a memorable example. At the time that the Bush/Gore election was proceeding through the courts, avid Bush supporters and avid Gore supporters were asked to predict how elated or despondent they would be if Bush or Gore were to win. When the result came out, they were then asked how they felt and then some time later they were asked to recall how they felt. The results were along the lines of the following: the predictions were that they would feel 8 out of 10ish (either good and bad), the reality was 3 out of 10ish and the memory was 7 out of 10ish.

For avid Bush or Gore fans, the result of the 2000 Presidential Election was prospectively a big deal. Retrospectively it was a big deal too. As it happens, the news was not a big deal to them, put into perspective by the (perhaps petty and now forgotten) triumphs and disasters of the day.

But does this really matter?

We can readily imagine a whole life lived like the Bush/Gore election. Take a person whose life is full of triumphs, both past and prospective: when he isn't closing a massive deal, he's running a marathon in an impressive time or hiking to Machu Picchu. Now, as it happens, he never really enjoys any of these things at the time. If you were to make him fill in a survey, he would tell you that, right at this moment, this mega-takeover is giving him sleepness nights, or the marathon is making his legs hurt, or his child's A-levels are a great worry. But 'don't worry about me', he says - when he looks back , he is very pleased with everything that has happened and confidently expects to be pleased with the next challenge or experience that awaits him.

What do we think about such a person? To his neighbours, he is one of life's success stories. Even the football team he supports wins its matches! (One of those things you predict you will enjoy more than you do.) And he will tell you, at the end of his full and successful life, that although he's got a few aches and pains right now ('you've caught me on a bad day', he'll say), his life was full of experiences he enjoyed, from seeing the sun rise over the North Pole (he's forgotten how cold it was) to his children's graduations (he's forgotten the stress).

Moreover, if we're interested in happiness from a public policy point of view, this man is a success. Imagine if he was adopted or had been the subject of some early childhood intervention programme: he'd be the poster boy for the efficacy of the policy in question.

And we can equally imagine the opposite person. As it happens, he is feeling happy right now because he's had a great night's sleep and a filling meal, and his favourite song is playing on the radio. But he looks back on the miserable time he had at school (he's forgotten the fun he had in the playground) and he's sure his holiday will be a downer as well (although in fact, he is going to love every sunset and enjoy the local rosé).

Our first chap has spent virtually none of his life being happy right now. Our second chap spends all his time being happy right now. But is the second chap the one who has had the happier life? Which life would you choose for yourself? Which life would you choose for your child?

The book gives us some real-life examples that roughly correspond to my imaginary ones. So, for example, in one study Caucasian Americans recalled being happier over the course of a week than Asian Americans, but the Asian Americans were happier in 'real time'. Hispanics aren't any happier than anyone else in real time - but they think they are. Again, what do we make of that? Whose lives are going better? And who, if anyone, is making a factual mistake?

I won't answer those questions, but I'll add some further thoughts.

One reason we read books of this kind is to gain an insight into our own minds. Look, we say to ourselves, now I know that people tend to be too averse to losses so I can improve my financial planning. Or I am going to be over-influenced in my choice of television by going for something in between the largest and most expensive and the smallest and cheapest - so I can try to re-calibrate my expectations. I won't plan my diet when I'm hungry or Christmas lunch when I'm full.

From the strands in Stumbling on Happiness I have outlined above, however, the morals are harder to draw. On the one hand, I suppose, we could say that every time you have an unpleasant experience, you can recall that it will lose its salience in your life more quickly than appears the case at the moment. That may be some comfort. Or you can bear in mind that your estimate of how unhappy prison or paralysis will make you is likely to be exaggerated, so you can risk those outcomes that bit more.

On the other hand, what do I think about pleasant experiences and memories? Should I doubt whether I was happy at times in the past that I remember having been happy? Why? After all, I've learned that a fool's paradise is not just for fools. Or should I stop looking forward to fun things I'm planning? Again, why? Afterwards, I'll still think that they were fun even if they weren't.

I'll end this with analogies from two powerful thinkers with complicated (but happy? unhappy?) private lives. First, Keynes: "in the long run, we're all dead." It's a great phrase for so many reasons. We think of it as a criticism of the utility of classical economics (maybe markets will clear in the long run, but in the meantime we can have mass unemployment and misery - real life is in the here and now) but it has a parallel in personal life too: it's all very well saving for the future and deferring gratification - but at some point there has to be gratification now or else there is gratification never. Perhaps that is worth thinking about when considering whether the man who never enjoys his successes at the time is having a good life.

Second, Bernard Williams: "reflection can destroy knowledge". Again, his original context was different: he was considering the idea that reflecting on ethical concepts can disable one from applying them. If you think about chivalry enough, for example, perhaps you decide that there is nothing there and you become unable to be chivalrous. (This is not the same thought as "tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner", but you arrive in a similar place: if you knew enough, perhaps you could not judge anyone.) Can reflection on the nature of happiness destroy one's own knowledge of one's happiness? If just seems to me that someone who has cast sufficient doubt on the reliability of their own memory and expectations might find it harder to answer the question 'How are you feeling right now?' - or might end up answering a quite different question.

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